The Embrace Series Part 1 by CJ Wells

The Embrace
by CJ Wells

Summary: The Conqueror is in love with her slave, but she hates it. How long will it take for her to give in to the feelings and stop being brutal, and start being loving?

Part 1

As I sit here staring at my scroll in this early morning hour, my mind is still whirling over the events of the last two weeks. How do I put this into words? I mean I can, I’m sure, but there is so much to disbelieve that if I hadn’t experienced it myself, I’d swear I was lying.

I’ve been the Conqueror’s body servant for several seasons now. I can no longer recall exactly when I came into her service, but to say that my service to her has not been easy is a crude understatement. She is a harsh and evil ruler who treats practically all of her subjects, whether free or enslaved, as though they are rolls of dough for her to knead and pummel into any image she desires. As her personal body slave, my services to her have involved almost everything imaginable sexually. Some of her methods have been strange, and others painful, and to this day I don’t understand the pleasure she derives from them.

What I really haven’t understood is that, until I became her body slave, I heard that she had always had more than one body slave at her disposal. Since purchasing me those many seasons ago, I’ve been the only one. Although I could not in my heart wish the at-times ill treatment she had inflicted on me to be shared by another, I had been at a loss as to why she had chosen that I should experience her treatment alone. Well, until now.

* * * *

It was this day two weeks ago that I went to the palace library to visit with my dear friend Demitrius. Demi, as I affectionately call him, is the official keeper of the Conqueror’s scrolls. He documents her conquests and exploits and also maintains the writings of many of the scholars and prophets of her conquered lands. Demi is an elderly man and a very kind one who has become a replacement of the father I was taken from so many seasons ago.

I had wandered into the library, as I often do when I’m not servicing the Conqueror, to read and share stories with my friend. When I walked in this day, I immediately noticed a somber expression on his face. You see, in addition to being a scholar and librarian, Demi has been my main source of information from the “outside”. Although I am permitted to walk freely throughout the palace grounds, I have not been allowed to leave these grounds. Any information about the Conqueror’s lands and territories not published in the official scrolls can be obtained from Demi through one of his numerous “anonymous” sources.

I immediately became concerned about my friend’s state and asked him what troubled him. He could not look at me at first, but then grabbed my hands in his and delivered the most devastating news I had ever heard up to this point. My dearest sister Lila, who was sold to a wealthy merchant in a village close to our home village of Poteidaia, had just died of an infection in her lungs. As I broke down in tears, Demi continued on, telling me that the merchant was kind enough to send her body back to my parents in Poteidaia for burial. As I listened, anger built up inside of me. I wanted nothing more at that moment than to be with my mother. I wanted to hold her, to comfort my father and to watch the flames of the pyre light the night sky as I remember my beloved sister. But I knew the Conqueror would not allow this. I am her slave, her whore, and in her mind, nothing else but catering to her every twisted whim should ever concern me.

When she summoned me that evening for service, I had been crying for several hours. My eyes were red and puffy. My face was drawn. My shoulders slumped. I didn’t even expect her to notice.

I walked into her magnificent bedchamber and stood at my usual spot on the ornate rug at the foot of her bed to await instruction. She was standing by a window with her back to me. She said in her usual flat tone, “On your knees.”

I obeyed. She turned and walked over to me. Standing before me wearing one of her elegant robes from the east, she parted the center of it to reveal her naked body. Just as I was about to perform my “tongue” service, she grabbed my chin and lifted my face up, forcing me to look into her eyes.

“You’ve been crying.” She commented, as casually as one would comment on the weather. “Why have you been crying?”

I didn’t answer.

“I asked you a question, slave!” She shouted. “Why have you been crying?”

I was stunned. There had been times that I had reported to her after crying alone in my chamber. She never seemed to notice. There had also been times that she caused me to cry during my service to her when it had involved her whips or that phallus. Never had she asked me why, only insisting that I stop. Then it dawned on me. Somehow she found out about Lila. This was one of her twisted little games.

I decided I would play… fair.

“I found out that my sister has died, my Lady.”

“Oh.” Although I was looking down, I imagined a smirk on that evil beautiful face of hers.

“And how did you find out this piece of information?” Her tone was flat, with a building anger, I suspected.

I hesitated in answering. I feared that Demi would pay a mortal price for providing this information to me and I could not live knowing his life was forfeited because he felt I deserved to know about my sister’s death. But I was also resigned to the fact that she already knew where I received my information and was merely engaging in one of her sick games. I was therefore determined to attempt to spare the life of my friend. Conjuring up courage I didn’t know I had, I looked into the eyes of the woman whom I fear more than anything and tried something new. I was going to reason with the Destroyer of Nations.

“My Lady,” I started. “Demitrius, you loyal librarian, told me of my sister. He believed that even my worthless soul deserves to know when a family member crosses over. He was not motivated by any disrespect to your Majesty. He is my friend and…”

At that moment, she grabbed my chin and leaned down to where her nose nearly touched mine. “Friend?” She was livid. She was also squeezing my chin so hard, I feared she would break the bone. “What kind of friend, slave? What kind of service do you provide him in MY Imperial library?”

Demi was at least 60. I couldn’t believe the absurdity of her accusation. “My Lady,” I pleaded. “Demi… Demitrius is merely a friend. I would never…” At that point she released my chin and walked briskly back over to the same window where she was standing before.

There was a long silence, during which time I was contemplating just how truly demented and insane the Conqueror really was. Then, with her back still to me, she spoke again. “Would you like to see her, Gabrielle?” Her tone was soft, I believe. I’d never heard it before.

“I don’t understand, my Lady.” I responded. I truly didn’t understand.

Her back was still to me. “What’s not to understand?” She replied. “It’s a simple question. Would you like to see her?”

She’s obviously still playing her game, I thought. “Yes, my Lady.”

“Ok.” She turned to me and in an instant she was standing in front of me again. “I will give you a week, one week. You can journey to Poteidaia to attend your sister’s funeral.”

She paused. I was initially surprised she knew that Lila’s body was with my parents in my home village. I was even more surprised she knew the name of my home village. And how can she be sure that the funeral pyre had not already taken place? This combined information confirmed my suspicion that she was already well informed of the source of my sorrow.

The Conqueror continued. “I will not arrange for your travel there. You are not to use any of the horses or carriages in my Imperial stable. You are on your own, do you understand me?”

“Yes, my Lady.”

She added, “You can arrange for someone outside of the Imperial court to transport you there, if you can figure that out, but you travel alone. No ‘friends.’” Another tone I had never heard before.

“You are to be back here by dusk a week from today. Don’t even think about running away, slave. If you defy me, I will find you and your life is forfeit, do you understand me?”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“Fine. You can leave at dawn.”

For a moment, I was stunned. Still on my knees, I began wondering if this was still part of the game. Was she really going to allow me to just leave Corinth? Or would she have me drawn and quartered as I walked out the palace gates in the morning? But then I realized, in spite of everything she is and everything she’s done, she has yet to lie to me. This wasn’t a game. It was a test. She wanted to see if I’d be honest with her and because I was, I passed. I suddenly felt an exuberance I had not felt in a long time. I was practically giddy. I jumped to my feet and smiled at the Conqueror. “Thank you, my Lady!”

She smiled back for a breath and then it was gone. She then grabbed me by my shift and forced me back down on my knees.

* * * *

I fathom the Conqueror didn’t believe I possess any resources for travel, but I do. Traveling to Poteidaia was not going to be difficult for me. Over the years I have made many friends within the walls of the palace. For this particular excursion, I had arranged a ride with one such friend, a man named Hebrion, who was one of the many produce suppliers to the palace kitchens. Twice a week, he set out to purchase exotic vegetables, herbs and spices from the countryside of the Peloponnese and Thessaly. He would bring the produce back to Corinth for sale to both the palace and the citizenry. The last village on his route was a tiny village just north of the city of Salonica and it was only one day’s ride from Poteidaia. I rode in his huge wagon, sharing my personal space with an ever-growing variety of smelly vegetables and herbs. Once in that little village, called Camadia, Hebrion arranged for his brother Tamaris, a resident of Camadia, to ride me to Poteidaia.

Although Tamaris’ wife offered lodgings in their attic loft, I chose to sleep in Tamaris’ stable that evening. The stable was cooler and I could venture outside at night, without disturbing anyone, to look up at the night sky and write in my scroll by moonlight. I also have to admit that I took the opportunity to just wander around their farm, taking in the sights and smells. It was truly wonderful just to have that kind of freedom.

At first light, Tamaris and I set out for Poteidaia. Tamaris was a gentle soul who was very respectful of my timidity toward horses. He rode fast but stuck to the main trails and, thanks to him, I arrived in my home village several candlemarks before dusk.

When I arrived at the home of my parents, Herodotus and Hecuba, a sharp pain ran through my stomach. I had not seen them since one year after I came into the Conqueror’s service, when she had them summoned to her palace and, in a cathartic rage, forced them to watch as she whipped me and then ordered me to service her. I still cannot understand why she felt the need to do that. Now in my eagerness to share my grief with them, I forgot to consider that they might not want to see me and be reminded of that horrible act of shame. I almost turned away from the front door, but something inside of me begged me to knock.

When my mother answered, I knew in an instant that whatever shame she felt that vile day all those many seasons ago had long ago evaporated. She gave me an embrace I had imagined I would never experience again. Father seemed to appear out of nowhere. For long moments we held each other, the three of us, in an embrace that brought many levels of tears to my eyes.

The funeral had not yet taken place. Mother said that a priestess from the temple of Demeter, a woman she had never seen before, came to her and advised her to wait until three days had passed before commencing services. In the meantime, she gave mother a vial of potion to pore over Lila’s body in order to preserve it.

That evening, I went to my father’s tiny work hut. There, on a table where father spends mindless hours in his woodworking hobbies lay my dear sister Lila. She was wearing a lovely chiton poderes and veil that I assumed her merchant master must have presented as a form of respect toward my parents. I could draw no other conclusion. Mother and father couldn’t have possibly afforded the regal styling and fine material of the chiton on their own. Mother had placed fresh flowers from her garden around my sister’s body and a wreath of lilacs adorned her head. Lila was at peace.

I stood there and just looked at her for the longest time. I then spoke a silent prayer to the Goddess Hestia before retiring for the evening.

The preparations for the funeral pyre took place the following day. Before setting out to town, I inquired about the dress. Mother said that a handsome young officer of the Conqueror’s Imperial Guard delivered it in a package the day before my arrival. She couldn’t begin to conceive why a high-ranking officer of the Realm would be delivering such a garment to a peasant woman for a dead slave. Mother considered discarding it, for she has utter contempt for the Conqueror and her Realm, but decided against that after pondering the notion that the dress could have come from me. She was shocked to learn that I had nothing to do with its delivery. Pondering this and the Priestess, I began to suspect at that time the Conqueror’s hand in these events.

In the early noon, I had made a trip to the village square to purchase some herbs for mother’s dinner stew when I spotted my old friend Seraphin. Our embrace was strong and tearful and we both stood there for long moments hugging and crying into each other’s shoulders.

Seraphin, Lila and I were inseparable as children. Seraphin was five when her family moved to our village. I was nine. When we were children, she spent many nights sleeping over with us. She looked up to me as a big sister and I often found myself telling her and Lila the most outrageous tales of monsters and sorcerers by candlelight.

Seraphin had escaped slavery by marrying young. Now, however, she was a widow and the mother of three small children. Her husband was drafted into the Conqueror’s Imperial Army when their third child was less than one. He was killed in combat during the Conqueror’s successful campaign to deflect an attempted overthrow of her stronghold in Rhodes.

After taking her children to her mother’s home, she returned with me to my parents’ home and spent the rest of the day helping us prepare the funeral pyre. She assisted my mother and me in the kitchen and mended a tear in the dress my mother was to wear at Lila’s funeral.

At the funeral pyre, I stood between my mother and Seraphin. When the flame was lit under my sister’s body, I grasped both of their hands. Father, who was on the other side of mother, put his arm around her. At some point, the four of us stood together, arm in arm, each of us carrying our special thoughts and memories of the woman we would carry with us in our hearts for the rest of our lives.

That night, Seraphin stayed with me at my parents’ home. She held me in a loving embrace and wiped away the tears as they came.

* * * *

I had only two full days left to spend with my parents before I would ride back to Camadia with Tamaris. Always in the back of my mind was the realization that I might never see them again, so I was determined to make the most of this time. I never left the farm unless I was in their company. I boiled more stew and chased more hens than I had ever imagined doing. I even joined my father in his woodworking sanctuary where I proudly carved a fairly mean looking donkey figurine. Seraphin came by on several occasions to visit. We hugged each other a great deal and spent much of our time together clasping hands and talking as good friends do.

During one of our conversations I told Seraphin about the Conqueror. I reluctantly told her of my role in the palace. Of course she already knew, but she could not begin to conceive what that role entailed. I told her that I didn’t understand the Conqueror most times. I didn’t understand her violent outbursts, her rage, and the way she seemed to enjoy seeing me in pain. She then asked me if the Conqueror was ever kind to me. I didn’t expect that question. I was reluctant, but I had to concede that, yes, there were times when the Conqueror displayed gentleness, warmth and even humor. This is what makes her so mysterious. How can a woman with such purity of evil be capable of warmth and humor too, I thought.

Through more questioning, Seraphin had me admitting that I was by far the best fed and best dressed of all the Conqueror’s servants, paid and indentured. Furthermore, I had the most experienced healers in Greece at my disposal, my personal bedchamber was larger and far more ornate than any other residence in the palace, with the exception of the Conqueror’s chamber, and not only was I the only slave in the entire palace who could read, I was provided unlimited access to blank scrolls on which to write my thoughts and stories.

There was a long silence before the next question came.

“Gabrielle,” she started. “When you and the Conqueror are physically intimate, do you enjoy it?”

I felt as though all of the blood in my body rushed to my cheeks. “W… w… why… why do you ask that?”

“When Linus and I were intimate the first time, it hurt,” she responded. “But then I came to enjoy his touches. I’m wondering.. I mean I know what you do is a ‘service,’ but I was wondering, do you ever get any pleasure from it.”

“I… I…” I stammered. “She’s a woman.”

“So pleasure’s impossible when it’s with a woman?” She queried.

“Yes, I mean no. I mean,” a long sigh followed. “She’s a woman. She’s soft and so… so beautiful and… And it happens sometimes.” I said. It happens most times, I thought.

Another long silence.

“Gabrielle, do you love her?”

I looked at the floor. “Does she love you?” she asked. I started crying.

“It’s ok.” She took my slumped and wailing form into her arms.

* * * *

I was ever so proud of myself when I saw the gates of Corinth. I had made it back in the time allotted with time to spare. This despite the fact that Hebrion had a wicked case of the trots and I spend a solid candlemark waiting in his vegetable infested cart as he fouled up the bottom of a giant tree.

I decided to stop at my own bedchamber to drop off my travel sack before proceeding on to the Conqueror’s chamber. I didn’t want to wait to be summoned. For some reason, I felt I needed to show some initiative. I did peek into the palace library on my way there just to make sure Demi was still in one piece. He appeared just fine as he chatted with his assistant.

When I entered her chamber, I looked around but I didn’t see her. I also didn’t see the fist that struck my jaw with the force of angry mule’s kick. I fell to the floor and immediately put my left hand over the throbbing pain in my face. I felt the wetness of blood in my palm, the result of a gash inflicted by her Imperial ring.

I looked up and saw a mask of rage and something else I couldn’t read on the Conqueror’s face.
“So while you were taking a break from being my little whore, you decided to take a little whore for yourself, I see.” When she spoke those words, her voice was a poison.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, my Lady.” I tried desperately to contain them, but the tears started to flow.

“Don’t you fucking lie to me, bitch!” She grabbed me by my shirt and dragged my over to that familiar rug. She then released me and started pacing around the room. I felt like a dying rabbit and she the vulture waiting for me to take my last breath.

“Did you think you wouldn’t be followed?” She started. I suspected at that moment that she probably followed me herself and camped outside the village. The Priestess, the Imperial officer, the dress, everything was falling into place. The Conqueror wanted me to go there so she could spy on me. It was a game after all. I felt sick to my stomach. “You and that peasant cunt. You’ve seemed to forget whom you belong to. You belong to me! And she’s gonna pay for putting her hands on what’s mine!”

As she was ranting, the old reminder that she branded into my back so many seasons ago started to mysteriously hurt. She was still pacing.

I tried reasoning again. “My Lady, nothing happened. I didn’t experience any physical intimacy with Seraphin.” The sound of her name on my lips caused the Conqueror to shoot me a stare that could cut like her prized chakram.

I rambled on. “I was grieving my sister, my Lady. She only touched me to hug me when I cried. I needed to be held. I miss Lila. I was mourning for her. Seraphin and I, mostly we just talked. She asked me questions.” The last sentence came out before I could stop it.

The pacing stopped. “Questions? What questions?”

“Nothing important, my Lady.”

She grabbed my neck with her right hand. “Liar! What did she ask you?”

“She asked if you loved me.” I was rasping because her grip was so tight.

“Really,” her grip got even tighter. “And what did you tell her?”

“‘No,’ of course, my Lady,” I responded. “I told her ‘no.’”

It was what I assumed to be the truth.

She released her grip on my neck and immediately began pacing again. She didn’t say anything for long moments, then, “I’m going to have her brought here,” she continued. “And I’m going to personally hack that peasant cunt into tiny little pieces. And you’re going to watch me as I do it.”

And then she was on top of me, straddling me. This time she had her left hand on my throat and a dagger appeared in her right. She put the dagger to my chin and her face within a hair’s breath of mine. I could smell the ale on her breath. “And when I’m done cutting up your peasant cunt, I’m going to cut you too.”

I don’t know if she saw the sheer darkness in my eyes, but her expression began to change as my lips tightened and all of the anger and pain of my sister’s death, of my separation from my parents, and of her brutality came crashing into my soul.

“Then kill me! Kill me now! Put me out of my fucking misery. I have no life anyway. You want to do it, Conqueror? Do it!”

I closed my tear-soaked eyes and waited for her to plunge the dagger into my throat. I felt her breathing on my face. Then it was gone. I then felt her left hand release my neck. I heard her grunt and then I heard the sound of an object fly through the air and impale into a wall. Then her weight was off of me.

When I opened my eyes, I looked up and over and saw her, on her knees, looking at her hands.

“You’re wrong, Gabrielle.” She whispered. I think she was talking to herself. She was still looking at her hands. What was I wrong about? I thought to myself. I was afraid of the question, and the answer. Then she looked at me. The gods must be cruel, for she is truly the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. “Come here,” she said.

I was so frightened at that moment that I was paralyzed to move. I wasn’t afraid she would strike me again. I was afraid of something else. But something within me pulled me, however, and I crawled over to her. She reached out and wrapped her arms around me in an embrace I had never experienced from her before. I cried hard. Each wail or scream out of my mouth was met with a tighter squeeze. She began rocking me and I do believe I felt her lips press against my forehead. I could be wrong though.

When my sobs finally died down, she released me. She stood up and went over to one of her tables, where she poured water into a large basin and took a linen cloth and wet it. She came back to me, where I was now kneeling on the floor, and wiped away the tears and the blood from the gash on my cheek. We looked at each other for the longest time. I wanted to say something, but I was too afraid.

She got up and put the cloth back on the table. With her back to me, she said, “Go lay down.”

I obeyed. Something in me wanted me to. As is routine, I took off all of my clothing and lay on the bed with my arms over my head and my legs spread apart. I was looking at the familiar groove in the ceiling when, instead of lying on top of me, she lay down next to me. She grabbed my clasping hands into her right hand and brought my arms down and rested my hands on my belly. She then began to caress my hands, running her callused thumb over my fingers. She seemed rather awkward doing this. She then put her fingers on my chin and turned my head to face her and forced me to gaze into those magnificent blue eyes of hers. She began lightly rubbing my sore cheek with the backs of her fingers. To my surprise they were slightly trembling.

“She is your friend, Gabrielle?” she asked.

“Nothing more, Conqueror.” I responded.

My mind was cloudy at this sudden change of behavior, but I was also beyond exhaustion. Nonetheless, we stared at each other for moments until the emotion of the day claimed us both.

* * * *

When I woke up later that evening, I was lying on my side and felt a strong arm wrapped around my waist. I felt the tickle of steady breathing in my hair and I felt warm soft skin from my upper back to the backs of my legs. I was cupped against her naked body. Night had fallen. I was initially too afraid to turn my head to see if she was truly sleeping. I had spent countless nights in the Conqueror’s bed over the seasons. Even after the most exhaustive sex, we had never ended up in an intimate embrace. When she didn’t get out of the bed and order me to leave, she would roll over and order me to leave. But in the increasing frequency of occasions that she would tell me to stay, she still wouldn’t touch me once I was finished servicing her.

Now here she was, holding me when she had not even had me in over a week. I tried to shift just a little. Now I really wanted to see her sleeping, an image she usually denied me. My shifting caused her to shift and her grip on my waist became tighter. She started moaning and I assumed that she was dreaming of sex. It was quite funny and I laughed to myself at the thought.

Then she let out a big breath, followed by words that stopped my heart from beating.

“I love you, Gabrielle. So much,” she mumbled. A second sigh and then her breathing was steady again.

It was sometime before I realized that I was holding my own breath. I lay there, staring into darkness, those words rolling around in my head until Morpheus claimed me once again.

* * * *

When I rose the next morning, the Conqueror was gone. I could tell from the position of the sun’s rays in the room and the intense heat that I had slept through much of the morning. Gathering up my clothing, I retreated to my own bedchamber.

A bath and a hearty meal later, I found myself mysteriously combing the palace grounds in search of the Conqueror. Now I was engaging in behavior I didn’t understand. Much of my existence with her had entailed doing whatever necessary to avoid being in her presence when I wasn’t summoned to do so. Now here I was actually looking for her.

I found her in the center courtyard. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but her regal appearance and the battered and bloody appearance of her elite Imperial Guard suggested that she was leading a training session. Inconspicuously, I slid down against a large pillar at the northwest corner of the courtyard and, sitting with my back resting against it, I watched the training for a while.

She was the perfect image of beauty and grace with her sword, even as she was slicing the flesh of the men she trained. They in return seemed to hold every injury as a badge of honor. But when the Conqueror saw me sitting there, she immediately stopped what she was doing and walked over to me. I was petrified. What in Tartarus was I thinking coming here? I admonished to myself. I expected her to strike me or humiliate me somehow just for being there. I immediately stood up and began my apologies in the slight hope that my punishment would not be too embarrassing or painful.

“I’m sorry, my Lady. I was just observing your Majesty’s training session.”

She said nothing. She just smiled and lightly ran the backs of the dirtied and bloodied fingers of her right hand along the left side of my face. When she turned to return to her men, my knees gave out and I was back on the ground again.

I stayed and watched for about another candlemark. She would look over frequently at me. I thought that maybe she was making sure I was still there, but I found that notion too preposterous. Why would she care? I thought. Another equally preposterous notion crossed my mind. Before she noticed that I was there, she was very brutal toward her men, forcing them to feign attacking her, which resulted in their injuries. After noticing my presence, her demeanor changed. She spoke more and demonstrated maneuvers without an opponent. It was like watching her dance, allowing me to see just how talented she was with her weaponry and her body. Maybe the Conqueror is showing off to me. I giggled. Truly preposterous, Gab, I concluded. When I finally left, I went to the library to read and have a chat with Demi. I remained there until nightfall.

When I was summoned to the Conqueror’s chamber for service that evening, she was already lying in bed. This had never been the case before. As I was proceeding to my normal spot to await instruction, she told me to come lie down. I removed my clothing and lay down next to her. She was likewise completely nude. She then handed me a goblet of wine. I’ve shared wine with Demi and the palace servants a few times over the years, but I had never consumed any wine with the Conqueror. I didn’t know what to do, so I just stared at the goblet. “Drink, Gabrielle,” she said. As the sweet, pleasant tasting red wine poured down my throat, I contemplated that maybe I was being poisoned. But then, the Conqueror, who also drank a goblet with me, simply rolled over to me and grabbed me into a tight embrace. She spoke a few words and then within moments, the Destroyer of Nations was asleep.

Thus began the first of six nights of my non-service to the Conqueror.

Each of the successive nights was almost identical. I would enter her chamber and immediately lie down. She would embrace me and we would lie there with our naked bodies enveloping each other. Sometimes she’d take my hand in hers and look at me funny. She spoke, but it was only to say something unusual about her day or a trip she was planning or a battle she was anticipating. One night she asked me to tell her about Lila. I was very hesitant, but she kept encouraging me with question after question and I ended up filling her ears with mindless chatter about the misadventures of two silly peasant girls. She didn’t seem to mind. As I babbled on, I would occasionally glance at her. Each time she had a strange smile on her face, but at least she didn’t appear bored.

One evening she brought out the phallus and asked me if I enjoyed it when she used it on me. I was torn between telling her the truth and telling her what I thought she wanted to hear, knowing how much she enjoys using it on me. Somewhere in my core, truth won out. “I hate that thing, my Lady.” I said. She laughed and put it away. I still cannot figure out the meaning behind her question or that laugh.

Last night, when I reported to her for service, she was standing by a window. She was dressed in a lovely indigo and cream-colored silk chiton and himation. Her hair was down but she wore a laurel wreath. Her attire suggested that she was about to attend a drama at the theater or perhaps an Imperial soiree. She looked absolutely stunning. Although I had been getting right into bed the last few nights, something told me that I should stand in my spot and await instruction.

The Conqueror turned to face me, forcing me to gaze at her unreal beauty for several moments. Then she removed her laurel wreath and told me to lie down. Although I hadn’t had to do this for several nights now, something again told me to assume my servicing position on the bed. When she appeared before me, she was naked. She climbed on top of me and gently slid her thigh between my legs. Then she took my hands and put them on her face.

“Touch my face,” she said. I did and she began caressing my face as well. We were like that for several moments, caressing each other’s face, neck, hair and ears with our hands. We were both trembling. But as I gazed into her eyes and she gazed into mine, our touches took on a calming effect. We never lost eye contact as our hands explored our faces. My heart started beating faster.

“You have beautiful eyes, Gabrielle,” she said. “They are the color of springtime.”

She then leaned in and kissed my lips. This wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was the way she kissed me. Rather than her normal tongue thrusting and lip biting, her lips caressed and pampered mine. They were very soft, something she hadn’t allowed me to notice before. And she invited my tongue into her mouth for a change. We must have kissed for a solid candlemark it seemed. It grew deeper, more intimate, and more passionate. It was wonderful. I could feel her heart beating against my chest and hear her moans in my mouth. When she finally removed her lips from my lips, it was to kiss my cheeks and my forehead and my ears and my neck. I was in the Elysian Fields. My hands were digging in and combing through her thick silky black hair. Something buried inside of me wanted me to do that for a long time.

“You are so beautiful,” she whispered as she licked my left ear. My center was dripping wet.

When we’re standing, the Conqueror is much taller than me. However, most of that added length is in her long and glorious legs. From head to hips, she is actually only slightly taller than me. Thus, her body on top of mine is a perfect fit. My mouth is even with the pulse point in her neck. As she lay on me, I began to suckle her neck as she ground her thigh into my sex. Her moaning vibrated my lips on her neck. Pure passionate instinct kicked in and I bent my knees and tightly straddled her thigh between mine. In that position, I could feel her wet sex grinding into the crook of my hip and right thigh as she continued the rhythmic thrusting of her hips. I was thrusting as well.

Whatever bashfulness existed when we first started this had evaporated now. In addition to our rhythmic tribade, at this point our hands were everywhere. Mine had settled into the center of her back, rubbing in large circles or massaging strong muscles. Her left hand was alternately caressing my breasts. Her right hand had dug between our bodies and was working its way between her thigh and my sex. When she finally found her mark, she plunged three fingers inside of me. Thoroughly aroused, my hands moved lower and began kneading her ass and pushing her body further onto me. This was bliss.

Our lips met again as the grinding became more frantic. We were sweating all over each other. Our hair was soaked and the smell of our sex permeated the entire bedchamber. When we finally found release simultaneously, we screamed our joy into each other’s mouths.

* * * *

When our bodies came down from the remaining jolts of release, the Conqueror relaxed all of her weight on me. We were both still breathing rather heavily however and her wet hair was like a blanket over my face and upper body. Somewhere inside of me, I answered an urge to clear a lock of damp black hair away from her left cheek. When I kissed her there, she flinched and instantly climbed up off of me.

I couldn’t see her face when she quickly walked over to stare out of that now familiar window. Although the cool evening air that was allowed to hit my body provided a refreshing feeling, I instantly missed the contact with her. I also knew something was wrong. She wouldn’t move. She wouldn’t look at me.

“I’m done with you for the night, slave. Leave.”

Those words hit me harder than any blow of a fist could ever do. I was so hurt by what she said that I didn’t realize at the time the cracking of her voice when she said it. I gathered up my clothing and practically ran out of the bedchamber.

Once in my own chamber, I sat in the center of my bed, knees propped up to my chin, arms wrapped around my lower legs, crying on my kneecaps. In the past, always in the back of my mind when we had sex, well, when that sex was pleasurable to me, was the reminder that I was doing a service, a duty. I considered all of that pleasure and release to be a benefit of servitude to a sensuous and powerful woman, much like the delectable meals I ate. When it wasn’t pleasurable, I considered it a natural hardship of slavery.

But this wasn’t a service. Not in my mind. Yes, the raw passion was there. The desire was there. But when we held each other and kissed and touched and felt each other’s throbbing sex, I was feeling her love. I was feeling the words she mumbled in her sleep those days ago. And I was feeling love for her, something that until this night I didn’t think she deserved, even from me. Especially from me. And so she did what I should have expected her to do. She proved to me once again that she didn’t deserve my love.

Just as my tears of hurt and pain began turning into tears of anger, my chamber door cracked open and a head shyly poked in. It was the Conqueror.

“Gabrielle,” she whispered. “Come back to my bedchamber.” It was a request, not a demand. As soon as she said it, the door was closed. I scrambled from my bed and opened my door to look out. I saw no one.

I returned to her bedchamber to find her lying in bed. I climbed in on my side defiantly keeping my sleep shift on. I could feel the wetness of sweat and sex on the sheets under my back from where we had, what I thought, consummated our love. I was still very angry with her. When I looked over at her, she was naked. She was also staring at the ceiling and had her arms stretched up above her head. This is ironic, I thought.

Although it was nightfall, the candles in the chamber illuminated the room well enough to where I could get a good look at her face. I squinted, more in disbelief than for any visual problems, when I noticed that a streak of a tear blemished the side of her face.

I started staring at the ceiling too. I focused in on that ever-familiar groove when I made the decision that I believed would cost me my life. Now is the time. I told myself. When she kills me, I will die knowing that for once, at the end, I spoke to her as a woman rather than as a slave. I turned to her prepared to speak the last words I would speak in this life.

“You were right, Xena. I was wrong. We both were.”

I had violated the greatest rule of the Realm. Not only had I deliberately omitted an honorific when addressing the Conqueror, I had addressed the Conqueror by her first name. There is no greater act of treason to her Empire and the only punishment is death. That was ok. My last words were a declaration of my love and I would cross over knowing that fact. This is who I am and I will not accept any less of myself anymore. Thus, I took a deep breath and waited for my fate.

From the side of my vision, I saw her shift and felt her body heat approach me. I then felt her arms grab me under my armpits and lift me, like one would a small child, and pull me over to her. Then I felt those same arms wrap around my back and a hand press my head into the crook of her neck. Then that hand began stroking my hair. I was lying on top of the Conqueror.

“I love you, Xena. So much.” I whispered, repeating those same words she had unknowingly spoken to me.

Xena sighed deeply and kissed my forehead. We lay there until Morpheus once again claimed us. When I dreamt, I dreamt of Lila. We are in a field together, surrounded by lilacs, and we are laughing.

* * * *

This morning I slipped out from Xena’s embrace and returned to my chamber. I know I’m endangering myself by leaving her bedchamber without her permission, but I wanted to write all of this down before I forgot it or before she came out of this fog of love she’s in and decides to kill me. I love her. I admit that now, insane as it is. If she kills me, she’ll be killing probably the only person who feels this way toward her and has ever felt this way toward her. I hope she doesn’t do that to herself.

I feel a sense of strength now. I’m no longer afraid of her. I know in my heart that I cannot erase the physical and emotional pain she has brought onto me over the years. The scars on my body and the ones in my heart are a constant reminder. But I won’t allow her to hurt me anymore. I love her, but I’ll kill her first. And maybe now I can begin to heal and grow and gain an understanding as to why she needed to treat me the way she did. Maybe now I’ll simply ask her.

Story # 2 Freedom

I have made a decision about Gabrielle.

As I discreetly peek at her quill away on her little table in her little bedchamber, my head is spinning as though I drank too much. There’s no doubt I’m drunk, but the intoxicating culprit isn’t from a wine or ale. The intoxicant is that little concubine of mine scribbling away in there.

She slipped away from bed this morning while I was still asleep and after the most wonderful night of my life. Now I’m wondering what she’s writing? It’s probably about me, no doubt. What I am to her, what I’ve done to her. I hope it’s about us. She’s got about hundred scrolls in her room that contain her writing alone. Ok, perhaps I’m exaggerating, but she does love to write. When I granted her request to learn to read, it was as if I was giving a child a lifetime supply of sweet nut bread and apple dumplings. She’s been reading, writing and telling stories ever since. I really don’t get that, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just one of a thousand endearing things about her.

I purchased Gabrielle five years ago as my personal body slave. She is the eldest daughter of Herodotus and Hecuba, free citizens of Poteidaia, which is a little village located in northern Greece. I wasn’t her first owner, and thus, she did not come to me a virgin. But pretty much from the start, I felt somewhere deep in my being that she was the other half of my soul. Of course, that wasn’t the reason I bought her. At first it was lust, pure and simple. She is small and nubile. Her hair is the color of honey, her eyes the color of the sea. Her skin is creamy and soft. She has a nice firm ass and supple breasts. I could go on and on about just how truly beautiful and desirable she is, but frankly, in hindsight, it was the first words that flowed from her soft lips that enchanted me. The way she spoke, the way she looked and sounded when I heard her voice, that’s what drew me into her. She has a pure heart and a strong spirit. That’s what intoxicated me.

When I first had her in my bed, I had her the way I had my previous body servants. For the others it had always been about control. I was in control of my pleasure. Before Gabrielle, orgies were common in my palace. I would have four, five, maybe more body servants surrounding me. I would have both men and women performing on me or performing on each other while I watched. More frequently, I had nothing but women, each one in charge of pleasuring a specific part of my body. My sexual perversions and appetites were the stuff of Corinthian legend.

So when Gabrielle joined my household, she was quickly introduced to a sexual appetite that, some of which I suppose, still revolts her to no end. Early on, I didn’t care. But I just couldn’t bring myself to share her with my other body slaves. I didn’t want any of them touching her. She was mine. I wanted her all to myself and because I wanted her all the time, I just didn’t have any need for the others anymore.

I fell in love with Gabrielle early on. I know it now. I knew it then. But I also hated her for it. I hated her for the way she made me feel. Love is for the weak and it always leads to betrayal. Sometimes my heart would lurch when she looked at me. That would anger me and, in retaliation, I would whip her. Of course, she never understood why. I especially hated it when she cried. Of course, I was the only one who made her cry in the first place, but once she started, I took it as another form of betrayal. I would whip her until she cried, and then I would whip her some more demanding that she stop crying. She learned fast. She would hold her tears until she was safe in her own bedchamber, and then she would wail the night away.

I think I mistreated her because I wanted her to hate me. I reasoned that if she hated me enough, there would be no possible way that I could love a woman who despised me. I was forcing her to hate me while I was trying to force myself not to love her. Of course it didn’t work. As time passed, I just fell more and more deeply in love with her.

I wanted to feel every inch of her. I wanted to be deep inside of her. I never cared much for the feel of the male sexual instrument inside of me, but all of a sudden I desired to know that feeling, from the man’s point of view. Early on, I had my leather craftsman, the same one who made the straps with which I used to whip her, to construct a human-like phallus for me to use on Gabrielle. It was longer than the average male member, but I reasoned that if I, Xena the Conqueror, Empress of the Known World, was a man, my member would be longer than any other man’s anyway.

Early on, I derived great pleasure in inflicting pain on her during sex. It let me know that she was feeling me. But the first time she climaxed with me, ah, that was one of the greatest highlights of my life. It came totally unexpected to me. I had climaxed in a mad rush after having her with my phallus. She lay there, clearly in pain from the device, holding back tears, when something absolutely bizarre came over me. Guilt, was it? Remorse? Compassion? I don’t know. All I know is, I wanted her to feel what I felt. So, in desperation, I scooped up her creamy thighs onto my shoulders and began sucking her center. She tasted so good. I caressed her breasts and hips, her belly and her thighs as I performed. Her sex became saturated, which excited me, but when I heard the first moan come from that rose-petal mouth of hers, I was in bliss. Her thighs nearly broke my jaw as she tightened them around my face. Her thrusting was surprisingly powerful and when she found release, her scream was wonderfully deafening.

I discovered then that sex with Gabrielle was much more satisfying for me when she actually enjoyed it too.

Oftentimes I watched Gabrielle from afar. Despite my tyranny, she’s never lost her gentle and caring soul. Everyone in the palace loves her. She has become surrogate sister and daughter to my various cooks, housemaids, healers and dressmakers. Their children surround her begging to hear one of her bardic tales. The older men have adopted her as well. My problem has been with the young men of my troops. I’ve noticed how they look at her. Once I overheard two of my elite Imperial Guard talking about her provocatively. I had their tongues removed. I have had several of my men lashed for looking at her the wrong way. But one day, four years ago, Gabrielle herself paid a price for my extreme jealousy. I caught her eyeing an exceptionally attractive young corporal in my army. He returned her glances and when I saw her smile at him, I flew into a hurricane of a rage that could have leveled Corinth. I grabbed her and dragged her to the Imperial stables, where I had her branded her with my signature “X” on her shoulder blade. It is the same device used to brand my horses. I made the young soldier watch. Then she serviced me in front of him.

The following evening, as she was recovering from the burn wound in the Imperial infirmary, I slipped into the young soldier’s barracks, dragged him from his rack and took him out behind the building where I beat the Tartarus out of him and then slit his throat. As I was cutting his life away, I whispered in his ear, “This is for betraying me by coveting what is mine.”

One evening, the following year, the dressmaker Illiana came to me and told me that she had designed a beautiful long-sided silk chiton with a matching ampechonion, or scarf, for Gabrielle. I told Illiana to instruct Gabrielle to wear the garment when she reported to me for service that evening. It wasn’t the first time that Gabrielle wore a garment of Illiana’s design, but when Gabrielle arrived that night in that particular dress, my heart stopped. My stomach wrenched in knots. My palms sweat. My knees almost gave out on me. She was absolutely gorgeous. Her sheer magnificence was tormenting me. I became very afraid at the way I was feeling, but when she smiled at me, I lost it. I grabbed her in fit of rage and ripped the dress off of her. I then tied her to the bed, using scraps of the garment as binds. I hated her for making me feel this way. I became crazed. Grabbing my whips, I beat her hoping she would cry so that I would have an excuse to beat her until she died. I wanted her to die, and then once she was dead, I would plunge my favorite dagger into my own heart. Then I would join her on the other side where we could be together in a different incarnation, not as Conqueror and slave, but as Xena and Gabrielle.

Then it struck me. Gabrielle is good and pure. She would naturally end up in the Elysian Fields. I was naturally fated to Tartarus. I would never see her again. That thought terrified me. What am I doing? I thought and then I threw the whips across the room. I untied her and then went over to the other side of the bed and sat there for candlemarks, my back to her, staring at nothing.

Gabrielle never cried. She waited for me to tell her to leave, as I always did when services were completed. But much time had passed and she desperately wanted to retreat to her room where she could release her tears of pain and anger. So, in a quiet voice, she asked, “Are my services completed, my Lady.”

“No, I’m not done with you.”

More time passed. Finally, I glanced over at her. She had miraculously fallen asleep. I grabbed a candle and illuminated her lovely naked body. For the first time I really noticed them. The scars. The fresh ones and the ones that had healed. What have I done to her? I asked myself. I ran out onto my balcony and threw up over the railing. I then grabbed my sword and went to the barracks of the Imperial Guard. I awakened my Guard Commander, Palaemon, and had him wake up 25 of his best men. I then ordered them to the palace courtyard where we drilled and trained until dawn.

When I returned to my chamber, Gabrielle was sleeping curled up in a ball. Her face was red and tear-stained. She had obviously awakened, found me gone, and had her cry.

I summoned one of my healers, who looked over Gabrielle, left, and then returned with fresh warm foamy water in a basin and a potion of salve. He instructed me on how to cleanse her skin and apply the salve to her wounds. I dismissed him and then woke up Gabrielle. She seemed quite startled at seeing me there kneeling beside the bed. I then gently began applying the strange smelling water to her skin. I washed her entire body and then, after drying it with a soft linen towel, I applied the salve using the tips of my fingers. She would look at me until I caught her and then she would look at the ceiling. At one point I joined her in looking at the ceiling, saying, “Anything interesting going on up there, Gabrielle?” Perhaps it was all the tension that needed lifting, but the remark actually caused her to snicker a bit.

When I was done, I threw the satin blanket over her cleansed and salved body and told her to rest. I wanted to kiss her so badly just then that my head began to ache. But I just retreated to my tub to wash away the sweat and dirt and filth that permeated my body and my soul.

Gabrielle doesn’t know this, but I burned the whips that night.

Following that incident, I insisted more often than not that Gabrielle stay in my bed with me after sex. Before, I would tell her to leave after she was done servicing me. I couldn’t stand not being able to touch her, embrace her, envelop her, after we came down from climaxing, but I couldn’t bring myself to do any of those things either. Now I needed her there with me. I needed her there because I started engaging in a bizarre new form of behavior.

After sex, I would roll over and feign sleep. Once Gabrielle was asleep, I would roll back over to face her. Then I would just look at her. There would be only the dim light from the few candles left illuminating the chamber, but it was enough. I would marvel at her sheer beauty. Sometimes I would grab her small hand in mine. I did it very lightly so as not to wake her. Sometimes I would run my fingers down her cheeks and neck. Other times I would circle a finger around her pink nipple until it hardened. I would twist the ends of her hair in my fingers. When she lay on her side, I would lightly stroke her back. I would kiss her cheeks, her forehead, her hands and her belly. By the gods, I love her so much.

One night, I gathered up enough courage to kiss her lips. It’s not that I hadn’t kissed her before. I kissed her every time we had sex. But I didn’t kiss her as a lover. I kissed her as the Conqueror with all of the harshness and brutality of the battlefield. Now, as she slept, I kissed her lips as softly as if she were my blushing bride.

Why can’t I be like this with her when she’s awake?

One good thing came out of that incident with the whips. I found myself talking to her more. Of course, it was still with the command of my position as her Lady and Mistress. Of course, my tone was often harsh. Outwardly, I demanded the respect from her that I received from everyone else in my world. Inwardly, I wished I could just talk to her as a friend. Of all of the men and women that I felt jealousy toward when it came to my Gabrielle, the one that haunted me the most is my royal librarian Demitrius. Demitrius is an old man. Gabrielle doesn’t desire him. She’s not in love with him. But he has something of her that I fear I never will; he has her solid friendship.

Two weeks ago, I was walking toward the library. Gabrielle spends much of her time there when she’s not with me. As I approached the door, it flung open and she sailed out and down the corridor away from me crying. I don’t believe she saw me there. I immediately entered the library and found Demitrius sitting at his desk. He immediately stood.

“My Liege,” he bowed as a formal greeting.

“What’s wrong with Gabrielle?” I asked.

“My Liege,” he began. “I’m afraid I was the bearer of bad news to her. I received word from my colleague Doremus, one of the men of your Commander Glaphyra, that one Lila, servant to the wealthy merchant Sopholes and formally of the village of Poteidaia, has died of an infection in her lungs. Lila was your Gabrielle’s younger sister, Conqueror.”

I immediately had a plan. “Thank you, Demitrius,” I said before departing the library. Returning to my bedchamber, I immediately summoned Palaemon.

Palaemon is my most loyal Commander, the highest-ranking officer of my Imperial Guard, and the closest thing I have to a friend. Although he’s young and rather egotistical, he has earned my respect through efficiency and competence on the battlefield, and through somehow possessing a thorough understanding of my eccentric nature.

“You summoned, My Liege?” he inquired as he entered my chamber.

“Yes,” I began. “I want you to dispatch word to Commander Glaphyra immediately that I will be needing both her services in surveillance and in her theatrical skills.”

I handed him a scroll with notes I had written. “Take this to her personally,” I continued. “You are to leave immediately. Take a squadron of men with you. I will rendezvous with you and your squadron in Salonica in 24 candlemarks. Got it?”

“Somehow I think this has something to do with that pretty little courtesan of yours, eh Conqueror?” Only Palaemon could speak to me like that and live, but I still had to make him sweat.

“Do you enjoy breathing, Palaemon?”

“Yes I do, My Liege.”

“Then shut your ass and do as I say!”

“By your will, Conqueror.” He bowed and briskly departed, but I bet he had a smirk on his face all the while.

Palaemon obviously knows how much I love Gabrielle.

That evening, I summoned Gabrielle to my bedchamber. She had obviously been crying all afternoon. I truly didn’t know how to handle this. I too lost a sibling a long time ago. No one was there to comfort me in that loss, so I guess I never learned how to mourn. I also didn’t want to let on that I knew about her sister, so I acted as though I was ready for her to perform when I grabbed her face and asked her why she had been crying.

It angered me that she didn’t immediately answer. Had I been Demitrius the words would have flowed out like water. That wasn’t her fault, yet I found myself yelling at her and demanding an answer. She told me about Lila. I suspect she was afraid that she would be getting Demitrius in trouble by telling me. It is so wonderful how she is always concerned about the well being of others. She knew she had to tell me where she got her information, but she also started providing excuses for his actions. She didn’t understand that I wasn’t the least bit concerned about that. When she called him her friend, that awful wave of jealousy hit me again and I accused her of having an affair with him. I could tell from her expression when I made the accusation that she must have thought I had gone completely insane. I have to admit, it sounded pretty crazy to me too when I said it.

Then I asked her if she wanted to see her sister. I felt knots in my stomach as I spoke the words. I’m sure she didn’t have any idea where I was coming from. I didn’t either. Was I just going to allow her to leave the palace, Corinth, the Peloponnese, me, to journey to far off Macedonia to see her dead sister?

I told her she could go, but that she was to make her own travel arrangements, and I gave her a week to be with her family. She was in mourning, but she couldn’t have looked happier. I, on the other hand, felt something I don’t believe I’ve ever felt before. I was hurting. I was granting her freedom from me, albeit temporary, and that thought must have brought her so much joy. My heart could have exploded at the thoughts that ran through my mind. I have successfully conquered most of the known world. And in my own little world I hurt Gabrielle so much for so long because I wanted her to hate me. In that world, I was successful too.

Gabrielle was so happy that she forgot herself and started to walk out before being dismissed. I wasn’t going to let her go without taking me with her. She still had yet to perform her duties with me. After she licked my sex, I took hers into my mouth. Her climax was wild and loud and she didn’t notice the single tear that fell from my eye.

That tear shocked me.

I allowed Gabrielle to return to her bedchamber that night. Once she was gone, I set out to Solonica for my rendezvous with Palaemon and his squadron. I carried her woman smell with me.

Glaphyra is the Chief Commander of my forces in northern Macedonia and Thrace. I don’t know much about her formative years, except to know that she was a cunning spy and meticulous assassin when she joined my ranks. We were lovers for a short time when we fought together against the Roman forces in Gaul, but I’m almost embarrassed to admit, her sexual appetites were too, shall we say, exotic, even for my tastes.

Among other things, Glaphyra had a passion for theatrics. Had she not taken up the sword, she would have made a talented dramatist or bard. The note I sent her instructed her to travel to Poteidaia posing as a Priestess from the Temple of Demeter and convince Gabrielle’s mother not to burn Lila’s body for two days. I figured that would give Gabrielle enough time to reach Poteidaia and see her sister one last time.

Just before my arrival in Salonica, Palaemon had honored an order from me as well. I had him take to Gabrielle’s mother a chiton that Illiana had made for the body. This garment was not nearly as nice as the ones she makes for my Gabrielle, but it was more than I suspected Gabrielle’s parents could afford.

I had every confidence in Gabrielle to find transportation to Poteidaia. She has many friends in the palace who travel the countryside and I was proud of her when I received word from two scouts of Palaemon’s squadron that “The Conqueror’s blond concubine found her way to her parents’ home,” as they reported.

Of course, it was something that I was going to make happen for her even if she had not made her own arrangements for travel.

We camped outside of Poteidaia during her stay. That first night, Palaemon and Glaphyra were constantly questioning my motives for being there. I tried to convince them that I felt it necessary to monitor her movements as protection from my legions of enemies, who could do great harm to her as retaliation against me if she were abducted. They weren’t buying it.

“But Conqueror, if I may so inquire,” Glaphyra asked, “Why is it necessary for YOU to be here? Surely, Palaemon and myself as commanders of two of your most elite fighting forces are competent enough to protect a simple body slave.” She thought for a moment, then added, “Why are we here? Is surveillance over this house whore of yours a matter of Imperial security, my Liege?”

I’m sure Palaemon felt some level of pity toward his colleague as she was wincing in pain from my blow to her face. I threw a linen cloth at Glaphyra, who was withering on the ground trying to reset the cartilage in the nose I had just broken. “For the blood,” I said, indicating the cloth. “If you ever call her that again, Commander, I’ll gut your entrails and feed them to your horse.”

Later that evening, when I was alone brooding in my field tent, Palaemon entered.

“May I speak, My Liege?” he started.

“What is it, Commander?”

“Commander Glaphyra didn’t mean any disrespect to your Majesty or the Realm, Conqueror,” he said.

“I know that, Commander.” I replied.

He continued, “She’s not aware of the special nature of your relationship with the young body servant.”

“What do you mean ‘special nature,’ Commander?”

Palaemon hesitated, and then I’m sure somewhere in that male bravado mind of his he felt he had nothing to lose. “If I may say so, Majesty, the fact that you’re in love with Gabrielle.”

“GET OUT!” I shouted. “Get the fuck out!”

“Yes, my Liege.”

After he exited my tent as though he were being chased by Bacchae, I started contemplating different ways to execute him. I am often angry with Palaemon. He challenges me in ways no one else ever would. However, by the time Morpheus claimed me that night, I had decided to let him live, again.

The following morning, two of Glaphyra’s scouts reported to me that Gabrielle was already in the village marketplace and appeared to be purchasing goods. Almost as an afterthought, one of them added that she was in the company of another small blond-haired woman. I immediately headed for town, making no announcement to my two commanders, who were too busy arguing over whom was the greater battle god, Ares or Artemis.

I watched Gabrielle with the woman I would learn is named Seraphin. I immediately disguised myself as a visiting priest of Delphi, hiding out mostly in the village tavern, drinking ale and nourishing my growing rage. I watched them hugging and giggling and holding hands. It took every level of restraint for me not to slice that bitch in two with my chakram. I had spent countless candlemarks over the years agonizing over the desire men had for my Gabrielle. But just the thought of her in the arms of another woman was sure to doom me to complete and total madness.

When Seraphin went over to Gabrielle’s parents’ home at night, I concealed myself under Gabrielle’s bedroom window. The voices in conversation were muffled, but the laughter was clear. I didn’t know that while I was watching my Gabrielle with that bitch, Palaemon was watching me. The second time I had followed her to Gabrielle’s, I had decided I was going to kill her. While concealing myself in some bushes, Palaemon saw the blade come out from under my cloak and rushed me from behind before I could make my move.

“What in Tartarus do you think you’re doing?” I exclaimed.

“I’m sorry, my Liege, but I can’t allow you to kill that innocent girl.” He had his powerful arms wrapped around mine from behind and his hand was gripping the hand that held the weapon.

“You must want to die tonight, Palaemon.” I said and before he had time for it to register, he was on the ground and my dagger was propped against his throat.

“It’s not what you think, my Liege,” he started. “I’ve been watching them as well. They have been friends since childhood. They are close friends, that’s all. Gabrielle would never betray you, Conqueror. She loves you.”

I felt like the dagger was slicing my own throat. “You don’t know what you’re fucking talking about, Commander,” I said. “Gabrielle hates me. I’ve made damn sure of it.”

The blade was starting to break skin. He continued, “With all due respect, you’re wrong, my Liege. I have eyes. I see. And I have ears. I hear. She wants to understand you. Sure, she hates what you’ve done to her. She hates what you’ve denied her and she hates what you’ve denied yourself. She probably doesn’t even realize it herself, but Conqueror, trust me on this one, she loves you.”

I removed the knife. “Don’t kill the girl, Conqueror,” he said. “You are so close.”

At the time, I didn’t know what he meant by that, but I once again felt defeated by his logic. We returned to camp and the following morning, I set out for my return to Corinth. Per my instruction, Palaemon remained and continued his surveillance of Gabrielle. I felt he would insure her safe return to my city. I ordered Glaphyra to return to her command post in Thrace. I paid her a handsome bonus for assistance in this “special” mission and for suffering a broken nose. Understanding me the way she does, Glaphyra didn’t seem to hold a grudge. Before I departed, she said in jest, “I owe you one, Conqueror.”

“That you do, Commander,” I replied as I smiled at my loyal officer.

The night that Gabrielle returned to me, I had made a huge mistake. I retreated to my bedchamber and drank. Not enough to intoxicate me, but enough to call out my inner demons. I started in the late afternoon. As I consumed the ale, I looked over at my bed and started forming images in my mind of Gabrielle and that Seraphin in my bed together. I pictured that cunt sucking Gabrielle’s breasts, kissing Gabrielle’s lips, rolling her tongue around Gabrielle’s honey-colored patch above her sex, and sticking her peasant fingers into my Gabrielle’s core. I pictured her fucking my Gabrielle. I heard Gabrielle’s moans. Heard her cries of passion and when I heard in my mind her shout the name “Seraphin,” I threw my mug across my bedchamber where it smashed against a wall.

When Gabrielle entered my chamber that evening, I wanted nothing more than to hug her and profess my undying love for her. But my demons had taken over and I literally watched in horror as those demons struck Gabrielle with a force to send her flying to the ground.

I accused her of betraying me with that little bitch. Gabrielle denied it and tried to explain the nature of their friendship. I wasn’t listening. As I paced the room, those images swirled in my head. Then Gabrielle told me that she told Seraphin that I didn’t love her. Before I could stop myself, I was on top of Gabrielle, dagger in hand, prepared to commit murder.

I didn’t think I was capable of experiencing more pain than when she dared me to kill her, begged me to do it. The darkness in her eyes, the sheer hatred behind them was enough to cause my heart to stop beating. I believe it did for a moment.

I threw the dagger and got up off of her. Then I collapsed on the floor and tried desperately not to cry. Looking at the hands that have taken hundreds of lives and came very close to taking the life of my beloved, I told Gabrielle that I loved her. I didn’t say it in those words, but I conveyed it the best way I knew how. Because I was incapable of really saying it, I wanted to show her just how much I love her. I told her to come to me and when she did, I hugged her with such force, with such conviction, that nothing else in this world mattered.

As she cried in my arms, mourning her sister I assume, I held her and did my own mourning. I mourned the lost years. I mourned all of the time I wasted being a complete and total bitch to her. I mourned all of the joy we could have shared, the fun we could have had, and the love we could have made. I mourned for all of the scars I put on her body and the humiliation I subjected her to, the names I called her and the words of endearment I denied her. I wanted to tell her that she doesn’t belong to me. I belong to her. I would kill for her. I would die for her. And I don’t deserve her.

But I was paralyzed to speak. All I could do was wipe her face.

I lay with her that night. For the first time, I didn’t deny myself the pleasure of her warmth and closeness. I held her in my arms as we slept.

I have seen my Gabrielle more the last week than I have ever seen her. We have been sharing meals together more. I’ve seen her in the courtyard when I conduct training. She has been present for some of my meetings with my regional politicians. She reads to me from her scrolls. And at night, we lie together naked and embrace.

The first night after the night of her return from Poteidaia, we each drank a goblet of sweet red wine in bed. As I embraced her afterwards, I told her about a trip I was planning to Crete. I didn’t mention this to her, but I had planned on taking her with me. It wasn’t a military operation. I merely had some matters of state with my governor there. I had never taken Gabrielle with me when I traveled. In battle, focus on the opponent is everything. And in politics, a savvy but distraught governor or magistrate can be more dangerous than a skilled warlord full of bloodlust. The last thing I needed was her presence to distract me in either situation. Now, however, the thought of her accompanying me made it feel like a holiday.

Strange, but our embrace did not lead to sex.

The following night, I asked about Lila. She was reluctant to respond, but I was curious to know about her sister. Once she started to open up to me, Gabrielle prattled on as though she was speaking to Demitrius. Her frequent glances at me suggested to me that maybe she was worried that I was finding her tone too casual. She didn’t realize just how ecstatic I was at that casualness, however.

Although I held her soft nubile body as she spoke, we didn’t have sex that night either.

The following night, as I again held her in an embrace, I told her about a military campaign I might be forced to attend. My Imperial commanders in the Roman territories had sent word to me that the Roman dissident Marcus Antonius was building legions of plebeians in an attempt to overthrow my stronghold there. As I spoke, I noticed a real look of concern on her face. My heart felt several degrees warmer. Morpheus took us early that evening and, alas, there was no sex.

The following night, I was becoming quite frustrated. When we relaxed in an embrace, her lovely soft body and sweet smell were becoming too much to resist. I reached over and grabbed my phallus. It had been a long while since I had last used it, but I was now badly feeling the urge. When I noticed the expression on Gabrielle’s face when she saw it, the urge was instantly gone. I asked her if she enjoyed my phallus. She told me, quite bluntly, that she hated it. I don’t know why, but I found her frankness terribly amusing. I’m sure she was offended by my laughter, but she was instantly relieved when I put the thing away. I’d been enjoying this embracing thing. Why ruin it?

The following day I wrapped my prized artificial male member and the strap that holds it in place on my body in some thick parchment and had it delivered to Glaphyra in Thrace. I’m sure she’ll get a kick out of it.

That night I was feeling very mischievous, probably from lack of sex. When Gabrielle crawled into bed with me, I immediately wrapped my arms around her as I had done the last four days. Holding her against me, I started to lightly pinch her ribs. She flinched.

“Are you ticklish, Gabrielle?” I asked, beaming.

“Yes, my Lady,” came the muffled reply as her face was buried in my neck.

“Where?”

“Where you’re pinching me, my Lady.”

“Is that so.” And with that I began digging my hands into her skin, tickling her like nonsense. Her laughing was deep and wonderful. I began laughing.

“You know, I’m ticklish too, Gabrielle.” I said between chuckles. “On my neck.”

Without hesitation, it was an invitation my sweet Gabrielle seemed glad to accept.

It went on only a few moments, but our hands were wildly groping and our laughter was strong. I couldn’t believe it. I, the Destroyer of Nations, was playing with my body servant. When we came down from this exuberance, we resumed our embrace. I began stroking her hair. Morpheus was going to claim me very soon, but before he did, I whispered in Gabrielle’s ear, “Was that fun, Gabrielle?”

She was dozing off. “Yes, my Lady,” she whispered back. “It was.”

The following day, I was needed in Athens. I left early in the morning and didn’t return until after nightfall. I immediately summoned Gabrielle, who had spent most of her day writing in her scrolls in the library. I was exhausted. Most of my day had been spent strategizing with Palaemon and my other local commanders about this Marcus Antonius situation. My presence in Rome seems imminent.

When she arrived, as had been the situation the last five nights, I was already in bed. When she joined me, I wanted to tell her that I would probably be sailing to Rome within the next two days, but I decided against it. This was our time together and it had been wonderful the last few days. I wasn’t about to ruin it by filling her ears with matters of warfare. I just wanted to hold her. When she settled in my arms, I was almost immediately asleep. The last thing I remembered before sleep claimed me though was rubbing her bare back and thinking just how good it was to be able to touch her while she was awake and experiencing my affections.

The next evening, last night to be exact, I began preparing myself for a night of wild and wonderful sex. I dressed in one of my regal chitons and pampered my skin with a fine scented cream. I even wore my laurel wreath to give me the “Empress of the Known World” look. I wanted to look and smell special for my Gabrielle. I instructed her to report to me in one of Illiana’s finer creations. Of course, what she wore didn’t matter really. We had taken a week’s break and after six nights of holding that wonderfully sexy naked woman against me, I was about to explode.

Last night, however, Gabrielle and I made love for the first time.

It was so incredible, so wonderful. I had never thought I could ever feel a greater pleasure. In my younger days, when I was in the process of conquering the known world, I had come across some exotic plants in the east that altered the mind when one smoked them. I was told then that there was no greater high than what these drugs brought, and I experimented with them to experience that feeling. Yes, I got high then, but nothing, absolutely nothing compares to the “high” I experienced last night.

It was love and lust and passion all rolled into one. It was warmth and heat and coolness interacting; a strange temperature rising and falling and then rising again. It was hard touches and soft ones. Sex is mechanical. You rub me hard enough and long enough, and just the right way, I’m going to climax. But this wasn’t just sex. I was able to feel every inch of Gabrielle without touching her, go deep inside of her without penetrating her. It was as if we blended, mind, body and soul.

And we kissed! Did we ever kiss! We kissed the way I’d been craving to do from the first time I laid eyes on her. Our tongues played and wrestled and suckled. But to hear her moans in my mouth and to moan in hers, I just couldn’t believe that all those years I denied myself, and her, this magnificent sensation.

After I experienced the greatest climax of my life, and at the same time listened to the ecstasy of her screams of release, I relaxed my body on her. I felt euphoric. After removing my saturated fingers from her sweet-tasting core, I began licking them. But when she lightly, innocently, kissed my cheek, all of my emotions came crashing into me. I began to cry, and my pride wouldn’t let me share that cry with her. I got off of her and marched away, telling her to leave. Palaemon must have been right. The way she ran out of the room, sobbing, confirmed for me that she did indeed love me too. All of this overwhelmed me even more and I couldn’t stop crying. But I also couldn’t leave her alone any longer either. I needed to be with her, tears or no tears. I ran after her and, peeking in her bedchamber, asked her to come back to me. I was still too shy to let her see me that way, so I galloped back to my chamber and literally jumped onto the bed. I frantically wiped my face on my blankets.

When she returned, Gabrielle lay down next to me. She didn’t remove her garment, as I had required over the years. She was pissed. I couldn’t even look at her, yet I found her defiance endearing. My lip curled and a single tear escaped my eye. Then she looked at me and, saying it in the same silly way that I said it to her last week, she told me that she loved me.

Gabrielle called me by my name last night. I haven’t heard my name spoken, without “The Conqueror” behind it in almost seven years. I had never heard her say it. All of a sudden, the word “Xena” became the second most beautiful word in my vocabulary, second, of course, to “Gabrielle”.

I took her in my arms and planted her on top of me. Then she actually said to me, “I love you, Xena.” Now it truly doesn’t matter if I don’t end up in the Elysian Fields when I cross over. As far as I’m concerned, I’m there now. After I was sure she was asleep, I leaned down and whispered in her ear, “I love you too, Gabrielle. More than life itself.” I then promised myself to let her hear me speak those words while she was actually conscious to receive them, and soon.

When I rose this morning, she was gone. Normally, I would have considered this a gross insubordination of an indentured servant. But I’m not thinking like that anymore, not when it comes to her. I have found her in her bedchamber, quilling away as she so enjoys. I have made a decision about Gabrielle. I am granting her freedom. In what’s left of this life, in whatever she decides to do with that freedom, I will be at peace in the knowledge that from now on, we will be Xena and Gabrielle to each other and I will love her forever.

Story #3 The Antonius Situation

I. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG

A new era of the Realm began the morning I freed Gabrielle.

That morning began with me waking and finding myself alone in my bed. I quickly threw on a tunic and headed for Gabrielle’s bedchamber. I knew she’d be either there or in the Imperial library. I tried the bedchamber first because, frankly, with the fragrance of our wonderful night of lovemaking still emanating from her body, I imagined she’d want to wash first before being in the presence of my elderly librarian and her close friend, Demitrius.

I found Gabrielle in her chamber writing in one of her many scroll. After watching my Gabrielle write for a few moments, quietly, like a wild cat slowly moving, as it would be going for its prey, I walked up behind her. I suspect she sensed the heat from my body as her first sign that I was in the room. She quickly jumped up from her seat and faced me. Her face was beet red and her hands were behind her back. I suspected that she was gripping the table for dear life. She looked terrified.

“My Lady,” Gabrielle started. “I’m sorry for dismissing myself from your service without permission. I have no excuse.” Despite her submission, she didn’t bow her head and her eyes never left mine.

Gabrielle didn’t realize it, but I was far more terrified in what I was about to do. My heart pounded in my chest and my palms sweat so badly that I began frantically rubbing them on the sides of my tunic. I wanted to take her hands in mine, but I was afraid she’d notice just how moist they were.

“Gabrielle,” I began. “I want to talk to you.” I took in a large breath of air and continued. “I… I have come to a decision. I… I have decided…”

I stopped for a moment. My heart was beating too fast and I was afraid I was going to hyperventilate. Gabrielle’s terrified look had relaxed somewhat to that of utter confusion.

“Gabrielle,” I began again. “Um… You’re free.”

She had no reaction. That wasn’t unexpected. Emancipation is almost unheard of in my Realm. I’ve never personally freed anyone before. Never had a reason to. Now here I was making the most important decision of my life and I feared I was going to pass out from it.

I took in another deep breath. “I’m freeing you. I will have Demitrius make the appropriate annotations in the official scrolls. I… I can’t have you as my body slave anymore. I don’t want you as my body slave anymore.”

That came out too harshly. Much to my surprise, Gabrielle’s expression seemed to take on one of disappointment. I needed to explain myself.

“Gabrielle, if you ever again allow me the pleasure of making love with you, I want it to happen because you want it to, not because you are required to. Understand?”

By the gods, that felt good to say. I watched in amazement as that beautiful face went from concern to joy. Gabrielle smiled and reached out her hands and took mine away from their safe nesting places crumpling the sides of my tunic. But when she drew both my hands to her mouth and planted a light kiss on each hand, my legs gave out on me and I dropped to my knees at her feet. I pulled my hands away from hers and threw my arms around her waist. Then I buried my face in the crook between her soft breasts and started wailing. “Oh gods, Gabrielle, I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” My apologies went on almost incoherently. “Please… please forgive me!”

As I babbled on like a lunatic, my mind was sharp with the thoughts that frightened me about this decision. I was granting Gabrielle freedom. She could now choose to stay at the palace as a paid servant, if a position was available to her, or she could choose to leave the palace and go wherever she pleases. Of course, my single biggest fear was that she would elect to leave Corinth and return to her birthplace, the tiny village of Poteidaia, which is an almost two-day ride from here. Even if she chooses to stay here in Corinth, I told myself, she’s not going to stay with me after all I’ve done to her. Holding her and thinking as I did, the Conqueror in me wanted to force her to make the decision to stay with me. Even with her freedom, Gabrielle still belongs to me, I reasoned. I’m not letting her go anywhere. I fought hard to dismiss those possessive thoughts as I cried on.

Of all the thoughts that sailed through my mind, the one that never occurred to me was the thought that she’d actually want to stay with me.

I looked up at Gabrielle. I’ve never cried in front of her before. I must have appeared frightening to her with my tear-stained face and bloodshot eyes. I’m sure she found seeing the Destroyer of Nations crying like a baby amusing. She wiped away the wetness under my eyes with her thumbs and cupped my cheeks in her palms. Then I heard a low rumble under my chin.

“I’m hungry, Xena,” she said. “Are you hungry?”

Count on my dear Gabrielle to find the most intense and emotional time to think about her stomach.

“I could eat something.” I whispered.

I rose to my feet and now looked down at the most beautiful woman in the known world. “Have you any ideas about what you’re going to do with your newfound freedom?”

I was petrified at what the answer might be.

“May I walk the streets of Corinth, Majesty?” she asked. “I’ve always wanted to talk to the street vendors and roam in and out of the shops.”

“You’re free, Gabrielle.” I said, sighing deeply with relief. “You can do whatever you want.” I thought for a moment, and then asked, “Will you be staying on here in the palace?”

Gabrielle smiled at me. “Yes, Majesty, if I may.”

“I would like that, Gabrielle.”

* * * *

Gabrielle and I ate a hearty meal of fresh baked bread, boiled fowl and a vegetable tray. Then we bathed together where we spent as much time kissing as we did washing. Kissing is still a very new exploration for us. And I do love kissing Gabrielle. I wanted nothing more than to spend the day kissing her, talking to her, holding her and making passionate love with her, but I had important battle matters waiting. After our bath, I headed for the Imperial library. I told Demitrius to prepare the official emancipation annotations for Gabrielle. For a moment, I thought he was going to faint. I also told him not to make the proclamation public knowledge, not yet. With my impending departure, I felt it safer for people to continue in the assumption that Gabrielle was my slave. It is quite simple. In my Empire, if one does damage to my property, one dies. I did instruct Demitrius to make sure that all of the palace guards were informed that Gabrielle was to be allowed unrestricted passage though the various palace exits.

I then retreated to the war council chamber in the palace. My two Corinthian commanders were present and waiting for me. Commander Palaemon is the head of my Imperial Guard. Commander Petracles heads my Corinthian Army. Petracles is a former lover. He’s brash and arrogant, like Palaemon, but older and not nearly as sharp and insightful. My Corinthian Army is a much larger force than my Imperial Guard. Petracles’ forces are the military presence for the entire Peloponnese, excluding Athens and the surrounding region of Attica, which has its own separate Army. And although Petracles commands my Corinthian Army with precision and possesses keen tactical and maritime skills, I would never trust him with the uniquely trained elite of my Imperial Guard. The Guard is the main enforcement of my law upon Corinth and the special Army to the Palace. It is essentially everything that represents Xena the Conqueror. While my various Armies serve to protect my various lands and city-states, the Imperial Guard serves to protect my inner world and me. These are men and women I must trust with my life. Thus, when I go into battle, certain battalions of the Guard always accompany me.

“Commanders,” I started. “I trust you’ve been briefed on our situation in Rome.”

“We have, my Liege,” Palaemon responded. “Our forces in the Apennines say Marcus Antonius and a still yet unidentified Greek traitor are building legions in the territories surrounding the mountains.”

“Commanders,” I queried. “As of now, do our Roman forces and the Sabine and Etruscan allies outnumber the Antonius legions?”

“Our intelligence sources say ‘yes’ for now, Conqueror,” Petracles chimed in. “But I don’t think we should be liberal about the number of troops we choose to send.”

“I’m never liberal, Commander Petracles.”

“Of course not, Conqueror,” he said with that familiar smirk on his face. I chose then to ask myself what was it that I ever saw in the man.

“Who is his greatest enemy next to me, if you know, Commander?”

Petracles couldn’t answer, but Palaemon knew, as did I. “Gaius Octavius, my Liege. Caesar’s adopted son and Governor of Rome,” he said.

A plan immediately began brewing in my head.

“If I may so inquire, Conqueror,” Petracles started. “You look absolutely radiant.”

“Where in Tartarus is this coming from?” I asked.

“I’m just wondering,” he responded ever so smugly. “Is there a new ‘friction’ stroking that royal button of yours, Majesty?”

“Lay off, Petracles,” Palaemon stepped in. “It’s more than that, much more.”

“Shut up, Palaemon.” The last thing I needed was Palaemon, a male subordinate, feeling the need to protect my honor against another male subordinate. I also wasn’t in any hurry for my entire military leadership to learn that I was hopelessly in love.

“Oooohh, more,” Petracles ranted on. “So is it you, my man? You been slipping her your ‘Imperial Guard.’”

Palaemon laughed. “Absolutely not. I don’t even come close.”

All of a sudden, Petracles forgot I was in the room. “Who is the lucky guy then? One of your captains? One of those brazen young bucks on your surveillance detail? Or is Xena the Conqueror chasing hydras again? I’d thought she’d given up harlots after that fine piece of Amazon ass in Thessaly. You know, the one that commands the two battalions near Pharsalus. What was her name?”

“No, it’s no Amazon and Gabrielle’s no ‘harlot!’” Palaemon shouted.

“Shut up Palaemon!” I repeated loudly.

“By the gods! That little irritating blond body slave! I’m sure she’s a very qualified lay but I can’t believe…” He couldn’t finish his sentence because he lost consciousness after I kicked him in his chest, which caused him to sail to the far wall, smash into it and then land on his face.

“I don’t need for the Commander of my Corinthian Army to spend this entire mission in the ship infirmary, Commander,” I said to a not-so stunned Palaemon. “I need him alive and kicking, at least for now. So make sure he keeps his fucking mouth shut.”

“Yes, my Liege.”

“Have him carried to the ships and have someone look at his chest. I felt a crunch in his ribs when I kicked him.”

“Yes, my Liege.”

I continued in my barking orders. “I also want you to immediately notify my Athenian Army Commanders that for the duration of this campaign, they are to join with the remaining Corinthian forces by expanding their military protection to include Corinth and the surrounding regions.”

“Yes, my Liege.”

“And Commander Palaemon,” I added, “When I tell you to shut up, you shut up.”

“By your will, Conqueror.”

He smiled mischievously. I rolled my eyes.

“Then lets get to the docks, Commander, and start loading the warships.”

________________________________________

II. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY

I’m free! I am satiated heart and soul with good food and I am free! After our wonderful bath this morning, the morning that she decided to grant me my freedom, the Conqueror left to go talk war with her army Commanders. In a haze, I wandered to the library. Demi approached me and gave me a hearty, warm hug.

“Oh Demi,” I said. “She freed me.”

“I know, dear,” he replied. “The Conqueror told me to prepare the annotations. Would you like to see the scroll that emancipates you?”

“Oh yes!” As I read through it, I began to cry.

“Demi,” I said. “I don’t really know what this means.” I fully understood the words, but I couldn’t begin to conceive of their implications. Freedom had become as unknown to me as the world beyond the palace walls. Demi understood.

“I know, Gabrielle,” he replied. “I don’t really know what this means either.”

“Where is she now?” I asked.

“I do believe the Conqueror’s in meetings with her battle commanders.”

“I’m going to find her.” And with that announcement, I hugged my dear friend and left the library heading for the war council chamber. When I arrived there, I found it empty. I went to the central courtyard. Empty. The palace barracks and the Imperial Guard mess hall were also void of the Conqueror’s presence. Maybe the palace guards will know something, I thought. My heart began to pound in my chest as I approached the front gates to the palace. I had never walked across those gates before. Even when I left the city to attend my sister’s funeral two weeks ago, I left the palace, and thus the city, aboard a vegetable carriage from a rear palace shipment gate.

I could feel the eyes of the two palace gate guards burning into me as I slowly walked past them. I turned to face them both. Their eyes were now off of me and staring straight ahead. One of the earliest things I learned in my service to the Conqueror was that the men of her armies and Imperial Guard knew there was a price to pay for looking at me too attentively.

Now I knew I was free. Otherwise, the guards would have grabbed me and detained me until I could be dragged to the Imperial dungeon to await punishment for insubordination. I looked at the guard to my left first. He was tall and fair and had a prominent scar on his left cheek. The other guard was shorter, leaner and very nice looking. His darker complexion and curl in his hair told me he was of the race of people from the great lands south of the Mediterranean Sea.

“Could either one of you tell me where I might find the Conqueror?”

Their heads didn’t turn, but their eyes looked at each other. “Please?” I added.

A long moment passed before the tan-skinned guard spoke. “Her Majesty is at the warship docks.”

“Can I get there on foot?” I asked.

He now turned his head to the fair-skinned guard who was shaking his head in a “don’t-tell-her-or-the-Conqueror-will-skin-you-alive” fashion. The darker guard looked down considering his options, I suspect.

“If you walk down this road to the main road leading to the agora,” he finally spoke. “But head left instead of right, you will see the docks a few lengths down. The warship docks are at the very end to your right. If Her Majesty is not on the docks, she’ll be on one of the ships there.”

“Thank you, Guard.” As I began to chart my destination, I heard one voice behind me saying, “You’re a dead man, Bahri.”

* * * *

The warship docks were humming with activity. Soldiers of every ilk, centurions, hoplites and Imperial Guardsmen were loading weaponry, food and supplies on huge ships. I recognized the Conqueror’s Imperial Guard Commander Palaemon in the distance, giving orders to some of his men while looking over a series of scrolls. I perched myself on a covered barrel and waited for the Conqueror to emerge from one of the warships.

While I waited, I thought about what brought me here. I love Xena. I love this passionate and funny, evil and dangerous woman. Am I insane? How can I love her? Is it only because I believe she loves me? Is it only because I have not been afforded the opportunity to fall in love with another? Am I not capable of falling in love on my own accord? As I considered all of the reasons why I shouldn’t love her, loving her actually made all the more sense to me. I still felt as though I’d totally lost my mind though.

When she stepped off the plank of one of the ships, Xena spotted me right away. My stomach began churning as she approached me. I didn’t know what to expect. Custom dictated some form of punishment. What would freedom yield? I wondered. Without slowing her stride, she walked right up to me and lifted me off the barrel by putting one arm under my knees and the other behind my back. She then brought her lips to mine and kissed me hard and deep right in front of her troops. I threw my arms around her neck and returned the favor.

When we broke our kiss, I glanced over and saw Xena’s Imperial Guard Commander smiling at us. She followed my eyes and cocked her head as though to send a message to him to find something better to do. Palaemon seemed to get the signal because he immediately ducked behind two of his own men.

“I’m done here for now, Gabrielle,” she said. “Let’s head back to the palace.”

Xena put me down and we walked over to where her cream-colored palomino, Argo, awaited us. As we walked, she casually inquired of me how I managed to find her at the warship docks. I told her that one of her palace guards gave me directions and then immediately regretted telling her. Have I put that young man in danger? I asked myself. She didn’t seem angry, so I didn’t broach the subject. When we approached Argo, she mounted the mare first then grabbed my arm and pulled me up behind her. I threw my arms around her waist and held on for dear life as the horse galloped back toward the palace.

As we neared the gates, Xena asked, “Did you hold on this tightly when that man rode you to Poteidaia?”

“Yes, my Lady.” I responded, not surprised that she knew exactly how I made it to the village of my birth those weeks ago. “But he didn’t feel as nice.”

“Why don’t you call me Xena?”

“I’m not sure if it would be wise in front of your other subjects.” I whispered.

“Good point,” she responded. “Although I insist on it when we are in the comfort of my bedchamber.”

“By your will, Conqueror.”

Xena laughed.

When we approached the palace gates, she suddenly stopped Argo and climbed down. Both guards promptly saluted her.

“Which one of you gave Gabrielle directions to the warship docks?” Xena asked.

I became frightened. Had I forfeited a man’s life by a mere request for directions? I decided I would watch what course of action Xena would take, but, by the gods, I was going to do whatever it takes to prevent her from killing the man.

“It was I, my Liege,” the shorter guard spoke up.

Xena walked over to the shorter man and almost touched her face to his. “What is your name, Guard Corporal?”

“Bahri of Nepata, my Liege.”

“You answer to Guard Captain Archillius, correct?”

“Yes, my Liege.”

“Do you enjoy your service to my Realm, Egyptian?”

“Very much, my Liege.”

Xena stepped back and looked at me. She then returned her attention to the young Egyptian guard. “I think you have served as my palace gate guard long enough,” she said. Assuming she was going for her side dagger, I was about to dismount the horse and tackle her if need be to prevent her from killing him, but then her next words gripped me in my place. “I will instruct Guard Captain Archillius that you are to immediately assume security duty in the palace. And I think a raise is in order, say 25 dinars more per week.”

“By your will, Conqueror,” the young man said while trying desperately to suppress a smile. My sense of money is somewhat off, but I suspect 25 extra dinars a week for a young soldier is akin to a small fortune, especially if he’s single and childless.

Xena returned to Argo and me. “Climb onto my saddle,” she said. When I did, she climbed on behind me and wrapped her strong right arm around my waist pressing my body to hers. Although this position stirred a strange desire for her in me, I was still on a horse. Thus, I gripped the long saddle horn for dear life. She nuzzled her cheek on my head and, chuckling in my hair, grabbed the reigns with her left hand and guided Argo to the Imperial stables.

I had not been to the Imperial stables since that horrible incident four years ago which resulted in the hideous burn scar that stains my left shoulder blade. Images of that awful night; the memory of the stench of my burning flesh and the intense pain I experienced caused me to shake. Xena noticed because she wrapped her other arm around me from behind in a tight embrace. She then quickly dismounted the horse and approached that terrible man who branded me.

“My Liege,” he stood and bowed.

“Kier,” Xena began. “Is there some method to reverse a scar brought on by branding?”

“No, my Liege,” he responded. “Once the animal has been branded, the scar is permanent.”

“I’m not talking about an animal, Kier.” Her tone was that of anger and, I suspect, shame.

The stable master looked at me and frowned. At that moment, the hatred I harbored for him evaporated. I realized that he only did what was demanded of him those years ago. “I’m sorry.” His lips said in a noiseless whisper.

“Is there no potion? No antidote? Anything?” She inquired desperately, although it was obvious she knew the answer.

“Nothing, my Liege. The purpose of branding is permanence. I’m sorry.”

“Fuck!” Xena shouted. “Come on, Gabrielle.” I climbed down Argo and sprinted to catch up with Xena, who was walking at a fast pace toward the inner palace chambers. As we walked, neither one of us spoke. I didn’t know what to say to her. I was quite confused in my emotions. I hated her for what she did to me then. I think a part of me still hates her for it, but I also found myself actually feeling sorry for her in her guilt over permanently disfiguring my body. Love makes one totally illogical at times, I suppose.

All of a sudden, she stopped in her tracks, turned and looked at me. There was darkness in her eyes. “Go to the library, Gabrielle.”

“Xena, are you ok? Let’s talk about it.” I grabbed her forearm. She pulled it away.

“No, I need to be alone. Just go.” With that, Xena turned and continued down the corridor toward her bedchamber.

As I watched her walk down the corridor, anger built up in me. She had given me freedom, yet she was still ordering me around. I believe she loves me, but she won’t talk to me. She won’t share with me her inner pain. She won’t let me express mine. She won’t allow me to help both of us deal with our history together. Is this what freedom to Xena means? I thought. I can call her “Xena,” but everything else remains the same?
“I’m not going to the library,” I said to myself. “I’m free. I’ll do whatever I damn well please.” And with my newfound determination, I headed for Xena’s bedchamber.

______________________________

III. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG

I want to kill Kier. I want to kill him for fucking up Gabrielle’s back and not having the wisdom to fix it. I want to kill again that boy who threw me in that rage that caused me to order Kier to brand her. I banged my fists on my table and swiped at a vase sending it sailing across the room. Then I upended the table causing the rest of its contents to fly everywhere.

I went to another table and began smashing its contents with my fists. I didn’t care that shards of ceramic and glass were embedding in my flesh. As the blood flowed from my arms, I ripped tapestries off the walls and then marched over to the full-length limestone statue of myself that stood near my marble brazier and kicked the head off. I then stood in the middle of my bedchamber and let out an angry roar that almost deafened me. Under all the noise I was making and havoc I was raising, I heard my bedchamber door open and saw Gabrielle step in.

“WHAT ARE YOU FUCKING DOING HERE!?!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. “I told you to go to the library!”

“Am I still free?” came the quiet, terrified reply.

“What?” I asked, and then answered, “Yes, you’re free.”

“Then I chose to come here, Xena.”

I literally felt my body deflate. I was losing equilibrium fast so I walked over to my bed and sat. I was so enraged at that moment. I could hurt her so badly right now, I thought. Don’t hurt her! I pleaded to myself. Gabrielle started slowly walking toward me.

“Don’t come near me,” I demanded.

“But you’re bleeding. I want to help…”

“I said stay back!” I just needed to stop shaking. I needed to calm down and reassure myself that the demons within me wouldn’t do anything to harm Gabrielle. I looked down at my arms and back up at her. She just stood there fighting tears. I once again succeeded in paralyzing her with fear. This is not how I wanted our life together to be. Her freedom to me meant that if she chose to share her life with me, our lives together would be that of lovers, of friends, of confidants, of equals. Now I was fighting tears. Can I ever repair the damage I’ve done to her, to me, to us? I started to feel the pain from the fresh wounds in my arms and began picking at the tiny pieces of glass and ceramic sticking out of my skin. Tears started dropping onto my arms as I picked. When I looked up at Gabrielle again, she was still standing in the same spot, but she had now allowed her own tears to flow. Without saying a word, I stretched out my arms in invitation. She came to me and threw herself on me, forcing me prone onto the bed. I threw my arms around her and hugged her tightly. We were like that for a very long time.

Finally I spoke. “I’m sorry about your shoulder, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle looked into my eyes. “Why did you do it, Xena?” she asked.

“You know,” I reminded her. “Because of the way you were looking at that young soldier.”

“What young soldier?” she inquired.

I was perturbed. “The one who… who watched.”

“Is that why he watched?” she responded. “Why you branded me? Because you thought I was looking at him?”

“Well, you were.”

“Conqueror, I faintly recall giving the man a friendly smile,” she said. “But I wasn’t ‘looking at him.’”

Gabrielle sighed deeply and then took her eyes off of me. She then returned her head to its resting place on my shoulder in a continuing embrace. I started staring at the ceiling. By the gods, I permanently scarred the woman I love and killed a man over a “friendly smile,” I thought. I felt like throwing up. My skin started to feel cold and clammy and I began trembling a little.

We remained in our embrace. Despite that, a tension rose between us. I wanted to cry, but I forced myself not to. Gabrielle didn’t cry either. I believed she was beyond crying over this. I needed to sooth her. I needed to sooth myself as well. So I then began softly stroking her hair and back. I will figure out a way to fix this, I promised myself.

There was another lapse of time before I spoke again. “I’m bleeding all over you, Gabrielle,” I said.

“I can help you bandage your arms if you like, Xena,” she said in my ear.

After a time, having her on top of me like that caused me to forget the pain in my arms. My desire for her, always present, was building fast and I found myself kissing her neck and shoulder. “Gods, you’re beautiful, Gabrielle,” I whispered seductively in her ear. “Making love right now would be so marvelous.”

Gabrielle had relaxed in my arms by then and had actually giggled, I assume at my attempt at seduction and my peculiar timing. “Can we clean and bandage your arms first, Empress?” she responded.

I grabbed her face in my hands. “You find my mountainous libido quite humorous, don’t you, Gabrielle?”

“Yes, my Lady,” she replied. “I do.”

Gabrielle was very thorough and meticulous in cleaning and bandaging my arms. Her precision was driving me crazy. Her close proximity to me, along with her sweet smell, was driving me even crazier. I wanted her to hurry up so that I could begin ravishing her body. I think she was taking her time on purpose so as to further torture me. As she was tying the last cloth strip to my arm, I proclaimed, “Ok, that’s good enough.” I then grabbed her wrists and forced her back on the bed. Straddling her waist between my legs, I stripped my body of my tunic and britches and then stared down at her and remembered something.

“Is this what you want too, Gabrielle?”

She beamed me a huge smile, pearly white teeth and all. “Absolutely, my Lady.”

I sighed. I guess it’s going to take a while for her to get use to calling me “Xena.”

* * * *

Gabrielle and I spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening engaging in this wonderful new adventure of lovemaking. I took charge first, gathering her in my arms and peppering her face with quick kisses and her ears with quiet endearments. I lowered her body and began sucking her breasts. Then, as I kneaded her breasts with my hands, I started licking her. I licked her hips and belly. I licked her inner thighs. Then I stuck my tongue inside of her center, thrusting it in and out. Then I licked all around her outer sex while I stuck three fingers inside of her. She grabbed my head with both hands and pushed me further onto her.

“XENA! OH XENA!” Her release hit hard. Her thighs scissored my head. My mouth smiled on her sex. That’s right Gabrielle, say MY name, woman! I thought. Hearing her say my name as she climaxed was, I felt, an uproarious accomplishment.

“My turn,” Gabrielle said.

Looking up at her, I asked, “What would you like?”

“Bring it to me here,” she responded. Her eyes were glazed with passion. I had seen it at times over the years, but I know she fought hard to suppress it. It was so wonderful that she desired me. It was even more wonderful to see her allow herself the freedom to express her own desires. This is why I freed you, Gabrielle, to witness that untamed desire, I thought as I straddled her face between my thighs. My sexual juices were dripping on her. That excited both of us even more as I lowered my center onto her mouth. I had had Gabrielle in this position countless times, but had never allowed either of us the pleasure of having my sex on her face this way. She moaned as she indulged in my throbbing, wet center. I could feel her tongue frantically absorbing all of me down there. Two of her fingers were manipulating my sphincter. Her other hand was wildly groping my body. This combination of sensations made me feel as though I was riding the waves of a storm only Poseidon himself could bring about. My climax came crashing onto me and I convulsed uncontrollably while grabbing the head-posts of my bed.

When I came down from release, she simply looked at me and said, “Your turn again.”

* * * *

Lovemaking had become a marathon between Gabrielle and me that day. It went on for candlemark after candlemark and was literally a race to see which one of us would drop from exhaustion first. We experimented with new and exciting positions and in between each sexually intimate round we hugged or tickled or massaged each other. I learned something very valuable about my love that day: when it comes to sexual stamina and the freedom to fully command it, Gabrielle of Poteidaia is as stubborn and determined as Xena the Conqueror.

We slept through the night long and hard in each other’s arms. I woke first the following morning. Then I looked down on Gabrielle’s sleeping form sprawled across my body and kissed the top of her head. She was such a vision. She was also snoring slightly, an obvious sign that I had been successful in my mission to wear her out. Yes, I even gloated to myself that morning. I had to smile, but it faded when I realized that in a few short candlemarks I would be on a ship to Rome to engage in a battle that may separate us for weeks, maybe months. I slowly reached over and pulled the cord that summoned my indentured chambermaid Mia. As she entered from the smaller side door leading into my bedchamber, I watched as she took in the carnage that I had made of the room. She walked right up to the bed and bowed. Modesty had never been an issue with me and, in my tyranny; Gabrielle had learned the hard way that it was not to be an issue with her either.

“Summon Commander Palaemon, Mia,” I said as I caressed my sleeping Gabrielle’s back. “Also, have one of your assistants prepare my personal chest for travel. I am going on a war mission. I expect the usual accoutrements. And have my bedchamber cleaned by the end of daylight, got it?”

“Yes, Majesty.”

“Oh,” I added. “And draw my bath.”

“By your will, my Lady.”

As she departed, I nudged Gabrielle. “Wake up, my little spitfire.”

Gabrielle groaned and pressed her face further into the crevice between my breast and arm. I started shaking her more heartily. I wanted her awake before Palaemon arrived. She wasn’t budging. Ah, this situation called for more drastic measures. With a sinister smile on my face, I threw her off of me. “Get up!” I said to her as I chuckled with mischievous glee.

Gabrielle was startled. I stood. “Sorry, Gabrielle,” I said. “But you are one hard woman to wake.”

She began wiping her eyes and taking the stray strands of hair off of her face. She was still very disoriented. “It’s all your fault,” she said, more to herself than me, but I heard it.

“Oh, and why is that?”

Gabrielle looked down at her sweaty, musky smelling and slightly bruised and bitten body. “You have to be so wickedly gorgeous,” she whispered.

She looked up at me and found me smiling from ear to ear, in her words, wickedly. “See what I mean?” she implored as her face went red.

A knock on my chamber door broke my euphoria.

Palaemon entered and Gabrielle immediately covered herself. When I looked at her, she merely cocked her head and said, “I’m free, Conqueror. Remember?”

Palaemon bowed and looked around the room. As this was not the first time I had ever destroyed my bedchamber during a temper tantrum, he was not immediately alarmed. Ever cautious, however, he drew his sword as he spoke his greetings. “Morning, my Liege. Morning, Gabrielle,” he said as he quickly averted his gaze. He had also skilled himself in not looking too closely at my naked body or the naked body of my love.

“Morning Palaemon,” I replied as I pondered various pleasurable punishments I could inflict on my sharp-tongued former body slave.

“Your arms, my Liege,” he inquired looking at my bandaged wounds. “Are you ok?”

I nodded and quickly changed the subject. “Am I to assume that Captain Archillius will not be joining our fleet?”

“Absolutely not, my Liege,” he responded as he re-sheathed his sword. Captain Archillius has faithfully served me since my days as the infamous Warrior Princess. He is an older man, very skilled in intelligence and security, but rather inept on the open battlefield.

“I want you to summon him here, along with that young brown-skinned corporal in his battalion.”

“You mean Bahri, your palace gate guardsman, Conqueror?”

“Yes.”

“By your will, Conqueror.”

As Palaemon departed, Gabrielle said teasingly to his turned back, “Good morning, Palaemon.”

A few moments later, three men, Palaemon, Archillius and Bahri, entered my bedchamber to observe two naked women wrestling like misbehaving school children on my bed. Gabrielle noticed them first and squealed.

“Oh shit!” I exclaimed while she grabbed the nearest blanket to cover herself. I threw on a nearby robe. “Don’t you know how to fucking knock?”

“Pardon me, my Liege, but I did knock.” Palaemon said.

I ignored him for the moment and turned my attention to the young Guard Corporal. Bahri is somewhat short and svelte, but taller than Gabrielle, and unusually beautiful. He’s much too pretty for a man. He also shows no evidence of ever growing any facial hair, although that’s not that unusual for men of Oromo or Ethiopian origin. But despite his youthful appearance, there also appears to be a wisdom in his eyes. He couldn’t be that young and be a member of my Imperial Guard. Thus, from his looks and masked effeminate demeanor, I immediately began to suspect that he was a sodomite. That would be perfect for my plan.

“Tell me your curriculum, Bahri of Napata.” I demanded of the young guard.

The Egyptian bowed and presented to me his honorable credentials. Born in Napata in the southernmost region of Egypt, he left home at 15 and sailed with pirates up the Nile to the shipping port city of Abu Simbel. He learned much from the pirates and continued his travels and lootings with them for the next five years. He looted cities and villages along the Nile, eventually ending up in the great city of Alexandria, where he decided to abandon piracy and instead take up the sword in land battle. At that time, the Dorians of Crete were recruiting Egyptian mercenaries to fight both my growing forces and the forces of my greatest enemy, Julius Caesar. Bahri joined the Dorians and sailed to Crete. When the Dorians of Knossos allied with my forces against Caesar, many of the mercenaries joined my Greek Army, including Bahri, where we successfully defeated the Romans there. Bahri must have proven himself competent in battle for him to be among my Imperial Guard now.

“Impressive, Bahri,” I said after he was finished. “How old are you?”

“I’m 26, my Liege.”

“You don’t look a day over 14, Guard Corporal,” I responded. “I have decided to reassign you. As you know I will be sailing to the outer Roman territories of Apulia by the end of the day. I want you to watch over Gabrielle while I’m gone. You are to be her bodyguard. See that no harm comes to her in my absence. If she should so much as suffer a hangnail, I’ll break your neck, do you understand me?”

A look of grave disappointment crossed his face. “Did I wrong you or the Realm somehow, my Liege?”

Enraged and insulted for my Gabrielle, I grabbed him by his neck and slammed him against my chamber door before Palaemon or Archillius could stop me. As I began choking him, I felt small hands grab at my left forearm. “Please stop! He thinks you’re asking him to watch over a slave, Conqueror.” It was Gabrielle.

I released Bahri who immediately began rubbing his neck. Asking a skilled warrior to watch a slave in my Realm is akin to asking him to watch over a kennel of dogs. I understood the insult to him.

Bahri needed the clarification. “Gabrielle is an emancipated citizen of Corinth. I want you to treat her and respect her as though she was my… my… my consort, Guard Corporal Bahri.” I was afraid to look at Gabrielle after that statement.

A renewed glee crept upon the features of that pretty face of his. “Yes, I understand, my Liege,” he said. “I will guard Gabrielle with my life.”

Even his voice is pretty. I was beginning to regret this decision. By the gods, I hope he’s a sodomite, for his sake, I thought as a budding jealousy loomed. “Very well.” Turning to Archillius, I said, “Guard Corporal Bahri is to receive an added stipend of 25 dinars per week effective immediately.”

“By your will, Conqueror,” he replied.

“Oh, and Captain,” I added, “If anything happens to Gabrielle, I’ll hold you just as responsible. You know what that means.”

“I do.”

* * * *

After the men departed, a long silence began between Gabrielle and me. Mia had prepared the bath and was already cleaning the chamber with two other slaves when Gabrielle and I got into the tub. We bathed in silence. For some reason, I couldn’t even meet her eyes. What am I so afraid of? I asked myself. I love her. She knows I love her. Why can’t I just say the words “I love you” to her? What in Tartarus is stopping me? I would catch her staring at me. I knew she wanted to talk, but I suspect she didn’t know what to say either. She possesses the skills of a scribe and a bard, but what does a bard, who also happens to be a former slave, say to her former mistress about being in love? There’s a part of me that just wants to tell her everything. I want to tell her that this love I feel isn’t new, that it was almost always there. But how can she possibly believe that. Much of what she’s experience with me hasn’t been loving. How can I rationally explain the pain to her that came with that love? Thanks to me, she doesn’t know that I love her. She doesn’t know just how much and something inside of me is paralyzing me from telling her.

After bathing in silence, we dressed in silence. The silence was driving me insane.

I looked at Mia and her assistant chambermaids cleaning and packing my battle garments for travel. I then looked at Gabrielle, who looked as though she was about to cry. “Come with me, Gabrielle.”

I saddled up Argo and rode her to the warship docks. At this point, much of the supplies were aboard the ships. We dismounted Argo and she was lead away to the ship stables. I then bashfully put my arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder and looked down at her. She was visibly crying now. The tears were flowing down her lovely cheeks, but she made not a sound.

Palaemon approached. “My Liege,” he greeted and bowed.

“How’s Petracles?”

“Better, Majesty,” he responded. “You cracked two ribs, but he’s well bandaged and will be able to navigate our ship across the gulf. Two advance ships departed last night, per your orders, Conqueror.”

“Excellent,” I said. “We will depart when my personal trunks arrive from the palace.” I looked at Gabrielle and then back at Palaemon.

“Summon Captain Archillius, Commander,” I continued. “Guard Corporal Bahri is to start his duty now.”

“By your will, Conqueror.”

“Now leave me alone with Gabrielle.” He departed and I turned to her. I gently placed her face in my hands and kissed her lips. I could taste the salt from her tears on her mouth. They could have been mine. I was crying now too.

Our kiss was deep and went on for several moments. She placed her hands on the back of my head to draw my face even closer. When we finally broke it, she looked around at the various soldiers trying desperately not to stare at us. They were invisible to me. At this moment, only Gabrielle and I existed.

When she returned her attention to me, rather unexpectedly she chose this moment to nervously chuckle. “I know what they’re thinking,” she whispered to me in reference to my men.

“What’s that?”

“They’re thinking, ‘isn’t it just like a typical woman Destroyer of Nations to fall in love with her body slave.’”

“So I’m in love, huh?”

“Are you?”

“Yes.”

I pulled her into a tight embrace. “Yes,” I repeated in her ear. “I’m so in love with you, Gabrielle.” There, I said it.

I needed to go now or I would never leave. I broke off the embrace and began backing away from her. Her lips mouthed in silence, “Please don’t do this.”

“I have to, Gabrielle,” I said. “But I’ll be back.”

“I love you!” She shouted. With those words piercing my inner ears, I turned and ran onto the ship. Once below deck, I retreated to my ship cabin where I locked myself inside and screamed and cried my agony of emptiness. I already missed her terribly.

I would be at war with Marcus Antonius for four months.

___________________________________

IV. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY

That first night after Xena left, I attempted to sleep in her bed. Her unique fragrance was billowing off the sheets and served no other purpose but to further torment me with her absence. I got out of there quick and ran to my own bedchamber where I collapsed on my bed and cried for hours.

This wasn’t fair!

We had finally reached that reality in our lives that I had always hoped for but had always dismissed as an intangible dream. She loved me. She freed me. She wanted me truly as a woman rather than as a piece of property. She was also learning to temper her violence, well, at least toward me. With more time, I could have worked with her, helped her understand that hitting, choking, kicking, stabbing and killing people wasn’t always the answer. But now she was off surrounding herself with blood, violence and murder. In the past, after a battle, Xena always returned to the palace with a particularly high level of anger and brutality. These were, by far, the worse times in my service to her. Now I feared something even greater. I feared this war would erase the transformation she underwent with me. Killing comes naturally to Xena. She had to learn how to love. Will this war take away all she had learned?

For the first few days, I remained secluded in my bedchamber. Bahri was very patient. He posted himself outside my door, making sure the meals I refused to eat came to me three times a day. Demi would wander by and talk with Bahri outside in the corridor. Neither one of them bothered me, but finally one day, Bahri knocked and entered my bedchamber uninvited.

“Ok, Gab,” he started. “That’s enough. You need to get out of here.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” I responded defiantly as I lay on my bed clutching my pillow.

“Yes, you are, girlfriend,” he said as he playfully grabbed my ankles and pulled me from the bed. “Take a bath, get dressed and meet me out in the corridor. We’re going shopping.”

Who is this man to barge into my bedchamber and spew his demands at me as though I was his whimpering wife? I thought as I shot Bahri an evil look. “Don’t look at me like that,” he responded. “I’m not going to have you wasting away in here. If the Conqueror comes back and finds you all emaciated and stinking like the gods know what, she’ll have my ass!”

He then simply left the room and waited for me outside of my chamber door. I stood there for a few moments and began to understand how one could want to bang someone else over the head with a baking pan. Then I washed, got dressed, wolfed down a piece of stale bread and joined my bodyguard for a day in the city marketplace.

Bahri is a very strange fellow, I concluded.

The next day, I returned to my favorite place in the library. Demi and I resumed one of our many debates about politics and philosophy, and whether or not Xena is evil incarnate or simply a misunderstood and lonely woman. Bahri seemed to find our discussions quite boring. One day, as Demi and I spoke about Greek versus Roman fashions, Bahri decided to join in.

“By the gods,” he started. “Don’t you two ever just talk about women?”

“What do you mean, Guard Corporal?” Demi asked.

“You know, about breasts and ass and soft skin and sex. Surely you’ve had a fulfilling life of sexual escapades, old man. And you Gab, sex with the ever-so-beautiful Conqueror could be a thrilling three-act drama.”

“Are you insane?” I implored. “We’re not two of your barracks buddies. And I’m a woman. Why would I want to discuss an obvious topic of leering single men?”

“Because you’re also Sapphic, Gab, that’s why.”

“I AM NOT!”

“Oh, really,” Bahri was laughing at me. “Then what do you call being a hydra who sexes another hydra?”

I stood up. “Get out!” I shouted, pointing to the library door.

“Oh no,” he responded ever so casually. “I’m your well-paid bodyguard. I’m not going anywhere. But I’ll shut up now.” He grabbed a scroll off the wall, sat down, put his feet up on our table and began to read, but added, “When you two decide to talk about something interesting, like women, let me know. We can swap war stories.”

When I looked at Demi, he was smiling. I couldn’t believe he actually liked this pompous ass. I couldn’t believe that I was beginning to like him too.

Yes, Bahri is truly a strange fellow.

In the following weeks, Bahri and I argued a great deal. But we also had wonderful and stimulating conversations. He is like the brother I always wished I had. We would venture to the central agora of Corinth where he would haggle with vendors or volunteer me to be a street magician’s assistant or listen to the traveling bards. We attended plays and wrestling matches together and watched as the great artists created murals, tapestries and frescos in the great Temple of Apollo. By the gods, we even climbed a few trees together.

But there’s more. In a weird way, Bahri is also like the sister I had and lost so many years ago to our slavery. Sometimes we bickered like two hens in a coop. One day we took a walk through the Conqueror’s massive palace gardens. Bahri named off the roses, mums, hibiscus, daisies, hydrangeas, tulips and lilies that carpeted the gardens. And he loves music. I would accompany him to the small symposiums given by retired guardsmen or well-to-do citizens, and we would spend much of the evening sitting near the talented musicians enjoying the wonderful sounds rather than indulging in mind-numbing conversation with the wealthy of Corinth.

If not for his obsession with women, I’d swear Bahri was a sodomite. But it’s women he loves, and during that time, he was constantly trying to bait me into a conversation about my sex life with Xena.

One day, as we lounged in the palace kitchen eating fresh baked bread and feta cheese, I finally caved. “Ok, Bahri,” I started. “What do you want to know?”

“You’ve got me all wrong,” he responded. “I’m not interested in your various positions or anything. I want to know when it was that you actually realized that you were hot for the Destroyer of Nations?”

It was a simple and complex question at the same time. I didn’t know how to answer it.

“Let me explain something,” Bahri continued. “Practically every man I know desires Xena the Conqueror. No doubt she’s dangerous and will kill you with a blink of an eye, but she also has this raw sensuality that drives the guys wild. They all envy you, even though they only see you as her plaything. You’ve been to and seen places on that Imperial body that they could only dream about. Understand?”

I nodded.

“But they’re men,” he went on. “What makes me curious is how a woman like you, who doesn’t consider herself Sapphic, feel the same way about the Conqueror?”

As my face blushed, I thought long and hard for an answer. Most of palace servants have told me that I would make a great bard. They say the stories and poems I tell are as creative and profound as any trained orator. But for some reason, my tongue wasn’t working that day.

“I don’t know. I just do.”

At that moment, I started thinking about her and how much I was greatly missing her. He saw that my eyes were beginning to tear. “You love her a great deal, don’t you Gabrielle?” he asked.

“Yes, Bahri, I do.”

That evening, Bahri decided to cheer me up by taking me on an adventure. He dressed me as a man, concealing my long hair under a hat worn by the people of his homeland. I also wore a man’s tunic, cinched with a belt, and a chlamys. My feet were covered with men’s styled calcei boots. Bahri wore his usual Guardsman’s uniform. We went to a hot, overcrowded and musty tavern on the north end of Corinth, creatively called the North End Tavern, where Imperial Guardsmen, as well as soldiers from Corinth and Athens, were drinking mass doses of ale and smoking long smelly pipes. Bahri was well known and respected among the soldiers, but it was the courtesans and maids of the tavern who showed true affection toward him. I now knew why he was so overbearing. Women flocked to him like flies to horse dung. Why not? He’s very handsome and his clear, bronzed colored complexion was an attractive contrast to the cream and olive colored ladies of the tavern.

One woman, a Persian I suspected from her appearance and dress, grabbed Bahri and escorted him to the center of the tavern, where she sat him in a chair and began dancing on his lap to the strange music of her land. He groped her sides, thighs and bottom as she danced and when she was done, he kissed her passionately on her lips. Then he motioned me over and stood up from the chair.

Handing her a coin, he said, “This is my buddy, ‘Gabe.’ He’d like a lap dance too.”

Before I could object, the woman pushed me down onto the chair and in a breath her bellybutton was in my face. She swiveled and turned and ground her pelvis into my thighs as Bahri stood off to the side laughing and cheering with some of the other soldiers. Maybe it was the music, the smoke, the darkness or my celibacy, but as she performed, I closed my eyes and started imagining Xena doing this to me, sliding her long, muscular and scantily-clad Warrior Princess body all around me like a cobra. I imagined taking my hands and feeling all over that luscious body. I imagined Xena rubbing her drenched and inviting sex all over my body in a dance of seduction. The illicit thoughts about my former Lady and Mistress shocked and confused me. Just then, the Persian dancer licked my cheek and kissed my ear whispering a request, “You and Bahri come to my room tonight, no?”

I opened my eyes and shot up from the chair. “NO!” I said and grabbed my bodyguard by the arm and retreated to the far corner of the tavern.

“I could kill you Bahri!” I said.

“Relax,” he responded. “She’s a courtesan. She’s paid to say stuff like that. Let me buy you a mug of ale and we can sit and watch the rest of the show, ok?”

I relaxed and smiled. “Oh, all right,” I responded as those inferno thoughts of Xena on me still rolled around in my head.

That night, while I lay in bed, I thought deeply and provocatively of my Xena as I stimulated my own sex.

A week later, Demi received a report on the military operation in outer Rome. Bahri and I sat and gave Demi our full attention as he read aloud Commander Palaemon’s report.

We set sail the first day from Corinth up the gulf past Achaea to the Island of Corfu to rendezvous with our advance ships. From there we crossed the Ionian Sea to the Roman village of Lecce, where we gathered more food and supplies. From there, we sailed north along the Adriatic Sea to the village of Foggia where we left the ships and proceeded on chariots and horseback toward the Apennines. The Conqueror sent word via her spies in the west to Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, Governor Octavius’ field lieutenant, that our troops were present in response to intelligence sources that Marcus Antonius’ legions were planning to overthrow Octavius. Of course, it was a lie. Our intelligence informed us that Antonius was actually interested in an alliance with Octavius, but felt he needed to credit himself to Octavius by defeating our Imperial power structure here. We know Antonius hates Octavius, but he hates Xena the Conqueror more.

Octavius, being from the same idiotic stock as that other pathetic and dead Roman, Caesar, bought our story hands down. With our loyal Roman troops and Sabine and Etruscan allies supplying catapult power, horses and armor, we were initially able to defeat two of Antonius’ three plebeian legions present in the Apennines. It was not easy. Antonius managed to build a sizeable army of plebes. They met us as a phalanx on the battlefield those first days. But we had Xena the Conqueror. No army is too great for her. In the first two months of battle, she alone killed over 1100 men. We captured seven forts and military outposts set up by Antonius and took over 200 prisoners of war. Predictably, Lepidus sent his Roman troops from the west to counterattack Antonius’ forces on the other side. When Lepidus stepped in, we did a temporary retreat to allow the moronic Romans to kill each other off.

What we didn’t anticipate was the Greek traitor, Darphus, who used to be the Conqueror’s lieutenant and knew quite a bit about her battle strategy, had apparently informed Antonius that getting Octavius involved was part of our plan. It was Xena The Conqueror who figured out who the traitor was when she saw a discreetly placed banner, bearing his signature and crest, among those of Antonius. When word spread among both Antonius’ troops and Lepidus’ troops that we were planning on increasing an Imperial stronghold, the tables turned for us and now we were facing two enemy Roman armies.

Morale among our troops never waned as our Conqueror had yet another plan ready at hand. A century of my Imperial Guard, along with Petracles and two battalions of Corinthian soldiers, accompanied her as they retreated back to the ships and sailed north to the village of Pescarius. Traveling by horseback for several days, they located the central post where Antonius and Darphus had their commands. They were greatly outnumbered, but the Roman dogs, having become too lazy and smug, were no match for them in swords and shields. They were able to eliminate most of them. The Conqueror took on both Antonius and Darphus herself. Our Ruler could have easily killed them both, but she spared them. She needed them to parade to the rest of their flock that she and Greece were the greatest powers in the known world.

They didn’t head back to the Apennines. I had been placed in command of our remaining allied Roman forces and other allies where we were still fighting both the forces of Antonius and Octavius. Our Conqueror and her troops headed west, to Rome, where they stormed the Governor’s palace and presented our prisoners to Octavius himself. Xena the Conqueror made Octavius’ choices simple; call off his army or die. Octavius immediately sent word to Lepidus to call off his troops. They then headed back east, with Antonius and Darphus in tow, to where we were, at the central point of the battle. When Antonius’ troops saw their illustrious leader dragging behind the great war palomino Argo, they immediately put down their weapons. Many scurried away like the rodents they were. Others chose to remain and pledge undying allegiance to the Conqueror.

No longer trusting the Romans to their own accord, our Majesty feels it necessary to establish a Greek Army here. Many of the men of my Guard and the Corinthian Army will remain. Our Roman allies and the Sabine and Etruscans who assisted us were given military commissions in the newly formed Greek Armies of the Apennines.

We will be sailing from Foggia in a fortnight. Our two advance ships left today. We have Antonius and Darphus with us to face the public judgments in Corinth. We lost approximately 40 percent of our Greek forces here, but gained an impressive-sized local force. Octavius lost almost 80 percent of his troops by the time of Lepidus’ retreat and Antonius’ forces were almost all obliterated. Petracles lost his sword arm against an Antonius battle commander. My left leg is broken. And the Conqueror returns to her Realm battered and bruised but fully intact.

After Demi was finished, he handed me a small piece of parchment rolled and tied with a silk cloth. “This is for you, my dear, from the Conqueror.”

Retreating to a private corner in the library, I opened the parchment and read: “Hello my Gabrielle… By the time you read this, we will be on the ships to return home from our mission. It has been a hard battle, but the hardest part of it was being separated from you. My mind is possessed with constant thoughts of you, my love. I know that in the past, after a war, I came home to you a vile monster. I will not be that monster this time. I can’t wait to hold your soft and beautiful body in my arms and feel your lips upon mine. I love you more than life and everything I do, I do for you… Xena.”

_____________________________

V. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG

It was beyond the midnight candlemark when I returned to my palace. When I entered my bedchamber, much to my surprise, I found Gabrielle sleeping in my bed. I was so happy just to see her, but I was disappointed as well. I didn’t want her to awaken and see me the way I was. I had been at war for over four months. My body was covered with dirt and dried blood and tiny fragments of dead men’s skin, bones, hair and organs. I had bruises and sores, and that rat bastard Darphus managed to slice a clean cut in my side. I broke his jaw and sliced his thigh to the bone with my chakram for his trouble.

I looked and smelled like death.

I quietly walked over to the side chamber door and summoned Mia who sleeps in a room on the other side. She nearly fainted at the sight of me. I don’t believe I’ve ever looked this bad after battle. I whispered an order for her to draw me a bath with healing herbs and special fermented ointments and then I literally peeled off my dented cuirass and my filthy battle dress, greaves, gauntlets and boots. I also pried from my sweaty skin the one piece of garment that remained relatively clean and intact; a tiny piece of a silk scarf belonging to Gabrielle that I stole from her bedchamber before I left Corinth. I kept it hidden under my battle dress near my heart and, early on, before my own body scent took over it, would pull the silk out and sniff it when I was sure no one was looking. I handed it to Mia to place in my bath.

As I finished undressing, I accidentally dropped my chakram on the floor. Gabrielle woke up. When she saw me, she jumped out of bed and came toward me. I halted her.

“Stop, Gabrielle,” I said. “Don’t come any closer.”

“Why, Xena? I want to hug you.” The chamber was dark and she was unable to get a close look at me.

“No you don’t,” I replied. “I… I don’t smell very pleasant right now.”

“I don’t care!” Before I could stop her, she was throwing her arms around me. Now she was close enough to see and smell and absorb.

“By the Gods!” she exclaimed, taking it all in. Gabrielle had never seen me directly after a battle. When I returned to the palace in the past, she was always in her own bedchamber or somewhere else. I would summon her for service after cleaning myself and bandaging my wounds. Now I felt disgusting. I had written her a promise that I would not return to her a monster. Although I meant something else, that was apparently still a lie because here she was, looking at a vile and hideous creature. She released me from her embrace. “You’re hurt,” she said.

“Not bad. I just need to take a bath and clean my teeth, Gabrielle,” I responded. “Go back to bed. I’ll join you in a little while.”

She backed away from me. She then turned away and retreated to the bed. Her expression said it all to me. Yes, Gabrielle, this is the monster you fell in love with, I thought.

As I bathed, I would glance over at Gabrielle. She had fallen back asleep. I watched her. Her soft creamy legs were exposed over her sleep shift and her supple breasts rose and fell under the material with her breathing. I started feeling an intense heat between my legs. My center began to throb and hurt. My face began to flush. My heart started beating faster. It was a familiar feeling I had after returning from battle. The adrenaline of pure lust and the denial of sexual pleasure were replacing that of my bloodlust. The beast had awakened. These were the times in the past where Gabrielle ceased to be Gabrielle and she just became the piece of female property for me to take any way I desired. This was the monster of which I referred in my letter to her. I was often violent with her because I saw sex with her as an extension of my fighting on the battlefield. Fucking her was the sweet dessert that followed the full course dinner of war.

When I was finished bathing, I climbed out of the tub and walked over to the bed. I didn’t even bother to dry myself. I pulled Gabrielle’s sleep shift off of her. It was all she had on. When I saw that glorious body before me, the already intense arousal between my legs increased and I felt as though my blood was boiling. My beast was ready for the attack. She awakened then. I lay hard on top of her and grabbed her wrists tightly in my hands and sharply pulled her arms up over her head. I growled and then I kissed her lips fiercely. She tried to call out my name, but my tongue was buried deep inside of her mouth. Finally she broke the kiss by sharply turning her face away. Looking back at me, she simply said, “Now kiss me, Xena.”

I took a deep breath. Then I released her wrists and took her face in my palms and whispered an apology. My wonderful Gabrielle effectively killed the beast within me, replacing it with the calm passion of a mortal woman. I kissed her correctly this time. Our tongues bathed each other. We moaned and I began stroking her hair. She began stroking mine. We kissed for a long time and then started rubbing our hips together. Then I felt three of her small fingers enter me. I reached down with my hand and entered her as well. I arched my back as I thrust into her. She took my left breast in her mouth and sucked hard while her left arm was wrapped around my lower back rubbing it. My left arm was supporting my weight as the fingers of my right hand pumped in and out of her. She was growling as she took my right breast in her mouth and began biting my nipple. Gabrielle was the beautiful beast now. “By the gods… Gabrielle… that feels… so good!” I said in between moans.

We both started thrusting harder and faster. I took my free hand and grabbed a large lock of her hair and balled that hand into a fist. Then I looked down into her green eyes of desire and said, “Come on, give it to me. Let me hear it.” With that, Gabrielle let out a loud scream of release. Her head tilted back and the veins in her neck enlarged. As her inner core locked onto my fingers, my own release came. I shouted as well before collapsing on top of her.

I hugged her so tightly afterward, I think I may have caused her to lose air.

* * * *

I woke to the sight of Gabrielle sitting cross-legged on the bed, still naked, eating a bowl of cherries and staring at me. She is so gods-awful adorable.

“Afternoon, my Lady,” she said.

“Afternoon?”

“Uh huh,” she responded. “You’ve been sleeping for 16 candlemarks. Which wore you out more, the battlefield or me?”

“You,” I teasingly responded, smiling.

Gabrielle’s expression became serious. “You’re hurt, Xena. These bruises and scars look awful.” She looked at the stitched stab wound. “And what happened here?”

“My belly got in the way of Darphus’ sword,” I answered. “Don’t worry. He looks a lot worse.”

“Did you kill him?” I saw an expression on her face I’ve seen a million times. I still can’t define it.

“Not yet,” I responded. “He’s in the palace dungeons with Antonius. I’ll be paying my respects to both of them soon.”

Gabrielle looked down. What did she expect? They are traitors to the Realm. They waged war against my Empire. They betrayed me. What am I to give them? Banishment? Life imprisonment? No, execution is their only fate. She knows this.

I didn’t want to think about Darphus. I didn’t want to think about how I plan to parade him at the agora for all of my Corinthian subjects to witness. I didn’t want to think about how I plan to personally sever his head from his body.

I wanted to make love to Gabrielle again.

I sat up on the bed and took the bowl of fruit aside from Gabrielle. Then I lifted her head with my fingers on her chin. “You know you are most desirable when you eat cherries,” I said in seduction. I then leaned over and kissed her. For a moment she didn’t respond, but then I felt her cherry-tasting tongue enter my mouth. I shifted my position where I was now sitting cross-legged in front of her. I reached my arms around her waist and drew her closer. She uncrossed her legs and wrapped them around my body. The strong scent from her sex tickled my nostrils. She grabbed my breasts in her hands while I grabbed her ass in mine. Our simple caresses went on for a while. Eventually, we both lay down side to side, facing each other. Then we shifted again and she was lying on top of me. It was a simple sensation, our hips in a sensual dancing rhythm until we each found release.

Later, in the bath, I had Mia summon Gabrielle’s bodyguard. When he arrived, I called him over to the tub where I was resting up against it and had Gabrielle positioned between my legs with her back resting against my chest. When he walked up to the tub and bowed in formal greeting, I folded my arms around Gabrielle’s neck above the bath water so that he could clearly see them. I guess I was marking my territory.

“Have you served in your position honorably, Guard Corporal?” I inquired.

“Yes, my Liege.” He didn’t appear to be the least bit phased by looking upon two naked women embracing in a bath.

“Gabrielle,” I spoke into my love’s ear, “Did he serve as your bodyguard with honor?”

“Yes, my Lady, he did.”

“Very well,” I continued. “Your services are no longer needed here, Guard Corporal, but I will command that you be reassigned to Commander Palaemon’s palace security detail. You’ll need to be trained in that regard, but I’m confident you’ll do fine.”

The young man’s expression conveyed that he could have jumped for joy right there. “Thank you, Majesty,” he said ever so enthusiastically.

“You may leave, Guard Corporal.”

“Wow,” he said to himself. “I’m sorry, I mean, by your will, Conqueror!” He quickly bowed and dashed out of the chamber. Gabrielle was giggling.

“Bahri is so strange, Xena.”

“He’s a sodomite, my dear,” I informed her. “That’s why there was no sweat on his brow or lump in his pteryges when he was before us.”

Gabrielle turned and looked into my eyes. “Oh no, Xena,” she informed me. “He’s not. He’s quite the ladies’ man.” She turned back around.

I was afraid for the moment to inquire further.

There was not that many candlemarks left in the day, so I decided to spend it with my Gabrielle. We ate huge meals and walked hand-in-hand along the palace corridors and grounds as she rattled on about her life here without me. Of course, she insisted that I visit the palace healers to have my injuries examined and to rule out any diseases or infections to my body. At nightfall, we returned to my bedchamber… our bedchamber… for an evening of food and wine and, I was hoping, some serious lovemaking. Gabrielle was obviously feeling indulgent, because she drank four whole goblets of the fermented liquid. Intoxication had set in by the second one. Gabrielle is a little talker. With wine in her she’s a big little talker.

We were sitting up on the bed and Gabrielle was becoming quite frisky with her hands on me as she went on and on about things she and Bahri did in my absence. I hate to admit that I wasn’t paying much attention. It was partially envy, but for the most part she was just so lovely, even in this state, and I found myself staring at her soft face and luscious body as she spoke and fondled me innocently. But then she said something that brought me out of my Gabrielle-induced reverie.

“Bahri asked about you and me a lot,” she slurred. “Ya know, about us.”

“What did you tell him?” I tried to remain calm, but already I didn’t like where this was going.

“Oh, nothing,” she responded in between drunken giggles. “He doesn’t understand how I could desire you, being that I’m not Sapphic. I’m like, ‘what’s not to desire?’ Look at you, Xena. You’re… You’re absolutely magnificent. Your silky black hair, your smooth skin, your muscles, your unreal face and those blue eyes… by the gods! You are beautiful!”

Gabrielle started sensuously rubbing my thighs with her soft hands. “I asked him if he desired you, ya know.”

“Oh?” I queried, tempering my fury. “And what did my little Guard Corporal say?”

“Oh, he said, ‘she’s fine and all, but I don’t like my women so tall and deadly.’ He is truly a nut bread.” More giggling followed.

My next question caused Gabrielle to raise her eyebrows. “Did you happen to ask if he desires you?”

There was a pause. “Uh, no,” she finally said. “But I seriously doubt he does, Xena. Why would he desire me?” Then she grabbed my shoulders and planted a strong kiss on my lips. “Wanna make love, my Lady?”

“That’s a silly question, Gabrielle,” I answered. “I always want to make love to you.”

“My Lady,” she said rather proudly I do believe, and then there were no more words from her lovely lips, except in passionate moans, for the next two candlemarks.

This latest round of sexual ecstasy wore out my already inebriated Gabrielle. As we lay in each other’s arm, sleep was prepared to claim me when Gabrielle said something that jarred my eyes wide open.

“You know what that nut bread did, Xena?” she slurred very quietly as Morpheus as well as an intoxicating stupor were quickly claiming her. “He paid a Persian courtesan to dance on my lap in a tavern. Made me think of you. Mmmm… tasty Xena. Maybe I am Sapphic.” She giggled and then silenced in slumber.

I waited until I was sure that Gabrielle was sleeping soundly, and then I gently released my body from her embrace and headed for the Imperial Guard barracks. When I found Bahri sleeping in his rack, I grabbed him by his nightshirt and dragged him outside behind the barracks building. He had awakened but said nothing in protest as he was being handled so roughly. When I got him back there, I backhanded him across the face and then threw him up against the wall. I then took two fingers from each hand and applied my soon-to-be fatal pressure point to his neck.

“I’ve cut off the flow of blood to your brain, you rat bastard. Now I’m going to watch you die.”

“It’s not what you think, Conqueror,” he pleaded between gasps for air.

“Then what is it, you fucking little worm?”

“I’m a woman!” Bahri shrieked between breaths. “A woman!”

I immediately released the pinch and ripped open Bahri’s nightshirt, which revealed two female breasts and two hardened brown nipples staring directly at me. She was desperately trying to retrieve air she had lost. I lifted her up by her shirt.

“Why the charade, Bahri?” I asked, looking into her large brown eyes. “Women can serve in my Imperial Guard.”

“Yes, my Liege,” she responded, still breathing heavily. “But my charade began eleven years ago on a pirate ship in Abu Simbel.”

I understood.

“I’m sorry, my Liege,” Bahri continued. “I assume this is about me taking Gabrielle to the North End Tavern. I meant no disrespect to you, Conqueror. You see I’m Sapphic, like you, like her. She’s just in denial about it. She was missing you and I just wanted her to have some fun. And I don’t like her in ‘that’ way, Conqueror. Gabrielle’s my buddy. I really didn’t mean anything by it, my Liege, I swear my life on the Realm.”

I couldn’t respond. Something was happening inside of me and I didn’t know what it was.

“Go back to bed, Bahri,” I said, feeling a tightness in my chest. “Tomorrow, I’ll have you reassigned to the women’s barracks. You don’t need to hide your gender anymore.”

“By your will, Conqueror.” She said, covering her front with her torn shirt as she departed.

As she was walking away, I added, “I’m sorry for striking you and… and the pinch thing.” She looked over her shoulder and bowed slightly before resuming her departure back to her rack. I think she was trying not to cry.

On my way back to my bedchamber, I found Gabrielle walking briskly toward me in the corridor. She was barely wearing one of my oversized regal peplos, that she had obviously grabbed in haste, and she was visibly shaken and crying. When she saw me, she ran to me and clutched my upper arms tightly in her small hands.

“Xena!” she said, tears pouring out of her angry eyes. “Please tell me you didn’t kill Bahri… please!”

“I didn’t kill Bahri.”

Not immediately seeking an explanation as to my whereabouts, Gabrielle grabbed me in an embrace and began a litany of explanations and apologies regarding Bahri. Now I knew why my chest was so tight. I almost took away an important person in Gabrielle’s life. They’re good friends, like her and Demi. But Bahri fills another need in Gabrielle; her need for a platonic companion her own age and gender, even though Gabrielle wasn’t aware of Bahri’s womanhood at that time. I realized the pain of loss that I would have caused her, irreparable pain, irreparable anger, if I had taken this young woman away from her. And for what? My unjustified fury? My insecurity? My jealousy? My stupid assumptions? My chest began to cave in and I returned the embrace and cried in her hair.

As I held her I also realized that I almost made the same pathetic mistake twice.

After she stopped, she looked up at me. “Where did you go, then?

“I went to kill Bahri,” I confessed. I felt so ashamed.

“What stopped you?”

“SHE did.”

Gabrielle looked puzzled only for only a moment, and then it sank in. Then she lowered her face back down onto my breasts and resumed crying. A teardrop from my eye fell onto her branded shoulder.

* * * *

The following morning, I paid Darphus a visit in the palace dungeons.

“Morning, Darphus,” I said to him through the jail bars. “Enjoying your accommodations?” Darphus’ holding cell was small, dark and putrid smelling. There was no outside light and the air was unbearably foul and stagnant. From my various injuries to him, he looked like Tartarus. Aside from the poorly wrapped bandage on his leg, he was completely naked. I had him shackled at his wrists and ankles. His arms were extended very tightly upward and his legs were spread apart at an arm’s length so from a distance, he looked like an “X”. He was not relieved of this position for anything. Prisoner slaves fed him bread and water and placed a bucket below his feet for defecation. He was forced to urinate on the floor.

“Fuck you, bitch!” he muffled through his broken jaw.

“Don’t worry, ‘lieutenant,’ you won’t have to suffer much longer.” I taunted him. “You know, you were a real lousy fuck in bed Darphus, but when I hack off that ugly head of yours, I think I’m finally going to get such a charge from it. It may even be sexual.”

“Go on, you evil bitch. It isn’t over,” he responded. “You won this round, but something or someone’s going to bury your tight harpy ass. I can see it coming. Maybe it’ll be one of your ass-fucking sodomite men. Maybe those idiotic Romans will try again. Or maybe the rag-head Persian pigs, or the slant-eyes or the Egyptians or Moors, or their black-faced cousins to the south. Maybe that little cunt-sucking whore whose been fucking your brains out day and night will turn you into a sniveling heap of hydra shit, ripe for the taking. Yeah, Xena the Conqueror, I’ve heard about her. ‘Xena the Conqueror’s little blond fuck slave.’ I’ve heard how she’s got your perverted Sapphic cunt all wrapped up so tight.”

“Open the bars,” I calmly ordered the jail watchman.

I walked into the cell and punched Darphus once into unconsciousness. Shaking the pain out of my hand, I instructed the watchman to have one of the guards give him twenty lashes when he regained consciousness.

I retreated back to the main palace corridors toward my bedchamber to be with the woman I love.

Story #4 Darphus’ Revenge

I. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY

I originally thought my world changed the day Xena freed me, but I was wrong. The real transformation came the night after she returned from her four-month war with the Roman, Marcus Antonius. Gods, I remember it as though it was yesterday.

I had awakened in the middle of the night, which was quite unusual for me. Earlier in the evening I had celebrated Xena’s homecoming a little too much by indulging in the sweet wine she enjoys drinking with her roasted game meat. I believe I had about four whole goblets of the drink, which left me quite tipsy. With that much wine in me, the chamber pot called much earlier than usual. When I woke up, Xena wasn’t beside me. I wasn’t immediately alarmed simply because I was too concerned about my bladder and the monstrous headache the wine had given me. But when I exited the small relief chamber, I remembered I had mentioned to Xena about that strange night my former bodyguard and good friend Bahri took me to a tavern to have a courtesan dance for me. All of a sudden, a chill consumed my entire body. She’s gone to kill him, I thought as I grabbed the first piece of clothing I saw and dashed out of the bedchamber in search of Xena.

I saw Xena coming toward me as I rounded the corner heading toward the corridor that led to the Imperial Guard barracks. She was dressed in an unusually dark tunic and an even darker hooded cloak. I couldn’t see if she carried a dagger or her chakram, but that wouldn’t have made any difference. Xena the Conqueror kills easily with her bare hands. When I saw her, tears started streaming down my face. I feared the worse. She killed him, she killed him, I know it, I repeated in my mind as I ran toward her.

When I reached Xena, I grabbed her arms and looked into her eyes for signs of the Conqueror’s savagery. The corridor was dark but I could see that, instead of her signature harshness, Xena seemed drawn and pale, as though she had seen a ghost. I didn’t know what to make of her expression, but I still feared the worst. Gripping her arms, I asked her if she killed Bahri. She told me that she hadn’t. Although I was instantly relieved, I still strongly suspected that her midnight stroll had something to do with him. I felt the need to explain his actions, so I anxiously explained to her that Bahri had many acquaintances but virtually no friends. He was sensitive, intelligent and insightful but also very much an oddity amongst the rugged Guard with his boyish good looks and Egyptian heritage. I could relate to that feeling of isolation on a certain level, given my former position in the Conqueror’s household. Bahri and I bonded almost instantly, even though I found him to be quite impetuous and arrogant at times. I told her that I considered him a very good friend, as much so as my dear friend Demi, the palace librarian, and that our friendship was very much like that of siblings. I told Xena that I believed the only reason Bahri took me to that tavern was to cheer me up.

After I finished my oratory, I looked deep into Xena’s bright blue eyes and asked her what she was doing up in the middle of the night. She closed those eyes and confessed that she had, in fact, gone to kill Bahri. When I asked her what prevented her from doing so, she told me something that deep down I already suspected. She told me Bahri was a woman.

I cried in Xena’s arms for a few moments, but the emotion of the moment caused the pounding in my head to become unbearable. I broke out in a cold sweat and became nauseated. She lifted me up and carried me back to her bedchamber and deposited me on her bed. She kissed my sweaty forehead lightly before applying a strong pressure to a point at the back of my neck.

“This should help with both the headache and the nausea, Gabrielle,” she said before getting up to grab a cool moist cloth to apply to my head. Her pressure point worked quite well. The throbbing diminished to a dull ache. Xena then had me eat a spoonful of crushed gentian root and then I chased the bitter-tasting medicine with a drink of cold water. After I was settled and relaxed in bed, she removed the cloth and then began gently caressing my face and forehead. She kissed my cheek and began humming a tune. The combination of soft stimuli and the effects of the medicine summoned Morpheus, and I was in his grasp within moments.

My remaining sleep was restless that night. I dreamt of an actual situation, which had occurred between Xena and me about two years ago.

I was summoned to the Conqueror’s bedchamber for service. As soon as I entered the chamber she grabbed me by my upper arms from behind and forced me over to the bed. She literally ripped off my clothing and pushed me down on the bed, face down, and then she climbed on top of me from behind. She put all of her weight on me. Since my face was smashed into the mattress, I turned it to the side so that I could breath. She took my arms and extended them over my head and tied my wrists with some of the torn material from my sleep shift. She then bound my wrists to one of her bedposts.

The Conqueror rested the side of her face on mine and, reaching her arm around me, began sensuously stroking my sex. When I was moistened down there, she penetrated me with three fingers of her right hand. Her left arm was clutched around my waist holding me very tight. She was very excited as she thrust in and out while her pelvis bore into my bottom side. It was rough, but not particularly painful. She even planted hard kisses on the side of my face and ear a few times. She was moaning and groaning rather dramatically and she was sweating profusely. I didn’t know what came over her. She behaved as though she had been denied my services for months when in actuality, we had had sex earlier that day.

As the Conqueror’s hand was frantically at work and she was panting very heavily, she whispered in my ear, “Do you always think of me when I’m fucking you, Gabrielle?”

Speaking to me during sex was a rarity.

“Yes, my Lady,” I responded.

The Conqueror cocked her head so that she could look into my eyes. “Look… at me …and say… it!” she demanded as she panted hard. Sweat from her brow dripped onto my face.

“Yes, my Lady,” I repeated. As my body was now responding to the provocative touches, I was also breathing heavily at this point.

“SAY IT!”

I locked my eyes onto hers. “I always think of you when you’re fucking me, my Lady,” I responded in one long breath as I was now, for the exception of my wrists being bound, very much enjoying the sex and her closeness.

The Conqueror climaxed but continued to stroke me sensuously. “I always think of you when I’m fucking you, Gabrielle,” she said to me when she came down from release, then added, “Problem is, I always think of you when I’m not fucking you too.”

I climaxed.

The following morning, I awoke alone and troubled by that dream. From the look of things, Xena had already washed her face and dressed. I waited for a short while, but when she didn’t return, I ate some fresh fruit delivered by Mia, the Conqueror’s chambermaid, and then headed for the Imperial Guard’s palace headquarters to locate Bahri. Palaemon was at the headquarters. Like Xena, he looked worn and tired from the effects of that war. His face was bruised and his broken left leg was bandaged between two lengthy strips of wood. He was speaking with one of his field captains, but when he saw me, he terminated his conversation and hobbled over to me.

“Morning, Gabrielle. You are literally a sight for sore eyes.”

“Thank you, Commander Palaemon,” I responded quite bashfully. “Have you seen the Conqueror this morning?”

“No, actually, I haven’t. Would you like for me to have her Majesty summoned here?” he inquired.

“Well, actually, I’d like to know where you have reassigned my former bodyguard, Guard Corporal Bahri.” Palaemon curiously cocked his head. “There’s something I need to tell him.”

“Uh, Gabrielle,” Palaemon’s face went quite red. “I don’t know how you’re going to take this, but…”

My heart started to almost beat out of my chest. She went and killed Bahri anyway, I thought. Oh, by the gods… by the gods… I’ll kill her!

“Bahri’s a female.”

I hadn’t realized that I stopped breathing. I nearly fell back as Palaemon grabbed hold of my arm. “Are you okay?” he asked. “Shocking, huh?” he added.

I took a deep breath. “No, it’s not that. I thought you were going to tell me something else.”

“Well, I was shocked,” he continued. “I mean, no disrespect to your wonderful gender, but Bahri’s such a… a ‘guy.’ He… I mean she… can drink and curse and grope women with the best of us men. All of the women at the North End Tavern are in love with him… I mean her.”

I laughed at Palaemon’s confused disappointment. “Some of the Guard are quite angry with her for the deception,” he added. “Others are relieved.”

“Why ‘relieved?’” I inquired.

“This is somewhat embarrassing to admit, but some of the men were quite confused in their fancy for Bahri. They’re not sodomites, but she had a few of them considering it. They’re glad she’s a woman. Guys she used to drink and party with as a man may now be calling on her for courtship. Funny, huh?”

“I think the women at the North End Tavern will fare better,” I responded.

We laughed and then Palaemon directed me to the field officer training grounds. As I headed out of the headquarters chamber, I heard him say to himself, “I wonder if those women know?”

The training grounds were not located within the palace, but rather in a separate building. My understanding of field officers was that they were a militia unit of the Imperial Guard. They policed Corinth, solving crimes and arresting malfeasants. I spotted Bahri right away when I saw a group of Guardsmen listening to a trainer. Like the other field trainees, she was wearing a special training tunic and long cothurni boots. Of course she stood out. She was shorter and darker than most of the rest of the trainees and was much better looking. She was also the only woman. Her arms were crossed and she looked very attentive to her instructor. As I approached her, I noticed a prominent red bruise on the left side of her bronze-colored face.

“Excuse me,” I said, interrupting the instructor. “May I have a short word with Corporal Bahri?”

The instructor was an older man; very large and burly with hair apparently all over his body except on his head. “And who are you?” he inquired with an intimidating air.

“It’s okay, Captain Mandros,” Bahri chimed in. “She’s the Conqueror’s bard and I use to serve as her bodyguard before my reassignment here.”

“Very well, Corporal,” Mandros responded. “But make it quick.”

Bahri bowed and dismissed herself from the group. We walked over to the corner of the room where I gave her a big hug and kissed her on her reddened right cheek.

“I guess this means you’re not mad at me,” she said.

“Of course not,” I answered. “I think this is wonderful.” Bahri smiled instantly.

“Well, I’m glad you do,” she responded. “A lot of the guys are pissed. I’m not worried though. They’ll get over it.”

“Bahri,” I inquired, stroking my finger down her bruised cheek, “Did Xena do this to you?

Bahri’s face instantly displayed anger, true anger, something I had never seen on her face before. “Well… yeah!” she responded. “By Zeus, Gabrielle, what did you expect? She almost killed me last night. She put her infamous pinch on me.” Bahri started rubbing her neck. “I’ve never known such pain,” she continued. “Why the Hades did you have to go and tell her about the North End Tavern thing?”

“By the gods, Bahri,” I started crying. “I’m so sorry! I was drunk. I didn’t think she’d take it that seriously.”

“Who in the Tartarus are we talking about here, Gabrielle?” Bahri was raising her voice. “Maybe you need a reality check, girl. All this love shit has caused you to forget who you’re dealing with… who we’re all dealing with.” And with that, she turned her back on me to return to her training group.

Who am I dealing with? I thought. “Bahri,” I called out to her. “Tell me how to get to the palace dungeons.”

* * * *

Much to my surprise, the palace dungeons were not actually under the palace. They were located underground in a cavern that I suspected was quite close to the gulf waters. I entered the dungeon main gate within the palace grounds. It was an area of the palace that had always been forbidden to me. After descending some stairs, I walked down a very long, dark and extremely moldy-smelling catacomb to a second series of gates. The guard of these gates demanded to see some form of identification, so I presented a small parchment bearing my name and the Conqueror’s crest. This parchment, which Xena had Demi draft for me, indicated to anyone reading it that I was a free servant of the palace. The guard let me in and I walked down another long catacomb. A jail watchman now accompanied me.

I felt as though I was walking down toward the River Styx for the boat ride to Tartarus. The catacomb sloped downward and began smelling more and more foul. My ears were filling with the sounds of people in agony. When I reached the end of the catacomb, the stench became unbearably strong. I put my hand to my nose in a desperate attempt to filter away some of the odor, but when I saw the first prisoners in their cells, the combined sensations became too much and I vomited in front of the first cell. The jail watchman signaled for two very dirty and sick looking individuals in leg chains to clean up the mess.

I looked at him in question. “Prisoner slaves, Miss,” he said. “Any indentured servant who commits a crime against the Realm becomes a slave to these prisoners.”

I vomited again.

When I was able to compose myself, I asked the jail watchman to direct me to Antonius and Darphus’ cells. He took me to Antonius’ cell first. Antonius was lying on the ground with his arms extended and shackled to the sidewalls. He had on nothing but a loincloth to cover his privates, and he was unconscious. He looked dead.

“Why is he positioned that way?”

“The Conqueror plans to crucify him, Miss,” the jail watchman began. “He’s placed in the crucifixion position just in case he dies beforehand. Makes it much easier to place him on the cross if his body’s in the right position than trying to move limbs once rigor sets in.”

“Is he already dead?” I asked.

“No, not yet, Miss,” he answered. “He’s lucky though. He’ll probably be dead by the crucifixion candlemark. Better to die in here than out there on the cross.”

The jail watchman then directed me to Darphus’ cell. If I had anything left in my stomach, I would have thrown that up at the sight of him as well. They had him shackled in the shape of an “X.” He was totally naked and had several fresh lash wounds across his chest and legs. I knew the wounds well. One leg had a filthy bandage on it. The scar it covered was obviously infected because that thigh was almost twice the size of the other one. His head was slumped, but when the jail watchman hit the jail cell bars, his head jarred up. I remembered from Palaemon’s war report that Xena had personally fought him. His face was battered. His jaw appeared broken and his left eye was scratched and blackened. Fresh blood was oozing from the scratch.

“You have a visitor, traitor!” the watchman yelled.

Darphus looked at me. “Who… are… you?” he said through his teeth.

“My name is Gabrielle. I’m a bard,” I responded. “I have a question to ask you.”

“Gabrielle,” he responded. “Sounds familiar.”

“I understand you used to be the Conqueror’s lieutenant,” I continued. “Why did you betray the Realm?”

“You’re pretty,” Darphus said as spittle began draining from his mouth. “Why don’t you come in here and suck me before the bitch cuts my head off.”

The watchman started to go into the cell to punish Darphus, but I halted him. “Why did you betray the Realm?” I asked in demand. “Was it worth this to betray your own homeland?” As I took in the sight of him, I thought, nothing is worth THIS.

“You think I’m in this living Tartarus because I betrayed ‘The Realm?’” he responded. “No little girl, I’m living and dying like a diseased dog because I betrayed that bitch.”

I responded, “No, you have no honor for your…”

“HONOR?” he interrupted me as best he could through his teeth. “This isn’t about any fucking honor. This is vengeance, Xena Warrior Princess style. Want to hear a story from me, bard? I’ll tell you a story. Eight years ago I turned Xena’s army against her and made her undergo the Gauntlet. She had the living shit beat out of her. Nobody survives the Gauntlet, but she survived it. Bitch has to be half god or something. Although I had turned most of her men against her, she rebuilt another army fast. Then she came after me. I hid. I hid in plain sight where the Warrior Princess wouldn’t find me. She probably thought I would head east to Persia or west to Rome, but no, I went to the island of Syros. Stayed right here in Greece. That island has a prisoner colony, so I just laid low there.”

Darphus’ head slumped back down and for my benefit, I supposed, the jail watchman banged on the bars again. His head jarred back up.

Darphus continued. “Xena the Conqueror came through Syros and Ceos and Cythnos and all the other Greek islands probably twenty times over the last eight years. Never spotted me. Then one day I met this stupid Roman named Phinius. He kept going on and on about Antonius and how he was going to take Rome back from that cunt. I knew Antonius helped her take Rome from that maniac Caesar, but I guess he was pissed because she wouldn’t fuck him or something. Unusual, since Xena fucks pretty much anything on two legs.”

When his head slumped again, I contemplated leaving. I didn’t know how much more of this “story” I could take. I always knew a lot of people hated Xena. I had hated her as well. But I guess years of isolation in the palace insulated me from the magnitude of that hatred. And I didn’t particularly want to be reminded of Xena’s famed promiscuity either.

His head jarred back up a third time and he struggled to speak. “So, I got on a boat and sailed west to outer Rome where I met this guy, Antonius,” he continued his rambling. “What a moron. He couldn’t build an army if he had Ares himself sitting on his back. So I built him an army. I built him an army in his name. I figured if we were fortunate enough to beat the bitch, I’d take the glory afterwards. It was supposed to go quietly. We’d knock off a few of her Roman pansies and then get Octavius in on the action. But fucking Antonius couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Bragged to one too many people. One of them pigeons went back and squawked to the Destroyer. Gods, I loathe that fucking whore.”

I had heard enough. I turned and began departing when Darphus called out to me. “Hey, Gabrielle the bard, I know you’re her little blond piece of ass, girl. I hear you’re working her ‘Imperial’ cunt good, but you want some advice? Don’t piss her off. You’ll end up like me.”

I ran to the dungeon’s secondary gates where the guard post was located and awaited the jail watchman to catch up. I leaned over but was too afraid to breath in the putrid stench too heavily. When he approached me he placed his hand on my shoulder. “Are you all right, Miss?” he asked. “Would you like for me to walk you to the entrance?”

“No, thank you,” I stated as I began walking toward the main gate. Something then hit me. I turned to face the jail watchman, who was writing in the gate guardsman’s log. “How is he going to be executed?”

“He already told you, Miss. He is to be personally decapitated by the Conqueror.”

_____________________________

II. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG

After my unpleasant visit with Darphus, I decided to check up on Guard Corporal Bahri for a quick spell before returning to my love, Gabrielle. The day shift Guards were already up and engaging in their daily duties and I wanted to make sure Bahri was properly reassigned to her new station under Commander Palaemon and that her lodging was transferred to the women’s barracks. Strange, but I guess I also wanted to make sure she was alright after last night. Palaemon was at the Guard headquarters. He couldn’t do much since his broken leg was in splints, so he was resigned to temporary desk and stationary drill duty. Palaemon was not a happy man.

“Morning, Commander,” I said cheerily to further infuriate my next in command.

“My Liege,” he bowed from his seat. “Good morning.”

“How’s the leg?”

“Still broken, Conqueror.”

“Aw, too bad,” I said as I shot him a sinister smile. I walked around his desk and perched my bottom next to his elevated leg. “Well, at least you look comfortable in your boredom.”

“And you’re too disgustingly cheerful, if I may say, Majesty.”

“You may not say, Commander, but since you already have, I suppose there’s nothing I can do about it now. I’ve come to ask where you’ve reassigned Guard Corporal Bahri.”

“Guard Corporal Bahri has been assigned to field officer training, my Liege. It’s what she requested,” Palaemon responded. “I almost fainted when she reported to me this morning. When did you find out she was a woman, Conqueror?”

I looked down. “Last night.” I responded. When I was trying to kill her, I thought.

I’m sure Palaemon noticed the sudden change in my demeanor, but I wasn’t going to give him any additional confession at the moment. I stood up from his desk and left the chamber heading for the field training building. When I got there, I watched Bahri from a distance for a short while. She had a real look of focus on her face as she was participating in tactical maneuvers. She seemed to be a quick study and I suspected she would make a fine field officer. It was an interesting career choice for her. I watched her training until I was overcome with longing for Gabrielle. I missed her, even though she was only a short walking distance away. Satisfied that Bahri was in good hands, I turned my attention to returning to my bedchamber and my sweet Gabrielle.

When I got there, Gabrielle was gone. Probably went looking for me, I thought. I knew she would return sooner or later, so I decided to stay in the chamber and wait for her. I summoned Mia and ordered her to bring bread and some more fruit, since Gabrielle had apparently eaten some before her departure that morning. I then washed my face for a second time that morning and combed my hair. After a full candlemark passed, I decided to go look for her. I went to the library first. Not only was she not there, Demi had not seen her all morning. I then decided to check her bedchamber. It was empty as well and looked completely undisturbed. I became worried at this point. After checking my own bedchamber one more time, I decided to summon Palaemon.

“My Liege,” he responded to my question about her whereabouts. “She came to me just before you did asking for Bahri.”

“WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME?” I implored.

“You didn’t ask, Conqueror.”

I headed back to the field training building. At this point, Bahri was receiving weapons instruction. I ran right up to her. She was holding a dagger and I didn’t doubt she thought about using it on me.

“Morning Bahri,” I said to her as her fellow classmates watched in wonder.

“Morning, my Liege,” she responded and before I could ask: “Yes, she was here, Conqueror. She wanted to know how to get to the palace dungeons.”

“WHAT?” I was flabbergasted. “Why?”

“I don’t know… Conqueror.” The response was curt.

I was not immediately concerned about Bahri’s obvious contempt for me. I needed to find Gabrielle. I left the field training building and headed for the dungeon gates. I was told that “my little blond bard” had just been there and had seen my two prized prisoners. What are you up to, Gabrielle? I thought as I once again ran back to my bedchamber.

This time, she was there.

* * * *

Gabrielle stood by the window facing the palace courtyard. She was dressed only in a towel and her hair was wet. I was disappointed to see that she had decided to take a bath without me, but I was more concerned about her trip to the dungeons. I walked up to her and put my hands on her damp shoulders. I leaned in and kissed the side of her neck and gave her a morning greeting. She didn’t respond.

I started massaging her shoulders. “What’s the matter, Gabrielle?” I didn’t want to let on that I knew she had gone to the dungeons, not yet.

“Xena,” she began. “Remember what you wrote in your letter to me when you were fighting in Rome?”

“About how much I love you, Gabrielle?” I responded.

“About how everything you do, you do for me,” came her response.

“Yes,” I said.

“Is it true, Xena?”

“Yes, Gabrielle, it’s true.”

Gabrielle turned to face me. Her face was unusually pale but her expression was serious. “I want you to spare Darphus, Xena.”

“WHAT!?!” I shouted in question. “What did that bastard say to you?”

“It’s not what he said, Xena,” she responded.

“Then what?” I was becoming angrier by the moment.

“If you kill him, he wins, Xena,” Gabrielle said. “You will reaffirm everything he stands for, everything he believes. Everything everyone believes. They all think you’re a monster, Xena.”

“I am a monster, Gabrielle, or haven’t you noticed?” came my cynical response.

“No, Xena, you’re not,” Gabrielle continued. “You can change. You have changed. No one knows better than I who you are. You were a monster to me, a vicious monster. For a long time I thought you were evil incarnate. Then, as time passed, I didn’t know what to make of you. You were a living contradiction, gentle one moment and beastly the next. But I found you, Xena. And you found your ability to love. Somewhere inside of you, you found love for me. You have the great power of love inside of you. It’s greater than your hate. Greater than your fighting ability. Let others discover you as I discovered you, Xena. Let them learn about the passionate, warm, beautiful and loving woman you are. Do this not just for me, do it for yourself, for you soul. Please, Xena, please spare Darphus.”

As she spoke, I was seething with more and more hatred for that bastard. How dare he seduce and manipulate Gabrielle’s most vulnerable personal traits, her ultimate goodness and her supreme regard for human life. That pig didn’t deserve the compassion of gutter vermin. He certainly didn’t deserve the compassion of my wonderful Gabrielle. “You don’t understand, Gabrielle,” I responded in earnest. “Darphus doesn’t deserve to live. He deserves to pay for the lives of my men lost in that bloody war.”

“I saw him, Xena,” she said. “You obviously know that now. I saw him. He has paid. He is paying.”

I was incensed. “No! He’ll pay when I slice his fucking head off,” I said.

“For the Realm, Xena, or for the Gauntlet?”

I was silenced. This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation. She was accusing me of using my power as Ruler of the Known World to exact my personal vendetta. She knew the answer, as did I, but I became mad at her now for insinuating the obvious.

“You just don’t understand, Gabrielle,” I said as I felt the fire of my blood ignite. “What do you know besides scrolls and servicing me?”

There was a silence as I immediately regretted what I said. But the next question came at me like a pile of stones. “When were you going to tell me that you almost killed Bahri?”

“I did tell you!”

“No you didn’t,” she accused. “You told me you went to kill her and she stopped you. You didn’t mention that she somehow managed to talk you out of it while she was dying from your pinch. Is that what happened, Xena? She talked you out of it while she was dying?”

“I don’t have to answer to you! She’s alive. What more do you want?”

“I want you to spare Darphus!” Gabrielle was yelling at me now.

“Well, that’s not going to happen.”

Another longer silence erupted. What’s happened to my Gabrielle? I thought. Yesterday at this time we were in celebration of our reunion. We were walking together, talking together, laughing, teasing, and making love. Now she stood before me with a look that I’ve seen a million times. It was a look that I had hoped I’d never see again after professing my never-ending love to her. She looked disgusted with me. My heart wanted to beg her not to look at me that way, but at that moment my heated blood and my fury were winning the inner battle to control my soul.

“I went to see your precious Darphus this morning also, Gabrielle. You know what he called you?” I could feel my heart harden as my fury wanted to insult her as much he insulted her. “He called you my ‘little blond fuck slave.’ My ‘cunt sucking whore.’ Is that what you are, Gabrielle? Is that what you still are?”

“I don’t give a damn what he said, Xena. This isn’t about him. It’s about you.”

I folded my arms. “Ok, then ‘I’ am going to derive great pleasure in watching the blood from his spine spout out of his neck when I slice his head off.”

Gabrielle looked away from me and started to walk toward the door. “Where do you think you’re going?” I asked as I gripped her upper arm in my hand.

“Am I still free, Conqueror?”

I didn’t answer. “Am I?” she asked again.
“Yes.”

“Then I’m going to my own bedchamber.” She pulled her arm out of my grasp and briskly walked toward the door.

“Gabrielle!” I called out. “Gabrielle!” I yelled again, but when she opened the door, Palaemon was coming in. She brushed by him. I started to go after her, but Palaemon had come to inform me that the candlemark of the public judgment had arrived.

_________________________________

III. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY

Of all of the traumatizing moments I’d had with the Conqueror, of all her brutality, this was the most devastating. Sure, I’d suffered physically and verbally at her hand in the past, but this argument ruptured me emotionally. I saw the woman that I love losing a war within her. I witnessed the potential of a strong and compassionate woman be thrown away by hatred and vengeance. The fact that I love her so much, that I’m in love with her and recognize that potential, made her betrayal to herself that day that much harder to bear. I couldn’t stand to witness that, and thus, I just couldn’t be in her presence anymore.

I retreated to my bedchamber to cry my tears of defeat. From there I could hear the horns blowing which signified the commencement of the public judgments. When I was her slave, Xena didn’t permit me to attend her judgments. I never knew why. The judgments had always taken place in the city’s central agora, which was too far for viewing from any point in the palace. But now I was free, and I was debating with myself whether or not I wanted to subject myself to the beast everyone believed her to be.

After pondering it for moments, I decided to go there. I had a plan. I would position myself in the crowd where Xena could plainly see me. Then I would plead to her with my eyes. I would find her beautiful blue eyes and just gaze at them in a silent communication. I would tell her with my eyes that she was above all of this. She had a soul and a heart and could put all of this filth of hatred behind her.

When I arrived at the central agora, it was teaming with people. Maneuvering myself through the thick crowd was not easy, but it was at this time that I firmly appreciated my diminutive stature. I was able to find a place to stand close to the massive dais at the north end of the agora. There were three tall stone pillars on each side of the dais and twelve heavily armored Imperial Guardsmen formed a line in front of it. Each Guardsman was wearing a crisp white uniform with a ceremonial aegis as opposed to the standard cuirass. The Conqueror’s banners were blowing in the light afternoon breeze and tall foliage added to the overall beauty of the platform.

The Conqueror appeared on the dais with two additional Imperial Guardsmen. She had on a regal chiton and gold-crested himation clasped with a gold pin shaped like a charging lion. She was covered in the finest gold jewelry, her beautiful black hair was up and she wore a gold laurel wreath. Xena the Conqueror was breathtaking. She immediately motioned for someone to join her up on the stage. It was Marcus Tullius Cicero, the famed Roman orator whom the Conqueror had recently commissioned as her Imperial speaker and scribe. Standing in front of her, Cicero briefly recalled for the audience the events of the four-month war against Marcus Antonius. He described in brilliant detail how our supreme Empress was able to subdue both the forces of her enemy as well as the influence of perhaps her greatest threat in the Roman territories, its own Governor Gaius Octavius.

As he spoke, I moved closer and closer until I was satisfied that Xena could spot me. I then made a gesture with my right hand that was common for me. I took a lock of hair and placed it behind my ear. It was almost a nervous trait of mine and one that I guessed would get her attention. It worked. Xena looked right at me just as Cicero was calling out the first prisoner.

Antonius was brought out on a cross. His eyes were open, but fixed. His skin was an almost pale green color. I think he was already dead, but Cicero spoke to him as if Antonius could hear him.

“For betraying the Realm and causing the deaths of almost twenty thousand men, both Greek and Roman, the penalty is death. Is there anything you wish to say?”

Of course Antonius couldn’t say anything.

Then the Conqueror spoke. “Stake him with the other condemned. He is to remain until his rotted body falls off the cross.” Her voice was deep and cold, and her menacing tone sent a shiver down my spine.

Antonius was carried away. Xena looked at me again. I lifted my eyebrows in a pleading gesture to her and then I smiled. She looked away. It was then that Darphus was brought out. He looked worse and I suspected that death would be upon him within a candlemark or two anyway. He had more lashes on his body, his nose was bleeding and one eye was swollen shut. Two Corinthian soldiers gripped his arms tightly as they carried him toward the dais. Then they tried to get him to kneel, but his legs had been in that tight standing position so long that his knees wouldn’t bend. So both soldiers proceeded to kick the backs of Darphus’ knees, which forced him into a kneeling position. They then held him upright. This brutality was obviously painful to Darphus, but he remained silent.

Cicero repeated the same sentencing order. “For betraying the Realm and causing the deaths of almost twenty thousand men, both Greek and Roman, the penalty is death. Is there anything you wish to say?”

Darphus said nothing.

“My sword,” the Conqueror said to Commander Palaemon, who had now joined her and was standing at her right. The two other Imperial Guardsmen walked up to either side of her and placed a thick red peplos over her dress. As she casually twirled the sword in her hand, one of the men tied a thick belt over the peplos to close it, fully concealing the clothing underneath. She then began walking down the steps of the dais to where Darphus was kneeling. I watched her eyes intently and started shaking my head. At one point, her eyes met mine, although she didn’t turn her head in my direction. I whispered to her, “Please don’t, Xena.” But she just looked away and closed her eyes.

As the Conqueror came upon Darphus, she looked down on him. “Crucifixion is too good for you Darphus,” she spoke loudly so that the immediate crowd could here. Then she leaned in closer and said something. I was close, but not enough to hear the whispered words. Then, in an instant, she let out a blood-curdling scream and whipped her arm across the front of Darphus’ kneeling body. Her sword sliced through his neck like it was a piece of parchment and his head sailed like a thrown ball. Blood started splattering on the Conqueror, the soldiers and the unfortunates that were standing too close. I don’t know what happened after that, because I turned and ran through the thick crowd to an open barrel where I once again emptied the contents of my stomach.

Back in the security of my bedchamber, I cried. I felt lost. I could have tried to stop Xena, but I didn’t want to do it that way. I wanted it to be her decision. I so wanted her to look at that pathetic heap of human flesh that had been tortured and beaten beyond recognition and say to herself that that was enough. She didn’t have to exact her ultimate revenge on him. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I love her more than anything, but if I couldn’t get her to at least reexamine her life and her role as our leader, how can I stand idly by, like I did that afternoon, like I’d done for five years, and know that she was torturing and killing people.

As I lay on my bed in thought, I looked over at my ever-growing pile of scrolls. In an instant, a decision was made.

* * * *

Several candlemarks later, there was a knock at my chamber door. It was Xena. She entered slowly and walked rather timidly over to where I was sitting on my bed. Her hair was down and she wore a simple tunic. Her hands were nervously rubbing the sides of the garment. She looked absolutely beautiful, although there was a profound sadness in her brilliant blue eyes. My heart always sinks at her sheer beauty, and this transitory time of my life was no exception.

“Hi, Gabrielle,” she spoke softly.

“Hi, Xena.” I didn’t take my eyes off of hers and I watched them as they shifted to gaze at my travel bag sitting next to me on the bed.

“What are you doing?” Xena asked as she again fixed her eyes on me.

“Do you think I’m a good bard, Xena?” I responded with a question.

“Yes, Gabrielle,” she answered contemplatively. “I enjoy your stories. Why?”

“Well,” I began, “I always desired to wander as a traveling bard. Had I not been abducted and sold into slavery, I would have eventually left Poteidaia and journeyed to Athens to learn the talent. I’ve written tons of poetry, Xena. And recently, I have written all of these wonderful stories about the Xena that I know and love. I want to share them with people. I want to tell them about how I went from being your voiceless slave girl to becoming your best friend and greatest admirer. Maybe if others begin to see you as I see you, then you’ll begin to see yourself that way too.”

“That’s totally insane, Gabrielle,” Xena said as she crossed her arms and looked upon me patronizingly.

“Maybe, but it’s certainly better than sitting around here watching you execute people and not doing ANYTHING to change that.”

“You can’t change me, Gabrielle,” she responded as her tone went flat.

“No, only you can do that. But if you refuse to at least listen to me, I can try to change how others see you. I have to do something,” I said with determination.

“Well, forget it,” Xena said. “Maybe I don’t want to change. Either way, you’re mine and I’m not letting you go anywhere.”

“Am I not still free, Xena?”

Xena started her nervous pacing in my bedchamber. “You know, I gave you your freedom, girl,” she started as she pointed her finger at me. “I can take it back and we can go back to the way things were.” She was angry, but remained surprisingly calm for the moment. I, on the other hand, was frightened by the threat. My heart started pounding in my chest and sweat began to bead on my forehead.

I stood up, still very scared, but also in my determination I found her eyes and held them. “Is that what you want, Conqueror?”

I was almost shocked at the angry tone of my own voice. Xena noticed it too, because she didn’t answer me right away. She merely looked at me, arms still crossed, breathing in and out quite heavily. I’m sure she was contemplating the idea. Xena the Conqueror enjoyed power. She enjoyed controlling people and having them cater to her every whim. Xena the woman had discovered my free will and I like to believe she preferred it that way.

Xena rushed over to me and gripped my arms as though she was going to shake me. She didn’t, but she brought my face close to hers and held me like that for a few moments. We stared at each other in a silent bittersweet communication. Then she planted a hard kiss on my lips. “Fine,” she finally said, while the cracking of her voice and the moisture in her eyes began to betray her. “You get the fuck out of here, then. You get the fuck out of my palace, out of my city. I don’t ever want to see you again!”

She pushed me as she let go. Then she turned and headed for my chamber door. I don’t know what insanity possessed me, but I felt at that moment she needed to hear this: “I love you, Xena,” I said as she stormed out of my bedchamber. The words caused her to pause only for a moment. After the chamber door slammed behind her, I just stood there and stared at it as the tears started to flow. I should have felt destroyed by her words, but I didn’t. I knew her now. Xena didn’t mean what she said. And even if she did, it was because she was hurting. She loved me and I hurt her. That became a preposterous notion. I never imagined that I could ever hurt the impenetrable Conqueror of the Known World. I knew that she needed to get away from me. That pain I was causing her caused me to cry. Don’t worry, Xena, you will see me again, I thought. Wiping my face, I grabbed my bag and went to find the one person who would keep a close eye on her in my absence.

Commander Palaemon was drilling a platoon of men in the palace central courtyard. I walked up to him and told him I was leaving Corinth and why. He took on a look of sadness that I found flattering. I told him to watch over Xena. I didn’t understand why at the time, but I knew Palaemon had her utmost respect. He hugged me and told me I was making a huge mistake. I told him the greater mistake for me was to do nothing. I didn’t think he understood, but I took comfort in knowing he was genuinely concerned about Xena. Palaemon seemed to know how much Xena and I loved and needed each other. As I walked away from him, he broke up the platoon and began hobbling in the direction of Xena’s bedchamber.

After saying my goodbye to an equally saddened Demi, I left the library to find Bahri in the field training building. She apologized for her earlier outburst and gave me her Imperial Guard dagger to carry as protection during my travels. She also insisted that I write to her. I thanked her for the weapon and promised to write. Then I gave her a goodbye hug before wandering to the Corinthian propylaea. I turned and looked at the palace once more before charting the course for my mission.

* * * *

The first few days of my adventure were pretty amazing. I spent the days wandering through the towns and villages requesting the audiences of people to hear my poetry and my inconceivable stories of the warm and funny woman who had managed to destroy the lives of many of those who listened to me. It was an education as much for me as it was for them. Many of the patrons in the taverns and inns where I spoke taunted me and called me crazy and a liar. I expected that. It was interesting, actually challenging, to contradict their rants about Xena the Conqueror, the “demon despot,” the “bloodsucking witch from Tartarus.” None of my tavern room arguments escalated into anything more than that, because for some reason, there was always at least one patron present who wanted to hear what I had to say. That was wonderful.

At night, I would lodge in the stable lofts of gracious farmers. Most often, these folks had heard my stories and poetry earlier in the day and, I believed, felt a sense of familiarity with my situation or me. I discovered that there were a lot of kind people along the Greek countryside. In the larger towns I visited, Megara, Plataea, Thebes and Coronea, the innkeepers were kind enough to allow me to lodge without payment. My “entertainment” as a bard in their inns attracted an audience and was payment enough, I supposed.

I cried a lot. I missed Xena terribly and would write simple poems by oil lamp light at night, musing about our love and our passion. I was amazed at how provocative my poetry had become as I sometimes wrote in graphic detail of the physical pleasures we shared. For sure, those particularly erotic poems of my love affair with Xena were certainly not included with the poetry I recited to my tavern audiences.

Almost every night I cried myself to sleep while clutching the one possession of Xena that I took with me, her blue scarf that she wore the last day we spent together before my departure. I had pulled it off of her neck before I attacked her in a wonderful romp of lovemaking that night. I was quite drunk at the time. Before returning to my own bedchamber after witnessing her murder Darphus the next day, I had gone to her bedchamber to retrieve the scarf. I hadn’t made the decision to leave yet, but something in me told me to grab it.

The scarf had her unique scent on it and its color matched her eyes. I knew I was torturing myself by having it with me, but I felt it would be a greater torture not to have anything with me other than my memories of her.

After my performance as a bard in Trachis about a month and a half into my journey, I was wandering down a country road heading north to Pharsalus when I spotted a familiar face coming in my direction. It was Hebrion, the palace produce supplier who had helped me in my travel to Poteidaia to attend my sister’s funeral six months before. Although he was heading toward Corinth, he offered to turn his carriage around and ride me to Pharsalus. I refused his generous offer. I enjoyed walking. Slavery was ever so physically restrictive. The second greatest pleasure I was getting out of this adventure, next to telling my stories of course, was the freedom to walk when I wanted, sit when I wanted, smell the flowers, take a swim in a stream, eat wild fruit or climb a tree. I could go on.

After his friendly departure, I continued my stroll when I heard a strange sound. It was coming from the bushes a few paces from the road. I headed in the direction of the sound and found an injured woman hiding within the brush. She was moaning and the first thing I noticed was that her hands clutched an arrow sticking out of her stomach. She appeared to be small, like me, with wild red hair and deep hazel eyes. Her strange clothing was unfamiliar to me, but it seemed the attire I thought to be worn by Amazons.

The young woman was alive, but only semi-conscious. I bent down and took her hand in mine.

“My name is Gabrielle,” I said. “I want to help you.”

“I am Terreis,” she responded. Her voice was raspy.

“Terreis, I need to get this arrow out of you,” I implored. She nodded in agreement. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, but I succumbed to my own instinct and adrenaline. Breaking the arrow first, I then gripped it where it met with her skin and yanked it out. Then I took my sleeping garment out of my travel bag and began applying pressure to the wound to cut down on the bleeding. I took her hands and put them over my sleep shift. “Hold this as tight as you can, Terreis,” I told her. I then took my travel bag and placed it under her head to make her more comfortable.

“Is there someone I can go find to bring back to you?” I asked, amazed at myself for the composure I managed.

“Please stay here with me, Gabrielle, please?” Terreis pleaded. “My Sisters will come to us.”

Grabbing my water skin, I nodded and lay down next to her. I gave her water, and placing my hand over hers, I began talking to her. I hoped to take her mind off of her pain as I also hoped she was correct about being found. I told her the story about my good friend Bahri, the dashing young man of the Conqueror’s Imperial Guard who turned out to be a stunning young woman. Terreis was in great pain and losing more blood by each passing moment, but she was amused by my little story. I hesitated for a moment, but then I started to tell her about my love, Xena.

Terreis was correct. Only a few more moments passed before a group of masked women found us in the brush. There were three of them and each one drew her sword on me.

“Who are you,” demanded one of the masked women.

“I am Gabrielle, a traveling bard,” I answered.

Terreis spoke up. “She found me here and helped me, Ephiny.” Her voice was becoming weaker.

The woman spoke to the other two. “Daphnis, Anthia, we need to build a litter quickly.” She looked at me. “You, look after our Princess.”

I nodded. Princess?

The women were quick and efficient in building a litter. Then, after one of the Amazons picked up the bloody broken arrow, all four of us carefully lifted Terreis onto the litter and I helped them carry her to their village. The village was different than any I had ever visited. The homes were rounded huts they called yurts. They were not made out of unbaked brick or limestone or terracotta like the homes of Corinth. They were made out of wood, clay and animals skins. The yurts circled a central plaza. There was no dais in the plaza. Instead there was a large fire pit and several very tall and decorative palisades formed in a circle. At one end of the plaza, there were also several narrow poles erected in a straight line, with beautifully colored banners blowing in the calm breeze.

We took Terreis to the hospice yurt. Once inside, two other women removed my blood-soaked garment from her wound and began treating her. A third woman with very strong and distinguished looking features came into the hut and took Terreis’ hand. I was then ushered out of the hut.

“You need to see our Queen,” said the woman called Ephiny. She still had not yet removed her mask.

I was taken to another hut and told to wait. This was apparently a community hut and was the largest hut in the village. Ephiny left, but her two companions from the woods stayed with me. It was not a long while before Ephiny returned and took me back to the hospice yurt. I was brought before Terreis.

“She has requested to see you,” Ephiny said.

Terreis took my hand and pulled me closer to her so that I could hear her whisper. “I’m giving you my right of caste, Gabrielle.” She looked over at the distinguished looking woman and nodded. “My sister is my witness.” She looked back at me. “You are a good and strong woman, Gabrielle. I thank the Fates for bringing us together. Bahri is lucky to have you as a friend. Xena is fortunate to have you as a lover.” Terreis drew her last breath and crossed over.

I couldn’t move, so I just stood there clutching her hand. Ephiny took me and guided me out of the hut. I was returned to the community hut where, a while later, the distinguished looking woman entered.

“I am Queen Melosa,” she began. “I lead this tribe of the Amazon Nation. Terreis was my blood sister and the heir to my throne. In giving you her right of caste, you become that heir.”

I was stunned. “I… I… can’t accept that honor, Queen Melosa.”

“By Amazon law, you have no choice,” the Queen responded.

“But Queen Melosa, you don’t understand. I am, I was…”

“I know who you are, Gabrielle. You are Xena the Conqueror’s body slave.”

My mouth dropped. The Queen continued, “Before you were summoned to see her, Terreis mentioned to me that you told her you love a woman named Xena. She instantly knew who you were then. You see, Gabrielle, I have three Amazon Sisters of our tribe serving in the Conqueror’s Imperial Guard. They send periodic reports back to us about the Realm and that vile woman who rules it. For awhile, Terreis and I have known about the Conqueror’s personal servant, your name, what you look like and all. We have also known for quite some time that Xena has fallen for you. Of course, the men of her troops and in her government don’t see it. You are her personal piece of flesh to them, but our Amazon Sisters in Corinth can easily perceive the unchained heart of a woman in love. Her love for you has even begun to reflect in the way she rules. She’s still a monster, mind you, but a few seasons ago, before you, she was much worse. You are a remarkable woman, Gabrielle. That’s why my sister chose you to have her right of caste. By your simple presence in the Conqueror’s life, you have managed to somewhat tame her, the wild beast of Amphipolis, and I suspect you didn’t even realize it.”

I was speechless. Queen Melosa went on. “You can’t be a runaway. You wouldn’t have gotten this far. I must then conclude that the Conqueror freed you for some reason. This tells me that her love for you has grown immeasurably over the seasons. There is hope for all of us since it seems our illustrious ruler has a heart and a soul after all.”

The other women laughed. Queen Melosa raised her hand, silencing them. I could tell from the heat on my face that I was seriously blushing.

“The Conqueror hasn’t loved me that long,” I finally said. “It has only been a few months.

“Oh, you are so wrong, Gabrielle,” the Queen responded as she smiled at me. “Xena the Conqueror has loved you for a few years.”

Another silence. That’s impossible, I thought.

“Tonight, I will mourn the death of my sister,” Queen Melosa spoke again. “Tomorrow, we commit her to the flames.” She looked to Ephiny. “You are in charge of Gabrielle, Ephiny. Train her in the ways of our Nation.”

Queen Melosa then looked to yet another masked women. “Solari, you and your Moiety will commence the investigation into the identity of the Thessalian soldier who killed my sister.” The Queen handed the woman the arrow.

“Yes, my Queen,” Ephiny and Solari spoke in unison. Then Ephiny grabbed me by my arm and escorted me out of the hut and took me to another one.

“This is Terreis’ yurt,” she said. “It’s yours now. We’ll begin training after the funeral pyre.”

As she walked toward the yurt entrance, I called out to her. “May I see your face?” I asked. Ephiny removed her mask to reveal a lovely young woman approximately my age, with clear light brown eyes and short curly blond hair. She said nothing, just turned and left.

I lay in Terreis’ high bed that night and cried over the tragic event of the day, for the new friend that I lost, and the woman that I loved and missed deeply.

* * * *

In the following weeks, I learned a great deal about life as an Amazon. My days started early as the tribe ate morning meal as a community. I was immediately placed in training as a scout-guard. Had I been raised as an Amazon from birth or early childhood, I would have been trained in this capacity upon reaching adolescence, so needless to say, I was noticeably the oldest scout-guard in training. Whatever awkwardness I felt about my age was quickly dissipated by my Sister trainees. They were very friendly and inviting young girls, and with their encouragement and Ephiny’s persistence, I was also discovering muscles in my body I didn’t know I had. The physical training went on for several candlemarks each day and was very grueling at times. Ephiny was a temperamental and fastidious trainer, but in time she became my good friend.

The tribe of Queen Melosa was comprised of a Claus, which was dispersed into seven sub villages called Moieties. There were four peace Moieties: Justice, Hospice, Agriculture and Spiritual; and three war Moieties: Training, Hunting and Guard. Every Amazon belonged to at least one Moiety with most belonging to two. Ephiny, for instance, was the chief trainer of Training and the top lieutenant of Guard. Her two second-in-commands, Daphnis and Anthia were hunters and guards. Solari was Queen Melosa’s chief hunter, but she also served as a jurist of Justice. Queen Melosa decreed which Moiety each Amazon joined. It was determined that I was best suited for Justice, although I was still trained as a guard. Although not everyone was a member of the Guard Moiety, all Amazons receive guard training simply because the hostile world surrounding the village necessitated knowledge in weapons and defense.

Although I received some training in wielding a sword, throwing a dagger, hurling a spear, shooting an arrow and fighting with chobos, my chosen weapon was the staff. I preferred it mostly because it was not a lethal weapon and it seemed to work best for me in my improving grace and coordination. I would practice defensive moves on a human-shaped figure stuffed with goose feathers or spar with my trainer Anthia, who also carried a staff. Sometimes I would simply twirl my staff over my head and around my body to increase my comfort with it. I was very proud of myself in my development and often wished that my beloved Xena could be present to see how strong and confident I had become.

I learned quickly that the Amazons were not a shy bunch. Located behind the community yurt was the baths’ yurt. The baths’ yurt was almost a second community hut where my Sisters gathered to share stories, comfort, support, and even joke amongst each other as they bathed together. They were also very open in discussing and accepting individual spiritualities and varying relationships. Most of the tribe worshipped Artemis, the Goddess of the Amazons. A smaller number worshipped Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom. Others worshipped the foreign deities of their Thracian and Anatolian homelands. And a few of my Sisters were immigrants from Judea and they worshipped the one God of Abraham. Over half of my Sisters were married to or romantically involved with either other members of our tribe or women from the surrounding villages. A smaller number had male lovers. Three were actually married to men. The remaining Sisters took a vow of chastity for whatever reason. Although most of my Sisters believed my “chosen” to be a demon, I still took the opportunity of the baths to repeat the stories I had told people during my travels as a bard of the Xena that I knew. Unfortunately, the Amazons were a much tougher audience to convince.

Another interesting thing I had discovered in the village was that the Amazons had apparently had some influence over Xena at some point in her life. One day, about three weeks into my training, I stumbled onto a beehive and was stung several times. Ephiny and Anthia immediately took me to the hospice yurt where I was treated with a medicinal combination of honeysuckle leaves, wild onion and wild garlic. While I was there recovering, I glanced around the yurt and noticed that most of the labeled medicines used by the Amazons, like gentian and arnica root for headaches and yellow-spine thistle for burn scars, were the very same remedies used by Xena and her personal palace healers.

During this time with the Amazons I was sleeping soundly, probably because of all the physical exertion I endured during the day, but I was also having strange dreams. Sometimes I had vicious nightmares that I couldn’t even remember upon waking. Sometimes I dreamt about my indentured life in the palace or my life back home with my parents and sister. Sometimes these existences blended together in the dreams. The most vivid dream I recall from that time however was another actual situation that happened between Xena and me about one year ago.

I was summoned to the Conqueror’s bedchamber for service. I entered the chamber and walked over to my usual servicing spot to await instruction. The Conqueror appeared before me completely nude and, grabbing the back of my neck, escorted me over to the bed. She took off my chiton and sat down on the edge of the bed and commanded me to get on my knees. I did. Then she said simply, “Service me.” I began sucking her sex. A few moments into my service, she said, “Go inside.” I took three fingers and penetrated her. The Conqueror’s sex was the only part of her body I was allowed to touch with my hands for some strange reason. She usually held my other wrist at her side.

In the past, the Conqueror had usually been the pillar of control during sex, but on this occasion oddly enough, she was letting loose in her arousal. She moaned and stated incoherent words very loudly while she ran her fingers through my hair and massaged my head. I loved the taste of her sex and delighted in servicing her this way, and the caresses to my head furthered my pleasure. Her whole body constricted when she climaxed and for the first time she actually screamed out during her release.

When the last torrents of climax ended in her body, the Conqueror stood up and then lifted me up off the floor. She was very excited as she threw me on the bed and then climbed on top of me. She lifted my arms, in my standard servicing position, and held my wrists with her left hand. She then took my fingers that had been inside of her and licked them. She then started licking my mouth. As her tongue stroked my lips, I impulsively opened my mouth slightly and allowed my own tongue to touch hers. She actually responded to the touch and for a single moment, we had a marvelously passionate exchange with our tongues and lips. But then she abruptly stopped the tender kiss and, taking her right hand and grabbing the back of my head; she started fiercely sucking my neck below my right ear. The Conqueror had done this to me countless times over the seasons. It was a strange sensation of pleasure and pain and always resulted in a hideous looking bruise afterwards. After a few moments, she started sucking my neck under my left ear. As I was starting to think of just how awful my neck was going to look the next morning, the Conqueror removed her right hand from behind my head and penetrated me with three fingers. As her scent, beauty and touches aroused me to the extreme, my sex was definitely ready to receive the invasion. The combination of sensations was very pleasurable to me, and I closed my eyes and allowed my body to relax and enjoy this dangerously beautiful woman who was ravishing me.

However, in the midst of it, the Conqueror stopped sucking my neck and whispered in my ear, “Do you ever have thoughts of love, Gabrielle?”

I didn’t answer.

The Conqueror looked into my startled, open eyes. “Answer me when I talk to you, slave.”

I became instantly petrified. “Yes,” I said hesitantly. “I have thoughts of love, my Lady.”

“Who consumes these thoughts?” she asked and then quickly added, “Never mind. I know it’s not me, and I don’t want to have to kill anyone else tonight.”

Never pausing in her rhythmic thrusting of my sex, the Conqueror resumed sucking my neck. After a few moments, I again relaxed.

Then, moments later, the combination of sexual stimulation and temporary insanity struck me and I whispered in the Conqueror’s ear, “Do you ever have thoughts of love, my Lady?”

The Conqueror grabbed me around my throat. “I ask the questions, slave,” she said, then loosening her grip, continued, “But since you had the courage to ask, yes, I do have thoughts of love.”

The Conqueror started sucking my throat. “And I hate you for that, Gabrielle,” she mumbled, but I heard it.

I climaxed.

At the end of my six weeks of training, the village held a festive busk or thanksgiving ceremony. The huge fire pit in the central plaza was filled with wood and, at nightfall, every member of the village gathered for dancing and jubilation around the huge fire. Queen Melosa told me that this was a time to rekindle the sacred fires for spiritual renewal. The fire served as a symbolic cleansing of the spirit. Queen Melosa officially announced me as her heir to the throne of the village. As I sat and watched my Amazon Sisters dance in celebration and joy, I began to feel something deep within me. I sensed that Xena and I would reunite very soon.

_____________________________

IV. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG

I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the madness that possessed Gabrielle. Less than two days after my return from war, she garnered some insane interest in the fate of that bastard Darphus, insisted that I spare the scum and then decided to leave me when I gave him what he obviously deserved. Now here I was, sitting on the edge of my bed, sharpening my favorite sword, torn between going after her and begging her not to leave me and going after her and chopping her into little pieces.

There came a knock at my bedchamber door as the second option started sounding better and better.

“May I enter, my Liege?” It was Palaemon.

“What do you want, Commander?” I responded in question as he entered my bedchamber anyway.

“I came to see if you’re all right, Majesty.”

“Go away!” I shouted. “I don’t need you checking up on me.” I never ceased my sharpening.

Palaemon deliberately disobeyed my command and proceeded to walk closer to me. Apparently he needed to be reminded that I was an enraged killer brandishing a lethal weapon. I immediately stood up and pressed the sharpened sword to his throat and backed him up against the wall next to the door. Palaemon was my Imperial Guard Commander for many reasons. One, he never lost his cool, even in the face of death.

“Conqueror,” he started as best he could as the blade was cutting into his neck. “Gabrielle came to see me. I don’t agree with her reasons for leaving, but I’m honoring her wishes out of respect for her and for you.”

“I don’t want to hear about her, especially from you,” I said as I pressed the blade even further. As much as I tried to suppress them, my emotions betrayed me once again and the tears started to flow. Palaemon was in pain from my sword, but he grabbed my forearms gently and looked into my crying eyes.

“Remove the blade, please, Conqueror,” he said. “I’m worth more to you alive than dead.”

I quickly removed it and turned away from Palaemon. He spoke. “Conqueror, I have taken liberties to make sure Gabrielle’s travels are safe. I have a small detachment of Guardsmen following her. Two women, four men. They have been instructed to report back to me by messenger every twelve candlemarks. She’s a small woman with no fighting skills. I know you wouldn’t want any harm to come to her.”

Palaemon took the initiative to do what I would have ordered him to do had I been in the right frame of mind. I still refused to face him. “Very well, Commander,” I said. “Now, I have important matters of state to attend.”

* * * *

I decided not to go after Gabrielle. I had emancipated her and she was a grown woman. I love her more than anything in this world, but I told myself that I was not going to force that love or my body on her, not anymore. If she returned to me, and I hoped every passing moment of every passing day that she would, it would be of her own choosing. So, over the next few weeks, I did everything in my power to keep my mind off of her. Two days after her departure, I finally took that much needed trip to Crete to meet with my governor there. Palaemon wanted to accompany me, but I refused. I wanted him where he could get to Gabrielle quickly if he needed. After Crete, I sailed east to Lydia in the Asia Minor to engage in battle against a small and insignificant uprising near Arginusae. My presence wasn’t really needed to beat the band of Ionian warriors stirring trouble in my region, but the desire for the metallic taste of blood was coursing through my veins and I needed release from the anxiety of my absent love.

By day I was spearing, gutting and generally brutalizing men in combat. I rode through villages shouting my battle cry, gouging flesh with my sword and slicing muscle with my chakram. At night, when I managed to sleep at all, I tossed and turned. I dreamt about the men I slaughtered. They were lined up in a row as I hacked them one by one. Always at the end of the line was Gabrielle, wearing that dress Illiana made that drove me crazy three years ago. She looked at me as she did on the dais that day I killed Darphus. It was that disappointed look. Sometimes in the dream, Darphus was with her and had his arm around her shoulder, smiling his evil smile. Sometimes it was Antonius. Sometimes it was the boy I killed the night after I had her branded. Once, she was there with her sister that I had never met. Those dreams haunted me, haunted my soul.

Other times, I dreamt of Gabrielle and me in the throes of passion. She was always in control of me and was literally fucking my brains out. I often climaxed in my slumber during those intense dreams and would awaken with my sex painfully throbbing and sweat pouring off of my skin. My chief Lydian warrior, Commander Potamos, kept insisting I take a local villager as my body servant to relieve my “tension”. He even had the audacity to offer himself as sexual relief for me. I had fucked him once a long time ago in order to persuade him to join my growing army, but I had no desire to repeat that experience. I did consider taking a lover a couple of times while I was fighting in Lydia, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Gabrielle had walked away from me, yet I still couldn’t betray her with the body of another. Quite the contrary, as time passed, I longed for her more and more. Going to war had not worked. Her living spirit was consuming me. I couldn’t get Gabrielle out of my mind.

When I returned to Corinth, Commander Palaemon wasted no time in updating me on Gabrielle’s travels.

“What has she been doing?” I asked him as I relaxed in my tub scrubbing the filth of war off of my body.

“Well, my Liege,” Palaemon began, “She had been performing as a bard, like she said. She visited about fifteen towns and villages in the Peloponnese before heading north to Thessaly. The citizens were quite taken with her, I’ve been told. Interesting, Conqueror, but she never made it to Athens as I thought she would. Her path was north. I personally think she would have eventually ended up in Poteidaia, but…”

“Never mind the commentary, Commander,” I interrupted. “Where is she now?”

“Pardon me, my Liege,” Palaemon responded. “Seven weeks ago, she aided an injured Amazon near Pharsalus. She was taken back to their village. She’s been there ever since.”

I leapt to my feet in the tub. “WHAT!?!” I exclaimed. “What has she been doing there?”

Palaemon looked around the room in a desperate attempt not to eye my soapy naked body. “I don’t know, my Liege,” he responded. “The Amazon lands are heavily guarded and even my two female Guardsmen were discovered spying and ejected.”

He thought for a moment, then added, “Oh, and Conqueror, your lieutenant in Pharsalus hasn’t been of any help to us whatsoever.”

“Damn that bitch,” I said under my breath as Palaemon smirked. “Do you even know if Gabrielle’s alive?” I asked.

“I have no reason to doubt it, my Liege,” he responded. “I have received correspondence from her twice since she went to live amongst the Amazons. She asked about you, by the way, Conqueror. And before my Guardsmen were spotted and ejected, they reported that Gabrielle appeared to be a welcome member to the tribe and was receiving some form of combat training.

I was out of the tub upon hearing the word “combat” and was quickly drying off. “Palaemon,” I inquired. “Has Gabrielle kept in contact with anyone else here in Corinth?”

“Demi… I mean Demitrius… informed me that he received word from her about three weeks ago, my Liege. And although I haven’t spoken to Bahri in a while, I wouldn’t doubt Gabrielle has written to her as well.”

I had a plan. “Did our little Egyptian complete her field training?” I asked.

“Oh yes, Conqueror. You’re going to love this. She’s been promoted to field sergeant, in charge of interrogations.”

“This I have to see,” I said as I quickly finished dressing and headed for the Corinthian Militia Compound.

* * * *

I walked into a darkened chamber and stood by a small band of Imperial Guard Militiamen and a group of citizen onlookers who were observing as Field Sergeant Bahri had two heavyset Imperial Guardsmen hold down a suspect she was interrogating. I wore a dark cloak with a hood that concealed my face so that no one in the chamber would recognize me.

“Ok, Raimius,” she said. “You tell me who your partner was who helped you break into the homes of the good citizens Doros, Conosis and Aegion, and I won’t cut off your phallos.”

“Go to Tartarus, you black Nubian bitch!” came the muffled reply from the badly beaten suspect.

“Fine,” Bahri responded in a relaxed manner. “Gentlemen, cut off his phallos.”

The two heavy Guardsmen lifted the man to his feet while a third Militiaman came up to him and removed his tunic. As the Militiaman grabbed the end of the suspect’s male member, the suspect spoke up. “You can’t do this. You just can’t take away the most important thing on a man’s body!”

“Ah, but ‘thing’ is the operative word, isn’t it?” Bahri said as she casually cleaned her fingernails with her dagger. “Let’s get an understanding, Raimius. I don’t give a squat about you or your sad little pasty white ‘thing.’ All I care about is the identity of your partner in crime, since we all know you don’t have any gods-given sense to pull off these thefts on your own.”

As the Militiaman drew blood, the suspect finally relented. “Theodor!” he shouted. “His name is Theodor.”

“Very good, Raimius.” She looked to the two Guardsmen. “Hold him.” She said and in an instant she drew a short-bladed sword from her belt, grabbed his right arm and cut off his hand. As he screamed his pain, she said to him in a calm tone, “That is your punishment for thievery and for forcing me to have to see the sight of your sad little pasty white ‘thing.’”

As the bloodied suspect was being led from the room, I removed my hood and turned my attention to Bahri. “Very well done, Field Sergeant Bahri,” I said. She was startled at the sight of me, but bowed in formal greeting.

“Afternoon, my Liege.”

“I need to speak with you in private,” I said. Bahri immediately ordered the other Militiamen, Guardsmen and civilians to leave the chamber. Taking her shoulders in my hands, I looked into her brown eyes as I tried desperately to control my emotions.

“Bahri, have you heard from Gabrielle?”

“It’s been awhile, my Liege, but yes,” she responded. “She’s living amongst the Amazons… lucky girl.” Bahri had whispered the last two words to herself. I should have been amused at Bahri’s typical eccentric demeanor, but at the moment I wasn’t. Those whispered words were exactly what I did not want to hear.

“Bahri, I want you to go with me to Thessaly. I want to see her. I need to see her. And I need your help.”

“Why not take a detachment of Guardsmen, Conqueror?” she asked.

“No,” I responded. “It has to be you.”

Bahri didn’t understand, but she nodded. “By your will, Conqueror.”

* * * *

We set out for Thessaly the following morning. Although I had promised myself to make no attempt to seek out Gabrielle, the fact that she was now living with a tribe of strong, independent, and in many cases sensuously beautiful women changed all of that. Riding hard and fast, we arrived at the Amazon territories before nightfall. The weather was unbearably hot. I hadn’t meant to tax Argo so much, so we camped at the bank of a small lake where we could water down the horses and take a cooling swim if necessary.

Bahri didn’t say much to me. Gabrielle had remarked to me after my return from the Apennines that Bahri was as much of a talker as she, but I suppose Bahri was at a loss in what to say to the Destroyer of Nations. She also elected to swim only after I had finished my dip. I swam in the nude, but Bahri preferred to swim with her britches on. When she was done, I went back in and caught two fat and healthy lake trout for our dinner. I had bread in my saddlebag to eat with the fish and Bahri had packed some grapes in her saddlebag. I built a fire and we slept outside. The following morning, we rode closer to the village where I was ready to put my plan into action.

I removed an Amazon mask and some apparel from my other saddlebag. These items were some of the many trophies I had accumulated over the years in my battle victories. I instructed Bahri to put on the mask and clothing and employ the surveillance skills she learned in field training to penetrate the village proper and discover which yurt Gabrielle occupied. Bahri didn’t question my instructions, but she wondered why we needed to go about this in such a covert fashion.

“It’s simple, Bahri,” I told her. “The Amazons hate me. If I ride into their village, they’ll surely try to capture me or even kill me. My Thessalian troops won’t let that happen and we’ll be at war with the Amazons. I’m not about to place Gabrielle in that kind of danger.”

“I understand, my Liege,” Bahri said, and with that, she set off to accomplish her goal.

Bahri was gone the better part of five candlemarks and I was beginning to wonder if she had been captured or she had fallen prey to her own sexual vices. For a man or a Sapphic, an Amazon village could appear to be a virtual paradise. But the Amazons were savvy and they knew how to sexually manipulate the weaknesses of both. As I considered that, I began to envision Gabrielle in the arms of a faceless, sensual Amazon. Images in my mind of her making love with another woman were torturing me. I fought hard to dismiss the thoughts, but they kept surfacing. Waiting impatiently for Bahri’s return didn’t do much to temper my brimming anger and jealousy, and I spent much of the time sharpening my sword, my dagger and my chakram.

Finally, at the evening candlemark, Bahri returned. “Okay, my Liege,” she began. “I counted 35 yurts in the village, give or take a few. They’re in a circle facing a central agora these women call the ‘plaza’.” Bahri drew out a circle map on the ground. “Pretend this is a sun dial. The Queen’s yurt is here and faces south…” she pointed to the top of the circle. “Gabrielle’s yurt is here…” she pointed to the quarter candlemark. “The group yurt is here…” she pointed to the half candlemark. “The group yurt is the largest in the village, the Queen’s yurt is the most decorative.”

Bahri efficiently laid it out for me. She had learned the guards’ schedules and routes and when there was a changing of the guards. She learned when the Amazons ate and when they participated in their worship times. When I was confident that I had a complete picture of the village and its routine, Bahri added something. “I looked hard, my Liege, but I never saw Gabrielle. I know I walked by her yurt at least ten times. I even peeked in when no one was looking. Nothing.” Bahri looked at the mask I had her wear. “Of course, seeing out of this ugly thing didn’t help, Majesty. I do believe she’s there somewhere. I heard her name mentioned a couple of times. I just didn’t see her.”

I patted Bahri on her shoulder in thanks. Despite what I had almost done to her three months ago, she had remained loyal to my Realm. I can see why Gabrielle considered her like a sister. I could see her as my sister as well.

After dark, I made my way to the village. I instructed Bahri to take the horses back to the lake where we had camped the night before and wait there. I had Bahri accompany me in order for her to infiltrate the village and provide me its layout. What I didn’t tell her was that I had planned to abduct Gabrielle.

* * * *

It was past midnight when I made it to the rear of Gabrielle’s yurt. I had managed to dodge four Amazon night guards without having to kill any of them. I was dressed in the same long, dark and hooded cloak I wore to Bahri’s interrogation chamber and I was roasting in it. Upon reaching Gabrielle’s yurt, I took out my chakram and threw it causing it to ricochet off of a barrel and some hanging pots. This was to draw the attention of the roaming guards away from the yurt. When it returned to me, I used it to cut a single slice in the yurt’s thick animal skin coverings and I slipped inside.

A single oil lamp illuminated the interior of the yurt. I proceeded to walk over to the high bed and look down onto its sleeping occupant. Now I knew why Bahri didn’t see Gabrielle. She didn’t recognize her. I looked upon her entire body in total astonishment. Because of the intense heat of the summer night, Gabrielle was nude save a thin loincloth covering her soft blond curls. Her skin was tanned from the great deal of exposure she had apparently received from being outdoors. The muscles on her arms and legs were toned and defined. Her stomach was flat and muscular. Her hips were curved and solid. Her breasts were firm and voluptuous. Her hair was cut at the neckline and its blond tone was lighter from all of its exposure to the sun. Gabrielle looked strong, more mature, and more beautiful, if that was possible. I gently took her right hand and tied a thick twine to it. Then I took the left hand and secured it to the right hand. My face started to quiver as I delicately ran my fingers down her tanned muscled arm and then her tanned face. “By the gods,” I whispered in amazement at this vision of perfect beauty as I leaned down and gently kissed her soft, reddened lips.

________________________________

V. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY

I awakened to the sight of the most beautiful clear blue eyes I had ever seen and the feel of soft lips covering mine. Just as I began responding to those familiar lips, they were replaced by the callused right hand of the Conqueror. She tightly covered my mouth as her eyes glanced over at my staff lying beside my body.

“Oh, no…no…no…” she said in whisper. “We can’t have you using this, now can we?” She grabbed my staff and threw it to the floor. Then she replaced her right hand with her left hand as her right hand reached down to grab her chakram. She started rubbing the side of the sharp weapon down my face while the weight of her upper body was pressing into my chest. I couldn’t reach up to stop her because she had bound my wrists when I was still asleep.

“So, Gabrielle,” the evil Conqueror I remembered said in that familiar cold and poisonous tone. “I need to pay you back for walking out on me. Where should I start cutting first? Your face? Your neck?”

I couldn’t respond with my mouth, obviously, so I responded with my eyes. I held in my terror and looked deep into the eyes of the Conqueror. I looked past the frost to the warmth of my Xena. I refused to take my eyes away from hers as I searched for the woman I love. Sensing that I found her, I carefully moved my arms up the best I could and, taking the backs of the cupped fingers of my right hand, I began stroking her cheek in the exact same manner she was stroking mine with her chakram.

Xena flinched a little at my initial touch, but she didn’t move. She then put the weapon down and removed her left hand from my mouth. I touched her face with both of my tied hands.

“You look tired, Xena,” I said. “Would you like a mug of water?”

She didn’t respond with words and she looked away. I slowly started to sit up. She actually leaned back to give me room. I held out my arms to her. Still looking away, she untied the bindings. I then hopped down off of my high bed and walked over to my table and poured her some water. When I brought it to her, I lifted the filled mug up under her lips. She drank and gave the emptied mug back to me. I went back over to the table and poured another full mug. She drank only half of it. I drank the other half. Then I set the mug down and hugged her. I hugged her tightly as I began to cry a little on her scratchy wool cloak.

After embracing each other for a few moments, I looked up to see the sweating face of the most gorgeous woman in the known world. “You must be burning up in this thing, Xena,” I said in reference to the cloak. She still said nothing as she took it off. When I saw her beautiful figure before me, particularly her hardened nipples sticking to the sweaty material of her tunic, I was overcome with passion and longing and I grabbed her behind her neck and drew her sweat-glistened face down to mine. We kissed and embraced for the longest time. I missed her so much. I longed for her so much as we moaned in each other’s mouths and stroked each other’s tongues. Her hands were roaming all over my almost-naked body. My skin burned with desire to her touches. My arms were draped over her neck and I played with her long wet hair.

Then, as we kissed, I began undressing Xena. I removed the belt that held her tunic closed. I grabbed the wet tunic and pulled it off of her shoulders. I then broke the kiss so that I could pull down her britches. “Go sit on the bed,” I demanded. She did. I took off her sandals. I then climbed on the bed next to her and pushed her back prone on the bed. I climbed on top of her and began kissing her again. By the gods, I wanted her so bad. My sex was throbbing to the point of pain as Xena took her hands and began kneading my ass. I pressed my thigh in between her legs and began rubbing her soaked center. I pressed my center onto her thigh to relieve some of the sexual pressure there. We started grinding in rhythm as our kissing lips and working tongues continued in a wondrous fight for dominance.

Then, all of a sudden, Xena broke the kiss. She took my face in her hands, touched my forehead to hers and glared into my eyes. “Have you taken a lover in my absence, Gabrielle?” she asked in a shy whisper.

“No, Xena,” I responded. “Have you?”

Xena was struck with a flurry of emotion. The tears began streaming out of her eyes. “By Zeus and all the gods, NO,” she responded. “No one else exists in my world but you.”

Those words and her tears shot through me like a lighting bolt from Zeus. We resumed our passionate lovemaking and climax came quickly for both of us. After a short rest from our release, we began again… and again… and again.

* * * *

The following morning, as we practically stuck to each other from the sticky sweat of the hot and humid morning, and the outburst of passion from the previous night, Xena and I began a conversation of mindless dialogue. The intensely hot temperature must have affected our common sense for some moments, because we bantered on like two gossipy schoolgirls: “You’re so cute, Gabrielle.” “Not as cute as you, Xena.” “You stink, Gabrielle.” “I stink like you, Xena.” “How’s Palaemon, Xena?” “Demitrius misses you, Gabrielle.” “Is Argo still stealing carrots, Xena?” The small talk came in spurts between tender touches and soft kisses.

However, well into the “conversation”, Xena’s expression became serious. Stroking my face with the backs of her fingers, she started, “I’m sorry for insulting you, Gabrielle, you know, before you left.”

“Thanks to years in your servitude, Xena the Conqueror, my skin is thick,” I replied. “I was more troubled by your actions than your words.”

“Well, Darphus had to die, Gabrielle, for the Realm,” she said, then added, “But you were right. I killed him to avenge the Gauntlet as well.”

“Do you think you could ever learn to stop killing, Xena?” I asked.

Xena didn’t answer. She just sighed and kissed my forehead. She then looked into my eyes.

“Think about it, Xena,” I said. “Please.” Then we just lay there staring at each other.

A knock at the entrance to my yurt broke the long, irksome silence that followed.

A voice from outside called in. “Are you awake, Gabrielle?” It was Queen Melosa’s chief Jurist, Chilapa. She knocked again and spoke. “We have a prisoner. A female Imperial Guardsman. She claims she knows you, my Princess.”

Xena shot me a questioning look.

“I’ll explain later,” I said as I jumped out of bed, threw on my robe and dashed for the entrance. Before slipping out, I whispered back to Xena, “Wait here, my love. I’ll be right back.”

I joined Chilapa as we walked up to the group of tribal leaders: Ephiny, Solari, her second-in-command Eponin and Queen Melosa. They surrounded the Guardsman who was bound at the wrists and on her knees. When they cleared my range of vision, my mouth dropped.

“BAHRI!” I exclaimed. “What in Tartarus are you doing here?”

Bahri’s eyebrows raised. “Wow! Gabrielle, you look… different!”

I immediately untied Bahri’s wrist. She stood. “What are you doing here?” I repeated.

“I uh… I thought I’d come and pay you a friendly visit, that’s all,” came her reply.

Ephiny stepped forward. “My Queen,” she said to Queen Melosa. “This Imperial Guardsman lies. She was apprehended on our land with two horses, a stallion and a palomino mare bearing the Conqueror’s brand.

All of my Amazon Sisters’ eyes locked on me. Great! Xena’s permanent act of jealousy haunts me once again, I thought.

“Princess Gabrielle,” Queen Melosa spoke. “Is Xena the Conqueror on our Amazon land?”

At the word “princess”, Bahri’s mouth dropped.

“She’s in my yurt, my Queen,” I responded. “She came to me late last night. I think she was planning on killing me or abducting me, but obviously that didn’t happen.”

Queen Melosa, who was now standing right next to me, looked me up and down and smirked. “Well, Gabrielle, I can SMELL that that didn’t happen.”

I blushed beet red. “What do you want me to do, my Queen?”

“Xena the Conqueror is a war criminal, Gabrielle, a war criminal to this tribe and to the entire Amazon Nation,” Queen Melosa responded. “If she’s within our village, she should be tried by our Jurists.”

Before I could respond, Xena nonchalantly walked up to our group wearing her tunic and sandals. She was unarmed. Every Amazon in range, with the exception of our Queen, drew her weapon but stood fast. Xena and Queen Melosa regarded each other. I expected a chill between the two of them, but for some reason, there wasn’t one.

“I only came to see Gabrielle,” Xena finally spoke. “I’ll leave today, if I have your word that no retaliation befalls her.”

Queen Melosa looked around to the group of armed Amazons. “Re-sheath your swords and daggers, my Sisters,” she said. She returned her gaze to Xena. “Gabrielle has the right of caste, Conqueror,” the Queen replied. “She is my sister.”

Xena looked at me and raised her eyebrow in scrutiny. Queen Melosa continued. “You know our laws, Conqueror. You are on our land, and by Amazon law, we can detain you and try you as a war criminal.”

“Well, ‘your land’ belongs to me, so you know that’s not going to happen, Queen Melosa.”

I wasn’t shocked that Xena knew our Queen by her name, but I was surprised that she was willing to bestow upon Queen Melosa her appropriate honorific.

“But I am curious,” Xena continued. “How is it that Gabrielle has the right of caste?”
“She didn’t tell you?”

“We haven’t been doing much talking since our ‘reunion.’” Xena looked at me again with that same scrutinizing gaze. All I could do was smile in my utter embarrassment.

“A soldier of your dear lieutenant killed my sister Terreis a few weeks ago,” the Queen responded. “Gabrielle found her in our forest and comforted her before she died. Terreis’ last wish was for Gabrielle to have her right of caste.” Queen Melosa paused, then referring to Xena’s Thessalian lieutenant, said, “She enjoys doing that, you know, having her men act as snipers against my Amazons.”

“Do you know which one of my Thessalian soldiers killed your sister, Queen?” Xena asked.

“Yes, Conqueror,” Queen Melosa answered. “My tribal hunters were able to ascertain his identity sometime ago, but SHE won’t let us bring the man to justice.”

Xena took a deep breath. “I’ll tell you what, Queen Melosa, in return for welcoming Gabrielle into your tribe, I will deliver to you the man that murdered your sister. But then, I leave with my Imperial Guardsman here, and no blood is shed.”

“You’re a ruthless woman, Xena the Conqueror,” the Queen responded. “I would prefer to put you on trial, but alas, I am a realist. You’ve done much against our Nation, but I’ve never known you to lie to the Amazons. With regards to this Thessalian soldier, do I have your word?”

“You’ll have him in your custody by the noon candlemark.”

* * * *

A detail of Amazons rode with Xena to the Thessalian battalion fort. I joined them, despite Xena’s passionate protest to Queen Melosa that I remain safely within the village. Xena led on Argo with Bahri on her black stallion Ru. Riding with me directly behind them were Ephiny, her sister trainers Daphnis and Anthia, hunters Solari and Eponin and two guards, Chloe and Charicleia. We Amazons were masked and geared in ceremonial Guard Moiety apparel, and we all carried our chosen weapons. Xena hadn’t spoken to me since the news of my right of caste, but she looked upon me with amazement, and I suspected a little bit of pride, when she saw me mount my own horse, Chulytis, and carry my fighting staff with confidence as I rode. I actually caught her discreetly staring at me a few times. I supposed that she was quite bemused by the revelation of my royalty and the changes in me, and I knew she wasn’t happy at the idea that I was expected to remain with the Amazons as their royal heir. I didn’t know what to do. These wonderful women gave me direction, made me believe in myself as a strong and intelligent woman and yet, a part of me would gladly go back to being Xena’s body slave just to be with her.

As I rode in deep contemplation of my future, I also listened as Xena decided to engage in conversation with Bahri.

“So, Field Sergeant Bahri,” she started. “You troll through the Amazon village for candlemarks and managed to bring me back an entire plan of the village and their daily itinerary, yet you’re easily apprehended, while you’re supposed to be watching MY horse I might add, a clear candlemark’s ride away from the village. Why is that?”

“I’m sorry, my Liege,” Bahri responded. ” I was watering down Argo and Ru by that lake and the Amazon Charicleia came up to me and… well… I… I’m so ashamed, my Liege.”

“Why, what did you do?”

“I… I… I fancied her, my Liege.”

“You let yourself get caught, didn’t you?”

“I’m so sorry, Majesty. I have disgraced the Realm.” Bahri lowered her head in humility. But then the most incredible thing occurred. Xena broke out in a rich laughter.

Everyone stopped their horses and watched as the Destroyer of Nations laughed to the point of tears. When she finally calmed down, she placed her hand on Bahri’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Bahri. I let myself get caught last night too.”

* * * *

When we reached the outer perimeter of the Thessalian battalion fort, Xena instructed us Amazons to wait until she sent Bahri out to get us. She and Bahri then rode into the fort compound. Bahri told me later that when they rode in, Xena was immediately greeted by her battalion lieutenant, whom Bahri said began inappropriately peppering Xena with flirtatious banter. Bahri said Xena remained stoic, and ordered the lieutenant to assemble her entire battalion in phalanx formations. When that was accomplished, Xena sent Bahri out to get us.

When we rode into the fort, the Thessalian soldiers began drawing their weapons.

“STAND DOWN!” their Conqueror ordered. She was off Argo and facing her army.

Xena’s lieutenant stormed up to her. The lieutenant was average in height and rather thin, but was an attractive woman with long brown hair and menacing gray eyes.

“My Liege, what is going on?” she asked.

As she gave her response, Xena the Conqueror looked upon her lieutenant with that familiar ice-blue stare that had terrified me an innumerable amount of times over the seasons. “Lieutenant Velasca, I understand that one of MY Thessalian soldiers took the life of the Amazon Princess of this region.”

“Oh, so what, Conqueror, what do we care about these…”

“SHUT UP!” Xena barked. “The men of my armies are warriors, soldiers of the Realm, not spineless snipers who kill unsuspecting women for sport. Taking your petty vengeance out on your former Amazon Sisters has consequences, Velasca. The murder of this particular Amazon has consequences that personally affect me.” Turning to us, she said, “Which one of you knows the identity of my soldier who killed the Amazon, Terreis?”

Although we all knew the answer, only Ephiny stepped forward. “I do, Conqueror.”

“Point him out.”

Ephiny dismounted and walked four rows back to a tall bulky man with red hair. “It was this man, Conqueror.”

“Come forward.” Xena ordered. The man complied, of course. “Your name, soldier,” she demanded.

“Dropolos of Pharsalus, my Liege,” the soldier responded in a rich deep voice.

“Did you kill the Amazon, soldier?” Xena asked.

“Yes, my Liege, I did,” came the remorseless answer.

“Bind his wrists,” Xena indicated to Bahri. “He’ll walk alongside the horses.” She then returned her attention to her lieutenant. Her face was an expression of sheer contempt. “Lieutenant Velasca, if I hear of one more death of an Amazon by a Thessalian soldier under your command, not only will I personally kill each and every man in this battalion, I’ll personally kill you. Do you understand me?”

“I do understand you, my Liege,” the lieutenant said as she gestured to us with a look of contempt. “Just tell me which one she is,” she said to Xena. “And I’ll spare her any harm.” The lieutenant was whining as if she was a child being deprived of her favorite toy.

The Conqueror grabbed the lieutenant by her cuirass and yanked her close. Her venomous words were a whisper, but I heard them. “Assume I’m fucking all of them, Velasca. You kill any Amazon, you die.”

Xena released Velasca roughly and she fell back. She then mounted Argo and we rode out of the fort.

Once we were clear of the fort, Xena halted our entourage and reached down into her saddlebag. She pulled out a roll of parchment and began writing some instructions. She then rolled the parchment into a scroll and tied it with thin twine. She handed the scroll to Bahri.

“I want you to ride back to Corinth, Field Sergeant,” Xena began her instructions. “On your way, take this scroll to my battalion commander in Thermopylae. His name is Commander Rhamos, and he is the highest-ranking officer in my Thessalian Army. Tell him he is to do exactly what’s written on it. You are a commissioned sergeant of my Imperial Guard so he’ll receive you attention.”

“By your will, Conqueror,” Bahri bowed formally as she answered.

Xena looked back at us. “You.” She pointed at Charicleia. “I would like for you to accompany Field Sergeant Bahri to Thermopylae. The instructions written on this parchment affects the Amazons and Commander Rhamos may need to send word back here. Since Field Sergeant Bahri’s continuing on to Corinth from there, you may be required to deliver a message from my commander to your Queen.”

I looked at Bahri and smiled while Bahri looked at Xena and smiled. The Destroyer of Nations is many things, I thought. I never would have guessed that she is a matchmaker as well. Charicleia didn’t seem to mind the request either. “I’ll accompany your Guardsman, Conqueror,” Charicleia said. She was smiling too.

Bahri handed Xena the rope that bound the soldier. Then she trotted Ru to where we were and leaned over and gave me a hug and kiss on my cheek. “Write me, Gabrielle,” she said. I nodded as she and looked upon her new riding companion, Charicleia. Then I watched as the two women rode off together.

The others Amazons looked at me as Ephiny leaned over to me. “Our Queen was correct, Princess Gabrielle,” she whispered. “You have tamed a wild beast.”

When we returned to the village, Queen Melosa and Chilapa were holding shackles ready to take our prisoner into custody. Chilapa removed the soldier’s rope bindings and replaced them with the metal shackles. He was then taken to the prisoner holding yurt to await trial before the Jurists.

“I have sent my Imperial Guardsman and one of your Guard to Thermopylae to deliver instructions to my commander there, Queen Melosa,” Xena said. “Your former Amazon sister, Velasca, in her capacity as my Thessalian Army lieutenant, has engaged in practices that have negatively affected the Realm and she will be dealt with because of them.”

“Thank you, Xena the Conqueror,” Queen Melosa said. Turning to me, she indicated, “I would like to speak with you, my sister.”

I rode Chulytis along side Argo and grabbed Xena’s arm. “Don’t leave yet, please.” Xena didn’t respond. She just looked at me. I could tell she was strenuously fighting back tears. I wasn’t that strong.

I dismounted Chulytis and joined my Queen in her royal yurt. Once inside, she grabbed me in a strong embrace, something she had never done to me before.

“Gabrielle,” she said as she began wiping my tears with her thumbs. “I want you to go back to Corinth with the Conqueror.”

“But my Queen, I…”

“Shhh…” Queen Melosa placed her finger on my lips, silencing me. “You will be of more value to our Amazon village, to the entire Amazon Nation of Greece and beyond if you remain with Xena. You have an undeniable power over her, Gabrielle. Because of you, we will have justice for Terreis and a tyrannical officer will likely be stripped of her authority. Think of all that you can accomplish with the Conqueror by her side.”

“But my Queen,” I responded, “I left three months ago because I wasn’t able to stop her from a single murderous act of revenge.”

Queen Melosa cupped my face in her hands and gazed into my eyes. “But my sweet sister,” she said, “I bet you could now.”

My Queen handed me my already packed travel bag and for Argo, an additional saddlebag filled with more of my belongings. Chulytis would remain in the village under Ephiny’s care. She then guided me out the yurt entrance and walked with me over to Xena, who was preparing to journey back to Corinth.

“I’m going back with you, Conqueror,” I simply said. “By the will of my Queen, and by my own will too, if you’ll have me.”

Xena’s stoic expression was unyielding as she nodded her acceptance to Queen Melosa, took my saddlebag, and loaded it on Argo. She then climbed up on her horse and reached down to hoist me up as well. Before grabbing her arm, I hugged my Queen and my Sisters Ephiny, Solari and Chilapa, who had joined Queen Melosa in bidding me farewell. Then I let Xena lift me onto Argo and we rode off together as my Amazon Sisters chanted, “Gab-ri-elle… Gab-ri-elle… Gab-ri-elle…”

* * * *

Xena and I had reached the Peloponnese by nightfall. We had reached the village of Plataea and Xena was concerned that Argo needed rest. I suggested that we seek lodgings at the homestead of a local farmer. Xena thought I was crazy, but I told her I had developed a knack for negotiating sleeping arrangements with kind farmers as well as village dwellers. We rode up to a small goat farm that had a perfect stable with a loft. Xena stayed on Argo as I went to the door and introduced myself as the traveling bard, Gabrielle. The farmer recognized my name immediately. Handing him a solid gold dinar of the Realm that Xena had given me, I offered it as payment for one night of lodging in his stable loft. Knowing the payment was grossly disproportionate to what I sought, he began offering his own bed as lodging, and food and farm animals as further offerings for my compensation. I told him that two warm linen blankets to place over the hay and some apples for Argo would be enough.

Argo was secured in the stable and given cold water and juicy red apples to eat. The farmer’s wife brought me the two blankets I requested, as well as jug of fresh drinking water. She then returned with a kettle full of hot stew, two mugs and spoons, and a basket of fresh baked bread. I thanked her and handed the food to Xena, who stood silent. I then climbed up the ladder onto the loft and spread out the two blankets. Xena closed and secured the stable door and then climbed up the ladder behind me. I undressed down to my britches and then I took the stew and bread and started eating. I was famished. Xena undressed completely and, setting her sword and chakram near her, joined me in the feast. We ate in silence.

There was something I needed to ask Xena since my visit to Darphus in the palace dungeons three months before. “Xena,” I started. “How many lovers have you had?”

Xena nearly choked on her bread. “What? Why do you ask, Gabrielle?”

“Velasca was your lover, wasn’t she, Xena?”

Xena hesitated. “Yes, yes she was,” she said and then looked away.

“How many lovers have there been, Xena? More than hundred?

Xena couldn’t look at me. “I don’t know,” she said and paused, considering. “Yes.”

“More than a thousand?”

“I don’t know, Gabrielle.”

I looked down at my stew. “Velasca, Darphus, Palaemon?” I asked. “You’ve bedded all of your military leaders, haven’t you?”

“Not Palaemon, Gabrielle,” Xena answered. “That’s one of the reasons he commands my elite Imperial Guard. I haven’t ‘spoiled’ his focus with my callous seductions.” She thought for a moment. “The others whom I had, especially the men, probably can’t get past seeing me as a woman first and their Conqueror second. To Palaemon, I am truly the Conqueror.”

I wanted to meet her eyes, but I couldn’t look at her either. “Did you love them?” I asked as I nervously stirred my stew.

“No, Gabrielle,” she replied. “I didn’t have sex with any of them out of love. It was a means to an end.”

“What about the others?” I asked. “The ones who didn’t end up commanding an army?”

I could see at the side of my vision that Xena was picking at the fabric of the blanket on which we were sitting. “Different reasons, I suppose,” Xena said. “Lust, manipulation, a desire for power, rattle a foundation. Love didn’t factor in.” She then said in a quiet voice as she looked at me. “Before you, I hadn’t loved in a very long time. I’ve never loved like the love I feel now.” She looked back down.

“When was the last?”

Xena, who had been sitting at two arms length from me, crawled closer and ran her fingers through my hair. “I haven’t touched another body in passion since you came into my service, Gabrielle,” she said. “How could I?”

My bowl of stew started looking very intriguing. Xena placed her fingers under my chin and lifted my head to meet her eyes. “How many have there been for you, Gabrielle?”

I didn’t hesitate in answering. “The warlord who abducted me from my village had me and all of the other girls, including my younger sister, several times the first three days and nights,” I responded, shocked that Xena would actually covet this information. “His second in command had us all as well. They were both very brutal. Then at the end of the three days, that bastard sold us as ‘virgins’. That was the last time I saw my sister before her funeral. My first master trained me as a body servant, although he was actually fairly kind. And then there was you.”

Xena began stroking my cheek. “I’m surprised you wanted to know, Xena,” I said.

“I always wanted to know, Gabrielle.”

“Why didn’t you ask before?”

“Because now I know I won’t seek each man out and kill him,” Xena responded, bluntly. “Although knowing this may cause me to have second thoughts about sparing the first two.” I looked down in my humility. Xena took my hands in hers and continued. “I knew you weren’t sold to me a virgin, Gabrielle, and that wasn’t that important to me when I acquired you, but when I fell so madly in love with you, I became resentful of the ones who had had you before I did. They took away something I felt I was entitled to. I wanted to be your ‘first’. I wanted to be your ‘only’. But that doesn’t matter anymore now because, well… you never loved them. They never made love to your body the way I do.” She paused and snickered. “Pretty smug, aren’t I?”

I wanted to ask her when she first fell in love with me, but for some reason, that particular moment wasn’t the right moment. Maybe I was afraid to know the answer. “I find your smugness rather endearing, Xena the Conqueror,” I settled on saying in jest.

We set the food aside and started kissing on the soft linen blankets. Xena became restless and drew back from the kiss. She then got up and climbed down the ladder to retrieve yet a third blanket from her saddlebag. It was amusing watching the naked Conqueror scurrying down the ladder and trotting across the stable floor. When she returned, I laid back and she draped it over me. Then she slipped under it at my feet like a child hiding under the covers and slithered up to me and rested her body on mine. She removed my britches on her way up. “Your body is so incredible,” she said as her hands roamed everywhere. We kissed for a while before she grinned this evil grin and scooted back under the blanket to find my sex with her tongue. “I’m still hungry, Gabrielle,” she announced ever so playfully as I stared at the ceiling of the stable and saw stars.

* * * *

The following morning, we both awakened to the noise of a bucket handle dropping on the side of a tin bucket. I looked over at the ladder and saw a young girl staring at us. She was no more than ten, but didn’t seem particularly startled at the sight of two women lying so close together on some hay. Xena’s face was planted next to mine, her leg was draped over both of my legs while her arm rested over my waist in a casual embrace. There was no denying the closeness, but I was sure she couldn’t tell we were naked. Xena’s blanket covered us both.

“Hi,” I said to the little girl.

“Hi,” she replied. “I brought you apples to eat.”

“Thank you,” I responded. “What’s your name?”

“Teria,” she said.

“I’m Gabrielle.” I looked over at Xena, who was staring at me. “This is Xena.”

“Pleased to meet you, Gabrielle. Pleased to meet you, Xena.” The little girl then climbed down the ladder.

Xena wiped her sleepy blue eyes. “Damn, I thought I locked that stable door.”

Later, as we were preparing to leave the farm, the farmer and his wife came up to us and gave us a basket of bread and fruit for our journey. I thanked them both for their kind hospitality and mounted Argo behind Xena, who was already on the horse and ready to ride. When Xena indicated to Argo to take off, the little girl ran out of the farm house toward us, waving her arms and yelling, “Goodbye, Gabrielle! Goodbye, Xena!”

I looked back to see the ghastly expressions on the faces of that poor couple, both of whom had been struck with the revelation of who they had lodged in their stable the previous night.

By late afternoon, we reached the beautiful propylaea of the Corinthian acropolis. I had been holding Xena only casually during our ride, but the sight of that remarkable gateway overcame me with emotion. I gripped her tight around her waist and pressed my cheek in her back. “We’re home, Xena.” I said as I embraced her.

“Yes, Gabrielle, we’re home. Together.”

Story #5 Trial Of The Destroyer

Until that fateful night when Gabrielle and I made love for the first time, I was terrified of her hands. That irrational fear started the first day I met her. I was riding toward the Corinthian acropolis with my Imperial Guard Chief Commander Palaemon when I saw her. She was being auctioned on a platform with six other female body slaves. Her innocent beauty and diminutive stature stood out from the others and immediately drew my attention, so I stopped Argo and listened as the auctioneer ranted to the potential buyers about how skilled and essential the women would be to the “above-average male-only” household. Palaemon kept clearing his throat. We had a very important military strategy meeting with my Imperial Guard officers and my Corinthian and Athenian commanders to attend to that afternoon and we were already running terribly late.

“Excuse me, Conqueror, the meeting?” Palaemon inquired.

“They can wait. It’s not like they’re starting without me.”

At that point, I dismounted my horse. I heard Palaemon sigh deeply. I already had eight body slaves, both male and female, at my disposal at that time. I’m sure he was thinking that I needed another one like I needed a crack in my skull, but I just had to get close to her. I stepped up to the platform and, acting like I didn’t favor any particular one, walked up and down the row of slaves surveying what they had to offer. Of course the auctioneer was ecstatic. I’m the Conqueror, the single wealthiest person in the known world. He couldn’t barter with me, that he knew, but I would still pay him more than even my most wealthy and prestigious citizens would for what he had to offer.

I walked up to the first one and asked her some obscure question. She was petrified, so her response was a pathetic grunt. The second girl was hardly any better. When I came up to Gabrielle, I asked her to tell me her name. “Gabrielle, my Lady,” she responded. She had such a sweet voice. I then asked her if she could have any wish in the world, what would it be? Of course, I suspected her to say some silliness, like she wished her freedom or to service only me the rest of her life, but as she looked directly into my eyes, her answer floored me.

“I would wish to be able to read, my Lady.”

As the auctioneer was peppering me with apologies for Gabrielle’s insolence, I looked back into those marvelous green eyes and felt a strange pinch in my heart that I know now must have been Cupid himself striking me with his arrow. I tried to ignore that strange sensation and moved on to the next slave, but after asking a question of the seventh and final slave, I gave the auctioneer a thousand dinars, over four times the asking price, and directed his overseer to take Gabrielle to my indentured chambermaid Mia and have her prepare Gabrielle for her initial service to me.

When I returned to my bedchamber that evening, I summoned Mia. She was to present my new purchase to me. Gabrielle had been stripped of her slave rags and cleaned. She was wearing a simple brown tunic when Mia brought her in and walked her over to the rug that would serve as her reporting spot. Mia then promptly left the chamber. I walked over to Gabrielle and took off her tunic. I took off her britches and began running my hands all over her beautiful cream-colored naked body. She was nervous, I could tell, but not startled by my actions. Her previous owner had obviously trained her well as a body slave. As I ran my fingers through her lush golden hair, I began to explain to her what was expected of her in my service. I told her that she was now one of my nine personal body slaves and that she would be required to fuck me and any one or all of the others at my command.

I then grabbed her by her hand. It was both the best thing and the worse mistake I had ever made in my life up to that point. When I took her hand in mine, she cupped her fingers around my hand and held it comfortably. Our clasped hands were a perfect fit. Her hand was small, and so soft and beautiful, and holding it caused my stomach to feel very funny, as if tiny birds were fluttering around inside. In addition to my stomach, my heart started mysteriously beating faster and moisture instantly surfaced on the palm she held. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I looked down at our clasped hands for a single moment and then walked her over to the bed. I told her to lie down, but I wasn’t ready to let go of her hand yet, so I hesitated. I think I actually squeezed it for a single moment before I let it go. I took off my chiton and lay on top of her. Now the ever-so familiar sensations of lust kicked in. My sweat started to bead and my center started to throb and saturate. But when I felt both of those soft, beautiful hands touch my forearms in a tender caress, I became very frightened at the way they made my skin burn and my stomach and my heart feel, so I grabbed them and raised her arms up above her head and held her wrists. I told her that she was never to touch me with her hands unless I said so. She obeyed my demand that night and kept her hands off of me as I had her.

Gabrielle infected me forever that night.

The next day, I had my other eight body slaves sold and turned their quarters into a storage room. I moved Gabrielle into her permanent bedchamber down the corridor from me. I even had a basket of fresh fruit delivered to her new lodging. Everyone in the palace thought I had gone completely insane. I was convinced I had succumbed to total madness as well. Then, a week later, after I inflicted the first beating on Gabrielle, I ordered Demitrius to teach her how to read and write.

For the next five years, for the hundreds, perhaps even a thousand times Gabrielle and I had sex, she was never allowed to caress my body with her hands. Even in those phenomenal evenings leading up to that fateful night seven months ago, when we embraced each other night after night, years of conditioning prevented Gabrielle from doing any more than shyly touching my back. Until that special night, I never felt the sensation of those hands caressing my breasts, my thighs, my back or my ass. That ridiculous requirement of mine was an enormous burden on our pleasure and on my soul, but it was also a huge contrast from the night of our return from the Amazon village, when I lay on my back in my bed as Princess Gabrielle of the Thessalian Amazons straddled my midriff and ran her soft, tanned and beautiful hands all over my shoulders and my breasts and my belly and my face. Then she leaned down over me and stroked my lips with her luscious tongue in a provocative plea for me to return the honor. Then, obeying the numerous unspoken wishes of my Princess, she had me wonderfully.

“I love you, Gabrielle,” I said the following morning, blissfully exhausted.

“I love you too, Xena,” she replied. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Well, every morning in the village after morning meal, I would practice with my staff,” she said. “Would you mind if I head over to the palace courtyard and practice a little?”

I smiled and ran my finger down her cute little nose. “But Gabrielle,” I responded with a mischievous smile. “You haven’t had your morning meal yet, and I’m sure living amongst the Amazons didn’t affect your voracious appetite.”

“Funny, Xena.” She pinched my nose.

“Sure, go practice,” I said in defeat. “I’ll make sure Mia has a full course meal awaiting my lovely Amazon Princess upon her return from her morning ritual.”

“Why thank you, my Lady,” Gabrielle said as she playfully cupped both of my breasts in her hands and bit both of my nipples before hauling herself off of the bed.

She threw on a tunic and sandals and grabbed her Amazon staff, which was propped up next to my chamber door. Before scurrying out of the door, she opened her tunic to uncover and reveal her right breast and then she winked at me. “Tease!” I yelled as she slipped out of the chamber.

When I was comfortable that she was gone, I summoned Mia.

“What did you do with those things?” I asked my chambermaid as she approached me.

“I placed them in a small barrel and hid them in your storage room, my Lady.”

“Fine.”

When we had arrived at the palace the previous afternoon, I had insisted that Gabrielle resettle in her own bedchamber first. There was a reason for that. I had originally planned to abduct her. Thus, before meeting Field Sergeant Bahri for the trip to Amazon territory, I had prepared my chamber for her imprisonment. I had placed wrists and ankle shackles on the bed and had neck shackles chained to all four walls. My planned abduction included a planned punishment. Only Mia knew of my insidious scheme, but I was concerned that somehow Palaemon would find out, so when I returned, I frantically removed them and instructed Mia to hide the items of confinement rather than return them to the dungeons where she had obtained them. Then I just sat up on my bed and felt a deep sense of self-loathing for what I had plotted to do to my beloved. Why does she do this to me? I asked myself. How can she bring out the sweetness of my soul one moment and the bitter demons of it the next?

When Gabrielle entered my bedchamber that first night of our return, she found me sitting on my bed with my arms wrapped around myself, rocking and desperately fighting tears.

“Xena, what’s wrong?” she asked as she ran over to me and took me into a loving embrace.

“I… I just want you here with me,” I quietly responded. “I missed you terribly.”

“Lay down, my Empress,” she said. “I’ll take care of you.”

And that’s when those hands of hers once again began to make up for five years of lost time.

As I mused over my actions that following morning, I decided to go watch Gabrielle practice. I had never seen her use her staff, but I knew I was in for something wonderful. Gabrielle is highly intelligent and I’m not being biased. When Demitrius began teaching her how to read and write five years ago, I had assumed that she wouldn’t be able to recite a scroll without error for at least one full year. But Gabrielle surprised us all, and within a season, not only was she reading but she was also composing her own fables and poems. And once she conquered reading in her native Greek tongue, my adorable little body slave began teaching herself the native language of the Romans. While many in my employ can speak their language, I think it’s safe to say that Gabrielle is the only individual in the palace, besides myself and the native Roman Demitrius, who can both read and speak Latin.

Palaemon’s second-in-command, Commander Aerol was leading a century drill in the courtyard. With that many Guardsmen in the courtyard, I suspected that Gabrielle was told to practice elsewhere. When I interrupted his drill, Aerol immediately informed me that he told Gabrielle to practice in my palace gardens. When I got there, I watched her without her knowing for almost a half candlemark. Gabrielle was a sight to behold. I didn’t know what to expect, but I have to admit that I didn’t expect such grace, such precision, as she twirled her staff by her side, around her body and over her head. It was a beautiful dance of an Amazon Princess, my Amazon Princess. And the beauty of the gardens only enhanced the perfection of my woman and her dance.

I walked up to her and smiled.

“That was… uh, wonderful, Gabrielle,” I said. “You are… are very good… no, magnificent, with your staff. My azaleas are smiling.” What’s wrong with my tongue today?

“Thank you, Xena,” she replied. “You can’t begin to imagine how many times I’d wished you could see me practice when I was in the Amazon village.”

“I assume your Amazon trainers taught you how to defend yourself against an opponent?” I inquired.

“Yes.”

I drew my sword. “May I?”

Gabrielle went into a defensive stance. I brought my sword down at her left hip. She halted my blow correctly by blocking the sword just above the handle where I would less likely be successful in breaking her staff. I parried her right. She blocked again. I then made a movement as though I would attempt a second strike at her right, but instead went for her center. She was almost late in anticipating the movement, but was able to block me before I could impale her. I wouldn’t have, of course, but I hoped she was thinking that an indifferent opponent would have come close to killing her with that strike. When I again struck at her left, and as she was blocking me, I swiped my left leg under her and tripped her. Both of her feet were off the ground and she went down hard.

Gabrielle let out a grunt when she hit the ground.

“By the gods, Gabrielle, I’m sorry!” I said as I immediately kneeled down to pick her up. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m not a ceramic vase, Xena,” she replied, smiling. “You didn’t break me.”

I hoisted her to her feet and began wiping the dirt off of her back and arms. I saw blood on her elbows. “Maybe not, but I see a few cracks in your handle,” I replied in jest, but then got serious again. “I’m taking you to the infirmary.”

“I’m fine, Xena,” she said. “So, what do you think? I’m pretty pathetic, huh?”

“NO!” I implored. “I am so impressed, Gabrielle. You held yourself very well against me.”

“Yeah, right,” she replied. “You had me flat on my ass after only four blocks.”

“Gabrielle, probably a third of my Greek armies wouldn’t have lived to see my fourth strike. The Amazons have trained you excellently, as I expected them to do. Amazons are amongst the world’s greatest fighters,” I informed her.

“Well, but you’re biased, Xena. You were being easy on me.”

“No, I wasn’t, Gabrielle,” I said. “I wouldn’t have run you through on that third strike, but I didn’t wane on the velocity of my blows.” I kissed her forehead. “Now, let me take you to the infirmary to get those elbows bandaged.”

* * * *

Our first morning home together was wonderful. Gabrielle may have acquired some strong fighting skills, but she’s first and foremost a bard. After our morning meal, I insisted that she read to me from some of her scroll entries during her weeks with the Amazons. Gabrielle’s presence and voice relaxes me, and I couldn’t think of a better thing to do, on the hot day that that particular day was, than to settle in the palace gardens and listen to my love read.

Of course, I’m the Conqueror of the Known World, so times reserved for relaxation are, unfortunately, all too brief.

“My Liege, may we interrupt?” It was Guard Captain Archillius, who led the Imperial Guardsmen that secured my palace gates, and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Dedri.

“What is it, Captain?” I inquired.

“We have a situation,” he said. Those simple words usually meant yet another failed attempt by an assassin or some other dissenter who was trying to penetrate the palace grounds to get to me.

“Very well,” I said and then turned to Gabrielle. “I’m sorry. I need to see about this.”

“That’s okay, Xena,” she said. “I’ll find something to do.”

I kissed her soft lips and departed with my officers. Gabrielle had indeed changed, I mused as I accompanied my men to the palace dungeons. I suspected that she wasn’t going to simply wander to the library and read or write. Gabrielle had tasted freedom and the rugged outdoor life of an Amazon. The sun was bright, the day was hot and too much activity outside of the palace grounds awaited my imaginative bard.

* * * *

In the middle of our first night home together, Gabrielle’s scream of anguish awakened me. She was having a vicious nightmare and I shook her fiercely to bring her out of her painful slumber. As she woke, she swung her arms and nearly struck my face. She was sweating profusely.

“Gabrielle, it’s okay,” I said as I took her frightened form in my arms. I began rocking her and stroking her hair. “It’s okay,” I repeated.

She lay quiet for a few moments. In spite of all of my brutality in the past, Gabrielle wasn’t one to have nightmares. She usually dealt with the existence of my tyranny by talking or crying in her sleep, so this outburst came as a shock to me.

She looked up at me. “I had a nightmare, Xena,” she said.

“I know, honey,” I replied. “You want to tell me about it?”

“I don’t remember it, Xena,” she said. “I never remember them.”

“When did you start having nightmares, Gabrielle?” I said.

“It’s so strange, Xena,” she replied. “They started after I went to live with the Amazons.”

“Did something bad happen to you while you were there, Gabrielle?”

“No, not at all, Xena. That’s what’s so strange. My time there was, for the most part, incredible. I don’t get it.” She started crying.

My embraced tightened. “I’m here, my love, I’m here.” I hated that this was the best I could do for her. When she drifted back off to sleep, I lay there staring at the ceiling, wondering what demon brought this invasion into Gabrielle’s soul.

For the next week, Gabrielle and I spent much time getting reacquainted. She attended most of my military and state meetings with me, we ate and exercised together, and she insisted that I act as her opponent when she practiced with her staff. I was feeling more and more guilt as the number of cuts and bruises increased on her body, but she refused to relent in her determination when we sparred.

Every night we made passionate love. Living with the Amazons must have given Gabrielle the realization that she had a huge resource of un-siphoned energy, for most nights we went at it for candlemarks, and it was bliss! It wasn’t just the lovemaking. Just being close to her, holding her in my arms, hearing her voice and smelling her sweet scent were enormous treats as well. I anticipated the evenings with her like a child on Winter Solstice Eve, and to say the least, our shared desires were spectacular.

Sadly, though, the nightmares continued.

A week after our return to Corinth, I was scheduled to officiate another public judgment. Palaemon came to me with six sentencing scrolls as Gabrielle and I were finishing our morning meal. After he left, but before I could even look at them, Gabrielle spoke up.

“Xena,” she started. “Not everyone who commits a crime in the Realm faces you, correct?”

With the aftermath of our three-month separation from the last public judgment clearly on my mind, I immediately became apprehensive. “No,” I replied. “Why?” I asked, conscious of the menacing tone of my voice as I spoke.

“So, who determines who faces you, Xena?” she asked without a hint that she was intimidated by me. “Is it Commander Palaemon?”

“No, I do.”

“So, they have to have done some pretty terrible things, right?” Gabrielle said, her tone as casual as if we were discussing a lamb recipe.

“Yeah, Gabrielle. Where is this going?”

“Well, Queen Melosa trained me as a jurist. I was just curious to see what types of sentences certain crimes warrant in the Realm, Xena. That’s all.”

“I can answer that for you,” I said as I tried desperately to contain my anger. “Crucifixion.”

“Did these six malfeasants commit the same act?” she inquired.

“No.”

“Then why do they receive the same condemnation?” Gabrielle asked as she nonchalantly dipped a piece of bread in tzatziki and stuck it in her mouth.

“Because I say so!” Her continued relaxed demeanor was infuriating me.

“May I read them, Xena?” she asked. “Can I see what crimes deserve crucifixion?”

“What, little ‘jurist’, do you think you could do better?”

“I’m just curious.”

I threw the rolled parchments at Gabrielle and got up from our meal table. She hardly flinched as they flew in her direction. I didn’t understand why I was so angry, but I suspected that, in addition to Gabrielle’s instant curiosity toward my public judgments, it was her continued calmness. Strange, but inwardly, I was both delighted and infuriated that she was no longer frightened of me. She picked up the scrolls that had lightly tumbled to the floor and gently placed them by her food plate. She then resumed her eating. I started pacing.

“Okay, Princess Gabrielle of the Amazons,” I finally spoke up after a few moments of tormented brooding. “Why don’t you take those judgments and write what YOU think these people should get.”

In an instant, Gabrielle was on her feet with the six scrolls in tow, coming toward me. She grabbed me in a tight embrace for only a moment, and then planted a fierce, but loving kiss on my lips.

“Thank you, Xena!” she shouted in her glee as she lovingly cupped my cheek in her empty hand. “You won’t be disappointed.” She turned and scurried out of the chamber.

Did she totally expect me to suggest that? I thought as I wondered if the Amazons had created an oracle out of Gabrielle.

I didn’t see Gabrielle until just before the scheduled public judgments were to begin. I had dressed in one of my regal chitons for the occasion and, as usual, rode by chariot over to the agora with Palaemon. When I arrived and stepped up onto the dais, Gabrielle approached my scribe, Marcus Tullius Cicero, and handed him the six scrolls. She was dressed in a beautiful white chiton I had never seen before. The garment accentuated her lovely curved, bronzed and toned body perfectly. She also wore a sparkling pearl necklace. The winds were gusting that day and her short, blond hair blew in the breeze majestically. Her beauty was ethereal. It didn’t matter that I was still quite upset with her. It seems as though every moment of our lives together I fall more and more in love with her.

Cicero looked up at me for direction. I simply nodded my approval at this change of protocol. He then summoned the Guardsmen to bring out the first prisoner.

“Charkas of Corinth, for betraying the Realm by embezzling from the Imperial vaults, and for the conversion of over eighty thousand dinars of the Realm, the penalty is… is…”

Cicero looked closely at the scroll and, with the most perturbed expression I had ever seen on his face, looked at me in question. I sighed deeply and waived my hand for him to continue. He raised his eyebrows in amazement, I suspected, and looked back down at the scroll.

“The punishment is ten years hard labor as the indentured servant of Docia of Sicyon, the largest swine rancher in the Peloponnese. The wage you would have been paid by Docia for your labors will be paid to the Realm as restitution.” Cicero looked at me again, totally astonished. I again waived my hand for him to continue.

“Do you, uh… have you anything to say?”

That little weasel of a thief Charkas broke out in tears. “By holy Hera, queen of the gods, thank you! Bless you, Conqueror!” Charkas had, at one time, been one of my most reliable Imperial accountants. He squandered my money with which I entrusted him on gambling, wine and women, but mostly gambling. As he was hauled away, I had a bitter taste in my mouth over the fact that his miserable life was being spared.

Two more Guards brought out the second prisoner. “Dzhura of Corinth, for betraying the Realm by murdering your husband, the Imperial Guardsman Chiparus of Mycenae, the penalty is…” Cicero paused again and looked at me even more astonished. His glances were really starting to irritate me.

“Will you go on,” I whispered.

“The penalty is four years confinement at the women’s prison colony on the island of Lesbos. Is there anything you wish to say?”

The woman said nothing. She simply looked at me and bowed her head in a gesture of sincere thanks, I suspected.

“Have you any children?” I asked the prisoner. She nodded. “Three children, my Lady.” I gestured to the Guardsmen to take her away.

The remaining four condemned received some form of imprisonment or indentured servitude for their crimes, and none of them in my palace dungeons, I noticed. Even the failed assassin from the week before received a sentence of five years labor to an Athenian orphanage. None of Gabrielle’s ‘judgments’ called for death. The last prisoner brought before me had admitted to raping and murdering three young girls, and even with that, Gabrielle called for life imprisonment at the treacherous Dome Of Trojans prison colony on the island of Syros.

No one would die on the cross that day.

I retreated to my chariot and went directly back to my bedchamber to wait for Gabrielle. Palaemon looked at me during the entire ride but said nothing. He saw it in my face. Palaemon knew on this occasion that if he made any of his typical snide remarks, he would really be tempting his fate.

When Gabrielle entered my chamber, I immediately grabbed her tightly by her forearms and contemplated shaking the Tartarus out of her.

“A pig farmer!?! “You turned that bastard Charkas over to a fucking pig farmer!?!”

Gabrielle reached up and grabbed my forearms gently. She was still calm. “I read each dossier, Xena,” she said. “Charkas spent all of the money he stole.”

“I know that!” I exclaimed. “My money! On gambling and whores!”

“Crucifying him wasn’t going to bring that money back, Xena,” she continued. “Docia is very prosperous and can afford to pay a worker eighty thousand dinars in ten years. This way, Docia gets a committed worker and the Realm receives its restitution.”

“Yeah, but what’s the fucking punishment, Gabrielle?” I inquired.

Gabrielle smiled. “Well, Xena, if you were skilled as an accountant, would you want to work on a pig farm, without pay, for ten years?”

I calmed down and released Gabrielle. By the gods, she is so special. “Why spare the rapist, Gabrielle?” I asked.

“He’s not spared, Xena,” she responded. “He’s only 22. He’ll likely suffer at the hands of the other prisoners in that colony for what he did and he’ll suffer for years to come. It’ll give him something to think about. Then, Xena, he’ll die in that den of Hades when the Fates come to claim him.”

“And Dzhura, Gabrielle, she killed one of my most skilled Guardsmen.”

Gabrielle explained. “According to her account and from the testament of the arresting Militiaman, Guard Corporal Chiparus had been beating her and her children for many years. She had enough, Xena, and stabbed him with his own dagger after a brutal beating. That woman didn’t deserve to die. She was already living in Tartarus with that man.”

“It wasn’t self defense, Gabrielle. He wasn’t hitting her anymore when she stabbed him.”

“I know. And she needs to be punished for taking a man’s life, but not by her own death. I gave her only four years so that she can hopefully come back here and resume her role as a mother to her children.”

Gabrielle smiled at me again and I was powerless to do anything but smile back. “It’s interesting that you should choose Lesbos as the place for her confinement,” I said as I grabbed Gabrielle around her waist. “She’ll probably end up like us, you know.”

Gabrielle looked confused. “What do you mean?”

I then lifted her up by her waist and carried her over to the bed where I gently deposited her. Laying her back prone, I lay on top of her and began kissing her passionately. Breaking the kiss, I looked into startled, but desire-filled green eyes. “Welcome to the island of Lesbos, Princess Gabrielle.”

The following morning, Palaemon reported to me that Lieutenant Velasca absconded from her command at Pharsalus.

“What have you heard?” I inquired.

“I received word this morning, my Liege,” he began. “I understand that, last week, you ordered Commander Rhamos to dispatch two intelligence operatives to act as reassigned soldiers to her battalion.”

“Yes, I had Guard Corporal Bahri deliver the orders to Rhamos,” I said. “They were posing as low-ranking hoplites.”

“Well, Conqueror, Velasca was apparently suspicious from the onset and she had one of her own soldiers spy on the two operatives. She caught one of them sending word back to Rhamos of some silly plan of hers to poison the water supply of the Amazon tribe in the region. Obviously, the message got through to Rhamos, but Velasca murdered both of the operatives. The word we have is that she headed north with a band of loyal soldiers from her battalion.”

“I trust that Commander Rhamos is at Pharsalus now, Palaemon,” I said.

“Yes, my Liege.”

“How many soldiers from her battalion followed her?”

“Only about twenty, my Liege,” Palaemon said. “She wasn’t a very popular officer amongst the troops.”

“And I bet the defectors were mostly female as well, correct Commander?”

“Why, yes, I do believe so.” He paused. “Do you have any ideas as to what her next move will be, Conqueror?”

“Oh, yes, Commander,” I replied.

I kissed Gabrielle and exited the bath. Putting on a robe, I instructed Palaemon to assemble a detachment of Imperial Guard and prepare horses and chariots for a trip to Thrace. It was only after Palaemon exited the bedchamber that Gabrielle exited the bath.

“Looks like I’m going on a trip, Gabrielle,” I said.

“Looks like we’re going on a trip, Xena,” she said as she began drying off.

“No, you’re staying here.”

“No, I’m going with you.”

“I won’t let you, Gabrielle,” I said. “This is going to be dangerous. Velasca has always been wicked, but she’s very clever as well, and now she’s pissed at me. Having you around will only distract me, and I’m not chancing that she’s given any opportunity to harm you in some way. I will not risk that.”

“I won’t let that happen, Xena,” Gabrielle said, defiantly. “And I know you won’t let that happen either.”

“I said ‘no’, Gabrielle,” I declared. “This doesn’t concern you, so don’t argue with me.”

“Well, I said I’m going, Xena! This woman is an enemy to my Amazon Sisters, so her contempt for them does concern me,” she exclaimed, then added softly, “Anyway, I… I can’t stand another separation from you.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but nothing would come out. I couldn’t stand another separation from her either, and knowing that, I relented to her insistence. I stood quiet and watched as Gabrielle dressed and began packing some of her belongings for travel. Most of her clothing and personal items were in my bedchamber now. Her bedchamber basically served only as a personal library for her ever-growing scroll collection. I joined her in preparing my clothing and weapons for travel.

“Your freedom has certainly changed you, Princess Gabrielle,” I finally said as I completed my packing.

“My freedom has changed you as well, Xena the Conqueror,” Gabrielle responded.

“Yes, Gabrielle, it has.”

* * * *

My military entourage left Corinth at the noon candlemark. I was joined by Commander Palaemon and his second, Commander Aerol, one century of Imperial Guardsmen, and at Gabrielle’s request, Field Sergeant Bahri. Gabrielle had also suggested that a small detachment of Amazon guards from her village should be allowed to accompany us on the mission once we reached Thessaly. At first thought, I didn’t believe that to be a good idea, but upon considering it, I began to map out a strategic plan where the Amazon volunteers might fit in nicely.

When Bahri joined us, the first thing Gabrielle and I both noticed was the prominent bruise under her left eye. She told us that one of her old Guard “buddies” cornered her on her way back to her barracks two evenings before and had attempted to molest her. She said she kicked him in his groin and stabbed him in his thigh with her field dagger after he struck her. As my concerned Gabrielle fielded more questions, we both learned that life as a woman had not been easy for Bahri. Many of the men with whom she associated during her years as a “man” were now seeking revenge for some silly “wounded pride” they felt they had suffered. They were taunting her with names and threatening to assault her. Apparently some of her other former friends simply wanted to fuck her. Bahri had been doing a fair amount of fighting off my men since the revelation of her true gender. She certainly didn’t deserve this madness. Because she was Gabrielle’s good friend, and I rather liked the strange little Egyptian as well, I immediately sent word to Captain Archillius and my other Imperial Guard officers to order my men to cease the physical and verbal assaults against Bahri once she returned to Corinth, or else face my wrath personally.

We reached the Thessalian battalion fort a candlemark after nightfall. Gabrielle had requested to go the Amazon village to inform them of this development and to recruit Amazon warriors to participate in our operation. I insisted that Bahri and a group of female Imperial Guardsmen from the century accompany her. Gabrielle had been riding on a chariot up to that point, but for her ride to the Amazon village, she rode with Bahri on her stallion, Ru. While she was gone, I met with Commander Rhamos, who had assumed temporary command of the fort.

“Good evening, my Liege,” he said as he bowed in formal greeting. Rhamos was one of my oldest and most capable commanders. He was burly man with wild, wavy black hair, dark eyes and a thick gray-specked beard and mustache. He had been a part of my military inner circle back in the days when I was the Warrior Princess, pirating seas, looting lands and fighting Romans. A Spartan warlord, he was initially an adversary, but I was impressed with his fighting skill and wanted him among my growing army. However, my attempts at sensuous seduction in order to cloud his mind and defeat his own army didn’t work with him. When I ascertained that he was a sodomite, I sent one of my prettiest young foot soldiers to seduce him instead. The young lad captivated Rhamos and when I felt he was distracted enough, I infiltrated his stronghold, captured most of his men and gave him a choice; join me or die. He chose to join me and has been under my command ever since.

“Evening Commander Rhamos,” I responded. “Any updates since your last word?”

“Yes, actually, Conqueror,” he replied. “Old Mithradates sent a message claiming that a crazed hydra was stirring up the Amazons near his retirement palace in Thrace.”

“As I predicted,” I responded.

“My Liege?” Rhamos was perturbed.

“Commander Rhamos, you do have women within the battalion who did not run off with Velasca, true?”

“Yes, Conqueror, quite a few,” he responded. “Two of them are MY best fighters who were reassigned here last year. They are very loyal to the Realm; Sergeant Viera of Thermopylae and Sergeant Favrie from Gaul.”

“Excellent,” I said. “They’ll join us.”

“By your will, Conqueror,” Rhamos stated as he bowed.

Rhamos continued to look at me questioningly, but I departed the command hut without explanation but with Palaemon and Aerol in toll, and instructed Aerol to take a detachment of Imperial Guardsmen from our century and ride north. They were to go to Commander Glaphyra’s command post in Thrace and they were to do it immediately.

“When you get there, Aerol,” I instructed. “Tell her that I’m coming and tell her to prepare her troops for war against the Amazons.”

“By your will, my Liege.”

After Aerol departed, Palaemon looked at me most perturbed. “I don’t understand, my Liege,” he said. “I thought you had made some sort of peace with the Amazons.”

I looked at my Imperial Guard commander. “Here, yes, Palaemon,” I said. “The Amazons of Thessaly, like their southern Sisters in Sparta, the island Lesbians of eastern Greece, the Anatolians of the middle east and the desert Amazons of Phoenicia and Mesopotamia are all settled and well organized tribes of the Amazon Nation. But, years ago, before I met you, the Amazons of Gaul and northern Thrace fell under the evil spell of a demon shamaness, and their leaders were murdered and their resources plundered.”

Palaemon continued to look at me questioningly.

“And I was responsible for it all, Palaemon,” I added.

I walked away from Palaemon. I didn’t want him to see the anguish of my growing guilt, a guilt I had not allowed myself to experience before. And yet, I had a greater burden to bear. Gabrielle would need to know why I was planning to attack Amazons, and the anticipation of my confessions to her agonized me.

Gabrielle returned the following candlemark with her entourage and five women from her tribe. She was now riding her own horse, Chulytis, the Quarter stallion given to her by her tribe. Three of the Amazons were the women who had accompanied me to the fort to face Velasca a week before; Ephiny, Chloe and the Amazon that Bahri fancied, Charicleia. The other two, Ouri and Tania, were natives of Thrace who had joined the Thessalian tribe after I destroyed their home tribe. It was immediately apparent that the Amazon Ephiny led the tribal guard, and I admit it was a keen strategy on her part to recruit exiled Thracian Amazons to join in on our mission. They were both established guards, but Ouri was also a skilled healer and Tania was a spiritual leader. Although their inclusion would fit into my plan perfectly as well, I was also nervous as to how much they may have told Gabrielle about my past indiscretions. I was uneasy about revealing to Gabrielle this grizzly dark part of my past with the Amazons, but I didn’t want her to hear it from someone else either.

After Gabrielle’s formal introductions of her Amazons to my commanders and me, I gently took her by her arm and asked her to come with me to the command hut. There were two sleeping quarters behind the hut, and I had designated one for Gabrielle and me upon our arrival at the fort.

When we were relaxed and settled in our night lodging, Gabrielle began casually talking about Bahri and Charicleia’s mutual affections when I decided to interrupt her.

“Gabrielle,” I asked. “How much did Queen Melosa or the others tell you about my history with the Amazons?”

“Not much, Xena,” she responded. “I suspect that you have a history, given the medicines you use. They’re just like the medicines the Amazons use, right?”

“Yeah, well, but there’s much more to it than that,” I said. “There’s something you need to know, Gabrielle. Tomorrow, we will be heading to Thrace to fight Amazons.”

“Why?” Gabrielle inquired with an immediate shocked expression.

“In order to answer that, you need to know my history with the Amazon Nation, Gabrielle,” I replied. “It isn’t a pretty one.”

Gabrielle leaned back in the chair on which she sat and folded her arms. I had her full attention.

I began. “Early in my quest to conquer the Known World, about two years before the Gauntlet, I met the tribe of northern Amazons. They were essentially two tribes split by regions, Gaul and Thrace, but they had one Queen. Her name was Cyane.

“I had acquired a sizeable army by that time and I was overpowering every village and city-state in the region, but I had a policy, Gabrielle. I refused to pointlessly murder children and women, and that included these Amazon women who were armed and worthy opponents. So, I attempted to recruit the two tribes into my growing force. I always employed women fighters and, as I said, Amazons are among the best. Queen Cyane was very intelligent and insightful, and she was the consummate diplomat, but she countered my offer with one of her own. She invited me to become an Amazon.”

“By the gods, Xena.” Gabrielle grabbed my hand in hers. I looked away.

“Please, Gabrielle, let me continue. For two weeks, I courted the idea. The Queen and I had become close friends, not lovers, but I gained a remarkable level of respect for her. Well, remarkable for me. In turn, she taught me some fighting skills that I had never seen. Her healer Sisters introduced me to some incredible healing remedies, and I even became sexually involved with the lead tribal guard, a woman named Azita, although I was also fucking my warlord partner, a Sarmatian nomad named Borias, at the same time.

“But while I was experiencing life as an Amazon, I was also secretly courting an exiled shamaness from the tribe. No one knew, not Azita, not Queen Cyane, not even Borias. She saw into my future and told me that I was going to become the Destroyer of Nations. She said that destiny would only be achieved if I defeated the steppe Amazons. She claimed that she could use their blood to strengthen her power and make my fate possible. She had demonstrated to me that she had the powers of an oracle, so I believed her. My lust for power was strong, Gabrielle. It was stronger than any loyalty to friendship or even any desire for passion or love. But when Borias refused to help me fight them fairly on the battlefield, I decided to ambush and slaughter the leaders of the two tribes. I killed them, Gabrielle. I killed all of the strongest women of the two tribes, including my lover Azita, including Queen Cyane.

“The tribes were in shambles after that. Most of the Amazons who fought my army afterward either died or became enslaved. Others retreated to the obscurity of the steppes. My army picked through their villages like locusts on a wheat field. Borias and I fell out after that and I took my army and headed south into Macedonia. By the time I approached Thessaly, word had spread to the remaining tribes of my decimation of the northern tribes. Many of the surviving Amazons joined Queen Melosa’s tribe here. This time, anticipating my attack, I’m sure they thought they would be ready for me.”

Gabrielle had removed her hand from mine and was staring blankly at the door to our sleeping hut as I continued.

“When we were within a day’s ride of the Amazon lands here, Velasca rode into my camp. Years before, marauders had attacked Velasca’s native village, but Melosa and the Amazons came in and rescued her. Velasca was about 13 at the time, and Melosa, who was probably no more than 20 herself, had taken Velasca on as though she was Melosa’s own child. But when Melosa named her younger sister as her right of caste instead of Velasca, Velasca became angry and challenged Melosa. They fought, and although it was a duel to the death, Melosa decided to spare Velasca after she defeated her. Velasca was exiled from the tribe as punishment instead. She joined me to exact her revenge. She was all rage, but an efficient fighter and, well she… I… I fucked her, so it worked out quite well.”

At this point, Gabrielle got up and began pacing. I had not utilized the best choice of words to describe my sexual relationship with Velasca, I know, but I wanted her to hear it all in all of its brutal accuracy. She needed to have the clearest picture in order to accept and understand what we were about to do in Thrace.

“Velasca had given me a layout of the Amazon village as it was then,” I continued. “She told me who the best fighters were and where their armory was located. We were still engaged in battles in Larissa and Crannon, but those villages were easily defeated by my troops. After I took Pharsalus, I anticipated my attack of the Amazons. But then something happened, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle, who had been leaning against a table with her back to me, turned to face me.

“Queen Melosa rode into my camp the night before the morning we were to attack. She was alone and unarmed, which was course bordered on suicidal. But she had an offer for me. If I chose not to fight her tribe, she would send word to the other remaining tribes of the Nation not to attack me. It was a preposterous and brilliant proposal at the same time. In my colossal arrogance, I had no doubt that I would easily defeat her Amazons, as well as the Spartans, Lesbians, Anatolians and the desert Amazons of Phoenicia and Mesopotamia. But I remembered that the shamaness said that I only needed to defeat the northern steppe Amazons, which I did, so there was no reason for me to spill anymore Amazon blood unnecessarily. Despite who I am, Gabrielle, I’ve never delighted in killing women just to do it. Of course, Velasca was pissed, but I made it up to her by giving her the command post at Pharsalus when I claimed Corinth three years later. I thought it would give her a sense of superiority over Melosa, being my highest-ranking officer in the region, but apparently not. Velasca has and will always covet the title of Queen of the Amazons.

“So you see, Gabrielle, Velasca has absconded north to galvanize the remaining disenfranchised Gaul and Thracian Amazons. She’s building an army of Amazons and I fear the other tribes are in danger.”

“You don’t think my Queen can defeat that lunatic, Xena?”

“Of course Melosa would wipe the ground with Velasca, Gabrielle,” I said confidently. “But I don’t plan on allowing Velasca and her ‘tribe’ the opportunity to start a fight on my Thessalian land and endanger unarmed villagers in this region. This is your tribe, Gabrielle. I love you, and for you, I’m going to end this thing up there.”

“Xena, do you plan to kill Velasca?”

“Yes, I do.”

Gabrielle looked down. “Now you know the other reason I didn’t want you to come, Gabrielle,” I said.

She looked at me again. “Is there any way to defeat her without killing her, Xena?”

“Probably, but she’s been a major pain in the ass, and I prefer to kill her.”

“I see.” And with that, Gabrielle quietly left the hut. I wanted desperately to go after her, but I had my own private musings to do. Why should I spare Velasca? If the roles were reversed, Velasca wouldn’t think twice about running me through. But then I thought about Gabrielle, and I thought about how truly fortunate I was to have a woman who was willing to try so hard to see through my evil shell. She was a gift from the gods, and everyday it seemed, I tried so hard to throw that gift away. As I pondered on, I decided to go after her.

She was sitting beside a campfire in the central courtyard of the fort with a group of Amazons and soldiers. Bahri, Charicleia and Ephiny were among the people with whom she sat. I walked up to her and asked her to return with me to our hut. She did, and when we got there, I took her in my arms.

“Let’s see how this plays out, Gabrielle,” I said. “If I can avoid it, I’ll spare Velasca.”

She looked up at me with her beautiful tear-soaked green eyes. “Thank you, Xena.”

That night, Gabrielle and I made the most intensely passionate love. I was lying on my back as she was kneeling over me. After tenderly kissing, sucking and caressing my breasts, she rose up and straddled herself between my legs where her sex was able to connect with mine. Sweetly, seductively, she began rubbing my sex with hers. She did this very slowly as I bent my legs and she wrapped her arms around my thighs. She began massaging the muscles on my thighs as her slow rhythm continued. I could feel the soft, erect nub of her sex touching my equally erect nub. It was so intense, so incredibly deep that I felt as though I was blending with her. As we continued to rub our throbbing, saturated nubs together, she began saying little endearing things like, “Xena, you are so beautiful,” “Your body is so incredible, Xena,” “This feels so good, Xena,” “You feel so good, Xena.” All I could say was a repeated and almost excitedly incoherent, “I love you, Gabrielle,” “I love you, Gabrielle,” as I ran my hands along her soft but firm hips and her beautiful breasts. The release I experienced that night seemed to go on for many moments and I gripped Gabrielle’s hips tightly and pressed her sex onto mine as she found her release at the same time.

Moments later, as we lay in a wondrous embrace, Gabrielle spoke.

“Xena, what ever happened to your lover, Borias?”

“He was later murdered by one of my men,” I responded.

“And what about that shamaness, the one who told you to kill the northern Amazons?”

I began stroking Gabrielle’s hair. “She remained in Thrace, but like Velasca, she was angry at me for not going to war with Queen Melosa’s tribe, but for very different reasons. Velasca wanted to rule the Amazons. The shamaness wanted them massacred. She sent an assassin to kill me after I conquered Athens, and when he failed, I journeyed back to Thrace, hunted her down and murdered her.”

Gabrielle looked at me. “It’s who I am, Gabrielle,” I said.

“No Xena,” she responded. “It’s who you were.” She brought her lips to mine and bestowed upon me a kiss of her belief in me, her love for me, and her commitment to me.

* * * *

I decided to remain awake that night. If Gabrielle started having a nightmare, I wanted to awaken her from it before the memory of it escaped her. I felt that if she could start remembering her nightmares, she could begin to confront the demons causing them. As I watched her sleep, I began gently caressing her arms, shoulders and face. I was reminded of the all of those times in the past when I did that out of necessity because it was the only way I would allow myself to touch her lovingly. I want to simultaneously laugh and cry at my stark idiocy for what I denied us both. “I love you so much, Gabrielle.” I whispered as I lightly kissed her lips. A few moments later, she began to shake and convulse. The nightmare was starting. I grabbed her shoulders and strongly shook her. When she woke, her forearms flew up and knocked away my arms. She started crying.

“I’m here, Gabrielle,” I said. “I’m here.”

She grabbed me in a tight embrace. “Do you remember the dream, Gabrielle?” I asked.

She nodded in my shoulder. “Yes, Xena, a little,” she responded. “I remember running through a dark forest. Something is chasing me. It’s wearing animal skins.”

“Was it me, Gabrielle?” I cringed at the thought that her contented life with the Amazons would conjure up the darkest elements of her life with me.

“No, Xena,” Gabrielle replied. “It wasn’t you. It was taller, but slender, and… and there was blood dripping from its head,” she said, sighing. “It had on strange jewelry and wore something strange on its head. It had bones and, I think, a skull on it. It brandished a knife. The knife was curved, I believe, and it had blood on it as well. I was running from it, Xena, and it was catching up to me.”

Gabrielle looked at me. “I don’t know what this means, Xena?” she said.

I kissed her forehead as I continued to embrace her. “Try to get back to sleep, Gabrielle,” I said. “I’m here.”

Within moments, Gabrielle was peacefully asleep. I on the other hand, remained awake, contemplating a battle, an angry ex-Amazon, and the vengeance of a dead shamaness.

* * * *

My entourage departed the battalion fort early the next morning en route to Thrace. Our initial destination, the command post of my Thracian leader, Commander Glaphyra, was a full day’s ride from Pharsalus. We rode all day, stopping only to rest the horses and to eat. I was grateful for the fact that the weather was cooling down the further north we rode. By the time we reached Commander Glaphyra’s post north of Salonica, a brisk wind had stirred, drying off much of the sticky sweat we all had accumulated in our ride.

The southern Thrace command post was not an enclosed fort, but rather a series of small lodges in a vertical row of six and a horizontal row of eight. A short walking distance away was a beautiful cavern where earthen spring waters, naturally heated by some force under the ground, provided a soothing place of bathing for Glaphyra and her troops. In addition to being one of the cleanest and nicest-smelling leaders of one of my armies, Commander Glaphyra had also become the most respected individual in the region. She had acquired great power under my command over the years, but unlike most of my male military leaders, she never really let it go to her head. Her respect was earned not through fear, but through savvy diplomacy with the various warlords and clan leaders that pranced around my territories there. She’d drink with them, settle their petty disputes with one another for them, engage in games of chance with them, and occasionally take one as a lover, but she would never let them forget who are their bosses: she over them and I over her.

“Welcome, Conqueror,” she said as Gabrielle and I dismounted our horses and approached her. “I want to thank you for that unique little gift you sent. It’s been much fun.”

“Hello, Commander Glaphyra,” I responded as I took her forearm in greeting and squeezed it tightly to avert her attention away from the topic of the phallus I sent her almost eight months before. “This is Gabrielle.”

“Hello,” Gabrielle said to Glaphyra.

“Well, hello there,” Glaphyra responded a little too enthusiastically for my liking. “With all do respect, my Liege, I must say that your little concubine looks ever so much prettier up close.”

“She’s not my concubine,” I said. “Gabrielle is free.”

Glaphyra smiled her theatrical smile. “By the gods, Conqueror, this is a development. Will I also hear the bells of consortium in your future, hmmm?”

“Jest later, Commander.” I said seriously, but the bemused look on my face escaped neither Glaphyra nor Gabrielle. “What’s the latest word?”

“Pardon my insolence, my Liege,” Glaphyra responded as she also teasingly looked upon Gabrielle and smiled. Gabrielle smiled back. I balled my fists as the greenness of my envy began invading my blood. Glaphyra continued. “Our dear sweet Velasca has stirred up quite a mess on the lower steppes. She and her charges have seized an abandoned Cimmerian fort. I estimate that there are about 150 warriors there. They have raided every village and ranch within a half-day’s ride of the fort. The only one spared was old man Mithradates. I don’t know why.”

“Interesting,” I said.

“Also, three days ago, my advance scouts found two dead bodies along the banks of the Danube. They were soldiers of the Realm, my Liege.”

“Both male, I presume, Glaphyra?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Why yes, my Liege,” she responded.

“What does this mean, Xena?” Gabrielle spoke up with genuine concern in her voice. Glaphyra looked at me with amazement. No one in the Realm calls me Xena, no one except Gabrielle. Oh, and my mother. I forced myself not to react to it.

“They were the male defectors from Pharsalus, Gabrielle,” I responded in as formal a tone I could muster. “Velasca only needed them to mate with some of the women of her newly formed tribe. They served their purpose and she had them killed. Likely did it herself.” I returned my attention to the stunned Glaphyra. “So Commander, it seems that we may be doing battle with women, some of whom will be future mothers.”

“I certainly hope not, Conqueror,” she responded.

“We’ll make camp here at your post, Commander, and set out at first light.”

“By your will, Conqueror.”

As Gabrielle and I turned to depart, I could hear Glaphyra quietly singing a tune to herself: “I smell the sweetness of love and hear the bells of consortium for our dear sweet Conqueror – - la de da de dum – - la de da de dum…”

Had Gabrielle not been present, Glaphyra may have been shocked to find my chakram in flight, heading for her chest. I reminded myself to be sure to tell Glaphyra to thank Gabrielle for saving her life.

* * * *

I ordered Palaemon, Aerol and the Imperial Guard century to set up makeshift cots within the barrack lodges of Glaphyra’s post. The female Guardsmen and the two Thessalian soldiers, Viera and Favrie, bunked down with Glaphyra’s female troops. For the five Amazons, some of Glaphyra’s male troops eagerly assisted them in setting up a separate tent for them to lodge and participate in their evening spiritual rituals in privacy. Barhi and two of the women of my Imperial Guard asked the Amazons if they could join them. I guess Glaphyra was correct about one thing; the “sweetness of love” she smelled was definitely infecting some of the men as well as the women of my troops.

Glaphyra offered her own command lodge as sleep accommodations for Gabrielle and me, but I refused the offer. Despite the fact that we were going into battle the next morning, there was something I had to do with my Gabrielle. We mounted our horses and rode west together for a full candlemark. There, located in a center of a small pine forest was a tiny lake, heated with the same essence of the earth as the cavern baths. This was one of only three bodies of outdoor water like this, to my knowledge, in the entire would. I had discovered it, obviously, when I was living among the Amazons those many years ago.

I’ve never been one for romance, but I always told myself that if I were to ever allow my “slave” Gabrielle to accompany me on my travels, I vowed that the journey would include one of these hot lakes. Over the years in my most private musings, I would imagine myself taking her to this particular one and telling her to forget she was my body slave for a night. I would imagine swimming with her naked and then laying her down on the soft sand on the banks of the lake and covering her glistening body with the wild ferns that grow in the area. I would imagine standing over her and just marveling at the sight of her beauty. But my Conqueror’s imagination was ever so limited. I never knew what I would do with her after that. Climbing on top of her and fucking her just didn’t seem right. Thus the imagery would end there, with Gabrielle lying on sand, covered in foliage.

“Where are we going, Xena?” Gabrielle asked as we began riding.

“It’s a surprise.”

Gabrielle didn’t utter another word, but when I looked over at her I saw a smiling face of anticipation.

When we dismounted our horses, I took her hand in mine and once again felt those birds in my stomach flapping their wings as they desperately tried to find their way out. After all of these years, she still causes those damned birds, I chuckled to myself in thought.

Night had fallen over the lake and the shine of the moon brought out the prominence of the steam from the water’s heated temperatures. I looked down at Gabrielle, whose eyes were glazed in amazement.

“This is beautiful, Xena,” she said after a long sigh. “Absolutely beautiful.” She clutched my hand tighter. The birds in my belly were going wilder.

I started thinking about a wet, naked body and ferns. “Um, Gabrielle,” I croaked. “Why don’t you, uh, take off your clothes… with me… to swim. The water is very warm. Can you swim?”

“Oh, yes, Xena.” My father taught my sister and me when we were small.” She looked down and began undressing. “My Amazon Sisters taught me a few things as well.”

“I’ll be right back,” I said as I pointed toward a tree to indicate that I intended on relieving myself. Instead I ducked past a few trees and started pulling ferns from the ground. When I was satisfied with my collection, I hid them behind the last tree located next to the clearing of the lake beach. I felt like a mischievous rascal. Then, as fast as I could, I undressed, ran and took a leaping dive into the warm, inviting water. Gabrielle watched me as I ran past her and I heard the sound of her clapping hands as I hit the water.

When I came up, she was standing there naked, still clapping her hands and bobbing up and down exuberantly.

“Woohoo! Xena! That was a beautiful dive!” And with that said, my lovely Gabrielle ran in and flopped her body into the water. She came up shouting her enthusiasm: “This is so great!” The position of the trees around the lake trapped Gabrielle’s voice and caused it to majestically echo.

I watched for a few wondrous moments as Gabrielle splashed around like an amused child. Then I swam over to her and grabbed her waist from behind and planted kisses on the back of her neck. She squirmed out of my embrace, faced me and playfully splashed water on me.

“Can’t catch me!” she said as she started swimming away.

I don’t think I’d ever seen Gabrielle so cheery. “You little spitfire!” I shouted as I began stroking to catch up to her. When I was in range, she ducked under the steamy water. Just as I was about to duck under behind her, she came up behind me and splashed my back. When I turned around, she splashed my face.

“Ha!” she yelled in delight as she took off swimming away again.

Impressive, Gabrielle, I thought. “Game over, girl!” I said. I ducked down deep under the water and using the moonlight as my illumination, looked up and watched as Gabrielle’s form swam, then stopped and, I assumed, looked around for me. I could hear her muffled voice calling out my name. When I was convinced in my mind that she was thoroughly concerned for my whereabouts, I swam up within a breath of her and splashed her hard over and over with both hands.

“Okay! I quit! I quit!” she yelled through the overpowering splashes. I stopped and looked at her stunned face.

“By the gods, Xena. You came out of nowhere,” Gabrielle said as she wiped her eyes.

“Well, I had to make you sweat for a moment there before my attack, Gabrielle.”

“It worked,” she said as she ran her hand through her short blond hair. My desire for her began to erupt in my body.

“Come here,” I said. She threw her arms around my shoulders and brought her lips to mine. My arms went around her waist and our legs paddled to keep us afloat in the deep water as we shared a wonderfully, long kiss.

Gabrielle broke it off. “My legs are getting tired, Xena.”

“Let’s go to shore then,” I responded. “I don’t want you collapsing from exhaustion… yet.”

We swam to shore and I asked Gabrielle to remain where she was standing. I dashed over to Argo where I pulled out a blanket. I then went to retrieve the ferns. I laid out the blanket next to where Gabrielle was standing.

“Lay down,” I said, and when she did, I started gently placing the ferns, one by one, on various parts of her body.

“What are you doing, Xena?” Gabrielle inquired of me.

“Shh…” I responded. When every collected fern was resting on Gabrielle’s body, I stood up and looked down at her. “You are a such a vision, Gabrielle. I’ve wanted to do this so long. I… I love you so much.”

Gabrielle extended her arm in invitation and, taking her hand, I knelt down beside her. “Love me,” she said. I kissed her lips and then I began taking each fern into my mouth, one by one, and picking them off of her body. When I reached her lower legs, I brought her right foot to my mouth and began kissing her toes. I kissed up her right leg, across her hips and down her left leg to her foot. Then, coming to that warm and welcoming place between her legs, I scooped her thighs onto the sides of my shoulders and took her wet, inviting sex into my mouth. Her lovely hands played with my hair as my tongue stroked her sweet center. As I made love to her, my hands wandered upward, caressing her firm breasts. She grabbed my right hand and planted a tender kiss in my palm. She then grabbed my left hand and ran her tongue around the palm before kissing it as well. Then Gabrielle held my hands in hers.

When I finished making love to Gabrielle, Gabrielle made love to me.

Afterwards, we rested in each other’s arms. The moon had moved on, but the stars were still shining down on us. Gabrielle was lying to my side, and casually running her fingers around my breasts as I played with her hair.

“Can I ask you something, Xena?” she started.

“Sure.”

She looked up at me. In the light of the night sky, her green eyes were like emeralds. “Have you thought of a plan to deal with the Amazons here without attacking them, knowing that some may be with child?”

“I have a plan, Gabrielle,” I responded. “I always have a plan.”

Gabrielle sighed and looked down and then back up at me. “Can I ask you something else?”

“Of course.”

She sighed again. “Xena, why… why did you… did you beat me and take me in front of my parents?”

I’d always tried to anticipate a question from Gabrielle. We had opened up so much to each other over the last few months. But this question came at me like a fireball shot from a catapult. I released her.

“Because I’m an evil bitch, Gabrielle,” I answered as my eyes focused on the shining stars. Gabrielle lightly grabbed the side of my face, drawing my gaze back to her eyes.

“Why, Xena?” she asked again. “I want to know why. Tell me. Why did you do it?”

I struggled to put the words together correctly. “I wanted to shame you, Gabrielle.”

“Why?”

“Because… just because.”

“No, Xena, why?”

“I knew you loved them. I knew you loved only them. I was jealous… and I wanted you to hate me.”

“Why?”

As hard as I tried, I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. “Because that’s what I wanted.”

Gabrielle leaned over me and took my shoulders in her hands. “No, Xena,” she said while gently shaking me. “Please tell me why!”

Her touch, those beautiful hand that held my soul prisoner all of those years enraged me in their contact with me. I grabbed her by her shoulders and forced her prone. I saw fear in her eyes as I straddled her hips and sharply cupped the sides of her face in my hands. “You want to fucking know why? I’ll tell you. I wanted you to hate me, Gabrielle. I wanted to know that you hated me so that I could stop loving you.” I cried as I closed my fingers into her hair. “I was afraid… afraid of these feelings, so I hurt you to make you hate me. I hated that I was in love with you. I hated you for causing me to fall in love with you and I also hated that you didn’t love me back. I hated everyone you loved and everyone who loved you. I so wanted you to hate me, but you never showed me any hate all those years, even when I beat you, even when I shamed you. Damn you! You never showed hate. So I fell… I fell deeper… in love.”

I released Gabrielle’s head and leaned up, still kneeling with my bottom gently resting on her soft curls. She lay there, staring at me.

“Why didn’t you just tell me you loved me, Xena?” she asked as tears flowed a steady stream down the sides of her lovely face. “All of those years, why were you so afraid?”

I took her hands in mine. “It was your hands Gabrielle, and your voice, and your face, and your spirit. They all overwhelmed me. I’m not supposed to love, you see. I’m the Warrior Princess, the Destroyer of Nations, the Conqueror of the Known World, and I kill. That’s what I do. Then you came along and showed me things in my heart I wasn’t meant to see, meant to feel.” I sat there for moments and then, releasing my grip on her hands, I wiped my face with my palms. “How can you love someone like me?” I finally said in a whisper.

“It’s Xena that I love,” Gabrielle said.

I leaned back down and grabbed her in a tight embrace. We held each other for many moments, crying tears of past pain and present resolve.

* * * *

I woke before dawn the following morning. I looked around and saw a thick layer of dew covering everything, including our entwined naked bodies. The air was chilled and Gabrielle was shivering slightly in her sleep. We needed to get back to the Thracian command post, so I gently shook Gabrielle to awaken her.

Let’s bathe, Gabrielle,” I said. “We need to get back.”

Gabrielle rubbed her puffy eyes. “Okay, Xena.”

I walked over to a snoozing Argo and grabbed cleaning soaps and a towel out of my saddlebag. Moments later, as Gabrielle and I bathed in the refreshingly hot lake water, I reached over and ran my fingers down her cheek.

“Are you all right, Gabrielle?” I asked.

“Yes, Xena, I am,” she replied. “Are you?”

“Yes, Gabrielle, I’m all right.”

When we returned to the post, Glaphyra and Palaemon were already awake, dressed and awaiting our departure to the captured Cimmerian fort. I ordered my two commanders into the command lodge, along with the five Amazons, Bahri and Gabrielle.

“Okay, this is the plan,” I started. “Two centuries, Palaemon’s and Glaphyra’s, will accompany us. I want every ranking female centurion and hoplite under your command to be in your century, Glaphyra. If these Amazons follow tradition, they won’t attack other women without provocation.”

“How can you be sure, Conqueror?” Palaemon inquired. “These are not ordinary Amazons, from what you describe.”

I felt the cold eyes of the Amazon Ephiny bore into me, and because I needed her loyalty and support to accomplish my mission, I decided to defer to her advice. “I think the Thessalian Amazon guard Ephiny can explain things further, correct Amazon?”

Ephiny was actually shocked at my deference. “Uh, yeah, sure, Conqueror,” she said before turning her attention to the group. “Velasca needs for her ‘tribe’ to respect her. They won’t respect any Amazon leader, especially a self-imposed one, who orders the slaughter of fellow Amazons. I suspect that Velasca’s plans are to ride into our Thessalian tribal village under some guise of peace, but once my Sisters take the defensive, because it’s Velasca, she’ll have her excuse at that moment to launch her attack with her new ‘tribe.’ It’s pathetic, but I’m sure these Amazons don’t know that that hydra was personally responsible for the deaths of over twenty Thessalian Amazons over the last seven years.”

“So, there is no dissention within the individual tribes?” Palaemon inquired.

“Not yet, Commander,” Ephiny responded. “When your Conqueror destroyed the northern tribes, many of our Sisters came to us and the remaining tribes. I never knew Queen Cyane personally, but I hear she was truly a great leader, a legend.”

“Yes, she was,” I said in unison with the Amazon Tania. Everyone looked at me, including Tania.

Tania spoke up. “I believe the Amazons who remained here did so because they love this land. Ouri and I love our Sisters here, but we can’t know what poison Velasca’s been feeding them. The thought that they are being deceived by that demon boils my blood, but realistically, we must anticipate everything.” She turned to me. “I have hated you for ten years, Xena the Conqueror. The only reason I’m here is because I trust my Sister, Princess Gabrielle. She believes in you, and we believe in her, so we trust you and your troops will do the right thing by all of us.”

“I plan on it,” I said before turning my attention to the table we surrounded and the map resting on it. “If you all look upon this map, you will see Mithradates’ retirement palace here and the Cimmerian fort over here. It’s a distance of about five hundred paces. The Cimmerians were a nomadic people of this region, so they were not experts on building long-term structures. This fort probably lacks any underground access or proper aboveground escape routes. I bet the walls aren’t even that high. In my opinion, it would be much easier for us to penetrate the fort in battle than coerce them out.”

“I don’t see how that’s easier, Conqueror!” Ephiny implored in a raised voice.

“You watch your tone, Amazon!” Glaphyra spoke up.

“You go to Tartarus, traitor to women!” Ephiny drew her dagger.

“I’ll show you Tartarus, bitch!” Glaphyra drew her sword.

“ENOUGH!” I shouted. “You two can fight, fuck or kill each other later, but now you’re wasting MY time.”

Gabrielle grabbed my arm. “Please, Xena,” she said in a soft, yet stern tone. “Explain why it’s better to penetrate the fort.”

I cupped her hand and smiled at her before returning my attention to the others. I looked around at the people in the room. Everyone seemed to have an agenda. Ephiny, her two Thessalian Amazons and I wanted to defeat Velasca. My commanders were eager to once again show each other and me just how competent in battle they were. Tania and Ouri wanted to reunite with their Sisters and save their tribe. Even Gabrielle had an agenda. She wanted to be with me and prevent unnecessary bloodshed. The only person who didn’t have any agenda was Bahri, since the only reason she was in Thrace at all was because Gabrielle requested it.

“Field Sergeant Bahri,” I said to the stunned Egyptian. “Explain why it’s better to penetrate the fort.”

Bahri’s big brown eyes locked onto mine in question. I raised my eyebrow. “Go ahead.”

“Well,” she began. “If we all surround the fort and start yelling obscenities at the crazy woman, she’ll just have her archers or stone-throwers or whatnots attack us from behind the fort walls. We won’t be able to do much to them because, well, the walls are there.”

Gabrielle and I looked at each other and smiled in a silent communication. Bahri’s such a cute little nut bread, I thought as I assumed Gabrielle was thinking the same thing.

“But, if say, our Liege were to stand outside of the south wall entrance with, say, a century of troops and distract the old harlot, you know, calling her names and belittling her and such, the second century could climb the north wall and penetrate there. Once the second century starts the invasion, crazy old Velasca’s bound to turn her back to charge the invading troops. That leaves the south wall basically unprotected by any leadership and then the Conqueror and the remaining troops can just slip right in.”

“Very good, Field Sergeant Bahri,” I said. She bowed.

“Not everyone will abandon that south wall. There will be mass casualties this way!” Ephiny spoke up.

“Not if we position our troops intelligently, Ephiny,” I responded.

“What do you mean, Xena?” Gabrielle inquired.

“You see, while I’m out there by the south entrance ‘calling names and belittling’, my female troops, you Amazons included, will be the north wall invaders. The two Thessalian sergeants, Viera and Favrie will be able to identify which women are their former fellow Thessalian battalion soldiers. As to the real Amazons, if these northern Amazons follow the code of the Nation, and I trust even Velasca cannot take that away from them, they’ll hesitate to fight fellow Amazons to the death, if you communicate with them. The advantage of engaging in battle with women is that we’re better communicators. Talk with them, even as you fight. Try to reach them. You can try to find out whom Velasca appointed as her second. It’ll be important for you to establish that you’re there to rescue the tribe from Velasca, not from me.” I turned to Glaphyra. “And Commander, know this. They’re Amazons. They’re willing to fight while pregnant and they’re willing to fight to the death. I don’t want any casualties among them by your troops.” Glaphyra bowed.

I returned my attention to the group. “In the meantime, I’ll have a few tricks up my gauntlets and I’ll deal with Velasca personally.”

“I don’t know,” Ephiny said. “Why shouldn’t my Sisters and I assume you’ll just reunite with your ‘buddy’ and slaughter our Sister tribe.”

I folded my arms and looked into the contemptible eyes of the Amazon guard. “Well, frankly, Ephiny, I’d much rather slaughter Velasca.”

Ephiny nodded her compliance. “Fine,” I said. “Let’s ride.”

* * * *

When we were in sight of the fort, I ordered Commander Aerol to take command of the Imperial Guard century and have them flank half of the troops in the front and half in the rear of the fort, but out of sight of fort’s occupants. I ordered Commanders Palaemon and Glaphyra to accompany the men of the Thracian century to the front of the fort with me. Glaphyra was angered by my decision.

“I thought I’d be commanding the invading troops,” she said. “I am a woman too, Conqueror.”

“So you are,” I responded. “But I need you with me. Velasca’s not stupid. If she sees me out here without my highest-ranking Thracian commander, she’s bound to suspect something. She’s going to be anticipating everything as well. Why feed into her suspicion with your absence?”

Glaphyra conceded. “You know best, my Liege.”

As we approached the fort, I motioned for Gabrielle to ride over to the side of the trail with me.

“I want you to ride with Aerol and the Imperial Guard century,” I said in pleading.

“No, Xena,” she responded without hesitation. “I’m an Amazon. I ride and fight with my Sisters.”

“My deserter troops behind that wall have had years of battle experience and I know the Amazons are skilled as well. I don’t want you to get hurt, Gabrielle.”

“I’ll be all right, Xena. My Sisters have trained me well. And you haven’t been half bad either, my lover.” Gabrielle smiled.

I grabbed her hand and kissed it. “Be careful, Gabrielle. I love you.” I whispered as I tapped Argo’s sides in command for her to gallop back to the front of troops.
Once we reached the fort, Palaemon and Glaphyra dismounted their horses and lined the century in phalanx formation. A group of hoplites took all of the horses, including Argo, back into the woods. I was standing in the center, with Palaemon to my right and Glaphyra to my left. Gabrielle, Bahri, the Amazons and my women troops had already separated from us and were positioning themselves just beyond the line of sight at the north wall.

“VELASCA! YOU SORRY BITCH!” I yelled in the direction of the fort entrance. “SHOW YOURSELF, IF YOU DARE!”

Glaphyra looked at me strangely. “Just a little name calling and belittling,” I whispered with a crooked smile.

Velasca appeared with approximately twenty women flanked on both sides of her. They stood the entire length of the fort high wall.

“Destroyer,” she replied. “Glad you could make it to our party… ARCHERS!”

Each woman flanking the wall raised bows with arrows pointed directly at us. “Shields!” I yelled. We each knelt on one knee, picked up shields that each of us had placed on the ground, and covered ourselves. The first round of arrows managed to only strike two of my men. “Oh, Velasca, you can do better than that!” I yelled. She signaled to the women to fire a second round of arrows at us. No one was hit that time. “This is getting boring, Velasca!” I said afterwards. “I can’t believe the talent of my Thessalian warriors was wasted on such a pathetic leader!”

“You’re trying to taunt me out of here, Destroyer, but it won’t work!” Velasca responded.

“Aw, too bad… AEROL!” At the moment I summoned Palaemon’s second, a fifty-man detachment from the Imperial Guard century emerged from the brush, most of them bearing bows and arrows, the rest bearing torches. The arrows had been dipped in flammable oil and lighted by the torchbearers. “NOW!” I shouted. They raised the bows and fired the arrows from a distance that would just clear over the south wall. It was meant not to kill, only to further distract the women on the wall, because at the very moment Gabrielle and the women watching the north wall saw the flaming arrows, they were to begin their ascent up the north wall.

“NOW!” I shouted a second time as the torchbearers ignited more arrows and the detachment archers fired them over the south wall. As the trajectory of the arrows began their downward slope, I heard the battle cries of Amazons and the sound of clanging swords. It was time to advance.

“Alalalalalalalala!” I shouted as I ran toward the wall with Palaemon, Glaphyra and the Thracian century in tow. As Aerol and the secondary detachment continued to fire ignited arrows, Palaemon, Glaphyra, several of the centurions and myself threw ropes with hooks on the ends over the wall. With the ropes hooked in place, we scaled the walls and left the ropes for others of the century to follow. Aerol and the detachment remained outside of the fort.

Once over the wall, I immediately began experiencing an inner conflict. The Conqueror in me wanted to seek out Velasca and plunge my sword in her miserable body. The woman Xena that I am wanted to find my Gabrielle and protect her from any harm.

The flaming arrows left a billow of smoke, which made visibility difficult. I carefully sliced my sword across any enemy that came in my path, delivering only non-lethal blows to lower extremities, as I navigated my surroundings. And then I saw her. She was taking on a much larger woman brandishing a thick double-edged sword. One wrong move and that sword could break her staff in two and render her helpless. “Gabrielle!” I shouted as I ran toward my love. Jumping out to nowhere, it seemed, and blocking my path to Gabrielle was Velasca.

“Oh no, Destroyer,” she said. “We have unfinished business.”

“Bitch,” I said as I raised my sword to attack. We fought for moments in silence, the noise of our clanging swords and our angry grunts being the only noise we made. Velasca was excellent with the sword, better than any Roman or Persian and more precise than most of my Greek troops.

As we fought, I glanced momentarily at Gabrielle. Velasca noticed it quickly. “Worried about your little blond whore, Destroyer?” she said. “You’ve been worrying about her a lot lately.”

“You don’t know what you’re fucking talking about, bitch,” I responded as I parried at Velasca’s left.

“Oh, but I do, Destroyer of Nations. Tell me, have your little blond whore’s nightmares gotten any worse?”

I froze for a single moment as I looked deep into her eyes and realized that it wasn’t Velasca talking to me anymore.

“I’ve waited a long time for this, Xena,” she said.

“I bet you have.” I allowed my mind to lose my body to pure bloodlust. I knew I had assured Gabrielle that I would try to spare Velasca, but this Velasca had to die. As we fought harder and harder, I didn’t even notice that the battle around us was dying down and that a growing number of eyes were upon us. We both fought like women possessed, as we were women possessed, as I immediately took the offensive, striking Velasca’s sword as she backed up blocking each blow. I continued to strike until I had her pinned against a wagon, then I kicked her sword out of her right hand and brought my sword to her neck.

“So, do you kill me now?” Velasca asked in a whisper as she took on a shrill voice that was not her own. “I’ll be sure to send warm greetings from you to Borias in the underworld.”

Before I could respond, I heard a voice yelling, “Xena, don’t kill her!” It was Gabrielle. At that moment of my distraction, Velasca brought her knee sharply up to my chest. I went down on my knees in pain. As she raised her sword to run me through, I pulled out my boot dagger and plunged it in her heart.

“Yeah, you be sure to do that,” I said as I watched the life of Velasca’s eyes slowly dim out. I stood and gripped her arm as her body went limp and dropped to the ground. The warm blood from her chest covered my hand and my weapon.

I looked up and saw that my troops and the Thessalian Amazons had detained all of the surviving Amazons and deserters. There appeared to be only a few casualties from both sides.

“The Destroyer killed our queen!” shouted a woman. “Death to the Destroyer!”

“NO!” came the combined voices of Gabrielle, Ephiny, Ouri and Tania.

“Velasca wasn’t a queen, she was the sworn enemy of all Amazons!” the Amazon Charicleia chimed in.

“No, our only enemy is Xena the Conqueror!” said another woman. At that moment, many of the women, the Thessalian Amazons, the northern Amazons, my troops, even Glaphyra began arguing with each other. A few people even resumed fighting.

In the midst of the chaos, a startlingly powerful voice rang out. “QUIET!”

Everyone’s eyes locked onto the small but determined Amazon Princess. “I am Princess Gabrielle of the Thessalian Amazons, and in the absence of my Sister, Queen Melosa, I am the reigning voice here.”

“You’re not anything but the Conqueror’s little whore!” said another women.

At that moment I went for my chakram. This bitch is about to die, I thought as I raised it to throw, but Gabrielle’s voice stopped me.

“Shut up!” she said back at the woman with a tone of fury I had never heard from my love before. Turning to the Thessalian battalion sergeants, Gabrielle said, “Viera, Favrie, who among these women are Velasca’s companion deserters?”

Both sergeants stepped forward. They began pointing out the sixteen surviving deserters, including the bitch that I was prepared to eviscerate. I stepped up beside Gabrielle.

“Which one of you is Velasca’s second?” I said. No one responded. “Fine, then you’ll all be punished as her seconds.” I turned to Palaemon and Glaphyra. “Commanders, take these women back to the command post to await transport back to Corinth. They’ll discover soon enough that their dead allies here are the lucky ones.”

That threat frightened one of the deserters. “Conqueror!” she yelled. “It is Daidja of Pheres, my Liege!” she said as she pointed to the woman I’d hoped in my evil heart it would be. “She is Velasca’s second.”

“Excellent,” I said as I walked up to the traitor named Daidja. “For betraying the Realm and pissing me off, I promise you, your death will be very slow and very painful.” At that moment, Gabrielle grabbed my upper arm.

“Wait, Xena,” she said. Turning her attention to the Amazons, Gabrielle began, “My Sisters of the northern tribes, we came here, Ephiny, Chloe, Charicleia and your own Sisters, Ouri and Tania, to help these troops rescue you from your greatest threat since the Destroyer of Nations disenfranchised you ten years ago. Yes, Xena the Conqueror destroyed your tribe, but she led us here today and made it possible for us to defeat your true enemy. Velasca was not our Sister. She was a lieutenant of the Realm, a traitor to the Realm and a traitor to this Nation. She was personally responsible for the murders of many of your Thessalian Sisters, including the Amazon Princess whose right of caste I bear. Velasca’s only desire was to corrupt this tribe and divide and destroy the Amazons by creating a Nation in her own twisted image. But despite all of that, she did do one thing that was good. She reunited you here. You have among you powerful women warriors. You can rebuild this tribe here, in this fort, and rejoin our Nation. My Sisters Tania and Ouri would like to rejoin this tribe, to live among you and grow with you. They are wise and compassionate Sisters and they have a great deal of love for you all.”

I was so proud of Gabrielle at that moment. She demonstrated to me and to all of the people in the compound that she was truly a great speaker and a great leader. But I also felt a sadness in the fact that she bore first witness to the long lasting carnage of my actions all those many years ago.

Turning to the traitors, Gabrielle said, “I have a proposal. Those of you who came here with Velasca, I want to offer you a choice. You may face the public judgments in Corinth for your crimes against the Realm, or you may face Amazon Justice in Thessaly for your crimes against the Amazon Nation. Which will it be?”

What in Tartarus is she doing? I immediately thought. “Are you out of your mind, Gabrielle? I’m not going to let the Amazons try these traitors.”

Gabrielle turned to me with a strong look of conviction. “I believe it’s what our great Queen Cyane would have wanted,” she said to me.

The silence of everyone in the fort that followed was so intense that the chirping of birds and insects became almost deafening. How could I defy that logic? Gabrielle turned back to look upon the traitors. “Well, what will it be?”

“Trial by the Amazons,” said Daidja.

“Very well,” Gabrielle said. “Since men have no place in Amazon Justice, and on behalf of the Realm, I propose that Commander Glaphyra and the women of her troops are placed in charge of the prisoners until we depart Thrace. For Thessaly, the ranking woman Imperial Guardsman, Field Sergeant Bahri will take over, with Sergeants Viera and Favrie and the women of the Imperial Guard acting directly under her command. Of course, my Amazon Sister guards and I will coordinate matters with the ranking officers of the Realm.” Gabrielle turned back to me. “By your will, Conqueror?” she asked.

“By my will, Princess.”

While Gabrielle and I stared at each other in wonder of what had just taken place, Ephiny spoke up. “We encourage any of our Sisters of this northern tribe to journey with us back to Thessaly in order to take part in the Justice process as either advocates for, or witnesses against these deserters.”

* * * *

For the ride back to Thessaly, the traitors were placed in shackles and loaded on a designated prisoner chariot. Commander Glaphyra oversaw the effort and wasted no time in gloating to Palaemon the fact that he had been rendered useless in this operation. Palaemon took it all in stride, opting to turn his attention to Bahri, his old tavern-hopping buddy, petting her short curly hair and lightly punching her arm in that “male” bonding fashion as he congratulated her for having been given a responsibility usually reserved only for commissioned officers.

I decided to allow everyone the opportunity to rest at the Thracian command post for the remainder of the day and set out for Thessaly the following morning. The battle had been rather short, but there were injuries and casualties, and both the troops and the Amazons wanted to pay homage to their respective lost comrades. As night approached and the last body was buried or committed to the flames, the troops and the Amazons broke down into several groups in order to revel in or reflect on the day. Glaphyra once again offered her command lodge as a sleeping accommodation for Gabrielle and me. I think she wanted to resume something, possibly carnal, with Ephiny. This time I accepted, but I wasn’t sure if Gabrielle would be joining me. She had spent much of the day honoring the few fallen northern Amazons with her Sisters. When I retired into the lodge, I spent long moments brooding over the events of the last few days. Of course, I thought a great deal about Gabrielle. In so many ways she was like the Amazons of this land. She was strong, resourceful and intelligent, and like them, had been stripped of those magnificent qualities by my tyranny. From the first moment of contact on that slave auction platform, I saw that power, and it drew me and captivated me. But like the Sisters of Queen Cyane, I hobbled her for years.

As I sat on the edge of Glaphyra’s bed buried in my private, dark musings, Gabrielle entered the lodge.

“Hi, Xena,” she said in that lovely, familiar soft voice.

“Hi, Gabrielle,” I responded.

“May I join you?”

At the request, I nodded as she sat down next to me and wrapped her arms around my waist. I returned the embrace. Gabrielle and I were exhausted, and we spent the remainder of the evening curled up in each other’s arms, as Morpheus was a most welcome presence to us that night.

Over thirty of the northern Amazons elected to join our entourage back to Thessaly. Gabrielle and I rode at the head, with Palaemon and Aerol directly behind us and the surviving Imperial Guard centurions behind them. Further back were all of the Amazons, plus Bahri, Viera, Favrie, the female Guardsmen and the prisoners. When we returned to the battalion fort after nightfall, the three sergeants and the two lovesick female Imperial Guardsmen requested to go to the Amazon village to testify at trial. I granted their request after briefing Commander Rhamos of the drastic changes in protocol.

Palaemon, Aerol and the Imperial Guardsmen rode back to Corinth as I decided to accompany Gabrielle to the Amazon village to observe the trial. It was very late when Gabrielle and I retired to that familiar high bed that was the location of the first time I had ever made love to a beautiful Amazon Princess.

As Gabrielle lay on top of my body, she began caressing my breasts with those beautiful, soft hands of hers. I gently grabbed the back of her head and brought her lips to mine. The subsequent kisses and touches we shared faded away, for the time being, the demons of guilt in my heart.

At one point, as our passions were swelling, Gabrielle stopped in the middle of it and looked at me with a strangely muddled expression on her face. “Xena,” she said. “Why did the Amazons spare the old man Mithradates? Was it because he was once a king?”

I chuckled. “Oh, no, Gabrielle,” I responded. “As you know, men don’t go through the change like we women do. Mithradates has been designated a breeder to the tribe. He’s to father the next generation of Amazons, and he’s perfect for the role. Not too old to, shall we say, extend his courtesy, but far too old to desire any paternal role in the lives of the infants.”

“What about male infants, Xena?”

“Oh, Gabrielle, the Amazons figured out generations ago how the breeding method in men increases the likelihood of a female child. Rest assured, my Princess, Mithradates will be fathering girls.”

“Hmm…” she mumbled. “Lucky man.”

“Fatigue kills most old men,” I said. “I bet old King Mithradates dies with a BIG smile on his face.”

Gabrielle laughed.

PART TWO

During our first night in the Amazon village, following our brief war with Velasca, I had another one of those strange dreams where the event of the dream had actually occurred in my life. This dream was about an incident that happened only three weeks before my sister’s death.

I was summoned to the Conqueror’s bedchamber for service. When I entered the chamber, she was sitting on the miniature throne she kept in her chamber and was dressed in a beautiful silk robe. Only a single large candle positioned near the bed illuminated the chamber. I walked over to my reporting spot to await instruction. She stood up and walked over to me. She stood directly in front of me for a few moments, looking into my eyes, and then she ordered me to go lay down. I did and immediately took my servicing position. She came up to me and, lying on top of me, began to kiss my lips in her usual fierce manner. She smelled very sweet, as if she had bathed in a pool of lavender-scented water. After kissing me for a few short moments, she started licking my neck and ears, and then she ran her tongue down my body to my sex. Positioning herself between my legs, she began pleasuring me orally.

With the exception of those first nights after her return from a battle, it had been several seasons since the Conqueror last inflicted any real pain on me during service. In addition, she used that phallus on me less frequently. I was staring at that familiar spot on the ceiling and thinking about these things, and how enjoyable sex with the Conqueror had become over the last two or three years when my gaze shifted downward and I found myself watching this beautiful woman stroking my sex with her tongue. I was fully aroused and craved to touch her, but she would not allow that. So I watched her. After a few moments of blissful staring, the Conqueror looked up and caught me. In an instant, her body was on top of mine and her magnificent blue eyes only a breath away from mine.

“What are you staring at, slave?” she demanded.

“I’m…I’m sorry, my Lady,” I responded in whisper, terrified.

“Do you enjoy staring at me, Gabrielle?”

I contemplated my answer. “Yes, my Lady.” My response was barely audible.

The Conqueror didn’t respond. She released my wrist that she had been tightly holding since confronting me, and then scooted back down between my legs and resumed licking my sex. I subtly sniffed hard to capture more of the lavender and then stared at the ceiling for a few moments, but was once again tempted by her beauty. She caught me staring at her a second time, but this time she responded by taking her fingers and stroking the nipples of my breasts. When she started massaging my breasts and moaning on my sex as she licked, I climaxed.

When the last jolts of my release ended, the Conqueror rose up and again kissed my lips. I could taste myself on her mouth and tongue. She then lay down next to me. Quite a few moments passed before the Conqueror spoke.

“Service me,” she said.

I positioned myself between her legs and began to delicately lick her sex. As I performed, I looked up and saw her staring at me, something she rarely, if ever, did. Those sky blue eyes on me galvanized me, and my tongue began stroking harder.

“May I go inside, my Lady?” I asked, knowing full well the insubordination of that request.

The Conqueror of four or five years ago would have struck me, or whipped me, or at the very least, would have peppered me with insults for daring to ask such a question. Back then, I never would have made the request. But the Conqueror of that night leaned up, putting her weight on her elbows.

“Go inside,” she responded.

I entered her and thrust her more fiercely than I had ever allowed myself to do. Her head went back and her eyes rolled up as her hips moved rhythmically with my frantic tongue and fingers. When she began moaning, I became more excited. Inside of her, I bent my fingers and began pressing them on her inner core. She went wild in response to this sensation and her resulting climax caused her whole body to convulse as she let out a scream that could have awakened the dead.

After the last torrents of climax, the Conqueror fell back prone. When she looked down at me, I tenderly kissed her sex. I removed my saturated fingers from inside of her, rose up and sat on my knees on the bed. She rose up as well and, sitting with her legs crossed, stared at me. I stared at her. The staring seemed to last a long time. She had this strange look on her face that I had never seen before. It was a look of being stunned, of being confused, of being overwhelmed. I smiled at her and maintained eye contact. Looking away, she rose up off of the bed and went over to one of her tables. Pouring herself some wine, she said, “Leave, slave.” I couldn’t see the expression on her face because her back was to me, but her voice sounded quiet and strained.

When I was safely in the corridor outside of her room, a huge smile spread across my face. I practically skipped back to my own bedchamber as I, for the first time in my life, felt what it was like to be a… Conqueror.
I awakened and looked upon Xena’s sleeping form lying next to me. She was lying on her back; her right arm was comfortably positioned around my waist. My right leg was comfortably sprawled across both of hers. I leaned up so that I could see her face. Then I just stared at her.

“You are so beautiful,” I whispered to her sleeping form.

I thought about the dream. I know now that Xena was in love with me when we had sex that particular night. I know now why she would not allow me to touch her all of those years. What I was still uncertain about was my own feelings. When did I start to love her? She said to me at that hot lake a couple of days ago that I never showed her hate. But she was wrong. All of those times that I denied her my warmth, all of those times that I didn’t challenge the beast that she was, all of those times I remained silent to her, I was showing her my hate for her. Now, I would sooner die by her hand than allow her to brutalize me, or sit idly by and watch her brutalize someone else. That is how I love her.

That dream clearly reminded me of my physical passion for Xena. But it also reminded me of something else. I guess if Bahri were to ask me now what it was about the Conqueror that attracted me to her, I could give Bahri a coherent answer. I didn’t see it for a long time into my service with her, but Xena has the soul of a great and wonderful woman and leader. She is capable of so many great things. Her problem is that she executed that greatness in the wrong direction. Queen Melosa was correct. Xena the Conqueror had been a monster. But she had also tamed over the last few years. The Conqueror that purchased me nearly six years ago was not the same beast two years later. That beast of almost four years ago was not the beast that allowed me to attend my sister’s funeral nine months ago. I so want to believe now that the beast in Xena no longer exists. That’s unrealistic, I know. But I can believe that her greatness can be far more superior to her beast.

To answer my own question, I would have to say that I began to see two beings about three-and-a-half years ago. It began the last time she ever used her whips on me. That particular night, I reported to her in a beautiful dress that her dressmaker, Illiana had made for me. For reasons I still don’t know, she beat me savagely, but then the next morning, she herself gently cleansed and tended to the wounds that she had inflicted. She tended to me for the next few days as though she was my personal healer. She also allowed me to read and write my scrolls in her bedchamber uninterrupted. I ate meals with her and I didn’t have to service her again until I was completely healed. I didn’t know what to make of it. I saw the beast and I saw the woman for the first time, but she was still the Conqueror in either incarnation. Over the years since then, I watched as, ever so slowly, the woman began taking over the beast in her being. I think my love began to stir when the presence of the beast, although always present, was a diminishing part of that being. The first time I looked upon her and saw Xena, it was then that I fell in love with her.

Xena chose that moment of my musings to wake up.

“Morning, Gabrielle,” she mumbled. “Why the wicked smile on your lovely face?”

“Morning, Xena,” I responded. “I was just looking at you and thinking how lucky I am to have such a gorgeous woman lying next to me in my royal bed.”

Xena chuckled. “You know how I love royalty, my Princess.”

“I dreamt about you last night, Xena.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah,” I responded. “I’m sure you don’t recall it, but I dreamt about that time I, uh, I… you and I had sex, you know, before you freed me, when I… um… asked to go inside of you.”

“Ah, yes,” Xena responded. Her lip curled and she had this reflective look on her face.

“You remember it, Xena?”

“Gods, Gabrielle, how could I forget. You fucked my brains out that night.”

I didn’t know whether to be flattered or offended by the remark.

“What in Tartarus got into you that night, Gabrielle?” Xena was smiling as she queried.

“I don’t know. I guess I wanted to conquer you, Conqueror.”

“By Zeus, you already did that years ago,” she smirked to herself and then looked at me when she realized what she had said. We looked at each other nervously for a few moments, before we both lost the ability to continue our gazes.

I cleared my suddenly dry throat. “Would you like some water, Xena?”

She cleared her throat. “Um… yeah, sure, Gabrielle.”

I rose off my high bed and padded over to the stand where I kept my water vase. “It’s empty, Xena. I’ll fill it at the well.”

As I headed toward the well, I saw Bahri standing with a group of my Sisters. “Hey Gab!” she shouted as she frantically waved at me.

As I walked over to her, I noticed that she seemed quite taller. Surrounded by her male contemporaries in the Imperial Guard, Bahri appeared as a small and svelte presence amongst the hulking men. Standing along side these women, she commanded a regal presence with her crisp uniform; her clear bronzed skin and her athletic build. She stood eye to eye with Ephiny, Solari and Charicleia, and was taller than the other Amazons standing in their group.

“Morning, Bahri,” I said as I reached the group.

“The guys here were just showing me some of the Amazon traditions and stuff,” she said.

“We’re not ‘guys’, Guard,” Ephiny chimed in.

“Sorry… girls,” Bahri corrected herself.

“We’re not girls, either!” exclaimed Solari

Bahri looked defeated. “Whatever,” she said.

I laughed and rubbed my hand in Bahri’s soft, curly hair.

“Hey,” she said, ducking her head as she swiped my hand away. “Don’t touch the coiffure.” She started patting her short ringlets of hair as if I had messed it up somehow.

“You are such a nut bread, Bahri.” The others joined me in laughter.

“What in Hades is a ‘nut bread?’” she asked, clearly not pleased by our amusement.

I gave her shoulder a friendly squeeze and resumed my trek to the well when Ephiny stopped me by grabbing my forearm.

“Princess Gabrielle,” she said. “Our Queen wishes a word with you and the Conqueror as soon as possible.”

* * * *

When I returned to my yurt, Xena was up and dressing herself. Immediately, I was disappointed.

“What’s the matter, Gabrielle?” Xena obviously noticed the lost look of expectation on my face.

I set the vase on the table and looked at my feet. “I was hoping to bathe with you this morning,” I quietly said.

Xena walked over to me and threw her arms around my shoulders, burying my head in her supple breasts. I instinctively inhaled deeply so as to take in her unique scent. “I’m sorry, Gabrielle,” she said. “I heard Ephiny say that Queen Melosa wanted to see us.”

I looked up at her. “You heard that from way in here?”

Xena smiled and tapped her ear. “I have many skills.”

I threw my arms around her waist. “I want to bathe with you first, Xena. We can do it very quickly. My Queen won’t mind.”

Her blue eyes seemed to sparkle at me at that moment. “Please?” I implored.

“Very well,” Xena said, sighing dramatically. “If you insist.”

Xena and I were alone in the baths yurt, as I had expected. Most of my Sisters were already out and about tending to their duties. I knew this time would be a rare opportunity for us to be together alone there. I frantically scrubbed my body. I didn’t want to keep my Queen waiting, but I so enjoyed the sight of Xena wet and naked. Her hair was slicked back to fully reveal her perfectly sculpted face, and beads of water rolled down her body and, particularly, her breasts as she cleansed herself. I felt absolutely wonderful in my private little perversion. I sensed that Xena could detect my lustful thoughts because, as she glared at me, she would seductively, yet casually, run her tongue across her upper lip a few times. I became excited as I watched her, the pounding in my chest matching the throbbing of my sex.

“Come here,” I finally demanded.

“Yes, my Princess,” Xena responded.

I sure hope my Queen isn’t an impatient woman, I thought.

* * * *

When we entered Queen Melosa’s yurt, she was sitting on her royal chair, sharpening her field dagger. Her actions quickly reminded me just how much these two strong and determined women had in common. When she looked up at us, she placed her weapon on the altar in front of her.

“Good morning, my Queen,” I said. “Ephiny has informed me that you require my attention.”

“Good morning, Princess Gabrielle,” she responded, and then slightly nodding her head, regarded Xena. “Conqueror.”

“Morning, Queen Melosa,” Xena replied.

“I have briefly interviewed each prisoner this morning,” she began. “We will commence the trial at midday.”

“Yes, my Queen,” I said.

“I appreciate the opportunity to afford these prisoners a fair trial under our system of Justice, Gabrielle. But I must tell you in all honesty, my sister, that I feel it’s patently unfair that these young women of the Realm will face our judgment while the individual who is ultimately responsible for the atrocities in Thrace and here in Thessaly is spared that judgment.”

“But my Queen,” I implored. “I know you would have preferred Velasca alive, but Xena had no choice. I saw it. You know how much I hate killing, but Velasca would have…”

Xena grabbed my shoulder. “She’s not talking about Velasca, Gabrielle,” she said.

A painful charge of fear rushed through my body. Queen Melosa directed her cold eyes to Xena.

“Conqueror, I think you know our laws fairly well. Every day that you are allowed your freedom from our Justice casts a cloud on our Nation.”

Xena released her grip on my shoulder. I looked up and saw the face of the Conqueror. “Get over it, Queen. You expect too much. I gave you the man who killed your sister. I brought to you the remaining Amazons of the steppes and I killed Velasca. What the fuck more do you want?”

Instinctively, I grabbed Xena’s hand in mine and gripped it tightly. I needed for her to feel my presence.

Queen Melosa rose from her chair. “I want you to pay for what you did to the steppe Amazons!” she exclaimed, pointing her finger at Xena. “For what you did to Queen Cyane, for the 23 Amazons of my tribe that you allowed Velasca and her men to kill. By the wisdom of the great Goddess Athena, I want you to pay for what you’ve done to Greece!”

Xena released my hand and unsheathed her sword, pointing it at my Queen. “Before me, Greece was a tattered land of warlord-infested and barbaric city-states,” she said, her already low voice sounding dangerously lower. “I brought order here. Because of me, this land, MY land is the greatest power in the known world. No one fucks with Greece, and if they do, they die. You’re an ingrate, Melosa. Maybe I should pack up this entire village and ship you all off to Persia. When the Parthian and Sasanian savages there are done with you, what’s left of you, maybe then you’ll appreciate how good you’ve had it here.”

Queen Melosa folded her arms, apparently calm to Xena’s threat. “Will our Sister, Princess Gabrielle, be joining us on this trip?” she inquired condescendingly.

At that moment, fury overpowered my fear. “Both of you stop this!” I tried to contain my tears, but was losing that battle. I looked at Queen Melosa. “There has to be a way to resolve Xena’s past with our Nation.” I looked at Xena for a moment and then returned my attention to Queen Melosa. “My Queen, should Xena allow the jurists to try her here, and she is found guilty, what would be her punishment?”

Before Queen Melosa could answer, Xena did: “Death, Gabrielle. Death is the only punishment for killing a tribal queen.”

Xena was still holding the sword, although she had lowered it to her side. I gently took the weapon out of her hand and set it down on the altar separating us from Queen Melosa. I returned my gaze to my Queen.

“Queen Melosa,” I started. “In my studies as a jurist, you taught me about a tribal procedure called ‘allocution.’ Could this be an option for Xena?”

Xena’s angry eyes bore into me. “Are you out of your mind, Gabrielle? Do you expect me to admit guilt to THEM?”

“Xena, I’m one of THEM.”

I watched as Xena’s eyes cast skyward as the anger in her face flushed. I looked at Queen Melosa.

“My sister,” my Queen said. “Even if the Conqueror offers allocution, the judgment for her deed would still have to be death. That is Amazon law.”

A silence followed. I was beginning to feel that nothing Xena did for the Amazons would make up for what she had done to them. As I watched the expressionless face of my love, I wondered if she pondered the same notion.

“Queen Melosa,” Xena finally spoke. “I’ll leave the village before the trial begins. I’ll take my two Imperial Guardsmen in the village here with me. Bahri may remain. I have matters in the Peloponnese that I need to attend to anyway.” She looked at me and then returned her gaze to Queen Melosa. “That way, I won’t be a reminder to everyone that I’ve gotten away with… murder.”

“Gabrielle is in our Justice moiety,” Queen Melosa responded. “Her presence here is necessary.”

“I know,” Xena responded. “I’ll come back for her, Bahri and the two battalion sergeants in three days. I suspect the trial will be over by then.”

“It should be, Conqueror,” the Queen stated.

“Very well.” Xena turned on her heals and marched toward the yurt entrance. She paused at the sound of Queen Melosa’s voice.

“Xena the Conqueror, only because Princess Gabrielle loves you, if you are willing to consider allocution, I’ll allow the Hard Death as punishment for you.”

Xena didn’t turn around nor did she respond. She simply proceeded through the entranceway. After my Queen indicated that I was dismissed, I quickly bowed before her and ran to catch up to Xena.

* * * *

Xena didn’t say anything as she gathered her few belongings and loaded her saddlebag onto Argo. I didn’t speak either. I just watched her pack. I didn’t want her to leave.

“You don’t have to go, Xena,” I finally said as she stuffed some fruit and bread in her saddlebag.

“Yes I do, Gabrielle,” she responded. “I want nothing more than for these Amazons to respect you, not just because you’ve got the right of caste, but because… by the gods, Gabrielle, you deserve it.”

I could tell Xena was fighting back tears. I grabbed her forearm, forcing her to stop packing and turn her body to me. She cupped my face in her hands.

“Melosa knows, Gabrielle,” she said as her eyes filled with tears. “All of the good I did for these Amazons I did because of you. I did it for you. Had you not come into their lives, Velasca would still be commanding my battalion at Pharsalus, picking off Amazons at will.”

“Your reason doesn’t matter, Xena,” I said, cupping her lovely face as well. “What matters is that you saved these women, you reunited two tribes, and you ended an era of tyranny here.” I started crying. “I love you, Xena.”

Xena folded her arms around me in a loving embrace. “I love you, Gabrielle.” I once again found myself burying my face between her soft breasts, hidden under the fabric of her tunic, and inhaling in her scent. I looked up to see the most beautiful eyes in the world staring at me.

“Xena, what is a Hard Death?”

“You didn’t learn about that in your Justice training, Gabrielle?”

“No, I’ve never heard of it.”

Xena loosened her arms around my body. “The Amazons believe in a humane death sentence, Gabrielle. A condemned prisoner receives a single dagger pierce through the neck. Done correctly, the prisoner doesn’t experience much, if any, pain and dies quickly.”

“That I know, Xena.”

“If a condemned prisoner desperately wants to live for some reason, she could request a Hard Death,” Xena said. “I’ve been told that the request is rarely granted by the jurists. The traditional death sentence always results in death. Theoretically, one could survive a Hard Death.”

“Is that why it’s rarely granted, Xena?” I asked. “Because one could survive it?”

“No,” she said. “It’s rarely granted because it’s inhumane.”

“But what is it, Xena?”

“The jurists determine the method,” Xena explained. “I remember Queen Cyane telling me about an Amazon in her tribe who begged for it. The woman had savagely killed her lover, another Amazon, in a jealous rage and was sentenced to die after trial. Cyane and her jurists decided to give the woman thirty lashes with a braided whip made out of elk skins. She died before the twentieth strike.”

“Xena, is that what they would do to you?” My heart seemed to sink into my stomach at the brutal notion.

Xena tenderly kissed my lips and mounted Argo. “Heh… I survived the Gauntlet, Gabrielle,” she said with a bittersweet expression on her face. “Melosa would probably order one hundred strikes with a rod made out of Hephaestus’ metal,” Xena chuckled. I wasn’t laughing.

At the moment, the two disappointed lovesick female Imperial Guardsmen rode up to accompany Xena to the Peloponnese.

She smirked at them and then ran the tips of her fingers down my face. “I’ll see you in three days, my love.”

Xena dug her heals into Argo’s sides. As I watched them leave the village, I felt a foreboding sensation within my soul. Something terrible was going to happen.

* * * *

The trial began promptly at noon in the central plaza. The 16 deserters were brought before us. They were shackled together at the wrists in two rows of eight women, and they were ordered to sit on the ground facing us.

This was my first time acting in my capacity as a jurist. I sat at Queen Melosa’s right. Chilapa sat at her left. Although almost thirty Amazons in the village were members of the Justice moiety, during a trial, only nine would serve as jurists at a time. Jurists alternated Justice duty at different times. Only Queen Melosa sat as a jurist for every trial held in the village. In my training, I learned that the number of jurists was an odd number so there would never be an equal amount of “Acquit” or “Condemn” votes amongst them. If the decisions regarding someone’s fate were less than unanimous, the majority of votes would prevail.

In all fairness to the prisoners, Queen Melosa decided to allow one of the steppe Amazons to serve as a jurist. She reasoned that a northern Amazon would harbor sympathy for the deserters. The woman selected was considered to be the steppe Amazons’ acting Princess. She was reportedly Queen Cyane’s adopted daughter and her name was Otere.

As the witnesses lined up to testify, I sat in silent reflection, wondering why I was not told about the Hard Death in my training.

After the bailiff struck the plaza drum to begin the trial, the first witness, the northern Amazons’ only elder, stood to begin her testimony. Comparat was a woman of about sixty. She had curly reddish hair, flecked with a lot of gray, and intense brown eyes. In her youth, she had been the guard of the tribe in Gaul, but some years later she became an expert hunter and agriculturist. She gained the skills to survive under the most extremely harsh weather conditions brought about by the gods. She became a tribal elder approximately one year before the two northern tribes’ encounter with the Warrior Princess.

“When the Destroyer of Nations murdered Queen Cyane and the elite leaders of our village in Thrace,” she began, “I gathered up all of the tribal children and the tribal elders and fled the village. It was decreed by my Queen years before that if such a drastic attack should ever happen, I would bear the responsibility of getting our very young and very old to safety.

“We immediately headed to our village in Gaul. Our two villages were relatively close in proximity. They were separated only by a small valley, which bordered Thrace and Gaul. It usually took us only a half a day on foot to travel from one village to the other, and when we arrived, our Sisters there took up arms in anticipation of the Destroyer’s attack. She and her army raided our village the next day. As my gallant Sisters fought, I took all of the children and elders of that village as well and escaped east. We hid in the caverns of the western steppes until the Destroyer and her raiders left the region. We then headed north and eventually took shelter in a tiny village near the Catalaunian Plains. About three months later, two of my Sisters from Gaul found us and brought us back to an area near where our old village in Thrace stood. We couldn’t return to what was left of the village since the Destroyer incinerated all of our harvest, our broad and green beans, our wheat, rye, barley, oats, millet and our healing herbs. Her army ransacked and burned our village in Gaul as well.

“I learned that most of my Sisters died fighting the Destroyer. I learned that several of the survivors were taken prisoner and sold into slavery. We knew that a handful escaped to the east of the Carpathian Mountains, and that others went to our Sister villages in Thessaly, Sparta and Lesbos, but I was convinced that I’d never see any them again.

“I am what is left of the tribal elders. All of the others have crossed over. Both of the Sisters who rescued us died during the Conqueror’s second invasion in Thrace when she waged her war against the Gauls six years ago. I decided to raise our Amazon children in the steppes, as opposed to relocating to one of the other tribes of the Nation, because I know that land like it’s an extension of myself and I always believed that the northern Amazons would rise again, new and strong, with the proud spirits of these young women. We erected a large yurt to house us all and resumed what we did best, hunting and agriculture. We harvested vegetables, wild berries, roots and herbs. We fished the lakes and streams and hunted deer, elk, boar, rabbit and wild game. The years have been hard on our young under the rule of the Realm, but all of the children that I took with me in my escape survived.

“Velasca found us on our land six days ago,” Comparat said. Pointing at the prisoners, she continued. “She had these women with her. She told us that she was Queen Melosa’s daughter and was the heir to the throne of this tribe. She said these women were Amazons as well. I was well aware of the story of Queen Melosa’s rescue of a young girl from a band of marauders, and although I also knew of Queen Melosa’s sister, I did not doubt Velasca’s assertion that she bore the right of caste. Amazons don’t lie to Amazons, normally. Unfortunately, information stopped filtering to us after the Destroyer’s raids, so I did not know that Velasca was an outcast Amazon and an officer of the Conqueror, or that she had had the real heir to the throne murdered.”

Queen Melosa raised her hand to interrupt Comparat’s testimony. “I have a question of you, Elder Comparat,” she said. “I was told that there were raids on several villages in the region within the past week. Are your young Amazons responsible for that?”

“No, Queen Melosa,” Comparat answered. “When Velasca and her entourage came to our land, she was well stocked with food, weapons and supplies. She told us that they were gifts from the women of the neighboring villages, but that the men, out of jealousy, would be after them to retrieve the goods. That’s when she suggested that we should leave our land and yurt, temporarily, and take up residence at the old Cimmerian fort. She convinced us that she was going to stay with us and rule us in the manner that she was taught to rule by you, Queen Melosa. So we packed our things and left with her that day. It was during our ride here after the Conqueror’s troops captured Velasca’s soldiers that we learned in conversations with your Sisters that those villages had been raided.”

“Hmm…” Queen Melosa pondered. “So when you saw the Conqueror and her troops outside of your fort, you had not anticipated her presence, correct?”

“We expected to be attacked by the men of the local villages, Queen Melosa,” Comparat answered. “We were not expecting the Destroyer of Nations.”

Chilapa chimed in with a question. “Elder Comparat, how many days were you in the fort before our Amazons and the Conqueror’s troops attacked?”

“Only three full days,” came Comparat’s answer. “Word had spread quickly that we were there somehow and others of our tribe began arriving. I reunited with Sisters I hadn’t seen in over ten years. Most left remote dwellings to join us. A few left husbands.”

“What did you all do in those three days?” Chilapa queried.

“My young Sisters did a lot of weapons training with Velasca’s soldiers. Mostly, we listened to Velasca go on and on about how great our tribe was going to be under her leadership. She told us that it was your wish that she rule our tribe as queen.”

I had a question. “Did she have any male soldiers with her at any point in her interaction with you, Elder Comparat?”

“No, Princess Gabrielle,” Comparat answered with a bemused expression on her face. “Why?”

“Two men deserted the Thessalian battalion fort with Velasca and these women here,” I said. “Their bodies were later found on the banks of the Danube. There was speculation that the men mated with some of your Sisters before their deaths.”

There was a collective gasp from several of the northern Amazons in the plaza, including Otere. This little piece of information had escaped them somehow.

Queen Melosa looked down at the prisoners. “Is it possible that any of you women are with child?”

Velasca’s soldiers looked around at each other. Some of them actually laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding, right?” said Daidja, Velasca’s second in command.

Before Ephiny or any of the Guard could react, and to everyone’s shock including mine, Bahri rushed over to Daidja and kneed her in the back. “Address the Queen by her appropriate honorific, traitor!” Daidja looked up at Bahri with eyes that would kill if they could. The look was not lost on my friend. “You had better do something else with those eyes, bitch, if you don’t want me to gouge them out.” Bahri then grabbed Daidja’s head and turned it so that she could look eye to eye with Queen Melosa. “Address the Queen by her appropriate honorific,” Bahri repeated.

“Queen Melosa,” Daidja started, “Those men were used to distract villagers before our attacks on the villages. Once we were done with them, my lieutenant and I eliminated them.”

Queen Melosa regarded Bahri with a smile and a nod, and then studied the prisoners before her. There was a long silence following Daidja’s admission.

“I’ll ask again, is it possible that any of you women are with child?” my Queen finally said.

“It is possible that I’m with child, Queen Melosa,” one of the prisoners responded.

“Your name, prisoner?” Queen Melosa requested.

“Mireia of Athens, Your Highness,” came the reply.

“You bedded one of the dead men, soldier?” Queen Melosa inquired.

“Yes, I did.”

“Anyone else?”

There was a silence.

“Very well,” said Queen Melosa before returning her attention to Comparat. “Now, noble Amazon Elder, please continue with your testimony.”

* * * *

The trial went on into the evening. Several of the northern Amazons testified about the days leading up to our attack. We learned that Velasca had left her command post at Pharsalus four full days before Xena learned of it. Apparently, Velasca gave her battalion some excuse for a temporary departure. It wasn’t like she was missed by most of the remaining troops anyway. Also, Xena may have been mistaken about the purpose the two male deserters served for Velasca, but she was correct about King Mithradates. The Cimmerian fort wasn’t a chance location. Velasca knew about the old fort and she knew about Mithradates’ history with the Conqueror. She knew that he had supplied his army to Xena a few years ago so as to enable her to finally defeat the Romans. Velasca also knew that Mithradates was rewarded by the Conqueror with more wealth than that which he had as a king in Pontes, and that he willingly ceded his land to the Realm for that wealth. And Velasca knew that Mithradates was older, a widower and childless by choice. Comparat confirmed that Velasca intended on having several of the younger Amazons mate with Mithradates.

I was saddened by the fact that the northern Amazons were so easily taken by Velasca’s rhetoric. I was even more shocked at the fact that they were convinced that Velasca’s soldiers were Amazons. I had only lived amongst the tribe for less than two months and, even in my first days there, I presented a much more convincing Amazon. These women were foul. Although their clothing closely resembled the attire of the young women of the northern tribes, they were slovenly, inarticulate and crude. I had a hard time believing they were members of Xena’s army. Most of the soldiers I saw in Corinth, even the drunken ones in the North End Tavern the night Bahri took me there, were more refined and presentable than these women. How could anyone consider Velasca a great leader with followers like these?

Obviously, Velasca wasn’t a great leader.

I was exhausted when I returned to my yurt to retire for the evening. I dug out one of my poetry scrolls and settled in my high bed with a mug of warm ginger cider. I was working on a lyrical poem written in the style of the Tenth Muse. Over the years in my studies of the great Greek poets, I hadn’t really singled out Sappho’s literary art until I began acknowledging to myself my romantic and sexual feelings toward Xena. I chuckled to myself as I recalled the time that my dear friend Demi inadvertently stumbled across one of my Sapphic poems in the palace library. I didn’t know who was more embarrassed by my provocative descriptions of Xena’s luscious legs and supple breasts, Demi or me.

A knock at my yurt entrance brought me back to the present.

“Yes, who is it?” I asked.

“It’s me, Bahri.”

“Come on in, my friend,” I said.

I jumped down from my high bed and walked over to Bahri as she entered my yurt. Putting my arm around her shoulder, I guided her over to my table. She sat down on one of my stools.

“Would you like some cider, Bahri?” I asked.

“Sure, thanks.”

After pouring her a mug and refilling my own mug, I sat on a stool next to her. She looked drawn and pensive. Something was obviously troubling her.

“What’s wrong, Bahri?” I asked. “If you’re concerned about your actions at the trial today, don’t be. I think my Queen was quite pleased at your gesture of respect.”

“Thanks, Gab,” she responded. “But that’s not it.”

“What is it then?” I asked as I caught her eyes and took her hands into mine.

“I… I need your advice about something,” Bahri responded, looking down at our clasping hands.

“Sure, my friend,” I said. “If I can help.”

Bahri took a deep breath. “It’s about Charicleia. I… I like her an awful lot. I… I… well, I think I may be in love with her.”

I smiled at my friend. “That’s wonderful, Bahri!” I exclaimed. “I’m so happy for you.”

“No it’s not,” she responded as a single tear fell from a sad, brown eye. “We’re from two different worlds. I am an Imperial Guardsman, a soldier of the Realm and a servant to the Conqueror. Her world is here. I want to ask her to join me in union; to be my consort, but how can that happen if she lives here and I live in Corinth?”

“Have you thought of leaving your assignment and settling here, Bahri?” I asked.

“I’m not an Amazon, Gabrielle,” she responded. “I don’t know the first thing about being an Amazon. Their way of life is very different from mine. And I’m Nubian. At least in Corinth, others of my race are there. Here, I stick out like a fly in goat’s milk.”

“Oh, Bahri,” I said as I gripped her shoulder. “That’s not entirely true, but even if it was, none of that matters to my Sisters. And as for being an Amazon, I didn’t know the first thing about it either when I came here. I couldn’t even fight. At least you have that skill already.” I rested her head on my shoulder as her tears started to flow. “I think you could be very happy here. You’d make a great Guard, Bahri, and you wouldn’t suffer any more attacks from those old ‘friends’ of yours.”

“But I love what I do, Gabrielle,” she said. “I love being an interrogator. I believe it’s my calling from the Fates themselves.” She raised her head and looked me in the eyes. “Do you think Charicleia would come to Corinth with me?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been told that there are Amazons in the Imperial Guard,” I said.

“I’ve heard that as well, Gabrielle.” Bahri’s eyebrows furrowed, pensively.

“Have you told her that you love her, Bahri?”

“Uh… I haven’t gotten around to that yet.”

“Bahri, tell her that you love her,” I said. “Tell her and then talk to her. Make the decisions together.”

“Yeah, you’re right, Gabrielle,” Bahri responded. “I’ll tell her tonight.” Bahri’s facial expression instantly changed from sadness to joyful anticipation.

“Good.”

“Gabrielle, do you think you and the Conqueror will ever join in union?”

The question took me by surprise and I felt an immediate flutter in my stomach. “I… I don’t know.”

“The whole slavery thing aside, it’s obvious that you two are totally in love with each other,” Bahri stated. “It’s like she’s a different person when she’s around you.”

“Um… I um…”

“You should have seen her when she and I came here to get you,” Bahri interrupted, snickering. “She told me she just wanted to see you. Yeah, right. On the outside, she was our Ruler; focused, determined. But inside, Gabrielle, she was a mess. I could tell. I wasn’t stupid enough to ask the Conqueror what was bothering her, but I knew. I bet she was real worried you had found someone else and she came here to get you back. The Conqueror came here to claim her woman.”

Now I was the one looking at my hands.

“That’s an interesting shade of red on your face, Gab.” Bahri was laughing now. She stood and patted me on my shoulder. “I’ll leave you to your thoughts, O’ Princess of the Amazons. I have a certain lovely Amazon to call on myself.”

“Good night, Bahri.”

“Good night, Gabrielle.”

* * * *

On the second day of the trial, we heard from a young Amazon named Yakut. She testified that she believed she and her best friend, Otere, were the only two of the northern Sisters who were dubious of Velasca and her “amazons.”

“I believed that Elder Comparat was suspicious as well,” she told us. “But Otere and I didn’t discuss it with her. In hindsight, we really should have, and we are remiss that the events that transpired could have been prevented.”

“Why did you keep your thoughts to yourself, Yakut?” Queen Melosa asked.

Yakut looked at her friend who sat with us. We followed the gaze to Otere. “My other Sisters were eager to learn new fighting skills from Velasca,” Otere said. “Only three of my Sisters had gone through proper scout guard training before the Destroyer’s raids ten years ago. I was only seven then. And although we all know how to fight defensively, Velasca made promises to train us to fight as well as you, as well as the Conqueror herself. We all really wanted to gain those skills.

“But there was something else, my Sisters,” she continued. “Velasca spoke very ill of the Conqueror, but not in a manner that I recognized. She was telling us what she believed we wanted to hear. She knew a great deal about our way of life, but she also spoke in a manner that was contrary to our culture. I sensed that she knew the Conqueror, not as Amazon adversary, but as an ally.”

“But why did you remain silent?” Queen Melosa asked.

“Yakut and I agreed to watch her closely. We were gaining some valuable fighting skills in such a short period of time, but we agreed that if something unusual occurred, we would take our suspicions to Elder Comparat. We were both on the wall when the Conqueror and her troops arrived. When she said something about Velasca being a lame leader of her army in Thessaly, that was when our suspicions were confirmed.”

Yakut chimed in. “When we saw real Amazons coming over the wall of the fort with the Conqueror’s troops, we decided to engage Velasca and Daidja in battle. Otere was going to take on Velasca, but in all of the chaos, we couldn’t find her for a few moments. When we did, Xena the Conqueror was already engaging her in battle. We both engaged Daidja and were able to overpower her. You know the rest.”

There was a brief silence.

“We apologize to all of our Sisters for not acting on our instinct,” Otere finally said.

After the northern Amazons concluded their testimony, it was time for the deserters to speak. All but one refused. The one who did speak was Mireia, the young woman who believed herself to be with child. She broke down crying in her testimony, saying that Velasca lied about the two dead men. Mireia was told that that her lover and the other man had decided to go back to the battalion fort. She believed that only Velasca and Daidja caused the actual fate of the two men, and that the other deserters knew nothing about it either. She also said that Velasca promised positions of royalty in the Amazon Nation to all of the deserters. They believed that Velasca was not only the queen of a specific tribe of Amazons; they were convinced she was the displaced queen of the entire Nation.

Velasca may not have been a great leader, but she was definitely a corruptible manipulator.

The following day, all of the jurists retired to the Justice yurt to decide the fates of the deserters. We agreed that Daidja was the most culpable, but that all of them were guilty of deception and endangerment to the northern Amazons. Some of them may have believed that Velasca was an Amazon queen, but they all represented themselves as Amazons to Comparat, her young tribe and the other displaced steppe Amazons who joined them. We also had to consider the fatalities. Five deserters, not including the two murdered men, were killed in the attack. Seven of the Conqueror’s soldiers were killed and the northern tribe lost two Sisters, a former healer from the village in Gaul, and one of Comparat’s Amazons, a young woman only 19 years of age.

By mid afternoon, we had agreed on a sentence. Queen Melosa announced the judgment.

“The 15 followers of Velasca and Daidja are hereby sentenced to two years indentured service to the northern Amazons. Any violation of that service will result in your apprehension and punishment under the rules of the Conqueror’s Realm. May you learn about Amazon honor, courage and integrity during your servitude. Daidja of Pheres will be turned over to the custody of the Conqueror’s Thessalian soldiers present in this village, Sergeants Favrie and Viera. She is hereby sentenced to 25 years imprisonment in a prison designated by the Realm. May the great goddesses have mercy on your soul.”

Favrie and Viera left the village with Daidja that evening. However, the others were returned to the prisoner holding yurt. Queen Melosa decided to take the opportunity to have a reunion celebration with our northern Sisters. Gathering in the plaza that evening, the hunters presented two wild boars that were roasted over the large fire pit. The Amazons ate, danced and celebrated well into the night. In the middle of the revelry, I decided to retire to my yurt. I was again exhausted from the emotions of the last three days, and without Xena present, I didn’t feel much like celebrating. Climbing up on my high bed, I once again began writing in my poetry scroll. I wrote for quite a while before Morpheus claimed me.

A few candlemarks into the night, I felt in my sleep a strong arm wrapping around my body. I felt a warm, naked body press up against my back and soft lips kiss my temple. My eyes struggled to open. Once they did, I turned my face and saw indigo gems staring at me.

“You fell asleep writing, eh Gabrielle?” A beautifully low and gentle voice whispered to me as a hand gently released my grip from my scroll and put both the scroll and my quill aside.

“Oh, Xena,” I sighed as I turned my body and threw my arms around Xena’s neck. “I missed you so much.”

Xena cupped her hands on my cheeks and looked deeply into my eyes. “Make love to me, Gabrielle,” she said. “I want to make love.”

I looked at her. There was an expression on her face that I recognized, but hadn’t seen in awhile. I couldn’t place it. “I want you, Gabrielle,” she said. “I want to feel the love you have for me. I need you. Please make love with me.”

I placed my hand on the back of Xena’s head and brought her lips to mine. We kissed briefly and then she began nibbling and licking my ear. I started running my fingers through her beautiful black hair. “Yes, Gabrielle. Let me feel you,” she whispered in a sultry voice right in my ear. “Let me feel all of you.”

Xena began biting and sucking my neck very hard. She bore her pelvis down onto mine and gripped my thigh between her legs. The pleasurable pain from her sucking aroused me quickly, and when she broke skin, I gasped at the pinch and arched my lower back to feel her body tighter on mine.

“Mmmm… yes, woman, let me feel you,” she muttered. “Let me feel you hard.”

Xena licked the blood from my bitten neck. She then grabbed my hands and raised my arms above my head, reminiscent of the days in her captivity. Instead of gripping my wrists, however, she lovingly interlaced our fingers. Her tongue ran a trail of fire around my neck and down my chest to my hardened right nipple. She took it into her teeth and bit lightly, and then started sucking it hard, passionately, and desperately.

“By the gods, you are a gift to me, Gabrielle,” she muttered with a growl. “So, so gorgeous.”

She ran her tongue to the other breast, where she gave my nipple one strong suckle. Then she ran it back up my chest and to my neck, where she created a second bruise. I lay in awe of her many powerful sensations. After a thorough discoloring of my neck, she ran her tongue up to my chin and then my lips. When I slightly opened my mouth to receive that eager muscle, she thrust it into my mouth, swirling it around my teeth, my inner lips and my tongue. A sheen of sweat covered her body. I was sweating as well.

We were grinding into each other hard. Our hands gripped tighter and tighter. Our tongues were at war. In my excitement, I lost myself and bit down on Xena’s lip. For a single moment, I was startled at my actions, but Xena responded by exuding a delighted growl as she sensuously licked the small trickle of blood off of her lip. The pace of her thrusts increased and I increased my pace to keep up with her. She brought her lips back to mine and kissed me hard. I tasted the blood on her lip as she groaned into my mouth. Our bodies were slapping together. My hands hurt from gripping hers so tightly. My pelvic bone ached from the friction of our thrusts, but I was lost in a primal bliss that the pain only served to accentuate.

We were both moaning very loud. For a brief moment, I worried about being heard by my immediate neighbors, but I just tossed that ridiculous thought aside.

“Come on… let me hear it… uhhhggg… let me hear it, Gabrielle.”

My climax hit me like shattering glass. “XENA! Ooohhhh…”

Hers came as well. “Yyyyeeeeessssss!!! Ahh…”

As our collective storms past, Xena let go of my hands and threw both of her arms around me. I could feel throbbing in my chest and in hers, between my legs and on my saturated thigh where her sex rested. I turned my head slightly and kissed her sweaty cheek. She tightened her grip around my body and began quietly sobbing.

“I don’t deserve you, Gabrielle,” she said in a soft whisper that I strained to hear.
I felt it strongly in my heart at that moment that during the time Xena was away, she had killed someone, and it had been someone that I had known.

* * * *

When I woke up the following morning, Xena was sitting in my lounging chair staring straight ahead. She was fully dressed in her signature battledress, breastplate, greaves and gauntlets. I jumped down off of my high bed and, throwing on a tunic, I walked over to her and ran my hand down her shiny midnight hair.

“Would you like a mug of cider, Xena?” I asked.

She looked up at me. There was such sadness in her eyes.

“Gabrielle, there’s something I need to tell you.”

I climbed onto Xena’s lap and threw my arms around her neck. She began gently stroking my hair. “My time has come to invade Albion, Gabrielle.”

My face flushed. “Why, Xena?”

“The tribes of the island have continually disregarded the orders of the Realm from my Roman and Celtic military leaders,” she explained. “The tribes are stagnating the shipping ports in the channel between Albion and Gaul and along the North Sea. They are restricting trade. Much of my strength in that region is drawn from maritime trade, so I need to go there with my mighty army of the Realm and settle matters.”

Xena took my hand in hers. “I want you to stay here with your tribe while I’m gone,” she said.

“No, Xena. I’m going with you.”

“Gabrielle, this battle won’t be an afternoon frolic with a bunch of teenaged Amazons. I’m going to do battle with barbarians more brutal, more animalistic than even the Romans could imagine. This is war, Gabrielle, and it will not be over after a single battle. The main tribal leader is a man named Niall of Calleva. He’s a sworn enemy of both Greece and Rome, and he is filled with bloodlust and hatred toward me. His power amongst his people is building, and I need to stop him.” Lacing our fingers, she added softly, “You’ll see things, Gabrielle, things I don’t want you to see.”

“I go with you, Xena. I don’t have to fight, but we stay together.”

Xena looked away from me and a tense silence filled the room for several moments. “Gabrielle,” Xena finally spoke up. “I have decided to take Queen Melosa up on her offer.”

“What offer, Xena?”

“The Hard Death, Gabrielle.”

I didn’t see this coming. “What? Why?” I asked.

“Because it needs to be done, Gabrielle,” she explained. “The Amazons believe they are entitled to their retribution, and they won’t fully respect you until it’s done.”

I jumped up off of her lap. “Xena, no!” I exclaimed. “If you have to go to Albion, let’s go. We’ll leave now.”

“Oh, we’re going to Albion, but I’m going to do this first.”

“What if you die, Xena,” I said, visibly shaken and crying. “I don’t want you to die.”

Xena stood and threw her arms around me in an embrace. “I won’t die, Gabrielle,” she said.

“How do you know? You said it yourself. They’ll choose a punishment that you could never survive.”

“Because I’m going to choose the punishment.”

I looked up at her. “Xena, will they let you do that?”

“Gabrielle, I’m the Conqueror,” Xena replied. “They aren’t in a position to refuse. They’ll do it my way or it doesn’t get done.”

“What will you have them do to you?” I felt an instant terror for my love.

“Something that I can survive, but that will also satisfy their need to see me suffer.”

She released me from the embrace and headed for the yurt entrance. “Where are you going, Xena?” I asked.

“I’m going to tell Queen Melosa that I’m ready to allocute and receive the Hard Death.”

“Xena, no!” I shouted as I ran to her and grabbed her arm, forcing her to turn and face me. “Let’s talk about this, please.”

“I don’t have time, Gabrielle,” she said. “I need to do this now. I figure I’ll have one full day of recovery time before we leave here and head for Gaul. It’s going to take several days to get to Albion. At least six days land travel and two days at sea. Palaemon and Aerol are already in Salonae waiting for me.”

“This is madness, Xena!” I said. “I’m not going to let them beat you.”

Xena gripped both of my forearms tightly and bore her eyes down on me. “I need to do this, Gabrielle, for me as well as for them.” She released my arms and stormed out of the yurt. I followed right behind her.

Queen Melosa was standing at the plaza, speaking with a group of my Sisters when Xena approached her.

“Queen Melosa,” she said. “Are any of my soldiers still in the village?”

“Welcome back, Conqueror,” my Queen greeted sarcastically. “Besides the jailed deserters, only your delightful Sergeant Bahri is here. I do like her, by the way. She’s… spirited.”

“I’m glad, but we can discuss Bahri later,” Xena said. “I’m here to take you up on your offer.”

Queen Melosa immediately dismissed the others. I remained.

“I have a condition, Queen Melosa,” Xena continued. “I get to decide the punishment.”

“That’s not protocol, Conqueror,” Queen Melosa replied.

“You want your justice, Queen?”

“Yes.”

“Then we do this my way.”

Queen Melosa let out a huge sigh. “Very well, Conqueror,” she said, deflated. “How shall we inflict your Hard Death?”

“Who is the strongest of the northern Amazons?” Xena asked.

“Why? Do you want to fight her?” my Queen inquired in a mocking tone.

“Just answer the question.”

“Escritt, an Amazon from the village in Gaul. She was 14 when you murdered her mother and sister. She is also one of only three of Comparat’s young Amazons to receive scout guard training before your invasion. She’s big, Conqueror, bigger than Eponin, MY strongest Amazon.”

“Good,” Xena responded. “You just answered my next question. Here is my Hard Death. Escritt will give me twenty lashes with this leather whip.” Xena handed Queen Melosa a very thick, braided leather whip that had been attached to her battledress. “It’s thicker, but similar to the one I used to… use.”

Queen Melosa pulled the ends of the whip, apparently satisfied with Xena’s choice of method. “Twenty lashes, Conqueror. Very well.”

“I’m not done yet.”

Xena walked over to Argo and pulled a rod out of her saddlebag. It was shaped at the end in the yonical symbol of womanhood. She walked up to us and handed the rod to Queen Melosa. I felt instantly nauseated.

“NO XENA!” I yelled. I started crying again.

Xena grabbed my arm. “Please, Gabrielle, I need to do this.”

“You want me to brand you, Conqueror?” Queen Melosa asked.

“No, I want Eponin to brand me.”

I was frantic. I grabbed her arms and began shaking her. “No, Xena, no! Please don’t do this!”

Xena looked at Queen Melosa. “Where’s Bahri?”

“With Charicleia.”

“Get her.”

Surprisingly deferring to Xena’s rude demand, Queen Melosa departed. In hindsight, I believe it was for my benefit. Xena pulled her arms out of my grip and then gently gripped my arms. “I need to make things right, Gabrielle. For them… for me… for you. This is the only way.”

“No, Xena,” I pleaded. “I know that pain. I don’t want you to experience that pain.”

Tears began falling from her eyes. “You know that pain because of me, Gabrielle.”

“Feeling what I felt isn’t going to make what happened to me go away, Xena. It’s not going to make me feel any better. You don’t have to do this. I don’t want revenge.”

“But you deserve your vengeance, Gabrielle.”

“But I don’t want vengeance, Xena.”

Queen Melosa returned with Bahri at that point. “Queen Melosa, how soon can you have the entire village assembled, including the steppe Amazons?”

“Consider it done now, Conqueror,” our Queen responded. “Amazons!” she yelled. “Assemble!”

Others began yelling “Assemble!” and the plaza began to quickly fill with the presence of my Sisters.

“I don’t want any of those traitors to be present,” Xena said to Queen Melosa. “Bahri’s the only soldier of the Realm who witnesses this.”

“As you wish, Conqueror.” Queen Melosa said. “I had no intention of letting them out of their place of confinement.”

“What’s going on?” Bahri asked me.

“Bahri,” Xena said. “Take Gabrielle’s arm. Be her friend, and don’t let her stop what’s about to happen.” Xena started walking to the center spot of the plaza.

“Xena, don’t do this!” I pleaded again.

Bahri stood there confused. “I said take her arm, Field Sergeant!” Xena barked impatiently. Bahri reluctantly grabbed my arm. I yanked it away and began walking after Xena.

“RESTRAIN HER!” Xena yelled. Bahri snaked her arms around mine from behind.

“Let go of me, Bahri,” I said as I desperately tried to pry my arms away from her grip.

“I’m sorry, Gabrielle,” she whispered. “I can’t. I have my orders.”

“Let go of me!” I began pulling maniacally and stomping on her feet. I hated myself for doing this to Bahri, but I just had to break free and talk some sanity into Xena.

Bahri yelled in the air. “Uh, ladies, can I get some help here!?!”

In an instant, Ephiny and Charicleia, along with Bahri, were restraining me. I was hysterical. “Let me go! Let me go! I hate you all! XENA!!”

Xena looked at me and time seemed to stop. We gazed into each other’s eyes. Everyone around us disappeared. We were suddenly in a space where only she and I existed. I no longer felt the hands holding me. I no longer saw the women surrounding me. Xena spoke to me. She was too far away for me to hear the words, but I heard them anyway.

“Before we can go on together, Gabrielle, I need to do this for you. You deserve a place of honor in your Nation without the curse of your love for me stifling it. I need to do this for me. I need to know this pain to heal me. I need to atone, for them, but especially for you… always for you. It is my way, my code, as a warrior. I need to do this for us. Don’t fight it, Gabrielle. When it’s done, we can move on.”

I felt a painful resolve and nodded my acquiescence. Xena turned to Queen Melosa.

Queen Melosa made the announcement: “Xena the Conqueror will hereby admit her guilt for her war crimes against the Nation.”

There were looks of utter disbelief amongst many of the Amazons. Xena motioned for Shaya, one of our village healers to come to her. She whispered something into Shaya’s ear. Xena then looked around the plaza and focused her gaze on Otere for a moment. At the time, I didn’t fully know why. She then raised her head and spoke out to the audience of Amazons. “I am Xena of Amphipolis. Ten years ago, my army and I raided a village at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains in Thrace. My army and I were responsible for the deaths of most of the villagers, including the parents of Otere of the steppe Amazons. She wasn’t an Amazon at that time. She was a small, orphaned girl whom my lover at the time brought to Queen Cyane, where she was to be raised as a proud Amazon. But then I killed Queen Cyane for no other reason than to secure my place as the Destroyer of Nations. My army and I killed and captured over 100 Amazons, but the Queen and her top warriors died at my hands alone. My actions ruptured the foundation of a strong segment of the mighty Amazon Nation.”

Xena returned her gaze to Otere. “I’m sorry for my crimes against this Nation. I’m sorry, Otere, for killing both of your mothers. You know our history together. You know your fate. Follow it. You are the designated Queen of the steppe Amazons.”

Otere lowered her eyes and began quietly weeping. Xena turned to Queen Melosa, who announced: “Xena the Conqueror, having pled to her crimes, is adjudicated Condemned. She has been offered the Hard Death and has agreed to it. Although she has designated her own method, I agree it to be appropriate.”

Queen Melosa summoned Daphnis and Anthia, Ephiny’s seconds-in-command in Training. They entered the central plaza with a large cross made out of thick wooden boards. Xena removed her breastplate, greaves and gauntlets and took her battledress off from her upper body, resting it just below her hips. She gave her sheathed sword, breast dagger and chakram to Queen Melosa. The cross was positioned at an angle on a large log rolled in from the edge of the village. Xena was tied at her wrists. Her boots were removed and her ankles were tied as well. I turned away at this point and buried my face into Bahri’s shoulder. I heard Xena’s voice from behind me.

“Look at me, Gabrielle,” she said. “If I should die, I want the Elysium beauty of your face to be the last thing I see before my journey to Tartarus.”

“I can’t, Xena,” I responded from my burrowed position on Bahri’s shoulder.

“Please.”

I turned and saw that same troubled face I saw last night. “Thank you, Gabrielle.”

Escritt walked over to Xena. There was no denying her strength in appearance alone. She was a massive woman. Her arms were the size of tree trunks. Her facial features were strong and handsome. If it weren’t for her large breasts, she could easily be mistaken for a man. I was terrified at the notion of such a huge, muscular woman beating a bound and vulnerable Xena. She’s not going to live through this, I thought as my tears began anew.

“Begin the Hard Death,” Queen Melosa demanded to Escritt.

Escritt raised her arm and began striking Xena with the whip. Xena didn’t scream, didn’t shout, and didn’t utter a word as the braided leather belt bore into her back again and again. The first few strikes produced protruding welts, but eventually the whip broke skin. When I saw the first sprays of my love’s blood on her back, I began crying hysterically, but I kept my eyes on Xena’s eyes. I wanted to be strong for her. At about the tenth blow, she closed her eyes tightly in response to the pain. I wanted so desperately to tell Escritt to stop this torture. I wanted to break away from Bahri’s grip and hurl myself onto Escritt to get her to stop. But when I started shaking my head in a maddening disbelief, Bahri tightened her comforting embrace.

“She’s going to live through this, Gabrielle,” Bahri whispered in my ear. “This is Xena, the great and legendary Warrior Princess, who survived the Gauntlet, who survived the great tyranny of the that would-be Emperor of Rome, who conquered Greece, Rome, Anatolia, Persia and Gaul. Compared to what she’s experienced, Gabrielle, this is a mere afternoon stroll in the woods to her. Xena the Conqueror is the most powerful mortal to ever walk the earth, greater than any man or woman before her. She’ll live through this.”

When Escritt inflicted the last strike, Xena opened her eyes. A momentary shot of relief ran through my body. I smiled at her to let her know I was there for her as a part of her soul. She forced a returned faint smile to me. The pain she felt and the blood she was losing were affecting her whole body. She was shaking uncontrollably, her hands were gripped in tight white-knuckled fists, her body perspired, but she remained silent. At that moment, Eponin walked up. She had the rod in her hand. The end of it was a bright fire orange color. Eponin blew on it for a moment and then looked at Xena. She then looked at the sky. “Mighty goddess Artemis, please forgive me,” she said.

In an instant, I was taken to another time, almost five years ago, when the Conqueror’s smith, Kier, stood above me with a hot metal rod preparing to disfigure my body.

“God of Abraham, please forgive me,” he said before pressing the metal onto my shoulder.

At that moment, the sympathy I felt for Eponin nearly matched what I was about to feel for Xena.

Eponin took a deep breath and, closing her eyes, pressed the fiery metal onto Xena’s back. On contact, Xena howled out a deafening scream and then went limp.

“NO!” I shouted as I broke away from Bahri’s embrace and ran to Xena. Bahri, Ephiny and Charicleia ran to her as well. “By the gods, she’s dead!” I screamed as I sank down on my knees next to her still form.

Queen Melosa quickly approached and touched Xena’s pulse point on her neck. “She’s alive,” my Queen said. “She’s passed out from the pain.”

Immediately, Eponin, Daphnis and Anthia began untying Xena’s bound wrists and ankles. Escritt grabbed Xena under her waist, and with the other three assisting, they hoisted Xena up off the boards. Ephiny, Bahri, Charicleia and I joined the others in carrying her as quickly as we could to the Hospice yurt.

Once inside, I stood to the side, my arms folded clutching myself. I watched the healers, including the Amazon Ouri, the guard who also served as a healer, apply saturated cloths to Xena’s back. As they worked, the healer Shaya explained to me what they were doing. She told me that the cloths had been dipped in a special solution of goat’s milk, horsemint, yellow spine thistle and honeysuckle. The combination was to stop the bleeding, reduce pain, draw out any impurities or infections and hopefully retard scarring. She explained that if fresh cloths are reapplied every candlemark, Xena should heal quickly with minimal permanent scars, at least from the whip marks. She knew that she didn’t have to explain to me about what was going to become of the brand mark.

Once the cloths were applied, Shaya went over to Xena. She removed the cloth that covered Xena’s fresh brand wound and, folding the cloth, gently padded the wound with it. Then, taking out a fine bone sharpened at the end, she dipped the bone into a tiny jar filled with a thick, dark solution of liquid and began poking tiny holes into the wound.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?!” I asked exasperated as I rushed over to stop her.

“Honoring the Conqueror’s request, my Princess,” Shaya replied.

Shaya continued this dipping and poking ritual until she had completely covered Xena’s wound with the thick liquid. It was obvious that what Shaya was doing was a very painful procedure, and I was grateful that Xena was unconscious to suffer the added discomfort.

Xena remained unconscious for the better part of that day. I was getting more and more worried that she would never wake up, but Shaya and the other healers reassured me that Xena’s body was reacting to the trauma and that she would awaken when her mind and her spirit were ready to experience a painful consciousness. I sat in a chair next to the bed on which she laid. She was lying on her stomach. Her battledress had been completely removed and her lower back, rear and legs were covered with a thin blanket. Every candlemark, Ouri or Shaya applied fresh cloths to her back. After a while, I noticed an improvement. The bleeding did indeed stop, and the swelling wales, which had initially been an atrocity to see, had diminished. As I sat next to her, I gently ran my fingers through her hair, stroking it. She was asleep, but I wanted her to feel my presence, my loving comfort.

For much of the time, I was alone in the Hospice yurt with Xena, with the exception of Ouri, Shaya or the other various healers who wandered in and out to check up on Xena’s recovery or change her dressings. My Queen also came in from time to time, but I think she was more concerned about my well-being. At one point, both Escritt and Eponin walked in together.

“My Princess,” Eponin started. “I hope you won’t think ill of me for what I did.”

I stood and walked over to her and hugged her massive form. “Of course not, Eponin,” I said. “What you did was the Justice our Queen sought and what Xena wanted too.”

I then hugged Escritt. “I allowed myself to hate her for so long,” she said. “I thought I would enjoy beating the living Tartarus out of her. But when I saw the first rips in her back and the blood, I wanted to stop. Would my mother want this? Would my sister? Did I really want this?” Escritt began crying. Eponin joined me in the embrace. I felt as though I was nestled between two soft, supple trees, but I felt a peace pass between us. Escritt spoke words that I could have very well spoken myself. Xena may have fashioned the life Escritt was forced to live from the age of 14, but Xena brought these women together as well. At that moment, the words Xena silently spoke to me earlier rang true: she and I could truly move on.

* * * *

Xena began to regain consciousness after dusk. Shaya was in the Hospice yurt with me when Xena began to stir. “Xena,” I said as I stood up from my chair and began gently stroking her face. “I’m here, Xena.”

A bright blue eye revealed itself to me. “Gab…ri…elle?” she said in question.

“Yes, my love, I’m here.”

A small yet determined smile streamed across her face. “I told you I’d live.”

The tears I tried so desperately to contain betrayed me. I began sobbing uncontrollably, covering her head with my face and my arms.

“I dreamt about you, Gabrielle,” Xena said softly. “You were in a huge garden, larger than the palace gardens, and you wore white. You were so beautiful.” Xena sighed, continuing. “I approached you and you handed me this beautiful bouquet of flowers. Cinerarias, zinnias, carnations and Aurelian lilies, I believe. I buried my face in the flowers and just breathed in their scent. That’s all I remember.”

“How do you feel, Xena?” I asked.

“Like shit.”

At that moment, I had to chuckle. I knew that my Warrior Princess was on her way back in all of her profane glory.

Shaya walked over with a large steaming mug. “Conqueror, can you lift your head to drink this?” she asked.

“What is it,” Xena inquired.

“It’s a broth of hot fermented apple cider laced with crushed arnica and gentian root,” came Shaya’s answer.

“Oooh, yummy,” Xena said facetiously as she slightly lifted her head, wincing in pain, to allow Shaya to bring the mug to her mouth.

“Drink it all, Conqueror,” Shaya requested.

It was not clear if the expression on Xena’s face was from her pain or the bitter taste of the medicine she drank, but I suspected each played a role.

After drinking the cider, Xena groaned in pain and closed her eyes. Within moments, she was asleep again. I was worried.

“It’s okay, Princess,” Shaya assured me. “The crushed roots are pain relievers. The fermentation of the drink acts as a wine. That’s why she sleeps.”

“You mean she’s drunk, Shaya?” I inquired, concerned.

“Eh, that’s a strong way to put it,” she replied. “I prefer to say she’s sedated. She’ll heal faster if she’s not troubled by the pain.”

I decided to stay in the Hospice yurt with Xena for the night. I pushed one of the other beds in the yurt up against Xena’s as she slept. Lying down next to her, I began lightly stroking my fingers in her hair. My actions soothed me as much as I hoped them to soothe her. After some moments, sleep claimed me as well.

I woke up the following morning to a commotion coming from the central plaza outside. I ran out and saw a group of men on horses confronting Queen Melosa. Most of the tribal heavyweights surrounded her; Ephiny, Solari, Chloe, Charicleia, Eponin, Daphnis and Anthia. They were armed with swords. Standing off to the side, aiming her signature crossbow at the lead man’s head was Bahri.

“I don’t appreciate you casually riding into our village, Draco,” Queen Melosa spoke up. “What do you want?”

“I need to see the Conqueror, woman,” came the man’s reply.

“Brother, you had better throw in the word ‘Queen’ somewhere soon or your buddies here will watch as I send your brains flying,” Bahri spoke up.

Draco regarded Bahri. He was a large, muscular, and rather handsome man. He was also about Bahri’s complexion. Judging by his distinct features, he could either be Oromo, Berber, Gaunche or Nubian. He returned his attention to Queen Melosa.

“Of course I meant no disrespect, Queen,” he said. “I only wish to speak with the Conqueror.”

“What makes you think she’s even here, Draco?” my Queen queried.
“The fact that you have a temperamental Imperial Guardsman ready to empty my brains from my skull is one giveaway,” he replied. “The information was also relayed to me by some of my employees.”

“What do you want with her?” Queen Melosa asked.

“Hey, I run a legitimate operation. She has sanctioned it for years. I just want to ask her why she suddenly decided to execute two of my top slavers, and in such a nasty manner, I might add. That’s all.”

I felt all of the air in my lungs leave at that moment.

“The Conqueror isn’t here at the moment, Draco,” Queen Melosa lied. “She had to ride to Ambracia. I do believe she may return here on her way back to Corinth. Try back in three days.” After Xena’s Hard Death, I had told Queen Melosa of Xena’s plan to ride to Gaul within the next day or two. It was a clever deception on her part to send Draco on a wild goose chase.

“Very well.” Draco signaled for his companions to turn their horses around. As they rode out of the village, Bahri kept her weapon aimed at Draco’s head.

“Fucking slavers… I hate the scum,” she said as she finally lowered her crossbow.

The Amazons broke up and went about their collective duties. I ran back to the Hospice yurt. Xena was still asleep. I didn’t want to wake her, but so many thoughts swirled through my brain. What did you do, Xena? I pondered to myself.

I remained in the Hospice yurt with Xena for the remainder of the morning and into midday. Xena didn’t start to awaken until the early afternoon. The healers had replaced the medicated cloths with cloths dipped in special healing oils. Xena would periodically stir in semi-consciousness only to fall back deep into Morpheus’ grasp. It was about the middle of the afternoon when Queen Melosa entered and interrupted my deep contemplation.

“My sister Gabrielle,” she said. “The northern Amazons are prepared to head back to their new home.”

I felt emotionally drained. I rose from my seat and ran to my Queen and grabbed her in a tight embrace, crying into her shoulder. She soothed me by stroking my back.

“Your lover is a complicated woman, Gabrielle,” she said. “I doubt any of us will ever understand her. But I do know one thing is clear, she loves you more than life itself.”

I looked at Queen Melosa.

“You are a gift to her and to us, my sister,” she continued. “I don’t fear many things, Gabrielle. My death, your death, the death of my cherished Sisters of this tribe, I know all of us would find peace in the afterlife. But I do fear what Xena the Conqueror would become if anything should happen to you.”

“Her beast is always below the surface, my Queen,” I said.

“Yes, sometimes deep, most times very shallow unfortunately, but you have the power to keep it there,” she said as she ran her gentle hand down my face. “Now, come and say goodbye to our steppe Sisters.”

“Yes, my Queen.”

In addition to saying goodbye to Otere, Yakut, Comparat, Escritt, and thirty other Sisters we befriended, we were further burdened with the sad but hopeful departure of Ouri, Tania and four others of our villagers who were a part of the original northern Amazons. The deserters were let out of the holding yurt, still shackled together. Queen Melosa didn’t hold out much hope for them. She suspected that many of them would escape their parole, face capture and end up in one of the Conqueror’s squalid prisons. She also believed that some would be more of a burden to our northern Sisters than a benefit in their servitude. But we all sensed that a few of them would actually see this punishment as the masked gift it truly was and seek to become permanent members of the tribe. I secretly sent a prayer to the goddess Hestia that Mireia would choose this fate. Of all of the deserters, I believed that she sincerely wanted to walk amongst the Amazons.

After the tearful goodbyes, I ran back to the Hospice yurt. Xena was awake.

“I was sad to wake up and not see you here, Gabrielle,” she said very quietly. “But I could hear that the steppe Amazons are leaving the village now, true?”

“True.”

Xena began slowly hoisting herself off of the bed. “I need to get to the chamber pot fast before things get really messy here,” she said in jest. I grabbed her arm and helped her down. She walked slowly over to the enclosed area where she could relieve herself. While she was in there, Shaya and two other healers entered the yurt. I indicated to them where Xena was and when she came out, they advised her that a special healing bath was awaiting her. She nodded in agreement and, as she was being escorted out of the yurt, she turned to me and smiled. When she was out of the yurt, I sat back down in my chair and began to cry.

Xena returned to the Hospice yurt about a candlemark later. Her eyes were sleepy and she had to be assisted by Shaya. Lying back down on the bed, she reached out for my hand taking it.

“I cleaned my teeth, Gabrielle,” she said with a drowsy smile.

I rose and stepped up to her. I leaned down and kissed her soft, inviting lips. Shaya looked on as Xena and I shared a most deep and tender kiss that lasted several moments. Once we reluctantly broke it, I looked into her magnificent blue eyes and shared something else with her, my soul. Part of me wanted to ask about Draco’s visit, but I knew that was not the time.

As we stared at each other in a silent, loving communication, Shaya wandered over and began to rub the special healing oils onto Xena’s back. “I want you to do that,” Xena said to me.

I looked up at Shaya. “May I do that, Shaya?”

“Of course, my Princess,” she responded as she handed me the small bottle before departing the yurt. Straddling Xena’s back, I began gently rubbing in the oil over her healing welts and the brand mark. The liquid that Shaya applied to Xena’s brand wound had turned into a permanent body painting. It was black with a deep rich magenta tone in color.

“Xena, what was it that you had Shaya do to your brand?” I asked.

“That’s straw ash, oil and pigment,” she replied. “I trust that she used a needle or sharpened bone of some kind?”

“Yes, Xena,” I replied. “But why did you have her do that to you?”

Xena’s head was resting on her hands and her eyes were drowsy as she looked up at me from her side vision. “Because I belong to you,” she said. “I love you, Gabrielle, so much.” Moments later, Xena was asleep. I remained straddled on her back for a while, lightly running my finger along the oval and cross symbol that was Xena’s artistic injury.
* * * *

Xena was in and out of consciousness for the next two days. The healers tended to her vigorously. Her diminishing whip scars were given periodic treatments of scented healing oils and the distinctive baths she took had very hot water accented with a unique liquid made out of specially aged fermented grains. My healing Sisters told me that the liquid was far more powerful than wine or ale in its intoxicating force and to drink the liquid would be to tempt fate, but as a topical remedy, nothing seemed to match its healing strength. Unfortunately, a major side effect of the healing baths was Xena’s prolonged state of somnolence.

However, at nightfall the third day after her Hard Death, Xena woke up refreshed. I was sitting in my chair writing in my scrolls and hadn’t noticed her awaken. She quietly reached over and grabbed my scroll from me, startling me.

“Hi, Gabrielle,” she said with a sinister smile on her face.

I clutched my chest. “Xena, you scared the Tartarus out of me.”

“Sorry, love,” she responded, still smiling mischievously.

“How does your back feel, Xena? I asked as I covertly grabbed my scroll back from her.

“Itches like crazy,” she responded as she lifted her arms and let out a satisfied sigh. “But I feel renewed, Gabrielle. I told you, one whole day to recover and I’m ready to kick ass.”

Apparently Xena lost track of time in her various states of consciousness.

“Xena,” I said, mentally preparing for the hurricane to come. “Your Hard Death was over three days ago.”

“WHAT!?!” she yelled as she literally jumped off of the bed and, grabbing my forearms, brought me to my feet. “You let me sleep here for three days?”

“You had been awake too, Xena,” I responded. “Don’t you remember?”

Xena looked up, pondering, I suspected. “No, I don’t remember much,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

I desperately tried to wiggle my arms out of her powerful grip. “I wasn’t aware that you had lost track of time, Xena. I thought you knew when each day ended and another one began.”

Xena released my arms, dumbfounded.

“Don’t you remember anything, Xena? The dream about me in the garden? The northern Amazons leaving? Our conversations? Anything?”

Xena looked around the room. “Did you rub oil on my back, Gabrielle?”

“Yes, Xena. Many times.”

“I remember feeling your soft, little hands rubbing oil on my back,” Xena said as she began looking around the yurt.

“Xena, what are you doing?” I asked.

“Where are my battle garments?” she responded with a question.

“Over there,” I said, pointing to her neatly folded battledress and other accessories piled on top of a chest. “Are we leaving the village now?”

Xena began dressing quickly. “Yes, we are,” she curtly said. “I’ve lost two days letting these Amazons keep me in a drunken stupor.” She looked up at as she laced her boots. “Are you coming with me or not?”

“Yes, Xena.”

“Then I suggest you go throw on something more appropriate for travel and saddle up Chulytis.”

“Xena, shouldn’t we wait and leave at dawn?”

“No,” she responded with menace in her tone. “Too much time has been wasted. We ride now.” Not only was Xena back, the rage and the focus of the Conqueror was with her.

I immediately left the Hospice yurt and returned to my own. Gathering up everything I believed I would need, I filled my saddlebag and hoisted it onto Chulytis. I looked over at Argo and noticed she was already saddled up and ready to ride. A few moments later, I saw Xena coming out of Charicleia’s yurt with a very irritated looking Bahri walking next to her. I ran over and gave Bahri a hug.

“I’m heading back to Corinth, Gabrielle,” she said. “I have messages to deliver for the Conqueror.”

“Safe travels, Bahri,” I said.

“You too, Gabrielle,” she said as she fought hard to hold back tears.

As the three of us mounted our horses, Charicleia came storming out of her yurt. “I’m coming with you, Bahri!” she yelled as she ran up to her. Bahri helped Charicleia up on her horse, Ru, as the sadness in her eyes instantly evaporated. Queen Melosa and the others began coming out of their dwellings.

“We’re leaving, Queen,” Xena announced. “If anyone comes here looking for me, tell them I’m in Corinth.” It was highly unusual for Xena to lie about her whereabouts, but I suspected that the slaver Draco was the reason behind it.

“Very well, Conqueror,” Queen Melosa replied.

“Is this matter between me and the Amazons closed, Queen?”

“Yes, Conqueror,” Queen Melosa replied. “Adjudicated.”

Xena looked at me. “We need to go, Gabrielle.”

I looked at Queen Melosa, Ephiny and Eponin, both of whom had joined her. “Bye, my Sisters,” I said. “I love you.” I looked at Bahri. “I love you too, Bahri.” I looked at Xena. She nodded and smiled. It’s okay for me to love others now, I thought.

Bahri and Charicleia took off heading south toward Corinth. Xena and I took off heading east toward another battle.
Story #6 Union At Albion
I. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG

The late evening that we left the Amazon village, Gabrielle and I rode the entire night and into the morning. Riding hard and fast, and with the moonlight as our illumination, we were in western Macedonia by midday. We continued riding until we reached the small village of Darcas, which was north and inland from the port city of Epidamnus. As the horses rested, I went to the village apothecary to stock up on special herbs and oils for my back. The Amazons’ inebriation method was something I should have anticipated. After many years in battle, I had grown accustomed to pain, and since this was pain that I welcomed, I would have preferred not to be so sedated with intoxicants in order to spare me. I was grateful for the effort they put into my back, although it was obvious that their love and respect for Gabrielle was the main reason I received any treatment at all.

I knew that the worst whip marks wouldn’t be any more disfiguring than any of the numerous knife and arrow wounds that pepper my body, but I was curious to get to a reflective device of some kind to see how my brand had turned out. I hoped that it was as beautiful as I had imagined it would be. Among their many skills, Amazon healers are excellent body artists. Gabrielle doesn’t understand and I don’t expect her to, given the manner in which she acquired her wound. But in my mind, my wound is a symbol of my love for her on so many levels. I only hoped that someday I could explain it to her and have her understand that symbolism.

Gabrielle stayed by the horses as I ran my errand. When I returned to her, I noticed that she looked drawn and pale and had black circles under her eyes. I realized that she had gone over a full day and night without sleep and I was sure she was quite famished as well, but I was anxious to get to Salonae. We had at least another full day of riding ahead of us, most of it at this point along the shores of the Adriatic Sea. It would be rough riding, for us and for the horses; so the sooner we reached our destination, the better.

Gabrielle didn’t complain as I mounted Argo and told her we were riding again. She didn’t gripe as Chulytis’ gallop became more labored from the unsteady ground on which we rode, or bitch about the whipping, harsh wind from the sea. Years in slavery gave her that fortitude. I hated myself for putting her through this and secretly promised myself that I would make it up to Gabrielle with something very special, very dear to her once we were united with my troops in Gaul.

At one point, I looked back at her and she appeared as if she was about to fall off Chulytis. That battle can wait for me, I decided. “WHOA!!” I commanded to Argo. Gabrielle halted Chulytis.

“Gabrielle, let’s take a rest,” I said.

She nodded and quietly climbed down off of Chulytis. I climbed down off Argo and, pulling a blanket out of my saddlebag, spread it out over a soft sandy spot in the otherwise rocky shore. “Lay down, Gabrielle,” I said. “Rest.”

As soon as Gabrielle hit the blanket, she was asleep. I kneeled down next to her and, leaning in, gently kissed her cheek. “You probably haven’t slept much since my Hard Death, my love,” I said to her snoozing form. “You are so dear to me, Gabrielle.”

I decided to utilize the time sharpening my weapons. I surmised that two solid candlemarks of hard sleeping should refresh Gabrielle for the next round of riding. She would have plenty of opportunities for sleeping and eating once we reached Palaemon and my troops in Salonae.

A while after Gabrielle fell asleep, as I sharpened my boot dagger and listened to her adorable snoring, I heard to my right the sound of horses galloping toward us. I elected not to awaken her. Instead, I jumped up, ran over to a sand dune nearby and listened carefully. When I was satisfied they were in range, I peeked up over the dune and saw that there were four riders and that they were soldiers in my Imperial Guard. Unsheathing my sword, I leapt up and purposely startled them. They brought their horses to grinding halts.

“What are you four men doing way out here?” I demanded in question.

They bowed in formal greeting. The sergeant answered. “Majesty,” he said. “Commander Palaemon instructed us to scout for your whereabouts. We were expecting you in Salonae two days ago, my Liege.”

“Dismount, men,” I told them. “I had unfinished business in Thessaly, but as you can see, I’m on my way.”

The men dismounted. I directed them to take their horses to where Argo and Chulytis were grazing. When they returned, I had resumed sitting next to a still sleeping Gabrielle.

“You men can rest. We’ll leave in a candlemark,” I said. I began sharpening my sword and chuckling to myself over the fact that Gabrielle had slept through all of the commotion. When I was satisfied that my sword was thoroughly sharpened, I indicated to the men to get to their horses. As they departed, I lightly shook Gabrielle.

“Time to ride, my little spitfire,” I said in a whisper.

“Okay,” came her sleepy reply.

“Gabrielle,” I said.

“Yes, Xena?”

“I love you, Gabrielle.”

“I love you too, Xena.”

* * * *

We rode well into the night. Salonae was less than a day of riding away, but I decided that a camp for the remainder of the night would refresh both the horses and my companions.

We set up two adjoining campfires, one for Gabrielle and me and the other for the four Guardsmen. Of course, I was almost in pain from the desire I was feeling for Gabrielle. My cycle had started the morning of my Hard Death, something that I had told the Amazon healer Shaya in the event that I didn’t remain conscious through the procedure. I suspected that Gabrielle’s began around the same time. We had been on the same cycle for over four years, even during those instances of long physical separation. Usually, I would feel even more sexually aroused those two weeks after our cycles ended. Thus, needless to say, I wanted to make love to her so badly that I suspected the scent of my passion was oozing from my body and anyone within a hundred lengths distance could smell me. I was long past the days of showcasing sex with her in front of others and thus, kept my desire in check. I refused to deny myself closeness with her, however. We slept for those few candlemarks entwined in a loving embrace.

We reached Salonae by mid afternoon the next day. Palaemon and Aerol practically ran to me when my entourage entered the city. I dismounted from Argo and greeted my two loyal Imperial Guard commanders.

“My Liege, welcome,” said Palaemon. “I see you found my scouts.”

“I did, Commander,” I replied. “Are you and the troops ready for the road trip?”

“Yes, Conqueror,” came Palaemon’s reply. At that moment, the Commander of my Eastern Gaul Army approached.

“Majesty, welcome.” Commander Seumius was a native of my home village of Amphipolis. He fought with my brother Lyceus and me against the warlord who invaded our homeland over twelve years ago, but did not accompany me on my ventures in pirating after my brother’s death. Instead, he eventually joined the army of the infamous Celtic warlord Arvad of Massilia. I battled Arvad when I fought to conquer Gaul six years ago. After I defeated Arvad and personally eviscerated him, Seumius and I had a reunion of sorts. Seumius is a beautiful man. He has light brown hair that he has always worn very long, and deep blue eyes. He is shorter than me, probably no taller than Bahri, and very muscular. Needless to say, our romps in bed back then were highly charged and often excitedly painful. Once the animal passion blew over, however, Seumius became a trusted ally and has been with my military forces ever since.

“Commander Seumius, good to see you,” I responded as I gripped his forearm in welcome. His eyes immediately fell upon Gabrielle, who was standing by my side.

“This must be Gabrielle,” he said.

“Hello,” came her friendly reply.

“Commander Palaemon needs to have his eyes checked,” Seumius said to her. “Very pretty doesn’t even begin to describe the vision in front of me.”

Instinctively, I positioned myself between Seumius and Gabrielle. “Now that I’m here, the holiday is over. We have a war to wage. We ride now.”

Palaemon and Seumius had already had their troops, horses and chariots stocked and ready for the long trek across Gaul. I had them assemble the troops in formations so that I could address them. Once they were there, I positioned myself on the stone dais at the city’s central agora.

“Warriors of the Realm,” I announced to the ranks of soldiers before me. “We are about to do battle with the most ruthless bastard of the Iceni tribe, Niall of Calleva, and we WILL win this battle because I have before me the greatest fighting force in the known world!”

My troops let out a collective cheer as I continued. “This barbarian thinks he can parade his savage arrogance before you, my mighty warriors, but I think not!”

Another cheer.

“When we land on the shores of Albion, we will defeat Niall and we will have him and his dogs down on their knees, and they will respect you and they will abide by my law, and if they don’t, WE’LL KILL ‘EM ALL!!”

The cheer that followed was almost deafening. Palaemon, who had been standing at my side, spoke up, “To victory, for the Realm, for the Conqueror!”

Seumius spoke up, “HAIL, XENA THE CONQUEROR!”

My troops went ballistic in their enthusiasm. “CON-QUER-OR… CON-QUER-OR… CON-QUER-OR…” they kept chanting. I stood over them on the dais with my arms folded, basking in my arrogance. I remained that way for a few moments of smug delight, but something pulled my gaze away from my troops over to the beautiful blond woman standing behind me wearing on her face a hauntingly blank expression.

“Warriors of the Realm, MOVE OUT!” came the command from Palaemon at that moment.

* * * *

By nightfall, my military entourage and I reached the port city of Aquileia on the edge of the Adriatic Sea. Aquileia is a beautiful city overlooking the majestic mountains that the Celtic locals call “The Alps.” We continued our journey north along the rivers that surround the mountains. I rode in my command chariot with Palaemon and his second, Aerol. Seumius rode in a separate chariot. Gabrielle rode alone in a healing supply wagon that was driven by one of my elder healers. It was stocked with cloths, medicines and other supplies for treating injuries. In addition to being mostly covered with a thick canvas made out of sail fabric known as hemplines, the wagon was the most comfortable carriage in our entourage and afforded her plenty of opportunity for rest and writing in her scrolls. Both Argo and Chulytis were tethered behind the healing supply wagon.

We moved well into the night, stopping to rest shortly before sunrise of the next day. The troops set up makeshift camps alongside the horses and chariots. I went to Gabrielle. When I approached her wagon, she was predictably asleep with a scroll resting on her belly. I climbed up into the wagon and lay down next to her. I took one of the blankets in the wagon and covered us both to protect us from the biting chill in the air. When she stirred only slightly, I widened the opening to her tunic and slipped my hand inside. I covered her left breast with my hand and began gently caressing it as I stared at the delicate features on her beautiful face. She awakened.

“We’ve stopped for the night, Gabrielle,” I said as I moved my hand to her right breast.

“Where is everyone?” she asked.

“Camped nearby,” I responded and then leaned in close to her ear and whispered. “But not within hearing distance.” I could feel the nub of my sex engorge.

Gabrielle’s desire-filled eyes spoke to me as an invitation to proceed. I moved my hand lower and, removing the scroll from its resting place on her belly, slowly unbuckled her tunic belt. I playfully rubbed her firm, soft belly for a few moments and then moved my hand lower, slipping it under her britches, past her curls and to her inviting sex. I then began to gently stroke her warm, very wet center. As I stroked her with the fingers of my left hand, I propped my head up on my right and gazed into her eyes. She began running her fingers up and down my working left arm as I pleasured her. I was on fire.

“You like this, Gabrielle?” I asked seductively.

“Uhh…” she moaned. “Yes I do, Xena. A lot.” I did this for quite a while, stroking her center and looking into her emerald eyes. The strong desire I saw in them, along with her sensuous moans, was driving me to the brink of madness. Eventually, my own strong desire to capture her lips with mine overcame me and I leaned down to feel their soft touch. Just before contact, her tongue slid across the opening of my mouth in a seductive play. I opened it in invitation and she entered, licking my teeth and tongue so wonderfully. I could kiss Gabrielle forever.

We were sharing that long, deep, passionate kiss when Gabrielle reached climax. Removing my fingers from her sex, I immediately brought them to our still joined mouths. We both licked in delight.

“Lie on your stomach, Xena,” she said.

I obeyed my Amazon Princess as she climbed out of the blanket and retrieved the flask that contained the medication for my back. I completely removed my battledress before she returned and covered us both with the blanket. She then poured the oily potion in her hands and began rubbing it on my back.

“How does your back feel, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.

“With your hands on it, great,” came my earnest reply.

Gabrielle rubbed my back for a few marvelous moments before laying her body on top of me. Feeling the heat of her body on me, her soft breasts on my back and her curls on my ass brought my desire to new heights. More wondrous sensations followed as she brought her left arm around my waist in a sensuous embrace and began stroking my sex with the fingers of her right hand. As her breathing on the back of my neck became heavier and the grinding of her hips on my ass got harder and faster, my sexual excitement, and more significantly, the passionate love I feel for my woman finally did drive me to that brink of blissful madness.

After experiencing a climax that could topple Mount Olympus, I rolled over and took my lovely Amazon Princess into my arms. I was feeling such overwhelming love for her. Gabrielle rested her head on my chest and sleep claimed us both within moments.

When I woke the next morning, Gabrielle was not in the wagon.

II. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY

My sleep was restless the first night that we camped with Xena’s troops. I kept hearing the clanging of swords and the sinister laughter of men. These were Xena’s finest fighters camped outside of the little wagon in which we slept. These were men who witnessed unspeakable atrocities, who committed unspeakable atrocities, and with more carnage awaiting them, they sparred and reveled in joyful anticipation. I lay awake for a while before deciding to get up and do something. Dawn had not yet arrived, but I didn’t want to lie around thinking about the war ahead. So I untangled myself from Xena’s loving embrace, rose, and left the wagon in search of food and a place where I could wash up. I had hoped to return to her before she awakened.

As we journeyed further north, the cold in the air increased. On this particular morning, I actually saw a thin sheet of frosty dew on the ground and low foliage. The leaves on the trees surrounding us were an assortment of colors: crimson, yellow, green and brown. I thought it a rather beautiful sight.

I asked one of Xena’s Imperial Guardsmen where I might find food and a well. The kind soldier brought me to the makeshift mess tent where a large group of centurions were eating cooked ground wheat. A soldier gave me a bowl of the food and directed me to a barrel with clean water conveniently concealed behind some trees. I ate and washed up. Just as I stepped away from the barrel, Xena’s Commander Seumius approached me.

“You’re up bright and early, I see,” he said.

“Good morning,” I responded. I regarded this man. He was very handsome and I immediately thought of the probable fact that Xena had bedded him.

“So, you’re the Conqueror’s bard,” he said rather condescendingly.

“Yes, I am.”

“Hmm… I didn’t know that the Conqueror had any use for a bard,” he said. “Of course, I don’t doubt a beauty like you serves other functions in the Conqueror’s service.”

Before I could express to him my contempt for his impudence, a dark figure stepped in between us.

“Don’t you have an army to command, Seumius?”

“Yes, my Liege,” Seumius replied to the imposing presence of the Conqueror. “I was merely inquiring of your attractive bard here what her role in your court entails.”

“I think you need to only concern yourself with what your own role entails, Commander,” Xena said. “And that’s to do whatever necessary not to piss me off.”

Seumius looked around Xena and eyed me for a moment before returning his attention to her. “I was just thinking that maybe the three of us can have a friendly dalliance before the big battle, like the old days,” he said in a low, seductive voice. “Could take the edge off, Conqueror… and she looks like she’s quite good at taking off edges.”

I couldn’t see the expression on Xena’s face because her back was to me, but I could picture it in my mind as her mighty fist landed on Seumius’ stomach. As he fell to the ground desperately trying to retain air, my attention flew away from the moment and I didn’t hear what obscenities Xena was shouting to him. She had slept with this man, I concluded. She had shared a bed with him and apparently engaged in sexual adventures involving at least one extra person. When I had declared my love for Xena to her, I told myself that I would not let her torrid sexual past bother me. My main focus in our lives together was to pull her away from the violent beast that was so much a part of her. But now I was feeling a beast in me. It was the beast of envy; envy for everyone she had bedded… everyone she had allowed to do the things to her that I so enjoy doing to her. I started feeling an anger toward her for being that way, being so weak with her body so as to let virtually anyone ravish it, including this cocky, dimwitted ass who withered on the ground… including all of the cocky, dimwitted asses. I found myself turning on my heels and storming away from the both of them.

“Gabrielle, where are you going?” Xena asked, the angry tone still very much present in her voice.

“Back to the comfort of my wagon, Conqueror,” I replied just as angrily.

Xena ran up to me and grabbed my arm, effectively swinging me around to face her. “What’s the matter with you?” she asked.

“Let go of my arm,” I said flatly.

Xena gripped it tighter. “What the fuck is the matter with you?”

“Let go of my arm,” I repeated.

When she didn’t, I yanked it out of her powerful grip. She was startled at my actions, I suspected, but not as startled as I was at that moment. As I again turned on my heels to storm away from her, Palaemon conveniently approached.

“Conqueror, the troops are awake and ready to proceed,” he said.

Xena’s response was low and strained. “Let’s move out then,” she said.

* * * *

I stayed in the healing supply wagon the entire day. I only exited to eat, stretch, relieve myself or practice with my staff. We traveled alongside the majesty of the great alpine mountains of Gaul and on occasion, I would peek out the front or rear of the covered wagon just to eye their beauty. Mostly, I remained enclosed, writing tragic poetry and crying angry tears.

Xena and I didn’t speak to each other for the entire day and into the night. I did watch her from time to time during the day, when she was riding in the chariot or speaking with her officers. I could tell that she was becoming more and more focused on the battle ahead. My dear friend Demi had told me that Xena wins wars because she never lets anything distract her. Winning is always the priority and she usually has her complete battle strategy mapped out in her head before the actual battle begins.

It was well past midnight when Xena decided to camp the troops for the night. We had reached the lands across the Danube River from Castra Regina, the last city Xena took from the Romans in Gaul. The Romans had erected a bridge, but it was narrow and could only support the weight of one loaded wagon or a quarter century of troops at a time. Needless to say, crossing that bridge would take several additional candlemarks of a little patience and a lot of praying to the gods.

Once we were all in Castra Regina, Xena ordered everyone to camp on the outer edge of the city. Because of its convenient riverside location, Castra Regina was a city of great wealth. Xena announced that once the shops opened in the morning, everyone would be allowed to replenish supplies and food. I made a mental note to stock up on scrolls, quills and writing ink.

Dawn was on the horizon already when I was finally able to seek Morpheus’ calling. As tired as I was, I couldn’t however, and decided to leave the safety of my wagon and go find out what Xena was up to. I walked along the scattered fires and tired soldiers looking for her and hoping not to see Seumius. After long moments, and to my delight, I found Palaemon and Aerol sitting at one of the fires.

“Evening, Palaemon,” I said. “Have you seen… the Conqueror?”

“Evening?” he replied jokingly. “It’s almost morning, Gabrielle.” Palaemon smiled.

“So true, Commander.” I smiled back.

“Our Ruler is a few paces down, sitting alone at her own fire,” he informed me.

“Thanks, Palaemon.”

When I found Xena, she was predictably sharpening a weapon. Despite the chill in the air, she only wore her battledress and boots. Before she could spot me, I dashed to the nearest soldier and asked for a blanket. When I returned to Xena, I draped it over her broad shoulders. I said not a word to her.

Xena didn’t look up at me. She didn’t acknowledge my presence as she continued her uninterrupted methodical sharpening. I sat on the ground on the other side of the fire and just stared at her.

“What you saw yesterday was nothing compared to what you’ll witness in Albion, Gabrielle,” Xena finally spoke after a lengthy silence.

“What do you mean, Xena?” I queried.

“You’re upset about me striking Seumius, right?”

“No, Xena… well, I don’t like it when you punch people, but that’s not why I’m upset with you.”

“Then what is it?” she asked with a harsh tone.

“I hate it that you’ve bedded so many people, Xena,” I answered with an equally harsh tone.

“I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I can’t rewrite my history.”

“I know,” I said. “I still hate it.”

There was another long silence before Xena spoke. “If I could rewrite my history, I would change a few things, Gabrielle. I’m sure I would change a lot of the sex, although so much of it meant nothing to me. But the biggest thing I would change would be the shit that I did to you.”

I didn’t know how to respond, so I remained silent. Xena finally stopped sharpening her weapon.

“Remember that night, Gabrielle?” Xena asked. “That night that you… you… dreamt about?”

“Oh, when I… uh, I… you know, e-hem… your brains out, Xena?” I said in jest as I felt the heat in my cheeks rise.

“Yes,” she responded. “I… I wanted to tell you then.”

“Tell me what, Xena?”

“That I was hopelessly in love with you.”

I don’t know why, but at that moment, I became overwhelmed with emotion and began crying. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Xena got up and came over to where I was sitting. She sat down next to me and put her arm around my shoulder. I instinctively leaned my head down on her shoulder and felt her lips press against the top of my head. “I prepared myself for the occasion, Gabrielle,” she said. “I had it all planned out. I dressed in one of my best silk robes for you, scented my body with lavender oil, and perched myself on my silly throne. I was going to have you come to me there and I was just going to announce it.”

“You were just going to say to me, ‘Gabrielle, I’m hopelessly in love with you’?” I asked.

“Something like that,” she responded.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know. I told myself that I would pleasure you first, then I’d tell you.”

“But you didn’t Xena,” I said.

“After I pleasured you, I… I, well, I thought that I’d tell you after you pleasured me.”

“Xena, you were stalling,” I said, chuckling to myself as I wiped my tears away.

“Okay, I was stalling,” she said as she again kissed the top of my head and brought her other arm around me in an embrace. “So then you did what you did, by the gods. And to top it off, you… you kissed me down there. You did that a lot, you know, when you serviced me. I noticed it.”

“I like kissing you, Xena.”

“That kiss sent another powerful wave through me, Gabrielle. I couldn’t speak after that.”

“That’s why you told me to leave your bedchamber, Xena?”

“I started crying, Gabrielle,” she said. “I failed in telling you that I love you and I didn’t want you to see me crying.” She paused for a moment. “I bet you don’t know this, but I visited you that night.”

“When?” I asked as I looked up at her.

“Sometime later,” she responded. “You had already fallen asleep.”

“What did you do, Xena?”

Xena began stroking my cheek with the backs of her fingers. “I kneeled down next to your bed and played with your hair,” she said quietly. “I did it very lightly so as to not awaken you. Then I told you that I love you, Gabrielle.”

I began running my fingers down her cheek. “You are such a strong warrior, Xena,” I said. “You fear nothing. Battle, pain, death. But you fear love. Why, Xena?”

“People fear what they don’t understand, Gabrielle,” she responded. “I don’t understand love. I only know that I feel it, and it frightens me.”

I felt such a warmth from Xena’s vulnerable admission to me.

“Love is the last thing in this world you should fear, Xena,” I said. “There’s nothing more beautiful, more perfect.”

As tears began streaming down her beautiful face, she tightened her embrace. “I know, Gabrielle,” she said. “I know.”

We both lay back on the ground, still embracing, and finally allowed Morpheus to claim us for another brief period in time.

* * * *

At dawn, Xena and I both awakened to the sounds of approaching men on horseback. Releasing me from a comfortable embrace, Xena was immediately on her feet, grabbing her sword and dashing toward the main camp. Although days of sleep deprivation told my body to remain where it was for the moment, the curiosity of my rather murky mind won out. I too leapt to my feet and ran after Xena.

When I caught up with her, Xena was gripping the arm of a very large Roman soldier.

“Good to see you, Commander Marius,” Xena said to him.

“We’ve been here in Castra Regina for nearly a fortnight, Conqueror,” he replied. “I was beginning to wonder if Niall wasn’t that big a deal to the Realm after all.”

Xena gave the Roman commander a friendly pat on his massive arm. “I’m to blame for our delay, Commander. Unfinished business in Thessaly.”

“I fully understand, Conqueror,” he replied with a rather large grin. “One must keep the home fires burning, must one?”

Xena turned to me and signaled for me to approach them. Has she slept with this one in the past too? I thought as I grabbed the man’s arm in greeting. Why am I so obsessed over this?

“Gabrielle, this is Clarus Aeneus Marius, Commander of my Roman forces in Gaul and the man who fought beside me when I took Rome,” Xena introduced. “Commander, this is Gabrielle of Poteidaia, my bard… and my best friend.”

The Roman’s eyes widened in amazement. “Best friend?” he said. “By the gods, Majesty, this is… well, uh, news.” He looked at me. “I am pleased to meet you, Gabrielle of Poteidaia.”

“Likewise,” I responded with a curt lack of sincerity. I didn’t know at the time which level of hate was affecting me more, my admittedly unjustified prejudice against Roman soldiers or the notion that this was yet another of Xena’s former bed partners.

“What’s the status, Marius?” Xena inquired.

“What you would expect, Conqueror,” he replied. “Niall and his pigs have taken control of all of the shipping ports on the southern shore of Britannia. They refuse to pay taxes and they claim to have our senior diplomats held hostage in one of their outposts. I haven’t been able to confirm that last allegation, but I haven’t heard from the diplomats, so I believe we should accept it as true.”

“I see,” Xena responded.

“I’m ready to fry the bastard, Conqueror,” Marius said.

“Oh, Niall’s going to get what’s coming to him, Marius.”

“You have a plan, Conqueror?” he queried more as a statement than a question.

“I always have a plan, Commander,” Xena replied.

When the shops of Castra Regina opened for business, most of our entourage flocked to them to stock up on needed supplies. In addition to purchasing more scrolls and quills, I wandered into a clothing shop and bought a heavy wool cloak to protect me from the ever-decreasing temperatures. Assuming Xena wouldn’t bother, I purchased one for her as well. When I returned to the camp, Xena had just ordered Palaemon and Seumius to summon all of the troops for the continuing trek toward Albion, or Britannia, as the Romans referred to it. I had studied Latin with my dear friend Demi, who was of Greek heritage but raised in Rome, and was well aware that the Romans had a different name for certain regions, peoples and gods. As I boarded my healing wagon for yet another day of bumpy riding, I saw Xena walking toward her signature royal chariot. I called out to her.

“Xena… the Conqueror!” I yelled, belatedly remembering the honorific. When she turned her gaze on me, I continued. “Would you be willing to ride with me for a half day?”

Xena cocked her head to the side and then looked at Palaemon, who was smiling ear to ear. “Yes, Gabrielle,” she responded in her low and formal Conqueror voice. “I can accompany you.”

Although Xena’s voice sounded controlled and stoic, her feet betrayed her as she giddily sprinted over to my wagon and practically dived in.

Once the wagon started rolling, Xena grabbed my shoulders and planted a strong kiss on my lips. “Making love in a moving wagon,” she said grinning. “This will require creativity.”

“Who says I want to make love, Xena.”

Xena’s face was markedly perturbed. “Then why did you ask me to join you?”
“I want to spend time with you, Xena. Can’t we just spend some time together without putting our fingers and tongues to work?”

Xena smiled. “Of course, love,” she said. “I’ve missed talking with you these last few days.”

“Me too, Xena,” I said as I looked around and saw several new cushions placed in a neat pile on the wagon’s floor. “Where did these come from?” I asked.

“I thought they might make your ride more comfortable, Gabrielle,” Xena replied with a smile.

“Thank you, Xena. That was very thoughtful of you,” I said and then, after a brief moment, had to ask, “So, did you sleep with Marius as well?”

“Gabrielle!”

“Well, did you?”

“No, Gabrielle, I never had sex with Marius.”

“Oh,” I sighed, relieved.

Xena lowered her head. “I slept with his wife, though.”

“Xena!”

“It was for strategic military reasons, Gabrielle,” Xena exclaimed.

“How could bedding someone’s wife be for ‘strategic military reasons’?” I inquired as I bore my eyes into Xena’s.

“You don’t want to hear this, Gabrielle,” she replied. “It’s an ugly story.”

“We have plenty of time, Xena,” I said as I leaned back onto a couple of those new soft cushions positioned behind me and folded my arms.

“Okay…” Xena let out a big sigh and began. “It was seven years ago and I had just proclaimed myself ‘The Conqueror.’ I had taken all of Greece, including Crete and the other islands, secured strongholds in Pontes, Persia and Anatolia, and had achieved diplomatic relations with Egypt. Rome was the last big challenge of the known world.

“I came into contact with Marius through another Roman named Cassius Padraig Rommodus, who now commands my Apennines Army. Rommodus… and I’d never slept with him either… was a bitter enemy of Caesar. He introduced me to a former ally but new enemy of Caesar, Marcus Antonius, another man I’d never bedded.”

Xena’s proud declarations caused me to snicker. She continued.

“So, to make a long story short, I met Marius and offered him a position in my army. Marius hated Caesar probably more than I did, but he was dubious about joining the renegade army of a power-hungry Greek woman. I wanted him, Gabrielle. He was undisputedly the best fighter in all of Italia. He was also fearless and loaded with contempt for those who were aligned with Caesar, especially Caesar’s chief toadies, Pompeius Magnus, Licinius Crassus and that weasel Junius Brutus. Rumor had it that he had bitten off a piece of Brutus’ ear and ate it with his lamb dinner during a Roman symposium. So I asked Rommodus what would be the best way to persuade Marius to join my army. Rommodus quickly advised me that seduction on my part would be out of the question. Marius was madly in love and devoted to his new wife, but the wife might be the ‘in.’ She was both Greek and… shall we say, one to enjoy the physical company of both genders.”

“Lovely,” I acidly said. “What was her name, Xena?… Wait! Never mind, maybe it’s better if I don’t know.”

“I met his wife, Gabrielle,” Xena continued. “What a piece of work! A mere adolescent, 19 or 20 years old I believe, skinny, blond… blonder than you, with big brown eyes and a bigger mouth. Everything out of it was sass, sass, sass. And she was obsessed with me, Gabrielle. She wanted to spend every moment with me. I was nearly driven insane by the woman, but it worked. With her nonstop desire to hang onto my ass, it was no time before she ran crying to Marius, begging him to join me. Marius was ever so willing to do her bidding and thus, he agreed to fight in my army. Together, with Rommodus, the young and rambunctious Palaemon, Antonius and the elite of my force, we were able to crush Caesar and send pathetic Brutus into hiding. Antonius later found him and murdered him. Since Caesar had already murdered his other little vermin before we invaded, our mission was accomplished and Rome became mine.”

“So you slept with her to get her to convince Marius to join you.” I said, not as a question, but to accentuate the obvious.

“Like I said, Gabrielle, strategic military reasons.”

“Did Marius stay with her once he found out about the affair, Xena?”

“Not quite, Gabrielle,” she answered. “He never found out… are you sure you want to hear the rest of this?”

“Yes.” Especially now.

“After I claimed Rome, Antonius was given Governorship. Of course, he instantly made a mess of things and was quickly replaced by Octavius. That’s when he and I fell out. Marius and Rommodus were rewarded with commissions in my new Roman Army. The wife was pissed. She naturally assumed that I would give him a commission in my Imperial Guard once I returned to Greece, so that she could continue fucking me until her sharp little tongue fell out. That never crossed my mind. Those men were Roman. They wanted to rule in Rome and commissions in their native homeland were greater rewards for the both of them. As you know, Palaemon was destined for the commandership of my elite Guard. So, on the night before I was to leave for Corinth, I was awakened with the blade of my own chakram digging into my throat. It was the wife.”

“How did she brandish your chakram without cutting herself, Xena?” I inquired, astonished.

“To this day, I can’t figure it out, Gabrielle,” Xena responded seemingly perplexed. “She kept begging me to teach her how to throw it, and in my carelessness, I allowed her to practice with it. Everyone who ever dared to wield it before or since has lost a limb, and I totally expected the same from her. I was secretly looking forward to watching an arm or an ear sliced from her body. But she mastered it, Gabrielle, almost as well as I had. If she hadn’t been a complete lunatic, I would have considered training her as a fighter in my army. But crazy she was, and while she held my chakram under my chin, she started ranting and raving incoherently, telling me that she controlled me, body and soul, that I owed her for some injustice I had done to her family, that I was to do an indefinite sexual bidding to her even while we are both frying in Tartarus together.”

“Did you kill her, Xena?”

“No, I didn’t,” Xena responded. “Not that I wouldn’t have. But I wanted Marius’ continued loyalty. Killing his wife wouldn’t have been a smart move in maintaining that loyalty. So I punched her. One strong blow to the face and she was out. I had her chained and then I summoned Marius. I told him that his wife had attempted to seduce me and when I declined, she tried to kill me. Marius was aware that his wife preferred women sexually, and she had made it obvious in her actions that she had this ‘crush’ on me. So when he saw her chained and babbling nonsense, he easily believed me. He had her committed to an asylum in Sparta.”

“Is she still there, Xena?”

“She’d very well better be, Gabrielle.”

“So,” I said. “You lied to Marius to maintain his loyalty.”

“I didn’t lie, Gabrielle,” Xena replied. “She had been constantly seducing me since the day we met, and she did try to kill me when I declined her advances that particular evening.”

“You just left out the part about having slept with her before, right Xena?”

“A sinful omission,” came the curt reply.

Xena was correct. I should not have asked to hear that story. I found myself even angrier at her than when Seumius was propositioning sex with the both of us. I looked away from her, my arms still crossed. I stared out through the slit in the canvas at the back of the wagon and looked at the troops following us. There was a long, tense silence before Xena spoke again.

“Gabrielle,” she said, her voice soft and sad. “Do you not love me anymore?”

“Of course I love you, Xena,” I responded as I felt my eyes watering. “It’s the love I feel for you that causes me to be so… so jealous of all of those other people you’ve been with. Sometimes I wonder if I… I satisfy you as well as they did.”

“Oh, Gabrielle…”

“But mostly…” I interrupted. “I hate it that so many others have touched you… touched what I feel is mine.”

Another silence followed. “Gabrielle,” Xena finally said. “Before you, I never shared my bed with the same person for any rational length of time. Before you, I never committed myself to being sexual with one person at a time. From the first time we were together, as Conqueror and slave, I never wanted to be with anyone else again. I AM yours, Gabrielle. I was yours before we met and I’ll be yours in the afterlife, when you’re in paradise and I’m being tormented in Tartarus.”

I crawled over to her and hugged her. I cried into her breasts as I clutched her, my mind whirling with jumbled thoughts of what we have had together and what is yet to come. I don’t want Xena to spend eternity in Tartarus. Yes, she has committed horrendous acts, but there is so much room for her goodness to shine. I know it. I’ve seen it. Often, in my most private reflection, I wished that the gods could create a special place for Xena and me once we cross over; a place where our souls could continue to grow and learn and love one another. Finally, I looked up at her and asked the question that had been simmering in my conscious since our reunion in the Amazon village a week before.

“Xena,” I said softly. “What did you do those three days you were gone from the Amazon village?”

I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect the story I was about to hear.
III. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG

When I left the Amazon village the morning of the deserters’ trial, I had a major lust in me; a lust for blood, a lust for vengeance. But it wasn’t a desire for any vengeance to which I was entitled. I wanted revenge for Gabrielle.

I had wronged Gabrielle, a grim fact that I face every day of my life. Yet others, notably those two bastards who abducted her from her family, raped her and sold her into slavery, had wronged her as well. I decided as I was riding toward Corinth that I would atone for all I had done to Gabrielle. I decided that when I did return to the Amazon village, I would allow the Amazons their retribution. As far as I was concerned, it was only retribution on its face. I didn’t necessarily feel that I owed the Amazons of Thessaly anything. Their Queen lives and their lands were spared. As for the northern Amazons, I anticipate that I’ll pay my price to them in the afterlife. But I owed Gabrielle a debt, and those bastards owed her a debt.

And the time had come for them to pay.

* * * *

When I reached Corinth, I dismissed the two women Guardsmen that traveled with me and continued on to the palace. The first order of business was to learn the identity of the man who presented Gabrielle to the auctioneer for sale nearly six years ago. I was running down the palace corridor toward the library when Palaemon stopped me.

“Conqueror!” he yelled from behind me. “I’m glad you’re here. I was about to ride back to the Amazon village to find you.”

I stopped in my tracks, turned and faced him. “What is it Commander?” I queried rather impatiently.

“We have a situation,” he responded.

“Throw him in the dungeon and I’ll deal with it later,” I said. Naturally, I assumed that he was referring to yet another captured would-be assassin.

“No, my Liege,” he said. “Niall of Calleva, that’s the situation.”

I approached Palaemon. “What about him?” I asked.

“He has galvanized warriors of the three southern tribes in Albion, the Atrebates, the Dumnonii and his own tribe, the Iceni. They’ve invaded our ports along the channel and we have word that hostages have been taken. They want war, Conqueror.”

“That’s fine with me, Palaemon,” I responded. “I’m more than eager to spill that pig Niall’s blood.”

Palaemon’s face lit up like a child on his birthday. I truly enjoy the company of this man. There were so many times that I wished he could have met my brother, Lyceus. I do believe they would have bonded like brothers. Now, I feel that Palaemon has become the closest thing I have to a brother.

“I have something I need to do, Palaemon,” I informed him. “It can’t wait.”

“I can mobilize two centuries of men, my Liege,” he said. “Aerol and I will ride north to Gaul. Whom shall we contact there, Seumius or Marius?”

“For this mission, Palaemon, both,” I responded, then continued with my orders. “I’m sure they are both well informed by now and expecting us. Send a small detachment to Salonae tonight. You and Aerol leave at dawn, and take command of four centuries; two Imperial Guard and two Corinthian Army. I’ll meet you and Seumius in Salonae in four days. We should reach Castra Regina in a week.”

“Yes, Majesty,” Palaemon said.

“When this is done, Palaemon, they will be speaking Greek in Albion.”

Palaemon laughed and we clasped arms. “Will Gabrielle join us, Conqueror?”

“No, I’ll have her stay with the Amazons. I don’t want any harm to come to her.” And I don’t want her to see me kill again either.

“By your will, Conqueror,” he said before departing. I resumed my jog to the library where I found Demitrius and his assistant indexing scrolls. When he noticed my presence in the room, he immediately stopped what he was doing and bowed in formal greeting.

“Afternoon, my Liege,” he said.

I ordered him to dismiss his assistant. When the man had left the library, I grabbed Demitrius by his tunic collar. “Tell me that you have a record of who owned Gabrielle before me,” I demanded.

“I do, my Liege,” he replied. I released him and he went over to a section of the library, which was obviously often ignored, and grabbed a somewhat dusty and frayed parchment off of a shelf. Opening it, he glanced at the writing and then looked up at me.

“She was the former property of one Chayym Eben, an immigrant from Judea and resident of Sicyon,” he informed me.

That’s how she knew about the rich swine farmer. That’s also likely the reason she avoided Sicyon when she left Corinth to wander as a traveling bard four months ago, I pondered. “Does that parchment provide the location of his domicile?” I inquired.

“Yes, my Liege, but it is over five years old,” Demitrius said.

I didn’t respond. I just grabbed the parchment from him and stormed out of the library. I was determined to find this man, even if it meant sailing to Judea to hunt him down.

I mounted Argo and rode to Sicyon, arriving there just after dusk. The residence provided in the parchment was a dwelling on the periphery of the village. It was in an area known as Hermes’ Den because most of its inhabitants were struggling merchants, con artists, thieves and transients. Before locating Eben’s domicile, I stopped by the local Corinthian Army post and ordered three hoplites to join me. Eben’s homestead was nothing more than a rundown clay shack. I hoped that he still lived in the place. After dismounting from Argo, I ordered the hoplites to remain where they were. Then I walked up to the entranceway and kicked down the door.

Once inside the filthy dwelling, I found a man approximately in his early fifties sitting on a rundown chair with several young girls surrounding him. All of the girls were nude; they were all clearly adolescent, and one girl in particular had just removed the man’s phallus from her mouth. In an instant, an ugly image burned into my head; the image of my Gabrielle, on her knees, naked and dirty, sucking this disgusting pig’s manhood. I was furious.

“GET UP!” I ordered him. All of the girls leapt to their feet. He remained seated; probably more out of shock than out of any act of defiance on his part.

“Get out,” I hissed at the girls. They began scrambling for the rags that were their clothing. “Wait outside by those soldiers on horses until I come out.”

After the last girl was out of the dwelling, I casually walked over to Eben and applied my lethal pinch to his neck.

“I’ve cut off the flow of blood to your brain, you fucking pervert,” I said to him as I watched him desperately gasp for air. “Chayym Eben, correct?”

He frantically nodded as he grabbed his neck in a vain effort to reverse the pinch. “I’m going to stand here and watch you die, you dog, unless you can provide the name of the individual who sold you the young slave I purchased from your auctioneer five years ago.”

He fell out of his chair. Death was closing in on him. “Can you do that, pervert?”

He nodded. “Good,” I said as I released the pinch. He deeply sucked in air and then threw up on the floor before I grabbed him by his filthy tunic and lifted him to his feet. “Who was it?” I asked. “Give me his name.”

“I… I…” he gasped. “I… don’t… remember… his…name, Conqueror…”

I backhanded him, sending him back to the floor and sprawling out over his vomit. I grabbed his tunic and lifted him up again. “Wrong answer,” I said before hurling my fist into his stomach. He doubled over and was back on the floor a third time. I watched him as he coughed and gagged a few moments. Then I grabbed the little tuft of hair on the back of his otherwise bald head and forced him to gaze up at me. “Let’s try this again, shall we?” I said. “Who sold you Gabrielle of Poteidaia?”

“I… I can… can get you that information, my Lady,” he responded. “I keep an accounting…” He coughed a couple of times, then continued, “All I need to do is look it up… Please don’t hit me again.”

I released his hair and grabbed his tunic again, lifting him to his feet. “Go look it up.”

He stumbled over to a section of his dwelling where rows of parchment were kept. I watched as he nervously looked over several before finding the correct one. “Here, my Lady!” he exclaimed almost gleefully. “I found it.”

I grabbed it from him and looked it over. “Very good, Chayym Eben. Today is your lucky day. Gabrielle informed me that you were kind to her despite her servitude to you in this hole. It’s also my impression that you taught her how to fuck and be fucked correctly.”

He nodded maniacally.

“And for those reason, I won’t kill you.”

He took a deep breath.

“However, keeping under-aged girls as slaves and indulging in sexual perversions with them are illegal acts in my Realm.”

He began shaking his head and babbling. “She was 19… she was 19…” I interrupted him.

“Yes, but most of the girls here today are clearly no older than 16, and the price for disobeying the laws of the Realm is harsh.”

I grabbed him by his tunic again. He fell to his knees, forcing me to drag him outside. He gripped my hand and repeated a desperate “please… please… please…” over and over again. Once outside, I ordered two of the three hoplites to obtain the young girls’ identities and origins and make arrangements for their return to their families, if they had families. Otherwise, I instructed the hoplites to designate that the girls became wards of the Realm, and for them to be taken to a home for girls in Corinth. I ordered the third hoplite to transport Eben back to Corinth and turn him over to the palace Imperial Guardsmen with instructions to have him locked up in the palace dungeons.

“You shouldn’t have let me catch you in such a compromising position, Eben,” I said as his hands were being bound by the hoplite. “Enjoy life in your new home. I’m sure you’ll get the same kind of taste these young girls have been getting from you.”

I left Sicyon and rode Argo to Thermopylae, navigating my way through the darkness of night by pure instinct and adrenaline. I arrived there just before sunrise and was admittedly exhausted. I wasn’t about to let simple lack of sleep come in the way of my sword and the bodies of Gabrielle’s abductors. I headed directly to the Thessalian Army command post and barged into Commander Rhamos’ bedchamber. He was quite unhappy over my interrupting his sexual playtime with the handsome young redheaded lad that lay in bed with him.

“Pardon my intrusion,” I said most insincerely as I flashed him a glistening smile. “I just need to borrow two of your sergeants, Commander.”

“Be my guest, Conqueror,” he responded rather annoyed.

I proceeded to the sergeants’ quarters and retained two robust men who were eating their morning meal. After saddling up their horses, we rode north, past Pharsalus, west of the Amazon territory to a valley in the Pindus Range. The parchment I retrieved from Chayym Eben indicated that Gabrielle had been sold to him by one Hector of Parnassus, who identified himself as a lieutenant of Draco the Great. Draco was the son of a wealthy dealer of precious metals. He was born in Apollonia, the great port city of Cyrenaica on the continent south of the Mediterranean Sea, but he was schooled in Athens. As an adolescent, he rebelled against his respected father and took up the sword. By the time I had emerged as the Destroyer of Nations, he had become a cunning and skillful warlord. At first an opponent, he soon joined my army and fought in it toward the end of my Greek conquests. As reward for his services, I commissioned him license to harvest slaves in Thessaly.

I learned a great many things about Draco when he served with me. He was charismatic, passionate, but most of all, an unyielding perfectionist. His product had to be of the highest quality. Draco would never offer a slave for sale as a virgin after deflowering her. Draco would never rape a slave either. Rape wasn’t in his nature. I knew from personal experience that he much too much enjoyed the song and dance of entreat and seduction. Also, he would never attempt to harvest humans from any village not sanctioned by the Realm, so Poteidaia would not have been a village he would have chosen to raid. I carefully calculated the time that I believed Gabrielle was abducted from Poteidaia from the information I had. She was taken sometime in the autumn season six years ago. At that time, I was fighting Arvad of Massilia. Earlier that season, Draco had volunteered to sail to Euboea across the gulf from Thermopylae to battle a vicious warlord there. He had been a successful slaver for well over a year at that point, but fighting was always a desire circulating in his blood. I suspected that it was while he was away at battle that his lieutenants decided to raid villages in Macedonia as well as Thessaly. With both he and myself preoccupied with wars, they must have figured that they could be reckless with their means and their methods in procuring slaves.

Draco had made a valley below the Pindus Mountains his slavers’ headquarters. If the two lieutenants responsible for abducting Gabrielle were still alive, I honestly believed it would only be because Draco knew nothing of their actions. Otherwise, he would have forfeited their lives for insubordination and deceit those many years ago. If they were alive, my objective was to take his two lieutenants into custody, without objection from Draco, return them to Corinth and subject them to the public judgments before reuniting with Gabrielle in the Amazon village. It was an ambitious plan that would not have afforded me any sleep simply because of all of the travel involved. However, when I arrived at the camp just before nightfall, I immediately learned that Draco was back east in Trachis overseeing an auction. He had conveniently left his two top lieutenants, Hector and one Gar of Coronae behind.

When I rode into the central square of the headquarters, the slavers immediately gathered around and bowed in formal greeting. I dismounted from Argo.

“I wish to see one Hector of Parnassus and one Gar of Coronae,” I announced.

Both men stepped forward.

I walked over to Hector and presented the parchment that I had obtained from Chayym Eben. “Is this the requisition for the procurement of one Gabrielle of Poteidaia, Hector?” I asked as casually as one interested in inquiring about the purchase of a pair of shoes.

“Absolutely, my Liege,” he answered. “I don’t recall this particular transaction, but that is my signature.”

“Perhaps I can remind you,” I started. “Think back about six years ago. Draco was in Euboea, I was in Thrace and no one was babysitting you.”

Sweat began to instantly bead on his oily forehead. “We… uh… we were…”

“You were harvesting slaves in Macedonia, RIGHT?”

Perspiration began to soak his tunic. “Well… uh…”

“And you harvested many young women, CORRECT?”

Hector cleared his throat. Gar began backing up. Both of my accompanying sergeants dismounted and stood behind the men, effectively tethering them.

“And you sold them as virgins after repeatedly raping them, TRUE?”

Hector wildly shook his head. “No… uh… but…”

“DON’T LIE TO ME!” I grabbed his throat. The other slavers began backing away. “Stay where you are, all of you!” I ordered before returning my attention to Hector. “Now, you and Gar here abducted young women from Macedonia, you raped them and then sold them as virgins.”

“But they wanted it, Conqueror,” Hector desperately said. Unfortunately for him, it was the most fatally stupid thing he could say to me at that moment.

“On your knees, Hector,” I said and then indicated to the sergeant behind Gar to force him on his knees.

“Please don’t kill me, Majesty, please!” Hector begged. Gar was actually crying.

“I’m going to give you a choice, Hector,” I informed him as I unsheathed my sword. “Something is coming off of your body today.” I pointed to his head with the sword. “This,” I pointed to his phallus, “or this. Which will it be?”

Hector began whimpering like a baby. “Which will it be?” I repeated. He looked down. “Hector has made his choice!” I announced to the onlookers. As the sergeant opened Hector’s tunic and pulled his britches down to his knees, Hector cried and shook his head in disbelief. The sergeant restrained him from behind. “Enjoy the last piece of pleasure you’ll experience from a woman,” I said as I gripped his male member, raised my sword and cut it off.

Hector let out a blood-chilling scream as the blood from the castration squirted everywhere. Gar vomited. I discarded the phallus on the ground in front of him and watched him for a few moments. When he was passed the pain and the reality of life without his precious instrument of sex filtered into his consciousness, he looked up at me. “Kill me,” he said simply.

“Gladly,” I responded as my sergeant released Hector and backed away. I swiped my sword across his neck, decapitating him.

I stepped over to Gar. “You participated with Hector in the abductions and rapes in Macedonia,” I said more as a statement of fact than a question.

Gar nodded. “Draco has no knowledge of this, does he?”

Gar shook his head. “Because if Draco had known about this, you would have been dead six years ago, wouldn’t you?”

Gar nodded. “Which will it be, Gar?”

“Kill me.”

“Fine,” I said. The second sergeant began to release Gar. “Not yet, Sergeant,” I said as I gripped his phallus and sliced it off. When Gar cried out a vicious holler, I looked at my sergeant. “Now you can back away,” I said casually before gripping a large lock of Gar’s hair and running my bloodied sword across his neck as well.

I looked around at the shocked men for a moment before picking up Hector’s phallus and shoving it into his open mouth. I did the same thing with Gar. Then I lifted both bloodied heads by their hair and displayed them to the surviving slavers.

“This is the price to pay for deception and rape in my Realm!” Then I simply dropped the heads on the ground beside me, mounted Argo and rode out of the slavers’ camp with the two sergeants in tow.

* * * *

With the near full moon as our light, we rode the entire night back to Thermopylae, reaching the Thessalian Army post at sunrise. I paid the soldiers handsomely, as I had done for the three Corinthian hoplites that accompanied me to Sicyon, and then, after cleaning the blood off me, I joined Commander Rhamos and his young lover for a large morning feast. Afterwards, I left Thermopylae and rode to an abandoned armory in a small valley between Thermopylae and Pharsalus. A belly full of food, two whole days without sleep and the emasculation and beheading of two men had taken their toll on me. I was physically drained. Once inside the armory, I laid out my blanket and peacefully slept until sunset.

I returned to the Amazon village after midnight and made passionate love with my Gabrielle.

IV. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY

When Xena admitted that she had imprisoned Chayym Eben in that wretched palace dungeon and killed the two men who abducted me from Poteidaia, I felt a huge sense of betrayal. She had not betrayed me, nor had she really betrayed those men. Xena betrayed herself. Once again, she gave into her darkest impulses. Those two men who took me from my parents, separated me from my sister and violated my body did deserve a harsh punishment, but did they deserve the Conqueror’s butchery? Was her butchery exacted because they had betrayed the Realm, or was it her simple pleasure of sweet revenge for what they did to me? I wanted to scream, but my first concern was for Chayym Eben. At the time he sold me to Xena almost six years ago, his health was uncertain. I’m sure that the subsequent years and advancing age have been more burdening to him, and I was convinced that even a short period of time in that pit of Tartarus would surely kill him. He was my first Master, but he wasn’t an evil man or a brutal man. He didn’t terrorize girls or abduct them from their families. He never raised his hands to me nor did I ever observe him raising his hands to another. Yes, he deserved punishment for purchasing young women and adolescent girls through questionable circumstances, and selling them as sex slaves, but I didn’t believe he deserved the vileness of the palace dungeons.

In a huff, I climbed toward the back of the wagon and began exiting it.

“Gabrielle, where are you going?” Xena asked in a tone that was obviously oblivious to the sheer anger and frustration I felt toward her at that moment.

“Back to Corinth,” came my angry reply.

Xena reached over in one swoop with those unusually long limbs of hers and grabbed my ankles with both hands. “Are you insane?” she asked.

I tried to pry them away from her powerful grip. “I need to get Chayym Eben out of that prison before he dies.”

“Why?” she casually queried as she scooted her body closer to mine.

“Let go of me, Xena!” I said, my anger an obvious factor in my tone. “You didn’t have to put him in that prison.”

Xena released my ankles, but in an instant she gripped my upper arms and turned me to face her. “Yes I did,” she said.

“Why?”

“Because he’s a pervert, Gabrielle,” she said menacingly. “He made young girls do things to him. He made YOU do things to him.”

“Oh, I get it,” I sneered. “You slaughter those two slavers and imprison Chayym Eben because they had me sexually, right?”

“That’s right,” she snapped back at me.

“Well, it’s a good thing I’m not ‘The Conqueror’ or the bodies of your sexual past would fill the prisons and the graves.”
Xena’s usually blue eyes took on a color of gray death. I believed at that moment I had crossed a line, and the Xena who entered my world nine months ago would be lost to the cold, evil Conqueror that consumed me in her world for five often treacherous years. I truly expected her to strike me, and I don’t doubt that the thought went through her head, but instead she hauled herself out of the wagon. I didn’t know what she would do. I did know that somehow I had to find a way back to Corinth to save Chayym Eben. I’ll convince Demi to forge release papers for me, I thought conspiratorially.

As I haphazardly gathered up my belongings while plotting my devious scheme for my former Master’s release, I heard the voice of the Conqueror address the troops.

“I need two volunteers from my Imperial Guard,” she announced. “These volunteers will not continue on with us to our destination. I need these volunteers to sacrifice their position in this great battle that awaits us in order to deliver an important message back to Corinth.”

I had already peeked out of the front of the wagon when several members of the Imperial Guard stepped forward to volunteer for the long journey back to Corinth. The Conqueror leaned over to Guard Commander Palaemon. I highly suspected he was suggesting which two of the prospective volunteers they could most afford to lose before the pending battle. Both of the men that the Conqueror chose were young and lanky. She wrote a correspondence on a blank scroll and sealed it with her signature seal of the Realm.

“Take two horses, men,” she said to the two Guardsmen. “Your loyalty to the Realm will not go un-rewarded.”

“By your will, Conqueror,” the men responded in unison before departing.

“MOVE OUT!” The Conqueror ordered the troops. As my own carriage began to move, I ducked back in and awaited Xena’s return.

I waited for a very long time.

* * * *

As dusk came across the horizon, a steady stream of thick clouds rolled in with it. The air took on that distinctive smell which always precedes a rainstorm.

I was reclining on one of the comfortable cushions and reading when Xena climbed back into the wagon. She sat cross-legged and proceeded to stare at me. I returned the gaze. I felt a silent battle of wills occur with the winner being the one who held silence the longest. I decided to sacrifice victory.

“I’m sorry for insulting you, Xena.”

“Don’t you ever apologize to me,” came her very harsh response. At the moment, I was so overwhelmed by the tone that I failed to understand the meaning behind those words. But I know Xena. I realized quickly that whatever verbal assaults I inflicted on her would be miniscule compared to what she feels in her heart I had suffered both by her words and from her hands. In her mind, she doesn’t deserve any acts of contrition from me.

Also, Xena the Conqueror is too proud to ever require pity.

Another tactic was in order. “Thank you for sending those men back to Corinth, Xena.”

She bore her eyes into me. “My best fighters were selected for this mission and I had to surrender two of them to save some sorry old pervert who’s probably dead by now anyway.”

“You didn’t have to, Xena,” I said. “I would have gone back myself.”

“Yeah, you’re stubborn that way, Gabrielle,” she remarked. “Like Tartarus was I going to let you leave me and travel that distance alone. Besides, no palace dungeon guard would have let Eben out at your request.” She thought for a moment. “What were you going to do, forge some official documents to gain his release?”

“Yes, if that’s what it took,” I replied frankly.

Xena chose that moment to beam one of her signature toothy smiles at me. “Come here,” she said. “Why do you always make it impossible for me to remain angry with you?”

“I don’t know,” I said as I crawled over to her and allowed her to scoop me up into a loving embrace. Wrapping my legs around her hips, we began a series of short, tender kisses. I quickly forgot that I was infuriated with her as well. Xena’s lips are so soft and they seem to blend with mine perfectly. After long moments of our lips caressing and tongues playing, she fell still. Xena the Conqueror was sensing something. I opened my eyes and saw that hers were open as well. She turned her head to see Seumius at the front entrance of the wagon watching us. As I sighed my discontent over this man, she released me from her embrace and headed toward the front of the wagon. He immediately began backing up. I decided to crawl behind Xena and witness what was in store for this supercilious creature of a man, although I really didn’t want Xena to harm him.

When I peeked out, Seumius was standing in a downpour by one of the two horses that pulled my wagon. In my displays of affection toward Xena, I had failed to even notice the biting drops of rain hitting the canvas top. Apparently, Xena was oblivious to the rain as well… or didn’t care one way or the other.

“My Liege,” Seumius spoke. “The troops are very wet and rather tired. May we camp until the worst of this storm passes?”

“If we press on, we will reach Gesoria by midnight, Commander,” Xena replied.

“True, Majesty,” Seumius said.

Xena was silent for a few short moments. “We’ll camp until the worst of this storm passes,” she decided. “Have the troops bunk down in tents. I want them resting or sleeping. I don’t want to hear any frolicking, swordplay or gambling, do you understand me, Commander?”

“Yes, my Liege.”

“I want us to reach Gesoria before dawn.”

“Yes, my Liege.”

“And Seumius, do yourself a favor and stay away from me for a while,” Xena advised.

“By your will, Conqueror,” Seumius replied, obviously relieved that Xena had decided not to punish him for his voyeurism. Despite the fact that I had felt envy toward this man for his past with Xena, I was actually relieved as well.

As the elderly driver of my wagon climbed down to seek shelter in one of the other wagons, Xena ducked back inside. I found myself smiling at her uncontrollably. “Love suits you, Xena the Conqueror,” I said.

“You suit me, Gabrielle of Poteidaia.”

* * * *

Xena and I got undressed and settled under two thick blankets. Our hands began an erotic exploration as our lips resumed the task they had undertaken earlier. I ran my fingers through her lush, black hair for several moments before moving them lower. I then alternated rubbing and lightly scratching the thin, raised lines on her back. Xena removed her silky lips from mine and began furiously sucking my ear as her strong hands massaged my rear.

“You’ve got such a nice ass, Gabrielle,” Xena whispered into my ear. The caresses went on for long moments before our passions began to take over. I wanted to taste her. She wanted to taste me. So, she lay on her back as I rested my body on top of hers. I was positioned so that I was facing her saturated sex. I wrapped my arms around her powerful thighs and began sucking her nub. Xena scent was strong and inviting. My own loins tingled as I felt her long fingers grip my upper thighs and rear and her black bangs tickle the insides of my thighs. She began her sensuous feast as well. As I feasted, I massaged her firm yet soft thighs. I could feel the vibration of her moaning and her hardened nipples’ pointed touch on my hips. My equally hardened nipples were graced with the occasional presence of Xena’s fingers lightly pinching and manipulating them. With all that was going on in this position, climax eluded both of us for quite some time, but the additional time and effort proved to be well worth the wait.

When we were in a relaxing embrace after our deeply sensuous exchange, Xena looked at me. “Gabrielle,” she said. “Chayym Eben won’t be freed. I’m merely having him moved to a more inhabitable holding cell in the Corinthian Militia Compound. I’ve instructed Bahri to keep an eye on him. He’ll still face judgment.”

“I understand, Xena,” I said. “Bahri will be fair.”

Xena delicately ran her fingers down my face. “I know you disapprove of what I did to Hector and Gar,” she said. “You must truly see me as a vile creature.”

“No, I don’t see you as a creature, Xena,” I responded. “But yes, I hate what you did. I feel that you betrayed yourself by killing them. You weren’t motivated by any sense of justice, Xena. You were motivated by vengeance alone.” I cupped her cheek in my palm and continued, “Those men died not because they had wronged many women, which they had done. They died because they had wronged me. The betrayal was allowing that dark power to invade your soul. You let revenge take over your logical sense of justice, honor and integrity. I believe that these are your true traits, Xena. I KNOW that they are.”

“Okay, Gabrielle,” she countered. “What do you think Hector and Gar deserved as punishment for raping you, raping your sister, and violating all of the other girls abducted from your village?”

“My bitter heart says death as well, Xena,” I responded. “But last month you allowed me to spare a man who had raped girls even younger than I was at the time Draco’s men took me… and he had killed the girls as well. It wouldn’t be fair that that man is spared his life for doing something worse while these two men lose their lives.”

Xena raised her eyebrow. “So, if you were ‘Gabrielle the Great’, what punishment would they face?”

“After a fair trial, Xena, life imprisonment at the women’s prison on Lesbos,” I responded.

“What?” she exclaimed. “Why there? Why not the Dome of Trojans prison?”

“I’d have them placed in an outdoor cage so, for the rest of their lives, they would be surrounded by women that they couldn’t touch, have sex with, or harm. Everyday of their lives they would be forced to watch the women walk by their cage, ignoring them or insulting them or spitting on them, but never again would they feel the softness of a woman’s body or the deepness of her core.” I smiled. “I think that the punishment of having a phallus and not being able to use it is akin to having it cut off.”

Xena chuckled. “What about self pleasuring, Gabrielle?”

I thought quickly. “I would order that their hands be permanently bound behind their backs,” I said proudly. “Not only could they not self-pleasure, they would also be forced to eat from their plates like animals.”

“I like that, Gabrielle,” Xena said. “There’s only one problem with it.”

“What’s that, Xena?”

“The women in that prison are being punished for crimes as well. This would be considered a pleasantry for them.”

“Hmm…” I contemplated. “Well, a little entertainment could be allowed. I can’t imagine that any woman is capable of an atrocity greater than that of which a man is capable.”

“Obviously your love for me has blinded you and deprived you of your memory, Gabrielle,” Xena said.

I fell silent and the silence lingered for the remainder of rainstorm.

* * * *

Our entourage reached the costal village of Gesoria at dawn. Gesoria instantly reminded me of Poteidaia. It was a small peasant village and most of its inhabitants were women, children and older men. Most of the able-bodied men and older boys were off serving in one of the Conqueror’s various armies. Fishing appeared to be the main source of revenue to the villagers, although many small goat and sheep farms dotted the outer areas of the village.

Just west of Gesoria was where the Conqueror’s battle vessels awaited us. My jaw dropped at the size of these massive ships. Each ship had four masts and was almost twice the size of the warships that were docked in Corinth. When we had arrived, Xena immediately went to Palaemon, Marius and Seumius to begin drawing out a battle plan, I suspected. As I stood in total awe of the magnitude of the ships, Palaemon’s second-in-command, Aerol, approached me.

“Good morning, Gabrielle,” he greeted.

“Hi,” I responded. Aerol, like Palaemon, was an attractive man. But while Palaemon was fair-skinned and blond, Aerol possessed all of the features of his classic Greek heritage. His hair was black, curly and very thick. His nose was long and prominent, his eyes were a deep, rich brown and he had a thick beard and mustache. Despite his strong features and position in the Conqueror’s Realm, Aerol was a soft-spoken, friendly man.

“I see you are marveling at the beauty of our fleet,” he said.

“Actually, I was marveling at their size,” I responded. “I’ve never seen ships so huge.”

“These were Roman ships before the Conqueror took Rome,” he told me. “The Romans commissioned the Egyptians to build these ships.”

“Were the ships built in Egypt, Commander?” I asked Aerol.

“No, the greatest of the Egyptian ship builders constructed these vessels in Rome using the finest resources. The hull, masts and gunwales were crafted from the strongest wood brought to Rome from Gaul. The best Egyptian smiths molded all of the metal parts. Some of the smallest luxurious refinements within the boats are made of carved Roman marble, Egyptian ivory and the most precious gems and metals known to man. What you see before you, Gabrielle, is the greatest maritime fleet in the known world.”

Aerol smiled proudly. Xena the Conqueror may be tyrannical toward her civilian subjects, but the men and women who serve in her military practically regard her as some sort of goddess.

“Would you like to join me for morning meal?” he asked.

I looked over at Xena, who was in a deep discussion with her three military leaders. I was hungry. “Yes, I would,” I responded.

Aerol and I walked over to large group of soldiers situated in a makeshift mess hall. As I began eating my cooked grain and bread, Aerol asked me to tell a story. I had the full attention of almost one hundred men who surrounded me as I told a rather silly tale about a young boy who finds a talking bird in the woods.

“So the bird refused to speak in front of anyone else?” asked Aerol.

“That’s right,” I responded.

“And none of the villagers believed the boy when he told them that the bird could actually talk,” another centurion chimed in.

“Uh huh,” I affirmed.

“By Zeus, I’d kill that damn bird for being so stubborn,” said a third man.

Several of the soldiers begged me to finish the story. “What did the boy do?” queried one. “Did the bird ever speak in front of another human?” asked another. “Did the gods give the bird the power to speak?” asked yet another. As I continued my story, I looked into the faces of these centurions. These were Xena’s mightiest warriors, but for a moment in time, I had created before me a group of men as bright-eyed and inquisitive as a gang of schoolboys.

As I finished the story, Xena approached us. “What’s going on here?” she inquired menacingly. All of the men rose to their feet and bowed. I stood as well.

“Gabrielle was telling us a story, my Liege,” Aerol responded.

“She’s good at that, but you have your posts. Now GET TO THEM!”

Amazingly in unison, the men shouted, “By your will, Conqueror!” before practically falling over each other to be somewhere else. Only Aerol remained.

“Commander Palaemon has instructions for you, Commander Aerol,” Xena informed him as she stepped up beside me and put her arm around my shoulder. Her possessive gesture did not go unnoticed by Aerol.

“Yes, my Liege,” he answered and bowed before departing.

Is there something wrong, Xena?” I asked.

“No,” she replied flatly.

“I was just telling them my talking bird story.”

“Cute story,” she said. “But I’m not sure which they appeared to be enjoying more, your story or your close proximity to them.”

I playfully nudged my elbow into her side in an effort to lighten her mood. “Oh, Xena,” I said. “Not everyone sees me as the perfect… and might I add… gorgeous being that you see.” I chuckled at my mock arrogance and looked up at her, but saw a serious expression on her face.

“It’s time to sail, Gabrielle,” was all that she said before escorting me, with her arm still firmly planted around my shoulder, to one of the huge warships.

V. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG

With each passing day, I regretted more and more having Gabrielle accompany me on this mission. By the gods, I love her so much and I cannot imagine a moment without her, but I truly did not want her with me. Several years ago, when I acknowledged to myself my love for her, I promised myself that I would never expose her to the carnage that is so much a part of my life. It made no sense at the time. I would hurt her, but I didn’t want her to see me hurting others. She was forbidden from witnessing any punishments or judgments, the palace dungeons were off limits to her, and before Darphus, she had never witnessed me kill. As time passed and I fell deeper and deeper for her, I became paranoid about the stories and rumors she would hear about me from the other palace servants. It was strange, but although I wanted her to fear me and I even wanted her to hate me for a long time, I never wanted her to see me as a demon. I often shuddered at the thought that she looked upon me as some sort of inhuman monster. Of course, those little isolating gestures on my part were fruitless. With all that I did to her and everything I denied her, I was a demon to her anyway.

But when I finally told her that I loved her, I reaffirmed that commitment that I made to myself. It was short lived. Darphus, Antonius, Bahri, the Amazons, Chayym Eben, Draco’s men, the story of Marius’ wife; and the worst was yet to come. As she and I boarded the warship that would take me to yet another battle and expose her to yet another instance of my glorious cruelty, my mind was taken away momentarily from my focus on the battle ahead. The night before I had asked her what would she have done to the two men who permanently stole her away from her parents and repeatedly violated her. Her response was both illogical and impractical in my mind, but at the same time it made total sense. Killing them made me feel better. Letting them live with the constant reminder of what they no longer could have or take would have been a greater punishment to them. It was the same logic Gabrielle employed in her six public judgments. In her mind, vengeance should never be the priority, justice and atonement should.

Gabrielle’s Amazon tribe truly selected the proper moiety for her.

As we stood on the main deck, I looked down at Gabrielle, who had this look of utter wonder on her face.

“Have you ever been on a ship before, Gabrielle?” I asked.

“Well, there were a few boats in the harbor in my village,” she responded. “Father took me aboard one of them once or twice when I was little, but I’ve never actually sailed on one and I’ve never even seen a boat this big before, Xena.”

“I’ll give you a tour,” I said as I guided her to the quarterdeck. “This is where I will spend most of my time, Gabrielle.” I leaned down and whispered in her ear, “When I’m not making love with you.”

She smiled as I took her hand and escorted her below to show her the sleeping cabins.

A short while later, after our little tour, we returned to the main deck. The sails were being raised and the fleet of ships began sailing out of the harbor. Seumius commanded one ship, Marius another and Palaemon a third. I commanded the fourth. Aerol accompanied me. Several smaller vessels carried the remaining troops, our supplies, weapons, horses and catapults. We had not even hit rough water yet when Gabrielle began clutching her stomach and weaving in place.

“I don’t feel well, Xena,” she said.

“It’s okay, Gabrielle, you just haven’t acquired your sea legs yet,” I informed her. “It’s common and will pass.” Unfortunately for my Gabrielle, it didn’t. She spent the next two candlemarks hovering over the gunwale emptying her belly. When she continued to vomit although nothing remained in her stomach, I became very concerned.

I took Gabrielle down below, helped her undress and summoned the healer. “Bring me some yellow root and black cherries,” I ordered him. I had Gabrielle lay down on our large cabin bunk and applied a pressure to a point on her right wrist. She was doubling over. “This will stop the nausea,” I told her. The healer returned with a small bowl of cherries and a vial of the crushed root. “Eat a couple of cherries, Gabrielle.”

“I can’t, Xena,” she responded while holding her stomach. A tear trickled down the side of her face.

I took my thumb and wiped it away. “Please, Gabrielle, eat.” She took some cherries in her mouth. I gave her a small plate to spit out the pits and pried off the top to the vial. “Now, place some of this on your tongue. Don’t chew. Just swallow naturally.”

Gabrielle winced at the taste. “Ack! That was nasty, Xena.”

“It would have tasted worse had you not eaten the cherries beforehand,” I informed her. “Now rest. The remedy you took should settle your stomach. I’ll leave the cherries here. Feel free to eat more if you need to. You should feel better by morning.”

Gabrielle nestled in the bunk and I covered her with a blanket. I climbed in behind her and cupped my body against hers. I would lie with her only until she fell asleep. As her eyelids became heavier, I whispered in her ear, “There wasn’t more than a thousand, Gabrielle. Not even close.”

She turned her head slightly. “Pardon?” she asked.

“When you asked me that one time if there had been more than a thousand… bed partners… no, not even close,” I responded.

“Mmmm… good,” she said as she smiled faintly and drifted off to sleep. I extracted my arm from around her waist and adoringly kissed her temple before exiting our sleeping cabin and returning to matters that awaited my attention on the quarterdeck.

* * * *

The sea god Poseidon must have sent favorable ocean currents in our direction because we were close to the Albion shores just before dawn the next morning. I was up throughout the night going over the last details of my battle strategy with Aerol. I had already provided much of my plan to my other commanders on the other vessels before we embarked on our voyage.

Before my rise to power, the Romans had set up three shipping ports on the south side of Albion. The easternmost port was only across the channel from Gesoria in the village of Dubris, a small agricultural village just east of Niall’s native inland village of Calleva. It would have only taken us a few candlemarks to sail there. However, our destination was further west, off shore between the other two ports. The central port was at the tiny village Caesar named Regnum, which was just east of the small island of Vectis. The last port was located west of Vectis, in the village of Durnovaria. Each port had no more than a dozen small keels and supply vessels. When I conquered Rome, I took control of Albion’s southern ports. They were operated by those loyal to the Realm; sailors from Rome and Gaul, Celtic fishermen and merchant marines and those Albion tribal natives who most appreciated my defeat of Caesar.

Niall of Calleva hated Caesar with a passion, but he hated me as well. He was also, simply stated, a brute. I knew that he had been able to take control of those three ports by murdering most, if not all of the sailors of the Realm and native dockworkers who ran them. He was also a cannibal who had been known to eat the raw organs of the men he captured or defeated in battle. Some years ago, in Caesar’s attempt to conquer Albion, he battled Niall twice and lost both times. It wasn’t because Niall was a superior warrior or because his fighters outnumbered the Romans. Neither was the case. Niall was victorious because he and his tribe of animals, in the form of men, fought like wild dogs. They attacked in packs, hacked their opponents even after slaughter and they never retreated, even if injured. The Romans who survived the battles against Niall retreated out of pure fatigue.

Ah, but that was where Caesar made his crucial mistake. Ever so arrogant, he fought Niall on the notion that his so-called mighty Roman troops would win simply because he believed they were naturally superior human beings to the tribes of Albion he called “Britons”. Sure, his Romans soldiers could march upright and read scrolls, but those qualities didn’t amount to a valley of sheep when going up against a bloodthirsty savage like Niall. The only way to defeat him was to exhaust him.

Albion has several tribes that they call “clans”. Niall’s clan, the Iceni, is the largest of the southlands. The two other southern shore clans, the Dumnonii and the Atrebates were traditional enemies of the Iceni, but aligned with them when Caesar began his attacks. However, all of the clans to the north and on the companion island of Ierne have remained bitter enemies only of the Iceni. My understanding was that the other clans resented the fact that the Iceni drove a huge wedge between the Dumnonii, the Atrebates and the other island clans. Many small civil wars erupted in the years following Caesar’s failed invasion and my subsequent conquests, and most believed that Niall was solely responsible for this tribal division.

When we set sail from Gesoria, two of my vessels, one commanded by Marius, headed north and east through the channel and up the North Sea. A small port existed beyond the Iceni lands. The Parisii, the largest and most civilized clan of the central island, controlled this port. The Parisii are believed to be the “first” clan of Albion. They are part of the larger tribe of Parisii that inhabits an important territory in Gaul. Leaders of their tribe have governed the great Gaulish city of Alesia for generations, and continue to do so under my rule. The Parisii reputedly established a neighboring village of Alesia, bearing the tribe’s name, Paris. Marius’ orders were to recruit Parisii fighters in Albion to engage the Iceni from the north while we attack from the south and west. Recruiting Parisii wasn’t going to be difficult. More than any other in Albion, that clan hated Niall of Calleva and the Iceni.

To tire out Niall even more, I planned both a land battle and sea battle. I suspected that Niall had taken possession of all of my ships at the three Albion ports when he invaded them, but also knew that he couldn’t navigate his way across a bathing tub with any of them. There was no need to destroy the ships, but by positioning my catapult vessels within range of all three ports, I planned to blast portions of the ports. This would be what I called the first wave of my attack. The damage would not be grave, but enough to draw attention. Niall likely relocated my seized diplomats in each of the port buildings or within the bowels of the ships on the assumption that I wouldn’t attack neither and sacrifice their lives. Of course, no one life is more important than the greater glory of the Realm, except for Gabrielle’s life obviously, so the first order of business was to start a fiery commotion, thereby sending the message to Niall that Xena the Conqueror had arrived and was ready to scrimmage.

I also decided not to tell Gabrielle that innocents were likely to be sacrificed in this battle.

That morning, three catapult ships simultaneously blasted sections of the three ports. As the warriors of the three clans scurried away from the burning structures, Seumius’ ship landed a safe distance away from the central port in Regnum and his troops disembarked the ship to begin their land battle. They were the second wave. He and his troops would engage the three southern clans at the site of the smoldering ports for three whole days before the third wave began. On schedule, Marius, his troops and the Parisii allies swept down from the north before dawn the fourth day and engaged Niall’s stronghold near his main camp in the Roman established village of Londinium. I predicted that most of Niall’s warriors were positioned at or around his stronghold. Seumius’ surviving troops did a mock retreat back to their ships, allowing their foes to retreat back to the main camp to assist the others fighting my Roman forces and the Parisii.

Marius’ forces fought the clans for four full days. In the first full week that Seumius and then Marius fought Niall’s warriors, my ship and Palaemon’s vessel were anchored off shore. We were preparing my elite Imperial Guard strategically and mentally for their upcoming wave of battle. Palaemon, Aerol and I drilled the troops on the two ships we commanded. Gabrielle watched and, I believed, kept an accounting of our activities. She was doing a lot of writing. She also spent many hours practicing with her Amazon staff. I refused to allow any of the Guardsmen to spar with her, preferring to do it myself. I didn’t want them hurting her, I told her. I also didn’t want her getting too friendly with any of them. During this mission, the other reason why I didn’t want Gabrielle to accompany me became painfully evident. I could barely stand to watch the men of my troops, as covertly as they could possibly muster, notice her, eye her, want her. Many times I noticed them look upon her; some adoringly, others with sheer lust in their eyes. I wanted to kill them all. Of course, when I wasn’t preoccupied with their looks of craving, I was battling my own provocative stares. She was a constant portrait of beauty and desire to me, even when she would lean up against the gunwale, green with nausea. I still felt a deep sense of envy whenever any of my men merely looked at the splendor that she is. Although I was able to maintain my battle focus in those days leading up to our turn to attack, as I suspected would be the case, her presence, her beauty, and my need for her continued to burden me.

Because we were anchored, Gabrielle’s seasickness seemed to abate somewhat, although the sea’s waves caused the ships to continuously bob. I was still very concerned because she refused to eat anything considerable, preferring to exist on cherries and cucumbers. I told her to eat meat and grains, but she insisted that her stomach wouldn’t handle those heavier foods.

I slept sporadically for the first few days, taking naps in the midday and early evenings, drilling well into the night and into the morning. When we saw each other, Gabrielle and I didn’t speak much. Because she was practically starving herself, Gabrielle slept more and more as the days passed. However, on the evening before the morning I was going to join the battle, I went to her. She was preparing to turn in for the night. We hadn’t slept together for several days and I wanted to feel the warmth and sensuousness of her body next to mine.

“May I go to shore with you tomorrow, Xena?” she asked as soon as I entered our sleeping cabin.

“Oh, sweetheart,” I said. “You’d be safer here.” I had decided as we were sailing to Albion that I just couldn’t expose Gabrielle to my battle tyranny. Thus, she was to remain on the safe shelter of the ship.

“But I want off this boat, Xena,” Gabrielle implored. “Please!”

Her appeal almost brought me to tears. “The battle that awaits me is near its end, my love,” I told her. “When I defeat Niall, there is this place on the island where I want to take you. I know you were not meant to be on the sea, Gabrielle, but I promise you, this is almost over. In the meantime, I want you safe.”

I brought my lips to hers. As much as I wanted to, we would not make love that night, but I held her close and hummed sweet endearments into her ear until the combination of Morpheus’ grasp, exhaustion, and famine allowed sleep to claim her.

* * * *

Now it was my turn to enter the fray. With the damaged ports virtually abandoned, my Imperial Guard, Palaemon and I landed on shore with the main land catapult power. Seumius and his surviving warriors accompanied us. We marched the troops and rolled the catapults to an area just out of range of the main battle near Niall’s stronghold. Aerol’s orders were to remain on board my ship, watch over the fleet and, most importantly, protect Gabrielle.

We entered Niall’s stronghold in phalanx formation in the predawn of Marius’ fifth day of battle with the clans. I was in front and center of the forces. From the moment we landed on shore, I saw the carnage. Bodies were everywhere. Many of the heads of my dead soldiers were missing. The Iceni were known to chop the heads off of their defeated. They would display the heads on the tips of long swords or palisades mounted into the ground and lined in a row. I had done that display tactic of terror once or twice very early in my conquests, but quickly developed a major distaste for the practice and abandoned it back then. When we were in range of Niall’s stronghold, I observed for a moment the battle before me. There were mass casualties on both sides, but my Roman troops and the Parisii allies were holding strong. I quickly noticed that two of the Parisii fighters were obviously women. One was tall and lean with long red hair. The other, however, was an even taller, black-skinned warrior who bore the Parisii body markings. None of the clans of Albion and Ierne allowed their women to fight, so seeing the two Parisii women engage an enemy was a highly unusual delight to see.

I stood there waiting to be noticed. It didn’t take long. A massive, blood-soaked man emerged from amongst the fighting warriors and carcasses. He raised his signature, double-edged sword in the air and then pointed it toward me. Then he let out a blood-churning growl.

“GGGRRRRRR!!!!” The fighting around him stopped. On cue, my surviving troops and the Parisii allies, with a war weary but intact Marius, retreated in our direction. Niall’s warriors surrounded him.

“XENA THE BITCH!” he yelled at the top of his lungs in his native tongue, “TIME… FOR… YOU… TO… DIE!”

Palaemon leaned over to me. “What did he say, my Liege?” he asked.

“He was sending me his warmest morning greeting, Commander,” I responded. “Now, let’s kill him.”

I briefly looked at Seumius to my left. He was bruised and tired but eager to fight again. Palaemon was nearly coming out of his skin. “ATTACK!” I commanded. My forces began running toward the enemy, who charged as well. The waves of battle were very effective. Niall’s forces had dwindled down to the few dozen remaining warriors on the battlefield that morning.

As we ran, I set my sights on Niall. I wanted to execute him personally. Clanging swords, I looked into the gray eyes of this swine and said to him in his native tongue, “My time to die will come when I decide, dog.” He fought maniacally. Obviously, he preserved his energy for this moment of opportunity. We fought hard and for a very long time. Niall was very strong and excellent with a sword. He was able to slip two good slices into me; one on my right thigh and the other on my side, not far from the spot where Darphus stabbed me five months before. However, he was also portly and exceptionally clumsy, and his coordination decreased more and more as his overtiredness increased. Although days of travel and lack of sleep left me likewise exhausted, I took advantage of his fatigue and ungainliness and finally sliced my sword across his lower belly. As he went down, I kicked him in his face. He fell backwards and landed hard on his back. He gripped his bleeding stomach and looked up at me. I raised my sword.

“So, you like heads, Niall?” I said condescendingly in his language. “Let’s add yours to the collection.”

Just as I was about to chop off his miserable head, he raised one bloody hand in a halting gesture. “Please don’t kill me,” he said. This, of course, was the last thing I expected to hear from a highly skilled and feared warrior like Niall of Calleva. I stood there, actually dumbfounded. This man had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of my elite fighters. He had continually spat at me and at my Realm and now he was pleading for his pathetic life.

And for some reason, I couldn’t finish him.

Upon seeing their beleaguered leader cowering on the ground bleeding and begging for his life, the surviving tribal warriors surrendered. I lowered my sword and called for Palaemon, Seumius and Marius. “Bind him and the surviving clansmen,” I said. “Designate one of our ships as a prisoner vessel and load the clansmen onto it. Put Niall in a holding cabin on my ship.”

“You’re sparing him, my Liege?” Palaemon asked.

“No, we’re taking him to Rome to face judgment,” I responded.

I don’t know why, but Palaemon smiled at me. Marius and Seumius, on the other hand, looked at me as though I had lost my mind. “By your will, Conqueror,” Marius belatedly said.

As my fighters began apprehending the surviving clansmen, I approached the Parisii allies who stood exhausted in a group. “Thank you for your assistance,” I said to them collectively. At that moment, the leader of the clan and the two Parisii women stepped forward.

“I am Graeme,” he announced in the dialect of his clan. Although I had some difficulty, I was able to catch most of what he said. “I am the leader of the Parisii people here. This is a glorious day for us. We can now live without the fear of Niall’s continuous poisoning of our brethren clans.”

The white Parisii woman spoke. “I am Stanislas, sister of Graeme,” she said. “I too am grateful. With hard work, we will be able to reunite with our brethren clans of the southlands. Now we will have peace.”

When Stanislas put her arm around the taller black Parisii woman, my heart began racing. I don’t know how this lovely woman came to live amongst this clan in Albion. Perhaps the Romans abducted her into slavery. Perhaps she was the daughter of Taruga or Zanzibar ivory merchants who traveled the region. But it was obvious that she had a love for Stanislas that was the same way that I love my Gabrielle.

“I am Hadiya,” she said. “Stanislas and I share a blood union. Thank you, Xena the Conqueror.”

As the Parisii warriors walked away, I stood there on the bloody, body-riddled battlefield for long moments, thinking everything and nothing at the same time.

VI. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY

After Xena left the ship to go ashore, I once again leaned over the gunwale of that beautiful ship on which I had been a miserable occupant and emptied what little was in my stomach.

The night before, I had begged Xena to let me go ashore with her. I had no desire to fight, nor did I want to see her engaging in what I feared was her favorite pastime, killing the enemy in battle. I just wanted to be on dry land. When Xena was safely away from the ship, I approached Aerol and inundated him with irritating pleas.

“You’ve got to let me go ashore, Aerol,” I begged. “I can’t take this boat anymore.” I grabbed his arm for dramatic effect. “I’m so ill, Aerol. I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this.”

“I’m sorry, Gabrielle, but I have my orders to keep you on board,” he said.

Damn Xena and her orders. “Look Aerol,” I said quite agitated. “I’m dying on this boat. What would you rather? Disobeying the Conqueror and having her return to a live Gabrielle or obeying her and having her come back here to her dead little bard?”

“I’m sorry, Gabrielle,” he replied.

Diplomacy was not working.

“Dammit, Aerol!” I screamed. “If you don’t let me off this boat, I’ll… I’ll… I’ll jump off!” And with that, I ran to the ship’s starboard side where a short plank was fastened to the hull. I climbed down onto the plank and walked carefully to the edge. The water below me was very choppy, likely twenty leagues deep and probably infested with man-eating sea creatures.

“Please get off that!” Aerol implored.

“Only if you take me to shore,” I responded, determined.

“By the gods, Gabrielle, do you want to see my head on a platter?”

“Take me to shore, Aerol,” I demanded.

Aerol threw his arms up in defeat. “Okay, okay!” he shouted. “Now come back here!”

Aerol and I rowed to shore on one of the tiny keels attached to the hull of our ship. I could barely wait to touch the earth below me. When our keel hit land, I leapt out of it and fell to the sandy beach. Screaming my joy, I actually kissed the dirt below me and rubbed it on my face. Aerol must have thought I had succumbed to total lunacy.

I looked up at him with my mud-stained face. “Aerol,” I said. “I’m hungry.”

Aerol and I found a large stone on which to sit. It overlooked a lovely valley that was surrounded by tall grasses blowing in the autumn breeze. Off in the distance, there was a huge deep forest. The location where we sat was very peaceful.

Aerol had wandered off briefly to kill a rabbit for our meal. While he was gone, I thought about Xena. She is the greatest fighter in the known world, but I couldn’t help but to worry about her well-being. A part of me wanted to go to that battlefield. I wanted to feel her closeness, I wanted to feel safe, and I wanted to know that she was safe as well.

Aerol returned with two hares to eat. He had also managed to find some juicy black berries. I had brought my staff, a water skin and a satchel of cherries and cucumbers from the ship. I regretted that I forgot to bring bread.

I was so famished that I managed to eat the rabbit that Aerol cooked for me over the small fire he built, as well as half of the rabbit he cooked for himself. Finally sated after days of painful hunger, I leaned back on the rock and looked up at the cloud formations. Aerol joined me and we chatted…

… and waited for my Conqueror’s return.

* * * *

We saw the troops coming over the horizon. Aerol jumped to his feet as Palaemon, Seumius and Marius entered the landscape. There were several men tethered together in binds. They wore strange clothing. I suspected that they were prisoners of war.

When I didn’t see Xena with the group, I immediately became frightened and ran over to them. Aerol was right beside me. Since I felt most comfortable with Palaemon, I approached him.

“Where’s Xena?” I said, in my haste forgetting the honorific.

“She’s fine, Gabrielle,” he responded. “She was speaking with our Parisii allies. I’m sure she’s only a few lengths behind us.”

I breathed a sigh of relief and looked up at Palaemon’s prisoner. He was a burly man dressed in animal furs and leather. His arms were stretched out and tied at the wrists to a thick stick positioned across his upper back. He looked and smelled horribly. There was a prominent gash across his midsection.

“This is Niall of Calleva, Gabrielle,” Palaemon informed me. “He’s going to Rome to face the public judgments.” Palaemon handed the tethering rope to Aerol. “Take him, Commander,” he said to Aerol. “The others are going on a designated prisoner vessel. Confine Niall on the Conqueror’s ship.”

As Aerol led away the barbarian Niall, Palaemon grabbed my shoulder. “She could have killed him, Gabrielle,” he told me. “She was prepared to separate his head from his body, but something stopped her.”

I looked up at Palaemon. “You were with her on that battlefield today, Gabrielle,” he said. “No one has died by her hand in this war.” Rendering me speechless, Palaemon walked away, leaving me to my musings.

I waited by the large rock for Xena to emerge. When she appeared, she was walking with a limp and clutching her side. I ran to her and threw my arms around her neck.

“You’re hurt, Xena,” I exclaimed.

“Why are you not on the ship?” she asked irately.

“Don’t be angry with Commander Aerol, Xena,” I said as I put my arm around her waist and guided her to the large rock. “I forced him to bring me ashore.”

“How did you force him?” she inquired, her voice lower and more ominous.

“I threatened to jump, Xena.”

Xena didn’t react to my confession. She sat on the rock, grunting. “Do me a favor, Gabrielle,” she said.

“Anything, my love.”

“Go summon the ship’s healer,” she told me. “Have him bring cleansing ointments, cloth and sail thread. And have Argo and Chulytis saddled up with a day’s rations and brought from the ship.”

I kissed her forehead. “Anything for you, Xena,” I said as I began trotting in the direction of the ships.

“GABRIELLE!” Xena yelled, halting me. I ran back to her. “Take your staff, Gabrielle… just in case.”

I grabbed it and kissed her forehead a second time before running to the ships. Several moments later I returned with the healer. Palaemon came with the two horses in tow as well. The healer helped Xena remove her battledress. The gash in her side caused me to gasp. The one on her thigh was not nearly as bad. Just before he proceeded to apply the ointments and stitch the wounds, Xena hit pressure points on both areas. Apparently, she felt little, if any, pain as he bore the sail thread needle into her skin over and over.

I was no longer on that awful ship, but I felt as though I could lose my stomach once again.

When the healer finished, Xena assisted him in covering the wounds with the cloth bandages. She then turned her attention to Palaemon.

“Are we ready to sail, Palaemon?” she asked.

“We need to retrieve our two ships from the Parisii port, my Liege,” Palaemon replied.

“Leave them, Commander,” Xena said. “Gifts to the Parisii for assisting us.” She looked at the horses, and then me, and then Palaemon. “Celebrate our victory tonight, Palaemon,” she continued. “Our warriors deserve their merriment. Gabrielle and I will be back in the morning. We’ll journey to Rome then.”

“By your will, Conqueror,” he said before smiling at me and departing.

* * * *

Xena and I rode our horses into the deep forest that I had observed from my large rock. I was concerned about her battle injuries and looked over at her several times as we rode. Whatever pain she may have been experiencing was hidden behind a mask of strength and determination. I was also still very aware of the continuing discomfort she was feeling from the healed wounds on her back. Although the pain had days before been replaced with an irritating itch, in my constant state of nausea on the ship, I neglected to give Xena her daily applications of oil remedy to her back. Now she had fresh wounds with which to contend and all I wanted to do was shower her with tender, healing touches.

The forest in which we rode was made up of tall pine trees as well as large oak and maple bearing leaves in a variety of autumn colors. They seemed to go on endlessly. The trees were so dense and thick that the bright afternoon sun couldn’t penetrate them in most spots. We rode for well over a candlemark and finally came to a majestic river with a slow current. Xena jumped down off Argo and began taking things out of her saddlebag. I jumped down and removed my blanket, a scroll and some food from Chulytis’ saddlebag.

After Xena and I made camp, she took my hand and guided me back into the forest. We approached an outdoor temple. It was made up of a simple stone slab with a large decorative lekythoi placed on its center and some smaller vases, lush flowers and vines surrounding it. Although the smaller vases were filled with moss, ferns or flowers, the lekythoi was empty. Overall, the temple was a beautiful sight to behold.

“The local tribes of this region believe the water of that river is sacred,” Xena explained. “Every full moon, someone from one of the local villages comes here and takes the lekythoi, fills it with water from the river and nourishes these flowers and plants with it. I don’t know how sacred that river is, Gabrielle, but it’s amazing that these flowers are still blooming in this cold autumn air.”

“It’s beautiful, Xena,” I simply said as I sat on a log and faced the outdoor temple.

Xena began pacing rather nervously. “Gabrielle,” she began. “Do you ever think about bearing children?”

That question was totally unexpected. “Sometimes, Xena,” I responded. “Why?”

“I would think you’d make a great mother, Gabrielle,” she said. “You have such love and patience for them, and they seem to respond to you.” She stopped pacing. “I wish I could give you children. I would give you as many children as you desired, and they would all be so pure-hearted and beautiful because of you.”

“I believe some women marry men mainly because they desire children,” I said. “When a woman doesn’t have those feelings for her mate, I think a child senses the absence of a real passion between the parents. A child deserves parents who love each other as well as the child, Xena.”

Xena paced again and was silent for long moments before coming over to me and kneeling by my side. She looked down at my hands and lightly took them in hers. Her hands were trembling.

“You deserve so much as well, Gabrielle,” she said softly. “You deserve someone who appreciates the glory that you are… someone who respects you, sacrifices for you, loves you.” Xena looked up at me. Her blue eyes sparkled like gems. I sighed at her exquisiteness.

“You are my light, Gabrielle,” she said after taking a deep breath. “You are my paradise on earth and I want to spend the rest of my life deluging you with appreciation.”

Xena gripped my hands tighter and took another deep breath. “I don’t deserve to even ask this, but… but… please join me in union, Gabrielle,” she said quietly.

As my heart stopped beating, she rose up, stepped back, resumed her nervous pacing and began prattling. “I understand if you need time to think about it… take all of the time you need… consider all of the options… weigh the pros and cons… there’s a lot to take into account… I’m not the most easy person to live with…”

“Yes,” I whispered.

“Wars, conflicts, affairs of state, assassination attempts, my temperament… it can all be quite nerve-wracking, I’m sure… but…”

Xena stopped and looked at me. Tears of great joy began streaming down my face as I jumped up and ran to her. She took me into her arms and we held each other so close.

“I love you, Xena,” I whispered.

“I love you, Gabrielle, so much,” she whispered.

That night, under the shiny stars and by a sacred river, we loved one another; our passions taking on a whole new and marvelous meaning.

To be continued in Surprise In Rome

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