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The Conqueror Series

Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand

LJ Maas

Chapter 16: The First Day's Night Had Come…

I sit at my desk and write by candlelight, copper-colored shadows jumping at one another on the walls of my study. It feels strange to sit and write in unfamiliar surroundings. Although this is our home, here in Athens, it is not Corinth. It is not truly home. Funny, I never really thought of our castle by the sea as home before. Rather, before Gabrielle.

How odd that I cannot sleep when my body feels more tired than it has in seasons. Gabrielle and I took advantage of having the luxury of the large marble baths in our own home. I had bruises and cuts over most of my body and Gabrielle's beautiful body had not fared much better. Seeing her battered in such a way struck at my heart like a needle piercing my chest. She was not a warrior and had not deserved to be placed in that position. She would cuff me for that remark, I'm sure. Gabrielle has become so much more than even she is able to see. She will always stand up for her right to be my equal partner and I will continually do all that is within my power to see that she is kept safe. We are both aware of the other's feelings and would have it no other way.

Gabrielle and I had talked until the candles burned down to shallow bowls of melted wax, each of us feeling that the events of the past few days couldn't wait. It came as no surprise that she was mildly peeved at my having so many protections in place for her. Between myself and the parchment I write upon, I think she was merely unnerved with the fact that I knew she would do exactly as she had.

Gabrielle's hand slapped into my midsection hard enough to elicit a soft grunt.

"I can't believe you had nearly the entire Amazon Nation spying on me!"

I tried to get out of the situation with charm, realizing too late that I had never really mastered the art of subtlety. "Only because you mean more to me than life itself, little one." Gods, would she think that as trite as it did to my own ears?

She looked at me full on. For a quick heartbeat I thought she was going to accept my remark, especially when I added what I thought was an equally charming and soulful look. I waited, still hopeful.

"You didn't really think that line was going to work, did you?"

"No, not really," I answered. "I lost you with the 'more than life itself' part, didn't I?"

"I think so," she responded quickly.

We laughed and fell into an embrace that meant more to me than winning any battle.

"Are you really angry?" I asked.

"I feel as though some small part of me should at least be indignant, but mostly I feel loved and protected."

"I think you should go with that part." I grinned.

"I'll just bet you do."

It is nearly dawn, and I have spent my time at this desk writing an account of the battle. Gabrielle…that girl. Just before sleep took her this evening, she said, in a most excited voice, that Periander would insist on an account of the battle for the Athenian archives.

Many of my soldiers would not sleep until the following day. Perhaps that is what has been niggling at my brain, causing my sleeplessness. The fleet would stay on alert, many of the ships trailing some distance from the Persians to ensure that Darius was truly headed home. For all the men and women who had joined the wild ride and marched back to Athens with me, I ordered the taverns and the baths open at the Empire's expense. The town would be alive on such a night after the battle, anyway, and these soldiers deserved what little enjoyment I could provide them. Even from our home, high atop the hills outside of the city proper, I could hear cheers with my name attached to them, flying in upon the breeze.

I may have led our troops to battle, but most of Athens would never know that it was Gabrielle who kept them from war. I plan to ask Livia, Periander, and Ephiny to scribe their accounts of what went on in my absence. First, there are spaces where Gabrielle was injured or unavailable. Secondly, I wanted to be sure that an account of Gabrielle's exploits to save Athens went into the official record. I wanted it there for all to see that she had truly become Queen to the Empire, as jealous and protective of her people and country as I.

I also studied the scrolls that Atrius and Militiades provided of battle statistics. Messengers sent the scroll to me after the moon had risen high in the sky. I wondered if my two officers even went home to their wives before filling out the report. When the fighting was finished, 9600 Persians lay dead on the plain of Marathon. Unbelievably, only 192 Greek soldiers died in the encounter. Against amazing odds, we defeated an army twice our size. Incredibly brave men and women all had followed me into battle and still the Empire remained intact.

The dead would be honored in a ceremony the very next day. I made a decision, sitting there reading the numbers of the battle. Greek tradition dictated that any who fell in battle had their bones interred in the public sepulcher. The crypt stood in a suburb of Athens called Cerameicus.

I wished to honor these brave men and women in some special way. They fought for their land against an army of much greater size. They followed me, some to their death, because they believed in the Empire and they believed in me. I spent some time sketching some rather crude drawings of what I had in mind. I was no artist, but I knew that the artisans employed by the Empire could make something out of it. My idea had been to erect ten columns out on the Plain of Marathon, one for each of the tribes that fought. The names of the slain would then be carved into the columns.

"Xena?" Gabrielle's sleepy voice startled me. I never even heard her enter the room.

"Sorry, little one, I was lost to my thoughts."

"I can see that."

She walked stiffly to where I sat and curled up in my lap.

"This makes writing a tad difficult," I said, not really minding at all.

"Good. You should be sleeping, not working."

"Yes, mother. How about you, does your back hurt, you're walking funny."

"My hip, actually. I think the muscle's just sore or tight. It'll loosen itself out once I'm up in the morning."

"Here, move this way." I slowly massaged the area. "I hate to break this to you, love, but it's already morning."

"Oh, no you don't. Today, it's not morning until I say so. There ought to be some benefit to being Queen. I'm sore in places I didn't know I could be sore."

I chuckled at her behavior, especially since she had begun to purr like a kitten from the massage she was receiving.

"Mmmm, magic fingers," she murmured.

My desire for this woman rose up unexpectedly. It felt most welcome and even though I knew they neither of us had the stamina at this point for a lovemaking session, I couldn't help but go for the attempt.

"Let's go back to bed," I said as I stood and gathered Gabrielle in my arms. "Let me show you precisely what these magic fingers can do."

I was sure that we were both so bruised and fatigued from the past few days that once I laid Gabrielle gently on her feet inside our bedchamber, we would go to bed and merely hold one another for what was left of the rest of the night. Early on in our relationship, Gabrielle had introduced me to the pleasure of cuddling. From the first, I knew I would enjoy it. The physical contact without sex was indeed new to me, but I admitted, if only to myself, that there was something to it. I never told a soul, not even Gabrielle, that the very day after my first evening's cuddling experience I walked into Aphrodite's temple and left her an armful of the finest roses from my private garden.

Now who would have thought that nothing more than the sweet scent of her breath so close to me would send me into such a tailspin? The whole world narrowed until there was only this woman before me. Nothing else in life existed for me. The ache between my legs, the one that normally hit me immediately after an intense battle, struck me with a delayed sort of vengeance. I leaned down and kissed my wife in a way that she could not possibly mistake for anything other than what it was. It was my, I need you and I need you now kiss.

Gabrielle pulled back and those beautiful emerald eyes sparkled up at me. There was something different in her gaze, something that stoked the flames of my passion further and yet, unsettled me at the same time. It took a heartbeat for me to realize that the expression in my wife's eye was actually a reflection. It was the same libidinous fire that burned hotly from my own look of need.

Gabrielle's eyes held the passionate haze of the battlefield. It didn't matter that she hadn't fought at Marathon. She had faced, and been victorious over, Hades in more subtle ways over the last few days. I doubted whether she was even aware of what it was that now held its sway over her, but I knew. I felt it myself, but had a great deal more experience in expressing and even stifling the need. Battle lust came as an after effect from the struggle with life and death. In the past, when I had been victorious, the battle lust gave me powerful feelings and sensations that I could, indeed must, conquer anyone and everyone, to celebrate every physical aspect of being alive. The closer I had come to death, the more intense the emotions were. This was battle lust; only I had never seen it directed at me from another's eyes before. I saw it, but damned if it didn't make me want her even more.

"Yes...I want you, too," she responded softly to my unspoken thought.

I couldn't hold back any longer and I pulled her into my arms and slammed the door shut behind us, dropping the latch. Something about why I shouldn't make love to Gabrielle came to me, but suddenly I couldn't remember why. It became very hard to remember anything when my skilled lover had her tongue in my mouth and her hand pressed between my legs. I had my back up against the door as I prepared to be taken by my feral young Queen while I was still standing. This wasn't how it usually went at all, was it? In fact, I couldn't even remember the last time I'd taken a woman in the throes of a good case of battle lust. Good Gods, the things we think about when being pleasured.

"Oh Gods," I groaned.

My head slammed against the heavy wooden door as I groaned in a mixture of pleasure and relief. The pounding ache at my center had turned into a fiery need and Gabrielle's fingers were taking the edge off it quite nicely. Gabrielle never stopped the motion of her hand and the slow fuck brought me quickly to, first one and then another climax. By the time I reached the third, my knees felt like melting wax.

I usually ended up leading the way when feeling the power of battle lust. It was, after all, about control and power. Suddenly, though, it was as if my psyche lay between my legs and some other highly sensitized parts of my body. Perhaps that was why, when Gabrielle slid to her knees between my legs, I not only didn't stop her, I encouraged her. There was no pretense, no teasing arousal. Gabrielle was a smart woman and I'm sure she could see that my need went far beyond foreplay at this very moment. On the other side of that coin was that she was going through her own fitful need. The thought of Gabrielle struggling against something she didn't know or understand gave me pause.

I managed to remember why I was so damned voracious. "Gabrielle...love...I think we might...maybe both of us...be suffering from a bit of battle lust," I managed to say between pants. "Understand? I mean, what it is...what it could be doing to you? I'd...I'd hate to think we were just--"

She moved closer to me, watching her own fingers as they played in my wetness. I admit, I was rather mesmerized by the sight myself.

"Does this battle lust suddenly make me feel like taking you, again and again, until you can't walk? Wanting to hear you scream my name until you have no voice left? Is it why I suddenly feel like doing things to you instead of with you?"

My whole body began to tremble in my attempt to push down the sensations that swept through it at her words. The effort at controlling my desires won until Gabrielle placed a gentle hand on my thigh. With a quickness that I had grown to envy, she jabbed at that perfect spot between labia and leg. My clit was on fire and I nearly fell to the floor. I believe the only thing that kept me upright was my pride. I just nodded in answer to her query.

"And, would there be anything wrong with it if we continued?"

Gabrielle leaned her forehead against my abdomen and breathed in the powerfully arousing scent. She looked as though nothing would have pleased her battle-clouded libido more than ravishing me right there, but she held back, waiting for an answer.

"Warriors all overcome the battle lust with different methods." I was only able to slow down my breathing slightly, my words coming in short sentences. "For me it was always about sex. I wielded it as power. They grew tangled as one. I just...I just don't want either of us to get hurt. We might...well, might forget ourselves."

There, I'd said it. My entire being focused on my clit, but I gave Gabrielle the chance to stay or run with full knowledge of what could happen.

Gabrielle quickly lifted her head and leaned back on her heels. Just as quickly as it had come, the haze that clouded her eyes vanished. She was my wife once again, looking up at me as if she was merely asking me about the weather.

"Do you think that, Xena? That we could hurt each other, unconsciously in the grip of this?"

Had I ever thought that Gabrielle would hurt me? I admit, when she had me tied up, my own anxiety revealed my answer. Even worse, under the pull of the battle lust, either one of us might not be completely cognizant of who we were. Could I look into those emerald eyes, glazed over with carnality, and not express that fear?

The most important realization to date took shape in my brain. Gabrielle alone had the power to pull me back into myself, whether it was from my darkness or my own carnal desires. Our love had become the ideal weapon to sedate the beast, the beast in either of us. No, Gabrielle would never, could never, hurt me...even unconsciously.

"No," I shook my head as I spoke. "I don't think that would be possible, even lost to the battle lust." My answer changed my wife's demeanor in an instant.

"So then..." She smiled a most deliciously carnal smile. "You know that I would never hurt you...beyond what you like, that is."

I saw that lovely pink tongue spear out of her mouth and I could no longer think of taking, only being taken. I groaned and wrapped a hand into those golden locks. Pulling her head in the rest of the way, I situated her right where I needed her the most. The feeling, even the sound of her licking at my sex was extraordinary. I felt instant relief from the pounding ache that had been consuming me and within moments, I came.

Of course, just because I was finished rather quickly didn't mean my Queen intended to finish with me. Gabrielle continued to take in the abundant wetness between my thighs and I could no more have stopped her than I could have kept the night from descending. Legs and arms shaking, I finally had to beg to lie down.

I picked Gabrielle off the floor and placed her on the bed, covering her body with my own. I kissed the lips that had my own taste on them, and that started the fire burning all over again. I had always been amazed at how the battle lust seemed to make me insatiable.

"Tell me, my Queen, how would you like to be taken? Hard and fast? On the other hand, maybe you'd like it slow and torturous, tied down and at my mercy, my tongue teasing you until you beg me for release."

"Ohhh," Gabrielle groaned helplessly. Gone was her need to control. Her libido had taken over.

No part of my beautiful wife's body went untouched by my hands, my lips, and tongue. By the time I situated my shoulders between her legs, the silky undergarment she wore was soaked. I used the tip of my tongue to caress her all along the edges of the drenched garment and she shivered and pressed her hips toward my face.

Without further delay, I wrapped two fingers around the thin garment. With one strong tug, the material was in my hand and I tossed it to the floor. The scent that had previously been contained was now released and the fragrance of my wife's need just about undid me. I buried my face in that wetness, and ate and drank as if it was ambrosia and I a dying woman.

My hand found its way to my own center and I touched myself, circling and sliding my fingers across my own need in time to the rhythmic way Gabrielle's hips pushed against my tongue. When she sped up the movement of those thrusting hips, I increased the movement of my own fingers. Gabrielle's cry at her release was like music to my ears as I let myself go simultaneously.

I moved up to hold the still quivering woman of my heart. Gabrielle wrapped her legs around me tightly, which only served to press my mound against her own smoothly shaved flesh. That's all the encouragement I needed. I began a slow, sensual grind against already sensitive flesh.

"Oh Gods, yes," she murmured.

I smiled and kissed her again, our tongues only reminding us of the soft, wet flesh that pressed together further south. Gabrielle spread her thighs farther apart and I reached my hand down between us. Spreading my lips apart, I pressed into her again and we both immediately groaned at the feel of the silky wet folds.

"Don't stop," I pleaded, as my wife lifted and rocked her hips in counter rhythm to my own.

When we sped up our movement it happened as if we were one, both our minds linked much the same way as our flesh. I could feel her increasing wetness and I wrapped my lips around a very erect nipple, sucking harder when I felt the centers of our desire rubbing against one another.

We both climaxed in what seemed like a blinding flash. I lifted myself up onto my hands and pressed myself into Gabrielle firmly until I could feel her convulse against me as she came again. I groaned loudly at the feel of her trembling body and felt a warm rush of liquid flow from me at another release. I could feel my essence overflow onto Gabrielle, only to be swallowed up by her open sex.

I eased my body down and kissed Gabrielle's cheek. She wrapped her arms around me and we rearranged ourselves to snuggle against one another. I held her tight and closed my eyes, sighing deeply. It was a sound of contentment. Our session of battle lust had turned into nothing more than powerful lovemaking. The need to have absolute control, to even inflict pain, had disappeared. That surprised me more than anything else did, I suppose. I never knew that I could enjoy, actually desire, to be on the receiving end of this spell.

I realized that I had kept it hidden inside of me for so long. I had never been free before to even think the concept inside of my own head. Frankly, I had feared thinking of it. Now, there was Gabrielle and I knew that I would be safe. For the first time in my life, I felt free to experience the other side of power. How strange to learn, that after all these years, the Conqueror wanted nothing more than to be conquered.

I lifted her chin and kissed her, knowing that it would never be enough. One lifetime would simply never be enough in which to love this woman. I wanted to tell her so, tell her that I would stand by her for all eternity, and suffer any harm or ill for her. I would go anywhere; do anything, be anyone, just to be with her. All of this I wished I could say, but as usual, when she looked up at me with those sparkling emerald eyes, my tongue felt leaden and uncooperative. I said the only thing that really mattered anyway.

"I love you, Gabrielle."

"And I you, my Conqueror."

I smiled at the inconsistency of my title now, but Gabrielle would be the only one to ever know of that and I knew she would die before relating to anyone the activities that took place behind our bedchamber door.

Suddenly Gabrielle sat up, her body language telling me that our lovemaking had invigorated her rather than the opposite. "I'm hungry," she said.

I laughed until she smacked me in the stomach.

"Why are you laughing?" She asked as she feigned a pout.

"Because, my love. You are nothing if not predictable."

"Very funny."

"I'm feeling a bit famished myself."

"Where are you going?" She asked as I pulled on my dressing gown.

"I think that breakfast in bed is due us. I'll only be a moment."

It didn't take long to send word and have platters of fresh food sent from the kitchens. Gabrielle and I sat on a bed of cushions and pillows inside our bedchamber. We worked our way through two platters before we were completely sated. We spoke of many of the details from the past few days that we had either forgotten about or thought to put off until later.

"Some help Pan was," I said as we lounged upon our makeshift bed if cushions.

"What do you mean? He did everything he promised."

"Everything he promised? He didn't do a thing but flirt with you!"

"On the contrary, love. I see his handiwork all over the tale you told me about the battle."

"Okay, you're going to have to explain that thinking."

"Xena, you yourself told me that you didn't understand why the Persians broke ranks and became confused."

"That was at the end and I think it was because Darius had his fleet pull out, leaving half his soldiers there.

They saw that and they panicked. I still think that was what caused the pandemonium at the end."

"Xena, you admit the God's intervention by your very words." Gabrielle laughed at me and I honestly couldn't understand why.

"Are we looking at the same battle? I don't remember saying--"

"You said that the Persians panicked, that pandemonium broke out…" Gabrielle looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to catch her meaning.

"And you think--? Oh, no. Just because those words merely happen to start--no, Gabrielle, I don't believe it. Not until Pan himself tells me that yes, he did it; I will never believe something so outlandish."

Gabrielle simply laughed and I pouted. Not a flattering look on a Conqueror. It would take a lot more than a play of words to convince me, however, that Pan had indeed caused that moment of confusion that turned the battle in our favor.

Gabrielle and I sat at the head of a long table inside the large hall we had chosen to use to hold court. Advisors from within the city, those we knew and trusted, surrounded us around the table. It had turned into more of a judgment and sentencing arena. The hall resided within the same building as the city's archives, customarily used by the academic sector more than the political. Tall, slim alabaster columns formed the perimeter of the room. The roof of the building sloped upward to form a dome as opposed to the more common flat roofs. Beautiful and amazing Greek sculptures adorned the entire upper balcony

Four days had passed as we tried to make some sense of who did what and how we had ended up defending our shores against an attack that should never had been allowed to happen. Many were quick to point a finger in blame, but I needed more than that. Atrius and I, along with Militiades and a number of the Generals of the city, met over the course of two or three evenings to set some concrete military strategies in place.

I found myself in the uncomfortable position today of having to sentence those people who had conspired against the Empire in our most recent attempted rebellion. The easiest cases had been the mercenaries, the ones that the Amazons had left alive at any rate. Nearly all were soldiers for hire with no ties to Persia, other than a monetary bond. Some had records and magistrates around the Empire already sought them for a variety of crimes. For them it was to be prison. Many were quite surprised at my offer to join the Corinthian Army. They weren't all bad sorts and I judged them individually. They usually gave in to criminal activity because they were warriors with nowhere to go. When there were no wars to fight, they had no livelihood. Realizing that some of them went rogue because of past troubles following military authority, I chose Corinth to station them. We were slightly less stiff there and I knew that Atrius and his officers could turn any roughneck into a disciplined fighting man.

"I only know that my husband is dead and the Empire is responsible!" Lenora's voice carried throughout the hall.

"Your husband was killed in the act of attempting to take the Queen's life," I answered.

"I wasn't even there. I don't know why should be held accountable for crimes my husband committed."

We bowed our heads close together around the table.

"She makes a point," Daelus said. "Do we actually have any proof at all that Cleisthenes's wife was indeed a part of the conspiracy?"

"We're rather lacking of actual evidence," I added.

"But she lied about being from Persia!" Gabrielle complained.

"Yes," Tarien agreed. "The records show that Persia is indeed her birthplace, but so far no crime can be associated with that."

"He's right, Gabrielle. It's not a crime to be from Persia." I said.

"But, she--"

"We all know what she did, but the trouble is that without Cleisthenes here or even Lenora's confession, which doesn't seem as though it will be quick in coming, we have no solid proof that she was involved."

"I can't believe she's going to get away with this."

"What choice do I have? I can't very well throw an affluent woman of Athens into the dungeons. I mean, I suppose I could, but it wouldn't go over well. Is that what you want, Gabrielle…to see her in prison?" I asked.

It seemed important to Gabrielle, more so than the others sitting around the table, that Lenora pay for her part. I agreed with my wife, but I knew that this was one of those situations where we might have to acknowledge a game well played and let our adversary walk away. Gabrielle had such a sense of fair play about her that she hadn't yet realized that our enemies don't always receive what's coming to them. Then again, Gabrielle's desire for justice may have had something to with Lenora being Persian. I couldn't tell.

Gabrielle's face took on a strange expression after I asked her if she would prefer to see Lenora in prison. "I saw her," Gabrielle spoke as if thinking aloud. "I saw her with them." There was a faraway sound to her voice.

"Your Highness?" Tarien asked, looking at me.

"Gabrielle?" I laid a hand upon her forearm. I smiled when her eyes met mine. "I think you're scaring our advisors."

"Oh, I'm sorry." She looked around the table in embarrassment. "In answer to your question, My Lord, no, I don't want to see her in prison. What she did was unforgivable, but I was just remembering that I saw her with her children before all of this muddle began."

I watched Gabrielle's face and understood her sudden emotional musing. The largest part of Gabrielle's heart would always be reserved for children and this instance was no exception.

"She may be a traitor, a schemer, even a contemptible bitch, but from what I have seen, she is a good mother. Any goodness within her she reserves for her children and I hate to think of what they might endure should Lenora languish in a Greek jail."

The truth of Gabrielle's observation settled over the group and silence reigned. They knew that no matter what they recommended, no matter what observations they made, judgment and sentence of the accused was by my order. I had the feeling they were grateful for that fact.

"Bring the accused forward once again," I asked the guards.

"No matter that I have no eye witnesses as to your guilt, Lenora, please don't insult my intelligence by pleading your innocence. We're past that point." My voice was stern and Lenora's sudden silence told me that she had given up pretending to be blameless.

"But because you have a family I'm loathe to press the full punishment for your crime upon you."

Lenora looked me directly in the eye, a smirk evident on her face. I'm sure she thought she'd won.

"So, I'm caught in the middle of a major decision. I cannot send you to prison, yet I cannot possibly allow you to stay here in Greece."

"Wha--?" Lenora stood there with her mouth hanging open.

"For your own safety, of course."

"But…where am I to go?"

"I understand that you still have family in Persia. The Empire will offer you safe escort either to Persian shores or to your uncle's lands in the upper provinces of Thrace, near the Persian border. Under no circumstance, however," my voice turned as cold as I now felt, "will you ever return to this region of Greece."

Lenora turned one last evil glance Gabrielle's way before she spun around on one heel and left between the two guards who I had appointed to watch Lenora's activities until she was safely out of our realm.

"How was that?" I asked Gabrielle.

"You are as shrewd as you are prudent, My Conqueror."

I sat back in my chair quite proud of myself. The feeling had little to do with the solution I had devised for ridding us of Lenora. I sat back with a bit of an inflated sense of self due to one thing only. Gabrielle's praise.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," I addressed all those finally remaining in the hall after the ugliness of our work had been completed. "We take our leave now, but hope to see many of you tomorrow at the victory celebration."

The Empire was picking up the expense for a lavish dinner and party for family and friends in celebration of our victory over the Persians. We would also address the entire city in a ceremony to honor those slain in the battle at Marathon. It would be another long day for us and then Gabrielle and I, along with our party, would once again be on our way north. I had nearly forgotten the reason for our trip in the first place. I hadn't yet had time to examine any of my feelings about returning home. The remainder of our trip would prove interesting indeed.

"Your method of timekeeping is less than impressive, commander," I said to the Spartan leader before me.

"Our apologies fall short, Lord Conqueror, I am aware. We had to restrain many of our men with some force to keep them away from the battle. Our celebrations to Pan mean more than people are aware and we would have been faced with certain death and calamity if we'd fallen short in our respect of the God."

"I acknowledge your reason for missing the battle, Komotor, and while I don't understand it, I can respect it. Please accept my gratitude for the incredible march that you must have endured in order to reach here in such time. Let me also extend an invitation to your men to join in the celebration of our victory over the Persians."

The fact that two thousand Spartan spearmen had traveled 150 leagues over three days in order to make the trip here, was not lost on me. The Spartans would always be among my first choice for soldiers when the conditions were of the sort that ordinary men could not endure. Pious and a bit extreme in their ways, they lived a life from birth that turned the men into extraordinary soldiers.

"Our thanks, Lord Conqueror, but our men cannot take part in a celebration for which they did not contribute. I hope I have not offended you with these words."

He bowed to Gabrielle and I could see that her considerable charms had affected yet one more young soldier. I was more than surprised considering Spartan men were usually no more affected by women than Amazon's were by Centaurs. I was soon to learn that his infatuation was actually awe.

"Your Highness," he addressed Gabrielle. "May I ask if you were the young woman who spoke to Pan on a road outside of Athens?"

"You may, and I am," she answered.

"The Lead Priest of our city bid me give this to you, if you did indeed exist. He said that Pan described you to him and I cannot think of another woman in Athens who resembles you." An odd comment to make, but Spartans had never been known for their charm. It was probably the best he could do.

The Commander pulled a wrapped package from a cloth sack tied at his waist. With attention to his actions, he opened the parcel and removed an ivory flute from within the folds of fabric. Carved with delicate rose blossoms along its length it was exquisite.

"Thank you," she said. "It's beautiful, but I'm not sure I understand."

"There is a scroll, too," he added, placing the item in Gabrielle's hand.

She looked at me and I merely raised an eyebrow in wonder.

She moved closer and opened the scroll, encouraging me to read over her shoulder.

Dearest Queen Gabrielle,

I found you to be a most charming and intelligent young woman. Artemis chose well, of that, even a blind man could see. I wish you to accept this gift and hope that you learn to make beautiful music with it. Someone as lovely as you should have no trouble creating beauty. Now you can take it with you wherever you go.

Oh, and one final note for the Conqueror…

Yes, Xena, I did it.

The God Pan, keeper of nature and wildlife

"Nobody likes a smart-aleck God," I said between clenched teeth.

To be continued in : Chapter 17: Dark House By Which Once More I Stand...

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