The characters in this story are based on those belonging to Universal Pictures, Renaissance Pictures, and MCA. No infringement of their rights is intended.

This is a Conqueror story, and some of the characters are loosely based on the Hercules episode, Armageddon Now.

This is intended for mature audiences and has some dark scenes that are considered hurt/comfort, but also lean towards bdsm, and consensual/non-consensual dominance. The relationship depicted is one of a same-sex adult nature. If you find this offensive, please read something else.

Many thanks to Sue for continued support and understanding, even though she hates the Conqueror. Thanks to both she and Carla for helping me wade through my disjointed feelings and thoughts so that I could coalesce things into some semblance of order.

Any offerings burnt or otherwise, can be directed to me at ArdentTly@yahoo.com


The Conqueror’s Harvest

By ArdentTly



You're as tyrannous as you seem to be,

And your beauty makes you profoundly cruel,

For as you know just what you are to me,

The rarest and most desired of all jewels.

There are some that shall protest your soul's worth

That your ill fame has brought nothing but pain

Some will see vain attempts at truth, full mirth

And dark sorrow shall your relations’ gain.

To say they are wrong denies a bold truth

For brave rivers of Thebes shall not run dry

I shall know of desires held not aloof

And nightingales serenade as I cry.





Chapter One


The great doors of the palace swung shut and Gabrielle hobbled into the foyer. She glanced behind her, giving the two soldiers a baleful look. They smirked and slowly shook their heads. There was a bet going on as to just how long this prisoner would last. Taking a deep shaky breath, the two men checked their uniforms, and then followed the prisoner into the room.

Gabrielle had heard the rumours herself. She had no illusions as to her fate; it was really only a matter of time. It had taken all of her will to survive the long days and endless nights of pitiless barbarism, the cruel hands of her tormentors invading every inch of her body, stopping just short of taking her very soul. That she could not allow.

A day on the cross hadn’t broken her, and neither had the months of brutality at the hands of cruel men and crueler prisoners whose only thoughts were to survive. But now she had come to the attention of the Conqueror herself. With this summons, her fate was sealed.

‘Everything is just a matter of degree,’ she reassured herself. Even death can be a beginning. And the journey to that end, while a certainty, can be one filled with hope and success.

Gabrielle quickly glanced about the large room, and then made her way over to an area covered with carpeting. She stopped to orient herself under the guise of admiring the tapestries. Clutching a small sideboard, she drew in a ragged breath. Her eyes swept slowly from one weaving to the other, a frown pinching the soft skin between her eyebrows. The deep colors of the tapestries danced in the torchlight, making the images almost move. Gabrielle focused on one depicting a warrior woman sitting astride a golden horse, her sword stretched out before her as she led her men into battle. Peering closer, she could see the advancing army well outnumbered the warrior’s troops. ‘This must depict the battle of Corinth.’ Glancing at the next one, the bard’s frown deepened as she picked out images of men with spears, wearing animal furs and headdress very unlike anything she’d ever seen. Figures throughout the tapestry showed brutality, death, and dismemberment. She shuddered, suddenly reminded of just how brutal a warlord the Empress had been – ‘and might still be,’ she mused. Gabrielle grimaced at the headless bloody bodies in the weaving, and then leaned forward. The bodies strewn across the tapestry were not the strange looking men with spears but those of Grecian soldiers. She noticed that yet again, the warrior’s troops seemed to be outnumbered. ‘Some past battle, but did she win or lose?’ Looking at the finery of the great hall and rooms, Gabrielle realized that even against seemingly insurmountable odds it must have been a conquest of the greatest magnitude. Why else would she have it predominantly displayed?

The pain in her legs had blossomed past the constant ache she normally had to bear, and she gritted her teeth and took slow measured breaths. The coppery tang of blood spread across her tongue in an effort to keep her emotions at bay.

A quick view of the great room farther down the hall gave her a few insights as to what she could expect. This area, while finished in rather colourful and exotic finery, was rather austere, really, lacking a human touch. There were no windows, and only three points of entry. At the very end of the rectangular shaped room was an area a bit brighter than the rest. At its center was a large throne of heavy wood. Bits of green and purple satin sparkled as the torchlight played across its surface.

Startled, Gabrielle looked down and found that she had picked up a piece of fine jade while observing her surroundings. The warmth of the stone surprised her, but it was the shade of it that held her spellbound. It was the colour of sea mist, and she immediately felt a kinship to it. Inhaling slowly, she could swear the faint scent of jasmine could be detected.

One of the soldiers watched as the prisoner admired a few of the Conqueror’s knickknacks. He gave her a quick going over with his eyes, trying to see where a small thing like her could hide a bauble. He bit his lip nervously. It wouldn’t do any good to have something stolen on his watch.

The captive was thin, but not sickly thin. And her hair, while dull and scraggly, was at least clean. The skin on her arms and legs were mottled with bruises, old and new, but other than the lumpy and misshapen legs, the woman seemed to be in remarkably good health. For this he was glad. It would reflect directly on he and the other royal guards if the prisoners weren’t in an acceptable condition to be presented to the Conqueror.

A slight gesture from the other guard had his immediate attention, and they both began to herd the prisoner forward. The Conqueror was waiting.

The petite woman started with pain as she felt herself being prodded from behind, and stumbled forward as her splinted legs buckled under her.

"Oh!" Pushing her hands weakly out in an attempt to protect her head from hitting the floor, Gabrielle observed her surroundings, as they seemed to play out in slow motion. Her left knee made agonizing contact as the ground rose up to meet her, and then she found herself seized in a vice-like grip, her face mere inches from stone.

The blonde blinked rapidly as she tried to regain her composure. It wouldn’t do to present herself as being weak, not to someone as dispassionate and calculating as the Conqueror.

She was resettled roughly upon her feet where she swayed a little until the wobbling in her knees subsided. Her breath rasped quickly through tight lips and it was a full minute or two before she could push the pain away. When her mind cleared, Gabrielle looked down at the other end of the room with anticipation. Silence seemed to have a noise all its own, filling her heart with trepidation. And just where was the infamous Lord Xena? The hall seemed barren, except for the two guards that seemed to shadow her every move. She resisted the urge to look in their direction, certain it would result in another assault on her already bruised kidneys. They seemed frightened under all their false bravado. Gabrielle couldn’t imagine living their lives. To live under the constant threat of death must be horrible. She couldn’t see that their misery paralleled her own. Up until her capture with a few others that had resulted when soldiers had raided their innocent gathering, the blonde truly believed that life was good, not great but not too horrible either. It never occurred to her that there could be anything other than Lord Xena’s rule. It had been ten years since the bloody battle had placed the Conqueror on the Corinthian throne, freeing most of Greece from the tyranny of numerous warlords and their petty squabbles. The tapestries she’d seen bore testament to other battles in far off lands, conquests that secured the Conqueror’s rule. Even though the Empress ruled with an iron fist, life, as she knew it had improved. As naïve as some of her friends considered her to be, Gabrielle was nothing if not a total pragmatist.

Of course, she’d heard stories of the Conqueror’s brutality, but had never witnessed it herself. Until now of course, she corrected herself. Now a peaceful gathering of poets and would-be scholars had been seen as seditious, and its members labeled enemies of the state.

The blonde fingered her worn shift nervously and shuddered as she remembered the first time she’d been in Lord Xena’s presence. Regardless of what she’d been told, she was not prepared for the cold elegance of the woman. She had been all but blinded by the woman’s almost ethereal beauty, stunned by the brilliance behind piercing blue eyes, and almost hypnotized by the sensuality of her voice. Now that she would be facing the Empress once more, she felt the need to make a good impression. But why she felt that way was truly a mystery. Her life was already forfeit, that was a foregone conclusion. She brushed the front of her shift. At least her rags had been replaced.

Gabrielle blinked once as a quiver ran through her slight frame. There was something about the Conqueror, something that beckoned to her. The Conqueror, Empress, Your Majesty – by what title should she call Lord Xena?

She was rudely startled from her daze with a push from behind. Nodding slowly, she moved closer to the carpeted area.

Finally reaching the first of the rugs Gabrielle glanced down at her filthy feet, and then hesitated before stepping forward. She felt a strong hand take hold of her neck, and then gasped as she was pushed slowly down onto her throbbing knees.

It took everything she had not to fall forward as her injured legs twisted, shooting shards of pain into her gut. Gabrielle swallowed deeply in her effort to quell her rebellious belly, but couldn’t quite stifle the moan that escaped from between her clenched teeth.

Blinking deeply, she concentrated on slowing her heart and respiration to more manageable levels.

‘Do not throw up, do not pass out, and do not scream.’ Sparkling lights danced behind her tightly closed eyes as she felt her head pushed down.

‘The Conqueror.’ Butterflies did frantic pirouettes as she realized she would soon be in the presence of Fate herself. It was this moment in time that would determine her future…or if indeed she had one.

Moments ticked by and the sweat began to run like a river down her back. And still the hand maintained its steely grip. Gabrielle could feel the pulse in her neck pounding in rhythm inside her skull. She felt nauseous, light headed, and almost as if the eyes in her sockets would explode.

Finally, the presence behind her shifted and the grip was removed. She all but whimpered as the blood flow returned to normal.

"I’m waiting."

Gabrielle was caught within the grip of the roar that filled her ears, and it took a few seconds to realize someone had been speaking to her.

She had only a second to react as the presence behind her returned, and she was wrenched off the floor. Her legs screamed their relief as the bones clicked back into place, but it was a brief respite. It didn’t take long before Gabrielle realized she was a good two or three inches off the ground, dangling in space, as the pressure around her neck increased. Closing her eyes tightly, Gabrielle sent a fervent prayer that she wouldn’t soil herself.

"I said ‘I’m waiting,’ girl."

Her mouth opened and closed, much like the cod she’d seen sold in the market place, and Gabrielle was certain that wasn’t where the resemblance ended. Her head felt as if it were going to explode, causing a red curtain to slowly descend upon her vision.

"You’ve been my guest for some time now, dissident. I’ve fed and housed you, kept you entertained, and now silence is what I’m paid?"

Confusion rolled over the young woman as she tried to understand what was being said to her. ‘Fed and housed? Entertained?’ She opened her mouth to protest but only a slight gargling sound came out. Gabrielle wondered if this was just a hallucination, and she wasn’t back in the dungeons below the castle. She flinched again as a finger was drawn across her clavicles and then along her jaw line.

A low chuckle was heard and Gabrielle cringed as she was lowered back to the ground. The pressure on her neck was slightly released, and she squeaked as she forced a cough from her still restricted throat.

"You wish to speak? To thank me, perhaps?" purred a deep voice just behind her, causing goose flesh to appear on her arms.

Gabrielle sagged as the pressure was removed and the guard moved off to the side. She ran a shaking hand over her neck and face before finally opening her eyes.

The mind is a funny thing sometimes. Having prepared herself to see both guards on either side of her, Gabrielle was shocked to see that only one person was nearby. She recoiled as her eyes focused and she realized there was someone only a few inches in front of her. A steady hand gripped her elbow as she began falling backwards, and Gabrielle recognized the chuckle. There hadn’t been a guard gripping her, only…

Her eyes widened as the Conqueror stepped back.

Xena smirked as the young woman nearly swallowed her tongue with an audible click. She ran a tongue over her front teeth as she appraised the young woman before her. Although young and undoubtedly quite terrified, the petite woman was doing a fair job at maintaining a fearless façade. Xena nodded approvingly as she watched the woman steady herself, nostrils flared at the obvious pain she was enduring.

The Conqueror had been observing the young woman ever since she’d entered the castle. And while it was her custom to do so, there was something about this one that had her paying closer attention than usual. She was pleased with the woman’s appearance, having no illusions as to what harsh confinement could do to a body. While exposure to the prisoners was a daily experience, one didn’t have to be subjected to the realities of filth and running sores. A moderately thick dark eyebrow rose as her eyes slowly traversed over the fine bones of the woman’s dainty features, across her narrow shoulders, and then settled at the apex of her modestly concealed cleavage. She pursed her lips. Perhaps that’s all the attraction was, a bit of unexpressed desire?

Lord Xena sucked a tooth. Her reputation for finding and bedding any and all tasty morsels in the empire was well known. While there was something slightly familiar about this one, the woman was certainly not her usual fare.

She snorted with amusement as she lifted her gaze from the swell of flesh to lock briefly with the blonde’s slightly defiant look. Her grin broadened as the blonde dropped her gaze, cheeks crimson with the knowledge she was being appraised, and perhaps found wanting.

‘Hmmm.’ Perhaps it was only the prisoner’s slightly veiled defiance that drew her?

Lord Xena always made a point of knowing everything possible about those who would come before her. The small amount of information available on the woman before her had only entertained the Conquer for a few moments at best.

She snorted as she went over the list once more. Quiet no nothing past, secret meetings, insurgent plots, caught with four other dissidents, thrown in jail, end of story. Xena had been terribly bored by it all, which had entailed alternate forms of entertainment, much to the royal guards’ chagrin. Xena smirked and flexed her large hands, enjoying the small nicks incurred during a few short impromptu bouts of hand-to-hand combat. Four of the six guards would have to be replaced. She detested ineptness. And boredom. A deeper wound began to seep again, and the Conqueror sucked on it noisily as she walked slowly around the prisoner.

"I’m still waiting. And I don’t like to wait."

As the Conqueror was assessing the bard, the blonde was taking her own opportunities. The brunette stood just over six feet, had very well developed musculature, and was in truth one of the most beautifully striking women the bard had ever seen. The combination of black and purple leathers accented by silver buckles further enhanced the Conqueror’s magnificence and strength. The Lord was both broad shouldered and narrow hipped, medium boned and yet heavily muscled. The leathers creaked and groaned as the brawny flesh moved beneath their tight confinement, and Gabrielle felt as if she were in the presence of some large jungle cat. The Lord’s high cheekbones and almost jet-black hair indicated a mix somewhere in her ancestry, but it was the woman’s saphirine eyes that dominated this vision of cruel power. She was also very intelligent, that was clear, but judging by her treatment of others was devoid of any depth of emotions…other than indifference and rage.

‘How very sad.’

Gabrielle opened her mouth intent on clearing the air as to just how she felt about the Conqueror’s hospitality but thought better of it as the front of her bodice was seized.

"No need to open that pretty mouth again, slave. I can tell by the insolent look on your face that your very next words would be your last. We can’t have that, not when we’ve just so recently become acquainted."

Lord Xena scratched her chin thoughtfully. "I’m not quite sure what it is about you, but I’ve decided…you’ll be my diversion for the day. It will undoubtedly be a short one; I’m sure, with that pouty expression on your face will get you into more trouble than you’re worth. But I’m feeling magnanimous today. So,"

She paused; fingers curled around the loose fabric of the younger woman’s bodice, drawing her ever closer, her blue eyes blazing as cold as ice. "Entertain me, slave."

Gabrielle all but sputtered as the Conqueror pronounced her fate. She didn’t even know her name! Anger boiled up as she watched the woman smirking at her. Did her life have so little value as to be simply dismissed as ‘entertainment’? Was she to be a mere plaything for this monstrous woman? Was that the sum of her existence, her life reduced to nothing more than a dalliance, a momentary diversion?

The pain in the woman’s twisted legs was forgotten as she seethed with indignation. Her mind filled with the cruel taunts the guards had thrown at her in their efforts to elicit more than the indifference she offered them. Her repeated violation had only made her more determined to simply endure it silently, thus depriving them of any enjoyment whatsoever. A bit of pride bubbled up to join the righteousness infusing her heart as she remembered each kick, each roundhouse blow, thinking of them as badges of honour as opposed to evidence of punishment. In the end they’d left her alone, bleeding and broken in body, but never in spirit. She would take that small victory to the grave gladly.

Xena watched as the green eyes sparked in response, denying her the pleasure of even a hint of fear. ‘We’ll see about that.’

She let a cold curtain fall over her face, the smirk dying on her suddenly cruel lips. A blank look came into the blonde’s eyes, and Xena decided on a different tactic immediately.

‘Well, if I can’t get a nice quiver of dread from the fine slip, I’ll bet I can get one of a different sort.’

She snorted softly, and brought both hands up to the nape of the woman’s neck.

"You cannot deny me, slave. I always get what I want."

Gabrielle set her jaw, and slowly willed herself to that safe place that had become a haven; that alternate universe where life was good, people were decent to each other, and the greater good was the strong thread weaving everything together.

"Oh no, we can’t have you disappear now, Gabrielle of Poteidaia."

Xena smiled as the green eyes focused and the young woman gasped.

"I know everything that happens in my realm, bard. Your secret little meetings may seem innocent to some, but we both know the truth. Knowledge can be a very dangerous thing. And in the hands of those who have no respect for it, positively life threatening."

"But, I’m not…"

"Not what, Gabrielle? Not too smart for your own good?" She pulled on the woman’s bodice a little harder, a fiery glint entering her eyes as the fabric began to tear.

Flames began to spread from her lower belly upwards as Gabrielle felt the front of her bodice ripped open and the cold rush of air flutter against her heated skin. Her nostrils flared as her respiration became shallow. Her vision was filled with ocean blue as the Conqueror leaned in closer and closer still.

‘What’s happening to me?’ she screamed silently. But she knew. She hadn’t been strong in her resistance against the attempts to break her. She wasn’t impervious to their pain, their taunts, and their horrors. They had simply been using the wrong bait.

Fear slowly spread, joining the self-hatred and unquenchable lust roiling beneath the surface, and Gabrielle knew her very soul was at stake.

And then she felt the soft cold lips of the Conqueror and was lost.


Dagnine watched from the corner as Lord Xena removed the knife from her belt. The dagger was very sharp, very pointed, and he smiled, baring the usual mouthful of rotting, neglected teeth his kind was known for.

The tip of his tongue protruded as he watched the blade move slowly over the young girls pale flesh. A red line appeared as it traveled up her torso, across her shoulders, and down between her heaving breasts. He swallowed convulsively as a few drops of crimson began to ooze along the trail.

Gabrielle panted, her face contorted with both pain and pleasure as her face was gripped and her mouth violated once again.

Xena reveled in the honeyed taste of the blonde, one eyebrow arching as she heard a rustling behind her. She sucked the young woman's lower lip into her mouth, feasting upon it, and then brought a hand up to cup a firm breast. They were small but oh so inviting. She would know more of them this very night. But first…

Gabrielle gasped as the sudden movement against her and opened her eyes wide as a yell was heard fifty paces away.

"Godsbedamnit, Xena! You bitch! Ah, my fucking hand!"

The dark Lord dismissed the man's pain as undeserving of her attention, refusing to be distracted from her feasting a moment longer. Why bother, she knew she'd hit her mark.

A deep chortle bubbled up from her throat, and Xena pulled away from the slightly bruised lips of the slave. "A few things, Dagnine. Only trusted advisors get to call me Xena. You were not invited to share the enjoyment of my desires therefore you were denied them. Be thankful it was only your hand I pinned to your thigh. Fix your trousers and get out," she snarled. "I’ll deal with you later."


His nostrils flared as he backed slowly out of the room, clutching his dripping hand. His leather leggings had taken most of the brunt of the blade, but his hand had been totally pierced.

'Damn her to Hades! The rumours are right...she is a monster, with eyes in back of her head and the cunning of a serpent!'

He seethed with rage as he watched Xena continue to take her pleasures. It sickened him to think that a highly passionate woman such as the Conqueror would even consider spending a minute of her time with the likes of a slave rather than be with a real man like him. She had spurned all of his advances, taking every opportunity to belittle him and debase him in front of his own men.

Couldn’t she see they’d be an unstoppable force together? Couldn’t she see he was the only one for her? He had to make her understand. Somehow.


Gabrielle's swollen lower lip trembled as she felt the fabric being removed from her shoulders. She wanted to stop this woman...this monster...she wanted to push her away, and deny the lust which bubbled up, threatening to consume her.

She squeezed her eyes shut as two callused hands moved over her exposed flesh, and willed the threatening tears away. She would not cry for this woman. She would not give in. She would not help.

Her breath caught as her mouth was covered again. This time, the softness of the woman’s lips surprised her. The warmth infused her, making her rethink everything she knew about the Conqueror.

‘Perhaps there was hope after all?’

"Come, precious. I think it's time for a hot bath."

She felt herself leaning forward, anticipating the next kiss, wanting it, needing it…But she would not, could not…

"And then a little fresh air to blow the stench off you. While prison is the great equalizer, it does nothing for one's keen senses."

…Give in.

The blonde's face reddened with the remarks, and she tried to pull away.

Xena chuckled as she pinched the hardening flesh between her fingers.

"Yes, I like fire in a woman. But before I enjoy the blaze, I'll want the surface to be at least palatable."

She gave the young woman a shove. "Now go." The Lord snapped her fingers and two nubile young women came rushing into the room, bowing deeply.

"Take her away for preparation."

Gabrielle made it to the door before the first tears began to fall. It would be the first of many things denied to the conqueror.




Chapter Two



Gabrielle lay curled up on the bed, trying to concentrate enough on settling her nerves before the Conqueror made her entrance. It seemed like hours since she’d been bathed and cleaned, dried and powdered, and then finally left to lie naked in the huge bed that dominated the ruler’s bedroom.

She had to center herself, and reach that point where nothing could touch her. If she could do it for months in the prison where there were no niceties of life, then she could do so here where satin sheets, deep pools of cleansing hot water and fresh cool air were commonplace. She had to.

Her fingers absently smoothed the shiny material beneath her as she focused on nothing. She rolled onto her back, and slowly unfurled her tired body. As her mind began to clear itself of fear, Gabrielle felt more settled, more at ease with the path she would have to walk. There could be no hope for a future, no desire in her life; she had to remember who she was dealing with, and that someone was devoid of human emotions. The Conqueror was cold and distant, and incapable of understanding love let alone ever returning it.

The Conqueror stood by the door and watched as the torchlight played across the slave’s skin, all but igniting the sheets beneath her. The woman’s head seemed to be crowned with a cap of burnished gold accented with coppery strands. Xena decided she looked quite angelic laid out like an offering against the crimson altar of her bed. Part of her despised that and wanted to destroy it, while another more base part felt humbled in its presence. Either way, it made the Conqueror very unsettled.

Her lip curled with distaste at the bruises and scars that dotted the fine if somewhat wasted flesh of her slave. She slowly made her way to the bed so as not to disturb the blonde. Xena wanted to see the woman in a somewhat relaxed state, free of fear, bitterness and deceit. She wanted to slowly bring those and other negative qualities out herself, concentrating on the last to her best advantage.

Xena narrowed her eyes as the woman’s breath evened out and a feeling of tranquility seemed to radiate from where the blonde lay. That would never do. No one was that perfect, that pure, that decent.

She watched intently as her keen eyes picked up the faint pulse of blood flowing through the veins running just under the surface. Gabrielle’s skin was so pale as to be all but translucent. Xena supposed it must have been the girl’s confinement below floors. She tried to remember just how long the young woman had spent in the cold and very efficient hands of her jailers. Judging by the sallow complexion, it must have been awhile.

Xena wondered at the silkiness of the woman’s skin, despite the telltale marks of confinement. She took a slow measured breath and smiled, satisfied that the unpleasant odor was removed from the slave’s body, and then lowered her lips to confirm it.

Gabrielle stiffened and her thoughts began to cloud over once more as she felt the surface of her calf kissed. Her fingers clenched the bed sheets as the flesh of her torso was nipped and licked. Her heart hammered painfully as every inch of her fevered skin was consumed.

And still she resisted.

Xena straddled the slave’s hips, writhing against the heat she found there. Taking both marbled globes into her large hands, Xena massage them to hard points, pressing them together before taking the rosy tips into her hot mouth.

Gabrielle gritted her teeth as she fought back the urge to arch up into the assault upon her breasts. The sweat ran from her as she valiantly tried to maintain control of herself. Oh, how easy it would be to give in and be carried along by the river of fire consuming her.

The Conqueror sensed the turmoil in the woman beneath her, and tried to press her advantage.

"You know you want it. You know I have what you need. Ask for it, Gabrielle."

The bard pressed her tongue tightly against the roof of her mouth, forcing herself to just look beyond it all, and find that place, that haven.

But the velvety voice got in the way. The length of the woman took her form away, molding her perfectly into parts she never believed would fit, and never knew were missing from her own soul. Every time those cold blue eyes looked at her, it was like her very will was being stripped away, allowing the woman complete control over her.

It was both wildly exhilarating and tremendously frightening.

A shudder ran through the small frame as the Conqueror’s total weight eased down upon the slave, and Xena knew she almost had the woman. She grinned as the shaking continued, and then took a dainty earlobe between her teeth, moaning softly.

"Give yourself to me."

The bard gasped as a jolt pierced her will. "Empress."

"Get up." Xena whispered as she danced the tip of her tongue along the ridge of the bard’s ear.

Gabrielle blinked with surprise as the Conqueror rolled off the bed and walked over to the large table in the middle of the room. Xena snapped her fingers and the two young women returned with trays of food and drink. The bard felt a wave of jealousy hit her as the Conqueror fondled one of the women before dismissing them both.

"Don’t make me ask again, slave. Now move!"

Gabrielle’s hands trembled as she tried to cover herself. Xena merely chuckled as she stuffed another piece of meat into her mouth.

"Why are you treating me like this? Do you have so little respect for me and yourself that you’ll just take what you want, even knowing you could have it for the asking?"

"But Gabrielle, why should I ask when I can take? Over to the wall, there." The Conqueror said between mouthfuls. Then burping loudly, she quaffed down a large goblet of wine and came towards her.

The blonde faltered as she was herded backwards, and lost her footing before finding herself against a cold slab of oak.

Tears of shame came dangerously close to falling as she was shackled into place. Feeling violated, and totally stripped of her humanity, Gabrielle lay spread-eagled against the wall. Her heart felt numb, and she wanted to scream her outrage as her body was examined.

Xena watched with interest as one tear slowly made its way down the side of the slave’s cheek.

"This isn’t exactly the type of moisture I’m expecting from you, Gabrielle."

Xena leaned in and took the slave’s face roughly in her hands, and then kissed her hungrily, greedily, leaving the young woman breathless and totally out of sorts. She was barely coherent enough to realize a hand was being pushed between her legs.

"Your body betrays you, Gabrielle. For all your purity and sanctimonious words, the evidence lies here upon my fingertips."

Gabrielle’s chin quivered as she fought the angry tears back. If she willed it hard enough, believed it long enough, even the evidence would mean nothing, nothing at all. It was like the act of breathing, done unconsciously without its owner’s permission. She could no sooner deny her passion than she could stop a breath. To deny it would be to deny her self.

Gabrielle smiled.

"Yes, you own my passion, for the evidence is clear to see."

"Why do I hear a ‘but’?"

Gabrielle pulled gently on the restraints and then lifted her chin a little. "You have my passion but you shall never have me."

Xena’s chin jut forward, and she removed her long silk gown, affording the blonde a view most in her empire would kill for. Never one for modesty, the Conqueror was known for displaying her many attributes on occasion. However, complete nudity was reserved for a chosen few; those deemed worthy of the gift and other times as a means to an end.

It was strange, really. While dressed, she was the epitome of danger, malevolence and pure, undiluted power. One had only to look within her eyes to see Death’s child, whereas while she was naked, things shifted and all that remained was raw sensuality in its most dangerous guise.

Fingering her only bodily adornment, the warrior grinned in pleasure as she saw the raw desire dancing like firelight in the slave’s open and greedy eyes as her breast ring twinkled with each step taken.

"We shall see, slave."

Gabrielle found she could hardly take a breath, so painfully beautiful was the woman before her. It was almost too hard for her to bear, and she closed her eyes in shame as her body began to respond.

She was at a loss as to why she felt as she did. Why was her head filled with thoughts of loving this woman, this heartless creature whose form would certainly rival that of Venus, but would only ever see such a gift as a weapon? What would possess her to believe that in the giving would be absolution?


Hours of endless torment had transpired as the battle of wills continued. Each different position tried left the Conqueror more frustrated than before. Her jaw was set as she lay on a few more stinging blows to the slave’s buttocks and back of her thighs. Designed to inflict pain yet not mar the surface, the finely crafted flogger in Xena’s hand was one of her favourite tools of persuasion. Her eyes narrowed as pale white stripes showed through the redness, clear evidence the woman had endured an encounter with a whip during her stay in the dungeon. A new tactic was in order. Xena smiled with rancor at the defiant look that still glared from the blonde’s eyes and then walked to the table, exchanging the flogger for a goblet of wine. Glancing over at the balcony, she was surprised at the angle of the sun; it was now mid afternoon. ‘How time flies when you’re having fun.’ She chortled and then turned to look at the slave.

A fine sheen of moisture adorned the blonde’s reddened flesh, the droplets dangling like fine jewels as they made their way down the valley of her back. She stood silently; appraising the situation, knowing that time between sessions could be lessons in themselves. The Conqueror watched as a shudder ran through the slave. The blonde managed to steady her breathing and then squared her shoulders. Xena’s jaw clenched as she began to feel a grudging respect for the woman. She sipped her wine absently, her thoughts filled with ways to break the insolent slave. What had seemed a mildly amusing way to spend the day was becoming slightly more than she had bargained for. Why didn’t she just have the guards take the brat away? She fingered the jeweled dagger on the table. What’s more, why didn’t she just kill the bitch herself and be done with it?

She poured more wine and tried to wrap her mind around things. Why was it so important to break this girl? And why was she feeling guilty for trying to do just that? She was the Conqueror; everyone was there to do her bidding, not to refuse her!

Xena’s head snapped up and she found herself caught by the sorrowful and forgiving eyes of her slave.

"Why do you look at me with pity, girl? I could pluck those damning eyes from your pretty face and then where would you be? How dare you feel anything but gratitude for your ruler? You live to serve me in whatever fashion I deem fit. You’ve only lived this long because…"

She paused, a look of confusion tempering the anger welling up inside.

"Why am I still alive, Empress? You must know that I am no threat to anyone." Gabrielle laid her forehead against the oak boards and caught her breath.

"Once you conquer me, my Lord, then what? Will you become bored and require a new plaything? I’m a human being, not a toy."

Xena glared at the young woman, and then began removing the restraints.

"You’re a slave, and nothing more. And don’t call me Empress. I’m your Lord Xena or Conqueror, get it?"

Her hands moved slowly over the reddened flesh of the slave’s back as she pushed her against the wall. The lust continued to grow brightly within her and Xena ground her hips against the slave’s heated buttocks, enjoying the responding whimper. "No one’s called me Empress for years." ‘Not since my last campaign – with the Horde.’ That had been a good five years previous, and the last real taste of victory. Now that she’d conquered most of Greece and the lands surrounding it, what else was there? Her lips curled as she refocused on the task at hand.

The bard sagged painfully against the oak as the tension in her arms and legs were released. Then she yelped in surprise and pain as the Conqueror turned her over and shackled her back into place.

"There is no reprieve, slave. You have been judged guilty of a crime against the state and the punishment is mine to mete out. And judging by the light in the sky, we are far from done. Before this night is over, you will be mine."

Gabrielle closed her eyes tightly as she thought of her future. Her time in the prison was over, and certain death was all she could look forward to. Releasing a small sigh, she began to relax. There was something to be said for that, after all.

She had been taken, but had not given in. Her control, although wavering, was still her own. Closing her eyes, Gabrielle settled herself against the wood in preparation for more brutality.

Xena stood admiring the flesh before her. There was something about this woman, something that beckoned to her. Her instincts to succor and protect this young waif kept bubbling up as she continued to take her pleasures. It was not an unpleasant feeling, but it was confusing nonetheless.

She sighed with frustration, pushing the uneasiness away, and drank deeply from the goblet.

The bard swallowed painfully as a few crimson rivulets coursed down either side of the Conqueror’s mouth and splashed against her proud bosom. Xena lifted an eyebrow quizzically knowing full well the slave would refuse the Burgundy, and smiled wickedly.

"Do you disdain the liquid or merely the vessel, Gabrielle?" The blonde moaned piteously as Lord Xena offered up a full breast, tantalizingly close to her lips.

Her eyes rolled back before closing as one dusky nipple caressed her lip, and again Gabrielle’s body defied her. Xena’s nostrils flared as a combination of the woman’s desire and the creaking of straining leather hit her hard. She all but moaned herself as the blonde finally succumbed and opened her mouth to suckle.

The goblet clattered to the floor and the warrior’s two callused hands wove their way into the golden tresses as she pressed her flesh deeper into the woman’s eager mouth.

"Yes, Gabrielle." Xena’s breath caught in her throat as she tilted her head back in response to the deep pull.

A deep moan issued from the Lord’s mouth as teeth surrounded the ring. It felt so right having this woman giving her such sweet attention. She wanted to feel the bard moving against her, bestowing her love…Images of her sweet infant son filled her mind, and the Conqueror breathed in the warmth of its purity.

The scent of the Conqueror’s skin was a mixture of jasmine and gin giber, and each breath seemed to make Gabrielle more light-headed than before. A trembling had begun in her battered knees, and soon the bard was shaking as with fever.

Xena felt the slave’s body collapse against her, and pulled away carefully, easing the blonde’s damp face to the side. She noted the pale complexion and fluttering eyelids, and correctly deduced the young woman was in some sort of swoon.

Stepping back, the Conqueror went to the table and sipped her wine, lost in thought. Strange feelings were becoming mixed up with her carnal emotions, and she was at a loss as to how to proceed. Pulling her long fingers through her tangled mane, Xena pondered the word that seemed to prick at her heart. Love? That was for fools, and she was no fool.

Steeling herself from examining her turbulent emotions any closer, the Conqueror glanced at the limp form chained to the wall. She looked to be reasonably healthy and strong. Had the woman been below floors in the dungeon, her treatment would have been much harsher. Perhaps she was being too lenient, holding herself back for some reason?

Her skin pebbled as her body began to cool down. Sweeping her long hair out of her face, Xena stood and put on her gown. Pouring more wine, she quaffed the contents of the goblet and then began to prepare the fireplace. As the flames started to flicker, the Conqueror thought back to another time, another place.

She remembered sitting in a very large room, surrounded by silken pillows and fancy screens. The air had been warm and sweet with the scent of jasmine wafting over everything. Xena found herself smiling as she relived the softly tapered, long and eloquent fingers of the concubine on her skin. No one before or since had been able to bring her to such ecstasy. Time with the oriental woman had been well spent, with lessons well learned.

As she closed her eyes, Xena could still see the pale jade of Lao Ma’s eyes. The woman had been a living contradiction: a powerful student of the martial arts, she had resorted to the use of force only sparingly, preferring the mental challenge of intellectual sparring. Xena had found the spiritual aspects of the courtesan tedious at best, immersing herself completely in the soft and giving nature of the woman instead.

Lao Ma had been a gift to her by the Emperor of Ch’in. Ming Tsu had been a very autocratic man, comparing his worth with that of the gods. Such a large obstacle became hard to ignore, and even harder to deal with, but a task ultimately enjoyed as she set about his removal. Such detestable posturing was to be reviled, not applauded; even her fealty to Ares was forced. Xena had taken much pleasure in seeing the Emperor’s last moments on earth filled with searing pain as she reminded him of his mortality. Her brutal treatment of the man had caused a rift between she and the concubine, who had insisted that all life was sacred and that blood was not to be spilled needlessly.

Xena remembered many scenes where the Emperor had publicly humiliated the woman, and yet Lao Ma had remained silent and serene. The warrior had taken that as a sign of weakness, that she had been afraid to defend herself against such disgrace. It had taken Xena many months to fully appreciate the patience and fortitude required to ignore the Emperor’s impudent ways, and dealing with more important things underlying at the core.

Xena rubbed her chin as she remembered her own treatment of the woman. Lao Ma had offered her tranquility, purpose, and absolution. She had refused all with a sneer. A small twinge of guilt niggled at her belly, and for the first time in three years, Xena wondered what had become of the porcelain beauty.

She rubbed callused hands over her eyes, as if forcing the images of their parting away. After publicly dismissing her in shame, the royal houses had shunned her as well. It became known that Lao Ma, ex-mistress of the slain Emperor, dismissed because of dissatisfaction, could not keep a foreign barbarian woman happy either. This had undoubtedly caused the woman a great loss of face, and yet Xena hadn’t even thought twice about it - until now.

Xena couldn’t put her finger on what she was feeling. It was sorrow, surely, but something more. The breath caught in her chest as she remembered the look on the woman’s face. It had been one of betrayal; Xena knew that now. At the time, the warrior took it to mean something quite different. Lao Ma had been too demanding, asking for something that Xena knew very little about. They had shared companionship and a great deal of sex, but it hadn’t been enough for the courtesan. The warrior had been too caught up in the politics of expanding her sphere of influence to be concerned with love or friendship. Lao Ma had told Xena that in time, she would fulfill her destiny and find both, but she hadn’t told the warrior what it was.

She rubbed her hands together briskly, and then went back to the table for more wine.

"Destiny. Men make their own destiny. It’s not for the gods, and not just a matter of throwing the dice either." Her head spun with the jumble of thought she’d heard the concubine speak of: duty, loyalty and love. If these were things Lao Ma prized above all, she must have been sorely disheartened when none were forthcoming from her companion. The thought was like a harsh slap across her face, causing her to flinch in memory.

"Why did she expect so much from me? If you believe the very worst, then you are never disappointed." Nodding in agreement, she quaffed more wine.

Her belly rumbled as she spied the food tray. Popping bits of succulent venison and lamb into her mouth had her growling with pleasure. She ate a few more mouthfuls before returning to the slave.


The blonde’s head moved almost imperceptibly, and the Conqueror took hold of the woman’s chin. The bard’s mouth was slack and the pupils moved sluggishly beneath the lids. The woman’s skin was slightly blue, and very cool to the touch. Xena thought it best to just leave the slave where she was, the servants dealing with her in the morning.

Dismissing the woman from her mind, she turned away, her thoughts already on more important issues, such as whether she should partake of more food and wine before, during, or after a hot bath.








Chapter Three


Gabrielle looked across the campfire, puzzled to see the smiling face of the Conqueror, and wondered when they’d left the castle. She watched as the woman talked animatedly about her life as a warlord, and then she gasped as Xena described giving her only son up to her enemies for safekeeping. The firelight caught a tear as it slowly made its way down the Conqueror’s fine jaw, and Gabrielle longed to experience it on the tip of her tongue.

She watched herself move around to the other side of the fire, and it was only then that she realized there was no pain, no disfigured and misshapen legs that she was forced to live with. She wanted to thank the gods for the miracle, but was unable to do anything more than observe the play she found herself a part of.

The feeling of total ease swept over her as the Conqueror took her into strong loving arms, kissing her forehead with love and acceptance, and Gabrielle wanted to weep with joy. It was this bond that was missing from her life. Her only attempt at happiness had been dismal when she’d finally married the local boy who had proven to be much better at plowing the fertile fields of the local taverns than tend the crops at home. The only good thing to come out of their union had been when the physical abuse forced her to seek intellectual stimulation with others of like mind. Although it had brought her into the direct path of imprisonment and certain death, the bard could no sooner regret the life that she’d chosen than she could cease to think or feel.

She watched as another tear leaked from the warrior’s unblinking eye, and then embraced the woman fully. Although there was some resistance, Gabrielle could feel the honest emotions between them.

"I love you, Gabrielle."



Lord Xena worked the cloth over her shoulders and then eased back into the water. Sighing contentedly, she began working the soap between each toe, flinching as her body twitched spasmodically in response. The wound in her hand was next, and the Conqueror nodded with satisfaction at the rate of healing. She sucked a little on the nick and thought of a certain blonde’s eager mouth. A sneer twisted her well-sculpted lips as she thought of another who would like to be in the bard’s place.

"Damned Dagnine. How dare he profess his undying love? Weasel. As if I’d have anything to do with the cur." A shudder ran through her glistening body as she soaped herself again. She drank more wine, as if purging her mouth from even speaking his name.

"He wanted my heart, well, I gave him something else instead." She chortled as she thought of the mark he’d forever wear.

Her eyes glassed over as she contemplated other marks she’d left on those who would own her. No, she did the owning. Her nostrils flared as she thought of the sweet blonde in the other room. Oh, how she wanted to leave her mark on that woman. Her teeth gleamed in the candlelight as she imagined the succulent flesh offered up for the taking. Blue eyes flashed once before closing as the Conqueror played with her nipple ring. She could almost taste the trail of fire she’d emblazon upon the marbled skin of the bard.

She growled deeply as both hands began to bring bronzed flesh to taut peaks.

Her reverie was interrupted as a muffled noise was heard in the other room. Stepping silently from the bath, Xena grabbed a nearby dagger and eased back into her darkened bedroom.

A few of the candles had gone out, and yet her keen senses could discern no danger. Moving quickly forward, Xena could see that the slave was twisting in her restraints as she attempted to come back to full consciousness.

"So, the child awakens?" Dropping the knife onto the table, she grabbed another goblet. Scowling deeply, Xena examined the contents, and reached for more wine. The bottle was all but empty, and the warrior was tempted to rouse her lazy house slaves for more.

Her ears perked up as the young woman began to speak.

"Speak up, slave."

The blonde murmured again, her words a muddle.

"I can be of use to you…I can foretell the future…don’t leave me."

Xena shook the woman’s chin, but got no response. Lifting her hand in frustration, the Conqueror stilled her stroke as she finally made sense of part of what the woman was saying.

"What do you mean, don’t leave you behind?" She snorted derisively. ‘I’m not going anywhere, not until I conclude this bit of business, at any rate.’ She chuckled menacingly. "You my dear, are caught up in some sort of delirium. One I’m sure I can bring you out of."

Xena pushed the frail shoulders back, forcing the blonde’s head up, and then bestowed a deep kiss upon the slave. Her loins ignited once more as the bard began to respond.

Xena’s eyes fluttered closed as the blonde began to dominate the kiss, gasping as her mouth was invaded and conquered. She pushed herself against the petite body, grinding her pelvis against the lower belly of her slave. Both women moaned in response.


The Conqueror barely noted the familiarity, choosing to focus on the electricity produced from hearing her name spoken, and the tingling of her scalp as their lips met.

Gabrielle moaned in frustration as she strained against her bonds, so close but unable to touch the woman against her. She cried out softly as the Conqueror’s muscled thigh came into contact with her damaged legs.

The bard could see them in their bedroll, the flames highlighting every plane of the woman’s bronzed flesh. She could see the love shining up from the woman beneath her, a golden curtain descending as she bent down for another sweet kiss.

"Oh gods, Xena…let me hold you. I need to touch you."

Xena nodded as her mouth was covered again, swallowing up any thought other than sharing herself with this woman.

Her skin seemed to tingle as the bard moaned against her. She found herself wanting to give so much to the woman. There was so much pain and sorrow in her life. Perhaps…

"Yes, Gabrielle…yes." Her eyes closed again as she felt her lower lip feasted upon, and she began to rhythmically move against the smaller woman’s thigh.

The pain became intense, dragging Gabrielle up from the depths of her self imposed dreamscape. Fear gripped her as she fought with the realization that it was all a dream; the woman in her arms was not the warm and loving person she’d been making love with, but a cold hearted killer, taking her much as the guards had.

"No! Don’t you touch me!" She pulled back from the Conqueror’s embrace, her green eyes spitting fire, and then collapsed as the truth of her reality slammed into her.

Xena stood, mouth agape, eyes bright with unshed tears as she recognized the look of pure hatred play across the blonde’s face before she fell back into unconsciousness.

"Oh my gods," The Conqueror stumbled back as she felt the keen loss of the look this hateful one had replaced. There was such warmth, such unconditional love there…for her. A sob rose up from her throat, and Lord Xena dropped slowly to her knees.

She would never know that look, never earn such abiding love in her lifetime. The realization cut her to the quick, and she mourned her cold and empty existence.

Xena wiped her eyes angrily, tamping down the emotions as best she could. What was wrong with her? How dare a slave make her feel like this!

She dragged herself up and sat heavily in the chair. The blonde moaned a little, whispering small one-syllable words, barely discernable. The Conqueror’s breath caught again as she heard her name spoken with reverence. After all the torture Gabrielle had endured below floors, all the abuse she’d endured at her hands…

Lord Xena stretched out her trembling hands, and stared at them, as if they might yield up some sort of truth she could hold onto. It was her duty as the law of the land to mete out punishment. The girl was guilty. Wasn’t she?

The Conqueror was filled with confusion. Judgment had always been dispensed at the end of a sword. Her loyalty was in the service of violence and brutality. It was all she’d ever known.

Clenching her hands into fists, the Conqueror sat alone, impervious to the cold night air, kept warm by her own confusing self-hatred.

"What of love? If my destiny consists of all three, where is the love?" The intense devotion she felt for total submission and complete dominance over all that surrounded her surely qualified as ‘love’. Somehow knowing that her destiny was already fulfilled was of little comfort. Surely there was more to her life than…this? Even the brief love she’d felt for her son before sending him away hadn’t kept her heart from certain petrifaction.

At some point, she found herself holding the young bard carefully against her chest, trying to ease the pain they both felt.

Gabrielle wept in agony as the Lord released her from the oak, and tenderly carried her to the large bed. After meticulously settling the bard under the covers and tucking her in, the Conqueror threw on a long satin shift and began pacing the area around her bed.

Lord Xena looked down upon the damp face of the blonde and felt a tightening in her chest. She looked so forlorn, so weak. The warrior blinked slowly and then passed a tired hand over an equally tired pair of eyes.

Gabrielle groaned and began to flail weakly.


The Conqueror flinched as her name slipped off the bard’s tongue. It was said with such care, with such emotion. Xena shook the cobwebs from her mind as the amount of wine consumed began to take their toll.

What did she know of aiding someone in pain? She was well practiced in the giving of pain, not the release from it. She growled in frustration. How could she help this woman if she didn’t know how?

"Alright, think Xena. You’re on the battlefield, one person down. What do you do?" She pounded her fist into the palm of her hand. Leave them. Kill them. Move on.

"Fine, what if you can’t leave them?" Both eyebrows shot up. That had never come up in all the time she’d been a warrior. It was a given. You had an objective, you met force with force, you pushed forward, and you won the battle. Very little time or energy would be spent on sick or dying soldiers. You couldn’t afford to molly coddle the men, it was a sign of weakness.

"If it was a king or a queen you were protecting, then. Now what?" Xena scratched her head. When was the last time she’d been a mercenary hired to protect royalty?

"Shite. Alright, so she’s a family member then." The frown disappeared. Well now, this was something she could deal with. What if it was Solon on the bed? She looked down at the restless blonde and pictured a small baby there. How long had it been since she’d seen her son, ten, eleven, fourteen years?

She sighed morosely, yawned, and walked over to the table. Pushing the empty bottles away, she grunted as her eyes settled on a pitcher of water. Grabbing a crystal goblet, she filled it to the brim and then drank it down. Xena wiped the back of her hand against her mouth, and then refilled the goblet.

"So, let’s pretend it’s Solon here, and he’s sick. Well, I’d make certain he were comfortable, of course. I cannot summon the healer for a…slave, but she needs attention." Xena bit the end of her finger.

"Ah!" Snapping her fingers, she eased forward and tried to touch the goblet to the bard’s lips. Unfortunately, the glass was at such an angle that it tipped the contents over the brim.


The Conqueror cursed as the liquid spread across the sheet covering the young woman. Gabrielle looked dazed as she tried to focus on what was happening around her.

Her head fell back onto the pillow as the room began to spin.

"I thought…perhaps you were thirsty."

It took a second or two, but then Gabrielle was able to pry her tongue from the roof of her mouth. "Yes, I am. Thank you, Conqueror."

Xena nodded slowly, feeling a little disappointed that the young woman had stopped using her given name. ‘Well, it isn’t as if we’re friends.’ An eyebrow came up. ‘Friends? I don’t think I’ve had any of those’. Regret blossomed up again as she thought of Lao Ma. "Would you like more?"

Seeing as she hadn’t had any, the blonde nodded, and then watched as the Conqueror came back to the bed with another cupful.

Xena stood there, glass held out. Gabrielle blinked, and tried to focus. Was it her eyes or was the Conqueror so very far away?

The weak smile began to falter on the warrior’s lips. Now what? She stuck her finger into the goblet. The water was cool. She held it out again and then frowned as the woman remained where she was.

Gabrielle could all but taste the water held out to her. The ruler was waiting for something, but for the life of her, the bard couldn’t understand exactly what that was.

Xena thought about the young woman in her bed. When had she stopped thinking of her as a criminal, a lowly slave, and started thinking of her as someone to be cared for? She blinked as the blonde struggled to prop herself up, peeling the sodden fabric away from her body.

Her heart lurched as bite marks were revealed along with a myriad of bruises and other cuts. For the first time in a very long while, the Conqueror felt shame.

The bard winced as the Conqueror clenched her fists. Then she remembered: they had unfinished business. Gritting her teeth, she eased her legs out, wrapped herself in the damp sheet, and got unsteadily to her feet.

"The dawn is but a few hours away, Conqueror." Gabrielle limped over and gratefully took the goblet from the larger woman’s hands. With little hesitation, she quickly brought it to her lips and drank greedily.

Xena reached a hand out to steady the woman as a coughing fit ensued, but was rebuffed as the blonde flinched, and took a step backwards.

A few more sips and the bard had consumed the liquid, placing it carefully on the table before heading back towards the far wall.

Xena frowned, wondering what the young woman was doing. The way she was tottering, it would only be a matter of time before she blacked out again. She followed, careful not to get too close, thereby making Gabrielle flinch again. Each distant look received from the bard stabbed at her heart, making her feel very small inside. It wasn’t a feeling she enjoyed.

Gabrielle bit her lower lip, took a deep breath, and then let the sheet pool at her ankles.

Lord Xena furrowed her brow as she watched the woman take her place against the oak, trying very hard not to stare as Gabrielle’s nipples hardened before her eyes. She tried to make eye contract, but failed miserably as she watched the woman pull into herself.

The absence of the woman’s presence felt like a physical blow, and the Conqueror stepped closer, placing her hand on the woman’s cheek.

"No don’t go, Gabrielle. Please, stay with me?"

Gabrielle’s eyes cleared slowly, and she looked at the Conqueror expectantly. Why wasn’t she being shackled? Surely, the woman didn’t expect her to do it herself?

"Why? I have no intentions of falling for any new games. So you know about me. All right, fine. I thought perhaps I was a faceless stranger to you, but discovering that you’ve known something about me from the very first makes this more personal, more brutal."

Xena swallowed the lump in her throat as she watched the blonde fiddle with the restraints.

"You…you don’t have to do that, Gabrielle."

The bard snorted softly.

"Look, dawn will be here in another few hours, and then you can be rid of me. I know I have no right to ask, but…"

Xena tilted her head quizzically, and then it dawned on her. She believed her life was over when the sun rose. Her left eye began to twitch as the woman fingered her own nipples, and then slowly moved her legs into the restraints.

"If I make it a good show, will you be…merciful, when the time comes?"

Well, wasn’t it going to be just as the young woman believed? Hadn’t she planned on gleaning every bit of pleasure from this young woman’s body, and then disposing of her as soon as she was finished? Wasn’t it just that simple?


Gabrielle watched the muscles in the larger woman’s jaw working and flinched back as both biceps bulged.

Shrinking back against the oak, she whimpered.

"No, please…I’m sorry. I had no right to request anything."

Lord Xena turned quickly, squeezing her eyes tightly, and focused on just keeping herself under control. She moved to her armoire with measured steps, donned a pair of black leather pants, jerkin and boots, and then stormed over to the door.


Xena stopped in her tracks, but didn’t turn around. She waited, every fibre of her body coiled tightly, like a hair trigger just waiting for release.

"I’m sorry I’ve displeased you. Shall I…shall I await your return or am I to be dealt with now?"

Xena had the overwhelming urge to face the woman. She would beat her senseless, torment her sexually for hours, leaving her abused body on the floor like so many others before her - like so much detritus. Because she could, because it felt like a nice white noise, blotting out all of the torment, all of the fear and self loathing, allowing her to just feel…nothing.

With her heart hammering in her chest, the Conqueror slipped on her leather bracers, pushed wide the double doors, and disappeared like a phantom in the night.




Chapter Four



A combination of Gabrielle’s trusting yet accusing look hit her like a physical blow as the events of the last twenty-four hours played through the Conqueror’s mind. She burned as memories of reddened flesh seared into her brain, leaving her feeling cold and weak. Xena blinked the sweat from her eyes and then dodged what would have been a bone breaking punch. The scent of the woman, and the soft, loving touch of her mouth left the Conqueror trembling with each beat of her disordered heart.

Both men came at her, sensing her indecisiveness, intent on causing as much damage as possible. Part of her reveled in the knowledge that this was an all out war, and yet the Conqueror knew that she was already at a disadvantage, her attention split between where she wanted to be and what she had to do. After having one kick blocked, Dagnine spun on his heel, raised his elbow sharply, and caught the warrior squarely on the point of her chin. Xena saw stars as her head snapped back with the force of the blow and the practice field spun dizzily as she dropped slowly to one knee.

"Thracis, give Lord Xena something to drink. Perhaps her night with the slave has been too much?"

Xena grunted as she got to her feet, and spit a mouthful of blood out before taking a deep pull of the skin. She blinked as the contents were noted.

"Wine this early in the morning, Dagnine? One would think you were trying to press the advantage."

Both men grinned wickedly and watched as the Conqueror slowly made her way over to the bench.

"One could suppose it would logically follow, my Lord, that you might be in a depleted state after a night of frivolity. It is our duty to winnow out any weakness and seize upon it, is it not?"

Xena began removing her greaves, and then took another long pull of the wine skin. She shook herself vigorously as the wine hit her empty belly.

"I like you, Thracis; you have potential."

The two men waited as the woman began slowly braiding her long hair into a thick plait. "Since you feel there is a weakness, please feel free to act upon that assumption."

The men narrowed their eyes as the Conqueror turned her back to them and commenced checking her boots and leathers, seeing that each lace was taut, each buckle was cinched, and that her hair would not further impede her vision.

Dagnine nodded and gestured for his companion to move to the right, while he in turn made his way left.


Thracis smiled as the woman began humming a bit. The Conqueror must have imbibed quite a bit to be in such a state. He scratched the back of his neck and thought of the comely wench undoubtedly still lying in the Lord’s bed.

He covered a yawn and flexed his hands. Dawn was still busy threading red fingers across the sky, and they’d been sparring for a good two hours previous. Regardless of the slight beating the woman was taking, there wasn’t one bit of him that didn’t fervently wish that he too could have the excuse of being sexually overtaxed. He had thought being Dagnine’ second would afford him some leeway with the women. He’d been wrong; no one came willingly to the Lieutenant’s bed. And while there was something to be said for taking what you wanted, he enjoyed the times when women gladly fell into his arms and stayed for more than the threat of a knife in their bellies.

His jaw tensed as he watched the play of muscles move across the Lord’s shoulders. She was so confident, so terribly capable, making things look so damnedably easy. He and the rest of the guard were just playthings for the Conqueror. She took great glee in pointing out their shortcomings in such a way as to leave them in pain for days. The skin over his right shoulder trembled as the memory of his first combat encounter with the Conqueror popped into his head.

Having his clavicle broken and his shoulder dislocated had been painful enough to endure, but it had been nothing compared to the pain and humiliation she had subjected him to in her recounting of the tears she’d seen on his face afterwards. It had taken him some time to live that moment down having to prove himself constantly as man after man sought to better their position through his perceived weakness. He’d gotten stronger since then; he’d had no choice.

With a sneer, he pushed his matted hair off of his face and then moved forward.


A small evil grin curled up the corner of Xena’s mouth as she heard the two men advancing towards her. She made a point of groaning as she bent to inspect her bootlaces again. Her keen hearing detected a slight rustling and she shook out the tension in her arms.

"Ah, ah, ah Dagnine. This is to be unarmed hand-to-hand combat only. Unless you relish the thought of displaying a matching wound in the other hand, I’d suggest you drop the daggers."


Dagnine cursed silently, and dropped one of the daggers carelessly onto the ground, all the while burning holes into the Conqueror’s back with his jet black eyes. He had a score to settle with the bitch, and he meant to even things up, if only a little. He’d take the victories where he could find them.

He snorted derisively as she took another swig from the skin. Yes, the night must have been vigorous indeed, and Lord Xena very weary, for them to have gotten in as many strikes as they had. He smiled thinking about the tooth she’d spat out earlier. There would be more where that came from. Perhaps there wouldn’t be so many waiting in line to enter the bitch’s bed after a few perfections were eliminated. He pursed his lips as he thought of how quickly the woman healed, and how very hard it was to leave her scarred. Yes, she was a well-oiled inhuman specimen, just his kind of woman.

Anger seethed just below the surface as he thought of the Conqueror cavorting with the wench that he’d seen in the foyer. ‘Nothing more than a plaything. She’ll come around sooner or later.’ His nostrils fluttered as he remembered the blonde’s delicious breasts popping free of her bodice. Lord Xena had impeccable taste in women, granted, but her propensity for winning their ardent ways was severely cutting down on any chances the rest of them had. He clenched his fists and then winced as the wound in his hand throbbed painfully. When was the last time he’d had a beautiful woman in his bed? Only the comely ones seemed to warrant any protection as the more popular officers held court. That left him with the dregs, and they were becoming tiresome. He’d almost gutted the last one, as she lay nearly comatose, waiting for him to finish. He gripped his second dagger as visions of the great Lord Xena down on her knees; hands stretching out in reverence as he unbuckled his pants swam before his eyes. And then a black boot slammed into his forehead, and he found himself sailing across the field.


Xena smirked as the other blade fell into the mud.

Thracis dodged a roundhouse blow, and then gritted his teeth as the Conqueror’s boot came in contact with his left side. He moved back trying to think of a new strategy, but the woman pressed forward, throwing him off balance as she rained blow after blow upon his head and shoulders.

He managed to get in a body shot before his wrist was seized painfully, and then stars filled his vision as her head impacted on his own. Staggering backwards, he noted the arrival of two more men onto the field.

"Dimitri, Prastin!" Both men dropped their lances and raced in his direction.

Xena grinned and waited as the three of them began circling her.

"Yes, please do join our little party, gentlemen. The more the merrier."

The cockier one of the two newcomers hunched his shoulders and came at her. She easily dodged his blow and smashed her elbow into his face, pushing his grasping hands away as he went down. The other two made brief eye contact as they saw her momentarily distracted and then took her head on.

Xena oofed as the wind was forced from her lungs and grunted with surprise as she felt her breasts being mauled.

"Always press the advantage."

The Conqueror winced again as Thracis’ meaty hand grabbed another handful and then her breath caught as she felt a sharp pain in her left side. With a roar, she centered her focus and rebounded in her attack.

A small whine seeped from between slack lips as one man rolled over clutching his groin and then Thracis was pinned on his back in the mud, the woman’s strong thighs all but crushing his hips.

"Always," replied the Conqueror.

"One must know exactly where their opponent’s weaknesses are, Thracis." She dug her strong fingers into his shoulder joint and grinned cruelly as he screamed in pain.

"Yes, I thought it was the right shoulder."

Her eyes scanned the field as the crowd that had gathered began to disperse. She locked eyes with a few of the bolder ones, and wiped her hands on her leathers as she slowly got to her feet.

"This is a regular training day, boys, and unless you’re waiting for your turn, I’d suggest you pair off and go about your business." One man stepped forward and Xena smiled.

"Good. Come along then." Taking a defensive stance, she gestured him forward with one hand, smiling all the while. Two more joined the first and Xena decided a lesson had to be learned. She wiped the mud from her face, and smirked as she noticed a smear of blood.

"Just because your opponent is unarmed, and looks to be injured, it would do you well to remember that appearances can be deceiving."

With a short cry, she leapt forward, jabbing her stiff fingers into the neck of one man, rotated her left leg backwards, pivoting the heel, and sent a next man reeling with a broken nose.

One of the two men left standing backed away, hands held up in defeat, while the other grinned and pulled a knife from his boot sheath.

"I’m going to cut you, bitch. You think yer all that and more. Even if ya do beat me, I’ll have the pleasure of knowin’ I marked ya."

He began slicing figure eight’s into the air in front of the Conqueror. One eyebrow lifted as Xena relaxed and dropped her hands to her sides.

"Another lesson to be learned, of course, is that one should never…"

She waited as the man moved closer.

"…Use a weapon," Xena grabbed the man’s right hand painfully and watched as the grin left his lips.

"…As a threat, your main objective being intimidation, knowing that to do so might mean your very life. Pulling a knife means you intend to still your opponents heart any way you can. And pulling a knife on me…"

She shoved the dagger up suddenly, pushing the blade deeply between the man’s ribs and then watched as the look of surprise changed to one of sorrow.

"…Is just foolhardy, because the use of weapons are never a threat, they’re a promise."

She held the man against her as warmth spread across her leathers, and watched as the light began leaving his eyes.

"I see you’ve learned this particular lesson, haven’t you? Too bad you won’t be able to apply it."

And with that, she released him, and glared at the crowd that had gathered.

"If you use a weapon against someone, know for a certainty that you are willing to die taking his or her life. This isn’t a game, gentleman. We cannot afford to be soft, pulling our punches, and playing wooden soldiers. Some of you will prove yourselves and go on to become my elite. Others will act as fodder. It’s up to you which one you’d prefer."


She nodded as two of her trusted Lieutenants came onto the field. Andros of Argos was a man of medium height and build, with dark complexion and well tended short beard. The other was a burly man a good six inches shorter, with ruddy complexion and white-blonde hair.

"My liege," shouted the first. "Are you hurt?" Xena looked down at the blood dripping from her chest and belly.

"No, Andros. It’s not my blood." He nodded and then gritted his teeth.

"You shouldn’t be sparring without a second nearby, Lord Xena. The men can sometimes be…rambunctious. You know of the civil unrest, my Lord. It would take nothing for someone to place an assassin on the training field."

Xena shook her plait free, and grabbed her weapons as they were offered.

"It is your job to make sure my palace is free from assassins, Andros. But no matter; if I cannot defend myself, then I’m not fit to rule."

"My liege, please. You don’t understand how hard it is. While it’s true you’ve ruled this land fairly, it has been done with an iron fist. There are many displeased with your methods."

Blue ice glinted as she turned to face him.

"You and Christo are like old women, Andros. The people, for the most part, love me. How can they not? I’ve made their land free from tyranny, strife, and slaughter. Their children grow fat by the efforts of this iron fist, and you would both do well to remember it."

Christo gave the Conqueror a sullen look and pulled at his friend’s jerkin. "By your leave, milord."

The Conqueror nodded her head as Christo bowed curtly and left. "Hold, Andros. I need some questions answered. Belacos is in charge of recruiting the troops, is he not?" She grunted with his affirmation.

"Make sure he realizes there are to be stricter induction rules from now on. My days of accepting riff-raff are long since gone. I want my men to be sharp, battle ready and loyal. This recent lot has none of those qualities. Get rid of them. Now."

"Yes milord." He cleared his throat. "Lord Xena, you seem to be…bleeding."

She pursed her lips tightly when her right hand came away from her side sticky with blood. "Yes, I know. Just a nick, I’m sure, and nothing a little catgut won’t fix." One black brow rose dangerously as the man opened his mouth to protest. "Alright, send the healer to my rooms." She sighed dramatically.

"Bloody nursemaids. I remember tending to my own wounds. Never needed a healer back then, and I probably don’t need one now. Yes, in fact belay that order, Andros. I’ll tend to the problem myself."

"But Conqueror…"

She held one hand up, the set of her jaw brooking no arguments. "Tell the healer to drop his kit by my sitting room sometime this afternoon. I have other things to attend to."

Andros nodded and then cleared his throat again.

"Spit it out, man. Are you sick, or do you have something to say?"

Andros scrubbed his square jaw with the back of his hand, and coughed again.

"You’re a good man, Andros, but if you don’t tell me what’s on your mind right now, I’ll seriously consider replacing you as my second. I need someone I can trust, and someone who isn’t afraid to speak plainly with me. I thought you were that man."

Andros swallowed the lump in his throat, determined not to irritate the Conqueror with any further hesitation. Although trust wasn’t something he was sure Lord Xena had a great abundance of in her life, he was honoured that she felt he warranted even a small measure of whatever she did have.

"A couple of things, Milord. The men are becoming restless. The current unpleasantness with Rome might be exactly what they need. You’ve not trained with them in more than a fortnight." He bit his lip pensively, hesitating. "There has been more than one plot brewing, my Lord. Lord Dagnine continues to rattle his sword, gaining more support as the months go by. Perhaps we should look to Byzantine? I hear they have lands aplenty to conquer."

Lord Xena’s expression remained stony as the man continued, although in reality a tightening of her abdominal muscles was occurring. Duty as the conqueror of the known world had its price – while her soldiers professed to enjoy the high station that peace afforded them, they couldn’t help but crave further glory. There would always be dissention in the ranks for that very reason. Sucking a knuckle, the Conqueror wondered how many years of battle she had left before there was nothing left to conquer. The last six months had been both a time of calm and frustration as she’d adapted herself to peace. And although she hated to do so, she had to grudgingly admit that it had been a time of prosperity, if not for her then surely for her subjects. As a good ruler, she should have reveled in this fact alone. Perhaps the men needed one final battle with Caesar before easing into a life of peace? Her jaw muscles bunched tightly as she thought of Dagnine. His sort never adapted, and was never happy to live a life of peace and prosperity. No, he’d come to a grisly end sooner or later.

Andros cleared his throat before mentioning the last item. "And," he said carefully, "it’s about the slave."

She had tried to blot out any thought of the woman, punishing her body with endless drills, and baiting Thracis and Dagnine with any sort of distraction she could. Xena probed the vacant spot where a back molar had been. Yes, they had acted true to form. She knew of their deep abiding hatred of her, and was only too happy to foster it. If the men were openly plotting and collaborating against her, they were less likely to be trusted by the others, those who may have their own political axes to grind, but were unwilling to draw public attention to themselves. People like Andros and Christo performed the necessary clandestine services needed to make sure the two factions didn’t end up in bed together.

Andros watched carefully as the Conqueror tried to hide the pain that was becoming obviously more intense as she tried to draw breath. He was both glad and surprised the woman had even considered the aid of a healer. He bit his lip as he realized just how bad the wound must be if she had given in so easily. If she were to die…Thinking about the terrible bloodshed the resulting civil war would cause made his scrotum shrivel. Images of his own battered remains hanging from a cross flittered briefly in front of him before he blinked it away. That was assuming there would be anything left of his body after the numerous torture sessions, of course.

"What about her?"

The Captain shuddered as his imagination continued down the same merry path. He knew there would be no stone unturned by the Conqueror’s many enemies to obliterate every man, woman and child connected with her reign. Andros was one of the few men who had been with Lord Xena from the beginning. The rest were firmly ensconced in Hades’ cruel embrace. Only he and Dagnine had survived. There was very little love lost between the two of them, Andros being privy to the majority of the skeletons jangling in the man’s closet. He was a man who knew too much, a fact that kept him ever vigilant in his dealings with the troops.

Images of he and those loyal to the Conqueror trussed up on crosses over the land were horrible, but what Dagnine and his henchmen would do to Lord Xena made him want to run blindly into the night, seeking what little solace he could find in the arms of madness. She has such beauty, such strength, such courage…and it was all such a damnedable waste, languishing here in a prison of her own making. He shuddered thinking of the punishment Lord Xena would be forced to endure. ‘Her death would be such a sin against the gods in the hands of her numerous enemies’. His heart seemed to stop as the Lord reached out to touch his shoulder.

"Come along, man, why do you quiver and shake like an old man. She isn’t that horrible. Obstinate, brooding and strong willed, but all the more…comely, for it." Both sets of eyebrows rose as the words left Xena’s lips. Just what did this woman mean to the Conqueror?

"I see. I only ask because the Lord’s Chamberlain was dismissed last night, the weekly appointment cancelled without cause, and today you seem quite distracted. I’ve not seen you in such shape after a morning in the practice field in a very long time."

"Are you suggesting that perhaps I’ve had too much to drink, that perhaps my evening didn’t go as planned? She’s just a stupid girl who is more trouble than she is worth. And since when did I need an excuse not to see Mikos, or anyone else for that matter? I think you presume too much, Andros."

The dangerous glint had returned to Lord Xena’s eye, but Andros smiled nonetheless, his cheeks aching with the force of it. He wondered why this slave seemed to be so important that she was worth two nights of the Conqueror’s attention. He noticed the muscles in her jaw flexing rhythmically, and supposed the Lord Chamberlain might never know of his good luck. The Captain had had to explain many an unseemly death away as accidental when the rage was upon the dark Lord. With the Conqueror, one never knew which way to jump.

Andros decided that the best course of action was placation. As sorrowful as he might feel for the poor sex slave awaiting her fate in the Lord’s chambers, perhaps her death wouldn’t be in vain and the rage he could see dancing in the Conqueror’s eyes would be slaked.

"Mikos is his own excuse, milord. I’ve only had the displeasure of being caught in his web of endless words once. I have no idea how you stomach the man. I’m sure whatever dalliance you may find will be more interesting than a night with him."

Xena squeezed her arm hard against the seeping wound, her smile brittle and her momentary fatigue forgotten.

"So you see? This common slave is a momentary distraction, nothing more. In fact, she may prove to be an excuse again tonight, though perhaps not to her liking. Yes, see to it that the Lord Chamberlain is kept from my door. And the meeting I had with the dignitaries later this afternoon? Cancel them. I don’t want to be disturbed."

Andros nodded slowly, his brow furrowed with confusion. Lord Xena’s eyes had a distinct feral look to them. Perhaps the diversion wouldn’t be such a good thing after all. Biting his lip, he said nothing more as the Conqueror stalked back towards the castle.



Chapter Five



The healer grimaced as the thread was pulled through the edges of the small gaping wound. He should have known better, but he felt it was his duty to prepare and offer an herbal pain reliever prior to work on a wound. That she had dismissed it as unneeded was not a surprise, but given the amount of intricate sutures, he knew there must be a fire racing through the Lord’s reddened flesh. He was pleased at how easy it had been to convince the Lord that his presence was warranted. Catching the Conqueror in a good mood was something to truly enjoy.

He made sure not to spend any time gazing at any particular part of the Conqueror’s torso, and blushed as the nipple ring twinkled every now and again. He absently caressed the end of his left ring finger, remembering how his willful mouth had gotten him into trouble. Daedalis counted his blessings, however, feeling quite lucky that he’d gotten away with the loss of a fingertip, as opposed to a limb, or more importantly, his life.

‘A small transgression nets you a small punishment, healer.’ No, he’d decided shortly after his unfortunate incident with the Conqueror to make only comments pertaining to either the weather or medical advice. Even the latter was a risky subject, the Lord being the type who felt she could heal herself.

He noted the other faint scars dotting the surface of the Conqueror’s skin, and had to admit the woman certainly had a flare for needlework. The thought caused the middle-aged man to smile a little wider, the difference all but imperceptible to those who didn’t know him.

The Conqueror’s lips twitched as she skewered another bit of flesh, making the stitches as small as possible.

"Hold the damnedable mirror steady, Daedalis. Why I suffer your presence, I’ll never know. I’ve performed more battle surgeries than you’ll ever know," she muttered. "Nothing more than a glorified nurse maid." The man blanched and she grinned. "Perhaps you should have taken your own remedy if you are so fainthearted?"

One eyebrow rose dangerously as the silence grew. "You seem somewhat distracted."

Daedalis muttered something under his breath, and steadied his hand. ‘Glorified nurse maid, indeed!’ But the glint in the woman’s eye made him wary: it was usually a precursor to trouble. And he was determined not to give the Lord any excuse to unleash her fury.

Lord Xena smiled cruelly as she tied the last knot in the catgut. Taking a cloth and wiping the residue from her body, Xena took a few deep breaths and twisted her torso. Yes, it was a good thing the blackguard had no idea how to use a knife. She accepted the proffered wad of fabric, pressing it tightly against the wound, and then smiled, as her inspection revealed no further seepage. The wound had been somewhat deep, but could easily be dismissed as being nothing more than a flesh wound since no internal organs were involved.

The healer swallowed deeply as the ring seemed to dance across the woman’s pebbled flesh, making a line of sweat appear over his brow.

Needing a distraction, less his body betray him, Daedalis cleared his throat and fumbled with his herbs. "Let me get the antiseptic, milord."

Xena grabbed the man’s satchel and bottles, crammed in the thread and needles, and all but threw them at him.

"Oh be gone, healer. I’m not a child and this is nothing more than an abrasion."

The man opened his mouth to protest and then yelped as he was taken by the scruff of his neck and seat of his pants and frog marched to the door.

"But Lord Xena…"

"Your body betrays you once more, little man." And with that, she threw the healer out into the hall.

Xena stood against the closed door, both hands becoming tight fists at her side, as she gazed across at the entrance to her bedchambers. The guards stood stoically, having only paid enough attention to the goings on to discern that the healer was no threat to their liege.

Xena pursed her lips, went to the side table, and poured out a fresh bowl of clean water. The only sound in the room was the occasional rasp of leather and steel as she cleaned her leathers and weapons of blood and grime. She was the epitome of patience as she mended and oiled her equipment. However, things were not quiet in the mind of the Conqueror. If the guards had not reported an attempt at escape, it meant that the lovely slave still remained within her quarters. Somehow, the thought of the young woman being dragged back down to the dungeon was an image totally unpalatable. It left Lord Xena feeling distraught. How could such a young slip of a girl elicit such feelings of tenderness and care from her? Hours of bone breaking practice on the field had neither dulled such thoughts nor dampened her need to quench them.


Gabrielle smiled sleepily and burrowed deeper into the covers. How soft and warm they were! Her fingers moved fervently over the satiny texture of the sheets, almost willing the raven beauty of her dreams to reappear. Shivering slightly, the bard tasted the woman’s name in her mind once more, and then rolled over.

"Xena" she crooned, her voice rich with emotion. The image of the warrior’s dark form swam tantalizingly before her closed eyes, filling her soul with passion. Her nostrils quivered as she remembered how the lamplight had danced across Xena’s dark, oiled flesh. She watched the play of the woman’s taut muscles just below the surface and groaned as Xena opened her gown, then slowly let it fall to the floor.

Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to love the Conqueror in all of her glory, good, bad and indifferent. Why? She wasn’t even aware of the ‘why’ of things, just the ‘need to’ that pulled at her.

Her mouth felt dry as images of Xena’s proud, full breasts filled her mind. Oh, how she longed to grasp the cold metal between her teeth again.

The bard groaned inhaling the heady scent of sweat, oiled leathers and steel, all of which immediately thrust her back into the present and her cold reality. Her eyes snapped open, and she found herself caught by glacial orbs of blue.

With pulse racing, the blonde fought with inner turmoil. There at the edge of the bed, skin glistening, and hair wild and free, sat the Conqueror looking dangerously calm. Gabrielle swallowed, her mind filled with the many excuses she’d thought of in Lord Xena’s absence. She had lain cold and shivering at the foot of the oak boards for many hours before deciding to give into comfort, if for only one last time. If she were to die at the crow of the rooster, then she may as well have spent her last few hours’ deeply ensconced in life’s last opulent respite.

She had hobbled over to the sideboard, hesitating but once, and then descended upon the leavings of last night’s supper. It wasn’t so much that she was hungry per se, even having been denied food for a good twenty-four hours, but more that these things would be undoubtedly denied her. She had filled her senses with the aroma of Lord Xena’s robe, and reveled in the intoxicating scent that permeated the bedding. There had been nothing but the cold hard granite to lie upon, and although her exploration of the Conqueror’s chambers had shown the cold remains of a bath, Gabrielle had hesitated on partaking of either it or the overlarge bed which dominated the room. Slaves did not eat the leftovers from a Lord’s table without express permission, and they certainly did not enjoy the deep luxury of their master’s bed, or the tepid waters left from their bathing. That was, however, precisely why this slave decided to do so.

Hadn’t she already been beaten, starved, humiliated, and then finally abandoned to her own terrible thoughts? Hours of torment had been endured before Gabrielle had even felt the first stirrings of sleep come creeping upon her. Guilt and defiance lay as strange bedfellows until the blonde relinquished her tenuous hold on integrity.

She’d been born to parents who believed you had to work for everything you had. Wanting something you couldn’t have was for foolish dreamers and asking for it was proof you were both foolish and selfish. Gabrielle had wanted to be a storyteller, much to her parent’s horror. They had tried very hard to instill high moral standards in both their daughters, and traipsing all over the known world was unacceptable behavior. An uneasy truce had been put into effect, but by her sixteenth birthday, Gabrielle had already begun walking the path of independence. She had lost everything in her desire to pursue something she could never have. Was she being selfish? The question niggled at her, but before sleep finally claimed her, the woman had decided that being selfish was one thing and giving away the last bastion of her very soul was another.

Steeling herself from the blow she felt must surely come, Gabrielle clenched her teeth and waited as one strong hand lifted towards her.

"I’m a human being, Lord Xena. If you must punish me for that, then do so, for I am guilty of needs, and wants, and…"

Gabrielle’s heart fluttered as strong fingers wove through her newly washed hair. The sure and gentle touch of this dark woman gave the bard hope that perhaps they could come to an understanding. She felt her head tipped back and then green eyes locked on blue.

"…And desires?"

Gabrielle flinched as her hair was caught tightly in the woman’s fist.

Xena took hold of the top edge of the sheet and slowly pulled it down, exposing the young woman to the crisp morning air.

"You may have availed yourself of my hospitality without permission, slave, but I shall reap the benefits."

Gabrielle brought both hands up to cover her breasts and the Conqueror laughed.

"After our time together last night, why the pretense of humility? You are my slave, and I’ll take what I want, when I want it." She smiled cruelly. "And I want it now."

A sneer painted her lips as she heard the young woman gasp while she pushed the hands away. "You have my passion, Lord Xena! Please…don’t do this. I will give it to you gladly. You may have my passion…"

‘But you shall never have me.’ Xena’s eyes darkened as she remembered the bard’s words. They had been said in defiance, but now what the Conqueror heard was a combination of threat and challenge. "Ah, but where’s the adventure in that, slave? There has never been a question as to your seduction, only your submission. And you will submit, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle groaned as she felt strong teeth nipping a trail from throat to collarbone. Before she could open her mouth to protest, both wrists were gripped tightly over her head, and the full weight of the Conqueror was upon her.

"Please Conqueror…stop this. If by submitting to you, my honour is upheld, then I do so willingly. I submit to your will."

A sharp cry filled Xena’s ears and she smiled around a tightening bud. Her teeth grazed across the soft, warm flesh, and then the woman’s nipple was held firmly between a flash of white teeth. "I’ve always held your passion, you said so yourself. But I shall have more, slave. I shall have all of you, body and soul."

Gabrielle felt her legs pushed wide, briefly noting that care was being taken with them, and then felt a fire erupt as she was entered. Biting the meat at the side of her hand, she arched her back as the Conqueror’s hot mouth moved over her flesh, teasing and tantalizing her breasts to painful erection. A tear escaped the corner of her eye as she felt the softness of Xena’s touch, and the tenderness belying the woman’s words. She wanted to touch that softness, feel the ice melt from the warrior’s heart, and fill that space where she alone belonged. The gift she would give had to be taken with care and love not wrenched from her body with indifference.

"I’ll submit, oh please Conqueror, please stop. I’ll submit to you."

Blue eyes peered carefully, and Xena stilled her questing fingers. "Give yourself to me. Hold nothing back."

Gabrielle nodded as tears were squeezed through closed eyes. She would give of herself, and in the doing, free them both.

The Conqueror groaned as a small well-formed hand pushed its way through her thick mane and she gasped as the bard offered herself up as a lamb to slaughter.

Gabrielle found herself focusing on the little things around her, rather than the enormity of the situation. She had pondered her fate as she washed the grime from her body, surrounded by the overwhelming scent of the Conqueror. How could she leave, even if she were able? With her legs the way they were she’d have had little chance of success. Fate had placed her in the hands of this woman, and Gabrielle would see things through until the end.

Her buttocks and lower back stung as her body bore the full weight of the woman above her. She felt the Conqueror’s mouth on her, teasing her mind and body as she urged her onwards, towards that place she dared not go. The smaller woman panted fast shallow breaths as her ribs were compressed, and her knees pushed ever higher. She wanted to moan with each droplet that slowly made its way down the chiseled jaw of the Conqueror to splash upon her own bosom.

"You will be mine. And there will be no others after me. Ever."

Xena maneuvered her fingers, her thrusts becoming longer and deeper, and went back to feasting upon the young woman’s breasts. Her excitement rose as the bard struggled beneath her.

‘She’s a feisty one, making her all the sweeter to break.’ Xena growled as the fingers tightened in her hair.

The chords of muscle stood out in Gabrielle’s neck as she craned backwards in an effort to focus on anything but what was being done to her body. But the fires of passion rose inside and she gasped as sharp white teeth pulled at her flesh. Oh, how she wanted to give into the ecstasy that lay in wait for her. She had never experienced such raw animalistic power before, and she found it exhilarating and terribly frightening, all at the same time.

Her earlobe was enveloped in sweet hot fire, and the bard focused on the memories of the torture she’d been subjected to in the prison cells. Her body quivered in response to the Conqueror’s breath playing across her body, making her all too aware of just how deeply sensitized she was becoming. It was almost as if this woman knew exactly what her body craved. Her skin felt as if oozing molten lava were flowing just beneath the surface. And yet she couldn’t give in. She focused on the cold and dispassionate tone the warrior had used as the flogger sent shivers of pain and delicious fire across her body, making her feel haunted, as if certain doors that were never to be opened suddenly had. This was not of her choosing, this dark path she found herself walking. And as much as she wanted to give in to the deep Cimmerian abyss that surrounded her, Gabrielle was resolved to deny her wants and needs for as long as she was able.

The bard’s feeble attempts at denial were stilled as the Conqueror whispered her name, the three syllables caressing her mind towards acceptance.

Xena grinned, watching the woman’s eyes begin to roll back into her head, and took the bard’s mouth in a searing kiss.

Gabrielle tasted blood as her lower lip was pierced, and she wept sad, bitter tears. Her legs ached as the Conqueror shifted position, and then she found her leg straddled by two strong thighs. Slow gentle strokes of the woman’s hand seemed to soothe her tormented limbs and she groaned with relief.

Xena redoubled her efforts as the bard refused to succumb, and pressed one strong leg hard against the woman’s swollen flesh. Her mind reeled as the lubrication spread easily over the heated surface and she growled deeply, entangled in her own web.

Her breath was soon caught as she felt soft hands pushing the leathers aside, exposing her buttocks.

"Gabrielle," she whispered again, throwing her head back.

The Conqueror found herself moving quickly over hard flesh that rose up to meet each thrust. Her nipples tightened beneath their leather confines, her battle dress suddenly feeling a size or two smaller than normal. Her elbows locked as she worked feverishly over the slave, intent on her own orgasm, and a smile of peace slowly swept over her face as the woman’s inner muscles and tissues began to respond to the fiery inevitability of their union.

Gabrielle mourned the loss of what they could have had together. The Conqueror was so focused on taking what she could that she was oblivious to what she was already receiving. Couldn’t the woman see that their paths lay together, not as master and slave, but as friend and lover? Her heart tore and she cried, as Xena looked down at her, confident in her sexual prowess, but lacking even the common decency one would afford a casual lover.

It was as if someone had doused her mind with cold water and she set her jaw with determination.

Xena forced her eyes open, expecting to see the lust and desire mirrored in the eyes of the blonde and time seemed to stop as hot tears splashed against her hands. Guilt blossomed within her chest as she saw a sorrowful love she had no right to expect. She squeezed the slave’s face harshly in an attempt to deny such truth, and then a keening wail rose unbidden from her throat as her own orgasm was touched off.

"Give yourself to me," whispered Gabrielle while the Conqueror tumbled over the edge.



Chapter Six




Xena lay gasping as the last of her orgasm left her. Her nostrils flared as she clenched her teeth. What had just happened? How had things changed so drastically? One minute she was in control of the seduction, and the next she was at the mercy of it.

Gabrielle watched as the Conqueror ran both hands roughly through her hair.


The Conqueror flinched and rolled to her side. Her name on this woman’s lips had sounded like ambrosia only hours ago. Now, it hurt. No more was she master, conqueror, or Lord. Now she was simply ‘Xena’. Everything she’d ever accomplished over the years, every war she’d waged, every battle hard won, simply vanished as a small woman from Poteidaia stripped her bare and dominated her.

Xena pulled herself to her feet, wiping the woman’s name from her lips, and stalked over to the side table.

Her jaw quivered as she tried to still the shaking in her hand. She grasped the bottom of the goblet, and then the wine came gurgling out of the bottle and onto the counter.

‘Damnitalltohades!’ She moved to block her second attempt at pouring the wine from the somber eyes of the woman still wrapped cozily in her sheets. Xena’s eyes blazed a cobalt blue as she relived what had been taken from her. She was the master. She was in control. She was the pure essence of power! She ruled an empire, and she would rule one small bard - one way or another.

Gabrielle pulled her sheets up high as the Conqueror hunched her shoulders and gripped the sideboard. The sound of dripping reached her ears and the bard watched as the deep crimson wine puddled at the woman’s feet. It was clear that Xena was very angry.

She, on the other hand, felt wonderful. Seeing the look of ecstasy come over the Conqueror was an amazing thing to behold. It made her feel alive knowing that she could elicit such rapture. But there was something more. She had felt a bond so strong it was palpable. And Gabrielle was determined to experience it again.

Her breath caught as the Conqueror lifted one of the flagons and gulped down three or four heavy draughts, her green eyes transfixed as the wine trickled down and stained across the front of the warrior’s leathers.

Gabrielle raised herself up on both elbows.

"Why are you so angry, Xe…Lord Xena? I wanted to show you how good we could be together. I wanted to show you my love."

Xena blew her breath out with a resounding snort at the slave’s words, and moved closer to the bed.

"Your love?"

"Yes, I know everything will be all right if you just let me love you."

"What do you mean let you love me? What in Hades does that have to do with anything?"

"Just give me a chance, Xena…"

"I am The Conqueror, and you’d best remember that, slave." With a sudden yelp of surprise, Gabrielle found her throat gripped inside one large callused hand, causing a whimper to escape as pressure was applied.

"You will pay me all the due respect and distinction my title affords me, wench."

"Lord Xena, please…"

Bright stars flitted across Gabrielle’s eyelids as she was shaken cruelly. Her teeth rattled and a weak cry was forced from her constricted throat while a rough hand pinched and kneaded her breasts.

"Your body is mine, slave, to do with as I will. You belong to me, now and forever. You do not take - I take. When I want and how I want. Is that clear?"

Gabrielle nodded weakly as her buttocks left the sheets momentarily, and then she was slammed back down, and pushed over onto her belly.

"Your actions fly in the face of the law, slave. I am the law. My position as ruler in your life is sacrosanct. And since you continue to defy me, I have no other choice but to punish you accordingly."

Gabrielle tried to argue and plead as the sheets were wrenched from her body, and her legs forced open.

"One day, little one, that look of petulant obstinacy will garner you another summons before the prison’s headsman. Perhaps I shall watch with a tinge of sorrow as that beautiful flash of green is removed from your continence? After all, a thing of beauty should be both visually and physically appealing. What a disappointment that would be: to lose such beauty. Now, lie there quietly."

The bard felt her heart increase its pace, all but thudding against her rib cage, and prepared herself for the next level of torment she would have to endure.

Why hadn’t she just let the woman have her way, acquiesce to every demand, and simply take the humiliation meted out to her? Couldn’t she just for once see the truth of her dire straits and act accordingly?

Her home life had been much the same way, sadly. Gabrielle had always felt the need to push a point through, to stand her ground, and even make frequent attempts at having the last word. Her parents had tried to convince her that her behavior would not only earn her harsh punishment and endless chores, but would gain her nothing in the long-range scheme of things. Who would marry such a troublesome girl? What man would find her opinions or thoughts of any relevance other than those he would give her himself?

She had wept hot, bitter tears as each lash of the whip creased her back, and had felt nothing but shame that she could not conform to her parent’s wishes. Hadn’t Lila netted herself a good husband? And even if the man brutalized her more often than not, hadn’t she fulfilled her duties as a daughter and productive member of society?

Gabrielle wasn’t conscious of just when her radical viewpoints on the worth of all human life came into being, just that it had. His purse, his landholdings, or his station in society did not dictate the true value of a person.

"Please, milord."

She yelped in surprise as the first lash of pain trickled across her buttocks.

"I want…"

"Yes, Gabrielle. Tell me what you want. Tell me what you need. I’ll see what I can do about fulfilling your requests. All you need do is completely submit to me. I am your Lord, your master, your…"


Xena’s head jerked back as if she’d been slapped. A tick began to twitch at the corner of her left eye, and her hands gripped the handle of the flogger until her knuckles grew white.

Throwing down the whip, the Conqueror hissed her displeasure, and then proceeded to rip the balled sheets into strips.

"Roll over, slave. Do it quickly!"

Gabrielle fought with the urge to cry, determined that although her body was unsubstantial in many respects, her mind and her indomitable spirit would continue to be held steadfast.

"Yes, Xena."

"You will not refer to me in that manner!" She grabbed the blonde’s chin and locked eyes. "Do you understand, slave?"

Silence was her only response. Xena gritted her teeth, and a low rumble emitted from the back of her throat.

After lashing each of the young woman’s limbs to the corners of the bed, she moved back over to the sideboard to finish off the rest of the wine.

‘How could she continue to defy me? Why does she deny my power over her?’ Xena seethed as she paced, and was somewhat startled as she eyed the bottom of the empty bottle.

The rage ebbed and flowed as Xena plotted her next move. She played her eyes greedily over the naked body of the slave, trying to elicit a whimper of fear, or even a groan of hidden pleasure. It had stirred something in her when the bard responded. She crossly had to admit that the woman’s unforeseen impetuosity had been somewhat of a thrill as well.


The Conqueror had always taken the dominant role in any of her sexual forays. She’d felt comfortable and natural in the role of pursuer, and had only suffered once as the pursued. Her lips thinned as the gentle continence of Zeus’s fair-haired boy wafted across her mind. While it was to be expected that any man’s will would soon crumble before the onslaught of her dangerous beauty and sexual cunning, Xena felt nothing but contempt at the deep affection the half-god had professed for her. As she had grown tired of the man, his pursuit increased, causing her to feel more than a little vexed. She was more at ease with wanting something denied her, something she had to take, oftentimes with force. She knew exactly what she wanted and certainly didn’t want anyone trying to convince her otherwise. Finally, in a pique of anger, she had told him that even the lowliest female slave had brought her more entertainment value than he ever could. His pride finally damaged to the point of no return, the great Hercules had admitted defeat, taken his broken heart and left for parts unknown.

It was strange that while she held total sway over the man, relishing each moan and quiver she could drag out of his hulking body, it had meant nothing to see him destroyed by her casual indifference to his declarations of undying love. Not a single twinge of guilt had been felt as she coldly observed the man’s shattered remains as she spurned him. He was weak, and she was strong. His will was ripe for the plucking, and like any battle, she had planned well, her victory assured.

However, things were different now. She had pursued the young blonde, and been spurned herself. Then the woman had responded much as Xena had known she would, creating the false image of total subjugation before once more contravening every effort she had employed to assure her of its truth. Xena knew the game was afoot, and even relished the hunt. But on a different level, was totally flummoxed that her skills as battle technician had been so easily thwarted. Truth be known, she had anticipated a quick victory. Why hadn’t she pushed the issue, and just simply taken the woman when she was so obviously offering herself? Had the hesitation been a moment of weakness on her part or that of the blonde’s?


Xena pondered those very thoughts as the two servant girls entered the room with platters of food and drink, and had set about lighting the tall candles and helping her ease out of her now more than confining damp leathers.

The smaller of the nubile young women began unlacing the Conqueror’s dark leathers as the other one poured wine into an ornate goblet encrusted with jade. The servant stood silently beside the table, waiting for her cue. As the last of the damp, dark leathers had been peeled from the warrior, the other servant took her place beside her taller companion.

Gabrielle wondered about the two women, who were obviously foreign. She suspected by their physical attributes that the women were of Egyptian blood. Both women were smallish, probably two finger’s width shorter in height than Gabrielle was herself. Their clothing consisted of a short linen dress, which fell to mid thigh. Both were quite comely, and the bard briefly entertained thoughts as to whether the Lord had taken one or both to her bed.

A knot formed in her belly as fleeting images entered her mind. Would the Conqueror strap them down, beat them senseless, and take them repeatedly, and then…? While she could see no outwardly demonstrative affection towards them, neither was there any barbarity.

She watched as the Conqueror smiled indulgently as her leathers, boots and grieves were taken away. Gabrielle could see a faint pinkish blotch on the left side of the woman’s shift. Was it her blood or someone else’s?

With a simple nod of her head, Xena sent one servant to light the fireplace, and then strode over to where the other had been preparing food and wine.

Gabrielle strained as she crooked her head forward to see. The small servant girl trembled as the warrior stroked her back and neck gently. Then with a quick intake of breath, the woman took a careful sip of the wine, then closed her eyes tightly, and swallowed.

Xena narrowed her eyes and focused on any telltale signs of poisoning, and then nodded. She snapped her fingers and the smaller servant appeared by her companion’s side.

The bard frowned as the servant swallowed a few pieces of food, clutched her throat, and then fell to the ground.

With a shriek, the smaller servant began to pull and cry at her friend before being dragged off by the Conqueror, who spoke a few strange words, which seemed to somewhat calm the young woman.

Pushing a chair aside, Xena dropped to her knees, and then quickly went to work on the dying servant. Gabrielle strained at her confines but could see nothing of the injured woman.

"Xena? Is she…?"

Gabrielle felt her heart break as a veil of sorrow passed unguardedly across the Conqueror’s face and then was gone.

Lord Xena turned her back to the bed, damning her weakness, as her sorrow became evident. Gently turning the servant over, Xena peered closely at Ankara’s pupils, and felt for the life pulse just under the servant’s jaw. It was weak and shallow; death was imminent. The Conqueror quickly shoved her fingers deeply into the woman’s throat, and then pushed hard with both hands below the rib cage.

"Ubris, fetch Andros straight away. Now run, girl." She gave the woman a smart smack on her bottom, and then turned back to the woman at her feet. Xena leaned forward and whispered a low incantation over the cooling remains of her servant.

She was quiet as the contents of the servant’s stomach were examined, and then she carefully sniffed her fingertips. Her eyes narrowed as she recognized the scent.

‘You go too far, Dagnine.’

A murderous red filled her vision as she went through the list of how to best deal with those responsible. A man such as the inept Lieutenant wasn’t able to function by himself in such matters. Thracis was involved, most assuredly. How many more were coming under the cancerous influence of an enemy she would have done well to dispose of years ago? She had mistakenly thought Dagnine might prove to be useful in dealings with the other warlords. That time had come and gone, and still she had done nothing.

Xena frowned. She was becoming soft, a condition that could easily mean her very life if not rectified as soon as possible; now seemed to be as good a time as any to attend to that very matter.

‘What to do, what to do.’ The resulting grin was very predatory.

Gabrielle craned her neck once more as the Conqueror moved out of range, disappearing into the bathing room. There was a loud pounding on the door and two guards and a rather barrel-chested man hurriedly entered the room.

"Lord Xena!"

Andros carefully averted his eyes from the young woman pinned to the bed. Try as he might, he couldn’t keep the blush from his face as the woman wriggled about, trying to shield her nakedness.

He cleared his throat. "My liege?"


Gabrielle felt the heat of her embarrassment branding her face and chest, bringing her nipples to very hard points. Straining at her bonds, she finally settled for turning her head to the far wall and closing her eyes.

‘I’m not here. I’m not here. I’m far away in some camp, helping to brush down a golden horse.’ An eyebrow popped up and she wondered just where that thought had come from. Then images of her dreams swam before her, and she felt at ease. In that world, her friend, her partner, her Xena, would always protect her, love her…

She felt the soft touch of silk float down over her body, and sighed. Yes, the Xena she knew would always be there to protect her.

The faint smile that graced her lips faltered when she opened her eyes to see the strange man standing over her.

"Don’t worry, little one. I will not harm you." He continued to spread the fabric over her body, affording her as much privacy as he could from the curious eyes of the guards.

"Ah, Andros, there you are." Xena dropped the towel carelessly, and approached the Captain. Her teeth ground together silently, the man’s obvious attraction to her slave most evident by his solicitous behavior.

Andros felt his elbow griped and jerked his head up in response. "My Lord, you summoned me?"

"What took you so long? Never mind. Ankara is dead. Food poisoning." She snapped her fingers and pointed to one of the guards.

"You. Fetch the cook and his assistant." She turned her back, dismissing the man immediately, and dragged the Lieutenant away from the bed.

"Ubris, come here, child." The small form of the other servant could be seen just beyond the doorframe, and then the woman quietly entered the room.

"Yes, Lord."

She placed her hand on the small of the Lieutenant’s back and pushed him towards the woman.

"She’ll need comforting, Andros. I’ll be somewhat detained, so why don’t you just perform that function for me. There’s a good man."

Andros opened his mouth a few times, and then, feeling two penetrating orbs of blue burning into the back of his neck, nodded once, and then took the servant girl by the arm.

Gabrielle swallowed with a harsh click as she locked eyes with the young woman. Ubris tried to smile, but failed miserably as fat tears began to fall from her almond eyes.

"Show her some charity, won’t you, but have her back before dawn. She has a job to perform, after all. I believe I’ll have worked up quite an appetite by then."

Gabrielle opened her mouth to say something, anything, about the harsh scene she was witness to, but found her words choked off as two rather overweight men were dragged before the Conqueror.

"Sire…please…" The larger of the two cried out in pain as he was backhanded across the face.

"Silence! The only words I wish to hear from your miserable, worthless mouth are those of apology. Not only am I being inconvenienced by the loss of a good servant girl, but I’m being interrupted from a private matter that requires my immediate attention."

Gabrielle felt herself shrinking into the mattress as two sets of piggish, leering eyes sought her out.

"You swine."

With a quick poke with her fingers, both men were rendered immobilized, and slowly began to slump to their knees.


Xena’s lip curled.

"My servant was forced to perform a very painful duty in my care because you failed in yours. Should your punishment be any less than hers?"

The cook shrank back as Xena extended her fingers once again. White even teeth filled his vision, but instead of immediate death, he felt the pressure removed from his neck. The pounding in his head began to ease, and he swallowed painfully.

"Thank you, my…my Lord. What has happened?" He coughed a few times, and then began to fidget, his actions very reminiscent of a cornered ferret. His foolish attempts at concealing his interest in both the servant and the slave upon the bed were not unnoticed.

"Tell me…" She blinked slowly at the man.

"Oh! I’m Stephanik, my liege."

"Yes, of course you are." She crouched in front of the man, her face inches from his.

"Tell me what I want to know, little man."

The cook held his breath, his eyes shifting back and forth from the door, the guards and Lord Xena. Perhaps if he were to run…they’d protect him. Of course they would. They’d bide their time until an army could be raised, and…

"And just how far do you suppose you’d get, cook? Feeling brave?"

Thoughts of revenge vanished from his mind as more basic ones took their place. There would be time enough later for dark plans and darker deeds. Right now surviving this current ordeal was paramount.

She stood up, kicked the other man over, and then pressed two fingers into his diaphragm. The assistant coughed once, and then dragged a slow breath of air into his lungs. He tried to clear his vision, but found himself unable to move his limbs as the Conqueror applied deeper pressure to the base of his neck.

Xena nodded once as the man gurgled piteously. She scanned the room quickly and then moved back towards the cowering cook.

"The question of your culpability in this incident is rather moot, you being in charge of food preparation. It matters not whether you are guilty of adding the poison to the meal, or stood by as others did the deed, the punishment will be the same. It’s all just a matter of degree, really."

She slapped the man’s face with a sharp stroke as a moan left his lips.

"Oh, come along man. I haven’t even gotten around to the punishment. Let’s not jump the fence quite yet."

Stephanik felt his bowels loosen and prayed fervently that he wouldn’t disgrace himself before this heartless woman. That would surely be his undoing.

Xena smiled smugly as she watched the man squirm. Her ears pricked up as she heard Gabrielle trying to break free. No doubt the young woman would be attempting to free both traitors from their certain fate. Her kind always did. A sneer painted her lips as she blamed the state of chaos that now ruled a good deal of the known world on such thinking. She snorted derisively, and then turned her mind back to the task at hand.

"You certainly don't look intelligent enough to engineer this by yourself, so that means you are working for someone. Which means treason and insurrection. I don’t suffer either easily, Stephanik."

The cook mewled a few mumbled words the Lord took to be some sort of denial. She found it quite amusing just how brave the common man was when meting out his form of justice from a distance, and yet just how quickly that emotion changed as they were held accountable for their actions.

‘One must pay the piper at one time or another.’ It was a steadfast rule most seemed to forget in their haste to be judge, jury and executioner. It was, however, a chore she felt quite at ease performing, so sure was she that her path of justice was right. Men needed discipline and direction in their lives, and if the lessons came at the point of a sword, so be it.

"Now, as to the degree of punishment, well that does somewhat depend on you, little man."

The cook moaned and then shook his head. If Dagnine knew of his confession…

Xena’s cruel smile twisted into a snarl of rage as the man defied her.

"You will tell me what you know, and you will tell me now!"

A trickle of hot urine began to seep down the inside leg of the cook’s trousers, and he fumbled, trying to stem the flow.

"Guard, hold him!" The two guards snatched the arms of the fat man quickly, and held him in a gripe of iron.

Xena all but strolled over to the table and retrieved her dagger.

"Well, I suppose I could spend hours showing you the error of your ways, whereupon you’d gladly tell me exactly what I want to know. However, since I already know Dagnine is involved…"

Any efforts to quell his body’s natural reaction to abject fear simply ceased to exist as the Conqueror forced his mouth open.


"Xena! Oh gods please…don’t do this!"

Further protest was stilled upon the bard’s lips as Lord Xena fixed her with a hateful stare so cold that Gabrielle could all but feel the blood in her veins turn to ice.

"Since you have yet to speak on your behalf, your degree of punishment shall be severe."

She motioned to both guards and then yanked the poor cook’s tongue out of his mouth. His struggling ceased as she jabbed a finger into his right temple, leaving his tongue hanging limply. Xena waited a few seconds until the man’s eyes cleared, and then spoke quietly and very distinctly to him.

"You have defied me, betrayed me, and inconvenienced me to no end, little man. Since you won’t use this, you won’t be needing it either."


Although unable to move a muscle, the cook watched with incredulity as the blade of the knife quickly flashed before his eyes and then his world of fear was replaced with that of unending, all encompassing pain.

His ears filled with the shrieks only his mind could hear. His eyes rolled as images of the knife descending upon him repeated, over and over. All of his efforts to appear as brave as possible were for naught as the blood filled his throat, making him gag, and then coming back up as his belly denied acceptance. He was totally oblivious to his body’s betrayal as the life’s blood ebbed and flowed out of his ghastly wound. Stephanik’s final thoughts were of just how foolish he had been to fear Dagnine’s wrath when even the God of War would tremble at the feet of such a demon woman.

He would tell her all he knew and she would let him live. Perhaps his life would be hard without a tongue, but still, it would be life nonetheless. Yes, she would forgive him, she would…the faint smile slipped quietly off his lips as his eyes glassed over.


Xena moved back to the assistant, and roughly pulled him to his knees. An eyebrow was raised as the man twitched and his face turned from dark purple to ashen. It was clear he’d suffered a fit of some description while she’d been busy with the cook and was now beyond questioning.

The man quivered minutely as she removed the nerve block and she stood unconcerned as he sank lifelessly back to the floor.

"And as for you, whether you are guilty as well is beside the point. If it’s any consolation, you may explain to Hades that you were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time."

She stepped back and snapped her fingers at one of the guards. He blinked slowly back at her, his mind trying to erase the image of the blood still pumping out onto the granite flooring. Perhaps his recent promotion to Royal Guard was more of a curse than a blessing, money be damned.

"If you foul yourself, guard, there shall be more than two bodies to be removed this night."

The guard blanched and swallowed hard. He knew the penalty for failing in his duties as a Royal Guard. There were no second chances in the life of Lord Xena’s chosen.

"Now, give me a coin, and be quick about it."

The guard fumbled and almost dropped the dinar he had fished out of his pocket, and then handed it over with fear. His mind refused to go anywhere as he fought the urge to close his eyes.

"This is payment, fool. Guilty or innocent, I’ve not let you plead your case. My will be done."

And with that, she pushed the coin into the man’s mouth.

Gabrielle struggled and then gasped as the Conqueror jabbed the assistant again, his face purpling almost immediately as he began to flail about on his back, his toll for Charon held tightly behind clenched teeth.

With casual dismissal, the Conqueror walked back over to the sideboard, picked up her goblet, and then drank slowly as the life casually seeped out of the man.

Only the sickening gurgle filled the room and Gabrielle bit her lip harshly, pushing back both anger and fear at what she had been forced to witness. How could someone so cruel, so evil, and so terribly heartless, touch something so elemental in her? Gabrielle’s belly rebelled as she fought with a harsh truth: although totally repulsed by what had occurred, it did nothing to dissuade her from the love she felt for this very complex woman.

"Have Christo report to me in the morning, guard. I want a full report on this, at his convenience, of course."

Both men nodded stiffly, the Conqueror’s biting sarcasm painting a dismal future for their esteemed weapon’s instructor. Instantly thankful it wouldn’t be their necks, they took hold of the scruff of each corpse, and then made off with their grisly parcels.

Xena sighed with disgust at the pools of urine and blood left in their wake.

"Pigs. Obviously, they weren’t men or they would have died as men."

Gabrielle’s bile rose as the Conqueror wandered slowly over to the table and picked up a piece of fruit. She peered carefully, and then grunted with satisfaction as no blemish was discovered.

"At least this was untouched. Thank you, Ankara, for a job well done."

As the harsh sounds of crying hit her ears, Xena gripped the tabletop, forcing herself to finish the mango. A very good woman had given her life so that she could partake of it, after all. Her belly felt clenched between the fists of some giant as she forced piece after piece down her gullet. The death of the servant had suddenly made her aware of just how much more important than bed warmers both women had become.

Perhaps Ubris would answer her questions on how it felt to lose someone who had been a constant in their life for over five years. She’d been privy to their acts of affection on many occasions, sometimes at her bidding, and oftentimes as an active participant. Xena wiped her chin free of juices as she mentally went over the suitable replacements for the dead servant.

"Now slave, where were we?"




Chapter Seven



Gabrielle shrank back as the Conqueror moved closer to the bed. Oxygen was pumping through her lungs at an alarming rate, and she fought with it and her rebellious stomach as each fought for dominance.

"No, please…"

A dark eyebrow rose as the blonde flailed weakly in her bonds. Xena had seen the signs of shock before, and knew what was coming. As if on cue, the bard’s face went still, and then turned ashen white as the contents of her belly was emptied onto the rumpled sheets beneath her.

The Conqueror sighed resignedly. Was there no respite from the endless torment she had to endure?

Gabrielle watched as Xena lifted the dagger and moved purposefully towards her. She tried to stop her struggling and weeping, all too afraid that they were the cause for the look of irritation displayed on the warrior’s face, but found things compounded as drops of blood trickled down the blade and onto the Conqueror’s hand.

There had been so much blood, so much pain, endured by each man as they were judged wanting by the Conqueror. In her mind’s eye, Gabrielle could see other men and women, summarily dealt with, their blood staining the Lord’s hands a deeper red with each death, the bodies mounting endlessly, until Xena stood before her drenched in crimson.

Xena frowned as the young woman cringed with terror.

"I only mean to cut your bonds, girl." She dropped the knife onto the bed, intent upon using her fingers instead. Her palm was sticky with blood, and she rubbed both hands together in an effort to smear at least some of the gore away.

"Oh gods," whimpered the bard, as the stain seemed to spread.

"It’s only blood, slave."

"No, no…keep away…"

"Stop being silly, it’s only blood. I have no weapon. I’m not going to hurt you. Gabrielle…"

Xena stilled her progression towards the bard as the woman’s movements became frenzied. It would do no good to have her plans thwarted yet again because the foolish girl fell into a dead faint. She’d had far too many interruptions this night as it was.

"It’s alright, calm down."

"So much blood, Xena, it’ll never come off, never wash away."

The image of a blood-drenched warrior persisted, and Gabrielle watched in horror as the room began to fill with it, rising higher and higher, until they were both sure to drown in it. And then with a shriek, Gabrielle’s eyes rolled up into her head, and she fell back into a deep well of blackness.

Xena sighed dejectedly, and her temper rose as the fires within her continued with a roar.

"Damned hands. Damned foolish men. Godsbedamned Dagnine! This is all his fault, the pox-ridden, weasel-faced sorry excuse for a man."

She turned quickly at the slight noise behind her, coiled to defend herself against another attempt on her life. Giving the blonde one last look, Xena snatched up her dagger and then moved carefully over to the bathing area. Focusing herself mentally, the warrior began to breathe slowly, and emptied her mind of everything but the task at hand.


Taking thumb and forefinger, she quickly extinguished the two nearest candles, cursing the resulting hiss under her breath. The room quickly faded to half-light. Xena perked her ears, focusing all of her senses on the slight movement she could detect coming from the other room.

She sneered as images of the large boned Lieutenant creeping about in the dark entered her mind. No, he was more the type to get others to do his dirty work. The last two attempts proved that. Another assassin? She flicked her thumb across the sharp edge of steel and grinned coldly.

‘There will be more blood this night, Dagnine. Soon it will be your own.’

Xena brought the blade up against her cheek, and the coppery scent of drying blood filled her senses. The day’s stress seemed to melt off her as she felt herself filled with the cold, clean energy of battle lust. Gripping her dagger briefly, making the handle smear across her palm, Xena moved silently forward.

Faint shadows danced across the open door, and the Conqueror refocused all of her attention on the contents of the adjoining room. The usual scent of virgin olive oil, anise, and bergamot was detected, and she could tell that who ever it was, they were not rifling through things; they were familiar with these surroundings. Xena concentrated deeply, detecting only one occupant. One eyebrow shot up. ‘Not that it mattered.’ Sending three or more against her would make no difference. Xena narrowed her eyes, wondering just whom she’d find in her bathing chamber. It was common for anyone in a position of power to have the usual attempts on their life, and Xena had endured more than her fair share over the years. She had learned early that one could trust no one completely.

‘Familiarity breeds contempt.’

Who ever it was…a knot formed in the pit of her belly as Andros’ name bubbled up. Closing her eyes quickly, Xena dismissed the thought from her mind. No, he would never betray her. Why? She ground her teeth with the realization that she had been placing more trust in the man than was prudent. They’d been through so much together over the years, sharing good times and bad. And through it all, only Andros had been a constant positive element in her life.

Xena’s lip thinned at the man’s perceived betrayal and a slight tremor began in her hand.

‘Not him.’

Then a familiar sound filled her ears as she recognized the low humming of her servant and Xena felt the muscles in her chest and shoulders relax.

Suddenly, the smell of gingiber filled the air, wafting over the rising steam, as the bath began to fill. Pushing her lower jaw forward, Xena dropped her hand down to her side and took a few deep, cleansing breaths.

The small hairs on her forearms prickled with energy as she eased into the room. Placing the dagger on the table, Xena silently moved up behind the servant.

"Ah!" Ubris yelled as a strong arm encircled her waist.

"Why aren’t you with Andros? Did you work your magic so quickly, leaving him spent and snoring between the sheets?"

Ubris swallowed deeply and then shook her head.

"No, my Lord. He…he did not want me." The woman’s face flushed deeply with embarrassment.

"I’m sorry, Lord."

Xena pressed the smaller body against her, one hand cupping the woman’s belly as the other gripped her chin.

"No, little one. It could never be you, Ubris. The Lieutenant must be…tired, for no one could resist your charms. Not even me."

Ubris moaned softly as sharp teeth grazed across the base of her neck and shoulders.

Xena grinned as she bit down on the tender flesh of her servant, hands moving in rhythm as they massaged the woman’s breasts into rigid peaks.

The woman writhed deliciously against her, and Xena responded it kind.

"Let me take you to the temple of Re-Atum…I will help you traverse the sky."

Ubris sighed deeply as the words of her homeland caressed her very soul. A shudder ran through her slight frame as the soft linen was ripped from her body.

The servant felt all the tension leaving her as she was lifted and carried into the rising water.

"You are my temple, Lord…"

Xena moaned as Ubris whispered into her mouth. She pressed her body against the younger woman, pinning her against the wall of the bath, and began nibbling on the tender lips before her. Xena closed her eyes and thought of the blonde in the other room.

The foreign words that sounded like honey on the Conqueror’s tongue began to flow over the servant, filling her mind with visions of Thebes, and the sacred Valley of the Kings. Her heart broke with longing for her homeland, and what life used to be with her family, and her beloved.

Her eyes bright with pent up lust Xena continued her assault on the willing servant, stopping only briefly to turn the water off.

Xena growled low as her fingers sought out the inner heat produced only for her. She reveled in the moisture that seemed to feed her demons, urging her forward. Teeth made purchase, and small red marks were left in their wake. The oiled water frothed and boiled as the two bodies moved hard against each other, their shadows performing an opera across the alabaster walls.

The Conqueror gasped as the servant girl’s little finger hooked the ring hanging from her breast. As the woman began to shudder, Xena stilled her hand, causing Ubris to cry out weakly.

"Stay with me, Ubris. Give me your fire."

The smaller woman moaned as fingers caressed tender points on her body, making her ultra sensitive. She squeezed her eyes tightly as she fought back the urge to give in to her pending orgasm.


"Your body is mine to do with as I will, Ubris." Xena closed her eyes and began caressing and squeezing the tender, slippery body beneath her.

"Tell me."

"Yes, you are my master. I give myself to you, only you. Please…"

Urgent hands found their way into the Conqueror’s hair, pulling and pushing, in attempt to entice the Lord’s attention to other areas burning with need.

Xena sneered and took both petite wrists into her strong right hand and held them high, denying Ubris everything.

Panting and thrashing her head back and forth feverishly, Ubris was frantic. So close was she to ba that even the sound of fluttering wings could be heard.

"My Lord, please…release me!"

Xena’s mind was filled with intense pleasure as she exerted complete control. She was there on the plain with Ubris both of them surrounded by the energy produced by total submission. Xena was reaching that point where she could release that tightly bound energy within and just be the rapacious predator she truly was.

Ubris cringed at the transformation was taking place, and cried out as the bones in her wrist were ground together.

"Lift your legs."

The petite woman’s heart beat crazily as Lord Xena moved slowly between them.

"Oh yes, my Lord…please."

"Ubris, do it now."

The realization of what her master was asking swirled about her subconscious like buzzing bees not yet acknowledged. She whimpered as her master’s fingers abandoned her, leaving her anxious with need.


Ubris looked up into the almost black eyes of her master, and shuddered with the force of it. She recognized the predatory gaze, so seldom seen, which made the appearance all the sweeter. The thrill of the unknown was a double-edged sword, producing both cold fear and a rising hot desire. The Conqueror’s sweet attention had left her so very close. Every fibre of her being was in full blossom so that she virtually thrummed. With further attention and practice, perhaps she would be truly able to appreciate the great honour Lord Xena was willing to bestow upon her now. It really didn’t matter, however, for as ready and willing as she might one day be, it would do nothing to help her now. She had always watched in awe as Ankara had received the most precious of gifts from their master. To have someone of great power and divinity reach inside and anoint your very soul was something very few had shared. While only a few visitors to the Conqueror’s bed had felt the great hand upon them, none had been privileged to a repeat performance. That Lord Xena felt the need and desire to share it predominately with her lover made Ubris beam with pride.

‘Ankara, my love.’

Tears welled up in the servant’s eyes as the loss of her lover swaddled her in its cold, clammy embrace. There would be nothing that would keep them apart if she but knew of a way; not even the great god Osiris would be able to turn his back on their undying love.

Ubris was jolted back to reality as Xena’s blues eyes bore through her. Although terribly frightened and confused, the servant was determined to make both her Lord and her lover proud, and steeled herself for the pain she must endure.

Her legs were gently eased open and then Ubris felt the focused attentions the Lord began to bare upon her body. Each inch of her skin felt revitalized as it was kissed, kneaded, and teased. She groaned aloud as the pressure between her legs increased.

Xena watched as a glazed look came into the woman’s eyes. Oh, how she wanted it to be Gabrielle beneath her! Just the thought made her need for release that much more urgent. She looked down at the woman and could feel the time was almost ripe. A blonde brilliance filled her mind as the image of the bard took the servant’s place. Pouring some olive oil liberally over her hand, she began to stroke in deeper, stretching the tissues as gently, but as firmly, as she could.

"You will be mine."

Ubris gasped as the width increased, and tried to deny the fear blossoming inside. While Ankara had born two children, she herself was barren. She had never known anything but the gentle touch of affection, the Lord always being careful with whom she shared her bounty. Many others were not so blessed. She blushed once more as the memory of Andros tucking her in before taking his place above the sheets filled her mind. Was she so undesirable that he felt she was to be considered a mere child and unworthy of his seed?

Xena ignored the increased tension as the muscles began to clamp down on her fingers, denying them further access. Blood was rushing through every fibre of her being, making her feel invincible. She could almost sense the impending implosion within her mind, and almost taste the sweet purity of nirvana as it rippled tantalizingly before her. She would claim this slave, this woman who would profess total love but deny her everything. She would make Gabrielle see…

The Egyptian tried to center herself, moving beyond the increasing pain, but found herself unable to do so. She opened her mouth, and clutched at the invading hand, trying to plead with her master.

Gabrielle urged her on with defiance as memories of earlier battles needled Xena’s ego.

‘You may have my passion, but you’ll never have me.’ The words kept eating at her, and the supposed power she lorded over those around her began to slip. If a lowly slave could continue to defy her, what did that say about the iron grip she exerted upon her realm?

‘I love you, Xena.’ Seemed to scratch across her soul, leaving Xena confused as to whether the acceptance of it meant she was weak or strong because she could acknowledge it.

Her hand slipped up around the blonde’s neck as Gabrielle whispered, ‘Give your self to me.’


And with one thrust, she pushed through the tearing ring of muscles and was bathed in wondrous, enveloping heat.

As she bent to her task, the steam rose and swirled around them, giving Ubris the impression that the world of pain she was enduring was really only a bad dream.

The Conqueror’s disembodied voice caressed her ear, and the Egyptian began to pant with effort. The room spun at odd angles as she tried to disengage herself from the all-encompassing pain, but it was there, waiting everywhere she ran.

Gabrielle’s sweet face was twisted with agony as she reached out a trembling hand to touch the Conqueror’s face.

‘How could you hurt me?’

Slowly disengaging herself from the illusion, Xena gazed down with incomprehension at the anguished look of her servant girl, her eyes wide with fright and pain.

‘Oh Gabrielle, what have I done?’

Blood slowly dripped from the slave, its heat turning Xena’s soul cold. The coppery scent filled her nostrils and mind with the images of broken bodies strewn over numerous forgotten battlefields. Raw feelings of conquest and battle lust lay as a feast before her, and Lord Xena’s desperately empty life was offered up as a dish of cold ashes. Was blood all the harvest she would ever reap? Worms of promise ate at her belly, the truth a horrible thing to behold.

‘No!’ She blinked savagely and then felt such shame, the clear brown eyes of her servant tinged with a look of betrayal.

"Ubris…stop moving. Just breathe slowly."

It was like falling from the great mountains of Olympus. Gone was the exalted feeling of total power; gone was the entrance to paradise. Only remorse lay like the last quiverings of a horrible dream.

The Conqueror had never resorted to physically forcing someone into giving what she knew they wanted her to have. She was much too successful a seductress for all that. Both men and women gladly fell into her arms, her bed, and willingly at her feet, to be used as she saw fit. There had never been the need to take someone against his or her will because for Xena that was not the prize. For her, the ultimate challenge was to make someone see that although they were in a ‘no’ mindset, she alone could not only change their way of thinking but also make them embrace their hypocrisy and admit that she had been right from the beginning. For Xena, it was the ultimate domination to have someone’s set rules of engagement dissected, renounced and shown for the sham they were. People may be perfectly willing to live in a self-imposed world of denial, but they could never lie to her. She knew instinctively exactly what they needed, whether they wanted it or not, whether they could face the realization of this new truth or not. Many a man or woman’s spirit had been broken with careless ease as they were offered up such harsh truths, and then were found wanting by someone who viewed the whole journey as merely entertainment.


The haunting look of her treasured servant continued to plague her as she gently bathed the unconscious woman’s body with a mixture of cool water and herbs. While the examination had shown no evidence of internal damage, the amount of blood was cause for worry. Xena silently blessed the healer’s prompt reply to her summons and then stepped back, allowing Daedalis to finish up. The man’s body language left the Conqueror no doubt as to how he felt about the state of her servant. Patching soldiers together and even administering the basic medical attention to those deep in the clutches of the prison’s headman were commonality in his line of work, but dealing with the aftermath of something like this was beyond his frame of reference.

The healer gulped and wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand, the anguished cries of the damaged servant girl ringing in his ears. He could only surmise that the Lord was meting out some sort of punishment, so bruised and swollen was the young woman’s body. If the Conqueror had been a man, he’d have heavily counseled him on the care and treatment of copulating with a slave who was obviously ill prepared to accept his attentions. Although the legendary sexual prowess of Lord Xena had been a topic well discussed, and the rather foolish question as her ability to father children given grudging credence, Daedalis wondered at the state the servant was in.

"Lord Xena…?"

His brow creased as she walked into the bathing chamber and then tossed her shift out a few moments later.


"About the slave." Some splashing was heard and then Xena appeared at the doorway, a thick towel swaddling her hips while she used another to dry her hair.

"Gabrielle? What of her?"

Daedalis cleared his throat having completely forgotten about the other woman tied to the bed. It was becoming clear to him that all the supposed rumours might indeed have some foundation of truth to them. He darted his eyes carefully at the Conqueror’s midriff.

Xena caught his glance and looked down at the catgut at her side. The edges were still raw looking and swollen, but only a bit of blood oozed every now and again.

"It would take far more than a weak knife thrust to truly injure me, healer. Give it no further thought. Now, about Ubris: how does she fair?"

Daedalis had been thinking about the mythical legends of half man-half women that seemed to pervade Grecian lore. As dangerous as he knew it to be, he couldn’t help but wonder, finding his eyes wandering back to just what the towel might be concealing.

He yelped with a squeak as his neck was caught in a vice like grip.


"And just what is it that holds your riveted attention, little man?"

The healer tried to swallow but found his Adam’s apple squeezed far too tightly, preventing him from doing much more than wheeze in a breath or two.


Shaking him as a dog would an old shoe, Xena grinned dispassionately into the man’s face. She was already suffering the side effects of self-hatred, the hurt look on the young servant’s face etched into her mind. Had Ubris asked why she had hurt her, or was it the daydream she had been having about the bard that had put the question into her mind? Was it her true intention to hurt the young bard, forcing her to accept total rule, or did things just get away from her? She ground her teeth at the thought. Control was very important to her and why she seemed to be losing it of late preyed on her mind.

Inflicting pain was something Xena neither glorified in nor shirked. It was a means to an end in many ways, but was certainly not something she relished doing to a lover. There had been some who took great satisfaction from her prowess with a flogger, and Xena was rather fond of the resulting design and heat, but when it came to an intimate act between two or more people, forced penetration was not something she wished to entertain. Rape was something only cowards employed. Sex, even of a casual nature, was to be enjoyed, the resulting bond something worth attaining by far gentler means. Although having heard the rumours floating about her court, Xena was less inclined to right the misconceptions, preferring to add to the myth, rather than detract. It mattered not, however, for at that very moment, the last thing she intended to endure was the disproving look of this weasel of a man standing as both judge and jury.

The weak sound of choking finally penetrated her daze, and Xena released the man’s throat, somewhat amused that even in her somewhat inattentive state, the man had correctly surmised that being rendered unconscious was by far more preferable than the resulting rage a struggle would have produced.

"The slave, man, out with it. And be quick as I’ve no time for your foolishness."

Daedalis coughed feebly, any thoughts of questioning the Conqueror on matters of anatomy completely gone from his head.

"She seems well, sire, under the circumstances. A cold compress should be applied to the…ah, nether regions, milord. I will send an assistant to take care of her needs, of course."

Xena dismissed him, and walked over to the screen by the bed. The healer watched surreptitiously as towels flew in all directions, and then the Conqueror emerged wearing a crimson silk robe.

"Shall I send for a litter, sire?"

A shove towards the door was his only answer. Daedalis wore a look of incredulity as he watched the Conqueror gently lift the medicated young servant into her arms and then move to the adjoining guest chamber.

Xena stopped at the door.

"Oh, and Daedalis, see to Gabrielle, won’t you. I believe she’s asleep but she might have fallen into a swoon at the shock."

Two grey eyebrows lifted.

"Shock, milord?"

Xena gave the man something akin to a kind smile, albeit one that never fully reached her cold blue eyes.

"I believe the young bard was under the misconception that I was torturing my servant as opposed to making love to her."

Daedalis swallowed his answer, certain that his viewpoint on one being synonymous with the other would be seen in an unfavourable light. The look did not go unnoticed.

He quickly dropped his gaze as the Conqueror’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

"Yes, milord." He went over to the bed, and dutifully checked the slave’s restrained wrist. Nodding quickly, he all but fell over in his haste to extract himself from her mounting anger.

Xena smirked as the man dropped his packets of medicine carelessly back into his bag, edging ever closer to the door and freedom.

"You may leave, healer, but be sure to return in the morning. I will not lose another slave to the foolish mishandling of those in my court. Oh, and do something about the condition of my room, won’t you."

Daedalis nodded absently, his eyes locked on the reddish mess in the middle of the room. He had seen what was left of the men employed in the Conqueror’s kitchen. He’d also done his own tests on the remains of the young Egyptian. The type of poison found within the contents of the woman’s belly was distinct, and very uncommon in that part of the county. It had been his experience that the belladonna plant was found farther inland. Nevertheless, death by Nightshade was a most disagreeable way to die.

As the adjoining door closed with a click, the healer made quick work of sponging the young slave off before gathering the soiled sheets from beneath her. He grumbled carefully under his breath, watching the door all the while, lest the Conqueror enter unexpectedly. No, that would never do.

"A servants job. After all my years of service to this and the preceding monarchy, I’m reduced to being a servant to a…slave." He scratched the end of his nose and began to wonder about the poisoned servant. It was a surety that Lord Xena had been the target of the latest attempt. Wasn’t it?

Stroking his chin thoughtfully, Daedalis made his way back to his quarters.


"My Lord…" said the Egyptian in a weak and raspy voice.

Xena pressed a finger to the woman’s lips and settled her carefully onto the bed.

"You sleep."

"But, sire…"

Another stab of guilt pricked at the Conqueror as she watched the woman’s eyes flutter open and closed in an effort to remain conscious.

"Just rest, you’ll feel better in the morning."

Ubris nodded slowly, her eyes already closing as the herbs began to overwhelm her once more. Xena waited until the young woman’s breathing was slow, even, and then sat down carefully on the bed. Tenderly wiping the moisture from the servant’s brow, Xena sighed deeply as images of the young bard filled her mind.

What if she had lost control with the blonde, leaving her in much the same state? Both servants had been in her employ since they were but children and her bond with them was strong. The women had been instantly attracted to each other shortly after their coming of age, and had begun expressing their feelings openly, at the Conqueror’s bidding. Watching the first curious attempts Ankara had made trying to entice the slim hipped Ubris had bothered Xena at first. It had been hard to see the sweet fumbling without noting that her own first sexual encounter had been less than endearing. Her partner had been willing, but neither had the faintest clue as to how to proceed. As anger and frustration mounted, they had finally fallen upon each other like two wild animals bent on the other’s destruction. The frenzied results had born little resemblance to the patient and considerate attempts both servants had employed. The end result of their joining had been one of beauty, and sweet surrender, not the battle royale that Xena had waged and endured. Terms of engagement had been exchanged as opposed to terms of endearment in that tense battle of wills. Now she couldn't even remember the young man's name. The simple joy her two servants found within each other’s presence touched Xena in ways she had tried to ignore. Many nights found the Lord darkly brooding well into the early morning hours, unable to recognize the loneliness of her life.

Now she saw it only too clearly as she listened to the young woman crying out in her sleep.

A flinty look came into the Conqueror’s eye as she pondered the events of the day. Dagnine would pay dearly for his attempts on her life. Being straightforward and honest was never one of his strong points, and Xena knew only too well just how devious the man could be. However, by attacking her servant, he had gone too far. She would not be satisfied to play his game of cat and mouse any longer. This was war, all out, no holds barred, war.

Getting wearily to her feet, Xena looked down at Ubris, and sighed deeply.

"I…this should not have happened." Then she bent down and kissed the brow of her servant, wincing as Ankara’s name was again whispered in anguish.


The guards stood at rigid attention, their eyes forward, as the Conqueror moved down the hall towards them.

"Summon the Captain of the guard, and have him report to my chambers immediately."

Both men nodded and then began walking quickly down the hall. Then the smaller of the two stopped and raced back.

"Milord, is it safe to leave our posts?" He swallowed quickly as Xena’s eyes turned a dangerous indigo. "Yes, milord!"

Xena’s fists were clenched at her side as she counted off the minutes before the Captain arrived.

"Captain Polis, my liege."

Xena nodded slowly, suddenly remembering this man’s hasty promotion due to an unfortunate accident during drills the morning before. This man was taller than the other, standing almost as tall as she did herself. She sucked a tooth and wondered just when things had began to go wrong in her world. The tight grip she’d held on everyone around her had seemed so assured, so deliciously present in every averted eye she came upon. Now…now, she was spending far too much time away from the men and the daily rigors of her usually stringent routine.

"You will be in charge of securing the area around the castle, Captain. I want double guards posted at each entrance, and each man will have a three hour watch, is that clear? I want ‘round the clock protection until I can get to the bottom of this…unpleasantness."

The Captain nodded agreeably.

"Yes, Milord. It shall be done. But sire, may I ask the sort of protection required? What are we defending against, and what has already transpired?"

Xena pressed her lips together tightly, unaccustomed to being questioned in this manner. However, she ignored her first response that would have certainly cost the Captain his life, and decided that while a little information could be damaging, in this case it was integral to their safekeeping.

"There has been an attempt on my life this night, Captain, leaving one person dead. Two others have also lost their lives, having forfeited same for their part in the murder."


Xena snorted. "I’ve found both the cook and his assistant guilty of treason by way of attempted poisoning. Their punishment has already been meted out."

"But milord, they may have held the key to the person or persons behind it all. This may not end here, with further attempts in the offing. I should have been counseled with regards to interrogation."

Lord Xena seemed to grow in stature before the Captain and he stepped back as a wave of malevolence rolled over him.

The Captain gasped as his shirt was taken into the woman’s fist, and he marveled at her brute strength once again. Even dressed in a flimsy gown, he knew his very life hung in the balance should she find him wanting in any way. Lieutenant Thracis had complained to all that would listen how he’d bested the Conqueror in hand-to-hand combat, inflicting a terrible wound in the process. However, if Lord Xena had indeed suffered a grievous wound, she was either a rapid healer or had a very high threshold of pain, because there didn’t seem to be any weakness that he could discern.

"They knew nothing I didn’t already know, Captain. Neither you nor your men could have gleaned any further information in a week filled with torture than I did in the last ten minutes of their miserable lives."

Xena exerted a tighter hold on the man’s collar, unhappy with the rather preoccupied and unconvinced look upon his face. Was her empire going to rack and ruin, her control slipping, as each day came to a close?

The man’s back teeth rattled as the Conqueror shook him by the neck like a rat between the iron jaws of a wolfhound.


Xena pulled the man forward until his face was but inches from her own.

"Do I have your full attention now, Captain Polis?"

He nodded and blinked rapidly before she released her grip, leaving him to fall backwards gasping for air.

"Yes milord. It was just…" He swallowed as the Lord advanced upon him.

"My liege, there have been rumours. It’s been said that you were wounded on the practice field, and that the wound was…most severe." He bit his lower lip.

"Go on."

"By some accounts, you’ve been bleeding heavily, and…"

"What’s this about a mortal wound and who dares to spread such lies? Do I look wounded to you? Am I pale with the loss of blood? Am I not the picture of health?" She paused dangerously. "Tell me, do you disbelieve your own eyes, Captain?"

The Captain recoiled with each question as if from a blow, each one fired in rapid succession until he was unable to discern which should be answered first so as to avoid the Conqueror’s growing wrath.

"Some of the men are uneasy, milord. If you should be disabled in any way…there are factions, sire, who would set upon us all, dragging the country back down into the ruin that was Greece low these ten years past!"

Xena sighed dramatically, making sure all eyes were upon her as she drove home a point.

"I’m well aware, Captain. However, I can assure you, I have not been wounded, nor am I in any way incapacitated. See for yourself."

Xena held her arms straight out from her body and did a slow turn before carefully pulling the crimson gown open to expose more cleavage than any of them had ever dreamt of seeing. Turning her back to them all, Lord Xena then slowly let the fabric fall away from her shoulders, thus exposing her torso from nape to base of spine.

"Tell me, Captain. Do you see a wound, or even a slight dimpling of the flesh to indicate I’d even been nicked recently?"

Both guards coughed nervously as the Conqueror slowly turned to face them, her arms crossed over her breasts, and the silk barely concealing much of her lower torso.

Xena smiled wickedly, taking great delight that not one man would meet her steely gaze, the discomfiture apparent both physically and mentally. It did a man good to feel both desire and fear, sometimes in the very same instant.

"It seems I’ve been away from my duties too long, gentlemen. Tomorrow that will change, assassin or no assassin. As for tonight, you will make this castle a veritable stronghold. I want no chance of another attempt this night; tomorrow may take care of itself."

Slowly rearranging her robe, Xena nodded to the Captain and then turned on her heel. The three men were left standing, mouths agape, as the sound of swishing filled their ears. Although no intimate flesh had been bared, not one man could swear that he hadn’t seen what his fantasies had offered every night since first setting eyes upon the Conqueror.

Captain Polis chewed his inner lip, having noted the slightly darkened area in the silk on the Conqueror’s left side. He glanced at the others quickly and was pleased when neither man remarked upon it. They both seemed all too eager to revel in the female pulchritude they’d been exposed to than anything else. Which of course, was exactly what their liege had planned.

"I say."

"Yes, indeed."

The Captain slapped both men on the back, walking them back to their posts.

"Yes, well, if you do say, I’ll have your tongues for breakfast. We’ve been entrusted with that bit of information, and it would do us well to realize that although Lord Xena has not been quite herself as of late, she is still a formidable warrior, the Empress of Corinth, and our Lord Conqueror, Guardian of Greece."

Polis made a slow sweep of the second floor, noting the specific guards and their placements, and then went down to the guardroom, intent on working over the shifts so that everything ran smoothly. He would show the Conqueror that her faith in him as the Captain of her Royal Guard was not misplaced. It seemed that he and a few other new members had an important task before them. He would begin drills at daybreak.


Xena carefully lit the candle and walked over to the washbasin. Pulling the silk aside, the grimaced as both fingers came away sticky with blood. Sprinkling a clean cloth with herbs the healer had left her, she quickly placed it against the wound, and applied pressure.

She heaved a sigh of relief as the late hour was sounded. At last the horrible day she’d just barely endured was over. Her belly felt queasy as she thought of just how things could have gone had Gabrielle or both servants partaken of the food before it had been thoroughly checked. The idea of the small bard lying on a cold slab of marble as Daedalis worked over her body, trying to discern any further information, performing terrible acts upon her lifeless form…


Having seen to it that the wound had stopped bleeding, Xena closed the belt tightly about her and walked into her main bedchamber.

There was still a slight odor of sickness hanging in the air, but Xena could see that at least the healer had seen to the well-being of the slave as per instructions.

She gazed down on the petite woman, her hair a tangle with sweat and neglect, and found her heart aching. What was it about this little bard that pulled at her so? She ran a weary hand over her face as she reviewed the day’s events. In the last 24 hours, she’d been openly defied, endured two murder attempts, lost someone as close to being a friend as she’d ever had, and had to face her rising lack of control which almost caused severe damage to another of her trusted servants. The results of such a day had left her feeling both confused and angry, her self-hatred burning great holes in her ordinarily impervious stoic suit of armour.

Gabrielle groaned weakly, and Xena set about releasing the young woman from her bonds. She watched sadly as the bard rolled over on her side, facing away from her, and settled into a tight ball beneath the sheets.

Xena hadn’t noticed just how much she’d been looking forward to seeing the young woman in her bed at the end of the day. It seemed the more insistent her need had been to spend time with Gabrielle the more demanding her life had been, keeping them both apart. This new feeling of longing was very a different and unique experience for her. She wasn’t too sure just how she felt about it all either. ‘Never let anyone inside, keep everyone outside, and they can never hurt you.’ She had lived by those words for a very long time.

The Conqueror’s jaw cracked as she yawned deeply. Stretching out the tight muscles in her shoulders, Xena lumbered to her feet and made a careful sweep of the room, ensuring the bard’s safety.

She nodded with satisfaction and then sat down on the edge of the bed. With double the guards at each post, and the windows secured in her rooms, even if she were to briefly nod off, there would be no danger to the woman forthcoming.

Xena swallowed the tail end of yet another yawn and decided that she might just close her eyes, but only for a moment or two.

She flinched as the blonde instinctively moved as far away from her as possible without falling out of the bed. An image of her cuddling with Ubris briefly made its way into her tired brain but was instantly dismissed as the name Ankara echoed in her ear.

Xena rolled over onto her back and stared up at the intricately tiled ceiling. Would there ever be someone who would love her so much that she would still reach out to her from beyond the confines of Death?

Everyone she had ever loved had either been taken from her or had turned their backs on her years ago. She had a brother somewhere. Was he still alive?

Thoughts of her childhood flitted like delicate butterflies, never quite landing, as they wove their spell upon her. Xena wasn’t even aware of falling into sleep’s embrace, and not even the restless movement of the bard could jolt her from it.

Sometime in the night, Gabrielle rolled over to face the Conqueror, oblivious to anything but the comfort of the bed, and the warmth of the body close to her. She snuggled nearer until her head was on Xena’s right shoulder, and the warrior’s hands were holding her in a close embrace.

Both women smiled in their sleep, finally giving in to the connection they’d both been battling with for days. For the bard, it was as if her dream warrior had finally taken breath. For the warrior, it was as if she had finally returned home after a very long and lonely absence.

Soft words were murmured in the night, neither even aware that the other was responding in a close familiar fashion.



Chapter Eight



Little words of wisdom, passed o'er lips of wine
stripe across my soul in an endless flow of pain
dripping like sweet honey or pearls before swine
they dance across my heart like little feet of clay

Each word a sweet caress, slaps across my face
as bitter truths denied me, leaving me in shame
to ponder on that which love cannot erase
that our blissful union was nothing but a game


Tears continued to fall long after the wisps of her dream had vanished into thin air. Gabrielle lay with her eyes tightly shut, unwilling to face her cold reality and the truth it contained.

She sighed and a small cry left her lips. If only this Xena was like the one in her dreams. That Xena was strong and fearless, but also loving and kind. And there was no one braver than she was. This Xena was a cold and heartless woman who thought nothing of…she shuddered involuntarily as images of the two tortured men in their death throws seemed to swamp her senses. She tried to blank out the desperate look the younger one wore, as blood dripped from his nose and ears, and the panic etched across his face. He had died so horribly. Was that justice?

"My Xena wouldn’t have carved a man’s tongue out of his head. Nor would she have cruelly watched with total dispassion as he flopped about like some poor fish out of water afterwards."

Gabrielle turned over and hugged the pillow to her. If she just kept her eyes closed, perhaps her Xena would be ‘real’ for just a little while longer?

She sighed and a small smile graced her lips as she thought about just how perfect it had felt while lying in the strong woman’s arms. A low hum of satisfaction seemed to purr forth as she remembered the absolute rightness she’d felt while listening to her Xena’s heartbeat.

"My Xena."

A larger smile painted her expressive mouth as she imagined manipulating that heartbeat, causing it to race alarmingly, as she smothered the warrior’s face with kisses.

Rolling over onto her back, she finally opened her eyes a crack and stared up at the intricate tile work set into the ceiling. The colors were quite bold, and although the tile work was indeed well done, Gabrielle couldn’t quite make out what the scene was. The longer she looked, the more difficult it was for the picture to coalesce. There was something…

"Oh my!"

The image seemed to jump out at her as she began to see the scene before her. There were nymphs and other mythical fauna in various areas of the scene, as well as both men and women in different poses. Gabrielle tried very hard not to see the images that began to flow together, but it was as if she were bewitched by it all.

It was a landscape scene right out of someone’s darkest soul, the images both erotic and fanciful but also violent and debasing. There had been so much time and effort invested in it that Gabrielle felt regardless of the subject matter, it was both breathtaking to behold as well as thought provoking.

The bard squinted and could see the dominant figure of the dark haired, blue-eyed Conqueror orchestrating the frenzied activities before her. Everywhere that she looked was another scene of rampant and unbridled sexuality. She found her cheeks hot as she finally tore her eyes away with embarrassment. Peeking through her fingers for one last look, she shook her head in puzzlement.

She sucked at her swollen lip thoughtfully, and was pleased to note it had stopped bleeding sometime during the night.

"Now, surely that’s impossible even for her?"

Closing her eyes again, Gabrielle’s fingers trailed down over her breasts, legs and buttocks, tracing each bruise and bite mark left in her frenzied encounters with the Conqueror.

‘With the Conqueror, perhaps not.’

Gabrielle pulled the covers up high, leaving only a mop of blonde hair and a pink little nose poking out. The semi-darkness seemed to somewhat soothe the bard’s racing heart.

It was the morning of the fourth day of her time spent with Lord Xena. Although she had initially embraced the surety that a cruel death was the only outcome she could expect, Gabrielle was discovering that perhaps there might be more to her last days than just the constant pain that was a means to an end. Perhaps she wasn’t as eager to leave what she considered a miserable existence after all?

What was the summation of her life? Had there been love, laughter, hopes and dreams fulfilled? And what of passion? While it was truly the way of the martyr to have led a life of pain and misery, couldn’t one appreciate it all the more by experiencing the very things being denied if only once before the life was wrung from their bodies? She wanted the passion she instinctively knew only Xena could give her. She was both surprised and afraid of just how responsive she was to the Conqueror’s focused lust. How could someone that intent on eliciting such intense sexual satisfaction co-exist inside the cold and cruel shell of a ruthless killer? The ideal Xena of her dreams was bold and fearless but also romantic and giving. Part of her reveled in the animalistic abandon the Conqueror applied to her physical needs. She was so forceful, so ardently confident, and Gabrielle could see such strength and potential there, as yet unplumbed. However, it didn’t follow that just because she wanted this Xena to love and respect her, that she’d change her ruthless ways. This Xena, this Conqueror, had no future mapped out with them both in mind, it was a dream only she could experience, regardless of just how terribly foolhardy it was to do so. All she was to the woman was a sex slave with a very short life expectancy. There was no investment of time and care involved at all. The cold and cruel realization of this truth was akin to a harsh physical blow. She would have to put aside such fantasies and deal with the reality she now lived in. Death could indeed be a harvest well reaped.

Gabrielle clenched her teeth with the memory of them sweating amongst the sheets, both so very close to orgasm. She hadn’t given in, denying herself even that bit of pleasure, and had thought that by letting the warrior use of her body for her own release that it would appease this need to own her. If anything, things had gotten far worse. If what she had heard being done to the small slave was any indication, her partial submission had only added fuel to the fire.

The memory of the young servant’s desperate pleas hit her again, causing a shudder to ripple across her body. While not prone to fainting spells, Gabrielle was very pleased that she hadn’t been privy to exactly what the Conqueror had done to the young woman, nor the aftermath of such an encounter. She had been very surprised to awaken alone in the Lord’s bed. And although both wrists and ankles were still red and chaffed, the restraints had been removed while she’d been unconscious. Gabrielle was sure this alone was the reason for her sound sleep and presently alert demeanor.

Just what exactly did the Conqueror want? Was her soul, the very essence of who she was, the only thing that would assuage the demanding beast lurking behind blue eyes?

Although she wasn’t at all sure she wanted to accept total domination at the hands of someone that wouldn’t even appreciate the gift, Gabrielle was coming to the realization that perhaps that would be the only way she’d survive. If Xena was intent on taking her physically, then there was nothing she could do to stop her, but knowing that her continued resistance was the very thing that fed the woman’s demons helped the bard to see that the inevitability of her total submission was truly the only way. Perhaps by giving in totally she could defuse the anger, and the mistrust. Perhaps then they could build on what was left?

A feeling of calm settled over the young woman and she expelled a deep cleansing breath. All the unrealistic notions she’d been having about ‘her’ Xena seemed quite childish all of a sudden. As much as she would have relished living in the world where that Xena existed, the truth was that she didn’t. All she could ever expect from this Xena was pain and humiliation if she didn’t submit. At this point, she had everything to gain and nothing to lose by just playing the game. And in reality, the final outcome was never really in question, just the method by which she would offer it up.

But oh, how she wanted to feel that burning in her loins when her Xena looked at her, touched her, spoke her name…She groaned.



Pulling her covers back from her face slowly, the bard cocked an ear. Had someone truly spoken or was it just her imagination again?

A slight squeaking noise had her sitting bolt upright in bed, heart thudding painfully, and throat suddenly very dry with fear.

"Ah, I see you’ve decided to join me here in the land of the living. Had plans to spend the whole morning in bed, did you? Well," The Conqueror slowly arose from the chair she was in, and approached the bed.

Gabrielle managed a dry swallow in the half-light. She began to fidget as the corner of the sheet was slowly pulled from the bed.

"I have some plans of my own." Fear gripped the blonde more firmly as the burning eyes of the Conqueror played over her gradually exposed flesh. She watched as the warrior made every effort to look as menacing as possible.

Closing her eyes briefly, the bard gathered what little strength she had and decided that if the Conqueror wanted to continue to play this game, she was going to change some of the rules. After all, a person could die but once.

"I…I will do as you ask, milord. You may have me, at your leisure. I shall submit to your every whim. I would ask, however, that I be given sustenance and a chance to prepare myself for you."

Xena had been prepared to face tears and a wailing and gnashing of teeth. She was ill prepared therefore to see the calm woman before her, who it seemed, had decided to accept her fate. There would be no terrified waif, no tearful pleading, and finally no battle of wills hard won.

‘And where is the fun in that?’ she asked herself wryly.

Xena tapped her lower lip coyly.

"Oh, I shall have you whenever and whichever way I wish, slave, that’s a given."

She tightened the sash around her robe and then came to where Gabrielle was sitting at the side of the bed. The blonde’s body was covered in a fine sheen of sweat, despite the cool morning air. Xena smirked, knowing just how hard it must be for the little thing to keep together and not fall into a puddle of quivering, frightened flesh. After the ordeal of the past few days, it was a wonder the woman wasn’t totally incoherent.

"You’re a bold little thing, aren’t you? I like that. So. You’ve decided to comply with my wishes? Why do I find that hard to believe?"

Gabrielle lifted her chin and gazed unflinchingly into the eyes of the Conqueror.

"I gave myself to you, as you wished, but it wasn’t enough. I…I don’t know what it is you want. But I will comply."

Xena snorted and inched her knee between the woman’s pale thighs.

"You took, slave. It wasn’t yours to take. What I ‘want’ is simple, really. I ‘want’ everything and your compliance is essential for total submission, slave. And yes, sooner or later you will comply, Gabrielle." A very cold smile graced her lips, the kind that freezes the soul with its cruelty.

Gabrielle found the tip of her chin pinched painfully between two tapered fingers.

"‘As I wish.’ Let’s take a close look at that phrase, shall we? Just to be sure that we both know where we stand, of course."

Gabrielle attempted to pull the edge of the sheet up around her lower torso, and winced as the fabric was wrenched from her fingers.

"Ah, ah, ah. Now you see, this is exactly what I’m referring to. Did I not pull the sheet from your body? That does somewhat indicate my wishes for your current state of undress, does it not? Good."

Xena moved her hand slowly along the woman’s jaw line and then settled her hand around the bard’s throat.

"It’s been a fine chase, Gabrielle, but now it’s over. Your defiance has gotten you nowhere. Unless you consider a tepid bath and some food payment for pain inflicted thus far? Do you come that cheaply, slave?"

She smiled as the fire returned to the blonde’s eyes. ‘That’s much better. Complacency was just so…boring and terribly predictable. Now fire, that held a hint of promise, that’s what I’ve come to expect.’

"Now, I believe you had some…requests."

Gabrielle glared briefly, and then dropped her gaze, taking care to smooth the claw-like hands in her lap. Her nostrils flared as the hurt bubbled to the surface.

"Yes, milord. Unless you’d prefer me in my base form, chained to the wall, the surface of my skin decidedly unpalatable. I’ve not been adequately prepared, and still have the stink of the commoner upon me."

A bevy of stars sparkled in front of Gabrielle’s eyes as her head snapped back from the blow inflicted. Then a pink tongue came out and tentatively danced across her newly split lip.

Xena pursed her lips angrily, taking pleasure out of the nicely forming outline of her hand across the slave’s face. She waited with her hand poised for another blow, and was somewhat disappointed to see the young bard regain some of her lost control.

"While you speak the truth, slave, it is your tone that I’ll take issue with. Now, stand up."

Gabrielle blinked a few times, forcing hot tears to recede, before she lumbered to her feet. Her jaw quivered with the effort it took to bite back an angry and ill-timed retort.

Xena pointed to the bathing chamber, and then watched with covetous eyes as each careful step made the young woman’s breasts bounce enticingly. The marks she’d made there were already beginning to fade; something she would remedy at the earliest opportunity.

Her eyes seemed to devour the woman as they trailed over every inch of her pale skin. Although the slave was slightly underfed, Xena could fully appreciate her splendid physical attributes, much as one would a fine piece of horseflesh.

Gabrielle’s hair fell just past her shoulders. Even though they were both standing in partial light, Xena could imagine the lustrous shine as the woman moved across the floor. Her small boned shoulders were perfectly proportionate, leading the observer to contemplate their taste and texture. The bard’s hips were somewhat narrow but framed her well-turned ass admirably.

Xena’s eyes continued on their merry path until reaching the rather misshapen mass that was Gabrielle’s knees. A sharp pang hit the Conqueror and she quickly looked away. Walking angrily over to the bench against the wall, she hastily sat down. Crossing one leg daintily over the other, she did her best to ignore the gnawing feelings of guilt and just focus on the task at hand.

"Take the soap, girl, and do a thorough job of it. Start at the ears and work your way down."

Gabrielle thought briefly of defying the Conqueror. She hadn’t been told to wash behind her ears since she was a wee child, and was more than capable of taking care of her own hygiene without having someone overseeing the project.

"Perhaps you need help?"

The bard turned quickly and then stepped into the cold bath water. Her jaw was rigid as she began to scrub her arms and shoulders.

"I think you’d best wipe that belligerent glare off your face, slave, before I have to deal with it myself."

Touching her purpling lip carefully, Gabrielle decided petulance wasn’t going to get her anywhere. If the Lord were intent on belittling her, any childish response on her part would only contribute to the behavior.

Xena tapped her fingers against the wood with impatience as the young woman slowly moved the cloth over her body. The still pink stripes seemed to ripple like waves as the muscles moved tantalizingly over her lower back and buttocks.

"Turn around."

Gabrielle bit the inside of her cheek and then turned to face the Conqueror.

"Yes, Lord."

Xena held her expression in check as a bit of blood appeared at the corner of the slave’s bruised mouth.

She didn’t like to punish the woman. Why did she have to be so stubborn, so brazen? If she only did as directed, there would be no need for punishment. Xena cast a hateful look down at her willful hands. She had always been quick to temper. While taking some satisfaction from sexually tormenting the woman, meting out discipline that would result in marring her beauty was not something she particularly enjoyed.

Gabrielle stood self-consciously and watched as look of sadness crossed the Conqueror’s face.

"I’m sorry."

Xena’s head snapped up at the girl’s words, and she let go of the fabric clenched between her two fists.

"Why do you make me strike you? I am perfectly willing to entertain any thoughts you may have on the accumulation of mementos," she grinned lasciviously, "but blows given other than with a passionate hand is something I’d rather not deal with in the confines of my bed chambers."

Gabrielle’s lower lip trembled. "I don’t like being abused, Lord Xena. And if you truly wish to show me your passion, I would embrace it with much less reluctance were it offered with a more gentle hand."

A very disgruntled warrior stared back at her. "Why is it what you want? It’s what I want that counts right now."

"But I’m willing to give you what you want, why do you have to take it?"

"I always take, Gabrielle. It’s what warlords do."

"But if I’m willing to give it…?

"You say you are, but you continue to defy me, giving me no recourse but to take it."

"If you were more gentle, more loving…"

Xena’s voice began to rise as she found herself enmeshed in another long and protracted ‘discussion’ with the willful bard. Why was she even arguing this point?

"Why should love have anything to do with it? I want you sexually. That’s all. If you give yourself to me completely, then l won’t have to punish you, and take what you profess to offer."

"But l do offer it, Xena. I want to make love with you."

Xena stood as if pole axed. "What do you mean ‘make love’? When did that enter into anything? You keep bringing that point up and yet there is no basis for doing so."

"But l can’t submit willingly unless there are intense emotions involved."

The Conqueror arched her brow at the word ‘intense’.

Catching the knowing look, the bard poked the air with emphasis. "And by intense I do not mean binding me and striking me with a whip."

Xena narrowed her eyes. "You looked to be enjoying it at the time."

"I did not enjoy being brutalized, Xena."

Clenching her jaw fiercely, Xena leaned forward.

"You will refrain from using my given name, slave."

Gabrielle’s jaw dropped open. "Is that all I am to you? Just a slave to be used sexually and then cast off?"

Xena’s mouth opened and the words were released callously before she even pondered their impact.


The hurt expression on Gabrielle’s face felt remarkably like the knife blow Xena had sustained earlier. Guilt was an emotion the warrior was just newly becoming acquainted with. So far the close encounters Xena was experiencing left much to be desired. As much as she wanted to drill into this woman’s head just how little she truly meant to her, there was a part of her that died, knowing to do so meant the truth: there was no one in her whole miserable existence that meant anything to her, nor she to anyone else. If she died tomorrow, would anyone cry for her the way that Ubris had for her beloved Ankara? The answer sat like ashes in her mouth, drying her throat painfully.

The blade of guilt was twisted deeper as the young woman slumped down into the cold bath water. She hated this feeling! This reptant lack of control, even over her own body, was becoming more than she could bear.

"I dislike arguing, sla…Gabrielle. You will learn to do as you are told, or you will suffer the consequences. Is that understood? I will brook no further arguments on this subject."

The bard nodded quickly as the tears continued to fall.

Xena pointed to the woman’s belly and breasts. "I believe you’ve forgotten a few areas. Be quick about it now."

"I’m not a child."

"Then don’t act like one. Stop the petulance and simply submit to my will. It will go all the easier for you if you do. However, if you wish to continue your path of defiance, then you force me to react in a certain way. This will be your doing, Gabrielle."

The young woman quickly wiped her tears away, turned and then went back to scrubbing her body, muttering all the while. With a final stomp, she exited the bath and reached for a towel, oblivious to the Lord’s mounting fury.

The Conqueror got slowly to her feet and towered over the slave.

"What was that you mumbled?" This was too much. Having a slave openly insolent was something Xena would not abide. Reaching out with brutal intent, Xena stopped short of connecting with the side of the slave’s head as the woman dropped to her knees before her.

"Please, Lord! I mean no disrespect." She hugged the woman’s knees tightly and prepared herself for the blow that would surely come.

But didn’t.

Xena coughed and then cleared her throat. Debating an occasional issue with a member of her court was one thing, but the protracted ‘discussions’ she was having with this woman was killing her throat. "I remember the first day you came before me. I knew then that you were nothing but trouble, and said as much, I believe."

"You called me pouty, milord. And stubborn. And I am quite willful, as well. And I do deserve to be beaten, Lord, truly. But please, not today?"

The fury that threatened to consume her seemed to disappear, and Xena wove her fingers through the impossibly golden hair of the slave.

"I dislike thrashing you, Gabrielle, but you will submit."

Gabrielle nodded and got slowly to her feet.

"I would offer up my soul if you would but ask it."

Xena pulled her hand back and frowned.

"It was what I mumbled, Lord."

The Conqueror stood rubbing her parched throat, lost in thought as the bard finished drying her face and body.

‘But I’ve always taken what I’ve wanted. Why would I ask? Her will counts for nothing, mine counts for everything.’

Gabrielle turned to face the warrior, intent on asking whether she should leave the towel behind, but closed her mouth as a look of confusion knit the Conqueror’s brow.

‘She must give in to me. My will shall be done. But she is young, and will learn in time. But there is no ‘we’ and therefore no ‘time’.’

Xena sighed at the empty feeling the thought produced. A soft kiss placed upon her palm startled the warrior and she refocused her attention.


"If I were to offer a caress with one hand and yet a blow with the other, which would produce the desired results?"

"I suppose it would depend upon the results I wished."

"If you wished to have me…sexually, milord…do you believe an adequate response to a blow would be total compliance, in every way?"

‘Coercive seduction has its merit,’ she thought silently to herself but said nothing.

"If you wished to have me writhing beneath you, eyes clouded over with lust, and body ripe for the taking, Lord, would not a caress be more apt to guarantee such a response?

Gabrielle dropped the towel slowly and stepped closer to the warrior.

Xena probed a few front teeth with her tongue and then smirked.

"This discussion is ended. Get into my bed, now." She pursed her lips, as her decree wasn’t met with an immediate response. She gnashed her teeth as the blonde all but pranced coquettishly.

With nostrils flared, Xena grabbed a fistful of the blonde’s hair and pulled her closer.

"You would do well to remember that I am well versed in the art of seduction, slave. You’re little feminine wiles will get you nowhere."

Gabrielle winced as her face was pulled closer and her mouth covered with a brutal kiss.

Xena sensed stiffening in the young woman’s body and enfolded her more tightly within the embrace. ‘And still you resist me.’

Finally, Gabrielle pulled back and wiped at the blood dripping onto her chin.

"Why must everything be taken with force? You say you know the art of seduction but in truth the skills I've seen thus far are comparable to those used in an act of war. I am not a possession, Lord Xena, I am a human being."

‘You are a decidedly large pain in the…’

"Why can’t you simply treat me like a human being?" Gabrielle began pacing back and forth in front of the perplexed warrior.

"Don’t I have needs and wants? Can I not voice these from time to time without the threat of torture hanging over my head? Why can’t you just be nice for once?"

Xena coughed trying to clear her throat. "Nice? Why should I be nice? And yes, you are a human being, but you are also a slave. My slave. Mine to do with as I please. And I please to have you naked and in my bed now, without further argument. Writhing beneath me. This instant. Do you understand?"

Gabrielle shook her head slowly. The woman just could not understand that the typical niceties dealt to another human being would net her more favorable results than threats and abuse.

‘Perhaps she was dropped as a child?’

"But I want to be writhing beneath you, Lord. I want to scream out your name in total ecstasy."

Xena rolled her eyes skyward. "Then do as you are told and I shall entertain your request."

Gabrielle bit her swollen lip in an effort not to smile, but it was a losing battle.

"Would you entertainment my request in a softer tone?"

Xena frowned, feeling totally flummoxed as to exactly what was going on. In the first place, the slave defied her at every turn. And then she professed to want to be ravaged. Well, perhaps not ravaged, per se, but taken nonetheless. And then she began spouting off requests and demands, knowing she would be beaten for it. And smiling all the while? When had she lost control of this vexing woman?

She was totally at a loss as to just how to proceed. Should she strike the girl, drag her into bed and just have at her? Xena dismissed such an idea immediately, knowing she would be no further ahead in the taming of this stubborn shrew than before. Perhaps she should growl and threaten, torment her verbally, and then chase her into bed? Well, while such things had worked in the past, in this instance Xena doubted they would achieve the desired results.

She huffed dramatically and dragged a hand across her forehead. "You’ve given me a headache. I detest taking potions and now…well, you’ve ruined another evening."

Gabrielle blinked slowly. "Should I go for the healer?" And then she gasped as the Conqueror’s gown fell open revealing a partially covered wound. That was bleeding.

"You’re injured!"

Xena dismissed the wound with a wave of her hand. "It’s nothing. I’m experiencing far more pain right now from your constant rebellion. Oh, please stop talking and go away."

The bard stood uncertainly, wishing to offer assistance but unwilling to cause the woman further discomfort.

"Shall I…go to your bed?" She tried hopefully.

"Yes, go to bed. Anything, just do it quietly."

Xena retied the sash about her waist and then walked over to the sideboard in the main chamber. Gabrielle watched as the woman took a pinch of this and a pinch of that from a few small vials. Then a very large quantity of wine was poured over the concoction and consumed quickly.

The Conqueror sighed happily and then smiled as a small burp escaped her lips. Having dispensed with the need for breakfast, Xena found the room spinning as the wine began to have a very immediate and pleasing effect.

Gabrielle shifted from foot to foot until the warrior stretched out on the bed. Climbing in beside the woman carefully, the bard propped her head up with one hand and just lay gazing down at the Conqueror.

"The herbs will begin to take effect momentarily and then we shall continue our discussion on why my needs and desires are not being met."

Gabrielle suppressed another smile.

"Well, I suppose I’m making headway after all."

"What, Lord?"

Xena peered carefully at the woman beside her. "Well, you’re not writhing deliciously beneath me, but I suppose I’ll have to settle for you being in my bed…for the moment." And then her eyes fluttered once and then closed completely.


Gabrielle waited patiently and then carefully placed the woman’s hands at her side. Then gingerly opening the sash, the bard went about inspecting the wound. While the injury wasn’t life threatening, it was swollen and somewhat discolored. The stitching looked rather good, and the bard commended the healer on his fine work. Her mouth twitched as she gazed upon the assortment of other scars that littered the beautiful body of the Conqueror.

Her breath was caught as she gazed over every inch of the woman. Rosy nipples stood at attention in the cool air and a slight breeze seemed to move over them, causing the blonde to shudder. She swallowed deeply as the soft crinkled hair covering the woman’s mound was ruffled. Her eyes were almost black with desire as she contemplated the taste such bounty of olive skin would offer.

She wanted to reach out and touch such beauty, realizing that only in slumber was such a thing possible. It had been most apparent that the Lord didn’t enjoy being touched. It was almost as if the only way she could truly enjoy physical contact was when she initiated it. Gabrielle wondered if it was fear that had her so bound by her need for control.

She sighed and then marveled at the way the pulse point thrummed with every breath the warrior took. Gabrielle caressed the crimson silk of the woman’s gown and then wondered at the opulence surrounding her. Everything was so pleasing to the eye. She fingered a few pieces of jade in the headboard and then went back to admiring the luscious beauty of the Conqueror. There really was no comparison. Her brow knit as she contemplated the ring adorning the Conqueror’s breast.

"See something you like?"

Gabrielle gasped as her wrist was taken in a strong grip.

"I was just admiring your…jewelry, Lord."

"Of course you were. Now, I believe your requests were addressed, yes? Perhaps we can continue our conversation regarding your total submission, thus fulfilling my ‘requests’. Good."

Gabrielle squeaked as the warrior rolled quickly over and covered her completely.

"I believe this is when you complete your part of the bargain."


The bard squirmed as both of her wrists were pinned to the bed.

"My Lord?"

"I remember you saying something about me being ‘nice’."




Chapter Nine



Christo walked slowly back to the barracks. It had been a tough morning. ‘These damned new recruits,’ he thought morosely, fingering another vacant lot in the back of his mouth. He stopped to pop his shoulder back into place and then walked over to the cistern. Dragging up the bucket, he closed his eyes, gritted his teeth and then emptied the contents over himself.

"By the gods, that’s fucking cold! Bloody stuff’s only good for drinkin’."

Andros watched as the Lieutenant shook himself like a furry dog, the blood and grime sluicing down to puddle at his feet.


The swarthy hunk of a man cleared his eyes with one hand as the other went to the hilt of his dagger.

"It’s only me, Christo."

"Ah, Andros my friend." He reached out a grimy hand, which was taken after a moment’s hesitation.

"Time for your yearly bathing?"

The instructor shook his head vigorously, spraying the other Lieutenant in the process, and then stripped off his sodden shirt.

"Bah, I think this cleaning ritual is very bad for you. How can scraping off all that good fine protection and having to start all over again be good for you?"

Andros scratched his fingers through his short beard. He’d certainly wondered about that himself but had to admit that since the Conqueror had forced her men to bathe more often, the occurrence of illness had dropped almost 90%.

"It takes bloody weeks to get a fine layer of gunk back on ya to keep the fleas ‘n ticks ‘n creepy crawlies off ya."

The taller man grinned in sympathy. If it wasn’t the Deer Flies it was the Black Flies. "Well, think of it this way, at least people won’t have you scented a good half mile before you arrive in the area. Though you might have them running for the hills as they take you for a complete stranger. You might even persuade some nice maiden to marry you, Christo. After you scrape a few inches of mud off of you. Have you been bathing in the stuff, man?"

"Bah, I’ve no time to play silly bugger with the women or the bleedin’ water. I’ve been up to me brisket going through drills with Polis. A friendly disagreement as to who was best prepared to defend Lord Xena came up. Before too long, the practice field had been reduced to mire, my friend. I have dirt in places I haven’t looked at in months."

Andros grimaced as the man rummaged about in his mouth with hands that looked as if they’d been rooting through pigswill all morning. His nose crinkled as more of the man was exposed to the light of day. He resisted the urge to step back from his comrade, and forced the grimace from his face.


Christo looked up and laughed sheepishly. "I don’t have a clue as to who won. But I believe that new Captain has a little more respect for us." He dragged another bucket up and then eyed the soap cake suspiciously.

"I suppose that means you’ll have to look more respectable then, eh my friend?"

"Bah! I’d rather have the grit than smear this bloody stuff around." He sniffed the cake with disdain and dropped it into the water. "I wish the Conqueror weren’t so particular, Andros. She’ll be the death of me before I even discharge me duties. Say," he said as he scratched a bare spot on his belly. "I thought the Lord was going to be down at the practice field this morning. Didn’t she say so?"

Andros nodded and then handed his dagger to the Briton.

"Do your nails, man. Might as well look as clean as you’ll be smelling."

Christo grunted but went about cleaning and paring his nails as told.

"I take it you haven’t you been up to her chambers, then? I remember the good Captain of the Guards paying you a visit last evening. Said you were to report to her. She’ll have your guts for garters now, you fool."

The burly man grinned evilly and went about completing his ablutions. He seemed to be taking an inordinate amount of pleasure in dawdling as he scrubbed his chest and arms before rinsing.

Andros glared at the man. Well, if he were foolhardy enough to disobey a direct order, it was nothing to him. He scratched at his neck hairs and then turned to leave.

"Don’t be leaving too soon, my friend. I’ve got some news, I have. If you’ve an ear, you can listen."

Feeling rather put out but curious nonetheless, the Lieutenant nodded and leaned comfortably against the horse stall. A large bay poked her muzzle into his shoulder, demanding attention, and was granted a scratch or two before being ignored again.

After a few long drawn out minutes, Andros huffed with disdain. ‘It can’t be anything much,’ he thought snidely, ‘or the man would have been bellowing it out to all that would listen. Probably nothing but hearsay, anyway. I’ve better things to do than listen to rumours.’

Dark eyes danced in merriment as the burly man observed the Greek’s indecision. Just when the Lieutenant was ready to leave, he laughed wickedly.

"Alright, alright. Well," he said in a stage whisper. "I did go to her chambers, me man, and stood there waitin’ outside a good hour, too." He nodded his head once and then winked.

Andros sighed with frustration. "Well? Get on with it, man! I’ll be old and grey before you even had your foolish story out! Oh, I’ve no time for this nonsense." He patted the filly once more and turned on his heel.

Christo smirked. "Ah, well then. I suppose you’ll not be wanting to hear how her Lordship was palavering with a common slave since early light? Having a right fine conversation, they were."

The taller man placed both hands on his hips and turned slowly to face the blackguard. Regardless of what was heard, the fool had no business sullying the Lord’s reputation by repeating it…and to her second in command at that. Did the man have anything betwixt his ears but dirt?

"I won’t listen to slander, Christo. You might think nothing of starting rumours, but…"

The Briton unleashed the other man’s dagger quickly, and grinned as it thunked into the wood a few inches from Andros’ head.

"It’s not rumour, it’s fact. And the reason I repeat it is because I’m worried, mate. I don’t know what’s going on with the Conqueror these days. Seems to be a funny chill in the air concerning her. Oh, there have been rumours, to be sure. As instructor I hear more than I’d care to, but I’ve not been spreadin’ them. You’ve got my word on it."

Andros nodded and plucked his knife from the wood, placing it back into his belt.

"I apologize, my friend. My head’s being filled with discord lately, and these rumours have got to stop. Frankly, I’m worried, too. I’m beginning to see shadows were there aren’t any." The troops were becoming very hard to handle, all due to the lack of battle, he was sure. ‘A few more months of this and I might just join the ranks of the dissatisfied.’ Then he snorted, mentally scolding himself for the liar he was.

He sidled a bit closer to the Briton, and then went on. "There were two attempts on her life last evening, and one of her personal slaves paid the price for it. We’ve got to be on our toes, man, and winnow out this traitor, whomever he is."

Christo grabbed his shirt off the post and scrubbed his face dry.

"Aye. I’ve been noticing a few leery glances myself lately. That Belacos, for one. He and that popinjay Prastin have been thick as thieves. And then, of course, there’s Dagnine and his lot. I suppose it was just luck that Lord Xena took out one head of the hydra when she killed Dimitri. He was thick with both groups. I never liked that weasel." Andros scratched his beard for a bit and then nodded.

"Well, it seems our Belacos is up to his ears in this one. I suppose he’s never gotten over his dismissal from the Royal Guards. Come to think of it, I believe he’s the only one the Lord let live. The usual price for stupidity is death."

Christo hitched his belt and smiled. "Aye, but it were thievin’ he was caught at. She took his farm along with his position in her guard." He scratched his belly. "Might have thought the bloke beneath her contempt. She suffers fools far less than bandits, me thinks."

"Hmmm. I suppose she still thinks he’s useful. But if that bloody lot I dealt with yesterday is any indication, I’d say his usefulness is coming to an end."

The smaller man nodded as he gargled with the greasy remains of the bucket.

"Aye, but it means breakin’ in a new lot and I’m not getting any younger. This bunch is as green as the grass, they are." He chuckled. "Though they did give a good accounting of themselves, I’ll grant ‘em that. I expect Lord Xena will be a might more pleased next time she comes onto the field."

Both men walked through the stabling area into the officer’s quarters while continuing their discussion.

"I don’t suppose there is any real way to stop an assassin from gaining the field, but we can do our best about restricting the use of short arms there." He pursed his lips a bit, deep in thought, and then clasped the other man on the shoulder.

"I’ll have a talk with our weapons chief myself. I’ll make a point of having him round up the dirks and daggers and such. That way, he’ll know he has to answer to me directly. Let’s see which way this fish jumps, shall we?"

Andros peered around carefully and then poked the instructor in the chest. "I don’t know exactly what you heard, my friend, but I don’t want to hear it second hand from the barracks, right?"

The bear of a man smirked and then whispered something into the other man’s ear. The Conqueror’s second stopped in his tracks, both hands on hips, and just laughed.

"I swear to you, Andros. It’s what I heard."

The other man scratched at his beard. "I’d heard she was a feisty one, and I must admit I’m surprised she’s lasted this long, but the Lord can’t abide a wagging tongue. You say Lord Xena was arguing with her? For hours?"

Christo grunted. "At great length, I swear it. Perhaps she’s a witch put a curse on our Lord? For all the days I’ve been here, I’ve not heard so much palaver come outta the Lord’s mouth."

Andros shook his head in puzzlement. While the Lord had a certain gift for verbosity prior to leading the men into battle, he’d always done most of the talking when they had conversed privately. The woman wasn’t openly receptive to anyone’s attempts at friendship, and given her steady and murderous rise through the ranks, he could see why.

‘Familiarity breeds contempt,’ had been her watch phrase for almost as long as he’d known her. He supposed he might be the only person alive who knew as much about her as he did. This wasn’t a comforting thought. He, too, had noticed a change in the Conqueror the last few months, and even more so since the arrival of this newest slave. Perhaps she was another assassin? He dismissed the dark thought immediately. By the Lieutenant’s account, this could only be taken seriously if the slave was going to talk the Conqueror to death.

He stroked his chin thoughtfully as the other man detailed the argument he’d overheard. And then the tight ball of fear in his belly eased as the weapon’s instructor went on about how the slave had pleaded to scream out the Lord’s name in ecstasy. There had been a bargaining of sorts and then the two had ended up in bed. If the Conqueror hadn’t killed the woman yet…

Perhaps there was more than physical release required from this slave? There had been many that had spent time in the Lord’s good graces, but none that had really stood the test of sand. At the ripe old age of 35, could Lord Xena have finally found a prey that would not be conquered? Disappointment was a great equalizer, teaching tolerance if nothing else.

"It’s quite possible there is some magic involved, Christo." The smaller man rubbed his head thoughtfully as the Greek smiled toothily and walked away with a bounce in his step.




Chapter Ten



Gabrielle strained against the force holding her down and then, seeing the glitter in the Conqueror’s eyes, ceased all movements and steadied her breathing.

The Lord’s predatory gaze flickered once and then disappeared.

Gabrielle pondered the set of the woman’s jaw, determined not to anger her further.

"My Lord."

Xena held the bard’s wrists a little firmer, hoping to see the fire rising in her eyes. She wanted to take this woman with rousing passion, forcing her will to crumble against her onslaught. Only then, when the slave was caught up in the throws of passion would she realize that her will meant nothing. That was the way it had been and always would be.

"Is this but another ruse I see before me? You open your legs but do you submit completely?"

She pushed away from the blonde, walked back over to the table and poured more wine. Xena winced slightly as her hand moved over her wound. Glancing nonchalantly over her shoulder, Xena met the calm green eyes straight on. She smirked as the other woman refused to drop her gaze.

"You have always held my passion, Lord. If you wish to have more, you have but to ask."

Xena snorted. It was always riddles with this one. She coughed with a grimace and drank deeply from the goblet, sighing with relief as the wine soothed her raspy throat.

‘This one could talk the legs off a mule.’ While the constant nattering was of great irritation, she reluctantly admitted the mental sparing more than made up for it. Rubbing her jaw thoughtfully, the Conqueror pondered the best method of assault.

Having someone just lie waiting to be taken was no great sport. Breaking one’s spirit was a matter of foreplay for the warrior. First there was the chase, then the battle – filled with strategy and surprise, of course – and then the conquest. One didn’t just jump a step in a well-used plan of seduction. Without a battle, what was there but empty victory?

Her focus shifted as the bard’s hunger was announced.

Gabrielle covered her belly and blushed an attractive pink. Xena found herself almost smiling in response.

"Food. Stay where you are and don’t move." Gabrielle stared at the large index finger pointed her way and merely nodded.


Tapping twice on the adjoining door, Xena poked her head in expecting to see her servant still resting.

"Ubris?" The sheets lay rumpled, and a look of worry crossed over the Lord’s face as she noticed the crimson stain there.

Xena’s head whipped around as the servant came from behind her screen.

"Yes, Lord?"

The Conqueror relaxed seeing the woman looking a little more herself. Her eyes softly caressed the nude form of her servant as she checked the woman for telltale signs of injury.

"Are you well, Ubris?"

The Egyptian smiled awkwardly, and bowed her head.

"Yes, my Lord." Ubris sighed as a large hand smoothed the crown of her head. She had thought her mistress would banish her for the last day’s transgressions. After all, had she not failed to do the Conqueror’s bidding with the esteemed second in command? And then had she not compounded things by failing in her personal duty with the Lord herself?

Her burning tissues throbbed and burned painfully, reminding the young woman that she needed apply more herbs soon. She had awakened many times in the night, finally in such a state that she’d gone into the Lord’s chambers in fear. There had been so much blood and such intense pain that she had been certain her time had come for final judgment by Anubis.

Even in the half-light afforded by the candle, Ubris could see just how tightly was the embrace between master and slave. She’d felt a jealous twinge as the Conqueror snuggled closer to the blonde, and her consciousness shifted as she realized that there was no one in her life that could ground her as completely as Ankara had. Like a blind child, she had presumed the honour and duty between she and her Lord would stand as a beacon, keeping her from harm. The truth was that she would have to do that for herself.

Stumbling back into the guest quarters, Ubris had searched and finally located the healer’s bag Ankara always kept nearby. It was a few frantic minutes before she finally remembered the proper mixture and then set about creating a soothing balm. While still terrified, she’d taken some comfort in the fact that she could take care of herself if the need arose.

Now, with the Lord’s gentle hand upon her, she sighed deeply with the knowledge that she would still be a part of the Conqueror’s household.

Xena’s brow furrowed as she watched intense emotions flit briefly across the servant’s face. Although some colour had returned to the woman’s complexion, it was clear she was still feeling the effects of their…

The Conqueror blinked once. She wasn’t used to thinking about relationships. People were there for amusement; serving a purpose only she could divine. When had things become so complicated?

Part of her railed at the surging turmoil of emotions produced as she tried to put the past day’s events into context. The servant would heal, she’d take her partner’s place, and Xena would continue to reap the benefits. That was all.

But what if she didn’t heal quite as quickly? What if the urges returned? It was clear the slave wasn’t going to co-operate, and although pushed beyond the point of no return, she would not take what wasn’t freely given. Seduction was one thing, rape quite another.

Xena gritted her teeth. ‘Godsbedamnit! She will submit, and sooner rather than later!’

"Have you come to an agreement with the slave? Or is she…?"

Xena knit her brows. The question had been thrown out in such an offhand way, that the Conqueror found herself caught completely off guard. ‘Agreement?’ The word rattled around her brain, touching off several explosions.

Sensing a fit of pique in the offing, the servant knelt carefully before the Conqueror and waited.

Silence filled the room as the words hung heavily in the air.

"There is no ‘agreement’, not now, and not ever. It is my will therefore it is just a matter of time. As always. She is a slave, Ubris, and nothing more."

Ubris swallowed the lump blossoming in her throat. Images of just how complete her Lord appeared as she wrapped her arms more tightly around the slave flashed before her. She could continue this line of conversation or she could wisely take another tact, admitting her misspoken words, and retreat post haste.

However, ever a woman of sincerity, she chose the path one rarely walked with the Conqueror – one of truth.

Xena’s index finger curled under the servant’s chin, tilting her face up painfully. She looked deeply into the woman’s eyes, the expected glint of fear glaringly absent. Rather than feeling angry, Xena found herself curious instead.


Ubris felt herself almost falling into the clarity of her Lord’s eyes, so warm and inviting was her gaze.

"Last night," she began. "Last night I saw you with the slave, Lord. You seemed most at ease with her. I have not seen you more relaxed."

Xena frowned and thought back on the previous evening. The bard had argued incessantly, giving her a headache. Relaxed? Her ire had risen dangerously as the foolish girl had gone on and on. Finally, in her own defence, she’d take a few herbs and then…Xena bit the inside of her cheek and almost sighed in feral pleasure as the familiar taste of copper danced across her tongue.

She had to get a firmer hold on things. It was evident that the slave was having a very strange and ill effect on her. It had to stop.

Her fingers absently caressed the servant’s face, unaware that the image of the small bard had replaced that of the servant’s in her mind’s eye.

"She is corrupting me, making me weak, and it must end."

Ubris heard the harsh words but the voice speaking it belied their veracity. She leaned into the caress and closed her eyes, thinking of her beloved Ankara.


Gabrielle inched closer to the door, her eyes wide as she watched the servant curl a hand around the Conqueror’s leg, a smile of great satisfaction on her face as she was caressed in return.

She had ignored the Lord’s demand that she stay put as curiosity got the better of her. Half expecting to see the warrior chastising the woman for failing to provide the morning fare, she was surprised to see the tenderness evident between them. Perhaps she had misread the scene earlier, imagining violence when none was present? Her eyes became a flinty green as she watched the tender scene. ‘Why isn’t that me?’

Xena’s nostrils twitched and her senses began to thrum in alarm. She cursed under her breath as she realized her weapons were in the other room.

A sudden shadow flickered in her peripheral field, and she squinted trying to discern exactly what it was, if anything, that she’d seen. Eyes darted quickly from one area to another, but no danger was detected. A slight noise sounded behind her and she turned quickly.


The Conqueror had bare seconds to react as the whole scene unfolded before her in a painfully slow ballet of death.

The servant’s hand came up slowly, pointing in the direction of the far windows. Xena’s head snapped back around and she moved forward. Gabrielle cried in alarm as an arrow flew towards them, not knowing if the target was the Conqueror or the servant. Xena growled low in her throat, a terrible glint in her eye as the arrow was plucked just inches from Ubris’ face.

"Move! Get behind me, both of you!"

Gabrielle’s mouth hung open as she watched two arrows summarily dealt with in quick succession. She watched as Xena’s hands went naturally to her hip in search of weapons that were not there.

‘If I quickly dart back into the room,’ murmured the bard, but that meant leaving the two others to face the assassin or assassins alone. Despite her obvious lack of skill and protection, the bard was loath to stay hidden behind the Lord’s skirts. Oh, how she wished to dash forward and force the blackguards out into the open!

Xena flicked another arrow harmlessly away from the bard and sought a way out of their predicament.

"Ubris, alert the guards while I hold them off!" Xena pushed the servant back towards the door and then pulled the bard closely behind her. A familiarity washed over her as she and the bard dodged the arrows, almost in tandem, and when the young woman pressed her back against her, Xena felt an overwhelming sense of peace.

Gabrielle began to inch backwards as the Captain of the Guards came running towards them.

"Lord Xena!"

Captain Polis began brandishing his sword, deflecting a few arrows before gaining the Conqueror’s side.

"How many?"

Xena shook her head and remained focused as another volley of projectiles was lobbed their way.

She heard a slight gasp and feared the young bard had taken an arrow, but felt the tightening in her chest ease somewhat as a hand moved to the small of her back.

"I am well, Lord."

And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it was over.

Xena cursed loudly as Polis staggered against her. Gabrielle flinched, expecting a cold response to the man’s injury. Her eyes widened as the Lord placed her hand over the man’s wound, stemming the flow.

The blonde stood as if frozen to the spot, watching in horror as a steady stream of blood oozed through Lord Xena’s fingers. ‘So much blood.’

"Bloody assassins! I’ll hunt every last one of them down. And I think I know exactly where to start."

The Captain swayed a little and then grimaced bravely as the Conqueror eased him down into a nearby chair.

The bard swallowed the growing lump in her throat as the sodden shirt was pulled away to expose the Captain’s angry wound. She bit her lip as the Conqueror went on as if such things were a common occurrence. Perhaps they were? Gabrielle shuddered as she thought about the kind of life this woman had led and would continue to live. How would she be able to reconcile herself with it all?

"Where are the others?"

Polis blinked slowly. "Others?"

"Yes, man. The guards, my men stationed at the door. I had them doubled earlier. There should have been at least four men outside."

The Captain shook his head to clear it and then blinked slowly.

"There were no others."

Xena noted the man’s slurred speech and pallor. Quickly placing two fingers to the left of his right clavicle, she tapped twice and then nodded to herself as the man took a deep shuddering breath. She began to move quickly over the Captain’s wound with an air of detached irritation. However, her mind was carefully working with the task at hand while going through the list of possible suspects.

Gabrielle sighed with exasperation. Why was Xena going on about some missing guards? This man had almost died, and surely would if they didn't summon the healer quickly. Biting a finger, the bard wondered if she should just go and find the man herself? She scratched her bare tummy absently. ‘How hard could it be to find a healer?’ Where should she look? The bard shook her head in frustration. With a castle this big, he could be anywhere. She sighed deeply as the monotony of their conversation bit into her patience. Did the woman have to prattle on and on about inanities? The man was all but bleeding to death! She spun on her heel facing away from them and crossed her arms in a huff.

Xena pursed her lips as Polis slowly came back to himself and his colour improved. She smirked at the petulant bard, half expecting the woman to stamp her foot like a child. Certainly there was enough going on around her to keep her amused? Perhaps it was the sight of blood? She wondered if she herself had ever been that naive, that totally innocent? How her life might have turned out, if only…

"Go on." She said calmly to the Captain, moving quickly over the damaged area, and dismissing her current train of thought.

"Your servant came to find me, Lord, and I must confess, I had assumed the others were in here with you. The young woman was rather distraught, and speaking in her foreign tongue. I’m sorry, Lord, but I couldn’t understand her."

Xena nodded. "That’s fine. As to the guards, did you see anyone outside my chambers before you came rushing in?"

"No, Lord. In fact, the soldiers by the landing to the second floor were absent as well, come to think of it."

"I see." Xena ground her teeth. ‘Heads will roll.’

Gabrielle shrank behind the taller woman in a rather wasted effort to conceal her state of undress, as the Captain’s eyes seemed to clear. However, he was far too interested in concentrating on what the Conqueror was saying to notice anything else. As she peeked around the woman, the bard stood transfixed. As Xena was peppering the Captain for information, she had begun the arduous task of working the arrow out of his side.

Her lower lip trembled as the shaft was gripped tightly. She stared in wonder as the man sat seemingly oblivious to the Lord’s efforts. She moaned piteously as the end of the arrow was pulled through the distended flesh, making an odd squishing sound.

Quickly grabbing up the corner of the tablecloth, Gabrielle snatched it from beneath the few dishes littering its surface and then wrapped it tightly about herself. Anything, she had to concentrate on anything but what the Conqueror was doing, what the man was enduring, oh gods…

‘Dishes. Yes, that was it. Think of the dishes.’ She remembered how hard this trick had been to learn, a small curl to her lip beginning as she thought of Lila’s dismal attempts. She smiled smugly and then the grin faltered as she found herself looking into the amused eyes of Lord Xena.

"Quick with your hands, I see."

"I have many skills, milord," she mumbled.

Xena sucked a tooth. "Yes? And I will be seeing some of those soon enough." She tapped the Captain on the shoulder and watched as he came out of a slight daze.

"Yes, Conqueror?"

"I’ve finished up now. You may return to duties, but first…" Xena pulled the man’s hand up to cover the wound and then pressed hard. She nodded as he absently continued the pressure.

Then she jabbed two fingers into the base of his neck and held his shoulders as the full force of his wound was felt.

Polis gritted his teeth and his body protested madly as the pain rushed through him. How had that happened? He looked down and was somewhat amazed that his shirt was open and a small amount of blood was oozing through his clenched fingers.

"See the healer as soon as possible. You should probably eat something, Captain, to aid in recovery. Yes, a nice bowl of mutton stew should do the trick. I expect you to be at your next watch, is that clear?"

Polis prayed fervently to any god listening that the contents of his stomach would stay where they were. Images of greasy meat floating in a pasty gruel entered his mind and he swallowed deeply.

"Yes…Lord," he gagged.

"Oh, come along, Polis. It’s only a flesh wound, after all."

Gabrielle reached a hand out to the man, almost voicing her displeasure at the Conqueror’s cold demeanor but thought better of it as she noted a small damp area at the woman’s side. Xena had more important things to think of and at least Polis would be seeing the healer. Somehow, Gabrielle didn’t think the healer would be making a visit to these quarters tonight.

‘Stubborn, damned stubborn. Well we’ll see, Conqueror.’

Xena walked over to the sideboard and pulled a long cord. Gabrielle frowned as the woman counted under her breath and then two men rushed in and saluted.

"You’re late. I don’t know which part of the castle you’re running from but I want to know who was in charge of the last watch on this floor. Understood? Now get this man to the healer."

Both men paled noticeably as the Lord wiped her bloody hands on the edge of the blonde woman’s clothing and then the Captain got to his feet. What could he have done to incur the Conqueror’s wrath? Perhaps the rumours they’d heard about an insurrection were true?

Taking the man by both elbows, the two guards quickly moved out of the room. Gabrielle sighed as the door was closed quietly behind them.

She turned to the woman and frowned as she caught the end part of a painful grimace as it flashed across her face.

"Lord, you’re bleeding again!"

Xena winced and grabbed up her goblet, draining the contents in two or three gulps.

"It’ll pass."

The tension seemed to leave the taller woman’s frame momentarily. Gabrielle wondered if the Conqueror could perform the same feat that she’d done to the Captain on herself.

"What you did to the Captain, can you do it again?" She gestured with two wiggling fingers and Xena almost smiled.

"Yes, but it isn’t really a good idea right now; perhaps later, when I have access to a few of the healer’s tools. A bit of catgut, that sort of thing." She opened her gown and fingered the freshly seeping wound.

"Damned assassins. I don’t suppose they could have waited another night; I’d have been healed up by then. After all, what good is an easy target?"

Gabrielle felt her belly flip at the gallows humour. They might have all been killed and here she was making light of it. She would never understand the woman.

"But Lord, you’re injured. If you allow it, I’ll stitch the area closed. If you use that pinch thing, then you should be without pain while I work."

Xena arched an eyebrow. "Oh, you’re that bad, eh?"

Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest and then saw the twinkle in the woman’s eye.

The warrior poured another goblet full and then walked over to sit on the bed. "Ah, that’s better. Come join me. I think we have unfinished business, girl."

Gabrielle turned, hiding her disappointment, as their camaraderie seemed to vanish on the wind. Would the Conqueror ever really let those barriers down and just be…human?

"Did I say you could put that on?"

The bard sighed and glanced up at the ceiling. Some things just didn’t change. The woman had a one-track mind. Would it always be like a war between them? A minute flicker of movement caught her eye and she whirled to face the Conqueror.


The goblet clattered to the floor and then the nearest candlestick was pushed over, it’s red wax pooling across the floor in the fading light, thrusting the room into darkness. Then the table was pushed over and the Conqueror went in search of the bard.

"Xena," the bard cried as she all but threw the cloth from her. She opened her mouth again and then began struggling as a large hand was placed roughly over her lips. Gabrielle squirmed as she was crushed against the firm surface of another body.

"My, isn’t this night just full of surprises?" Gabrielle began to relax as she recognized the Lord’s voice purring in her ear as she was dragged away.

"Now why would you want me alive, girl?" Xena snorted and then moved both hands possessively over the woman’s bare breasts.

Gabrielle groaned as her body responded. "I hardly think this is the time or place…oh, gods." Her eyes fluttered closed as she was pushed down to the floor.

Xena chuckled and then the blonde felt sharp teeth sinking into the tender flesh of her throat.

"Why this is the perfect time, girl. Thrill of the hunt, blood in the air, an assassin close by: sets the mood perfectly." Gabrielle breath seemed to leave her body as Xena’s large form moved over her.

"Oh gods…now? Can’t we discuss this?"

Xena rolled her eyes in the darkness and then grinned cruelly as her search came up with the dagger she’d left on the table earlier.

"I’ll attend to you in a moment. But first…"

Gabrielle’s eyes darted back and forth as something whistled past her ear.


Xena sneered as her fine hearing detected movement across the room. She reached out and pinched the blonde painfully on her leg as an arrow thunked into the wood next to her.

"Ahhhh!" And then a hand was placed over the bard’s mouth roughly, causing her to swallow an angry retort.

Xena narrowed her eyes as she heard the rustle of weapons being put away. From the movements, she could discern only one person, using a crossbow. There was no snick of metal as a sword was drawn so that narrowed things down to a small arms defence as the likely weapon of choice.

The warrior smiled cruelly as she envisioned the plucky assassin all but patting himself on the back for a job well done.

‘Come along, little man. It’s your move.’

She could feel the hot glare of the bard’s green eyes burrowing into her and then leaned in. Gabrielle wasn’t too sure just what to expect but it wasn’t the soft kiss placed on her brow.

"Quiet?" Xena whispered and then waited until she felt the bard nod.

Slipping off her satin gown, Xena brought the blade to her lips and then crouched silently, like some jungle cat waiting for prey.

Gabrielle tried to see what was going on but could barely even see her own hand in the darkness.

Xena cursed silently as an object was thrown nearby, making the bard jump in surprise. She grumbled under her breath again and fought back the urge to hiss at the foolish woman.

Another crash broke the silence again, this time from a different direction, and Xena knew the assassin was on the hunt. She craned her neck and just closed her eyes, willing all of her senses into a full state of alert.

Her nostrils fluttered as she noted the close proximity of the bard who was painstakingly making her way closer to where she crouched. A small breath was released as the woman’s hand moved up to her hip. Then the soft hairs lining her ear were tickled as the blonde whispered carefully, causing a shiver to run up her spine.

"I’m sorry, Xena. I wasn’t expecting there to be more than one. What are we going to do?"

Xena tensed as someone stepped over a fallen article.

"Only one. Wait." She pressed her hand to the woman’s mouth and then eased over to the right side of the upturned table.

It was a few seconds before Xena could discern the assassin’s new location and pursed her lips in concentration. She could almost see him inching forward in a tight grid, making sure his victims didn’t get past him to safety. An eyebrow bobbed once as another article was tossed towards them. Xena could feel it coming straight at her and simply ducked to avoid impact instead of obeying her first response. Grabbing the object out of the air was a clear way to show exactly where they were and indicate they were on to his deception. No, that would never do. While she was unsure as to exactly what type of weaponry the man had at his disposal, she was confident that the only life being taken this night would be his own. She picked up an empty bottle, tossed it over into the opposite corner, and then waited. Sure enough, the assailant paused, unsure as to whether they had separated and were coming at him from opposite sides. Xena shook her head ruefully. ‘If the bard hadn’t been there…’ And then a twinge of truth hit her. If the bard hadn’t been there, would she have been prepared for the second attack? She mentally kicked herself again. Her keen senses were usually on high alert. Why she hadn’t detected this one was beyond her. Well, she’d have to do her best about disarming the man without killing him. Perhaps the interrogation would prove to be both entertaining and useful.

The Conqueror looked back towards her last position and nodded, pleased that the bard was at least paying attention to the simple ploy and not rising to the bait again. She would have altered tactics at this point, but then no one knew military strategy as well as she did.

Counting quietly, Xena bit down on the blade, tensed for half a second, and then launched herself forward. A resounding ‘ooof’ was heard and then both bodies went down with a crash.

Gabrielle reached out, grasping at the air, and then inched forward. What was happening? If she called out, then she’d give away her position. She steeled herself mentally, determined not to become more of a distraction than she knew she already was. The Conqueror had wasted far too much time making sure she was safe and Gabrielle knew if she hadn’t been there, the assassin would have been caught and dealt with easily by now.

‘Oh, gods!’ she intoned quietly, hoping she was doing the right thing by just keeping out of the way. ‘But what if…?’ She wrung her hands desperately and then moved in a little closer.

Xena pushed her knee up against the body struggling against her. Inching her fingers closer to the assailant’s neck, she smiled almost woefully. It was too easy! If this was the best they had to throw against her…

Suddenly, the body stiffened and the Conqueror found herself grasping thin air as the man gained his feet and stood waiting. She closed her eyes and then sprang forward, confident in both her method of surprise and the strength levered against her opponent. She’d take him down, probably breaking his knees, and then apply the pinch. The time for games had past. Mind you, there was still the interrogation.

Her head snapped back painfully as she collided with what could only be the upturned table. ‘But how could that be?’ She had been facing in the opposite direction. She spun on her heels, blinking rapidly until the sparkles dancing behind her eyes receded. Somehow, she’d lost her knife in the scuffle, leaving her somewhat disoriented. She could ‘feel’ the man, so close and yet…

A soft breath played across the back of her neck. With a growl of frustration, Xena lurched around and found herself unable to detect her opponent. Nails dug painfully into her palm as she forced herself to become centered, to become calm, and to reason out her fear. Relaxing her shoulders, the Conqueror placed her palms outward and made a slow circle.

Gabrielle heard the scrambling and then a grunt of surprise. A weak groan followed a sudden crash and she wondered how badly the intruder was injured. Knowing of the Conqueror’s penchant for violence, she tensed as an image of a very large dangerous jungle cat playing with her victim filled her mind. She gulped noisily, thinking of someone with Xena’s skills tormenting an opponent who was terribly outclassed.


"Ah!" She jumped as a fingernail was trailed up her forearm. Shrinking off to the side, Gabrielle fumbled with the assorted articles on the floor around her. Surely there would be something, anything, to use against this unseen foe?

Or was it Xena, playing with her?

A very small amount of light began dulling the darkness as night inched towards morning. Xena closed her eyes and counted silently to three before taking in her surroundings again. A few shadows danced just beyond her peripheral vision but she made a point of not looking at one place too long. Crouching low, she extended her senses and waited for a telltale movement. As good as this bastard was, she’d already caught him unawares once. Her fingers twitched as she remembered just how close they had been to the man’s neck. Even at such close quarters, she’d been unable to discern any facial features. It was dark, but was it that dark? The question plagued her. She’d been playing a game of cat and mouse then, but now that time was gone. Now, he had the upper hand and was playing with her.

Gabrielle yelped as a cool hand was pressed against the base of her spine.


The Conqueror spun at the sound, orienting herself mentally, and fixed her position back at the upturned table. There! The crouching figure must be Gabrielle, so…

Gabrielle gripped the chair as she heard an almost inaudible exhalation. Was that Xena or…two dark globs meshed together and then pulled apart. Which one was Xena? She inched forward as one figure stretched out menacingly at the other. Was that Xena with her knife or did the stranger have a weapon, too? Were the quarters too close for the crossbow?

The bard cursed the darkness. She hated screaming out like that but knew that at least it would provide some sort of purpose, if only as a means to discern which figure was Xena's. She looked from one darkened figure to the other but neither one had looked her way. Providing there were only the three of them in the room, one of them had touched her. She felt her skin crawl as she relived the feeling of the small hand at her back.

As she watched the grey shapes dance back and forth, Gabrielle noticed the darkness had receded. When had she realized day was dawning and she could discern images, if only faintly? Had the person touched her from behind and then moved to engage the Conqueror or had Xena already been in combat with the original assailant and there were two, perhaps more intruders in the room with them. The growing light would help with that…providing they survived that long.

Her heartbeat increased as she felt a closeness begin to swamp her. What if the assailants turned all of their attention on the Conqueror, leaving her to be a mere spectator, a blind witness to Xena’s demise.

The thought filled her with a deep foreboding sense of panic. She squeezed her eyes shut as the memories of strong hands and persistent lips fluttered against her in the darkness. The knowledge that all the images she’d ever have were how she pushed this woman away, even though she’d felt such passion, such fire when they touched, sat like a dead weight against her soul. She couldn’t let it happen, not like this!


The Conqueror’s nostrils flared as she picked up a slight scent on the early morning air. She tried to process it, matching it with flitting memories but couldn’t quite put her finger on it. It was familiar and yet very foreign.

Noting the change in lighting, which afforded her a better understanding of their situation, she feinted to the side and watched as her movement was all but mirrored. Although there was no reason for the assassin not to be able to see her as clearly as she was now seeing him, the level of his agility surprised her. While she prided herself for being equally at ease in the night or day, Xena knew she was woefully over matched. She’d have to even the odds quickly or…

Xena bit back a moan as the man struck out like a viper, hitting her left shoulder with impunity and then danced beyond reach. She winced as a low burning began rushing across her flesh and then the air whooshed out of her as her arm went slack. She couldn't allow him another strike! The assailant had to know just how vulnerable she was in her current condition and would likely make another move to totally immobilize her. Or would he just move in and out of range, hitting pressure points and inflicting damage at will, playing with her until she was all but useless? It was a strategy she was very familiar with. She had to do something.

Gabrielle recognized the low moan and could tell the warrior was in pain. If he could reduce Xena to such vulnerability in mere moments, she cringed thinking what a little more time might afford him.

She wanted to turn and run; she wanted to find the knife; she wanted to throw herself at the man, keeping him totally occupied, if only for a moment so that the Conqueror could escape. She wanted to do so much but in the end found she could do nothing but watch the horrible dance of death before her. ‘Oh Xena…’

Xena gulped a breath in and steadied herself. The pain was excruciating and threatened to pull her down into a well of blackness. Slowly exhaling, the Conqueror beat back the growing lethargy that threatened to consume her and eased her shoulders back. She had to concentrate and glean as much information as she could from her adversary. There had to be something she could use against him. Her mind began to clear a little as more daylight began to infuse her chambers. Although it was rather difficult to pinpoint exactly just how tall he was in his current posture, Xena estimated him to be about five foot eight or nine. He seemed slender in build and quite wiry in musculature. Did he have short hair or long? She couldn’t tell. Well, that would change, soon enough; dawn was breaking. If she could just keep the man busy for a little while longer, the next watch would be on duty. ‘Damnit, where in Hades are my men?’

She moved forward, swinging her foot in an arch, intending on knocking the man’s feet out beneath him but met emptiness instead. Rolling into a tuck position, Xena jumped back to her feet, her right arm stretched out into a defensive stance, and then feinted again. This time, however, the man stood his ground. She had just been in the midst of a forward thrust, her momentum totally committed, when she heard the bard scream.

Jerking her head hard to the left, Xena twisted her torso, hoping to at least catch her prey with the brunt of her right shoulder. However, the dark shape had already exited the area and stood directly behind the blonde. A breath wheezed out of the warrior as she regained her feet. The light had increased to such an extent as to afford the Conqueror an almost crisp image of her assailant. His dark form loomed menacingly over the young woman and Xena ground her teeth in frustration.

Gabrielle swallowed another scream as a strong hand gripped her throat.

Xena heard the strangled gurgle and a mixture of emotions ran through her, leaving her disoriented, and a victim once again to her lack of control. The urge to simply charge the man was intense and yet she knew it would be her undoing. She had an image of the soft green eyes of the petite blonde and Xena found her defences begin to crumble. She couldn’t loose the bard. Not yet, not now. Swallowing back the pain and rage that threatened to obliterate what little command she could still marshal, Xena held her palm open and straightened her stance. Gritting her teeth, she winced as the growing pain spread across her chest.

"Stop. It’s me you want, let the girl go."

Xena watched as the dark figure cocked his head to one side. He increased the pressure at the base of Gabrielle’s neck and the warrior felt such an overwhelming feeling of helplessness that she all but dropped to her knees.

Her heart thudded painfully in her ears as the blonde began to fall back against the man. "You know I’m already hurt. Leave her and come finish the job."

She squinted and finally realized why she couldn’t make out any facial features. He was wearing a full-face mask of some sort. Not only did it deny the observer an opportunity to see his eyes but also his heritage.

However, as the assailant began speaking in low Chinese, that question had at least had been answered.



Chapter Eleven



"Do not fear me but those who would become me." And with a slight bow, the figure moved slowly back towards the fading shadows.

Xena seethed with anger as she cursed her lack of weapons. This man would be hers if only…The room spun crazily and Xena dug her nails deeper into her right palm; it wouldn’t take much more to have her flat on her back, out cold. She needed a weapon, and needed it now.

She snorted softly. If she took her eyes off him, he’d be gone. And that would never do. She needed to learn everything she could before he vanished.

She took in his true height, his slender build, his grace and fluidity of movement, and the clear sense of bushido he seemed to wear as a second skin. Yes, this man was no ordinary thug sent to murder them in their sleep. Why had he come in so quickly after trying to kill them the first time? Surely, it would have been far better to attack when she was busy with the Captain? She tried to concentrate on whether it was Low Mountain dialect or rural low Chinese the man had spoken, and found her thoughts suddenly filled with Ming Tsu.

Her attention had wandered slightly, and she barely managed to look up in time to catch the man’s final gaze at the bard before he dropped from the window ledge. Stumbling towards his last point, Xena knew it would be futile to even consider going after him let alone trace his escape route. If her present condition were any indication, she’d be dead within the hour.

The Conqueror’s frustration began to recede as two soft hands were placed at her hip and then the bard molded herself to her, causing small tremors to be ignited across her back.

"I thought…" Gabrielle swallowed a sob and then squeezed her eyes tightly shut.

Every breath the Conqueror managed to drag into her lungs seemed composed of molten lead. When her knees began to vibrate with the strain of maintaining her upright stance, Xena gripped the bard’s wrist and pulled her close.

"I need you…"

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Not that again! Don’t you ever quit? Just because I thought you were dying, being murdered before my very eyes…Well, I really couldn’t see, but you know what I mean."

‘What was she blathering about? She had to listen…’

Leaning heavily against the stone wall, Xena pulled her robe open and tried to place the small hand over the tender flesh at the top of her right breast.

"Now look, Conqueror. I really don’t think this is the time or the place." The bard squinted at the woman. "Say, you don’t look very well." Gabrielle peered closer and then her head snapped back as she watched eyes as blue as the ocean begin to roll back into the Conqueror’s head.

"This isn’t a ploy, is it? I mean you really are hurt?"

Xena began to gasp and her knees buckled suddenly and she slumped to the floor.

"You…push there…hard. Can’t breathe…"

‘Oh my gods, what do I do? Maybe if I go fetch Ubris, she’ll know, that’s what I’ll do, yes…’

"Be dead soon…"

"No! Just…just tell me what to do."

Xena found she couldn’t lift her chin and the tiny motes sparkling behind her eyes had gotten quite a bit brighter. She was finding it very difficult to concentrate on the woman in front of her. What was she saying?

Gabrielle flapped her hands in frustration. "I don’t know what to do! Gods, you look so pale, Xena. What did that man do to you?"

‘She has such soft skin,’ thought the warrior, wondering briefly what it would be like to feel those hands caressing her face and see only love shining from eyes as green as fields of fallow pasture.

Part of the Conqueror railed against the cloying darkness, her imagination going on wild tangents as she thought of the young bard being left to fend for herself. She couldn’t leave…

Gabrielle watched with gathering alarm as the Conqueror’s jaw began to sag.

"No, no…Xena…stay with me…tell me what to do! Oh, gods! You said…what did you say? Push here…or there? Help me, Xena! I can’t lose you, not now!"

A sense of peace settled over the warrior as she felt all of the intensity of who she was leave her body. There was no more need for control, no desire to inflict pain. It was all gone. Only the truth of what this young woman had tried to offer her was left.

"Why…would you want me…to live?"

The bard began to cry as the warrior’s words became terribly slurred.

"Because…because I love you! Even though you’re a horribly mean and despicable woman, I love you! Even when all you want is to take, and give nothing in return, I love you!" She cried harder as Xena’s hand inched closer to her leg. She shuddered as the cold blue fingers fell against her, twitching once before falling still.

"No, I won’t let you just give up! Where is that bitch! Where is that woman who wanted to force me to her will, and who tormented me for hours until I screamed for release? I’m here, Xena…fight me!"

Gabrielle sobbed frantically and began pulling on the collar of the silken robe, her fear and anger igniting within as the Conqueror’s body slumped sideways to the floor.

"Don’t you leave! Don’t you dare leave me!" She pummeled her frustration upon the lifeless body of her…

"My soulmate, my lover, my life, my reason for being here!" Shaking the woman frantically produced no response at all, and Gabrielle finally sat back on her legs in defeat.

"What can I do? What did she say to do? I don’t know what she said!" She wiped her nose with the back of a shaking hand and then moved closer to lay her head against Xena’s chest.

She was so cold, almost like ice.

Gabrielle’s focus began to recede until the only thing she was aware of was the beating of her own heart. How could that be? Surely it would stop soon? How could it continue to beat when it’s been shattered into a million pieces? But no, it was beating strongly, as if unaware of the misery surrounding it. Each thump of her heart was like a sledgehammer against her soul and the bard closed her eyes tightly, willing the noise to cease and leave her alone in her torment!

Why didn’t she just die, too? She could if her will was strong enough, she reasoned. Concentrating deeply, the bard centered herself and then began to slow the beating of her heart. In her mind’s eye, she could sense each beat becoming less a part of the others. Each inhalation was tuned out, the twitch of her muscles was ignored, and finally all she could hear was a faint drumming in the background. She would concentrate on drowning even that out…and then there would be nothing.

Her nostrils flared and her chest contracted as she enforced her will upon the thriving life within herself. But try as she might, that slight beating wouldn’t go away. Perhaps she only needed to get more comfortable. Leaning against someone making noise was making it very difficult to concentrate on the task at hand.

Her eyes flew open.

She pushed her ear harder against the soft skin below her cheek. At first she was unwilling to believe that the slight thumping might actually be something other than her own heart. Placing two fingers on her own pulse point, Gabrielle began to count the rhythm. Bump bump…bump bump…bump bump. It wasn’t anything like the one she could hear. That one was more of a bumpbump, bump, bumpbump, bump.

"Alright, Gabrielle. Settle down. And think. Now, what would Xena have been trying to say? She talked about pressure points before. She used them on that Captain. All right. I can use them on her. I don’t know where these pressure points are…but…I could run and get Ubris! She’ll know!"

The bard scrambled to her knees and then screamed with rage.

"No, godsbedamnit! I can’t leave! I have to…I have to…"

She looked down at the beautiful woman in gentle repose. She wasn’t dead. If she could hear a heartbeat, then the warrior was still alive. If only barely. So think.


‘Place your hand there and then press hard.’

Gabrielle blinked in consternation. Her head wiped back and forth as she checked the room. Someone had spoken, hadn’t they?

She swallowed painfully, certain that her heart was the lump sitting there.

Thinking back to the incidents earlier, Gabrielle tried to put her memories in some sort of order.

"Xena had tapped his shoulder gently. Alright, I can do that." She tapped the woman’s clavicle and waited, the small hopeful smile slipping as no change occurred.

"What did she say? Put your hand over there and press hard? But where?"

The bard’s mouth fell open, as her fingers seemed to move of their own volition. There, above her right breast was the spot she needed to concentrate on. Gabrielle bit her lip painfully and then just closed her eyes, offering up anything to those who would listen.

"I’ll give anything, anything at all, if only…let her live, please let her live." And then she took both index fingers and pressed into the spot.


She peered closer, placing her cheek against the Lord’s lips. Very faint breath could be felt but it was hardly what the bard would consider an improvement. She poked the spot again, this time a little bit harder.

And still nothing.

Grinding her teeth in frustration, Gabrielle pressed her lips together, squeezed her eyes shut and then brought one tiny fist down hard.

She almost jumped in surprise as the warrior took a slow wheezing breath. Wringing her hands once, she bit her lip and then repeated the action.

When a deeper, much easier breath was taken, the bard decided to throw caution to the wind. She had both hands up high over her head with a gleam in her eye before common sense prevailed.

‘No, that might be too hard.’ She looked at one curled fist, nodded and then brought it down full force towards the Conqueror’s exposed chest.

"Ack!" She screamed as an iron grip settled around the descending wrist, stopping it in its tracks.

"Nuff. Are you…trying…to kill…me?"

With a strangled cry, the bard threw herself on top of the brunette and covered her face with kisses.

Xena began to thrash weakly as the newfound air she was dragging back into her burning lungs was deprived. A harsh breath was squeezed out of her as the bard began to hug her fiercely.

‘At this rate, my savior will be the death of me!’

She pushed weakly at the young woman, one hand pushing the bard’s shoulder as the other flailed miserably at her side.

‘Damnedable thing! Gods, what did that man do to me?’ A prickling sensation seemed to be moving up from her numbed fingers, dragging painful circulation back into parts given up for dead, and she bit back a scream of agony.

She’d been aware that the paralysis that seeped down from her shoulder and moved across her chest had effectively deadened the use of her left lung. If the bard hadn’t performed her deed almost flawlessly…The idea of both lungs being slowly turned into stone, squeezing the life from her, denying her even the reflexive action of breathing filled her with dread. Anything, she could withstand anything but that horrible feeling of being buried alive.

Gabrielle felt the warrior shudder against her and finally loosened her grip.

"I thought you were dead."

The room tilted at odd angles and Xena decided to just lie there, eyes closed, until things were put right again. Perhaps she wouldn’t feel so disjointed if she held onto the body beside her.

"Damned fingers."

The smaller woman pushed herself up on one elbow and looked down into the still ashen face of the Conqueror. Taking the Lord’s hand, she began stroking it softly.

"That man tried to kill you! What are we going to do? How many attempts have you had in the past few days? Is this normal? And what happened to those…mrphhh!"

Xena pressed her good hand tightly over the young woman’s mouth and pinned her with a very stern look.

"Do you always talk this much or am I being singled out for preferential treatment?"

Gabrielle blinked as the older woman struggled to get her words out. Lord Xena was still feeling the after effects from the attack. She pinched the Conqueror’s hand and waited for a reaction.

The skin twitched a little and the bard bit her lip. ‘What if…?’

Xena frowned as the young woman’s eyes filled with apprehension. Her head still seemed filled with yards of cotton, and she blinked deeply to keep from falling back into the welcome arms of the abyss. Xena began to pant as she struggled into a sitting position.

"Gods, Xena…no, lie back down. You might hurt yourself even more if you…"

"…Don’t get up. I have to. If someone were to come in right now…if he comes back…"

Both heads turned in tandem as the big doors to Xena’s chamber were pushed open.

"Ubris!" The blonde moved over to the servant girl quickly and then both women raced back to where the Conqueror was. Xena mumbled curse after curse as she struggled to drag herself up against the wall. The dark shadows lengthened as the Egyptian set flame to candle and the room was bathed in a soft yellow light.

"Lord, what has happened?" Ubris gestured the bard to help her move some of the furniture back to its rightful place and then she raced out of the room.

"I’ll be back with help, Lord!"

Xena struck her forehead with a slap as the words she’d wanted to say sat stupidly on her tongue. ‘I’ve got to get focused. If word gets out…’

"Help me up. Quickly!"

Gabrielle closed her retort with a snap as she saw the helpless rather worried look cross the Conqueror’s face.

"Yes, Lord."

She grunted as the woman’s 175 pounds fell against her like a dead weight.

Xena smiled weakly. "Be thankful I’m not in full armour. That’s a bitch to move when a soldier’s injured."

Gabrielle arched one eyebrow thoughtfully; "I’ll try and keep that in mind. You never know when that kind of information will stand a bard in good stead."

She smirked as the warrior tried to roll her eyes. ‘Yes, she’s beginning to feel better.’ Gabrielle pursed her lips as the two of them staggered over to the bed.

"Shall I get something, Xena?" She winced as the Conqueror gritted her teeth against the pain.

"Just…look, girl. You can’t call me that, not in front of others, anyway. And I can’t look to be ailing or unfit in any way." Gabrielle began to feel a bit better as she watched the woman shake some feeling back into her fingers, though from the stiffness present in the rest of her arm and shoulder, it was going to take time before whatever had been done was past. ‘If ever,’ she swallowed deeply.

"I’ve got to think. If Da…if the person I believe is behind this, then he’ll have spies out trying to find the truth of my condition. Quick!"

Gabrielle had time to yelp as she was dragged into the bed. An unsteady hand was pressed against her protestations and then the uneven weight of the Conqueror settled over her frame.


"Quiet, girl…just play along." Xena waited a beat and then swallowed. "Please?"

Swallowing carefully and averting her eyes as the Conqueror wiggled her shoulders out of her robe, Gabrielle flinched as a wave of unchecked passion rolled through her. Her skin seemed to ignite wherever it came into contact with that of the Conqueror’s. Her nostrils twitched, as the heady scent that was Xena seemed to permeate every part of her being.

Xena smiled down gently and then took her hand away. "There, that isn’t too bad, is it?" She smirked as she maneuvered her lower torso between the young bard’s legs.

Gabrielle squeaked and shook her head quickly.

"Good." Easing herself down carefully, the Conqueror winced as she dragged her useless left hand up beside the blonde’s head. Gabrielle wondered if she should pinch the woman again, and pondered on the ramifications of Xena’s damage being permanent.

"Can you feel anything, Lord?"

Xena wiggled her hips into a better contact position and one dark brow rose suggestively.

"Oh, I’ve been feeling things for days, bard. It’s you who seems willing to ignore them."

Gabrielle’s jaw fell open. "That’s not true! I told you…"

The door burst open just as the Conqueror’s mouth put a stop to any further discussion.




Chapter Twelve



Quiet moments to be found within
Cruel flames
Are fanned by denial and doubt.
Clarity is found within the bond
Of trust as restraint turns to embrace,
And aggression shifts to acceptance,
The balance of life found
Within the sweetest tear of pain.



The bard moaned softly as a questing tongue tentatively pushed past her lips. Dark eyebrows rose as the bard’s small hand caressed the Conqueror’s lower back. It was an effort, but the warrior managed to compartmentalize the slowly receding pain in her body to the point where it was barely noticeable. Except when she took a breath. Which, if the blonde had anything to say on the subject, wasn’t going to be too often.

"Let’s make this look good," she crooned softly into the blonde’s ear and then bent down for another passionate kiss.

Gabrielle felt as if the room had shifted. The Conqueror was talking to her not at her. They were now both co-conspirators in this ruse to keep the truth from the Conqueror’s castle guards. And there was passion; she could feel it. Xena wanted to make love to her, not to dominate and control her. She moaned again as the warrior slipped her tongue past eager lips.

Both women were barely conscious of the urgent hesitance of the visitors who were caught between the ire they knew would arise should they interrupt, and the obvious worry they had in response to the servant’s frantic and somewhat garbled information.

Finally Andros could stand it no longer. He cleared his throat once, fidgeted and then repeated the action in an effort to gain some sort of response.


Xena was about to reply when her lower lip was seized between a set of very sharp teeth. Her forehead scrunched as the pain caught hold of her breath. She moved both hands over to cup Gabrielle’s breasts, and silently cursed as the fingers of her left hand spasmed as she tried to rein them in.

Feelings of frustration increased as she heard her first Lieutenant and the other guards mewling in the background.

Although the action of kissing the bard had been one born of devious need, it was rapidly becoming one of pure necessity…on both their parts. Xena could feel the heat against her lower belly, and Gabrielle’s undoubtedly unconscious hip movement as she tilted her pelvis against the woman. She felt alive, as if this was the very thing glaringly absent from her life.

Slowly extracting her lip from between insistent teeth, Xena employed her own on the tender flesh of the bard’s earlobe. She growled low in the back of her throat and then whispered seductively to her.

"Give yourself to me, Gabrielle. Give me what you want."

Gabrielle’s breath caught as she tilted her head back, feeling more than her skin pierced, but that of every wall she had erected against this woman.


Andros found himself looking anywhere but at the bed. He cleared his throat a few times more and winced as the Lord gazed balefully in his direction. The guards immediately ceased their fidgeting and stood to attention. A droplet of sweat trickled down from the temple of one of the men as he tried unsuccessfully to obliterate the image of the two women fornicating before his very eyes.

Maltor had begun working as a guard in the palace just days previously, having been sent with orders to report on the comings and goings of the Conqueror to his superior. Although Dagnine hadn’t seen fit to make him privy to the reason, the young guard new a chance for advancement when he saw it.

Maltor’s lower belly ignited as more of the Conqueror’s golden flesh was exposed. He’d heard she was a beauty, but nothing could have prepared him for the goddess before him.


"I’m busy."

Ubris knelt carefully by the bed and blinked slowly as she, too, found something more interesting to look at.

"Lord, I summoned the guard, as you wished."

Xena swiveled her gaze on the young servant, the steel in her eyes softening.

"You acted in haste, Ubris. There was no need to summon my Lieutenant for something as inconsequential as a few loose stitches." With tremendous effort, the Conqueror placed all of her weight on her incapacitated arm, and opened the rest of her gown. Gabrielle quickly buried her face in the woman’s bosom and then surreptitiously grabbed hold of Xena’s elbow. The Conqueror felt the brace and relaxed her shoulders minutely. The bard was pleased she had stopped the vibration in the warrior’s arm but began blushing furiously as she looked up into the woman’s smirking face.

"Oh, please continue…slave. Don’t let them interrupt you."

The warmth of the look bestowed upon her disguised the brutality of the label Gabrielle had thought herself beyond. The bond that had begun in the dark with death staring both of them coldly in the eye had moved them into an area whereby the bard was something more than a slave, and yet something far less than a peer. But it was something tangible for the young woman from Poteidaia to hold onto.

It was a struggle, but Andros managed to keep his tongue behind clenched teeth as the Lord’s ample breasts were exposed. Each nipple was hard and ripe for the succulent mouth of the young bard who attempted to capture each morsel before the Conqueror moved out of reach.

Gabrielle moaned as the warrior caressed her face. Xena’s eyes were dark with passion as she slipped her thumb into the young woman’s mouth. She felt her breasts tightening as Gabrielle began to suck on it. With an effort, she drew her eyes away from the delicious sight and contemplated the Lieutenant once more.

"My servant was rash in her attempts to bring help. I believe I’m quite capable of staunching a minute flow of blood. A little pressure applied here…" She pressed her bosom against the blonde’s eager mouth, "and another firm bit applied there," Xena eased her torso down against the now writhing bard, "and I believe we’ll have things well in hand."

Andros swallowed with a snick as the blonde moved her legs farther apart.

Xena began to wonder just how much was play acting and what went beyond those boundaries as the blonde moaned deeply against her ear. And then Gabrielle’s breath caught and her body stiffened as more pressure was applied to her inner thighs and kneecaps.

A twitch appeared at the corner of the warrior’s right eye as she realized it was pain and not ardor that had elicited such a deeply felt moan. For the Conqueror, a show of force was only employed as a means to an end. Whether it was to incite fear or to exact retribution, it was never used carelessly on someone as innocent of guile as was the blonde beneath her. In her worry that she might be seen in a weakened condition, Xena had completely forgotten about the injury sustained by the bard. And she had been the cause of it.

A look of remorse filled the Conqueror’s sapphire eyes and Gabrielle clutched her closer.

"It’s all right. Just give me a moment."

The blonde’s face contorted again as Xena raised herself slightly off the bed. The Conqueror’s throat constricted as doubt of her initial judgment filled her mind. ‘How could someone as pure as this bard be guilty of anything?’

"Milord, I must confess I was worried when your servant girl came to fetch the guards. Your safety is paramount."

"I’m fine, I tell you." The tone in the Conqueror’s voice startled him. It was further evidence that things with the woman weren’t all they might seem. He cleared his throat.

"Yes, Conqueror…I can see that. But I…"

"Leave us."

"But sire, I’ve just been given news that two emissaries from Rome will be arriving. They are expected to reach the castle by nightfall."

"Get out!"

The two guards began to tremble as the Conqueror leapt off the woman pinned to the bed and stalked towards them.

"Get out of my chambers now. I will speak to you later, Andros. Now leave."

The men saluted smartly and then turned on their heels. They waited hesitantly at the door as the Lieutenant tried to plead his case.

"But milord…we must make ready. This isn’t the scheduled meeting we were told about. Caesar…"

Xena grabbed her left arm and dragged it behind her. She stood perfectly still as she tried to keep her emotions in check. It would do no good to let the men see her flailing about like some incapacitated lunatic. It was hard, but she had to admit to herself that she was afraid. What if the total use of her arm never returned?

"A pox on Caesar, and another pox on his damned emissaries." She walked slowly over to her Lieutenant and then stood before him, capturing him totally with her dangerous glare.

"Everything will be in place, Andros. You can be sure of it or heads will roll. There will not be any further…scenes like the one earlier tonight. Caesar hopes to catch us with our pants down, and our asses bare to the breeze." She strode over to the two men quivering by the door and just looked them up and down.

"I don’t recognize this one, and the other looks to be far too young for his position." She released the death hold she had on her other arm and then poked Maltor in the solar plexus.

"Why do you tremble, boy? Have you never seen a half naked woman before?" It pained her that the robe she wore was left open for these two puppies to gawk at, but since she was hardly in a position to keep it closed, she’d try and use it to her advantage.

"When did you begin your service in the castle?"

Maltor gulped noisily and then squeaked out his response.

"I…I began two days ago, milord, though I’ve been in your employ for nearly a full year. Sir. Ma’am."

Xena snorted. "You must be all of sixteen. What unit have you been training in?"

One dark brow shot up as Dagnine’s name was mumbled.

"Ah yes, my other trusted Lieutenant. And just what is he up to these days…boy?"

"M…Maltor, milady."

Xena took hold of the young man’s chin and held it tightly. "You’d do well to remember my station, boy. I am ‘milord’, ‘sire’, or ‘Conqueror’. I am no ‘lady’, is that clear?"

It took all the man’s will not to release his bladder in his efforts to keep his eyes from roaming. He focused harder and then felt his heart being squeezed as the bluest eyes he’d ever seen were brought closer to his own.

"I won’t eat you up, boy. I see your response to my state of undress. That’s understandable. However, you will not gaze openly at me at any time, clear? I am a woman, that is also clear, but I am also the meanest bastard you’ll ever meet. You do not want my undivided attention, do you understand me? Do your job and you may live to be promoted. One day - in the distant future."

She turned to face Andros once more. "I am not pleased with the selection for my guard. Either find more seasoned soldiers or hire babysitters for the ones we have. Either way, I’ll not have them breaking their teeth in at my expense."

Andros nodded quickly, and then put a hand on the Conqueror’s right wrist.

"Men, you are dismissed." He waited until the door closed behind them and then released the breath he’d been holding.

"Where are you getting these babies, Andros? That last one hadn’t even begun to pimple." Pressing a hand to her side, Xena looked the Lieutenant and then down at her wrist.

"Sire, I can see that you are unwell. Has something happened this evening? I couldn’t understand much of what Ubris was saying, other than you were hurt. Is this true?"

Xena shook the man’s hand off. "I’m fine. It’s Gabrielle that needs a healer right now. Ubris, go fetch Daedalis. He can tend to the bard’s legs."

"And your wound, sire."

Xena ignored the Lieutenant and moved over to the window.

"See to the girl. I told you, I’m fine."

"But sire…she’s but a slave. Or is she more than that? Having a nice bit waiting in your bed is all well and good, but you’ve a duty to the realm. You must be at your best when the emissaries…"

"Silence! Do not provoke me, Andros. I know my duty. Do you?" Xena glared at her second in command. The tick reappeared in the corner of her eye, and she struggled to control it.

"I know that you’ve been spending far too much time with this girl. I know that the men are beginning to get restless. I also know that you aren’t acting yourself and that if you aren’t very careful, you’ll not only have Caesar down on your neck but your own soldiers, too!"

Xena’s hand swept up quickly and Andros’ head snapped painfully to the side.

"Just fetch that damned healer. If you and Christo can’t handle a few seditious busy bodies, then perhaps you shouldn’t be in a position of authority. Perhaps you should go and muck the stables for me, Andros. It seems you’re good for little else."

The Conqueror glanced back out at the morning sky, biting the inside of her cheek in an effort to control her anger. She could feel the man’s eyes bore into the back of her head.

"Godsbedamn you! Fetch that windbag Mikos. It’ll be his head if preparations aren’t in order. And look in on Polis as well, and see that whoever was on watch early this morning. Incompetence is one thing and black hearted treachery is quite another. Whoever those soldiers were, they almost cost me the life of a very capable man and I want them dealt with immediately. Can you manage all that, or should I write it down for you?"

Xena’s head was pounding in her efforts to regain control over her emotions. Why was she snapping this man’s head off? Why did everyone around her seem to suffer in one way or another? She railed against her loss of control, knowing that self-flagellation was the only thing keeping her sane. ‘If I centered more on the battle warring inside my head, then perhaps I’ll have less time to mete it out to those around me.’

Gabrielle stood wobbly-kneed beside the servant, her mouth agape at the exchange between the two combatants. For that was exactly how they appeared to her at that moment. No longer was there an air of camaraderie between them. Now the Conqueror was sarcastic and rude and the Lieutenant petulant and demanding.

"Lord Xena, please. I am only a slave and can be tended to by your servant girl."

Xena gripped the stone wall tightly with one hand and forced herself to respond with indifference. No one could know just how important the little bard was becoming. It was bad enough that Andros had an inkling. Would he have bandied it about in the barracks? She’d have his guts…No. He was loyal, he was her…’Well,’ Xena thought carefully, ‘he’s been with me since the beginning. Why does he stay if there is nothing but the promise of an early death? He’s more than an ally.’ Without realizing it, she’d been spending more time in his company and giving the man more trust as the years went by. Their easy, albeit somewhat fiery, relationship must be built on something more than just duty.

Xena dragged her limp hand carefully over her belly, and closed her robe against the chill morning air. Sighing deeply, she turned to face her Lieutenant.

"Andros, you’re right. I have been spending far too much time with this…slave. My duties have been suffering for it, along with my own personal health. I’ll see the healer forthwith." She turned and gazed stonily at the small woman who was slipping past every defence she had.

"I want Gabrielle to be taken care of. She needs to be in the best condition she can be for the ordeal ahead." Neither woman spoke, their shared look of understanding never broken.

"In fact, you are going to stay with her awhile tonight. Make her last hours as my slave memorable, won’t you?"

The Lieutenant frowned. "But milord…?"

"Take her away, Andros. Just do it," she said wearily.

Her next words made his blood run cold.

"And have Daedalis break her legs."

"But Lord Xena! Is she being punished? What could she have possibly…"

"Silence! Do you dare question me?"

"No, Lord…please!" Ubris threw herself at the Conqueror’s feet and began pleading in her own language, begging for the safety and well being of the young slave. Xena knelt carefully and spoke quietly to the Egyptian, and then after a short nod of understanding, she quickly rose to her feet and left the room. Each bow as she exited made the Conqueror wince. That the servant would actually think she’d order the girl dragged back to the dungeon was like a slap across her face.

Andros looked from the frail looking blonde standing by the bed and then back at the Conqueror. He could see the torment written on both their faces. The word ‘preparation’ had been whispered, leaving him to wonder just what was in store for the young bard. And then a look of understanding washed over him. For the first time, he took a close look at the young slave. Both legs were misshapen from just below the knee to the woman’s ankle as if they had been…

He closed his eyes tightly. When news of a young slave being held in the prison had reached his ears, he had thought it was merely a case of theft, or perhaps adultery. Now, with proof that the slave had suffered a fate dealt to those on the cross, Andros began to wonder just what the bond was between the two. Why would the Lord have had her crucified and then reclaimed? While he had entertained thoughts of a romantic sort blossoming up between master and slave, it was one of brief infatuation. She was merely a slave, after all. In the many years he’d known the irascible warrior, not once had either man or woman spent more than a fortnight in the Conqueror’s company. Many had left with both mental and physical scars, their time with the dark Lord brief yet forever remembered.

A shudder ran through the man as he contemplated the ramifications of the slave’s preparations. He only hoped Daedalis would use as much powder as it took to alleviate all of the pain she’d have to endure. She was much too young to be suffering this fate twice. Whatever plans the Conqueror held for this girl, he wished they were swift and merciful.

"No, sire. It shall be done." Andros sighed deeply and then moved carefully over to where Gabrielle was standing. The girl wrung her hands piteously, and it broke his heart to watch.

The bard locked her eyes on those of blue, and could see an ocean of pain. It was like a physical blow to her. Oh, how she wanted to embrace the warrior, Lieutenant be damned! She didn’t want to leave, not now, not when things were going so well.

When they had been lying there tightly in each other’s embrace all the pain and sorrow of the world seemed so very far away. Every kiss they had shared seemed to strengthen the bond between them. She had felt so shattered when a look of pity had crossed the Lord’s face. It had been so hard to hold back the mounting pain as Xena had eased herself down upon her. Things had been quite easily ignored at first, the flames of desire hot enough to sear any thoughts of discomfort from her mind. But the arrival of the Lieutenant and his men seemed to provoke the Conqueror from her show of tenderness. The increasing force brought to bear upon her body had turned red searing flame into white-hot pain, terrible in its all-encompassing form, and impossible to deny.

Watching the Lord’s response to her crippling pain had been brutal. Gabrielle had wanted to run away and hide because of her terrible weakness. How could someone as strong and virile be attracted to someone so obviously deformed? And then the truth eased past the barricades and the bard had realized that it was not pity but the initial stirrings of tender concern and…?

Gabrielle started as she felt the man’s hand on her elbow. "What?"

"You must come with me, girl. It’s for the best."

"Yes, for the best." Taking hold of the man tightly, Gabrielle began her walk past the silent form of the Conqueror. She wanted to speak with Xena once before leaving, to at least settle the torment she saw on the woman’s face. How would she repair the damage done by the assassin? Who would she trust to help her?

Xena forced herself to look away as the two exited her chambers. The stillness of her rooms descended upon her like a deathly pall.




Chapter Thirteen



The candles sizzled as each one was snuffed out with the moist end of the Conqueror’s fingers. She sighed deeply as her hearing caught the random movements of the new guards just beyond the large oak doors of her chamber.

As the flames were extinguished, the Lord went through the incidents of the past few days. Her fingers played over the loosened strands of the catgut at her side and she took some comfort in the pain it elicited. If nothing else, it meant she was capable of feeling something other than the cold isolation that seemed to hold her tight.

Walking carefully over to the sideboard, the Conqueror poured herself another drink and then sat by the bed waiting for the healer. She winced as her fingers absently probed the damaged flesh. What had she been thinking? It was just pure foolhardiness to ignore a wound, and in her position such oversight could have meant her life.

"That damned assassin. Who sent him and just what were those inscrutable words he’d spoken?" Any thoughts of Dagnine being the man’s employer flew out the window as soon as he’d spoken a word. "Was that low or high Chinese, Mandarin or Cantonese? And the man’s voice itself…what of that?" It had been somewhat raspy and yet Xena could tell the man was young. She groaned as she inspected her bruised ribs.

"And very strong. Not to mention knowledgeable. Where the fuck did he learn that pinch?" She grimaced as she swallowed a rather large quantity of port.

Xena went over the many lessons Lao Ma had given her years before. Flexing her fingers again, she noticed that a little more feeling was returning to the left side of her upper body. Whoever the man was, it was certain he was of the same caliber as Lao Ma, perhaps even her superior in his grasp of the martial arts. Was that possible? While she’d been very impressed with the array of combative skills the lovely concubine had displayed, there had been nothing that equaled the strength and debilitating force of this recent attack. She tried to remember exactly what the assassin had done. Had he struck her there, where the bruise was, or higher? Had the bruise been the result of the blocked blood flow from a nerve pinched farther up?

Xena ground her teeth in frustration. She needed to see that man again, learn what he knew, and then…Well, no man was indispensable.

Tipping her goblet again, Xena was surprised to find it empty. Grumbling all the way, she went for more libations. The front of her gown fell open, and she stumbled on one corner. Hitting the floor with a resounding crash, the Conqueror rolled over onto her back clutching her side painfully.

The door creaked open quickly and a young guard stuck his head inside.


Xena pounded her right hand painfully against her left arm and shoulder in frustration and accented her answer with an empty goblet. The man ducked quickly as it hit the wall by his head.

"Get out!"


Not wishing to provoke further anger, the guard made a pinched face and then slammed the door behind him.

"Conqueror’s in a fine mood t’night, idn’t she? D’ya fink she misses that bit of fluff what went out of ‘ere earlier? I say she’s goin’ soft, I do. An’ bloody daft as well." He brought his face close to Maltor’s and then whispered conspiratorially. "I don’t fink I’d follow her into battle. Why, she’d raver spend the day in bed, she would. We ain’t had a good battle fer months. How’s a bloke s’pose to make a decent livin’ wiffout da spoils of war, I ask ya? And I could do wiff a bit o’the slap ‘n tickle, s’truth."

Maltor nodded absently, and jingled the few coins he’d earned before his last watch. Yes, his time with Dagnine was proving to be profitable. He decided to make another visit to the man before his second watch later that night. Seeing the Conqueror in such a state might be worth something. He narrowed his eyes as the Lord’s words came back to him. ‘Well,’ he thought petulantly, ‘perhaps I won’t have to worry none about a promotion in your army…especially if you don’t have one for long.’ He spent the next part of his shift wondering just what type of position he could curry with the Lieutenant. A man of his obvious skills was sure to be worth something. He began to hum tunelessly.


Xena dragged herself back up and into her bed just as the healer entered the room.

"Milord…" He stopped in his tracks as he noticed the Conqueror’s condition.

He opened his mouth to rebuke the woman but was silenced with one raised eyebrow.

"Don’t even go there, Daedalis, not if you value your life. Just…sew me back up, and be quick about it."

The healer bowed with a flourish, and then set out the contents of his bag on the sideboard.

"Do you wish a herbal mixture for the…? No, I can see you are well past worrying about the pain. In your present mood, I doubt they would take effect in time to do any good anyway." He removed his spectacles from his pocket in preparation for looking over the wound.

"Lord Xena, if I may?" She nodded but said nothing as she slowly opened her robe.

Encouraged by the woman’s silence, he decided to continue with his reprimand.

"I did try to tell you…" His next words were squeezed off as the warrior reached across and grabbed him by the throat.

"Has your advanced age addled your brain, healer, or have you just lost all will to live?"

Daedalis squeaked a small reply and then waited patiently for the Conqueror’s grip to loosen. He rubbed the red flesh of his neck and then attempted to clear his throat. His efforts were dismal. Taking a small flask from his bag, he uncorked the contents and then brought the bottle to his lips.

"Eeek," he sputtered as the flask was taken just inches from his mouth.

"I’ll just take that." Daedalis pursed his lips as the warrior drank down his private stock of Ouzo. Knowing better than to push his luck further, he watched in silence and then caught the empty flask as she tossed it back to him.

"Perfect. How thoughtful of you to think of me, Daedalis."

Rubbing his throat carefully, he grimaced once and then replaced it with a weak smile. "But of course, Lord Xena. I am…at your service."

"Whatever. Proceed with your…procedure."

Within the hour, the healer had patched the wound and had cautioned his patient against entertaining anything more strenuous than climbing into bed for the rest of the day.

"I’m not a child, Daedalis."

He grunted as he made his way to the door.

"Then don’t act like one, milord."


Xena growled half-heartedly, and waited until the man had gone, then walked unsteadily to the bathroom. Splashing some cold water on her face, she readied herself for the ordeal she must perform.

Xena glanced closely at her reflection, picked out a spot on her neck, nodded once and then jabbed two fingers into it.

She gasped as the air slowly seeped from between her lips. Holding her right hand before her, she watched as the tremors increased. She was unaware of the blood leaking from her left nostril, snaking its way down to her chin. Only when she’d fallen to her knees and her eyes had begun to roll back into her skull did she bring her hand back up to her neck.

The mere act of doing so had her sweating profusely, and she squeezed her eyes tightly against the growing darkness.

‘It has to work…it just has to.’ She thought as she summoned the last bit of her strength and jabbed her fingers back into the soft flesh of her neck. Falling forward into a heap, Xena lay trembling as she fought to bring her breathing back under control. She resettled her shoulders and then moved her left hand. It was as if small sharp teeth were gnawing at the flesh there, and she cried out in relief.

"A good sign…"

Flexing her fingers into a fist slowly, Xena’s confidence began to build. It had been quite a few hours since she’d been able to even perform such a simple task. If she continued to improve…

The Conqueror hadn’t really taken the time to examine what her life would have been reduced to if she’d completely lost the use of her arm. Quite frankly, it was a topic she had been avoiding it all day. Watching the young bard being helped out of her chambers had made her realize the type of existence the woman endured…every single day. ‘And I’m the cause of that. My blind quest for justice at any cost reduced another human being’s life to one of pain and humiliation. That isn’t justice, it was a thoughtless deed rendered by an uncaring ruler. How many other judgments have I meted out without discerning exactly what the ramifications would be?’

Xena shook the thoughts loose from her head and slowly sat up.

"Bah! It must be that liquor Daedalis gave me. Man’s trying to poison me, I know it." She shook her head hard trying to dislodge the growing feeling of guilt sitting in the pit of her belly like some sharp rock.

"It’s my duty as ruler of Corinth to dispense justice in any way I see fit. Haven’t the peasants more food than they ever had? Isn’t there a smaller death count amongst the old and the very young? There are no more petty squabbles between warring factions in the area. Only Caesar…"

Xena grabbed a damp cloth and pressed it to her forehead. All this talk of politics and justice was beginning to give her another headache. A few unsteady steps took her into her bedchambers. Just the mere sight of her comfortable mattress had her groaning. It had been a long bloody 24 hours. Life was never easy, but lately everything was conspiring against her. Xena shuffled a few more steps closer to the bed. She was doing her best, and that was enough. Who could expect anything more from her?

But was she?

She sat at the edge of her bed and sighed deeply. She’d always considered herself to be a competent ruler, one that was both fair and thorough in her quest for the truth. Now she wasn’t so sure. The years of handling the judicial matters were long ago, leaving the duty for her Lord Chancellor. When had she begun to take more pleasure in the judgment of men than the quest for their guilt or innocence?

"What’s happening to me? I know my path, and I know my duty. Enough of this foolish thought." She glanced up quickly as her servant girl entered the rooms and began setting out trays of food.

Xena’s belly growled its approval as the scent of food wafted over to her.

"Ah, Ubris. Just what the healer ordered." Rubbing her left hand and arm, she walked to the table and began to eat.

"Wine, Ubris."

The Conqueror pushed a few of the bottles off the table and grunted as one broke. "This place is a mess. See to it. I believe I’ll go out for a ride. It’s time I was seen back in the company of my men. I’ve laid in bed far too long."

Ubris narrowed her eyes as the Lord began to stuff food into her face.

"There are rumours to quell, fights to be fought, and a certain silence to be found on the practice field. All this chattering lately has me longing for the companionship of my horse." She burped between bites and mentally went through her list of suitable rides, finally settling on the large palomino.

Ubris wanted to reach out as the woman began to disrobe. Helping the Conqueror with her personal attire was always one of her favorite duties. Her lips flattened into a cruel line as she thought of the young woman a few doors down. Gabrielle had been given a bath in preparation for the healer’s arrival. He would administer a sedative and then…

"You are going out, master?"

Xena’s head popped up at the use of the word ‘master’.

"Yes, I have no time to play ‘slave girl’ with you, Ubris. My duties have been sadly lacking of late. I mean to rectify that right here, and right now."

The Egyptian held her tongue as the Conqueror dropped her robe and walked leisurely over to her bed, dauntless in her self-confidence. The Conqueror viewed everything in life as a game and Ubris wondered if Lord Xena was the board itself or merely the one who manipulated all the pieces?

The woman’s broad back and shoulders seemed to gleam in the morning sunshine, giving the servant the impression that this perfect specimen of pulchritude was indeed a goddess. There was no doubt in her mind that Lord Xena truly believed that she had everything needed in life. Ubris felt a tightening in her chest as she thought of just what the Conqueror didn’t have, and might never have. The bond with her soulmate had been so strong that death could not sever it. Could Lord Xena be smart enough to recognize the opportunity afforded her and seize it? It seemed the Lord was oblivious to the truth offered by the petite blonde. ‘So much to give,’ she thought sadly as the warrior began settling the leathers over her muscular frame.

She smiled as the Conqueror muttered as she went about her chore. She had always taken pride in the knowledge that Lord Xena felt comfortable enough to let down some of her barriers and speak from her heart. She had learned much about the woman in just this way. Who had heard the tears she cried deep in the night when her family turned their back? Who had held the inebriated woman after her bouts of depression when it seemed all those around her had betrayed her in one way or another? And who was it that had been privy to the Lord’s darkest secrets, and darker needs? Yes, Ubris was indeed one of the privileged few. But was it enough to just sit back and watch as life was frittered between the Conqueror’s fingers? Was ‘duty’ all there was?

"Damned buckles. Fix this one at the back."

Blue eyes caught brown as the servant stood her ground.

"I said…"

"You wish me to tend to you, master? You cannot do this alone, no?"

Xena scratched her chin and tried the buckle again.

"Why should I bother when you are there to do it for me? It’s your duty to attend me, Ubris. What has come over you, girl?"

"If it was not my duty, do you think I would still perform this function, Lord?"

Xena grabbed her bracers and then stood before her armoire. ‘Perhaps I should forgo the battle dress, and just wear my jerkin and pants?’ She threw the servant a look of distaste.

"You’re being very troublesome, Ubris. You’ve always told me how much you enjoy aiding me with my wardrobe."

The Egyptian nodded. "Yes, sire. It is a time well spend, when our bond is rich in both closeness and harmony."

"Then do as you are asked. It’s not even mid autumn and the cool air is already making me regret my choice in clothing."

The servant sighed deeply. ‘Even though I am expected to read your mind and be satisfied with the silence. You can say so much with one look, yes, but sometimes a woman needs more than that…sometimes she needs words as well as actions.’

"Come along and be quick about it. I’ve spent far too much time in my chambers as it is, molly coddling that slave. Things have to change, Ubris."

‘But they already have, Lord Xena. You have but to accept them.’

The servant had just opened her mouth to reply when she found herself pushed to her knees.

"Your hesitation displeases me, Ubris. Don’t think that because the slave’s insolence goes unpunished in your presence, that you can be openly defiant without consequence." She tangled her fingers in the young woman’s dark tresses.

"I’ve not applied the flogger to you yet, don’t make me change that."

The smell of alcohol drifted over the servant’s face as the Conqueror locked eyes with her. Ubris released a slow measured breath, sat back on her heels, and just looked up at the Conqueror.

"No, Lord. I do not believe you are a very nice person, master, but you would not beat me."

Xena jerked her head back in surprise.


"You think of yourself as a very cruel woman, but I do not think you have a heart of stone, my Lord Xena, despite the part you play."

Xena snorted and swaggered over to the table. Grabbing a few morsels of meat, she ate hungrily, and then burped before responding. "Bah, why should your thinking be any different from the others, Ubris. Everyone believes exactly what I wish them to. Never give the people the truth; they wouldn’t know what to do with it."

Ubris scurried over and placed a hand on the pacing warrior’s leg, entreating her to stop.

"You really wish to go out riding when Gabrielle lies alone, waiting for the pain to begin?"

Xena flinched. "I have a duty, that is my truth."

"The ‘truth’ you have given the people is that you have become the very person you wish them to believe you are."

"This is all because of that bard, isn’t it? Has she been twisting your mind, perverting your allegiance to me?" ‘Damn that woman…she’s making us both weak…undermining my authority…making me think too hard…unwanted emotions welling up inside me…’ Xena blinked fiercely and tried not to think of the procedure in store for the frail bard. ‘She’ll do better by herself, without worrying about appearing so weak. But she is weak, you fool. She’s been in pain for days…most of which you caused! The least you could do is stay with her, let her know…’ Xena cocked her head. ‘Let her know what: that I care, and that it would break my heart to see her in pain? Or that she makes me as weak as a child when she speaks my name with such ease and devotion?’

Ubris watched as the Conqueror’s shoulders slumped, and then she slowly got to her feet.

"Sire, am I merely a servant to you?"

Xena ignored the woman and began removing her unbuckled armour. ‘I need to get out of here. It’ll be the pants today after all.’ "Can’t you just stop…talking?"

"I wish to serve you, master, because it gives me great pleasure. I do not do so because it is my duty as your servant, or because you force me. Your violent ways could never bind me to you. Just as your attempts at breaking the will of Gabrielle will never earn her love or respect."

The warrior had had enough. Why were women so consumed with the idea of ‘love’? She whirled on the servant, her index finger held out before her as a weapon.

"And what makes you think I want either, from you or from her? Fear and intimidation gets me everything I want or will ever need, Ubris."

The servant swallowed hard. Now was the time for truths, even truths the Conqueror wished to avoid. Would her rage be total and all encompassing? Ubris sighed resignedly. Still weakened by her ordeal at the warrior’s hands, she had little to lose. Lord Xena usually vented her displeasure with any of her servants by way of long bursts of vile temper. It usually resulted in broken furniture and unkind words spoken in haste. Despite her blustery threats to the contrary, Ubris knew no woman had ever been subjected to anything she hadn’t willingly consented to. Except the fair Gabrielle. There was something about the blonde that brought out the very worst in the Conqueror. And the very best. She wondered just how the rest of the realm would react to this particular truth.

"We could not love you so if you had a heart made of stone. We love you in spite of yourself."

Xena’s eyebrows knit as the woman’s words slapped at her. She pushed Ubris away from her and stared into her eyes.

"What gibberish are you going on about now?" Looking decidedly uncomfortable, Xena began to remove her battle dress.

"Why does everything have to be about ‘love’," she grumbled. "Ever since that woman entered my life, things have just not been the same. And I won’t have it! Why do things have to be so godsbedamned complicated?"

Ubris began to unlace the back of Xena’s leathers.

"But Lord, she has brought you much joy. She has brought you peaceful slumber and the first stirrings of love."

"Love. What’s this talk of love," she queried between mouthfuls. "It’s an emotion best suited for the weak of body and mind. It does no man any good to lose his heart and therefore his reason and very soul." The Conqueror began to pace again. ‘Offer any of my men love or power, and they will gladly choose the latter. I don’t require my people to love me, just to obey me. In all things.’

Such thoughts brought her back to the subject of Andros, and exactly why he and some of the other men remained loyal to her. Surely it wasn’t just the dinars?

"No, milord. I mean, yes milord." Ubris bowed deeply as the woman’s leathers fell to the floor in a heap. She picked through the articles in the drawer, and then held up a pair of light leather pants. Ubris smiled expectantly.

"These would do nicely, yes Lord?"

Xena rubbed her jaw, completely lost in thought as she prowled her chambers. ‘If I’m not in control of my faculties, then it follows that I must be in love? What foolishness.’ She grumbled the last word under her breath and then focused her eyes on the woman before her.

"What are you doing? I need my robe, not a pair of pants. I have no idea where your mind has gone, Ubris. Are you still weak and losing blood?" Placing a hand on the servant’s face, she tipped the woman’s chin up carefully. The bruises were beginning to fade.

"I never meant to be so…Never."

"It was not me you wished to punish, sire." She cleared her throat. "You will not be riding this morning, then Lord?"

Xena grunted. ‘Why would I punish her, she did nothing wrong. And the slave was in the other room…although terribly insolent, stubborn, willful…’

"How could you think I’d make the slave suffer…?" An image of the broken body of a woman floated up before her. At first it wore Gabrielle’s face and then it was Ubris lying in blood, as the truth of the suffering she had caused her servant hit her again. She had meant to hurt Gabrielle. Since the very beginning. But why?

"I never meant to hurt you, Ubris. Things got carried away…I lost control."

"Yes, Lord. Sometimes you are at your very best when you are not in total control, when your true self is unleashed, my liege. I have seen it with Ankara…and now with Gabrielle. In the first instance, you let the tiger own you. But with the bard…you seem to relish the passion, Lord, and not the conquest."

Xena’s lips twitched as she remembered the heat that ran through her body as Gabrielle had openly admired her body. How long had she lain there pretending to sleep, just watching the blonde as she in turn watched her? She could see the passion in the woman, but the little bard was so determined to hold onto something that she wished to give away freely. She fingered her nipple ring. The little bard produced such feelings of passion, desire, anger and confusion. It was all very perplexing to Xena, who decided not to think about it anymore.

"My robe, Ubris. What have you done with it? And run a bath for me. I’ll have something more to eat and then a long relaxing soak, I think. That should take my mind off things. I have a full schedule of things this afternoon. I’ll be far too busy to sit around here for long. But first a bath; a little rest and relaxation, and I should be fit as a fiddle to go roust a few lay-abouts in the morning."

Grabbing her robe off the end of her bed, exactly where she’d left it, Xena glanced quickly at the small grin that was painted on the servant’s lips.

"What do you find so amusing, and where did you say the slave was? Just for my information, of course."

"Gabrielle is but a few doors down, milord. I smile to see you happy, sire. Should I tell her that you will be coming forthwith?"

"No! No that will be fine, Ubris, I’ll be too busy, really." Xena walked back over to the table, flexing her left hand, pleased with the returning circulation, and began to eat.

"And I’m not happy, I’m hungry. I’m never happy…unless you want to round up some of my guards now so that I may pummel them after breakfast."

"But Lord, Daedalis said…"

"Yes, yes, I know. Besides, it would give the men an unfair advantage: it wouldn’t do them any good to see only half the squadron disabled by one slightly incapacitated warrior. Bad for moral." She chuckled to herself.

She held up an empty bottle. "And more wine, if you please. In case you haven’t noticed, that young woman lives up to the title ‘bard’ quite admirably. My throat shall be parched if it is not nicely lubricated well before hand." She stroked her throat. "Perhaps you can fetch me some honey, too. An ounce of prevention, after all."

A pensive look crossed her face, and then Xena cleared her throat. "I suppose I’ll have to see her sometime today."

Ubris hid her smirk with a tiny hand. She, too, had noticed the young woman’s verbosity. While the Conqueror saw it as a shortcoming, she herself thought of it as being exactly what the healer had ordered. She pursed her lips as she thought of the callous man. It would do no good to have the healer wandering in and break the mood. She shuddered. Her choice of words was…unsettling. The whole idea of re-breaking the young woman’s legs was more than ‘unsettling’. Ubris bit her lip pensively. A quick visit with the young woman now, after she ran the Lord’s bath, would be perfect timing. Perhaps there was work for her in the other end of the castle, away from the screaming?




Chapter Fourteen



Xena reclined in the heated water with a towel around the back of her neck and each arm lying on the tiles framing the large sunken bathtub. Mist swirled slowly and heavily as she thought about the assassin. He was taking up quite a bit of her thinking lately. He could have killed them both easily and efficiently, but hadn’t. Had the previous attack been merely a ruse? And what of the slave? She was just so…unmanageable. The duty to train such a person would have fallen to Ankara.

The Conqueror tilted her head back and sighed, trying to let the hot water do its work and relax her.

Xena closed her eyes and thought about the exuberant Egyptian and how much she really missed her. While Ubris had been habitually quiet and far too serious, Ankara had been the feisty one who always found the humour and goodness in things. Xena hadn’t realized just how carefree her soul had felt with that in her life until it was too late. It seemed that Gabrielle shared this quality. With a quick shake of her head Xena tossed the image of the small blonde out of her mind. A slow breath hissed its release as the warrior tried to center herself again. But no matter how hard she tried, the truth of the woman’s heroism kept creeping back in. Why had she gone to such lengths to save her? It couldn’t have anything to do with her future: as far as the bard was concerned, her days of freedom were over. Xena rubbed her thumb roughly over the point of her chin. Well, if that wasn’t the inspiration for her selfless act, what was? The word ‘love’ buzzed about, but was splashed harmlessly away.

Xena took a deep breath and then steepled her fingertips. Yes, Gabrielle’s days as a prisoner were over. It had to be that way. If she wasn’t guilty of sedition, then her confinement was unlawful. For the first time, Xena wondered just where the erroneous information had come from. ‘Well, no harm done.’ She’d get Andros to see to things in the morning.

She sighed deeply. And what would the slave do once released? Not ‘slave’ - Gabrielle. She’d have to remember that. The woman’s aversion to being referred to that hadn’t gone unnoticed. A shadow moved across her face, erasing a look of concentration, and replacing it with one of petulance. ‘It doesn’t matter what she wants; it’s what I need. And I need her here, if not as a slave, then as a servant. My will be done.’

Strange awkward feelings began niggling in her belly once more, and the warrior began to absently chew on one knuckle. ‘What if she doesn’t want to stay? Of course, she’ll have to after the surgery, that’s a given. But once she’s up and around, why there’s nothing to keep her here. I suppose I could keep her confined to her quarters when she’s not attending me.’

Xena massaged the soap over her left bicep, totally lost in thought as she paced from one end of the bath to the other. It was certain the bard enjoyed writing. Xena tried to remember exactly what type of scrolls had been confiscated in the raid. Had there been some poetry? Blowing her damp bangs away from her eyes, the Conqueror decided it might be prudent to have a Royal Scribe. Someone with a gift for words…Well, that certainly described the chatterbox off playing patient to Andros’ nursemaid. ‘He’d better not even think of touching her. No, he’d turned down Ubris, so there was no reason to think he’d want this one either. Huh. I’d best have a talk with the man.’


Her belly tightened as she heard a slight rustling against the door to her bathing chamber. Running her thumb along the blade that lay just at her fingertips, Xena forced herself to relax. Here she’d decided not to let herself be caught unawares, and someone had gotten as close to her inner chamber door without her even knowing it!

Cursing under her breath, she dipped her head below the surface of the bath, and exhaled slowly. Only when her lungs were completely devoid of air did she come back up. Moving slowly over to the far wall of the bath, Xena crossed her arms and settled her chin against them. The rather ferret-like scratching could only be from one man, her Lord Chamberlain; a man who was a legend in his own little mind. Rolling her eyes once, the Conqueror set her jaw and prepared for the ordeal at hand.

"Come in, Mica."

A rather toad-like man waddled into the room, all but wringing his hands in fear. Oh, how he detested visiting the Lord when she was bathing! Where was one to look, and what to say so as not to provoke a rant? One never knew with the Conqueror.

"Milord Xena, Conqueror of Nations, Destroyer of Chaos, Master of the Realm…"

Xena sneered and splashed a small bit of water in the man’s direction.

"Enough, man. I have another appointment, so come to the point and then leave."

The Lord Chamberlain swallowed with a click. How could he possibly get all the information he needed to convey if the Conqueror was already putting time limits on his presence?

"But my liege…"

Xena moved back against the far wall and fixed him with a stony glare. "Now."

Mica was a rather foolish little man who had a penchant for inane chattering. Being in the presence of such power and perfection was really very awkward for him. Hiding behind florid speech and a bombastic attitude had kept those around him from seeing the shallow frightened man he truly was. It irked him fiercely that Lord Xena could see through his carefully manufactured façade with such ease.

He smiled crookedly, biting his inner cheek in the process, and slid his hand inside his sleeve. Taking hold of a few long hairs, Mica pulled delicately until he could focus solely on his inner voice. ‘No babbling.’

"Well your majesty, as you know there was notification that two emissaries from Rome will be attending your court by nightfall. There’s been a delay, and they should arrive in the next day or so. Although far too early to be thinking of renegotiating our treaty with Rome, I can’t think of another reason for this impromptu meeting."

One eyebrow rose slowly as a low growl filled the air.

"Heh, your majesty please, there is much to do before they arrive. We must think of ways to placate them while we…um …you discern exactly what it is they want. What if they’re here to plunder, milord? What if they sense a weakness…your absence during the latest campaign…?"

Mica squeezed his own neck in an effort to swallow down the rising urge to babble.

"And they are expecting to see you fit and battle ready, my most esteemed liege. You must be seen as a force to be reckoned with, milord, something to which they’ve become accustomed. It is the nature of things, my dear Conqueror, for those less fortunate than ourselves to be put in their place whenever necessary. This pack of jackals must be sent grinning on their merry way. To do otherwise is to invite dissention."

Xena slowly rose from the water, her upper body totally visible to the quivering man before her. She narrowed her eyes as Mica whined pitifully.

"And…and…it’s been rumored that…well, you were wounded…and we have to make sure, your highness, that the image we produce for the em…em…"

Placing one rather large but well-formed foot on the top step of the bath, the Conqueror moved with ease and a predatory gait until she had cornered the cowering Lord Chamberlain. As she stood a good two heads taller than Mica, and always demanded total concentration from those she addressed, Xena grabbed the man by the upper arms and slowly lifted him up against the wall. With all of her formidable concentration, the warrior willed the tremors that had begun in her left arm to still and exhaled an even breath as her body responded.

Mica felt his bowels begin to quake, and although he knew without a doubt that his feet were a good 8 inches from the floor, tried nevertheless to regain purchase of it.

"Stop squirming, little man. I detest your obsequious behavior. Lap dogs are a dinar a dozen, Mica, show some rigidity in that gelatinous spine of yours." Xena watched as the man’s mouth opened and closed, and then let go of his shoulders. Mica’s knees buckled as soon as he was safely back on the ground, his further descent halted as the Conqueror grabbed him by the scruff of his neck.

"Do I look weak to you, Mica?" She looked down and poked her bruised flesh. It seeped a small amount of blood that quickly dissipated as it joined the rivulets of water dripping down her body. Her eyes became hooded as he shook his foolish head vehemently.

"This minor wound is of no consequence and you would do well to remember that appearances can indeed be deceiving."

She stepped back and did a slow pirouette, placing both hands behind her back, slumping her shoulders and studiously gazed at the floor.

"Am I not a mere woman? Regardless of my height and musculature, what threat could an unarmed naked woman ever pose?" The Lord Chamberlain blinked slowly as the Conqueror transformed herself into a very innocent and demure peasant girl. But before he could blink again, the warrior emerged, wild eyed and teeth bared.

He screamed shrilly as the knife thunked loudly into the wood inches away from his throat. And then he swallowed spasmodically as he felt his manhood held tightly within the Lord’s fist.

Xena smirked as the man almost passed out in front of her. Foolish men, they only saw what they wanted, even when faced with someone in full armour and armed to the teeth; all they saw was a woman, something to be either dismissed or ravaged.

"I will be whatever I want them to see, Mica." She squeezed once and then dismissed the trembling man.

"Ya…ya…yes milord."

Xena removed the knife, stepped carefully back into the bath, and then watched the man quickly genuflect before her. She briefly wondered whether it was abject terror or whether she’d squeezed too hard. No matter, the results were what counted.

"I have other things to attend to. It shall be your task to entertain these men when they arrive. I’m certain your legendary gift of verbosity will keep them enchanted for hours. Don’t let my faith in you be unfounded, Mica."

He nodded quickly, all but blubbering as he backed away to the door. Her cold brittle smile had almost turned his blood to ice.


Xena snorted derisively as he stumbled out the door. Placing the knife back along the lip of the bath, the warrior carefully held her arm out and watched as the trembling increased. It had taken a good deal of concentration to perform for the bureaucrat. She blinked deeply as she attempted a deeper breath.

"This will never do. They’ll be on me like the pair of pursuit dogs they are." Xena wondered which men Caesar would send. If he had decided not to even grace them with his presence, then it was truly a hunting party that comes to court. She wondered just what the ‘great man’ had up his sleeve. What ever it was, it was certain to take place within the next twenty-four hours.

‘Godsbedamn you, Caesar.’

Although finding him terribly alluring in a dangerously compelling way, it was the man’s ego that just couldn’t be gotten around. No matter how she tried, Xena knew without a doubt that there would be three in the bed, not two, and she played second fiddle to no one.

She switched the blade to her left hand and began a slow maneuvering of the knife playing the handle in hesitant, but deft hands. Wincing, she reached under the water as the knife fell for the second time and sighed in annoyance. The Conqueror wasn’t terribly upset with her slow but steady improvement, but knew she’d have to be in the best condition possible when Caesar’s toadies came to call.

Xena cocked her head and then rose from her bath. "Ah, Ubris; I see you’ve brought another bottle." Wringing the excess moisture from her long tangled hair, she moved across to the small balcony and stood looking over the lake. A small ripple played across the surface of the water and the Conqueror sighed in contentment as Ubris began the task of drying her hair and body.

The Conqueror waggled her goblet and then sighed in satisfaction as it was filled, and then the cold red wine hit her pallet. Her belly growled ominously, making the servant smirk. She’d put out the Lord’s usual fare of fruit, meat and breads, but could see that they remained untouched. The mere thought of eating had her belly rolling and her insides tightened as she thought of the young bard’s preparations.

Ubris draped a silken bathrobe over her Lord’s impressive shoulders and began a hasty retreat.

"And where are you off to in such a hurry?"

The Egyptian looked furtively towards the main chamber, her eyes surrounded by lines of worry.

"The healer, sire…"

Ubris paused as the warrior flinched. Why couldn’t she just admit that the young woman was important to her? Why couldn’t the Lord just accept the love offered? The servant sighed. Everything must be difficult first; Lord Xena only seemed happy when faced with adversity. When it was overcome, and only then, would she pick through and find some lesson to be learned. The Conqueror was painstakingly thorough, and stubborn.

Xena said nothing but sighed deeply and moved into the main chambers. ‘She’s just a common girl, nothing more. She means nothing to me. And yet…why was I willing to throw my own life away to the assassin in order to spare hers? The woman confessed she doesn’t know why she was drawn to me. She undoubtedly wants something from me.’ Thoughts of conspiracy rose like wraiths. ‘Perhaps she’s insinuated herself into my household in hopes that I shall fall for her comely face and equally pleasing form?’ She felt hands applying soft lotion to her legs and thighs and sighed as memories of the young bard moving beneath her crept into her mind. Setting her empty glass aside, she pondered things further. ‘But how would she know that I’d have her picked up and crucified? How would she know that I’d have her taken down and imprisoned afterwards? She wouldn’t, she couldn’t possibly know that. Why, I didn’t even know that I was going to do it until the deed was done. Why did I do it? What ever possessed me to have two of my soldiers go through the fields, picking through the newly crucified and those being taken down to be burned, searching just for an unknown rebel?’

A night filled with dark worries and piercing nightmares swam before her eyes, and the Conqueror shivered as she remembered how upsetting it was to be prodded awake by her two servants, their worried voices confusing her until she had gotten a firmer grip on her surroundings. Xena could almost feel the warmth of the two bodies now as they stroked and soothed her back into a state of calm. It had been a very long time before sleep had found her, and even the rather aggressive coupling she’d enjoyed until dawn’s first light could not dispel her feelings of foreboding. Each bit of flesh conquered; each moan and sigh torn from the two women had been more an act of diversion than any act of sexual gratification.

The Conqueror looked down at her white knuckled hands and forced herself to relax, focusing on anything but that horrible sense of destiny that seemed to hang over her that night. She blinked once, as the Egyptian seemed to flutter about her duties like some butterfly, but Xena could make no sense of what the woman was saying. Try as she might, Xena found it impossible to let the memories go, and found herself caught in its grasp again.

It had been only a few hours after finally succumbing to fatigue that the warrior had sent the soldiers off in search of the insurgent. She had looked down upon the exhausted two women; both covered in sweat and tangled in each other’s arms, and had felt only terrible loneliness. While they slept, she drank until finally being coerced to return to bed. When she had awakened, everything was changed. Xena didn’t know why or how, but it had.

‘Was it then that things had begun to go wrong?’ She remembered how the next night had almost mirrored the first. A good night’s sleep hadn’t occurred until the bard had been safely tucked below floors, chained and caged with the other dissenters. Although she had fooled herself into thinking the bard’s case had been randomly chosen as the next incident to be dealt with on the day’s roster, Xena could finally see that it was not happenstance at all, but a serendipity of the gods. But which god? Ares had been absent for more than a season, having been sated at the last battle that had ended with a pair of warlords impaled at the end of her pike, their heads adorning his temple as tribute.

"Ubris, more wine." The Egyptian opened her mouth to protest as the goblet was emptied again but fell silent as the Lord’s somber mood fell upon her as well.

Xena scowled as she thought of Ares and his manipulative ways. Mind you, she knew how to work that to her own advantage as well. She had no use for the family of Zeus, both hands having been filled with the persistent ardor of one son and the undying love of another. What would the God of War make of the pending visitation from Caesar’s court? Although not a frequent visitor to her castle, it had been a long time since the god had graced her with his counsel. Taking a deep breath, Xena pushed out her senses but felt neither the rush nor the eerie premonition of the god’s dark presence.

Deep in thought she absently waved the servant’s fussing hands away and then finished smoothing in the rich oil over each of her breasts, belly, and then finally her shoulders and neck. Each stroke seemed to pull her back into the enjoyable feeling of having the bard in her arms. Yawning deeply, she blinked away the cloying cobwebs and tried to concentrate on her surroundings.

Ubris cocked her head in puzzlement as yet another question went unanswered. Was the Conqueror still feeling the effects of her attack, or was it concern for the young bard? ‘Poor Gabrielle.’ Gathering the discarded towels, she bowed deeply and then left.

Darting a quick look down the hall, the Egyptian shivered slightly and then decided she’d delay in preparing the Lord’s evening meal. There was laundry to be done, after all, and even though it was farther to go, distance was a good thing this day.

The Conqueror stood in front of her armoire, and gazed at her reflection critically.

"I’m getting fat, there’s just no two ways about it. Ubris, do you think my inactivity has grown me a paunch? Perhaps I should go out for a ride this morning. Ubris?"

She turned and grabbed the brush by her stand.

"Damn that girl, where has she gotten to now?" Xena strode over to the bathing chamber, almost evoking the other Egyptian’s name. But Ankara was gone. It had been only two days and yet it seemed a lifetime since she’d seen that impish smile that could break through even her darkest of moods.

Standing back in front of the mirror, Xena slowly began brushing her long dark brown hair. The Conqueror’s even strokes coupled with the affects of the wine seemed to act as a balm, and soon her ill temper was waxing and waning, making her feel quite mellow.

"I need a good massage and this damned arm…Where is that servant?" Grabbing her pants and jerkin, the warrior stumbled over to the front doors, cursing as a foot became tangled.

"Ubris!" She growled in frustration as she flung open the great doors to her chamber. Two guards stood stiffly to attention, their eyes averted as the Conqueror finished buttoning up the front of her shirt. Xena narrowed her eyes at each man, daring them to say a word and then stomped down the hallway in search of her servant.

"Blasted wench." Biting back a yawn, she stumbled down the hallway muttering expletives as she went. The two guards blinked slowly and then turned to one another. One shrugged and the other smirked. "Ah, to have a bit of wine whenever you wanted, that’s the life."


Gabrielle started as a shadow loomed across the doorway, and then resettled her blankets as the form became Lord Xena.


Xena’s head snapped up, and for one clear moment the bard could see the young girl the Conqueror had once been. Gone were the guarded looks, and the harsh set to her full lips, leaving a rather startled and innocent looking woman.

"I…I’m looking for Ubris. I need a…" Xena bit off the rest of the sentence, silently damning herself for feeling so awkward.

Gabrielle slowly propped herself up on her elbows, and then smiled.

"Will you…sit with me? I mean do you have time to just be with me for a moment or two? Andros stayed for a little while, but said he had his morning duties to perform. The healer…he said he would be right back. And then he’d…" Her emotions rose and fell as waves of fear, threatening to overflow at a moment’s notice.

Xena frowned as the young woman’s voice caught.

"It’s for the best, Gabrielle. You can’t continue to tend me in your current state. How am I to concentrate when I know you’re in pain? While a certain tone of moaning can indeed be rather rousing, whether it be from some idiot who’s become an enemy of the realm, or by someone requiring my more personal attention, most of your bleating is quite distracting."

Gabrielle’s smile faltered and then slipped from her tight lips as the warrior walked briskly about her rooms.

"I’m sorry, Lord." While her spirits had soared at the mere sight of the warrior, they were now dashed against the rocks of disappointment. Gabrielle bit her lip in an effort to quell the tears. Why was this woman so unpredictable? The closer they were to reaching some level of ease with each other, the farther it seemed they were thrown.

Xena took a quick sidelong glance and then just as quickly looked away. Here she’d seen compound fractures of men’s leg bones, ruined hips tied together with wood and rope. What was it about seeing this bard all but tied to the bed, her legs encased in wooden splints that made her want to flee? Why should the mere thought of this young woman’s agonizing cry have her longing to kiss all the pain away?

‘What in Hades am I saying? Kiss the girl, indeed. Slaves are to tend, not be tended to.’ But she looked so frail! ‘She’s of good peasant stock, and she’ll be fine.’ Xena turned and found Gabrielle covering her face with both hands, and her heart reeled at the blow.

"It won’t hurt much. I’ve seen many soldiers in similar states, and they know well enough how to hold their tongues. Can’t be seen to be weak, can’t give the enemy an upper hand. Have to be strong and silent, Gabrielle. Always. Why, I’ve broken many a bone myself. There’s really nothing to it. You just have to…keep your mind off things. A bard like you, I’ll wager you could just close your eyes and dream yourself away."

Gabrielle pulled her hands away, revealing a very red and tear-stained face.

"But I’m frightened, Xena."

Grabbing a cloth by the basin, the Lord drenched it in the cool water and then wrung it out slowly. Wasn’t there another way? Couldn’t she just…what? Couldn’t she just let the poor woman continue living the life of a cripple, totally useless to herself and those around her? What sort of servant could she be? Why, she’d be the laughing stock of the court.

A wave of guilt rushed at her, swamping her, as she thought of the bard’s life…reduced to nothing but a court jester, laughed at and ridiculed at every turn. She’d kill anyone who did that. If it took a hundred tongues ripped out to cease their numbing chatter, so be it! No, it had to be this way.

"Have you slept?"

Gabrielle felt her reply dry on her lips as she heard a rustling in the hallway.

Xena’s hand went quickly to her dagger as the healer breezed into the room.


"Ah, Lord Xena. Come to pay the young slave a visit, have we? How nice, and very unexpected, I might add. Why, I can’t remember the last time…well, actually I do remember the last time. How is your servant, milord?"

Xena found her teeth on edge as another wave of guilt niggled its way past her defences.

"Fine," she said and smiled tightly. "I was looking for her when I came across the bard here."

Gabrielle sank a little deeper into her bed. She had thought the Lord had come to pay a visit. But why would she? She was nothing but a common slave, and on borrowed time as it was.

"You don’t need to stay, Conqueror. I’m sure you have more pressing duties elsewhere."

Xena pursed her lips and then grinned coldly at the healer.

"Why, I wouldn’t miss this for the world. Actually, I need a distraction today; I was going out for a ride, but I think this will do nicely. I’m quite interested in your procedure, Daedalis. Carry on."

Daedalis covered his mouth quickly as the urge to sneer overcame him. The woman was colder than Celeste’s left tit! Didn’t she have any compassion? He hadn’t known what to expect when seeing the woman here…but some uneasiness was surely a more appropriate response from any female. Ah, but the Conqueror was anything but ‘any female.’

Handing the young woman the herbal mixture, he watched as she made a face and then emptied the glass.

"Bleck. That was horrible."

Daedalis smiled blankly, totally ignoring the slave’s comment. He inspected his bag again, and then began to set out his tools.

A quick exhale of breath whooshed out of Gabrielle as the man emptied his bag. She swallowed deeply as a wooden mallet came into view.

"The Lord is quite right, actually. About it not being too terribly horrible, I mean. Shouldn’t take but a moment, either. Now, that herb will be a little bit before taking effect, so you might as well just relax." Holding up a piece of slightly chewed wood, he glanced pointedly at the blonde and then waggled it in her direction.

"Now, do you suppose you can be good enough not to use this bit or do you think you might flail about and scream? In either case it’s best to remember not to hinder my surgery in any way. Why, you might end up quite a bit worse off than you are right now." He smiled his most condescending smile. "And then where would we be, eh?" The Conqueror narrowed her eyes as the man chuckled, completely oblivious to his patient’s rising panic.

His belly grumbled, and Daedalis smiled. "Another minute and we’ll begin, shall we?"

Squeezing the cloth out again, Xena turned and came back to the bed.

"Here. Place this on your face, Gabrielle." Although totally inadequate in the ways of sensitivity, there was no doubt she could at least better this man’s dismal efforts.

"Daedalis, if I may have a word with you." She nodded towards the door, reining in her growing anger as the man huffed in annoyance.

"My Lord…the sooner we get on with this, the faster I can go to my supper. Why, I’ve been tending those damned new recruits all morning, and haven’t had a chance to sit down to a single meal. Now, if you please…"

Xena’s upper lip curled as she watched a tremble run through the bard. The blonde seemed to shrink further into the down mattress and lay with her face hiding under both hands and dripping cloth.

Taking the man roughly by the elbow, Xena pulled him out into the hall.


"Listen you: I don’t need an attitude today. What I do need is someone in possession of a bedside manner…something you seem woefully out of touch with. What’s the matter with you, fool? Of course, she’s going to scream. When I handed her that cloth, I could see that her pupils hadn’t even begun to dilate. What was that potion you gave her? What’s the duration of the effect? Did you take into account the girl’s weight, her fatigue…"

Daedalis rolled his eyes in exasperation. "If you please. This is the second unkind remark you’ve made regarding my skills as a healer. I’ll have you know I’ve tended to soldiers and the like for more than twenty years. I think I know how to do my job."

Fixing him with a piercing glare, Xena poked her finger stiffly into the middle-aged man’s chest.

"And when do you think you’ll know for sure, Daedalis? Because I warn you, if that girl suffers any more than she should, you’ll answer to me. Do you understand?"

The healer pursed his lips, and thought about the recent rumours that had been making the rounds. It was said that the Conqueror was going soft, that she’d fallen under the spell of some slave. He frowned thinking about just how magical this young blonde slave must be to thaw the cold heart of such an irascible regent. Images of the young woman tied to the bed popped into his head and he wondered if perhaps the Lord wasn’t aware of the woman’s spell binding abilities? And just how would such a person cast spells and such without her familiars? To his recollection, he’d only ever seen the woman with the clothes on her back…or more pointedly, off her back. He blushed as he thought of exactly how such a woman would seduce a person, cold hearted or not, into changing her normally rigid routine, and her very manner.

He searched the Lord’s face quickly. She looked the same, no tell tale signs of bewitching, but she did seem different.

"Why should you care so much for a common slave, milord?"

Xena narrowed her eyes at the man’s tone. Just what was he insinuating?

"She’s nothing to me, healer. But I do have plans for her. If nothing else, she can become my new scribe. Mind you, I am in need of new food tasters, am I not?" A feral grin transformed her thoughtful gaze to that of a hungry predator. "Or she could remain as my body slave, Daedalis, but whatever my reasons, keeping her alive is in your best interest."

Xena laughed wickedly as the man’s face turned a deeper crimson.

"Now get in there and make sure that damned potion is working before you go brandishing any more hammers."

Daedalis stood as tall as he could, squared his shoulders, and then marched back into the room.


Xena could see by the set of the man’s jaw that she’d ruffled his feathers. Sighing dramatically, she pondered on the fact that there had been a time when he wouldn’t have dared question her orders, not blatantly, of course. And his surly tone of voice was in definite need of adjustment. She mentally tacked the incident onto the list of things that would have to change and then followed him into the room. She stood at the end of the bed, a bland smile chiseled onto her face.

"Now, if there are no further interruptions…" Daedalis studiously ignored the burning he felt piercing the back of his skull and went about making sure the restraints were in order.

Tilting the woman’s chin up and removing the cloth quickly, he nodded and then hefted the two mallets at his disposal. Narrowing his eyes a bit, the healer finally decided on the lighter of the two and then rolled up his sleeves.

"Now then…"

Gabrielle had no time to replace the cloth over her face. She leaned forward to plead her case with the Conqueror and then, eyes wide with shock, held onto the leather straps as she watched the hammer descend.

It all seemed to proceed in slow motion. Daedalis grimaced as he watched the young woman’s leg twitch a little off center. It was far too late to alter his stroke and he silently cursed the day the slave had ever entered the castle. He felt nothing but anger towards the stupid slave, knowing that Lord Xena was sure to see it all as his fault.

Xena had just been about to point out that the leg should have been bandaged to prevent tissue damage when the healer bent to his ill-timed task. Didn’t the man realize that this wasn’t something you just did impetuously? Reaching out half-heartedly, the warrior cursed loudly, knowing there was no way to stop the power of that full swing.

"Oh gods!"

Gabrielle’s mouth stretched wide as her lungs filled with a high pitched squeak and then the pain roared like a blacksmith’s hearth, completely engulfing her left leg. Her arms began to shake violently as the flames proceeded like some carnivorous beast up to her hip and beyond. She briefly wondered if a person’s heart could burst and prayed that it was possible, anything, just so it would all stop.

Xena could tell by the heart-stopping intake of breath that the bard hadn’t been medicated enough; she could feel the agony drilling through Gabrielle’s green eyes into her very soul. It would have been horrible enough for the young woman to observe the break even heavily medicated, but to endure it while even a little coherent was unthinkable. This wasn’t to be an act of torture; it was supposed to be beneficial to the woman. Oh gods, why hadn’t she just thrown the stupid man out and done the deed herself?

"Now, now…don’t go on, girl. It’s not as bad as all that. If you’ll just wait a moment…"

And then Gabrielle screamed.

It was a long howl that seemed to freeze the very blood in the healer’s veins, and he faltered in his bravado. Pressing his hands roughly over his patient’s torn flesh, he sought to hide his bungling. ‘Perhaps it wasn’t as horrible as it first seemed? If only the stupid wench hadn’t moved, hadn’t screamed, hadn’t lived…!’

"You stupid girl! Stop it this instant!" And still the bard screamed. He watched as all the tendons stood out in the woman’s neck and in that moment contemplated exactly what it would feel like to just squeeze such a neck and pinch the horrible noise off…forever. The room seemed so much brighter to him in that second and he reached forward, hands curled into claws as the unbearable noise filled his mind.

‘Make it stop, make it stop, make her stop!’ Suddenly, it all made sense. She was an evil influence on the Lord, and he could see that only his intervention would save the Conqueror from total ruination. Hadn’t he heard all the rumours, weren’t the Lord’s actions contrary to everything he knew about the woman, and hadn’t there already been a terrible loss of life since the evil bitch had come to court? No, only he had the knowledge, and only he could be Xena’s savior.

Xena stood there, mouth agape, as the bard’s face went from pasty white to claret red in the blink of what seemed to be a lifetime. And then her daze was broken as she watched the healer’s hands close about the bard’s neck.

Gabrielle’s eyes were slowly rolling up into her head from the searing pain when the scream that had her in its grip was suddenly cut off.

"What are you doing?" Grabbing the man by the back of his collar, Xena pulled him up and away from the bard.

Daedalis roared his displeasure, swinging out wildly at who ever it was that dared put their hands on him. He swung around and faced…Lord Xena.

"Lord…can’t you see? She’s a demon of some sort, she must be stopped, and only I can…" The flow of words was squeezed off to a pitiful rasp as the Conqueror shoved the man hard up against the wall, her hand tight around his throat.

"You’re demented, old man. She’s but a wisp of a girl, and nothing more. It’s you who are dangerous, not Gabrielle!" She shook the man and began venting her spleen on his skills as a healer.

"You were supposed to wrap her legs first, you imbecile! You were incompetent in your handling of the potion. I warned you. How could you be such a fool?" With a final growl she hurled the man to the floor and hurried back to the bed.

"Gabrielle?" The bard lay gasping, her eyes wide with fright and her mouth etched with pain’s furrows. Biting her lip, the warrior inspected the damage and sighed in relief. Pinning the recovering healer with a glare, she all but spat in his direction.

"You’re lucky, little man. Although it isn’t the strike I would have made, and the result far from the perfect break I was hoping, it should heal in time." Shaking her head in disgust, she gazed back at the bard, her heart tearing as the woman’s moans filled the air.


Glancing quickly at the side of Gabrielle’s neck, Xena carefully immobilized the nerves running down from hip to ankle and sighed in relief as her stiffened body began to sag back into the bed.

"The pain is gone, Gabrielle." Scanning the bed and floor around it for the rag, she dashed over to the sideboard, completely ignoring the dazed man as he pulled himself into the corner, and then re-applied the cold cloth to the bard’s face. "There. Now if you just lie quietly…"

Gabrielle blinked slowly a few times, and then nodded. Peeking down at her ruined flesh was enough to start her belly rolling. Taking a few very deep cleansing breaths, the bard placed very shaky hands over her face and tried not to relive the past five minutes of her life. Could it only have been that long?

Dismissing the rapid footsteps coming down the hall, Xena began straightening out the bard’s leg. The girl was going to need stitches, but first there was a leg to set. Rolling her sleeves up tightly, she spoke to the Lieutenant who had just reached the door.

"Andros, take the healer away. There’s been an unfortunate…accident…and he needs to be confined to his quarters. See to it that he doesn’t talk to anyone, won’t you?"

Andros nodded as he took in the contents of the room. There was blood on the bed, the slave was covered in sweat and by the looks of things, in a good deal of pain, and there in the corner curled up in a ball was the healer. He frowned as he watched Daedalis rocking back and forth, a scowl etched deeply on his face.

The scene of the descending hammer played over and over again in Gabrielle’s mind and yet she felt unable to do more than croak. She could still feel the tight grasp of the man’s hands on her windpipe. Swallowing with a click, she dragged in another set of deep breaths in an effort to calm the rising tide of panic.

"What has happened, milord? Is there something I should know…?"

Xena cursed as the bard emptied her stomach onto the shift she wore. "Daedalis erred in judgment, Lieutenant. I believe he’s had a fit of some sort. I’m not sure when he’ll recover but I think it’s best we confine him. Oh, and make sure he’s not in possession of anything sharp; he might try to injure himself." Xena grabbed the nearby pitcher and filled the basin with fresh water, then began slowly cleaning the bard’s face and neck. Two angry welts matching the healer’s hands were clearly outlined on the bard’s alabaster skin. Seething with mounting rage, Xena steeled herself from completely losing control. It would be all too easy to just mete out the same punishment to the old fool and be done with it.


The Lieutenant inched slowly over towards the healer, hands out in supplication. "It’s just me, Daedalis. Why don’t you come with me and we’ll get a nice cup of…?"

He jumped back in surprise as the healer got hurriedly to his feet.

Fixing the Conqueror with an imperious look, the healer dusted his clothing off and then addressed them both in a very scratchy voice.

"I’ll have you know there is nothing wrong with my faculties. It’s to your great shame that you cannot see this woman for what she truly is. She’s twisted you, Lord Xena, and perverted you in some way. Each of us seems to be coming under her influence daily. Am I the only one to see it?"

Andros shot the Conqueror a look and she raised one eyebrow slowly before turning away.

Glancing back and forth between the two, Daedalis raised both hands in disgust and began walking towards the bed.

Her eyes still locked on those of the bard, Xena lifted her arm quickly and struck the man full force, causing him to drop like a sack of potatoes, breaking his nose in the process.

"Get him out of here, now," she said in a deadly calm voice. Andros lifted the man under the arms and then dragged him out of the room. Xena kicked the door closed and walked over to the basin.


"Xena?" the bard said in a tiny voice.

Pouring more water into the basin, Xena leaned down and splashed some water into her face. Gabrielle noted the hunch of the woman’s shoulders and lay looking up at the ceiling. After all that talk about keeping her mouth shut, about just bearing the pain like a good soldier, she’d fallen apart after the first stroke. Oh, but she’d tried! Unsure of what was going to happen, Gabrielle had been totally unprepared. ‘Although,’ she thought with a shiver, ‘there really is no way to be prepared for something like this, is there?’

Her hand pressed against the bridge of her nose as the image of the hammer striking her leg filled her mind.

"Oh gods…"

Xena spun around quickly and walked tentatively towards the bed. She felt unsure as to how the bard would react to her presence. After all, hadn’t she ordered the woman’s legs to be broken? And then hadn’t she just stood by? Gods, why hadn’t she noticed the damned bandages earlier? Although she wasn’t even expecting the damned healer to go straight ahead and lay mallet to bone without first examining the patient to see if the potion was acting, she truly wondered why she hadn’t been able to step in before the hammer was in full swing.

Lack of sleep aside, she should have been able to prevent this whole scene from happening.

Rubbing a hand over her face, Xena just stood there watching the woman. ‘She can’t even look at me. She thinks I’m to blame. Godsdamn that stupid man!’ Eyeing the mallet distastefully, the warrior decided that Ubris would be the best person to have tending the girl. Perhaps she and Andros…knowing she was woefully inept at dealing with emotions, hers or someone else’s, the idea of leaving the bard in someone else’s capable hands was most appealing.

"Gabrielle? I’m going to go fetch Ubris. I’m sure she could…"

A stricken look suffused the bard’s pale complexion immediately, causing Xena to move closer to the side of the bed. Gingerly, she took the young woman’s hand.

"I…" She stopped to clear her throat.

"He’ll be executed in the morning. His bumbling could have cost you more than just the use of your legs, Gabrielle. He’s an incompetent idiot, and certainly not someone I want working on my men."

Gabrielle slowly shook her head. "No, you can’t do that, Xena. He’s not…not responsible…out of his head."

"Insanity is not a defence, only a weak excuse. His open defiance cannot go unpunished."

Taking in the woman’s somewhat dull expression, Xena sighed and then shook her head slowly. "I suppose it’s better late than never, Gabrielle; the potion is finally working. I’m sure the effects will be more pronounced due to the shock your body is experiencing."

"But what about my other leg?"

Xena gave the woman a reassuring smile. "Not to worry; you won’t feel a thing, I promise you."

The bard nodded slowly and Xena watched as each blink got deeper and then the woman fell into a deep sleep.

"Thank the gods." Acting quickly, she moved to the end of the bed, took hold of the bard’s leg, and then pulled and twisted until she heard the bones grind and then slip back into place. Nodding with satisfaction, she moved with efficiency, cleaning and stitching the leg as quickly as possible. Then she bound it carefully so that it was totally immobilized.

Wiping the sweat from her forehead with the back of her arm, Xena removed the wooden braces and then wrapped Gabrielle’s right leg securely. Replacing the framing back around the leg, she sighed and then picked up the small mallet.

"I should have done this deed, Gabrielle. It was by my authority that your sentence was carried out, and so it should be my responsibility to correct it." Pinching the bridge of her nose, Xena moved up to check on the bard’s condition. Noting the bard’s eyes were well dilated, and her pulse deep and regular, the warrior moved to the opposite side and pinched off the nerves running down the leg. She had no intention of having a repeat performance.

"I don’t know why I left it up to Daedalis in the first place."

But Xena knew only too well. The past few days with Gabrielle had shown the warrior exactly who and what the bard was. Upon reflection, she’d felt more than a small amount of shame on how the girl had been chained and whipped only a few days earlier. Adding to that violence by actually striking the blow herself was something she wanted to avoid…at all costs.

Other than the girl’s pale complexion, Xena could almost believe the bard was just sleeping.


Ubris stood at the door, her face all but hidden by her fingers. She wiped the blood away from her lip as the hammer descended. Squeezing her eyes tightly, Ubris felt heart-sore for the Conqueror. There could be no doubt as to the pain the Lord was enduring having to inflict this upon someone who was becoming an important person in her life.

She had been totally flummoxed, as she’d watched Andros drag the unconscious healer down into one of the holding cells. Upon tentative questioning, the man had told her Daedalis had suffered a fit of some sort.

The Egyptian pursed her lips. His bruised face and broken nose told a different story. Now, seeing the Conqueror tending to the young bard herself, Ubris felt the first real twinges of hope. If only the Lord would continue on this path towards her destiny. For that is exactly how the servant thought of it; there could be no doubt now that the Lord was becoming less of the image she sought to employ and more of the person she had every right to be.




Chapter Fifteen



The figure moved restlessly as the cock announced the new day. Dragging a hand over her face, Lord Xena eased away from her hunched position over the chair she had been straddling.

"Gods." Another joint popped into place and she groaned in pleasure as the cramped muscles of her lower back unfurled. Grimacing as her tongue found its surroundings less than agreeable, the Conqueror moved to the sideboard and poured a goblet of water. Uttering another groan, she pushed her head over to the right until the vertebrae popped back into place and then repeated the process on the other side. She rubbed her upper arms as the cool air wafted in from the open window and then took a deep breath, clearing her head. She fingered the bruises on her neck where she’d applied the pinch and felt somewhat pleased the bard would be spared such discolorations herself. Although the nerves had been blocked on two separate occasions, their duration had been short, and only until the young bard had finally fallen into a medicated stupor.

Xena yawned. It had been a long night punctuated with short sorties into the realm of pain-induced nightmares. The bard hadn’t reached full consciousness during it all, which was just as well, and she had gleaned little information as the young woman raved, leaving her feeling rather flat-footed. It was this sense of frustration that had her keep both Andros and Ubris away, and just tend the bard personally while thoughts of recriminations ran through her mind. What would the bard say upon waking? The thought of either one attending the woman was entirely unsatisfactory. No one could take care of the woman like she could. Or should have.

She cursed her day of drinking and wondered just when her consumption of spirits had increased to the point where she couldn’t stop the swing of a mallet? She ground her teeth at the mere thought of even letting the healer live. Why hadn’t she taken him to task for his insolence earlier? She didn’t know when but her iron grasp on the realm had slowly begun to weaken. She knew all the signs, using many of the same weaknesses herself to bring down a foe in the not-so-distant past.

‘Total power corrupts.’ Probing a tooth, she had to admit she above all was the most corrupt, in all things. Wasn’t it natural to have complacency be a major factor in any downfall? Well, she wasn’t quite there yet.

Slight noises from the practice field begged her attention, and she moved to the window to watch. A stocky figure was busy yelling up one side of a troop of men and then back down the other. She knew by the man’s stance and accent that it was Christo. A smirk played over her lips as he began extolling the virtues of the life of a Conqueror’s soldier. She could almost hear the man promising riches and fame. As one eyebrow rose slowly, Xena wondered just how true it would be if the emissaries from Rome proved to be a simple ruse whose function it was to winnow out any weakness in her defences. If Caesar should immobilize his vanguard now…

She really had been derelict in her duties with the men, leaving the bulk of training and compensation to others. As much as it pained her to admit it, she’d gotten soft without Ares’ presence.

Her eyes narrowed as she thought of how the god used her need for both control and penchant for violence to get past her defences and into his bed. While it had been a productive alliance for both of them, Xena was beginning to wonder if power was what she had really wanted after all? He had dangled the world before her, and now that she was on the brink of totally dominating Greece, the reality was that it wasn’t enough. World conquest was…shallow. If she died tomorrow, having gained her reputation in that area alone, would it be enough to secure her place in the realm of world history?

"My reputation." Xena rubbed a hand over her face again and frowned. What had Ubris said? ‘You have become the very person you wish them to believe you are.’ And just how did she want the people to think of her? Yes, she was seen as being a cruel tyrant, but hadn’t that kept them all in line? Didn’t a ruler have to distance himself from the rabble to maintain order? The faces of small children and women rose before her as she remembered liberating the last large town conquered on the way to Rome. They hadn’t been faces filled with appreciation but those of fear and loathing. Soft, yet piercing green eyes of disappointment floated before her and that above anything was enough to make her regret not being the person others believed she could be. Andros, Christo, Polis…loyal men all. It wasn’t fear that made them stay but some sort of honour to her. A gnawing beast seemed to feast within her as she saw the truth: she wasn’t worthy of either their honour or their loyalty.

Xena released a slow pain-filled breath, caught in her memories of an earlier time when she would eat, sleep and carouse with her men. The bond then was strong and her future glories assured. Although harsh in conditions and cruel lessons, they were some of the best memories she had. But that part of her life was over. Although always believing she was a wise and just ruler, the truth was that she had simply been sitting on her laurels, completely willing to ride the coattails of her past reputation. If she wanted to continue as ruler of Corinth and possible conqueror of all Greece, she would have to change her ways. But how? Leaning her forehead tiredly against the thick wooden shutters, she took solace from the brief darkness as she closed the window.

"Oh, gods….Xena."

Raising her head up sharply in the half-light, the warrior moved quickly to the bed, taking the bard’s smaller hand into her own. "It’s alright, I’m here." Xena’s heart seemed to be squeezed as she felt the rightness of those words. The legs of the chair scraped irritably as the warrior took up her vigil once more.

A slight tapping on the door had the Conqueror ready to hurl insults at the invader, but Xena felt the anger dissipate as her servant bowed deeply.

"Sire." Ubris held a tray of figs and bread, and a bottle of wine. Xena’s mouth watered at the sight and her earlier resolve began to falter as she eyed the wine. And then she clenched her jaw.

"Leave the food, Ubris, but I won’t be needing the wine until much later, if at all." Her eyebrow rose quickly as the Egyptian’s smile lit the room.

"Yes, milord." All but doing a curtsey, Ubris turned and left quickly. Turning as her hand was squeezed once, Xena focused her attention back on the bard. The woman was still quite flushed and the warrior could see the struggle she was enduring as pain forced her back into semi-consciousness. ‘No, that will never do.’

Carefully prying her fingers out of the girl’s grip, Xena moved back to the sideboard and prepared another dose. After the concoction had been given and the resulting mess dealt with, Xena sighed and leaned forward until her chin was resting on her forearms.

What was it about the woman that seemed to pull at her, making her act very un-Conqueror-like? Why was she so different than the other bed partners that she’d had, albeit briefly, over the years?

"Huh. ‘Bed partner.’ Haven’t even bedded this one fully yet." A deep yawn forced its way up and out and Xena found that keeping her eyes open was going to be a battle she would soon lose. Her final thoughts before joining Morpheus were those of mounting questions. Why were her dealings with people always a struggle, always a battle, and always filled with pain? If the bard was offering something without her having to take it, why couldn’t she just accept it? Would she be less the Conqueror if she let the little bard into her life?

"Already in…" she muttered sleepily, and then was almost startled by the calming effect the truth had on her.


Xena walked down a row of men and then sat in the large chair at the front. She noted the few men that wouldn’t meet her eyes and silently added them to a growing list of those beyond the pale of loyalty.

Her lips twisted into a half smile as Andros walked towards her table carrying two tankards of ale.

"Sire, it’s good to see you." He inclined his head slightly and then having received the response expected, took his seat across from her.

"How is…?"

Xena smiled briefly. It was a tight and somewhat cold smile, a smile that certainly never reached her icy blue eyes. Andros felt his chest tighten.

Both eyebrows rose and then he all but flinched as one of the Conqueror’s large hands moved to cover his own and the tankard it held.

"S’alright. Not the problem we have to worry about, is it?" She took a short draught from his tankard and then eyed the room. "Any more information on that front?"

She watched as the man’s eyes darted about the room as well, his jaw set with concentration. Pursing her lips, she tilted her head a little to the left in silent questioning.

"I believe a ride on the grounds in the north quarter might be a pleasant way to pass the morning, sire." Xena acknowledged the warning with a slight nod to her head and then began to tuck into her meal, as it was set before her.

Andros nibbled a few pieces of his bread as Ubris departed, and then sat back to observe his ruler. Although tired looking, Lord Xena was remarkably energetic. Yes, she was a beautiful woman in every respect, regardless of the stress of her position. He tapped his lip pensively, thinking about the young woman back in the servant’s quarters. Surely the Lord would wait before…?

"What? You have this ‘look’ upon your face, Andros. You’ve always spoken your mind with me, why the hesitation now?"

The Lieutenant cleared his throat. "Well, your lordship…" He wondered just how deep the feelings were between master and slave? His ego was still smarting from being dismissed earlier as he attempted to tend the slave. Didn’t he trust her any more? Unable to keep the petulant thoughts at bay, Andros clenched his jaw and wondered just what a lowly slave could possibly offer her than he didn’t have in abundance?

Rolling her eyes, Xena popped the last of her egg-soaked bread into her mouth and then quaffed half of her ale.

"Whenever you call me ‘lordship’, I know there’s something wrong." She waited, biting back the urge to simply threaten the man. The list of enemies had grown the last week and she really needed to know exactly where this man stood in that regard.

"Come along, Andros. Haven’t we known each other forever? Surely you can tell me what’s on your mind. I won’t bite…hard." She grinned lecherously. Then her brows knit together as a flush crept up the man’s neck.

Andros cleared his throat again. One of his favorite fantasies was to walk into the mess hall brandishing proof of his liaison with the fiery Conqueror, the skin of his neck and shoulders stippled with hues of red and purple. He shuddered just imagining her hot breath on his quivering flesh. "Well, sire…" A look of understanding hit the Lord hard as she realized it wasn’t really duty and honour that kept the man at her side but infatuation. Her lips briefly curled and she banged her tankard down, indicating more libations were required. A young serving girl approached and Xena barked a laugh as she pulled the squealing woman into her lap.

"Best seat in the house!"

The servant giggled as one breast was cupped and then kneaded. She’d heard all the rumours about the Empress’ wanton ways and hoped they were true. Leaning back into the strong shoulder of the Conqueror, the brunette took a nice measured breath, exposing more of her heaving cleavage to better advantage. Xena smirked as a few bawdy remarks were bandied about at the young girl’s expense. Yes, they all knew of her reputation; it was well known throughout the realm and Xena did very little to curb such rumours, regarding them as aids to promote the bond between she and her men. So why would Andros even think there might be any interest on her part in his fanciful ideas? Perhaps she’d read the man wrong. Her suspicions were confirmed as a brief look of jealousy flashed across the Lieutenant’s face. ‘Now what do I do?’

"Look, Andros," she began. "You and I have known each other for many years." She paused as the man nodded. "And in that time have I ever…" She cleared her throat and sighed. "You know I like…" Beating about the bush was almost as difficult as coming right out with it. She rubbed a palm across she sharp plane of her jaw, gave the rather disappointed wench a pat on the butt sending her on her way, and then decided a full frontal attack would be best. But how to put it? ‘Does one just come out and say, ‘I’d sooner stick pins in my eyes before ever voluntarily seeing you naked?’, or would a simple, ‘you do nothing for me in that area’ suffice?’ Hmm.

As she was pondering the best avenue of attack, the good Lieutenant was wondering just what the Lord was going to say. He was certain she was going to go off on some tangent about the young bard. He’d talked to Ubris briefly while she was hiding out in the laundry rooms earlier that morning. Andros placed his hand on his throat and swallowed deeply. Not only had the servant brought up the scene they’d all interrupted as Lord Xena was in the midst of bedding the wench, but had hinted that there was true love in the air between them. Try as he might, the idea of the Conqueror loving the slave was…

Images of Lord Xena, robe falling open, the dusky tips of her breasts looking hard and ripe as she teased the bard’s eager lips popped into his head and he found himself incapable of swallowing.

"It’s nothing, sire." He squeaked. "By your leave?" He stood and then nodded thankfully as the Lord dismissed him with a wave of her hand. Feeling more than a little relieved, Xena knew that particular lion would have to be bearded sooner or later. A sense of discomfort settled over her as she wondered just how she could spare the man’s feelings. Skills at maintaining a friendship weren’t things she’d ever contemplated before. Forcing another forkful of food into her mouth, Xena found herself wondering just what the bard would do.


A young soldier nearby pushed his plate away and with slow deliberation made his way towards the officer’s quarters. Maltor made a point of waiting until Andros was well on his way to the stables before setting off to find Dagnine.


Xena clenched her fingers in the mare’s wild mane, trying valiantly not to leap off the horse and throttle her Lieutenant. While they’d spent most of the trip over to the far northern fields in stony silence, as soon as they’d rested and a wine skin was produced, Andros had babbled almost incessantly. An eyebrow rose as she dismounted. "Easy on that wine, Andros."

He ignored her and blustered on. "It’s not good, you know, to be obsessed with someone…and especially not a common slave. Such a thing is bound to foment dissention in the ranks." He looked keenly in her direction. "And especially when there are other willing participants who would love to fulfill any need."

Xena pulled her gloves off, let loose the leather tie at her hair and strode over to where her Lieutenant was pacing.

"Now look, Andros. If this is about Gabrielle…"

"But my lord, can’t you see? It’s dangerous to have a liaison with such a person. She’s beneath you, milord!" He pounded a fist into his other hand. "Your pride has been wounded, sire, but you needn’t think any other emotion need be involved."

"This is not your concern, Lieutenant. My business is exactly that: my business."

Andros nodded quickly and took a breath.

"Sire, I realize you think you have some feelings for this girl, but…"

Xena ignored the man and walked back to her horse. She checked the cinch on her saddle and thought about those feelings.

"What I feel or don’t feel is not your concern, Andros."

Moving to the front withers, she stroked the palomino, taking pleasure from both the quivering flesh in response to her touch and the feel of power as the horse rubbed against her. She wondered what a horse might actually do if it knew just how strong it was in comparison to the weaklings that would dominate it. In comparison to the horse, her might was infinitesimal. Was anything she ever did of any great import? Surely there was more to her existence than moving people around a game board in an effort to win…. win what? The game still ended, someone was still the winner or loser, but in the long run what did it all really matter?

"But it is my concern, milord." Andros continued bravely. "I…I have feelings as well, sire."

Xena sighed heavily. Well, it had to be faced sooner or later. She had hoped to have a few days’ grace, but that was not to be. Just how would the bard handle this situation? Cold brutality was out of the question, of course. She supposed the man might be offended if she merely laughed in his direction. She scratched her chin. ‘What to do, what to do?’

"My feelings for you are like those found between siblings, nothing more. Do you understand?" She tried haltingly.

Andros swallowed the lump in his throat. He had hoped…one day…

Xena could see the pain in his eyes as the man’s complexion turned a sallow colour. Feeling his disappointment, she turned away, affording him a moment in which to salve his ego. ‘If Gabrielle were here…’

"No, I take it back. My feelings for you go deeper than that." She patted the mare’s pink muzzle and turned to face the man. "I would like to call you friend."

A tear tried to force its way out of the corner of the Lieutenant’s eye but he was just as determined to keep it from even existing. He quickly brought his head up to gaze at the mid-afternoon sky.

"I see such loneliness in you. If I may speak plainly, milord?"

His eyes were filled with such pleading that Xena felt almost obliged to grant his request. He pressed his lips together tightly as she nodded.

"We’ve know each other, sire, for many years and in that time I’ve come to love you; more than siblings, and much more than mere friends. I cannot help that you won’t return that love to me. All I can do is tell you how I feel, milord."


The Lieutenant’s eyes widened. "Sire?"

"You may refer to me by my given name, Andros. Isn’t that what friends do?"

He gave the woman a weak smile and clasped her upper arm as she did his.

"Yes Xena, they do." While part of him was dying from a broken heart, another was rejoicing in the truth he’d been given: Xena didn’t have friends; she had acquaintances, minions, and enemies. That she no longer counted him in their number was something to hold close when the cold emptiness of his bed became too much to endure.

"Now, are we done here? Can we move on to more pressing issues?"

Andros cleared his throat and turned back to his horse. Rubbing his face quickly, the man packed away his pain and then faced the Lord.

"Yes, si…Xena. That we are."

"Ah." Nodding with relief, Xena blinked once and thanked the absent bard.

"So, what of Dagnine?"

Andros proceeded to go into detail, telling her of his discovery that both Dagnine and Thracis had left the compound, taking a rather large amount of men with them.

"This isn’t good news, Andros. If those damned emissaries come today, or even tomorrow, we shall be undermanned. Caesar’s two hounds will smell the dissention before they even enter the castle. Don’t you think they have their spies?"

Andros watched her pace.

"How many men and did he leave with weapons or without?"

The Lieutenant prepared his reply but was cut off as the Conqueror continued.

"What of those that tried to depose him? I would hope there were some in that number."

"They took a few weapons, but it seems they left in a hurry. Perhaps the failed attempt on your life put the wind up their skirts." Placing the wine back in his saddlebag, the Lieutenant gave himself a shake and then went on.

"We found the bodies of six of your Royal Guard, sire. They were to have guarded your chambers the night you were attacked. I would assume that since there were eight men on watch that two joined forces with Dagnine in exchange for their miserable lives."

Breathing deeply, the Conqueror clenched her teeth and strode back to her horse. Placing a foot in the stirrup, she drew herself up proudly and fixed the Lieutenant with a cold stare. "I want them found, and I want them killed. The whole lot of them will pay for this betrayal. They’ll sing a nice song of death before I actually send them on to Hades, and they’ll curse the day they were ever born."

A shudder ran through the Lieutenant, as the woman’s cold steel blue eyes seemed to cut right through him.

"I will give my life to find them, sire."

Xena gave the man a warm smile, the look in her eyes softening. "Yes, I have no doubts, my friend. However, I need you beside me when we face those blasted emissaries. You are my best man, after all. Send Christo and one or two of the other second Lieutenants. And a squad, of course. Have them leave at daybreak tomorrow."

Andros felt as if his heart would burst with pride. "Your will be done, Xena."

Xena waited until the man had seated himself properly and then both turned back towards the castle.

"You’re a fine man, Andros. I don’t tell you men how important your loyalty is to me, but…well, if I were to die tomorrow, I’ll be proud to say I rubbed shoulders on the battlefield with some of the best."

She smiled as he cleared his throat. "I don’t believe I’ve heard you talk so much in the whole time I’ve known you, sire." He bit his tongue before he could continue. He didn’t think it was the best time to point out that the rumours Christo had heard were correct.

Xena snorted. "No, I suppose you haven’t. It’s that wench I have back in the castle. Silly girl thinks she can change me. You know, she had the gall to tell me that if given half the chance, she could make me fall in love with her." She snorted again.

Kicking her horse into action, Xena took off at a gallop. The wind caught most of her words but he could have sworn he heard her say, ‘She’s right!’

"Haa!" He urged his own mount forward and tore after the Conqueror. As the wind raced through his shoulder length hair, Andros felt as if a lead weight had been lifted from his soul. Although it wasn’t the outcome he’d been hoping for, it did his heart good to see the Lord happy and carefree. He shook his head in wonder. ‘A slave girl with two broken legs has the heart of the most feared woman in Greece.’ Who would believe it?


Chapter Sixteen



Gabrielle awakened surrounded by the soothing waters of a steaming bath but couldn’t imagine how she’d gotten there. The last thing the bard could remember was…

Her mind skittered carefully away from painful images that threatened to dislodge her from the tranquility that surrounded her.

As she lay there, voices were heard off to the side and she felt an urge to scramble out of sight to avoid being seen in her current state of nudity. However, it was a fleeting distraction, the calm overtaking her once more, and Gabrielle lay back in the water, content in the certainty that she was in no danger.

"It must be a dream. I’m out in the middle of some tub, I haven’t a stitch of clothing on, I’m alone…and yet I feel no fear when strangers are coming my way." And then it seemed that her senses were somehow heightened and she could discern at least one of the speakers. As she peered into the darkness, one of the figures began to form into a very familiar sight.

"You must be demented. What do you mean not attack it with my body, but with my mind? That’s just crazy!"

Gabrielle blinked as she watched a younger Conqueror towering over a fine boned Oriental woman. She winced as the warrior’s voice growled out her words, certain by the look on Xena’s face that violence was just in the offing.

"You must be as the droplets of rain, Xena. Each one can be inconsequential when up against a large unyielding force." The slender Oriental woman dipped her long fingers into a bowl of water and flicked a minute amount of liquid at the fireplace, causing the flames to sizzle and flicker. "But should the water’s strength and fortitude outweigh said force, then the reaction is quite different." The woman cupped both hands into the bowl and then threw the contents into the fire. There was a brief scream as the flames fought to continue their existence, but it was only a matter of seconds before the fire was nothing but black pools of ash. "Nothing can withstand the raging flood."

The blonde flinched visibly as Xena glanced at the ceramic bowl sitting on the table before them. She’d been on the receiving end of such a look and rubbed her chilled flesh in response. Gabrielle jumped in alarm as the Lord growled menacingly and then grabbed the bowl, flinging it into what remained of the fireplace.

"You speak nonsense, concubine." The Asian’s demeanor changed ever so slightly, but it was plain that the Conqueror’s words had hit their intended mark. Xena smirked as the Oriental flinched, ever so slightly.

Xena grabbed the silk collar and pulled the reluctant woman closer. "Oh, you are so damned weak. You know, it almost makes me sick to watch how you just submit." Gabrielle felt a mixture of anger, embarrassment and shock as Xena wrenched the fine silk robe open, exposing the woman’s full bosom. The ruined cloth further impeded the Oriental’s struggles, and Xena laughed derisively as the shorter woman finally ceased her attempts to break free and seemed to shrink in size. There was still a somewhat stately air to the woman and she wore her pride as rare family heirloom, something never to be taken lightly, if at all.

"But you gladly submit to me, don’t you…concubine?" A fierce look flashed briefly across the almond shaped eyes and then was gone, leaving the bard wondering if it had been there at all. And then she felt small worms of jealousy rise up slowly as the Lord’s large hands cupped the tan breasts, and then felt her breath catch, as was that of the woman’s, as Xena grinned wolfishly and then attacked the proffered neck with both teeth and lips.

"That’s all you’ll ever be to me, woman, nothing more. Ever." A small tear seeped out from beneath the Oriental’s long lashes and Gabrielle felt her lower lip tremble. That someone who was undoubtedly trying to help the Conqueror would be so contemptibly treated was totally incomprehensible to her. Hadn’t her Xena at least been aware of a good find, using it in such a way as to be at least palatable and not as glaringly ignorant of how she might look in the short and long-range side of things? If this Asian woman wasn’t an ally, she could certainly be tempted into being an enemy, if it hadn’t happened already. Gabrielle didn’t know who this woman was, but it was apparent she meant something to Xena; regardless of the maltreatment she was presently enduring.

"I wish to be only what you need, Xena."

Xena’s head bobbed up, her eyes dark with lust, and Gabrielle felt her skin pebbling at the predatory air that infused the Conqueror’s being.

"I don’t need anything or anyone. Life is filled with things that catch my fancy, hold my interest, and keep me amused, however briefly. And right now, you’re the entertainment."

Her laughter was short, sharp and piercing and the bard felt her belly roll as a slight tremor ran through the other woman. It was quite clear to Gabrielle that the façade the Oriental had erected wasn’t as impervious as hoped.

Again a tear fell from the shorter woman’s almond eyes. Gabrielle gasped as the Conqueror took the Easterner’s chin roughly into her fist.

"That could change, concubine. While your play for my sympathy is somewhat amusing, its continuance would be ill advised."

Another few tears slipped quietly down the woman’s tawny complexion and the warrior turned away in apparent vexation.

Gabrielle could see the war of emotions rolling through the Conqueror as she fought to hide her response. She felt her own emotions surge as the warrior turned once more to face her prey. With two large steps, Xena was positioned directly in front of the Oriental. The woman’s slim shoulders were gripped fiercely and then the air seemed filled with the rumble of Xena’s displeasure.

"Stop it now, this very instant or I shall have you flogged and sent packing, back to that popinjay Ming Tsu. It’s no wonder he’s seen fit to send you to me; you’re too much trouble, wench!"

Dropping to her knees, the Easterner covered her glistening face with both hands. She remained silent as she attempted to gain control of herself. Gabrielle watched a brief look of sorrow tinge the warrior’s heated glare with softness and wondered at how malleable she had become, her anger all but defused with a few small tears.

"Forgive me, Xena. I am but a helpless woman who is unworthy in her attempts at entertaining her most esteemed Lord. Shall I have one of the other…?"

The warrior’s last attempts at reproach seemed to peter away to nothingness as the robe slipped silently to the ground.

"There are many things I can teach you, Lord, and many paths I can show you, but you must choose the way."

The now naked Oriental was pulled to her feet and the bard watched as small delicate fingers worked quickly over the warrior’s battle dress. Although strange in their appearance, Gabrielle could see some of the same lines the Conqueror would employ in the battle attire she’d wear in the future.

"You talk far too much, concubine. I grow weary. Perhaps you should bring one or two of the others in…"

Now it was the smaller woman’s turn to employ her wiles, and although it was blatantly apparent that Xena knew this age-old game, she seemed content to watch the scene unfold.

"Someone else tried to show me the way, concubine. ‘All roads lead to Rome’, he said. My destiny is Rome and beyond and he shall be one small casualty along the way."

Both women made their way over to the large pallet that dominated the room and the bard felt a longing tug at her heart as the last of Xena’s clothing was pulled off.

"Your greatness is pre-ordained, Xena. I’ve seen it foretold in many ways. But in order for you to grasp its purity, you must learn certain skills."

Xena chortled suggestively as she pulled the other woman beneath her. "Ah, but I already possess many skills, woman."

Both hands were pulled over the Oriental’s head and Xena laughed once more as she began nipping and biting at the pert flesh of the woman’s heaving breasts.

"You cannot take what is not freely given, Xena. You may conquer but never fully claim that which is denied you."

The sneer slipped from the warrior’s lips and she gripped the wrists tighter.

"I’ll take until there is nothing left to give, concubine. I will feast upon you until you beg for release."

Gabrielle blinked as the smaller woman seemed to move slightly and then it was Xena who was being pushed down into the mattress and the Oriental who sat astride her, a slight mock to the smile she beamed down at the larger woman beneath her. Xena had become prey in a matter of seconds and the bard marveled at the Easterner’s prowess at maneuvering around a seemingly unmovable force.

"You must stop willing Xena, and simply become one with the obstacle before you. Only then can you see what is being offered and the path you must take."

Xena struggled momentarily, the brief anger seeping quickly from her reddened face as she pondered the woman’s words.

"Must you always be so…inscrutable? All right, teach me. What is being offered, and what is being denied?"

Gabrielle leaned forward as the Oriental moved her fingers up and down the warrior’s torso, and then her eyes widened as the woman pressed two fingers somewhere along Xena’s lower torso.

The Conqueror groaned in response and both hands moved to surround the tiny waist writhing gently over her.

"Lesson number one?" Xena purred as the effects of the pinch flamed across her skin.

"I am the way, Xena. I am your truth."

"Perhaps we can both learn something from this experience." Rolling over quickly, Xena pinned her prey back beneath her. A low growl was cut short as two long legs made their way up around her waist. Although both wrists were held tightly against the bed, it was Xena who was being devoured as the Oriental went to work on her neck and earlobes, her sharp, even teeth eliciting exactly the sort of pain the Conqueror needed. Xena’s wicked chuckle filled the air as the two began to move in rhythm.

Gabrielle felt deep pangs of sorrow as she watched the two women making love. ‘It should be me. Look how gentle she is, even when force is employed. Could she ever…?’

Taking a slow shuddering breath, the bard closed her eyes and could almost feel those same large hands playing over her own body, and those sapphire eyes crinkling with amusement as the Conqueror gazed down at her. No, as much rough bravado as she’d seen aimed at the stranger, Gabrielle could see the woman meant more to Xena than the Conqueror was willing to admit. She sighed deeply and then her body trembled as a warm breath seemed to waft across her face. All at once she was surrounded by the scent of Xena, filling her mind, her being, her very soul, and she could have wept with bliss.


The Conqueror wiped the sweat from her brow and then made her way across to the fireplace. She signaled Andros who nodded and both he and the servant girl went about the room lighting candles. Xena began to peel the clothing from her body, leaving a trail leading to the bed.

"Sire?" Xena turned in surprise her attention having been fixed on the young woman who it seemed had finally fallen into an easy slumber.

Andros quickly averted his eyes as the last bit of cloth dropped to the ground leaving the Conqueror quite naked. He was careful to keep the longing and sadness from his gaze as he watched her proudly turn to face him. He had always admired her straightforward manner and the unassuming way she carried herself, totally unaware of the beauty she possessed or the disarray she left in her wake as those who viewed her were all but struck blind.

Xena could see a faint blush rising up the man’s neck and remembered their last conversation. Although perfectly willing to watch any man twist in the wind, knowing the struggle he had to endure if she were to actually set her passionate ways upon him, this was a friend, someone she…

She frowned as the realization hit her. Yes, she respected the man, but what was more surprising, she liked him and was unwilling to cause him distress. Grabbing a blanket from the bed, Xena turned her back on Andros and replied.


The Lieutenant blinked once in confusion and then remembered his train of thought.

"Sire, how is the girl? In her current state, surely you don’t mean to…have relations? And it’s quite evident the young bard has feelings for you, Lord. Have you told her, well, about the things we discussed earlier?"

Xena’s expression hardened briefly, until she realized it wasn’t a criticism the man was offering but the simply questions one friend put to another. She rolled her eyes and looked over at her servant. Ubris chose that moment to be looking elsewhere, her attention studiously focused on the hem of her dress. Xena could see no help in that quarter, and although feeling slightly uneasy about the new level of friendship she now enjoyed with her second in command, she was determined to at least try to be civil. Certainly the bard should be the one to handle such awkwardness? A strange feeling swept over her as she felt the stirrings of a proprietary air fill the distance between she and her Lieutenant. Andros had shared his heart with her and now, now it seemed she was beholden to him for it. Although there had been an instant out on the field whereby the need to unburden her own heart had all but overtaken her, she’d resisted, letting the wind sweep the truth away in an effort to prevent either of them from the awkwardness they now seemed to be in.

It was strange, really. While certainly not the type to engage in frivolous conversation or explain her actions to any of her men, she found the thought of talking at great length and ease with this small slip of a girl quite appealing. The subject matter seemed to mean little to Gabrielle, and Xena had found herself surprisingly happy to simply listen as the bard prattled on about anything, even to the point whereby the small woman had arguments without aid of a combatant. She smiled thinking about just how Gabrielle could turn things around and make her justify her actions, as if she were the lord and master and Xena the insignificant slave.

Lord Xena coughed and then cleared her throat as another image of the young bard popped into her head. She could remember the woman standing petulantly in the bath as she was directed as to which body part needed the soap next. She could almost see the perfect lines as each inch of skin was washed, the dainty fingers dancing over breast and buttocks before moving down to her legs and then Xena felt the fingers of guilt niggling at her once more.

The Lord’s hands tightened into fists as she watched the hammer descend, pulling her farther down into the morass of guilt, and then the peaceful tint of green promising love glinted from the bard’s eyes catching her up short.

‘She has such soft skin behind her ears.’ A sigh escaped her lips and then her head snapped as she turned, finding two pairs of eyes gazing at her in worry.

"What?" she demanded defensively. Rubbing a hand roughly over her face, she continued. "Haven’t you two got anything better to do? Andros," she barked. "Have you seen to the squad’s preparations for their duties tomorrow? And what of Polis, how does he fair? If you’ve nothing to do, I’m sure I can find something to keep you quite busy, long into the early hours of the morning. I believe there was some talk of mucking out the barn earlier?" Andros nodded and then shook his head, his mouth moving silently as blue eyes raked over him and then swiveled their attention on the small Egyptian beside him.

"And you, ya lazy girl. What have you been doing all day whilst I was out? You should have been tending to your chores, not to mention the girl, seeing to everything she could want. This room’s a disgrace and we can’t have the bard wasting away to nothing. After all, once she’s recovered from her…" The Conqueror faltered briefly but then went on. "There’s a position as my scribe that she can fill as soon as she’s able."

Xena heard her voice babbling on and wished she could catch her tongue between the sharp molars at the back of her mouth, anything to stop her foolish drivel. However, she was unable to do just that as she continued her insipid rant.

"I don’t know what else to do with her, really. She’ll have to prove herself useful if she’s going to stay on in my household. I’ll have to keep her busy and out of trouble, and you know how she loves to chatter…"

"Yes, milord." Xena scowled as she caught the tail end of a smirk as it flitted across the servant’s lips.

"I’m glad you find all this so amusing. Perhaps ten lashes will change your manner?"

Ubris dutifully let her face adapt a solemn look and snuck a sideways glance at the Lieutenant who swallowed his own grin with a cough.

"No sire. We shall leave you to your preparations for the bard, milord. I shall find something for the Lieutenant to do."

Andros tilted his head in question. "Preparations?" He wasn’t too sure just what that entailed but he had promised himself that the young woman would come to no harm, not if he could help it. "Perhaps if you gave her a few days before…?"

Xena had had enough. Dropping the blanket to the ground, she marched over to the man, both hands on hips, and fixed him with a haughty stare.

"I am not a monster, Andros. Cruel and sadistic when warranted, but I’m far from the rumored fiend who preys on the flesh of young children. How could you think that I would treat Gabrielle so…"

Ubris watched a painful look come into the Conqueror’s eyes and she could have easily pushed a pin through the stupid man’s hand for his thoughtlessness.

"Come, Lieutenant. By your leave, Lord Xena?" Ubris bowed without waiting for a response, and taking hold of the man’s arm quickly left the room.


The door had barely closed when she turned on the man and hissed, "Have you no sense, Andros? You call our mistress friend and yet you cause her undo pain and suffering." Placing both hands on her hips the servant looked the man up and down, the curl upon her lips indicative of the disdain she now held him in.

"How could you?"

Andros stepped back from the woman totally flummoxed as to the venom she was aiming his way.

"How could I what? Protect that young girl from the passionate antics of an oversexed warlord? I’ve heard all the rumors. You of all people should understand my need for seeing to Gabrielle’s safety. After all…"

Ubris blushed furiously. "That was not an attack! The Lord was gifting me with the pleasure of her love making, sharing an act few have partaken in." A lump rose in her throat as she thought of her mate. "How could you even consider that the Lord would be thinking of making love when she knows how much pain she has inflicted on the bard?"

Andros watched as a tear fell from the dark eyes of the servant. "But the blood, your pain…"

Ubris quickly turned her back on the man. It was not the same! How could he ever understand? While not a gift she had eagerly sought out, it was a connection that she and the Lord shared that bound them closer than before, and she knew she would welcome such attentions again.

Two bushy eyebrows rose as the Lieutenant tried to sort through the new definition of something he considered to be gentle and painless act.

"If that was an example of her love making…" He leaned heavily against the stonework of the hall and tried to calm himself, but while he was trying to form words the servant placed a small hand at his elbow.

"The blood was my fault. I had not adequately prepared myself for the full attentions of the Lord. Ankara had always…" She rubbed her damp nose against the back of her sleeve. "I have always been a willing participant, Lieutenant. The Conqueror never takes a gift that is not freely given."

The Lieutenant saw that it was neither the time nor the place to enlighten the slave with past examples of just how untrue that statement was. Andros was very glad those dark days were past. Glancing at the young Egyptian, he wondered if some of the days were still present in one shape or another. He shuddered as he thought of how the healer had tended the servant late into the night. There had been so much blood. "But the pain, your torn flesh…"

"Have you felt the teeth of a lover as they graze over your body, Lieutenant? Have you felt sharp nails as they rake the tender flesh of your inner thighs? When you feel your lover’s breath against your neck, just before she takes that tender flesh between her teeth, do you fear it or beg for it?"

Andros swallowed slowly. How long had it been since he’d felt such attention? Too long, it seemed.

Ubris could see the man was only worried about the safety of the young bard and reined in her temper.

"She would not hurt the young woman. You have but to see the way she looks at the bard to know that."

Andros pursed his lips peevishly. "Oh, I am well aware of the Lord’s feelings for this slave, Ubris."

The Egyptian gave him a knowing look. "We are all half in love with the Conqueror, Andros. Despite the façade she serves up on a daily basis, we who know her can see the truth of who and what she truly is." She drew in a slow breath as a look of pain rose in his eyes.

"If you love her, you should understand the measure of the love she feels for the bard."

Andros pinched the bridge of his nose painfully. "What does she know of love? She’s always taken what she’s wanted, never giving in return. What kind of future can a ruler have with a common slave?"

"She is a free woman, Andros. I’ve seen the documents, haven’t you?" By the look on the man’s face, it was evident he hadn’t.

"She’s been somewhat occupied of late, Ubris. Perhaps I should go back in…"

Her eyes widened at the thought of the resulting storm the interruption would cause. "No! Leave them. Tomorrow will come soon enough."

The Lieutenant sighed and wondered just how he’d get through ‘til morning. Thoughts of another restless night tossing and turning in his worry for Xena, pondering why she would never return his love, or perhaps just who was behind the second attempt on the Lord’s life entered his mind. Now he had to add the young bard’s welfare to that list. Sighing with resignation, Andros decided that sleep was just not going to be on the list at all. If he could keep busy…He’d have to check in on Polis first. The man was healing up quite nicely, and quite eager to return to his duties. Another 7 days ought to see just that. As for Christo, well he could almost hear the man now, gnashing at the bit in his efforts to track some real prey. Not that Dagnine was all that dangerous but he might prove to be somewhat entertaining.

"I’ve got some errands to do so I’ll be off." He stopped and then turned. "Oh, you mentioned ‘preparations’?"

Ubris smiled. "Yes, the Lord will first bathe the young woman, soothing the fear and anxiety from her, and then anoint her body with healing oils. It is a very long drawn out process, Lieutenant."

‘And she does this naked? I have definitely been with the wrong courtesans.’ He sighed heavily. "I see," he squeaked. Images of the two women writhing against each other, all slickered up with scented oils, their bodies gleaming in candlelight, with soft touches, sweet kisses, and promises murmured all through the night plucked dangerously at his sanity and Andros feared he’d not make the sanctuary of his rooms before wailing out his anguish.

Ubris watched the man work his way down the hall quickly and shook her head. It was quite evident that he did not see at all. Perhaps someone could show him? Covering her small mouth, Ubris giggled. Although not her place, perhaps she could talk to the Conqueror in the morning? He was a good man and did look to have some potential.



The sound of the large oak doors shutting brought Xena out of her inner turmoil and she darted a glance at the still sleeping bard. ‘I could never hurt you. Not now, when you’ve gotten so deeply past my defenses. Now that you’ve wheedled your way into my heart, and shown me that I have one, I can’t bear the thought of losing you. Oh, Gabrielle.’

Picking the blanket up from the floor, she wrapped herself up and then sat on her haunches by the fire. Andros had done a good job at tending to the blaze, and Xena found the flames almost intoxicating in both heat and colour. Could it be her imagination or did they burn a deeper red this night?

This night. Her teeth clenched as she tumbled back to a time when the monster within was more than just a feeling behind her eyes, its rapacious hunger allowed to feast at will. Although she could now truthfully say that she’d never taken anyone by force, there had been a time…

The look on the woman’s face as she was held down, her clothes ripped from her body, her legs forced open…the mindless laughter of her men as they watched with glee as her first conquest of war was served up…the addictive sound of both pleading and grunting as the girl moved past pain and into a place where she became a willing participant…they seemed to skitter like large spiders, spinning their web over her heart, her soul, stealing what little honour she’d felt at leaving that part of her life far behind.

She had changed. Those days seemed so filled with horror, and were so long ago. It was a different lifetime…wasn’t it? Had she really left that untamed demon behind? Wasn’t she just sitting there inside, waiting to be unleashed? Dark laughter echoed in her mind and Xena placed both fists hard against her temples.

"I’m not a monster…I’m not her. Never again…never…"

"No you’re not. I can see such light within you, Xena. You have to believe it’s there, too. You have to."

The Conqueror jumped to her feet, nearly throwing herself at the bed.

"Are you all right? Has the pain returned?" Noting the lack of temperature on the bard’s forehead, Xena decided that perhaps the woman was catching a chill.

"If you wait a minute, I’ll stoke the fire. Would you like some wine? No, that’ll never do. You’ll need water. I’ll have Ubris draw a bath. Yes." Xena stopped in her tracks as a cool hand touched her arm.

"Stay with me. I don’t need anything, at least not right now. Although I think I could use a trip to the…If you’ll help me, I think I can stand."

All thoughts of ever leaving the blonde’s side leapt out of her mind and without another word, Xena simply bent down and carefully lifted her patient easily into her arms.

"Why walk when you can be carried?"

"But I’m too heavy with these splints on, and you’ll hurt your back. Xena, put me down."

An eyebrow crept up. Gabrielle’s lips thinned in consternation. "Perhaps you could have Ubris find me some crutches. Or you could have a cot set up in the bathing room? If you gave me enough potion I wouldn’t feel the pain when I…"

The dark head shook in response to each entreaty and Gabrielle just sighed and laid her head against the strong shoulder of the Conqueror.

Xena stood with her back to the young woman as she finished up at her toilet. Each small moan the young bard tried to conceal felt like daggers in her heart. Feeling a brief touch on her leg, she turned and carefully lifted the bard, making her way back to the bed without mishap. Xena looked down at the rumpled bed sheets and frowned.

Gabrielle clutched the woman about the shoulder and neck as the Conqueror yelled out for the servant.


A dark head poked quickly into the room and the bard felt a blush covering every inch of her body.


"Run a nice hot bath, will you? And set out those oils, a few towels, and another healing concoction. But first, see to this bed. We need clean linen, fluffed pillows, another blanket…"

Ubris disappeared into the bathing area making agreeable noises all the while as the Conqueror went on and on. Gabrielle bit her lip as the Lord shifted from one foot to the other, and wondered if her remark about being too heavy had been more than just something to say. The Lord was very well muscled and definitely in marvelous shape, but even she might find the addition of heavy wood and bandages a little much for any great length of time.

"Um, Xena? You could place me on a blanket by the fire while she…"

Xena stopped in mid-sentence.

"Why? Don’t you like to be in my arms?"

Gabrielle blinked.

"Huh? Oh no, I do enjoy it. ‘ I love to feel your strong arms about me, and oh how I long to feel you moving against me again, and oh gods but these damned legs will take so long to heal…’

Xena nodded. "Well then." Resettling her load into a slightly different position, the Lord went back to spewing forth a long list of things she wanted the servant to do.

"And we’ll need some food, Ubris. I’m famished, aren’t you hungry too, Gabrielle?"

The bard’s stomach rumbled in response.

Ubris was just smoothing the covers on the bed when Xena took a step towards her. "When was the last time you fed our charge, Ubris? If I can’t even trust you to take care of Gabrielle, then I’ll have to find someone else to do the job."

"But Xena…I’ve been asleep."

"Because really, it isn’t that much to ask. I have no idea just what you’ve been doing, Ubris…"

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed as her words were ignored. She wiggled her body against the Lord’s strong form. Nothing.


The warrior continued to prattle on.


Ubris bit her lower lip as she peeked at the two women. Gabrielle, it seemed, had heard enough chatter for the evening, smothering further prattle with a searing kiss. The thought of the rather taciturn warrior adopting the manner of the rather overly verbose bard had the Egyptian almost overcome with giggles. Who would believe it?

Bowing once after turning off the water, Ubris shrugged as she could see both women were totally oblivious to her presence. Both eyebrows shot up as the kiss continued. ‘May you sleep without torment, Xena.’




Chapter Seventeen



Xena stood with both eyes closed as the heat of the kiss filled every part of her being. Had it really only been a few days ago that the bard had kissed her for the first time? The flames she usually felt when taking kisses hungrily from the woman, despite her protestations, had been small in comparison to the ones she was now experiencing. It really did help when the other party wanted it just as much as you did and wasn’t just caught up in the moment, cold regret waiting as an unpleasant guest in the offing. Had she ever experienced such unabashed joy, such unreserved purity of emotion?

"You can put me down now, Xena."

"Hmm? Oh. Now where did Ubris go in such a hurry? I’m sure she’ll forget half the things I asked her to do. That lazy woman…"

Her lips were covered again and this time the Conqueror kept her eyes open. She marveled at the length of the blonde’s fair lashes, and the creamy texture of the woman’s lips, as they seemed to whisper against her own.

"Is this all I’ve had to do to get you to kiss me?" she asked when the kiss ended. "I shall have to remember to speak often, with an endless supply of foolishness falling from my lips…" She smiled lopsidedly, an expectant look upon her face.

"Well? I think that was your cue."

It was the blonde’s turn to arch an eyebrow. And then both brows knit as she wondered just what had come over the Conqueror. This was the woman who had laid the whip to her, chained her to a wall, and treated her so cruelly? Gabrielle felt her neck nuzzled and then remembered that this too, was the woman who had tended her when she had fainted, risked her own life trying to protect her from dangerous assassins, and had trusted her with her own well being, knowing somehow that she could and would save her in return. She was so infuriatingly complicated! Gabrielle frowned as she thought of just how she knew the location of the nerve pinch. In the heat of things there was no way for her to remember exactly what the Conqueror had said let alone fully understand what the woman had mumbled before death all but overtook her.

Xena misunderstood the frown on the bard’s face as pain and/or indecision and quickly settled the woman down gently on the bed.

"I’ll be right back."

Gabrielle sighed gratefully and then touched her lips. Had she really been so bold as to kiss the Conqueror not once but twice? While certainly interested in partaking of the nectar offered by Xena’s luscious lips, what the bard really needed at that moment was a drink of water. Running her tongue over teeth that felt decidedly furry, Gabrielle chose not to wait for the Conqueror’s return, but to just tend to her needs herself. After all, the water pitcher was just there on the night table.

‘What could have happened to the Lord in such a short time span to have her acting so very un-Conqueror-like?’ Gabrielle dragged a sheet over her chilling flesh and tried to move into a better position to get the pitcher. The room began to spin in a decidedly unhealthy way and Gabrielle found herself unable to stop her forward motion.

"Oh gods!" The pain was excruciating as the bones twisted slightly in the leg splints. Scrambling to grab onto anything to prevent the inevitable, the bard squeezed her eyes tightly shut and begged that the threatening darkness would come quickly.

Two strong hands caught her just before her left leg could touch the ground but the resulting contact against her savior’s hip was more than enough to send her flailing into unconsciousness anyway.

"Damned me for a fool, I should never have left her alone! Godsbedamnit!" The young woman’s pale complexion seemed a mirror to the pasty white sheets the warrior now wrapped her in.

"How could I have been so pigheaded? Gods…"

Ubris handed the Conqueror a new concoction for the pain and then bent to help the Lord administer it.

"You could not know that she would fall, milord. Although she is unwell, you cannot surround her completely and live her life for her. She is bound to make errors in judgment, as are you. You are not perfect, sire."

She flinched inwardly as the Conqueror’s face contorted with rage. She could not stand imperfection in others and would demand the same of her self. Xena’s jaw muscles clenched tightly and Ubris knew only wine would help abate this coming storm.


Only after the Conqueror was addressed twice more did she turn to face the servant. "You may leave", she spit out between tight lips.

"Sire, it might be prudent if I stayed awhile, leaving you to walk the grounds?"

Xena narrowed her eyes. What did Ubris think she’d do: take her frustrations out on the girl? No, she needed to vent these feelings, to be sure, but not on the hapless body of her…

"My friend."

"Sire?" Ubris cocked her head sideways, as the torment seemed to slowly leave the Lord’s countenance.

"Stay here until she awakens. I shouldn’t be long." The thought of procuring a bottle of wine from the kitchen was very tempting but with Dagnine out who-knew-where, she couldn’t take the chance. Besides, in her frame of mind, she wanted to kill something, not wallow in drunken disarray.

Quickly donning her pants and jerkin, the Conqueror grabbed her gauntlets and, with a brief backward glance, turned on her heel and quietly left her chambers.


The Captain of the Royal Guard drummed his fingers on the table and expelled a vast amount of air in exasperation. The Conqueror’s second in command had just been in to see him, admonishing him to keep to the barracks for at least another week.

"But damnit, I can’t sit still for another week! I’ll go mad if I do."

One of the shadows in his room slowly dissolved into a shape and Polis jumped to his feet as he faced the icy blue eyes of the Conqueror.

"My liege!" He bowed quickly and Xena watched for any telltale sign of pain or discomfort. There was a slight hesitation as he regained his full height but that was to be expected.

"How are you, Captain?" Xena placed her sword on a nearby table and began rolling her sleeves to a more attainable length. If the man wished to return to service, she would run him through his paces. Prove to her that he was recovered and the resulting burst of action might well kill two birds with one stone.

"I am well, sire. In fact, despite what the good Lieutenant has to say, I am fit for duty."

Xena pursed her lips and nodded. "All right, then. Show me."

Polis stood there blinking. "Now?"

Xena nodded her head once. "Unless you’ve something else planned this evening, yes."

The Captain took a measured breath and a slow smile spread across his face as he noted the almost painless condition of his wound. There was very little pain, really, and if he could convince the Lord that he was indeed healed then he could actually get on with things. He had sat stoically and endured the boastful strutting of Christo as the man bragged about bringing Dagnine’s head back in a sack. Although he doubted the man would be good enough to be taken alive, it was precisely what he’d do if given half the chance. The Lord should be the one to take the miserable sod’s life. While there wasn’t exactly proof, it was a widely held belief that he was responsible for the attacks on Lord Xena and her household. His nose wrinkled as he remembered the stories of what had befallen the cook and his assistant. Gazing at the woman before him, he wondered at her hidden brutality. He was certain one of her many skills was that many of her foes miscalculated her strengths. Although a woman, she was by far the strongest woman he’d ever met. And brave? Why, there was nothing she hadn’t faced. It was her contention that if she herself hadn’t faced a particular circumstance, then she was loath to place her men in a position where they’d be without her calculated wisdom. For this reason alone, he and the rest of her Royal Guard would follow the Conqueror past the very gates to the Underworld.

Deciding that the slight pain he knew would result from this impromptu combat was a small price to pay, he nodded to the Lord and began his preparations.

Xena waited until the man had removed his short coat and rolled his sleeves. A question rose in his eyes and Xena nodded towards the weaponry hanging by his bed. "Why don’t we forego the test for endurance, man, and simply try your hand at swordsmanship? After all, a slight weakness is bound to be the result of an injury such as yours. Ribs can be tricky wounds."

Her brows knit as the Captain smiled. "Indeed, my Lord. They can be somewhat debilitating if you let them. However, there are those who can simply will the pain away and soldier on without the injury becoming apparent. Some are even fooled by this behaviour."

An eyebrow rose and Xena stilled her own hand as it betrayed the wound in her side. "Yes, but those who ignore such wounds usually find them returning to haunt them, in one manner or another."

Polis grabbed up his sword and slicing the air in a quick figure eight, advanced on the Conqueror.

"Those haunted souls, milord, seem quite fit enough to protect not only themselves but those in their charge. If a visitation were to occur, I’d wager the penalty to be less than severe in some cases rather than others. Why, there may be those equally up to the task."

Xena smiled toothily. "Why yes, Polis. Some people can handle pain…"

She flipped over backwards and grabbed up her sword in one fluid motion.

"…while others…"

She reversed her weapon and stole past the man’s defenses to press the hilt quickly against his healing wound. Polis hissed his displeasure but his grin was indicative of the game being afoot.

"…others find it easier to just convalesce for a few days more before returning to full duty."

Polis nodded at the woman’s skill and then advanced again. This time, Xena found herself being pushed farther back as the man moved past the pain in a valiant effort to convince her of his skill and endurance. In doing so the man impressed her immediately. She’d hoped her trust in him was not unfounded, and although unwilling to hold his weakened state against him, was pleased he hadn’t taken her offer up and quit the field so readily.

"Have I told you," she said as she changed hands, her weapon catching the candlelight and glimmering in front of the man’s eyes. "That I was impressed at your skills in deflecting the arrows in my quarters?"

Polis ignored the question as he focused on the skills he’d require now that she’d shifted her weapon. Always being right handed, he had neither taken the time nor had the inclination to learn ambidexterity with the sword. His eyes flashed from her hand to her eyes as he tried to anticipate her next move. While he was indeed forcing the Lord to step backwards away from his onslaught, he knew it for the ruse it was. Even if he were in tip top shape, he knew without a shadow of a doubt that she’d have not only disarmed him long ago but would have severed his head from his shoulders and been on to the next man in the span of a few minutes had this truly been mortal combat.

His carefully planned retort sat unspoken on his lips as he found himself facing…nothing. With a slight yelp, he turned and felt his right shoulder tapped by a very sharp blade. Then Xena danced easily out of reach and held her sword up at the ready.

‘Cat and mouse, eh?’ The Captain pushed back his wounded pride and carefully brushed the sweat from his eyes.

Xena watched as the man dragged a few deep breaths down into his starved lungs. "Why, it’s not quite time for rest period yet, Captain. However, I would accord you an opportunity to slake your thirst." And with that she tossed him a wine bottle from a table nearby and began an intricate pattern of sword moves. He watched in wonder, his jaw hanging open in amazement at her prowess.

"Do you mean to catch flies or drink wine, Captain? I doubt you can do both at the same time. Quickly now; I grow bored easily."

Shaking his head to clear it, Polis gulped down a few deep draughts and then nodded in the Lord’s direction.

"Would you partake, milord? ‘Tis a fine wine, one worthy of your attention."

Xena smirked at the man’s gallantry.

"This night it wouldn’t matter what the content, only that the bottle existed at all."

Catching the container easily, she tipped her chin in his direction and then drank the contents of the bottle down.

"Now, where were we?"

Reaching for the dagger at the small of his back, Polis flung it with precision, hoping that his belief in her skills was well founded. He released the breath he’d been holding as she caught the weapon inches from her belly.

"Ah, it’ll be that way, will it? Very well, let the games begin."

The Conqueror nodded in appreciation as the Captain successfully parried most of her strokes. Using a harder maneuver, she feinted left, lunged right, and was pleased with the clanking of hilts as he easily blocked her move. Sparks flew as their blades slid dangerously along one another. A few more minutes of this and then when Xena could see the man’s full attention was on how to continue his modification of her strategy, she changed hands and went on the attack.

Polis had time to smile once before his back was pressed painfully over the table. The contents of the bottle seemed to be trying to reappear, and he swallowed back the bitter taste, managing to roll out of reach as the Lord’s blade split the wood from beneath him.

Xena could see as the pain became apparent on the man’s face that her entertainment for the evening was drawing to a close.

Inch by inch, the Captain began to give quarter until the backs of his boots hit the side of the cot and he tumbled backwards onto his bed.

"You’ve made a good accounting of yourself this night, Captain. I’m giving you the next 24 hours…"

Polis struggled, the protest clear on his sweaty face, but the warrior simply pressed her hand down firmly on his chest and continued.

"…before you have to be back at your post. That means by supper tomorrow night. Clear?"

"But sire! Haven’t I proven myself…?"

Xena gave the man an easy grin and nodded. "Yes, you have indeed. Which is why I’m giving you 24 hours instead of 48."

Watching the blue steel enter her eyes, the Captain decided he’d pressed his luck enough this night and lay back on the mattress.

Xena pursed her lips and then strode to the door.

"Sire?" Xena turned and stood silently, awaiting his next words.

"If I may be so bold, how did you get the bruises on your chest, and has your wound healed?"

The Conqueror sheathed her sword and then crossed both arms over her chest. Resisting a shudder on just how close death had seemed but for the quick ministrations of the bard, the warrior was all set to make light of it all. But just how much should she tell him? Polis maintained his eye contact and Xena decided that he’d at least earned a somewhat more exact reply for helping her protect the bard earlier than she had been initially prepared to give. Not that she’d required his services, but…

Sidestepping his direct questions, she answered him carefully. "Have those stitches seen to in the morning, Captain. You see there are some who think they are above both pain and good sense. Not affording your body ample opportunity to heal leaves you vulnerable and open to further assault. It isn’t a state I enjoy being in. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake."

She fixed him with a knowing look and then turned on her heel and was gone.

"She hadn’t even broken a light sweat." He sighed slowly and then began peeling his sodden shirt off. Placing his hand gingerly over his wound, the Captain of the Royal Guard winced painfully. Yes, she was correct in her summation; the stitches had pulled a bit, allowing irritation of the tissues and possible tearing of the flesh. Having heard of Daedalis’s imprisonment, he’d have to swallow his pride and ask Christo for help.

"Blasted Briton doesn’t do simple stitching, he has to perform works of art!" Rolling his eyes, Polis got to his feet and made his way to the ablution area. Although not the outcome he would have wished, the spring in his step told a different story. He’d had a private lesson from the Conqueror and had not been found wanting. Soon, whistling could be heard as he carefully cleaned his wound and prepared for sleep. His dreams would be nicely filled with images of a dark fiend with the body of an angel and the mind of a steel trap.


A dark pair of eyes watched carefully as the Conqueror walked by, totally oblivious to the danger.

The shadows seemed to part as the assailant inched closer. ‘There at the base of the throat: just a one finger exercise, really. It wouldn’t take any time at all, and even if she were ringed by twenty of her best guards, the results would be the same: death before she even hit the ground’.

But that would never do. No, destiny must be fulfilled. Pearl white teeth gleamed in the moonlight as she watched the warrior making her way back to the main castle. Yes, there was a definite spring in her step.

‘All well and good, Lord Xena, but oh, how the mighty shall fall. You seem to have everything, yet you have nothing…nothing at all. Not yet.’


Xena scratched at the back of her neck and shooed away some non-existent night crawler but the itch persisted. Ignoring the small bead of sweat that suddenly sprouted up between her shoulder blades, Xena continued on her way, chalking it up to the change in temperatures.

"Change." Silently cursing her absentmindedness, the Lord flew up the stairs in her effort to get to her main chambers. It was time to change the bandages on the bard. Perhaps she would still be asleep? Xena scratched her chin. Well, it would be nice to just sit and look at the woman without her babbling or getting into some drawn out discussion on…everything.

Xena smiled at the thought of being with the young bard again. She chuckled and then halted in mid step. "I’m acting like some giddy and foolish maiden going on a tryst with her equally young pimple faced suitor." She sucked a tooth in distaste.

"That’ll be enough of that nonsense. Its just Gabrielle, after all." Determined to curb her fanciful thoughts, she cleared her throat, adapted a more suitable bearing and continued down the hall to her rooms, all the while unmindful that her fingers were smoothing her jerkin and testing each button, making sure that everything was just so.

Ubris was just removing a damp cloth from the bard’s forehead when the Conquer placed a hand on her shoulder. "Well?"

"She is well, milord. From her restless behavior, it won’t be long before she is awake."

Xena nodded solemnly. The sparkle in her eyes had somewhat abated, replaced by a rather worried look. Gabrielle looked so small and so very weak. She’d have to build her strength and see to it that the young woman’s recovery was both swift and successful.

"Do you wish help getting her into the bath, milord? Even now the water is cooling. I think it would be most pleasant to awaken while being soothed by its warmth."

Xena eyed the platter of food by the bed.

"I think we’ll have the patient conscious, Ubris." The blonde’s belly rumbled ominously. "And judging by the noise, we’d better feed her before too long.

Another squelching growl filled the air causing both women to smile.

Ubris bowed and the Conqueror waved her away. "Go and have supper, Ubris. I shall tend to our patient myself." Stifling a yawn, Xena stretched her arms out wide and rotated her head until a few bunched muscles eased their stranglehold.

The Egyptian’s fingers twitched as she thought about giving the Conqueror a nice slow massage. Although not certain where the warrior had disappeared to, it was clear by the sword she still wore that she’d been working off some of the pressures of the day. She wondered if Andros would be sporting any new stitches in the morning. The thought caused more than one giggle before she turned and left the room.


Xena stood by the bed, her thoughts a tangled mass of contradictions. While she had truly wanted to break the woman’s will, she admired the bard all the more because she had failed in doing so. And giving into such a frivolous emotion such a love was dangerous; something she could ill afford at this stage of the game. But oh, when had she felt so alive, so strong and invincible? If the bard believed there was still some goodness to be found within the dark recesses of her twisted soul…

The bard’s low moaning brought the Conqueror out of her haze quickly and she moved to the armoire to remove her sword and gauntlets. A quick splash of cold water from the basin and she was back at the young woman’s side. Sitting gingerly on the clean linen, Xena stared at the bard, willing her to come a little closer to consciousness.

"Xena…" The Conqueror felt a pang of regret as she watched the bard waving her small hand in the air, attempting to touch her version of the truth.

"I can’t be your Xena, Gabrielle. Your false hopes can do nothing but hurt you if you continue to see me as this other woman."

The warrior was just about to avail herself of the hot waters in the bathing room when the young blonde dropped her hand and then slowly began caressing the soft skin between her breasts. Caught like some fly in a web, Xena could only watch as the covers were pulled slightly away, revealing two perfect mounds, their nipples ruby red with desire.

The warrior gritted her teeth, her throat all but gone dry as first one breast was squeezed and then the other. There had been a time when the Conqueror would have welcomed such entertainment, enjoying every bit of it, including the moment when the slave awoke as she was being tied to the bed. Xena blinked rapidly. Yes, there had been a time when she wouldn’t have hesitated to avail herself of this kind of offering.

Her throat tightened as a rosy bud was taken between two small fingers.

And then the bard groaned…in pain this time…as she unconsciously shifted her hips and moved her thighs apart.

A small answering moan escaped the warrior’s lips, and against her newfound better judgment, she disrobed quickly and eased between the sheets.



Chapter Eighteen

Untouched by a lover's hand
Her smile felt brittle and unbound;
Its beauty lay like silence,
Cold and white upon the ground.
Each step she took was measured,
As her life was slowly devoured.
Each day was lived in darkness;
Love's flame was all but expired.
Yet past all known defences
Lay her passion,, needs and desires
Haunting dreams of what could be
Lent the spark destiny required.
Through the past there came a voice
Piercing a heart held fast in ice,
Set ablaze with heated truth
A kiss Love's inferno enticed.

Christo stood up in his stirrups, a white flag held aloft for all to see. He narrowed his eyes as he took in the enemy’s forces. Just counting the torches had the number at between 50 and 75 men. Although they were about an hour’s good ride away from the castle, he did briefly consider sending a rider out to fetch reinforcements. He supposed it would be nice to watch his friend’s face as he entered the courtyard with the treasonous Lieutenant Dagnine in chains. There had been some hesitation in Andros’ voice when he’d turned down the offer of sending a full company. After all, reasoned the stocky Briton, a troop was really all he required to get the likes of Dagnine.

His men were seasoned soldiers, men that had gone through his rigorous training with and without horses. It mattered not that he was outnumbered by a score of men. ‘That bloody lot looks like they’ve missed a meal or two. Nothing tips the scales more than a fistful of blackguards with their belly buttons all but scratching their backbones.’ He motioned to the man beside him.

"Whatcha think? How many swords or other weapons you see?"

The man rubbed his smooth chin. "It is hard to tell when they are so close to the trees, Lieutenant. I’d wager there be about 60 or 70 men, most with a staff or dirk of some sort each. I don’t see too many swords, though. Say, Lieutenant, this is a larger group than we were expecting to be with Dagnine. Perhaps…"

"Right. You lot," He pointed at the front row of men to his left and right. "Let’s back up a tad and make ‘em come to us. We’ve shown ‘em ours, now it’s time for them to return the favour. Let’s make certain just who the fuck we’re dealing with."

The horses and men seemed to move in perfect unison, a fact that had Christo almost puffing up with pride. He’d show these mongrels a thing or two this night. He narrowed his eyes again as a few more men seemed to ooze out of the darkness. Squinting, he looked the rabble over. No, he didn’t recognize a one of them.

"Well then. Let’s palaver shall we, and find out what’s goin’ on ‘ere?"

He scanned the faces of the men as they began coming towards them. Standing his ground, he motioned to both men flanking him, "Spread out a little, blokes, and let’s have a little room to maneuver."

A sharp laugh seemed to echo from behind him, and as Christo wheeled his horse around he rued the moment he hadn’t sent a rider off to the castle.

There was a full troop of Roman soldiers slowly making their way towards them. They’d been so quiet that neither he nor his men had even an inkling they were there. Cursing beneath his breath, he shouted quickly. "Men, form up and present arms! Bowmen! Not a shot fired, hear? We’re still under a flag of truce. P’raps they’re the Roman emissaries Lieutenant Andros was going on about."

"There will be no peace this night!" cried a heavily accented voice from the darkness.

"Who are ya and what’s yer business, then? D’you not know yer on the Conqueror’s land? It’s common courtesy to come a knockin’ with flowers not sabers."

A chuckle ran through his ranks, and Christo waved the flag of peace.

"Send out yer leader so we can talk business, right?"

The Lieutenant felt a ruffling of his hair as an arrow took most of the cloth from the pole.

"Oye," he cursed loudly. "Right, men at the ready!"

Christo had just unsheathed his own sword, having thrown what was left of the flag into the mud, when a flash of metal drew his attention. A rather average man stepped through an area made vacant by a line of very efficient looking soldiers. The Lieutenant’s eyebrow shot up as he noted the red cape ruffling in the slight wind as the stranger walked a further ten paces and then stopped.

‘Must be some top mucky-muck directly from Caesar. Godsbedamnit, I’ve gotta get word to Lord Xena!’ He caught the eye of the man beside him and just jerked his thumb up and out. Frowning slightly, the man gritted his teeth and then nodded. Another man eased his horse up to take his place and Christo smiled and held his reins as his mount resettled her position.

The new man gulped loudly as more of the Romans came into the flickering firelight. The Briton patted his shoulder.

"Steady on, mate. We’ll hear what they’ve gotta say before we grab our skirts and turn tail, right?"

The young man squared his shoulders at the slight. If these men were looking for a fight, then they’d come to the right place. Christo winked with pride, having taken most of his best men with him on what was firming up to be a suicide mission. Go on a hunt looking for a popinjay and end up facing a hawk. ‘Just my bloomin’ luck.’


Tribune Cassias pursed his lips as the apparent leader of the opposing forces fixed him with all but a death-dealing gaze. He could feel his blood boiling up and the urge to just give the signal and have them all hacked to pieces was very strong. He needed to bring Caesar a high body count, thus ingratiating himself further into the old fool’s good favour. It wouldn’t be long now before Marcus Brutus and his men were in position and Caesar’s reign would end soon enough. Until then…

"You will surrender immediately. Those of you who comply with this order will be allowed to live to face interrogation. Those who survive questioning will be given a warrior’s death. This I promise."

Christo snorted. ‘Like that, is it? Well, I’ll just have to delay things a bit then… ’

"Are we to be treated like common ruffians or are you gentleman enough to recognize good breedin’ when you see it?" Silence greeted his slap at the way he and his men were being treated. "I would have expected more from the nobility of Rome."

Cassias’ full lips twisted as he recognized the throwing of the gauntlet. Not only was his good name besmirched but that of Rome as well. A molten burble of hatred seethed within the man, almost overcoming the tenuous hold he was already imposing on the battle lust he was feeling. Oh, to watch this pompous little man who was nothing more than a common barbarian have his limbs tethered to four strong horses! Images of the limbs being torn from the man’s torso flooded his mind, acting almost as a fine liqueur, at once calming him and yet fueling his need for cruel domination. As much as he longed to obey his base instincts, the snide remarks did remind him that live prisoners were more useful to Caesar than dead ones. And by the look and carriage, the man in question was probably one of Lord Xena’s trusted Lieutenants.

His lips curled again as he thought of the true reason behind this little jaunt in the woods. They were to secure information regarding the amount of resistance they would encounter, and the most expedient way into the castle. And then…why, then they’d breach the very chambers of the ‘Empress of Corinth, and Lord Conqueror, Guardian of Greece’, and she would be reduced to the mewling, helpless woman he knew she must be. Why, if only half the things he’d heard were true, there was no man who could best her! And that was pure rubbish, for he knew in his heart that she could never hope to be his equal – in anything. She was a mere figment of someone’s fertile imagination, probably her own. So, if keeping this stupid little fool alive would guaranty an immediate ‘audience’ with the so-called Destroyer of Nations, with or without her consent, then so be it.

Christo fought to keep the horror from his face as he watched an almost maniacal look come over the Roman officer’s face. This was a man who had gone down the twisting road to madness and had surely never returned. His knuckles turned a whitish hue as he gripped his saddle horn.

The Lieutenant’s tongue darted out to swipe at his suddenly dry lips. "Might I have the honour of knowing your good name, sire?" Thanking Andros silently, he stood straighter in his saddle and prayed that the soap he’d used the day before was still working. His nostrils twitched as the aroma of some exotic herb hit him. Ignoring the sudden urge to sneeze, Christo smiled slowly and nodded his head in deference.

Cassias pursed his lips and frowned. Although the man was suitably washed and his uniform in good repair the coarseness of his tongue identified his station immediately. His eyes gazed slowly over at the men flanking the foreign officer. Their lineage was apparent as well; coarsely featured, and although eager to excel at their tasks, were dull witted all the same.

Locking his eyes back on the Lieutenant, he smiled coldly. "I am Caius Cassias Longinus, Tribune of Caesar, nobleman of Rome and conqueror of…what is your name?"

The Lieutenant gritted his teeth but still managed to maintain a weak smile.

"Well met, sire. I am Christo of the county of Barnabus, in the great land of Britannia, Lieutenant second class to the great Lord Xena, Conqueror of Corinth, Guardian of…"

He frowned as the man dismissed him with a wave of his hand.

"Yes, yes…don’t go on."

Swallowing his anger, Christo went blindly on, knowing the delay was the only thing keeping them all alive.

"But sire, might I ask the reason for your…visit? If given ample opportunity, why we be right smart about doing things up right like. A little pomp here, and a bit of circumstance there…" He winked conspiratorially at the Roman dignitary. "Why, we’ve got maidens here that would melt the armour right off ya with just a wee kiss." He signaled to a handful of men nearby. "You lot, make way for these fine gentlemen and we’ll show them the glories of our fine town."

Cassias fixed his second in command with a baleful look. It was going to be a long night. When the Briton began moving back the way they’d obviously come, Cassias knew he’d reached the end of his patience. Good graces or not, he’d be wiping the gore from his armour this night! A little foreign blood was good for the rust if nothing else.

"You," He pointed at the line of archers behind him and they moved into position. "Start with the buffoon from the ‘great land of Britannia’. Aim low and work your way upward."


Gabrielle winced as she was jostled. Surely it wasn’t time to get up yet? Besides, she was feeling so very good right now and didn’t want to be interrupted. Whoever it was would just have to wait. Her fingers continued on their merry way, leaving flames in their wake, the intensity somewhat lessened by the intrusion. The grumbling complaint remained unspoken as soft skin moved deliciously against her.

"Oh, Xena," slipped between her petulant lips and it was all the Conqueror could do not to taste the wealth they offered. Biting her lip, Xena contemplated her next move. If she simply moved closer and stole a kiss or three, it might awaken the blonde who might be decidedly vexed at the action. On the other hand, if she were to simply move into a better position, perhaps the woman would continue.

Deciding the latter was preferable to her current condition of having one leg mere inches off the floor while the rest of her was nicely nestled against the firm yet oh so soft skin of the bard, Xena winced as she settled herself closer, and then pulled the sheets up higher.

Releasing the breath she held, the warrior quietly propped her self up on one elbow and gazed down as the bard began making a humming noise. Xena quirked an eyebrow up as the thin shoulders moved seductively against her and then the hands went back to their teasing dance across pebbling flesh.

Although enjoying the scene utterly, Xena began to feel a slight pain in her chest. ‘Must have run up that staircase a bit too fast,’ she thought. After taking a deep but almost inaudible breath, the Conqueror refocused her gaze on the young woman nestled beside her.

Her nostrils quivered as the woman’s breath became somewhat laboured, her hands moving slowly over the pink flesh Xena wanted to devour. But the more she looked, the worse the pain in her chest became. Emotions ran amok through the warrior as she fought with the memories of soft lips against her own and the look of trust and love the woman gave her; one had rarely anything to do with the other in the warrior’s past. Swallowing deeply, Xena gingerly pulled the covers back from her body and placed her foot on the cold granite floor. Closing her eyes in sorrow as the realities of who she was and what the young bard thought she was seemed to travel up from the granite, making her shiver.

"Xena…gods, but I love you."

The words twisted in the Conqueror’s gut as shame infused her. The time for breaking such a woman was past, now all she wanted to do was hold and protect her, like the priceless treasure she was. Once again the warrior gritted her teeth as questions of why such a thing of beauty could be attracted to her, a thing composed of dark desires and violent danger.

"Be with me, my Xena…" Words meant to lap as sweet water against willing flesh caused nothing but pain to the woman hearing them. Although she’d been more than pleased to have the bard asleep, now she prayed for her return to consciousness.

"I can’t be your Xena, Gabrielle. Ever." Squeezing her eyes tightly, the Conqueror was oblivious to the green eyes that observed the tear that slowly made its way down the sharp lines of the warrior’s face.

Gabrielle’s heart felt like breaking as she viewed the fight this very formidable woman was having with her conscience. Used to just taking what she wanted, it amazed her that not only had the Conqueror not taken her as she lay locked in passion’s dreamland, but had looked at her with such love and yes, even devotion. Waking up in such a fashion had caused the young woman more than a little discomfort but it had all been forgotten as she peeked surreptitiously from sleep-sown eyes. As much as the warrior would want to deny it, the truth had been visible; a tangible thing drawing them together like the great branches of a tree reaching for the sun.

‘Oh, to be as grounded and strong as that great tree!’ thought the bard as she slowly captured the tear on the tip of her finger.

Xena’s hands relaxed, releasing their hold on satin sheets as she opened her eyes. Her lower lip trembled as the truth of the love offered lay like a promise given only to her. She tilted her head back, madly trying to find something, anything, to focus on in her efforts to will the treasonous tears away.

Taking one large hand in her own, Gabrielle brought it to her lips. She locked eyes on the woman as the hand was nearly snatched back from her loving attention.

"Your Xena doesn’t exist…not here."

Grasping the warrior’s hand tightly in both of hers, Gabrielle smiled bravely.

"She’s so real in my dreams, Xe…Lord Xena. But I know she is not you. I…"

Xena cleared her throat but it did nothing to disguise the tremor in her voice.

"Have you had these dreams long?"

"I think it was that first day when you had me sent up from the dungeon. That night, I believe."

Xena frowned. "And you had never experienced these dreams before our initial meeting?" Bees began buzzing in the warrior’s subconscious, stinging her with bits of memory. When had her dreams of the bard begun? Well before the girl was placed in the… The very thought of Gabrielle languishing in chains, her legs twisting as they healed improperly made her want to hide her face in shame. Every muscle in her body tensed, defying her need to atone for past transgressions. How could she even look the woman in the eye?

"Continue." She said through gritted teeth.

The bard flinched as she noted the business-like tone to the Conqueror’s voice. "No. Of course, I’d heard many things about you by word of mouth. You have been the ruler of Corinth for ten years and your legend is widely known, my Lord Xena."

The bard’s answering tone made the warrior’s belly clench tightly. "Whatever. Please don’t feel you have to throw platitudes my way. If I wanted a sycophant, I would simply summon the Lord Chancellor and be done with it."

"No milord, I mean yes, milord."

Xena stood and looked down at the young woman who began to pull the sheets up to cover her breasts. ‘Why am I going on with this? Why not just drop things and slip back into bed, immersing myself in the purity of the love she offers?

Setting her jaw, the warrior turned her back on the bard and stepped away from the bed. She had to know exactly what it was this woman wanted of her. She had to know the face of her competition, even if it was her own. The prospect of this had her heart thudding painfully against her rib cage. How could she ever compete against someone of such heroic proportions? A burst of jealousy bubbled up as the image of this perfect warrior, this fantasy woman the bard held near and dear, swam up before her.

"So, you began having these dreams after we’d met. And this Xena you speak of resembles me in every way?"

The warrior’s broad shoulders seemed to bunch and although the bard knew this was neither the time nor the place to approach the Conqueror, her fingers twitched with longing. Cursing her crippled state once more, she lay back angrily against the pillows. She wasn’t sure just what had transpired between the loving gaze she’d awakened to and…

Suddenly, it became very clear to Gabrielle. The woman was once more in the clutches of denial. Denial of her feelings for the bard, her subsequent lack of control, and the fear that she would never measure up to some phantom that kept creeping into her would-be lover’s dreams.

‘Damn me for a fool,’ she moaned silently. ‘Oh, Xena…it’s you I love, not some will-o’-the-wisp brought forth by some tortured hope that I could distance myself from who you were, you are…’ Shaking her head with frustration, the bard brought both hands up to cover her face. Had she conjured her version of Xena as some sort of defence mechanism? Was she foolishly and hopelessly in love with some made-up image? Could it be true?

‘No!’ her mind screamed.

"Yes, Conqueror. She is you. The only difference that I can see is…"

"Yes? Spit it out, woman."

"I don’t wish to be imprudent, Xe..." Gabrielle paused and swallowed back the tears. "Lord Xena…"

Xena’s hand strayed to her jaw and the urge to place the meaty part of her hand within was great. Although it had begun as a few innocent questions, things now rapidly resembled some sort of inquisition. "Call me what you wish, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle hesitated. Xena turned quickly and winced as the hurt on the woman’s face slapped at her. ‘Don’t hate me.’ The truth was painted in various depths of pain on the Conqueror’s face, present ever so briefly, but Gabrielle saw it for what it was.

"I could never…not ever."

The warrior nodded with a weak smile. "Go on."

"Well, it’s how you see things around you. My Xena is very alert and her skills in weaponry are unparalleled. But she doesn’t use them, for the most part, unless she is defending herself or protecting those around her."

Xena nodded. ‘All right, it sounds like a favorable comparison so far.’ "Go on."

"My Xena isn’t cruel, with her only thought of how to exact revenge for some slight, real or imagined. My Xena sees life in different shades of grey. You see things in black and white, cause and effect. ‘You are guilty, here’s you punishment, next.’"

"But Gabrielle, what do you expect me to do? If they are guilty, then they must be punished. What would the realm be if I didn’t mete out justice? Why there would be full-scale sedition and anarchy. What would the people do if I weren’t here to tell them what to think?"

Raising her hands towards the woman, Gabrielle urged her to return to the bed. "But Xena, don’t you think they deserve the chance to discover that for themselves?"

The look that came over the Conqueror’s face made the bard wince with her thoughtlessness. Hadn’t she just told the woman that her brand of leadership was neither required nor desired?

"Xena…I, I didn’t mean it the way…"

Xena sat down heavily on the end of the bed. "Yes you did."

Gabrielle stifled a groan as she resettled herself. Her hands fidgeted in her lap as she thought of something to say. Why were things going so terribly wrong? All she wanted to do is love this woman, taking her into her arms and never letting her go. Her chest tightened as she realized that she might actually be alone in that need. After all, hadn’t the woman existed perfectly well before she came along?

Xena cleared her throat, snapping the bard out of her moment of self-pity and chastisement. Darting her eyes up once or twice, Gabrielle fully expelled the breath she’d been holding ever since their conversation had gone off track. Had it been only hours and not days since she’d felt emboldened to press her lips against those of this larger-than-life, enigmatic woman before her?

"I," The warrior began, and it seemed to tear at the bard as she watched the woman struggling. Stilling her hands as they mindlessly began pulling at the satin, Gabrielle tamped down her need to comfort, somehow knowing this might be the only chance for the Conqueror to reveal that which she kept so private.

"Ahem! I am no good at this sort of thing." Xena tried again, darting her eyes briefly over the young woman. ‘Well, there is nothing for it; I might as well beard the beast.’ She sighed heavily. How fateful to be an invincible warrior brought down by the candid words spoken from the lips of one such as she? With everything to lose and nothing to gain, Gabrielle had done what no battle, warlord, or assassin had been able to do: leave her totally defenseless and at the mercy of something she couldn’t deny – the truth. She snorted, remembering the story she’d heard of a monarch who had been fooled into believing he wore the finest clothes ever created when in truth he wore nothing at all.

How many times had she sloughed off another report of riots in the streets? How many times was she going to be able to just dismiss yet another ‘mistake’ when it came to a prisoner who had been found innocent after his punishment had been carried out? Had her need for total control blinded her to the fact that although a master at the game, she’d not seen that she had either the wrong pieces or was on the wrong game board completely?

"I’ve always taken what I wanted in this life. That’s the way it’s always been, you either take or you are taken. After Cortese." She snorted again. Fingering her jaw thoughtfully, the woman hunched over until her elbows hit the top of her thighs. There she remained, head in hand, staring off into space.

Despite the pain that was beginning to niggle through the potion she could still taste on her tongue, Gabrielle carefully made her way down to where the warrior sat, looking dejected in her own world of past torment.

Oblivious to the young woman’s perilous journey, the Conqueror ran one large hand over her face and then continued.

"One does what one has to in the quest for domination. At first it was simply power and greed that propelled me. My lust for…everything…brought me into contact with men of like minds. They lacked the foresight and…cruelty…that seemed to run through my veins. Aided along the way by…some unforeseen force…I slowly began using such men as stepping stones until…"

She remembered all the naïve men who had selflessly taken her under their wing, only to find a viper coiled there. Closing her eyes tightly, she had to admit there were far less of them than those who used her for their own selfish needs.

Her lip curled as her mind was filled with images of debasement and wanton cruelty, enough to make even the most sexually perverse cringe in horror. The reality of exactly what she’d sacrificed on the road that finally led her to domination over most of Greece made her quake with the intensity of it. She’d bartered her soul so quickly, and so cheaply, and where had it gotten her? Xena looked down at hands that had been bathed in blood and then slowly turned to face the woman who had allowed her to see the truth.

"Gods, this is so hard." She opened her eyes as the bard squeezed her leg. "I’ve never loved anyone, Gabrielle. I’ve taken what fancied me at the time, reveling in the debasement of others, and bartering away what little self-control I thought I ever had. I’m not a nice person, Gabrielle, and certainly not one deserving of love."

Gabrielle resisted the urge to pull her hand away as she laid it on the bunched muscles of the warrior’s thigh. She could feel the woman’s need for flight but battled on.

"You are the strongest, most capable woman I’ve ever met, Xena. You took a land torn apart by endless civil war, poverty and strife, and fashioned it into one that has given us the only peace many of us have known in our lifetime."

The bard went on about how many successes there were during her reign but all Xena heard was the unabashed love woven into each word. How could she ever be worthy?

"…matter how you got to where you are now, Xena. It only matters who you’ve become." She paused. "Xena?" Gabrielle frowned and wondered where the woman went when she stared off into space like that.

A tick began at the corner of the Conqueror right eye. ‘Who I’ve become. Ah, and therein lies the rub,’ she thought morosely. ‘I’m a murdering, bloodthirsty, sexual predator with a penchant for destroying everything I touch.’

"I’m a soulless bitch who will only destroy you if you give me the chance."

Gabrielle’s head snapped back as if she’d just spotted a venomous snake sprouting ‘round the Conqueror’s neck. Gone was the soft, carefree look the warrior had worn a scant few hours previous when they’d joked like young lovers. In its place was the sneering Lord Xena, a woman she was well acquainted with, and one she viewed with more than a little fear. The dichotomy of the woman never failed to leave her in total awe. But it was because of this dualism, this unpredictability present on two levels, that Gabrielle was left feeling all but overwhelmed. How was she to deal with someone when you just never knew exactly where you stood?

"You haven’t even heard a thing I’ve said, have you?" She said in a small but steady voice.

Xena reached out a shaking hand and covered the smaller one within her own. "So soft, so loving…" The small smile slipped from the bard’s mouth as the pressure was increased around her hand, leaving her wincing with pain. Biting the inside of her lip, the bard forced the smile back onto her face.

"…So easy to destroy, Gabrielle. Have you ever thought of it? I have more love for you than I ever thought I possessed, but will it be enough? In the darkness of the night when the fever is on me, will you be able to take what I might mindlessly force upon you?"

Cold fingers were pressed over the bard’s lips as the Conqueror went on. "And when you’re in my realm of pain and fury will you still speak my name with love?"

Xena’s eyes widened as she felt her fingers kissed. "When you tell me you love me, showing me with evidence of trust and honour, intensity and care, how could I not?"

The Conqueror drew in a slow, deep breath and then cupped the woman’s dainty chin. Shaking her head slowly, Xena found that she couldn’t see anything but truth in the well of green fire she gazed into.

Running her hand slowly down the woman’s arm, Gabrielle smiled. "I am for you."

"As much as you say you love me, you will always love her more."

"I know so many things about you, Xena. I’m still here, still holding my heart out for you to take."

"I can’t be this woman you moon over, Gabrielle."

Pulling the woman’s face down to a mere inches away the bard whispered, "You already are."

Xena’s eyes closed briefly as she felt a softness flutter against her lips. Taking the bard by the shoulders, she slowly eased the woman back onto the bed. Feeling almost dizzy, the warrior was still conscious of the bard’s heady scent, arousing her to a point of almost frenzy.

Gabrielle’s head swam as she felt her mouth probed and all but devoured. Just when she thought her very hair might catch fire, the kiss deepened once again, and she found her hands moving over the taut flesh of her lover. A deep growl seemed to fill her head and the bard slowly opened her eyes. She looked into the hooded eyes of the Conqueror and frowned, then her own eyes were filled with wonder as she realized her treasonous hands were pinching and needing two rock-hard breasts into unbelievably hard points.

"Oh gods," she croaked out as the memory of such treasure played upon the valley of her tongue, urging her in their re-acquaintance. Taking in one rosy nipple and then the other, she reveled in the warrior’s reactions.

Candles flickered as the air was filled with passion. The skin on the nape of the warrior’s neck began to twitch and then both eyes were wide open and alert.

Gabrielle noted the change but continued with her assault. "Stay with me, Xena…it’s only Ubris…or Andros…I don’t care who it is."

The muscles between the Conqueror shoulders twitched once and then the feeling was gone, leaving Xena somewhat puzzled and yet pleased with its absence nonetheless. But her attention wavered as her roaming fingers came upon the harsh evidence of her past cruelty.

"Gabrielle…you must be in pain. Let me…" Her lips were seized again and her mind went blank momentarily as she felt her mouth investigated.

"Let you what? Possess me completely? I give you that gladly." Gabrielle gasped between nibbles.

Xena pulled back from the bard, her lips somewhat bruised. She smirked as the small fingers scratched against her scalp, urging her back into place.

"Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted, Xena?" Adopting a somewhat puerile yet seductive pose and running her hands slowly up and down her torso, the bard did indeed present everything Lord Xena had wanted from the woman…initially. Now she could see just how much was really being offered. How could she have been so blind for so long?

"We have the whole night, Gabrielle, but first you need a bath." She chuckled as a defiant bard gazed back at her. "You misunderstand me, I love the way you smell, Gabrielle. I always have. No, this is a special bath, filled with special healing herbs. That potion I gave you will be wearing off soon enough. If we wish to enjoy the fruits of their medicinal properties we’d best do it while your pain is at a low ebb."

"But I want you now, Xena…I don’t want a bath. Besides, I remember a very insistent Lord Xena pointing out the fact that I smelled like some prison rat."

She groaned as the warrior all but took her breath away with another deep kiss.

"I never said ‘prison rat’. And I’ve always wanted you, bard."

Gabrielle smiled seductively. "Well, milord…now you have me. Continue."

The warrior laughed and then kissed the woman’s pert nose. "Oh, I will continue, Gabrielle. But after the bath." She eased off the bed and then a look of concern twisted her features as the blonde slowly moved into a semi-reclining position. Gabrielle’s face contorted with pain briefly and then both women released a sigh.

"Come along quickly." The bard’s eyes narrowed but she nodded in defeat, already beginning to feel hot phantom fingers playing along each leg bone.

Peeling the sheet from the woman’s lower extremities, Xena bent down and eased the woman gently into her arms. She was rewarded with a very deep kiss, one that raised the temperature between them alarmingly.

"You really can be quite brazen."

Gabrielle smiled winningly. "Oh, just wait…" Her words dried up quickly as the warrior stopped mid-stride.

Xena gazed around her chambers, a slight frown on her face. Standing stock still, she tilted her head and then expelled a small breath.

"I’m afraid our time together will have to be postponed, Gabrielle."

"But…" The bard twisted to look over the woman’s shoulder. "What is it? Another assassin?"

Carrying the smaller woman back to the bed, she drew up the sheets and then quickly donned her discarded clothing.

Gabrielle sat stunned as a now clothed warrior yanked open the door.

Two men stood in the shadows and although Gabrielle tried hard, craning her neck in such a fashion as to defy gravity, she couldn’t recognize either one.

An emergency of some kind had occurred if the Conqueror’s reaction was any indication.


The room felt suddenly very cold and empty as the great wooden doors closed behind the warrior. The feeling persisted even as the Egyptian came into the room from another entrance.

"I will prepare you for the bath, milady." Gabrielle sat quietly as Ubris’ words fluttered over her ears.

"Have I been so cumbersome a patient that you won’t meet my eyes, Ubris?" Then a strange look came over her. "Why do you address me in this manner?"

The servant smiled and then bowed respectfully. "I have just been given word, milady, that you are to be a free woman. Lord Xena has so decreed it. You are to be afforded all the respect a lady of noble birth would be due from this day forward."

Gabrielle blinked slowly. ‘Free? I’m a free woman?’ Why, it had taken almost 6 full months to get used to having lost her freedom, and put away any thoughts of ever reaching an age whereby she might be considered old and wise.

Tears welled up as she faced a larger truth. It wasn’t the freedom that she’d had to face losing, but rather a life that she knew was forfeit, simply because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She had even chuckled long and hard deep into the night as she lay shackled in the prison thinking that her miserable and uneventful life would at least have the footnote of ‘dissident’ attached to it. Although she was certain it wouldn’t make either of her parents happy, it did in some way please her that she should be thought of as something more important than a young girl who told stories to others as a way of entertaining her self and others. The label, ‘enemy of the realm’ had made her heart beat faster, even though she knew that she was anything but brave. She could no more be a resistance fighter against a tyrannical monarch than she could resist torture, survive rape, and even deny the somewhat sadistic passions of a woman both intensely alluring and the embodiment of pure danger.

But she had nevertheless. A sharp puff of air was expelled as she realized the woman she had been was no more. She was no more the child her parents had envisioned her to be, and certainly not the one she thought she would become.

Ubris had begun to think the young bard was far too overcome with the news that she quickly sat close to her in the event the woman fainted.

"Come now, Gabrielle…milady. I will aid you in your bath so that you may be well rested for the Lord when she returns."

Gabrielle’s eyes cleared and she turned to the Egyptian.

"Where has Xena gone, Ubris? What has happened, tell me?"

Ubris pursed her lips together and weighed the consequences of telling the young woman the truth. Knowing she would be badgered shamelessly if she did not give the bard something, Ubris shrugged her shoulders slightly and then took Gabrielle’s hands in her own.

"The Lord has left on a matter of grave importance, milady. She goes to meet with the Roman emissaries…"

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes and squeezed the woman’s hand sharply. "Oh, please Ubris. If you continue addressing me in that fashion, well I’ll…"

"Yes, milady." Ubris grinned.

Rolling her eyes, the bard gave the woman a slight push. "And I don’t want to hear any nonsense about meeting Roman emissaries. After all, is it common practice for a woman of Lord Xena’s stature and importance to simply dress hurriedly and race out the door without her entourage? And besides, although I couldn’t hear or see much, it seemed one of the men in the hallway was injured."

She arched an eyebrow and waited. "I have endless patience, Ubris, and you know I’ll winnow it out of you sooner or later so you might as well tell me now." Pinching the air with two fingers, she went on. "I have ways, my dear friend. Shall it be pinching or tickling first?"

Ubris covered her mouth quickly in an attempt to stem the flow of Egyptian curses. The attempt was a failure and Gabrielle found herself laughing along with the woman even though she couldn’t understand a word.

After wiping the tears from both cheeks, the women hugged each other. "First we must get you into the bath, Gabrielle. My tender skin will be forfeit should the Lord return and find you out of sorts or delirious from yet another potion."

The bard nodded quickly, eager to get to the truth of Xena’s whereabouts. She wasn’t sure why, but she had a terrible sense of foreboding which pained her like some rotted tooth which needed pulling.

Gabrielle had braced herself for the pain she expected to follow the removal of her splints but she needn’t have worried: the servant was more than capable of carrying her charge safely and painlessly into the bath. As they both soaked in the healing waters, Ubris explained what she’d heard and what the current rumours were.

The candles had burned down quite low by the time the story was told, and neither woman even registered the cold temperatures of the water surrounding them. And although it was not her place, Ubris acquiesced to her friend’s request to stay with her until Lord Xena had returned.

"Oh gods," were the only words the bard uttered as she thought of what Xena would have to face. And then the prospect of her not returning at all hit her with force, stunning her into silence.




Chapter Nineteen



Lucius Cornelius Flavius sat looking rather disinterested as Cassias went to work on yet another of the Greek prisoners. Gazing imperiously at the slave attending him, he offered one hand and then sighed as his nails were being filed.

Another scream pierced the air making the rather tall Roman call for more wine. Anything that would help block out the constant din was looked upon with pleasure. Casting his eyes over the other nobleman made him shiver with revulsion. This was his second experience ‘in the field’, both with Caius Cassias Longinus, and although he had little pull politically, he would do whatever he could to make this the last.

Christo strained against his bonds as another one of his men came under the cruel scrutiny of the worst of the two Roman pigs. His thigh throbbed painfully but the Briton knew it was nothing compared to the pain two of his men had already endured in the Roman’s efforts to make him talk. So far he’d been able to resist but if the pig called Cassias started poking around the arrow wound any further then things might change. He stared hard at the floor between his boots and tried to concentrate on relaxing his fingers. Both hands were tied tightly behind his back and his response to the torture he was witnessing was cutting off the circulation. He had to remedy that or he’d be in no shape to aid his men when reinforcements came.

Christo ground his teeth and prayed for that moment to come soon. His man Altocles must have made it to the castle and Lord Xena. Although two Roman soldiers had taken off after the man they would be no match for Altocles’ skills both as a rider and master at evading the enemy. All the training he and his men had done in these forests would be the deciding factor, he knew. After all, why else would Cassias be spending any more time than he needed to on he and his men? No, they wanted to know of any booby traps, the lay of the land, and the number of contingency forces that might be awaiting them.

His nerves thrummed dangerously again as another shriek filled his ears. ‘Concentrate, boyo, concentrate!’ If only he’d taken this supposed mission to find that godsbedamned Dagnine seriously! Truth was he’d only seen his orders as being a good way to put a feather in his own cap and perhaps needle his friend Andros along the way. With the good Lieutenant out with a full company combing the area northwest of the castle, any resistance mounted by the home forces now would be sorely stretched thin.

His eyes popped open as the shaft piercing his flesh was taken in one meaty paw.

"Well, little man? Do you still insist on letting your men take your punishment when all you need do is simply answer my questions?"

Cassias pushed his lips out disdainfully at the lack of response. "I see. Any attempts on your part to convince me of any noble heritage running through your veins have fluttered like ashes on the wind. Not that I needed any convincing, really."

He turned and walked over to the table. Emptying his flagon of wine, he looked to his compatriot. "Tell me, Flavius: have we ever met a Briton worth even one of our lowliest of slaves?"

Cornelius’ eye twitched at the way he was being addressed. Not only was the man a bore but a pig as well. His family line was as good if not better than the great Caius Cassias Longinus’ and therefore his chances in the political arena were just as impressive. The only thing this man had which seemed to garner him favour with the senators was his penchant for violence. Although success in the field was important, one didn’t have to resort to senseless acts of barbarism. They’d spent all afternoon and most of the evening trying to wheedle information out of a few sorry Greeks. Either the men had no pertinent information to give up or they were going at things the wrong way. Cornelius prided himself on being a good judge of character and in his skilled opinion Cassias had far too many flaws to warrant his current assumption that he was in charge. Why if he’d been in command of this mission, they’d be well on their way to the castle, undoubtedly storming it at this very moment. Cornelius had little doubt his leadership would prove to be both successful and noteworthy. If he could bring Xena to Rome in chains…His eyes narrowed in calculation. ‘Enough of this stupidity.’

"I’m most certain a man’s mettle can be measured in ways other than this. My dear Cassias, you’ve only proven the man has a strong stomach, nothing more."

Removing a small, very sharp dagger from his waist, the Roman moved to where Christo sat, grabbed the man by the throat and placed the point just under his eye.

"Now, I’d wager you’d get quite a bit farther in your attempts to glean information if you threatened a man’s sight. However,"

Pulling the struggling man forward, he grabbed the Lieutenant’s little finger and pried it away from the others.

"I find that kind of thing rather ordinary; you don’t have to beat someone over the head in order to get their attention. Speed and decisiveness, Cassias, have their rewards. After all, a man can do quite well with only one eye. By the time he actually gives you what you want, he’d be blind and absolutely no use to you. If you were, however, to get his attention, one finger at a time, why he’d still be of some use, albeit only to you and most probably not to his master should he survive the ordeal. For truly, what is a soldier without fingers?"

The Briton squeezed his eyes shut and held his breath, knowing the burning pain to come would only be the beginning.

Cassias frowned as a yell was heard outside the tent. A sneer painted his full lips as he entreated Cornelius to continue. His blood lust had been simmering all day and his frustration at not being able to secure information was driving him to the point of incoherent rage.

The sound of hoof beats could be heard and then the clashing of armour filled the air. The commotion seemed to break the spell he was under and the darkness receded from his eyes.

Finally tearing his gaze away from the scene just as the knife blade was being anointed with a dark spurt of blood, the Roman yelled a string of curses and pulled the tent flap aside.

"By the gods, you’d better have a good reason for interrupting…"

His eyes narrowed as he took in the scene before him.


There astride a golden horse was a woman dressed in dark battle leathers with a purple cape flowing behind her, and wearing bright shiny silver gauntlets. Beside her were an officer and at least a company of men, either on horseback or standing at the ready. He watched as the woman motioned a man forward.

Her imperious stance alone would have marked her as Lord Xena, Conqueror of Corinth. His eyes darted left and right as he tried to figure out just how she could have gotten by his skilled centurions. One eyebrow rose dangerously as the Greek soldier dragged a heavy bag closer.

"What’s the meaning of this? Who are you and what is your purpose in my camp?"

Xena pursed her lips.

"Your camp. I see, either you’ve lost your mind and have wandered miles away from the Roman border or you’re just plain stupid to think I’d do nothing as you invade my lands. Which is it?"

The Roman sputtered as he struggled with a retort, his face purpling. How dare she! His hand went to the hilt of his sword and then he paused. There was a calm yet dangerous look to the woman’s eyes, something akin to death shroud. Although on foot and somewhat at a disadvantage, Cassias knew in his heart that this woman would be no match for him should she even manage to get past his men. However, it was impossible to bring the woman to her knees as she looked down on him from a higher vantage point. And oh how he longed to put this pompous woman in her place! No, he’d bide his time.

"Your lands?" he blustered.

Xena caressed a tooth slowly with the tip of her tongue, looking the man over with distaste.

"This charade has gone on far too long. I know why you’re here and who sent you." She smiled and waited as her soldier dragged the bag closer to the Roman.

"I believe Caesar is expecting tribute. Enjoy."

The Greek untied the end of the bag and began emptying the contents. A few of the nearby Roman’s shrank back in disgust as the grisly remains were exposed.

Cassias’ sense of smell was immediately assaulted as the soldier fanned the blue bottle flies away from their meal. As the bag was upended one last head rolled forward, stopping inches away from the Roman’s boot.

Gritting his teeth, he scanned what remained of his once proud and all but invincible centurions. These men had been hand picked and were the best that Rome could offer. He raised his eyes and glared poisonously at the woman. She held up one gloved hand and Cassias could see the crimson stain still dripping from it.

"Since I am the law of this land, I meted out justice immediately. They were trespassers and paid the price accordingly."

"Caesar will hear of this. We came as his emissaries and this is how we are treated?"

His head turned minutely as something moved in his peripheral field. Flavius appeared at the opening of the tent dragging what remained of the two men that had been already interrogated.

The Conqueror’s Lieutenant moved his horse forward a step as the Roman slit one of the men’s throats. Curling his fingers into the dark bloody hair of his next victim, Cornelius locked eyes with the man and grinned.

"The life of these two men is immediately forfeit. As it won’t begin to pay for the lives of our ten centurions, we shall await your offer of at least twenty more of your men. Once that has been done, perhaps we can continue our discussion."

Cassias ground his teeth as he felt the reins of authority slip from his grasp. Although both equal in station and rank, he was by far the better soldier, the more gifted orator, and certainly the more skilled in the ways of war. Although his tactics had been unsuccessful so far, it was evident Flavius hadn’t the stomach or the stamina to do what ever it took to get the job done. After all, how much information could be gleaned by the removal of only one or two fingers? And then of course there was the entertainment factor involved. One did have to amuse one’s self when in the field, something he was sure the fop didn’t quite understand.

Cornelius was busy observing the Greek Lieutenant as he cut the remaining man’s throat. An empathetic officer was a vulnerability he could use.

"Emissary’s don’t come armed to the teeth. Nor do their entourages contain centurion soldiers." Xena looked down at the man dispassionately, the abhorrence clearly visible on her face. ‘What created monsters such as these?’ she thought. Not only were they mindlessly cruel but witless in their efforts to attempt to convince her of their innocence. Xena snorted derisively. That their actions all but mirrored her early forays into the field of betrayal and deceit was completely lost on the warrior for the moment.

Cassias thought briefly of continuing to feign ignorance but could see by the taunt in the Conqueror’s eyes that the time for such things was past. His temper flared again as one bloodied hand was placed on his shoulder.

"Hold, Cassias. Now is not the time nor the place to lose one’s temper." The taller Roman’s lips twisted in a sneer as the other man wrestled with his loss of face.

Xena watched the interaction between the two men with fascination. There were many chinks in the armour of her current adversaries. Which one to play on first?

"You," she indicated to the taller of the two Romans. "I can see that you are in command here. There was no need for the butchery of my soldiers, though it is nice to see someone in command who isn’t afraid of dirtying his own hands." She inspected the drying gore glistening from her fingertips and smiled.

"It adds a certain something to a person’s ensemble, don’t you think?" she purred as she wiped the mess across the base of her throat.

Polis swallowed a shudder and looked across the clearing. Andros moved his horse out of the shadows and nodded back at him. Although they’d gone through the plan as carefully as they could it all hinged on perfect timing and a good deal of luck.

"It seems we have something in common…Lord Xena I presume? We haven’t been properly introduced. I am Lucius Cornelius Flavius, Tribune of the great Julius Caesar." He tipped his chin slightly and graced the woman with a smile. The one she bestowed in return gave him hope that perhaps his compatriot had become a liability sooner than even he had expected. Now, if he could only gain the woman’s confidence…

Brushing his sticky hands quickly on the hem of his tunic the Roman eased away from the others until he was but a few feet from the Conqueror’s horse.

"I see that we may have misjudged each other’s intentions, Lord Xena. It was not my purpose to cause dissention between you and Rome. We had heard rumours that you’d fallen ill and were near death…it was to our mutual benefit that Caesar send in forces to aid in your recovery and return order to your realm. He had your best interest in mind, Conqueror."

Xena smirked and eased her horse back. Casually flipping her hair over one shoulder, she engaged a brief look with her first Lieutenant and then resettled her gaze back on the toad before her.

"The news of my imminent death has been greatly exaggerated. As you can see, your source of information should be looked upon with suspicion, Lucinus Flavicus. Your rash belief based on lies and conjecture is responsible for the deaths of your centurions, not me." Responding to her mistress’ wishes, Argo sidled to the right, enabling her to casually push her own men back while all but urging the two Roman’s forward. "Caesar would do well to look to his own interests, Tribune."

Cassias’ hand flew back to the hilt of his sword. "You cast aspersions on the great Julius Caesar?" He guffawed. "You are a mere woman, Lord Xena, and one who sees treachery and intrigue at every turn."

Xena leaned forward, fixing the taller man with a baleful stare. "You would have done well to have sent your second in command to my court as had previously been planned. It is quite evident he has no skills in the field of diplomacy; letting mindless rage rule your actions is the sure sign of immaturity at the very least and a weakened mind at most. Although it is through his actions that you have been brought to this sorry state of affairs, as commander it is quite clear where the condemnation lies." Resettling her cape around her she cantered a few paces, dismissing both men as being beneath her continued interest.

"As it now stands, I cannot accept either one of you as emissaries of Caesar but as enemies of the state."

Cornelius squirmed uncomfortably as his visions of hauling the great Lord Xena in chains behind his chariot went up in smoke. Not only had he been out maneuvered but the bitch was laying the blame of this whole fiasco at his feet!

Cassias barked out a cruel laugh at his countryman’s discomfort. If blame could be shifted onto Cornelius’ shoulders, his reputation would be unblemished. "The great ‘Flavicus’ has many such shortcomings, Conqueror," he snickered.

Cornelius whirled on the man, spitting with rage. "It was you, you pompous ass! It was not my plan to torture the Greek soldiers but yours!"


Xena moved her men back into position as the two Romans circled each other. Keeping a careful eye on the whereabouts of the soldiers on both sides would be tricky. She turned to Polis and he slowly began to move his horse towards the enemy soldiers. Their attention was turned to their commanders, their true purpose forgotten. A few Greek soldiers began milling about with their Roman counterparts and soon a ring was formed around the two combatants. Once that was achieved, Polis and his men quietly removed themselves from the area.

Xena stood high in her stirrups and gauged the proposed trajectory. There seemed enough room between the Roman’s and their tent but she couldn’t be certain. Her eyes flashed in anger as she wondered just how many of her men had survived torture at these men’s hands. She’d already lost a good deal of men when Dagnine had left earlier; she couldn’t afford to have her numbers cut any further. How many officers had she left that she could truly count on? Andros, of course, and Polis and…Christo? She was certain a man as stubborn as the Briton would have survived torture and it galled her to think his life might be forfeit if she had miscalculated in her plans.

She thought briefly of the death that had surrounded her these past few days and felt heart weary. All she really wanted to do was return to the castle and Gabrielle. Surely there was more to her life than the constant state of siege and death. If she could circumvent this current attempt from Rome then she could spend more time at strengthening her rule, cutting the deadwood from her court and be the ruler she knew she was destined to be. With her resolve strengthened, she lifted her hand again.

"Now!" she shouted. Andros signaled his men hiding in the thickets and a dense volley of arrows, filling the air with the cries of pain and death. Once upon a time, the Conqueror’s reaction would have been one of cold calculated glee, the results feeding the darkness within her. Now she only felt sorrow at the lives lost. Caesars’ power had grown too much to ignore. If his eyes were now on Greece would total world domination be far behind?

She felt ill as her own aspirations wafted before her eyes. How far had she been willing to go to secure her place in the annals of the great leaders of history? Such visions now seemed so cruel and pitiless. Was she nothing more than the likes of these men or Caesar?

As the dead and dying lay at her feet, Lord Xena silently vowed the comparison would never be made between them.

Only the two Roman tribunes remained standing as the last arrow struck flesh. The Conqueror sighed deeply and then signaled her Lieutenant again.

"Andros. See to our wounded." Dismounting quickly, she walked over to where Polis was standing, his eyes somewhat glazed over with the horror that surrounded them. Clasping a hand on his shoulder, she waited until her presence was acknowledged.


"You’ve earned the right of Coup de Grace. Whatever punishment you see fit to mete out to the two Roman pigs is up to you, I’ll not stand in your way." The bravado seemed to fall from her shoulders as a tear made its way down the man’s inexperienced face. For once in her life Xena could actually see the horrors of her existence clearly: there was no triumph, no glory, and certainly no pleasure to be gleaned from the violence she lived. The all-encompassing misery mirrored in her Captain’s eyes was a humbling experience.

Polis glanced up at the Conqueror and noted the anguish that settled like a pall over her features. Suddenly he was afraid and more than a little embarrassed that he couldn’t live up to the expectations of his Lord. Gulping deeply, he dropped to one knee and grasped her gauntlet pleadingly.

"Sire, I have shamed you with my inability to perform my duties as a soldier in your command. My actions are those of a child’s…

Xena felt the breath whoosh out of her lungs as the young man shamed himself publicly. Her eyes flitted from man to man suddenly aware of their unease. Each man dropped his gaze unwilling to find truth standing before him. Perhaps the rumours weren’t lies after all?

Andros paused at the entrance to the tent; his mouth creased with a knowing smile. These new and untested men were about to be given a lesson. His eyes stopped briefly on some of the well-seasoned men in his own company. It was evident by the look on their faces that they too could benefit from the lessons forthcoming. And then he pushed the tent flap open and went in to see about his friend.

Polis trembled as he was dragged back to his feet. Taking her hand from his grasp, the Conqueror removed her gauntlets and threw them on the ground.

"This was a bad way to die, gentlemen. There was no glory in it as it was not a war of honour but a small skirmish created by a man whose only thoughts are of greed and self-aggrandizement. The actions of his men are to be pitied. Our revenge shall be to return these men to face the humiliation of a very dissatisfied Caesar."

Placing her hand gently on her second Lieutenant’s forearm, the Conqueror looked carefully into his grey eyes. There was such potential there. This was a man she intended to have around for a long time.

"Be thankful you can still see life as a child, Polis. I only wish…"

The walls were drawn up slowly around the vulnerability he saw in her eyes and Polis brought the Conqueror’s hand to his lips.

"I give my life to you, my liege." He spoke loudly and then smiled. "There are those who don’t realize just how truly happy and carefree they can be while others look on with open eyes." And then he whispered, "You love her; let her be your eyes, if only for a little while."

Xena rubbed the back of her nose quickly and turned towards her horse. ‘Godsbedamned cold I must be catching,’ she muttered.


Andros cleared his throat while his wounded men were being lifted onto litters and taken away. Christo had insisted they be dealt with first, of course, which was only proper. The Lieutenant rubbed his chin. There truly weren’t too many people he could count on as friends and Christo was surely one of them. He looked the Briton up and down and then came a little closer.

"What say you, Christo? I believe our men made a good accounting of themselves this day."

Christo twisted into another position while not giving away the amount of pain he was enduring. His leg had become quite inflamed and although his hands had been untied, the circulation was very slow in returning.

"They did indeed, my friend. But I swear, I thought it was you mates what were getting clobbered out there. I couldn’t rightly hear what was goin’ on, really, only that swords had been drawn. I could taste the smell of death on the air, I could, and figured I’d be looking at the wrong end of a pair of snippers soon enough." He wriggled his fingers and then groaned as the blood slowly made its way back out to his extremities.

Andros eyed the man’s wounded leg and grimaced. "I say, Briton, what is that smell? You haven’t been playing in the mud again so soon?"

Christo found himself laughing, if only weakly, as his friend attempted to divert his focus.

"Boyo, you’ll never know how much I thanked you for making me scrub down that day. Bleedin’ soap was good for something after all. Weren’t for that, I dunno just how long I’d have been able to keep that parlay going with the toadie bloke."

"Ah, you mean the legend in his own pea-sized mind? Yes, nice piece of work, that. I fear both men would rather face the wrath of Lord Xena than what awaits them in Rome."

A sneer twisted the Briton’s lips as he thought of the lives lost to the two men.

"Look mate, do me a favour and help me…"

Andros moved closely, taking his friend’s hand away from the arrow shaft.

"Now, now…I don’t want you to worry about scaring." He patted the larger man’s hand. "Why, I can see some fairly detailed stitch work in your future. Something with roses, no?"

As the man sputtered his response, the Lieutenant quickly pointed in the other direction.

"Oh my god…she’s naked!"

"Cor blimey…the Conqueror? Where?" As he whirled around, Andros grabbed the shaft quickly and yanked hard.

"Argh!" Screamed the Briton as his leg was engulfed in flames.

Andros threw the bloody remains to the ground and then clutched the Briton to him. He held the man tightly until the shaking subsided and then motioned quietly to a couple of soldiers nearby.

"Bandage him up nicely, men. And get some leeches, will you? Right now, this man is the only one who can perform surgery…even if it does resemble needle point." He grinned as the Briton yelled a volley of expletives his way.


As soon as the last man had left, Andros sat down heavily on what he assumed was imported Roman furniture. "Needs padding," he growled and grabbed a small pillow, jamming it behind his back. He sighed gratefully and then reached a shaky hand out for the bottle of wine nearby.

Xena watched from the doorway.

"I could use a touch of that, Lieutenant, so pour two glasses and don’t be stingy."

Andros nodded but was silent.

"I want to thank you for your part in this mission, Andros. You performed your duties admirably. If it weren’t for your recalibrations we might have lost a few of our own men instead of the half dozen wounded in the volley."

Andros sat staring at his goblet and Xena wondered if he’d heard her. Scrubbing a hand across her features she walked the length of the rather opulent tent, taking in the fine silks, foodstuffs, and bedding. She arched an eyebrow and then groaned.

"When I think of all the hard ground I’d slept on when I was just starting out as a soldier for hire…and there was no such thing as bedding. Why, we were happy enough to wake up with the boots still on our feet. How do you suppose they keep the camp followers from robbing them blind?" Putting hands on hips, she turned to face her friend.


The man nodded sagely and muttered a "yes sire," before falling silent once more. It was clear the man hadn’t heard a bloody word she’d said. She thought briefly of poking him with the her sword, judging that might just be the ticket to wake him up, but decided in the state he was in that he’d take it the wrong way. People were so touchy around her these days. She huffed. ‘As opposed to ‘those days’ when you knew exactly what lay ahead of you; no chitchat, just use brute strength, add a little terror and mayhem, and get down to it. Why couldn’t things have remained the way they had? An eyebrow rose as she contemplated the Lieutenant. She wasn’t used to being ignored in this fashion. While not terribly upset with the man, it was an awkward feeling to get used to. Her lip curled. And why should she? She liked having men jump to attention, bow and scrape, bend to her will, be at her beck and call…

She sighed again. Well, while it was true that she did indeed like to see a man squirm, such behavior needn’t be expected from her friends. While the word still felt rather awkward on her tongue, she did like the warmth she felt whenever she used it.

"We are friends, aren’t we Andros? I don’t think I could bear it if…" She coughed and seeing no response from the man muttered a little and walked to the front of the tent.

"Of course we are, sire," came the man’s booming voice. "Why would you ask such a question of me? Haven’t I always been loyal…?"

Xena turned and made her way back to where the man sat. Then pushing a few scrolls aside, she took up a perch on the marble table. It was cold and she was very glad for the thick leather pants she’d worn. She pulled at the cape as it got tangled beneath her legs. Sighing with relief, she ripped the offending article from her and threw it into the corner. ‘Much better. Damned pomp and circumstance. Only fools and popinjays dress in such a fashion.’

She cleared her throat again. She was getting another sore throat. Somehow she just knew all this talking wasn’t good for her. Well, she’d be perfectly happy to just listen to the bard talk on endless about this and that soon enough. Truth be told, she believed it was actually possible to be lulled to sleep by a voice like that. The content of the discussion aided in that regard, too, of course.

Xena rubbed the smile from her lips and drank down some wine. Now was not the time to think of Gabrielle. They had two stupid Roman’s to drag back to the castle, both madder than two cats in a sack. While the thought of just letting the two kill each other was inviting, instant gratification was not something that would be in her best interest at the moment. No, Caesar needed to have his ego slapped and slapped hard. By sending his two men back unharmed it would show the total lack of respect she had for his so called ‘emissaries’. Her lips twitched again. ‘Mind you,’ she thought evilly, ‘it might be fun to have them put on their barge without a stitch of clothing.’ She eyed the trunks filled with personal articles, her smile widening. ‘Or better yet have the two fools ushered into Caesar’s presence wearing clothing that neither suited their station nor fit them properly. Caesar would know immediately what had happened.’ She chuckled darkly, looking very much like she’d just swallowed a very nice canary.

Andros glanced up from his goblet and caught that look upon his Lord’s face. He shuddered. It was a good shudder, one he hadn’t experienced in a while.

"Are you having another scathingly brilliant idea, milord?"

Xena laughed. "Oh, to be sure Andros."

He waited but no information was forthcoming. He was about to lapse back into silence himself when he felt a warm hand on his arm.

"What is troubling you, friend?"

Andros felt a shuddering breath leave his body. Oh, how he wanted to tell her of his fears! Things had changed so drastically lately. She was more distant with him than ever before and yet treated him with more civility. She was less inclined to sudden rants and thoughtless acts of violence and yet was just as ruthless as ever she was before. He decided that although he had a distinct history with the woman, he didn’t know the Conqueror at all. And that troubled him.

"We were very lucky this evening, sire. In this fading light, well the whole thing could have gone terribly wrong. Why didn’t we just storm in, take over the camp and take our losses as usual? That we met up with you at all in this dense forest was an incredible piece of luck as it was."

He shuddered as he thought of the woman trying to face down a large contingency of Roman soldiers, ten of which were seasoned centurions. He had to admit that the Conqueror was still a force to be reckoned with, regardless of her affiliation with a certain slave. Small cold fingers of jealousy threatened to dig at his innards again but he successfully pushed them away. Watching the woman in action as she sailed through the elite Roman soldiers like a scythe through wheat was truly a vision to behold. In fact, it was their screams for help that alerted he and his men as to the Conqueror’s whereabouts. He’d been so happy to see her out and about the castle that he’d been found totally flatfooted when she had explained that Christo had found more than Dagnine to contend with in his search. Once she’d thought out a plan they’d acted quickly, taking the trophies with them. He smiled darkly knowing exactly where Lord Xena had wanted to go with them with regards to the plan. Mindless provocation was a good way to put an enemy on uneven footing.

He glanced at the woman from under dark lashes. There were benefits to be had now that the air had been cleared between them. When had he actually been able to sit in companionable silence with the woman without fearing she’d find his skills as a fearless cold warrior wanting? He straightened up. And just when had he actually been able to ignore the Conqueror without being brought to task for it? Although always able to speak his mind in her presence, the woman had never felt the need to respond in kind. He waited patiently, wondering if she would lighten her own burden of silence.

His ears pricked up as sounds of the camp being struck filled the air. Andros cocked his head listening and scratched up a cowlick at the back of his head trying to make out exactly what the two Roman’s were screaming about. An eyebrow lifted. How far away from the prison was his room? The cacophony from the two accompanied by images of Xena, tall-dark-and-dangerous, muscles straining and hair flying around as if it had a life of its own were two reasons he knew he’d still be awake at sunrise.

His thoughts were interrupted as the Conqueror offered him more wine that he gladly accepted.

Xena cleared her throat and then swallowed the contents of her flagon. "You know, I really detest all the conversation two people are expected to have. Can’t they just sit in each other’s company without one talking the ear off the other?" Andros’ eyebrow rose slowly.

"Small talk, bah," she growled. A quick look at the man showed he looked more morose than ever. Gritting her teeth, the Conqueror decided to give it a try.

"First of all, I did measure. You saw me, and in fact backed up my calibrations. Secondly," she pulled another finger down. "Secondly, we didn’t just rush the camp because although I knew some of our men were prisoners, I didn’t know exactly how many or in what shape they were in. If we rushed them the damned Roman’s might well have killed the bunch of them." She paused as her anger flared. "And thirdly, why am I explaining my actions to you at all? I’ve never had to before."

‘How in Hades did Gabrielle do this, and so easily? Well, if she could do it…’ She paused and then her anger subsided, leaving her shoulders rounded and her head bowed.

"I’ve changed, haven’t I?"

He nodded but couldn’t find any words.

"Has the change made me so horrible that I’ve lost the confidence of my men?"

What could he say? Andros knew he was on very thin ice as he chose his words carefully.

"I don’t know what the men think, milord. I know you have many who would follow you to the ends of the earth and back were you to even ask it. But these are troubling times, sire. The men need to see you strong and fearless, and they need to see you imposing your will and acting without question."

Xena opened her mouth and then shut it slowly. She ran suddenly cold fingers through her mane and then placed her chin in both hands, both elbows on her knees, and just gazed at the floor.

"I have changed, Andros. Why I’m even having this conversation with you, justifying my actions, and not running you through is proof of that! But is this a bad thing? I’m a good leader, Andros, and I’ve always tried to do what was best for my men and my realm. Somewhere along the way I lost that focus. I got caught up in the image I was trying to sell to our warring neighbours and began living it myself. How can this be a good thing?"

"It can’t, sire." Both dark heads looked up as Polis stood at the entrance to the tent, torch in one hand and bottle in the other.

"I’ve distributed a bit of grog to the men, sire, and most have headed back to the castle. There are a group of us waiting to escort you and we can leave at your command. But first,"

He pushed another bench closer, knocking the contents to the floor, and then sat down with a clunk. "Who’s for grog?"

The other two gazed at him with tolerance, much as two patient siblings would a younger less experienced cousin.

Both held up their goblets.

"Pardon me for saying so, sire, but…if I may speak frankly?" Not bothering to wait for an answer, the man went on. "You showed the men tonight that while you hadn’t a scared bone in your body and would certainly do anything to protect your own interests such actions wouldn’t include putting them at risk if there were other avenues to take. I’d say that was a good thing for them to see."

Xena was quiet as she assessed the information. She slogged down her grog and held her goblet out to be refilled. Andros grunted but said nothing; it had been a very long time since the Conqueror had loosened the tight fist she held herself in and had just relaxed. Well, as much as she could anyway. He took a larger swallow of his own brew and then burped.

"You’ve shown yourself to be human, sire," Polis went on, "and that can’t be a bad thing either." He placed the empty bottle unsteadily on the table and then rose.

"Well, what say you? Shall we head back to the castle, just three devil-may-care soldiers looking for a night of frivolity and fun?" Andros blanched visibly. Was the man insane? His mouth dropped open as the Conqueror slapped her leg and laughed.

"You’re right, Polis, I think I’ve changed for the better. The men might miss the monster I used to be but they’ll have to put up with the bitch that I am regardless." She poked Polis where his stitches were still healing. "As for you, you young pup, I don’t want to hear about anything that might fall off without undo care and attention in the next six weeks do to whatever proclivities you might be engaged in later tonight. Take care of it and it’ll take care of you. Words to live by."

Andros spewed the last of his grog down the front of his tunic.

"I’m not feeling myself tonight, Andros. I suppose it’s something you’ll have to put up with for awhile."

Andros grinned and tentatively put an arm around the larger woman’s shoulder. "If I might, sire…I think you are acting more like yourself than you have in years."

Xena chuckled and nodded slowly. Perhaps she’d been taking herself and her role as ‘Conqueror of Corinth’ a bit too seriously? She grabbed the shorter Polis around the shoulders and the three exited the tent.

"Oh, a wenching we will go…" Xena grabbed the man quickly around the throat, effectively squeezing off both the tawdry words to the song and the man’s airflow.

"We’ll have none of that, Polis." She looked at her first Lieutenant. "He’s had too much to drink. Perhaps I won’t kill him until he’s sobered up." Andros smirked as the young man’s face went white.

"By the gods you’ve sobered up quickly, Polis. Ready for your punishment?" He nodded slowly and she took her hand away, smiling as he dragged in a lungful of air.

"Don’t you let me see you again, d’you hear?" She watched as his lower lip quivered.

"But sire…"

"Not for 24 hours anyway. You were on sick leave, were you not? Well, with Christo out of commission for a while, I suppose you’ll have to see Andros about your wound… tomorrow…after your wenching tonight."

Xena smirked and tossed her goblet into the camp’s dying fire. "Tell you what, boys. While you try your luck with the castle wenches, as nice as they are, you remember one thing: while you’re hoping to secure a bed partner for the night I’ll be locked in the arms of a woman who loves me, who ever that might be, and is at this very moment waiting up with worry until I return." She chuckled and then leapt into her saddle.

"Last one home gets to inspect Christo’s stitching in the morning!" And with that, they were off.





Chapter Twenty

Oh, to ride the swells
and feel the goal of it 
upon my straining back!

To feel it coursing through
the very soul of it,
though righteousness it lacks.

Oh, to ride the exaltations
of my battle lust,
wrathful truth my aegis!

Rage with acrimoniously
anointed rust,
duty my accomplice.

The Conqueror yawned and stretched as she left the common Mess area. Although she’d left strict orders not to imbibe too heavily, Xena knew the men would be feeling very little pain in a matter of hours. A few strains of a very bawdy song reached her ears and Xena found herself humming along. How long had it been since she had sat with the men, leading them in verse after verse of either ribald poetry or limericks? ‘I really must do something to remedy that.’

"Xena?" She turned and stifled another yawn. Although his behavior earlier had rattled her somewhat Xena was pleased her Lieutenant had very little interest in getting totally inebriated. Despite young Polis bringing up a few points that had blown some of the fog of self-doubt away, she was certain Andros felt some uncertainty regarding a few of the unsettling changes taking place. ‘As well he should.’

She ground the knuckles of her hands into both eyes and then squared her shoulders. The tightening in her chest was back.

The Conqueror waited, impatience written on her face. ‘Well, what can you expect,’ thought Andros. He wished he had a woman waiting in his bed, too. ‘Hmm,’ he grumbled to himself, ‘not just any woman.’ Although it was because of the bard’s amorous influence on the Conqueror that he had been able to drop the scales of deceit from his eyes, there was a part of him that truly felt his destiny was heavily entwined with the woman. Why couldn’t Xena return his love?

"I must apologize for my behavior earlier, sire. I think this change has made others view you as vulnerable and that concerns me. While your reign has always held its own fascination for would-be successors and their assassins, you’ve had at least twice the usual number in the past six months. You heard the Romans, sire; Caesar himself has been apprised of the situation here and feels he can move rapidly on what he sees as an easy conquest."

The warrior nodded slowly and leaned against the wall, taking some comfort in the effects the cold stones were having on her body. She really was feeling bone-weary, and that would never do; she had plans for the evening.

"I don’t think we need concern ourselves with Caesar, Andros. But just to settle your worry, have a full company of men added to the border patrols in that sector. Now, was there anything else?"

"But sire, what of Dagnine? He is still out there."

"Yes, isn’t he just? At least we know what rascality he’s been up to and in whose ear he’s been whispering. Now that I’ve put a stop to his brief alliance with Caesar, I suppose he must be hiding, his tail securely positioned between his legs." She rubbed her chin. "I think a nice long chat with our two friends might yield up his whereabouts." A cruel smile twisted the tired look on Lord Xena’s face and Andros had a brief image of two more heads being added to the tribute she would be sending along to Rome.

"Sire, if you’d permit me, I’d like to interrogate the men myself. You’ve had a long day and I’m sure you haven’t been sleeping well because of the betrayal deep within your own ranks. You may rest assured that if the Roman’s know of his whereabouts, Dagnine will be in our hands by nightfall tomorrow."

The Lieutenant relaxed as the Conqueror shrugged her shoulders in agreement.

"As much as I’d like to end their miserable lives, I want the two Romans alive and kicking, right? Interrogate with kit gloves. You can apprise me of any information in the morning."

He nodded and then rubbed the back of his neck as she walked away muttering, ‘Damned Dagnine, I should have dealt with that problem years ago.’ He was in full agreement. However, knowing the Lord’s feelings regarding familiarity breeding contempt, he did wonder why he himself had lasted so long. Mind you, unlike Dagnine he’d had no visions of grandeur, only visions of love.

His belly grumbled alarmingly and the Lieutenant decided a short trip to the kitchen pantry might be in order. He gazed over his shoulder and saw that Polis was nowhere to be seen. ‘Young pup is probably already bedded down for the night.’ His curiosity was piqued as to which of the local wenches it was but then his attention was dragged back to things more important as his belly growled again.

Still muttering under her breath, the Conqueror made her way down the partially lit hallway towards her chambers. Her brain and heart were in rebellion; her first thoughts were centering predominantly on the bard as the days went by, making her feel more isolated. Andros was right: the number of attempts on her life were increasing and if she was going to have someone special around then certain safeguards had to be in force. That meant beefing up security again. She sighed dejectedly. That also meant bodyguards. The most powerful woman in the realm was becoming not only a prisoner but also her own worst enemy.

It didn’t matter how powerful you were, or how well you insulated yourself from the truth, there would always be someone there to take what you have. Her relationship with the men and the peasants would have to change. Only by accepting her role as an uncaring ruler could she see the change required. Only by accepting the bard’s pain as her own failing could she accept the total love the woman was offering. And only by change could she guarantee her own future.

Walking into her ready room, Xena felt as if a terrible weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She stood looking into the mirror and watched a stranger remove her armour and weapons. Gazing at the fresh nicks on her hands, the Conqueror could see a pattern of old wounds and new. At one time, these would be looked upon as evidence of her prowess. Now they were evidence of a different sort; although caught in a web of her own denial, the truth was clear: you rule with an iron first, then you will die the same way. That too would have to change.

Wringing the cold cloth and then washing the areas exposed as she disrobed further revitalized the warrior and she began feeling a little more settled about the day’s events. It was good to discover that she had the backing of most of her men; if nothing else, the day was not wasted for that very reason.

Xena stepped into a fresh silken robe placed by the bathing room and silently thanked her servant. Surveying the room as she cinched the belt around her, the warrior could see that Ubris had performed the duties she had longed to do in her stead. The heady scents of menthol and tiger balm were still present and Xena took a nice deep breath, letting the aroma settle about her.

The candles flickered as she slowly pushed open the adjoining door to her chamber. The faint light cast a gentle spell on the sleeping bard, making her seem to be some beauty under the power of some evil Emperor. Although somewhat piqued that the woman wasn’t awake and willing to continue their gentle seduction, Xena found her temper waning, replaced with a building sense of awe. Coming closer to the bed, Xena could see that both women had been busy preparing for her return. The bard’s hair had been brushed to a golden brilliance and her skin seemed to glow with health.

Her pulse quickened as the young woman’s eyelashes fluttered and then she found herself the benefactor of the most wondrous and loving smile. ‘Just for me.’ That truth forced her to take a slow and measured breath as she steadied the faint tremor in her hands.

"Xena. I…I had a dream."

A look came to the Conqueror’s face and Gabrielle continued in a rush. "No, I wasn’t dreaming of her…you…oh, you know what I mean. I had a dream that you were in danger. But…"

Xena sat by the woman and tried to listen as the bard prattled on about her dream but her focus kept shifting to the creamy colour of Gabrielle’s skin, more of which was being exposed as the woman became increasingly animated in her storytelling.

Nodding in what she assumed were the right places, the warrior continued her perusal of the bard’s beauty. Had she been aware of the finely chiseled nose, the dainty fine hairs that swept at the corners of the woman’s temples, or the exquisite mouth that seemed to promise more than she was currently offering? She blinked slowly as a small hand caressed the length of her forearm. The spell having been broken, the Conqueror decided that small talk was not something she wished to engage in any longer than necessary.


The bard swallowed as her name purred off the warrior’s sculpted lips. ‘How does she do that?’ pondered the bard as a few fine hairs at the nape of her neck twitched.

"Do you really want to continue regaling me with the symbolism of your dream?"

Gabrielle’s mouth went suddenly dry. "But sire, perhaps it portends something…"

Xena’s mouth dipped down on one side.

"Sometimes a dream is just a dream, bard. I can think of many other things I’d like to be discussing. Like…"

The blonde groaned as the tips of her fingers were nibbled. Her eyes shut with ecstasy as the inside of her wrists were sucked upon. Strong fingers gripped her forearms and the bard reveled in the heat the warrior was radiating.

"…How sweet you taste, your vintage akin to the finest ambrosia served in Athens."

Gabrielle swallowed with a click. Although Lord Xena was certainly not a verbose or overly demonstrative woman by any means, the bard was discovering she was both very learned and extremely skilled in the ways of romantic love. She forced a fine eyebrow back down as she wondered how often the woman had employed such skills. From all accounts it seemed the Conqueror was used to an easy conquest, the women all but flocking to her bed with the merest crick of one of her long well shaped fingers.

She frowned as her eyes picked out something against the olive colour of the warrior’s skin; a slight stain was visible on one wrist and palm.

"Xena?" The warrior scowled slightly and glanced quickly at her robe. No, there was no swatch of colour visible, therefore no re-opening of her wound. Her fingers moved over the spot quickly and efficiently, and noting no seepage, she cocked her head.

"What is it?"

Gabrielle swallowed. It was like that dream she’d had days ago about the room filling with blood, with Xena at the very center of it.

The bard closed her eyes briefly and chastised her actions. ‘What did you expect, dolt? She’s still Lord Xena, irregardless of what fancy thoughts you may have. See her in the light she so readily walks in!’

Looking about the room the Conqueror could see nothing amiss. It was only when she placed a slightly crimson finger to her lips in pensive thought that she understood the bard’s reaction. Glancing down at both hands, Xena snorted quietly and then moved to the corner basin.

"It’s nothing a little water won’t fix, Gabrielle." Xena blinked deeply as she pushed the washcloth mindlessly over her hands and forearms, her vision captured by the events of the day. The squeals of fear as the Centurions made overtures of mercy twisted her lips into a smile and she wrung the cloth tightly. ‘If I just close my eyes…’ Her fingers twitched as she remembered the soft wet feel of matted hair, its rusty seeping colour perfectly suited to the black leather gauntlets she wore. Oh, to ride the wild exhilaration of battle lust!

The blonde nodded but averted her eyes, oblivious to the Conqueror’s thoughts. Wanting to keep her mind on anything but the truth of why blood would be on the warrior’s hands, Gabrielle shifted and then moved into a semi-sitting position.

The small gasp that she uttered wasn’t missed and Xena’s neck muscles twitched as she gripped the sideboard. She could feel a slight pressure building just behind her eyes as the burbling blood lust began thrumming throughout her body.

"Here, let’s get you a bit of wine," she said as she dragged herself away from the images. "I’m sure you must be quite thirsty after your nap." She busied herself pouring two goblets and then, eying a platter by the main table, placed both amongst the food and carried it all over to the bed.

"And I’m certain you must be hungry, too." Xena smiled blankly as the bard’s belly rumbled. Her thoughts slowly flowed into the river of emotions that had begun that day when she’d come upon the Centurions. There had been a hunger then, too. But there had been something different this time; regardless of the heat she’d felt fanning her rage and seething passions, the joy usually found as the enemy’s blood anointed her blade and hand seemed dull and somehow bittersweet. In the end, she’d only felt a hollow sense of being unsatisfied, her elaborate feast denied. Yet the blood continued to roar past her ears, thrumming like some ancient beat that seemed to goad her passion and increase her hunger.

Gabrielle bit her lips and covered her stomach with both hands. "I guess I am hungry, thank you." The bard watched the Conqueror quizzically as the woman dipped two fingers into her wine and sucked at them slowly. It was obvious Xena was thinking of something else, and the bard found it quite unnerving. Her hand trembled slightly as a droplet of red dripped slowly down the underside of Xena’s jaw. ‘Oh, how I long to capture it with the tip of my finger, or perhaps my tongue,’ she thought distractedly.

A slow grin spread across the warrior’s lips as she blinked slowly and focused on the sheets that pooled about the woman’s midriff.

"I must confess I have an appetite, too."

The bard’s eyes cleared as she felt a deep flush cover her throat and chest, and suddenly found it very hard to tear her eyes away from the wolfish expression on the Conqueror face.

"You have that look on your face," she whispered aloud, finishing off the sentence silently to herself, ‘As if you would gladly eat me alive,’ and then shuddered like a leaf.

Xena could feel the pressure boiling just below the surface. Her nostrils twitched as she thought of the bard’s flesh dimpling under her closed hand, her rapacious eyes longing for that look of shared lust as it slowly crept into her lover’s eyes. Would Gabrielle be like the lamb to slaughter or would she be a willing accomplice? Visions of the bard’s lower body pinned against the wall, her legs wobbling as she lapped slowly between them seemed to freeze any thought, making them vanish like early morning mist at noon.

"What do you see, Gabrielle?"

A fire of lust roared over her mind as Gabrielle looked deeply into the warrior’s darkening eyes. She knew what Xena wanted, and having witnessed that expression on more than one occasion she was well versed. When Xena had been out on the field bashing heads; when she’d meted out her terrible punishment to those who would defy her; when the evidence of her violence was still visible upon her very body, Gabrielle knew only too well what the warrior required. But was she up to the task?

She twitched her toes and felt a slight tingling. ‘It’s only a question of mind over matter. I can ignore the pain…can’t I?’

"Lord? I have known the coarse side of your amorous nature. Will you show me its moderation and tenderness as well?"

Grinding her teeth, Lord Xena smiled briefly and then turned to refill her goblet. Oh, how she wanted to throw caution to the wind and just fuck the girl! The urgency of her battle lust was so that it all but screamed in her very ears. She had hoped the wine might dull the effects, somehow postponing the inevitable, and cursed her nature silently. It would not control her!

She looked down at her shaking hand as it gripped the goblet and felt a sense of growing shame. Could she just forget the look on the young woman’s face as the mallet fell again? Could she just ignore the love that was so very pure and so very evident in every look the bard threw her? Although the warrior could sense some trepidation in the bard, it acted as an aphrodisiac as opposed to a reality check. It was with this that the Conqueror battled, knowing that one false move would destroy the trust she and the blonde were building. She didn’t want that; not now, not when her heart was just beginning to thaw out. Having seen the look of betrayal on Lao Ma’s face those many years ago, Xena was in no hurry to have it repeated. No, if nothing else, the warrior was no fool: she learned by her mistakes the first time and if the mistakes were still drawing breath they were fixed so as not to be troublesome in the future.

Xena turned slowly and judged the bard’s reaction to her growing sense of urgency. Yes, the bard had witnessed it on more than one occasion, but she had been trussed up, a lamb for the taking.

‘Can she take what I offer?’

"I want to feel your body, your desire, your heated breath against me, Gabrielle. I need to fill every part of you with what I am, making you shudder with the intensity of it all." She moved closer to the bed. "I will have all of you, bard."

Gabrielle trembled, her very heart missing a beat every now and again making her feel quite lightheaded.

"I know of your passion, milord. I can see your need all but consuming you even now." She carefully held the satin sheet away from her body, swallowed once and then flung them aside.

"All I ask is temperance sire. Guard my heart well, Lord, I offer it up willingly."

Xena reached for her wine and frowned at the empty state. She needed more time, she needed to think, to puzzle out her next move. There was no intension on her part to harm the girl, not now. Although her mounting lust demanded an outlet, there were ways to release it safely. She only needed more time. Grinding her teeth slowly, she forced her mounting need to abate, if only for a moment. She needed to think. ‘I take, she gives; that’s always been the way.’

Then she realized the formality the bard had used in addressing her. It was almost as if the last four or five days had ceased to exist, plunging them back into a time when love was not part of the equation. But it was and its reality was like a fresh breath of air to the Lord. ‘What if I give and she takes?’ She bristled at the idea, completely unfamiliar with the concept, and then saw that in the giving was the taking, too.

"Am I no longer ‘Xena’ to you, Gabrielle? Does my passion reduce us to master and slave once more?"

"I will not deny you, Xena. I can’t. Not any more. I know what you need…" She placed a small hand at the top of her right knee and waited.

"I want you, yes, but I won’t take you, hurt you…my passion could never make me forget who it is I’m making love to, Gabrielle. Never."

The bard’s lower lip trembled and she held her left hand out. ‘Making love to…to me.’

"Xena? Something happened today, something that has you feeling like some caged animal. Are you always this way? Is it the sight of blood that spurns you on or just the act of battle?"

"Both. It’s who I am, Gabrielle. I can’t change that."

"But you already have, Xena. Don’t you feel it, and haven’t you fought against it for days?"

A small pained look came to the warrior’s eyes and then it was gone, but not before Gabrielle had it noted and put away for future reference. It was times like these and bits of evidence such as this that truly fleshed out the Conqueror, making her certainly more approachable.

"If you are expecting me to just change my ways over night…"

Gabrielle’s forehead crinkled. "No. I don’t expect you to change so drastically. In fact, you don’t have to change…and certainly not for me."

Xena threw an intense glare her way.

"How can you say that now? Haven’t you been pushing me closer to the brink each day, demanding that I change?"

Gabrielle pulled the woman closer, holding her leg tightly until the rigid posture eased somewhat.

"I don’t want you to change for me. I don’t think you could, really. I only want you to…modify your behavior, not change it."

Xena snorted. ‘Modify or change, it means the same thing! And what does she mean I couldn’t? I can do anything I put my mind to.’

"Can we make love carefully," posed the bard, caressing the side of Xena’s face.

Xena looked at the bounty spread out before her and knew in her heart she’d do whatever it took to possess this woman…finally…and at last.

Easing onto the bed, the warrior hastily pulled off her robe. ‘Where to start?’ The action of easing slowly down onto the bard was met with a small cry of fear.


"You’ll be careful not to…my legs, Lord…Xena."

Xena bit her lip. Well, it didn’t really matter how carefully she placed her weight on the woman, the end result would be pain. ‘Alright, that has to be out.’ An eyebrow flew up as she crossed off the other scenario of pinning the woman to the wall. ‘I could take both our weights, but for how long?’ She flexed a bicep and then scratched her jaw. How romantic would it be to have to remember where her legs are, where my hand or mouth is, and whether we’d end up in a heap at any given moment? ‘No, that’ll never do.’

She stroked her chin thoughtfully and then began to caress the woman’s hip and thigh, tracing the trail of her fingertips with tongue and lips.

Gabrielle twitched as her lower belly became encased in molten fire. The bard gasped as both fingers and tongue began to stroke the tight curls between her legs. Her fingers gripped the soft sheets as her legs moved to accommodate her rising ardor. However, it wasn’t long before the sounds of desire became those of anguish.

Squeezing her eyes tightly, Gabrielle tried to will the pain away, if only for a while. But try as she might, it was increasing to such a level as to be all encompassing, narrowing her focus from what she wanted to experience to how much pain she could endure.


Fingers seem to tease at her will, making her curse the growing pain, and she pushed gently, and then more firmly, at the warrior.

"Gods, Xena. You have to stop. I can’t…the pain is too great. Please…"

The Conqueror felt insistent fingers tangling in her hair, stroking her scalp in that rough sort of way she found quite arousing, and bent to her task. Smiling widely, the warrior thanked the gods for giving her such a passionate beauty. The woman’s moans of ecstasy seemed as music to her ears and she purred her response.

"Yes. Tell me how it feels, just what I do to you…tell me."

Gabrielle’s teeth began to ache as the pain radiated from knee to ankle.

"Xena! Please, you have to stop…by all the gods, Xena!"

She sighed with relief as the dark head lifted and then her vision was filled with the concerned look on her lover’s face.

"What is it?"

Gabrielle brushed a few tears from her cheeks and then covered her eyes with crossed arms.

"Do you ever listen to those you bed, Conqueror, or do you just blot them out completely? Perhaps you only hear what you want to?"

Xena pulled her head back quickly.

"What? How can you say that? You were just making these delicious sounds in response to my lovemaking. I commented in the correct fashion, did I not?"

"Can’t you tell the difference between agony and ecstasy? I would think there would be a discernable difference." Looking somewhat nonplussed, the warrior took a breath before continuing.

"I can’t say I’ve really noticed, Gabrielle. Cries of pain or ecstasy sound the same in any close encounter." She shrugged, looking somewhat defensive.

"Have you made love to someone who was injured, Xena?"

The warrior thought back to the couplings she’d enjoyed on the field of battle, a few who had been seduced into compliance, others with the aid of wine, making them forget their injuries…although none of them had qualified for what the bard would consider ‘love-making’. No, in truth they were merely a battle of a different sort.

She mumbled her response and the bard knew from the set to her jaw that the subject might be one she’d best put off for another time.

"Just give me a little time to compose myself, please. It’s my legs, Xena."

A stricken look came to the warrior’s face as she realized just how carried away she’d gotten; to the point of ignoring the entreaties of someone she only wanted to please.

"I’m sorry," she stammered. "I thought…"

Pressing the warrior’s face deeper into her bosom, Gabrielle settled back and began to float away on the intensity of her feelings. This enigma she’d fallen in love with tugged at her heart one moment and threatened to make her tug on her hair the next.

"I just need a little time."

Xena smiled, and moved up to kiss the woman’s nose. She could give her time, why they had all night. She snuggled her face back into the valley between the woman’s breasts and began to think of other ways to please her. The rise and fall of the bard’s flesh against her cheek began to entice the warrior once more as different scenarios were thought up and then discarded.

"Couldn’t you just place a nerve block on my legs?"

Xena retracted her questing tongue. "I could but the pain would be so intense afterwards that you might pass out."

Gabrielle grimaced in pain as she eased her hip. "A partial block? Is there such a thing?"

Xena thought of the cook’s aid and the effects of the partial block she’d administered while interrogating the cook. ‘He must have had some sort of heart attack as I was dealing with the other stupid man.’ Would she want the same thing to befall Gabrielle?

"I don’t think that would be advisable", she said as she looked at the woman out of the corner of her eye.

The bard stroked the Conqueror’s back absent-mindedly as she thought of how limited her plans had become. While it was both something she had wanted and an act of the greatest generosity on the part of Lord Xena, Gabrielle was coming to think of the second break as something of a mistake.

She blinked back a few tears as she thought of the Lord’s face as she’d ordered the healer to perform his grisly task, and shuddered. Although part of her detested the man for his uncaring manner, Gabrielle knew there had to be something terribly wrong with him. The man’s unwavering determination in his attack on her had left her feeling both scared and terribly confused. She had thought the old man harboured some like for her. Feeling his hands close tightly around her neck had been such a shock; one that had continued long after the healer had been pried away from her. Her forehead creased as she remembered the look on Xena’s face once the deed had been done. A shiver ran through her as she thought of the warrior finishing up the job Daedalis had begun; it had hurt Xena deeply, even though Gabrielle knew the act itself meant the woman was looking to some sort of future that included her.

The memories flooded in as Xena’s calloused hands stroked her arms and shoulders. Although unable to form clear images of the warrior tending to her late into the night, there was no doubt it had indeed been the Conqueror. Her eyes played over the warrior’s well-formed muscles and watched as the candlelight flickered through dark strands of the woman’s hair. It pleased her to no end to realize the Lord had been contemplating a life they could share. Well, she’d just have to console herself with that truth and hope it would keep her warm throughout the long nights of convalescence.

She pouted and then closed her eyes slowly as she felt nimble fingers working at the knots in her neck.

"Oh, that feels so nice." She began humming with a smile as the fingers danced up into her hair. Then she gasped as the Lord’s demanding fingers tangled in her tresses and her neck was slowly offered to equally insistent teeth.

"That’s the whole point: feeling. Why would you want to diminish that in any way? No, I want you to feel all of it; every second of every minute that I’ll be spending on your body will be emblazoned on your mind long after this night is done."

Xena grinned wickedly as a flock of goose pimples raced across the bard’s flesh. Her feral expression grew wider at the prospect of reducing the blonde to a moaning mass of quivering flesh without using the typical mode of seduction.

Gabrielle’s breath became laboured as the onslaught on the Lord’s feasting continued. And then the warrior’s grip loosened and she opened her eyes, feeling almost bereft despite the pain. There before her, straddling the area just above her knees was Xena in all her glory. Gabrielle’s blood roared through her ears as sultry blue eyes pierced her where she lay. Very slowly and methodically, the warrior began to braid a thick plait, tilting her head this way and that, reveling in both the display of her wanton nature and receiving the equally desired response.

Having completed her chore, Xena reached behind her and dabbed long fingers into a small jar. Taking care not to put but a minute amount of weight on the woman’s legs, she began to meticulously spread the scented oil across her shoulders, down her arms and then over each breast. Slowly dragging her fingers from the tops of her thighs, the warrior continued dancing them over and down the bard’s trembling torso.

She smirked at the bard’s feeble attempts at controlling herself. Running both hands back up her body, Xena cupped her full breasts and then slowly flicked a thumb across the hardening nipples. Gauging the woman’s reaction was going to be easy if the current response was what she could expect. No, at this rate the young woman would be finished before they’d even begun.

Leaning over slowly, Xena placed both hands on either side of the wriggling bard’s shoulders and then let her anointed breasts slide their way down the woman’s face.

A very low moan began at the back of Gabrielle’s throat, one she wasn’t even aware of making. All she knew was the woman of her dreams was right here in her arms.

Xena started as two small hands gripped her face tightly and then she answered the growl still vibrating through the bard’s chest.

"I don’t want a dream or a fantasy, Xena. I want you. You think you’ll hurt me, that somehow you’ll drive me away. You can’t, I won’t let you." And then she kissed the warrior passionately, leaving no doubts as to the intensity of her truth.

Xena noted yet another flinch as her mouth was explored. The temperature of the bard’s hands had dropped minutely and the tremors had increased.

"Why don’t you," she said, pausing to suck on the blonde’s lower lip. "Let me make you more comfortable?" Gabrielle tried to answer but the insistent teeth and fingers denied her the use of her mental faculties, leaving her feeling all but frozen in place.

"You need another potion," Xena purred against the woman’s open mouth. "I want you so badly, Gabrielle, but I can’t…I won’t…not when you can’t concentrate on anything but the pain." She kissed the woman deeply. "Don’t deny it."

The battle begun within the bard only lasted seconds as another jolt ran from knee to hip. ‘At this rate,’ thought the bard crossly, ‘I won’t even know my own name.’

"Fine, another potion, whatever, just so that we can be together. I don’t want to disappoint you, Xena. Even if…Just stay with me?"

Gabrielle reached up to caress the suddenly solemn expression on her lover’s face.

"What is it, Xena? Have I said something?"

The warrior closed her eyes suddenly overcome by a truth so pure it hit her with the force of a battle mace. All that concerned the young woman was that her pain would deny Lord Xena sexual satisfaction. The Conqueror blinked once and then re-focused on the woman beneath her. She’d been looking at things the wrong way. Things shouldn’t have been centered on what she could do for the bard at all, but rather what they could do together.

"I know you want to please me, Gabrielle, and I would desire nothing more than to feast upon you, taking you to heights of passion you could never dream of, but…"

Gabrielle held her breath as self-doubt began to eat at her. How could she have been so stupid to think such a woman, such a magnificent creature, could find her the least bit attractive?

"I…I’m sorry."

Xena grabbed the bard’s arms as the woman tried to turn away.

"Why should you be sorry? I’m the one…" She cleared her throat and then sat gently beside the bard.

"My whole life, I’ve seen those around me as things to manipulate, control or destroy. Sex has never been anything more than a weapon to employ in achieving my goals. Sad isn’t it?" She ran a tired hand over her face. "In all the years that I’ve been a soldier, only once did I ever feel anything that might have been construed as ‘love’. As diluted as I now see that emotion was, it is one hundred times what I’ve felt as the mighty Xena, Conqueror of Corinth!"

The bard rolled over carefully and touched her forehead to the woman’s outer thigh, afraid to break the bubble that enveloped them. She wasn’t sure just where this conversation was going but it seemed to be veering away from any wrong doing on her part. This could only be a good thing. She wanted so much for them but felt as if she were walking on eggshells. If she had self-doubts, could it be the warrior did, too? Blinking the growing pain away, she began to lightly stroke the woman’s arm as the Conqueror stared out into space. It was a full minute before the warrior continued.

"I’ve never cared for another human being the way I care for you." Xena said in a gravelly voice, then snorted softly and looked down at the bard. "I know you’ll find this hard to believe but I’ve never made love before. Oh, I’ve had sex, and I’ve fucked many a time, to be sure. But I’ve never been with someone I want to pleasure, knowing there will be very little I’d glean other than the sheer enjoyment of their resulting joy."

Gabrielle touched the woman’s smile and the pain seemed a little farther away. Her eyes brimmed with unshed tears as her lover moved to the sideboard and began mixing another potion.

‘My lover.’

Xena turned, potion in hand, and stopped suddenly, noting the look upon the young woman’s face. She seemed to simply radiate everything she now knew was missing from her life. How could she have been happy before this young woman came into her life? ‘No,’ she reasoned. ‘It wasn’t that I was unhappy, just that my happiness is now ten fold, no, one hundred fold.’

"First, you are going to drink this down and then I’m going to see about making you feel much more comfortable than you are now."

Her eyebrows shot up at the look on the bard’s face. "More comfortable than I am right now? How could that be?" Xena smiled crookedly. ‘The pain must be far worse than I expected; she must be in some sort of delirium now.’

Gabrielle grimaced again as she struggled to sit up.

"No. Stay where you are while I arrange things."

The blonde shuddered as she thought of the grim tasting potion. But if it meant some relief from the pain then she’d gladly consume twice the amount.

Xena’s lips twitched as the bard screwed her face up. "I think I can see exactly what you looked like as a child."

Gabrielle fidgeted and tried not to look so…childish.

"I haven’t been a child for many years, Xena. And I can’t remember the last time I had to drink down something so vile. In fact, I think my mother used to add honey in an effort to reduce the bitter taste." She glanced at the warrior briefly and Xena found herself laughing out loud.

"Oh, you’ll get no honey from me, little one. Not at this hour, anyway."

The cutting words were tempered by a smile and the look in the warrior’s eyes made her realize just how foolish she was being. After all, wouldn’t she endure almost anything just to be right here, right now?

"And besides," said the Conqueror with pursed lips and stern voice, "If you aren’t a child then you needn’t act like one." Gabrielle frowned as Xena picked up a small flagon of amber liquid and added a dollop or two before handing it over.

Her face remained blank as she gestured the bard to drink up. Then her façade weakened as she all but pushed the goblet to the woman’s lips.

"Drink up. It’s not poison, you know, just a bit of mead. A small trick my own mother…"

A look of sorrow passed over her face and was then gone.

"So." She made to throw herself on the bed and relax and came up short. "Ah, sorry." And then sat at one corner of the end of the bed, looking pensive.

"So," agreed Gabrielle, waiting for something more.

"Hey." Xena motioned with her fingers. "Drink it." Gabrielle sighed behind the brim of the cup; their moment of easy bantering and levity seemed to have melted into the darkness once more.

Gabrielle’s nose wrinkled coquettishly as the honey mead hit her palate. Resigning herself to bear the somewhat acrid bitterness of the brew, she was pleasantly surprised. "Oh. This is good." She licked a finger. "What is it again?" She knew perfectly well what the concoction was but needed something to lighten things. How had they gotten from playful lovemaking and somber tenderness, to this quiet, pensive moment?

Xena laced the fingers of both hands together, letting them dangle between her knees. She began to fidget. The toe of her right foot beat out a rhythm only she could hear, its tempo increasing as she waiting for the drug’s effects to take hold.


Tipping the last of the contents into her mouth, Gabrielle reached over and placed the cup on the nightstand. What had the Conqueror been saying? Oh yes, the mead was something her mother had given her, or told her about.

"Xena?" She waited until the dark head nodded, albeit almost imperceptibly, and then cleared her throat. "You were saying something about your mother?"

The fingers that had been loosely interlaced were now pushed together, making one large fist.

"I, ah…"

Xena forced her hands apart. It wasn’t something she wanted to really dwell on, but it had hurt her that her very own mother had turned her in for bounty money. She couldn’t really faulted her, what with a husband dead, one son off on one crusade or another never leaving word, and then her only daughter turning out to be an up and coming mercenary. That left one son at home and Mother had been determined to keep him from following his siblings into certain death. Money was what was needed and money she was certain to get, one way or another. Oh, she hadn’t gotten it, of course, as the guards had proved to be nothing more than babysitters. A twitch began at the corner of one eye as she remembered the look on her mother’s face. The woman had shrunk back in total fear, believing that her very life was now forfeit, now that her errant bloodthirsty killer of a daughter had broken free.

"My mother made a mistake, a long time ago, and although she didn’t end up having to pay for it, I did." ‘And continue to.’

Gabrielle began feeling the effects of the potion as it slowly seeped into her muscles and joints, freeing her from the pain. It was a nice warm feeling, but one that loosened her lips a bit more than she wished. Before she could even form the thought, it was out of her mouth, lying between them like some black lump of meat turned bad.

"Did you kill her?"

Xena’s head snapped up and she jumped to her feet. "No, I didn’t kill her!"

Gabrielle clutched at the sheets as the warrior began pacing the room, her mood darkening by the second.

"I’m…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you…I misspoke, Xena. It’s the potion, it’s made me quite bleary eyed."

Standing at the sideboard, the warrior reached out a hand for one of the bottles, its contents exactly what she needed at that moment. Anything to rid herself of the image…her mother denouncing her, turning her back and then filling young Lyceus’ head with horror stories of the monster his sister had become. Stories? Well, there was some truth to them, of course. But she’d rather believe the boy had enough sense to discover the truth at some point. However, that was not to be. Despite their mother’s care and attention, the boy had followed his older brother’s footsteps and had been killed by some warlord or another. Oh, how she had wanted to return to Amphipolis to pay her respects upon learning of his death! It was so wasteful, so terribly foolish, and yet it seemed each of the siblings had a violent destiny to fulfill. Toris had lost his life against the greater armies of Rome, low these six years past, leaving only Xena to tend their mother in her old age.

"She betrayed me, Gabrielle, and yes, while she certainly deserved my wrath I was unwilling to mete it out. You see she’s the only living relative I have left now. I think she still lives…yes, I’d have heard if it were not true." A cruel laugh echoed in the chambers making the bard shiver. "Not that it matters. To her, I’m already dead. My one saving moment when I didn’t follow my bloodthirsty instincts is the one she hates me for the most. How many times has she begged me over the years to just exact my revenge? ‘Kill me and free me from my torment! Let me be with my family, those I love and cherish above all!’ It mattered nothing that I sent money her way, that I had someone go and work her crops. Knowing of her great pride, I even offered her a position in my court with a huge salary. She called it blood money and would have nothing to do with any of it."

The Conqueror snorted. "Even when I was made regent and then Lord Conqueror…she hated me then, she hates me still."

Although the glass had been filled, Xena was unwilling to partake of its numbing qualities. No, it was better this woman see the true Xena, in all her nasty glory, and then to decide whether she could still love a monster.

Lips that had twisted into a snarl grew slack as the bard began to speak in a soft, somewhat melodious voice.

"I was never what my parents wanted me to be. Didn’t matter what I tried, I just never measured up. They think I’m dead. They’re probably somewhat relieved, I suspect. When I began to write…my father called me unnatural and some sort of a freak. ‘Young girls didn’t go around the country telling stories. Why didn’t you want to follow your sister’s footsteps and get married?’, she said in a deep voice, undoubtedly mimicking her father. "Oh, the fights we had!"

Xena regarded the young woman as she fingered a spot on her lower back. Narrowing her eyes, she recalled seeing a rather deep gouge mark there, a wound that hadn’t healed very well, leaving a rather nasty scar behind. Her nostrils flared in anger. ‘How could anyone…?’

"I don’t know that I’m too interested in sharing the truth once my legs have healed, after everything I’ve been through." She swallowed deeply.

"They won’t ever hurt you again, Gabrielle. You have my promise. I’ll never let anyone hurt you." Placing a shaking hand over her eyes, the warrior continued in a broken tone.

"…Not even me." A moment passed and then she went on. "I gave you your freedom and although I’d hoped you would stay on…" Xena moved away from the sideboard, the wine forgotten, and stood near the bed.

"I can’t expect you to forgive me for what I’ve done to you. And I know that regardless of the number of dinars I place in your care, it would be nothing compared to what you’ve endured…given…"

Gabrielle rolled easily over onto her side and reached a hand up. "You tried to take, Xena, but what I gave you was a gift, not a prize hard won."

Xena’s lower jaw quivered as she thought of this young and oh so innocent woman before her. Not only had she painstakingly loved her unconditionally and without hesitation, but had also saved her life. Having seen the face of death on more than one occasion, the warrior knew this young bard could pass any test of strength and fortitude set before her, attaining the very same level of warrior as she put herself on. No longer could the woman be thought of as just a mere body slave, a plaything to use and then discard. Somewhere along the way she had become a friend and an ally. ‘And something more.’

"I love you, Gabrielle."

The Conqueror had said these longed to hear words in such a detached fashion that the bard was uncertain as to her reply.

Was this confession something the warrior hadn’t been aware she’d spoken aloud? Gritting her teeth as she prepared to pull herself up against the headboard, the bard sighed in relief. Her efforts, however awkward, were accompanied by very little pain.

"Xena? My legs…"

The Conqueror traced her fingertips along the same trail the bard used, from ankle to knee and then to the top of her thighs, and was caught with a beaming smile. ‘Ah, the potion has kicked in,’ she thought thankfully. Although the earlier doses had been adequate, Xena had decided to increase the potency, hoping that it would afford them time to be together before the pain resurfaced.

"You haven’t slept well for days now. Perhaps you should…"

Xena’s arm was grabbed and she allowed the bard to pull her onto the bed.

"I don’t want to sleep. I want to be with you, Xena. I’m not too sure exactly what I’ll be able to do, but I want to make this time special."

Xena nodded and then carefully drew the woman against her and pulled the satin up over them.

"I’ll be very careful, Gabrielle. And we don’t have to do anything that would entail…pain."

The bard slowly rolled over onto her back and looked up into the expectant face of her lover.

"But I like your forceful side, Xena. I don’t need to be mollycoddled. Godsbedamn my legs to Hades and forget them; it’s what I plan to do."

Xena’s eyes closed slowly as the bard wove her fingers through her dark hair and then scratched her nails across the base of her skull.

"You told me you loved me. Now show me."




Chapter Twenty-One



Soft yet hard

cruel yet kind

gripping with intensity

yet anointing with sorrow.

Large and well formed

protected by bracers

or gauntlets

silver or brass

by a myriad of scars

or scarves.

Tapered and long

strong and careworn



cold harsh unforgiving

yet tender

capable of holding life

and taking it

of discharging judgment

and winning it.

Hands that have known strife

miles of grief

yards of blood.

Tools of war

bringers of peace

meting out pain

with one flick of the wrist

or pressed to lips in farewell.

Palms up in supplication

or pressed feverishly against death

fingers accusing

or entreating desire.

Dangerous deceitful


gripping life tenuously

demanding supple pained.

Skin stretched tightly

over muscle and bone

each nick stain break

a masterpiece of a life

well spent.



Xena hesitated as the bard lowered the sheet. Somehow the size and condition of her beaten and scarred hands seemed unworthy as she compared them to the soft, creamy skin of the woman who was now offering everything she had tried to take by force. Had a week gone by so quickly? No, it must have been closer to a fortnight. Yes, surely that. In all her time spent in the arms of other women Xena had never gleaned as much loving information or gratification; there had never been any desire to look beyond her own needs. The very idea of breaking a subject, albeit one who seemed only too pleased to be in her company, felt hollow and somehow terribly desperate to her now.

Looking at the soft smile of the woman she loved was more of a gift than any sexual gratification she had known or had any hope to receive.

"We don’t have to do anything but just…be together, Gabrielle. Just holding you, tasting your scent, the hue of the aura that seems to envelope you…"

The bard lazed a fingertip up from the warrior’s bicep, trailing it past the muscled shoulders and then across to the hollow at the base of her neck.

"You know, I could listen to you talk for hours, Xena. I remember," she laughed somewhat self-consciously, "when we were going to…be together the first time, oh a couple of days ago I think, you accused me of prattling and giving you a headache. I suppose I did break the mood somewhat."

Xena grinned and then grabbed the inquisitive hand.

"Your touch is like fire against my skin, bard. I’ve read your words in the scrolls that were confiscated when you were first arrested. You have a skill indeed. However," She paused and then kissed the woman’s fingers. "I don’t think you employ that gift orally."

The bard swatted the woman’s shoulder and then covered her mouth at her audacity.


Xena grinned again. "You do prattle…on and on, little one. But somehow…somehow your voice, which had initially seemed quite irritating and nasal…Ouch!" she growled in mock anger as she was struck again.

"Nasal? Why, I’ve been told I have a great voice for barding."

One dark eyebrow slowly rose.

"Well…I have! There was this boy in our group…and, and a woman in the market place who said…" She found her lips twisting into a smile despite her attempts at displaying a more mature manner. Her disappointment and tone of voice told another story, making the warrior laugh out loud.

"Was the woman offering you a position as fish monger?" She reacted swiftly, capturing the small hand instantly before another hit could be scored.

"And the boy was undoubtedly smitten with your dazzling smile, your charming wit and your curvaceous beauty," she said leering.

Gabrielle’s jaw opened as she attempted to raise some ire in her defence but hesitated as she realized her folly. While the former was a blatant attempt at raising her humour, the later was surely a lie. Could Lord Xena actually find such a weakened specimen as she attractive? She pushed the thought away. What good would it do to argue the point right now? Now she wanted to convince the woman of her desirability, not prove her wrong! Gabrielle bit her lip pensively. ‘I’m hardly what someone would call desirable.’ She thought of how pretty her sister was, and was suddenly reminded of all the belittling names Lila had called her, all because of her red hair and pale complexion. But why else had she spent days trying to seduce her? Gabrielle knew the Conqueror could have any woman or man she fancied, so why waste her time? The thought almost made her laugh. ‘Xena is quick to criticize, even quicker to condemn, and certainly had better things on her mind than to spend time with a…cripple’. She pushed threatening tears away and decided that she certainly knew what she wanted and if Xena thought for even one moment that she was exactly what she needed in her life…well, who was she to argue?

Her eyes wandered over the physical beauty of the woman whose skin and tempting attributes were but a caress away and wondered exactly what she could have seen in the somewhat pimple faced youth from her group. Her foolish fawning over the boy made her skin crawl now that she knew exactly what she wanted in a mate. What had Xena said? It didn’t seem to matter that she was a lowly slave…or used to be…only that she was what the warrior wanted, too.

Suddenly, the self-conscious foolishness she’d been thinking faded away and the bard laughed with relief.

"I’m pleased to have amused you, Gabrielle. Pray tell, was it something I said or have I found a ticklish spot?’

Her belly twitched and Gabrielle looked down. Her smile froze as she felt the tip of the warrior’s finger circling and then dipping into her belly button.

She gulped deeply. ‘Woolgathering is not what you should be doing right now, silly bard. Be attentive, take notes, be alert!’

The blonde giggled somewhat nervously and Xena felt herself fall deeper under the spell this charming woman was casting. ‘I would surmise the young beauty is oblivious to the magic she weaves.’ A shudder ran up the warrior’s spine and the tip of her tongue darted out to wet suddenly dry lips.

"I am caught by your beauty, young Gabrielle."

The bard blinked. "I’m not that young; why do you keep referring to me in that manner? Do I seem childish, immature or naïve in some way?" Xena noted the change in the woman’s voice and somewhat rigid posture. ‘Oh no, this will never do.’

"You misunderstand me, lit…my sweet. It was merely a term of endearment, nothing more." She poked the woman’s waist and then smiled at the resulting squeak. "You are, however, quite a few years my junior, would you not agree?"

Gabrielle opened her mouth and then paused before closing it quickly with a snap.

"What’s age any way? Good things come with maturity; think of all the things you can show me." She shot the woman a quick grin.

"Middle age comes with maturity, Gabrielle, along with scars, nightmares, hopes and dreams unrealized, and a fond wish to die in your sleep."

"Ha," said the bard as she traced a firm bicep. "I’d say you were in very good shape for being middle aged. Why, there isn’t an inch of fat on your body and you move as swift as a spitting cobra."

Xena nodded slowly. "Yes, but I have to work at it. In five months I shall be 36. Very few warrior’s live to be 50 and most wish for an early death to avoid the humbling grip of age and the justice it metes out to those who wield a sword."

A gentle sigh escaped the bard and Xena frowned quizzically.

"You are so elegant in your speech, Xena, yet you rarely employ it."

The Conqueror shrugged and then began to caress the soft skin just above the bard’s right hip.

"I don’t have much to say most of the time. My men don’t care to hear florid speeches; their interests lie in whether they’ll live to battle another day." She growled again and nipped the skin warmed by her fingers.

"But Xena, you have such a gift…"

"I make myself understood; my men require little more than orders, and very few of them would appreciate the depth and span words afford us. Why waste a mouthful of words when the prick of a sword will do the job?"

Gabrielle smiled as a large finger was placed against her lips.

"Enough talking. I for one would rather be communicating by other means." Her hand moved slowly as it followed the crease at the top of Gabrielle’s thigh.

This time the bard was more than willing to comply, and sighed gratefully as her splints were carefully adjusted. Her eyes fluttered closed as kisses accompanied inquisitive fingers and she felt Xena’s lust bubbling back up to the surface. And for that she was pleased, having feared the somber topic of their conversation would dampen the warrior’s ardor. Her lips curled into a small knowing grin. ‘I doubt much would dissuade this woman from anything, once her mind was set.’

There had been a time earlier on when she wondered just how far her resistance would take her; driven to the point when the conflict was too taxing, and surrendering the only recourse afforded her. As much as it had rankled her to think of just how pleasant that surrender would be, part of her relished the fact that she’d lasted long enough for Xena to realize that although it could be taken accepting what was freely given was the true prize.

Her hips rose suddenly bringing her out of her haze and Gabrielle pressed the warrior harder against her burning flesh.

Xena could tell by the bard’s rapid breathing and the rising blush spreading across her body that the time for release was close. She thanked the patience gained over the years as well as the skills she’d learned along the way, and moved to another part of the blonde’s body.

Gabrielle groaned weakly as the pressure decreased and found her clenched hands teased open with soft breath and sweet kisses.

"Xena," she implored, "I want you, I need…"

But the warrior only smiled and began trailing her fingertips up and around the bard’s ever tightening nipples. Just when Gabrielle felt unable to withstand the mounting frustration, Xena’s hot red mouth began to suckle. She felt the intensity searing her, elevating her to another level as a slick finger played slowly between her legs. Each kiss on her lips caused a jolt to run down to the very core of her being; each push of the woman’s hand rushed up to cause bright lights to form just behind her eyelids. And then the pleasure was eased leaving her panting and bewildered.

"No…I need more."

Tender kisses and small nibbles began at her waist, traveling past the point they were most needed, over flesh previously held in pain’s angry maw, and Gabrielle squeezed a small cry through thin lips as the soles of her feet were bathed in moist heat. Her abandoned center spasmed rhythmically as the warrior’s soft yet raspy tongue darted here and there between the tender flesh of each toe. She mewled weakly as her legs were parted a little more and her hands grasped handfuls of air as she urged the woman higher.

"Up here…closer…"

Xena closed her eyes as her head was filled with the soft noises of pleasure rolled over her. Perhaps it was the tone of the bard’s voice but she was instantly reminded of her inevitable clash with Caesar’s elite forces. Their tone had been pleading as well, and yet the release they found was quicker and yet less satisfying than the one the bard was currently enduring. But for all that Xena could see the beauty and balance in each encounter and the resulting rush consumed her with the flames of raw power. She loved the reactions she could elicit, and basked in the knowledge that for her conquest was only a matter of when not if. With the blaze engulfing her Xena moved up to watch that moment of surrender in the bard’s eyes. She had waited so long, and had fought so hard…

"I want you to see what I feel, Xena," cried the bard haltingly as she held the woman’s face tenderly. "…feel what I give you…I give you all of me!"

"Oh gods!" the warrior yelled as her fingers were engulfed and wielded tightly to the woman who screamed her name. There was no surrender only a journey taken together, and Xena felt her narrow focus expand with a brilliant white light.

Gabrielle felt the warrior falling forward, resting her damp head against her midriff and moved a shaky hand over the woman’s matted bangs.

They lay there until the roar of their encounter eased off and then passed them by. Finally, Xena rolled over to lie beside the young woman and wondered at the afterglow she was experiencing. Every fibre in her body shouted that she’d just experienced a wonderful orgasm, and yet it had been something beyond her experience.

‘Perhaps this type of response is felt only between those who truly loved each other?’ Her smile began to widen as she contemplated the joys to come.

Tender yet persistent fingers began to play over her body and she steeled her response; while dominance was her forte, instincts told her measured steps in that direction were called for. ‘He who keeps control at bay, learns to reap another way.’ She smiled at her own wit but decided Gabrielle might not appreciate it nearly as well. Her thought processes stilled as certain parts of her body were teased, and she responded immediately by arching up against the bard’s questing mouth.


The moonlight filtered through the scattered clouds causing shadows resembling latticework to pattern the courtyard. Crickets filled the October night, their noisome praise battling with the calming rustle of painted leaves. The air suddenly went still as the shadows began to change and then a muffled cry was heard.

A lone figure watched from high above the parapets, nodded once, and then faded back into the night.

Two guards huddled around a banked fire as they tried to keep warm, oblivious to the malevolence surrounding them until their lives were snuffed out, much like the coals that sparked and then died beneath the feet of a large contingency of men. The next set of guards met a similar fate, and the group continued their way towards the main Keep. Another group of men were waiting for the signal to take the armories and the guardhouse. When at last the order was given, all pandemonium broke loose.

Captain Polis yelled in surprise as he was yanked into consciousness and pushed against the wall, a sharp knife held against his throat. Glancing quickly about the tower room, he could see no sign of his bedmate and relaxed a touch. A torch was shoved close to his face and any effects the wine might have had disappeared quickly as he recognized some of the men he had thought trustworthy.

"You scum…how could you…?" His jaw wobbled loosely as a swift blow broke one tooth and weakened another.

He strained against the arms pinning him and then spat a mouthful of blood as a dark form pushed its way through the crowd. Thracis grinned and then sent the man to the floor with hard blow to his midsection.

"We’re right on schedule, Polis me man, so don’t play silly bugger with me. Two questions, two straight answers and you live. Anything else and you die. Clear?"

The Captain narrowed his eyes and slowly took in the men’s faces surrounding him. While he counted over twenty in the torchlight, he was certain there must be more. A weak clanking hit his ears and he turned his attention to the right. There in the flickering light was the sheen of metal he recognized immediately: it was Roman by design. His lips tightened as he noticed the cloth batting tucked beneath the armour.

"Do I have to pull you up just to knock you down again, Polis?"

The young man took his time sucking in lungfuls of much needed air and then slowly got to his feet. Deliberately slurring his speech somewhat, he peered closely at the traitor and smiled.

"Hallo…is that Thracis come home again? I must say, I’d wondered where you’d gotten to. Well, this is a fine how’dyou do, I must say."

Thracis frowned and then smiled widely. "You see? The great Lord Xena fell for the trap perfectly, just as Dagnine said she would. All her men should be good and drunk and exhausted from patting themselves on the back." He sneered at the Captain. "You fools."

Polis’ mind scrambled as he tried to keep one step ahead of the man. If Dagnine knew they’d be celebrating their victory over the Roman emissaries, and there was evidence of Roman soldiers there in the room…

"Ha…and why not? We beat those stupid Roman’s easily. In fact, the Lord was so pleased that she left the garrison only partially filled, and gave most of us much needed leave. Say," He batted at the hands that held him, "you’re not looking for her, are ya? Why, you won’t find her here, not bloody likely. I believe she and a small escort went into town early last evening."

Thracis scowled and then signaled a man by the door. "Any news from the garrison?"

One of his men nodded and then pushed forward. "Tynus says they’ve got the Briton but no one’s seen that poxy Lieutenant."

Polis found a knife pricking the skin at his throat again and forced himself to be calm.

"What’s going on? Is this some sort of joke? Andros? I told you the Conqueror had left…and of course her first Lieutenant would lead the escort." He smiled widely.

"Right you…" He backhanded Polis viciously, then turned to the men holding the man and gave them instructions to kill him if any of the news proved to be a lie.

"And make it a slow one for the Captain of the Royal Guard. Bah. I’ll be back."

Polis darted his eyes quickly before the torch was pulled from his face. Some of the men had left with the traitor, leaving him with about ten men. Thinking quickly, he began to wretch and was pleased as the men closest pulled back in alarm.

"Oh gods…I knew I’d had too much to drink…gods…here comes that moussaka…"

As the torch was dropped, he rolled quickly, knocking two men to the floor, and then grabbed a nearby spear, using the blunt end to knock the owner senseless before pushing his way through.

The room was filled with loud curses as each man scrambled to get hold of the fallen torch. Polis felt the anger welling up but knew he’d be dead as soon as the light was restored. No, his best chance lay in escaping and locating Andros. Perhaps between the two of them they could keep Thracis and his men from the Lord’s chambers.

He smiled wickedly as the point of the spear was pushed in-between the hasps of the breastplate of the man in his path and then he made a mad dash through an open window. Having become disoriented in the darkness, the Captain was only too pleased to see that the window he’d chosen wasn’t overlooking the courtyard. Taking a few seconds to orient himself, he kept to the shadows and made his way down towards the Mess.


Andros yawned deeply as he placed the cold dish of mutton back into the larder. An easy burp pushed passed his lips and he smiled slowly. It had been a good day’s fighting and knew it was only a matter of time before they had Dagnine in the dungeon. Yawning again, he scratched at his growing beard and wondered how Christo was fairing.

"I wonder what patterns the man will be employing with that leg wound?" A wide smile creased his face as he pictured the dainty work the Briton performed. ‘Mind you, the resulting design certainly makes for a more interesting scar.’ He pinched out another candle and chortled at the thought.

He stopped mid step and cocked an ear. Was that a yell? He frowned and strained a little harder to hear. Nothing. Harrumphing to himself, Andros brushed the crumbs from his tunic in the fading light and walked back over to the table. The small hairs at the nape of his neck began to bristle and he lunged forward, grabbed his sword from the table and rolled into a crouched position. The last flickering candle told him that someone had just opened a door. He waited silently in the shadows and then sprang up quickly, knocking a dark figure to the floor.

Polis placed both hands up in surrender and then breathed a sigh of relief as the Lieutenant removed his hand.

"What the devil are you doing up again, Polis? I’ll warrant you’ve had enough to drink this night."

His eyes opened wide as the young man pressed a hand against his mouth and motioned him to be quiet.

"Listen, we’re under attack, Lieutenant. About twenty or thirty men, Dagnine’s men, now have the tower and I suspect the garrison and armory as well. There’s no time to lose, we’ve got to reach Lord Xena!"

Andros’ mind went quickly into gear as he went through different plans to reach the Lord’s chamber.

"Right, you say over twenty men? Was Dagnine with them? And were they all armed to the teeth?"

Polis nodded. "Yes, well over twenty, and I’d wager there must be another tangle of them if they’ve taken over the armory and garrison. Didn’t see that blackguard but Thracis was there." He wiped the back of his hand over his damaged mouth and the Lieutenant peered closely.

"How long did they hold you? How many others got away? We’ve got to find out if anyone escaped, Polis."

"Stop," he said, pulling his jerkin out of the man’s fist. "First off, the men were armed well and…there are Roman soldiers with them. While I wasn’t alone in the tower when I went to sleep, the girl was gone and the room was filled with the traitors. I don’t know how long it was, probably not very, but I did hear Tynus say they had Christo."

Andros made a face. ‘Damnit all to Hades!’ "Well then, there’s nothing for it. Most of Dagnine’s lot knows the grounds like the backs of their hands. We’ll have to assume we’re on our own and protect the Conqueror ourselves."

Polis nodded as they gained their feet and then both moved stealthily away from the coming noise.


Xena smiled lazily as she stroked the ruffled head of her lover. Gabrielle snuffled a bit against the warrior’s chest but continued to sleep. Glancing out the partially opened shutter, the Conqueror could see a faint light coming from the East. She stifled a yawn, and then coaxed the bard back onto the mattress before extinguishing the lone candle by the bedside.

She lay looking up into the darkness, both hands cradling her head, and sighed deeply. It was funny how quickly things could change. Just a few days ago she’d been wondering if the bard would ever speak to her again and now…She glanced sideways and then froze as the woman slowly moved over in her sleep to rest her head against the hollow between neck and shoulder.

Xena bit her lip in consternation. ‘There goes any thoughts of me sleeping tonight. I hate to be touched and cuddling is just something I can’t abide.’

While her mind was busy complaining about the situation, her body was already responding as she created a little nest for the bard to ease into, and then Xena draped her arm protectively against the bard’s lower back and fell asleep.


Dagnine’s ruined face glittered in the torchlight; his badly healing wounds were red and angry looking. Thracis flinched but brought himself quickly under control before the man could look his way.

"I’m pleased, Thracis. We’ve got the barracks, the weaponry and most of the main Keep." He began picking at one of the scabs dotting his jaw. "But where is Andros?"

Thracis cleared his throat and tried hard to keep the disgust from his face. "Polis said both he and the Conqueror had left early last evening." The man closest piped up, "Yes, we’ve sent a small squadron of men to scout the area. If she’s there, they’ll find her."

"Bah…I don’t believe it. No, she’d have come back here to roost. After that encounter with the centurions, I’ll wager she’s busy taking out her battle lust right about now." A sneer of disgust painted his lips as he thought of Andros enjoying what should have been his alone. ‘That damned slave was just supposed to be a slight diversion!’


"Where is Polis, by the way?" Thracis and the other man looked decidedly uncomfortable. "Well?"

Thracis noticed a narrowing of the man’s eyes, and that maniacal look that periodically set his teeth on edge, and stepped away from his comrade.

"You let him escape?" He set upon the soldier in a murderous rage, slicing and hacking at the defenseless man until both hands were covered in gore.

Thracis dangled a cloth over his shoulder and Dagnine got shakily to his feet. "Thank you. I needed that. Now, where would Polis go and what else haven’t you told me?"

The burly Lieutenant swallowed deeply as he watched Dagnine’s tongue snake out to lick a bit of blood from his upper lip.

"Nothing, Dagnine. Christo and the other second Lieutenants are all in the stockade. And if Andros is in town then there is nowhere to run. If not, then I’d wager he’d make a bee-line for the main chambers."

Dagnine nodded slowly, finished scrubbing his hands, and then threw the cloth down over the body. He shook himself like a dog and Thracis waited until the madman’s eyes had regained their normal hue. It was times like this when he truly feared Dagnine far more than the Conqueror. At least with Lord Xena you knew where you stood; it was either her way or death. With this man, no one knew just when he’d go off the deep end or who would have to pay the price. He looked down at the remains of his man and thanked the gods he knew the signs; it could well have been him lying there in a pool of blood. And just how long would his good fortune last? He swallowed again, lost in thought.

The Lieutenant stood blinking at the other man. "Well? C’mon, let’s go!"

Thracis jumped a little and then nodded vigorously. "Yes, of course."


The two men quietly made their way down the corridor, with Andros in the lead. He narrowed his eyes as they came across a closed door. He couldn’t be too sure which door it was in the dark but if his paces had been counted correctly, then it was the private servant’s quarters.

"Let’s see if this area of the castle has been breached yet, shall we?" he whispered.

Polis opened his mouth to protest and then rolled his eyes as Andros quietly pushed the door open.

The room was bathed in blackness but Andros’ trained ear could detect someone in the room. That someone was being very quiet but he could smell the fear rolling off their skin. Grabbing Polis by the arm, he gestured to go right while he went left. Polis began picking his way along slowly but stopped suddenly as a small noise came from the opposite direction.


Polis moved back the way he’d come and there before him was Andros and one of Xena’s servants.

"Ubris says she’d be awakened by a noise outside her window. She said the crickets woke her up."

"No, I did not say the crickets woke me up, silly man. I said the noise they make was not present and that woke me up." Ubris shook her head and pulled both men towards the door. "We must not tarry; Lord Xena must be in grave danger. We must hurry!"

Andros nodded but then quickly pulled both people away from the door. "Someone’s coming!"

Leaving the door as it was they moved to the back area towards the adjoining bathing chamber. Both men had to stifle curses as they stubbed their way along in the dark. Ubris gritted her teeth and wondered just how two men such as these had lived this long. But while she was confident in her skills at being both agile and covert, Ubris knew she lacked one important thing: strength.

She pushed back as both men walked into her. Cocking an ear, she felt along to the edges of the common door and waited. No candlelight showed from under the door, but the servant knew that meant nothing; Xena enjoyed stealing up to her prey in the darkness. She’d wait for a signal. Ubris sighed mightily as the two men jockeyed for position behind her.


Sensing a change in her surroundings, the Conqueror popped one eye open and listened. The door to her chambers opened a crack and a small figure stood there…waiting.


The figure bowed quickly but stood silent.

"What is it, girl?" Having received no response, Xena eased over onto her side, checked the sleeping bard, and then motioned the woman forward.

"Come along, Ubris. What is it?"

Suddenly, the figure at the door made a strangled cry and fell to the floor. Before Xena could even respond with shock, both doors were flung open and a swarm of men pushed their way inside.

Xena sneered as she was dragged from her bed. The torchlight was sufficient for her to recognize a few of the traitors that had left with Dagnine. Although he was nowhere to be seen, she was certain he was responsible. A quick look at the body by the door told her how foolish she’d been to assume the figure was Ubris. Unable to get a good look at the woman, Xena surmised it must have been one of the kitchen helpers and by the state the body was in it was clear she’d resisted. This was somewhat comforting.

"What do you hope to accomplish by this, Dagnine? My men won’t just stand by and let this treasonous act go unpunished."

He stood back; waiting until he was certain the men had her well in hand. He swallowed deeply as the Conqueror’s muscles bulged. The man became all but transfixed as the sheet was ripped away, and the awesome beauty that was Lord Xena displayed in all of its glory.

Standing in the shadows, Dagnine fingered the healing scar that ran from his forehead down to the opposite side of his jaw. He had tried to talk to the Conqueror about his feelings. He still felt the sting of her words as she told him how nature used things like love to fool mankind into mating. She would have none of it, she assured him, and those stupid enough to fall in love with her would be killed. She didn’t have time for such foolishness; it was a sure sign of weakness. And everyone knew just how the Conqueror felt about weaknesses.

She had decided to make an example of him after he’d all but professed his love. This alone was a clear indication that the blonde slave must have her under a spell. Why else would she be spurning his advances?

His already shattered ego shrank a little more as he remembered how the great Xena had laughed at him. To her, his love was only noteworthy because it proved once and for all that he was unfit for duty in her army. More over, he was unfit to live. But she hadn’t stopped there; she was determined to have him cast out as a pariah, not even worth the time and effort to kill. She had gifted him with the wound he now traced gingerly, and then had turned her back on him, dismissing him from her mind.

That had been a mistake. After a few hours with the men, spreading dissention along with cheap grog, Dagnine had more than a few top advisors in his fist. It really hadn’t taken much convincing when it came to pitting one black-hearted warlord against another. And for the spurned would-be lover, once he admitted to himself that Xena would never entertain the idea of him as a partner, she became nothing more than a distasteful obstacle.

Xena strained forward, peering into the darkness, and began to taunt the man.

"I can see you trembling like a child, Dagnine. You can’t hide from me; even if I were blinded I could still sense you out there. People like you exude fear, little man." Pulling the soldier holding her hard to the right, she feinted left but found two more gripping her fiercely. Thracis was awed by her wild animalistic power and could feel the hypnotic trance of her dangerous blue eyes. Dagnine, however, felt both knees go weak and trembled before her.

"Take her away for preparation", he squeaked. Clearing his throat, he stared at the men surrounding him and those who dared to gaze back knew their lives were forfeit. Like a petulant child in many ways, this madman never forgot or forgave a slight, real or imagined. The intensity of his rage began to build and those closest shrank back, looking from one unpredictable monster to the other. A few jumped right along with their master as Xena roared in their direction.

"You’re dead…all of you!"

Gabrielle tried to make herself as small as possible as she watched the nightmare play out before her. She recognized a few of the men as being in Xena’s Royal Guards and was certain she’d seen the barrel-chested man before. ‘This has to be a nightmare for the Conqueror’s trusted men to turn on her in such a way. Perhaps I’m still dreaming?’ She remembered hearing about the grand parade in the Conqueror’s honour, the great tributes being paid by foreign heads of state…where was the loyalty now?

Her head snapped back as she was struck brutally across the face. A man with a cruel scar running the length of his cheek darted forward, pushed her roughly from the bed, and then laughed as she collapsed onto the floor.

"A cripple! Look, the great Lord Xena is bedding a cripple! Wait until your enemies hear of this." He chuckled darkly and then advanced on the terrified slave.

"Whatever Xena owned is now mine."

Xena’s shoulders were all but wrenched from their sockets as she twisted in the guard’s grip at the bard’s scream. Dagnine took note and began feeling quite cocky. If she hadn’t been able to free herself by now, well chances were she wouldn’t ever get away.

"Dagnine! I’m going to kill you for this, slowly."

He laughed evilly and nodded. Given half the chance, there was no doubt whatsoever that the Conqueror would follow through on her threats. Which was exactly why she wouldn’t be given the chance; no one survived the gauntlet. "Oh, someone’s going to die, Lord Xena, but it won’t be me." Gabrielle held a hand up before her face.

She strained against the hands that held her. "I’ll have you begging for death, pig!"

Dagnine turned away from the blow he’d been about to deliver to the wretch huddling on the floor. Knowing every eye in the room was centered on him, he decided to play up his part, thus securing his position as her successor.

"We’ll see who begs for death, Xena. You’ve been so busy with this…little slut, you haven’t seen what’s been going on under your very nose. But I can help you with that. Bind her with chains."

"I’ll begin with your genitals, Dagnine…I’ll stuff the lot of them into that grinning mouth of yours…they should all fit, pitiful bundle that they are! Then I’ll take your eyes out, slowly…with burning pokers."

Gabrielle shrank back against the wall in fear. This was the woman she’d just been making love to? Squeezing her eyes shut, she reminded herself of the tender touches, the sweet and eloquent words of love and was reminded again of how Xena had described herself: a cold hearted killer that couldn’t change. Although the bard knew the latter part to be a lie, she was witnessing first hand just how true the former description was.

Dagnine felt his knees turning to water and suddenly felt the need to relieve himself. That she could be totally at his mercy and still be able to reduce him to such weakness galled the man terribly. Her words began echoing in his head and he felt he might go mad.

"And gag her! Now!"

Two soldiers hurried forward and wrestled with the four men holding the Conqueror. Xena snapped and roared her defiance, leaving one man missing a thumb and the others fearing for their very lives. At last the chains were secured and Dagnine stepped closer to admire his prize.

"Yes, I like this much better. Perhaps we can make it permanent? Why, just imagine how much nicer you could have been if we’d had this done years ago, Xena?" He laughed at the image of the Conqueror barefoot and pregnant, her tongue having been ripped from her mouth. But thoughts of the reality of his vision began to settle in his mind and Dagnine groaned. She would never be able to kiss him, filling his mouth with that glorious tongue; never be able to drag it across his manly body; and certainly never be able to scream his name after being conquered in the way only he could. No, the tongue would have to stay.

He made a point of checking the leather gag and how it was fastened at the back. Given a little time Xena would have that off and be free to fill his head with all sorts of gruesome thoughts. No, he’d have to get the smithy to make something a bit grander…something with buckles. He smiled and stepped back.

A bit of sniveling caught his attention and he trained his focus on the body slave.

"Heh, and as for you, slave…I think I have a position in my army for you…beneath me!" He laughed at his own joke and advanced on the bard.

The Conqueror’s Lord Chancellor sauntered into the room and brushed his newly acquired rings over his robe. As distasteful as it was to deal with a man like Dagnine it was somewhat preferable than being reminded of his inadequacies as both a man and a politician. Glancing at the woman with disdain, he dismissed her shocked looks with a flick of his hand.

Xena shook her head with a vengeance and tried to dislodge the gag.

Mica smiled, licked a finger and smoothed an unruly hair at the back of his head.

"I don’t think you should do anything to the young prisoner, my grand Lord Dagnine." He pursed his lips as the fool of a man ate his false platitudes up. "I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that the bard is really a witch." He placed a hand to his mouth in mock horror as Dagnine whirled on him in surprise. "I did mention that, didn’t I? Why, I’ve got it on good authority that she is indeed a practicing witch."

Dagnine bounded over to the rotund man and grabbed up his collar. "Where did you get this information?"

Mica smiled sweetly. "From the healer, sire; Daedalis has been confined to the dungeon for two or three days now for daring to confront both the witch and the Conqueror. Poor man was driven mad…probably the witch’s doing."

Dagnine scratched his chin thoughtfully. "But I thought she was just a…" He briefly wondered why she would have let herself be crucified. Perhaps it had been a trick? "A witch, eh? Hmmm…well, I suppose it makes perfect sense, her controlling the Conqueror like that and being a cripple and all. Yes, now it makes sense. Damned black magic!"

Nodding quickly, Mica loosened the man’s grip on his clothing and spoke in conspiratorial tones. "She should be burned at the stake, sire, and as soon as possible. But we should have a public hearing, no?"

Dagnine shrank back in horror, stepping away from the woman as if she were the embodiment of evil.

"Fine…take her away…to the dungeons for now. I’m not too sure I want a witch mad at me. She might still prove to be useful." He fingered the wound on his face. "Yes, for now she’ll stay safe."


Polis jammed one hand firmly between his teeth to prevent the wail that threatened to escape while his other arm slowly seeped blood down the servant’s chin.

Andros grabbed Ubris by the waist and whispered harshly into her ear.

"You’ve got to stop this now, Ubris! You’ll get us all killed and then who will save Lord Xena!"

Ubris removed her teeth from the Captain’s forearm but fixed both men with hate filled eyes.

"We cannot leave her like this! They will surely kill her; you must know this! If we rush into the room now…"

Captain Polis spoke through clenched teeth. "…We’ll all be killed. Do you wish the Lord to witness our deaths? Those who would survive would be tortured in front of her, make no mistake about it."

Andros placed the woman’s feet back on the ground and then put a hand to her shoulder. "I know Dagnine and what the Captain says is true. For her very safety, we must leave now." A loud noise came from the hall and Polis moved to the window. It was going to be a very tight squeeze to get through but if he removed his heavy jerkin…

"We’d better be going now then. I think our chances of getting out of this alive are dwindling as we speak." The Captain nodded to Andros as he took off his shirt and jerkin. "You’d best do the same." Ubris blushed, as the man looked her up and down.

"My shift stays on." She fixed the Captain with a stare and Andros cleared his throat.

"Yes, Ubris." He was just pleased the young servant was both nubile and narrow of waist.

He picked up the pile of clothing and threw it out into the night.

"Right, get going Polis." He gave the young servant a light squeeze and smiled. "Everything will be all right, Ubris, I promise it." Ubris said nothing and he looked away. Polis gestured through the window and he nodded. "Go on." Handing the woman to the Captain he waited until they were both out of sight. Flinching as the Conqueror’s roars of defiance filled his ears, he pressed both fists to his temples.

‘I can’t leave her!’ His heart was filled with a terrible seething hatred as he imagined Dagnine having his way with both women. And he knew that would just be the beginning. A small tear seeped from the corner of his eye but seemed to freeze part way down his face as a feeling of cold hatred claimed him.

"I’ll be back."



Chapter Twenty-Two




Dagnine stood by the door to the Mess and tried to adopt a cavalier air. He took a deep breath of satisfaction at the way things were progressing. Although most of Xena’s elite guard had been either killed or imprisoned, most of the kitchen staff and slaves had been successfully coerced back to work. ‘Funny how an amputation or two changes a person’s priorities,’ he chuckled.

The group of soldiers at the table continued their conversation, ignoring him openly. Quickly removing his dagger, Dagnine threw it forcefully into the middle of the table, scattering men and bottles in a howl of protest. His grin faltered however as the knife wobbled and then fell uselessly on its side.

One of the Romans coughed in an effort to hide his contempt.

"Yes, Lord Dagnine?"

Dagnine puffed himself up as each man looked in his direction.

"Have you heard from Caesar yet? There are things I have to discuss with him: disposal of land holdings, the treasury, and of course my coronation." He rubbed his hands gleefully. "I would imagine he’ll be at the border soon?"

The first Roman spoke up. "Great Caesar will march on Corinth when he’s finished with his business to the east. As for any changes, political or otherwise, he’ll be sending a Tribune who should be here in the morning. He will be Caesar’s representative, a man you will defer to, of course."

Dagnine chewed the inside of his cheek. He didn’t like the idea of giving up all his newfound power, and certainly not to a bloody Roman. As much as he needed them and the force they represented, he had little time or respect for them as a people.

He nodded slowly and then turned on his heel, his mind filled with things he had better get to before the Roman arrived. Perhaps a moment with Mica could help find a way to gain access to the treasury? He scowled as he remembered the Roman’s guarding the Keep. Perhaps a few well placed arrows?

The Romans glanced at each other, the contempt quite visible on their faces and resumed their conversation once the Greek had left the room.

"We should be wary of such a man, Maximus. I don’t trust him."

The tallest of the Roman’s nodded. "Good thing you don’t Gaius; his type should never be discounted. That look we’ve seen on his face should remind you of something."

Gaius ran a long finger down the bridge of his nose. "Yes, like a cornered rat."


The figure clothed in black removed his gloves and hood, sighing in appreciation as the cool air flickered over his graying hair. Bowing deeply, he approached a seated figure in deep meditation. He waited patiently until a well-shaped hand appeared out of a silken fold and motioned him forward.

"It is as you feared, mistress. Dagnine hopes to have an open trial and execution, placing himself in front of the people as judge, jury and executioner. The Romans will brook no disobedience and I fear their combined force will be infinitely more evil than Lord Xena ever could be."

The majestic Oriental never faltered as she moved with fluid grace nodded, and then turned at the man’s words.

"Thank you, Quan Su. It was inevitable that Xena should fall to an enemy she has underestimated. The Conqueror has become too powerful far too quickly and has forgotten a very important thing: total power corrupts totally."

The aged Oriental nodded sagely, having been privy to his mistress’ move to take total control from her ailing yet power hungry husband. He closed his eyes in anguish as he thought of his homeland lying in waste beneath the relentless tyranny of Lao Tsu. The just and caring Lao Ma would be a great Empress, and one who would not have to command obedience and fealty.

He took a moment to feast on the compassionate yet resolute demeanor the woman projected and sighed in pleasure as his own aura came back into balance. "Will you send in your army now, Empress?"

The proud stature of the woman seemed to falter somewhat and Lao Ma moved to take her place on a nearby divan.

"I knew when I’d first met Xena that she was destined for greatness; her potential was overwhelming. Her destiny was prophesized years before we’d even met." She moved forward, picked up a small porcelain cup, and nodded her thanks as Quan Su carefully filled it with jasmine tea.

Forcing dark images from her mind, Lao Ma brushed her lips gently against the fine china and then sipped daintily.

"While I must play my part in her destiny, I must be very careful not to alter it. She must walk her own path, my friend."

The old man sighed wearily. "As must we all, Empress."

Lao Ma tasted the title on her lips, much as she had the fine tea, and found both a little bitter.

At that moment she felt like nothing more than a mere chess piece. It was as if they were all just pawns being moved from place to place…to suit…what? Or whom?

Lao Ma knew that Dagnine would ally with Caesar. That particular play had been gaining momentum for years. Had Xena been totally ignorant of his gathering forces or was she just waiting for Caesar to make the first move? From everything she knew of the Conqueror, she suspected it was the latter as opposed to the former. It was a moot point at this stage of the game; the wild card had been played and now she was at the mercy of both Dagnine and Julius Caesar. However, by gathering a large army and coming to Greece, she was telling the world that Lord Xena had powerful friends. Caesar would be outflanked because he could never hope to take on Chin; there was something to be said for an endless supply of manpower. It was a war the Roman had to know he couldn’t win. His destiny lay in another direction but one Lao Ma knew would transect Xena’s once more.

The enamel of her teeth moved smoothly over the fine porcelain cup again as she drank the bitter brew. A single tear fell into the tea and Lao Ma hugged herself. ‘Who can withstand the raging waters? Be not as the cup, Xena, but as the contents itself.’


The chains bit painfully into her wrists as Xena tried to dislodge the leather gag. Her struggling ceased when footsteps could be heard and she feigned a look of total boredom. She could feel the guard’s eyes roaming over her naked body and snorted. Meant to demoralize her, chaining her to the wall naked was nothing more than a small inconvenience; it was drafty, after all. ‘Men are so easy.’ She already had a plan in mind whereby this guard, or another, would be tempted to partake of her beauty before…

‘Crucifixion.’ Having meted out that particular judgment on more than one occasion the Lord was well versed in all that it entailed. She wondered briefly if her limbs would be impaled against the wood or merely tied there. Her toes wiggled in sympathy and Xena cursed her overly vivid imagination. Snapping back to the task at hand, she fixed both guards with a cold stare and tried hard not to look overly curious at the bundle they had between them.

"Hey, Xena! I hear this little slave of yours is great in bed, even if she is a cripple!" He laughed and poked the other guard playfully.

The warrior’s heart lurched as his words hit home. Could it be Gabrielle…or what was left of her? They’d been separated earlier and Xena worried the young woman wouldn’t be able to face what she herself knew was common practice: conquests of war were often raped and brutalized for days, leaving those who survived the abuse in a state beyond caring. ‘But they think she’s a witch…that’ll delay things until…’ Her jaw tightened. She had to escape. Perhaps Andros had gotten away?

The men moved a little closer to the bar and Xena wondered if she could just convince one of them to open the door.

"Yeah, Conqueror…all these years you’ve been lording it over us soldiers and all the while you were just the same as us!" He, too, laughed and then jangled the keys in her direction.

"Well, this might be the last time someone opens this door without pain being involved, Xena." He and his comrade pulled the small and all but lifeless form of the bard into the cell and then dropped her like a sack of root vegetables. One of the men pushed the bundle with the toe of his boot and grunted.

Xena’s words were muffled as she tried to speak through the leather. "Pick on me, boys." But they paid her no heed, not even casting a glance her way as she rattled her manacles.

"Listen here, did they already have fun with this one upstairs? She looks half dead. I was promised a go at this one, witch or no witch." The other man leaned over and poked the still form.

"Me, too. Say, she’s still a bit warm." Looking furtively around him, he smiled and began unhitching his trousers. "Well, I’m gonna have a go before she gets too cold."

Xena’s struggles began anew as the scene played out before her. Squeezing her eyes tightly against her growing anguish, she roared.

"Hehe…look, the great Lord Xena’s bawling for the likes of a filthy slave! That’ll be a grand story to tell me bar mates. It might even earn me a free drink or three, as well."

An iron door slammed against the stone in the upper stairwell and both men quickly exited the cell, adjusting their clothing as they went. Keeping their eyes averted, both bowed quickly and then left Thracis with the prisoners.

"Oh, how the mighty have fallen, eh Xena?" He fingered his shoulder and then entered the cell.

"I’ve got a score to settle with you." He leered at the chained woman and then inspected her healing wound. Xena’s biceps bunched as he dragged the tip of his nose across her chest and then snagged the nipple ring in his teeth. "Do I smell fear?" He chuckled a little and then watched the minute flinch appear at the corner of the warrior’s eyes when he pulled hard. Grinning with satisfaction, he turned his attention back to the wound.

"One must know exactly where their opponent’s weaknesses are, Xena. And as you can see, you’ve taught me well."

With a grunt of satisfaction, he donned his gloves, flexed his fingers and then began raining blow after blow on the Conqueror’s mid section.

Xena grunted with every strike, her head filled with bright stars as she fought to draw breath between the blows. Determined not to let the man get the better of her, she managed to take hold of the leather gag with her teeth and held on for dear life. Finally, as the sweat poured off the man, he stood back, smiled at her and then left.

The first breath taken was slow and painful, but each succeeding one seemed a little easier to take.

"Yes, always press the advantage," she spat out. It was a lesson she knew well and one she would employ very soon herself. Finally, Xena opened her eyes and looked at the pitiful pile on the floor. While having had her fill of gods, she nevertheless prayed to any who were listening that the bard still lived. Her heart wrenched a little as she thought of a future without the woman. Groaning with effort, she gave the leather a final snap with her teeth and then spat out one severed end. Shaking her head furiously caused the remains of the gag to fall to the floor and she moved her jaw gratefully. Her eyes roamed over the bundle and then she looked away quickly.

"Gods." Xena flinched with pain as she moved her torso this way and that. ‘Damned wound." She arched her head forward and saw that it had begun to seep again. Another movement in the opposite direction had her clenching her teeth in agony. ‘Must have broken a rib.’ Laying her head back with a thump, Xena felt a wave of depression roll over her. Pulling at her chains once more, she sighed and then closed her eyes. ‘Well, they’ll come for me soon enough.’

She eyed the bundle a little closer and felt such pain. ‘It wasn’t supposed to be like this!’ Xena cracked the back of her head against the wall and growled. The Conqueror pulled hard on her chains, the thoughts of exactly what had befallen the bard racing like wildfire through her head.

Then she jumped and her eyes flew open as a warm hand encircled her ankle.

"Xena?" whispered the bard.

The Conqueror looked up and down the hall of cells, noting which were filled and which were empty. She didn’t see either Polis or Andros in any of them and for that she was glad. Perhaps there was still a chance…

Pulling her thoughts away from that line of thinking, she focused her attention on the guards. "Quiet" she whispered. "There aren’t any guards around right now, Gabrielle, but that might change. Best you stay on the floor and pretend to be…"

"They know I’m not dead, Xena. At least the guards upstairs do. And that man with the horrible scar, he said they were going to…" She swallowed. "They’ll burn me at the stake soon…perhaps tomorrow."

Xena’s lips were pulled into a tight line and she yanked at the shackles once more. "Damn me for being so foolish!"

Gabrielle slowly dragged herself into the corner, grabbed the tattered remains of a blanket, and began tearing it into pieces. Sighing in relief, she wound the cloth around the splints on both legs and then got wearily to her feet.

Xena could read the pain in the woman’s eyes and pulled at her chains. "I’m sorry, Gabrielle…I thought it was Ubris…I should have known. Gods, your face." Her jaw clenched painfully at the swelling near Gabrielle’s right eye. "Damn them. Did they…?"

Gabrielle released the breath she’d been holding and moved towards the warrior. She shook her head and tried to smile through a split lip. "No, just brutalized me for a bit, I’m fine. Really." Pressing her heated face against Xena’s belly, she used both hands to secure the last bit of blanket around the woman’s midriff and then hugged her closely. "It’s you I’m worried about."

Xena smiled at the attempt to preserve her modesty. "This is nothing, and you really don’t have to go to the bother, Gabrielle. I’ve never been a modest woman."

Gabrielle’s chin quivered as she thought of the men leering at the Conqueror. And when that man had dared to touch her in such a fashion, the bard had found herself sorely tempted to act…even if that meant she’d suffer a beating. Without even trying, she could feel the strong calloused yet so very tender hands moving over her body.

She wiped a shaky hand over her damp face and clutched the woman to her. Although her spirit was still high, Gabrielle had known that any show of defiance on her part would result in harsh punishment. So, when the men had begun to push her about, causing her to fall, slapping her face and leering at her nudity, she had simply pretended to pass out in hopes they’d leave her alone. The fact that someone had dropped a shift onto her and left her alone for a short period still confused her. Gabrielle was certain it had been the man who had just left that had given her the shift.

Her hand became sticky and the bard exclaimed in surprise. "Oh, Xena! Your wound is swelling." She moaned as the warrior’s skin mottled before her eyes. The bruises were horrible but it was the swelling lumps near the wound that had the bard biting her lip. "It looks very hot and painful, Xena."

Xena nodded and pulled on the restraints once more. "Yes, we’ll have to do something about that, and soon. From what Dagnine said, I’m to suffer a humiliating defeat before being crucified tomorrow. Thracis was here to make certain it would be so."

The bard began to cry.

"Oh Gabrielle." Laying her chin on the bard’s mussed hair, the warrior snorted and then began to laugh.

"I see nothing funny in our situation, nothing whatsoever," wailed the blonde.

Xena tilted her head back and continued to chortle. "Well, this isn’t exactly the way I pictured our first time would be. Though I suppose chains were involved, as was the nudity, but I believe it was you against the wall, and not me." She grinned down at the blonde. "It really is quite funny, Gabrielle. Think of it: after all the measures I’d used to coerce you, all the time consuming scenes of seduction, the word play, the debates…think of all the time we could have had together? And now…now that we’ve finally done the deed, we both end up looking far worse for wear and staring certain death in the face. Yes, I should think that worthy of a chuckle or two."

The bard reached up and stroked the warrior’s chin. "But our time together was perfect, Xena. I wouldn’t have changed a thing, not one thing."

The warrior sighed and then kissed the woman’s fingers. "How’re the legs? They must be pounding right about now. I did give you a double dose, so you might not be suffering the full extents of your injuries yet. That’ll come in a few hours, I think."

Gabrielle shuddered as she thought of how much worse the pain would get; it was already bad enough because her splints had been ripped off and she’d had to refasten them herself.

"Xena? If I stand back, can you tell me if I’ve got the braces on correctly?"

Xena could see the pain the woman was enduring as she staggered back and would have given anything to just pick her up and soothe it all away.

"Oh, Gabrielle." It seemed so damned hopeless.

Gabrielle’s smile faltered and she stumbled forward, back into the warrior’s clumsy embrace.

"It’s not so bad, Xena. Really." She didn’t really want to think about it but the fact of the matter was that neither one of them would be suffering their discomfort for much longer.

Xena felt the woman shudder against her and began to strengthen her resolve. They had to escape, that’s all there was to it.


Dagnine smiled as the Roman Tribune continued giving his report from Caesar, nodding in the right spots, looking sage in others, and all but died of boredom. At least part of the morning hadn’t been a total waste; Thracis had regaled him with reports on just how he’d softened the Conqueror up, ensuring that she wouldn’t be in any shape to complete the gauntlet let alone survive it. He rubbed his hands with glee. Now, if only he could get this windbag to finish up so he could go and visit Lord Xena, Conqueror of Corinth himself…bah. He smiled remembering just how easily he’d played the woman, appealing to her unnatural needs. A scowl immediately replaced the look of satisfaction. ‘She should have turned to me as soon as she tired of that damned slave.’

He was already in a bad mood, having been counseled by Mica that burning a witch might be more harmful than good. The more he thought about it the more resigned he was to simply selling her to slavers, and be done with it. How could a witch hold him responsible if she were well out of his hands? Silence filled the room momentarily, and he sighed in relief.

Snapping his mouth closed once more, Dagnine grumbled beneath his breath, having lost yet another opportunity to be removed from further proceedings. He smiled weakly as the Tribune fixed him with a scornful glare.

Heads turned immediately as two Centurions entered the planning room.

"News, sire. Enemy troops are moving toward the eastern border. They’ve made camp a day’s travel away and are heavily armed, Tribune. Word has it that the troops number in the thousands and machines of war have been spotted." The soldier nodded his head finally and waited.

"Caesar must know of this latest development. Have you sent word?" The soldier nodded as expected.

"Very well." He looked to Dagnine. "Who knows of the insurrection?"

Pressing his fingers thoughtfully under his chin, Dagnine pursed his lips and tried to look omnipotent. It was about time someone had noticed his importance in this matter. "Hmmm. Well," he drawled.

The Roman nobleman stepped closer and put both hands on his hips. "Well, indeed."

The traitorous Lieutenant blinked a few times and then cleared his throat.

"Ahem…I don’t believe anyone knows…Tribune. The castle and Keep were taken in perfect synchronicity and although two officers are unaccounted for…" He squeaked shrilly as his throat was seized.

"What? Why wasn’t I made aware of this?"

Dagnine tried to pull the man’s hand from his throat but found his efforts useless.

"Who’s second in command to this…moron?" Thracis gulped loudly and then stepped forward.

"I am, sire. After taking stock of the men and officers captured, it was noted that both the Captain of the Guard and Lord Xena’s first Lieutenant were missing. We can’t be sure, but it’s possible that one of them is wounded. They may have had outside help."

The Tribune sucked a tooth ominously and gave Dagnine a sharp shake. "It seems your usefulness to Caesar has come to an end. We Roman’s do not suffer idiots easily and you," he squeezed a little harder and was rewarded by a gargling sound that was almost music to his ears. "You definitely qualify."

Having been somewhat satisfied with the purpling of the man’s face, the nobleman released his grip and turned his attention back to business.

Dagnine fell in a heap, rubbing his throat and tried to draw breath. He motioned to Thracis but the Lieutenant was paying him no heed. It seemed his allegiance had shifted. He glared darkly at the traitor but gasped as the Tribune turned his steely blue gaze back on him.

"Lieutenant, you and your men have until sundown to leave this area. I would suggest you put things in order and do just that. As much as the great Caesar appreciates your part in things, neither he nor I can guaranty your safety much longer."

"But I did everything you asked!"

The Roman snorted and with a hand, dismissed him. "There is a larger war brewing lads, and it comes from the east."

Rubbing his throat gingerly, Dagnine hunched his shoulders against the dismissive looks from the Roman soldiers and left. "It looks like our time together will have to be moved up, Xena."



The small figure curled around her feet moved minutely and Xena tried again. "Gabrielle, wake up. Someone’s coming."

The bard murmured in protest until she was shoved roughly and then blinked in confusion. "Xena?"

Four guards appeared at the door to the cell and Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the Conqueror’s legs.

"No. No!"

The Conqueror felt some of the strength seep out of her yet tried to maintain a stoic outlook. ‘They can’t win if I don’t let them.’ Her lower lip trembled as one man pulled the bard out of reach. Seeing the terror in the woman’s eyes pushed a little of the regret from Xena’s heart and she steadied her jaw. Why have regrets? Hadn’t she bemoaned the fact that there would be no one to mourn her death, and that she in turn had no one in her life that she felt love for? If she had to do it all over again, would her choices have been any different? In the short time the bard had been in her life, such lessons she had never known had been offered and finally taken, making every second of every moment together something precious indeed.

It amazed her at how clear things seemed now. It hadn’t been the living that was so hard it was that the dying was so easy. Although there was no way she could be there and help the bard when the time came, perhaps her action right now might pave the way to understanding? The bard was strong and she’d endured so much…this was just another test, one that she could face and win. A calm settled over her as her arms were trussed up tightly between her shoulder blades. After all, she and Death were old friends.

"Xena, don’t leave me!" Gabrielle scratched and clawed at the guard, screaming obscenities and looking every inch a wild cat. The warrior wanted to hold her, protect her, and die well for her. With all the misery she had caused this woman, it seemed the least she could do. Straightening up to her full height, Xena began to move forward, causing the guards to scramble after her. Just as she stood even with the door, she turned and winked at the bard.

The wail that arose in the blonde’s throat was cut off as she was backhanded and left in a heap. The clank of the jailer’s keys rang in her ears and Gabrielle pressed her hands over them and rolled into a tight ball in the dirt.

"Xena," she sobbed as her tears fell in a great flood of despair.


Keeping her gaze focused on her journey down the dingy corridor, the Conqueror couldn’t help but worry about the fate awaiting the bard. She flinched thinking about the poor woman trussed up against a pole amid lighted briars.

Every step had her doing a running inventory on the cuts and bruises she’d sustained while captured. A deep breath told her a rib was cracked and another was very bruised – an indication that it too could be damaged. A roll of her hip as she walked showed a slightly uneven gait, indicative of blood loss. Not too terribly significant yet and Xena knew it had more to do with pressure being applied by the bard rather than any restorative healing powers on her part. That particular attribute was hard to maintain; regular intense exercise, proper diet, and plenty of rest were not things she had indulged in for weeks. Her fingers twitched spasmodically, and Xena concentrated on slowing her heartbeat. It wouldn’t do to tighten up, thus cutting off the circulation to her hands and fingers; she’d need those before too long. She knew type of man Dagnine was – he’d be hedging his bet, and they’d be the only weapons afforded her.

Although the three guards accompanying her leered openly, they kept their crude remarks to a minimum and simply poked at her occasionally. Not that she gave them any cause; in fact, her steady pace had them slightly out of breath, something that made the warrior smile, if only to herself.

Her feet made a slapping noise that echoed slightly, only dampened by the cold stones as they moved farther into the dungeon. Two more guards stood at attention in front of the door at the end of the darkened hall and Xena braced herself. While it had been a few months since she’d been in that area of the dungeon, she had quickly surmised that her final stand against Dagnine would be held there.

She eased her shoulders back, relieving some of the pressure from her arms but it seemed to only aggravate her injuries. Cursing quietly, she wiggled her fingers and tried to hyperventilate during the last couple of yards before the doorway. Her fingers swelled with the coursing blood and the warrior hoped the circulation would return to her fingertips in a rapid fashion.

Both guards sneered as they pulled the torches down from the wall and lit the way before her. The large iron door creaked and groaned as it was pushed open. Xena steadied her stance and then braced herself for the ordeal she knew must come.


The cloaked figure watched the rise and fall of the bard’s chest, a hitching sob interrupting the tempo of the woman’s pain every so often. It hurt to see her in this fashion but he’d been told in no uncertain terms that each woman had to walk her own path. Quan Su tapped his chin thoughtfully and expelled a breath slowly through his covered mouth.

‘The Empress did not say I was forbidden to aid these two while on their paths.’ His eyes crinkled in merriment as he removed a small packet, a wooden goblet and a hunk of cheese. Carefully laying them out on the crude bench, the man prepared the concoction in a swift manner, adding a bit of water from his corked flask until the mixture was thick and somewhat fragrant. Nodding once, he knelt quickly, placed two fingers behind the woman’s neck and then stabbed the points without hesitation. The sleeping woman groaned once and then rolled from her side to her back.

Moving rapidly he rearranged Gabrielle’s splints and then ran his skilled fingers up and down the long bones of her lower legs. He sighed with relief and pressed both palms softly against the injuries, releasing his breath in a slow hiss. His breathing slowed and then calming himself both mentally and spiritually, the Oriental pushed his body forward through the metal bars and disappeared into the spreading darkness.

The slumbering bard felt an itch on her knee and absently scratched at it, rolling over in the process. The unsettled dust of the prison floor rose up causing her to sneeze, and at last she opened her eyes.

After taking a moment to focus on her surroundings the bard sat up, wondering exactly where she was. And then it all came back in a rush and a new crop of tears began to sprout from eyes circled in black and red.

"Oh, Xena."

Memories of her earlier experience with this very prison had the bard rubbing the gooseflesh from her arms. It seemed so long ago and yet she knew it wasn’t. A shudder passed through her frame and Gabrielle wondered at just how far she’d come. Had she ever contemplated loving a person who seemed to embody malevolence and cruelty? Until she’d had those dreams…

Other than the very few times she’d overheard her father’s grudging comments on how life had improved during her reign, Gabrielle had to admit she hadn’t given Lord Xena a passing thought. Why then should she even dream of such a person? But now, now all she could do was dream of her. It was as if both dream and reality had finally made that connection, becoming exactly the person she needed in her life.

She fingered the red spot on her cheek and felt the fires of anger spark again. Why hadn’t Xena fought them off? It just made no sense to adapt some stupid stoic warrior act and just meekly march off to her doom! And now she’d die, they both would, without seeing each other, touching each other, or speaking the thoughts that needed to be said. Gabrielle crossed her arms over her face and cried bitter tears.

As her sobs finally subsided, Gabrielle’s fingers scratched at the spot on her leg again and she wondered if the cell might be infested. With a wrinkle of her nose, she slowly got to her feet and then frowned. The dull pain that had been slowly eating at her confidence and strength had disappeared, leaving her feeling quite revitalized. Her eyes widened as a quick inspection of her legs indicated the splints had been repositioned and that the initial itch she’d felt was spreading, warming both her bones and the joints. She eyed the floor warily, wondering just how spotty she’d become from the mysterious bites. Then her eyes settled on the bench and she jumped at the food. Sniffing the cheese suspiciously, she licked the chunk and then began to eat ravenously. It was only after she’d licked each finger clean and searched her shift for crumbs that she spied the goblet farther back in the shadows. Feeling no ill effects from consuming the cheese, she put a finger to the mixture and then tasted it.

Drawing her head back with distaste, Gabrielle cringed.

"Ewww." But one eyebrow lifted as she recognized the contents. It was the very same potion both the Conqueror and Ubris had been giving her the past few days. Her brow creased at the thickness of the mixture and she made a horrid face as the brew was consumed.

"Blah. Blick. Ewww," she shuddered, her tongue perfectly happy to be on the outside of her mouth rather than suffer any further assault.

A pleasant heat began to spread from her belly outward, joining the heated effects rushing like a small wild fire over her legs. Gabrielle gasped once and then laid her head back against the bars. Who could have help her and why?

This question nagged at her until she remembered the shift and cringed. If that man Thracis expected something for his continued acts of kindness he was going to be sorely disappointed. No, she couldn’t expect help from any quarter other than her own. Taking the cold bars in her hands, Gabrielle shook them with all her might, and then stood listening.

Footfalls could be heard and the bard quickly adapted a weak and pained demeanor, unwilling to display her newfound strength. A burly guard jangled the keys at her and she shrank against the bars as he proceeded to open the cell door.

"Get up, slave."

The bard swallowed as she got to her feet slowly. The guard grinned and took a step forward. Gabrielle put a hand to her mouth and closed her eyes in terror. She peeked through slitted eyes and was pleased at the man’s response to her ruse.

"That’s right, slave, you better be scared." And then he laughed. "But anything I might do to you is nothing compared to what Dagnine’s got planned." He chuckled and then grabbed the bard by the elbow.

"Get goin’."

Gabrielle bit her lip and then taking her bravery in both hands, turned to face the guard.

"Where are you taking me?" She flinched as the man raised his hand to her.

"Look you…you have no rights here, none. You do what we say, an’ you live a little longer."

Gabrielle’s pleading eyes caused the guard to scowl uncomfortably.

"Why do you care? You being a witch and all, you’ll be crisp tomorrow anyway."

The bard nodded slowly and then cleared her throat.

"Having an idea of where I’m going might make me less frightened. And if I’m less frightened, why I might not feel provoked to anger." She blinked at the man.

The guard scratched his chin and then stopped. Thoughts of a mad witch focusing her wicked magic on him gave him pause. Perhaps it would be best if he stopped yammering and got this witch into Dagnine’s care?

The grip on her arm loosened somewhat and he motioned her forward. "I’m taking you to see Dagnine." He peered down the corridor. "See that door over there? That’s where he’s having a party. And I guess he wants you to be there."

Gabrielle allowed herself to be pulled along, noticing just how different the guard was treating her once he was reminded of her skills as a witch. If there was one thing she’d learned throughout this whole ordeal it was that you used anything and everything in order to survive.

She bit her lips sharply to stop the smile that threatened to blossom forth. She was going to see Xena!


The room was much as she remembered it; cold, dank and decidedly ominous looking in the half-light afforded by a few torches. The Conqueror was pushed from behind and stumbled in the dirt. Small rocks and dirt had been dragged in recently, augmenting the rather hardened surface of the dungeon floor. An eyebrow lifted as she thought of Dagnine going to all that trouble, just for her. The warrior gazed around the room and not seeing a friendly face readjusted her checks and balances. If she were to survive this ordeal then it would have to be an all out no holds barred battle to the death. Xena smiled at the thought.

Someone grabbed her hands from behind and then she felt the bonds slacken. Pulling her arms in opposite directions, Xena snapped the last of the rope and stood at the ready. A murmur went through the room and a few more torches were lighted. Although it did nothing to increase the temperature of the room, Xena knew she’d be sweating before long.

Flexing her hands quickly, she spied Dagnine and his toadies at the front dais and moved forward.

The closer she got to the group of men the more she realized exactly what she was up against. Although never having participated in a gauntlet, she was nevertheless somewhat knowledgeable about what was expected. Would they begin the contest by throwing her down the line or was she to be softened up first? Silence filled the room with only the occasional sizzling from the torches and Xena felt her nerves thrumming with anticipation.

The light afforded her a clearer view and she eyed the long line of men that stretched from one end of the room to the other. She moved instinctively and put both hands up as something caught in her peripheral vision.

"Put this on, Xena. Can’t have my men’s attention wander, now can I?"

Xena kept a wary eye on the crowd and stepped into the worn shift. Her fingers, at first somewhat sluggish from the lack of circulation, were tingling, and she flexed them rhythmically with some urgency. It was almost time. Sucking in a shuddering breath, she willed herself to move past the pain and began to center her focus. Coming to her full height, the Conqueror eyed what she assumed was the first contestant and then cracked her knuckles. She could feel the blood coursing through her body, making her hands almost burn as nerve control was returned. The man grinned at her, and then someone threw him a club. Testing its weight on the palm of his hand he advanced on her slowly.

They circled each other, each sizing the other up as they tested strengths and weaknesses. Xena feinted left and then landed a telling blow to the man’s right knee, taking great satisfaction as it snapped and the man went down. The room roared its displeasure and a few men pushed closely behind her, clubs in hand. Even as she turned, the warrior knew her chances of evading injury this early in the game were slim. Barely keeping her eyes open, Xena nevertheless saw stars as the blows rained down on her head and shoulders. Then the men stepped back leaving her to wipe ineffectually at the cuts that had been opened over her eyes. She smeared the crimson from her hands across the bloodied front of her shift and then steadied herself for the next wave.


Gabrielle jumped as the door was slammed behind her. Another guard grabbed hold of her wrist and she was dragged forward, regardless of her injuries. She made each limp more pronounced and finally the man slowed to a more even pace. Keeping her eyes cast down, Gabrielle tried to ignore the rude leering soldiers. Her attention was caught as she passed the first pocket of men and she covered her face in horror as a large group of men began laughing and screaming as they pummeled something…or someone. It was as if she’d entered one of those traveling circuses; the howling, the fierce creatures, and the torment assaulted her senses, threatening to numb her with it’s intensity.

When she finally had a clear view of exactly what was happening, she screamed. Dagnine moved on the periphery of the crowd and pulled her up on the dais.

"Now you can really get a good look at the great and powerful Conqueror, slave. Don’t blink, mind; I don’t think you’ll have long before she’s the one conquered." He chuckled and pulled the bard hard against him.

"I bet she can’t do what I can." He mauled her breasts and as one knee gave out on the bard, he released her in disgust.

"Oh yes…a cripple. You may have put a hex on her, but your powers are useless against me." He prayed silently that it was so. Keeping one hand firmly gripped on her wrist, he turned his attention back to the contest.

A tall heavily muscled soldier nodded at the dais and grabbed up a spear. "Let’s see how you do with me." Xena wiped her eyes again and then slowly moved away from the man. The line formed up behind her again and she was pushed forward. Her eyes scanned the room and the adrenalin began pumping in earnest. The two rows of the gauntlet now consisted of men mobbed together indiscriminately. With nothing in the way of weapons, she was definitely at a disadvantage. One of the men nearby sported a dagger on his hip and Xena decided to even the odds. She lunged at it, cutting the man’s belly open in the process and threw it with unerring precision, leaving her opponent twitching as the weapon protruded from between his ribs.

Dagnine scowled and pushed two other men forward. "Gods, show her what kind of men you are, you fools! She’s just a mere woman!"

"I’m still more of a man than you’ll ever be, Dagnine." She had time to turn briefly before the swarm of men was on her again. Gritting her teeth against the rising pain, she tried her best to get in as many strikes as she could before she was numb and unconscious. It wasn’t long in coming.

Tears continued to fall as the bard wondered how much more either one of them could take. Her heart felt as if it were encased in lead, killing her inch by inch as she watched her lover being beaten to death.

"Please…can’t you just…"

"Kill her? Oh no, no, no…can’t do that, not after all the pain and suffering she’s put me through. We have a ways to go yet." He smiled in satisfaction as a tangle of men set upon the unconscious warrior, sporadically raining blows upon her body.

"Enough!" One of the men pushed through the mob and doused the warrior with a bucket of water and the men waited, the scent of blood in the air.

Xena blinked deeply and slowly tried to rouse herself. She managed to prop herself up onto her elbows before a kick to the jaw sprawled her back into semi-consciousness. Blood dripped from her nose and one eye began to swell shut. Rolling over onto her belly, Xena pushed herself up and then got unsteadily to her feet. A few of the men stepped back as she squared her shoulders and looked them in the eye. She seethed in her fury, pinning them with a look of proud defiance. Some of them knew, even now, that she’d still be a force to reckon with if she had a weapon at hand. Most of them knew she didn’t need a weapon at all and were pleased they didn’t have to go against her in a contest of hand-to-hand combat.

Xena could see the looks of respect littered amongst the men, and although there had been a time when she would have gladly fought shoulder to shoulder with them, that time was past and they were dead to her. To a few, her contempt was obvious and while some reacted in anger, there were others who had the temerity to display shame.

These were given the full force of her glare, leaving no man to wonder whether they’d reach old age were she to survive this.

The sea of mankind slowly parted as the warrior limped through them. One man grinned and doubled her over as he poked the blunt end of his spear into her solar plexus. Gasping a breath deeply in her lungs, Xena bit back a cry of pain as she felt the other injured rib break. Clutching her left arm against her side, she moved another couple of paces before someone else dropped her with a roundhouse right. A few more got in some kicks while she was down and Xena began to crawl on her belly in an effort to protect her ribs. She had just managed to regain her feet when everything turned black and she was face first in the dirt. A hot trickle of blood oozed from a gash at the back of her head and still she crawled forward.

Dagnine laughed dementedly as the cripple dropped to her knees and began to wail. "Vengeance is indeed a dish eaten cold, Xena! And right now the feast is very much to my liking!" Leaving the wailing blonde behind him, he moved in closer to get a better view.

"Yes!" he shouted as his former liege was dragged to her feet only to be punched hard in the face. The assailant howled his rage as additional punches were blocked and he was pushed back into the crowd. Xena growled in defiance. Two men took his place and Dagnine moved in closer still. His eyes sparkled, watching their combined blows bring the warrior to her knees.

Blinking through the blood and pain, Xena found the gauntlet line once more, and began crawling. The air whooshed out of her lungs as clubs rained down on her back and buttocks and she wondered if the end of the line was truly within eyesight or whether it was just wishful thinking. Her hands slipped in something and Xena looked down. A steady stream of blood was dripping from her gaping mouth and she could tell by her thready respiration that one or both of the ribs had punctured a lung. Blinking the darkness away, she tried to focus on something, anything to keep her moving. If she were to stop now, they’d be on her like a pack of wolves, ripping her to pieces.

Dagnine viewed the scene in slow motion as the warrior was kicked in the face and her head snapped to the side, spraying him with a crimson gush. He looked down at his hands as a pattern of blood and sweat dappled across them, a look of orgiastic glee twisting his features.

A few of the men turned their faces away in disgust as their comrades set upon the woman. While each of them had felt the iron grip of the Conqueror in one way or another, most of those who now hesitated knew the difference between fair combat and cold-blooded madness. With blank looks of horror on their faces, they shrank back into the crowd and then sat dejectedly in silence.

Xena fell beneath the blows again and each forward movement felt like a little death in itself. Why go on, why not just get it over? Squeezing her eye shut, the warrior stopped, coughed out a mouthful of blood and then gritted her teeth. Her vision swam as a white image floated before her.

"Gabrielle?" she mumbled through red speckled lips. She blinked deeply, ignoring another ringing blow to the side of her head, and began to crawl towards the vision. Her breath began to falter and she was forced to stop again. Her legs and hips felt numb and she could barely feel the pain as open wounds sprouted beneath the clubs. Focusing on her forward momentum, Xena stared hard at the kneeling figure and began to move. If Gabrielle was still alive and that bastard Dagnine had brought her here to watch her die, she’d be damned to Hades if she would just roll over and do his bidding! She would not die like this…she had a choice; to die alone and forgotten in fallow fields, or fulfill her own destiny and reap a conqueror’s harvest.

Gabrielle cried out the woman’s name again and again, her fingers clawing at the air in an effort to will the woman on. "Oh, Xena…please." The tears blubbered down her chin as the warrior mouthed her name.

Sweat sprayed from the tendrils of her hair as Xena dropped her chin to her chest. While seeing the bard had helped strengthen her resolve, she wished that it would all end soon; she would have given anything not to see that same look of pity in Gabrielle’s eyes. If she had to die, and it was no longer a remote possibility, she wanted the bard to remember her as the strong virile person she was. ‘Not like this. Let me be spared this final indignity.’ Reaching out her hand, she stopped in surprise as it came down over a trench line in the dirt. Her mouth twitched and she coughed up another mouthful of blood and dirt. She’d made it! Xena didn’t know how but she’d survived the gauntlet. It took everything the Conqueror had but she pushed herself onto her knees and then tottered slowly to her feet. The men stepped back, a look of horror and grudging respect on their faces. Placing both hands on her knees, Xena tried to drag a decent breath through her damaged lips into her equally damaged body. Motes of brightness flitted back and forth and the room yawned dangerously but Xena held on, a determined set to her features.

"No one has ever survived the gauntlet! Never!" Dagnine ranted and raved as he paced in front of the broken body that was the Conqueror.

"I can’t let you live. Don’t you see? No one walks away, Xena, no one. I’d become a laughingstock if the men actually saw you walking around…proof that you were better than me. No. I can’t let that happen."

He roared again and then pulled a sword from his scabbard. "Look Xena…it’s your sword. I think it befitting that you reap what you’ve sown all these years."

As he raised the sword high, Xena pushed herself fully erect and began to laugh weakly. ‘I thought it was pain and hate that I’d sown, fool; now because of her, I see that it hasn’t been at all.’

"Even if you kill me now, I’ll have won."

"Argggh!" he screamed, stopping the arc of his stroke. His fists shook with rage as he looked into her smiling face. ‘It couldn’t be…it wasn’t meant to end like this!’ With a roar he swung the hilt of the sword up and screamed in triumph as the Conqueror jaw cracked beneath his blow. He bellowed triumphantly as she dropped to the floor like a bundle of rags.

"You are nothing…nothing, Xena! I have everything and you have nothing", he ranted, froth spraying from his lips and his eyes wild with insanity. "You’ve lost and I’ve won…everything! And all because of a…cripple!" He lifted his head and smiled magnanimously at the men surrounding him. "Kill her!"

Dagnine clenched his fists and roared at his men. "I told you to kill her, you fools! How dare you disobey me! I am now Lord Dagnine and I am the law!"

The men shuffled their feet and averted their eyes. The Conqueror had survived the test; she had a right to live, that was the law, and nothing Dagnine could say would change it. They stepped back away from their fallen Lord and a few threw down the swords.

"We won’t do your dirty work, Dagnine." The Lieutenant growled dangerously and stepped closer to the men who in turn never gave an inch. His pace faltered and then his shoulders drooped as the soft laughter began again.

Xena pushed a bedraggled bit of hair from her face and then spat a mouthful of blood and a tooth in Dagnine’s direction. Ignoring her wounds, she got to her hands and knees again and began taunting the man.

"Then you’ll have to kill me yourself, won’t you?" she slurred heavily. "And frankly, I don’t think you’re man enough to do it." She watched as the pitiful excuse for a man flinched. "I am better than you, Dagnine. I’ll always be better than you, and one day, one day I’ll raise another army and hunt you down like the cur you are."

Dagnine blanched as he thought of spending the next year or so afraid to sleep in fear of her return. No, it would be hard enough keeping the other warlords from his throat let alone worrying about this bitch. Better to end it now, once and for all. He reached for his dagger and approached the fallen woman.

"You’ll never know just how long I’ve wanted to do this, bitch." His reflection was caught in the blade and he growled. "But first…I think your chances of using whatever good looks you have left to win your way out of this will be sorely reduced. Although Roman’s are little more than trained animals, I’d wager not one of them will give you a second glance once I’m finished with you."

Gabrielle screamed as a hand gripped her shoulder and she was pulled to her feet. Her eyes widened as both Thracis and some foreign soldiers moved onto the dais beside her.

"What’s going on here? You," the Tribune motioned to the Roman standing nearby. "Maximus, restrain that man, and do it now!"

Dagnine yelled and turned to face them. "I’ll have my vengeance, Roman!" And then he noticed who was standing with the officer and roared with anger. "Thracis, you traitor!" The bard screamed again and shrank back against the wall as a dagger sprouted from the throat of the man beside her. Thracis clawed at his throat once and then sagged slowly to the floor, dead.

"That’s enough! Now is not the time to deal with your petty grievances, Greek," roared the Roman. Gabrielle trembled in horror as the confrontation continued, blinking rapidly when another dagger appeared in Dagnine’s hand. Eyeing the distance between her position and Xena’s, she started moving slowly in that direction.

The air was filled with evil chuckles and the crazed man began to weave a pattern with the blade. "Petty grievances, pretty grievances…"

The Tribune stepped closer and the disfigured man stabbed the air before him.

"You see, you can’t stop me, none of you can! First I’ll cut her up and then I’ll deal with you all!"

He turned his back on the advancing soldiers and Xena could see by the cast to his eyes that he had finally snapped. She held one bloodied hand up and smiled.

"Kill me then, Dagnine. Come and meet your destiny." Gabrielle shook her head from side to side as she pushed both legs to function and move her closer to the warrior.

"No, Xena…no."

Feeling for something within reach, Xena willed herself to go on. Her hands closed over the blunt ends of clubs and she gritted her teeth with frustration. Then her blurred vision was filled with the maniacal look of Dagnine as he crouched before her.

"You never saw me as anything, did you Xena? Preferred to be with a slave, didn’t you?" His mouth twitched. "How did she survive your attentions, Xena? Is she that pretty? Well, now," He moved the dagger into his left hand. "Now, perhaps you won’t be seeing anything ever again." The blade switched hands again and Xena found her eyes following every movement as if hypnotized.

"Which one shall I do first?"

He sensed the Roman officer behind him and sneered. "You should stay out of this, Tribune. This is something that’s been a long time in coming. Why, Lord Xena might be terribly put out if you interfere, wouldn’t you?" He cackled and then jabbed the blade closer, enjoying the look that was now on the woman’s face.

The Roman held his hand up, halting the advancing guards and bellowed imperiously, "I’m ordering you to stop this right now! This prisoner belongs to Caesar, now step away!"

Dagnine sneered in contempt. "You have no power over me, Roman; I make my own destiny."

Xena’s breath was quick and shallow as she took that moment of distraction to broaden her search area. She moaned in relief as the sharp end of a blade pierced her palm. Closing her hand around the weapon, she pulled it closer and waited.

With his head slightly cocked to the left and a persistent tick appearing at the corner of his mouth, Dagnine looked every inch the madman he was. "Did you say something, dear Xena? Was it perhaps a plea for mercy?" His eyes narrowed at the clank of the Tribune’s armour. "Oh, go away, you fool."

The Roman’s jaw dropped as the idiot refused to acknowledge his authority in this situation. His eyes darkened with rage and he slowly removed the dirk in his belt.

"So, Xena. Have you decided which one I should put out first? Oh, come along; I’m giving you far more patience than you ever afforded me. Why, compared to you I’m an upstanding citizen." Dagnine flicked the end of the blade and smiled as a drop of his blood slid down the edge. "Let’s not forget who the monster is here, shall we? A person only has to look at me, for instance. It wasn’t bad enough that you treated me like scum, publicly ridiculed me at all times, and disfigured me…you had to turn your back on my offer of love for…" He turned and spat in Gabrielle’s direction. "For a common diversion!" The look on his face changed as Xena’s blade flashed forward.

Her lips twitched as she pushed the blade farther into his throat and his surprise was total and complete. He flailed at the blade and as bloodied and hurt as she was, Xena lunged forward and sank her teeth deeply into the meaty part of Dagnine’s hand as he tried to dislodge it.

The Roman watched impassively and then pushed his own dagger into the fallen man’s neck, just below the skull. Xena glared at the Roman before turning her gaze back to the man who sat twitching in the dirt, both in one fashion or another taking pleasure in watching his eyes cloud over in death.

"Insolent cur."

Xena nodded in agreement and then moaned in pain as the traitor collapsed onto her legs. The Tribune kicked the body over to one side and then looked down into the Conqueror’s face.

"Caesar has told me so much about you. I find everything he’s said has been an understatement. My name is Metellus Cimber, Nobleman of Rome, and Tribune of the great Julius Caesar. You’d do well to remember it; your name will forever be linked with mine."

The Tribune accepted the accolades from his second Lieutenant and smiled haughtily.

"I shall be remembered for stopping a megalomaniac from reducing her realm to ruination whereas you, Lord Xena, shall be a mere footnote in the annals of those who would oppose Caesar."

Gabrielle made her way over to where the warrior was lying and tried to clean the worst of the blood from her face. Xena smiled and tried to touch Gabrielle’s cheek.

"Don’t move any more, Xena. Let me help you."

The Roman nodded once and then gestured to two of his men. One picked up Dagnine’s body and dragged it unceremoniously from the area.

"There will be no further unsanctioned bloodshed. Although Caesar is pulling us back beyond your borders, Lord Xena, there are certain things that must be dealt with before hand." A cruel smile spread over his face. "It seems he’s received your latest tribute." He motioned Maximus forward and both men conferred for a moment. Xena felt her blood run cold as they turned to face her.

"Crucify her."

Gabrielle blinked, uncertain as to exactly what had been said. Surely not now…

She stammered protestations as she was pushed back away from the Conqueror and then two guards dragged Xena up between them.

"Caesar’s will be done, Lord Xena. It seems his reach far exceeds your own."

"But sire…please…!" pleaded the bard.

Another guard came forward and took hold of her, putting himself between she and the prisoner. "And this one, sire? What shall we do with her?"

"She’s nothing to me; I don’t care what you do." Then he turned and looked the blonde up and down. "You, girl: are you a slave or free?"

"I’m free, sire, but please…"

"Then take her away. Put her out just beyond the gates. After our business is completed, I want the castle and grounds completely razed, is that clear? And I don’t want to lose any more men defending this conquered foe so be quick about it." He hooked his finger under the young girl’s chin. "It is over, go home. Should you attempt to return to this place you will be killed."

He gestured to the two guards. "The light is waning. Let’s get this done and be on our way; there’s no telling just how long it will be before the heathens are at our door."

"Nooooo!" screamed Gabrielle as she was pulled from the room.

Xena struggled in vain as she was picked up and dragged out to meet her fate.





Chapter Twenty-Three



The tears fall from my heart, my love

And loosen tangled reeds

That used to bind a life full rent

In tatters without peace.

The calming path that leads me down

Where waters still await

Reveal a truth that once was sown

And measured each by Fate.

Each grain a lie, the balance tipped

Oblivious to me

Was weighed against a bounty reaped

Found wanting, easily.

My cup, it runneth over now

With briny darkened depths

Your light has come to free my soul

And balance all my debts.



Thoughts both dark and dreary tumbled over each other as they were birthed and died only to be reborn, their nails sharp and teeth bared and at the ready.

If the justice she was so frivolously meting out was blind and not based on any truth, what did that make her? Had she become so lazy and caught up in her own growing ego that she’d willingly let lesser mortals decide the fate of her subjects? How could she have misread Mica and just how long had he been in cahoots with Dagnine and Caesar? Caesar. Crazy images of a proud larger than life emperor seemed to change into some sort of monster with two heads and two very large grasping claws for hands. Although never actually having met the man, she was certain they would – one day.

Xena tried to focus on that thought but found it whisked away like so much smoke. Images of a seemingly endless stream of men and women walked in and out of her bed, each one just as faceless as the next, and Xena felt almost numbed by the reality of it all. The more she tried to center on their faces, the harder the task became. Some faces became almost recognizable and she felt a warm sensation spread through her being; one of them was Lao Ma. But her face kept changing into that of Ubris or Andros…or…this dark faceless figure.

A memory was being tickled but Xena couldn’t quite put her focus on it before it was gone, replaced by images she was all too familiar with: men and women she had betrayed and conquered at one time or another throughout her reign. There was her mother, the woman’s face twisted in disgust as Xena held out food and bags of money. And her two brothers standing young and virile in one moment and broken and dismembered in another, close enough to touch but floating just out of reach.

She wanted to explain her actions, why she’d lead the life the now lived, but their cold faces turned away from her in disgust. Everywhere she turned was a new familiar face, mocking her, and taunting her with truths that were too horrible to bear.

Clothing herself in the knowledge that she was a honourable warrior, Xena braced herself. Did she want Gabrielle to be one of the faceless demons that haunted her sleep? No, her presence in the bard’s life could only bring her pain and ruin. Was she strong enough to bare the look she knew Gabrielle would wear as the true nature of her dark soul was revealed? No, again. A searing pain entered her heart even at the thought of the young woman’s countenance twisted by hatred and bitterness for a life lost and just thrown away. For her.


Xena’s fingers twitched spasmodically in the hemp and she raised her chin ever so slowly.

The dark form at the foot of the cross ran his fingers through his short well-kept beard and sighed deeply. It was giving him a headache to peer into the chasm that was her mind right now, and he gratefully pulled back from the abyss. While some of the images were highly entertaining, they lacked a battle worn feel he was accustomed to experiencing when probing the Conqueror’s mind. His eyes traveled the length of the woman’s naked body and his index finger twitched. How easy it would be to just whisk the woman away from this very maudlin scene and into a place filled with soft fabric, jeweled goblets and…’Oh, those open wounds and broken bones will just have to go.’

His eyebrow curled as the warrior began to weakly thrash in her bonds. Yes, she always did know when he was around. ‘Not yet, Xena, but soon. Finish off with your ridiculous feelings of guilt and pain and then we’ll talk.’

He thought briefly of putting himself into those dreams, coercing her into the direction he needed her to go…’But what’s the fun in that?’ Those kinds of games were for the mentally inept, something Xena could never be accused of. No, it was always better to manipulate the woman when she was conscious and thereby totally aware of the power he had over her. Yes, it was all about control, a tool he liked to use whenever it suited his purpose. He wondered if Xena ever felt the strings dangling overhead?

Ares rubbed his nails across his thick black leather jerkin and thought again on how much fun mortals could really be. He scratched his chin again as he wondered just how long it had been since he’d bedded the always fiery Xena. ‘Months, at least.’ A vulpine look twisted his lips. The accompanying chortle made even the unconscious warrior shiver in response.

It was only after the God of War had finally given up in sheer boredom and had left that the Conqueror’s erratic movements eased off into something more conducive to thought.

Many scenes of her life paraded past her jerking eyes, closed tightly against the realities of what pain had waiting for her. Her body needed both time and care in order to repair itself and yet her mind, always busy, never sedentary, was bursting with vitality; the energy pulsating through her visual cortex certainly wasn’t the product of good mental health.

As her focus bounded from one wretched scene to another, Xena could see that the truth of her life was something she’d have to bear…sooner or later. Everything she’d ever touched, every person she’d ever come into contact with, and every thought she’d ever entertained had been one of a selfish and destructive nature.


Her eyelids fluttered briefly and then she was sitting at the foot of her bed, the large very comfortable bed she had in her chambers back in the castle. She blinked once and then the short hairs on the back of her neck began to bristle. A knowing smirk graced her lips and the warrior drummed her fingertips on her bare thigh. An eyebrow shot up as she noticed two things: one, she was wearing some flimsy shift that did little more than accentuate what it didn’t cover as opposed to offering any modest state of dress, and; two, that her hands were unmarked. In fact, after looking down at her body she could see that the wounds she’d incurred during the gauntlet were gone, along with her split lip and a few teeth she began to probe lovingly with her tongue.

"Come out, Ares. I know you’re here…I can smell you."

She barely controlled her body’s reaction to his touch as the god dragged one finger across the nape of her neck.

"Good to see you, Xena. And I mean that in every sense of the word." He grinned suggestively and the Conqueror began to wonder just what it was about the man that had infatuated her in the first place. Her past dealings with the god had shown her that he had an even bigger ego than she did and although her sexual appetite was legendary it paled compared to the seemingly endless fathoms of the God of War. While the former had been ignored, the latter had been more than a little enticing. But the sad part of it all was that he was so damned…predictable. Although she was instantly enamored of his prowess and logistical mind, it wasn’t long before she could see the truth: he was really nothing but a man – the same wants, needs and desires; manipulative, conceited and…predictable.

"Alright Ares, I’ll bite: what is it that brings you here? Things a little slow on Olympus today?"

The well-muscled god pursed his lips. He began loosening his jerkin and then threw a small fireball into the fireplace.

"I thought I’d…warm you up a bit. You looked a little…uncomfortable tied to that piece of wood. My, my, my…I turn my back for half a year and look at all the trouble you get into."

Xena smirked but said nothing. Why bother; the man only heard what he wanted to and it was evident that he didn’t have conversation on his mind.

Xena pulled the flimsy fabric tighter across her bosom. Her mind was filled with the gentle touch of a certain bard and if she just held her breath a certain way the particularly alluring scent of the woman could be experienced again - if only fleetingly.

"Xena?" Ares wiggled his fingers in front of the warrior’s face and frowned at her dazed expression. "Alright, who is she and just how could she catch your cultured and very skilled eye?" A shimmering apparition appeared before them and Xena found herself automatically reaching out to the bard.

Ares frowned. ‘Oh, this will just never do.’ The image of the bard vanished into thin air.

"Xena," he said in a mocking singsong voice. "Snap out of it."

The Conqueror fixed the god with a withering gaze. "Ouch," he said in response. "Please don’t tell me that you’ve fallen for this…this…bard." His eyes widened as her silence confirmed his suspicions.

"Oh come on! She’s a…baby! If you want a dalliance with her, fine, but please don’t go getting all…sentimental or noble here."

Xena stood and walked over to the warming fire, taking quite a bit of pleasure in the fact that she could actually walk on legs that didn’t resemble tree trunks. ‘Oh, reality is going to be such a bitch when I leave this dreamscape.’ She sighed heavily and then turned to face the god.

"Listen Ares," she began.

"Listen? You’ve got it backwards, Xena: you listen I talk. And the talking isn’t mandatory either." He dropped his jerkin on the bed and moved towards her.

Her checks began to flush with heat the closer he came to her, his power oozing from every pore. Gods, but she got a rush out of being in his presence. She shook her head and moved a few steps away from him.

Ares’ eyebrows moved up a notch. "You try to deny me? You forget yourself, Xena. You belong to me lock, stock and barrel. You’re mine."

Xena’s mouth twisted. "I belong to me, Ares. And you don’t own me, you never could. Oh, we’ve had our fun but that’s over. She has what you’d never be able to offer me…love."

He rolled his eyes. "Is that what all these dark thoughts are all about? Don’t tell me you’ve gotten noble in your old age?" Xena was silent and this more than anything seemed to enrage the god.

"Now you listen, Xena. We had an agreement: I gave you power and an endless supply of men, arms and support in return for undying and endless fealty. The operative word here is ‘endless’, and in case you haven’t noticed you aren’t dead. Oh, I’ll agree that you’re close…never been this close before, have you? How’s it feel, Xena? Well," he purred and moved closer. "I could fix that. I can take out that pompous Roman, even granting the thought that just entered your mind: now, was that using the flat of your blade on his ass or the point as you chase him all the way down to the Roman senate?" He smiled at her smirking response. ‘Making headway here.’

"Got yourself into a bit of trouble once you lost your focus, huh Xena? Well, I can fix that, too."

"I don’t want your help, Ares. Not any more. Look, we both took what we wanted from this relationship. I gave you more than you ever expected, Ares. Any deal we had has been paid thrice over." She turned her back on him and braced herself. "You’ve been in my life ever since I was a small child, goading me on, seducing me even before my body knew what feelings were for." Xena set her jaw as the god snorted.

"I made you the strong, fearless all but invincible warrior you are, Xena. Or should I say ‘were’?"

Two hands gripped the mantle until the tendons in her arm screamed out in agony. "You made me a monster, Ares. While I was certainly a willing participant, those days are over…we’re over." The temperature of the room seemed to rise and their surroundings shimmered briefly before coalescing once more.

"I know your thoughts, Xena. How can you even contemplate thinking them let alone carrying them through? I could stop you, Xena. Why, I could keep you in suspended animation for…years. Until you come to your senses, that is. And by that time the bard will have either forgotten you or died of old age."

Xena gritted her teeth at the realities of her situation. Everything he’d just said was more than a mere threat – it was a promise. "Ares. Can’t you see how good she is in my life? I’ve lived alone for so long…"

Her breath caught as he moved his finger from the hollow at the front of her neck up and into her hair. "I can be whatever you need, Xena."

The smile on the god’s face faltered as his hand was seized in a steel grip. "You can’t be her, Ares. I’ve been exactly what you’ve wanted me to be all these years…now it’s my turn; let me be me…with her."

Running a slow hand through his thick slightly curly hair, the God of War shook his head. "Let you be you so you can destroy that lovely black heart of yours?" He continued to shake his head. "Now, why ever would I want to do that?"

Xena smiled and then loosened her grip. "Because it’s always been a game to you, Ares, and who knows…maybe one day you’ll win. But ‘one day’s’ a long time…there’ll always be the sport of it."

"You’re only deceiving yourself, Xena." He moved away slowly, his body once more clothed in black leather. "But I’ll be here to pick up the pieces. Don’t keep me waiting too long…I don’t know exactly how long my marker is good with Hades."

The warmth of the room began to recede and the warrior’s eyes fluttered as an immense jolt entered her body, and then she was bathed in the blackness of unbearable pain.

The dreamscape was gone and she was locked in the grips of the tormented questions that all but ate at her very soul.

Could she be strong enough to do what needed to be done?


A heavy fog blanketed the area just outside the castle and two figures stood silently at the foot of a cross. The clank of steel upon metal and bone could be heard in the background as the war raged on, the noise blanketed by the moisture. It had taken them a good three days to fight through the Roman forces and retake the castle…or what remained of it. A very long three days had passed, the truth unknown as to whether the Lord still lived or had died of her wounds. Had the Roman’s been true to form and used heavy spikes or had her large contingency of men harried their forces to the point whereby flight was preferable to the finer details of a crucifixion?

The Empress of Chin inhaled slowly, cleansing the remnants of fear that threatened to overpower her sense of calm. She pushed away thoughts of how each charred body had been set before her for inspection. While deeply in tune with the rhythms of the Conqueror, she hadn’t been able to really pierce the wall that had fallen between them after the warrior had been dragged out into the courtyard. That had troubled her. While blessed with the gift of sight, Lao Ma knew the vagaries of the Fates; it was one thing to have the tools by which the future could be told and quite another to have the veil lifted so that she could actually view it.

Lao Ma nodded to her servant, Quan Su, who moved quickly to cut the woman down. A slight intake of breath followed as the form was eased onto a waiting litter. Although she knew the condition of her patient was grave, Lao Ma was also aware that the woman’s heart still had a heartbeat.

She peered closely at the warrior’s pupils and then pursed her lips. Although she could see the fine specimen Xena had been before the beating, it was almost as if the woman had shrunk during and after her ordeal. Placing her hands palm down, she slowly moved them over the Conqueror’s body, careful not to pierce the aura, thereby upsetting the balance still taking form within.

Quan Su shook his head sadly and pushed a hank of damp hair from his face. It was evident that the woman was terribly weak. He cast a quick look at his mistress and could see she too was troubled.

The Empress rubbed the inner part of her left wrist and expelled her breath. She had almost sobbed her relief when Xena’s body hadn’t been found with the bonfire of lost souls, destined to wander endlessly through oblivion, their deaths unavenged. Shivering slightly at the thought of Xena haunting her nights, she blessed the Fates once more for placing the warrior’s fortune in her path.

She fingered the scroll that had been impaled on the cross at Xena’s feet. ‘Vengeance is mine.’ She wondered exactly what had prompted Caesar to reach out his long arm and deal with the Conqueror in such a way. It was clear that in addition to the cruelties meted out earlier, the woman had been stripped and then whipped after she’d been placed on the cross. Caesar had wanted the message to be clear: he would treat the Conqueror like a pariah, beneath even the custom dignity afforded a slave – breaking her legs would have hastened her death; even piercing her side would insure a less painful way to die. She shuddered again as she thought of the warrior languishing on the cross, thirsting, trying to stay awake, if only to fend off the ravens who would begin to peck at anything that lay still for too long.

Sighing heavily, she pondered the path these two would walk, knowing there could only be further bloodshed and only one survivor. But that was for another day. Pushing her hands deeper into her sleeves, the Empress began to silently meditate and cleared her mind of the violent images that assaulted her.

Quan Su cleared his throat as his new charge began her path towards consciousness.

The Empress gestured two men forward and they began removing the ropes that had been used to bind the Conqueror to the cross.

"Great care must be taken, for the body has been denied healthy blood flow for many days." Taking a bit of cold flesh between her fingers, Lao Ma nodded and then gestured the men toward Xena’s hands.

Xena winced as the men began to untie her bonds. A stab of searing pain hit her as blood began to surge back into areas long denied circulation.

Lao Ma moved forward as Lord Xena’s broken body was carefully covered in the litter. The warrior tried to push away the soldiers but in her weakened state fell back gasping as she was tended to. The Empress gestured her men forward, away from the castle and into her secluded encampment nearby. She nodded and then moved slowly toward her tent. There were many preparations to be done. She only hoped the warrior would live to see their fruition.


The bard rubbed the ache in her legs and shook her head slowly. Was it only yesterday that she’d been locked in pain and agony, taking the brunt of the guard’s cruel kicks on legs only recently re-broken, their time mending ridiculously short? A frown creased her forehead as fingers moved gingerly over the swelling nearly gone from her knees. ‘It can’t have been more than a week since the healer…’ The bard shuddered and clutched the blanket more tightly around her. Wiggling her bare toes in the plush rug adorning the tent she now sat in, Gabrielle wondered at the circumstances that had lead her there.

She’d spent the day searching the area around the damaged castle but had ended up giving aid to put out a few fires, and minister to a few injured men. Her level of frustration had risen to the point that she hadn’t even responded when an aging Oriental had stopped her. He seemed quite familiar to her and although Gabrielle was intent on finding Xena it was only when she allowed herself to stop and think that the bard realized just how terribly fatigued she was. The man seemed kindly and she allowed herself to be lead to a place he assured her was safe. His insistence that help would be provided to find her ‘friend’ set her mind at ease. At that point, she was uncertain as to why he was there at all. Could he be an enemy spy? The question kept her busy as she awaited his return.

Eying a water skin nearby, Gabrielle licked her lips and then began to rise. Her movements stilled as the tent flap was raised and then she gasped with recognition. It was the woman of her dreams that now appeared before her.

"I know you", she whispered in awe. "But I don’t know how."

The Oriental woman dropped her chin slightly and smiled. Glancing quickly to the side, the Empress motioned wordlessly and the man Gabrielle had followed entered the tent carrying a tray.

Gabrielle’s belly growled as a platter of cold meats and fruit was set before her. Although her mouth now watered with anticipation she made a quick decision and walked rapidly over to the where the water skin was. Drinking deeply, she sighed and then made her way back to the cushion she’d been sitting on.

"Thank you for your hospitality…?" She frowned. The woman looked to be a queen or some sort of diplomat. Then she remembered what the Roman had said earlier.

"You’re the foreigners that were approaching from the east." A bit of fear began to tighten her belly and then she looked into the woman’s soft brown eyes as her fingers were taken between long delicate hands.

"You have nothing to fear, Gabrielle: I am an ally of Xena’s. I am…"

"Lao Ma," finished the bard. A slight smile appeared on the taller woman’s face and Gabrielle found her own lips twisting in response.

"Come and sit, Gabrielle." A man knelt before her and set the tray down. She opened her mouth in protest as he placed one well-formed hand upon her dirty and somewhat battered feet. The idea of someone touching her was rather discomforting but in truth it was more than the pain such an inspection would cause that had her cringing away from the man’s touch.

"I can do it." Oh, what she wouldn’t have given for a bath right at that moment. The idea of being inspected in such a way made her cringe as a bit of self-deprecation eased over her heart. She was a mess and knew it. In fact, she was sure anyone in a one-mile radius would know it as well. The finery of the rugs and tapestry lining this tent was overwhelming, making her feel less than worthy to even stand in awe of it all. Her fingers twitched as she thought of just how crisp and clean, soft and grand were the robes these two wore. She tried to smooth out the fabric stretched across her belly but could see how close to being threadbare it was. If she wasn’t very careful…a blush began at her throat.

"Please," continued Lao Ma as she gently pushed the bard down onto the cushion. "You will feel no pain."

The bard opened her mouth again but it was a gentle sigh of relief that was emitted rather than one of pain as the man moved his hands from her toes up to her knees.

"It was him…in the cell…but how…?"

Lao Ma smiled and then settled herself on the chaise lounge nearby.

Gabrielle steadied her focus on the ritualistic movements the woman began to employ as she prepared a hot drink. Her nose twitched as the gentle scent of flowers filled the air.

"It is Jasmine tea, Gabrielle. But first,"

The bard yelped in surprise as a particularly painful bump on her leg was inspected. The man whispered soft words of encouragement and she removed her grip from his wrist. Although frail in appearance, Gabrielle could feel the steel-like tendons and ligaments that ran from his calloused hands up the inside of his arms. It was somewhat unnerving to think that she truly was at the mercy of these two strangers regardless of how well she thought she could defend herself.

"You must understand that we mean you no harm. We are here for only one thing."

Gabrielle shifted her focus from the man’s hands as they moved slowly up and down her legs and then locked eyes with the Empress.

"You want Xena. I’ve looked for her…the Roman’s said…they took her…said they would…"

"Crucify her, yes Gabrielle, I know that," finished the other woman.

Gabrielle tried to get up. "I have to find her…it’s been three days now and she might be…" She swallowed and then brought a shaking hand to her mouth. No, she wouldn’t think about it.

"Tell me, Gabrielle, are you a good friend of Xena’s?"

The bard thought of exactly what Lord Xena meant to her. Were they friends? Scenes of violence flitted quickly by and were replaced by those of a more caring and gentle nature. They had both faced death and danger together, had quiet moments filled with shared secrets, and had learned to trust each other without hesitation. The weight of the second tally overpowered the first, and as she thought of how much more than a friend Xena had become, she smiled. "Yes."

Lao Ma nodded. "That is good because it is a good friend that she needs right now."

The bard pushed herself to her feet excitedly.

"You’ve found her? You know where she is? Is she all right? Where is she?"

Quan Su smiled and tsked softly. Even with his ministrations, this one would heal far slower than his mistress would want, but she was young and had a very healthy aura. His fingertips rustled softly together with the energy field he could still feel as he pulled his hands away. His shoulders shook and he felt an almost overpowering need to dance across the floor. ‘Ah, sweet bird of youth, spread your wings in this old man’s heart so that he may relive your bounty, if only briefly.’

Lao Ma patted his shoulder and smiled. ‘This one has many gifts, Quan Su. Her potential is vast.’

The old man nodded and then took the tray away, a smile still playing on his mouth, all but erasing the touch of time from his face.

In her rush to search for her lover, the bard’s forward momentum carried both she and the Empress a short distance before the strength of the taller woman came into play.

"Gabrielle, you must wait."

The blonde made a small squeaking noise as a firm yet gentle hand took hold of her upper arm.

"You must stay here and be patient. Lord Xena is in a very bad way."

A stricken look instantly replaced the happy and expectant one the bard had been wearing leaving the Empress unsure of exactly how she should proceed.

"You have endured much, Gabrielle. But are you prepared to face the possible death of one you love?"

Gabrielle felt her knees buckle and was eased gently down onto the rug. Her fingers traced the intricate grooves in the pattern and weave of the rug in an attempt to pull her thoughts away from what the Empress had said, and therefore deny them power. They had endured so much…she couldn’t lose Xena now.

‘Stop thinking about it! It can’t happen…it won’t!’ But the more she fought against the truth, the more she had to accept its possibility. Struggling to compose herself, Gabrielle raised her eyes and stared boldly into Lao Ma’s.

"Yes! Tell me more." The blonde quivered at her audacity but her gaze never faltered.

Lao Ma’s eyebrows rose and she smiled.

"I will take you to her, but first I must prepare you for what you will encounter. You must know that the brutality she endured at the hands of Dagnine and his men was far more brutal than she has ever encountered. It was more than just an attack on her body, Gabrielle; it was an assault on her spirit as well. Even now…" She closed her eyes briefly and then shook her head quickly.

"Yes?" The bard leaned forward.

"I have certain skills, Gabrielle, that allow me to feel another’s aura, that which holds a person’s soul, nourishing it and keeping it safe. Right now, Xena’s aura is very weak. In fact, although the darkness is somewhat less the overall energy is the weakest it has ever been."

The bard gulped. She wasn’t too sure exactly what the woman was talking about but she did understand one thing: Xena was giving up.

"If you’ll let me see her," she said haltingly, "I think I can change her mind, make her realize how much I love her, how much she means in my life, and how very lost I’ll be if she were to…"

Lao Ma patted the woman’s shoulder and then offered a hand up. A bit of green caught the bard’s eye and she reached out to touch the jade pendant hanging from a chain about the woman’s neck.

"How pretty. It reminds me of the small bits of jade the warrior has throughout her castle." She cocked her head. "Did you know that at certain times your eyes look almost that colour?"

Lao Ma smiled a secret smile but said nothing.

"I think Xena told me the jade reminded her of you."

"No, child. I can’t believe Xena would make that connection. Oh, it’s true, but only someone as intuitive as you would make that leap."

"Leap? She told me a little of the history you share, Empress. And I saw you in a dream." Lao Ma chuckled as the bard was overcome with a flush of crimson.

"Yes, you did, didn’t you?"

Gabrielle looked up sharply. "Why did you give me those dreams?" A smile was the only response she received. "Did you know we were fated to be together or did you decide?

"We can talk of this another time, little one." She moved over to her lounge and then waited until the bard was seated.

Quan Su arrived immediately and bowed. "Yes, mistress?"

"I believe the bard would like to bathe." Lao Ma quietly pulled the screen into place leaving the young woman to her privacy, and then exited the tent, working her way across the field to where her friend lay.


The smile faltered on her lips as the condition of the warrior hit her full force. She had hoped some hot water and medicine would have improved the Conqueror’s condition. Xena had this mysterious ability to heal very quickly. A frown creased her brow as she wondered just when these properties would begin to work their magic. Any woman or man for that matter who had been mistreated in such a way would certainly have perished from such wounds. Although Xena looked very tired and weak, it was still early yet.

Xena noted the peripheral movement and slowly turned her face to the wall of the tent. Lao Ma stood in silence and watched as one of her men wrung out the bloodied rag and began cleaning away another deep wound on the warrior’s upper thigh.

"Her love for you is your salvation."

"I remember," she said through damaged lips, "Gabrielle said my love for her was her salvation."

Lao Ma chuckled. "The bard’s salvation was never in question. The girl’s bond with you is eternal and only through your own pain and acceptance of the woman and her pain that you can accept the gift, your destiny, as it was written."

"I’m sorry that I could never accept the gift that you offered."

"I am too, Xena." The two fell silent as their shared memories blossomed forth.

"It is quite amusing how the Fates set you on a course, a path where your destiny will take you, and while it intersects with another you feel is ordained, it will then veer off into areas you would never have expected."

Xena wiped at a little moisture on her jaw and tried to smile but her mouth was so swollen and lips so bloodied that a grimace is all that was produced. Lao Ma noticed the rapid blinking and the tightening around Xena’s lips and sighed. ‘Always the stoic warrior, Xena? Why deny the truth?’

"Although your path has been littered with death and violence, giving you the distinction of being one of the cruelest of Lords that ever ruled Greece, it also placed you in a position whereby you were the salvation of many. You may belittle the positive impact you have had on your realm in general and your subjects in particular, Xena, but the proof is there. Not only have you been responsible for putting a stop to the violence that used to ravage this land but you’ve helped to put those whom you govern in a position whereby they can achieve their own destiny." She placed a soft hand on her friend’s arm and smiled.

"Because of you a young child grew up believing she could be a bard."

The Empress felt a catch in her breathing as the warrior finally loosened the grip on her emotions and let a small tear traverse her damaged face, its existence apparent to anyone present. She could feel the angst mirrored in her manservant and filled his heart with cleansing warmth. As to the warrior, however, the Oriental merely recognized the turmoil boiling within mixed with the self-hatred that threatened to swamp her and bided her time. Finally the warrior spoke.

"How could anything thrive beneath my boot, Lao Ma? It was because of my very nature that Gabrielle was incarcerated and crucified. Because of me…"

Dark thoughts of cruelty meted out by her guards crashed down heavily upon her shoulders and Xena moaned deeply.

"I didn’t know…"

Lao Ma nodded slowly.

"While this feeling of being out of control is new to you, those of us who are your allies and friends have seen this building until it was obvious that something would have to give…and that something was you, Xena."

A faint bit of defiance rose up in the woman’s eyes and Lao Ma grasped at the little hope it provided. If she could just move the woman beyond her self-pity…

An eyebrow rose quickly. Thinking of Xena and self-pity in the same breath was so…wrong. Perhaps she should have lent aid before the beating could exact such damage? Each blow that had filled her mind had been felt as if it were she enduring the gauntlet and not the broken woman before her.

"As cruel as you are, Xena, I cannot believe that you knew of the terrible toll the bard paid while in the care of your headsman." She raised a hand as the warrior tried to protest.

"Oh, do not misunderstand me, my friend. I am well acquainted with the violence of your lovemaking. I am also privy to the many truths and lies as to the varied liaisons in your past; I am under no illusions as to the many degrees of persuasion you have employed in your efforts to quench the darkness within you."

Shame bubbled up and Xena looked away.

"You are responsible for those acts, and you have never tried to deny their truth. But you have also moved on, throwing off the shackles Ares would have you wear, thereby chaining you to him forever. It was your free will that did that, Xena, your desire to change. While your violence towards the young woman who now holds your heart was brutal and terribly unkind, it was nothing compared to those acts in your past, and certainly not to be seen in the same light as that of your heartless guards. In fact," she paused pensively. "In fact, it was a conspiracy by Mica and Dagnine to undermine your position, thus diverting your attention from the treason afoot."

Xena leaned forward, her pain briefly forgotten. "How could they know how important Gabrielle would become? Even I didn’t know…not until…the assassins." She moved a shaky hand to her chin thoughtfully. Blinking deeply, she snorted as the truth hit her: no wonder the assassin had seemed so familiar.

"It was you who fought me in my chamber," she gasped. "But how did you disguise yourself so well, and to the point whereby I was sure you were a male?"

"I have skills you can only dream of, my friend. It is merely a parlor trick, really. I simply become what my adversary believes I am, nothing more."

Xena nodded and then gestured the woman to continue.

"Dagnine couldn’t have known you would fall in love with the bard, Xena, although it was very apparent to me, even as you watched the woman hobble into your presence that first time. All that he hoped was that the woman would provide you with a bit of distraction, allowing them to continue their transactions with Rome."

Xena shook her head ruefully. "I never expected at this time in my life…I’m in that danger zone, Lao Ma. I haven’t many years ahead of me; what warrior ever does? You live by the sword, you…"

"Then put down the sword, Xena."

The warrior clenched her bloodied fists and turned her gaze back to the Empress.

"What am I without a weapon or the skill to wield one? Dagnine was right…I’d be nothing but a joke if I stay alive now."

Loa Ma pursed her lips and then nodded at the downcast expression on the warrior’s face. "I believe he said you would be proof that he was weak and nothing compared to you. I took that to mean that your survival would guarantee his demise."

Xena spit out a gasp. "You knew! You were there! How could you just let…" Hiding her eyes beneath a trembling hand, the Conqueror tried to regulate her breathing, fearing she’d go mad with this final betrayal.

"If you cannot deny your warrior ways, then you must modify them."

The Conqueror’s eyes flashed red-hot. "I’ve done nothing but change…and look where it’s gotten me!"

The Empress picked at a bit of non-existent fluff on the sleeve of her silk robe, resettled the sash at her waist and then fixed the warrior with a cold gaze. "Tell me what you want, Xena?"

Many things filled the warrior’s mind at that moment, but all of them involved thoughts and images that had the Empress almost reeling as she felt them beetling over her heart. As much good as the bard had accomplished, there was still so much darkness, so much pain and inner hatred in the woman. She doubted that would ever change.

Xena tried to fill her lungs and voice her displeasure at her current well being, or lack thereof, but only succeeded in causing a rather unpleasant fit of coughing. A tiny drop of blood was smeared along the point of her chin as she finally regained her composure. The baleful look she threw at the Oriental was a mixture of rage, pain and terrible anguish. Lao Ma’s breath caught as she watched the warrior struggle with her words.

"I want you...to stop the pain."

The Oriental fought to keep the surprise from her face. "You have known pain all of your life, Xena. I have seen you endure pain many times and yet not once in your life as a mercenary did you not face it - embracing it willingly."

Xena probed a bloody hole in the back of her jaw and looked away. Her youth had been spent suturing more than one mistake, and although it had taken quite a bit before she'd learned the lessons life as a budding warlord would offer, she had...finally. It wasn't that she was thick headed, although that was arguable, and it wasn't that she enjoyed the pain, although that too had a ring of truth to it; it had more to do with her living life as it came...good, bad or indifferent - life was a banquet to be savoured and enjoyed. By the time the feast had ended, she and pain were well acquainted.

'Feast has ended.' Xena ran a shaking hand over her swollen legs and although every breath and every movement was almost too much to bear, she knew that Lao Ma was wrong - she'd never endured a beating such as this. But that wasn’t the point, was it? After feeling the total hatred of a man she’d once been very willing to endure, his despicable ways very much like her own, she’d found herself questioning their differences. Were there any to be found? Would she have done the very same thing were the circumstances more in her favour than his?

A kernel of magma began to blossom as she contemplated those very thoughts. While her hatred of Dagnine had been great, it hadn’t been all encompassing. Yes, she had wished him dead and had certainly taken no small bit of comfort knowing that it was by her hand that he was sent to the Underworld, but take the time and patience to form an alliance with Rome and create a contest that required neither strength nor endurance thereby discounting its very nature because she had purged him of any hopes his advances would be welcome? A bit of something dark was added to the magma as the warrior contemplated the very nature of betrayal. There had been so much in her life that it was commonplace, a tool she was well acquainted with.

Xena lay there pondering the very audacity of the man. Not only had he presumed himself worthy of her affections but had assumed that she would have been open to such attention. No, as twisted and grotesque, both in mind and spirit, as the Lieutenant had been he wasn’t even worth the time or effort required to plan any more fitting a death than he had already endured. Her lips tightened as she thought of the surprised look he’d worn, all but assured that a half-dead unarmed woman would be easy prey, to find that cold steel was the only cold comfort he’d ever get from that quarter.

How could she convince this intuitive woman that it was death she wanted so very badly? "Look at me, Lao Ma; I am old and feeble and broken in too many places. All the kings horses and all the kings men..." A smile twisted her features again.

"There was a time when only you could put Xena together again, my friend. I think those days have passed." The Empress paused and then took a large but battered hand into her own. "Why do you wish oblivion from the one who holds your heart? It will take time but you will mend."

"I don't want mend, Lao Ma!" She groaned as the pain shot through her chest. Pressing a hand to the plaster covering the hole, Xena drew a slow thready breath. Although the pain had been excruciating, she had insisted on personally directing the surgeon as he re-inflated her lung. Keeping her ribs from reacquainting themselves with the tender flesh of her chest cavity was going to be difficult...but if she was forced to...

An eyebrow raised and Lao Ma pursed her lips. "Ah, the great and powerful Lord Xena wishes more than a temporary haven from the pain? Tell me, Xena, why you believe I would help you change your destiny? While our paths have always been entwined, this is not the way. Your destiny..."

The warrior pushed the blankets from the litter and glared up into the passive face of the Empress. "You say you know my destiny...if you did, then why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you warn me that Caesar would move on me, that Dagnine would grow balls and ally with him, and why not warn me about a mere slip of a girl who would bring down my very empire?"

A shadow passed over the Oriental's face and Xena's jaw dropped open in surprise. "It was you who put those dreams of her into my head! But…but why?"

"It was foretold that you would find your peace in another’s pain. For a very long time, I believed that only through the suffering of a kingdom could you achieve your true destiny, as dark as that might be. I misread the future, Xena. Your destiny lies in the pain of this woman, this slave who would love you despite your dark nature."

Xena eased her shoulders a bit and then rolled her eyes skyward. "You always were inscrutable, weren’t you? Can’t you just say what you mean and get on with it?"

The Empress tapped a front tooth and wondered just how far the Conqueror had gotten with the little bit of patience she had.

"Only Gabrielle could reach past the pain and bring you into the light. Your acceptance of her pain as your own has allowed you accept what you were and become what you truly are." She turned as Quan Su came out of his tent.

"Empress, the visitors have arrived."

"Ah, good."

Xena narrowed her eyes. "What kind of visitors? Unless you’ve got what remains of Dagnine to nail up for the crows, I’m not interested in being the afternoon’s entertainment."

Lao Ma cocked an eyebrow and quashed a sudden urge to shake the woman until her teeth rattled. "Must everything be about you, Xena? Have you no interest in what has befallen your men, your servants, or…"

"Of course I have. But I know you woman, you’d have bypassed this entire scene of skullduggery and told me had they been killed straight away. All this verbal sparring has done is waste time…something I have precious little of these days."

"I have grown tired of this talk of death, Xena. You have many years ahead of you, years of health and happiness. I won’t listen to any more of this nonsense."

Xena smirked as the woman turned away. Taking a shuddering breath, she continued. "Oh, yes you will. I can see how those cute little ears perk up as you run those long skilled fingertips through my affairs. You’ve had a hand in all of this from the very first. Damn me for not seeing it before. Destiny be damned, it’s been you who have orchestrated this whole thing, from beginning to end." She watched the set of the woman’s face.

"Tell me, Lao Ma. How much has been foretold and how much has been simply your meddling? You foreign women of intrigue seem to revel in games involving the mind and the heart. Tell me you aren’t gaining any satisfaction from seeing me beaten almost to death, my realm shattered beyond repair, and the once proud warrior I was reduced to that of a piece of dung. Tell me."

Lao Ma released a slow measured breath. "It’s like old times with us, isn’t it Xena? We’ve always approached each other as if we were some fierce jungle cats, hissing and spitting, when all we wanted was to lie in the sun and be worshipped. We are of a kind, you and I. We must be hard as a defense against our soft nature. But what we perceive to be a weakness is in reality the very strength that drives us forward."

Xena rolled her eyes again. "More talk of love. Tell me, Lao Ma, what do you know of love? You certainly never loved your husband and yet you stayed with him. He treated you like dirt before your marriage was arranged and that never changed. Lao Tsu…"

"…Was a man of great foresight, Xena. He had grand plans for Chin, plans that unfortunately became corrupt as he was entangled in court intrigue."

She looked off into the distance for but a moment and then resettled her steady gaze on the woman before her. "Yes, I have known love. One had great potential, Xena; potential that was not fully realized. Although filled with visions of peace and prosperity for our Province, the quest for power became all-consuming, reducing a fine mind and spirit to that of a monster. And yet my dreams for him never wavered."

"You’ve been slowly killing him for years, Lao Ma. Who rules Chin now?"

Tucking her small feet beneath her, the Empress sat a little off to the side quietly, running her long dainty fingers through the ruined grass. "Lao Tsu was the first man I fell in love with. He was a ruthless tyrant, a truth I came to see before too long, but one that I was blind to for many years. He had so much potential, Xena, and I had so much hope for him." The Empress remembered the brash young nobleman he’d been, filled with promise and an eager heart. Although she had not been his first wife, Lao Tsu had honoured her family by taking her as a secondary wife. A smile tickled at the corner of her mouth. There had been good times in their union…once upon a time. The Empress blinked the images of her youth away and then smiled.

"My love for him was so great that I took the very thing that seduced him: power. Without this craving went his need for violence and control. When that was gone, all that was left was a man well aware of his own limitations. Lao Tsu had outgrown his own boundaries of sanity. Many think I have been poisoning him for years, taking the reins from him gradually until he was nothing but a shell. How could this be true when I loved him, and love him still? No, Lao Tsu was a brilliant man whose forte was best employed on the battlefield. Easily corrupted, his visions for peace became visions of domination at any cost. Why would I use a difficult and painful method when simple coercion was the key?"

The Conqueror pretended to yawn. Everyone did whatever it was they needed to do to achieve their own ends. It was an age-old story, and one she had helped write on more than one occasion.

Lao Ma expelled a slow breath, the only sign of her mounting frustration as she noted the warrior’s focus wavering. Moving closer to take the woman’s larger hand, she waited until Xena’s gaze was locked with her own. "He wished a realm filled with those he could control and dominate. I gave him the life he lusted for."

"You wove a fabric of dreams and illusions, didn’t you?" Shaking her head slowly, Xena pulled her hand away. "Your vision of love isn’t love at all; just another type of control."

"I am what I need to be, Xena, nothing more." Lao Ma held the warrior’s gaze in a show of mutual understanding. Yes, they were of a kind.

Quan Su blinked. While he had been a manservant for Lao Ma for many years, this news of her husband was startling to say the least. He shifted his gaze from one woman to another. Both wore masks from which they could control those around them. Was there any difference between them? He felt as if a warm invisible hand was stroking his face and looked down to see the Empress wearing a gentle smile.

"It is true, my friend. Of course I feel unfettered and free after many years of wearing the yoke of ‘concubine’, living the life of a pariah, and then enduring the growing sorrow of watching my husband being manipulated. While he saw me as nothing more than a possession, I became his only friend; by taking his power am I ensuring his legacy." She paused, and then reached out a hand to the old man who helped her to her feet.

"He’s dead, then?"

The Empress nodded. "He suffered an attack of some sort a year ago and remained in a coma until only recently. Although there are those who oppose it, my ascension to the throne has been met with little resistance. It has taken me years of example to show that a mere ‘wife’ can be of great importance. While I have never truly wished to exchange that title for ‘Empress’, there is little I can do about what the Fates have decreed." Nodding her thanks to the man, she threw the warrior a weak smile as she adjusted her robe.

"You are the only woman I have ever loved and my love for you would have been all encompassing had it been allowed to flourish…but it would have consumed us both in the end. My destiny lies as Empress of Chin and yours lies in the hands of another."

Xena sneered and darted her tongue out to lick at the coppery taste dotting the corner of her mouth. She took a moment to gather her strength and then launched into what she hoped would be a decisive – final – campaign. "You think you know me as well as you know yourself, Lao Ma. I think you’re wrong." She focused on the old man by the woman’s side.

"I’m not a nice person, she’d be the first to tell you. Why, I remember holding her down for hours, piercing that veil of inscrutability until she screamed." Xena smiled a secret smile as a faint blush fluttered across the woman’s high cheekbones.

"You thought you could change me…you couldn’t. Neither can Gabrielle…not completely. Can’t you see how much pain I’ll cause her? Any goodness she has in her will be rung out, droplet by droplet, until there’s very little left that resembles the sweet innocent she is."

Quan Su placed a hand on the litter as it wobbled on the struts it had been placed on.

"I am not an innocent either, Lord Xena. I have heard many tales, both good and bad, but I know you are wrong. While everyone, even my mistress, would be pleased to lie back and enjoy the fruits of life they have struggled for and earned, it would be of no use to deny what destiny has in store for them. My mistress says that you have changed. Even the rock must wear the brunt of the raging river in order to remain. While you are the rock Lao Ma is the raging water. Her destiny is to restore a country still ill at ease with its own grandeur and ignorance. Yours,"

He paused as the warrior began to struggle into a sitting position.

"Yours lies in rebuilding a life on the foundation of truth."

Lao Ma nodded and patted the man’s shoulder. "Yes, the time of the barbarian is almost over, Xena. While you achieved much by use of violence and degradation, it is time to move on." She pursed her lips. "And you do have many skills, my Warrior Princess. You will adapt. Your future might still include ruling with an iron fist, but the velvet encasing it will ensure your place in history. Do not run from your destiny, Xena…embrace it. Embrace her."

Quan Su bowed as two figures pushed through the flaps of the main tent.

"Godsbedamn you, Lao Ma…not like this…" she said, recognizing the ‘visitors’.

Ubris darted forward as the warrior attempted to roll out of the litter. "Sire! You mustn’t."

Xena gritted her teeth as the pain increased with every movement. Her eyelids fluttered as her ribs grated against bone and soft tissue. ‘Gods,’ she thought pitifully. ‘I’ll be reduced to a mewling sop in no time. Give me a sword and let me die as I’d always planned.’ She chuckled coldly. ‘Mind you, that was my second choice.’ Making love endlessly to some ravishing beauty beneath her had been first, of course. However, both seemed to be slightly out of her reach in her current state. The thought of giving up what little control she still possessed was totally abhorrent to her. At this juncture in her life when everything had been taken from her, she would have some say as to how she lived out her life…or didn’t.

"Their presence won’t deter me, Lao Ma. I’ll not lie here one second longer…if you won’t help me, then I’ll find a way to do it myself." Her jaw twitched as the Egyptian began to cry softly. Casting an imploring look at her Lieutenant, she tried to gain an ally.

"You more than anyone, Andros, should understand why I can’t…" She sighed mightily.

"Look at me, I’m a ruination of what I once was. No more is there the valiant, strong, and fearless Conqueror who rides at the head of every battle." The words caught in her throat, the memories of what was tormenting her. "She is no more. Even if I had the best physicians attending me, it would take me a good 13 months to get back on my feet and during that time I’ll be the easiest mark any warlord would want to have." She glared at her Lieutenant. "I won’t be molly coddled, people bending and scraping for me, doing the things I can no longer do! I’d drive everyone away with my demanding disposition. And Gabrielle…I couldn’t stand seeing her suffer under my temper." She looked over to her servant. "She’d grow to hate me, Ubris. You can see that, can’t you? I’m very demanding and a terrible patient, too, I admit it."

A cough rattled her bruised frame and Ubris brought a water skin to her lips. Xena drank a few drops and then leaned back onto the bundle of rags she lay upon.

Andros moved a weak hand over his face. Seeing such a force of nature reduced to this broken mass before him was terribly hard to grasp. "I will help you in any way I can, my Lord …you must know that."

The Conqueror peered through one bloody eye and managed a weak smile. "Why won’t you do this for me, Andros? You've been more of a friend to me than I could be for you...and more than I ever deserved." She coughed painfully and both friend and servant moved a little closer.

Ripping a section of her ruined shift, Ubris knelt beside the litter and began to tend to the woman. "You have been injured very badly, my Lord. It will take many more rags than I can make in order to tend you." She darted a look at the old man and he smiled, nodded, and then left.

"Andros…will you hold this?" Ubris frowned as the man made no attempt to acknowledge her request. Her eyes darted back and forth between the two warriors, each silently pleading for mercy, and then she sighed. She felt a tingling across her scalp and looked up into the very warm and kind eyes of the Empress. ‘All will be well.’ Ubris swallowed a sob and fervently wished that it would be so.

Andros finally released his breath and then, stumbling with emotion blurted out, "I am a true friend, sire, but I don’t know what you ask of me." Each wound was noted by his subconscious but the Lieutenant kept pushing the truth away. If he just didn’t look too closely…’If only I could have been there for her.’

He cleared his throat and then grasped both hands behind his back. The effort caused him to wince. Xena skewed her jaw painfully and studied the Lieutenant more closely. His clothing was dotted with stains of red here and there, and one hand was heavily bandaged.

"You have always been loyal, Andros. Everything I have ever asked of you…" Andros stared her in confusion.

The Conqueror’s features twisted as her efforts in using their friendship to gain an end she sorely desired fell short. Wiping the sweat from her brow, she held her servant’s hand for a moment and then spoke. Her voice was rather unsteady but she continued on, despite her deepening state of fatigue.

"Thank you for saving Ubris. I don’t know how you escaped the castle; I wasn’t even aware security had been breeched until…" The fierce grip on her hand had the Egyptian shuddering. "Were there many loses?"

Andros wiped his nose and then nodded. "Yes sire, on both sides, but I fear it isn’t the last we’ll see of Caesar."

"Ah, the Romans. Yes, and what of our two guests? Were they spirited back to Rome to await an audience with the grand and imperious Julius Caesar?"

"No sire. There is little remaining of either Flavius or Cassias. It seems his Tribune had a little score to settle with one of them and had orders on how to deal with the other."

Xena nodded. "Were there enough survivors to rally against them or was the battle a complete loss?"

Andros blinked the tears of shame from his eyes and looked away. "Christo was badly wounded, but Polis…"

Xena felt her breath catch. ‘Oh no…’

"What of Polis? Tell me."

A bit of steel crept back into the man’s voice as he began detailing one or two of the more victorious skirmishes. And then his smile faltered.

"You would have been proud, Lord Xena. The man fought like a lion, taking many down with him, but in the end…the enemy forces were too great. His wounds are grievous, sire, and I fear he shall not survive them."

So many men lost. Xena felt her emotions very close to the surface and willed them back down. ‘Now was not the time for blubbering’, she thought, but the truth was that at that very moment part of her wished she could do that very thing. And although there was a fierce war going on inside, Xena was determined not to give in. If she did, wasn’t it akin to admitting that Dagnine had won, that he’d broken her and reduced her to being nothing more than a fragile woman who now knew her place?

She glanced at Lao Ma as the Oriental closed her eyes in concentration. Suddenly, the urge to hyperventilate subsided and Xena was able to gather her defenses. She was never a mewling child, never a petulant teen, and certainly not a weak teary-eyed adult. She was just feeling…defenseless…right now. It would pass…after she healed…if she healed.

Everything she had fought for and gained over the years – all of it gone? The once feared and mighty warlord and her army who bent the will of a nation scattered by a handful of Romans in a sneak attack?

"Were there no pockets of resistance, Andros? How many attempts to regain the castle were there?"

Ubris’ lips were white as she fought to keep her tongue.

"And what of the treasury? Have we been totally burned out and ransacked?"

The Egyptian finally threw a sodden rag down and got to her feet. "Many risked their lives to come to your aid, Lord, and many died. While the castle can be rebuilt, the slaves and servants who have been with you for many years cannot."

"Those that were able took up arms against the Romans, sire, but we didn’t have a chance." The Lieutenant’s determination seemed to vanish and he stood there with shoulders slumped. "I tried, Lord Xena. But every time...we were beaten back. Ubris showed me where the underground tunnels were and we tried..." His hand gripped the hilt of his sword. Andros looked stricken and for a moment the Conqueror felt humbled. How could she think ill of such a man? It was clear by his very appearance that he’d done everything possible. She used to be so good at judging a situation, and yet lately had failed at every turn.

Ubris squeezed the Lieutenant’s arm tightly and Xena winced as a smile played across her broken lips. ‘Could it be that you’re happy at last, my friend?’

However, the good Lieutenant misread her attempted smile and flinched thinking the Conqueror was in pain. Looking over at the Empress beseechingly, her response left him none the wiser. She just steepled her fingers beneath her chin then shook her head slowly and smiled benevolently. Approaching the litter, she began rearranging the blankets around her wounded charge.

"Of course you tried, Andros; I wouldn’t expect anything less," Xena grumbled before pushing the busy hands away from her. "But perhaps you and the men should have cut your losses? After all, even I didn’t know I’d survive." Xena pulled the blanket down and examined the plaster covering her chest wound. "And who knows, perhaps I won’t." She clenched her teeth as the Lieutenant took a step backwards as if her words had been a physical blow. "You have to know when to quite the field, after all."

Ubris recognized the look in the Conqueror’s eyes; the one she had when coming to a final decision. She clutched at the Lieutenant’s arm, willing him to say something, anything, to pull the warrior out of her funk. While there had been days when Lord Xena’s melancholy was particularly deep, Ubris had never known her to be so…resolute in her depression. It was almost as if she were reveling in her choice. Self-pity and despair were certainly not things one would equate with the Conqueror. No, it was almost as if…

Ubris locked eyes with the Empress and felt her insides quiver in fear as her thoughts were confirmed. Yes, the Lord had truly decided that it would be best for everyone if she just…died. The thought caused the Egyptian’s knees to wobble and she tottered against the Lieutenant, who pulled her aside and then sat her gently on the grass. He frowned as the woman began a low keening wail. A few words were whispered into his ear and then he rose to face the Lord.

"My Lord Xena, how can you possibly even consider such a thing seriously?" Setting his jaw, Andros gazed at the Conqueror with such intensity that it was she who dropped her eyes first. "There is something more important here than your pride, Xena," he said, the hurt evident in his tone. "There have been men who’ve died for you, men who have gone willingly into the breach, doing so for the sheer honour of protecting their sworn liege." The tension was palpable as he stood glaring down at the Conqueror. Although his voice still held a note of respect, there was a decidedly pinched look to his face that was contorted by the tendons racing up either side of his neck.

Xena’s raised her eyes slowly and Andros flinched. "It has very little to do with pride, Andros, and everything to do with…duty."

The Lieutenant unclenched his fists and then sighed deeply. "But sire, surely you know what peril you’d put this realm in, let alone the rest of Greece, were you to suddenly…disappear."

Xena’s lips were a thin line as the muscles bulged in her jaw.

"And what of Caesar?" he continued. "Without your connection with the other rulers nearby, we’d be ripe for the picking, sire."

Placing both hands against her temples, the Conqueror squeezed her eyes shut and lay back on the litter, determined not to lose this battle. A soft hand could be felt on her cheek, and a tear squeezed through to run down the Conqueror’s cheek. The sweet melodious tones of her former lover pulled at her determination.

"Oh, Xena; this facade you wear grows too small and far too cumbersome. Would you not have fought Hades himself to rescue either one of these friends? Their acts of bravery are more than mere tokens of fealty. Loyalty and duty are indeed precious and worthwhile but love and friendship are the keys to all the treasure we seek."

Lao Ma was in the midst of turning her attention back to the Lieutenant when the Conqueror began to speak in a clear and very concise voice.

"You don’t understand, any of you. I’ve lived most of my life at the beck and call of others, doing their dirty work. Of course, I promoted myself along the way, but as a warlord that’s to be expected. I never wanted any close ties, taking my pleasure whenever and where ever I found it." She looked at Lao Ma. "I couldn’t see the gifts offered then and I don’t deserve them now. All I have left now is the duty I feel for Gabrielle; this is my destiny. I can’t let her hopes and dreams be destroyed waiting for me to become something I’m not nor ever could be."


A small hand wiped at the eyes clouded over by tears and then Gabrielle let the tent flap fall back into place.

She fingered the fine silk robe that had been left for her and wiggled her toes in the strange footwear. She had enjoyed food and comfort from the Empress of Chin and had been left to rest while certain preparations had been made. Now she knew what they were and could see that this whole scene had been orchestrated just for her.

It broke her heart to think that someone as strong willed as the Conqueror would ever believe that her life had such little meaning; that any goodness she had a hand in paled beside the belief that only her death could make the difference. But what was any final sacrifice to the greater good compared to the promised future they were sure to have? Wouldn’t a leader who knew first hand the error of blind justice through violence serve the greater good best?


A gentle sigh escaped the Empress’ lips and she slowly turned to face her tent.

"Your destiny has arrived."

It was as if every stone and every bit of mortar Xena had managed to shore up against her emotions crumbled and lay at the feet of the woman who now made her way closer.

Pressing a cool cloth to the Lord’s face and neck, Gabrielle finally let loose the sob she’d been holding.

"I thought…I’d been told you were dead."

"Dagnine thought I was. He sent his men to finish the job, but I fooled them into believing the task had already been done," Xena rasped through dry, cracked lips.

"I dreamt of your crucifixion. I…I could see it clearly, Xena. Conqueror," she corrected herself.

Xena lifted her hand a few inched off the litter, her teeth gritted against the pain, and then sighed in relief as Lao Ma pressed two fingers against her side and then against the bones in her neck.

"I think we are passed that, little one. I remember the first time you spoke my name, your tongue wooly with delirium. You spoke of your Xena. The ice within my heart began to shatter then, I think." Her laugh was brittle. "I was angry at your comparison, you see. I could never be that woman you spoke of…"

Lao Ma took the large and battered hand into her own, eyes clear and bright, and then placed a gentle kiss on Xena’s palm. "But you will be, Xena. It just took a little bit of influence to make you see the light and walk the path you were born to."

Gabrielle gasped as a knowing look came into her eyes. "You put me under a spell, bewitching me with dreams…" Her voice stilled as the warrior completed the sentence.

"…and with unrealistic hopes."

"The truth came to me in a dream, my friend. Your suffering has been so great these past years, growing unchecked as the evil influences increased about you, twisting you into that which you were never meant to be." She turned to face the young woman and smiled. "They were not dreams, Gabrielle. What I showed you was your future - together." Her heart seemed to expand as she watched the shadows leave the Conqueror’s eyes.

Xena’s astonishment was complete; although she felt totally manipulated by her old friend, she was pleased to see that the effort to get her to this point in time had not been in vain. Shaking her head, the Conqueror marveled at the persistence of the woman: to have waited patiently behind the scenes, manipulating pieces as if on a chessboard. Arching an eyebrow, Xena smiled; she had learned from the best, it seemed.

It was then that the truth of Lao Ma’s words hit her and she shook as if from a palsy. Xena reached a hand out tentatively to both women who smiled and held on to her tightly. A small bit of hope began to kindle in the warrior’s heart. If what Lao Ma had said was true…

It was only the beginning.




The End

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‘Bold Truth,’ ©ArdentTly, 052100, Chapter One

‘Sweet Deceit’ ©ArdentTly, 062400, Chapter Eight

‘Tyrannical Trysts’ ©ArdentTly, 073100, Chapter Twelve

‘Unchained’ ©ArdentTly 112700, Chapter Eighteen

‘Judgment’ ©ArdentTly 010601, Chapter Twenty
’Hands’ ©ArdentTly 011101, Chapter Twenty-One

‘Harvest’ ©ArdentTly 022201, Chapter Twenty-Three