Aftermath: The Tree of Life by XWPFanatic

AftermathL

Aftermath: The Tree of Life
by XWPFanatic
July 1998

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Xena and Gabrielle are copyright and owned by a lot of people other than myself. This work is written entirely for fun and because I had too much time on my hands.

VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER: Xena, warlords and ancient gods are rarely pacifists. If you are looking for a story where no injury of any kind is inflicted, this would not be it.

SUBTEXT DISCLAIMER: Xena and Gabrielle are mature (most of the time), consenting (all of the time) adults involved with one another in a romantic kind of way. If you don’t like stories where our heroes are an item, you should find another story.

XENAVERSE TIMELINE: The action in this story takes place in the Armageddon Timeline introduced in HTLJ. This means there was no Hercules, so Xena has not reformed and she and Gabrielle aren’t friends … yet.

SPECIAL THANKS TO: The best beta reader in the world. If you like the story, it’s because she made me write it better.

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Chapter One

The Conqueror leaned back in her velvet cushioned throne half-listening to the reports of her regents from Macedonia, Thrace and Illyricum. Her head pounded from the sheer dullness of this task and from the bright light streaming in from the open windows. The incoming breeze did bring the scent of spring inside, reminding her of the seasons she had spent conquering Greece; conquering was the fun part, ruling was not.

“…and, of course, Macedonia is loyal to your liege, prospering …”

Xena stifled a yawn, she could predict each word out of their mouths. Of course they said everything was fine in the territories they had been granted. To not do so meant death. But that wasn’t what was bothering her.

Frowning, she shifted on her throne, crossing one long leg over the other, enjoying the feel of the silk as it resettled against her body. The Royal Wardrobe Mistress had been instructed in the design of each garment, rendering them in the Oriental style the Conqueror preferred. This one was midnight blue, a shade darker than the Conqueror eyes, with billowing sleeves, tight waist, and flared split skirt. The Conqueror’s insignia, a sword piercing through a chakram, was detailed in gold over her heart.

The regents watched the dress resettle on her sleek form with undisguised lust. Each of them had harbored many thoughts of what it would be like to conquer this woman before them.

This was not lost on Xena, who rolled her eyes, wishing they were as focused on their territories as they were on her body. She flicked her right index finger at Orpheus, the regent of Thrace, “Tell me of Amphipolis.”

The regent felt the beads of sweat form on his brow. Curse my luck for having the Conqueror’s hometown in my region. When assigned it, he had taken it as a sign of honor, expecting frequent visits and royal favor. That was now laughable for not once in her five year reign had she come to visit her former home. Not that she would be welcome … gods, they hate her there, especially the innkeeper, who calls Xena her ‘demon spawn’. “It is well, Conqueror. The town thrives under the sea trade you established between it and Troy.”

An eyebrow raised slightly, “No disturbances of the peace?”

“None, Conqueror.” Orpheus resisted the urge to wipe his hand across his forehead, it would only draw attention to his lie. He knew it would not be prudent to mention the effigy of the Conqueror that had been burned outside the town’s inn. “It is a quiet town, enjoying the prosperity of your reign. As does all of Thrace. As does all of Greece.”

Xena sighed and drummed her fingers on the arm of her throne. Five springs ago she had established the three main settlements outside of Corinth to maintain order. The men she had chosen were not her first choice, but she had been persuaded to appoint them on the advice of Menticles … her previous Royal Secretary who was now food for worms. She should have made alternate arrangements, appointed men from her army once her rule had stabilized. She ran a hand idly through her long hair, rearranging the locks absently as an idea came to her.

But I can fix the situation.

These three men had willingly followed her new reign, despite the wealth and honor shown them by their previous rulers. Once her stronger force arrived, they capitulated. Their one thought in life was to protect their own wealth and status.

That made them dangerous.

If they could accept her as a ruler, they would accept another as easily. They believed they owed her nothing. She needed regents who would be indebted to her. She had endured enough betrayal.

It became clear to her, as her eyes narrowed she saw the future clearly: Orpheus would ally with another who promised him a more exalted title. So would the other two, they were even greedier than he. None had her vision of a unified Greece. A Greece that could rule the world, with her at the helm.

These men were dangerous.

A smile played on her lips, the men did not know her well enough to note that it did not reach her eyes. “You have all served me well. And I wish to honor you for it.” She snapped her fingers and gestured for the scribe who left his position against the wall and hurried over to her throne. “Write this down: The Conqueror will entertain the Regents of Greece at the next full moon. They and all the members of their families are invited to Corinth to enjoy the pleasure of the Conqueror and to be displayed to all Greece.”

The three men thrilled with the prospect of such an honor.
Chapter Two
“I can’t believe it! Orpheus. Timmon. Titus. All on crosses. As well as their wives, children … even the babies. I saw one not three summers old. And that witch stood there, keeping watch to make sure no one could rescue them.” Arrol’s voice shook with anger, wishing he could have done something … anything.

His eyes grew wild when he pictured the scene he was certain would inhabit his nightmares for years. There had been more than fifty crosses on the Corinth hillside that morning, placed there as Apollo’s chariot began its race across the sky.

He had been in the city on business when he heard the otherworldly noise that drew him to a hill outside the city gates. Others had heard it too, for there was a throng of people traveling with him. Once he was close enough, he heard it for it was – the cries of anguish of the regents, their families and their household staff.

Recalling the scene, Arrol doubled over in pain.

A large crowd had assembled to watch the spectacle, a fact that scared the young merchant almost more than the executions themselves. This acceptance of the evil of the Conqueror’s reign was the core of Greece’s problems. No one raised a voice in protest or a hand in aid. He imagined the crowd washing their hands of the blood of the victims, never noticing they were still stained red.

And the Conqueror …

When he first saw the woman he hated above all others, she was sitting in the midst of the crosses. She had worn the battle dress he remember from her entrance into Corinth – black leathers, black armor, black cape – and the wind blew her hair and cape wildly about, making her appear more the specter that she already was.

The same wind had brought the cries of the dying to Arrol’s ears.

“That wasn’t why she was there, Arrol,” Gabrielle said softly, placing her hand on his back, soothing him.

He paused, his eyes still bright with anger over the latest atrocities in the realm. “No, why was it then?”

The gentle woman closed her eyes against her own memories of the cross, memories which coursed pain through still healing limbs despite the four moons time since her injuries, “No one would have been foolish enough to make a rescue attempt, and she knows it. She was there to make sure no one ended their suffering prematurely.”

“What? How so?”

At his confused look, she explained, “There are men … I believe kind-intentioned … who go amongst the crosses and end the pain of those who ask. I saw several of them push spears into the hearts of the other condemned. I considered asking for it too … but I was too close to the guards.”

“Thank the gods for that!” Arrol dropped to his knees and gathered her small hands in his. He and a few others had bribed a guard, who thought the girl already dead, to take her down from the cross. They had brought her back to Arrol’s home, tended to her wounds, her broken legs, and now she lived … despite the marks imprinted on her by the Conqueror.

“I know, one must never give up hope. It is all that keeps us alive.” An ironic smile at her next words, “That and the favor of the Conqueror.”

“You’ve been listening to her propaganda again.”

She shrugged her shoulders, “Not that I have a choice.” Every midday the town paused for a message from the Conqueror delivered in the various quarters by her Royal Criers. Those caught not paying attention were subject to beatings … or worse. “But it is always good to know the mind of our ruler. I wish I understood the reasons for the deaths of her regents. Was it displeasure? Or something else?”

An idea was forming about how to find out, based on yesterday’s message, but she dared not disclose it to Arrol. He would only try to stop her.

He pushed himself to his feet and began franticly pacing, “Well, I know. She’s a witch, a crazed harpy, a gorgon…”

Gabrielle laughed, despite the seriousness of the situation. “Gorgon? Every child knows that they have wings.”

He scowled, not wanting to be put into a good mood, but instead was caught up in her mist green eyes. His heart had been hers since they had first met when she arrived in Corinth. She had always served as a balm on any of his wounds, physical or emotional. “Who knows what she hides under that cape?” he muttered, in a half-hearted effort to stay angry.

“It is a good thing you are a merchant and not a bard, Arrol. You’d be getting the stories all wrong.” She could tell that her distraction was working as his paces slowed and he met her eyes, “Come, sit down, and I’ll tell you about the gorgons, and the truth about how to recognize them.” Reluctantly he took his place beside her, leaning a bit against her, inhaling the rainwater scent of her hair. “As you know, the world is cursed with three gorgons and two of them are immortal. The third …”
Chapter Three
First time visitors were always in awe of the Great Room. Set behind a stone entry room, the two enormous doors opened to what could have been an enclosed meadow, without the grass and trees. Over half a furlong in length and two chains wide, the room was large enough to host jousting contests. There were four entrances to the room: the Main, located in the center of the east end, which opened to the entry room; the Horseman’s entrance set in the northern wall near the west end, which was a carved archway to allow the jousters on horseback to enter; the Petit Room entrance set cattycorner from the Horseman’s entrance which led to a smaller room used for private consultations with the Conqueror; and the Conqueror’s entrance, opposite the Main, always heavily guarded, which led to private quarters.

The room was shaped as a rectangle except for the outcropping in the middle of the north wall – there the Conqueror’s throne was set back to conceal the ruler from any ill-advised missile attacks which might take place. The outcropping was built of solid stone, while the rest of the south wall alternated between stone sections and windows which stretched the height of the room, and provided much of the light for its activities.

The rest of the walls were covered with brightly colored silk and wool tapestries, all of them gifts from the Emperor of Chin. The floor was wood, large planks inlaid over stone, scarred by the passage of time, feet and hooves. At this moment, the room smelled of sweat and the only sound was that of heavy breathing.

Two figures slowly circled one another in the center of the Great Room, swords drawn. As was Xena’s custom, Palaemon, the Captain of the Royal Guard, joined her for a sparring match every afternoon. She never wanted him or any others to forget that she ruled because she had earned the right. Various court officials stood silent around the edges of the room watching and waiting for the day’s events to continue. No one dared to leave during the match since showing any disrespect was not tolerated.

The Conqueror swung her sword in a lazy circle around her, “Come on, Palaemon, show me what new moves you have.”

Palaemon swallowed hard, disliking the smile she had just flashed him; her smiles during combat were primitive and wild, and spoke only of danger. The last time she had looked at him in such a way, she gave him the scar which ran from the center of his forehead, across the bridge of his nose and down his left cheek. It was a memory he did not wish to relive.

Getting no response she stopped moving altogether, dropped the point of her weapon, and swayed her hips suggestively, “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”

He knew better than to respond with a flirtatious comment of his own. The last man who did had been disemboweled. Enough fooling around; never let her get bored with you. And she’s almost at that point, her eyes are half closed with sleep as it is. With a cry, he lunged, driving his sword at her chest.

It was deflected easily. “You can do better than that.” Xena bared her teeth at him savagely.

He nodded and tried again. This time he feinted to the right, followed by a quick spin and lunge to the left.

The Conqueror swatted Palaemon’s sword as if it was an insect. This time her eyes narrowed, “Palaemon, were you out drinking with the other soldiers last night? I don’t tolerate that behavior in the Captain of the Royal Guard. Surely, you know that.” She shook her head imperceptibly.

“No, of course not, Conqueror.” But the protest seemed half-hearted when accompanied by his next predictable series of moves which never even came close to hitting his mark. Now angered, Xena launched her own attack, ready to teach him a lesson. She found her sword being blocked, time and again. She laughed, realizing his deception, proud of him. “Tried to trick me? Make me overconfident?”

“It … never … hurts … to try to get … some small … advantage.” Palaemon panted, while pressing an offensive series of moves. Pleasantly surprised, he found himself able to drive her back toward the south wall. Perhaps his strategy had worked. He redoubled his efforts, using every ounce of skill he possessed. Jab, thrust, parry, lunge, spin, thrust.

The Conqueror glanced over her shoulder and saw the approaching wall. With a few quick steps she placed additional distance between herself and her Captain. As she had hoped, Palaemon interpreted her movements as fear and rushed toward her. Yelling her battle cry, she launched herself at the wall, running up it, using the momentum to spring back over his head. She landed neatly behind him, tapped his shoulder playfully and placed her sword at his throat. Palaemon dropped his sword in surrender.

“Women are always most dangerous when they appear to retreat, Palaemon. Never forget that.” She whispered into his ear.

The warmth of her breath sent skitters down his spine. Despite his position, Palaemon smiled. “Another lesson learned at your hand, Conqueror.” He would love other, more private, lessons but he was wise enough to know that to ask would shorten his life.

Xena lowered her weapon and stepped away. She walked toward the extended towel from her personal servant. Casually, she wiped the light sheen of sweat off her brow and the nape of her neck. “What is our business today, Nestor? What new things to distract me?” With the grace of a feline, Xena sat upon her throne.

Nestor, the Royal Secretary, a tall, thin man who resembled a scarecrow, complete with corn colored and textured hair, consulted his scroll. “The Contest of Truth, my liege.” His voice was nasal and always sounded as if someone had pinched his nose while he spoke.

With her left hand, Xena swept through her long hair, brushing it back roughly into place. “Ahh … I had almost forgotten about that.” Actually, she had forgotten. She still wasn’t sure why she announced the contest yesterday, only that it had seemed like a clever idea at the time. “Announce the rules for the contest, Nestor.”

The man peered over the length of his nose, which – in truth – did appear quite pinched, and read from the parchment, “Each contestant shall give a definition for truth. A panel of three philosophers will decide which definition is right … and if you agree with their decision … the winner will be rewarded as you see fit.”

“And the losers?”

Nestor reviewed the scroll and noted that there was no provision for the losing contestants. “My liege, I await your command.”

Xena pursed her lips in thought. “It seems to me that truth – if it exists – should not be free. Nor should the process of arriving at truth be free from … pain. Don’t all philosophers complain of the anguish they have suffered thinking their deep thoughts?” The Conqueror laughed, not pretending to hide her contempt for such men. Any able bodied man who did not choose the pleasures of war over all others was a waste of flesh in her opinion.

“They do, my liege.” The Secretary waited anxiously to discover what penalty the losers would suffer. The Conqueror could be so … creative … at times.

“What is truth worth? A hand? A foot? A leg? A life?” A thought suddenly occurred to the ruler. “Nestor, that oracle who visited me last year and gave me the warning about the regents. Do you remember why he said he could see the truth of what would be?”

Nestor nodded slowly, a smile playing at the edges of his thin lips, “Yes, my liege, it was because he couldn’t see the truth of what is.”

That was the penalty, she realized, settling back into the comfort of her throne. “That then shall be my gift to those who are unable to see the present truth: I will enable them to see the future truth.” She snapped her fingers, “Let it be written, all who speak lies shall be blinded.” As an aside she muttered, “Perhaps that will cut down the number of fools I must endure today.”

Upon the Conqueror’s return from her bath and changing, Nestor ordered food to be brought to her and placed on the table at her side. Mitrus, her food taster, stepped forward to sample the meal of roasted quail, boiled vegetables and sweet while she watched.

The philosophers from Corinth Academy were brought forcibly by members of the Royal Guard and shoved indelicately into their seats at the Conqueror’s left hand. Flushed from the exertion of the forced march, the three men panted for breath.

Xena cocked her head and quickly Nestor was at her side awaiting instruction. “I don’t want to see those … ‘men’. I am already suffering from the glare off their pale skin and shiny heads.” She waved a hand in front of her eyes as if to deflect the glare. “Move them.”

“Yes, my liege.” Nestor signaled to Palaemon, who signaled to the three guards who had just brought the men into the Great Room. Instantly, the guards placed rough hands on the philosophers and dragged them out of her peripheral vision.

Xena, the Conqueror of Greece, would be the arbiter of the essence of truth.

She liked that: Another line on her list of accomplishments. Yet the one title she wanted most, dreamed about endlessly, lusted after more than all others was still out of reach: Conqueror of Rome and Executioner of Caesar.

Caesar, the one man who had ever defeated her, who had used her in the way she had now used countless others. The man who had shattered her legs and nearly crushed her spirit. The man who now ruled Rome and its empire. The one who knew what her truest weakness was.

“One day, Caesar. I will divide you.”

“My liege?”

Xena had not realized she had spoken aloud. She scowled at the hovering Secretary and waved him away. Glancing at the still-living Mitrus, she took one of the sweet pastries beside her. She idly wondered why all food tasters resembled rats.

“Have the proclamation read and let us see if we have any who would dare to instruct the throne on what truth is.”

Palaemon, who had been watching the unfolding scene with masked interest, seriously doubted that any would come forward. Yet the promise of a reward from the Conqueror is sure to be tempting to some. I wonder what she will give the winner. And will it be worth gambling his eyes? And having her know his name. Of course, every day I wager my life, betting that she will not grow tired of me. If I live long enough, I know I am fated for fame. I will be her foremost Captain of the Royal Guard. Perhaps I will have the honor of saving the Conqueror in a battle against the Romans. Or even bringing her Caesar in chains. Or slaying the last of those brutish, unnatural Centaurs. Gods, all I’ve ever wanted to do sense I was strong enough to hold a man’s sword was to be bloodied in battle beside hr. And maybe just once to see something for me in those eyes I look into every night in my dreams.

His attention was drawn back to the present when the first contestant strode confidently into the Great Room. Here is a future blind man. The man, not more than twenty summers old, approached the Conqueror with head held high and eyes that bore into her. He did not bow, kneel or even incline his head. Palaemon had seen dogs with that mad look in his eyes before they were put down.

Watching him approach, the Conqueror amused herself by trying to determine how she would take his eyes. By poker? By knife? By spoon? Bet that would make an interesting sound.

“I am Sitacles of Agara.”

Xena’s eyes narrowed and she sat forward on her throne, studying the man intently. Speaking before being spoken to. No prostration before the throne. His lack of etiquette and lack of fear in her presence was remarkable. “So what is truth?” she asked softly, appearing to disregard each of these slights.

The man spoke harshly, each word barked out like the mad dog Palaemon was sure he was. “Truth sits upon the lips of dying men. I heard it first from my brother, Telos, as he lay dying on your battlefield.” Emboldened by his own voice, he shouted, “The truth is you are a curse on our land! The truth is you have destroyed all that made life worth living! The truth is you deserve to die!” With a quick movement, he produced a dagger from his sleeve and flung it at her heart.

Damn, damn, damn! Palaemon broke from his position near the Conqueror and lunged at the man. He was too late to block the throw, but did manage to knock it off course. With a grunt and a cracking of bones, he tackled Sitacles and held him down forcibly, his right forearm across Sitacles’ throat crushing the windpipe.

The Conqueror casually reached out and stopped the knife before it found residence in Mitrus’ body. The food taster looked at the tip of the blade a scant hairbreadth’s away from his throat and passed out. “Can’t afford to lose you that way,” she said to him as he fainted.

Silently, Xena rose from her throne, much like a great cat stalking its prey. She crouched over the prone man. “You defy me? You come to my Great Room and dare attack me? Oh yes, truth is on the lips of the dying.” With that she plunged his dagger into his intestines, raking a long gash through his middle. The flesh tore easily and the blood flowed freely from the jagged wound. She watched dispassionately as he writhed in pain, his hands clutching at his stomach, trying to hold it in. “Tell me, Sitacles, are you dying?”

“You … know … I … am.” For some reason he found himself unable to deny her question, unable to tear his eyes away from her hypnotic ice blue stare.

“And am I?” She gestured with the bloody blade at the length of her body, undeniably strong and healthy. Even her garments had escaped injury – not a speck of his blood defiled them.

A spasm wracked through his body, convulsing him, “No.”

Xena put her lips by his ear, in a mockery of a lover’s whisper, “Then you have failed. Your whole life has been a failure, hasn’t it? You have failed the memory of your brother. A man who was better than you, wasn’t he? Isn’t that true? Aren’t you … pathetic?”

The fighting spirit in Sitacles died, “Yes.” And then his body followed.

Xena wiped the bloody blade on his shirt and dropped it to the floor. “Truth is on the lips of the dying.”

Nestor moved forward to begin overseeing the clean up activities. This was a procedure he was well familiar with.

The Conqueror, once again seated on her throne, motioned for Palaemon to come to her side. “Have the guard who let that man in without searching for weapons beheaded.”

“Yes, my liege.” He hated to lose a member of his guard, but he would have hated losing his own life even more. Turning sharply on his heel he left to carry out the Conqueror’s orders.

As he walked out the main entryway, a pair of servant girls entered carrying buckets of water and special salts to clean the stained floor. Both girls appeared to weigh only slightly more than the burdens they carried. Kneeling down, they sprinkled the salt over the crimson and began scrubbing with the sea sponges. It took them several attempts before the cleaning was complete.

Xena noted with mild interest that all that was left of Sitracles was a small wet stain on her floor. Idiot.

Meanwhile, Nestor waved some pungent material under Mitrus’ nose. His eyes, which were very close together and dark brown, narrowed as he tried to focus on Nestor hovering over him. “Get up now, Mitrus, the worst is over.”

Xena stamped her heel, and bent a finger toward her Royal Secretary. “Let the contest continue. I want to be through with this before nightfall.”

“Yes, my liege. Let me see how many contestants remain.” The Secretary walked swiftly towards the main entryway and disappeared for a few moments. When he re-entered there was a half-smile across his thin lips. “My liege, only two contestants remain.”

Much better, Xena thought. “Bring in the next contestant.”

A stout young man entered and moved quickly to the petitioner’s circle in front of the throne. There he knelt, resting his forehead against his knee, carefully lowering his eyes, and awaited her command.

Much better; knows his place. Now if he can only manage a civil tongue and an insightful word … “Arise and answer.” The face that greeted her was ruddy from many hours laboring in the sun and he had large hands, good for handling animals and tools. From the look of him, Xena assumed he was a farmer.

“Conqueror, the truth is not that which really is, but what every man persuades another to believe. A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” He lowered his eyes once again, not forgetting that he had risked them for the opportunity to speak before her.

Yes, this one is good. He would recognize the lie that is now regarded as truth that Caesar cannot be defeated. Damn it, even my own army still believes it, is still afraid of Rome and its legions. But Rome will be mine for the taking. Soon. That is the truth, I swear by Lyceus’ grave.

Nestor sensed that the Conqueror was about to declare this young man the winner. Cautiously he approached and spoke softly to her. “Shall I admit the final contestant?”

Impatient to end this tedium, she flicked her hand. While she waited, she leaned over the cushioned armrest of her throne, and plucked a bunch of grapes. Long fingers nimbly removed one from the stem and tossed it into her open mouth. She bit down on it, enjoying the burst of flavor and the texture of the pulp against her tongue.

Raising her eyes, Xena watched the progress of the small woman into the room. The woman wore a dark cloak made of a rough wool, with the hood drawn up over her head obscuring her features. In her right hand was a staff she leaned heavily upon as she walked. And she used it to pull herself back up to her feet after kneeling before the throne. Her countenance made her appear to be an old woman. When she heard the voice of a young woman, the Conqueror was surprised. “Conqueror, we know truth not by reason but by the heart.”

The Conqueror rolled her eyes, another young woman full of romantic notions. Expelling a deep breath, she replied, in a silky, menacing tone, “You have failed to answer the question, what is truth, not how is it known.”

Instead of being scared by Xena’s reply, the woman stood a little straighter, causing the hood to slip back slightly, revealing a lock of reddish-blonde hair. “The truth is dangerous,” she replied evenly.

Then I am truth, the Conqueror thought. “To whom? The one who speaks it? Because they might have their tongue cut out?”

Gabrielle decided to ignore the implied threat. Now is not the time to lose my nerve. She shook her head, partially to clear out the fear, “No, to the one who denies it.”

Xena could see where this conversation was going and she felt a grudging respect rise for the woman. Not many would dare speak these words to her, tell her that she denied the truth, and thus forfeit their life. Intrigued, she decided to ask the question, “Is there a truth I am denying?”

Gabrielle swallowed hard as she considered her reply. The moment I came here I knew the prior sentence of death still stood. And this time, I don’t think Arrol will be able to bribe a guard for my body. Finally, she found her voice and replied, “That you are afraid.”

The Conqueror rose from her throne and stood on the platform, towering above her. “Of you?” Her voice dropped to its lowest register, where it was as much felt as heard. She heard the palace staff laugh at her question. No one would be afraid of this scrap of a girl before her. Apparently, the woman thought it was funny too. Xena heard her laugh as well and thought there was something familiar about that sound.

“Not of me. But of the truth that even you can still be afraid.”

Lyceus. Her laugh sounds just like Lyceus’ did. She felt her knees weaken at the memory of her little brother. Drawing upon iron will formed by years of battle, Xena steadied her legs and her voice. “We shall see. So you speak truth?” A plan for forming in her mind to find some amusement out of this ordeal.

“I try to.”

Xena approached the girl, and pulled back the hood covering her. Yes, this was the face of that insurrectionist she can condemned not too long ago. She had been very vocal at her trial. “Then you admit that I ordered you crucified less than five moons ago?”

Gabrielle gasped, she had not expected to have made that much of an impression on the Conqueror. Hasn’t she sent hundreds to the cross before and after me? “I do.”

Her fingers entwined themselves in the hair now spilling on the girl’s shoulder. “So you are as good as dead right now?”

Gabrielle’s head hung down, “I am.” I was stupid to think that I could win this contest and get to speak to the Conqueror. Who am I to appeal to the ruler of all Greece?

The Conqueror grabbed her chin and forced her to make eye contact. For a moment the blue and green eyes held each other. Xena started to speak, then faltered momentarily, “Here is my judgment on you … I will let you live as long as you always speak truth to me. And let us see if I am ever afraid.” Her hand dropped from the girl’s chin, but their eyes stayed in contact. “But listen well, if I catch you in even one lie, one falsehood, one shading of fact, you will go back up on a cross … and I promise it will be a more permanent arrangement.” She motioned for Nestor. “Have her cleaned up and the healers see to her. Present her to me at dinner. Let us see how long our oracle of truth shall live.”

“Yes, my liege.” He took the startled Gabrielle by the arm and began to lead her to the palace household rooms. The sound of her staff hitting the wooden floor echoed throughout the chamber as they left.

Alive … Gabrielle thought, surprised as everyone else in the room. Alive … and able to speak her mind. As long as she never compromised, it would stay that way.

“You,” Xena addressed the man who had won her contest, “Your reward is that you shall serve me as my orator. Let us see what truth you can have the world believe about me.”

With a flourish, Xena retired from the Great Room, anxious to visit her army before her evening’s dinner guest. She doubted the girl would last through dessert. It seemed everyone lied to her nowadays. Why should this girl be an exception ?
Chapter Four
Gabrielle was speechless at the opulence of the personal quarters of the Conqueror. She had thought the tapestries in the Great Room were impressive, but they did not begin to compare with those hanging here. Looking closely Gabrielle realized that several depicted a significant event in the Conqueror’s life – the one nearest the doorway was clearly her triumphal entry into Corinth five years ago, the one next to it was the battle of Athens, beside it was the battle against the Centaurs. She believed that others were of the Conqueror’s life as well, but she didn’t recognize the events.

The floor was covered in overlapping Persian rugs. The soft surface aggravated her legs as it made her unsteady and she had twisted her knee twice already; even worse, she had nearly broken one of the Conqueror’s possessions. Her staff had been taken from her, the Conqueror’s security team obviously believing it to be a weapon. Gabrielle snorted a soft laugh, as if she could even lay a blow on the ruler.

Her eyes wandered around the room at the various trophies of Xena’s victories. The most exquisite were pieces of porcelain from Chin, each delicate and hand painted. How can such delicate things share a room with her?

Nervously, Gabrielle smoothed the silk dress the wardrobe mistress had insisted she wear. With sadness, she noted how long the cut of the dress was, keeping her mangled legs from view. The mistress remarked on how the deep green brought out the color of Gabrielle’s eyes. No one had ever noticed her eyes before … except Arrol. Who, she realized, must be mad with worry about her as he must have discovered the note she left.

Speak truth. Don’t let her trick you.

After being dismissed by the Conqueror in the afternoon, Gabrielle had been taken to the baths, cleaned and presented to the healer. The healer, an old man who reminded her of her father, had been surprisingly compassionate. He clucked and shook his head when he saw how her legs had been set. He told her that with time, aggressive treatment and exercise, he thought he could straighten her legs to diminish the pain.

Gabrielle noted that the healer did not seem as hopeful, however, of her surviving the Conqueror long enough for that to take place. I will survive you, Conqueror, just like a survived your torture. Too much depends on this.

Since she didn’t know whether it was proper for her to be seated without the Conqueror, Gabrielle wandered about the room. Her aching legs reminded her of another torture of the Conqueror’s – to be late.

The footman opened the door admitting the Conqueror now dressed in a wine red dress. She waved off the Royal Guards who came to take their positions on either side of the door. “I don’t think I’ll be needing you in here.” She cast a glance at the wobbling girl. “She’s not much of a threat. Except for getting a bloodstain on one of my carpets.” Xena was pleased when she saw the girl try to stifle a gasp. “What do they call you?” the Conqueror asked. She led the way into a dining chamber.

Gabrielle was once again impressed by the richness of the room – around a teak table were ten high-back chairs, each with blue velvet cushions. “Gabrielle.” The girl’s eyes were drawn to the place settings made of gold on the table which was covered in white linen.

Xena cocked her head at the absence of an honorific.

“My lieg…”

A hand went up. “Don’t feel compelled to honor me if you’re not sincere, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle instantly understood the warning. “So insincerity is to be considered a lie?”

Xena shrugged, “I am surrounded by flatterers all day long. It’s nice to have someone speak their mind.” With fluidity of motion, Xena dropped into her seat at the head of the table. She motioned for the smaller woman to be seated as well.

Gratefully, Gabrielle took her seat to the left of the Conqueror, sinking into the cushions with unexpected delight, breathing out a soft sigh of relief. This is what it means to rule the world … or at least Greece’s portion of it. Not bad. “Perhaps more would if they did not fear your wrath for the telling of it,” the words were spoken softly but with assurance. If I’m going to die, at least I should make it count.

Xena shook her head. No one understands what it takes to lead hundreds of thousands of people. “It’s not that the words spoken are so hateful, but what they inspire people to do.”

Seemingly by signal, the household staff appeared and began serving the dinner. Rich smells of smoked duck, broiled swordfish, roasted vegetables and freshly baked breads rose through the air and directly to Gabrielle’s stomach. In response, it let out a loud rumble, causing the woman to blush and study the plate in front of her.

Xena, who had clearly heard the sound, chuckled. There seemed nothing false about this girl, every reaction bubbled immediately to the surface. Not a wise quality, she noted sadly. But it was refreshing. And so like Lyceus. “I see you approve of dinner.”

“Quite. I haven’t seen this much food in one setting since before …” she stopped immediately upon realizing what she was about to say.

An older man who was just pouring the wine flinched when she spoke, highlighting her mistake. He dared not glance at the Conqueror’s face. He knew it would not be a pleasant sight. Once he had seen it contorted with rage, that vision still haunted his nightmares. Silently, he urged the liquid to flow faster so he could make his escape.

Xena’s voice became obsidian hard, “Finish what you were saying,” she ordered.

“It was …” Gabrielle started to try to explain it away and realized there was no doing so. Speak truth. “Before your reign,” she whispered.

The wine pourer made a hasty exit. He was certain that the next sound he would hear from the room would be the girl’s dead body hitting the floor. Pity, she had been a nice looking thing.

Gabrielle thought she saw the faintest smile touch the Conqueror’s lips before the mask of neutrality she wore came down again. “It has been a few hard years. The war effort to consolidate our lands took a great toll. But one that was worth the price. And … certainly … even I cannot be blamed for the drought that swept through our country last year. Or can I?”

Gabrielle didn’t trust herself to speak, instead she just shook her head and waited to see if that was the end of the Conqueror’s response to her.

Mitrus entered the room and took small portions of the meat and fish. He placed them in his mouth carefully, as if that caution might save his life should there be poison. After swallowing and waiting a few moments, he reached for the remaining food items. He sampled each, chewing delicately. Still alive, he drank from the wine. He didn’t notice what a fine vintage it was, being too concerned about continuing to breathe. He hated his job, but slaves were unable to dictate their desires.

The Conqueror nodded to him, indicating he was free to leave. “The wine is quite nice,” Xena resumed amiably after sampling some herself, “you should try it.”

“Thank you.” For more than just the wine, she thought. Her hand shaking slightly, she reached out and brought the goblet to her lips.

Xena picked up her utensils and began eating the food placed before her. With a wave of her fork she urged Gabrielle to join her. Her fair-haired guest had gone quite pale and she was worried that she would soon pass out if she didn’t get some food in her. “After you managed to survive the cross, why didn’t you flee Corinth? I wouldn’t have known.”

“I have nowhere to go anymore.”

“Where were you from? I can tell from your accent that it is not from here.”

Her accent was, in truth, a little rustic still. “A village called Potadeia.”

“It’s in Thrace.”

Gabrielle was surprised the woman would know that. Potadeia hadn’t been very impressive even to Gabrielle, but it had been home. “It is.” She took a bite of the swordfish and nearly swooned with pleasure. If this were to be her last supper, she would be content. “It was ransacked by a warlord named Draco. A number of us were captured to be sold as slaves.”

“You are a slave?”

“No. I escaped from capture. But my sister didn’t. I haven’t seen her since. And the village was burned down by Draco’s men. My mother and father died in that attack. I made my way south. And ultimately came to Corinth. I’m a teacher now.” She said all of this in a rush, she couldn’t afford to have it thought she was a runaway slave … not in addition to everything else: insurrectionist, crucifixion survivor, and full-time speaker of truth.

There has to be more to that story than the girl is letting on, Xena thought. No one simply ‘escaped’ from Draco’s men. Not a lie, just not the whole truth. I’ll let that pass – for now. “Who and what do you teach?”

“Reading and writing to some of your soldiers. But as a young girl, I wanted to be a bard,” she smiled wistfully, remembering hours in the hay loft with her sister, Lila, talking about heroes and monsters and falling in love.

Just what the world needs, another storyteller filling the people’s minds with fancy stories. “You serve the realm then. We need men who can communicate easily with me if we are to rule the world,” Xena concluded.

Gabrielle’s brow furrowed, she had certainly never considered her position as aiding the war effort. “And if they are to be better men. Sometimes people write simply to learn and share … not just to conquer.”

Xena’s face puckered at such a thought, “That too,” she muttered, with more than a touch of sarcasm.

Normally being disregarded so blatantly would have infuriated Gabrielle, but this time she felt nothing other than a slight rousing of affection for the dark-haired warrior. She’s not quite so frightful once you get her off that throne. And she has let me speak my mind so far. Isn’t that why I came here? Because I believed that somehow I could make a difference in her life. No one would be so cruel if they cared for even one person.

Or were cared for by even one person, she corrected herself. Perhaps that is the key.
Chapter Five
When they brought in the dessert offerings, the kitchen staff was surprised to find Gabrielle still alive. One of the women, an older woman with graying hair and age spots dotting her hands, gave Gabrielle a shy smile of encouragement as she put a plate in front of her. This one must be something to still be breathing. Especially after what she said earlier. Gabrielle smiled back, excited by the raspberries and fresh cream.

The Conqueror watched with amusement the woman attack the plate. Gabrielle had already finished off two large helpings of the meal but still ate as if she had just been found in the desert … after many long weeks. Some of my soldiers don’t eat as much in one sitting. Xena certainly didn’t, for she never liked the feeling of heaviness that overcame her after a large meal. And, as a soldier, she knew it was best not to let anything dull her senses for any period of time.

Before Palaemon reached the corridor leading to her private quarters, the Conqueror heard him. Her internal sense of time indicated he was a little earlier than usual. Xena picked up her goblet and drained the remainder of the wine, enjoying the warmth as it trailed down her throat.

A knock on the massive door, “Come,” Xena ordered.

Palaemon entered and bowed to the Conqueror. His eyes swept over to the silent girl seated next to her and inclined his head. He was charmed to see her blush in response. For a moment he believed that his facial scar made him more attractive by making him seem mysterious. When the Conqueror cleared her throat softly, he turned his attention back to where it belonged, “My liege.”

“Sit, Palaemon, have some …” she waved her hand at the abundance on the table.

Gabrielle was about to offer some of her berries since there were only two plates at the table. Just then a servant entered with a plate for the Captain. Palaemon noticed Gabrielle’s kindness, and smiled slightly.

I need to make sure Palaemon gets outside of the castle more often. “What news do you have?” Xena asked, hiding a smirk.

Once again, he focused on the issues before him. Raking a hand through his short cropped blond hair, he replied, “Conqueror, I have an important message from our post in Ephesus.” Her silence encouraged Palaemon to continue. “It seems Caesar is planning on shipping a large amount of weapons through that city by the next moon.”

Caesar. Years of battle training helped her to appear calm. “Hmm … to rearm his men in the Syrian campaign?”

“That’s my belief as well, my liege.”

Xena smiled the same way as when she knew she had defeated Palaemon. Suddenly the room came alive with the energy flowing off of the dark-haired woman rising from her seat. “It would be such a shame to let good weapons go to poor soldiers. Perhaps I should liberate them.”

The Conqueror’s blue eyes paled further to where Gabrielle wasn’t sure there was any color left in them. She had seen the same look before the Conqueror condemned her to the cross.

“I await your command, my liege.”

Ahh … this will annoy Caesar greatly. Perhaps even draw him out of his cozy residence in Rome to meet me on the battlefield. You’ve been hiding in Rome too long, Caesar. Come on out and play. But if you won’t … and I can’t strike the serpent’s head … it can still be fun severing the tail. Quite fun indeed. And I’ll chop all the way to the head if need be.

“We’ll leave at dawn. It will take us nearly to the next moon to reach the port. Send a messenger ahead to Athos, we will sail from there to Ephesus. Have the Macedonian consignment readied to accompany us. And we shall take one hundred of the Royal Guard with us now.” Xena’s mind was racing through the preparations needed for the campaign, her blood warmed at the thought of dividing Caesar from his weapons … at the very least.

Palaemon felt his skin prickle with excitement. Xena’s eyes were bright, her lips pulled back in a snarl, even her hair seemed to radiate energy. The last time he had seen this look, the Conqueror had completed her conquest of Greece. That had won him wealth and status. He wondered what would be his reward from Ephesus. “I will see to it immediately, my liege.”

“And have Nestor sent here. There is much to be done.”

In her preparations for leaving, the Conqueror failed to notice that her young dinner companion had fallen asleep in her chair. Only when Nestor was leaving with a scroll full of instructions for running the city in her absence did Xena glimpse the curled up figure who she realized was snoring softly.

I completely forgot about her. Xena shook her head, amused with herself. She never forgot when there was someone else in her company, years of battlefield senses always kept her on constant alert to possible danger. Well, this girl is certainly no danger to me.

“Gabrielle …” she said softly to awaken the girl, so she could at least go to the room assigned to her, stretch out those legs which must hurt. Xena recalled how Lyceus’ legs had hurt him for months after his fall from the tree as kids. Gods … we kept climbing higher and higher, because I wanted to. And Lyceus never said no to any of my ideas. Not as kids, not even when Cortese came.

“Gabrielle …”

No response.

“Gabrielle …” a little louder.

A soft snore tore from the girl’s throat.

“Gabr…” Sighing, Xena gently reached out and pulled the girl out of her chair. She was small and fit easily in the Conqueror’s arms. And surprisingly light for all the food she had consumed, Xena’s mind noted idly. Xena’s purposeful strides took the two women to the door leading to the Conqueror’s private chambers. With her foot, she nudged the partially open door fully open and deposited her oracle of truth on the large bed. Someone should get use of it tonight, Xena thought. I have other plans.

****

Gabrielle awoke early the next morning, slowly stretching out her muscles, luxuriating in the feel of the cool linen sheets and the soft down of the mattress. Where am I? What happened last night? Dinner, Palaemon, invading Ephesus … oh gods … I fell asleep on her. And I’m … in her bed? She could hear her heart thundering in her chest and swore the rest of the palace could pick up on the sound as well. Gabrielle flung the sheet off and swung her legs over the side of the bed. They don’t hurt as much this morning. No, Gabrielle, they hurt … it’s just you’re too terrified to feel the pain right now.

A quick glance out the window confirmed that the night was coming to a close, a rosy hue sliding over the horizon, and she was grateful for the approaching light. She could tell that the Conqueror had not joined her in the bed last, for only where she lay were the bedsheets disturbed. Gabrielle assumed the Conqueror had stayed awake all night preparing for the fortnight march.

She became aware of the rhythmic scraping of whetstone against metal. The Conqueror was sharpening her sword. Running a small hand through her red-gold hair, Gabrielle tried to straighten her rumpled appearance before approaching the other woman.

“Good morning, Conqueror.”

Xena spared a glance at the younger woman but did not alter her rhythm. “You’re up early.”

Gabrielle blushed and shrugged, “Apparently I fell asleep early too. I apologize for that.”

The Conqueror snorted a short laugh, “I can’t remember the last time someone fell asleep on me. Normally my guests are too terrified of me to close their eyes even to blink.” That thought made her stop her work and she brought intense blue eyes up to hold Gabrielle’s green, “Why aren’t you afraid of me?”

Gabrielle’s heart stopped with the intense look of suspicion she was receiving from the Conqueror. I’m afraid right now. But I don’t suppose it will help to admit it … only make her more distrustful … like I have a guilty conscience. Gabrielle strove to appear calm and hold her voice steady, “My life is already forfeit, Conqueror. What more do I have to fear?”

The reply seemed to suit Xena and she returned to her task. “We leave in two candlemarks. Go see Helena about your provisions.”

We? My provisions? Go? To Ephesus? “Conqueror?”

Xena did not respond. She did not have to explain her decisions to this young girl.

“Conqueror? You want me go on a military mission with you?” Gabrielle was at a loss, she was of no use on the battlefield. She gestured to her mangled legs as if it were possible for someone to forget them.

“Not to fight,” Xena said impatiently, explaining the obvious. “I can’t take Nestor with me. He’s needed here to see to the affairs of state. So, you will serve as my personal attendant. I need someone who I know will not lie to me.”

Well, you’ve really gotten yourself into something now, Gabrielle. “I believe that is our arrangement: my life for truthful lips.”

“Go now. We leave in two candlemarks. Do not make me wait.”

Gabrielle nodded swiftly, her fair hair swaying around her shoulders. “Of course. Excuse me then.” She exited the room as fast as she could without fear of toppling over knowing that it would take a small miracle for her to meet the Conqueror’s timeframe.

****

Exactly two candlemarks later Xena stood among her finest Royal Guards, pacing through their midst, inspecting each man and woman, assuring herself that they should be chosen for this honor. They stood, backs straight, eyes forward, icy glares matching those of their leader. They had followed her into numerous battles before. They had never lost.

Gabrielle watched this from her spot on one of the supply wagons. Noticing for the first time how these were unlike any other soldiers she had seen before. They were clean, dressed in well-oiled leathers and gleaming metal armor, and had an amazing absence of scars. No one had been close enough to mark their skin, at least not too severely, with the notable exception of Palaemon. They were the best the kingdom had to offer. Each one watched Xena as she strode amongst them, tightening belts, adjusting gauntlets, inspecting blades. Gabrielle did not doubt that each one would willingly die for her.

How must that feel? To have people who would exchange their lives for yours? Does is scare you as it would me? Gabrielle did not see fear in Xena’s countenance.

Satisfied with her Guards, Xena marched to the wagons of provisions. She inspected these quickly, merely making sure the necessary supplies were there. When she approached the wagon Gabrielle was seated on, Xena surveyed her carefully, noting with approval the travel outfit the wardrobe mistress had procured: knee high leather boots, indigo cotton skirt which just covered the top of the boots, and a white cotton shirt covered by a gray cape. “Do you have all you need?”

The fair-haired woman smiled gently, she had not expected this question, “Yes, thank you.”

The Conqueror looked meaningfully at the driver of the wagon, one that she had chosen carefully, based on his advanced age. “Driver, this is my personal attendant. See to it that she comes to no harm. From yourself or others.”

The old man nodded vigorously and patted Gabrielle’s hand chastely. “My liege, she’ll be treated like my very dear daughter.”

“See to it.” Their eyes locked for a significant moment before the Conqueror left to return to her troops.

Palaemon approached her, “Is everything to your liking, my liege?”

The Conqueror nodded crisply, “You have done well, Palaemon.” She let out a shrill whistle and a stable boy approached with her warhorse. The golden mare was as light as her rider was dark. The mare nuzzled Xena’s chest just before the woman leapt upon the horse’s back.

It was the most affection anyone had shown the Conqueror, Gabrielle noted.

Atop the tall horse, Xena addressed her troops. “We travel to Ephesus. There we shall bloody Caesar’s nose.” She paused meaningfully, “Get him accustomed to tasting his own blood. For as surely as we shall conqueror Ephesus, we shall conqueror Rome. And you will be the ones marching with me to the Coliseum in triumph. And in honor.”

“To Ephesus!” Palaemon shouted out.

“To Ephesus!” A hundred voices replied.

“To Rome!”

“To Rome!”

“For the Conqueror!”

“For the Conqueror!”

As the final cry sent shivers down Gabrielle’s spine, Xena nodded and led the way through the city gates. The people melted back from her and her army’s path watching with awe the triumphal display. It looked more like a victory celebration than the start of a journey.
Chapter Six
That night the army made camp outside the small town of Nexus famous for its temple dedicated to Ares. The black marble temple was not his most majestic but its claim to distinction was the number of recorded appearances by the god himself. Most people assumed it was because the priest was his favored; Xena knew it was because it was closest to where her army had camped while laying siege to Corinth.

At midnight the Conqueror entered the temple and awaited her mentor.

“Xena,” Ares voice was like a caress. The god materialized in a flash of light in front of her, his arms spread out wide in greeting.

“Hello, Ares.” She smirked, she knew there was no need for her to bow to the dark-haired god. She did, however, incline her head slightly, to give the impression of deference.

“How is my favorite protégé doing, hmm?” He circled the warrior, undressing her with his eyes, liking what he saw.

The Conqueror endured the scrutiny, knowing that it was part of the price she paid for having his support. He satisfied her battle lust, she satisfied his physical lust. “I’m on my way to Ephesus.” Xena kept her reply brief, it was always better that way.

Ares loved the woman’s insolence. Her regular defiance of the Olympians, including himself, only served to increase her stature in his eyes. “Well, then, nice of you to stop by.”

Understanding passed between them.

Ares stroked his beard thoughtfully, “Caesar won’t know what hit him, eh?”

Xena didn’t like that he knew her mission was a personal one. It wouldn’t do to have the god too involved in the situation; Ares liked to make things interesting and wasn’t above putting more than a few obstacles in her path. She didn’t want this to tempt him in any way. “Ephesus won’t know what hit it. There are arms there that need liberating. And a treasury in Artemis’ temple which I understand has become a little swelled.”

That distracted him. “Oh boy, going to get on Artemis’ bad side, huh? That’s what I like about you, Xena, you never show favoritism.”

Xena looked like she had just tasted something awful, “What has Artemis ever done for me?”

He shrugged, spreading his hands out at his side, “Many people think you belong to her … not to me.”

Xena nearly choked, “What? Like I’m an Amazon? I would think the mere fact that I have wiped out their nation would convince people otherwise.”

“What can I say? You’re a woman …” the back of his hand brushed against her breast “… warrior. People get confused. It’s understandable.”

“I’ll do my best to clarify the situation.”

“You do that.” Ares gave a brief wave of his hand and left the Conqueror alone. This was going to be fun. Artemis was not going to be pleased to learn of his chosen’s plans. Now he just had to figure out how to let Artemis know … without raising too much suspicion.
Chapter Seven
When Xena returned to the camp, she found Gabrielle in her tent, amid the clutter, propped up against one of the supports. Scowling, she dropped to her right knee in front of the girl, “What are you doing still awake?”

Gabrielle rubbed a hand over her sleepy eyes, “I thought you might need something when you returned. I wasn’t sure …” Seeing the look of annoyance on the Conqueror’s face, she dropped her eyes to the ground. “I’m sorry.”

“In the future, if I want something, I’ll wake you.” Xena replied, a bit more gruffly than she intended. When the girl’s sad expression deepened, Xena found herself explaining, “Look, this fortnight trip is going to be a bit rough on you. Anyone who’s not a trained soldier and used to this fast pace and setting up camp and being outdoors all the time …” why am I babbling? “… just get some sleep.”

Gabrielle nodded and moved over to the far side of the tent where she had laid out the bedroll given her. Gratefully, she stretched out, massaging her leg muscles and pulled a cover over her body before quickly falling asleep.

Xena watched Gabrielle for a few minutes before laying down as well … Xena’s dreams were filled of her childhood – before everything went wrong.

****

The next morning Xena was up before the last stars became invisible in the sky. She wandered through the camp, making sure the watch was alert, the cooks preparing the morning meal and that all was as it should be. Breathing in the fresh scent of the grassy fields and the morning dew, she allowed a smile to cross her features. A deeper breath drew in the scent of the rich, dark soil and some late blooming spring flowers. As a relentless, restless energy filled her limbs, she ran toward the horizon to greet the sun.

Palaemon, having seen the Conqueror leave her tent, crossed through the camp and entered it. Even though they were extremely unlikely to go into battle during this march, the Conqueror had brought her field tent. It was large enough for a map table, a cushioned chair for the Conqueror to rest in, and four lesser chairs for her officers. The Conqueror’s bedroll was off to one side underneath her travel pack. As his eyes took this all in, Palaemon spotted the person he was searching for as red-gold hair came spilling out from under a wool blanket indicating her whereabouts. Kneeling beside her, he touched the covered shoulder gently. “Wake up.”

“Don’t want to …” came the mumbled response.

He shook his head to keep a smile from forming. I’m glad I decided to awaken the girl; the Conqueror has no patience for slow risers. And it was his responsibility to see to it that nothing disturbed the Conqueror’s plans. “Wake up,” he repeated, a bit sharper this time as he tugged her shoulder.

“Hey …” Gabrielle sleepily protested, while her hand snaked out and pulled the covers down from over her eyes. “Oh …” she sighed, seeing the Captain and quickly remembering that she was no longer in Corinth, no longer in her own home. “Good morning,” she said through a yawn.

“Time to get up. The Conqueror is out for her morning run, I need to show you your duties.”

“Run?” Green eyes looked doubtful, “Why would anyone want to spoil a perfectly good morning that way?”

“The Conqueror would. Get up, there’s little time before she returns.” He left the tent to give her privacy to change into her day clothes.

Once Gabrielle emerged, Palaemon began showing her what her duties would consist of during this trip: how to pack the Conqueror’s supplies, how to ready the tent for the porters to break down, where to visit the cook and oversee the preparation of the Conqueror’s food. This, Palaemon emphasized, was the most important part of her duties. Even though he knew Xena trusted her Royal Guard, she was not naïve. Gabrielle was to ensure that the food was not altered in any way by serving as the food taster while on the road.

“I guess I have a stake in the cooking now, huh?”

The Captain nodded, “You could say so.”

“Have any of her personal servants ever died?”

“Sure,” he replied, shrugging his broad shoulders. When he saw the girl go pale, he quickly added, “But it was never from food poisoning. Most of the time it was because they displeased the Conqueror in some other fashion.”

Swallowing hard she asked, “Have any hints?”

“That’s why I came and got you up this morning. If you do what I tell you, you’ll be fine.” Looking over her shoulder, he saw the Conqueror returning to the camp. “She’s back. I have to see to my men.” With that, he turned precisely on his heel and went to where the rest of the camp was beginning to stir.

Gabrielle could see that the Conqueror was covered with a light sheen of sweat from her run, so she dipped a cup in the water barrel near the cook and returned to the tent. She had been given back her staff to assist her walking and was grateful as it eased the strain on her still recovering legs. Entering she found the Conqueror changing her shift … and promptly averted her eyes.

Xena noticed the girl’s reaction and a smile spread across her lips. Clearing her throat to get Gabrielle’s attention, she held the clean shift against her bare stomach to allow a clear view of her breasts. “Good, something to drink. Let me have some.” Turning so as to face Gabrielle fully, she held out one hand, leaning forward slightly.

Forced to look at the Conqueror, Gabrielle resolutely focused only on the neck up. And tried desperately to ignore the heat spreading across her own face. “As you wish,” she whispered extending the cup.

With those words, Xena heard the voice of Lyceus. That’s what he used to say when I was being too aggressive even for him; it always meant he was upset with me. Xena held up her hand, “Give me a moment.” She turned back to her saddlebags to give the impression she was looking for something. Then she slipped the shift over her head and let it fall down her muscular body. Once clothed, Xena faced Gabrielle again. “Drink some first.”

“Sorry, I forgot that’s part of my new role.” She brought the cup to her lips and swallowed some of the water. She shrugged, thankful to now look at a clothed Conqueror, “Tastes good, like spring water.” She extended the cup to the Conqueror’s waiting hand.

Xena drank the water in one gulp, noting it did taste unusually clean. “You’ll need to see to the packing of the tent …” she waved a hand at the contents.

Gabrielle nodded eagerly, “I know, Palaemon showed me my duties this morning. Everything will be as you need it.”

“Good.” Xena began pulling on her leathers and armor while Gabrielle saw to the bedrolls and other articles in the tent. The girl hummed as she worked and Xena winced listening – it was enthusiastically unmusical. As Xena was about to leave the tent and find Palaemon, she stopped at the entry flap and observed Gabrielle. She’s happy. “Why are you here?”

Gabrielle stopped humming immediately, recognizing the threatening tone of the Conqueror’s voice. She stilled her actions and looked directly into the ice blue eyes boring into her. “Because you brought me.”

Xena shook her head, took a pace back into the tent so as to loom even larger over the smaller woman. “That’s not what I meant and you know it. Why did you participate in the truth contest? You never answered my question at dinner about why you didn’t leave Corinth.”

Her heart was thundering in her chest, and Gabrielle wondered if the Conqueror could hear it. “That’s because we began speaking of my hometown. I wasn’t trying to not answer you, Conqueror. Remember, I must tell you the truth.”

“So what is the truth? Why are you here?” Each word was enunciated clearly.

The truth, tell the truth. “Because I want to be. I wanted to meet you, to talk to you, even if it was only once.”

Xena stared into the green eyes meeting hers and tried to detect any falsehood in them. Years of negotiating with enemies, warlords, and kings had trained her to spot even the slightest deception. Yet all she saw was the color of the grass that used to grow on her favorite hill outside of Amphipolis. Xena allowed a relaxed smile to play across her lips, “That’s has to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, Gabrielle. Absolutely the stupidest.”
Chapter Eight
The mood of the army was infectious, Gabrielle observed. Everywhere they went, the people of Greece responded with enthusiasm for the Conqueror’s expedition to Ephesus. Even though as recently as five winters ago, many had been resistant to the Conqueror’s rule, everyone wanted Greece to take its rightful position as leader of the world. And if the Conqueror was the one to accomplish that feat, so be it.

On the sixth day of passing through towns and villages where the populace applauded the ruler and her troops, Gabrielle was sobered at the scope of power the Conqueror held. I used to think that the Conqueror’s real power was her ability to order the death of individuals. But now I see what her true power is – her ability to inspire hope or to demoralize the people at large. It’s a tragedy when a single life ends … but even worse when the masses lose their will to live.

Watching the Conqueror interact with her troops, Gabrielle knew why their confidence was strong in their abilities. The Conqueror always rode at the front of the procession. This position signaled her willingness to be first into the future that awaited them. She was no behind-the-lines general sending messages to the front. She led.

Riding on either side of the Conqueror were Palaemon and his lieutenant Cefanelwai-timbukili, a woman warrior from Egypt. Gabrielle smiled remembering her introduction to the dark-skinned woman. Everyone else in the company called her only Cefan due to their inability to correctly pronounce her given name. After one hearing, Gabrielle correctly repeated it, much to the warrior’s reluctant pleasure.

Each day the Conqueror, Palaemon and Cefan discussed battle strategies. As they would approach a valley, the Conqueror would question her two best soldiers, “Now, what if another army where to come over that ridge there? How could we best defend ourselves?” Or when a light rain covered the caravan, “How can we use this to our advantage? What do you know about the rainfall in this region?” On and on she would question them, and the three would argue the answers. Occasionally, the Conqueror would praise their replies. Most of the time, she would show exactly how she would dismantle them were she the enemy commander.

Every evening the Conqueror led combat drills. No matter how many miles her soldiers had marched or what the weather was like, the Conqueror had no stomach for idle soldiers. Some evenings her troops ran with their packs stuffed with stones to build up endurance. Other evenings they were led through a series of moves, almost dance-like in nature, by the Conqueror or Cefan. Every evening they had sword drills, and alternated with other weapons. Sleep was a valuable commodity – earned only after a day of marching, drilling and taking care of their equipment. Five candlemarks of sleep seemed a luxury to the soldiers.

They were clean; they kept their gear well-maintained; and they believed they could conquer anyone who opposed them.

Gabrielle believed it too.

Seated around the central campfire with the Conqueror, Palaemon, Cefan, and three other officers, Gabrielle watched as the flames cast interesting shadows on their faces around it. The jagged scar across the Captain’s features was beginning to look less ominous and more engaging each day. She liked how it curled up the corner of his mouth when he smiled, making everything seem more amusing. Not that Palaemon smiled very often. But she had been telling stories every night of their trip, and each night he seemed a little more relaxed in her presence. Tonight he even requested a story to be told.

“Of course, I know the tale of General Sinos.” Gabrielle smiled brightly and pushed a loose strand of her hair behind her right ear. “Like any other ambitious General, he believed that he could assemble the greatest fighting army ever known in the world.” Leaning forward, her elbows resting on top of her thighs, Gabrielle looked into the expectant eyes around the fire. Even the Conqueror looks interested in this tale … she probably expects a lot of blood and guts. Gabrielle smirked. I don’t think that I do anything she expects.

“When General Sinos and his soldiers entered the town of Methades, he saw hundreds of targets set up on a practice field near the town center. Each target was pierced in the center with an arrowmark. Not one strayed from the bulls-eye, they were each a perfect hit.”

Cefan, who was known for her prowess with the bow, jerked a thumb toward her own chest, “Sounds like someone I know.”

The other officers all let out whoops of good-natured laughter.

Gabrielle tried hard not to laugh, knowing the end of her tale, and wondering how the warrior would feel after she heard it. “The General reasoned, ‘With such men in my army, I could never be defeated.’ So he began asking around the town as to who the bowmen were. Each citizen he spoke to replied that the targets were the work of three brothers, the sons of Euronae. But they also warned that the brothers were the town fools. ‘I don’t care if they wet themselves and eat grubs, as long as they can shoot the target.’” Gabrielle’s voice had dropped an octave in imitation of the General, her mouth even taking on a different shape.

“They’d never make it in this army,” one of the other officers called out. He bent his head and sniffed his underarm, “We all smell fresh as daisies under our General.”

A female officer chuckled, “Hmm … I like the smell of warrior sweat in the morning.” More than one of the other officers offered to indulge her senses. She frowned and waved an imperious hand at all of them. But Gabrielle saw her slyly wink at the warrior sitting next to her.

Gabrielle waited until her audience was ready for her. “General Sinos came to the home of the three brothers where he was greeted by their mother, a kind-faced woman who knew the hardship of raising three fools. When the General explained that he wanted her sons for his army, she burst into laughter, doubling over and waving her hands about. The General was furious, certain that this peasant woman was insulting him. He raised his hand to strike her, when she managed to say, ‘General, General … you don’t understand. My boys don’t draw the target and then shoot. They shoot and then draw the target.’” Gabrielle shrugged dramatically, “Thus ended General Sinos’ dreams of the greatest army ever known.”

All the soldiers around the campfire laughed again. Cefan was elbowed in the gut by Palaemon. “Is that your secret, Cefan?” he asked, ducking the swat of her arm.

The Conqueror, who had sat silently throughout the telling of the story, inclined her head in salute to the girl. She’s bewitched my officers. In less than a phase of the moon. Already they fight for space at our fire, to hear her words.

And I’m glad I’m guaranteed a seat.
Chapter Nine
The priestess arranged the stag on the altar, propping up its neck so that the blood would drain more rapidly into the ceremonial bowl. Watching the dark liquid fill the gold basin, she focused her thoughts on her goddess. “Artemis … please … I need your guidance desperately. It has been three months since your last visit. Please, end your silence soon.”

Situated at the mouth of the inlet, the temple of Artemis was the first sight visitors saw when entering the harbor of Ephesus. Built on marshy ground, a generation of stoneworkers had labored to lay the foundation which kept the temple safe above the water. Encompassing a rectangular area of two-thirds of a furlong by four chains, the place of worship was often referred to as a wonder by the citizens and visitors to the city.

One hundred and twenty-seven columns lined the portico, each a gift from a king. The columns raised the roof to a height of over one chain and allowed light and air to flow freely into the structure. The building was made of pale marble with dark green and red veins, lending color to the building. Decorating the interior space were golden pillars, silver statuettes, and exquisite paintings. In the center of the temple in the “House of the Goddess” was a statue of Artemis depicting her as protector of house, hearth and hunt. The temple was as much a museum and marketplace as it was a house of worship.

Priestess Clymera had been serving Artemis since her mother dedicated her to the goddess of the hunt, as a small child. Now, with her hair streaked with gray and her face etched with the lines of a full life, she petitioned Artemis for knowledge of who would be the goddess’ Chosen. Filling her nights were visions of a woman who would restore Artemis’ Nation to its former glory. She could make out neither the woman’s face nor even if she were already a part of the Amazons. The only thing that was clear were her eyes; they were the gentle green color of spring’s awakening.

Stopping in the center of the portico, Clymera gazed at the massive statues of four Amazon warriors. As Clymera stared up at the bronze women, they inspired a chill to run down the priestess’ spine. Of them all, the one called ‘Tana’ was her favorite. Tana depicted a woman warrior as she rose from the ground ready to strike her foe. The muscles in her legs stood out in bold relief, and some nights in the moonlight, Clymera believed she could see the statue rise up from its base. She also loved the look of sheer determination in the Amazon’s eyes, knowing that whatever prey she focused on would be hers.

That was the power of the Amazon nation: the will to survive. Maligned by men, misunderstood by ordinary women and formerly feared by all, the warriors had only each other and the protection of their goddess to rely upon.

Xena, the Conqueror, Destroyer of Nations, Warrior Princess, had shown how futile even that was. Systematically in her conquest of Greece, she had driven the women from their sacred grounds, burned their villages, and destroyed most of their standing army. Those who survived her scourge fled to Ephesus, home of Artemis, to pray for deliverance and vengeance against the greatest enemy the Nation had ever known. That it was a woman inflicting the blows made her crimes even greater.

Yet Clymera believed that soon Artemis’ Chosen would be made known. And she would bring the Conqueror to her knees. “Let me live to see that day, my goddess,” she prayed.

“You will,” Artemis said as she appeared in a flash of light. The gray-eyed goddess stood dressed for the hunt in a short forest green dress, brown half boots and her silver bow and quiver strapped to her back. Her fair was the color of a wildfire and her skin the color of doves.

“My goddess,” Clymera sighed, falling to her knees and pressing her forehead against the cool granite. “How I have longed for you to come.”

Touched by the genuine need in her priestess’ voice, the goddess said, “Arise, Clymera.” She laid warm fingertips on the priestess’ shoulder. “I have received word that Xena intends to visit us. And I want the Nation to be ready for her.”

Clymera’s heart beat faster in anticipation. “My prayers are to be answered?”

Artemis nodded slowly and she was unable to suppress a smile, “It is time for the hunter to become the hunted.”
Chapter Ten
Athos buzzed with excitement as the Conqueror’s troops entered the city. The best inn, The Readyman, had already been selected as the lodging for the Conqueror and her senior officers. The rest of the men would camp outside the port, readying the gear for the voyage to Ephesus. The Macedonian contingent, which would also be making the trip, would join them.

The innkeepers were a middle-aged man, who was missing a few key teeth, and his young wife, who was less than half his age. Gabrielle felt compassion for the girl who seemed barely old enough to have begun bleeding, yet alone be wed to someone so much older than she. The inn was nice, however, and was decorated in cheery primary colors, which Gabrielle suspected were the girl’s choice. The first floor housed the requisite dining space and bar area, along with the innkeepers quarters. The second floor had the six guest rooms, and a bathing room. The rooms were no larger than one of the smaller closets in the Conqueror’s castle, but Gabrielle was thrilled to not be sleeping on the hard ground.

Actually, it hasn’t been so bad. And the Conqueror did show me how to smooth the ground and layer my blankets to make it more comfortable. She said she has spent over half her life sleeping on stone and dirt. Ugh. Then that second night when I laid down and I felt all of my back realign itself. Gods … that felt terrific! And my legs seemed a little better the next morning too.

Caught up in her thoughts, Gabrielle didn’t hear the Conqueror calling to her. A large hand closed around her upper arm, “Gabrielle,” the Conqueror faintly growled.

The young woman started, then blushed, then raised her eyes to meet vaguely amused blue ones. “Sorry, I was thinking.”

“So I noticed. Come.” With the command, Xena turned and left the inn, leaving Gabrielle to hurry to catch up with her.

Using her staff to give her additional leverage and speed, Gabrielle came within a few paces of the Conqueror. “Can I ask where we’re going?”

“You can ask,” Xena replied, her favorite reply to Lyceus springing instantly from her lips. Her keen hearing picked up the barely audible sigh behind her. She fought to keep from chuckling. “I want to look around the town. I don’t get to this area very often.”

“Okay.” Gabrielle wondered why the Conqueror had brought her along, then realized it must be to keep her from trying to escape. “I wouldn’t have left, you know.”

The Conqueror frowned slightly and drew to a stop. She thinks she’s a slave. And you’re thinking she’s some kid sister. Great. Stop fooling yourself. She’s just like everyone else… nothing different. “I wasn’t worried about that, Gabrielle. If you haven’t noticed, I have no guards around you. Go back to the inn.” The Conqueror turned sharply on her heel and marched away quickly, not quite blending into the busy street.

Gabrielle let out a deep sigh now. Tapping herself in the forehead she muttered, “Great. I think you hurt her feelings. Imagine that.”

****

The sounds of the marketplace were extremely lively. A new caravan of traders had arrived in town with a fresh stock of wares. Word had spread quickly of the Conqueror’s impending arrival. This translated to free-flowing dinars as soldiers drank, ate and made merry before their journey.

Like most markets, this one was located in the center of the city. Rows of carts lined a central square, each cart manned by at least one loud merchant. Many stood on crates next to their goods and called out their bargain prices. In between public announcements, they haggled with the shoppers surrounding them and collected the dinars.

The market seemed to be arranged by types of goods – housewares, food stuffs to one side; metal and leather works to another. Any other goods were located in the center of the market, except for the animal sales which were near the stables. The town was clearly prosperous, benefiting from both a rich sea trade and fertile farmland.

Xena recalled negotiating the treaties that allowed Athos unrestricted trade with Chios. It had been a typical negotiation: she set the terms, the other party agreed or faced destruction. I wonder how Chios is faring under our agreement. I hope not too well. Or I shall have to renegotiate. Can’t have anyone thinking I’m soft.

The Conqueror was idly looking at a new bridle and bit for Argo, when Cefan came running up to her. “My liege,” she placed her right fist over her heart and bowed.

Xena noted her Lieutenant’s heaving chest as she drew in breath. “What’s wrong?”

“My liege, one of the contingent is dead and there is a riot starting in the north quarter.”

“Is the Guard there?” Anger surged through Xena’s body like a flashflood. Whoever is responsible for this shall die. Slowly.

“Palaemon went to call the Guard and put it down. He sent me to find you.”

“Lead me there, Cefan. Let’s not allow my Captain to have all the fun.”

****

Gabrielle had seen to the preparation of the Conqueror’s room herself. The innkeeper had done a respectable job of removing dirt, but had made no attempt to add creature comforts. Gabrielle was unsure of the Conqueror’s mood and was unwilling to risk further angering her. When she recognized one of the officers she knew from her campfire stories, she made him go to the market with her. Between Gabrielle’s charm and his armed countenance, she had arranged for Persian carpets, Egyptian linen, Babylonian glassware and Turkish oils to be sent over to The Readyman. That’s a first – buying only the best of everything. I hope the Conqueror is pleased.

At the conclusion of their last acquisition, Gabrielle and her escort heard the cries coming from the north quarter. The distinct clash of metal on metal echoed through the stone streets and caused the fair-haired woman to begin moving in that direction.

A swarm of people came at her as they fled from the conflict. Twice Gabrielle was nearly knocked over, only her strong grip on her staff kept her upright. The crowd separated her from her escort, who was calling loudly for her to turn back. He wanted nothing to happen to the girl; he liked her stories and he feared the Conqueror.

Finally reaching the scene, Gabrielle was dismayed by what she saw. At one end of the small courtyard a soldier, a member of the Macedonian contingent, lay dead, a gaping chest wound still wet with his blood. A few feet from him, in the doorway of a home, a young girl sat curled up in a tight ball, rocking back and forth. The girl’s hair hung over half her face, but Gabrielle could see that she had been severely beaten.

Through an archway, Gabrielle could see and hear the last of the fighting. She saw Palaemon and Cefan subduing anyone who would oppose them. Very few people were actually so foolhardy.

Gabrielle walked back to the girl, being careful to gently set her staff down so as to make no sudden noises. Gabrielle slid to the ground beside her, but was unable to stifle a small moan as her legs protested. At the sound, the girl became wild-eyed and lunged at Gabrielle.

At first, Gabrielle was certain she was being attacked. But then she felt the girl’s thin arms settle around her shoulders and the girl’s face bury itself in the hollow of her shoulder. A wave of compassion overtook the storyteller and she closed her own arms tightly around the sobbing figure. Stroking the blood-matted hair, Gabrielle made small cooing noises and tried to will her strength into the girl.

Over the top of the girl’s head, Gabrielle could see the corpse of the soldier. Her eyes were drawn to another pool of blood on his body and she understood what had happened. “Shh, shh, he can’t hurt you anymore. It’s going to be all right.” And Gabrielle prayed to Athena that her words would be true.

“Kill them!”

“Strike them down!”

“Gut them like they did to Nilos!”

Savage cries suddenly filled the courtyard as the Conqueror returned to the scene of the murder, followed by her troops and three bound men. She marched to the corpse and stood before it, facing the men brought to her for judgment. Palaemon and Cefan shoved them down on their knees before Xena, the men’s trousers becoming wet with the blood draining from the body. The Conqueror narrowed her eyes as she envisioned their punishment. Her upper lip curled in a snarl she said, “You dare raise a hand to one of my troops?” Slowly, savoring the fear she saw in their eyes, she drew her sword from the scabbard, the highly polished metal gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. “Hold out your hands.”

One of the men went pale and gagged, realizing the import of her words. Another began sobbing hot tears. But the third, the oldest of the men, met the Conqueror’s eyes unabashedly and extended his arms.

Palaemon reached around the man who had finished retching and roughly supported the man’s arms so that they extended away from his body. Thank the gods the Conqueror has a steady hand or I might be worried.

Gabrielle who had been watching the scene with uncomprehending horror, suddenly understood what was about to take place. With unexpected strength, she wrenched free of the girl’s grasp and flung herself in the path of the Conqueror’s sword coming down to amputate the hands and forearms of the kneeling men. “No! Conqueror, no!”

The blade stopped a hairbreadth away from her temple. With a growl, the Conqueror caught Gabrielle by her tunic, pulling her up roughly. “I will deal with you later!” She started to push the young woman away, but Gabrielle grabbed hold of her forearm.

“No, please, Conqueror.” Her eyes pleaded with the woman whom she was certain would now order her death again. Gods, at least let me save these men. They don’t deserve this. “Look at the soldier, Conqueror. Look at where he was struck.”

Xena found herself looking at the body at Gabrielle’s request. She saw that he had been emasculated. The Conqueror’s eyes then traveled to the girl in the doorway and noticed the blood that stained her skirt.

“Yes, your filthy pig soldier laid his hands on my daughter!” the oldest captive spat. “He took her, against her will, and one of his friends held me back while he did her. My only regret is that by you taking my hands, I won’t have the pleasure of killing that man as well.”

Xena faced the crowd of soldiers witnessing the scene. “Who was Nilos’ commanding officer?”

An officer in the Macedonian contingent stepped forward, placing a fist over his heart and bowing, “My liege, I was.”

Xena neatly severed his head from his body. The head bounced on the stone courtyard and landed inside what was left of Nilos’ stomach. The officer’s torso fell roughly down, splattering the captives with hot blood.

Gabrielle gasped and turned away from the sight, she hadn’t even seen the Conqueror move.

“I will not tolerate such behavior among my troops.” The Conqueror stated simply, meeting the shocked eyes of the three men. Turning her icy stare to the crowd, she continued, “I will not allow an officer to live if he brings me disgrace by his men’s dishonorable conduct. And the soldier who held this man will be brought to me by nightfall or I will execute Nilos’ entire squad.”

Slowly, Gabrielle turned around, just in time to see the girl’s father lick off the officer’s blood that had splattered on his lips. She swayed, her vision tunneling to one pinpoint of light, and suddenly she felt nothing at all.

The Conqueror grabbed Gabrielle before she could reach the cobblestone. One arm securely around the trim waist, Xena patted Gabrielle’s cheek gently, trying to rouse her. Receiving no response, she gathered the girl for a second time in her arms. “Palaemon,” she called, “take her back to the inn. Stay with her until I return.”

“Yes, my liege.” He reached his arms through the Conqueror’s and removed the small bundle. This one has the heart of a lion. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone more courageous. She fights when she has nothing to gain and everything to lose. Resisting the urge to nuzzle her hair, Palaemon began his journey back to the inn.

Xena turned her attention to her Lieutenant, “Cefan, have my healer see to this girl.” As the Lieutenant left to carry out the order, the Conqueror reached into her belt and removed a bag of coins. She tossed them to the father, who was still on his knees before her. “There, take that.”

The bag thudded against the man’s chest and instinctively his hands closed around it. By the weight alone, he knew there to be more than two hundred dinars in it. “You think this will make it right?”

The Conqueror shrugged, “Consider it her dowry. No man will pay for her now.” Finding in the crowd a regiment man who wore an officer’s insignia, she pointed a long finger at him, “You. Tell Paxius to report to my quarters immediately,” referring to the commander of the Macedonian regiment. Considering her judgment complete, the Conqueror stepped over the dead body and around the freed captives.

The father let the bag fall numbly from his fingers as he spotted the boot knife of the dead officer in front of him. Swiftly he removed it and thrust it at the Conqueror’s side as she passed him by.

Only Xena’s reflexes saved her from serious injury. She peered at the gash in her leathers where the blade had penetrated before she had caught his hand, and at the thin line of blood in its wake. It was a superficial wound, but she could tell it would need stitches nonetheless. Sighing, she shoved his wrist away and then pushed her dark hair out of her eyes, ignoring the blood that smeared on her forehead. “See to your daughter. And do not let me see your face again. Next time, I will not be so merciful.”
Chapter Eleven
Gabrielle awoke in Palaemon’s arms as he carried her up the stairs in the inn. She let out a surprised cry and twisted suddenly, nearly causing him to drop her. “What happened?”

The officer reached the top stair and set her down gently. The young storyteller’s eyes were wide with fear and confusion. “You fainted, Gabrielle. The Conqueror ordered me to return you to the inn.”

The events of the last candlemark came flooding back to her. Gabrielle felt dizzy again, and reached out to grip Palaemon’s arm to steady herself. In her mind’s eye she could see the father licking the blood off his lips, savoring the metallic taste. “Did she? Those men?” For once, words escaped her.

“No, you stopped her.”

Her stomach calmed, but her mind did not. “Why did she kill that man?”

Palaemon’s eyes hardened, his eyebrows drawing closer and his scar appearing even more ragged. “Officers have a sworn duty to the Conqueror to uphold her honor. Raping village girls does not do that.”

“But he didn’t hurt the girl. Her father had already had his revenge.”

“But the Conqueror hadn’t. And she was harmed too.” His hand closed around her elbow and he began to guide her back to the Conqueror’s room. “You still look pale, you should rest.”

At the touch of his hand, Gabrielle’s thoughts returned to the day of her crucifixion.

“Gabrielle, it’s time,” Kaiphus had said softly, entering her cell. His eyes took in the tear-streaked face of his tutor, the woman who had taught him to read her own death sentence.

“Oh, it’s you,” she sighed, managing a small smile and wiping at her eyes. She knew this was a hard assignment for one of her most promising pupils. “I’m glad.”

He let out a strangled cry, not caring if any of the other guards heard him. This order was wrong, killing this girl would accomplish nothing. Except break his heart. “I’m not. If there were anything I could do, I would do it.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes for a long moment, trying not to consider that this was her final conversation with a friend. “I know, Kai. But, I won’t have your family’s blood on my hands when I meet Hades.”

“No,” the guard agreed, “but I will have yours.” He reached into his belt and removed a small packet filled with a white powder. “Here,” he took a waterskin and unstopped the top, pouring the powder into it and shaking it gently, mixing powder and liquid, “drink this.”

Suddenly unable to lift her arms to take the skin, Gabrielle eyed it warily. “Is that?” she couldn’t form the words to ask if the drink would end her life. She was condemned, but she still wanted every moment she had left.

“No, no.” He pressed the skin in her small hand, his larger one closing around it. “It will ease the pain. The Conqueror has commanded that your legs be broken.”

Drawing in a deep breath, Gabrielle made her choice. “No, Kai. I can’t. I won’t.” She met his questioning eyes. “I can’t explain it, it’s stupid really. But, I can’t let this defeat me. Becoming numb is a coward’s way.”

He wanted to argue, to convince her she was insane, but the set jaw and look of determination in her eyes caused him to reconsider. “Can you forgive me?” he asked instead.

“There is nothing to forgive. Will… will you walk me to my cross?” It would not be much, just a few more minutes with a friend; a friend who could not even acknowledge her in public for fear of his own life. But to have his presence, that would be enough.

“To both my eternal shame and honor, Gabrielle.” And, foregoing the chains he had been sent in with, his hand closed around her elbow and he guided her to the wooden beams on a nearby hill.

Gabrielle stopped and faced Palaemon, “She’s going to kill me, isn’t she?”

The Captain was taken aback by her question. He hadn’t even considered that the Conqueror would harm this girl, not after the last fortnight traveling together. “I don’t think so, Gabrielle. If she wanted you dead, I would not have been told to bring you here. The Conqueror placed you in my arms herself.” And I’ve never seen her do anything like that before, he added silently.

“Oh,” Gabrielle remembered the sound of blood rushing in her ears and seeing the hard cobblestone pavement rising to meet her, and then suddenly being suspended in warm arms, safe above the street. “I guess I had better finish preparing her room for her then.”
Chapter Twelve
Paxius felt the sweat trickle down the small of his back. He wanted nothing more than to rub it dry, but he knew better than to move.

The Conqueror stretched her long frame in the chair Gabrielle had brought in for use as a temporary throne. Its high back allowed her to recline her head and look at her contingent leader with half-opened eyes. Those who did not know her would assume she was about to fall asleep. Those who did knew that like the cobra the Conqueror was always still before she struck. “I am displeased, Paxius.”

“My liege,” Paxius found he had nothing to say. “Uh, the girl lives… Nilos is dead… and his commanding officer… is dead… There is no injury that remains.”

Xena’s frown deepened. “I am injured, Paxius.”

His eyes were drawn to her side, where he could see a slight bulge from the bandage. “I had heard you were attacked. I …”

She waved a hand at him, “That was merely a scratch. I am injured because your men do not know discipline. I am injured because now my name is associated with common street thugs. I am injured because I do not know if I can allow you or your men to travel with me. I am injured, Paxius. Do you understand?”

“My liege, my men and I are ready to serve you. Nilos was not like the rest of us.”

“And yet you allowed him to remain in my army?”

“I did not know him,” the Commander replied, not thinking.

Xena looked over at Palaemon, who had been standing at attention near the doorway. “Palaemon, who of my Royal Guard is the most promising of all my soldiers?”

“Espirith, my liege.”

“No, no. Soldier, not officer.”

Palaemon thought about the Guards who were traveling with them. Finally, he settled on one, “Then it would be Charis, my liege.”

The Conqueror smiled, pleased that Palaemon had chosen a woman; that would suit her purposes well. “Have Charis summoned here immediately. I need to discuss tomorrow’s launch with my new Commander of the Macedonian Contingent.”

“My liege!” Paxius protested.

Xena leaned forward, her eyes capturing his, “Be grateful that all I took from you was your command. Now leave before I change my mind.” Palaemon’s hand clamped over the former commander’s arm and pulled him from the room.

Gabrielle spoke softly from where she had been seated during this exchange. “It is not just a scratch. I had to stitch your wound closed.”

“Careful, Oracle, I would hate to hear you speak an untruth.” The Conqueror turned and fully regarded Gabrielle. Xena repeated what she knew to be truth: “It was a mere scratch, nothing more. Haven’t you risked your life enough for one day?”

The color drained from Gabrielle’s features as she recalled the events of the afternoon. “I couldn’t let those men be harmed. They were only protecting the young girl.”

“It was foolish of you to step in front of my sword. You could have been killed. And then who would dare speak to me?” Xena smiled grimly, considering her own question. “You say that I am afraid of the truth, that I can’t bear to hear the words that are whispered about me in secret. So, I will allow you to shout them from the rooftop to me. But to do that, you must be alive. Because I will not make a special trip to Hades’ realm to hear you.”

Gabrielle studied the Conqueror thoughtfully. This was not the response she had expected from this intriguing woman. I was so certain I knew her. So certain that in my time with her, she had revealed her depths. Now, I’m not even sure I’ve seen the entire surface, let alone what lies below. “How should I do this shouting then, my liege?”

Well, that’s a change, Xena noticed the use of the honorific, I wonder why she chose to use it now. “I have a country to rule. I must be strong in front of the people, or else they will lose respect for me. I cannot have you question my judgment -” the Conqueror held up a hand to forestall Gabrielle’s intended objection “- once it is made.” The Conqueror watched with concealed amusement as the girl’s mouth shut. “But I will give you the ability to act as an advocate for what you believe is the truth of the situation. You may speak to me privately before I render judgment. If it is at all possible.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t disappoint me, Gabrielle. I would miss your stories at night.”
Chapter Thirteen
The first afternoon on board, while still full of excitement over the newness of the experience, Gabrielle leaned over the railing, observing the water. She could still see the coast of Greece on the western horizon and could not wait until she could see the shores of Ephesus. It would take three days to arrive, and already she was impatient.

The water foamed up the side of the ship, sending a refreshing saltwater spray onto her skin. In the clear Aegean depths she could see schools of fish swim aside for the vessel. Can a fish be knocked unconscious if we were to hit it with our ship? Can fish drown that way? Can fish drown at all?

“Dinar for your thoughts,” the Conqueror said as she joined her at the railing.

Gabrielle flushed, not wanting to share her thoughts, such as they were, so she stated the obvious, “It’s beautiful.”

The Conqueror nodded crisply and then pointed to the northwest. “I used to keep my ship in those waters mostly.”

“You had a ship?” Gabrielle tried to picture the Conqueror as a sailor. “I didn’t know that.”

Xena shrugged, the muscles in her shoulder shifting under the skin, “I keep meaning to have my Royal Biography transcribed.” She allowed an ironic smile to play across her lips and her eyes grew distant, as if she could see the events she was about to describe. “After I made sure Amphipolis was safe from Cortese, I wanted to ensure we never suffered from his – or any other warlord’s – ambition ever again. I put together a crew and we patrolled the areas to the north and south of Amphipolis.”

“Did you enjoy that life?”

The Conqueror took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the scent of the sea. “I like life on board: no walls, no ceilings, fresh air, the quiet. It’s an ideal life.”

“So why did you leave it?”

Caesar, the answer screamed inside the Conqueror’s mind. Broken legs and a nearly broken spirit. M’Lila. I couldn’t go back to the sea without her. Even today I kept expecting to see her. And Caesar took her, took my crew, took my pride away from me. As I will take his life from him. First his weapons, then his life.

For a long moment, Gabrielle did not think that the Conqueror would answer her inquiry. She watched the play of emotions on the usually poker face, fascinated by the mixture of anger, fear, warmth and determination she saw. Finally, the Conqueror said softly, “It’s hard to conquer Greece from the water.”

Gabrielle could tell that was not the real reason, but also knew not to press the issue. The fact that the Conqueror had revealed anything at all to her was significant. Gabrielle resolved not to treat that trust lightly. “I like the water,” she whispered, steering the conversation back to safer topics. “It’s so full of mystery.”

Xena favored the fair-haired woman with an indulgent smile. “You know, in all my time on the water, I only found it to be full of fish.”

“Tch, what a thing to say,” Gabrielle teased back, as she realized that was what the Conqueror was doing with her. “Tell me, did you ever see a mermaid while you were sailing?”

“A mermaid? What in all the gods of Mount Olympus is that?”

Gabrielle switched into storyteller mode, “You were never told about mermaids before? They were once part of the Sirens…”

****

The next night in the ship’s galley, the Conqueror, Palaemon, Cefan, Charis and Gabrielle sat around a large round table. The crew had cleared the dishes from the evening’s meal that had consisted of – not surprisingly – fish in a light broth. Now, elbows and mugs of hot tea rested on the wooden surface.

The Conqueror observed her newest officer intently. Charis seemed to have handled her rapid promotion rather well, escaping the arrogant demeanor that normally accompanied such a rise. Xena recalled when Charis was first appointed into her Royal Guards. Espirith had found Charis amongst a group of soldiers in Athens; she was better than most of the men in the squad even though she was only nineteen winters old. Six years later, Charis was the top soldier in the Conqueror’s Guards and would have soon received a promotion to a command level.

“The Contingent is to remain outside Ephesus until I know where the shipment is coming through. Then I will give you orders as to where to lead your troops.”

Charis nodded vigorously, this being the third time they had gone over the plans. “I understand, my liege, it will be done as you wish. And while I am waiting, I will appoint new officers and squad leaders.”

“Conqueror,” Gabrielle hoped this was the appropriate time to ask her question, “may I ask about why you left Paxius and all his officers behind in Athos?”

Taking a long sip from her mug, the Conqueror gestured for Cefan to answer the question. Let’s see if Cefan understands why I made this decision.

The Egyptian rose to the challenge offered her, “I believe that the Conqueror knows that a bad leader creates bad officers. Removing Paxius from command was not enough. The Conqueror had to remove those he had most influenced.”

Xena smiled, “Exactly. Gabrielle, you never promote those under an incompetent leader. It only furthers the problem and decreases morale because nothing changes.”

“So you better hope I never screw up, Cefan,” Palaemon joked. “Or we’ll both be looking for new jobs.”

“Perhaps,” the Conqueror allowed, smiling slyly at her Captain, enjoying the nervous reaction she provoked. “Palaemon, you know what your orders are when we land in Ephesus?”

“Yes, my liege. I am to go to the Ephesian council and give them greetings on your behalf. I am to inform them you are there to visit the marketplace, worship at the temple, peruse the library, go to the theatre and enjoy the comforts of the city. You would welcome a state visit with their Proconsul, but are there on leisure, not affairs of the state.”

“I particularly like the part about worshipping at Artemis’ temple, my liege,” Cefan contributed, knowing of her leader’s disdain for the goddess.

Xena nodded, “I am hoping that they find it intriguing as well. My destruction of the Amazons is well known, and was well needed,” she added as an afterthought. “If they are the least bit suspicious of me, they will most likely decide that I am there to rob Artemis’ treasury, to add a final insult to her Nation. While they look one way, I shall strike in the other.”

“How will you find out where the weapons are, my liege?” Charis asked, seeing how free the other officers were to voice opinions or questions. She had not expected the freedom, and did not want to waste an opportunity to learn.

“I have many skills, Charis, many skills.” Pressing her hands flat on the table, the Conqueror pushed herself up to her full height. “Make sure the men are ready for their drills tomorrow. I want them to be focused on our mission, not on the Ephesian women when we land.”

****

Gabrielle couldn’t sleep. The Conqueror had said that the ship would rock her to sleep like an infant in a mother’s arms. After two days on the open sea, Gabrielle seriously doubted that the water had any maternal instinct. She felt jostled, agitated, swayed … anything but comforted. Her love for the Greecian soil was rapidly rising. I wish I had thought to bring a handful of it with me. Then at least a part of me could be on land. How do people live like this? I will never complain about sleeping on the hard ground ever again.

The only place that Gabrielle had found pleasant on the entire ship was in the nets rising up to the ship’s sails. The first night she had slowly climbed halfway up the length of the mast and became entangled in the webbing. The motion did not bother her so much there for her eyes focused on the horizon, steadying her.

The sailors standing watch greeted her silently. The Conqueror had given the crew a rather intense lecture about what the nature of the men’s conduct was to be toward the young fair-haired girl. Consequently, Gabrielle believed sailors to be chivalrous at heart and responded even more warmly to them, unwittingly making it more difficult for the men to be chivalrous.

Climbing up to her favorite perch, Gabrielle sighed in contentment as her eyes drifted up to the stars hanging in the night sky. Quickly she traced favorite constellations, as if reassuring herself they were still there, remembering a time when her sister would join her in this pursuit.

“There, Lila, over the top of the tree, to the left and up a bit … that one’s the brightest. Can’t you see it?”

“How could I miss it, Rie? You point it out every night. I know it’s your favorite.”

Gabrielle sighed deeply and rolled over onto her stomach and idly plucked at the grass. Slowly her eyes rose to meet her sister’s, “I’m gonna follow that star out of here one day, Lila, and it’ll take me to faraway places.” Softly, she whispered, “I can’t be here the rest of my life. I can’t. I won’t.”

Lila shrugged, her older sister always had strange ideas. Why would anyone leave Potadeia? It wasn’t a big city, but their family had always been here; over half the town were their kinsmen. And the men they were promised to were here. Gabrielle wouldn’t be going anywhere – except in her dreams. “Sure, Rie. You’ll – oh! Look! A shooting star! There!”

Twisting around, Gabrielle saw the trace of light as it blazed its course across the night sky. “Well, Lil, I guess you don’t have to do chores tomorrow.”

Lila smiled triumphantly, glad they had that agreement.

Sensing there was really nothing more to say, Gabrielle rolled back over and found her favorite star again. I hope you never run away from me; I don’t think I could survive that.

Gabrielle’s eyes focused once again on that same star which was now leading their way to Ephesus. You are taking me away, aren’t you? You didn’t forget me after all. If only Lila had wanted to follow you too. Gods, I miss you, Lil. I hope you’re still under these same stars with me.

Absorbed in her memories, she did not take note of the figure standing below her until the warmth of the voice drifted up to her ears, reminding her of the times her mother had sung her girls to sleep. It took Gabrielle a few moments to realize that someone was actually singing, and that someone was the Conqueror.

Gazing down, she saw the Conqueror leaning against the mast, her hands folded at the small of her back. The Conqueror’s hair moved with the breeze and reflected the moonlight. Though she could not see her eyes, Gabrielle knew they were the same soft blue as the night shift the Conqueror wore. And the voice she heard reminded her of a dream she had once, long ago.

“Lying here on the boards

One with the flow

With blue sky overhead

The great depths down below

No matter the way I look

Blue’s all I see

And the tranquillity

Comes awash over me”

Gabrielle did not recognize the song, but liked it immediately. Nestling further into the ropes, she closed her eyes and concentrated on the Conqueror’s voice, letting it roll over her.

“A vessel strong, a moonlit night

Stars up above

The brisk salted air

Drenches my lungs

No place to go, no time to meet

Freedom at sea

And the tranquillity

Comes awash over me

“I understand the sailor’s choice

Romance alive

Sailing ships and dreaming dreams

Needing water to thrive

No place on land holds a home for me

I’m cast out to sea

And the tranquillity

Comes awash over me

“Take not my ship, take not the sail

They are part of my soul

Without the wind, the sea and air

I have no where to go

No matter the way I look

Blue’s all I see

And the tranquillity

Comes awash over me”

Gabrielle never realized when she fell asleep in the gentle comfort of the sea’s embrace. And dreamt of another.
Chapter Fourteen
She woke up slowly, the heartbeat beneath her ear gently bringing her to consciousness. The skin underneath her cheek was warm and soft, and she couldn’t help but nuzzle it and tighten her hold on the woman below her. How did we end up here? I remember the singing … and the dancing … and the drinking … the drinking, that explains it. Trying not to laugh and awaken her partner, she removed some straw that was sticking her in a most inappropriate spot.

“What’s so funny?” Terreis muttered, having been awake since the first nuzzle.

“How did we end up in the stable?” Ephiny asked. She could remember nothing about last night clearly.

“Ahh … this was your idea, my love.” Terreis’ hand ran up the smooth back of the blond warrior snuggled at her side. “You were rather adamant about certain needs and you wouldn’t let me take you home.”

“Our hut is only another two hundred paces from here,” groaned Ephiny, incredulous.

“I know.” Terreis smiled at her deeply blushing partner, “I was rather flattered; really, it was nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s good for the Queen’s reputation for her to be so desired by her Consort. But … I think we frightened the animals.”

Ephiny lifted her head and looked over the side of the loft at the animals below. “The sheep do look a little pale, Ter.”

Laughing warmly, the Queen brought her hands up to Ephiny’s cheeks and kissed her. “They’ve always looked that way, dear.” Breaking off from the kiss, she nipped Ephiny’s nose. “But let’s get home. I have straw in all the worst places.”

Several candlemarks later, a much cleaner Terreis climbed the Temple steps and headed toward the House of the Goddess. Kneeling before the bronze statue of Artemis, she pressed her forehead and palms against the cool granite. She could not bring herself to lift her eyes to the replica of the goddess.

Clymera, while lighting incense in one of the nearby braziers, noticed the young red-haired woman who appeared in obvious pain. “Sweet Artemis,” Clymera whispered and hurried over to Terreis’ side. “My Queen?”

Terreis flinched at the title, feeling it as a sword through her heart. “Clymera. Shouldn’t you be preparing for the Council meeting?”

The older woman shrugged, spreading out her palms. “Do you wish me to leave you alone, my Queen?”

“Please don’t call me that. Not when Artemis has decided on another Chosen.”

Clymera watched the young woman’s throat clench several times as she fought being overwhelmed by emotion. “Perhaps the sign is not as it seems.” But Clymera knew her assurance was hollow; Artemis would only have one Chosen at any time. Traditionally it was the Queen of the Amazon nation. If there were to be another Chosen, Terreis would have to die to make way for the other woman.

“Have you ever been wrong before?” Terreis shook her head at her own question. “Perhaps I am favored. At least, I have the time and ability to set my affairs in order.” And to say goodbye in my own way; gods, Ephiny… I miss you already. Terreis closed her eyes, trying to block out her fear. “Is the Chosen coming with the Destroyer?” she asked softly, making mental calculations.

Clymera gently squeezed the young woman’s shoulder, “I don’t know, my Queen. I only know that she is near.”

“A quarter moon? Two? A moon?” And then the words assailed her that she could not ask: How much longer do I have to live, Clymera? Artemis, how have I displeased you so? Was I that poor a leader in my sister’s stead?

“Queen Terreis, you must live for today. It is all any of us know we have. The Fates work in mysterious ways, none of us know exactly when our thread of life will be severed.” The old woman reached out and cupped the queen’s chin in her wrinkled hand. “You have served Artemis well. You gathered the remnant of the Nation together here in Ephesus. We have warriors again, because of you. The Nation believes again in its destiny.”

“But why can’t I continue to lead? What have I done that was so … wrong?”

“My child, maybe this is Artemis’ way of rewarding you. You will be forever young in the Elysian Fields and in the heart of our Nation.”

Terreis rubbed a rough hand against her eyes, “Why does that fail to comfort me?”

“Because your heart wants to stay.” Clymera smiled sadly at the woman who had recently been bonded to her Consort. “If it’s any consolation to you, I suspect that I will soon join you on the other side. In fact, I might greet you over there.”

That pronouncement caused Terreis to focus on the priestess. “Have you been feeling the pains again?”

A wry look met her question, “At this age, all I feel is pain. I can only hope to avoid being one at this point.”

At the priestess’ joke, Terreis chuckled softly. “Come, Clymera, we have a Council meeting to attend. And a Destroyer to prepare for.” The Queen pushed herself to her feet and held a hand out to the older woman. The Nation is more important than any one individual, including me. Especially me. I am supposed to be willing to sacrifice my life for the Nation. I just hate that Artemis has asked me to do that.

“When will you tell the others of the vision of the Chosen, my Queen?” Clymera asked as she was effortlessly pulled to her feet.

Terreis became still, “When I give her my Right of Caste; I suppose it will be obvious to everyone then.”

Entering the Council Hut Terreis and Clymera greeted the five other women charged with the care of the Nation. One of them, a broad shouldered warrior with honey colored eyes made no attempt to hide her amusement. “Good morning. So you and Eph are the reason my horse is so skittish this morning?”

Terreis wagged a finger at her best friend, “Eponin, fish haven’t returned to a certain pond since a prior incident involving unnamed persons. I wouldn’t look so smug right now.” The Queen took her seat at the head of the table, and with the seat assumed a regal attitude. “What preparations have been made at the Temple?”

Eponin took out a scroll which detailed the layout of the Temple. Gesturing to several points, she began her narrative, “I have added to our guards at these points. The watches are now overlapping by a candlemark. And I’ve widened the perimeter of the watches. If the Destroyer comes within a furlong of the Temple without our knowing, it’s only because Ares has cloaked her.”

“And the treasury? The marketplace?” Clymera inquired.

The weapons master scowled, she had never believed that the temple should be used for profitable enterprise. She would detail her guards to protect the House of the Goddess and the objects therein, but it galled her to watch over the money of those who did not worship Artemis. “They will be protected as well.”

Clymera rolled her eyes, her feud with the younger woman long-standing on this account. “If they aren’t, the Ephesian Proconsul is likely to take over the administration of the temple. Is that what you would want? To hand over to our sacred site in order to satisfy your petty prejudices?”

A deep crimson overtook the warrior’s features. Shaking with anger, she rose to her full height and gripped the edge of the council table. “What I want is our Nation back, Clymera. Not to continue groveling to Roman dogs who dare defy our goddess. The Destroyer can have their gold for all I care.”

“Ep, it would displease Artemis to have her temple robbed of anything within its possession. Including the traders’ money,” Terreis spoke softly and waved the reluctant warrior back into her seat. “All of the temple is under Artemis’ protection until she states otherwise. And we shall rely on Clymera to tell us of her desires because our Priestess has served the Nation long and well. Is that not true?”

Eponin began rubbing her thumb along a grain of wood on the table. She did not want to look up and see the reproach from her best friend, nor the gleam in Clymera’s eyes. “She has certainly served a long time,” the warrior allowed. Silence met her response. “And done so faithfully,” she managed at last.

Clymera allowed herself a brief smile, careful to not have Eponin see it, for fear of the conflict resuming. “Thank you. But let us not forget: Artemis has chosen us to hunt the Destroyer. Those are the preparations we should be making now. Plans for war, not for protection. She is ours to take down.”

The council, energized, leaned forward and worked on the plan that had already been forming in Terreis’ mind.
Chapter Fifteen
“The Proconsul of Ephesus welcomes you, Xena, Conqueror of Greece, and bids you peace while you reside in the city of the holy Artemis. We welcome you to our spring festival and invite you to sample the hospitality of your Ephesian neighbors.” The messenger from the Proconsul bowed deeply after finishing his speech. He had been a bit worried about the “holy Artemis” portion knowing the warrior’s disdain for the goddess. Her only reaction had been a slight narrowing of the eyes, not the drawing of her sword, and he considered himself blessed.

Standing on the deck of her ship, surrounded by her Royal Guard, Xena was the embodiment of every tale ever told of her. Wearing her signature black battle ensemble, the Conqueror was every dark nightmare come to life. The only hint of light was the pale blue of her eyes although they had gone nearly colorless in the bright afternoon sun. “Fair greetings and peace to the good Proconsul and to the people of Ephesus. Greece is happy for this visit and wishes only to enjoy good favor while here.” Xena responded in a standard diplomatic manner.

The balding messenger nodded, surprised at the rich voice that had greeted him. The tales of the brutality of the Conqueror always left out descriptions of her beauty and charm. Somewhat emboldened by her favorable response, he said in a stronger voice, “The Proconsul wishes to convey his most sincere desire to have the honor of your company. His house would be favored if you were to consent to dine with him tonight and welcome in the festival.”

Just what I love: diplomatic state functions. They always expect me to eat my meat raw at these dinners. Maybe I will tonight. “Greece would be happy to dine with the Proconsul and partake in his hospitality.”

The messenger bowed low and stepped away, “The Proconsul awaits your presence eagerly. He bids you to refresh yourself and take your leave. When the moon has completed a quarter of its nightly journey, the Proconsul will welcome you into his household.”

“Well said, messenger. Tell your Proconsul that I will come.” Xena watched as the herald turned briskly and began his journey back to his master. She had spoken to many such men before, each engaging her in the delicate diplomatic language of lavish praise and subtle compromise. After her siege of Corinth, the only member of the opposing army she allowed to live was the herald, for he alone had acted with any honor. She missed such men.

Upon snapping her fingers, Palaemon came to her side, inclining his head. “My liege?”

“Go convey Greece’s greeting to the Proconsul. Impress on him that my visit here is of no consequence to him or to his station.” If you let me bloody Caesar’s nose, I may have no need to bloody you.

Palaemon’s blond head inclined and then he turned on heel to carry out his orders. Passing by Cefan he paused and pulled his lieutenant aside, “Double the standard guard pattern around the Conqueror. The Ephesians have no excess of love for our General. And it would be embarrassing for anyone to be able to get close enough to harm her.”

The Egyptian studied her Captain gravely, “It will be done.” In fact, she had already ordered such a change. “Try not to call the Proconsul a pig-dog, or anything like that.”

The scar on Palaemon’s face hooked the side of his mouth into a broad grin as he recalled such an incident. “I make one small diplomatic snafu and no one lets me live it down. He was a pig-dog; do you remember how his nose was pressed up into his face?”

Cefan barked out a short laugh, “I think that was after the Conqueror got through with him.”

Exchanging warrior arm clasps, the two parted company with Palaemon hurrying down the gangplank to the docks below and Cefan moving to stand by the Conqueror.

Xena looked out at the four hills of Ephesus that surrounded the thriving metropolis and created a safe haven for the city. Any opposing force would have to come from one of five directions, each unfavorable to the invaders. The four roads crossing the hillsides would force the invading troops to battle uphill, through narrow canyons and then, if they still had any men left to fight, they would spill out into an open valley where they would be exposed to an ambush. Trying to defeat the city from the water was also less than ideal. The harbor of Ephesus was shallow and had to be continually dredged for ships to be able to come in from the open sea.

Fortunately, I don’t want to conquer Ephesus. Artemis can have it for all I care. Xena gestured to the third hill, “That’s the road to Syria, Cefan. When Caesar tries to move the weapons, he’ll have to go that way.”

“I will have your scouts leave at first light tomorrow. You will know of every pebble on that path.”

“Make sure I do. And send some scouts to the temple, tell them to be subtle, but to make sure they are seen by the Amazons here. I want them to provide a distraction from my true purpose here.” Xena walked to the side of the ship and looked down at the docks below which were swarming with porters removing goods from the vessel.

As Xena was about to call down to her foreman, Gabrielle came hurrying over to her, her staff propelling her quickly. The young woman’s cheeks were flushed and her skin glistened with a light sheen of sweat. “Conqueror! This place is wonderful!”

Xena found it impossible not to grin in response to Gabrielle’s enthusiasm. “Where have you been? Down on the docks?” She didn’t like the idea of the attractive girl wandering around a hostile city unescorted. And the port area of any city always had the least refined of its residents.

“Down on the docks and a little bit toward the marketplace. They have everything! And the people and the colors. Everything is so bright. I felt so … so boring, so bland walking around.” She gestured to her traveling outfit, which, while functional, was not designed for aesthetic purposes. “The women here are so beautiful. They wear these exquisite dresses. I can’t even begin to describe it all.” She paused for a breath, “Have you ever been here before?”

“No, I’ve been a little busy for the last ten years or so,” Xena responded, irony tingeing her voice. “I couldn’t really take a holiday.”

Gabrielle was unsure how to take the Conqueror’s reply. There seemed to be almost a wistful tone in her voice, but she could not be sure no reproach was meant. “Did you know that this moon is sacred to Artemis? The whole city and surrounding countryside have turned out for the festival. There are performers here from Persia. I talked to this man who said that the show at the theatre was incredible. He said that the performers had to be enchanted in order to do the feats they did.”

“How long were you at the marketplace?”

That was not the answer Gabrielle expected. “I’m not sure. Maybe half a candlemark. I wasn’t gone from the ship long. I just really wanted to stand on land again.” Gabrielle laid a hand on her stomach and swayed a bit, indicating how she felt about sea life. “Then I followed a crowd down the street and found the shops … I’m sorry, Conqueror. I should not have left without your permission.”

“Well, that is true, Gabrielle, but that wasn’t why I asked.” My own intelligence officers would have found out half of what she did in twice the amount of time. “We are in a city that is an undeclared enemy. Ephesus is chosen by Artemis. And Artemis is still a little annoyed with me for my annihilation of her Amazons in Greece. But I didn’t destroy them here, leaving me more than a few enemies in this city. And, since you are with me, they are your enemies as well. You will need to be very careful while we are here. I will not be able to protect you continually.” Xena paused, surprised at her own words. When did I become this one’s protector? “No more wandering off.”

“Of course, Conqueror. It won’t happen again.”

Xena hated how the enthusiasm that had been present moments before had left the young woman. Lyceus was exactly the same, all fire and ice. No middle ground, ever. “Tell me more about these Persian performers.”

A spark quickly returned to the green eyes that lifted to meet hers. “This man said that they can fly through the air unaided. And that they dangle from the ceiling, wrap themselves in ropes and fall to the ground, only to stop a hand’s breadth from it. There’s a woman who can put her feet behind her ears.”

This last revelation left the Conqueror unimpressed, “Why would anyone want to do that?”

Gabrielle’s nose scrunched as she considered the question. Rubbing the end of it hesitantly, she shrugged, “I don’t know. But it’s interesting that she can do it.”

“Lots of people can do interesting things, Gabrielle. Doesn’t make them worth doing.”

Gabrielle had the idea that they were talking about more than body contortions. “That’s true. Who are we staying with while we are here, Conqueror?”

The Conqueror adjusted the cape over her shoulders. “A merchant from Greece, Salmoneus, that I have made wealthy beyond his own expectations. And his were pretty grandiose to begin with.” The Conqueror shook her head remembering the short man who had pestered her for some sort of favor. She had finally given in just to make him go away. And, in truth, he amused her; he had been the first person since her conquering of Greece to not seem terrified by her presence.

“How did you do that?” Gabrielle was intrigued. She never considered that the Conqueror would want to increase anyone’s wealth beside her own.

Xena let her eyes wander over the docks, observing the activities and the goods being moved about. “In Ephesus there is much wealth, a lot of money to be made by enterprising people. It does me no harm for a Greek to prosper here. In fact, it increases my stature, as others see Greeks as powerful and savvy. And it makes him even more loyal to me, for he relies on me and my reputation to stay free from harm abroad. So, I gave Salmoneus exclusive shipping rights from Ephesus to Greece. Anyone who wants to import or export has to go through him.”

“No wonder he’s wealthy.”

The Conqueror smirked, recalling the merchant she had happily sent abroad two winters ago; with him so far away she didn’t have to listen to his various schemes on a daily basis. “I think you’ll like him. He talks even more than you do.”

Cefan approached the Conqueror and bowed. “My liege, all is prepared for the journey to Salmoneus’ house: the runners have prepared the way and your horse is ready.”

Xena nodded and motioned for the Royal Guard to assemble around her. Catching the eye of one of the Guards, she summoned him over. “You are to escort my oracle during our walk through the city. Do not let anything happen to her. Or you will only wish it happened to you. Do you understand?”

“Yes, my liege.” The tall soldier marched and stood by the object of his attention.

Gabrielle realized that the Conqueror needed to ride at the head of the procession, alone and regal, for Xena bore on her shoulders the reputation and honor of Greece. The vast majority of the people they would pass on the road would never see Greece, never know the splendor of its cities, never meet its citizenry. The Ephesians’ knowledge of their neighboring country would be based on this one woman walking through its streets.

She knows that every eye will be fastened on her alone. And, far from scaring her, it excites her. I could never handle so much attention. I’d probably stub my toe and fall down, or something hideous like that. And yet she has no fear. Or, at least, she shows none. Gabrielle watched the Conqueror carefully as the procession began. She and her escort were thirty paces behind Xena and her honor guard. Gabrielle was the only non-soldier in the march, and she felt distinctly out of place.

Glancing to each side, she noted the demeanor of the Royal Guard. From the moment they stepped onto the docks and began marching through town, the men and women seemed to grow taller. They stood straighter, their shoulders thrown back, their chins raised high. They were the epitome of a professional military organization, reflecting the attitude and carriage of the Conqueror. Echoes of their footsteps bounced off the narrow streets, making the army seem even larger and more fearsome. If I were Artemis, I’d be worried, Gabrielle thought absently.

Her attention was captured by the beauty of the city as they passed through it. The procession went down the central roadway, the Street of the Curetes, and toward the hillside which housed the wealthy district of town. At the sight of the Library of Celsus, Gabrielle’s heart raced. The marble façade was exquisite. The two story structure had fourteen columns with ionic capitals. The eight lower columns surrounded sculptures of four of the Muses, but they were moving too fast for Gabrielle to identify which ones. Tall steps led up to the treasures contained within the building. She hoped that the Conqueror would allow her to go there later.

As they passed through the Gate of the Agora, her eye was drawn to a flurry of activity further up the way. A group of women were shouting angry accusations at the Conqueror. Their words were jumbled as each fought to make her voice heard above the others. And then there was silence, as the Conqueror reined in her horse and turned in the saddle slowly to face her accusers.

Gabrielle and the Royal Guard stopped. Cefan and the Honor Guard encircled the Conqueror, providing a protective band around the General. From her perch, Xena met the eyes of the woman she recognized to be their leader and allowed a smile to spread across her lips. To this red-haired woman she mouthed, “I remember you.” And then she led the procession onward, not stopping again until she reached Salmoneus’ home.

Gabrielle was never aware of another pair of eyes which watched her every movement and the hate that filled them.
Chapter Sixteen
“O Mighty Conqueroress!” Salmoneus shouted, hustling to her side as fast as his chunky form would allow him. “It is such an honor to see you again! You look well. Ruling agrees with you. It must be a power thing, right?” He prattled on oblivious to the annoyed look of the object of his attention.

“Salmoneus. You seem to be doing well for yourself here.” Her eyes swept appreciatively over the exquisite and massive home in front of her.

“Yes, well, times are good. And to think I could afford this all after your taxes.” At the sight of her blue eyes locked on him, he smiled cheekily. “Which are more than fair, my Warrioress. And which I paid. You can check that, if you want.”

“I will.”

“Good, good.” Salmoneus stroked his beard thoughtfully, wondering when he should talk to his financial advisor about correcting a few accounting discrepancies. Forcing a smile even as he considered the amount of dinars he would have to send to the Conqueror to make his prior boast true, he focused his attention on Palaemon. “What happened to you?” he blurted out, not thinking to censor his reaction to the facial scar.

“I did,” the Conqueror responded. “Palaemon wanted to kill me before he decided to join me. I convinced him otherwise.”

“That you did, my liege, very well.”

Gabrielle was shocked to hear that the Captain had ever been opposed to the Conqueror. There’s been some change of heart. I wonder what happened. I’ll have to pester Palaemon for the story later. Lost in thought, she was surprised when she felt lips on the back of her hand.

“And who is this beautiful flower?” Salmoneus asked, not releasing her hand from his grasp.

“Gabrielle.”

He smiled, “Beautiful. Would you care to see my melons out back?”

Xena’s eyes narrowed, “Salmoneus. She is my oracle. I suggest you back off.”

Immediately her hand was abandoned and the short man let out a strangled laugh, taking care to wipe the palms of his hands on his tunic. “Of course. You must be tired after the long journey. Let me show you to your rooms.” With a friendly smile, he began leading them through the enormous house providing a running commentary.

“This room looks out onto the harbor, and has a beautiful view of the Temple. I sell some really nice miniature replicas of it,” he said to Gabrielle, believing her to be the one most likely to make such a purchase. “They’re made from genuine Ephesian stone.”

The Conqueror cleared her throat loudly and Salmoneus hurried on down the hallway. Gabrielle glanced back at Xena over her shoulder and smiled, amused by the little man.

“Here is the dining room. The glassware was imported from Babylon. I paid a fortune for it! When you fill up a glass with wine, it changes color.”

Xena chuckled, “The glass or the wine?”

Salmoneus stopped and considered the ruler, “The glass, of course.”

“Of course, Salmoneus. Lead on.” She waved him down the hallway.

Throwing open a door, he showed them another room. “This is my library. Apparently, it is customary for great houses in Ephesus to have one. I had the scrolls selected by the librarian, so I have only the best scrolls.”

“May I come in here later, Salmoneus?” Gabrielle asked, her voice full of wonder. She had never seen so many scrolls in one place before.

He shrugged, “Sure. You may have to blow dust off the chairs though.”

“You don’t use the library?” Gabrielle was shocked by his admission. “I would live in there.”

“Hmm … well …let’s get you to your rooms. I’m sure you’re tired from the journey.” He turned and continued onward, passing by a doorway.

The Conqueror stopped. “Show me what is in this room, Salmoneus.”

The man stopped, laughed and shook his head. “Conqueroress, it’s just a broom closet. Really. Storage. Nothing of importance to you.”

“Open it.”

“Mighty Conqueroress, it’s just a waste of your time to –”

“- Salmoneus,” the General growled ominously.

With a heavy sigh, the rotund man pushed open the door, revealing three workers packing shipping crates with what looked to be porcelain plates. They seemed genuinely surprised to find a large assortment of people standing in the doorway watching them work. “See, just storage,” Salmoneus said, grabbing for the door handle to pull the door shut once more.

Xena pressed a hand against the door, keeping it ajar. With a glance at her host, she stepped inside and walked over to the plates the men were packing. She stared at one for long moments, forcing herself to calm down, trying to remind herself of all of Lao Ma’s teachings on self control. “Explain this, Salmoneus,” she said ominously.

Salmoneus wished at that moment he could be anywhere else in the known world. Any place was better than here. “Well, you see, your Rulership, well … people here in Ephesus need to know what you look like. They’ve heard so many rumors. So …. I thought that I could sell these tasteful decorative commemorative plates with your likeness on it. I was hoping you could sign a hundred of them for a special limited signature collection.”

Hearing this explanation, Gabrielle and Palaemon scrambled over to the crates and removed several plates. The one in Gabrielle’s hands was a close-up of the Conqueror, a pretty accurate depiction of the smooth planes of her face, onyx hair and cerulean eyes. “Not bad,” she commented. Nowhere near as good as reality though.

Palaemon showed her the plate in his hands, a rendition of the Conqueror astride Argo – who had been regretfully left behind in Athos. She held a bloodied sword in one hand and her chakram in another. “They got the hilt wrong,” he said pointing to the sword on the plate and the sword sheathed on the Conqueror’s back. “And the design on the chakram is off.”

“Well, well, let’s be going, shall we?” Salmoneus said, clapping his hands nervously and attempting to shepherd them out of the room.

Gabrielle wasn’t budging, she was too busy sorting through the crates searching for any other design. When she found one, she let out a snort of laughter and clasped a hand tightly over her mouth.

Salmoneus knew exactly which plate she had found and he began backing toward the door. And found himself stopped by an unyielding wall of flesh, leather and armor. “Stay with us, Salmoneus,” Xena rumbled and began moving them back over to the crates. “Let me see that, Gabrielle.”

Smiling her regret, Gabrielle did just that. And watched the Conqueror flush scarlet as she saw the rendering. The Conqueror lay on a bed clad only in the clothes she was born in, her sword and armor discarded on the floor, and a caption which read ‘Woman Warrior’.

“Now, this is obviously an artist’s interpretation of your … attributes … since I have never had the …” he stopped when he saw how white the knuckles were of her hand that was gripping the plate. “We don’t have to sell this one. I was just trying to help … soften …your image.”

“Salmoneus, I expect to hear the shattering of plates all night long, do you understand me? Or you’ll regret more than your underpaid taxes.”

“How did you know -?” He stopped, before completely incriminating himself. “Yes, your Worshipness, but I think we’re missing out on a great opportunity here.”

Xena raised a hand, blocking the sight of the smaller man’s face. “Don’t …” Turning crisply, she stepped out into the hallway.

As Gabrielle followed, she whispered, “Save me one of each, ok, Salmoneus?”

He nodded, “There is another really nice one I think you’ll like.” Ever unrepentant, he joined the rest of the party in the hallway and continued his tour of his home.

Even much later, while standing in the receiving room of the Proconsul’s home, Gabrielle had a difficult time not giggling. She had had this problem the entire march over to the home and did not anticipate it subsiding anytime soon. The look on the Conqueror’s face had been priceless.

Her behavior was influencing Palaemon who, due to the nature of his facial scar, was unable to completely disguise his own amusement. Steadfastly he refused to meet the Conqueror’s eyes, knowing he would collapse in helpless laughter the moment he did. And he certainly did not want her to challenge him to an impromptu sparring session considering the mood she was in.

The Conqueror for her part was trying to ignore the two, which was difficult as the Captain stood at her right side and Gabrielle at her left. She knew what was making them act this way; she did not share their sense of humor. Perhaps it had been a mistake to stay at Salmoneus’ home.

They were joined in the receiving room by the Proconsul and two of his slaves. The Proconsul was a grossly overweight man of inconsequential height. His hair was curly, but cut short, accenting the full moon shape of his face. He wore a white robe which fell over his girth in long folds and had sleeves which ended at the wrists above his meaty hands.

The Conqueror surveyed the wreck of a man with barely concealed disdain. This is what Roman rule allows, and even encourages. Keep them fat, dumb and happy – at least the upper class – and rebellion is thwarted. Yet building an empire on weakness is never a good idea.

Gabrielle sniffed, noting the pungent odor that arrived in the room along with the Proconsul. Surveying his robe she idly noted that he would do better with a darker color. Thank the gods the Conqueror has not let herself decay like this man. Is this what power does to some?

One slave set a large basin of water on the ground and the other knelt before the Conqueror. The slave studied the top of Xena’s boots while he awaited the command to remove them and wash her feet in the warm water provided.

The Conqueror realized the meaning of this gesture and said, “You may.”

“Wait,” Gabrielle said forcefully, putting up a hand to still the actions of those around her. “Conqueror?”

Xena wondered what was bothering Gabrielle so much. “Speak.” The young woman smiled her thanks and then directed her attention to the Proconsul. The Conqueror was intrigued by the hardness that settled over the normally gentle features as her gaze shifted.

“Proconsul, do you intend to shame the Ruler of Greece in your own home and thus bring disgrace on yourself, your household and all of Ephesus?” The question was asked softly.

Palaemon’s eyes narrowed, his hand instinctively reaching for the pommel of his sword. He hadn’t liked the Proconsul from their first meeting, and his affection was not growing. If Gabrielle said that this weasel was insulting his leader, he’d have none of it.

The Proconsul’s forehead beaded with sweat as he took in the seriousness of the situation he was in. The Conqueror had not moved, or even seemed to breathe, since the young red-gold-haired woman had asked permission to speak. He drew in a shaky breath and tried to appear calm, “I don’t know what you mean. It is our custom to wash the feet of our guests.”

“Not those of visiting royalty.” Green eyes flashed a challenge at him, daring to be contradicted. “Your customs dictate that the feet of royalty are not to be touched by a slave. Either the royal is to enter unwashed, and thus presumed to bring the soil of their homeland into your home, gracing it. Or the master of the home is to wash their feet, showing your deference to their station.”

“How?” the Proconsul stammered, surprised at her knowledge. He had planned on this being his own secret pleasure, something he could boast of to the Ephesian council later. Now it didn’t look like such a good plan. Not with the dark demon staring at him and his accuser speaking in confident tones.

Gabrielle turned to the Conqueror, “I read this in Salmoneus’ library. I then asked his head servant if this was the prevailing custom. He assured me that it was. I did not want to see you dishonored, my liege.”

Angry blue eyes flicked back to the Proconsul who was looking quite pale at the moment. “You have chosen poorly.” To Palaemon she said, “Assemble the Guard, we’re leaving.”

“At once, my liege.” Palaemon bowed to the Conqueror. As he turned, he met the eyes of the Proconsul, gave a cold stare, and bared his teeth, promising retribution at a later time.

The Conqueror’s attention focused back on the Proconsul, who was looking as if he might pass out at any moment. Shaking her head, she spoke softly, “I would not have harmed you during my stay here. Now you leave me no choice. You, however, have one. Do me no more injury and I will repay only you. If you persist in this ill-chosen path, I will destroy your city. And neither you, nor your army, nor Artemis herself will be able to stop me.”

The man fell to his knees before the Conqueror, reaching out for the hem of her cape. “Please, Conqueror … don’t.”

Xena shrugged her shoulder, pulling the cape clear of his reach. “Why shouldn’t I? You have not just insulted me, you have insulted Greece. I cannot stand by and allow you to do that.”

“It was a mistake, Conqueror. An oversig…” He stopped, when he saw her begin to draw her sword. Don’t lie. “I was wrong. I was stupid.”

Xena crouched down, her elbow resting on her armored knee. “All actions have consequences, Proconsul. You intended your action to result in my disgrace. But, instead, it has fallen squarely on you.”

“Have mercy,” he begged, mindless of the tears that coursed down his cheeks and the wetness spreading throughout his robes from a lower fount.

The Conqueror laughed as she rose to her full height. Shaking her head, she turned to leave him to worry about his fate until she dealt his death blow. She was almost certain that the anticipation alone would kill him.

“Conqueror?” Gabrielle said softly as the Conqueror passed by.

More? “Yes, Gabrielle?”

“Mercy might be the prudent course of action at this time.” Gabrielle ignored the Proconsul as he shouted out his agreement with her statement. I really don’t need or want you on my side, she thought in the Proconsul’s direction. “A living ally is better than a dead enemy.”

Xena frowned, folding her arms across her chest. “That depends on the ally.”

Gabrielle directed her attention to the man who was looking at her with pleading eyes. “What do you know of the shipments in and out of the city?”

A spark of hope ignited in the man. “Everything! I know everything!” He tried to ignore the numbness spreading in his legs from kneeling so long. He did not dare rise to his feet.

Forcing herself to be patient and not mimic the Conqueror’s anger, Gabrielle asked, “What type of things? Please, be specific.”

“I know everything. What comes in the harbor. What leaves the city. Whether it’s on the water or on the highway. Permits are required for tax purposes, I have to approve them all. And it helps me assign our highway guards. For example, if I know that a very important shipment is going to Miletus then I can deploy a larger escort through our territory.”

Gabrielle’s eyes met the Conqueror’s meaningfully at the Proconsul’s answer.

Xena acceded to Gabrielle’s proposed plan. Keeping her eyes firmly fixed on Gabrielle, she said to the Proconsul, “Palaemon will be here tomorrow. If you answer his questions well, you will save your life.” Xena gestured to the door, indicating to Gabrielle that the conversation was over. Over her shoulder, she said, “And don’t try to run away or entertain any other visitors tonight. I will leave a squadron of men to assure myself of your new-found integrity. Though I will be surprised to find that to be the case.”

Outside in the courtyard, the Conqueror closed her hand around Gabrielle’s upper arm, pulling the smaller woman to her side. “Thank you, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle’s features relaxed into a broad smile as she regarded the Conqueror. “You’re welcome. I couldn’t stand by and let him insult you.” Not now. Not when I’m beginning to get to know you. And I’m discovering a woman I can respect, one I can now speak freely to.

“I know I’m considered a barbarian, even in Greece.” She shook her head ruefully, “Especially in Greece.”

In Xena’s eyes, for the briefest of moments, Gabrielle saw her hurt, the pain the Conqueror suffered from being hated by so much of her populace. It caused her heart to reach out inexplicably to the woman her own body knew she too should hate. But she couldn’t find the hate within her. “It’s only because Greece does not know the ruler I do.”

Xena tried to find any insincerity in the green eyes meeting hers. All she saw was spring in Amphipolis. Xena attempted to formulate an appropriate rejoinder, but found herself unable to. Every time the Conqueror started to reply, her throat constricted and her eyes burned. When was the last time one of my subjects did not look at me like some demon from Hades? I tried to kill this girl for speaking up once before, and now she raises her voice to protect me. Finally, she managed to say, “I understand there is a performing troupe here from …” I can barely talk, much less think straight right now. Where did she say that damn group was from?

“Persia,” Gabrielle supplied helpfully, noting the Conqueror’s discomfort.

The Conqueror nodded, tightening her hold on Gabrielle’s arm momentarily before releasing it. “Persia, yes.” A deep breath, and then Xena continued, “I was wondering if you would care to see this evening’s performance. Since our other plans have been so rudely canceled.”

“Do you think we can still get in?” the fair-haired woman asked, not wanting to have her hopes raised only to be disappointed.

This time it was Xena who indulged in a very rare full smile which warmed her eyes to a vibrant shade of blue. “I think that I might be able to get us tickets. My barbarian reputation should be useful for something, other than scaring women and small children.” Looking over Gabrielle’s shoulder, she motioned for Palaemon once more.

“My liege?”

“A night at the theatre is in order, Palaemon. Take five men and arrange for good seats for us. And appropriate security.”

“Yes, my liege. It will be done.” I didn’t even think she could recognize a theatre, much less ever go to one. He quickly chose the men to accompany him and they set off at a jog. Tonight just keeps getting better and better. Wonder what else will happen?
Chapter Seventeen
Gabrielle was completely overwhelmed. Nothing in her upbringing in Potadeia, nor her time spent in Corinth, prepared her for the Ephesian theatre. Rising halfway up Mount Prion, the theatre could fit over fifty thousand spectators and it was filled to capacity for this evening’s performance. Gabrielle tried to take in the faces of as many of the people as she could, intrigued by the different nationalities represented. “Where is that man from, Conqueror?” she asked, pointing to a man wearing a white turban.

The Conqueror’s eyes traced a path down Gabrielle’s arm and then followed the line of her finger until she saw the man inquired about. “I would say he is from Persia, like the performers.”

“Hmm. I wonder what they will look like,” the younger woman responded. “And the woman, three – no – four people to the left of him. Where is she from?”

Xena found the woman easily. She wore a sapphire blue dress, which accentuated her olive skin, dark eyes and inky hair. A gold amulet encircled her left bicep to great effect. “She’s Egyptian. Like Cefan.”

A furrow appeared between Gabrielle’s brows, “But Cefan is so much darker skinned. And her hair is curly.”

“True. Cefan’s parents came to Egypt when she was a child. She’s from the dark nation to the south. From what Cefan tells me, they are a fierce people. But she considers herself Egyptian. It’s the only home she’s ever known, besides Greece.”

Nodding her understanding, Gabrielle found another person to inquire about. “And that man? What is he?”

The man in question was tall, with a dark flowing beard. He wore a purple robe over his white tunic, the sleeves and hem of which were stitched with gold thread. On his robe was an insignia over his left breast – a snakelike dragon eating its own tail. His eyes too seemed to roam the crowd, stopping when they locked with the Conqueror’s gaze. “That’s a magician, Gabrielle. It’s best to stay away from men like that.”

“What do they do?”

“Deceive.” The answer escaped with more bitterness than she intended. Clearing her throat, she continued, “And you, my oracle, are only to tell the truth.” Xena said the last part lightly, not wanting to spoil the mood of the evening.

“Always, Conqueror.” Sighing, she leaned back in her seat and waited for the performance to begin.

The Conqueror half turned in her seat to get Palaemon’s attention. “Well done.”

The Captain nodded, “Thank you, my liege. But it was your influence which allowed me to arrange this. The theatre manager was quite anxious to accommodate your wishes.”

Xena chuckled and considered the first row, center section seats they currently enjoyed. And the four rows behind her that were cleared for her guards. “With what atrocity did you threaten him if he didn’t comply so willingly?”

“Conqueror, I merely pointed out that it would be in everyone’s best interests to enjoy favorable relations. I was pleased that this Ephesian was not as stupid as the one we last left.” He bent his head, bringing his mouth closer to her ear. “Shall I kill the Proconsul tomorrow, my liege?” He knew that Gabrielle would not want to hear his question, nor would the Conqueror want to her to hear the response he expected.

Xena’s mouth set in a firm line, not liking either of her choices. “Let him live, for now. But … make sure he is unable to warn Caesar’s men. That would displease me greatly.”

“Yes, my liege, as you wish.” Palaemon began considering the various ways he could achieve his General’s objective.

Suddenly the night air was filled with the sounds of instruments unfamiliar to Gabrielle. Glancing in the direction of the musicians, she saw a number of strangely clad men and women in the shell shaped alcove. They held various stringed and wind instruments, none of which she recognized. But Gabrielle found the sounds they produced to be intoxicating. Closing her eyes, she allowed the music to wash over her and fill up her senses.

Taking a deep breath of the torch-smoke scented night air, she found everything to be just right. I don’t think I’ve been this happy since before Draco. I’m finally seeing distant lands. I’m in what has to be the largest theatre in the world. And I am seated next to the most feared woman in the world.

Never thought I’d end up here.

The Conqueror has managed to surprise me at every turn and upend all of my expectations of her. I participated in the contest of truth so I could speak to her. I wanted to tell her that she did not have to be the brutal ruler she was, exacting pain on her people to force their compliance with her edicts. I thought she must resort to violence because she lacked the intelligence to go any other way. Now, I know that is not the truth. She is one of the most brilliant leaders I have ever met. It is simply her pain and fear of betrayal which drive her first thoughts to always be of violence.

I wish I knew what happened to cause her to be that way.

Unconsciously, Gabrielle’s hand moved down to her legs and massaged the muscles lightly. They don’t nearly hurt as bad anymore. I don’t need the staff as frequently while walking. And the oil the Conqueror gave me while we were travelling to rub into the muscles tingles whenever I put it on. And then I always walk better afterwards. Surprisingly, I think all the walking and travelling has been good for me. Arrol treated me like a breakable object after the cross. Perhaps that even slowed down my healing. I think in another quarter moon, I will not even need the staff at all.

“Gabrielle,” Xena whispered, noting the faraway look in the young oracle’s eyes.

Gabrielle jumped slightly in her seat and embarrassed eyes met the Conqueror’s. “Sorry, I was thinking.”

“The show’s starting.”

Her eyes tracked to the stage and there she saw a fool, dressed in a form-fitting white costume. Hanging from the costume were ribbons in red, green, yellow and blue. The fool’s face was painted white, except for a red slash of lips. Even the man’s dark hair had been powdered to match the costume. The fool picked up a rope from the floor of the stage and began twirling it around his body.

Gabrielle was fascinated, the rope seemed to have a life of its own in the fool’s hands. She watched as he spun it up in the air, making it contort into various shapes. Then he tossed it over one of the rafters of the canopy over the stage. She saw two more men dressed as fools up on the rafter, waking along the thin beam as if it were the ground. Gasping, she pointed when one of the fools somersaulted in the air, only to land back on the beam.

The Conqueror had seen circuses like this before. The acrobatics were always breathtaking to watch, but she had never considered the sensation of watching them with someone like Gabrielle. The young oracle had a thirst for all things new. And so Xena watched the fair-haired woman almost as much as she watched the performers.

The fools atop the beam, secured the rope and tied off two others. Soon all three men were climbing the ropes. Using their bodies’ momentum, they began swinging the ropes through the air in a circle above the ground. Then, all at once, each let go of his rope and threw his body to the one in front of him. They repeated this maneuver two more times, until each fool was back on his own rope.

A collective gasp went through the audience at the stunt, yet it seemed not even to be a stretch to the fools’ talents. The fools next climbed back atop the rafters. There they each performed a handstand on the beam and slowly pitched over, falling toward the stage.

Another gasp. This one alleviated when the fools reached out at the last moment and grabbed their ropes, stopping their downward fall less than a bodylength from the stage.

Dropping lightly to the ground, the three men bowed deeply and left the stage. They were passed by a man inside a large wheel. The man was dressed in a dark blue costume that covered his entire body, including his head, with only narrow slits left for his eyes and mouth. The wheel was constructed of metal, with the diameter just larger than the man inside it. The wheel was fashioned out of two circles linked together by six crossbars spaced evenly around its circumference. There were also several leather straps inside the wheel for the man to hold onto. By changing his center of gravity, the man could propel the wheel across the stage.

“I’d be so dizzy,” Gabrielle whispered to the Conqueror, as she watched the man go upside down.

On cue, the man stopped the wheel when he was horizontal to the ground. A movement of his hips and he began rolling the other way. Before reaching the other side of the stage again, the man twisted his shoulders. With that, the wheel began rolling on one of its edges on the stage, much like a dinar spins when flipped before settling on the surface of a table. Each time it looked like the wheel would come to rest of the stage, the man would arch his back and begin the cycle anew.

The audience burst into applause, cheering the man’s strength and coordination. Gabrielle joined them.

Then the man righted the wheel and began moving across stage again. Thinking that there were no new tricks to be seen, Gabrielle let her eyes wander over to her companion, only to discover the Conqueror studying her. Before either could speak, a gasp from the rest of the audience, drew their attention back to the man.

He had vaulted himself from inside the wheel and dove back into it as it rolled underneath him. He did this several times, diving in and out of the metal, never once missing or slipping or stopping. It reminded Gabrielle of the fish she had watched during their sail over to Ephesus, the ones who had followed alongside the ship seemingly skipping along the water’s surface.

The man in the wheel left the stage as three large hoops were lowered from the rafters. Inside each hoop was a small girl, dangling in an artistic pose. The hoops were lowered to different heights and the girls began their choreographed movements. They each spun through their hoops, rolling through them fluidly, stopping when their feet wrapped around the hoop and they dangled upside down over the stage.

It was a strange sight, as the girls each wore white outfits that looked like they were stained with blood on the chests and wrists. The impression was of dead bodies hanging above the ground, suspended lifeless.

A flashback to the cross for Gabrielle, who let out a soft moan and closed her eyes. You’re not there anymore. You’re safe. They’re safe. Breathe, Gabrielle.

“Are you all right?” the Conqueror asked against her ear.

Gabrielle nodded vigorously, shaking the image from her head. “Thanks.” And resolutely she fixed her eyes back on the performers.

Xena glanced back at the stage trying to discern what could upset her companion so. Then she saw it – those who had especially displeased her were crucified upside down and their sides were pierced with a sword at the end of the day. Those three girls had mimicked that pose unknowingly.

She’s reminded of the cross you put her on. You can pretend that she’s just someone who wandered in for the contest, but the truth is you tried to kill her. Forcing her thoughts to be quiet, Xena resumed her observation of the on-going act.

One of the girls twisted so that she floated above the stage with her arms wrapped inside the hoop, but nothing else. As she held her body straight, one of the other girls dove from her hoop and affixed herself to this girl’s body. Together they swung above the stage, both dependent on the one girl’s arm strength.

A woman in the audience shrieked when the girl loosed her hold on the hoop, sending both girls plummeting downward, until she grasped onto the bottom of the hoop with her hands. There she swung them back and forth until the one let go over her, somersaulted through the air and landed safely on the stage. The other two girls repeated this process and soon all three were on the ground and bowing for the audience.

“Wow,” Gabrielle said, trying to ease the solicitous look the Conqueror was bestowing on her.

The three hoops rose and three long red ribbons were lowered. A woman walked onto the stage below. She was dressed in the same red hue as the ribbons. She walked to them, grabbed onto the center ribbon and deftly hauled herself up its length. At the top, she began a series of movements among the three ribbons – spreading them, clutching on to them, moving between them.

It reminded Gabrielle of a dance, except it was performed five bodylengths above ground.

Then the woman paused and wrapped one of the ribbons around her right thigh. Once secured, she let go of all of the ribbons and began moving her body, which was now supported only by the ribbon wrapped around her thigh. She performed the dance of the veils, using the ribbons as veils.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” the Conqueror asked.

Gabrielle nodded, “She has perfect control of her body. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The woman folded herself up and now wrapped one ribbon tightly around her ribs. Then she seemed to slip and left go. Tumbling toward the ground, the ribbon unraveling from around her as she fell, it seemed certain that a terrible mistake had been made.

The audience gasped and waited for the inevitable.

Gabrielle, unable to help the woman, reached out and clutched at the Conqueror and shut her eyes.

Only to reopen them with the wild applause of the crowd. The woman had stopped her fall a mere handsbreadth from the floor. Her body was straight, hovering over its surface, every muscle in perfect obedience.

Gabrielle thought to applaud and it was then she noticed she had taken hold of the Conqueror’s hand in her fear. Her first conscious thought was that the Conqueror’s hand was much softer than she would have guessed it to be. It must be all the oil she uses on her sword and leathers which soften her hands. It certainly isn’t because she isn’t used to hard work. Unable to stop herself, one of her fingers ran a path along the Conqueror’s palm.

This caused a pair of very blue eyes to track to hers and then down to their intertwined hands. A small smile spread across Xena’s lips as she resettled their hands, taking Gabrielle’s smaller hand fully within hers. Her thumb ran along the back of Gabrielle’s hand gently, sending a warm feeling throughout them both. Maybe she can forgive me for the wrong I did her.

Gabrielle decided that enough of the audience was clapping. Her hand would not be needed; it could stay right where it was for the rest of the night.

On the other side of Xena, Palaemon watched as the Conqueror held the young woman’s hand with a tenderness he had never seen her display before. He closed his eyes and for a moment he could feel the warmth of Gabrielle’s hand against his own. And he knew for certain that his heart would never quite be the same.
Chapter Eighteen
The next morning found the Conqueror awake before dawn and speaking with Palaemon and Cefan. Xena had awoken more refreshed than she had felt in weeks. “Have the scouts been sent out to survey the road?” Life was good. She was going to humiliate Caesar, dupe the Amazons and return to Corinth with a newfound friend. A very profitable trip overall.

“They left about half a candlemark ago, my liege. We shall have their report by nightfall.”

Xena nodded thoughtfully, “Have them report to me immediately. Palaemon, are you prepared for your visit with our favorite Ephesian Proconsul?”

“My liege, you will know when Caesar is planning to move the arms and by what route.”

“Be assured of his veracity before rendering him incapable of further communication. I don’t want to be caught flat-footed. And he should know the penalty for lying.” The harsh look on her face left no doubt what that penalty would be.

Palaemon snarled, “It will be done, my liege.” He was still angered by the Proconsul’s treatment of his general. He had long ago determined that his honor was bound up with that of his leader’s.

The Conqueror knew the feelings her captain had for her and it gave her the assurance she wanted that her orders would be carried out completely and correctly. “Good. Cefan, did you destroy all of those tasteless plates that Salmoneus had made?”

The dark warrior laughed and flexed her biceps, “They’re a pile of dust now, my liege. It reminded me of my childhood days. Whenever I tried to help my mother in the kitchen, I inevitably broke something. I had a good time last night. And so did my men.”

So did I, thought the Conqueror remembering her time with Gabrielle. Shaking her head, she let her gaze wander around the great home of Salmoneus’ home. “Where is our host? He hasn’t been out here fawning over me yet. Is something wrong?”

It was just possible to see the slight blush rise on Cefan’s cheeks. “I am afraid I had something to do with that, my liege.” Xena’s silence encouraged her to continue. “I caught him trying to save some of the plates from destruction last night. I … uh … explained … to him that it was not a good decision.”

“You didn’t kill him, did you?” the Conqueror asked, slightly surprised by her own concern for the annoying salesman.

“No, no, my liege. I think I scared him off. He announced that he was going to check on his holdings outside of Ephesus.”

Xena chuckled, imagining the heavyset man making a hasty exit after his encounter with her intense lieutenant. “Well, at least it will be quieter around here for awhile.” But she had hoped that her host would keep Gabrielle company. An alternative would have to be arranged. “I will be making a visit to Artemis’ temple today. I need to provide a distraction for the Amazons. And keep any of the Romans from suspecting why I’m here.”

“I shall escort you, my liege? The Amazons will not take kindly to your being in their sacred temple.” Cefan pointed out reasonably.

“No.” The idea came into focus. “I want you to escort Gabrielle today. She’ll want to see the sites of Ephesus and she can’t come with me.”

The Egyptian swallowed hard and used every internal resource to not react. Under the table, her hand curled into a fist, her nails digging into the skin of her palm. “Excuse me, my liege?”

The Conqueror fixed her pale blue eyes on her lieutenant. “Do you have a problem with my order, Cefan?”

“No, General, of course not.”

A smile creased the Conqueror’s lips, but it was devoid of warmth, “Good.” The Conqueror left the room without another word.

Palaemon turned to his second-in-command and shook his head, “What is your problem?”

“She’s her servant. When did I become nursemaid to some crippled girl? I’m an officer in the Royal Guard, second only to you.”

A large hand was raised to stop the woman’s protests. “Gabrielle is her name. And if the Conqueror says that you are to escort her, you will.”

Cefan’s brown eyes seemed to darken even more as she leaned forward to speak to her commanding officer. “Doesn’t it strike you as odd that a woman the Conqueror ordered crucified is still alive and traveling with us? She acts all sweet, tells stories, and cozies up to the Conqueror. I don’t believe it. Would you forgive someone who tried to kill you?” Seeing that Palaemon was about to protest, she reached out and grabbed his wrist, forestalling comment. “And just how did she manage to get off that cross? Someone has to be helping her. Possibly one of the Conqueror’s staff. We know the Conqueror has enemies, even within the household, possibly even in the Guard. Why should we accept her without question? And why should I act as a tour guide?”

Palaemon had to admit that she had a point. Gabrielle doesn’t seem to have any hostility toward the General but it could be an act. She is a very talented storyteller. “Cefan, I’m confident you’ll be the best tour guide Ephesus has ever seen. I have to see to my orders. And so do you.”

Under her breath Cefan muttered, “But I don’t have to like it.”
Chapter Nineteen
The Conqueror began her approach of the temple just after dawn. She had a squadron of her Royal Guards accompanying her, but at a distance, so her approach appeared singular. It was her statement to the Amazons: I defeated you by myself in Greece and I can do the same in Ephesus.

She heard a bird call as she neared the site, recognizing it as a sentry signal. A wild smile crossed her lips and she reached up behind her and let her hair loose from its tie. The slight breeze from the Mediterranean blew the dark strands about, making her appear even more primitive and dangerous. It was exactly the image she wanted.

She would never admit it to anyone else, but she thought the temple was magnificent, though it was a shame it was dedicated to Artemis. Of course, she wouldn’t have wanted it dedicated to Ares. None of the gods of Olympus were worthy of worship, she knew. They were as easily manipulated as mortals, sometimes even more so. They also had far more petty appetites and conflicts, and were fairly unintelligent, truth be told.

Even as that thought coursed through her mind, she shivered, feeling the presence of her dark mentor. “Hello, Ares.”

The God of War materialized beside her, leaning forward and letting his lips graze her cheek. “Xena.” His fingers traced a path from behind her ear down to her shoulder. “You’re up early.”

She met his gaze and frowned, “What do you want?”

The god straightened to his full height and he stroked his beard thoughtfully. “You.” His eyes were wandering over her muscular form, his hands followed.

The Conqueror rolled her eyes, men – gods or not – were very predictable. “I’m kinda busy right now.” Shaking her head, she resumed her approach toward the temple.

“Artemis knows you’re coming. The Amazons are ready for you.”

Xena stopped once more and turned to face the god. “I haven’t exactly hidden my coming to Ephesus, Ares. What’s your point?”

“They may have a surprise or two waiting for you. Be careful. I wouldn’t want my Chosen damaged in any way. Not when I have such plans for you.” He grabbed her chin and kissed her roughly, claiming her as his own. “Don’t forget who you belong to.”

Xena met his eyes steadily. “Myself. Always, myself.”

“We’ll see about that,” he promised and then, in a flash of light, was gone.

****

Eponin stood by Terreis on the temple steps, they had been watching the Conqueror approach. “Why has she stopped, Ter?”

The Amazon Queen shrugged, “I don’t know any better than you do.” Neither of the women had seen Ares materialize before Xena, impeding her progress. “How many men are with her?”

Eponin turned to her scout for the information, “Twenty. They are thirty paces from her, scattered about. We could take them out, my Queen.”

“No, not yet. When we attack, Eponin, it will be to kill, not to wound, the Destroyer.”

Eponin hated the inaction when the object of her hatred was within striking distance. Her hand went to the hilt of her sword, to assure herself yet again, that it was in place. Nothing would have given the warrior greater pleasure than to have drawn the razor sharp metal, let out a battle cry, and run to engage the Destroyer in single combat. Her sword had belonged to her mother, who had also been a valiant warrior. This was the same blade she had used to defeat Fila, the last great threat to the Nation. “I pray to Artemis that will be soon.”

Terreis recalled and repeated the words of Clymera, “Soon the Conqueror will be brought to her knees.” Soon I shall be brought to the Fields. I do hope to see the Conqueror die first.

“What is she doing now?” Eponin asked, exasperated with their quarry, not trusting her own sight.

The Queen lifted her shoulders in a shrug, “Sitting. She’s sitting.”

****

Xena snickered as she settled down on the bench across from the temple entrance. She knew that the Amazons would be wondering what she was doing, why she wasn’t attempting to enter the temple. Casually she leaned back against the stone and closed her eyes, relaxing in the warmth of the sun and the clean smell of the sea. Raising her right hand she waved to one of her men.

The soldier hurried over and held out the items the Conqueror had previously entrusted him with. “Anything else, my liege?”

Shaking her head, she dismissed the clean shaven young soldier. Rolling open the scroll, she began sketching the layout of the temple with the charcoal stick he had given her. She hadn’t done this since preparing to invade Corinth, when she had sat on a nearby hill and personally sketched a complete map of the city. It had been very good for her, made her aware of every alley, every building, every egress and ingress. Attention to detail had always served her well.

She also knew it would drive the Amazons crazy. And Xena was content to sit there all day to keep them fixated on her and not her true objective. Caesar’s men, the Conqueror felt, could be handled with little problem. But if the Amazons were to ally with them, it would be a bigger challenge. Let them think she wanted their treasury’s gold – which she wouldn’t mind liberating as a bonus for her Royal Guard – and stay close to their temple.

Eponin could barely restrain herself with the inaction. Three candlemarks had already passed and nothing had happened. “Is that gods-be-damned demon going to just sit there and sketch all day? Is she planning on selling portraits of visitors to the temple for the highest price?” The warrior drew her sword and checked the blade once again.

The Amazon Queen leaned over and pulled the sword out of Eponin’s hands. “You’re making me nervous, Ep.” Resting the blade across her knees, Terreis’ gaze fell on the dark-haired warrior still sitting and drawing across from her. “Did you ever think you’d see her again?”

A grunt was her response. “I had hoped on the battlefield, when we came back to our rightful lands in Greece.”

“I remember watching her kill Melosa and for years all I could dream about was taking my revenge. But as she drove us from Greece, and forced us to flee here for the only protection we could find … I found myself hoping I would never see her again.”

Eponin was surprised. “Don’t you want to avenge your sister’s death? She killed her under a flag of truce.”

The Queen brushed red hair out of her eyes and willed herself to keep her voice steady. “I have always known that her presence would mean my death.”

“What are you talking about, Ter?” The larger woman shoved her shoulder, attempting to dislodge the thought from her friend. “There are a hundred Amazons who would die before they let her harm you.”

“If Artemis wills my death, then a hundred Amazons would only be wasting their own life’s blood. And I am not more important than the Nation.” Terreis reached out and took hold of Eponin’s right hand, clasping it tightly. “If something were to happen to me, promise me you would look after Ephiny.”

Eponin did not like the way Terreis was speaking; she knew that soldiers who spoke of death, soon died. “Nothing’s gonna happen to you. I won’t make promises I don’t need to keep.”

“I need this promise from you, my friend. Ephiny has always been a little –”

“Fragile.” Eponin supplied helpfully.

The Queen nodded her head, her bondmate never had a strong constitution and was one of the gentlest souls she knew. She was an adequate warrior but did not have the fierce spirit that was necessary to excel in battle, like Eponin. Her greatest strength lay in her ability to negotiate agreements between disparate parties. Terreis had been worried about her Consort, wanting to make sure Ephiny was taken care of after her death. She was confident that the Nation would see to Ephiny’s physical needs – the Amazons took care of their own, especially the widowed Consort of the Queen – but Terreis wanted someone specifically charged with making sure she was emotionally taken care of. Time to call in a few favors, Terreis thought. “Yeah, fragile. And if I’m not here to protect her, I expect you, as my best friend, to do so.”

Eponin looked at her with wide-eyed concern, “You want me to bond with her? Ter … we’d kill each other … it would never work …” she sputtered.

Terreis was dumbstruck. She hadn’t even thought about Ephiny bonding with anyone else. “I kinda was hoping she’d mourn me for a bit at least,” was the response she finally managed. It was inevitable, Ephiny was too tender-hearted to not fall in love again, Terreis just hadn’t been confronted with that yet. Blinking back hot tears, she said, “No, you don’t have to bond with her, Ep. Simply promise me you’ll watch out for her. Like you’ve always watched out for me.”

The warrior saw the desperation in Terreis’ eyes, so she nodded slowly and exchanged a warrior clasp with her Queen and best friend. “I promise, my friend. And I intend to keep that promise in about fifty years from now.”

“Thank you, Eponin.”

And the two Amazons returned their attention to the silent dark figure across the way.
Chapter Twenty
Gabrielle stood at the bottom step to the Library of Celsus and let her gaze wander slowly over the amazing façade. In her brisk march past the library, she had noted the ornate decoration of the building and had been thrilled when Cefan had announced they were to visit it this morning.

She had been disappointed that the Conqueror had already left by the time she awoke. Traveling with the ruler, she knew that Xena was up before dawn every morning. How does she do that? It’s not natural. But, she doesn’t do anything the way everyone else does. Perhaps that’s why she’s the Conqueror, and the rest of us aren’t. And she could not help but notice that Cefan was less than happy at accompanying her. This surprised Gabrielle, because she had begun to think of the Egyptian warrior as somewhat of a friend. They had certainly spent a lot of time together during the trip from Corinth, but always in the company of the Conqueror or Palaemon.

The four statues on top of the steps represented four of the Muses. Climbing up the steep approach, Gabrielle stood in front of Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. Her hand involuntarily went and rested on the writing tablet held in the statue’s hand. “I sing the song of Zeus, king of the gods …” she whispered, imagining herself as a bard, taken over by the muse.

Walking along the length of the building, she noted the other three muses depicted were Erato, Euterpe and Thalia. She thought it interesting the Ephesians had left the muses of tragedy, sacred hymns, astronomy and dance unrepresented. It was most likely a reflection of the values of the community. Tucking that thought away, she entered through the large double doors and found her breath stolen away again.

Never before had she seen so many scrolls in one place. There was row upon row of scroll cases, with the parchments carefully rolled, tied, categorized and placed. She felt a sense of awe to be in a room with so much learning and passion. More than that, she felt unworthy. She looked at the staff she held in her hand, which eased the pressure on her too easily tired legs, and felt ashamed at the noise it made on the marble floor as she tried to move through the aisles. Her clothes too cast her as an outsider to this literary community, as she was still dressed in the traveling clothes from their journey from Corinth, while the scholars in the library wore loose and vibrantly colored robes.

I don’t fit anywhere anymore. I’m not the little girl from Potadeia, chasing stars and dreaming dreams. I’m not the teacher of Corinth, teaching Greek to uneducated soldiers. I’m not even the oracle of truth the Conqueror believes me to be. I’m just Gabrielle. And I don’t think that’s enough.

Cefan’s rough voice broke her free of that chain of thought. “Are you planning on staying here for awhile?”

Gabrielle nodded, recalling where she was and realizing that she might never have such an opportunity again. “I was hoping too, lieutenant.” Instinctually, she knew not to be too familiar with the warrior this morning.

“Don’t wander off, but I’m going to go outside and get some fresh air. I never was much into reading scrolls. I prefer to live the adventures others only read about.”

To Cefan’s surprise, Gabrielle nodded vigorously, “I would feel the same way if I were you. You’ve done so much more than most people even dream of doing. I’ll be right inside here. I won’t leave without you, I promise.”

Gabrielle began wandering through the aisles, reading the index cards to know where certain types of scrolls were located. She found the section designated Amazon history and folklore and she began pulling down parchments to read.

Convinced of the girl’s sincerity, Cefan grunted a reply and went to wait outdoors. She was still angry at the Conqueror’s decision that she watch over the fair-haired girl. Any other officer of the Guard could do the job adequately. She was certain this was a form of punishment from the Conqueror.

The mid-morning sun warmed her skin and she resettled her leather armor. A trickle of sweat rolled down the back of her neck, which she wiped away absently, and she pulled the dagger from her boot. Flipping the blade casually, she fought to push down the already overwhelming boredom she felt.

Glancing down the Street of the Curetes, Cefan realized that the temple was not more than a ten minute walk away. The Conqueror’s oracle seems intent to spend several candlemarks inside the library. It won’t hurt anything to go take a look at what is happening down there. And maybe I can find something worth doing.
Chapter Twenty-One
Eponin was experiencing extreme frustration with the Destroyer of Nations. She could hardly believe that the woman she hated most in all the world could be content to simply sit, inactive, for the morning. “She has to be up to something, Ter. I think it would be best if someone went and positioned themselves a little closer to her. Just so she doesn’t try anything sneaky.” It sounded lame even to her own ears, but she felt herself slowly going insane.

Her Queen and best friend understood exactly what wasn’t being said. “You can approach, but do not engage her without my explicit permission. We strike the Destroyer only upon my command.”

Happily springing to her feet, the warrior was halfway down the steps by the end of her Queen’s instructions. Glancing over her shoulder, she gave a nod and continued.

The Conqueror’s eyes rose from her parchment as the Amazon woman came close. She forced herself to retain her impassive stare. Her plan was working. The Amazons were nervous and unsure of her plans. It was worth the time invested especially if Palaemon obtained the information she desired. I’m coming for you, Caesar.

This Amazon was more impressive than the ones she remembered from her devastation of them in her country. This one was obviously prepared to face down a threat – she was in better shape, her weapons and armor were well cared for, and her faced showed not one trace of fear. Perhaps if more warriors had been like this one seven years ago when she was eliminating the Amazon threat, the Conqueror would not have had as easy time of it. Too little, too late.

Eponin stopped about ten paces away from the Destroyer and sat down on her haunches. Then she fixed her stare and waited.

****

Cefan moved carefully through the streets, keeping close to the buildings and in the shadows. The last thing she wanted was to be inadvertently spotted by the Conqueror or another member of the Royal Guard. Disobeying a direct order from the general was not a wise choice on her part, but she felt it was her only option. She obviously has done something to displease the Conqueror and action was required on her part to regain access to her leader’s good graces.

From her vantage point, she could see the Conqueror on the bench and the Amazon warrior staring at her from nearby. She wondered what the Conqueror’s plan was, and seethed once more that she was not involved in it. A flash of red caught her attention, and her eyes were drawn the Amazon atop the steps of the temple.

One look and Cefan was certain the redhead was the Amazon Queen. The woman had a regal bearing and wore a more ornate set of leathers. She had never seen an Amazon before her visit to Ephesus, so she did not recognize the symbols of rank each one wore. Yet she knew this was the woman the Conqueror had stopped in front of during her entrance into the city. If the Conqueror recognized her, she had to be significant.

Noting that the woman appeared to be alone, Cefan began considering her options

****

Some time after the lieutenant had left her, Gabrielle finished the first scroll she had pulled down. It had described the temple of Artemis and its importance to the Amazon nation. Now the young woman had an overwhelming desire to go to the temple and compare the sights with what she had just read. After carefully replacing the scroll from where she had taken it, Gabrielle exited the library.

Standing on the busy street, dodging the multitude of pedestrians, she strained for a glimpse of her chaperone. “Cefan, where are you?” she asked absently. Judging from the placement of the sun, she realized it was near midday. While Gabrielle had only awakened a few candlemarks ago, she was certain Cefan had been up with the Conqueror. That would mean she had eaten breakfast early and was probably finding someplace to eat.

Gabrielle looked up and down the street for any sign of a food merchant, but saw none. She let out a deep sigh. Her curiosity had been aroused and she wanted desperately to go to the temple. Cefan asked me if I planned on staying here for a few candlemarks. She probably went somewhere else and plans on coming back for me. She’d never know if I took a quick look. Nodding to herself, content with her own logic, Gabrielle began walking toward the temple.

****

Xena stood and once again beckoned over her young guard. He came trotting over, sparing a glance at the stoic Amazon seated nearby. Bowing upon his arrival, he placed his fist over his heart, “Yes, my liege?”

The Conqueror looked over the young man more carefully this time. He had recently been promoted into her Elite Guard ranks and she was impressed by his demeanor. She made a mental note to have Palaemon begin spending more time with the young man. “See to it that my drawing is preserved and brought to my quarters.”

“Yes, my liege. It will be done.” Carefully, so as not to disturb the charcoal etching, he picked up the parchment and left.

Xena turned slowly and let her gaze fall onto the crouching Amazon. Her blue eyes hardened and narrowed. In an Amazonian dialect she said to the warrior, “Deeds, not stones, are the true monuments. Perhaps Artemis should consider if she is worthy of such a house.”

Leaving a stunned Eponin behind, the Conqueror turned and left, her men drawing in and closing ranks around her.

****

It all became clear to Cefan when she saw the Conqueror leave. The Conqueror had not attacked the temple because she did not want a conflict with the Amazons. But she had wanted the Amazons to be apprehensive of her plans and off guard. What would make them more off guard than the random killing of their Queen? No one has seen me here. The Conqueror has left, with her escort. These Amazons are bound to have other enemies besides Xena. If I can strike down their Queen, they will be even weaker. And nothing will be able to stop the Conqueror from her goals here in Ephesus.

Pressing herself further into the shadows that hid her, she removed the bow which was slung over her shoulder. She carefully strung it and chose an arrow from her quiver. Cefan knew she would be able to fire two or three arrows before she would have to flee. She also knew that her skill would be sufficient to bring low the Queen.

****

Gabrielle stood in the courtyard at the base of the temple steps. It was a breathtaking sight, even more so than what she had seen from the sea. The glistening marble, the columns, the statues all delighted her eyes. Using her staff, she climbed up the steps leading to the temple area and found herself standing next to an extraordinary woman. With her red hair the color of the sunset and her eyes the color of fertile earth, it seemed only fitting to Gabrielle that she was worshipping at Artemis’ temple.

“Excuse me,” Gabrielle said, moving within an arm’s length of the woman. “Could you tell me where I may obtain a sacrifice for the goddess?”

Those brown eyes tracked to hers and froze. Terreis drew in a ragged breath as she felt her legs weaken.

Seeing the woman’s obvious distress, Gabrielle stepped even closer, “Are you all right? Can I help you?”

This is her. Those green eyes confirm my fate. I am finished. “You are Artemis’ Chosen,” she said even as the arrow impaled her chest.

Gabrielle screamed as the woman fell to the ground, the arrow shaft protruding out of her body. Fearing a further attack, the Gabrielle dropped to the ground and covered the red-haired woman’s body with her own. She closed her eyes tightly and waited for an arrow to strike her.

Cefan cursed when she saw Gabrielle on the temple steps as she let her arrow fly toward its target. “I knew it!” she called out, suddenly heedless of the danger. “That double-crossing daughter of a Centaur!” She nocked her second arrow and fired it, aiming for the betrayer.

Eponin had seen Terreis fall and was scrambling up the steps toward her when the next arrow pierced into her back, just below the right shoulder. Ignoring the pain, the warrior completed her journey, calling for her sister Amazons to both protect the Queen and find the attacker.

Pushing herself off the woman, Gabrielle looked down at the blood-spotted breast now marred beyond repair. She felt tears running down her cheeks at the sight of this senseless act.

Terreis struggled to remain alert for the few moments she had left. She heard Eponin’s cry, even though it sounded as if it were coming from leagues away and underwater, and felt her touch. Eponin was muttering comforting statements that the three women all knew to be false. The Queen focused her attention on the fair-haired woman who would soon take her place in the Nation. She lifted her trembling right hand and placed it on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Artemis has blessed you. You are her Chosen.” Terreis coughed, blood coating her lips. “I give you my right of caste.”

“What?” Gabrielle sputtered. “I don’t understand. Right of caste?”

Eponin’s shocked eyes fell to Terreis. “Ter, you don’t mean that.”

Turning her head to see Eponin, as her field of vision was becoming narrower with every second, she nodded slightly. “I do. This is … Artemis’ Chosen. And, you are to remember your promise.”

For the first time in her life, Eponin did nothing to try to hide the tears that were flowing freely from her. She would have gladly exchanged her life for her friend’s. “I will, my Queen. I will see you on the other side.”

A shaky breath was the last to fill Terreis’ lungs. As she exhaled, she formed her last words, “Tell Ephiny I am sorry to leave her.”

Eponin gathered the Queen awkwardly in her arms, holding the body as tightly as she could with the arrow shafts in both their bodies. She stroked the red hair she had always teased Terreis about and closed the eyes that could no longer see her.

Seven Amazon warriors came running up to the scene and one roughly grabbed hold of Gabrielle, dragging her to her feet. A knife went to the young woman’s throat, as the Amazon incorrectly assumed that she was the attacker of the Queen.

Eponin’s voice cut through the commotion. “Release her. She has the right of caste.” At this statement, which once again confused Gabrielle, the newly arrived women began protesting loudly. “Be quiet!” Eponin thundered, silencing them all. “Three of you, search for the one who did this. The rest of you, help me carry our Queen home.”

Three scrambled down the temple steps, running to survey the area. The remaining women obeyed the warrior, lifting up the Queen’s body gently. Eponin struggled to her feet and caught Gabrielle around her upper arm. “You are to come with me.”

Before Gabrielle could raise voice in protest, she was pulled into the temple, out of the sunlight, and out of Cefan’s view.
Chapter Twenty-Two
Gabrielle had no idea where she was. She had been pulled and pushed and shoved and driven deeper into the ground than she ever had been. Her legs ached, muscles and joints crying out for relief after too much use and too little reliance on the staff in her left hand. These fierce women had refused to allow her to go and had taken her into the temple where the lead officer quickly explained the situation to an older priestess. Together the band had gone behind the altar and down a flight of stairs and then another. Once there, they went through room after room filled with gold and other treasures. Gabrielle had never seen anything like it in her life. She wondered if even the Conqueror had as much gold in her vaults in Corinth.

Along the way, they had picked up an armed escort of over thirty women. At the end of the vaults, a hidden door was revealed and unlocked. Before they began their journey, one of the soldiers quickly saw to Eponin’s wound, giving it a field dressing until they could reach the healer’s hut. Five warriors went through the portal first, followed by those bearing the dead woman’s body, then the dark-haired soldier who had first grabbed Gabrielle took her through, and another ten followed. The remainder stayed behind, closing the door behind them and the locking mechanism echoed in the chamber. Gabrielle had entered into a long tunnel, with light provided every ten paces by a torch on the wall. Since the first guards were lighting the torches as they passed them, she had no way of telling how long the corridor was. It felt endless as the pain began to consume her thoughts.

“Please,” she said to the warrior who had a strong grip on her upper arm still, “let go of me. I can’t run away.”

Eponin looked at the young woman who was to be her Queen and blew out a lungful of frustrated breath. Her hand dropped away, but she said nothing. Her best friend was dead and had given her right of caste to someone who looked inherently unworthy of the honor. And there was still Ephiny to deal with once they reached the village.

“Where are you taking me? What is going on?”

Eponin’s silence continued unabated. Let Clymera explain it all later. She hadn’t seemed surprised at all in the temple about Terreis’ death and this girl’s appearance. Eponin wanted nothing to do with this situation, which would only get worse. They needed someone who could lead them in this time of crisis. Not this slip of a girl.

Gabrielle’s frustration level was reaching an all-time high. Cefan would surely be wondering where she was now. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly, trying to stop the tears which suddenly threatened to pour out. Please don’t let the Conqueror think I’ve run away. Not now. We’ve just become friends … and I haven’t had one for so long. I was so stupid to go to the temple. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The tears that finally did come, washed her frustration away and replaced it with a deep sorrow as Gabrielle wished she could bring back Apollo’s chariot from its ride across the sky. All she wanted was to be back at the library where she had promised she would remain. How will she even know where to find me? For all she knows, I ran and boarded a ship bound for Greece, or anywhere else. Will she even care?

The forced march continued for another hour, ending only when Gabrielle was sure she would collapse from the pain. She could suddenly smell the sweet air of the surface and a bright light shone ahead of her, causing her to blink until her eyes adjusted to the change.

They emerged from the mouth of a cave and appeared to be just outside a small village. Two of the guards had run ahead, sent to assemble the village together. Eponin, as the head of the Amazon army, realized she had the unfortunate duty of informing the Nation of Terreis’ passing. She only hoped she could find Ephiny first.

Cries from the women in the village began when the honor guard carrying the Queen’s body emerged from the surrounding forest and entered the square. Carefully, Terreis was laid out on one of the long tables in the common dining facility.

Eponin left Gabrielle and strode over to one of the women villagers. “Where is Ephiny?” she asked.

A cry which sounded like that of a wounded animal answered her question.

Startled, every eye turned to Ephiny, who stood at the entrance to a hut, her eyes fixed on the dead body of her bondmate. “No!” she cried out again, this time forming a coherent word. Her body was trembling violently and two of her sister Amazons stepped forward to support her, as her legs were no longer capable of that act. “No,” she whispered.

Gabrielle had no idea who this woman was but nonetheless she felt renewed tears coursing down her cheeks in sympathy. The curly-haired woman reminded her of herself when she found the smoking remains of her parents’ house. She watched as the woman was supported down the aisle and she collapsed over the dead body.

“What was her name?” Gabrielle asked the woman warrior standing beside her, keeping an eye on her while Eponin went to put strong arms around Ephiny.

The guard gave the oracle a fierce look, showing her annoyance that she did not recognize the Amazon Queen. “Her name was Terreis. And she was our Queen.”

“And the other?”

“Ephiny. Her bondmate.”

Gabrielle nodded solemnly. “And the woman who is with her now?”

Another exasperated look met her inquiry. How could this young woman not know these things and be admitted into their village? “Eponin.”

“Her sister?”

Now the Amazon placed her hands on her hips and spoke in a cold tone. “We are all sisters. If you have more questions, you’ll have to address them to the Council.”

Gabrielle took the not-so-subtle hint and fell silent.

From the east, another figure entered into the village, whom Gabrielle recognized as the priestess from the temple. The old woman came immediately to her and clasped both of Gabrielle’s hands in her own. The priestess’ hands were cool to the touch, but Gabrielle could feel the strength that still lay inside them.

The priestess met and held Gabrielle’s eyes for a long moment, seemingly searching out something which the young woman could not discern, before she let out a satisfied sigh. “Welcome home.”

A frown furrowed Gabrielle’s brow as she processed the greeting. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

A slight smile, “You will. I have seen you in my dreams for quite awhile. Excuse me, please.” With a bow, which surprised Gabrielle, the priestess headed over to Ephiny and Eponin.

“Terreis is enjoying peace with Artemis now, Ephiny,” she said as she stretched out a hand and placed it on the Consort’s shoulder. “She knew her fate and accepted it.”

Suddenly, the cries stopped and pale gray eyes fixed on the priestess. “She knew?” Ephiny echoed.

Eponin squeezed her eyes shut, trying to wish this nightmare away – Terreis’ death and now Clymera’s revelation. Her hold on the Consort tightened as she remembered her promise to her friend.

Clymera knew this information was hard for Ephiny to hear, but it needed to be told. The Nation had to accept Terreis’ passing of the right of caste to this outsider. The only way to ensure it was to demonstrate it was Terreis’ knowledge of Artemis’ will. “Yes, she knew. And it hurt her so to know that she had to step aside for Artemis’ Chosen.”

“She was Artemis’ Chosen,” Ephiny corrected, a dangerous look coming into her eyes.

“Yes, as Queen she was. But the visions have foretold of one who can lead our Nation into its future. She is Artemis’ Chosen, and she has received the right of caste from Terreis.”

“There is no need to go into this now,” Eponin growled.

“You are wrong,” Clymera countered, “now is exactly the time.”

Ephiny twisted in Eponin’s hold to study the warrior. “Who did Ter give her title to? You?” The last word was spat out, intended to wound. Ephiny had always felt jealous of the relationship her bondmate shared with Eponin.

“No. Her.” And Eponin gestured to the young stranger in their midst whose mouth was hanging open as she listened in to this exchange.
Chapter Twenty-Three
Xena was quite pleased with how her day was going. It had been such fun to sit there and torment the Amazons. The sun had felt good, the sea air always did wonders for her disposition, and she hadn’t sketched in a very long time. She was disappointed that Gabrielle had not returned from the library when she arrived back at Salmoneus’ home, but knew her young oracle would be along shortly.

Palaemon arrived soon after the Conqueror. Placing his fist over his heart and bowing deeply, he grinned savagely. “My liege, it is done.”

“Good. Give me a report, Palaemon.” She indicated a chair for him to sit down in, as she settled back into the large velvet covered chair designated for her use.

“Caesar’s weapons will ship out tomorrow. His right hand man, Brutus, is in town to oversee the transport. They will be using the southern road and starting out at daybreak, my liege.”

The Conqueror bared her teeth, she could already taste the victory of the morrow. “Excellent. You did leave the Proconsul with his life, did you not?”

“I did, my liege. But he will be unable to communicate for quite some time. At least, other than very basic concepts. I am afraid that his jaw was broken, as well as all of his fingers and toes.”

An amused look glanced over the ruler’s features. “Toes, Palaemon?”

He shrugged, remembering the Proconsul’s screams when he snapped each of the digits. “I didn’t want him getting creative with a quill. Or running away if he lied to you.”

“Very well thought out then.”

“May I ask how it went at the temple, my liege?”

The Conqueror laughed, “Perfectly. They have their leathers all bunched up now, not knowing what I am planning on doing to them. They are so unbelievably arrogant to think that I would still care about their worthless collection of women. Ephesus and Artemis can have them for all I care; as long as Greece remains free of them.” She stroked her chin thoughtfully, “Now, I wouldn’t mind a little of the gold they have in their treasury. But, I think I will limit myself to stealing from Caesar. The Amazons are hardly a challenge and I would rather keep Ephesus as a trading partner. For now.”

For his next question, Palaemon tried to hide a smirk, but was not completely successful. “And did you enjoy the circus last night, my liege?”

Xena met his gaze steadily, hearing and answering some of his unspoken questions. “I did, in fact.”

“I’m glad.” Palaemon idly wondered if Gabrielle had a sister somewhere for him.

So am I. I just like having her near. She’s the first person in so long I have felt no threat from – in any way. Nor does she look at me like I’m a two-headed hydra. And she doesn’t look like one either: red-gold hair, soft green eyes, cute nose and the sweetest smile that I’ve ever seen. I like that she talks in her sleep – mostly nonsense words and giggles. In fact, she always seems to be talking; thank the gods above I like the sound of her voice. When did she become more to me than my oracle of truth? More than a substitute for Lyceus, more than family even. Not that I’ve had any in so very long to compare her to.

Palaemon watched the softness overtake the Conqueror’s features and he blessed the day that Gabrielle walked into the throne room. He had fought alongside the Conqueror for years and had never seen anything overtake her until now. It made him all the more willing to stand by her side in battle, if only to protect her for Gabrielle’s sake.

Slapping the flats of her palms on her thighs, she rose to her feet. “Enough of this, Palaemon, we have a hijacking to plan. Let’s go take a look at the map the scouts drew up and figure out where to lay the trap.”

“Gladly, my liege. Tomorrow will be a day to remember. Certainly, one Caesar won’t soon forget.”

She smiled as she brushed a strand of midnight black hair from her eyes, “Even in his dreams, Palaemon, I intend to haunt him.” Dressed in her black leathers, her blue eyes seemingly flashing light, she did look like a phantom.

****

Xena laid out her plan for acquiring the weapons to Palaemon. Pointing at several points along the intended path, she indicated where various soldiers would be placed as lookouts and attack forces. Even though they had the route, she knew it was likely to be deviated from, Caesar’s men not trusting a foreign government to adequately protect the information. At least, Xena mused, she would file a false route with the Proconsul, in case he was on the take. But, knowing a false route was almost as meaningful as the true.

She summoned one of the lower ranking guards and handed him a sealed parchment. “Take this to Charis. Bid her to come to me this evening, a candlemark after sundown to discuss our preparations.”

The soldier bowed and exited quickly. Once before a messenger had slowly walked out the door, only to discover one of the Conqueror’s daggers in his thigh by the time he reached it.

Xena and Palaemon were discussing the troop assignments when Cefan burst into the room. Never had the Conqueror seen the Egyptian so distressed. Placing her fist over her heart, she bowed. “My liege.”

“Report.” At that moment, she realized who was missing. “Where’s Gabrielle?”

Cefan knew she had to tread carefully upon hearing the tone of the Conqueror’s voice. “My liege, that is why I am here.”

“Has she been injured? Where is she?” Xena took a step forward, raising herself to full height.

“My liege, she is with the Amazons.”

“What?” Xena exploded, grabbing her lieutenant by the shoulder straps and shoving the woman against the plaster wall. “How in the gods’ names did you allow her to be captured?”

“She was not captured.”

“What then? Explain yourself, soldier.”

Cefan licked her lips and took as deep a breath as the Conqueror’s weight against her would allow. “She asked to go to the temple, so I took her there. She had been reading some scrolls in the library, so I assumed she wished to see whatever they had described. When we got there, she rushed up the temple steps and into the waiting arms of several of their warriors. One of them, a stout, dark-haired woman, attacked me, keeping me from the girl. While I was engaged, she disappeared with them into the temple. Once I was able to break free of the fight, I came here.” Not quite how it happened, but I can’t tell the Conqueror I left her alone or what I was doing at the temple.

The Conqueror’s grip lessened and the anger in her eyes changed to a look of pain.

Cefan continued, “My liege, I fear she was a spy for the Amazons and she intends to betray you.” The Egyptian reasoned that to be the truth, not able to discern any reason for Gabrielle to risk her life for a stranger.

Palaemon shook his head, unconvinced. “A spy? I don’t believe it!”

The Egyptian scowled at him, “You weren’t there, Palaemon. You didn’t watch her run into the embrace of our ruler’s enemy. And, my liege, the Amazon Queen is dead. She was shot by an arrow.”

Xena’s brows constricted. “I just left there a few candlemarks ago. How could this all have taken place? Who killed her?” Suddenly the world felt like it was spinning out of her control.

Another lie, but easier. “No one knows, my liege. It looked like a sniper attack.”

“And what did Gabrielle do? Was she involved in the attack?”

“No, Conqueror, she attempted to save the Queen. And then left with the Amazons. She seemed to be one of them.”

Palaemon turned his attention to the Conqueror. Risking injury, he placed a hand on her arm. “Gabrielle wouldn’t do this, my liege. She’s had many other opportunities to leave and she never has. She has chosen to stay with you.”

Xena found herself unable to hear clearly, her heart was crying out in too much pain.

“She’s never had a better reason to leave,” Cefan countered. “She knows of your plan to steal Caesar’s weapons, my liege. She could be persuading the Amazons to form an alliance with Caesar.”

Caesar, the name echoed through the Conqueror’s thoughts. She’s just like Caesar.

“Nonsense!” Palaemon responded.

The Conqueror released her hold entirely and took a step back, bringing her hands to her ears. “Enough! Be quiet the two of you.” She could barely hear anything, the sound of blood rushing in her ears was deafening. An incredible pain started in her temples and radiated down her neck and back. She was nauseous and could taste bile at the back of her throat.

Trust no one. Trust no one. Remember that from now on, Xena, Conqueror. You were a fool to care about the girl. A fool to trust in her kind looks and gentle words. A fool of the worst sort – one that has led your men into danger by being a fool. For ten years, since Lyceus’ death, you have been focused on what mattered. Then you allow a distraction to enter into your life. This is the Fates’ way of punishing you for forgetting your destiny. Focus. Trust no one. Focus.

When she looked up once more, a hardness had settled over her face and in her eyes, making them turn to a murky gray color. “We will destroy the Amazons once and for all,” Xena spoke slowly, each word carefully pronounced. “Ephesus will be remembered as two of my greatest victories – destroying the abhorrent Amazon Nation and humiliating Caesar.”

Palaemon felt his heart breaking, knowing the pain his ruler was in, having seen the joy in her eyes earlier in the day. “My liege, send me to find out what is going on. I am sure there is an explanation for this. I will bring you back word, I swear by your throne.”

Cefan couldn’t believe what she was hearing from the Captain. Doesn’t he understand what she has done? “Palaemon, be honest with your true intentions. You love the girl.”

Both Xena and Palaemon recoiled, struck by her words. “You are out of line, lieutenant!” Palaemon raged.

It all seemed very clear to the Egyptian. Echoes of her morning conversation with Palaemon and his dismissal of her arose in her mind. Palaemon was the inside man! Cefan turned to the Conqueror voicing her arguments from this morning. “My liege, how did Gabrielle get down from the cross you put her on? Pull out her own nails and walk? Her legs were shattered. Someone had to help her down. Someone had to save her. Who else can get close to the crosses but your men? And someone of Palaemon’s rank would never be questioned if he allowed a prisoner to be taken down a little early.”

“My liege!” Palaemon shook his head, his denial fierce. He had no time to deny the accusations because the Conqueror was advancing on him. “This is not true.”

Reaching behind her shoulders, Xena drew her sword. “You’ve watched over her ever since she arrived. How do you explain it, Captain?”

Backing toward the door, Palaemon knew better than to draw his sword. Once his blade was unsheathed, the Conqueror would attack. If he could make it to safety, he might be able to save his and Gabrielle’s lives. If he was very lucky. “I serve you in everything, my liege. You know me. You know my life and my sword are yours.”

The Conqueror nodded slowly and a dark smile gashed her lips. “Then I would like your head and heart.”

“You may have them, my liege, once I have defeated your true enemies. If you still find fault in me.” Palaemon felt the heel of his boot touch the threshold of the great room. He now had a direct line of retreat from the Conqueror, if he was fast enough. He scanned the area around him for anything to create a diversion, to buy the moments he needed to make a safe exit. On the low table nearby, he spotted an urn, which he sincerely hoped contained the ashes of one of Salmoneus’ dead relatives.

Everyone seemed to move at once. Xena advanced on her target. Cefan drew her sword, to join in the pursuit. And Palaemon grabbed the urn and hurled its contents at the angry ruler. Spinning on his heel, he raced, heedless of anything but his objective.

Xena coughed as the ashes flew in her face, blinding her as the dust settled in her eyes. Wiping angrily, creating large streaks on her face, she turned to Cefan. “Find him and bring him back to me. Dead. Alive. It doesn’t matter.”

“And the girl?” Cefan asked.

“I will deal with her later. First bring back Palaemon.”

“It will be done, my liege.” Anger flashed in her eyes and she drew in a deep breath, puffing out her chest. “Death to those who have betrayed you.” And she left to seek vengeance on one who had dared lift a hand against the Conqueror.

Xena did not respond, but instead settled heavily in a chair, suddenly feeling the weight of the entire world. Atlas knows nothing of the burden I carry now. “Oh, Gabrielle, I could have loved you.”
Chapter Twenty-Four
The atmosphere was slightly calmer in the Amazon village. Eponin and Clymera had called a meeting of the Council and taken Gabrielle to the meeting room. Gabrielle watched as the other members came in and took their places. The head of the table was left open, no one willing to take Terreis’ seat. Eponin and Clymera sat on either side of the young woman. Across from them sat a warrior named Solari, the healer named Aria, the animal trainer Rana, and the Consort Ephiny.

Ephiny was still in shock, her eyes red-rimmed and her skin quite pale. She looked like she might fall over at any moment and Gabrielle was very concerned for her. The other Amazons seemed to be so as well and the young woman was glad for that.

Clymera, being the eldest of the women, assumed the leadership of the meeting. “I want to express my personal sympathies to Ephiny at this time. Terreis was a good and honorable Queen. She led our Nation well and ably, and I will miss her friendship. I know, having lost my bondmate less than three winters ago, how terrible such a loss is and my heart hurts for you.”

Each of the other women murmured assent to Clymera’s statement, with Solari gently putting an arm around Ephiny’s slight shoulders.

“Now it is our duty as the Ruling Council of the Nation to announce the successor to Terreis’ throne. Right before her death, Terreis gave Gabrielle her right of caste.” Clymera gave the women a few moments to absorb her announcement, knowing that except for Eponin and Ephiny, this news came as a shock.

Solari stared hard at the young woman seated across from her. “That must be a mistake.” She took in the facts that the woman was young, inexperienced, crippled, not an Amazon, and Greek. “I can’t believe it. Why would Terreis give her right to a non-Amazon?” That was the kindest question she could form at that moment.

Eponin shrugged her shoulders, “I don’t know why, but I witnessed it, Sol.”

“Perhaps,” Solari countered, “she meant to give it to you, but instead …”

“You don’t know how much I wish that were true.” You don’t know how much I wish it was me being readied for the funeral pyre.

Gabrielle’s curiosity could stand it no more. “Excuse me, but I was wondering if someone could explain what exactly it was that she gave me? Because I’m a bit in the dark here.” The young woman was tired of people speaking about her and not to her.

Rana sighed, “Gods above, she doesn’t even know!”

“I’m not an Amazon,” Gabrielle countered, her cheeks flushing with annoyance. She had been more than patient and now she wanted answers. “I didn’t ask for this thing, whatever it is. I’m happy to give it back.”

“You cannot,” Clymera said softly.

“Why not? It’s mine now, right?” Gabrielle warmed to the fight, ready to prove to these women that she was as strong as they were. She looked around the table and found the women reluctantly acknowledging that whatever this right was, was hers now. “Why can’t I get rid of it and one of you point the way back to Ephesus for me?”

“Gabrielle,” the old woman replied, “it can only be given away at death.”

“Oh.” All the fight drained from Gabrielle.

“We’d be happy to oblige,” Aria muttered.

Clymera’s eyes flashed in anger and she twisted in her seat to face the healer, “That is no way to speak to your Queen, Aria.”

“Queen?” Gabrielle echoed. I definitely should have stayed in the library.

The Priestess continued, “You would never have tolerated such disrespect of Terreis.”

“Terreis was Amazon Royalty. She was a true leader of our Nation. She was good and strong and she saved us from the Destroyer,” Aria replied heatedly. “She earned respect, Clymera, she deserved it.”

Eponin roughly ran a hand through her wavy hair, hating the next words she had to say. “Terreis gave her leadership to the girl. Shouldn’t we respect Terreis as much in death as in life?” Although Ter, I would have appreciated a little heads up on this decision.

“You want me to be your Queen?” Gabrielle finally managed, trying to grasp the concept and failing. The Conqueror is definitely not going to like this.

Three no’s and three yes’s responded. Clymera stared at the women who had dissented, silently reproving each of them, glad that Ephiny was not among them. “I have seen visions of you, Gabrielle. Visions of you leading us against our greatest enemy and defeating her.”

“Her?” Gabrielle echoed, already dreading who this enemy was.

“Xena, Conqueror of Greece, Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations and Enemy of Artemis.”

Gabrielle’s small hands covered her face, as she unsuccessfully hid her shock and horror at considering the Conqueror her enemy. This just keeps getting worse and worse.
Chapter Twenty-Five
Palaemon ran through the streets of Ephesus like a crazed harpy until he reached the central shopping district. There, amidst the crowds, he forced himself to be calm, to blend in with the normal activity. He mopped the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve, and realized that he needed to change his clothing. His Captain’s uniform made him far too visible and recognizable.

He began searching for a garment seller. Palaemon decided to not try to pass himself off as an Ephesian. His coloring would give him away, making him even more obvious. Instead, he searched for a Greek merchant. When he located one, he slipped inside the booth, trying to disappear from view.

The merchant recoiled upon seeing an officer of the Royal Guard. “How can I help you?” The man’s insolent tone of voice indicated that he wished to be of no help.

Palaemon frowned, not needing to have to deal with hostility from this man as well. “I need a new traveling outfit.”

The man hesitated, “Why? The Conqueror doesn’t let you wear anything else but your uniform.” He wanted nothing to do with a soldier on the run from the Conqueror. She was terrifying enough when one was in her good graces, or better still, when unknown to her. He did not wish to be brought to her attention in any manner.

Palaemon pressed a knife into the skin of the merchant’s throat and expelled hot breath on his face. “Don’t make me take these clothes from you.”

The merchant’s hands were held out from his body, reaffirming that he was no threat to the guard. “Take anything you want and leave me.”

Palaemon nodded briskly, sheathed his knife and chose a tunic that looked like it would fit. Once his selection was made, he stripped and changed. Scowling that his weapons were still clearly visible, he pulled a robe on and adjusted the fit. Then he left as stealthily as he had arrived.

The merchant let out a sigh, grateful to still be alive. Holding his head in his hands, he started when someone entered his booth. “Gods, don’t do that,” he scolded his visitor.

The other Greek nodded sympathetically. “Are you all right, Arrol?”

The man shrugged, “I think so.”

****

Palaemon wasn’t sure how to find Gabrielle, but he knew the time for subtlety was long past. The look in his ruler’s eyes had stilled his heart, as he knew how cold hers had grown in the space of moments.

His only logical starting point in the search was the temple. It was where Gabrielle was last seen, if Cefan were to be believed, he corrected himself. He could not comprehend what had happened with his lieutenant. Why would she take Gabrielle to the temple at all? Cefan knew that the Conqueror planned on visiting the temple to torment the Amazons. Why would she deliberately put Gabrielle in harm’s way? Unless, she wanted to be near the action herself. Cefan had been none-too-pleased with her assignment for the day.

Alleyways and side streets provided a somewhat safer route for the Captain. Ephesus was home to many residents and the streets were filled with people going about their business. By moving confidently, but not too quickly, Palaemon managed to blend in with the crowd. He wished he had something on to cover his head, but that was not the custom of Ephesian men and would only serve to draw more attention, rather than less.

The colorful culture of Ephesus was lost on the Captain. In his determined state, he did not pay attention to the bright colored garments of the men and women. Nor did he stop to browse at the multitude of stands selling ivory carvings of Artemis and her temple. A small quartet of musicians playing religious songs near the Gate of Agora did not cause him to pause and listen. All Palaemon did was focus briefly on each, determine whether they were a potential threat, and push on.

He waited until it was near dusk before he approached the temple. He had been pleased to not have seen any of the Conqueror’s troops moving about the city searching for him. Perhaps, she had decided to let him go. Palaemon shook his head, clearing the ridiculous thought. He had never seen the Conqueror release her prey. And those she hunted, she always found. The trip across the open expanse to the temple would be the most dangerous walk he had ever taken.

Taking a deep breath and reminding himself that he was protecting not only his own life but Gabrielle’s as well, Palaemon began a brisk walk to the steps.

He was halfway there when he heard a low laugh. “Do you really think she will have you now that she has returned to her Amazons?”

Palaemon stopped and drew his sword, spinning in the direction of the voice. “Cefan, why are you doing this?”

The Egyptian stepped out of the shadows at the base of the temple. She had been waiting there for candlemarks, knowing it was Palaemon’s only potential destination. “And to think I once admired you. Now I despise you.” Her sword swung in a lazy pattern in front of her.

“There must be an explanation for this, Cefan. Think about it.”

“I have. And the Conqueror has asked me to bring her your lying tongue.” With that, Cefan stepped forward, swinging her sword at his head.

Palaemon quickly brought his sword up to block her blow. He took a step back and noted that several Amazon guards had come to stand on the top of the stairs. Remembering that this was no sparring match, he feinted left and lunged right, attempting to dislodge the sword from her hands.

His blow stung as the metal vibrated in her hands, but Cefan held on. They began trading strikes, the metal singing in the early evening air creating the music for their deadly dance.

They circled each other, testing the strengths and subtle weaknesses they each knew well from fighting alongside one another for several years. She knew he preferred to complete a rapid cycle of strikes, dizzying his opponent. He knew that she liked to strike low and cripple, so as to bring her blade across her enemy’s neck. For long minutes they fought, neither gaining an advantage.

A clash of metal and they were pressed against each other, sword arms tangled. “Stop this madness, Cefan,” Palaemon pleaded.

“Never,” she swore as she twisted free and kicked out her leg, attempting to sweep him off his feet.

The Captain hopped over her leg and brought his sword down on the back of her thigh as it passed. He felt the metal slice through her flesh and the Egyptian cried out in pain. “Cefan, walk away. I don’t want to kill you.”

She managed to stand, putting her weight on her left and uninjured leg. Blood flowed freely from the wound, but she seemed not to notice the stained sand beneath her. “Come on, Captain. Let’s have at it.” Cefan stood still, waiting for him to move within striking range.

Palaemon, recognizing that he had hobbled his opponent, continued to back away from her, increasing the distance between them. “I won’t kill you, Cefan. Not when I don’t have to.”

“Damn you, Palaemon! Fight me!” Cefan moved to close the distance between her and the Captain, but the cut was too deep and the blood loss already too great. Her leg folded underneath her and she fell to the ground.

Reaching the stairs, he glanced up at the Amazons who stood at the ready. He sheathed his sword and turned to mount the stairs.

As he turned, he felt a dagger imbed itself in his arm. Crying out in pain, he staggered up the stairs. Landing on his knees on the hard marble surface, he groaned and removed the blade from his flesh. Ripping a strip of cloth from his tunic, he wrapped it around the wounded arm and tied it off.

He then noticed that he was surrounded by a living wall of Amazon flesh. And they did not look too happy to have him visiting their most sacred site.

****

The Conqueror met with Charis and the scouts going over the plan for the morning attack on the caravan. Since Palaemon’s defection, Xena had reworked the details so that his knowledge was useless to the Amazons or to the Romans.

She had awaited word of Palaemon’s capture or death for the remainder of the afternoon, but no such word had come. As the sun slipped over the horizon in a brilliant display of red, the Conqueror knew that the time of her inactivity had ended. Summoning her Royal Guards to her she stood in front of them, her skin dyed with the setting sun. “The time has come for the destruction of the Amazon Nation.”
Chapter Twenty-Six
The sight of Ephiny was heartrending, Gabrielle decided.

Seated atop the dais having been proclaimed as the new Queen of the Amazons, signaling the start of the funereal blaze … it was all too much for the young woman. She felt herself at the center of a vortex and was appalled at her own inability to escape. She missed the security of being with the Conqueror and the peace she had known at her side. How can she be my enemy when all I want is to be with her right now?

“My Queen,” Eponin said, bowing to the fair-haired woman.

Gabrielle turned to the warrior and waited for her to continue. She blushed when she realized she had to invite her to make her report. “Yes?”

“We have captured a man at the temple. He claims that he has important information for you. I would not have disturbed you at this time, but he says it is about the Destroyer.”

It took the new Queen a moment to remember who the Destroyer was to these women. “Is he still at the temple?”

“No, the warriors have brought him here for your questioning, if you so desire.”

“I desire,” Gabrielle rose, and with her all those seated on the dais. She waved them down and followed Eponin to the far end of the village where the stockade was located.

As the sounds of the funeral faded, Gabrielle felt her heart rate slow to normal, glad to be away from the activity. It had been a rather overwhelming day.

To distract herself, she watched the play of muscles in the strong body of the warrior in front of her. Eponin was unlike the Conqueror in every way. Where the Conqueror was tall, her muscles long and lean, Eponin was shorter, just taller than Gabrielle, and her muscles were more prominent. It made her appear stocky, when she was actually just bulky. She moved solidly, but the Conqueror moved gracefully, her footsteps seeming never to come fully to the ground. Gabrielle had no doubt that Eponin was a fine warrior. She also had no illusion that Eponin would last more than a few minutes against the Conqueror in single combat.

Since the council meeting, Eponin had taken a rough tutelage of Gabrielle. With the clear support of Clymera, Eponin and Ephiny, the Nation really had no choice but to accept her as Queen.

Now, if only I can accept myself as Queen. Repeat after me, Gabrielle: you will never ever wander off ever again.

The two Amazons guarding the stockade stepped aside at Eponin’s instructions and the two women entered the small windowless room. It took a moment for Gabrielle’s eyes to adjust to the diminished light which streamed in from the open doorway. Then she recognized Palaemon seated on the ground, cradling his wounded arm.

“Palaemon!” she cried out, dropping to her knees beside him. “What happened to you?” Her hands began removing the bandage so she could inspect the wound herself. She took in his dirty and disheveled appearance, and the fact that he was out of uniform. Her hands stilled and she turned cold eyes to meet Eponin’s. “Did we do this to him?”

Palaemon’s heart stopped at her use of the word ‘we’. Perhaps Cefan was right after all, perhaps he had made the biggest mistake of his life.

Eponin shook her head. “No, your Majesty. He was wounded when he was captured.”

“Your Majesty?” the Captain echoed. This situation was becoming worse by the moment.

Gabrielle ignored him as she saw the deep slice to his arm, just above his elbow. It was still bleeding slightly. “Eponin, bring Aria here to see to his injury.”

“My Queen, I should not leave you alone with the prisoner.”

“Tch, he’s not a prisoner. He’s a friend. Now, go.” Assuming her order would be obeyed, Gabrielle focused her attention on Palaemon; just as she knew the Conqueror would if she were here instead. Since this whole Queen fiasco had begun, Gabrielle had been trying to comport herself as the Conqueror did among her troops.

“Gabrielle, what’s going on?” Palaemon managed despite the fact he was completely overwhelmed by the situation.

“Well, first we’re going to get you taken care of. And you’re going to explain how you’ve ended up in an Amazon village.”

Pale blue eyes, which reminded her very much of the Conqueror, looked back at her. “I was going to ask you the very same question.”

The young woman groaned and slumped to the floor beside the Captain, cradling her head in her hands. At the sound of such pain, the guards outside the door stormed into the room, swords drawn. Palaemon jerked his hands high into the air and then remained motionless, not wanting to add another injury to his body.

“Are you all right, my Queen?” one of the warriors inquired.

She waved them out of the cell, not bothering to lift her face. “Gods, how this must look to you,” she sighed.

He said softly, “Well, I will admit, it doesn’t look too good.” With the guards gone, he let his hand rest gently against her back, trying to convey a sense of comfort. “Why did you go to the temple, Gabrielle?”

“I don’t know. I just wanted to see it.” She said, her voice choked with emotion. Pushing herself off the ground, she dusted her hands off on her skirt and sat cross-legged beside him. “I had been reading about the temple in some of the scrolls in the library. Cefan told me not to wander off anywhere but I didn’t see any harm in going to take a quick peek.”

“Cefan told you not to wander off?” he echoed. “Where was she?” She didn’t leave you alone, did she?

Gabrielle cringed, she hadn’t wanted the lieutenant to be seen as negligent in her duties. “She went to go get something to eat, I guess. She didn’t want to stay in the library with me. Don’t blame her, though, Palaemon, I shouldn’t have gone.”

“I’ll be a son of a bacchae!” Palaemon shouted, suddenly energized, despite the circumstances. “That conniving, lying, double-crossing, no-good …”

“What are you talking about?” Gabrielle waved the guards away yet again. “Palaemon, what happened? Is the Conqueror okay?”

Palaemon was still processing the information about Cefan. In his mind he was reliving the conversation between himself, Cefan and Xena. He shook his head several times as he heard Cefan’s lies, and he wondered what else she might have lied about. “No wonder she wants to kill you,” he whispered.

“Cefan wants to kill me?” the new Queen echoed, feeling a stab of pain, wondering what she could have done to so anger the lieutenant.

“No, not Cefan,” he replied without thinking, and cringed. Idiot, why did you say that?

“The Conqueror wants me dead?”

It was the smallest voice Palaemon had ever heard. And he knew he had caused the gentlest soul he had ever met indescribable pain. “Gabrielle …” he reached out for her, but she jerked away from him, as if burned by his touch.

If you become small, you can’t feel the pain, that’s what Lila used to say. Become small. Maybe if I become small enough I can just simply disappear. Gabrielle brought her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms tightly around her legs. Pressing her forehead against her knees, she still didn’t feel small enough. Or maybe there was no way to escape such a large amount of pain. There was an ache in her chest, a heaviness that kept her from being able to breathe properly. Her throat was constricting, trying to block out the cry that threatened to come loose from her soul at any moment. And her eyes were shedding large, wet tears that were tapped from a deep, internal, endless source.

Palaemon sat by, helpless and hating himself for the words he had carelessly spoken.

It was then that Eponin and Aria arrived in the cell. “What did you do to her?” Eponin growled. This one might not have been her choice for Queen, but she would not tolerate any man causing the Queen of the Amazons injury of any kind.

“I told her something I shouldn’t have,” the Captain replied stiffly.

Aria raised an eyebrow and folded her arms over her chest. This girl had no business leading the Nation. “What? That there is no such thing as good faeries who come in the night and make everything good again?”

Palaemon refused to respond to the woman.

Eponin knelt beside Gabrielle and reached out to touch her, to perhaps abate the weeping. And she was surprised when Gabrielle let out a wail and began striking out blindly at her. Not wanting to injure the girl, Eponin let down her defenses and allowed the assault.

Palaemon’s staring contest with Aria was broken off by Gabrielle’s activity. Knowing the girl needed a friend, his large hands reached out and caught Gabrielle’s fists, closing gently around them. Palaemon waited while Gabrielle choked out more sobs and then he tugged her tight against his chest, wrapping his arms around her, wishing he could protect her from the words he had spoken. He began making soft sounds in her ear, trying to calm her and failing.
Chapter Twenty-Seven
Some time later, when Gabrielle had quieted and Palaemon’s wound been tended to, the new Queen sat on a low bench outside the stockade. She sipped down a glass of juice which felt good going down her throat, raw from too much crying. Palaemon had to remain in the stockade, as it was the only part of Amazon territory a man was permitted, but Gabrielle had insisted that a cot be brought in for him, food and drink provided, and the door remain open. It wasn’t what she wanted to give him, but it would have to do.

Clymera came and took a seat near Gabrielle. The old priestess knew that her prophecy of this young woman’s leadership was true, but she couldn’t figure out why Gabrielle was so displeased to be a part of the Nation. “My Queen, are you feeling better?”

Gabrielle licked her lips slowly, tasting the tang of melon remaining. “Tell me about your visions of me. Tell me why I will defeat the Destroyer.” I don’t want to hurt her ever. I’ll die before I let that happen.

Ah, that makes sense, Clymera realized, the girl is terrified of opposing the Destroyer. She’s surely heard the stories of the prior destruction of the Nation both in Greece and in other lands. She’s afraid to die. “My visions are true, my Queen. I see you bringing the Destroyer to her knees. She will not harm you.”

“Do …” Gabrielle closed her eyes trying to avoid the horrible image her question brought before her eyes, “do I kill her?”

Clymera shook her head slowly, “My vision is of a battlefield. It is dusk, Apollo’s last rays brushing the land’s surface. There is much bloodshed, many have fallen, and everywhere there are instruments of war. In the center of the field, you stand. The Nation encircles the battlefield, watching you. The Destroyer is before you, on her knees, pleading with you for you have defeated her. Her army is scattered. They are no threat to our Nation anymore.”

“That is all you see?”

“That is all. I see you deliver us from the evil one.”

Gabrielle winced at the priestess’ word choice. ‘Destroyer’ and ‘evil one’ were not monikers she would have chosen for the Conqueror. “How can I be your Queen when I don’t know how to be what you need?”

The priestess reached out and touched a bit of the cloth covering Gabrielle’s heart. “You have a true spirit, my Queen. It is all we can ask of you.”

Truth. That’s all the Conqueror asked of me as well. “I don’t know –”

Gabrielle’s comments were cut off by the arrival of an Amazon scout who fell to her knees before the women. “My Queen, Priestess, the Destroyer’s army marches on our village.”

Darkness had already settled on the land, Gabrielle noted with relief. No prophecy is coming true tonight at least. Even if it is in anger, I will see her. “Bring Eponin to me.” To Clymera she said, “I will need the Council to meet with me as well. And Palaemon will join us.”

“My Queen –”

“Don’t argue, please. Palaemon is her Captain. If anyone will know how to protect us from her wrath, it will be him. I’m not trying to be difficult, Clymera. I’m just trying to survive.”

“Yes, my Queen.” The priestess added a touch more respectful emphasis on the young woman’s title. Yes, this is the Queen I have seen.
Chapter Twenty-Eight
Xena stood on the outskirts of Amazon territory. She held up her hand, halting the army behind her, and listened. Cocking her head to one side, she closed her eyes, focusing on the sounds she did and did not hear. There should have been the subtle sounds of scouts in the trees above them this close to Amazon territory. There was only silence. Silence that did not extend to her heart, however, which still cried out in pain at the betrayal of her one true friend.

“My liege?” Charis asked noting the pained look on the Conqueror’s face.

Xena’s eyes narrowed as she focused on the soldier. “It seems we have been anticipated. You and I will continue, but send the other officers back. I want them rested for our attack tomorrow.”

“Conqueror, surely we should bring along a squadron?” Charis queried warily.

Pale eyes swept over the young woman. “I am not accustomed to having my orders questioned. Do I need to find a new commander?” Xena’s hand rested casually on the hilt of a dagger, leaving no doubts as to what would happen should Charis provide the wrong answer.

“No, my liege.” Charis hurried to proclaim the order to the troops. She wondered how Palaemon had managed to survive under the Conqueror’s command for as long as he had. She tried hard not to think that he was among the hunted tonight as well, and certainly not to ponder if this was to be her own fate one day as well.

Xena leaned against the trunk of a tree. She felt entirely at home in the deep woods, having spent time with the Amazons both as a tenuous friend and a firmer foe in such settings. She kept her attention focused on the overhead branches, knowing how these women used the overlying canopy to move stealthily above their prey. It would be no stretch of her skills for her to ascend into their territory, but she preferred to wait.

Her men followed her orders of returning to the city. They would not be needed tonight. The Amazons had fled, which surprised Xena. It was only when her annihilation of the Amazon nation was nearly complete in Greece that a few of them crossed the Aegean sea to Ephesus. Most had stayed on their traditional homelands, preferring death to surrender or to retreat.

Xena needed to go on to the village to discover why the Amazons had chosen to not meet her, their hated Destroyer, in battle. It was very curious, and she was annoyed to be deprived of the anticipated conflict. She needed the heat of battle to dispel some of the heat in her soul. Though all the blood in the Amazon Nation wouldn’t be enough to quench the fire inside of her. She had been stupid. She had left herself vulnerable. And she had been betrayed, once again.

Charis returned to her side and the Conqueror took off at a trot. The movement felt good and it was easy to navigate through the woods by the light of the full moon. The small totems scattered about guided her unerringly to the Amazon’s home.

At the encampment outskirts, she stopped, causing Charis to nearly collide into her. Not quite deserted, she thought as she saw the two figures sitting near the central fire, one of whom stood and drew his sword at her appearance but kept the blade lowered.

“Why, Palaemon,” Xena drawled, sarcasm filling her voice, “what a surprise to find you here.” She let her gaze drift to the young woman who remained seated and whose hair faintly glowed in the firelight, reminding Xena of the times when it had been their campfire people had come to. Stop it! She is seated by an Amazon fire with Palaemon. Don’t be fooled by gentle looks a second time. “And, Gabrielle, how was your time at the library?” Xena tried to not think how she had planned on asking that question tonight in a different, friendlier forum, over a shared meal and enjoying the successes of the day.

“Conqueror,” Gabrielle replied softly, “I’m glad you came.” In fact, all Gabrielle wanted to do was go back to Salmoneus’ house with her and pretend that this day had never taken place. She couldn’t believe that the guiding star she had seen on the ship had brought her to Ephesus for this end. Not to see the hateful look in the Conqueror’s eyes when she looked at her. That pain hurt more than the cross ever did.

Xena let a cold smile cross her features, her anger blinding her to the relief in her oracle’s voice. “I don’t think you will be.” Drawing her sword, she made it dance in front of her. “Palaemon, I don’t think we’ve had a chance to spar lately. Care to play?”

The Captain took a step toward the Conqueror, but Gabrielle stood up and placed a hand on his forearm restraining him. “We stayed to talk to you. Actually, I stayed to talk to you, and Palaemon insisted on remaining with me.”

A cold shiver of jealousy ran through Xena as she watched the casual touch. She wondered how many other less casual touches the two had exchanged while in her company. How could I have been so blind? She shook her head to clear images of Gabrielle and Palaemon from her mind. “That was a stupid choice, because there is nothing I want to hear from you.” With a swift stroke, Xena lunged at her former oracle. Perhaps she would be less attractive to Palaemon as she lay bleeding on the ground.

The Captain shoved Gabrielle down roughly and met the Conqueror’s blade. Trading quick strikes over the fair-haired girl, neither could gain an advantage. A swift kick to Xena’s torso by Palaemon provided Gabrielle the room she needed to scramble out of striking distance. Once she was clear, four arrows came raining down on Xena.

Years of battle training and her innate ability allowed Xena to deflect two with her sword, dodge the third and capture the fourth in her fist. She held it over her heart and let her gaze drift first to Gabrielle and then up to the Amazon warriors in the trees. Damn it all, I was too focused on her to watch my own back. What other surprises does my little betrayer have in store for me?

“No!” Gabrielle screamed. “No!” She pushed her way around Palaemon and threw herself in front of the Conqueror, her back to the woman who just tried to kill her. “Stop it! Don’t you harm her!” Gabrielle was furious, she was unaware that any of the Amazons had stayed behind, despite her evacuation order. Her heart was beating double-time, the arrows heading for the Conqueror terrifying her more than the fight that had taken place above her.

Xena grabbed the girl and pulled her tight against her body, her dagger at Gabrielle’s throat. She spun them around, looking for a solid structure to put at her back. Seeing a nearby hut, she moved them to it, pressing herself against the mud and stone edifice. “Charis, take cover!” she called out.

Her commander placed herself where she could make sure no one could sneak up on the Conqueror. Charis knew she was still slightly exposed, but her life was supposed to be forfeit for the Conqueror.

Gabrielle did not struggle against Xena, allowing the stronger woman to hold her captive, trusting that she would not slit her throat. And if she did, Gabrielle knew that her life wouldn’t be worth living without the Conqueror in it anyway. Immediate death was a preferable substitute to the slow death of loneliness; the destruction of the body always the better choice over the destruction of the soul.

Palaemon followed to stand a few feet in front of them, his sword at the ready. His own heart was torn in two seeing his ruler poised to kill her oracle. He didn’t want to harm Xena to save Gabrielle, and he found choosing between the two impossible. He wanted them both, together.

Two Amazons dropped from the trees and approached the hostage and hostage-taker, crossbows loaded. “Let her go, Destroyer,” Eponin commanded. I can avenge you now, Terreis. Even if this Greek dog had nothing to do with your death, she’s the one who forced us to this land where you died.

A snorted laugh was her only reply. The Conqueror tightened her hold around Gabrielle’s waist, and was surprised by her instinctive desire to be gentle with the girl. Gods, snap out of it, Xena. This one is your betrayer, remember?

Gabrielle willed herself to be calm. She didn’t want to provide the obviously enraged woman with an excuse to hurt her. Looking directly at Eponin, she said, “Lower your weapons. I do not want her harmed. No matter what the outcome.”

“My Queen, I can’t do that.” I won’t do that.

The feel of metal biting into her neck caused Gabrielle to gasp in pain. She felt the warm trickle of blood down her throat.
“You’re their Queen?” a hot voice husked in her ear.

“You’re hurting me.”

The point of the knife dug a fraction deeper, “I intend to kill you.”

Gabrielle’s eyes closed against the pain, not from her neck but from her heart. “Why, Conqueror? What have I done to you?”

You made me feel again. Her lips a hair’s breadth away from Gabrielle’s ear, Xena replied, “You did not speak truth. That was our agreement, wasn’t it, Queen Gabrielle? Your life for truthful lips.”

“I never lied to you, please believe me.” The young oracle raised one hand and placed it atop the Conqueror’s much larger hand which held her against the ruler’s body. Gently she squeezed the hand as she had done only the night before in the theatre. Was it only last night? “Conqueror, please hear me out, let me explain. Let me tell you the truth.”

Xena held very still and tried to filter out the voices which all vied for her attention. She heard the Amazons shouting at her, threatening her should she not release their Queen. There was Palaemon’s voice as well, asking her to listen to whatever fanciful story they had made up. Charis’ voice was there, warning her of movement in the trees. Her battle-hardened senses cried out for a hearing, too, reminding her of past betrayals, of Caesar who brought her to this land. And then there was her heart which spoke in the softest voice of them all whispering to her not to harm the one in her arms and thus destroy herself.

Gabrielle felt the arm around her throat loosen and saw with relief the dagger lower. Sending a silent prayer to whatever god had been watching over the scene, she remained exactly where she was despite the overwhelming urge to flee. She fixed her eyes on Eponin, “I command you to lower your weapons.” When the warrior did not readily comply, Gabrielle put some of the language she had read in the library to use. “This meeting is now under a banner of truce. I call Artemis as a witness to that fact. Any who break the truce will be dealt with severely.” Gabrielle had called up every phrase of protocol and bargaining she could remember, hoping she sounded reasonably regal and coherent. Her gaze shifted to Palaemon, “You too, Captain.” She waited until the three she could see complied with her command. There were four arrows, four warriors. “Order the others to come down from the trees and stand where I can see them.”

Eponin scowled but obeyed. Lifting her hands to her mouth, she mimicked a bird cry. Two Amazon warriors dropped from the branches and joined their sisters. “As you have commanded, my Queen,” Eponin said as she indicated their number. Seeing the little Queen in the Destroyer’s clutches made the warrior believe that soon the Nation would be passing the mask of queen to a new woman. Eponin couldn’t recall another Queen whose tenure lasted less than a full day. She wondered if the girl would think to pass on the rite of caste.

Realizing it was her turn to show good faith, Xena spoke, “Charis, put away your sword.”

“My liege, we are still outnumbered,” Charis replied. The young commander was more terrified than she cared to admit. Glancing up at the tree line, she swore she could see a hundred more Amazons in wait for them.

“Do not disobey me!” Xena roared, the woman’s inexperience in leadership blatant, forcing Xena to take a menacing step toward her commander.

The shifting caused Gabrielle to once again be nicked by the dagger. She made a small sound and brought a hand up to the wound, wiping away a small trail of blood, smearing it across her neck.

The inadvertent wounding caused Xena to see if the Amazon warriors had changed their demeanor toward her. They hadn’t flinched, proving themselves to be disciplined, despite the circumstances.

Gabrielle knew she had to take hold of the situation, bring the intensity down if she ever hoped for the Conqueror to truly hear her. “Would you like something to eat or drink?” She willed her voice to be calm, despite the fact she could plainly hear the thumping of her heart within her chest.

Seeing that the danger had diminished to a manageable level, Xena released her hold on Gabrielle entirely, pushing her away from her body, missing the contact immediately. “Nothing. I want only answers.”

With a hard look to her warriors, who were already disobedient by staying behind and were in serious trouble for attacking Xena, Gabrielle turned to face the Conqueror. “What can I tell you?”

“You’re Queen of the Amazons. Did you come to kill me?”

Gabrielle shook her head, “How could I?” She gestured toward herself, being sure to draw the Conqueror’s attention to her still healing legs. “Haven’t I been traveling with you for an entire moon? I have tasted your food, brought you your wine, slept by your side. Did you ever once feel that I was any threat to you? Look at me, Conqueror. How am I a threat to you?”

“I destroyed your Nation.”

The smaller woman shook her head, “This –” she indicated the Amazon warriors and village “- has been a more recent development. I wasn’t an Amazon in Greece.”

“Not in Greece?” Xena was confused. If she hadn’t been an Amazon in Greece, where had she become an Amazon? “Then where?”

“Here. Today.” Gods, was it only today?

Today? Xena’s anger flared, knowing she was being lied to once again. “The Amazon nation doesn’t go around making Greek oracles their Queen for no reason, Gabrielle.”

“That’s true. I was at the temple today when someone shot an arrow into Terreis, their Queen. When it happened, I just threw myself on top of her, I wasn’t really thinking. As she died, she gave me her right of caste. I had no idea what it meant, until the Amazons came and brought me back here. I wanted to get word to you, I was afraid you would think I had left you to go back to Corinth. But then Palaemon came and told me you wanted to kill me, that you thought I had been a spy while I was with you.”

“Is he your lover?” the question escaped Xena’s lips before she could censor it.

Both Gabrielle and Palaemon gasped at the question and Xena was sure she had her answer.

“On my honor, my liege, I swear not,” Palaemon responded, dropping to one knee. “I would never harm you so.”

“Palaemon is my friend, Conqueror, and yours, as well,” Gabrielle replied. She shoved all the implications of the question firmly to one side of her mind. There was no time now to consider them. Even though she desperately wanted to hear why the thought of her and Palaemon being lovers was so upsetting to the Conqueror. She hoped it was for all the same reasons she could come up with.

Turning to her former Captain, Xena scowled, “Then why are you here?”

Palaemon considered her question and met her eyes as he answered, “To protect you, my liege.” From yourself, he silently added. I never thought that the one force which could conquer you wouldn’t even reach my shoulder and have gentle green eyes.

Xena’s stance softened slightly wanting to believe her Captain of several years. Flicking her pale eyes on to Gabrielle, she continued her inquiry. “And you? Why did you ask Cefan to take you to the temple?”

“I didn’t go to the temple with Cefan, Conqueror. I left her, I know I shouldn’t have. I was reading in the Library about a statue in the temple and I really wanted to go see it. I thought Cefan had gone to go get some food. I figured I would only be away for a few minutes, but then … things became a little complicated.”

“Cefan wasn’t with you?” the Conqueror asked very slowly, the ramifications of Gabrielle’s answer already causing her mental anguish.

“No, she wasn’t.” Gabrielle said nothing more, knowing she was better off not laying any accusations against Cefan. The Conqueror needed to choose who to believe on her own.

Xena’s gaze shifted to Eponin. “Did your troops engage one of my soldiers today at your temple?”

Eponin clenched her jaw as if she would refuse to answer, but Gabrielle fixed a hard stare on the warrior and issued her a silent command to do so. “Unfortunately, no, Destroyer.”

“The only one Cefan engaged, my liege, was me,” Palaemon added. “She followed me to the temple after I left you this afternoon. There she attacked me. After I defeated her, she threw a dagger into my back, striking my shoulder.” Cefan is a back-stabbing coward. Understand that, my liege, and believe what Gabrielle says.

“Where is she now?”

“My liege, I do not know. She was injured in our fight, and I was detained and brought here.”

Anticipating the Conqueror’s next question, Gabrielle fixed her gaze on Eponin, “Did any of the guards attend to Cefan after her fight with Palaemon?”

Eponin lowered her eyes, “No, my Queen.”

“Someone is lying to me –” she held up a hand to cut off Gabrielle’s comment “- that is plain. If I find you have spoken the truth, Gabrielle, then I will not attack your Amazons and will let you go in peace. But if I find otherwise, Artemis will be left without worshippers. Do I make myself clear?”

For the first time, Gabrielle felt a glimmer of hope. Her clear green eyes met the Conqueror’s blue eyes steadily and her voice was strong as she answered. “Only if I have made myself clear that I would never do what you accuse me of. I didn’t lie to you and I wouldn’t leave you.” I won’t leave you.

It would be so easy to believe her, Xena thought. The first person in years that I didn’t feel a need to impress. Someone who reminded me of home, of Lyceus of family. But… homes get destroyed and family members die and you’re left all alone. And the only person you can ever count on is yourself. Caesar taught you about destiny, Xena. Remember that yours is to rule Greece. Alone.

To Palaemon she growled, “Do not interfere with my plans, or you will not live to regret it.” Without giving him a chance to respond, Xena focused her attention on Gabrielle. “This isn’t over between us.”

Gods above, I hope not. Gabrielle nodded, wishing there was something she could say that would make this all better. There was nothing to say. Now there was only the aftermath of decisions.
Chapter Twenty-Nine
It was very quiet inside Salmoneus’ home. Xena, who all her life had preferred solitude, suddenly missed the activity it had been filled with. Gabrielle was gone, no doubt telling stories around an Amazon campfire. With Palaemon’s absence the Conqueror knew better than to go among her troops right now; he was the only one of her men who could hold his own against her in a sparring match. With the temper that had ensnared her, she would most likely destroy her own army before the battle of the morning. Xena even wished for Salmoneus’ company. The chatterbox would at least keep her mind off everything. Had she always been this alone and not known it?

She stood over her plans for the attack on the convoy. She forced herself to make her mind blank, to see only the parchment before her, to imagine every pebble on the road the Romans would use. Her question to herself was relentless: what have I not anticipated?

After their encounter with Gabrielle, the Conqueror had sent Charis to make sure her troops were deployed correctly. They were supposed to have been in position since dusk, sheltering in the canopy of night, becoming so still they could be mistaken for stones. Charis would report back later as to any problems. Xena would go among the troops just prior to dawn. Until then, she waited.

There was movement behind her and the Conqueror knew Cefan had returned. “Where is Palaemon?” she asked, turning slowly, remembering her lieutenant’s boast of returning with her captain’s head.

Cefan flushed hotly. Surely the Conqueror could see her injury and know what must have taken place. She fingered the bandage the healer had wrapped around her stitched-up thigh, the back stained dark with her blood. “My liege, he escaped.”

“Then you failed. As you failed me with Gabrielle this morning.” The Conqueror’s body radiated menace. “I do not tolerate incompetence among my guard. You know that.”

The Egyptian held her ground, despite her thought that even the Conqueror’s cape looked dangerous. “My liege, you were betrayed, first by Gabrielle, next by Palaemon. I alone have returned to serve you.”

“How were you injured?”

Cefan relaxed, glad for the Conqueror’s concern for her well-being. “The traitor, Palaemon, attacked me, my liege. I tracked him to the temple and tried to prevent him from reuniting with the girl. He struck me from behind, Conqueror, attempting to lame me.”

Xena considered her solider, weighing her words. Cefan was, in a twisted way, telling the truth. The actions were true, the intentions were not. Gabrielle would never have spoken this form of truth to me, the Conqueror considered, then forced the fair-haired oracle out of her mind. “And this morning, describe for me the Amazon who attacked you. For I wish to not kill her when we purge the Nation before we leave Ephesus; I will leave that honor to you.”

Cefan smiled, her fear dissipating. “Thank you, my liege. She was tall and fierce. Her hair was in braids and was dark, like the soil after a rainfall. Her eyes were the same color. She was in a command position, giving orders to those beside her.”

That description doesn’t match any of the warriors I saw, surely such a one would have stayed behind to guard her Queen. “I met the commander of the Amazon army. She is nothing like you have described.”

The lieutenant became still. She knew from experience that every movement she made now would be evaluated and acted upon. “My liege, I did not say she was the commander but merely had a command.”

“Why did you leave Gabrielle alone at the library?”

“My liege, I did no-”

One quick stride and the Conqueror held Cefan up by her throat, Cefan’s toes barely scraping the marble floor. The muscles in the Conqueror’s arms were steady, her rage giving her more than enough strength to suspend the warrior in her armor. “Do not lie to me! I have had my fill of lies. Tell me what happened this morning and I might let you live.”

The lieutenant weighed her few options carefully. There was no doubt the Conqueror would kill her at the slightest provocation. She was like a wounded animal, lashing out at anyone, even those who would try to help. “Did she tell you that, my liege?” she whispered. “Did she say I left her? But then how does she explain her fleeing to the Amazons?”

She went to the temple to look at a statue. She threw herself unthinkingly on an injured woman. She tried to save a life. She cared and she was taken from me. “How do you explain it?” Xena questioned, refusing to be distracted from her pursuit of the truth from this woman.

“As I did this morning, my liege. She fled from me, went to the temple and betrayed you. I tried to stop her, but I was attacked.”

“My fierce Egyptian warrior was defeated twice in one day? I should kill you for that alone.” Xena slammed the solider against a wall and continued to hold her aloft. “How did you lose a crippled girl?”

“She is getting stronger, my liege.”

Another meeting of stone and flesh. “Wrong answer. How did you let her go when I commanded you to watch her?”

“I told you –”

With her free hand, the Conqueror slapped the lieutenant leaving behind an angry mark. “I find your explanation lacking. Where were you when you were to be guarding my oracle? What did you do, Cefan?”

The lieutenant refused to answer.

“Perhaps you were the one who betrayed me?”

“My liege, I killed your enemy! I did not betray you!” Cefan was becoming enraged herself. She had served the Conqueror for years, had fought by her side, had been a reliable and honorable soldier. To have the Conqueror question her now was insulting to the proud warrior.

The grip on Cefan’s throat became tighter. Xena leaned her long frame against the lieutenant’s pinning her to the wall, letting the woman feel the anger, the heat, the danger. “Who did you kill?”

The Egyptian replied with a snarl, “The bitch queen of the Amazons.”

With sudden insight, Xena watched the morning unfold from a different perspective: The lieutenant wanting to be a part of the action at the temple, leaving Gabrielle alone and unguarded in the library. Gabrielle, being naturally curious, wanting to go to the temple to look at whatever had attracted her attention. When she was unable to find her escort, deciding to go anyway, anticipating a quick return. Cefan watching the temple, seeing Xena leave, knowing she was clear to make a heroic gesture. Only to have her plans spoiled by Gabrielle’s arrival. Cefan murdering the queen and the young oracle trying to save the woman. Gabrielle receiving the right of caste from the queen and Cefan concocting a story to cover up her own disobedience. The end result was the same. Gabrielle was torn away from the Conqueror in sacrifice to the lieutenant’s hubris.

“You have no idea what you have done.” Abruptly, Xena released her prey from her grasp, causing Cefan to fall to the floor. The Conqueror knelt down beside the sprawled warrior. “You have disobeyed your last command, Cefan, you are hereby relieved of your duties.” She waited for the relief at being left alive to fill the dark brown eyes, and then she added, “All of them.” With two swift jabs to the lieutenant’s neck, the Conqueror cut off the flow of blood to the warrior’s brain.

“My liege,” Cefan pleaded, blood already copiously running from her nose.

“May the fires of Tartarus consume your soul for an eternity for what you have done.” Not wanting to be in her betrayer’s presence a moment longer, the Conqueror exited the room to go join her troops.

****

Cefan waited a few seconds more and then released the pressure points, grateful that the Egyptian court knew about them as well.
Chapter Thirty
The moon was still high overhead when Cefan found the ship she sought. As she walked down the dock, two Roman soldiers approached her, their swords drawn despite her obvious injuries. They knew of Greek cunning, and had no desire to be fooled by a woman. “Halt! You may not come here!” the first of the two guards ordered.

Cefan was not about to be intimidated. She had just survived an attempt on her life by the Destroyer of Nations, two Roman guards were of little concern to her. “Tell your commanding officer that Lieutenant Cefanelwai-timbukili is here and has important news regarding his transport which is to take place in a few candlemarks.”

The two guards exchanged glances, no one was supposed to know why they were here. How did this Greek soldier know of the arms? With a nod, the senior officer commanded the junior one to remain while he made the report.

Cefan leaned against a post, trying to take as much pressure as possible off her injured leg. She could tell the wound had reopened, but it was inaccessible to her. Hopefully, the Roman commander would have his healer tend to her after she gave her information. She had given her life-blood for the Conqueror. Now it flowed in mockery of that sacrifice.

It took nearly a half candlemark before the commander had her summoned to his quarters. Guided roughly by the first set of guards, Cefan entered into the large common room of the vessel.

Seated at an ornate desk was the Roman commander. He was dressed in the gold and crimson robes of Roman nobility, his armor polished to a shine. To either side of him were guards with plumed helmets and long spears. They were more decorative than functional, Cefan observed, noting that it would be difficult for them to obtain the leverage and distance they would need to strike with their spears in the quarters. The man himself was small and compact. His hair was dark and curly, an unruly tangle over an otherwise disciplined body.

His dark eyes lifted from the parchment he was studying and he took inventory of the soldier before him. He had spent his entire life in service to Rome. First as a soldier in the northern territories, then as special adjunct to Caesar. Now he was Caesar’s most trusted advisor and lieutenant, charged with missions that his ruler knew must succeed. This Greek’s presence in his stateroom did not bode well.

“Who are you?” he asked, his voice cultured and low.

“I am Cefanelwai-timbukili, former lieutenant in the army of Xena, Conqueror of Greece and Destroyer of Nations.”

A small smile drifted across the man’s lips at the warrior’s proud demeanor. “Why former lieutenant?”

“The Conqueror attempted to kill me this evening. She is unaware that I live.”

Leaning back in his chair, Brutus tried to ascertain the veracity of the warrior’s statements. It would be within the Conqueror’s tactics to injure her own soldier and send her here to bait a trap. Caesar had warned him of the Greek ruler’s artifice before. “And why did she try to kill you?”

“Because I killed her enemy and made her jealous.”

“And this enemy was?”

“The Queen of the Amazons.”

He had heard of the disturbance at the temple this afternoon. His men had brought back reports of an attack on the queen and the commotion it created. There was no information on who had fired the fatal arrow, however. “Had she planned on this honor herself?”

“That became my understanding.”

Crossing one leg over the other, the commander feigned an air of indifference. “So what brings you here?”

“The Conqueror plans on attacking your convoy at dawn.”

“Does she now? And where will this attack happen?”

Cefan pictured the map the Conqueror had gone over with her earlier in the day. “Your men are taking the southern route, the only one that will lead them to their destination in Syria. The Conqueror’s men are set to take on your troops at the Sepian Pass.”

The commander reached for a scroll and unrolled it. Laying it across his lap he studied the map and traced the route the arms would soon be following. The Sepian Pass was the mostly likely and best choice for an ambush. It was possible this information was correct. “Perhaps …” he allowed.

“It is to be. Her troops are already in place. They only await their prey.”

“So you have betrayed your ruler. What do you seek in return?”

“Safe passage to Egypt and a thousand gold coins.”

“A thousand gold coins?” Brutus frowned, considering the sum. “Is that the going price of a soldier’s honor?”

“Excuse me?” Cefan responded, not liking the change in tone.

“I thank you for your information, Cefanelwai-timbukili of the Egyptians, but I cannot allow you to live. My honor will not allow it. You have betrayed the one you swore allegiance to. I can expect no better from you.” With a slight gesture, Brutus commanded his honor guard. “Kill her.”

The seemingly decorative soldiers managed with considerable efficiency to raise their spears and hurl them, spitting Cefan, and driving her body into the wall. Impaled on two shafts of wood, Cefan breathed her last.

Brutus rose from his chair and passed the body as he left the room. “Now, let’s go see if you spoke the truth.”
Chapter Thirty-One
Gabrielle paced in front of Artemis’ altar, as she had for the last candlemark. No one dared approach her. Even Clymera was surprised at the passion aroused in the young woman. She had been furious over Eponin’s decision to remain behind and guard her, despite her evacuation orders. Since leaving the village, Gabrielle had not spoken to anyone.

Palaemon sat to one side carefully watching over the scene. His uneasy alliance with the Amazon guards allowed him to remain close to their Queen. He knew that ultimately the Conqueror would want him to see to the young woman’s welfare.

Eponin came and settled down beside him, jerking her chin in the direction of Gabrielle. “Is she always this way?”

Palaemon met her gaze and smiled wearily. “I’ve never seen her like this before, actually. She is the most gentle soul I have ever met.”

The Amazon commander snorted out a laugh. “Then where did she pick up a few of those curses she directed at me earlier?” Gabrielle’s angry diatribe against the commander had actually won her reluctant admiration from the object of her fury.

“It could have been while on the cross.”

“What?” Eponin’s eyes focused on the halting walk of her new Queen. “Is that where her legs were broken?”

Palaemon nodded. “Yes, although they are healing now. Before she had to use a staff all the time to walk.”

“Caesar?” Eponin asked, knowing the Roman’s penchant for such a torturous death.

“No, actually, the Conqueror.”

Startled caramel colored eyes raised to meet his. Eponin’s brow furrowed as she took in this new information. “You mean to tell me that she loves the Destroyer despite being crucified by her?” She never thought that an Amazon Queen would ever hold affection for the cold-hearted woman who had nearly annihilated their Nation, certainly not under these circumstances.

Palaemon shifted his line of sight to take in Gabrielle. “Yes, she does. She is the most remarkable woman I have ever encountered.”

Remembering the Conqueror’s earlier accusation, Eponin said, “You do love her.”

“Hopelessly,” he answered, more to himself than to Eponin. Realizing he had spoken aloud, he quickly added, “She doesn’t know.”

“Are you sure about that?”

He nodded, “Yes, I am. If she had any idea, she wouldn’t let me be here.”

“Why not?” Eponin was intrigued. She wondered what had really gone on between the Captain and her new Queen.

“Because she wouldn’t want me to get hurt.” Seeing Eponin’s unspoken question, he answered it. “Not just because of the Conqueror’s reaction. But because she doesn’t return my affections.”

The Amazon commander shifted, pulling a dagger from her boot to play with. “I don’t understand. You and Gabrielle seem like reasonable people, even decent. Why the allegiance to the Destroyer? She isn’t worthy of it.”

“Don’t call her that,” a voice responded, but not Palaemon’s.

Eponin jumped, startled at hearing Queen Gabrielle’s comment. “My Queen …” her face reddened at being caught in this discussion. She couldn’t believe the young woman had been able to approach them unnoticed. You’re becoming a gossip maven, Eponin, just like Terreis always said you would.

“No one is to call her the Destroyer, do you understand? She is my friend.” Gabrielle’s stare brokered no argument.

Eponin wanted to disagree, but found she could not. This was a direct order by her ruler; she had no choice in the matter, not if she were the Amazon she claimed to be. “Yes, my Queen.”

The new Queen let out a sigh and sunk to the ground beside them. “I’m glad we have that settled. I can’t stand this waiting. You should be with her, Palaemon. She will need you in the coming morning.”

Before the Captain could respond, a runner approached them and bowed before Gabrielle. After being bid to report, the woman took a lungful of air and began. “My Queen, I followed the warrior as I was ordered.”

Gabrielle held up a hand, “What warrior?”

The commander grimaced, “The one who attacked him.” Eponin knew this news would not be accepted in a peaceful manner.

“Cefan?” Palaemon asked. He had thought it strange that the Amazons had not captured her at the temple, but now it made sense that they had followed her.

Gabrielle’s anger flared up anew. “You mean to tell me we could have found out where she was and you didn’t tell me?” Unable to sit beside the warrior and control herself, Gabrielle stood and took a few paces back. “What else haven’t you told me, Eponin? Are there other surprises in store? You do not have anyone trailing the Conqueror, do you? No one who would harm her?”

“No, my Queen.”

Gabrielle held up a hand and shook her head vehemently. “Obviously, I’m not your Queen. You disobeyed my direct order that you help with the evacuation of the Nation. You allowed three other Amazon warriors to participate in your rebellion. And now I find that you are concealing the actions of the soldiers from me. I am not your Queen, Eponin. You are your own Queen. Is this how you treated Terreis, or do you have special contempt for me?”

Chastised and speechless, Eponin tried to process the outburst of anger that had been directed toward her. She knew the young Queen was right, but she hated admitting it even to herself, let alone another person. Instead, she sulked.

Palaemon tried to keep from snickering, but it was difficult. Gabrielle had certainly learned a thing or two during her time with the Conqueror, he noted.

Not receiving any response, Gabrielle directed her attention to the messenger. “Tell me about the warrior.”

The messenger met the Queen’s angry green eyes. She had never heard anyone speak so strongly to Eponin. It had been rumored that Terreis would occasionally have to dress her down in private, or in a council meeting, but never in front of any other audience. “My Queen, she was injured after her encounter with the Greek soldier,” said gesturing toward the Captain.

“His name is Palaemon,” Gabrielle growled in frustration, tired of the prejudice.

The messenger winced. “Yes, my Queen. After her encounter with Palaemon the warrior found a healer who stitched up her thigh wound. She went back to the Destroyer’s –”

“Her name is the Conqueror,” Gabrielle growled again.

Are there any other names I should know? “Yes, my Queen. She met with the Conqueror.” It felt strange not referring to the enemy of the Amazons by her proper designation, but the messenger had no desire to experience the Queen’s ire like Eponin. “They had an angry confrontation. The Conqueror struck the warrior repeatedly and then left her.”

“Was the Conqueror all right?” came the soft question, a gentleness present in the voice that was absent before.

“Yes, my Queen. The warrior then left and went to the docks where she met up with the Roman fleet.”

Palaemon sprung to his feet. “By the gods, her betrayal is complete! That conniving, low-born daughter of a bacchae!” There was no doubt in the Captain’s mind what discussion had taken place between Cefan and the Romans. “You’re right, Gabrielle, I must go to her.” To Eponin he said, “I leave her in your protection.”

“Palaemon, stop!” Gabrielle ordered to his back as he began hurrying away.

Disbelieving blue eyes turned back to her. “Gabrielle? She needs me. If Cefan told the Romans of the Conqueror’s plans …” there was no need for him to finish the thought, it was too upsetting to do so.

“Then it will take more than you to help her. Stay here, Palaemon, and trust me.”

The Captain slowly nodded, believing he understood what she was trying to communicate, hoping he did.

To the forgotten messenger, Gabrielle said, “Continue with your report. What happened next?”

“My Queen, the Romans killed the warrior.”

“Damn them to Tartarus!” Palaemon stamped his boot on the ground forcefully, sending tremors up his leg. “I wanted that pleasure. Did it look painful?”

The messenger hesitated, wondering if she should answer a Greek man’s question. When the Queen made no effort to keep her from doing so, she decided to speak, hoping it was the right choice. “She was run through by two spears.”

“Good. Not as good as drawing and quartering, but good,” Palaemon muttered, knowing that some victims remained conscious while they bled to death internally. He hoped that Cefan had been one of those. She had been a friend, but she had tried to harm the two most important people in his life; that was unforgivable.

Gabrielle’s thoughts wandered back to the campfires she had shared with the Egyptian, and Cefan’s reluctant humor. She wasn’t always an enemy and she was once the Conqueror’s friend. She deserved better than death at the hands of the Romans. “Eponin, summon the council. We need to prepare for battle.”

The commander of the Amazon army regarded Gabrielle with surprise. “Against the De…against the Conqueror?”

A frown furrowed between pale eyebrows, “Don’t be ridiculous.”

****

“Never!” Aria exclaimed. “By Artemis’ holy temple, never!”

The small cluster of women stood behind Artemis’ altar where the Priestess waited before performing her duties on holy days. It was a small space and forced the seven women to stand closer than many of them would have liked. Gabrielle imagined there was a line drawn between them, for they were divided into two clear camps, with two wavering in the middle.

“This is our chance,” Rana pointed out reasonably. “The Destroyer is unaware of the Roman’s knowledge of her attack. She will be outsmarted. Let us aid the Romans and secure a lasting peace for us in Ephesus.”

Clymera regarded the young Queen sadly, it was easy to tell where the Queen’s heart was. “My Queen, I have seen visions of you defeating the Conqueror. Artemis has shown me your future.”

Gabrielle shrugged, “Then I reject it.”

The priestess glanced around, afraid she might find Artemis herself standing in their midst to hear the blasphemy. “My Queen, you cannot.”

“Just watch me. I am not some pawn of the gods. I didn’t ask for this title, but I have it. As long as I have it, I will do what I believe best. I have never found the gods to be all that interested in my welfare. No god came when my village was destroyed, my parents tortured and killed, and my sister taken in slavery. No god came and saved me from the cross.” Her gaze swept around the circle, “No god came and saved your Nation from the Conqueror’s ambition. It was you. It was your effort, your blood, your plans. You came to Ephesus for safety. Artemis didn’t bring you.”

Silent tears coursed down Ephiny’s cheeks. “Artemis did not save Terreis.” She shifted closer slightly when Gabrielle laid a gentle hand on her forearm.

“We are Artemis’ Nation, Gabrielle. Your concern for the Conqueror cannot deny who we are. If we abandon our goddess, we are lost.”

“Clymera, I don’t suggest you disavow Artemis. But I don’t believe the future is set. We are not Artemis’ plaything, nor is she ours. The future is ours to do of as we will. Did Artemis will you to be driven from your native lands in Greece? I don’t think so, otherwise why worship her? This is the Nation’s opportunity to return to Greece. If we help the Conqueror now, she will be indebted to us. You will return once again to your homeland in peace.”

“She cannot be trusted,” Solari protested.

“Are we the only ones who remember that the Destroyer killed Melosa under a banner of truce? That’s the ruler you would have us save now.” Aria could not believe this was even being considered.

Eponin had been silent up until this point, but knew time was against them and the Conqueror. “Queen Gabrielle does not have to ask our permission to act, Aria. You forget yourself. The council may be divided, but the Queen is not. And you are obligated to obey.” Eponin reached over and grasped Solari’s bracer. “You are an honorable soldier, Solari. What do you say?”

“I stand united with my sisters.”

“As do I,” Eponin responded. “We are united with our Queen,” the warrior gestured to Clymera and Ephiny. “Rana, Aria, what do you say?”

The animal trainer shifted, crossing her arms slowly, “I am a woman of action. I would prefer the action to be against the Destroyer, but I will fight with my sisters.”

Gabrielle gave a small smile to Rana and then looked expectantly at Aria. She made a note to repeat that ‘Destroyer’ announcement to everyone later.

Aria looked at the other Amazons for a long moment before replying. “I will be spending my day trying to heal injuries inflicted by Romans who should be our allies. I will concede in this matter, but I wish my objection noted. Further, I do not believe Gabrielle is fit to be the Amazon Queen given her affection for our enemy. This is a mistake of epic proportions. I only hope we survive to realize it.”

Not the rousing affirmation I was looking for, but I’ll take what I can get. Gabrielle rolled her shoulders, adjusting the weight of responsibility as it settled heavily on them. “All right, Eponin, you and I will meet with Palaemon and make our plans.”
Chapter Thirty-Two
The night sky was becoming gray with the approaching dawn. Her horse moving quietly over the path, Xena moved from one cluster of troops to another. It was her presence among the men that gave them the confidence the battle would be theirs. None of them had ever seen the general defeated. She had experienced not one setback in her quest for Greece. They expected no less in Ephesus.

Her plan was simple and deadly. She had two hundred soldiers scattered along the pathway, one hundred of them her elite Royal Guard. The Sepian Pass was her choice for the site of the ambush. There was little doubt that the Romans would send an advance scout along the path. Her men would quietly take out that squadron after they had gone through the Sepian Pass unharmed. Once the arms caravan was fully inside the pass, her men would seal off the ends, pinning the Romans inside. After that, it would be a simple matter of raining down arrows on them until all were dead.

Coming to the squadron in charge of cutting off the Roman’s retreat, the Conqueror joined them in the circle they had formed. “Good day for a battle,” the squadron leader commented.

The Conqueror let a wild smile loose, “Yes, it is. A good day for Caesar to learn his place.”

One of the younger officers gathered up his courage and addressed the ruler, “When do we take Rome, my liege?”

Xena looked at the young man who had asked the question. It was the same one who had served her well at the temple yesterday morning. “What’s your name?”

“Minon, my liege.”

“Minon, when we return to Greece, you shall train with Pala…” she wavered, remembering where her Captain was at the moment, unsure of where he would be tomorrow. She refocused her attention on the expectant soldier, “You shall train with the Captain of the Guard so you may help lead our attack on Caesar’s stronghold.”

The young man’s features transformed with excitement and pride. “Yes, my liege. Thank you, my liege.”

“There is always room for another good leader. Anyone who wants to see Caesar’s defeat as much as I do is welcome to ride with me into Rome.” To the commander of the squadron she said, “Be sure to contain Caesar’s men here. I don’t want them escaping.”

“Our swords are yours, Conqueror. We will not fail you.”

Swinging up onto her horse, she let her gaze fall one last time on these men. “Today we create legends for our grandchildren to recite. Be sure to be included in the roster of the heroes.” With the click of her tongue, her horse took off, heading toward the next encampment.

****

At the start of the road which led to the Sepian Pass, Brutus stood beside four horsemen. “Find out if that Greek spoke the truth. If so, I want to know exactly what is waiting for us out there. You have three candlemarks. Go!” Slapping one horse on the flank, he watched his soldiers ride off.

****

“I don’t see why I can’t wear what I had on before,” Gabrielle protested, feeling extremely self-conscious.

“If you are to be Queen, you must look like a Queen as you lead them into battle.” Clymera adjusted the strap on the ceremonial outfit and looked at the young woman appraisingly. I think she might have a few more ready followers with this outfit. The Queen’s new clothing consisted of a low slung and high cut leather skirt, revealing legs which only hinted at their prior injuries, and a top which enhanced already ample attributes. Slightly obscuring the view was a plethora of bead and stone necklaces signifying rank and membership in the Amazon Nation. Clymera glanced over at Eponin who was clearly having some difficulties formulating words. With a widening of her eyes, she urged the army commander to speak.

“My Queen, you look like a true Amazon.” It was the best she could say. Anything more might frighten the girl, and she didn’t want that. Eponin had been more than a little surprised to find the garments the young woman had been wearing had concealed such a beautiful figure.

It was at that moment Solari returned to report on the army’s readiness. She stopped, took in the change, nodded approvingly, and then reported. “My Queen, the children, the nursing mothers, the teachers and the elders are being seen to. What is your next command?”

Gabrielle took in a deep breath and considered. “Summon the warriors and the healers. We have much to go over with them.”
Chapter Thirty-Three
The arms convoy proceeded slowly up the southern route, ascending toward the pass. The procession consisted of four heavy, covered wagons, the wood of each strained from the weight of the arms. Each wagon was pulled by a team of four horses who were lathered from exertion due to the incline and the weight of their load. In addition, the Ephesian climate was warm even in early spring and the day had dawned bright and clear, providing no protection from Helios above.

Preceding each wagon was a squadron of twenty armed soldiers on foot and four soldiers on horseback. Altogether, one hundred Roman soldiers were escorting the precious cargo. Riding ahead of them were three advance scouts. They had started along the southern route a candlemark before the rest, making sure the road was clear of the kind of welcome the Conqueror had in mind for them.

This trade route had long been a favorite among Ephesian bandits. The road was narrow and steep as it led up into the Prion mountains, making for tired men and horses. At the top of the mountains, the Sepian Pass had long proved to be deadly to traders. The road flared slightly but went through a break in the mountain range, creating a narrow tube for travel, exposed to attack from above and always at the mercy of what might be waiting around the next bend in the road. In the pass, the only options available were to go forward, to retreat, or to climb the rock face.

The Conqueror’s men were under strict orders to leave the advance troop unmolested until they were clear of the pass. Once they were a quarter candlemark out, she had men positioned to ambush them. This would allow her troops the small amount of time they needed to converge on the canyon, ready to seal off the ends once the quarry was contained within its length. Her archers above would then rain down arrows to kill a significant number of Caesar’s men. After that, it would be a small task for her foot soldiers to go in among the living and finish the job.

Ah, Caesar, do you feel me nipping at your heels yet? I can’t wait for you to feel me when I have a blade at your throat. I will look into your eyes as I draw my sword across your exposed skin and I will laugh as the last breath leaves your body. Your tree of death did not kill me, but it did bear the fruit of revenge.

The Conqueror’s body thrummed with excitement as she waited atop the precipice. She watched the last of the scouts enter the open country and waited for the signal that they had been eliminated. It would have been more reassuring to have Palaemon and Cefan with her coordinating the upcoming attack, but she had instructed Charis in her duties and Xena herself was with the main force. It might not be an ideal situation, but she was confident that her victory was assured.

The sun warmed her back, loosening the muscles restrained under the armor, warming them for the upcoming fight. Caesar’s defeat will be soon. Just as that thought crossed her mind, Xena realized things were desperately wrong.

A flash of light caught in her peripheral vision drew her attention to the southwest. There she saw what she estimated to be another hundred Roman soldiers climbing up the hillside ready to engage her soldiers. The fact they had come from that direction told Xena the Romans had been tipped off as to her plans. She and her men were perfectly concealed among the crags and crevices surrounding the pass if one approached from the road.

With Roman forces ascending the road and the hillside, her troops were effectively trapped, their only choices to descend down into the plain and fight or descend into the pass and fight. If she brought all of her troops down to engage this latest force opposing her, the arms convoy would slip from her grasp. If she went ahead with her attack, her back would be exposed to the soldiers coming from behind her. If she split her troops, she risked losing both the convoy and her men.

She did not like any of her options. Her mind tried to war with itself, attempting to assess blame for this knowledge of the Romans, going through the likely suspects – Gabrielle, Palaemon, the Proconsul, Salmoneus, even Cefan, though she had left her for dead. She shook her head violently, dislodging such thoughts. They were unproductive and uninstructive in this instant. Once she survived, she could punish the offender. And she would. Now she had to lead her men to a harder victory than anticipated.

Glancing eastward, the Conqueror noted that the signal from her squad assigned to overtake the scouts had not been seen yet. Something had gone awry there as well. With no method of contacting her troops along the lower part of the trail, the ones assigned to prevent retreat of the convoy, Xena had only one hundred men to effectively command against a known force of two hundred. A force coming at her from two directions that included a caravan with more than sufficient arms for responding to an attack.

The Conqueror grabbed the leather armor of a young soldier beside her. “I want you to go over to where the second squadron is and tell Charis that she is in charge of the attack on the convoy. She has only her squadron and the third squadron to command. I am taking the rest of the troops to the southwestern plain. Caesar is attacking us from behind. She is to not let the arms escape. Do you understand?” At the man’s nod, she shoved him on his way. Charis’ squadron was on the far side of the crevice, safe from the second Roman force, and still concealed from the arms convoy.

Xena turned her attention back to the troops approaching from below. She had three squadrons remaining to defeat the larger force. She had another three squadrons further down the road, waiting to close in behind Caesar and another two at the far end of the Pass, who, if they were keeping according to schedule, should be sealing the end at that moment.

Casting her gaze around the men with her, the Conqueror tried to find the youngest and leanest. Spying an archer in light armor, she gestured for him. “Can you run fast, soldier?”

“I won the prize in the Corinthian games last year, my liege.”

“Good. Here’s your new course: I want you to run down the hillside until you reach Kaipher, the squadron leader. Tell him to move his men immediately to the southwest and to join me on the battlefield there.”

The young soldier’s eyes grew wide as he understood what his assignment entailed. He would have to run either around or straight through the oncoming arms convoy. One well timed and well placed arrow would end his race. “Yes, my liege.”

Xena grasped his shoulder in a tight hold and ducked her head to meet his gaze directly. “When we return to Greece victorious, I will personally give you a laurel of gold.”

The fear in his eyes fled in the presence of her confidence. “I will be honored, my liege. I will not fail you.”

“Your comrades and I are counting on that. Go now!” The young man took off running without a glance behind him. To the other soldiers remaining, she let her ice blue gaze drift over them. “Tell me, how many Roman soldiers equal one Greek?”

A sergeant in her Royal Guard spat on a rock, the sound loud in the silence. “Ten Romans aren’t worth even one of us, my liege.”

“The rest of you men agree with that?” A chorus of assent greeted her ears. “Good. Then this will be an easy battle.” She gestured to where the second Roman force could now clearly be seen approaching. “Seems Caesar knows we are here. So we will go down and stop his battle dogs. Agnon, your squadron is with me. Mentecles and Graphon, you will be right and left flank. Let no one escape. Charis and her troops will stop the convoy. And we will celebrate the total defeat of Caesar and his men.” At the end of her speech, the Conqueror drew her sword, the metal singing as it was set from its leather confines.

Soon the air around her was filled with a chorus of metal being released into the open air, accompanied by bursts of light as the sun struck the metal. Gesturing with her sword, the Conqueror divided the troops and began her descent to meet those who would oppose her.

Within her veins, the blood rushed wildly, bringing warmth to extremities. Her fingers felt alive with the battle, grasping on the sword with confidence born of many victories The pommel seemed a mere extension of her hand, as if flesh and metal were molded together in her mother’s womb. It had always been so for the Conqueror. Never had she dropped her weapon, never had it left her hands involuntarily. No man had ever beaten her in a fight, and she knew none ever would. It was her destiny to rule Greece, to rule Rome, to rule every place she set her heart and mind to rule. There was nothing that could deny her the vision she had. There was no one who would ever deny her dreams. Caesar had tried before. And all he had accomplished was to give life to a more dangerous opponent, a woman whose will had been forged much like the spikes that had been driven through her cross. The cross that had been intended to signify her death, had instead signified her birth. She was pure will, as Lao Ma had rightly acknowledged.

Leading her men into battle she knew that it would take all her will to win the day. Her men were scattered, unable to support one another. Her original plan of drawing Caesar tightly into a deadly embrace was foiled. She was forced to expand her men in order to meet his challenge.

When she was a hundred paces away from the first attack wave, she paused atop a small rise and raised her sword high above her head. Standing still in the sunlight she saw the array before her. Experience would have taught a lesser general to falter, because she could now see what had been hidden from view during her descent from the pass: another hundred Roman troops in reserve. Their commander had skillfully drawn her out. Had she known it would be two hundred men to her sixty, she would have chosen to descend into the Pass, sealing it off and waiting to strike the arms convoy as it moved closer to Syria.

She could feel fear rising in the men behind her. Without a backward glance, she swung her sword in a tight arc above her head. “Pick your ten men and teach them what a Greek soldier can do when challenged.” With a cry, she launched herself forward and ran into the embrace of the battle. Her men shouted and rushed forward as well.

The Conqueror knew that her first kill was important in any battle. As she raced toward the fray, she chose her victim: the most prominent of the front line soldiers. The Roman stood a head taller than his comrades and he wore a cape of scarlet. Xena was disappointed because it would make it harder for his peers to see his lifeblood poured out on it. To effectively make her point she would have to decapitate him, she decided, then there would be no mistaking her presence among them.

Focused solely on her intended victim, the Conqueror moved with assurance over the landscape. Other Romans were angling towards her, but she paid none of them any attention. If they made it within her striking distance, they would be as dead as the soldier who wore the scarlet cape.

It was her sword against his that brought in the sounds of the battle. Delivering a series of high strikes, intending to throw him off balance, she bore down on him using her advantage of fighting slightly downhill. He moved quickly and blocked the blows, but had to take a short step backward to do so. This step cost him good position and the Conqueror exploited it by kicking him squarely in the knee. They both heard the crunch of the bone underneath the leg armor. His knee buckled, unable to support any weight, and as he collapsed, Xena made a reverse sweep with her sword and severed his head cleanly.

Warm blood cascaded onto her thighs and boots, some of the sticky fluid flowing down her legs underneath her own leg armor. She bent down and grabbed the helmet still secured underneath the chin of its newly dead owner. Hefting up the remains, causing more blood to spill out and trace paths down her left arm, she hurled the severed member into the next line of advancing Romans.

Once again, she chose her next victim. Ahead was a woman bearing ritual scarring which signified her as an Amazon from Northern Greece. Xena felt her blood boil at the thought of any Greek raising arms against her. That she was an Amazon and fighting under Caesar’s banner only made her angrier.

The woman felt the Conqueror’s attention. This was the moment she had awaited, the reason why she had allowed herself to be sold into Rome’s service. All Greece knew of the Conqueror’s hatred for Caesar. It was inevitable that one day Greek and Roman soldiers would clash. It was Amari’s desire to be the one to kill the woman who had destroyed her village.

“Artemis, preserve me!” Amari shouted and engaged the one she hated most in the world.

Xena laughed, knowing petition the gods to be a useless exercise. They aided only on a whim, never in need. If the Amazon needed Artemis to preserve her, the Amazon was standing atop her own grave.

Soon the sound of their exchange of blows joined with those around them. Xena’s heightened senses could tell that her men were suffering loss, as most were outnumbered four to one on the field. Many of the Romans were simply surrounding one of her men and taking him down, then advancing on to the next soldier. Those of her men who were surviving were members of her Royal Guard, who had been trained to fight back-to-back and shoulder-to-shoulder with their squadron. It was the Macedonian contingent who were being killed swiftly on the field. She made a mental note to make sure Charis taught them proper fighting skills when they returned home. At least, to those who were left.

A glancing blow to her left shoulder forced her mind back solely on her opponent. Pain had always served as a reminder of the present in battle. The scars later served as a reminder of victory, and a warning to not let her attention drift.

“A Greek fighting against Greece?” Xena sneered over their crossed swords.

Amari shook her head, “A Greek fighting for Greece, finishing what Caesar started.”

“What Caesar started,” Xena countered, keeping her opponent distracted, “was rage.” With a flick of her left wrist, Xena tossed a dagger into the woman’s throat.

Grasping at the weapon, the Amazon created a larger wound as she tore the dagger from her flesh. She fell to the ground, clutching her neck, coughing out blood and she tried to spit out words of hatred.

Xena moved past her, finding the next Roman who was to die.
Chapter Thirty-Four
The scene that was laid before Gabrielle’s eyes staggered her. The Conqueror’s troops were divided and being swarmed by the Romans. There were two battle sites, one on the road and one in the southwestern plain. Neither looked good for the Conqueror’s troops, many of her soldiers had fallen.

On the plain, the Conqueror and a small band of her men had retreated partially up the hillside. The Romans were going among the wounded on the field and carrying the Romans downhill to their healers. It was obvious the battle would resume as soon as this task was complete.

On the road, the battle continued. Both armies had archers up on the canyon walls, making it difficult for hand-to-hand combat. A few skirmishes could be seen, but were soon broken apart by arrows. More Greeks than Romans littered the path and Gabrielle’s heart hurt for the men and women she had been traveling with.

Gabrielle turned to Palaemon. “How can we help her?”

The Captain considered the one hundred twenty Amazon warriors with them. “We’ll start by taking out the Roman rear guard. Then we’ll divide and give support to the two forces.” He looked at Eponin for her acceptance of this plan. She gave a brief nod. “That’s what we’ll do then.”

As the Amazons began to march toward the battlefield, Gabrielle grabbed hold of Eponin’s upper arm, pulling the commander to a halt. “Do they understand that they are not to harm the Conqueror? That we are here to help her?”

“My Queen,” Eponin responded and she gestured to the women filing around them, “these are trained and honorable warriors. If their Queen gives them a command, they will obey it, on pain of death. She will not be harmed, because you are protecting her.”

Gabrielle nodded, “Okay then, as long as they know that.” Without further discussion, the new Queen fell into step with her troops.

****

Xena moved among the eighteen of her men who were still fit for battle. Each bore the physical testaments of a hard day of fighting. She tried not to think of the betrayal which had caused this loss of her men, it would only disrupt her focus. Seeing that the Romans were almost finished clearing the field, she stood in the midst of her soldiers and wiped the blood off her blade as best she could.

“Well, the fewer the soldiers, the greater the share of honor for each of us.” With a backward sweep of her sword, she indicated the field. “We will all bear the marks of today’s battle. And we will proudly display those scars when we are old and telling tales for our children.” She met each of their eyes, willing her confidence into them. Today is not my day to die, I know it. Today is my day for something great. “Your children will know the names of those who fought here today. The story of our victory will be told to our children and to their children, and we shall be remembered. We few shall be remembered. The soldiers who are not with us today will be envious of our glory and they will curse the gods they were not here by our side. Yet we wouldn’t want to share this victory with them. For what type of victory would an overwhelming force be? But today you can stand and take your place in the hall of heroes. Today you can prove you were a soldier born. Today you can earn the right to be called a Friend of Greece, a friend of mine, a soldier with rights and privileges born of sweat and blood. My mother’s sons are all dead. But you can be my brothers when you fight beside me to victory.”

“Victory!” Agnon shouted, jumping to his feet, alive with new energy.

“For the Conqueror!” Mentecles proclaimed.

“Glory!” Graphon exclaimed, swinging his blade through the air, cutting down imaginary Romans.

“Death to Rome!” Xena commanded as she led their renewed attack on the Roman forces.

Palaemon and Eponin advanced side by side through the ranks of men opposing them. Their fighting styles lent themselves to an easy teamwork – Eponin was wild and fierce, always looking for her next conquest; Palaemon was methodical and determined, finding the corridor through the battle to the other side.

The rest of the Amazons threw themselves into the fray with abandon. They seemed to forget it was the Destroyer of Nations they were aiding. Instead, they were caught up in the bloodlust. The Amazon warriors had been inactive for far too long a time. The threat to the Nation was minimal in Ephesus, the site of Artemis’ temple. During the time of peace, Terreis had prepared them for war. This was the first true test of their preparedness, they would not shame her memory.

Quickly the rear guard of the Romans was destroyed, the soldiers not expecting an attack, believing their only enemy to be engaged. Their arrogance proved to be their downfall, as each member of the squadron lay bloodied on the field.

The Amazon war party moved forward and split, with half the warriors going down to the plain, the other half going up the path to the Sepian Pass. Eponin led the downward charge, sensing that the battle was fiercest there. She had vowed as commander of the Amazon army to never send one of her sisters into a battle she was afraid to fight.

Hearing the cries up along the path, Xena’s gaze shifted in that direction. It was then she saw the Amazons arrayed around her, half marching on her forces near the Pass, the other half coming down to engage her.

Bending down she wrenched a spear from a dead Roman’s hands and prepared to launch it into the lead Amazon approaching her men. She knew it was always to her advantage to draw first blood and claim supremacy from the beginning. She cocked her arm back and balanced the spear carefully, taking aim. Just as she was about to release it, she spotted Palaemon’s figure among the Amazons.

Palaemon saw the Conqueror at the same moment and knew instantly what her plan was. He knew that it would very likely mean a revolt of the Amazons against their new Queen if the object of their help starting killing one of them. Quickly, he raised his left fist to his chest, hit it twice, and then pointed to the Conqueror. It was an old signal in the Royal Guard and signified allegiance to the Conqueror. He prayed that Xena would trust him.

His actions caused the Conqueror to pause. Keeping aim on the forward Amazon she waited to see who the woman would cross the field to engage. If she had even the slightest motion toward her men, she would be spitted.

Eponin could feel the energy of the battle flowing into her. Her strong legs propelled her quickly down into the plain and ever closer to the Roman forces. The Conqueror had less than a score of men still fighting, the others dead or wounded. But I’m about to even the odds, Eponin gloated as she let loose a primal scream and ran toward the first Roman unlucky enough to be in her path. He had no hope of countering her overwhelming attack, and was soon lying on the battlefield, his hands briefly and desperately trying to put his insides back where they belonged.

Suddenly, she felt the air move beside her arm and then heard the sound of splitting flesh as a spear impaled a Roman who had come up behind her. Glancing across the field, she saw the Destroyer lift her sword in salute. Eponin knew it was the general’s way of welcoming the Amazons as allies in the battle, although she hated being in debt to the ruler. In response, she raised her own sword, then plunged it into the next on-coming Roman. It looked to be a good day for fighting.

****

Atop the hillside, Clymera was barely able to restrain Gabrielle from going down to the battlefield. “My Queen, we need to remain here. The Nation derives strength from being able to see its Queen.”

“They should see me down there,” Gabrielle growled, her eyes constantly tracking the movements of the Conqueror.

“My Queen,” Clymera said gently, putting a slim arm around the younger woman’s shoulders, “you are not a warrior. What good would it do you, or us, if you went down there? Stand here; acknowledge your warriors, decide whom to give special honor to at the victory celebration tonight, and be an Amazon leader. In time, we can teach you to be a warrior. But not today.”

“She must live,” Gabrielle whispered.

“My Queen, I have seen her in battle before, there is none her equal.” The priestess’ voice wavered with emotion, her mind providing images of the last time she had seen Xena in combat, her bondmate’s blood fresh on her sword.

Green eyes fixed on the priestess. “Do you hate me for having the Amazons help her? You saw her in battle when she fought against you, right?”

The priestess nodded gravely. “I did. I watched her destroy several of our villages. We retreated from our northern lands only to find her attacking our western villages. Then we barely made it to our eastern villages and across the Aegean to Ephesus before she killed us all. My bondmate was badly injured in the last battle. She never healed correctly. Xena killed her, it just took a little while.”

“I’m so sorry.”

Clymera nodded and patted Gabrielle’s hand gently. “I have learned that to hate is to do more damage to myself than the person I hate. I will not dishonor Kalia’s memory in such a way. I still hope that she will be the one to welcome me to Elysia. But, I will admit that the visions of you defeating her did not make me unhappy.”

“It’s only natural, Clymera. I won’t defeat her, though. I don’t even want to try.” Gabrielle let her gaze wander down to the Conqueror. She watched in silence as Xena defended herself against two Roman officers.

“Wars are sometimes won without weapons,” Clymera whispered.

****

With the help of the Amazons, the Romans were losing on the plain. The Romans favored the short sword, designed to pierce through gaps in armor more easily. The Amazons shunned armor of most kind, so they fought mostly with the longsword, staves and spears. This advantage translated into few Amazons being injured on the battlefield and Romans falling by the dozen.

When she saw that the plain conflict was in hand, Xena sheathed her sword and began running up the path where that conflict still raged. Her muscles burned with exhaustion, but she knew she must battle on and be with her soldiers. Apollo had past his midpoint in the sky giving her hope that the fight might soon be over.

She scrambled up the mountainside and threw herself down by one of her officers. She assessed the situation quickly. The Romans had used the physical space to their best advantage, using the wagons as cover, and their content as an unlimited supply of arrows and weapons. They were safe from an overhead attack, the shields of the soldiers turned up into a canopy. The only option was a full-frontal assault. One that would result in many Greek and Amazon deaths. Otherwise, it was a stand-off. Xena’s men kept them in place from their vantage point on the precipice. The Amazons had cordoned off the path.

“Where’s Charis?” she asked as her breathing returned to normal.

The officer dipped his head and pointed into the pass below them. There on the ground was sprawled Charis’ body. “My liege, she went down to clear out a path for us.”

Xena saw the arrows which impaled the body below and blew out a breath of frustration. If only I had had Palaemon with me earlier. If only I hadn’t listened to Cefan and tried to kill him. And Gabrielle. Gabrielle. Suddenly, it occurred to Xena that if the Amazons and Palaemon were here, then Gabrielle must be as well. Carefully, she scanned the hillside until she spotted the fair-haired figure. She hardly recognized the young woman as she was dressed in the ceremonial outfit of the queen of the Amazons. She’s breathtaking. And she’s staring right at me. Yeah, right; gods, Xena, get a grip. You can’t really tell where she’s looking. Yet the intuitive part of her brain knew she was the object of the young Queen’s attention. And it made her want to end the battle all the sooner.

The part that Xena had always associated within herself with Ares suddenly sprang to life. The weariness that had been present moments before vanished and was replaced by a relentless energy, an energy that required Roman blood to survive. She turned to the officer beside her and grabbed a handful of his leathers. “I’m going down and opening that path right now. Ready the men to follow me.”

The man looked at her with profound relief. “Yes, my liege.” He scrambled off to rally the men.

“Caesar, you will never defeat me again.” Stepping back four paces from the edge, Xena ran the short distance and executed a series of flips as she plummeted to the path some several bodylengths below. Her legs bending to absorb the shock, she pushed off the soles of her feet and began sprinting for the nearest wagon, moving in a criss-cross pattern. As arrows began flying towards her, she drew her sword and sliced them easily, never breaking her focus on her target.

Two bodylengths away, she threw her body into the air and willed herself higher and higher, up over the wagon and crashing down through the shields arrayed to provide protection from airborne assault. The structure collapsed under her and she clambered over the metal and back onto the path. Once she was out of the way, her archers above began raining arrows down on the exposed Roman soldiers. The first wagon was defeated in short order.

Xena continued down the path toward the second wagon, but stopped in amusement as she watched a small Amazon curl up into a ball and drop herself on the shields much as she had just done. Once the warrior had broken through, another dozen Amazons descended, overwhelming the Romans.

Her soldiers, emboldened by her solitary assault, rushed along the path and attacked the two remaining wagons. Soon, all Xena could hear was the sound of her soldier’s weapons meeting no resistance as they sliced through Roman armor.

Wandering over to one of the wagons, the Conqueror wiped her sword off with a remnant of the cover, then let her blade slide safely into its sheath. She jogged back up the road until she arrived by Charis. Kneeling beside her officer, she noted the rise and fall of Charis’ chest.

“I need a healer!” Xena barked at a nearby soldier. “Bring me a healer immediately!” Then she turned back to the young leader and ran a hand through the woman’s hair. “Just hold on, Charis, we’re gonna get you some help.”

Responding to the voice and touch, the officer opened her eyes and met the Conqueror’s gaze. “Is the day ours?”

“The day is ours. And you will live, hear me? These scars will prove you fought in Ephesus, and made Caesar look foolish.” It was true, as long as Charis had not lost too much blood, the arrows had not pierced through any vital areas.

“Thank you, my liege.”

The soldier returned pulling an angry Amazon with him. “This is a healer, my liege.”

The Conqueror rose from beside her fallen officer, “See that she lives. She’s a good soldier, I should have all of them so brave.”

Aria scowled, but bent down to do her work.

Xena began walking among her troops, taking account of who lived, who was injured and who had fallen. When she came upon the body of the young runner, she stopped and picked him up in her arms. Cradling the lifeless form, she carried him to where the bodies of the fallen Greeks were being gathered. To the soldier who was taking note of the dead soldiers’ names, Xena gestured. “Do you know his name?”

The soldier nodded, “He was Salorer, my liege.”

“Make note that his family is to receive a laurel of gold.” She watched as the soldier inscribed her order on his notes. “Who else did I lose?”

While he recited the names of the fallen, Xena stared at the bodies lying at her feet. Several she could not have identified, the bodies mangled by sharp metal. To those she recognized, she vowed to kill their betrayer. Someone had told Caesar’s men of her plot and caused over one hundred thirty of her men to die. All would have been lost, perhaps even herself, if Gabrielle and her Amazons not appeared.

Gabrielle. At least it wasn’t Gabrielle.

“Conqueror, we have the leader of the Romans!” Palaemon shouted as he roughly handled his prisoner, pushing him down on his knees before the Greek ruler. Brutus struggled against his bonds and tried to rise to his feet, but Palaemon’s strong hand on his shoulder prevented any such movement.

Xena’s eyes grew dark as she stalked over to the man and surveyed him. He was small and curly-headed, two things she never liked in a man. The fact that he was Roman and a confidant of Caesar’s made it all the worse. His robes, crimson and gold, were tattered and soiled from the battle, and his armor did not have the luster she suspected he maintained it at. Bending on one knee she captured his eyes. “Who?”

He didn’t need to inquire as to what she meant. She wanted the name of the one who had betrayed her. Brutus decided it would be better to spend an eternity in Tartarus than to give her this satisfaction, so he said nothing.

“You’re Brutus, aren’t you?” she asked, continuing her survey of the man, deciding on her approach. “I’ve heard of you. You’re Caesar’s pet. His lap dog. You go when he says ‘go,’ come if he says ‘come.’ Does he tell you when you can relieve yourself?”

The dark eyes staring at her became darker still, suffused with hatred.

“I’d never treat my second that way.” Xena rose to her full height and looked directly at Palaemon. “I’d honor a man who could think and would be willing to take a stand for what he believed in.”

At this, Brutus snorted. “You’d tolerate treason? I think not.”

“Never. But I do want someone who will give me honest advice, even if I don’t want to hear it.” Xena shrugged dramatically, “However, that is a role that must be earned from prior faithful service. Such a privilege, to speak to Greece, cannot be given lightly. I’m sure Caesar feels the same.”

“I have Caesar’s ear.”

Xena chuckled, “I would like to have it as well. On my wall.”

“He will destroy you, despite this minor setback. I am sure of it.”

“And what if he does?” Pleased that Brutus’ pride was at record levels, she started with her next line of argument. “Where would that leave Rome?”

“Supreme.”

“No, Rome would not be supreme; Caesar would be. Or don’t you see that?” Xena bent down behind him, her voice and breath coming over his shoulder, tickling his ear. “If Caesar defeats me, Caesar will be invincible. Ask yourself if that is a good thing. What has he done for Rome as ruler? He has brought you to foreign soil where you wage wars. Why? To increase his glory. He had conscripted most of your young men into the army. Why? To fight those wars that increase his glory. He has instituted harsh new taxes. Why? To pay for those soldiers who fight the wars that increase his glory. It’s all about Caesar. He cares nothing for Rome except for how it serves him.” When she did not hear any objections from Brutus, she smiled and stalked around to his front. “Now, tell me, who told you of my plans for today?”

“No.”

The Conqueror’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I will ask that question a total of ten times, do you understand me?” Nodding to Palaemon, her Captain grabbed the ropes binding the Roman’s hands and lifted them up before her.

Moving slowly so that the Roman would realize all that she intended to do to him, she removed her breast dagger. She stared at the blade, covered with blood and gore as she knew she was, and twisted it in the sunlight, studying its length. Xena reached out and grabbed hold of his index finger and put the blade to its base. The cool metal rested there momentarily, letting him know he could stop its movement at any time by giving her the answer she desired.

“Who?” Silence met her and she shrugged, “Well, it’s not my sword hand.” She began pressing the blade into his skin, carving under the base of the finger to sever it.

“Ce- something!” Brutus exclaimed when she was a third of the way through his finger, the pain agonizing as she slowly made the cut. “I can’t remember the last of it. She was Egyptian and an officer in your army.” Suddenly Brutus was quite certain it was not worth the price of his finger to withhold this information.

She wiped the blood from the blade on his cheek, a long trail of wet warmth. “Caesar would have left this field with no fingers, I’m glad you have more sense than him,” she whispered. Standing she spotted two of her soldiers, “Chain this man and guard him. I will deal with him later.”

As they took Brutus away, Xena extended her arm to Palaemon. “Captain, good to see you.”

Palaemon took her arm, “My liege, I await your command.”

“Secure the area, burn their dead, prepare ours for burial on Greek soil and put down any of the lame horses.” She rattled off her standard set of orders at the conclusion of a battle. “And calculate the tribute.”

“It will be done, my liege.” Palaemon bowed and set off to oversee the tasks given to him. He could feel a swagger return to his steps as he left the Conqueror’s presence as her Captain of the Royal Guard.

****

At the end of the afternoon, after seeing to all the captured Romans and taking a quick inventory of the arms, Xena began walking toward the temporary hospice. Since spotting Gabrielle during the battle, she had not seen her since. Her men had needed her, the Romans needed to be interrogated and arrangements made for the transport of the arms to her boat. She was the Conqueror and not some young poet in love, she reminded herself firmly, whenever the desire to run find the young woman threatened to overwhelm her.

Now, as Helios’ rays were bleeding over the horizon, she could deny herself Gabrielle’s gentle presence no longer. She felt the weariness of the battle deep within her, weighing her down as she walked across the field.

From under the tent, Gabrielle glanced up and saw the Conqueror walking toward her. Leaving the soldier she had been tending, she stepped out into the last of the sunlight and began moving in Xena’s direction. It was as if time stood still. She could no longer hear the sounds of the Amazon and Greek soldiers as they went about cleaning up after the conflict. She could no longer feel the terrible anxiety which had gripped her heart since the morning when she first saw the battle scene. It was as if everyone and everything had disappeared and all that continued to exist was her and Xena. She took inventory of the ruler, making sure she was well, fearful that some of the blood which coated the tanned skin came from her own veins. Gabrielle stopped in the middle of the plain and waited.

The sun’s rays painted the oracle’s body in interesting patterns. A body which was more exposed than ever before to the ruler, who was appreciative of the view. She smiled at the sight of the fair hair turned crimson in the dying light and the green eyes which matched the grass beneath her feet. Finally arriving several feet from Gabrielle, Xena did what she had never done before – she knelt before another person.

Gabrielle gasped at the sight. Her immediate thought was that the Conqueror had been injured. She took a step closer and took inventory of cuts, scrapes, bruises and massive quantities of blood. None seemed to be bad enough to drive the woman to her knees. “Are you hurt?” Gabrielle whispered, reaching a hand out to touch Xena’s hair.

At the touch, Xena shook her head. “Can you forgive me?”

“I understood why you reacted the way you did. There’s no need for forgiveness.”

Xena shook her head harder and reached out a long arm, snaking it around Gabrielle’s legs, drawing her closer. “No, for this,” she whispered as her hand trailed down the length of Gabrielle’s legs.

With the feel of Xena’s hand on her, Gabrielle shivered. “I already have, long ago.” Gently she reached down and cupped Xena’s jaw, turning her face upward. “The cross was a tree of life for me, Xena,” she spoke the Conqueror’s name for the first time. “It brought me to you.”

Xena swallowed hard and forced herself to ask her next question, “Can you love me?” A thousand battles had not prepared her for the fear she felt in uttering those words.

Gabrielle smiled tenderly, “I already do.” Her small hand caressed the Conqueror’s cheek not minding the dirt and blood.

A strangled sound emitted from the Conqueror and her arms flew around Gabrielle’s body, pulling the smaller woman close to her, burying her face in the soft skin of Gabrielle’s stomach, sighing in contentment when she felt Gabrielle’s arms close around her.

****

It could have been an eternity that they stayed in that position for all Xena knew or cared. She had a taste of the Fields in her arms, in the gentle pattern of Gabrielle’s breathing, in the softness of the skin beneath her cheek, in the hidden strength of the body pulled tightly against her. The weariness of the battle was banished from her in Gabrielle’s presence, she felt only peace.

“Come on, let’s get you looked at,” the oracle whispered, not wanting to disturb the moment, but unwilling to allow Xena to not be treated for any of her wounds.

“I’m fine,” came the muffled reply which tickled more than Gabrielle anticipated.

Gabrielle looked down at her hands which were now stained from the blood covering the Conqueror. “Then whose blood is all of this?”

“Not mine. At least, not most of it.” Xena shifted slightly, dropping her hands to the back of Gabrielle’s thighs, relishing how the younger woman’s body molded against hers.

“Thank the gods.” She rocked her hips gently, “Come on now, let’s get you looked at and then let’s go home.”

“I have a lot to do before I can leave Ephesus. Not the least of which is decide what to do with your Amazons.”

“Hmm,” the smile was evident in the tone of Gabrielle’s voice, “I figured you would start by thanking them.”

The Conqueror sat back on her heels and looked up at the young woman, “Can I just thank their Queen? Can she accept my gratitude on behalf of her Nation?” Xena allowed a smile to play at the corners of her mouth, the first one to grace her visage in days.

“Well, she could, but a certain ruler I know would never accept that offer. She would want the grateful helpee to speak to her Nation on her own behalf. Especially since that Queen cannot abide the thought that her Nation might not have the same regard for the helpee as she has.”

Xena couldn’t help it, she burst out laughing. “I have no idea what you just said. You lost me after the helpee of the first part stuff,” she managed to say between fits of laughter.

The Amazon Queen smiled indulgently, “What I said is that you should thank them personally. Is that clear enough?” She held out her hand, “Please, let’s get you looked at … and cleaned up a bit.”

The Conqueror looked over herself and took note of the bits of blood, bone, hair and assorted body parts that littered her body. It would take days before her leathers and armor would be clean enough to wear again. “I’m not very nice to look at right now, eh?”

“No, you’re beautiful to look at – you’re alive and whole, just the way I like you.”

Xena took the offered hand and pushed herself to her feet. “I plan on staying that way for a long time, Gabrielle. I promise.”

“Good,” the oracle settled her hand more securely within the Conqueror’s own. “Time to face the Nation, Conqueror.”
Chapter Thirty-Five
The throne room in the temple of Artemis was magnificent, even Xena was forced to admit. The walls were filled with paintings and tapestries of Artemis among her Nation, each telling a different part of Amazon history. Xena smirked noting that her exploits among the Amazon Nation were not depicted anywhere. History belongs to those who weave the tapestries, eh? In the four corners of the room were alabaster statues of famous Amazons of the past rendered in exquisite detail. Some of them appeared to be breathing, they were so life-like. Indeed, the one of Cyane had given the Conqueror a moment’s pause upon entering the room.

Xena was surprised to discover the Amazon Queen’s throne was made out of simple wood until she remembered that Artemis was also goddess of the woodland. It was said that Artemis eschewed ornate thrones, preferring to sit on the limbs of her favorite cypress tree. Her Queen could do no less.

The throne was unoccupied, as Gabrielle had left it to join the others at the long table in the center of the room. Xena had been glad to see her; she had been severely disappointed when the Amazon Queen had returned to the village with her soldiers after the battle. Of course, I was so exhausted it wouldn’t have really mattered, but I did miss her.

On one side sat the Amazons, on the other sat Xena and some of her soldiers. Gabrielle sat in the center of the Amazon party, with Eponin and Clymera to her left and right. Ephiny, Solari, Rana and Aria were also present, two on each side. Xena noticed when Gabrielle made sure Rana and Aria did not sit together and she wondered what had transpired between the two for Gabrielle to separate them.

Palaemon sat at the Conqueror’s right hand, opposite of Eponin. The two soldiers talked excitedly about the recent battle, each reliving their most glorious moments and the Romans they had killed. Charis should have been seated to her left hand side, but the healers would not allow her to leave her bed for several days. It made for a sullen lieutenant, but one with future prospects. The Conqueror had brought along her other top officers, enough to match the size of the Amazon contingent, but the only Amazon she cared about was seated opposite of her.

Gabrielle smiled, realizing that she and Xena had simply been staring at one another for quite some time, oblivious to the others around them. Her smile was met by its twin, which was quickly covered up by the Conqueror, who did remember they had company.

“I would like to thank Queen Gabrielle and the Amazon Nation for their assistance yesterday on the battlefield.” Was it only yesterday? It seemed like forever ago, and yet I can still feel her in my arms in our first embrace.

“We were happy to fight alongside you, Conqueror.”

“In tribute to your Nation, I would like to give you one-third of the arms captured from the Romans.”

“One-third?” Rana sputtered. “You would be dead without us. It should all be ours.”

“I’ve learned never to count the Conqueror out of any battle, no matter what the odds are,” Palaemon instantly replied, rising a bit out of his seat.

Xena said nothing and instead waited for Gabrielle to handle her subject.

She did not wait for long. “Rana, be still, or I will have you removed.” Looking carefully at the Conqueror, Gabrielle continued, “We don’t want any of the weapons.”

The Conqueror was completely unprepared for this answer. She had thought herself rather generous being willing to arm her enemy to any extent. To have them refuse made no sense whatsoever, even if it were Gabrielle leading the Nation.

“Instead,” Gabrielle countered, “we want our homelands restored to us.”

“Excuse me?” the Conqueror rumbled, displeased with what she had just heard.

“We want our homelands in Greece restored to us as tribute.”

There was a profound silence in the room as everyone awaited the Conqueror’s reply. “No.”

Gabrielle rose from her chair, “Everyone but Clymera leave us.”

Assorted grumblings were heard from the Amazons, but they did as they were told. The Conqueror’s men remained seated, unwilling to take orders from a foreign leader. Xena waited thirty heartbeats before she gave her order, “Palaemon, stay; the rest, leave.” Soon the heavy doors to the throne room closed, the echo of their impact trapped inside with the four occupants.

“This is the only solution, Xena,” Gabrielle said softly.

“I cannot give up land I captured from these women, Gabrielle. They are dangerous to me, to Greece.” The Conqueror rose from her seat and began pacing on the thick bearskin rug. “Can’t you tell that these women hate me? They would each gladly slit my throat and drink my blood. To give them a foothold in Greece would be suicide.”

“You are not their favorite ruler in the world, that is true. But, this is in your best interests, or I would not have proposed it.”

“Nonsense.”

Gabrielle rose from her seat and began walking around the table to be beside Xena, wanting to close both the physical and emotional space between them. “No, I am your oracle of truth, remember? I promised to never speak a falsehood to you, and I intend to keep that promise. This is best for you.”

“Keeping an enemy in my backyard?” Xena snorted derisively. “Next you will tell me to move my capital to Rome.”

Seeing that the conversation was heading in the wrong direction, Gabrielle reached out and took hold of Xena’s hand, “Please, let me explain my reasoning.” She waited until the Conqueror’s eyes met hers. “The Amazons are not your enemy because I am Queen of the Amazons and I could never be your enemy.”

“Then why bring the Amazons back to Greece?”

“Your dreams go farther than just Greece’s borders. You have an alliance with Chin. You wish to conquer Rome. And there are other new lands yet to be discovered. That’s a lot of territory to govern, especially when there is only one of you. You will need allies. In order to gain allies, you must prove you can have them.”

“The Amazons as my allies?”

“Yes. Restore their traditional lands and they will provide protection to your citizens near them. One out of every ten Amazon warriors will serve in your Royal Guard. And there will always be a standing delegation in your court.”

“Standing delegation? Why?”

Gabrielle blushed and glanced down, “Well, I had thought I would be there.”

Xena reached out and cupped Gabrielle’s cheek, “I would not have you anywhere else, Gabrielle.” The Conqueror could resist no longer. It did not matter that Clymera and Palaemon were still in the room, or that they were in Artemis’ temple in the Queen’s throne room. All that mattered was that Gabrielle’s lips were too close to be ignored any longer. Pulling her oracle tight against her, Xena pressed her lips to Gabrielle’s, taking in the softness and taste of them.

The sudden movement was unexpected, but welcome. Gabrielle settled herself even more securely in Xena’s arms, her own arms sliding up and around the Conqueror’s neck. Afraid Xena might let go or back away, she gave the Conqueror incentive to stay, by opening her mouth and bidding the ruler welcome.

Xena accepted the invitation, her sigh captured in Gabrielle’s mouth. She kept her eyes open to observe Gabrielle’s reaction, watching her slowly close her mist green eyes and lose herself in sensation, before closing her own eyes. She brought her hand back up to Gabrielle’s cheek and traced the soft skin, eventually tangling her hand in the red-gold hair. Xena took her time exploring her oracle’s mouth, carefully mapping out its contours so she would be able to navigate her future return.

Unwilling to allow the Conqueror all the joy of discovery, Gabrielle pushed her way into the Conqueror’s mouth until she could no longer survive without breathing. Gabrielle broke off but moved away only enough to allow air to pass between their lips. Not content to be without her new intoxicant, the Amazon Queen placed tiny kisses around the edges of Xena’s lips.

Those same lips curled upward and the Conqueror’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “I think we have found the way for you to win every argument,” she murmured around Gabrielle’s efforts.

“As you know from experience,” the oracle countered, “I can talk for a long time without getting tired.”

“Well, I typically prefer this type of discussion to be more of a … private … nature.”

The younger woman went immediately still and blood suffused her features. “Oh gods,” she whispered, pressing herself into the Conqueror’s length, trying to hide from the on-looking eyes.

The Conqueror stared intently at Clymera and Palaemon daring them to say anything that might make Gabrielle more self-conscious than she already was. “It’s all right, Gabrielle. We just negotiated a peace treaty and had to seal the agreement in some fashion.”

“Oh gods,” came again, muffled.

Xena chuckled and ducked her lips down beside Gabrielle’s ear. “If it makes you feel any better, both Palaemon and Clymera appear to approve. They’re smiling at least.” Unable to resist, she kissed the ear, then whispered so that only Gabrielle could hear her. “You responded with your whole heart, as you always do, it is nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, it is a trait of yours I have come to appreciate and rely on.”

“You do?” Gabrielle leaned away from the Conqueror so as to study the ruler, to see if sincerity were written on her features.

A warm fingertip pressed itself against Gabrielle’s lips. “I count on these to always speak truth to me. I hope they do so in every way.”

Those lips kissed the fingertip on them. “They do.”

“Good. Then let’s break the news to our people and go someplace where we can speak in private. I think you will make a conversationalist out of me yet.”
Chapter Thirty-Six
The Amazon council and the Conqueror’s officers returned to find smiling rulers. Each member of their respective parties was surprised to see that what they had thought to be an irreconcilable difference had been set aside so quickly. Palaemon and Clymera were talking in a corner, obviously hashing out the details of some agreement, while the Queen and the Conqueror sat at the table together. Eponin noted how close they sat to one another and smiled.

“Ephiny, could you come here, please?” Clymera called out to the widowed Amazon.

The curly-haired woman gave a surprised look to the priestess, but immediately walked over and joined them.

Gabrielle refrained from touching the Conqueror, despite her near overwhelming desire to do so. It took all her self control to not laugh out loud and clap her hands. She felt younger than her years, certainly younger than her experiences, and far too young to be leading a nation of warriors. She wondered if Artemis saw the irony of her Queen loving the Nation’s worst enemy; or if, perhaps, it had been Artemis’ plan all along. That thought scared her. She hated even the idea that she and Xena were part of some plot among the gods, a way for Artemis to strike back at Ares. For Xena certainly did belong to the god of war. Gabrielle had witnessed that much on the battlefield. She had been terrified while standing atop the hillside watching the battle, trying to locate the Conqueror amidst the fighting, and feeling her heart stop each time she did. Gabrielle hadn’t been prepared for the brutality of the conflict. Petty warlords and slave traders in Greece were one thing; three opposing armies on the field of war were quite another.

She had been surprised, as well, by the ferocity of the Amazons. Cefan and Charis were trained soldiers, but they were in the minority of the Conqueror’s Royal Guard. Gabrielle had looked at them not quite as an aberration but certainly as a departure from the norm – much like the Conqueror herself. To be leading a nation filled with women warriors was a shock to her. She hoped she would be able to do justice by these women who had embraced her, however reluctantly.

What did the Conqueror see in her? How could someone so driven by the need to rule love someone who had never sought out that type of responsibility? Had she said so in order to gain sway over the Amazon Nation? Gabrielle shook that thought roughly from out of her head. It didn’t make any sense. The Conqueror hated the Amazons and would prefer to not have them in Greece. Be confident, Gabrielle, now is not the time to be insecure. Not while sitting in your throne room and about to announce an alliance. Not while sitting next to the most confident woman in the world. Even Cleopatra must pale in comparison. I wonder if Xena knows her.

“What are you thinking about?” the Conqueror whispered, startling the fair haired Queen.

It reminded her of the moment on the boat when the Conqueror had asked her the same question. Just as she didn’t want to admit to wondering if fish drowned, she didn’t want to admit to wondering about other women rulers the Conqueror might or might not know. Instead, she chose a somewhat less embarrassing response, one she thought the Conqueror might favor. “You.”

“Really?” Xena replied, crossing a long leg and leaning forward. “What a coincidence.”

Both of these movements caused Gabrielle’s mouth to go suddenly dry. Recovering quickly, she smiled slowly, “Oh, you were thinking about yourself as well?”

Pleased beyond measure at her oracle’s response, the Conqueror laughed gently. “Come now, do you take me for the egoist everyone else in Greece does?”

The words were asked teasingly, but Gabrielle had the impression it was not asked so lightly. The Conqueror lived in a world where she was feared and reviled, but rarely admired, and Gabrielle suspected, ever loved. Even three months ago, Gabrielle knew that she herself had said more than a few harsh words against the ruler. Of course, it seemed justifiable at that moment, especially with the cruelties that were enacted upon the populace. Cruelties that she knew might never be undone, or altogether stopped, though she would use her newfound influence to the best of her ability. For the Conqueror was part wild, she was sure of it. Indeed, Gabrielle wondered if Xena had a mother or if she had merely sprouted somewhere, perhaps an off-shoot of an oak tree, or born in a jaguar’s litter. Gabrielle knew one can never quite tame nature, only perhaps bend its will slightly.

“Well?” Xena asked after what she felt was too long a silence.

Snapped out of her musings, Gabrielle reached out and took hold of Xena’s hand, no longer able to restrain herself. “I take you as you are.”

“And what is that?”

“Mine, I hope.”

The Conqueror smiled again and squeezed the smaller hand wrapped inside hers. “Now who’s the egoist?”

Gabrielle felt a sense of triumph for Xena had not refuted her claim.

Palaemon approached and bowed to the Conqueror, and Gabrielle realized with a start, to her as well. “My liege, all is ready.”

“Showtime,” Xena murmured, “you’re on, Gabrielle.”

The Amazon Queen rose and walked up to the dais where she could be easily seen vested in her power. Briefly she met Clymera’s eyes, making sure the priestess felt as certain about the arrangements as Palaemon had. Seeing the old woman’s subtle nod, she cleared her throat. “I am pleased to announce that the Amazon Nation has been able to come to terms with Xena, the Conqueror of Greece. In exchange for the return of all traditional Amazon lands, hunting rights and political autonomy, the Nation will send a permanent delegation to the Conqueror’s court, provide service in the Conqueror’s Royal Guard, and protect the neighboring villages of the traditional lands. The Nation will not be subject to any taxes or other tribute requirements as long as it continues to live by terms of the agreement.”

Eponin blew out a long breath, surprised at the concessions Queen Gabrielle had been able to obtain. “Not bad,” she whispered to Solari, who was standing beside her.

“Do you think it’s a trap?” the dark haired warrior replied reasonably. “It seems a sudden change of heart for the woman who once vowed to kill every Amazon personally, including Artemis.”

Broad shoulders lifted and dropped, “Stranger things have happened, Soli.”

Solari snorted a little laugh, “You still can’t believe Marte turned you down last night, can you? Your standard line of giving comfort and a reason to fight to a key warrior didn’t work. You must be slipping.” It felt good to Solari to tease the most successful womanizer in all the Amazon Nation. It was the first time she had ever seen Eponin’s advances turned down.

“How would you know?” Eponin hissed back.

A sly smile and a wink were all of Solari’s response.

“We will definitely be talking later,” Eponin whispered before being surprised hearing her name come from Gabrielle’s lips.

“… will be head of my delegation in the Conqueror’s court. Overseeing the relocation and administration of the Nation on a day-to-day basis will be Ephiny, whom I am hereby appointing as Regent to the Nation.”

“Hades, what did she just say?” the commander muttered. “I’m going to the Conqueror’s court?”

“Well, think of it as a land of new opportunities. Besides, you weren’t doing too well here.”

“I’ll make you eat your feathered mask, Soli. Just wait and see.”

“Promises, promises.”

****

Several candlemarks later, the Conqueror and Gabrielle descended into the holding cells beneath the temple. Several paces behind them were Palaemon and Eponin, the latter quickly becoming accustomed to her role as the Queen’s protector. It would be an interesting opportunity, she reasoned, to watch the inner-workings of the Conqueror’s court.

Outside the cell containing Brutus, Gabrielle motioned for Eponin to unlock the small chamber and allow her entry. Xena slipped in behind her before she could utter protest, her size and demeanor clearly signaling Brutus to not attempt any act of aggression toward the young woman.

“Commander Brutus, I am Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons.”

The wiry soldier folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the cell wall, clearly unimpressed. “Is this an official state visit? If so, forgive me for being so underdressed.”

“You will be free to return to Rome by the next quarter moon, as well as your men.”

“Those who are still alive, you mean,” Brutus complained bitterly.

Gabrielle nodded, “An unfortunate situation. Our healers are overseeing the recovery of your wounded men. The rest are being held at a nearby location. Your boats are still sea worthy, although I would suggest you steer clear of armed conflict on the voyage home, as you will be unarmed.”

“The Amazon Queen is most generous after joining in an ambush against Rome.”

“The Nation is most generous to an honorable soldier in service to a corrupt government.”

This, Brutus found particularly amusing. “Oh, and your aiding the Destroyer of Nations is less corrupt than Caesar’s lawful rule of Rome?”

“I believe it is. As you can see, the Conqueror did not destroy the Amazon Nation. In fact, we announce today our alliance and return to our homeland in Greece.” She noted the genuine shock on Brutus’ face. “How many former enemies would Caesar allow to appear in his court, Brutus? Indeed, how many former friends would he allow? Those who are still alive, that is.” Gabrielle let the silence to be its own answer. “Beware unchecked ambition, Brutus. What seems good for Rome’s survival now may ultimately lead to her downfall. Even the Conqueror has some who speak absolute truth to her.”

The Roman said nothing in reply, although Gabrielle did not expect one. She merely hoped to water the seeds of doubt that she knew the Conqueror had planted in Brutus the day before. She hoped he would make a future journey to Rome unnecessary.
Chapter Thirty-Seven
“Oh mighty warrioress,” Salmoneus called out, wandering around his estate in search of the Conqueror, “it’s me, Salmoneus.”

Gabrielle’s head popped out of the room she had been given while staying there, “Hi! Welcome back! Come on in,” she offered, pleased to see their host. She realized she liked anyone who treated the Conqueror as a human being and not a monster.

“Gabrielle! Good to see you!” He moved as quickly as he could down the hallway and into the room, only to stare in shock at the four Amazons standing around the room. His eyes lingered on various exposed and not-quite-concealed body parts, his smile growing wide. “And who are your new friends?”

Eponin stood and crossed her arms over her chest, making her biceps bulge and displaying her muscled stomach. “My Queen, shall I help him kneel?”

“Queen?” Salmoneus squawked, looking around in confusion, trying to figure out who this intimidating warrior was talking to.

“It’s all right, he’s a friend.”

His eyes tracked to the fair haired woman who answered, his mouth agape. “You’re the Amazon Queen?” A nod was his answer. He turned on his heel and slammed the bedroom door shut. “Does Xena know?”

“Do I know what?” a low voice rumbled behind him exactly where he thought a closed door ought to be.

“Oh great Zeus!” He turned around plaintively, “How do you do that?”

A smirk met his question, “Practice. Now, what do I need to know?”

“She’s …” he pointed weakly at the Amazons scattered about the room, helpless to form coherent words.

“Queen of the Amazon Nation?”

A huge smile of relief crowded Salmoneus’ face. “Whew! You knew!” He almost reached out and touched her arm, but caught himself at the last moment and directed his attention to his own robe, picking at imaginary lint. “She knew,” he directed to Gabrielle unnecessarily. “So, you’re leaving already?”

“Time to return to Greece. I’m sure I’ve been missed in Corinth,” sarcasm filled Xena’s tone.

“It has been a distinct honor and pleasure to have you here, o mighty Conqueroress. And your … Queenship.”

Gabrielle laughed softly, “It has been wonderful meeting you, Salmoneus. I hope you come visit us soon.” She walked over and placed a small kiss on his cheek.

“Us?” The small man was bewildered once more. He glanced over at the Conqueror for clarification, “You are both going back to Corinth? Together?”

Xena did not respond verbally, she merely settled a cold stare over the salesman.

“Why, Warrioress, I didn’t know you made such … alliances.” His gaze shifted between the Conqueror and the Queen, noting the light dusting of a blush on the younger woman’s cheeks.

“Goodbye, Salmoneus,” the Conqueror said with some finality. She was grateful beyond measure he was not wanting to return to Greece with them. A week’s journey with the man would be too much for her admittedly limited patience.

“Ah, yes, all good things must come to an end, I suppose.” He turned and leaned close to Gabrielle. “I’ll make sure a few of those plates are tucked into your luggage before you leave.”

The oracle fought to keep the grin from her face, lest the Conqueror know what they were whispering about. “I thought Cefan broke them all.”

“A good salesman never keeps all his stock in one place, Gabrielle.” Backing away from the Queen, he gave the guard nearest her a frank look of admiration. “Say, do you work out?”

Eponin scowled, “What?”

“You have really powerful looking arms, and that stomach, well, I could scrub clothes on it. What’s your secret? Do you have a specific routine?” Already Salmoneus was counting up the profits on his “Amazon Diet and Workout Plan” parchment.

“I kill people.”

The sound of accumulating dinars stopped. “Hmm … okay, well, time for me to go! Bye, your majesties.” And he was gone.
Chapter Thirty-Eight
Gabrielle watched the men carry the spoils aboard the ship. She imagined each of the weapons bathed in blood. A part of her idly wondered if that was why the Conqueror was constantly sharpening her sword, to scrape away the reminders of lives taken. Would any of the metal remain if she were able to do so?

Thoughts of the Conqueror caused the young Amazon Queen to seek her out amidst the crowd on the docks below. It wasn’t a difficult task. The ruler’s height and bearing easily identified her. Xena could wear peasant’s clothes and still be known for who she was. But exactly who is she? And who are you to dare to love her?

Coming up the gangplank, Palaemon saw Gabrielle watching the Conqueror and he marveled again at the tapestry woven by the fates. Steadying his heart, he approached the young woman and bowed slightly before her. “Queen Gabrielle.”

“Please, don’t start with me as well. It’s bad enough that I have four Amazon warriors who insist on following me around at all times.”

“Speaking of them, where are they?”

She gestured with her right hand indicating an area a little further down the ship. “I made them go over there and lend a hand. Somehow I think I’m rather safe here. I don’t think anyone would try to engage a very well armed Conqueror.”

The Captain laughed softly and ran a hand through his short hair, changing the direction of the unruly strands but not bringing any order to them. “I would concur with your assessment, Your Majesty.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes but said nothing. She reached out and laid a small hand on his muscular forearm, grasping it gently. “I want to thank you, Palaemon. For finding me and helping me. And for helping her. You are a good man. I am glad to know you.”

Palaemon could feel a subtle heat travel over his cheeks, which he ignored. “I pledged my life to serve the Conqueror. I couldn’t let her harm herself by harming you.”

“Thank you,” she whispered and leaned upward to place a kiss on his cheek.

The Captain closed his eyes and savored the sweetness of the moment.

“Are we about ready to set sail?” she asked after a few moments.

“Yes, as soon as the last of the weapons are stowed. It shouldn’t take much longer. The troops are ready to set sail as soon as we do.”

“How many men did the Conqueror lose, Captain?”

His eyes clouded with sorrow as he mentally recounted the names of some of his friends who had died yesterday. “We came with one hundred of the Royal Guard, fifty-seven return. Of the Macedonian regiment, only thirty-two of the hundred are still alive.”

“Over half the men?” Gabrielle whispered, feeling the loss of the men and women she had never met. “We only lost nine Amazon warriors. Even that was too many.”

“More would have died without you, Queen Gabrielle. If you hadn’t brought the Amazons to aid the Conqueror, I fear even she might have been lost.”

Gabrielle sighed, “I fail to see the glory in battle, although I’ve heard some poets speak of it. While watching over the field, all I could think of was how senseless it was. It’s not as if we were fighting for our homes, or our families. We were fighting to get more instruments of war. We killed so we could kill more in the future.” She shook her head, her fair hair scattering sunlight in its wake.

Palaemon found he had no reply and so he remained silent. Down on the docks, the Conqueror looked up and hailed him, gesturing for him to come to her side. “Excuse me, Your Majesty,” he said politely, bowing slightly and leaving.

After summoning Palaemon, Xena let her eyes linger on the one her Captain had been talking to. She had felt Gabrielle’s eyes upon her throughout the morning as she had moved among the equipment and the men making certain everything was taken care of properly. Now she indulged herself in returning the scrutiny, taking in the slight figure bathed in sunlight smiling at her. I’m not sure how she can look at me that way, but I’ll gladly take it.

Once Palaemon reached her, she returned her attention to her task at hand. “Captain, do you know Minon, formerly of the Macedonian regiment?”

Palaemon shook his head, “No, my liege. I knew only the officers of the regiment, not the soldiers.”

Xena nodded, “Come then and meet him. I want you to train him to take Cefan’s place; it will take awhile, he’s still a bit raw. But he seems quite capable. And you are to teach Charis how to lead the regiment. Her men would have had a better chance if they had been trained properly.”

“Yes, my liege.”

“Further, when we get to Athos, I want Paxius executed in front of the troops. It will show them I am serious about them being led well. I will not tolerate incompetence among my soldiers, and certainly not among my officers. If Paxius hadn’t been a fool, I would be bringing home more of my troops.”

“Yes, my liege. It will be done.”

“In Corinth, you will need to bring me more candidates for my Royal Guard and I want four men selected to be a special Honor Guard for Gabrielle.”

“My liege? Doesn’t she have an Amazon escort?”

Xena made a face, demonstrating what she still thought about the Amazon fighting prowess. “They recently lost one of their Queens who I suppose was being guarded as well. I won’t allow this one to be similarly lost.”

The Captain fought to keep his features neutral. “Yes, my liege.”

“We set sail in half a candlemark. Gabrielle and I will be taking our evening meal separately. See that we are not interrupted, Palaemon, especially by those Amazons. They hover about Gabrielle like flies on manure.”

Palaemon couldn’t restrain himself from responding, “My liege, may I suggest you not use that analogy around Queen Gabrielle. She might not find it as flattering as you might hope.”

The Conqueror took a moment, reviewed her last comment and shook her head in self-deprecation. “Gods, Palaemon, I am not one for lover’s flattery, am I? I think I’ve been in too many battles to think such gentle thoughts.”

“Oh, I believe the Amazon Queen might inspire some.”

Xena’s eyes drifted upward once more, “More than I ever dared hope.”
Chapter Thirty-Nine
The candles had burned down considerably by the time they finished with their meal. The solid table, bolted to the floor so it would not move in rough waters, was littered with the remains of dinner – skeletons of fish, drained goblets of wine, bread crumbs sprinkled over their plates.

The state room was cozy, yet was the largest room Gabrielle had seen on board the ship. It had the dining table and chairs, a desk and map chest, and a bed large enough for two in the corner. Gabrielle’s eyes had wandered over in its direction many times throughout the meal, making note of its soft linens and the bear skin which covered it.

She kept considering that she should feel more nervous than she did. Instead, she just felt slightly off-balance, not quite knowing what to expect, or how exactly she should behave. Everything led her to the conclusion that she and Xena would be intimate tonight. She wanted it; she wanted to feel the Conqueror next to her and perhaps find a gentleness that lurked under the ruler’s exterior, one that she had seen glimpses of previously. She wished though, in a small way, that she had more time to accustom herself to the reality of loving Xena. The Conqueror would not be like the few other lovers she had before – nervous, deferential, eager to please. Although Gabrielle did find herself rather excited by that fact.

The Conqueror settled back in her chair and observed Gabrielle. The young woman’s skin was burnished in the golden candlelight, illuminating interesting patterns on skin. She wanted to reach out and trace them, follow their paths wherever they may lead. It was a rare moment in her life filled with desire for a person and not for a conquest. She wasn’t quite sure how to behave. All of her prior techniques seemed to no longer apply.

I can’t very well pick her up, throw her on the bed and ravish her – although that would be nice. Nor can I play the seductress – it’s a little too late for that. If I ‘accidentally’ spill something on her, I’d be a bit too obvious. Orders, threats and the like are completely inappropriate. Begging is out of the question. At least, right now it is. I’ll see how the rest of the evening goes.

“Food okay?” Xena asked, for lack of anything better that sprang to mind.

Gabrielle chuckled, “To say the least. I didn’t lick the plate only because my mother tried to instill some table manners in me.”

“Do you want more?” The Conqueror started to rise and command the guards to bring more from the kitchen but a soft voice bade her to sit again.

“Really, I’m fine. Thank you,” Gabrielle realized the significance of the Conqueror being willing to see to her needs, whatever they were.

“You’re very beautiful, Gabrielle. I don’t know why I didn’t notice that before.”

The fair-haired Amazon Queen smiled gently, amused by the statement. In another time that second sentence would have driven me to make a sarcastic comment. “Thank you.”

In the intervening silence, Xena reanalyzed what she had said and grimaced. “Gods above, that didn’t come out quite right, did it? I told Palaemon I was no good with lover’s words.” A large hand combed through her dark hair, then reached down and pulled her chair closer to Gabrielle’s. “I’ve spent the better part of my life on a battlefield, Gabrielle. I know swordplay, not wordplay. I know conquering and not winning. I’m not gentle and the last time I asked someone to join me in bed, I can’t remember.”

Seeing the discomfort in the ruler, Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena’s knee, squeezing it lightly. “This is all new to me as well.”

“You’re…? You’ve never…?”

Blushing, she shook her head, “No, I’m not. I have.”

Xena didn’t know whether or not she was soothed by this admission.

“It’s just, I’ve never been here before.”

Now the Conqueror knew she didn’t understand the conversation. “You’ve never been on a boat before? Or you’ve never made love on a boat?” It hurt her to think of anyone else touching her oracle that way. Xena closed her eyes briefly to blot out that particular vision.

“Oh gods, now I’m making a mess of this.” Gabrielle drew in a deep breath and tried to clear her mind, remembering whom she spoke to. “I meant, I’ve never had more to gain, nor more to lose.”

Xena nodded, understanding. “I’m sorry about the cross, Gabrielle. If I could do it over again …” she trailed off unable to finish her statement.

“You’d do it again,” Gabrielle completed for her. “Not if you knew it was me – not now – but if it were just someone else. I don’t think you’d think twice about it, would you?”

Xena shook her head slowly, fearful that her answer, despite its truthfulness, would drive the peaceful woman from her. “No, I wouldn’t.”

“That frightens me. Not that you’d harm me, but that your first thought is always to violence. That is a very frightening thing to be around.”

“But you said you could love me. You said you did love me.” Xena felt like a pouting child, but she didn’t care. She was quite ready to throw a temper tantrum, if it would aid her cause, but she knew it wouldn’t.

“I do. But that doesn’t mean I have suddenly gone deaf and blind.”

“I’m that repulsive to you? That you wish you were maimed that way?”

Gabrielle heard the hurt in the Conqueror’s voice and regretted being the cause of it. She closed the distance between them, clasping the larger hand within both of hers. “No, not at all. I just mean we both have to be realistic about us.”

“I don’t want to be realistic, Gabrielle,” Xena whispered, leaning closer. “I can’t imagine that doing us any good, because anyone in their right mind wouldn’t love me. And I don’t want to lose you.”

Gabrielle could feel Xena’s warm breath on her face, caressing her soft skin. “You’re not going to lose me, Xena. I’m very stubborn. And I don’t frighten very easily.” She reached up and brushed a loose strand of the Conqueror’s dark hair behind her ear, letting her palm linger on Xena’s cheek.

The ruler leaned into the touch. “I noticed that from the first day, when you called me a coward.”

“I didn’t call you a coward. I simply said even you could be afraid.” Gabrielle’s thumb stroked Xena’s cheek.

“Only fools are never afraid,” Xena murmured, blue eyes fluttering closed.

The Amazon Queen laughed softly, “That’s not what you said then.” She noted how gentle the Conqueror’s features appeared in repose, the severity of ruling melting away. The hand she held in her own was warm and pliable. Unconsciously, she began playing with Xena’s fingers, interweaving them with her own, measuring the differences between them.

The edges of Xena’s lips curled upward, “Well … I couldn’t give away all of my secrets. We had only just met.”

“Do I get to know all your secrets now?” Gabrielle found herself being inexplicably pulled toward the Conqueror, her eyes fastened on the lips slightly parted before her.

“Only if you tell me yours.”

“That can be arranged,” Gabrielle husked and then gave in to her desires and brushed her lips against Xena’s.

Xena sighed and brought her hands to rest on Gabrielle’s hips, pulling the young woman into her lap. With one arm she cradled her oracle, and her other hand began a slow exploration of the body she held. It was so much nicer without the audience of hundreds on the battlefield, or without the eyes of an Amazon priestess and her second on them. She followed trails of softness, frustrated only by the fabric keeping her from a fuller discovery.

For her part, Gabrielle relaxed in the Conqueror’s embrace. Strangely enough, this is the safest place in all the world. It’s like being the offspring of a cobra or a lioness – born from and yet protected by innate violence. I wonder if any of Xena’s former lovers ever felt this way? Or if they only feared her? That thought infused her with the desire to demonstrate to Xena how secure she did feel.

The ruler recognized the moment when Gabrielle gave herself over to her, when the sensuous abandon took hold of the oracle and directed her actions. The smaller woman’s hands clasped the Conqueror’s loose tunic about the neck and pulled her closer, bringing contact along their upper bodies. A miniature growl issued from the oracle, and Xena felt her lower lip nipped lightly.

As best as she could, Xena focused on her environs and determined that a hard wooden chair was not where she wished to continue this conversation. Struggling to her feet, a sudden loss of strength overtaking her as one of Gabrielle’s hands threaded through an opening in her tunic and met skin, she carefully carried her precious bundle over to the bed. A roll of the ship brought the two crashing down on the feather bed with a conspicuous lack of grace.

Nestled under the weight of the Conqueror, Gabrielle giggled. “Did I tell you I suffer from seasickness?

The ardent look quickly faded from Xena’s face. “You’re kidding me, right? I don’t remember that from the trip over.”

“I didn’t want to you to be mad at me,” came the reply. “It was better when I went up on deck and looked at the stars. They distracted me.”

Smoothing back fair strands of hair from Gabrielle’s face, almost becoming lost in the verdant gaze meeting her own, Xena shook her head, “There is no way in all the levels of Tartarus that we are going up on deck. For quite a while.” Unable to resist, she kissed the tip of Gabrielle’s nose. “I’m simply going to have to find other means of distracting you.”

“Oh really? And just what did you have in mind?” The words had scarcely left her lips when Gabrielle felt Xena’s response to her question. “Oh! That might work.”

A low chuckle met her comment, “Really? What about this?”

The Amazon Queen shifted under Xena to allow the Conqueror more room to maneuver. “Hmm … that is certainly distracting.”

“And this?”

“Huh?” Gabrielle gasped.

Warm lips moved beside a pink ear, “Is that a good distraction?”

“How … can … you … talk … right … now?” Gabrielle was astounded at her own current cognitive abilities. She had been certain they had all left her.

“Good point,” Xena conceded, enjoying the view of the flushed cheeks and inviting mouth below her. “There are better things to do with our lips, aren’t there?”

****

The early morning sky greeted the new lovers who had come above deck for a breath of fresh air. The eastern horizon warmed, chasing the darkness of the night from the overhead canopy. Wrapped together in a silk sheet, Gabrielle leaned back against Xena, her head resting on the taller woman’s collarbone, smiling when she felt lips pressed against her hair.

“It’s a beautiful morning,” Gabrielle whispered, almost sad to break the silence which enveloped them.

“That it is.” Glancing up, Xena observed the remaining stars. “Did I do a good job of distracting you tonight?”

Oh, you could say that. “You are a very adequate cure for seasickness.” Gabrielle was glad she was facing away from Xena so she couldn’t see the smirk which creased her lips.

“Adequate?” the Conqueror sputtered, playing along. “Adequate? Well, maybe you should find a couple of favorite stars and plan on spending tomorrow night with them.”

Favorite star. I wonder where mine is. Tilting her head back, Gabrielle searched for the star which had played such a prominent part of her childhood. Not seeing it immediately, she twisted around in Xena’s arms, sliding her own arms around the muscular back she had explored not so long ago, and continued her search. Finally, she found it hovering directly above them.

“What are you looking for?” Xena asked softly, tightening her arms and the sheet around the bare body she held against her, savoring the whisper of silk against skin.

Pointing up, almost poking Xena’s chin, Gabrielle replied, “That’s my star. I always knew it would lead me where I belong.”

Looking up, the ruler saw the bright star above them, imagined them bathed in its glow. Bending down, she placed a kiss on Gabrielle’s cheek. “That it did, my oracle. Even your star speaks truth.”

Gabrielle smiled, “That’s because it speaks to you.” She shivered and nestled closer. “Xena, can we go back down below now?”

“Are you cold?”

“No,” came the soft reply.

Xena felt Gabrielle’s lips curl up into a smile against her skin. “What then?”

“Seasick.”

THE END
Continued in The Hanging Gardens

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