Forever by planetsolin

Forever
by planetsolin

Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and all the other characters associated with the Warrior Princess belong to Renpic and Universal. I have borrowed them for this piece of fun fanfiction and unfortunately can make no money from these two beautiful women.

Sex: If offended by the idea of two women in love you better keeping browsing.

Violence: This is a story about the Conqueror so you can expect a little of this stuff.

Other: This is the final part of an on-going series which I started on a lark. It was only supposed to be a short three part series but the story seemed to take on a life of its own.

Complete Series order: If …This Had Been the Beginning, and was followed by Home Again, Surrender, The Promise of Tomorrow, and Family.

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CHAPTER ONE
The sound of chirping birds rousted the dark haired Empress from her slumber. She wanted to stretch the clinks out of her body but she was unwilling to disturb the warm weight that was pinning her to the bed.

A smile came automatically to her lips as she opened her eyes to find her blonde haired companion sprawled across her body. She could smell the unique scent of her lover and for a moment she burrowed her face into the soft tresses of hair, reveling in the knowledge that this small woman loved and believed in her. Not for the first time did she wonder what God had given her the gift of this woman. She had not deserved it.

Xena would have been content to spend the rest of the day in bed cuddling her companion but there were duties of office to attend. There were invitations to be sent and after that it would not be long before foreign guests and dignitaries from all around her Empire would start arriving in the Capital to help celebrate her marriage to the bard. Though she would have liked to focus entirely on the wedding she knew that the business of her Empire would not stop just because she was taking a bride.

With a sigh, she carefully extracted herself from the smaller woman’s embrace and rolled out of bed. Half a candle mark later, she was strolling through the Palace corridors towards the throne room, the sound of her boots echoing loudly against the polished tiling of the marble floors. It was early, even too early in the morning for most of the servants to be moving about.

It felt good to be home; to be back in familiar territory. A smile graced her normally stoic features as she thought about her companion. Gabrielle had been more than a little excited to be back in Corinth and had made no hesitation in showing that fact. It was the bard’s pleasure that gave her the greatest happiness and she looked forward to doing whatever she could do to make her companion happy.

Xena rounded the corner and stepped in through the open door of the throne room where Archius was already busy at work. The small balding man glanced up at the sound of footsteps and then bowed his head respectfully. In spite of the prominence of his position and his own power he was careful to show the Empress the proper respect. The Conqueror had changed and grown softer in many ways, but he knew that the monster that had brought her to power still existed.

“My Conqueror, it is a pleasure to see you again,” the aide was genuine.

“Thank you Archius, it is good to be home,” the Empress acknowledged feeling a particularly soft spot for the man who had been loyal to her since the beginning. She stopped next to him and glanced rather contemptuously at the paperwork that was spread out across the table. As much as she delighted in being back at the Palace she also acknowledged the distaste she felt for the governmental problems that awaited her rulings. “I assume that you have handled everything with your usual efficiency.”

“I try to do my best,” the man bowed aware that in her own way the Empress was giving him praise. The fact that the woman left the running of her Empire in his hands spoke of the high regard she held for his talent as a bureaucrat and his loyalty to her person. “But there are matters that need your direct handling. I have also arranged for a public day three weeks hence. I am afraid there are still those who wish to speak with you personally.”

Xena snorted. There were many in the capital and the countryside who assumed they were too important to deal with anyone other than the Empress herself. She glanced at the stack of scrolls neatly arranged on the desk. Most of the issues that were brought to her attention were mundane matters, stuff that her aide could resolve given the chance.

“Before we start into all this stuff,” Xena waved her hand at the paperwork dismissing it without another thought. “I wish to discuss with you several matters of much more importance.”

“Certainly,” Archius smiled knowing instinctively what the Empress wished to speak. “You wish to know how the arrangements for the joining ceremony are coming.”

The Conqueror allowed her lips to twitch into a slight grin. “Am I so obvious?”

“In matters concerning Queen Gabrielle you are rather transparent,” the man replied honestly and the tall woman frowned, her dark eyes bunching together thoughtfully.

“I’m not sure I like that,” the woman admitted. She knew that Gabrielle was her Achilles heel and because of that she had tried not to allow her true feelings to show but it was obvious that she had been unsuccessful.

“Do not fear My Conqueror,” the small man hastened to add aware how concerned the Empress was that her affection for the bard would get the Queen into trouble with her enemies. “If there is one thing that your people know, it is that the Queen is untouchable. Only the most foolish of individuals would dare even think of attempting to bringing harm to Gabrielle. Everyone knows how important she is to you and no one in their right mind would wish to face that kind of wrath.”

There was silence as the woman looked at the smaller man for a brief instant. A frown had settled over her dour features. It was an odd look and one that the man normally did not associate with the stoic Empress.

“Do the people still regard me with such disdain?” she wondered out loud. The aide was startled by the question. For just a brief instant he saw something flicker in the intense blue eyes and he was surprised. He knew than that the woman was not as hard as the front she projected. He always suspected there was a softer side to the woman; a side that the tall Conqueror had buried deep inside herself, a side that had been brought back to life by the bard.

“It is hard for people to forget the past,” Archius said choosing his words carefully. “Your reign of terror affected many lives and there will be those who will never forgive.”

“I don’t want forgiveness,” the tall dark haired woman scoffed impatiently and despite her adamant denial the small man sensed something different. The quick way she switched the topic of discussion only confirmed his belief. “How are the arrangements for the joining ceremony coming along?”

“The dais is being built even as we speak,” the aide relayed the information glad to be discussing a different subject. “Invitations and public announcements were sent out and already emissaries have been arriving with the replies. Dignitaries from all over your Kingdom will be attending.”

“Probably out of fear as to what I might do if they didn’t attend,” Xena snorted without amusement acknowledging the truth that most of her regional rulers would be to afraid not to accept the invitation. “I want you to make certain that extra security is posted all through the city. If anyone wishes to attempt anything they will no doubt want to do so in the most public places in the most public of ways.”

“I already thought of that,” the small man acknowledged. “I have requested that various commanders send troops from the different armies to add to the local militia. I have left Captain Xenon in charge.”

“Good,” the Conqueror sighed. It was still many nights before she was to fulfill her commitment to the bard and make public her feelings for all her constituents to see. The public announcements posted throughout the nation declared the day a public holiday and extra celebrations were being prepared. “What of the fireworks?”

“I contacted a trader in the marketplace,” Archius confirmed. “It appears that he is a friend of the Queen. His name is Salmoneous and when he heard for whom and what this was for he was most eager to apply his connections. He assured me that he would be able to secure the biggest and the best fireworks display that anyone in the Empire will ever have witnessed.”

Xena nodded, vaguely remembering a rather rotund gentleman who had dared to accost her in the marketplace one day. She remembered the trinket she had purchased from the man and how much the bard had enjoyed the gift. It seemed that the merchant’s affectation for her lover was genuine and for that she was grateful. She wanted Gabrielle to have the best celebration that she could supply.

“What of the gowns are they being prepared?”

“The material arrived from Chin earlier and the dressmakers were just waiting for the Queen and you to return to the Palace to begin their work.”

The Conqueror nodded grudgingly accepted the explanation. “And the rings?”

“The blacksmith is just putting on the finishing touches,” Archius was happy to report. “You might like to stop by and see for yourself to ensure that the design is just as you wished.”

“Yes, I will do that,” the Empress nodded. “What about the food?”

“All the exotic dishes you requested are being brought in and Cleopatra has sent out her best hunters to capture the animals for your delight.”

For a moment the Empress’ thoughts were diverted as she glanced sharply at the small aide. “You contacted Cleopatra?”

“Yes,” the man nodded. “According to my spies, her time in Rome with Caesar was not what she expected and she returned to Alexandria sooner than scheduled.”

The Empress nodded and then dismissed all thoughts of the Egyptian ruler. “I personally issued Gabrielle’s family an invitation and left word with the Commander of the Regional Army that if they needed assistance in coming to the capital than he was to offer everything in his power. I would like to know the moment any response from them is heard.”

“Yes, My Empress,” the aide nodded aware that the Conqueror was not thinking about herself but about her companion. He knew that the bard would like her parents to be there to help her celebrate the occasion. Family was important to the Queen. “Was there anything else you wished me to attend too?”

“No,” the Empress shook her head. She had a few things that needed to be taken care of but she would do that herself. She turned her gaze and met the man’s gaze. “However there is some news which I have to impart on you, though I know that because the Amazon’s already know then I presume that everyone else will as well.” The Conqueror paused to take a deep breath. “We will need some redecorating done to our personal quarters.”

“Does something about your quarters displease the Queen?” Archius asked with some confusion.

“No,” Xena shook her head and then smiled shyly. It was an unusual look for the woman and it caught the aide by surprise. “We will need a cradle and all the things that accompany a baby. The Queen is with child.”

The small man’s jaw dropped in surprise. “Miss Gabrielle is pregnant?” He didn’t know whether to be happy or upset over the news, but one look at the Conqueror and he knew that it was a cause for celebration.

“Yes.”

“But…?” the startled question remained unasked as the man fused with colour and was unable to meet the woman’s piercing gaze. The Conqueror laughed heartily aware of the reason that the man was embarrassed.

“Believe it or not my friend but the child is mine,” the Empress confided once she had sobered and the man glanced at her in surprise. He could see that she was serious. “It seems that the Gods worked some magic and created the child.”

“You believe that?” Archius couldn’t hide his distrust thinking about how the Empress had attempted to use Jason, a member of the Royal guard to get the bard pregnant.

“I did not believe it at first, but then I realized the truth. Gabrielle would never lie to me and she assured me that she had been with no one but me,” the Conqueror said in a serious voice. “In my heart I know the child is mine even though I can not explain it.”

“Than I am most happy for you,” the man smiled and was grateful when he received a corresponding grin from a now sheepish Conqueror.

“I imagine this will change my image even more than the bard has already done,” the Conqueror mused.

“Indeed, it will do only positive things for your image,” the man agreed.

“I don’t know if that is a good or bad thing,” Xena said as she slipped into the chair behind her desk.

“Anything concerning Gabrielle is good,” Archius responded in all honesty.

“Yes,” a hint of a smile crossed the stoic woman’s lips as she thought of her lover. The smile soon faded as she thought of someone else with blond hair and familiar features. “Archius I brought a young lad back to the Palace from the countryside. He was training with the Regional Army near Amphipolis even though he is too young to fight. I would like you to arrange for him to be seen by the best tutors in all aspects of learning.”

“Yes, My Lord,” the aide nodded a frown on his brow. “It is none of my concern as to the reasons why the Empress wishes for the boy to be educated.”

“No, it is not your concern but as a friend you deserve the truth,” the Conqueror sighed. “The boys name is Solan and he is my son; the child that I bore while I was with Borias.”

“Does he know?” The aide was startled by this unexpected revelation.

“No, and I would prefer to keep that secret between us,” Xena knew that she could trust her aide. She looked at the man, a bleak expression in her blue orbs. “He hates me. He believes that I killed his family and made him an orphan.”

“Many children have been influenced by the lies of the elders who raised them,” Archius said in an attempt to ease the woman’s mind.

“Unfortunately they are not lies,” Xena sighed, her shoulders slumping. “I did kill Borias.”

“You were defending yourself,” Archius reminded softly. “He had turned against you and wanted to take over both your armies. There was nothing else you could do.”

Xena wanted to believe that and at the time it had eased her conscious, but now in hindsight she wondered about the true motives for killing her ex-lover. She shook her head, dismissing those thoughts. It was all in the past and she could not undo what had been done. She turned her attention to the scrolls spread out on her desk.

“What matter is of the most importance?”

Archius knew by the change of subject that it was time to focus on the business at hand. He did what every good aide was trained to do and plucked the most urgent piece of business out of the pile.

****

When Gabrielle woke later in the morning she knew immediately that she was alone. She could feel the absence of the warmth of her companion yet she laid for a long moment going over in her mind the events of the last season. A smile curved her delicate features as her hand went to the swelling roundness of her stomach. She had believed in Xena and their love and she had been rewarded. She was happier than she believed was possible.

She sprang out of bed, mindful that her added weight hindered her once agile movements. A quick inventory of their personal supplies and she knew that a trip to the market place was in order. After a leisurely bath she dressed and went in search of her personal guard.

Jason had remained behind on their last adventure out of the Capital. It had been her decision to give the soldier a leave of absence so that he could go home to help his family with the harvest. The man had been at the Palace the previous evening when they had returned. Gabrielle was pleased to the see the young man for she truly enjoyed his company.

“Jason I feel the need for a trip into town,” she said with a smile and the soldier nodded. “I think we should invite Solari of the Amazon’s and that young soldier that returned with us from Amphipolis, his name is Solan.”

“Yes, My Queen, I will fetch them immediately.”

“Meet me in the front courtyard, I wish to see the Conqueror before I depart.”

The soldier nodded and turned to do as the small woman requested. He had been left behind at the Palace the last time the Conqueror and the bard had departed the Capital and he had worried that he had fallen out of favour because of his inability to seduce the Queen. He was pleased now to know that had not been the case.

Solan had been given quarters in the Palace with the rest of the Royal Guards. He had woken with the others and after breakfast had wandered down to the stables to groom his horse while he waited for the formal instructions on what his duties at the Palace would be. Though he had been presented with an official military uniform he had been told in no uncertain terms by the Captain of the Royal Guards that it was only an honorary gesture by the Empress and that he was too young to be a fighting member of her army.

So he waited for someone of importance to come around and tell him what he was supposed to do. In the meantime he tried to keep himself occupied as he discreetly listened too all the gossip that floated around the Palace amid its servants. He quickly learned that it was not always a bad thing to come to the Conquerors attention.

He was more than surprised when a fellow guardsman by the name of Jason came to fetch him. According to the older man they were to accompany the Queen to the market place to protect her while she did her shopping. The request surprised the boy for he assumed that servants attended to all the Conquerors royal needs. But than he surmised that the Queen was little more then a bed slave for the Empress.

The boy could not help wonder about this small blonde woman who appeared to be the Conquerors companion. She had seemed friendly and on the journey back to Corinth she had welcomed him more than once to join the Conqueror and her at their campfire. He had been unable to refuse and against his best laid plans he unwillingly began to like the blond woman. There was something infectious in her nature that made it impossible for anyone to dislike her. He quickly adjusted his uniform and followed the other guardsman into the front courtyard to wait the arrival of the Queen.

Gabrielle didn’t bother to knock before sweeping into the throne room where she knew her lover would be spending the day. Xena had made it plain that she would be occupied for the next few days sifting through the business of running her Empire. She knew that even though she would be interrupting she was certain that her stoic companion wouldn’t mind.

Xena glanced up with a sour look as the door to the throne room was flung open. The frown immediately turned to a smile as she watched the bard enter, her hands laden with a tray of fruit, cheese, bread and a pitcher of ale.

“Good morning,” Gabrielle greeted the pair. “How are you this morning Archius, it is wonderful to see you again?”

“It is a pleasure to have you back at the Palace,” the aide was sincere.

“Have you come to help us wade through this pile of business?” Xena asked with a smile playing at the corners of her lips as she leaned back in her chair and motioned to the stack of scrolls on the desk.

“No,” the bard shook her head trying not to shudder. She knew that before long her stoic companion would become bored with matters of the state and she didn’t blame the woman. “I came to let you know that I am heading out to the market to restock our supplies.”

“Ahh,” the Empress said with a smirk. “Not back more then a few candle marks and already you are spending money from my treasury.”

“Money I deserve for putting up with you,” the bard snapped back aware that her companion would not be offended. The Empress was in a playful mood and she liked that in the tall woman.

“Than, what is this?” Xena smiled motioning to the tray.

“Well, as I will be out of the Palace I cannot be here to ensure that you give poor Archius a break for lunch,” Gabrielle continued in the same mood setting the tray down on the desk. “So I decided to bring something to him before I left.”

“You brought this all for Archius?” the Conqueror pretended to pout.

“Yes, but I am sure he will be kind enough to share the leftovers,” the bard said blithely. “Now I need to get going. I have Jason and Solan waiting for me in the courtyard.”

“Before you go,” Xena turned serious for a moment. “I have asked Archius to arrange tutors for Solan. I fear his lack of learning and want him to be able to follow any career he chooses.”

Gabrielle nodded, a thoughtful frown etching its way across her brow.

“Would it be alright if he were joined by Arron?” The bard hesitated. “It might be nice for him to have someone with him; someone closer to his age he could befriend.”

Xena nodded remembering the small boy they had rescued from slavery. What Gabrielle suggested had merit. It never ceased to surprise her how her small lover considered all aspects of a situation.

“Certainly.”

“Thank you,” Gabrielle flashed her smile.

With that the bard slipped around the desk to plant a firm kiss on her lover’s lips before almost skipping to the door and out of sight. Archius could not stop smiling. He liked to watch the two women together for it never ceased to marvel him how the bard could bring the good nature out in the stoic woman.

“I fear I have lost my Empire to a woman who cares nothing about power,” Xena snorted with an amused laugh that the aide joined in. She felt refreshed after the bard’s brief visit and snatching an apple from off the tray she leaned forward once more. “Now let us get back to these tedious affairs.”

Jason, Solari and Solan were waiting in the front courtyard as she had requested. After the latest attempt on her life, both the Conqueror and the Amazon’s had insisted on having her accompanied by one of them at all times. She had protested adamantly and relented only when Xena had admitted the fear of losing their child. Gabrielle knew that she would suffer anything for her lover.

She glanced at the young lad who accompanied them. She could feel his dislike for the Empress in his very demeanor and she had given a lot of thought on how she could change his attitude. Inviting him along on this shopping expedition was the first step.

“How did you sleep?” she inquired, engaging him in conversation.

“Fine, my Queen,” he was uncertain how to address the small woman.

“Was it more comfortable than your straw cot at the Army Camp near Amphipolis?” Gabrielle chuckled remembering the lumpy pallet that she had slept on while visiting the camp in her wandering bard years.

“Yes, ma’am,” the lad tried but was unable to suppress the smile that came to his lips. In spite of himself, he could not prevent himself from liking the woman.

“So have you ever been to Corinth before?” she asked as they stepped through the Palace gates and into the city.

“No,” the boy shook his head, his pale blue eyes scanning the street and the people bustling along the wide corridors. He had never entered the gates of any city until last night when they had arrived.

“I would like to say it is just a larger version of Amphipolis but that isn’t really true,” the small blond explained. “You have your typical merchants that sell fruits and vegetables and clothes, but there are also merchants that sell oils and scents and wares from all over the known world. They sell scrolls and coloured ink, silk from Chin, almost anything you can think off.”

The boy said nothing. He had no money to spend, his clothing and meals provided for by the military. Maybe later he would begin to earn enough dinars for a mug of port at a local tavern.

“Is there something that you have always wanted to own?” Gabrielle asked prodding the boy.

“No,” the lad shook his head. Kalipus had been a good father and as a child he had never lacked for anything.

“When I was a child the most favourite thing I owned was a small carving of a sheep,” the bard recounted the memories of a special Solstice. “It a gift from my parents. I spent hours as a child wandering around with the little animal clutched in my hand.”

“What happened to it?” the boy wanted to know hearing the wistfully sound of her voice.

“I lost it one day playing by the creek near our house,” Gabrielle explained sadly and then flashed a smile that was becoming familiar to the lad. “I told Xena that story and she carved me this small wooden sheep for our first Solstice together.”

The bard fell silent as she remembered that morning of Solstice. They had been on a campaign in the Northern part of the Empire battling Caesar’s Roman Legionnaires, yet the Conqueror had taken time out of her busy schedule to carve her a small replica of the toy she had treasured as a child. She thought of the bashful way the Empress had presented the gift, as if she was scared it would be rejected. It hadn’t been and it now held a special place among her few possessions.

Solan looked sideways at his companion when she fell silent, noticing the odd look on her face. It was a warm and tender expression with the edges of her lips dipped in a smile. He wondered about what she was thinking and it occurred to him that the only time he had seen that look was when the bard had looked at the Conqueror.

He had no more time to consider it as his attention was swallowed up by the crush of humanity that filled the market place. The Queen had been right, there were merchants selling all sorts of wares, and some things that Solan had never seen before.

He followed the Queen amazed at the way the crowd seemed to automatically part in front of her. He saw the smiles and the waves that various sellers threw at the small blond woman. He could never have imagined that anyone as closely associated with the Empress would be treated with such genuine friendliness and respect.

Gabrielle had made a mental list of things that they were in short supply of and she made her way to the merchant stalls where she could replenish her supplies. A candle mark later everyone was carrying a parcel of goods. It was late in the afternoon by the time the Queen was finished her shopping spree.

“Does everyone have everything they need?” the bard turned and looked at her companions. She knew that Jason and Solari had both purchased personal items but she hadn’t noticed Solan buy anything.

“Yes your Highness,” they responded in unison.

“Was there anything you needed?” Gabrielle turned her attention to the young man.

“No your Highness,” the blond boy replied. He had precious few coins in his pocket and needed to save them until he really did need something.

“While I certainly can think of a few things you will need for your duties at the Palace,” the Queen said. She turned her head, seeking out a stall before bouncing over towards it. In a matter of a quarter of a candle mark she had purchased, chalk and tablets which she handed to the tall boy, who looked at her with a perplexed expression.

“Your Highness, of what need do I have for these things, I am a soldier?” Solan asked.

“Because you are too young to serve as a foot soldier, the Conqueror has decided that you would better serve her if you were more educated.”

“But I have no desire to be a scribe. I much more prefer working in the stables,” the boy replied instantly.

“Than that’s what your job will be,” Gabrielle decided. “But there are many candle marks in a day and the Conqueror does not want to see you waste it. Therefore starting on the morrow you and another lad by the name of Arron will be taking lessons from the Palace scribes. ”

Solan was silent for a short while as he tried to figure out what was happening. He was aware of the green eyes that were boring into him and wondered if the small Queen and the Conqueror thought him ignorant.

“I had lessons when I lived with the Centaurs,” the boy tried to explain.

“One can never have too many lessons,” Gabrielle shook her head. “This is not only something that the Conqueror wishes, but something that is also dear to my heart.”

A pair of blue eyes stared for a long instant at the small blonde woman. It was strange that he would be willing to reject the Conquerors request while this woman was someone whom he could not deny. He assented to the agreement with a mere nod of his head.

“Okay, now that is settled, than I suggest we head back to the Palace,” the bard announced, satisfied with the day’s adventure.

It was late, nearing the dinner hour when Xena finally called a break for the day. They had worked steadily on the large mount of paperwork that needed tending and had managed to wade through a great deal. There were requests and reports from every corner of her Empire and though things seemed peaceful she knew that she could not drop her guard. She had a nagging feeling that this solitude would not last. She did not trust Caesar.

Xena thought about her adversary as she made her way through the Palace corridors towards her private quarters. Caesar was an ambitious man and it was unlike him not to be plotting some scheme. Her spies in Rome had not reported anything unusual and the Legionnaires they had confronted and defeated in the North had retreated back behind the lines that separated the two Empires. She remembered what Archius had said. Her marriage was a public function and would be the ideal time for the Roman Ruler to launch another attack with most of her Regional Governors and military commanders away from their posts. She knew that she needed to prepare for any eventuality.

She dismissed all thoughts of her adversary as she reached her apartments. She had spent the day on government matters and it was time now to forget about her responsibilities to the Empire and do her duty towards her lover and companion. A smile broke across her face as she opened the door and felt the warmth of the room reach out to her.

Quietly she stepped into the apartment her blue eyes scanning the room and coming to rest on the dinner settings placed on the low table in front of the fireplace. She strolled further into the room noticing that a bottle of wine had been opened and left to breath. There was a tray laden with a variety of cheese and fruits. There were plates set out for the food that would be brought from the kitchen when they were ready to eat.

She turned on her heel and strolled through the suite into the sleeping area. It was here that she spotted her companion. Gabrielle was seated at the table next to the open window, her head bent over the parchment on which she was writing, her golden hair illuminated by the light of the candles burning nearby.

Xena paused. She loved to watch her lover when she was writing for the bard’s brow would furrow in thought and her green eyes would stare off into a world which only she could see. When stumped the blond woman would chew on the quill she was using as her face puckered in thought.

At that moment the bard glanced up and caught sight of the tall dark haired Empress. Her face lit up at the vision and instantly she was on her feet and on her way across the room. Xena’s arms were open by the time the smaller woman flung herself into them.

The Empress easily lifted the woman off the floor, drawing her up so that their lips could meet. The kiss was long and warm, and any one who observed the greeting would have imagined the two had been separated for months instead of candle marks. The Conqueror slowly let the smaller woman back onto her feet.

“I missed you,” Xena’s voice was husky, her blue eyes radiating the love she felt. The smile on the blonde’s features grew to encompass her entire face.

“Did you get a lot of work done?” Gabrielle asked looping her arm through her companions and guiding them both into the adjoining suite where their meal was set out. She pulled on a rope that was attached to a bell in the kitchen. It was a summons to the staff to bring their meal.

“We managed to wade through some of it,” Xena sighed helping her lover unto the couch before slipping down beside her. The tall woman wrapped her arm around the smaller woman’s shoulders drawing her closer to her warmth. “In spite of Archius diligent work there are a lot of government matters to sort through. But that is what comes with being the ruler of an Empire. What did you do with your day?”

Gabrielle knew that her companion did not like talking about governmental affairs when they were alone and she could see the lines of weariness at the corner of the blue eyes. To indulge her companion she regaled her with events of her day. By the time she was finished the servants were there with their dinner of tender roasted lamb with cooked vegetables.

The two women spent the next few candle marks leisurely consuming their meal. While Xena washed it down with wine, Gabrielle stuck to goat’s milk. Every once in a while the Empress would toss some more wood on the fire.

“So what were you working on, when I interrupted you?” Xena asked accepting a bit of food offered by her companion.

“I was writing about Lila’s wedding and our adventure with Khafstar,” the bard said. The Conqueror wasn’t certain she wanted to be reminded of that episode in their lives. It was hard for her not to shudder with the memory of how she had almost lost her love and briefly she wondered about the blonde Amazon that had disappeared and how Ares had manipulated her.

Her thoughts turned briefly to the God of War. They had not seen evidence of any of the Deities from Mt. Olympus in the last moon, and she hoped that they would continue to stay out of their lives though she doubted that was possible.

“I notice that a dais is going up in the middle of the city,” Gabrielle commented drawing the taller woman back to the present.

“Yes, plans for our wedding are coming along on schedule,” the Empress nodded and for the next while they discussed their upcoming marriage. It was late into the night before the women finally moved from the living suite to the bed.

Xena had waited so long to hold her lover in the comfort of the palace bed that she found it hard to control the need to possess the smaller woman. Even though she wanted to take the blond hard and quickly she contained her desires aware of the child that was growing in the smaller woman.

They made love slowly, allowing their hands and lips to caress, their finger tips to tenderly trace familiar body lines and ridges. For a long time the Empress stared at the bulging belly of her lover, lovingly running the palm of her hand over it smooth surface. The love between the two women could not be denied and they finally came together, fulfilling the need to merge as one.

Afterwards the Conqueror lay on her back with the bard curled up against her side, her gentle warm breath caressing her naked skin. She reached down and ran her long fingers through the soft silky hair, breathing deeply the scent the woman had left on her skin. In the past the smell would have repulsed her and she would have risen from the bed to wash, but now she savoured the aroma, proud to be seen and associated with the woman that she would marry.

She closed her eyes, not wanting the day to end, afraid that she would go to sleep and than wake up to find that everything was a dream, and that she was alone, caught in a life that made her the hated and dreaded Conqueror. It was the soft gentle whisper of breath from her companion that finally lulled her to sleep.
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The knock on the door rousted the dark haired man from his thoughts about the dark beauty that was sprawled on the couch next to him. He leaned negligently back against the pillows and waited for his visitors to announce their presence. It was late in the evening and he was loath to be disturbed. His dark eyes narrowed when the door opened to admit General Brutus and a tall unfamiliar blonde woman. His eyes gazed appreciatively over the slender well built form that was only partially concealed by the skimpy outfit of leather and feathers.

“This had better be important to disturb me at this hour,” Caesar commented brusquely as he focused hard dark eyes on his military General.

“I believe it is,” the man responded calmly, used to the Rome leader’s moods. He motioned to the woman standing beside him. “This is Callisto and she is from the Amazon tribe in Greece. I think you should see what she has brought.” With that the military man stepped forward holding out a parchment.

Caesar glanced arrogantly at the scroll for a long moment before leaning forward and snatching it out of the General’s hand. He leaned back and scanned the paper, his dark eyes narrowing.

“So, the Conqueror is getting married,” he could not help the scowl that formed on his lips as he tossed the announcement onto the floor as if it burned. “What do I care what Xena does?”

“Do you not want to see her defeated?” Callisto stepped forward, a sneer on her face. “Do you not want to possess her lands and rule the whole Known World?”

“Of course I do, but what concern of it is yours?”

“I also want to see the Conqueror brought to her knees,” the woman said. “She destroyed my family when she destroyed Cirra and I want vengeance.”

“Every one wants vengeance against the Conqueror,” Caesar replied with boredom. “What makes you different than the rest of them?”

“Because I won’t stop until she is dead,” the blond woman promised, her eyes blazing with the desire for revenge.

The man was thoughtful. He had heard many similar offers from others with a grievance against the Conqueror but there was something about this woman and the expression in her eyes that appealed to him. She was crazy, he could see that and he was curious about how she planned to accomplish her mission of vengeance.

He turned to his female companion, the daughter of a servant, and arrogantly dismissed her. “Leave us.”

The girl immediately did the man’s bidding and Caesar waited only until she was gone before addressing the others. “How can you help me?”

“The Conqueror has returned to the Capital and is now wrapped up in plans for her marriage,” Callisto said. “She will not be paying attention to what is happening around her. It would be so easy to sneak a small army of mercenaries into the capital and attack her at the most vulnerable moment. Can you imagine the splendour of killing the Conqueror and her beloved bard on their wedding day?”

Caesar was silent for a long moment as he imagined the scenario. The thought of destroying his enemy at the moment of her greatest happiness was appealing. He glanced at the woman wondering if he could trust her.

“What do you want from me?”
CHAPTER TWO
The long days of summer slowly passed, finally giving way to the cooler early days of fall. Xena had purposefully planned for their marriage ceremony to take place in the beginning of the fall season, aware that the summer heat would make the Queen uncomfortable in her condition. So she counted down the days, spending them dealing with the matters of state, while waiting for the preparations to be done.

Already she could feel a strange sense of excitement coursing through her body; an excitement that she had never experienced and it was an even greater anticipation than what she felt on the eve of a great battle. With it came a restlessness that made it hard for her to sit still for to long. While most days it was not a problem, it did present a concern on those occasions when she granted audiences to those minor officials and commoners who wished to petition the Empress herself.

Today was one such afternoon and glancing down the list of petitioners, Archius knew that the Conqueror’s patience would be sorely tested. In order to get through the entire agenda before the Empress became bored would require that he ensure the officials were brief and to the point with their presentations. Though Xena had been remarkably calm, the last few weeks, he knew that she would not remain so forever. He feared for the poor individual who dared to stretch the Conqueror’s patience beyond the breaking point.

Xena was in a remarkably good mood when she returned from an afternoon lunch with the Queen Gabrielle and the first few cases presented were dispensed with in quick fashion. In spite of the business going on around her the Empress was already thinking forward to the evening.

While the days were filled with the business of government, the nights were strictly reserved for the bard. If they weren’t strolling together around the Palace grounds, they were riding through the countryside. More than once they had taken Argo for a ride to the shoreline, sitting at the edge of the water and watching as the day faded into the night. They would sit silently, their bodies wrapped together as they watched the silver moon rise in the dark sky, its brilliant light shimmering off the rippling waves of the water.

Her blue eyes wandered from the audience to the clear bright sky that showed through the window of the room and wondered how Gabrielle was spending her afternoon. After her initial trip to the market the morning after they had returned, the bard had remained near the Palace, working on a variety of stories and regaling the staff with tales of their adventures.

On other occasions the bard would attend the tutor sessions that had been set up to teach Solan and Arron lessons of history and math. Somehow the class had grown from the two boys to include a half dozen other children, each one being brought to class by a concerned bard who seemed to want to educate as many as possible.

An absent smile creased her lips as she thought of the Queen and the easy way she had with all the people she met. Even the local merchants were unable to deny the small blond and many found themselves in charge of trainees they had not otherwise intended on hiring. So immersed was she in her thoughts of her lover that she failed to realize when the government official making his petition had stopped speaking. It was the silence of the room that finally rousted her from her thoughts.

“My Conqueror what is your decision?” the man implored and Xena gazed at him for a long moment. There was a look of impatience on his face and none of the fear or nervousness that usually accompanied these requests. For some reason its absence annoyed her.

“What is your name?” she asked the man calmly.

“Teeis of Agra, Governor of the Province of Arcadia,” the middle aged, rotund man replied.

“How long have you been governor?” the Conqueror asked in the same calm voice.

“Eleven seasons,” the man proudly announced.

“Archius,” the Empress motioned to her aide who immediately responded by producing a parchment filled with notes and numbers. The small man knew what his Empress wanted without having to be told.

Xena quietly glanced over the scroll. It was a record of the province that this official represented. She studied the numbers intently before negligently passing the scroll back to her aide.

“Teeis, our records show that Arcadia is a fertile province that produces some of the Empires finest fruits and vegetables,” she fixed her gaze on the man. “How is it that you come to me now, begging for more money to sustain the social programs of your towns and villages?”

“The crops have been poor these last few years and the farms are not producing what they once did.”

“Hmmm, that is interesting, I did not know that my people were suffering,” Xena mused.

“Indeed we are my Empress,” the man agreed trying to hide the smug smile that was threatening to encompass his features. He had heard that the Conqueror had grown soft and lax in governing her Empire and he had come to the Capital to see for himself. If that was the case than he would be able to pad his personal coffers more then he already was.

“That is most strange,” the dark haired woman mused; all too aware of the game that the man was trying to play. “I receive monthly reports from the military Generals, and the one from your region, General Salas, reports that the farms are producing in abundance. Is he lying?”

It was a direct question and for a long moment blue eyes pierced into grey ones. The man saw the glint in the eyes and a bead of sweat broke out across his brow. He was in deep and he knew there was only two ways to get out of his situation. He chose one he was certain would give him time to get away from the Palace and hopefully to safety.

“I am certain he reports what he knows the Conqueror wishes to hear,” the man replied with a hint of arrogance.

“No, Teeis of Agra, he reports the truth,” Xena responded, her voice hardening. “Not six moons ago I passed through your Province and saw with my own eyes the abundance of crops that filled the fields.” She paused, her eyes taking in the whole room, addressing all those who were now waiting on each of her words.

“Contrary to what you may have heard I have not gone soft or lost control of my Empire. Your feeble attempts to hide the truth from me will only serve to heighten the punishment that you will receive for your deception.” There was another pause as she turned her pale eyes on the man still standing in front of her.

“Teeis, I have a complete report on you here, sent to me from my loyal servant General Salas,” she snapped her fingers and Archius immediately handed her the parchment he was holding. Without glancing at the scroll Xena continued, her voice growing harsher. “He has been investigating you since the army paid for a shipment of grain and received a poor quality of cereal.” She paused again and noticed that the man’s face was beginning to grow pale. “It seems that you have been selling produce belonging to the Empire on the black market and keeping the returns for yourself.”

“No,” the man tried to defend himself.

“Yes!” Xena slapped her hand against the arm of her chair and stood up, towering over the man. “Were you so foolish to think that you could steal from me?”

“No,” the feeble word barely managed to come out of the stricken man’s throat.

“Than tell me why I should not have you executed now for your thievery?”

“I have a family,” the man gasp dropping to his knees and beginning to beg for his life. “They would be destitute without me to support them.”

“No one in my Empire is destitute,” the Conqueror retorted, her nostrils flaring in anger. “You are fortunate that I am in a good mood. You will not be executed; instead you will remain in the common jail until your family appears with all the money you stole. Only when it is placed in my hand will you be free to go.”

With a nod of her head, two Palace guards hurried forward to take the man into custody. There was a deathly silence in the room as everyone watched the sobbing man being dragged from the Conquerors presence.

“I suggest that if anyone has come here in an attempt to hoodwink me, they best take a second thought,” Xena snarled. “For the next one caught lying will not be as fortunate as your colleague.”

Silence continued to reign, everyone afraid to speak or move. Xena inwardly smiled, aware that she still had the power to put the fear of the Gods into people. She looked at Archius who was as solemn as always, revealing none of his emotions.

“Archius I want a law to be set forth from this day forward,” she announced. “From now on no one shall govern for more then eight seasons after which they will need to be re-elected by the people of their region, and no one shall serve their people for more then six summers without a break.” She paused. “From now on you will no longer just be accountable to me but to the people with whom you represent.”

There was a shocked silence from the audience, many of whom had served as governor or mayor of their region for more years then they could remember. They were not certain what to think of this new development.

“Who is next?” she demanded and Archius called out the name at the top of his list. A nervous man stepped forward and in a shaking voice hurriedly presented his petition.

The Empress’ outburst had the desired effect for those who had sought to present trivial cases to the Conquerors attention, suddenly decided that they could do just as well with the advice they could get from other officials in the Palace court. Xena was barely able to hide a smile that threatened.

After the many candle marks that she spent listening to the complaints of her government officials, she longed only to sit in the calming presence of her friend and lover. As she had hoped, Gabrielle was in their private chambers.

“How are you this afternoon my love?” she greeted the smaller woman, watching as the bard slowly rose to her feet from the bench on which she was sitting. They met half way across the room and embraced each other.

“Tired,” Gabrielle sighed with fatigue though she was unable to hide the smile that lit up her face. She kissed her Empress and then moved slightly out of her embrace to pat the bulge of her stomach. “Who would think something so tiny could wreck such havoc on my life.”

Xena threw back her head and laughed. “That is a question I have been asking myself every day since I met you.”

“Xennnnaaaa,” the Queen moaned and playfully slapped the taller woman’s arm. “My feelings are hurt.”

“Ahh, than let me make it up to you,” the Empress smiled and placed a melting kiss on her lover’s lips before scooping the very pregnant woman into her arms and carrying her through the room to their bed. She gently lay the woman down before sliding down beside her.

“You are so beautiful,” the older woman whispered in awe as she ran her hand over the swollen roundness of Gabrielle’s belly. “You will make a wonderful mother.”

“So will you,” the bard replied and for a brief moment the rhythmic stroking hand paused as Xena thought of the blond haired boy that lived in the Palace military barracks. She pushed those thoughts away.

“What do you say to a picnic out on the beach?”

“I would love it!” The smaller woman exclaimed. She enjoyed the time they spent away from the Palace for it seemed that a change came over the Warrior. Away from the palace the Empress was more relaxed and playful; more carefree and patient. She was Xena the woman and not the Empress and Conqueror. “How about we bring Solan and Arron along?”

The smile on the Conquerors face slipped just faintly. She enjoyed being alone with the bard but she also knew that she had been neglecting her son. Since bringing him back to Corinth she had kept her distance, content to hear of his antics from her small companion who was doing her utmost to make him her friend. She rolled onto her back and stared up at the intricate carving in the ceiling.

Gabrielle knew that her lover had yet to speak with her son since bringing him back to the Palace. She understood that the Conqueror was not yet ready to develop a relationship with the boy. Perhaps it was still too soon. She told her companion as much.

“No,” Xena sighed. She had been putting off the inevitable long enough. It was time for her to do what she feared the most. It was time for her to start building a relationship with her son. She sat up and looked down at her somber companion.

“No. If I put it off now I will keep putting it off,” the Princess Warrior admitted looking anxiously at the other woman as she scratched the back of her neck. “I guess I am a little scared. He hates me.”

“He doesn’t know you,” Gabrielle reminded the taller woman as she struggled into a sitting position. Her heart always trembled at the sight of her lover’s vulnerability and it was pulsing now.

“What if he still hates me when he does know me?”

“He won’t.”

“How can you be so sure of that?” Xena wanted to know her blue eyes pleading for an answer that would assuage her fears.

“Because you are not the monster he thinks you are. Once he gets to know you and to see the person beyond the Conqueror of what he’s heard, he will, like the rest of us come to like you.”

“Gabrielle, the last time I looked, you were the only one who liked me.”

“Than you haven’t looked in a long time,” the bard replied sincerely. “Do you think Archius or Xenon would still be here if they didn’t like you? My love I think you would truly be surprised to know exactly how many people do like you.”

Xena was silent aware that the bard had a way of taking away her fears with a few simple words. She felt an ache in her heart; an ache of love that she felt for the smaller woman. It was painful but so much more pleasurable.

“I love you,” she said and the smile that she received in response warmed her heart even more.

“I know,” Gabrielle giggled before scrambling out of bed as quickly as her growing body would allow. “If we are going on a picnic than I need to let the cooks know and our guests need to be invited.” The Empress watched as the little blond whirlwind swept out of the room.

_______________________________
The ornately coloured boat that sailed into the harbour of the great city of Rome was accompanied by a half dozen ordinary looking junks, all of whose holds were filled with silks, perfumes and other trinkets from the Orient. While they laid anchor in the bay, the more elaborate vessel tied up to a dock on shore.

Almost immediately a royal carriage appeared on the wharf, coming to a halt next to the foreign ship. Moments later a slender, ornately clothed man descended down the gang plank. He was followed by a retinue of servants and ministers.

Only the man and two others climbed into the carriage which immediately took off towards the palace in which Caesar was ensconced. A pair of blue eyes watched from a short distance away, curious about this new arrival.

Callisto glanced to another area alongside the dock where a plain Persian vessel was tied. The Roman leader had listened attentively to her plan and then after a moments thought agreed to lend his support. Caesar would loan her the use of a fully stocked ship and thirty of his finest mercenary soldiers to assist in her endeavour and in a few days they would be sailing towards the Greek coast.

She knew that with this small force she would be able to get into Corinth and do more damage to the Empress than a full Legion of Rome’s finest yet in spite of his agreement, the tall blond woman was just a little bit suspicious. The fact that the Leader of Rome had so willingly agreed to her plan made her wonder if she was to be some type of decoy. She had been manipulated once and would not allow that to happen again.

Following her instinct she trailed the newly arrived entourage, and though it was not greeted with any fanfare, the visitors were given immediate access to the palace. She was able to slip through the gates unnoticed by the Roman soldiers and hide behind a corner of a building. From there she watched as the small group dismounted from the carriage. They were greeted by General Brutus who escorted them into the Palace.

“You are the Amazon Callisto?”

The low voice caught the blond warrior by surprise and she whirled around, her sword raised, ready to strike the person who dared to approach her. Her blue eyes narrowed as she caught sight of a tall brown haired woman wrapped in dark robes. It was the black eyes that drew her attention for they seemed to bore right into her soul.

“Why do you ask?” a pair of blue eyes narrowed.

“I ask because I heard that you were arranging a mission against the Conqueror,” the mysterious woman said and Callisto was immediately on her guard. She had only discussed her plans with Caesar.

“Did HE tell you that?” the Amazon hissed, fearing that her suspicious may have been correct.

“Caesar did not betray you.”

“Than how do you know of my plans?”

A small smile came to the dark haired woman’s red lips. “I have a special gift. A gift that can tell me what other people are thinking and special powers from the Underworld that can help you in your quest to defeat the Conqueror,” the woman explained.

“How do you know that my mission is against the Conqueror?”

“Does not everyone have some grievance with the Warrior Princess?”

“What grievance do you have?” Blue eyes narrowed as they stared at the tall woman. It was not in her nature to trust anyone.

“I was once a courtesan in Queen Cleopatra’s court,” the strange woman explained. “We were visiting the Conqueror when her bed slave made a complaint against me. The Queen was most embarrassed and banished me from her presence and the Royal court where I welded much power. It has not been easy for me to adjust to my new circumstances.”

“If it was a mere bed slave how was it that you did not take care of the matter yourself if you have such powers?” Callisto was disdainful and yet curious.

“Because that bed slave is the Queen of the Amazon’s, the one whom the Conqueror protects and wishes to make her consort.”

The blonde Amazon was silent for a moment as she continued to stare at this stranger. She could tell that this woman was not lying. She had heard the hatred in the tone of the taller woman’s voice. She was not certain though that this stranger would be a help or a liability.

“What do you propose?”

“An alliance.”

“I already have an alliance with Caesar?” Callisto reminded the woman.

“He offers you only a small force of soldiers. You will not be able to defeat the Conqueror with them, nor can you defeat the Conqueror on your own,” the woman said bluntly. “You are not strong enough nor a good enough swordsman to kill the Conqueror, but the two of us together would be more than a match for her, and with her dead, it would be easy for me to kill the one known as Gabrielle.”

Callisto was silent as she contemplated the idea. She privately bristled at the woman’s suggestion that she was not good enough to defeat the Conqueror on her own, but she was not stupid and knew that it would be smart to balance the odds in her favour.

“What if I don’t agree?” the Amazon snarled, unnerved by this woman.

“Than I can make life miserable for you,” the arrogant woman promised glancing over the scantily clad warrior. “By your appearance it would not be hard for me to make the Roman guards think that you were here to do harm to their beloved Caesar.”

“And I would claim that you gave me assistance,” Callisto snarled not to be outdone by this stranger.

The woman laughed, her dark eyes sparkling for a mere instant, impressed by the response. The smile left her face as quickly as it had appeared. “You will not be sorry.”

“I hope not,” the blonde Amazon snarled. “Are you are willing to follow my plans?”

“Yes.”

“Than I am willing to accept your assistance,” she finally spoke, and the taller woman bowed graciously in acceptance. “By what do you call yourself?”

“I am known to all as Altee,” the strange woman replied, her dark eyes glimmering.

While the two women formed an alliance outside the palace walls, Brutus was inside the lavish palace escorting the new visitors in to see the Roman leader. Though he had once been Caesar’s favourite General, he was no longer privy to the man’s thoughts. Once a valued member of the man’s inner circle he found himself slowly being pushed from a position of power. Caesar had all but accused him of treason for allowing Xena to win in the North, and as punishment he was slowly being banished from Rome.

Brutus glanced at the small man whom he led through the corridors of the Palace to the reception chamber where Caesar waited. The presence of the Prince from Chin in Rome made him uneasy. Chin was a land securely under the power of the Empress of Greece. He wondered about this man’s appearance.

He announced the guest’s arrival and stepped aside so that the visitors could move into the room. Caesar was alone with the exception of the guards and he immediately dismissed them, along with Brutus, whom he instructed to close the doors.

“It is so good of you to see us on such short notice,” Ming Tien said bowing respectfully.

“How could I refuse a visit from someone such as yourself, a respected Prince of Chin,” the Roman replied. “Though I am a little surprised, especially as I know you are a close and respected member of the Conquerors Empire.”

“I am but a mere servant of the Conquerors,” the small man replied ambiguously.

“A man of your statute should not be a servant to anyone, you are a Prince of Chin,” Caesar countered his curiosity growing.

“Yes, but circumstances are such that I do not rule my own land,” the Chin man replied in a mournful voice.

“That will change someday,” the Roman aristocrat waved his arm negligently.

“On that we agree,” Ming Tien answered.

“But perhaps you grow impatient waiting?” Caesar remarked slyly.

“Indeed, each day that passes is too long a wait, which is why I seek your advice?”

“What of Loa Moa? Surely, there is none better then one’s own mother to dispense advice.”

“My poor honoured mother met with an unfortunate accident just prior to my departure from Chin,” Ming Tien replied. “The Conqueror has not yet been advised of her untimely passing, and I thought it in her best interest not to mention anything until after the Empress’ wedding celebration.”

Caesar allowed a sly smile to broaden across his face. He clapped his hands and then motioned to his guests to take a seat. A servant appeared from a corner of the room.

“My guests have had a long and hard journey,” the Emperor said to the servant. “Bring us fresh drink and food immediately.”

The maiden bowed her head and hurried from the room as Caesar himself sprawled out onto a nearby couch. It would be a long afternoon and he would show his guests respect by making available to them the finest food and drink from his cellars. It was the least that he could do in response to this unexpected visit.

“Now, my friend, what advice do you wish?”

________________________________
By the time the bard was finished, the intimate picnic for two that Xena had imagined had turned into a party of eight. Besides Solan and Arron, Gabrielle invited Archius, Xenon, Solari and Eponin.

After collecting the food from the kitchen staff they met in the courtyard before riding together through the city and out towards the small beach area that Xena and Gabrielle had claimed as their own special place.

Gabrielle was seated on Argo in front of her beloved Conqueror, with Xena’s arms wrapped tightly around her swollen belly. The bard enjoyed the arrangement for she was able to lean back into the curving warmth of her companion’s body. For Xena, she was comforted in the knowledge that she was protecting her love and their child.

It was a beautiful afternoon. It was breezy yet the wind was warm and soothing, carrying the refreshing scent of the sea across the land. After leaving the horses to graze in the tall grasses that skirted the dunes, they strolled in a group to the waters edge. The seas were calm, the waves small as they rolled leisurely onto the shore.

Gabrielle had thought long and hard on a way that she could get the tall warrior and her son alone together. The idea had finally come to her while she had been down in the kitchens collecting food for their excursion. A smile had come to her face as the idea grew into a plan which she carefully plotted and now was intent on implementing.

“All right, here’s the deal,” the small bard said when the group headed up the beach to where they had deposited the baskets and blankets that had been brought. “I decided for our meal tonight we would do something different.”

Xena instinctively knew that she wasn’t going to like what was coming and in the next few moments her suspicions were confirmed. She silently berated herself for giving the other woman such freedom to rule her life. It amazed her that a not many summers earlier they had been strangers, and she had been totally unaware of the dynamic woman who had swept into her life and claimed her heart.

“As you see there are nothing in the three baskets other then some skins of wine and some sweets,” Gabrielle was clearly in her element and the smile on her face and the twinkle in her eye was genuine. “I have divided us up into teams of two. Each team will be given a basket and the challenge is for each team to go off and find us something to eat.”

Xena grimaced aware that the Amazon’s were fiercely competitive. She turned a blue gaze on the small blond woman and mimicked a snarl, showing her displeasure.

“What is the prize for the team who brings back the best fare?” Solari asked eagerly.

“The prize is a scroll, personally written by the bard especially for the winners.” The Empress piped in before the Amazon Queen could speak and those in attendance were pleased by the offered reward.

Twinkling green eyes turned to the taller woman, the smile on the bards face growing wider. She loved the idea of the reward and equally pleased that her love had suggested it.

“Okay,” she turned her attention to the group and began the job of placing them in teams. Xena was not surprised when she was paired with Solan. She knew that the bard had planned this from the start, and while she accepted what the small woman was attempting to do she wasn’t certain the boy was as accepting.

Solan wasn’t very pleased to be paired with the Empress and the expression on his young face reflected his feelings, but he said nothing, accepting the basket that was held out to him.

The pairs headed off in different directions leaving Gabrielle and Archius behind to set out the blankets and to prepare a fire. Xena growled one last time before turning and following the blond boy who was already trudging up the nearby sand dune.

The Empress knew that her lover’s intentions were good, but she was less certain that this was the way to make the two of them speak with each other. She didn’t know how to start a conversation and was quietly mulling over several opening lines when the boy saved her that problem.

“Where do you think we can find anything edible?” Solan had been taught by Kalipus to live off the land but the vegetation here was different then the plant life that was found in the forest and mountainous regions where the Centaur village was located.

“There is food all around us,” Xena replied in a crisp voice and then realized how harsh it might sound to the boy. She softened her tones when she spoke again. “You just have to look for it. The land is rich with everything needed to survive.”

“I know,” the boy replied somewhat shortly bristling at the idea that this woman thought that he was ignorant of the land. “Kalipus, my father, showed me the different plants that would not be poisonous to eat.”

“Yes, but the regions around Amphipolis and the Centaur village are very different than here,” Xena said, pausing in her stride to drop to her hunches. Solan paused and looked down at the dark haired woman, watching as she pushed aside a green mat of grass and plucked a different green coloured leaf root from the ground. She rubbed the dirt off and held it up for the boy to see.

“This is a black root,” she explained, finding it easy to converse with the lad when they were discussing a subject to which she knew. She was pleased to see that the boy was paying attention. “It isn’t very tasty unless you roast it with meat but it will defeat any hungry you might be feeling.”

Solan nodded forgetting for a moment that he was listening to the Conqueror. He was always interested in gaining knowledge especially when it came to Mother Nature and for the next half candle mark they wandered around the small plain and nearby forest, momentarily forgetting the purpose of their adventure.

“How do you like living at the Palace?” Xena finally screwed up her courage and asked the boy the one question that had been upper most in her mind.

“It’s okay,” Solan was non-committal.

“The stable master is quite pleased with your work,” the Empress continued, encouraged that the lad’s response wasn’t filled with the usual anger. “He says that you have a natural talent with the animals. Perhaps that is because of your upbringing.”

“The Centaurs are not animals,” Solan bristled at the comparison.

“No they aren’t, I apologize for the suggestion,” the Empress immediately recognized her mistake and did the only thing she could think of. She did not realize how proud her bard would have been of her. “What I meant was that you probably understand better then the rest of us their needs in making them comfortable and keeping them healthy.”

The argument that Solan was forming in his head died on his lips. He was barely able to hide his astonishment at the fact that the Conqueror had actually apologized. Not only had she apologized but she had done so to someone as lowly as him. This confused him, for in his mind he had come to believe that the Empress apologized to no one.

“Well, yeah, I guess so,” he managed to mumble.

“And your lessons are you enjoying them?” Xena asked pleased by how well the conversation was going. Perhaps this would be easier than she imagined. She would have to thank the small bard later when they were finally alone.

“Yes,” the boy nodded his blond head. “I am learning much about the Empire and the lands beyond the borders.”

“The scribes are teaching you numbers as well.” It was more of a statement than a question.

“Yes, but I do not have a head for numbers,” the lad confessed ruefully. “The scribes are very frustrated by my inability to learn their concepts.”

Xena laughed. “You must have inherited that from m………” Almost too late she caught herself, aware that she was about to reveal a secret that she was not yet ready for the world to know. “I had no head for numbers either. It caused my mother no end of frustration.”

“It’s not like I need to know anything more than the count of currency,” the boy continued with a shrug of his broad shoulders. “I am a soldier. I have no need for numbers.”

“That’s where you are wrong,” the Empress countered. “Everyone should know how to count and keep count.”

“Why?” the lad turned to look at the tall woman.

“To count your pay, for one.”

“Isn’t that what scribes are for?”

“Yes, but how will you know that your scribe isn’t cheating you?” Xena asked curiously. “Besides, what will you do if you are hurt in a battle and can no longer be a soldier? You will need numbers for anything you do.”

Solan remained silent. He didn’t want to acknowledge that the Conqueror was right. What she said was the same thing that Kalipus always used to tell him when he fussed about going to lessons.

Xena seemed to sense that the boy was thinking about something deep. She decided that she had reached the limit of her sensitive chats.

“We have been gone a long while,” she said changing the subject. “I think the others may be waiting for us.”

Solan glanced at the contents of the basket. “We only found roots and berries; we have no meat to roast.”

“I don’t think we will have to worry,” the Conqueror snorted. “One thing you will learn around the Amazons, they are very competitive and take each challenge seriously. If there is any meat to be had around the area, the Amazons will have already found it.”

The boy nodded. He had not been around the Palace very long but already he had seen evidence of the Amazon’s spirited nature. More then once he had been witness to a challenge between the Amazon’s and the Royal Palace Guards.

As the Conqueror had intimidated, the Amazon’s won the challenge, having captured several small rabbits, plus roots and berries. Xena remained behind while Gabrielle sent the others off for an evening swim. They worked silently together putting the boar on a spit over the fire that was now a mount of glowing coals and embers. Only once the food was set to cook in the fire did they sit down. In the distance they could see the others splashing in the surf, their laughter and voices carrying through the evening air.

“Ask I know you are dying to.”

“Ask what?” Gabrielle pretended not to understand what the tall woman was referring too.

Xena snorted in disbelief and the bard knew that the Conqueror would not make it easy on her. She sighed, giving in as she always did.

“Okay, how did it go with Solan?”

“Okay I guess,” the dark haired woman shrugged, looking at the blond innocently. “No blood was shed.”

“Xena,” Gabrielle whined rolling her green eyes, slapping her companion’s thigh.

“Okay, okay, don’t get physical,” the Conqueror smiled, grabbing the small hands and holding them tightly between her own larger callused ones. “We just talked. I asked him about how he was doing, and if he was enjoying his stay at the Palace. I decided it was best to keep our conversation general.”

“Wise move,” the Queen agreed, a smile decorating her face. “And does he enjoy living at the Palace?”

“I suppose, though he did not have an understanding of why he needed to learn numbers,” the Conqueror replied.

“What answer did you give?”

“I told him so that I wouldn’t cheat him out of his proper pay,” Xena shrugged and the bard rolled her eyes.

Gabrielle did not press her companion for more information, aware that the Conqueror was not one for intimate chats. Instead when she spoke again it was on a different subject.

It was late when the group finally returned to the palace and the weary individuals where more than happy to retire to their beds. Gabrielle had fallen asleep on the ride back to the city and her companion lovingly carried her to bed, taking care to disrobe the small bard before pulling the bed sheets over the woman.

For a long time Xena sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the smaller woman, her fingers unconsciously stroking the blonde’s cheek. She loved the bard, and did not know what she would do if she ever lost the woman. With a sigh she rose and prepared for bed, hoping that she would never have to find out the answer to that thought.
CHAPTER THREE
Xena had plenty of time to think about the evening over the next few weeks. Solan was settling in nicely at the Palace and she had taken to giving him weapons training in the afternoon. In spite of the boy’s proclamation of wishing to kill her, he had not attempted to stick her with a sword when they dueled. Perhaps, in time, as Gabrielle had suggested, the lad would come to change his feelings towards her.

The Conqueror sighed as she rounded the corner and entered the throne room. The wedding was now only a few days away and there were many things to do. She was still welcoming the dignitaries from around her kingdom and word had reached her the day before, that representatives from Chin had arrived. The ornately decorated junks from the foreign land were loaded heavy with gifts from the eastern lands and anchored in the harbour just outside the city.

She did not look forward to the upcoming interview. Her spies indicated that it was Ming Tien and not his mother whom headed the entourage. Though it had been several years since she had last seen the boy she had no doubt that he was still arrogant and conniving. She did not trust the Princeling.

She forgot about the young man and turned her attention to the matters at hand. This morning she had appointments to see several of the individuals involved in the wedding and a smile nearly broke across her lips at the sight of the small round merchant by the name of Salmoneous.

The ambitious merchant had some how gotten under her skin. His fawning, though at times annoying, always ended up bringing a smile to her lips. On this occasion he and his connections had proven very helpful in securing for her all the various delicacies and items that she desired for the wedding.

“You’re Majesty,” Salmoneous gushed the instant he spotted the tall dark warrior. He bowed, taking her hand and gallantly placing a kiss upon it. It was a gesture that she allowed of no one but him and he was honoured.

“Salmoneous,” she acknowledged his presence. “What have you brought me to look at today?”

“Your wedding garment,” the merchant’s smile broadened and motioned to an assistant who was standing beside him.

In a flurry the young slave whisked the parchment from around a large bundle and lifted an elegant looking garment that was hanging on a twig.

Xena stepped back to view the creation. She had been undecided as to what she would wear for the ceremony until the merchant had offered to take care of the matter. Against her better judgment she had agreed and now here was what he had chosen and she knew that she was not disappointed for the garments were made of the finest leather and silk that could be found in the lands.

“You have out done yourself,” she murmured her appreciation and the rotund man smiled happily. He was aware that the Conqueror had expected something similar to what the Queen would be wearing but he knew instinctively what would make the impressive Empress look her best.

“Thank you my Empress,” the merchant was truly grateful that he had succeeded on his mission. “I knew that you wanted the focus of this special day to be upon the Queen, yet I also knew that your own beauty should not be disguised. In that regards I had my tailors create something that befitted your statute as Empress.”

“I like it,” Xena agreed. She had debated whether she had wanted to wear a gown or leggings and was glad that the small merchant had settled the question for her.

“As the whole Empire will like seeing you in it,” came a mild sounding voice from the doorway and there was silence as everyone turned and looked towards the speaker. “I beg your forgiveness for interrupting but I could contain myself no longer.”

“Ming Tien,” the Conqueror acknowledged the small foreign dignitary who shuffled into the room, followed by his retinue of servants and advisers. The new arrivals bowed ceremoniously while the Empress waved her hand motioning for the others in the room to leave. There was silence as the room emptied.

“It is good to see you Mien Ting,” Xena broke the ensuing silence. “My servants reported that you had arrived last evening.”

“I would have come to pay my respects than but it was late and I thought it best to present myself at a better time,” the Princeling explained away his behaviour.

The Empress made no comment. Contrary to what the Princeling said, she knew that he had not sent word of his arrival out of disrespect. Ming Tien hated her and only tolerated her rule because of his mother.

“How is Loa Moa?” Xena asked of her friend.

“She is of fine health,” Ming Tien replied with a straight face, revealing none of the truth. “She asked that I present this gift to you as a sign of her affection and to express her happiness at your marriage.”

The Chin Princeling motioned to a servant who hurried forward with a small box which he presented to the Conqueror. Xena looked at the gift for a moment before lifting the lid. Inside resting on a beautiful bed of spun silk was a black bone comb. A dark thought flashed across her features. She knew the significance of this gift.

The Conqueror turned and strolled slowly across the room to the window of the room and peered out onto the courtyard. Her eyes caught a glimpse of the blond haired Amazon, who would be her wife in the next few days, her swollen belly making all movement slow as she strolled side by side with Solan who was walking one of the horses. A small smile came to her lips. It disappeared just as quickly when she turned back to face the small Eastern man.

“Your mother’s gift was very thoughtfully,” she commented. “What did you bring me?”

Ming Tien smiled. “My junks are filled with only the finest silks and oils from the Eastern land, but for you and only you I brought a special gift.” He clapped his hands and a small eastern woman in dark silk robes stepped forward. Her head was bowed but Xena could see by the shape of her face that though she was of an Eastern land she was not from Chin.

“I give you this slave, from the land of Japa,” the Princeling said. “She is not only young and beautiful and a speaker of words, but also trained to give you pleasure in bed.”

Xena stared at the young woman who glanced up with a shy smile on her ruby red lips. She was beautiful with liquid brown eyes and petite features, and at another time and place the Conqueror would have been grateful for such a gift. But her heart was completely consumed with the beauty and love of another small woman. Though they had never discussed the matter the Conqueror knew that for her to dally with another, no matter if it was only a casual sexual encounter, would hurt the bard and that was something she never intended on doing.

“As much as your gift is appreciated, it is also inappropriate for this occasion,” Xena turned her pale blue eyes on the small Princeling.

“It may seem strange, but word has reached us that you are to be a mother,” Ming Tien replied. “I am certain that your lovely bride would not begrudge you the opportunity to receive pleasure from another while she is incapacitated by your child.”

“No, but I would begrudge myself,” the Conqueror said firmly. “In a few days I will make a pledge to the world that I have already made to myself. Even though I am not bound by law, I am bound by the feelings I have to share myself with no one but my bride, from now and forever.”

“That is a novel idea,” Ming Tien commented with a hint of mirth, his manner almost condescending.

“Perhaps,” Xena shrugged not caring what anyone else thought. As Conqueror, she could have anyone she wanted, at anytime, but she wanted only one woman. She had no desire to bed anyone else, no matter how beautiful they were.

Thankfully, the interview with Ming Tien ended shortly afterwards as the Princeling took his entourage and returned to his junk to wait for the day of the ceremony. When he departed he left behind the two gifts that he had presented to the Conqueror. Xena stared at the young Japa girl not certain what to do with her. It was as if the girl could read her thoughts.

“Why do you not wish me?”

“Because I have no need of someone of your talents,” Xena replied, somehow not surprised that this slave could speak her tongue.

“Why is that?”

“By what are you called?”

“Akemi,” the girl replied.

“Akemi, I already have someone that can give me what you can and more,” the Conqueror shrugged.

“But I am a maker of poems, stories and music.”

“I already have a scholar and a bard in my company,” Xena was getting bored with this conversation. “You offer me nothing that I don’t already have.”

“What if I offer you more riches from a land ripe for the picking? With my help you can have it all,” the Japa girl said a sly smile creasing her lips.

Xena was interested. She wandered back to her throne and sprawled into its comfort. “Tell me more.” She was intrigued by what this girl would say.

“Japa, the land of my birth,” the girl said. “It is filled with riches more beautiful and plentiful then any that can be found in the land of Chin. It is a land ruled by many and waiting for the one to come and conqueror it all. There are temples to the gods and rivers filled with gold and other jewels that befit someone of your statute. It is a land waiting for someone to come and feed upon its riches.”

“And you think I am the one to do that?”

“Yes,” the girl nodded her dark head. “On the journey from Chin I heard many stories of your greatness, warriors and civilians alike quake at the mention of your name. They say that you are the greatest ruler of all the Known World and the riches such as those in Japa deserve only someone as bold and mighty as yourself to be their possessor.”

Xena listened quietly. The Japa girl had a tongue of silver almost better then her bard, and in another time and place she might have allowed herself to be seduced by the beautiful woman’s words. But today she had priorities that went beyond those of which this foreign woman spoke. The Conqueror knew that in Gabrielle she had treasures that could not be replaced. Treasures that were better then anything found in the ground.

“No,” Xena said not caring about the riches that she has just been offered.

“What?” the girl seemed surprised. A look of confusion crossed her face as if she had somehow misunderstood.

“I am not interested in conquering Japa.”

“Why?”

“There are many reasons.”

“It is because of this woman you are to take as your bride?” The Japa woman was shocked. She had heard so many stories of how easy it was to seduce the Conqueror. Ming Tien had told her on the journey of how simple it would be for them to entice the Empress into mounting a campaign into the Eastern lands. So far the Empress had expressed no interest. She wondered if the Chin Princeling had lied to her.

“She is but one of the reasons,” Xena shrugged. It made no difference to her what this foreign woman thought.

“You are making a mistake.”

“How?” Blue eyes captured the other woman’s dark ones.

“Because there are others that covet the land of Japa,” the girl retorted. “Others who will know how to use its resources of jewels and people, and they might then threaten the Eastern borders of your Empire.”

“Perhaps they will,” the Conqueror agreed her pale eyes narrowing. “But in order for them to get to Japa will they not have to cross through my Empire first?”

There was silence as the girl contemplated the Empress’ words.

“Who filled your head with these things?” Xena asked her pale eyes still on the girl. “And why do you wish for me to Conqueror your homeland?”

There was another silence as the girl continued to return the Conquerors gaze. “Japa is ruled by a very evil warlord; one more evil then yourself. He makes all our lives miserable and our people wait for the day a saviour rides into our land to rescue us from that slavery. Ming Tien told me that you desired to conqueror all the Known World.”

“Then you are not a slave?”

“No,” the girl confirmed her suspicions. “I wished to offer myself in exchange for your help. Ming Tien presented me as a gift in hopes that I might persuade you to help my cause. I wish to overthrow this warlord and I wanted your assistance.”

“And if I conquered your lands?” The Empress asked. “What would happen then?”

“I would rule it as your faithful and loyal representative once you returned here to the Palace.”

“I don’t think so,” Xena shook her head. “I think your plan was to seduce me into helping you conquer Japa and then Ming Tien and you would oppose me together. Am I wrong?”

The girl did not answer, though a measure of shock rippled through her mind. She could not believe how accurately the Conqueror had guessed their plot.

“I am not a fool, and I will not take the word of someone who is not only a stranger but a friend to someone I consider an enemy.” The Conqueror snarled. “Archius! Please see that this woman is escorted back to Ming Tien. I do not wish to have his gift foul my home.”

“You will regret this,” the small dark haired Japa girl announced with a hint of scorn. Xena turned to face the smaller woman, her blue eyes blazing dark.

“I don’t think so,” she turned towards Archius. “Please see that our guest is escorted out of the Palace.”

Archius nodded and then motioned to the guards who quickly moved forward and grasped the girl by the arms.

“You will regret this,” the girl repeated before being dragged out of the room.

There was a lengthening silence after the Japa girl’s departure. Archius looked across the room to his mistress. He could see the frown that was burrowed across her brows. He approached with caution uncertain of the tall woman’s mood.

“My Empress?”

“Yes Archius?” the Conqueror turned to the man.

“Are you certain of this decision?” the aide wanted to know. “Akemi speaks the truth. Japa is an unknown world but it has been rumoured to hold more riches then all the Known World together.”

“That may be so,” the Conqueror agreed. “But, I am not prepared to lead an army now. Gabrielle is in no condition to travel and I will not leave her here to bear our child alone.”

“Perhaps the campaign can be postponed until after the child is born,” Archius suggested.

“No,” Xena was very adamant. “I will not leave Gabrielle and I will not have her drag our child across the world to be with me. The conditions of such a campaign would be difficult and not one I would wish to subject either of them too.”

There was silence as the aide contemplated the Conquerors words and sad smile crossed the tall woman’s face.

“Perhaps in another time before Gabrielle came into my life I would have jumped at the opportunity….” there was a pause as the blue eyes lowered briefly in contemplation before lifting again and squarely looking at her companion. “But since Gabrielle came into my life things have changed. Now obtaining more riches is not as important as ensuring the ones that I love, the ones who are apart of my life, are safe and happy.”

Archius knew her words were sincere and he would not be one to try and dissuade her from her course. He watched as she opened the small box that had been offered from Loa Moa and noticed the hardening of the Conquerors features as she stared at the gift.

“There is something you can do for me Archius.”

“Yes, my Empress?”

“I wish for you to send a trusted envoy to the Kingdom of Chin,” Xena instructed. “I wish to learn as quickly as possible as to the fate of my dear friend.”

“You think something is wrong?”

“Yes,” Xena nodded lifting the delicate comb and turning it over in her hand, seeing the shape of its pointed fingers.

“Your wish is done, my Conqueror,” the aide agreed and then scurried out of the room to do her bidding.

Ming Tien was surprised and affronted by the knowledge that the Conqueror had rejected his wedding gift. He had been certain that Akemi would be able to seduce the Empress with her words and offers. He had been young but not to young to understand how his mother and the Empress had come to be such good allies. It had disgusted him that they had shared the same bed but he had hoped to use that knowledge. Well, his plan had not worked and it was beginning to look like he would have to use his alliance with the Roman Emperor Caesar to defeat the Conqueror.

“Choi Ling!” he called for his trusted adviser.

“Yes, my lord,” the aged warrior appeared from the top deck, bowing on his knees as he entered the stateroom.

“How many able bodied servants do we have with us?”

“Not quite five hundred, my Lord.”

“Good,” the Chin Princeling replied. “I want you to choose twenty five of the best archers.”

The adviser nodded his head and listened attentively as his master detailed his plan. It seemed to him that what Ming Tien plotted was suicide but it was not his place to disobey. He was the Prince’s servant and he would do what was asked.

Later that day an odd pair of women slipped into the city, waiting until nightfall before making their way through the city gates. Behind them came a small entourage of individuals, all dressed in civilian clothes, pulling wooden carts and leading an assorted array of farm creatures. They did not attract any undue notice as they were no different then the thousands of other citizens from across the land who had been pouring into the city in anticipation of the upcoming celebrations.

Callisto had coloured her naturally light hair dark, in order to match that of her taller companion. They were posing as sisters and part of a caravan from the eastern corner of the Empire. After landing their boat in a port three days journey south, they had traveled to the outskirts of the city where they had set up camp. After spending their days scouting the capital they were ready to enact their plan.

There were less then fifty of them and barely a force to be reckoned with, considering the amount of soldiers that were billeted in the city, but they were not dressed as soldiers and it was easy for them to blend in with the civilian population. On the day of the wedding they would be able to mingle with the rest of the crowd and get past the security and within reaching distance of the podium and the Empress.

Without a word, the small group separated into smaller pairs and disappeared into the teeming mass of humanity that was crowding the city. Each knew the job they were to perform. Those who survived were to return to the port where their boat was docked. Only then would they receive their reward.

Callisto and Altee moved off as a unit, neither really trusting the other, in spite of the fact that their goals were one and the same. Silently they moved through the city, towards a small Inn where they would stay until that fateful day.

Behind them came another caravan. This one was from the North of the Empire and with it were traveling merchants and others who had specifically come to celebrate the wedding of the Empress and the Queen. There were four individuals in particular who all shared the same destination.

Hercuba, Lila and her husband, Linus, had been the first to join the traveling merchant caravan, sensing it was better to travel in a group through the wilds of the country then in the small party. The same thought had been in Cyrene’s mind when she had joined the caravan once it reached Amphipolis. She had been willing to travel alone if need be but Toris had persuaded her otherwise.

There had been a somewhat surprised moment followed by an awkward silence when the small party had learned that there ultimate destinations were the same. In the end it had been Cyrene, with her expertise as a hostess of an Inn, that had broken through the strain of that first meeting over a nighttime fire.

In the following days the two older women had come to be fast friends, though Cyrene at first had a hard time believing that Hercuba did not resent her for having a child that had grown up to be the Conqueror. Both the women understood that their trek across the country was perhaps the easiest part of their journey here.

Gabrielle looked across at her partner seeing the frown on the taller woman’s face. Xena had been moodier than usual since returning to their private chambers, remaining mostly silent over their meal. It was not unusual for the Empress to be quiet but the bard knew the woman and knew that something was bothering her.

“Are you going to tell me what the problem is?” she finally implored, breaking the silence that had begun to lengthen between them.
“What?” Xena asked absently glancing up from the bone comb that she was staring at.

“Come on Xena, I know something is bothering you.”

The Empress sighed. She had not wanted to burden the girl with her thoughts, especially not when it was so close to their wedding day.

“I fear I have problems in the Eastern part of my Empire.”

“What kind of problems?” the bard was quick to ask.

“I don’t know,” Xena said. “What I do know is that Ming Tien appeared in court today with this gift, a present from his mother Loa Moa.”

“But?” the smaller woman prompted when her companion fell silent.

“But she would not have sent me this if things had been alright,” the Conqueror continued. “I fear that she has met with an unfavourable fate.”

Gabrielle knew the importance of the Eastern woman in her lover’s life. She had sometimes felt jealousy of what the two had shared, but she had come to terms with the realization that their relationship, like that of the one that Xena had shared with Cleopatra, had occurred long before her appearance in the Conquerors life.

“Do you want to postpone the wedding?”

“Why would I do that?” Xena was shocked by the suggestion and her blue eyes flew to the soft green ones that were looking at her.

“So you can go to Chin and find out if Loa Moa is all right.” Gabrielle offered, her heart sinking at the thought that all the work that they had gone through in preparation for a wedding that might not now happen.

“No.” The word was absolutely final. “Loa Moa and the rest of my Empire can wait Gabrielle. I refuse to put them before you or our child.”

“But what if your friend needs you?”

“Then she will have to wait,” Xena said aware that she was speaking the truth. From now on the whole Empire would have to wait. The bard and their child were more important. “But it does not matter. I fear that it is already too late.”

Before Gabrielle could reply there was a knock on the door. Archius appeared at the younger woman’s call for their visitor to enter. There was a tentative look on his face.

“What is it?” Xena asked already on her feet.

“Your Highness, I think the Queen and you should come immediately.”

The man gave no hint to what awaited them and Xena held her hand out for the blond bard to take before they followed the smaller man out of their chambers and into the vast corridors of the Palace. Neither questioned the man in regards to the summons and later when they reached the front vestibule no more words were needed.

“Mom! Lila!” Gabrielle shouted before racing across the distance to embrace her family. Xena’s heart leapt at the sight. She had been hopeful that they would come for her lover’s sake and her hopes had been rewarded.

“Xena?” Another voice caught her attention and she turned slightly noticing for the first time another woman standing just off to the side.

“Mother?”

“Yes, Xena, it is me.” Cyrene wasn’t certain by the expression of the tall woman’s face whether she was happy or not to see her.

“Cyrene!” Gabrielle too noticed the other woman and walked over to embrace her. She had prayed to the Gods that their families would all be united in the celebration of their marriage.

“What are you doing here?”

“I could not miss my only daughter’s wedding,” Cyrene replied honestly, thinking of the violent argument she had with Toris over traveling the long distance to the Capital. The boy was not ready yet to forgive his sister.

A proclamation had gone out across the Empire announcing the nuptials and calling for a day of celebration. Many of the villages that dotted the landscape had planned special events and town parties as part of the festivities. The party was to begin when the sun reached its highest point in the sky for by that time the Empress and the Queen would be wed.

“I’m glad,” came the quiet and sincere reply. “When did you arrive?”

“We just arrived,” Hercuba replied. “We came here while Linus went in search of rooms.”

“You will all stay here, there is plenty of room,” Gabrielle announced immediately.

“We did not know if we were welcome,” Cyrene was honest and the taller woman was silent for a long moment, and the older woman thought she saw a flash of pain flit across the blue eyes that were staring at her intently.

“I know things have not always been good between us,” the Conqueror said. “But you are always welcome in my home.”

Silence reigned through the room. It had not been that long ago that those words would never have been spoken or accepted. But so much had changed and both women knew that change had occurred because of the bard’s influence in both their lives.

“Archius!” The Empress called turning to the small man who was a silent witness to the reunion.
“Yes, My Empress?”

“Archius, this is my mother, and this is Queen Gabrielle’s mother and her sister Lila,” Xena made the introductions regaining her composure. “I want you to prepare some rooms and summon the kitchen that we will need a late meal.”

“Yes, My Conqueror, it would be my pleasure,” the balding man agreed before rushing off to summon the necessary servants.

“I never expected that they would come,” Gabrielle admitted many candle marks later when the pair of lover’s were once again alone in their private chambers.

After sharing a late dinner and conversation they had settled their families into several large guest suites in the Palace before returning to their own quarters. They had readied for bed but the excitement of their unexpected visitor’s arrival made it impossible for them to go to sleep. Gabrielle was sitting on the bench by the window, staring out over the courtyard and into the city.

“You are happy?” Xena asked settling behind the bard and wrapping her arms around the smaller woman.

“Oh yes Xena, my life could not be any more perfect than it is,” the bard sighed settling back into the warm embrace of her lover.

“I am glad.” The Empress breathed sincerely.

“Are you okay with this?”

“Yes, otherwise I would not have extended the invitation.”

“Are you glad Cyrene is here?”

“Yes.” The Conqueror nodded and it was not a lie. She stared over the bard’s golden head into the night, seeing the flickering of the few fires that still burned in the capital.

Meanwhile in another part of the city a tall blond woman paced restlessly through the darkened streets of the capital. She could taste victory and was anxious to complete the mission on which she had embarked. To nervous to sleep she had left her companion at the small Inn where they had taken a room. There were still a few minor details that needed to be completed before that fateful day when she would face her sworn enemy.

She found the leader of the mercenaries and together they had scouted areas where they could stow their cache of weapons until they were needed. Everywhere there were soldiers patrolling the capital and it was not an uncommon sight for individuals to be stopped and searched. They had heard in the taverns of the extra security that had been put in place for the nuptials and knew that they had to be cautious to avoid detection. They returned to their individual Inn’s later without accomplishing their mission.

“What’ll ya have?” the maid servant asked as the tall blond woman settled onto a bench at a table near the fireplace.

“Some bread and cheese and a mug of your finest ale,” the woman replied tossing a coin onto the table to pay for her purchase.

“Aye,” the servant nodded scooping up the money and hurrying to the kitchens.

It was too early for most guests to have their morning fare so the tavern was nearly empty save for a lone gentleman who was sitting at a table near the bar. He was looking at her with dark eyes and Callisto curled her lip in a snarl before turning her attention to the food that suddenly appeared on the table in front of her. No sooner had she taken her first bite into the bread when the man appeared, slipping noiselessly onto the bench on the opposite side of the table from her.

“What do you want?” the woman snarled. She was not interested in making idle chatter.

“I heard that you were new to the city,” the man replied seemingly unperturbed by her behaviour.

“What is it your concern if I am?”

“Perhaps none,” the man shrugged nonchalantly. “But perhaps I can also help you.”

Blue eyes narrowed as they continued to stare at the man. “What help could I need?”

An evil smile broke across the man’s lips as he nodded his head in the direction of the barkeep that was standing wiping the mugs clean for the days use. “My friend overheard some of the conversation you had with the tavern owner.”

Callisto instantly racked her brain as to what she had said that would arouse suspicion. She had only asked the tavern owner a few innocuous questions regarding the layout of the city including the location of the wedding dais.

“I am here merely to do some business and help celebrate the Empress’ wedding.”

“A pity,” the man clucked to himself, though it was loud enough for the woman to hear. “It is well known that this tavern is a common meeting place for those still opposed to the Conqueror.”

Callisto remained silent, wondering whether the man was a spy for the Empress or if the God’s had finally graced her with some good fortune. Though wary she decided to test the waters.

“What if I was in agreement to those other patron’s, how is it that you might help me?”

The man smiled proud that he was a good reader of character. He had seen something in the woman the moment she and her companion had entered the tavern earlier seeking food and accommodation. He had watched her and had later asked questions. He had not been disappointed by the answers he had received.

“It is how we might be able to help each other?” the man said wickedly. “But first let me introduce myself. I am known by the name of Vargas.”

_____________________________

Ares laughed softly as he watched the goings on in the mortal world. Things were shaping up better than he had imagined and with limited interference from himself. He had thought he would have to intercede but it seemed that forces where coming together even without his intervention.

He had been careful to keep a low profile, aware that his Godly sisters were watching his every move, appearing uninterested in what was happening in the mortal world while secretly using his minions to keep tabs on those who were now in his favour. They were far inferior to His Chosen but they would help achieve his goal of getting her to return to him.

__________________________

In spite of the discussion that Callisto had with the stranger she was uncertain as to whether she could trust the man. For their next meeting she brought Altee who swore she could see true hatred in the man’s heart for the Conqueror. Only than did Callisto agree to let the man help her and it was with some amazement that she than learned that there were others like herself who had traveled across the Empire to attack the Conqueror on her wedding day.

Vargas had a shop in the courtyard square where the wedding itself would take place and it was where he agreed to store the weapons that were needed until the wedding day. So late at night, while most of the city slept, Callisto and her mercenaries worked, stowing the swords and spears that they would collect while the ceremony was in progress.

While they worked in one area of the city, other forces were also at work. Ming Tien’s trusted aide did the duty that was asked of him and with this own aides he scouted the city looking for positions where he could post his fighters without them being seen from the walls of the Palace.

The evening prior to the wedding ceremony he snuck his archers into position on buildings around the courtyard where the wedding dais was set up. It was from there that they would stay hidden until the trumpet sound that would begin the attack.

Meanwhile the occupants of the Palace were blissfully unaware of the activities outside the walls. Gabrielle spent the days leading up to the wedding by attending to her family and Cyrene while Xena continued to host the arrival of dignitaries from all parts of her Empire.

The Conqueror knew that she would be most vulnerable on her wedding day but she trusted Xenon and his security preparations to keep her safe. She could see the strong presence of soldiers on the streets. Each morning she conferred with the Captain of the Royal Guard. Her personal spies had been very busy, uncovering plots against her and many visitors to the city were captured and interred in the Palace prison.

She had hoped that her wedding day would be one of healing yet she was fast beginning to wonder if she was not making a mistake in making the affair so public. She could wed Gabrielle in the safety and privacy of the Palace, yet she had made a promise to herself to show the world and her Empire the importance of the bard in her life. She could not do that behind the walls of the palace.

“You are worried, My Empress?” Archius clearly interpreted the Conquerors somber mood.

“Yes,” Xena sighed glancing up at the aide. She was seated on her throne, playing thoughtfully with the ebony comb that had been given to her as a wedding gift from Loa Moa. “I worry for Queen Gabrielle, each day Xenon and his troops uncover yet another plot against me.”

The aide was momentarily silent. He knew of the woman’s fear and he was not without his own worry. “I am sure all will go well.”

“I only hope so,” the Empress sighed, knowing that there was nothing she could change. She had done everything in her power to ensure that her bard would be safe on their wedding day.

“Perhaps you are suffering a case of cold feet,” the aide suggested with a slight smile.

“No,” Xena immediately shook her head. “If there is one thing I am certain about it is my feelings for Gabrielle and my desire to spend the rest of my life with her. It is strange but I have never felt this sure about anything before. It equals the power I feel when I step onto the battlefield.”

“Than all will work out,” Archius assured the woman.

Xena could only hope so, but there was still a measure of worry that she knew would never go away. It didn’t matter how well she protected Gabrielle, the bard was still vulnerable. She reminded the bard of that later that night.

“Are you asking me if I want to change my mind?” Gabrielle stared at her solemn warrior.

“Yes, I guess I am,” the Empress said with a heavy heart. There was sorrow in her eyes. “The moment you become my wife, your fate will be sealed. People will hate you because you are with me.”

“Than they already hate me,” the bard reasoned.

“No,” the Conqueror shook her head. “Most people consider you my bed slave here against your will but when you take the vows to be my wife they will know that you are with me not because I make you but because you want to be.”

“Good because I want the world to know that I love you,” Gabrielle said proudly and the love in the green eyes sent the tall warriors heart soaring. She embraced the smaller woman, drawing her tightly against her body.

“Whatever happens in the future Gabrielle, please remember that I love you beyond anything else.”

“I do my love.”
CHAPTER FOUR
The big day had finally arrived and Xena paced nervously around the bed chamber that she had used to dress. Salmoneus had taken over with many of the minor arrangements and he insisted that it was bad luck to see the bride prior to the ceremony. And so alone she waited for the moment that the merchant would come to announce that it was time.

She paused in front of the long looking glass and studied her reflection. The merchant had persuaded her that he had the perfect outfit for the occasion and than proceeded to produce a set of black leather trousers. With the pants was a matching black leather, sleeveless shirt under which she wore a long sleeved high collared white silk shirt. Her sword was strapped to her side and over one shoulder hung a dark blue cape. Her hair had been left free. Grudgingly she had to admit that the man had been right.

Her thoughts turned to her companion as she wondered what the bard would be wearing. She had promised to marry the Queen before their baby was born and now at eight months the child was getting ready to enter the world.

A shiver racked her body and she was astonished that it was caused by the excitement she felt. It was a new feeling and pleasant. A radiant smile curved over her lips at the realization that she had never been happier in her life. She had the sudden urge to shout out her joy but she didn’t. She was the Conqueror and such behaviour was not acceptable. The knock on the door interrupted her thoughts.

“Yes,” Xena called and watched as the door opened to admit Salmoneous. The moment he caught sight of the Conqueror he stopped, his eyes bulging in surprise at the sight of the radiant woman who stood there.

“What?” She demanded of the man who continued to stare at her. “Do I have something on my face?”

“No, My Conqueror,” Salmoneous broke the spell and gushed. “I have never seen you looking so beautiful. Your face just shines radiantly. Love looks very good on you.”

Xena blushed profusely and turned away in embarrassment. She had never received such a genuine compliment from anyone other than the Queen and it was disconcerting. She straightened her shoulders and allowed her Conqueror facade to drop over her features. She turned back to the man.

“Is it time to go?”

“Your horse is ready,” the merchant answered regaining his composure. Xena was to ride to the market square where she would wait for the bard to arrive in a specially crafted carriage.

The Empress nodded anxious to get on with the ceremony. “Then let’s be on our way.”

The man smiled before following the tall woman through the Palace to the front steps where Argo, washed and groomed, was waiting. She nodded at the Palace Escort whose armour and clothing was clean and shiny. She mounted her horse and glanced at Xenon, the soldier whom she had asked to stand as her second.

“Are you ready My Conqueror?” the soldier asked with a smile.

“Yes,” came the short reply. “I think if we don’t get this over with soon I shall change my mind.”

“I do not think that a possibility,” the man laughed. He had only ever seen his commander this way in the presence of the Queen, who with a simple look or smile was able to reduce the fiercest warrior in the Known World to the likes of a youth with their first crush.

“No,” the Conqueror agreed sheepishly. “If I were not to show up today I am afraid I would have to run and hide for the rest of my life, in fear of what the Queen would do to me if she ever found me.”

The soldier chuckled at the vision of the tall, dark warrior running from the small blond woman. But he also knew that the Empress would never run, for that would be letting the small woman down and he knew that she would never do that. Without another word they lined up, with the Empress in the middle and the procession began.

Salmoneous watched as the mounted procession moved off before summoning the Queens escort who would be drawing the open carriage in which the blond woman would ride to her nuptials. Jason had been given the honour of driving the team of horses that would pull the carriage.

“How do I look?” Gabrielle asked, doing an awkward pirogue for all those who had helped her dress.

“Absolutely gorgeous,” Lila exclaimed with excitement. “Xena will be overwhelmed.”

“Thank you Lila,” Gabrielle welcomed her sister’s encouragement but her green eyes sought those of her mother’s. It was important to the Queen to know what her mother thought. “Mother?”

“Lila is right, you are very beautiful,” Hercuba smiled. The glow of her pregnancy only added to the beauty that naturally radiated off the small woman. Though she did not agree with this marriage she could see how happy her daughter was. She wished her husband had not been so stubborn and refused to accompany them to the capital for the festivities.

“Thank you,” the Queen was relieved, knowing that her mother would be honest. She moved across the room and grasped the older woman’s hands and gave them a gentle squeeze. “I am glad you decided to come, it means allot to Xena and me.”

“I could hardly miss my oldest daughters wedding,” Hercuba said surprised by the lump in her throat. She had not expected to feel so happy for her oldest child.

“I hope that you will consider staying until the birth of our baby,” Gabrielle continued.

“We’ll see,” the older woman made no promises but surprised herself by considering the idea.

At that moment there was a knock on the door and the three women watched as the merchant stepped into the room. One look at the Queen in her long green robes with her blond hair drawn back in an elegant braid and he considered the Empress a very lucky woman.

“You look absolutely wonderful,” Salmoneous exalted. “Your radiance is greater than anything the sun can produce.”

“Salmoneous you need not flatter me, for I am sure that the Conqueror plans to reward you well for all you have done to make this day special for us both,” the Queen answered smoothly.

“Getting the chance to help prepare this occasion and to see you both now, is reward enough,” the merchant said graciously but Gabrielle knew otherwise and just smiled.

“Are we ready to go?” Like the Empress she was anxious to get this day over.

“Yes,” the man clapped his hands gleefully. “The Empress has already begun the journey and your carriage is waiting for you now.”

Gabrielle turned to her sister Lila and mother. “I guess it’s time to get married.”

The others nodded. They had arrived in the city with Linus only a few days earlier. Their father had refused to attend the ceremony, staying back on his farm. But they knew that even there he would not be immune from the celebrations that were planned for all across the Empire.

Though they had been welcomed into the palace, they had spent many candle marks wandering around the city as Linus had shown them the town to which he had been born. The city had been engulfed in a festive mood, with performers entertaining the crowds in many squares. From everyone joyous greetings had been called. It had been a welcome relief to know how happy these people were for Gabrielle.

This realization was only re-enforced by the trip to the newly erected wedding dais. The route of the matrimonial procession was lined with citizens all cheering and waving blue ribbons and cloths, symbols of the Conqueror and the Empire. The Queen smiled brilliantly and returned the waves, buoyed by the happiness that was directed her way. Before she had time to reflect on the nervousness she felt they were there in the market, winding their way through the crowd to the front of the dais steps.

Green eyes went to the top of the platform where her lover stood waiting. Xena looked beautiful and wild in her wedding costume and her heart thudded heavily in her chest. Jason climbed down from the carriage and opened the door to help her down to the steps. Once there she waited for her sister and mother to disembark.

Hercuba caught her breath at the sight of the tall dark haired woman who stood at the top of the dais waiting for their arrival. She was dressed splendidly in black leather with a white shirt and a dark blue cape slung over one shoulder. Her sword was strapped to her narrow waist. The breeze was ruffling her dark hair.

Callisto nodded silently to the Roman mercenaries who were gathered around her. One by one they had entered the square. In spite of their peasant garb, they had been thoroughly searched by the soldiers stationed at each entrance to ensure that they were not armed. Once inside amongst the other citizens they wandered casually over to the shop owned by Vargas where they retrieved the weapons that had been stored there. The blond Amazon smiled to herself aware that the Conqueror and the Queen would be caught completely off guard.

Gabrielle’s complete attention was focused on her lover who awaited her. She barely noticed the presence of those who would be standing in a place of honour on the platform. There was Jason and Solan, Eponin and Ephiny on the side where she would stand and on the other were Archius and Cyrene, Salmoneus and Xenon. Her smile grew at the sight of the Innkeeper, happy that the older woman had also come to the capital to celebrate.

Finally she was there, standing next to her tall lover who held out her arm which she took before they walked together to stand in front of the Magistrate who would perform the ceremony. The base of the dais was guarded by a ring of soldiers and Amazons, many of whom had journeyed to the Capital to witness the marriage of their Queen to the Conqueror. Those who had remained back at the Amazon village would be celebrating the union well into the night.

People from all regions of the Empire, peasants and dignitaries alike, all crowded into the small market square, their eyes focused towards the couple on the dais; all eager to witness this union.

“To all those of you who have gathered here to witness the union of Gabrielle, of Potedaia, Queen of the Amazons, to Xena of Amphipolis, Conqueror and Empress of the Known World, they bade you welcome and thank you for sharing in their joy.” The strong voice of the Magistrate echoed through the market square silencing the crowd. “If there is anyone who stands against this union or has reason for these two not to join speak now or forever remain silent.”

Silence reigned over the court as no one dared to speak, aware that their words would be immediately silenced by the phalanx of military personnel who mingled amongst the crowd.

“Than let us continue,” the brightly costumed Magistrate said glancing at the two women who stood before him. “In accordance with the laws of the land, Gabrielle of Potedaia, Queen of the Amazons we listen for your pledge to Xena.”

The pair of women turned to face each other, their hands clasped together, green and blue eyes united in the love they were sharing. The small woman took a deep breath trying to remember the words she had written and practiced so often in anticipation of this moment. She stared at her companion and felt the warmth of her touch and all the nervousness and fear she felt disappeared.

“Xena, I remember the day we met as if it were just yesterday, so fresh in my mind is that first sight I had of you, so strong and so beautiful. I was drawn immediately to you, seeing the warm and wonderful woman that has captured my heart so completely.

“Each day I look at you and the love I feel grows only stronger. There is nothing more that I wish than to grow old with you, raising our child, watching you nurture it with love. I feel honoured that of everyone it is I that you have chosen to take as your wife, to hold and cherish, to protect and honour, too live with each day. I love you now and forever.”

The bard fell silent and she noticed the glistening in the blue eyes that were looking at her. Xena was overwhelmed by the heart felt words of her lover and she allowed herself to lean forward and seal their union with another kiss. It was a loving and tender yet filled with the passion that was so much apart of the tall stoic Empress.

The Magistrate cleared his throat to gain the attention of the women. “In accordance with the laws of the land, Xena of Amphipolis, Empress of Greece and Conqueror of the Known World, we will now hear your pledge to Gabrielle.”

“I never thought I would feel the way you make me feel; the way your smile lights up my heart, the way your touch both soothes my soul. Each night I lay down beside you honoured that you have chosen to love me; honoured that you have chosen to accept my love.

“Each day I wake happy with the knowledge that I will share it with you. Each night I hold you tightly afraid that you might disappear in the darkness for you are the greatest treasure that I could ever possess, the light that shines through my darkness. Without you I am nothing and I pledge my love to you now and forever.”

“You may now seal your union with a kiss,” the Magistrate instructed solemnly as he looked at the couple.

The Conqueror reached down and cupped the smaller woman’s face between her large callused hands and the small woman automatically placed her own on top. For a long silent moment blue and green eyes met in a loving exchange and at that moment they were the only two people in the world that existed, the crowds that packed the market forgotten and ignored.

Having made the solemn promise the Empress leaned forward and sealed the moment with a tender kiss that brought tears to the small blonde woman’s eyes. She had seen the tender side of the Conqueror so many times yet never once did she fail to be overcome with emotion by each display. She could see the love in the taller woman’s eyes and her heart ached.

“By the power invested to me by the laws of the land, I pronounce you as one, joined together for all to see, for now and forever,” the Magistrate’s voice bellowed out and the crowd broke out into a spontaneous cheer.

Salmoneous turned too his people and signaled and in an instant there were small pops and suddenly the sky was filled with thin ribbons and strips of coloured parchment that fluttered harmlessly over the newly wed couple and the crowd.

Ming Tien glanced at his escort, bowing his head slightly before slowly turning and quietly slipping through the cheering crowd towards the nearest exit. He wanted to be far gone from the market before the fighting started but his progress was impeded by the crush of people that blocked every lane exiting the square.

Choi Ling glanced silently at his comrades and then nodded his head, signaling it was time for them to act. The signal went out to their associates perched on roof tops outside the market square. The archers slipped from their hiding places and raised their crossbows, their actions gone unseen by everyone whose attention was completely focused on the couple on the dais.

Xena was unable to stop the smile that broke out over her face. She was happier than she had ever been in her life, than she would ever be. This moment was her’s forever and she would treasure it until her dying days. Still holding her partners hand she turned them too look out at the cheering crowd. Unable to hide her happiness she joined her companion in waving to those who were there.

Later she would turn these first few moments over in her head in an attempt to pinpoint where she had let down her guard. But in this supreme moment of happiness any threats to her and her lover were far at the back of her mind, and so it was her subconscious instinct that responded as the first charge of arrows rained over the dais.

“No,” she screamed and stepped in front of the bard, just as the arrows sliced through the air towards them.

The Conqueror managed to grab two of the arrows and knock away another two but the fifth one found a target in her shoulder knocking her backwards. Her worst nightmare was happening and she looked down at the small flow of crimson that was beginning to spread into the cloth of her ceremonial robe.

“Xena?” Gabrielle cried in confusion her green eyes widening in horror as she saw the arrow sticking out of her companion’s shoulder.

“Get down Gabrielle,” the Conqueror hissed rousting the sleeping creature within her soul. Her eyes scanned the arena as she correctly detected the direction from which the pointed missiles had come.

In spite of her injury she was able to fend off the next wave of arrows. She had to protect Gabrielle and she would do so with her life. But she was still only human and with the third wave another arrow found its mark in her thigh and uncaring about the pain she snapped off the shaft.

Ephiny and Eponin saw what was happening and reacted at the same time. They jumped onto the dais and surrounded the embattled couple; their weapons were drawn even though they were powerless to do anything but shield their Queen with their bodies as chaos reigned.

“Charge,” Callisto screamed above the roar of the crowd. The mercenaries drew their swords from beneath the volumous robes they had worn and rushed forward, slashing and stabbing their way through the terrified crowd that was now surging towards the exits in an attempt to avoid the coming carnage.

Xenon finally snapped out of his momentary paralysis and drew his sword, shouting for the rest of the Palace Guard to form a perimeter around the dais. They would be the line that separated the assassins from the Conqueror and her wife.

“You must retreat,” Archius begged of the Empress but the tall warrior only snarled at the man and broke the shaft off of the arrow in her shoulder before drawing her sword. Her anger was completely unleashed and nothing would stop her until everyone involved in interrupting her marriage was dead.

“I want you to protect Gabrielle,” she issued the short command to the Amazon’s. “Get her into the Palace and lock the gates. Anyone who comes near her is to be killed.”

Ephiny and Eponin nodded, aware that they were now responsible for the only important thing in the Kingdom. They each grabbed one of the Queen’s arms and jumped off the podium into a waiting group of Amazon warriors who had gathered.

“We are heading back to the Palace,” Ephiny instructed her subjects. Nothing more needed to be said as the Amazon warriors automatically formed a tight circle around the Queen and began pushing their way through the crowd towards the street that led up to the Palace.

It took a few breaths before the chaos cleared and the Conqueror and Royal Guard could see their enemy. Xena was startled by the number of enemy who had infiltrated the city. She could see by their weapons that they had been supplied by the Romans. Caesar! The bitter though pierced her mind before she jumped off the dais into the fray.

Those who dared to face the enraged Conqueror were quickly dispatched and with several quick swings and thrusts three mercenaries were sent to Hades. She paused, her eyes catching sight of the men perched on the roof tops of the buildings that ringed the square.

“Xenon!” She shouted to the Captain of the Guard who was fighting nearby.

The soldier dispatched his opponent before turning to his leader who was pointing upwards. He followed her gaze and saw the archers, a scowl forming on his lips as he recognized the soldiers as belonging to the Prince of Chin.

Without another word, he shouted to a group of archers from his own army who had been summoned and were quickly assembling to join in the fighting. Their commander instantly understood the commands and directed his men towards the roof tops. Soon an arch of arrows poured over the soldiers from Chin.

For the first time in their lives, Ephiny and Eponin were grateful for the crush of people for it gave them added protection from anyone who might try to bring harm to the Queen. The closer they got to the Palace the thinner the crowds became until finally they made it through to the Palace gates.

“Ephiny,” Gabrielle finally recovered from the initial shock that had enveloped her. She shook off the hands that held her arms and turned to the Regent. “We have to get back there. We have to help Xena!”

The Regent hesitated, her first duty was to the Queen but the Conqueror had given her strict instructions. She looked at the smaller woman and saw that she was ready to charge back to the square in search of her lover. Ephiny looked across at Epinon seeing the concern in her grey eyes.

“Xena said….”

“I don’t care what Xena said,” Gabrielle was stubborn and the trait was beginning to show as she made a motion towards the gates.

“My Queen,” this time it was Eponin who spoke. She had spent enough time with the Queen to know that she needed to offer an acceptable solution or the small blond would charge back into danger. “Will you stay here with Ephiny and me while the others go back and help the Conqueror?”

“No!”

“Gabrielle,” Ephiny spoke again. “Xena can take care of herself. She needs to concentrate on the enemy and she can’t do that with you there.”

The bard was silent. It was as if Xena was there saying those words; the words that she had always spoke when the Queen had asked to join her in battle. It was something that the Empress did not want her to see or experience. Suddenly her shoulders slumped.

“Yes,” she nodded, resigned to the fate of waiting for her lover to return.

The Amazon’s breathed a collective sigh of relief. Ephiny immediately dispatched the extra Amazon’s before turning her attention back to the Queen. “We must get you into the Palace now.”

Gabrielle nodded and they turned only to be confronted by a tall dark haired woman dressed in brown leathers. The three women all felt the presence of evil radiate from this stranger and Eponin immediately raised her sword and charged the unarmed woman. Almost as quickly she was sent flying sideways against the open Palace gates, her neck snapping and killing her as she landed on the ground. The woman smiled with arrogance.

“Do you really think you can defeat me with your weapons?” The woman asked with a laugh.

“What do you want?” Ephiny spoke as she stepped in front of the Queen. She had witnessed the death of the strongest Amazon warrior and the woman before them had only lifted her empty hand.

“I want to repay the favour the Queen did for me,” the woman laughed again, her face contorting in madness.

“This is a strange way to repay me for a favour,” Gabrielle said stepping out from behind her Regent. She was not a coward and did not intend to let anyone else die on her behalf. “Who are you?”

“I am known by the name of Altee,” came the raspy response and a twinge of familiarity wrestled inside the bard’s brain. She had heard that name before yet she could not recall where. The woman saw the look of puzzlement cross the small woman’s face.

“Of course you probably wouldn’t remember me,” the woman said harshly as if she suddenly realized that the Queen had not given her another thought. “But I was with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt when she came to visit the Empress several seasons ago. I was the one who you had Cleopatra dismiss from her association. I was cast out of her court and onto the street.”

Realization dawned on the bard’s face as she remembered the incident that happened so long ago.

“I never asked that you be disciplined.”

“No, but you knew that you had humiliated the Queen and she needed to do something to alleviate the shame,” Altee continued an evil smile curving her lips. “I promised myself than that one day I would seek you out and thank you, for after I was turned out on the street I met an old coercer who helped me channel the black magic that already existed inside me.

“So here I am to show you exactly what I can do,” the woman smiled and as she raised her hand again Ephiny stepped once more in front of the Queen.

****

The mercenaries fell as they were quickly overpowered by the soldiers from the Conquerors army, but they inflicted enormous damage in the process, killing as many of the Empress’ soldiers before falling beneath the sword.

Xena fought relentlessly, the panther inside in full glory as the battle lust boiled over and surged full of energy through her taunt body giving her extraordinaire strength. Only when a few remnants of fighters remained did she pause, her blue eyes searching the square whose ground was now red from the life that drained from the bodies that littered the market.

She searched for the one responsible; the traitor from Chin whom she had taken into her home, the Princeling who had conspired with Rome against her. But he was nowhere to be seen. Instead all she saw was a vaguely familiar tall blond woman who emerged unscathed from the battle. Blue eyes met blue and Xena instantly recognized her opponent.

“You!”

“Yes, Xena, me,” the blond woman cackled. “Finally we meet face to face, after all this time.”

“You fought alongside the Amazon’s with my army and than you conspired with Ares and Dahok to kill Gabrielle,” the Empress said.

“Yes,” the woman sighed with disappointment. “If was such a good plan, but than not everything works.”

“No,” the Conqueror agreed. “What do you want?”

“I want the satisfaction of watching you die,” Callisto replied simply with a mad smile. However her words brought a harsh laugh to the Empress.

“You think you can kill me?”

“Yes,” the blond woman replied with a cocky grin.

“Well, we will see,” the Conqueror said with a sneer. “But I have one question, why have you got such hatred for me?” It was a question that the Empress always asked when someone confronted her with a personal vendetta.

“Do you remember Cirra?” the smile disappeared from the blond woman’s face.

“One of many towns,” the Empress said dismissively.

“Maybe to you,” Callisto snarled. “But to me it was my home. A town where I lived with my family, but you destroyed all that when you came through the town with your army. You leveled the village. Do you know how many people survived? No you probably don’t, so let me tell you. There were only two of us that lived, an old man and myself. You killed my family and now I am here to avenge their murders.”

Xena was silent. She had destroyed many things in the early years of her reign. Her army had run wild, frenzied with the power of life and death that they held. It was only later that they had become more civilized and military like.

“It was a long time ago.”

“Not long enough,” Callisto shook her head. “And now you will pay, but before you do, I want you to know that you won’t be alone. Right now as we speak a friend of mine is taking care of your new little bride, so perhaps you will go to Hades together.”

“Gabrielle!” The Conquerors thoughts turned to her new wife and caused a wrenching emotion to tear through her gut.

“Yes, your precious little bard,” the blond woman continued the smile returning to her red lips. “Now as we speak she is being put through her own torture, a torture that you are powerless to stop.”

“No!” the Conqueror roared and charged the blond who laughed madly.

Xena was surprised by the strength of the other woman who shielded her swings with her sword. The clanging of steel on steel rang through the suddenly silent square as the two women faced each other in a fierce battle to the death.

Callisto was a more formable opponent than the Conqueror had faced in a long time and even though she was certain of victory she knew that she would have to be patient. This woman would not fall under the sword as easily as the others she had faced that day. But she knew that she could not be leisurely as she would have preferred her mind thinking on the safety of her partner.

“What’s the matter Xena, are you worried about you little bard?” Callisto laughed hysterically as she parried another of the Conqueror’s thrusts. “Or perhaps you have finally met your match?”

“It will be years before anyone can match me,” Xena snarled and swung her sword with increasing power and speed, pushing the other woman backwards. Finally she saw her opening and before the woman could react she plunged her sword forward thrusting it deep into the woman’s stomach, twisting it before pulling it out, dragging with it pieces of her insides.

Callisto’s eyes went large and round, as she looked down at the wide opening in her midsection. It was as if she had never expected to lose. She dropped to her knees, the sword falling out of her hand as she clutched her stomach in a fierce attempt to stuff her guts back into her belly.

Normally Xena would have let her victims die slowly, but her thoughts were already elsewhere so today she had mercy. With a quick flick of her wrist the broadsword sliced through the air and severed the woman’s head from the rest of her body. The Empress was already walking away by the time the headless torso fell forward.

Xenon watched from a distance, aware that the Conqueror was at her wildest. He was about to approach when he saw her turn and run in the direction of the Palace, her long strides quickly eating up the distance. There was an urgency in her actions that suddenly made him afraid. Without a second thought he followed his commander, unaware that serving her had become an automatic reaction.

Gabrielle fought for breath but it seemed to be a useless battle. She had watched Ephiny die slowly and painfully, an invisible force crushing the breath out of her lungs, until they had exploded, ripping her chest apart. The woman had laughed with amusement at the look of horror on the Queens face.

Altee had not wasted any time on relishing her victories. She knew that Callisto had no chance against the Conqueror, so instead of toying and playing with her victims she had dispatched them in a hurry.

“The Conqueror will not save you this time,” the tall dark haired woman laughed with glee as she lifted her hand and flung the smaller woman against the Palace wall for the third time. The small blonde’s body was becoming ragged as a doll, her limbs battered and broken from the abuse. “You should have left her a long time ago.”

Gabrielle barely heard those words, for every part of her body was bruised. She knew that several of her limbs were broken and that blood was seeping from wounds that had been inflicted by the various rocks and sticks that had been thrown at her. Her head throbbed relentlessly, and she was beginning to drift in and out of consciousness.

Her wedding day; it had begun with such joy and happiness, and now her married life would end before she had a chance to call the Conqueror her wife. Tears dripped from her swollen eyes as she felt her body lifted and flung through the air once again, crashing into another wall and knocking her senseless.

“You better pray to your Gods,” Altee laughed as she stepped up to the bard’s crumpled body. She reached down and placed a hand around the small woman’s slender neck lifting her into the air and holding her there. The smaller woman was powerless to fight back.

“Why?” Gabrielle wanted to know the source of hatred for she instinctively knew there had to be more. She clawed at the hands around her neck, desperate for some reprieve.

“No, it is more than that,” Altee laughed in her piercing voice. “You see I have powers to look into the future; powers that will grow only stronger with time. I have seen into the future, a future that you and the Conqueror will also be apart. We will be great enemies. We will do battle and I will win.”

“What does that have to do with me now?” the bard’s voice was raspy. She did not understand what this woman was talking about. She seemed crazy.

“I will only win if you die now,” the tall woman hissed. “Each day that you spend with the Conqueror, each day she grows stronger, each day you show her more and more humanity. Each day she learns more and more about peace.”

“How can that be bad?” Gabrielle pleaded.

“Life is a karmic circle,” the woman explained, her dark eyes growing darker. “Each life you live you learn more and grow stronger. This life the Conqueror was evil until you entered her life and showed her that she could have all the power with out the fear. If you live then she will change and her karmic circle will continue as is written.”

“And if I die?”

“The Conqueror’s heart will become blacker than before and I will reap the rewards in this life and the next,” Altee said, remembering the scenes of glory that she had seen in the future that she had been shown. “What the Conqueror did in her past will be nothing compared to what I will accomplish.”

“No,” the word came out of the blonde’s mouth in a whisper.

“Yes,” the woman laughed and closed her hand, crushing the Queen’s throat.

“I love you Xena,” Gabrielle managed to whisper just before she slipped from consciousness.

“No!” The Empress screamed as she felt an overwhelming sadness fill her body. She stretched her stride barreling around the last corner before running through the Palace gates and into the front courtyard. She came to a halt as her eyes focused the tall woman effortlessly holding the shattered body of her wife.

Altee glanced up a smug smile on her lips. “Sorry Xena but you are too late.” She said and laughed.

The Conqueror howled in pain and charged forward swinging her sword but she came up against an invisible wall which tossed her backwards like a rag doll. Xena lay for a moment trying to unscramble her brains before jumping to her feet and charging once more, only to have her body tossed backwards again, the laugh of the other woman ringing in her ears.

“So Xena, you have finally, met your match,” Altee laughed, reveling in the knowledge that she would be able to accomplish what so many others had tried and failed. She shook the bard in her hand as if shaking a doll and then tossed the Queen to the side.

The Empress lay still for a moment, her mind trying to sort through what was happening. When she realized what she was up against she closed her eyes and tried to focus on the energy that she would need to defeat this opponent. She knew that she had to kill this strange woman before she could help Gabrielle.

Clearing her mind, she slowly rose, and calmly looked at the tall woman. She had matched wits once before with a coercer and it had been a painful lesson from which she had learned many things. One had been on how to survive and defeat anyone with similar powers.

Atlee looked at the formable woman who was now strolling calmly towards her. She would enjoy killing this warrior more than she had enjoyed killing anyone. She lifted her hand in the other woman’s direction and flicked her wrist, but this time the Conqueror was not lifted or tossed aside.

The woman merely kept walking.

“It is better to know your enemy before you attempt to do battle,” Xena said her lips curling in a snarl.

Altee flicked her wrist again but there was nothing, and the smile that once decorated her face now disappeared.

“Your tricks work only on those weak of mind,” the Empress said her voice cold and hard. “But they are meaningless against someone who already knows the power that guides them.”

The other woman paled. She had been too arrogant, her teacher had said, to quick to take the little that she learned and go out into the world. The old crone said she had more to teach but she had been too eager for revenge that she had not waited to complete the lessons. Now, in this moment she realized her mistake.

“To defeat someone with the mind, you have to go against someone with a weaker mind,” Xena continued. “In that you have made your biggest mistake, I could not have done what I have, or accomplished anything if I had been born with a mind that could easily be swayed.”

Without another word Xena plucked a knife from her boot and tossed it towards Altee who turned her thoughts to stopping the object, next came the other knife, wedding gifts from Gabrielle and the woman turned some of her magic to stop the other weapon. With some of the energy diverted, the Empress made her move, lunging forward and thrusting with her sword.

Atlee diverted more of her energy to protect herself and the knives wavered in midair. This time it was Xena who laughed, but it was cold and filled with anger. She could feel the other woman’s energy beginning to drain and she closed her eyes for a moment to draw more of her own strength from deep inside.

Altee felt her hold against this woman begin to weaken and she summoned more of her energy and it became a battle of wills. But it didn’t last long as the Conqueror unleashed her greatest weapon. The panther growled and the invisible force protecting the other woman collapsed allowing all three weapons to hit her simultaneously. The woman didn’t have a chance and she fell to the ground in a lifeless heap with a knife sticking out of her forehead and her throat, while the sword was plunged deep in her belly.

Xena immediately rushed over to where Gabrielle was lying, dropping to her knees. Her eyes saw the damage that had been done and she knew that she didn’t have to check whether the bard was dead. Her face was lifeless as she gathered the small blond woman into her arms and carried her across the courtyard into the Palace.

Xenon watched from a distance a heavy burden of sadness settling over his heart. He knew without asking that the Queen was as dead as her escort who lay scattered around the compound. Hades had paid a telling visit that day and many lives would be joining him in the underworld this night.

It had been a long day and it was far from over, Archius realized as he made his way through the silent Palace. Only that morning it had been bustling, a hive of activity, but now it was solemn, and filled with the mourning of death.

The battle had been short but costly and many people had lost their lives, most succumbing to the hail of arrows that had rained down on them before the archers belonging to Ming Tien had been overwhelmed. Like the rest of the city he was afraid of what would come after this day.

He entered the Conqueror’s bed chamber quietly, aware that the Empress had not wanted to be disturbed. Word of the day’s events had spread rapidly and now the Empire collectively held their breaths as they waited for what would come next. Everyone knew that the bard’s death would have a resounding effect in the days and years to come.

The Empress was sitting on a stool beside the bed upon which the bard had been laid. Xena had not changed from her blood stained wedding garments. She just sat there staring at the chalk white and battered face of the one true person she had ever loved and for the first time in her life she didn’t know what she would do next. She barely noticed when she was no longer alone.

“How many?” she asked not turning her gaze away from the bed.

“Many,” the small man answered.

“Who?”

Archius shifted uncomfortably on his feet. He knew that evidently the Empress would have to learn the truth; he had just hoped that it would not be so soon. He swallowed aware that the woman was waiting for his response even though she said nothing.

Slowly and clearly he spoke the names of those who had been killed, many slaughtered by the arrows at the beginning of the assault. Xena listened not showing any emotion. She was beyond feeling. The devastation had been complete. Not only had Gabrielle died, but everyone else in her family who had come to witness their marriage. In fact, there were only three of them who had been on the dais that had survived. Jason and her mother Cyrene had also died in the rain of arrows, and her son, Solan had perished in the fighting, picking up a sword to defend the Empire of the mother he had not known. Even Salmoneous had died under the blade of a mercenary who had not cared who he slaughtered. Everyone she had ever cared about had been killed in one act of vengeance.

“What of Ming Tien?”

“There are soldiers searching for him even as we speak.”

“When he is captured I want him brought to the Palace prison,” the Empress said through clenched teeth. “I will deal with him personally and anyone who interferes with that will suffer the same punishment.”

Archius nodded silently, aware of what justice awaited the Chin Prince when he was finally caught.

“The Amazon’s are preparing to return to their village with their dead, they would like to take the Queen with them.”

“No!” the single word burst from deep in the Conqueror’s gut, her voice softening only slightly when she continued. “I wish for you to get the embalmer and have her prepared. I am taking Gabrielle to Amphipolis to be buried in my tomb.”

“Yes, My Empress,” the small man answered immediately, instinctively stepping backwards, away from the swirling anger that surrounded the tall woman. “Is there anything else that you need?”

“Yes, I want you to gather a group of dispatch riders as I have a petition that I want to be delivered to all the Generals commanding my armies.”

“Yes, My Conqueror,” the small man nodded and waited for a moment of silence before daring to speak once more.

“Now go!” She barked and the man flinched.

“Yes, My Empress,” Archius bowed again before hurrying out of the room. He paused to take a breath once he reached the corridor only then aware that his legs were shaking.

Xena sat down at her desk and penned a dispatch which she would give the riders once they had been rounded up. She knew that by the time all the necessary forces were assembled she would have a plan in place to attack and defeat Rome. Already thoughts of how she would kill Caesar rolled through her mind. She would make it slow and tortuous; reminding him of everything he had taken from her.

Xena turned and looked one last time at her beloved. Tears pricked her blue eyes but she refused to give in to her emotion. She strolled over to the edge of the bed studying every line and curve of the woman’s beautiful face.

“My soul cries with the knowledge that I will never see you again but I know that my heart goes with you to the Elysian fields where you will keep it safe and care for it just as you will care for the child that I will never see,” the Empress whispered softly as she bent and pressed her lips against the cold flesh of her wife. “Rest in peace my love now and forever.”

With that the Empress turned and walked away not looking back at her love.
CHAPTER FIVE
Solan and Cyrene were laid to rest next to her brother Lyceus in the family tomb. Toris remained distraught and angry, but he dared not confront the Empress, all too aware of the dangerous mood which encompassed his sister. He had only seen her this way once before when their brother had been killed.

Gabrielle’s body was interned in an ornate sarccophus in the tomb that Xena had chosen as her own burial chamber in a hill just outside of Amphipolis. It was a peaceful place with a pool in the adjoining chamber. The Conqueror had a special hole carved in the cavern wall and in it she placed the precious scrolls that her bard had written. They would stay with her love into eternity.

She spent one final night with her departed Queen, lying on the ground in the tomb and listening to the trickle of water as it fed the warm pool in the adjoining chamber. The days following the ambush had been filled with activity and the Conqueror had purposefully kept busy, unwilling to give herself any time to think. But now alone in the darkness she was unable to stop her thoughts or prevent the tears that filled her blue eyes.

In one fateful day she had lost everyone important in her life, and even though she knew that taking revenge on those responsible would not bring her loved one’s back, she knew she could not let this massacre go unavenged.

She sighed. She was more tired than she had ever remembered being, yet sleep was as elusive as was the happiness she sought. She closed her eyes and briefly thought about the long journey here from the capital.

The surviving Amazons had accompanied her as far as Amazonia, before taking their Regent and Weapons’ Master bodies back to their village. She had continued on to Potedaia where she had delivered the bodies of Hercuba, Lila and Linus.

Herodatus had been inconsolable and she had remained stoic against the abuse that he had hurled at her. She could understand his grief for he had lost his entire family. It was only when he had insisted on keeping Gabrielle’s body that she had finally intervened. The bard was hers.

There had been no ceremony and her military escort had left her alone once the sarccpohus had been placed in the tomb. She had been left to remember the short time that they had spent together; the happiness and love the small woman had brought to her life; the child that they had eagerly looked forward to raising. So much had been lost.

Xena closed her eyes; she had no interest in giving an audience or attending to any other government business. At this moment she did not care about anything. She had lost the only reason for her to live. She could not eat or sleep, only wishing for death to consume her so that the sadness in her soul would end.

“I never thought I would ever see this.” An amused voice cut through the silence of the cavern. “The great Xena, Empress of the Known World and Conqueror cowed by the loss of a woman.”

“What in Hades do you want?” Xena barked at the God of War who suddenly appeared before her.

“Nothing,” Ares said with a shrug. “Is there something wrong with an old friend popping in for a visit?”

“You are not a friend,” the Empress snarled. “You never have been and we both know that.”

“Oh, that really hurts,” the man put his hand to his chest. “How can you say that after all we have shared?”

“What we shared was the desire for power,” the tall woman snorted. “I no longer care about wealth or power. None of those things can bring a person love.”

“Love,” Ares laughed. “You are beginning to sound like Aphrodite. Love is for weak people who base their lives on emotions. You are much better than that. You are strong and until that little blond came along you were invincible.”

Xena moved with incredible speed, grabbing her sword from the sheath on her back. With one swift move she was standing with the weapon pointed at the Deities throat. Her face was contorted in rage.

“Her name was Gabrielle,” she snarled, her nostrils flaring in anger. “And I forbade you to speak of her again.”

“Okay, okay,” he shrugged with a lazy smile. He could see that his tactics were working. “But it’s not like you can’t find others willing to warm your bed.”

“Enough!” the dark haired woman shouted.

“Yes, Xena, give into that rage,” he hissed softly, feeling the anger radiate from every pore in her body. “If you let those who did this to you get away then they will win. Caesar will win. Do you really want to admit that someone as weak as that defeated you?”

The Conqueror felt her blood boil. It was churning in her veins and her eyes narrowed into thin slits revealing only the paleness of her eyes and then suddenly it all disappeared and the woman dropped her sword arm and the God of War realized smugly that he had achieved his goal.

Ares was right. Caesar had been the author of Gabrielle’s death and she could not allow him to go unpunished. She knew only to well that he would be attempting to take advantage of her borders in this time of uncertainty. She would not let him have the satisfaction of reveling in his victory.

By the time dawn cracked the morning sky, the Empress was up and ready to go. As much as she wanted to linger she knew that there was much for her to do. She allowed her hand to lovingly caress the intricate carvings of the burial coffin; each a symbol to commemorate a life tragically cut short. It was all that remained of the wonderful, compassionate and loving woman the Queen had been.

“I do not know what the future holds, or the sacrifice that I will have to make,” Xena said softly. “But know that I do this for you, for the love that you gave me, for the short time that we were able to share.”

With that the Conqueror bent and placed a kiss on the sarccpohus before turning and walking away.

_________________

Artemis and Aphrodite both felt the loss of the gentle woman who had tamed the Conqueror. The blond Goddess especially missed the flashing green eyes and the love she felt every time she was in the bard’s presence.

“I wish there was something that we could do,” Artemis lamented, surprised by how much she missed the small blond.

“There is,” Aphrodite answered the question that had been spoken out loud. Artemis turned to look at her sister, aware that they were responsible for the young woman’s death. They had conspired to bring the bard and Conqueror together and it had worked beyond their wildest imaginations.

“What?”

“The Fates are in control of the past, the present and the future.”

“We are forbidden to interfere,” the Goddess of the Hunt interrupted with the reminder in a hushed voice; as if afraid someone might overhear their conversation.

“Than what is the fun of being a Goddess?” Aphrodite asked logically.

“We are talking about the Fates,” Artemis shook her head. “Zeus has forbidden us to go to them.”

“Yes,” the Goddess of Love nodded her blond head. “But what if someone else does? What if the Conqueror speaks with them?”

“No,” the other woman hissed, alarmed by the suggestion. “Who knows what Xena would do if she came face to face with the Fates. Besides you know what is written can not be undone.”

“That is not true,” Aphrodite disagreed. “We up here exist in an immoral state, for us nothing can change but for mortals it is not the same. To cut one string of interwoven lines can change everything.”

“But what if the wrong line is cut, won’t chaos result?” Artemis wanted to know.

“No one knows for sure,” the Goddess of Love sighed. “No one has ever attempted to challenge the Fates or change the course of history.”

“Than why are we talking about this now?”

“Because we both can see the future,” Aphrodite replied. “We know that even as we speak the Conqueror’s heart is once again beginning to harden and this time there will be nothing to save her or those whom she faces.”

“No,” Artemis shook her head. She did not want to think of what they were contemplating. “We must wait and see. Perhaps the Empress will surprise us.”

Aphrodite looked at her sister and knew that she was hoping for something that both knew would never happen. Gabrielle had been Xena’s savour and without her there was no telling what atrocities the Conqueror still had in her. There was only one way to convince her sister.

“If we don’t do something it won’t take long before the Conqueror goes after your chosen people.”

The words struck hard at the other Goddess and she paused in her pacing to stare at the blond Deity. While the bard was alive she was assured that the Amazon’s would live peacefully on their land. Now she wasn’t certain who the Empress would turn her anger on.

“Don’t let Ditey scare you,” the low voice interrupted their exchange and both women turned to look at the tall dark haired God of War who suddenly appeared. “The Amazon’s are safe; the Conqueror has a treaty with them.”

Artemis eyes narrowed as she considered this new argument. She shook her russet hair and looked back at her sister. “We don’t know what will happen?”

“Father will refuse to accept this,” Ares snorted, feeling like he had the upper hand.

“Father doesn’t need to know,” Aphrodite replied with a shrug as if it was no concern to her whether Zeus found out or not.

“Perhaps not, but he will know because I will tell him,” the God said with an evil smile.

“I don’t think so,” Artemis interrupted. She knew that if Ares was all for letting the Conqueror continue on her path then her chosen people were in jeopardy.

“And who is going to stop me?” Ares asked raising his dark eyebrows with barely concealed amusement.

“Father does not yet know of how you conspired against him,” the Goddess of the Hunt replied. “I am sure he would be most interested to learn how you were going to help Dahak enter the world and overthrow Mt. Olympus.”

The God of War stared at his sister through dark narrowed eyes. “You wouldn’t dare.” He did not like to be threatened.

“Yes, I would,” Artemis declared. She as well as the other Gods on Olympus knew that their survival had been the result of the Conquerors intervention. It was with this realization that she made her decision. “It is only because of Xena that we are still here. I think it is time that we reward her for defeating our enemy.”

Aphrodite smiled and clapped her hands gleefully while Ares only snarled. He knew that Artemis was true to her word. She would go to Zeus and expose his alliance with Dahak. He could not afford to incur the wrath of his father more then he already had. He knew Zeus would not be lenient towards him if he were to learn of his traitorous action. He knew the only way to win this battle was to get to the Conqueror first. With a snarl he disappeared in a flash.

“He’s up to something,” Aphrodite remarked and Artemis nodded all too aware of the way her brother tried to deceive everyone.

“Yes,” the other Goddess nodded, wondering if she would be able to get to the Conqueror in time.

_________________________

Archius paused once he reached the door of the throne room. He glanced at the solemn faced soldiers on guard but neither returned his gaze. They were like statutes of stone, moving only if the situation warranted their intervention. They would be of no help to him if the Empress chose to vent her rage upon him. Fortunately he was there with good news. With a deep breath he cautiously stepped through the door into the next room.

He paused, allowing his eyes the opportunity to focus and see in the dimness of the room. They finally found the one he sought and his heart ached as it did every time he looked into the face of total loss and sadness. Since returning from Amphipolis the Empress had remained alone in the throne room, mourning the loss of the one who had made her life worth living, taking neither food nor drink as she prodded her revenge on those who had destroyed her happiness. He worried for her health. Each day her tall frame grew gaunter, her blue eyes more unfocused. He wished there was something he could do but he didn’t know how he could help.

He approached her slowly, making certain that she was aware of his presence. She looked up at him yet the blue eyes were glazed and the features limp and pale. Looking at her now it was hard to believe that this was the woman whom the entire known world feared.

“My Conqueror,” he interrupted her solace and harsh blue eyes pinned him in place.

“What is it?” In spite of her gaunt appearance her voice was as vibrant as ever.

“I have news, Ming Tien has been was captured.”

“Where is he?” the Conqueror demanded to know, the blue eyes becoming alert.

“The guards have just locked him up in the Palace jail.”

Without another word the Empress stood up and strolled out of the room, leaving the smaller man to follow in her wake. She had waited for this day and now was intent on exacting revenge for what the Princeling had done to her.

The jailers were not surprised to see the Conqueror. They scurried ahead of the stone faced woman, unlocking the doors that led down to the large cell where they had placed the prisoners.

Xena could not remember how long it had been since she had been down in the bowels of the Palace. Her iron rule had been so complete that those who had attempted to oppose her had not lived long enough to be imprisoned. She waited as the jailers opened the door before stepping in to the cool dank cell. It smelled of decay. The cells guests rose as the Empress strolled down the steps. They had never seen anything so fetal.

The Conqueror came to a halt at the bottom of the stairs and looked over her prisoners with a cold hard stare. There was no emotion on her face and nothing to tell the others what she was thinking. She was clutching something tightly in her hand.

“What did you hope to gain by becoming a traitor?” It was a logical question.

Ming Tien straightened his slender shoulders but the woman still towered over him. His normally pristine appearance was disheveled and dirty from the many days they had spent in flight from the Conqueror.

“It is not right that a foreigner rules over the land of Chin. For centuries we have governed ourselves and then you barbarians come and pillage our riches.”

“Perhaps if you had not been so weak then we barbarians wouldn’t have been able to pillage your lands,” came the acid reply. “Besides I let your mother rule her people.”

“For a per cent age of all our wealth,” the Princeling said with a scowl.

“There is a price to pay for everything,” the Conqueror shrugged.

“Yes, Xena there is,” Ming Tien actually smiled. “Until now you have not learned that lesson have you? But now you see and feel what everyone under you sees and feels each day you rule.”

The Empress tensed as the panther started to prowl around inside. The creature was loose and those who had betrayed her would pay for what they had done to her.

“Chin has been ruled by members of my family for many centuries,” the Princeling continued unaware of what the tall woman’s silence meant. “We were here long before your people left the caves in which they used to dwell and we will continue to be here long after your people are nothing more then dust on the ground.”

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Xena said softly taking a step towards the small man. There was no emotion on her face or in her words. She raised her hand and looked intently at the object that she held. “Do you know what this is?”

She held it out for the young man to see.

“A woman’s hair comb,” the man sniffed.

“Do you remember where I got it?” the Conqueror asked next.

“Of course,” the Princeling answered with a scowl. “It was a wedding gift from my mother.”

“Yes. It had a special meaning for the both of us and she gave it to me for a time when I might need to use it. When it had served its purpose it was to be returned.”

“Pity, you might as well keep it, she has no use for it anymore,” Ming Tien said.

“Oh? Why is that?” Xena wanted to know and watched as a sly smile broke across the young man’s face.

“Loa Moa met with an unfortunately accident just prior to my departure from Chin.”

“I thought as much,” the Conqueror nodded. “But I would still feel bad for not doing as she asked.” There was a pause and a cold smile touched the Empress’ lips. “So I have decided to send it back with you when you return to Chin.”

The man’s slanted eyes narrowed, uncertain he had heard correctly. “You are sending me back to Chin?”

“Yes,” Xena said.

“Than perhaps you have learned a lesson in all this,” the Prince said arrogantly.

“Oh yes, I learned many lessons in this tragedy, the foremost being that I should show no mercy towards my enemies,” the Conqueror agreed, her lips curling into a snarl.

She acted than before the Princeling had a chance to realize what she said. With one swift strike Xena plunged the comb into the side temple of the small man, stepping back to watch as his eyes grew large before rolling up in his head. He crumpled to the ground without another word spoken.

“Oh, Master, Empress of the Known World, I thank you for releasing me from servitude to the Prince,” Akemi exclaimed, throwing herself at the Conquerors feet. “Please show your greatness and forgive me for being to naïve and innocent to know the truth.”

Xena looked down at the begging woman with disdain, and quickly stepped from her reach. She did not want to be soiled by the touch of someone who had participated in causing the death of her Queen.

“No,” the Empress said.

“I did not know what I was doing,” the small Japa woman continued to beg for mercy.

“You knew,” Xena shook her head, slowly removing her sword from the sheath on her back. “I can see the knowledge in your eyes and I will not be taken in by it again.”

“No……” the woman’s pleading was answered by the swift justice of the Conqueror’s sword as it sliced cleanly through the slender neck, severing the dark head from the slim body which fell forward onto the ground.

There was silence as the Empress turned her attention to the only remaining prisoner. Choi Ling had been a loyal servant to the Chin Princeling and now he stood erect waiting for his fate to be decided. He expected his life to end as harshly as those of his companions.

“Do you have anything to say in your defense?” Xena asked the man coldly.

“I will not beg for mercy,” Choi Ling replied evenly. “Ming Tien was my master and I served him loyally.”

“Even though as a professional soldier you surely must have known that his plans were suicidal?”

“I am but a servant trained to do as my master wishes whatever the consequences.”

“Well, now you have a new Master,” the Empress said harshly. “I will spare your life if you swear your fidelity to me.”

The soldier was thoughtful for a long moment. He had once been a faithful servant of Loa Mao before being given to the boy by his mother. He had not always agreed with the Princelings decisions but it had not been his duty to counsel the young man only to act on his wishes. He knew that now he was being given a choice that had not been offered before. He could join his Master in the next world or live to serve another.

“I will swear to serve you faithfully until the end of my journey here on earth,” the professional soldier said knowing that this was something that his old Master Loa Mao would have wanted him to do.

“Good,” Xena nodded without emotion. “Your first duty as my servant will be to take this scum back to China and show the people that the death of Loa Mao has been avenged. Then in the absence of a true heir you will take her position as regent of all the land of Chin. I expect you to lead as Loa Mao would and for that you will be accountable to me.”

The man bowed, accepting his new fate and without another word the Empress turned and walked out of the cell.

________________________

Loris reached the capital before the new moon. He had received the dispatch from the Conqueror and turned the army over to his second in command. Within the candle mark he had already been on the road to the capital. Switching horses and taking on food at the various military posts along the way he had been able to cover the distance in record time, arriving in the capital late into the night.

“How is she?” he inquired of Archius as the aide greeted him in the vestibule of the palace. The small man had been advised of the General’s arrival and had hurried to greet the soldier. They had been by the Conquerors side from the beginning.

“Not doing well I am afraid,” the palace staffer was honest. “For many days she took no food or drink and than for a long while she drowned her agony in spirits.”

“And now?” Loris was unable to hide the grimace that crossed his face.

“She sees no one and takes only enough nourishment to keep her alive,” Archius said. “She is but a shell of her former self.”

“I was afraid of this,” the General sighed remembering a conversation that he had shared with the Empress several seasons earlier. “Allowing the bard into her life has only weakened her.”

“No!” the smaller man barked angrily. “Gabrielle gave the Empress back her soul. The Queens death is a tragedy for not only the Conqueror but for the whole Empire.”

The General stared at the other man. It was obvious that the bard had captivated not only the Empress but also the palace staff. “Perhaps I should report immediately to the Conqueror.”

“The Conqueror is presently unavailable,” Archius thought of the tall dark haired woman whom he had helped to bed several candlemarks earlier. “You have time to clean up and take some food and rest. I will send someone to fetch you when the Empress is ready to speak with you.”

General Loris was perturbed. He had rushed across the country under the impression that the Conqueror was anxiously awaiting his arrival, yet here he was and now he was told to wait until summoned. But there was nothing he could do so he simply nodded and retreated to the military barracks for something to eat and a nights rest.

“It is good to see you my cousin,” an older soldier rose from a table and crossed the room to the door where the General stood.

“Cousin.” Loris extended his hand and shook the man’s hand.

“What brings you here?” Liam was a long time member of the Palace guard and knew that it had been many seasons since the General had last been in the capital. He motioned to another soldier to fetch the younger man some food as he escorted them to a vacant table.

“I was summoned to see the Conqueror,” Loris replied, lowering his large frame unto the bench. “I have no idea why she wishes to speak with me.”

“Since that day we have seen little of the Empress,” the soldier replied with a sigh.

“Tell me cousin, what exactly happened?”

The veteran soldier was silent as a plate of bread, cheese and fruit was deposited in front of the General. A cup of mead wine was located and then the two men were left alone and the older soldier related a first hand account of what happened that tragic day.

Later that night as Loris lay in the cot that he had been given, he tried to imagine the events of what he had been told. He knew that the Conqueror would have fought viciously to protect her loved ones. He knew as only an old friend could, how the loss of her lover and child would tear the very fiber of the woman. He closed his eyes wondering what the morrow would bring.

Xena woke from her slumber. It was not yet dawn but still she swung her legs over the edge of the bed closing her eyes in an attempt to alleviate the throbbing pain in her head. She could smell the stench of stale mead and wondered if there would ever be a time when she wouldn’t need to drink herself into a stupor to find sleep. But it was only when she was drunk that she could forget the pain that continued to threaten to overwhelm her.

She glanced around the bed chamber. Everywhere there were small signs of the bard. There were quills and parchments on the table by the window. There was a vial of her favourite scent on the shelf next to the hairbrush which still held strains of golden hair. There were pillows and throw rugs and little trinkets that Gabrielle had so enjoyed collecting. The bard had wanted to make the place feel like home and she had done a good job, only with out her presence it was empty.

She stood up and walked into the wash room, taking a pail of cold water and pouring it over her head to sober her senses. She knew she could not continue to follow this path. She knew that there was only one way she would survive and that was to bury her soul in fighting.

A maid servant entered the room bearing a tray of fresh fruit and cheese which the Conqueror merely looked over without touching. She had no appetite for food.

“Is there anything that you wish for me to do this day?” the timid woman asked quietly. All the servants had noticed the dramatic change in the Empress since the bard’s death and they knew to tread lightly around the dark haired woman.

“No,” Xena shook her head and started for the door. She paused on the threshold and turned to the servant. There was no expression on her face to indicate what she was thinking. “On second thought, I want you to remove everything that belonged to the Queen. I want you to get rid of it, burn it or whatever; I don’t want to see any of it when I come back here.”

“Yes, My Conqueror,” the maid bowed feeling an ache in her heart. She watched as the tall warrior walked out of the room and then glanced at her surroundings, unable to prevent the tears that clouded her eyes. The Queen had made the palace a home and now she was to remove everything with the woman’s print on it. She knew in her heart that it would not be long before things were back to where they had been before the small woman’s arrival.

Archius was already in the throne room by the time the Empress arrived. The small man had made it a habit to be up before the woman, using the time to prepare everything for her arrival. He knew that to do so would make his life easier. He turned as the door opened and bowed respectfully when he recognized that it was the Conqueror.

“Is there anything that I need to know?” she asked without preamble. Gone were the days when their greetings were pleasant and familiar, now their conversations were perfunctory and strictly business.

“Yes, General Loris arrived late last evening,” the aide replied.

“Than send him in,” she barked before slumping into her chair.

“Yes, My Empress.” Archuis bowed again before hurrying out of the room. He paused to take a breath once he reached the corridor only then aware that his legs were shaking. He glanced at one of the soldiers stationed by the door.

“Hurry and fetch General Loris.”

The guard nodded and moved quickly down the corridor. They had worked in the palace long enough to remember the Conqueror of old. Though the Empress had not been violent, they had sensed a change in her demeanour. None of them wanted to be the first to test the woman’s patience.

General Loris had just finished taking his morning meal in the mess when the Palace guard appeared. He immediately followed, for in the few candle marks that he had been in the city, he could feel the tension and the fear that had been absent not long ago.

Loris was startled by the appearance of the Conqueror. In a matter of weeks she had changed from the strong vibrant person who instilled fear with merely a look to someone who looked like a shell with nothing inside. The vibrancy was gone, replaced by a hardness. The look in the woman’s blue eyes sent a shiver down his spine.

“My Conqueror,” he greeted with a respectful bow. He had heard all the details of that day so many weeks ago. Many had been killed and he knew that his old friend would be looking to seek revenge.

“I am going to kill Caesar,” Xena announced without preamble. “I want you to be there when we march my army into Rome and lay ruin to the city. I warned Brutus but it seems he had no influence. It is time now for me to act.”

Loris remained silent aware that what the Conqueror was saying. He knew by the look on her face and in her eyes that she was out for revenge. This was not the normal lust to conqueror but the look of someone who wanted to annihilate. He was suddenly more afraid then he had ever been.

“I want you to gather as many troops as possible without leaving our borders vulnerable,” she moved over to a map and pointed to a region along the coast. “I want you to gather enough ships to carry ten thousand troops. We will utilize the vessels from Chin.”

Loris listened silently as the Conqueror outlined her plan. The hardness in her voice matched the seriousness of her face. It was several candle marks later when the Empress sent him away to start preparing for the invasion.

“Has she been like this the entire time?” Loris inquired of Archius when he met the smaller man in the hall outside the throne room.

“No,” the aide shook his head. “For the first while she remained closeted in her room, neither eating nor drinking anything but mead. I fear she is living but she is no longer alive.”

The General nodded in agreement. The woman that he had just taken a meeting with was not the Conqueror of old. He knew that she would rampage through Rome’s empire and lay waste to everything in which they came in contact. Back at the military barracks he summoned his cousin once more.

“Come walk with me,” Loris invited the man. He knew that he needed to be careful about who heard what he was about to say. They strolled through the Palace courtyard, through the gates and into the city.

“What is it you wish my friend?” Liam asked of the General.

“I have just come from an audience with the Conqueror,” he sighed heavily. “She wants me to form a large army in which to march on Rome.”

“That is not surprising,” the Palace guard said. “It is no secret that Caesar was the author of the attack which killed the Queen.”

“Yes, but this army will have instructions like no others,” the General told his cousin. “Before she fought to conqueror but this army is to be formed to vanquish completely. She wants Rome’s empire and the city itself destroyed.”

The older soldier nodded grimly. He had been with the Conqueror a long time. He had fought with her through earlier battles and knew how vicious the woman could be. He did not doubt what made his cousin so afraid now.

“I sense you do not feel comfortable with her decision?” the veteran guard invited his cousin to speak his thoughts.

“No, I do not want to be apart of senseless murder, which is why I appeal to you,” the General said bluntly pausing to look at his cousin.

“If you have a favour to ask, just do so cousin?”

“It is traitorous and if we are found out we will be killed,” Loris said his eyes searching the older man’s face.

“I am your servant,” Liam said assuring the General of his loyalty.

“I would like you to under take a mission of secrecy,” he informed the man. “I would like you to take a message to the Roman General Brutus for me.”

The soldier nodded and listened quietly while his cousin outlined his plan.

“If we are able to remove Caesar than perhaps we can avert the carnage that is facing us.”

The Palace guard nodded. Within a candle mark the soldier had in his pouch a letter from Loris to the General of the Legion of Rome. Without a word to his comrades he took his mount and slipped out of the Palace grounds and then out of the city.

Time had no meaning for the Conqueror who focused only on one goal. She did not allow her mind to dwell on anything else. She watched from her Palace as an army camp grew up outside the city walls. She went out to the parade grounds to watch the soldier’s train often joining in on the exercises.

When she found some soldier lacking she made certain that the man knew it and many of those she came into contact needed to visit the healer for wounds that the Empress had inflicted.

On Mt. Olympus the two Goddesses grieved.

“I can not stand aside any longer,” Artemis said after watching the Conqueror mead out a particular brutal punishment to a man who had failed to move fast enough. In a flash she disappeared.

Xena was in her bed chambers intent on changing leathers and washing the blood from her body when she felt the unearthly presence. She grabbed her sword which was always nearby and swung around to face the russet haired Goddess of the Hunt.

“What do you want?” she snarled. She had no love of anyone from Mt. Olympus.

“I come in the hopes of persuading you to call off this madness,” Artemis said. “Gabrielle would not have wanted you to avenge her death in this manner.”

“Gabrielle did not wish to die but she did,” the Conqueror said harshly. “Do not expect me to listen to your humble pleas. You could have saved her. You could have protected her but you chose not to, so do not come to me now and beg for a favour.”

“We could not intervene,” the Goddess tried to explain, though she knew her arguments would fall on deaf ears. “You must know that we can not interfere with what had been written.”

“Than you all must live with the consequences,” Xena said without emotion and the Goddess knew that the woman was beyond persuasion. The Conqueror threw her sword on the bed and marched into the bathroom. Artemis knew she could follow and continue her plea but she knew that there would be no dissuading the Conqueror from her course of action. With out another word she disappeared in a flash of light.

_________________________

After his defeat in the North, Brutus had been recalled and reassigned to an army protecting Rome. He knew that Caesar had suspicions that he had betrayed him and so now he was where the Roman Senator could keep a close eye on him. It was just as well for this new assignment afforded him the ability to interact with other members of the Senate. What he was learning through private discussions surprised him. Caesar was not as popular as he had been led to believe.

It was not unusual for his military scouts to capture a spy from the Greek Conquerors Empire but the spy’s request to speak with him came as a surprise. The older man was brought to the command tent for interrogation.

“He claims to have a message for you from Loris, General of the Conqueror’s army,” the taller of the two Roman guards that had captured the spy spoke up.

“Is this true?” Brutus asked.

“Yes,” Liam nodded withdrawing the small parchment scroll he carried from his cousin. He handed it to the Roman General and waited expectantly as the man cracked the seal and read what was written inside.

“General Loris requests a meeting at the full moon,” Brutus spoke out loud revealing the contents of the message. He knew that was only several days away. His eyes narrowed, wondering if this was some sort of trap.

“The Empress does not know of this missive,” Liam answered the unspoken thought. “If she were to find out than we would both be killed as traitors.”

There must have been something in the soldier’s voice that told the Roman General that this man’s words could be trusted. He nodded.

“You will escort us to the meeting place,” Brutus told the messenger and then turned to his own guards. “Make sure this man is given water and food and keep him under guard at all times.”

The escort nodded before taking the soldier out of the tent leaving Brutus to wonder about what was brewing in the Greek capital. Could there be a plot under way, orchestrated by Loris, the conqueror’s oldest and most trusted General? He was more then curious to find out.

_________________

General Loris was uncertain whom he could trust, so he chose a small escort of soldiers who were connected to his family. He knew it was dangerous to take them into his confidence and worried that one of them would reveal his plan to the Empress for some reward. To ensure that didn’t happen he did not reveal to them the true intentions of the trip that he was taking out of the capital.

He managed to come up with a good excuse to leave the city, telling the Empress that he wished to visit with members of his family whom he had not seen for many seasons. Xena agreed, and he was aware he was only allowed to go because she knew of his mother’s ill health.

It took four days to reach the meeting point and he was not surprised to find the Roman General already camped in the small meadow he had chosen for a rendezvous. He instructed his escort to make camp at the outer perimeter. Soldiers from opposite armies eyed each other warily, their weapons ever ready in case they were needed. The two Generals met alone half way between the two camps.

“Greetings, Commander.” Brutus broke the silence between them.

“Greetings.”

“Your message came as a surprise to me,” the Roman confessed.

“As sending it came as a surprise to me,” Loris admitted. “I had never thought to betray my friend but I realize that some times one must take a stand in which they believe.”

“Tell me more.” Brutus encouraged.

“The Conqueror at this moment is gathering an army of size and strength that it would be able to defeat the Roman Legions with little trouble.”

“If you are so certain that you would be victors then why are you here?”

Loris sighed. “I would not if I knew that Xena would just conqueror your nation as she has done so many others, but I fear this is not the case. Her hatred of Caesar is such that she has intentions of laying waste to the entire Roman Empire and its people. I have stood by her through many things but I will not murder innocent people.”

Brutus was silent as he absorbed this information. The Roman spies in the Capital had not managed to get any reports out to them because security was tighter then it had ever been. He was certain that the only reason these men had managed to get through the border was because they were trusted members of the Conquerors army.

“What is it you propose?” Brutus asked.

“That you kill Caesar,” Loris said bluntly which caused the man to laugh.

“If you wish to prevent this war why do you not kill the Conqueror?”

“Because I know of your ambitions to take Caesar’s place,” the General revealed his thoughts. “Caesar is less popular with his people then Xena. You must realize that it is your Leader who put your people in this position. He knew how important the Queen was to the Empress and yet she was specifically targeted and killed. He must have known that this would result from his actions.”

Brutus knew that Caesar had always wanted an all out battle with Xena. He had been trying to provoke the Empress on many occasions. The murder of the Queen had been the final straw. He thought of the dissension among the senators in Rome and how public opinion had turned against Caesar. This might be the excuse he needed to convince them to help him topple the ambitious Senator. His eyes narrowed.

“How can you guarantee that with Caesar’s death Xena will not attack?”

“Because it is Caesar at whom her anger is now focused. She cares nothing for Rome itself.”

Brutus was thoughtful. “I will have to think about this.”

“I had concluded as much,” Loris bowed. “We must return or our absence will arouse suspicion but if it is necessary to contact me, do so through the Amazon’s. They are the only ones that Xena still trusts.”

Brutus nodded and the two Generals parted ways; one with his mind filled with thoughts of opportunities and the other wondering if he had made a grave mistake in being traitorous to his friend. But then Loris realized that nothing of the woman he knew in Amphipolis remained. Any part of that woman had disappeared the moment that Gabrielle had died.

___________________________

Xena had no reason to suspect Loris’ betrayal. She trusted him as much as she trusted Archius so she had no reason to question his journey into the countryside. He had not been home for many seasons and she knew that his mother was in ill health. Yet something nibbled at the back of her senses.

She was lying in her bed when Ares came to visit. He wanted war and he knew that if Loris’ plan worked than Xena would have no reason to fight the Roman’s. In his head he envisioned a massive and destructive battle and his blood coursed hotly through his immortal veins.

“Urgh!” Xena jumped out of bed and grabbed for her sword which was resting next to her pillow. When she had rolled over she had found the God of War lying there in bed next to her. “What do you want?”

“No hello for an old friend?” He asked impertently.

“You are no friend of mine,” the Empress repeated an earlier mantra.

“Xena, Xena, Xena,” Ares shook his head sadly as he rose and climbed out of bed. Wistfully he wished that he could have remained, to rekindle the passion that they had once shared. But since the Empress had come to know the little blond bard he had not been welcome in her life, let alone her bed. “I gave you all this and still you remain ungrateful.”

“You only showed me what I could take,” Xena retorted. “I was the one who used the sweat and blood of my army to gain what I have.”

“Yes, and how comfortable and trusting you have become of those who have been with you so long,” the God of War replied negligently.

“What are you talking about?” Blue eyes narrowed. She knew not to trust the God of War but even so she was curious.

“Even as we speak your most favoured General is meeting with Brutus, Commander of the Legion of Rome.”

“Loris would never betray me.” She disputed the claim but her senses were alert as she thought to the nervous way the General had acted prior to his departure.

“Xena, Xena, Xena,” the God shook his long dark mane. “There was a time when you trusted no one; did the bard soften you so much that you no longer see the danger when it is standing next to you?”

The Empress was silent. Her mind working ferociously to discount the War God’s claims yet suspicion began to grow. On the surface Loris’ request had been nothing more than what he asked, but a seed had sprouted in her brain and she was beginning to question her own judgment of why he suddenly needed to leave the capital.

“Guard!” She screamed and immediately the door to her bed chamber opened and a sentry stepped in. “Fetch me Archius, now!”

The soldier bowed and then hurried away to do her bidding. Ares laughed, surprised at how easily he had been able to manipulate the tall, dark warrior. His lust grew but his desire for war and blood was stronger, he could smell blood and it excited him.

Archius was roused from his slumber by an anxious looking soldier whom he immediately recognized as a member of the Conqueror’s personal guard. He glanced out the window to see that it was still dark and he wondered what crisis had occurred to have him summoned. He dressed hastily and hurried after the soldier to the Empress’ bed chamber.

“You summoned me,” the aide bowed respectfully as he entered the chamber. Xena had donned a robe to cover her nakedness.

“Are you privy to the reason for Loris’ absence from the capital?” The Conqueror asked bluntly.

“He said he wished to visit his family,” the small man sputtered wondering what was going on.

“I have reason to believe something else,” the tall woman replied her nostrils flaring. “I wish for you to go through the barracks and find out if anyone knows anything.”

“Yes, My Conqueror,” Archius bowed and hurried to do his bidding. There would be no waiting for the day. When Xena asked for something done, he knew better then to wait. What he found down at the barracks upset him. He had no desire to make his report to the Empress yet he knew she expected it.

“What did you find?” Xena demanded of her aide when he requested an audience with her.

“No one knew anything, though apparently six horsemen accompanied him,” the balding man answered. “Apparently his cousin Liam has been missing for eight days and no one seems to know where he has gone.”

Xena was silent as she contemplated this information. “What are the names of those who accompanied him?”

With each name the Conqueror’s anger and suspicion grew. Each soldier who had accompanied the General was related to him in some manner. It was reasonable to assume that they would wish to visit their families as well, but there could be another ominous reason. She knew that Loris’ clan was loyal to each other and if there was a betrayal he would surrounded himself with those he could trust.

“I wish for you to send a scout to Amphipolis with the message that his leave has been revoked and that he is needed back in the capital; chose a rider from the Daris family.”

“Yes, My Conqueror,” Archius said and then ran to do her bidding. Within the next candle mark a rider had been dispatched on his mission.

The small man watched as the horseman guided his mount through the Palace gates and out into the city. He knew the reason that the Conqueror had chosen someone from the Daris clan was because they were enemies of the family to which Loris belonged. Only their promise of fidelity to the Conqueror had made them comrades. There would be no way that he would not report the truth to the Empress.

Loris and his escort returned to the capital without knowledge of the Empress’ suspicion. He continued about his command duties as if nothing was amiss while he waited for some word from his Roman counterpart. Ares watching from a top Mt. Olympus could not help laughing gleefully as events began to converge towards a destructive end.

Xena remained aloof from her General. She said nothing about the fact that her scout had not returned with the Generals entourage. It was possible that they missed each other on the trail. She would bide her time until his return before rendering judgment. If he suspected anything Loris showed nothing.

It was several days after the General’s return that the messenger returned to the Capital and requested an audience with the Conqueror. He was escorted to the throne room while the Empress was summoned.

“My Conqueror,” the soldier bowed respectfully.

“What have you discovered?” Xena asked with out preamble.

“It has been many seasons since General Loris has returned to his home,” the man reported. “His mother was afraid that I was there to advise them of his death.”

“Thank you.” The Conqueror said simply dismissing the man, who bowed and silently left the room.

“Archius!”

The small man appeared in the room. He was standing just outside the door in anticipation that he would be summoned. Since that night that the Conqueror had drawn him from bed he had carried with him a sense of dread. The Empress had been unusually calm but it was a deceptive facade, for he could see the brooding in the back of her pale eyes.

“Loris lied to me,” she stated simply. “He did not go home to visit his family.”

“Perhaps he had other urgent business,” the aide suggested hopefully.

“Are you defending him?” the Conqueror whirled on the man. “Perhaps you know more than you are saying?”

“Never, My Conqueror,” the man dropped to his knees. “I am your faithful and loyal servant.”

“Just don’t forget that,” the dark haired woman replied. “Where is Loris now?”

“He is on the exercise grounds.”

“Good, I want you to come with me,” Xena said quietly. “I want you to see what happens when people I trust are disloyal.”

Without a word the small man followed the warrior. He glanced at the guards who trailed them. Everyone was on edge. The Conqueror had not harmed anyone since the death of the Chin Princeling but they could feel the violence burning just below the surface. No one wanted to be the one to open the cage and let the panther loose.

Loris had just finished demonstrating a sword technique to one of the recruits when he saw the Empress walking in his direction. He saw the stoic expression on her face and the burning intensity in the blue eyes and a shiver raced up his spine. He glanced at those who had accompanied him on his mission and felt afraid. Slowly one by one the duals ended as everyone turned to watch the Conqueror approach.

“You lied to me,” Xena said simply when she came to a halt in front of the General.

“What……”

“NO!” She hissed and in one smooth motion drew her sword. She glanced around her and motioned for a young man to come to her. Loris swallowed hard as the boy did as he was summoned. The boy was his young cousin. The Conqueror grabbed the boy by the throat and started to squeeze, her blue eyes on the General.

“Tell me the truth or he will die,” Xena snarled and the General knew he could not let the innocent boy die for him.

“I met with Brutus, Commander of the Legion of Rome.”

“You betray me!” It was not a question and unconsciously her hand squeezed tighter around the boys neck. Frail youthful hands grasp at the strong arm but the struggling boy was unable to fight the woman’s strength.

“No!” Loris disputed the claim. “I know of those in the senate who wish to rid themselves of Caesar so I appealed to him, to do so and prevent a war between us.”

“Are you so naive to think that Caesar’s death would deter me from invading Rome?” The Conqueror asked ignoring the gurgling sound that was starting to come from the boy’s throat. “I thought you knew me better than that Loris. I not only wish to destroy Caesar but all of what he represents. I want to make the people that brought him to power to pay for supporting him. I will not rest until all of Rome lies in ruin.”

With that she closed her fist, snapping the boy’s neck and instantly killing him. She let the youth drop in a heap unto the ground, and cast the boy a hard look before turning her attention back to her General.

“You have betrayed me and now you and your entire family will pay.” she snarled. “Show your weapon.”

Loris knew that this would be a dual to the death. He had one last chance of saving his people and that was to kill the Conqueror. He withdrew his sword and heard the sound repeated as those loyal to him prepared to rebel on his behalf. He did not try to dissuade them, aware that if he were to lose than they would be put to death anyway. Those unfailingly loyal to the Empress also drew their weapons but she held up her hand and motioned them back, an evil grin coming to her lips.

“I will handle this myself,” she said with an eerie joy as she released the panther from its cage.

The fight was hard and fierce and blood ran thick onto the ground. Those not wishing to die that day moved back in order not to be mistaken as someone who opposed the Empress while those who thought they had a chance to defeat the powerful warrior advanced as one.

Loris had hoped that they would be able to overwhelm the Conqueror but he had seen her fight and within a few minutes knew that she had not lost any of her prowlness with a sword. He fought with all his ability as did those of his family but there was no stopping the animal that they faced. One by one they were cut down, their blood pouring onto the earth, making it red. She seemed larger than life and when they thought that they were getting the upper hand she would fight back fiercely and kill more of her enemy. Finally there was only the two of them left, their bodies splattered with the blood of those who had fallen.

There were no words between them as the Conqueror advanced on the last man standing. Loris fought valiantly but was no match for the warrior who was empowered with the strength from the God of War. A few quick thrusts and his sword when flying through the air to land amongst the dead bodies that littered the ground.

“What no begging for mercy?” Xena asked coldly as she stepped towards him her sword rising. The General didn’t flinch when the tip of the sharp sword punctured the skin of his neck. He knew that he was going to die.

“I beg for nothing,” the man said quietly. “I have served you loyally from the day that you formed the militia to protect Amphipolis from Cortez. I will go to my death bravely and proud, but perhaps a little sad that I did not have the strength to oppose you earlier.”

“You are not without your own sins,” the Conqueror snorted. “You knew that as long as you stood at my side you would have more than you ever would have otherwise. Once a warrior always a warrior and we know that all warriors eventually die at the end of a sword.”

“Does that include you or are you exempt?” Loris asked contemptuously.

“No, someday, I will meet my end,” the Conqueror answered honestly. “Some day I will meet someone who will be younger and stronger and will send me to the Underworld, but until such a time I will continue to reign. Say hello to Hades for me.”

With that she thrust the sword forward, plunging the sharp blood splattered blade right through the man’s neck. The General dropped to his knees as blood flowed out of the wound. The Empress could have been merciful and killed him instantly but instead she let his life drain from his body. After many minutes the General could no longer hold himself aloft and he fell forward into the ground.

The Conqueror glanced around at the others who had witnessed the scene.

“Is there anyone else who wishes to defy my authority?” She glanced around at those soldiers gathered but silence reigned. “No, than let this day be a reminder to all what happens to those who think of betraying me.”

Without another word she turned on her heel and strolled back to the Palace.

______________________________

Meanwhile back in Rome, Brutus was having an easy time presenting General Loris’ plot. There were many in the senate who believed that Caesar had become to powerful and that he was serving only his needs and ignoring them.

“Are you certain that this is not a bluff?” One of the older senators asked. Like many he was not anxious to go to war with the Conqueror yet he was skeptical enough to consider that this plot was a ruse to put them off guard.

“I can only go by my own impression,” the Roman General replied. “And in my opinion the man was sincere.”

“Than why does he not kill her?” Another grey haired senator asked the most logical question.

“Because it would only serve to invite Caesar to invade Greece and General Loris has no desire for any conflict, besides he knows of our desire to rid the Empire of Caesar,” Brutus argued. There was much muttering between those gathered, until Cassius rose to speak for one and all.

“We agree,” the man announced their decision. “When do you propose to assassinate Caesar?”

“The Ides of March would be an appropriate time,” the General replied. He was glad that the senators had listened to him, but he hoped he had not made a mistake. He trusted the honour of his enemy and counterpart for a General rarely risked treachery unless he believed in what he was doing.
CHAPTER SIX
“We must do something,” Aphrodite lamented to her sister as they watched the events in the mortal world unfold.

“I tried,” Artemis sighed. “She has no use for us. She will not listen.”

“Perhaps she will if we tell her what she wants’ to hear,” the Goddess of Love replied and the other Goddess looked thoughtfully at her sister.

“We can not intervene.”

“Not physically,” the Goddess of Love replied and with a snap of her fingers she disappeared in a flash.

****

Xena lay alone in the darkness of her pallet, the battle lust still coursing through her veins. She had attempted to take a lover, but she was unable to stand the presence of another body in the bed that she had once shared with the bard. She had tried to erase the image of the smaller woman but her companion didn’t have the right smell or feel. In the end she had kicked the woman out of bed. She did not want to be alone yet she could not stand to be anyone who was not the woman she loved.

She rose and donned her robe before strolling across the dark room to the balcony which overlooked the courtyard and the city. There was once a time when she used to stand there watching and waiting for the Queen to return from a shopping trip to the market. But tonight all was dark except for the few fires and lanterns that burned. Tears smarted in her eyes as she felt the pain of loss. She knew that when the bard had died she had lost any capacity to love again. There were moments when she wished that she had never met the bard.

“Is that what you really wish?” a soft voice whispered in her ear.

“Yes,” Xena responded automatically. “Love is sweet but it is also bitter.”

“You are angry,” the voice acknowledged sadly.

“Yes,” the Conqueror ground out between her teeth. “I should have let those criminals kill her like they were going to do that day at the lake.”

“Really?” the voice asked. “Would it have been better to never have known the gift of love?”

“Yes,” came the stoic response.

“Xena, Gabrielle gave you so much, it must hurt her to hear you now. What will you say to her when you see her?”

The Empress snorted. “Gabrielle is in the Elysian Fields and I will never see her again. I have too much blood on my hands.”

“Perhaps,” the voice agreed. “But you know the dead can hear the thoughts of the living. Is this what you really want her to know?”

There was silence and the tears that had not come began to stream down the tall woman’s face.

“No.” It was whispered so softly that it was barely legible yet it also seemed to echo loudly in the still dark room.

“What would you tell her?”

“Sorry.”

“Sorry?”

“Yes,” the dark head bobbed. “Sorry for not protecting her and keeping her safe. Sorry for being a person that was hated so much that some people would do anything to destroy me and all those around me.”

“And if given the chance to live your life again would you do it differently?” The voice wondered.

There was silence as the warrior considered this question. “What does it matter? I can not go back and undo what is done.”

“That is not true.”

“What are you saying?” The sadness of the warrior was twinged with hopefulness.

“The Fates,” came the answer. “The past, the present and the future; one string intertwines with others, when one is changed all are affected.”

“It is impossible to change the past,” the Conqueror scoffed.

“Is it?” the voice queried. “How will you know unless you try?”

“Why did the God’s not just protect the Queen?” Xena wanted to know.

“We are not allowed to interfere,” came the response. “We can advise and suggest, direct you on a path, but you must take the steps on your own. Your future is determined by your past and all is in the looms of the Fates. It is your one chance to change what has been; your only chance to see the Queen again.”

Silence reigned for a long time as the great warrior contemplated the words that had been spoken. Slowly she turned to the dark room.

“Why are you doing this Aphrodite?”

The Goddess slowly appeared out of the darkness. “You were a cute couple.” The woman laughed and then sobered. “I don’t like to see a love as great as yours be left unfulfilled. Gabrielle did not deserve to die. She deserved happiness and a long life.”

“Yes.” The Conqueror agreed.

“Than do something about it,” Aphrodite prodded. “Show how great your love for her is.”

Xena said nothing only nodding her head in agreement.

“Aphrodite?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you.”

“Anytime warrior babe,” the Goddess said with a smile and in a flash she was gone.

Xena returned to her bed then and though her mind raced with the words that the Goddess had spoken she was finally able to close her eyes and sleep peacefully for the first time since her wedding day.

_____________________

Brutus waited for his co-conspirators to speak. He had just imparted on them the news that he had received by special messenger earlier in the day. According to his spies, General Loris had been killed by the hand of the Conqueror for betraying her.

Cassius stood up. “This will make a difference, but it should not change our plans.”

“But killing Caesar now will not guarantee us against a war with the Conqueror.”

“No, but with Caesar out of the way we can approach the Conqueror on our own and sue for peace,” the senator reasoned. “Remember what has brought us all here together in the first place, our hate of Caesar and his policies.”

There was silence as the conspirators contemplated what had been said. It was true. They were all here for the sole purpose of removing Caesar from power. If they acted now while he felt secure they would be able to accomplish their mission.

“Than our plans for the Ides of March remain,” Brutus spoke for the first time since he had told them the news.

Cassius turned to the General and spoke for all them gathered in the room. “Yes.”

_________________________

Archius was already in the throne room when he was summoned to the Conqueror’s bed chamber. The whole Palace had been on edge since the brutal murder of General Loris and his family. At the Conqueror’s command the bodies had remained on the ground where they had fallen for two days and than placed on the dais in the middle of the market square for the whole population to see what happened to those who considered betraying the Empress.

He hurried through the Palace at her summons not anxious to stir her anger lest he feel the blunt of it. He knocked on the door and was immediately bid to enter which he did, his head bowed respectfully.

“You summoned me My Conqueror.”

“Yes,” Xena said absently. “I have urgent business that will take me away from the Capital for I don’t know how long. In the interim I want you to attend to government affairs in your usual efficient manner.”

“Yes, My Conqueror,” the man hastily agreed. He glanced up surprised to see the dark haired warrior dressed in her traveling leathers. Though he was caught off guard by this unexpected turn of events he did not show his feelings. “I will advise your escort.”

“No!” the Empress barked harshly and than softened her voice. “This is something that I must do alone.”

“But…..” the man began to protest but was interrupted.

“No buts,” Xena said. “There is something of grave importance that I must do alone.”

“Yes,” the man acquiesced to her wishes.

Xena glanced at the small man, his bald head bent in respect. She crossed the space that separated them and put her hands on his slumped shoulders. She felt his muscles tense beneath her touch and took a harsh breath, aware that everyone was in fear of her now.

“Archius, look at me.” She demanded and the man complied. “I know that for most of our acquaintance I have been a difficult person to please. I want you to know that your sacrifice has not gone unnoticed. If I do not return I leave all this in your hands to do as you see fit.”

The aide felt confusion and it showed on his face. He searched the dark haired warrior’s features but he could read nothing of her intentions. If he had not known better he would have assumed that the Empress was off to end her own life, but that was not in the woman’s character.

“Do not fear my friend,” the warrior counseled. “All will reveal itself in good time.”

With that the woman turned and retrieved her sword. The anger was gone, replaced by a peace and acceptance that he had never before seen in the woman. He wondered what this was all about yet he was smart enough not to ask. He watched silently as she strapped on her sword and chakram, following her out of the Palace to the front steps where her horse was already saddled and waiting. Xena silently climbed atop the huge mount and turned to look at the small man.

“Goodbye Archius.” Was all she said before clicking her heels and guiding the creature out of the Palace grounds.

Xena did not know where to begin her search and automatically she found herself leading her horse through the market, pausing by the dais that had been erected. It was a place where she had experienced her greatest joy and her deepest despair. She looked at it for a long time before moving on to the outskirts of the city

“You deserved more Gabrielle, more than an angry warlord with hate in her heart and if I succeed in my mission you will have everything that you deserve. Sleep well my love.”

_________________________

Caesar was quite pleased and brimming with pride and opportunism. All his dreams were finally coming to fruition. His spies had reported the death of the Conquerors finest General and than her odd disappearance. He had broken his enemy and in a short while he would announce to his fellow senators and countrymen that he would be declaring himself Emperor of Rome. This day was to be the best of his life.

Brutus waited with the others in the senate chambers. Caesar had commanded an audience and as he had predicted to his fellow countrymen, would pronounce himself Emperor. Already the vast Legions of soldiers of the Roman Empire had been summoned to prepare themselves for deployment. Caesar had every intention of taking advantage of the unexpected absence of the Conqueror.

The muttering and quiet murmur of conversation fell silent as a door to the room opened and Caesar entered the chamber. He was wearing an elegant white robe with gold trim and those there bowed their head in acknowledgment and respect as the dark haired man made this way to the front of the room where the podium was located. He turned to face those assembled and raised his hand.

“Today on this day, the Ides of March, I announce to you the elevation of myself to the status of Emperor of Rome and the known World.”

A hush fell over the room as the senators listened to the arrogant man’s exaltation of himself. A few reached inside their robes to clutch the handles of their daggers. They would let the man have his last oratory. They were no longer impatient for they knew that by the end of the day their world will have changed.

Finally Caesar fell silent, his face beaming with confidence and joy. Like the God he proclaimed himself to be, he descended the steps of the podium into the gathering of senators to receive the accolades that he felt he deserved.

“Caesar.” The senator bowed.

“Cassius my good friend.” The new Emperor greeted and opened his arms when the man moved to embrace him. He felt a sharp pain and looked down at his stomach from which the hilt of a dagger protruded. He glanced up at the dark eyes of his oldest friend but before he could say a word he was embraced by another senator who thrust another dagger into his abdomen.

“No.” He whispered hoarsely as his pristine robes became red with his escaping blood. He turned to his trusted General.

“Brutus?” there was a question in his eyes. He did not understand. How could a day that was supposed to be the first of a brilliant future turn so bad?

The General said nothing as he stepped up to the man, withdrawing his own dagger from his belt and thrusting it into the newly proclaimed Emperor. He felt the dying man cling desperately to him and then slowly go limp.

Brutus stepped back and Caesar fell to the marble floor. No one moved to give him assistance and he was alone in death. He tried to call out for help yet words could no longer form on his mouth. He struggled to keep his eyes open aware that if he gave into sleep he would never awaken but the pull of Hades was too great for him to fight. With a sigh he closed his eyes and moved onto the next world.

___________________________

Xena traveled without direction. She knew that the Gods who were watching over her would direct her to the place she needed to go. She barely noticed when she entered a forest that looked different than any she had ever found. Ahead, nestled in a small grove was a weathered shack. She dismounted.

“Argo, my greatest friend,” the warrior took the creatures bridle and looked directly at the horse. “You have served me well, and for that I release you to live out your remaining days free to do as you wish.”

She laid a kiss on the horse’s nose and then proceeded to remove the saddle and bridle, dropping them on the ground. The horse looked at the woman before turning and galloping away. Xena watched as the animal disappeared into the fog that was beginning to shroud the place. Only then did she turn and walk towards the hut.

“Does she know everything?” Artemis asked of her Godly sister.

“No, but the Fates will tell her.”

“But there…”

“Is no assurance that the future will change the past,” Aphrodite finished for her sister who nodded. “That is the difference between us sister, you think like a warrior while I believe in the power and strength of love. What is meant to be will be regardless of the circumstances.”

“I hope you are right,” Artemis sighed, worried that they had tampered with something they would no longer have control over.

Xena moved steadily towards the open door of the hut, only to have her path impeded by the sudden appearance of an angry looking God of War. The Conqueror stopped and faced the man.

“What do you think you are doing?” the man demanded.

“I am going to change the past,” Xena replied calmly.

“Do you really think you have the power to do that,” Ares scoffed. “You are mortal Xena, and your strength comes from me. I can take it away in a minute.”

“Than do so and leave me alone.”

There was silence as black and blue eyes silently battled one another.

“Do you realize that you may not get what you most want?”

“How do you know what I want?”

“I know you.”

“You know nothing about me,” the woman retorted. “You molded me after yourself, disregarding who I am.”

“After all this time are you finally gaining a conscious?”

“I am finally doing what I need to do,” Xena replied. “Now step out of my way.”

Ares was angry. He tried to bait the woman but her mind was closed to his entreaties. She had always been stubborn and for once that quality served her well. She listened for a few more minutes and than merely stepped around the God of War.

“You will regret this Xena.” He warned.

“How can I regret something anymore then I already do,” came the stoic reply before she stepped through the door and into what was beyond.

It was dark with only a few candles on the stone walls lit to illuminate the area. Xena knew that the exterior of the building was but an image to discourage interlopers. In the middle of the cavern sat a loom from which a rainbow of fine threads evolved into an intricate pattern. Some were intertwined and some disappeared. Some were long and some were short.

She stared at the shimmering strings mesmerized by their glow. Even as she watched some disappeared and she knew that those had passed onto the next world. Finally she noticed the three women standing behind the loom. She knew without asking that the old one dressed in black represented the past, while the young one dressed in white presented the future. It was the middle one, an adult of undetermined age dressed in a strange combination of colours that was the present.

“I am told that you are the ones to speak with in order to change the present,” the warrior broke the silence aware of the almost lifeless eyes that were focused on her.

“The past can not be changed, the present is what it is, only the future has yet to be determined,” the old woman spoke.

“I do not believe that,” Xena did not accept the explanation.

“It is true,” the middle woman said. “Each one of these threads is a life and as you see many are entwined for some would never exist without the other. Sometimes one life begins only when another ends.”

“You only have a choice with your future,” the smallest child continued. “Each decision you make changes the pattern of the design.”

Xena stared at the threads. “Which is my life?”

The present pointed to a particularly strong thread. She traced its path and noticed how many threads converged along her path, and how many disappeared because of their encounter. She knew with out being told that these were the unfortunate souls who had met their fates at the hands of the Conqueror. She did not understand how many lives she had affected until now when she saw her whole life as merely a thread.

“What if I were to cut the thread?” the Empress asked.

“There is no guarantee that your life will be different.”

“No certainty that your future will be as it is.”

“No bond of where you will be in the present.”

Xena was silent as she contemplated the shimmering threads which continued to lengthen and end even as they talked.

“Who it is that decides when life begins or ends?”

“You choose your own destiny.” The Fates said in unison. “Your life depends on the choice of others, the future determined by your choices. Only the present is undecided.”

Xena looked at the three women who continued to work the loom even as they spoke. Everywhere in the world people were making choices that determined their fate and the fates of others. Lives entwining not by chance but by the choice of decisions made.

She studied the threads again, trying to figure out some choice that determined her fate. She knew the event in her life and she could see how the colour of her thread changed at that point. Her decision to stand against Cortez was the turning point. She noticed another particular thread and a puzzled expression stole over her face.

“You have a question?” The Past asked already knowing the answer.

“Whose thread is this?” she asked pointing to a strong thread that briefly entwined with hers at the beginning and than again at the end.

“Gabrielle, the bard from Potedaia.”

Xena was stunned.

“You do not remember her,” the Past answered the unspoken question. “You were so wrapped up in your choice to defend the world that you ignored her the first time you met. She was but a face, one of many who passed through your life.”

“But how could I have not seen her?”

“You were so consumed with the knowledge of the strength that you possessed. Your mind was already in the future so that you missed what was there for you in the present.”

“Do not be mistaken,” the Present continued. “One choice may change your future but the present continues to present choices from which you must make, and from them your future is born.”

There was so much for Xena to absorb yet there was only one thing in her mind. There was only one way she could change the present and that was through erasing the past. It was as if the Fates could read her thoughts.

“Do not be naive,” the future spoke. “You erase the past and change what was, will also change the future. Some of what you know will be the same but some will be different.”

“What they are saying Xena is that you cut the threads as you are thinking and there is no guarantee that you will ever meet Gabrielle.” Ares appeared at her side. “There is no guarantee that you will become the Conqueror of the Known world. No promise that you will not die at the hands of a warlord.”

Some things with be the same yet others different. The words continued to echo through her head. She knew what they meant. She could sever the threads but there was no promise that anyone she knew or loved would know or love her.

“Are you willing to take that chance?” Ares whispered in her ear. “You not only may lose your Empire but you may also lose the possibility of ever meeting your bard.”

“I have lost her already,” the Empress said quietly as she turned blue eyes towards the God of War.

“At least now you have the memory of loving her,” the God of War prodded.

“If by never meeting her, ensures that she might have a chance to live a long happy life than I would gladly sacrifice all that I have.”

With that she lifted her sword and brought it down slicing the glimmering threads which crumbled to the ground. In a swirl of sound and light she and everything she knew disappeared in a flash.
CHAPTER SEVEN
“Xena!”

The pounding on the door and the bark of her name rousted the young woman from her slumber. As she sat up intense blue eyes scanned the familiar surroundings of her bedroom at the Inn that her mother owned.

“Xena, Cortez and his army are approaching the outer perimeters of the village,” Lyceus exclaimed as he bounded into her sleeping chamber. The dark haired girl turned and looked at the brother who was her closest friend. She could see the excitement on his youthful features.

“We must hurry,” the boy prodded.

Xena nodded and hastily swung her legs over the edge her eyes catching sight of the stool on which her sword lay wrapped in its sheaf. On the floor next to it was the little pile of armour and leathers she had been able to secure.

“We don’t know what to do,” the boy was practically bouncing on his feet as he urged his sister to move faster.

They had trained hard for this moment, preparing the entire village to fight the army that was coming to destroy them. Their friends and neighbours were waiting for the leadership that she was to give. In spite of her tender age she was by far the strongest and best swordsman in the town.

She nodded her dark head and stood up hastily moving across the room to where her battle gear waited, slipping into it. She paused staring down at the weapon that fit so perfectly in her hand. When she moved it became an extension of her arm. She grabbed the sword and then hurried out of the room bounding down the steps into the main room of the Inn.

Her mother Cyrene was sitting on a bench on the far side of the empty tavern. There was an expression of sadness on her face. Xena paused at the door, stopping so suddenly that the smaller lad slammed into her back. But she barely felt the impact as the boy bounced backwards.

“Lyceus I want you to stay here and protect mother,” she said without knowing why. They had trained together for this day and had agreed to back each other up but for some reason she felt strongly that her brother should not be with her this day.

“No!” the boy protested. He saw this opportunity to fight as a grand adventure. He wanted to ride into battle next to his beloved sister. He did not want to be thought of as a coward who remained behind with the women and children.

“Yes.” Xena shook her head. She glanced across at her mother. Cyrene was not in agreement with having the townsfolk fight. There would be deaths that would affect friends and neighbours; deaths that were needless and a waste.

The younger woman looked back at her brother, placing a hand on his shoulder. “You have many summers ahead and there will be other chances to test your skills. I don’t want you with me Lyceus. I want you here with mother. I need you to protect her in case we fail.”

The boy made to protest but the look in his sisters blue eyes told him that he would never win this argument. He did not understand what had come over his sister. They had trained together Xena, Toris and him, intent on standing together in defense of their home. They had promised each other their support.

“Please Lyceus, if you love me, stay here,” the taller woman pleaded and finally the boy nodded.

Xena sighed, feeling an immense relief. She affectionately ruffled his curly brown hair before turning on her heel and striding out of the Inn. The smell of battle greeted her first breath as she stepped from the porch of the tavern onto the courtyard of the village. There were people running everywhere. In the distance she could hear the sounds of the clash of swords. Suddenly out of nowhere Toris appeared on his horse, holding the reins to a tanned coloured mount. He brought the creatures to a halt, tossing the leather reins at his sister.

“The battle has begun and we are not doing well,” the man informed her.

Xena nodded and jumped onto the back of her horse, clicking her heels against its flanks and turning it so they headed towards the village gates. The air was warm and the sky clear. It was a good day to fight.

They galloped out of the village and headed towards the lines where the two opponents were engaged in combat. She pulled on the reins and drew her mount to a halt. In her hand she could feel the weight of her sword. Her heart began to pound sending her blood pulsing through her veins. Her nostrils flared as the sounds and feel of battle invaded her senses.

“Ayyyyyyiiiiiiieeeee,” she screamed raising her sword as she clicked her heels and charged into the fray.

She had been gifted with unusual skill and easily dispatched the first few soldiers who dared to challenge her. She felt like an animal, a panther stocking a prey before pouncing and slaying her foe. Her blue eyes paled and her face formed a sneer that changed her features and put terror into the hearts of those she faced.

She shouted encouragement to those who fought at her side as she cut a swath through the invading army, riding up and down the front lines swinging her sword in accurate and deadly strikes. Blood spurted from severed limbs and sprayed her skin and clothes; but she was beyond caring, intent only in letting the beast within exhaust itself.

When the fight seemed too easy she slipped off her horse and waded into the battle on foot, slashing and hacking as she went. It was her practiced sword that turned the tide of the battle. The sight of the intensity of the young woman who was leading them, gave the villagers more strength and courage to continue to fight. It was late in the afternoon when Cortez called for his army to retreat.

Back at the Inn Lyceus paced impatiently, wondering how the battle was going. It had been many candle marks since Xena had left the tavern and he was anxious to know what was happening. The sound of the retreat horn made him realize that the battle was over. Without waiting to know who had won, he spun around and raced out of the Inn, hoping that he might yet get the chance to fight.

By the time he reached the meadow outside the village the invading army was in full retreat with the villagers chasing. Caught up in the excitement of victory he joined in the rout, running alongside those of his friends and neighbours who had spent the day in battle.

Xena paused to watch her victorious army chase Cortez and his soldiers. She felt a strong sense of power and a bloodlust that fueled her strength. There was an odd soldier that paused in retreat to face one last challenge and an occasional arrow still reined down from the sky but the battle was over and the victory was hers.

She watched her brother Toris move up and down the line of villagers sharing their victory and helping those who had been wounded. The meadow was littered with those who had not survived the encounter and tonight there would be many households who would be in mourning. She knew that over the next few days their time would be consumed with burying the dead.

“I can handle this,” she said to herself, a wicked smile decorating her face but than out of the corner she saw a familiar flash of armour. She spun on her heel and watched in horror as Lyceus sprinted after a small group of retreating soldiers.

“No!” She screamed, her body already moving in the direction of the boy. But no matter how fast she moved, she would never be quick enough to catch him.

Time slowed and for an instant Xena felt as if she was watching the scene enfold from a place outside her body. She watched as one of the retreating soldiers stopped and turned to confront the boy who was chasing him.

Lyceus was no challenge for the more experienced soldier and the older mans sword easily penetrated his defenses before sliding into his young body and slicing his stomach open. He laughed as the lad dropped his sword to clutch his stomach and then slump to his knees. He raised his sword for one final strike.

“No!” Xena screamed jumping in to defend her wounded brother. Her face was filled with fury as something inside her snapped in anger. In two bruising thrusts she had the man on his knees and with one more swing his head popped off his shoulders and rolled out across the grass. The headless torso slumped on to the ground.

Xena dropped her sword and slumped to her knees beside her mortally wounded brother, tears streaming down her face. She gently rolled him over onto his back, careful not to hurt him anymore then he already was.

“Lyceus?” she called to the young man but there was no response. The blue eyes were open but unseeing and the face frozen in an expression of pain. She put her hand over his and felt his life blood, spilled now on the ground around them.

Some will be the same and other things different. The strange mantra seemed to come into her head from some invisible voice.

“Why?” Xena lifted her face to the sky and called out in anguish.

“You did your best,” the vision of Artemis appeared before her. “It was his destiny, his choice to make.”

“But he is too young,” the girl cried.

“You did all you could, you gave him a chance that he never had before,” the Goddess said before disappearing again.

“No!” Xena shouted, angry at the Gods.

She leaned forward and lifted her slender brother into her arms before rising to her feet. She walked back towards the village, her heart breaking over the fact that she would have to bring her brother home like this to their mother. She saw nothing, lost in her own pain, the black hole opening in front of her and threatening to overwhelm her.

Cyrene looked up when the door to the tavern opened. It had been quiet for almost a candle mark and she knew that the battle was over. She waited as many other mothers in the village did, praying to the Gods for the safe return of all her children. As her daughter stepped into the Inn she knew that her prayers had not been answered and tears formed quickly in her eyes.

Xena laid Lyceus carefully on one of the tables, tenderly combing the brown hair off his face before stepping back. She could not look at her mother.

Cyrene slowly rose and walked on shaking legs across the room to the table where her youngest child had been laid out in death. There was blood everywhere, caking his clothes and his small slender hands. It had only been fourteen summers since she had held him in her arms for the very first time. Neither woman noticed when Toris stepped into the Inn.

“I’m so sorry,” Xena tried to apologize even though she knew that it would do no good. It had been her idea to form the villagers into an army to defend against Cortez and his soldiers.

Cyrene looked up at her daughter. She could see the blood on the girl’s hands and all over her body. Tear tracks streaked down her cheeks, evidence of the pain that she felt at her brother’s loss.

“It was your fault,” the older woman said in a distracted voice as she turned her attention once more to her son. “Because of your desire to fight The Fates choose this to be his end. He adored you and you should have known that he would follow you. Now you must accept blame for his death.”

“No,” Xena cried in anguish and spun on her heels and ran out of the tavern, tears continuing to stream down her face. She ran until she could run no more, collapsing in a heap on the ground far from the village.

Toris was torn between his duty to his mother and the need to follow and comfort his sister. He looked at the silent form of his younger brother. Lyceus had been such a happy child, and wherever he was you knew that Xena was someplace nearby. He had adored his older sister and she had returned the affection. He knew her grief would be inconsolable.

By the time she returned to the Inn Lyceus’ body had been cleaned and dressed in garments not stained with his blood. He was lying in the darkness of the tavern, the only light coming from the fire burning in the grate of the fireplace.

“Xena,” the voice of her brother Toris came out of the darkness and her blue eyes found him sitting alone by the door.

“There is nothing to say,” the tall girl shook her dark hair. She strolled to the stairs and rested her hand on the barrister. “Tomorrow I am going after Cortez.”

“Killing him won’t bring Lyceus back,” the young man said quietly.

“No, but it will make me feel better,” Xena hissed in a harsh voice.

“But will that be enough?” Toris asked. “Will it end with their death or will it just be the beginning of something else? When his death will be avenged, whose else’s will be next?”

“No one!” the girl barked.

“You say that now,” the young man sighed and rose to his feet, hoping that he could get through to his sister. But it seemed her desire for revenge was clouding her judgment. “Perhaps Cortez started by gathering an army to avenge someone’s death but it lead to his realization that he could be all powerful and that he could control peoples lives through terror. Is that what you want to become?”

Xena stood silently, unable to give an answer. She knew that he brother was right but the pain was so fresh and it was hard not to hate. That night she lay tossing and turning in her bed, slumber strangely illusive regardless of how exhausted she was. When she finally rolled out of her cot at dawn she was surprised to see more than a dozen men and women waiting for her in the tavern.

She glanced around the room. Her mother was sitting on a stool next to Lyceus’ body, while Toris was sitting in another stool only a few feet away. There was an unearthly silence.

“We wish to speak with you.” Loris said. He was a young man near her age and good with a sword. It was obvious that the others had chosen him to be their spokesman.

Xena nodded and out of respect to her mother she led the group out of the tavern. Outside was perhaps another dozen villagers, all still dressed in their battle gear. She turned to face the older man, knowing what he was about to say.

“We want to go after Cortez,” Loris explained. “We want to bring revenge to him and his soldiers for the deaths they caused to our friends and family, and we want you to lead us.”

Xena was silent as she slowly allowed her blue eyes to scan the group. Though they had all washed, the smell of battle still hung over them. It was the smell of blood and death. She took a couple of deep breaths before speaking.

“We all have lost many friends and family members,” she spoke with a wisdom beyond her seventeen summers. “I think we should concentrate on burying our dead before we decide what to do next.”

“But they will get away,” a man from the group protested.

“Do not worry,” the tall girl shook her head. “It will not be hard to find them. Now go home and be with your families.”

There was allot of grumbling but slowly one by one the villagers turned and wandered back to their homes. Only once they were all gone did she turn back to enter the tavern. She was surprised to see Toris standing just outside the door.

“So you are going to go after them aren’t you?”

“They can’t be allowed to keep rampaging about the countryside, killing innocent people,” she replied her face without expression.

“We did what we had set out to do,” Toris shook his head.

Xena said nothing merely stepping passed her older brother and into the Inn.

The wail of the lyre and the singing of funeral songs could be heard from morning to night as the people of Amphipolis buried their dead. Finally it came time for the family to intern Lyceus in their family crypt in the nearby mountain.

They walked solemnly behind the horse and wagon that carried his body with only the sound of the creaking wheels to disturb the silence. It was a slow march but they finally reached his final resting place. As Toris and five friends moved the body from the wagon to the crypt, Xena broke out into the haunting funeral song that had been sung at all the other funerals. It’s clear and forlorn melody carried by the wind out onto the valley and across the meadow where he had been killed.

Her voice grew quiet and than faded away as they gently placed the body into the stone crypt. One last goodbye and the heavy stone lid was moved, sealing his body in place for all eternity. The only thing that could be heard was the gentle weeping of Cyrene who mourned the loss of her child.

When it was over Toris put his arm about his mothers bent shoulders and guided her out to the wagon, leaving Xena alone. A shiver ran down her spine and goosebumps covered her skin. For the first time she felt the chill of the cavern.

Jomas, the village chief, was waiting at the tavern with several of the town counselors when Cyrene and Toris returned from burying Lyceus. The pair could see the lines of concern on the other men’s faces and graciously Cyrene invited them in.

“We have come here to offer our condolences on the death of Lyceus. He was a good lad willing to help all those who needed it. He will be sadly missed by everyone in the village.” Jomas said once they were all seated around a table.

“I thank you but my loss is no different than any of the other people in the village,” Cyrene was no fool. She knew that the town council was here for more reasons than to offer condolences. “Why have you come, Jomas?”

The man glanced at his companions and than looked straight at the woman. They had known each other all their lives and he had defended her when she had killed her husband. No one had blamed her for killing a man who was intent on murdering a child.

“There is much talk around the village that Xena is intending to form an army to follow Cortez and his army,” the man stated what was on many of their minds.

“It is not solely her idea,” the woman defended her absent daughter. “There are others who are prodding her to do as you speak.”

“Yes,” the men acknowledged the truth. “However, it is Xena who holds the power. Without her they are nothing more than dissenting voices. If she were to tell them the idea is absurd than they would all go back to their families.”

“And if she doesn’t?”

“Than we will have no choice but to banish her from the village,” Jomas was direct. “Many of the less enlightened blame her for the deaths of their children. There have been men like Cortez and his army for as long as they have lived and for them raids are a fact of life.”

“How can they be so harsh when they are enjoying the benefits of her intervention?” Cyrene allowed her anger to show.

“It is true,” the man acknowledged again. “But what they only see is that their sons or husbands are dead. Many will suffer financially because of that. They can not afford to have their remaining children running off leaving them as well.”

“I do not understand what it is you want me to do?”

“We want you to talk to Xena, tell her of how the village feels; persuade her that this mission to avenge the village is needless.”

Cyrene wondered if these men knew what they were truly asking. None of them knew Xena as she did and it would not be as easy asking her to change her plans. But she agreed nonetheless for she did not want to see her daughter banished from the village. In truth she did not want to see Xena go off again to do battle.

For a long time Xena stood alone, staring at the stone tomb. She could feel the haunting sadness of grief but she refused to give in to it. She preferred to remain angry at the man responsible for her brother’s death. It was easier than accepting his loss and the part she played in it.

“I will avenge your death,” she promised in a harsh voice before turning on her heel and marching back to the Inn.

Word soon went around the village that Xena was getting ready to ride out after Cortez and the remainder of his army. It didn’t take long for a small crowd of men and women; all who wanted to join in the hunt, gathered outside the tavern. They all had family that they wanted to avenge.

Cyrene watched with sadness as her tall daughter strapped the leathers and armour on her body, before settling her sword in its sheaf across her back. Outside her horse Argo waited, saddled and ready. The older woman wanted to stop her daughter but she doubted that the girl would listen.

“Xena,” the woman’s soft voice brought the tall girl out of her revere. She looked up across the room to the doorway where her mother stood. “I don’t want you to do this. Lyceus wouldn’t want you to do this.”

“Yes he would,” the tall woman disagreed. “And if it had been me lying in the crypt, he would be the one strapping on the armour with the intention of avenging my death.”

“No, he wouldn’t,” Cyrene shook her head. “Lyceus would mourn the loss and know that you had all done your duty. You have not suffered anymore than everyone else in this village whose lost someone they loved.”

“No, that is why a crowd gathers outside the Inn to join me in my quest,” Xena wanted her mother to understand. “We managed to protect ourselves but what of other villages not as well organized. Cortez and his rabble will pillage them and make their women slaves.”

“That is not your concern.”

“Protecting my fellow countrymen is my concern,” the dark haired girl remained adamant. “If I can save one life than this will be all worth it.”

Cyrene looked intently at her daughter. Xena had always been stronger and more stubborn than any of her other children. She had grown tall and developed into more than a competent swordsman and there was no one in the village who could match her skill. She knew her daughters personality and combined with the leadership she was being given by her neighbours, Cyrene feared what would happen. She feared the girl would become like the man that they had just defeated.

“Xena if you leave here to go after Cortez and his army, you are not welcome back in my home.”

A dark head snapped to attention and blue eyes narrowed as they continued to stare at the older woman. For a moment she wondered if her mother were threatening her or merely trying to impose her will. Well, she was old enough to make her own decisions.

“I am going mother,” she said bluntly.

“Do you think that all the other villagers support you?”

“They are waiting for me in the courtyard.”

“They are only the village hotheads and others who have nothing better to do,” the older woman chided her daughter. “The others want no part of any more fighting. They have lost enough and if you insist on taking away more of their son’s and daughters than you will not be welcome back to Amphipolis.”

Xena knew that she was being given an ultimatum. She felt her anger begin to stir. She had organized and trained the villagers to protect themselves and for a reward they were ready to banish her from her home.

“I will not give in to sorcery.”

“I am not trying to coercer you,” Cyrene shook her head sadly aware that her daughter was not about to give in. “I am merely telling you what the rest of the people are saying. Many have lost husbands and sons and they don’t want to lose any more of their family.”

“Than they can stay home,” Xena said defiantly. “I am forcing no one to join me.”

“No but they look up to you and respect you,” the older woman said. “If you were to call this insane adventure off they would understand. They chose you to lead them because of your skills, now be a true leader and send them all home.”

“I can’t do that,” the girl said flatly. “I made a promise to Lyceus to avenge his death and I will not fail.”

Cyrene sighed. She knew that she was losing the battle. With every argument she could see her daughter grow more defiant. She had hoped that she could reason with her child but it seemed that the girl had inherited her stubbornness from her father; a man who had tried to kill her as a child. Now she wondered whether it would not have been better to let her husband murder her daughter. She had a strong impression that the honourable cause that Xena would fight for would quickly be lost under the lure of riches and power.

“Than I am sorry,” the older woman said in a tired voice. “But know that if you ride out of Amphipolis today after Cortez, you will not longer be welcome back.”

With that the woman was gone and for a long time Xena stared at the open doorway where her mother had stood only seconds earlier. She had lived in Amphipolis for all seventeen of her summers. She knew everyone in the village and everyone knew her. It was her home and the thought that she would not be welcome back hurt. But at the same time the threat solidified her resolve. She would allow no one to rule her life.

She finished gathering up her few belonging and glanced one last time around her bed chamber. If she would not be welcome back than this would be the last time she would see this place. She committed everything to memory and when she stepped through the door she left her childhood behind.

Cyrene was no where around but Toris was standing outside the Inn. For a long moment blue eyes met and held. Though he was older then his sister, she had always been better than him at almost everything. That grudge now grew stronger as he looked at her. Ideally it should have been him leading the village. Ideally it should be him going in search of justice.

Xena could see the conflict in her brother’s eyes and her heart hardened against him. He had always been jealous of her prowess with the horse and the sword. He had been hurt when the villagers had asked her to lead them in the battle against Cortez. He had been supportive but it had always been grudgingly given.

Neither said a word as the girl turned and strolled down to where her horse waited. With a jump she was on the creatures back and with a click of her heels they were off. She did not ask anyone to follow her, nor did she try to dissuade them. It was their choice to make just as she had made her own.

In total there were almost two dozen of them who rode out of Amphipolis that morning. They rode through the village gates and passed the meadows where their loved ones had fallen. They rode from their pasts to their future and destiny.

It was three days before they were able to pick up the track of Cortez and the remnants of his army. Than it was not hard for them to follow the path of burnt farms as the defeated army retreated towards a place where they could regroup and replenish themselves. Xena knew that it was important for them to catch up to them before that happened.

It was late in the afternoon when they came across a displaced family on the road. The couple and their two children had lost everything to the marauders several days earlier and were eager to join the party that was seeking revenge. Since starting out the group for Amphipolis had grown as other displaced persons joined their ranks.

“They were headed east,” the farmer told Xena when questioned. He pointed in the opposite direction of the sun. “There were about two handfuls of men in their party.”

Xena looked where the man pointed. “Is there anything of significance in that direction?”

“No,” the man shook his head. “There is only a small farming village by the name of Potedaia a days ride from here.”

The tall girl nodded her head. It was reasonable to expect the Warlord to head to another village and a peaceful place such as the village of Potedaia would be an easy target. If she guessed right it would be the perfect place for the man to start rebuilding his army.

“Let’s go then.” She said slicking her heels in the direction.

****

Gabrielle had just finished placing the pots of flowers she had picked from near the river around the dais. She paused, resting her hands on her hips as she glanced around her surroundings, pleased by what she had accomplished. Tomorrow the courtyard would be filled with people coming to celebrate the successful gathering of the harvest.

She glanced around the town square again. Most of the women were down by the river washing their finest clothes in preparation for the next day’s festivities. There was so much more to do before the morrow and she turned and hurried down to join her mother and sister at the river.

Cortez halted his army in a forest at the edge of the village. He sat on his horse watching the village women laughing and chatting as they did their laundry. There were no men about to guard their presence and the Warlord knew that they had not heard of his rampage. A grim smile broke across his face.

His scouts had earlier returned from scouring the area and from their descriptions it would be an ideal place for them to take slaves and recoup some of the losses they had taken by being defeated in Amphipolis. Even though his army have been severely depleted they would be easily be able to take the village. The scouts had assured him that the village was a peaceful one with no defense force, and they had never been wrong before.

“Now!” He motioned to his men and in mass they galloped out of the forest and surrounded the women by the river. With no men there to protect them the women had no choice but to surrender peacefully, though a small girl managed to escape and sound the alarm in the village. By the time the townsmen gathered and responded to the emergency the women and their captors were gone.

They had been hastily bound together by chain and thick rope before being marched late into the evening. No one knew their destination but they could discern by the direction that they were heading for the sea. It was only when they came to a small shed that the slavers called a halt for the night. All the women were herded into the small one room windowless shack and the door was locked.

Gabrielle sat quietly in the corner of the shed room marveling how differently she had felt several candle marks earlier. She glanced around the cramped space, seeing the expressions of worry and fear on the other women who had been incarcerated.

She had just gone to find her mother and sister down by the river where they were washing clothes when the marauders had appeared. Some women had tried to run but they had been surrounded and there was no chance for them to escape. Now she like the others was a prisoner and ahead of them loomed a life of slavery.

“No!” the determined blond decided that she didn’t want that future. She was young and some day she wanted to marry and have a family. She tested the bindings on her wrists and realized that with some effort she might be able to wriggle her hands free.

“Gabrielle, what are you doing?” Hercuba, her mother asked crossly, irritated by her daughter’s struggles.

“I am getting out of here and than I am going to go get help and rescue all of you.” The small blond replied earnestly.

“How are you going to do that?” the older woman asked thinking that this was another of her eldest child’s fantasies. Gabrielle was always making up stories of various adventures.

“Like this,” the girl pronounced with glee as she managed to finally slip her hands free of their bindings.

“Gabrielle!” The older woman was shocked and more than a little worried about what her daughter planned.

“Now, I am going to work one of these boards loose and then crawl outside,” the little blond replied as she carefully checked the boards that made up the outer shell of the building. It was a few minutes before she found one loose enough that she would be about to work free.

“It’s too dangerous,” the older woman was filled with concern. “Let someone else go.”

“I am the only one old enough and small enough to get between these boards,” the girl replied and than paused to look at her mother seeing the worry in the older hazel eyes. “I promise to be careful.”

The assurance did not relieve the older woman’s worry and so when the board was loose enough to provide an opening she could do nothing but hug her daughter and send her off with a prayer to the Gods of Mt. Olympus.

Gabrielle carefully stuck her head through the opening and glanced through the darkness checking to see if there were any of their captors nearby. A short distance away was a campfire which was surrounded by the slavers. She was in the shadows and knew that she would not be spotted.

Soundlessly she slipped through the opening and than crawled hastily across the grass and into the row of trees where the slavers horses were tied. She was careful not to disturb the huge beasts frightened that the noise they would make would give away her escape. Only once she was a good distance away from the campsite did she stand up and begin to run.

Xena and her makeshift army rode late into the night, stopping only when their horses needed the rest. She did not know why but a sense of urgency had driven her along, and the next morning they were on the road again candle marks before the dawn. She knew that Cortez and his men had several days head start but she hoped that he would not be in a rush. The Warlord would not suspect that anyone would be hunting him and his army.

They reached the outskirts of Potedaia the previous afternoon and after speaking with the village men learned that their women and children had been captured by raiders. After scouring the tracks down by the river they had set out after the army, confident that they were not far behind.

After a few short candle marks they were once again on their way and traveling down a narrow track when a small disheveled figure stumbled out of the forest ahead of them. With a click of their heels they hurried to intercept the lone individual.

Gabrielle paused for a brief moment as she emerged from the darkness of the forest. For the first time she knew where she was and almost immediately she recognized a group of horseman heading in her direction. For an instant she felt a moment of panic but than realized that they would be able to hunt her down before she got too far. She hoped that they were friend and not a foe.

The lead rider was a tall dark haired woman with dark leathers and a sword in the sheaf on her back. She was riding a tanned coloured horse with a white mane. The woman was striking in her appearance and for a long moment Gabrielle was speechless as her frightened green eyes met intense blue ones. In the next instance she felt a sense of safety and security.

“Are you from Potedaia?” The tall dark haired woman asked.

“Yes, and I just escaped from the slavers camp,” the girl babbled.

“Can you show us where they are?” Xena asked and watched as the blond head bobbed.

“Show us,” the woman instructed with authority and held out her hand.

Gabrielle stood for a long moment staring at the extended appendage aware of her fear of horses but she knew that she would be a safe. She took the hand and than felt herself being easily lifted into the back of the horse.

“Which way do we go?”

All the small blond could do was point and hang on to the tall woman’s waist as they took off in the direction from which Gabrielle had come. It wasn’t long before they reached the small clearing where the raiders had set up camp.

Xena did a quick reconnaissance of the area. She wasn’t surprised to find only a few guards on duty while most of the others were still sleeping around the campfire that had burnt down to white ash. She saw the shed where the village woman where locked. It was well past dawn but the raiders seemed in no hurry to move on. It was obvious that they were not expecting anyone to come after them.

“You stay here,” Xena instructed the small blond woman.

“But…” Gabrielle was about to protest but the stern expression that crossed the older girls face made her close her mouth.

“It is too dangerous for those who have no experience in battle,” the dark haired warrior said and then turned to her rag tag army. “Mount up; we will be able to take them by surprise if we attack now.”

The others nodded. So quickly they had fallen under the girl’s leadership, believing in her as they had believed in no one else. There was a charm and charisma to the tall, dark haired beauty that seduced all those who came into contact with her. No one thought to challenge her authority or decisions, believing in everything she said

“Aiyyyeeee,” the now familiar scream penetrated the air. It was the signal for them to attack and they charged out of the forest into the clearing catching the raiders by surprise.

Though they had the advantage of surprise they did not easily overpower their enemy. The soldiers of Cortez’s army hastily shook themselves awake and grabbed their swords.

The battle was intense and bloody but it didn’t last long. Xena and her companions were able to overwhelm the unsuspecting army and those who did not fall under the sword, tossed their weapons aside and raised their hands in surrender.

“Round them up,” the tall dark haired girl commanded those around her. The thrill was victory felt sweet and she felt the bloodlust coursing through her veins. It was intoxicating and empowering. “Has anyone seen Cortez?”

Her blue eyes scanned the campsite and paused when the man in question stepped out from behind the shed, one arm wrapped around the waist of the small blond woman who had escaped and summoned their help. His other hand held a sword which was positioned against the girl’s throat.

Gabrielle struggled to free herself but she was too weak against her captors grip. She knew that she should have listened to the older girl but she was not someone to idly sit by. With the soldiers all occupied she had scrambled from her hiding place in the forest and gone to the shed intent on freeing the women. She had just about gotten the door lock undone when she had been grabbed from behind. Now she found herself in a more tenuous position than she had ever faced in her life.

The battle was nearly over when Xena noticed the warlord dragging a hostage towards where their horses were tied. She galloped towards him, coming to a halt nearby, she slipped from the back of her mount and walked towards the man. She could see the wildness in the black of his eyes.

“Who are you?” the man wanted to know. No one had pursued him before and he needed to know who this strange warrior was.

“I am Xena of Amphipolis, and I have come to take you back to our town to face charges of murder.”

The man laughed incredulously which belied the caged feeling that was beginning to overwhelm his senses.

“Let the girl go,” Xena instructed. “Fight me and if you win you can go on about your way and if not, than you can come back to Amphipolis with me.”

“I will not go to any prison,” Cortez sneered and than unceremoniously dropped his hostage on the ground.

Gabrielle hastily scrambled out of the way as the two warriors stared at each other. Xena was totally focused on the man who confronted her, as all else melted away. She knew that this would be the toughest battle of her tender life and she had no intention of losing. She felt to strongly the desire to live.

The battle was intense as each thrust was greeted by a defensive parry. The clanging of metal and steel upon each other was loud and echoed through the forest. It was as everything had stopped moving for this moment in time.

The two warriors fought with strength and endurance and it was only by a mistake that one would be defeated. It came when the warlord stumbled as he stepped backwards. Xena used the opportunity to pounce, driving forward with a momentum that kept the man off balance. Finally he was unable to counter her thrusts and the tip of her sword penetrated his defenses and sliced open his torso, sending his blood and guts spilling on to the ground beneath him.

Dark eyes looked at her with amazement. He had thought that she was too young to know the intricacies of hand to hand combat but he had been proven wrong. She had shown a skill and strength that was unusual in someone so young and untried. He slumped to his knees and than toppled forward onto his face.

Xena stood over him, her heart pounding erratically in her breast as she stared at the results of her victory. She had accomplished her goal of avenging Lyceus death but she also knew that there were other men out there gathering armies to lead against unarmed countrymen. She physically jumped when she felt the warmth of a hand on her arm, her sword rising to strike.

Her dark head snapped around and for a long moment she caught the startled and horrified expression in a pair of green eyes. In an instance the animal inside her shrunk back into its cage and her hand lowered the sword. The bloodlust that had been coursing through her body was suddenly stilled.

“Thank you,” the girl said softly.

“I told you to stay behind, you could have gotten killed. Next time listen when someone tells you something,” Xena barked with irritation. She was angry that this girl had almost gotten herself killed. Without another word she turned and started to walk away her thoughts already on her next move.

“Gabrielle.” The girl called at the receding back.

Gabrielle. The simply spoken word penetrated through her thoughts. Some things will be the same and some will be different, that invisible voice again whispered in her head. She paused and turned to look back at the blond girl.

“What did you say?”

The small blond swallowed. “I said my name is Gabrielle.”
Epilogue
Xena sat perched on a rock at the far end of the lake. She had remembered this place from her childhood and when the heat of the morning had become too much she had slipped away from the others, intent on enjoying a quiet, relaxing few candle marks away from all her responsibilities.

She sighed and stretched her long muscular body out, feeling the warm rays of the sun dry the tiny droplets of water still clinging to her smooth skin. It had been a long time since she had been able to let her guard down and relax without someone watching her. A long time since she had last enjoyed the simple pleasures she had taken for granted as a child.

Her thoughts abruptly ended at the sound of rustling grass. She rolled swiftly off the rock and stared keenly in the direction of the sound. A feral grin stretched across her lips. Perhaps today was going to turn out to be more pleasant then first assumed, she thought, reaching for the sword that was leaning up against a rock next to her leathers and chakram.

A young girl strolled carefully through the long grass placing her pouch down on the ground at the edge of the lake before beginning to disrobe. It was hot and already her body was anticipating the refreshing delights of the waters embrace.

She shed her clothes and then her boots before wading into the lake. She dunked her head beneath the surface and then popped out and slowly began to stroke her way to the middle of the clear, cool pool.

“Now, Gabrielle, what tales shall you tell tonight?” she mused out loud to herself in thoughtful leisure. Then without hesitation she launched into a recitation of Hercules and the Cyclops.

Xena sat back on her heels and the grip on the hilt of her sword eased as she stared with unabashed interest as the woman stripped down and then walked into the water. The prevailing stillness of the forest was soon broken by the gentle splash of water and then the warm tones of a soft voice. She stretched back out and listened to the tale of the mighty hero and the Cyclops. She found herself enthralled by the timbre of the voice which spoke the words and instantly found herself relaxing.

Suddenly the quiet atmosphere was broken by the sound of branches breaking and Xena felt a swift surge of anger towards the intruders. She had been enjoying herself and the story.

She glanced towards the edge of the forest, her senses once again on alert as six horsemen emerged from the trees. With one swift look she assessed the danger, sizing the men up with cold calculation. From their ill fitting and dirty clothing she knew that they were common thieves who roamed the countryside preying on helpless individuals. Their weapons were old and unkempt. She knew that she could handle them easily yet decided to wait and see how the situation unfolded.

Her eyes strayed to the woman who was now treading water in the middle of the lake. The girl sensibly stayed out in the water and even across the distance Xena could see that her eyes were wide and round though there was no fear in their green depths. For an instant she was mesmerized and suddenly she saw nothing but the young woman as her heart began to pound unevenly.

Clovis reigned in his horse as he neared the waters edge. His eyes narrowed as he spotted first the articles on the ground and then the girl paddling quietly out in the water. A cruel smile tipped the corners of his lips. They had been riding for days without crossing paths with any travelers and the few farms they had come across had hardly been worth the effort they had used to pillage them. His men were tired and as cranky as himself and in need of some entertainment. It looked like they had just found it.

He turned his gaze back out to the girl. She was young but pretty, not that it mattered on either accounts. The mood they were in it wouldn’t have mattered what she looked like. But it definitely would make it more enjoyable.

“I think we’ll take a break here,” he turned and said to the others a smirk on his face. “This seems like a pleasant enough place for a wash and some entertainment.”

The men laughed in understanding as they dismounted, tethering their horses nearby before wandering down to the edge of the lake. They bent and picked up the pouch, dumping its contents on the ground before casually sorting through the items. There was nothing of value among the girl’s possessions.

“Can I help you?” Gabrielle called breaking the silence between them, annoyed that they were pawing through her stuff.

“Perhaps we can help you,” Clovis responded with a grin and the others laughed, dropping her things back on the ground. “What’s a wee thing like you doing alone out here?”

Xena suddenly snapped out of the trance that had descended over her mind. She heard the trace of infliction in the man’s voice and knew that they were about to have some fun with the young woman.

“I’m on my way to Amphipolis,” Gabrielle replied. “I am a friend of General Rufus.”

It was a silly idea, she knew, but she hoped that the mention of the General’s name and her association with the man might in some way intimidate these strangers. The men only laughed obviously unimpressed, knowing she was biding her time hoping that some unexpected rescue would stumble her way, but there would be no reprieve for they had not seen any one else in days.

“Perhaps we could accompany you and make certain no one troubles you,” Clovis laughed and winked at his companions. “I’m sure the General would be pleased to know that we took care of you for him.”

“I would be pleased for the company,” Gabrielle replied.

“Of course we would need some reward for that favour,” Clovis continued as he began to loosen the belt that was wrapped around his tunic.

“I can tell you a story,” she offered silently swimming backwards and in spite of the circumstances continued to show no fear even though these men looked hungry and dangerous. “I am a bard and I travel around entertaining people.”

“I bet you entertain people,” the man smiled. “Come out and entertain us.”

Gabrielle opened her mouth to answer but the corner of her eye caught sight of something moving swiftly along the tree line completely unobserved by the men. She watched fascinated as a tall, lithe, raven haired creature unfurrowed itself from the forest and moved stealthily towards the gang of thieves. She watched silently as the woman came to a halt behind the men, casually folding her arms across her chest and waiting until she was finally noticed.

“Come on missy, we need entertaining too,” the men laughed.

“She said she’s a bard and I don’t think her type of entertainment is what you have in mind,” Xena interrupted the ribaldry, bored at waiting for them to realize her presence. The men turned as one and six pair of startled eyes glanced over her body. Clovis smiled not realizing the danger that stood before him.

“So you have a friend,” he snorted in glee as his mind raced with the possibilities. The woman who stood before him was armed like a warrior but he had rarely seen a woman who could fight. He had no fear as he took several steps towards this new arrival. He would enjoy taking this woman. He spoke his thoughts out loud.

Xena allowed a grin to play across her lips as her eyes grew dark and cold. She watched as their gazes met and the man paused, suddenly not so certain of his thoughts. He checked himself, there were six of them and only one of her. He completely discounted the girl in the lake aware she had no weapons.

“Then come and take me,” the dark haired woman offered with a seductive smile.

The man moved without warning, rushing towards her but Xena was prepared, anticipating his actions. She deftly sidestepped his attack, laughing with amusement as he stumbled passed her. Seeing their leader tumble to the ground, spurred the others into action and they rushed all at once but the tall woman guessed their tactics and drew her sword in one swift motion.

The sound of steel on steel echoed through the still forest as the men thrust towards the woman warrior. Xena only laughed easily parrying and blocking their moves. She was toying with them like a cat plays with a mouse before moving in for the final kill. They were no match for her skill and she soon tired of this game. She dispatched the first man with ease, blocking his thrust before dropping to her knee and bringing her sword across his arm and cutting it open. He immediately dropped his sword and clutched his wound.

Clovis knew almost immediately that he had underestimated his opponent. There was something familiar in the way this warrior moved and it nagged at his brain. He heard the thunder of horse hooves. A sideways glance told him that there were six mounted warriors heading their way. By the familiar uniforms on their backs he knew that they belonged to the local militia.

“Retreat,” he bellowed glancing back at the woman warrior. Suddenly he knew why the woman was familiar.

The others needed no further encouragement as they turned and raced to where their horses were tied, mounting on the run and riding hard out of the clearing into the forest. Xena was about to give chase when she noticed the mounted horsemen bearing down on her. She cursed Hades as she recognized them.

“Are you all right?” the soldier in charge asked and than waited for the tall woman to nod in the affirmative. He saw her gaze turn from him to the lake and for the first time he noticed the young woman, who was now hastily scrambling into her clothes.

“Yes.”

“Than we will be off, we have been looking for those men since they broke into the store rooms in Larius,” the soldier said with a knowing smile and with a wave motioned the others to follow him.

Xena watched as the small militia of riders hurried after the robbers.

“Thank you,” Gabrielle offered with undisguised relief.

Xena turned to see that the woman was now fully dressed. Earlier she had caught a brief glimpse of the slender yet muscular body with droplets of moisture running own its curvy length. It was a pleasant sight and she felt a thread of desire run through her body.

“Don’t you know it’s dangerous out here,” the taller woman growled gruffly.

“It’s dangerous just walking through your own village at night,” the girl retorted with an impish flash of green eyes.

“You were lucky I happened along. They would have taken their pleasure and then killed you.”

“Nah, I knew you would save me.”

“You did, did you?” A dark eye brow went up questioningly. “How did you know I was here?”

“Come on Xena, after fifteen years together I can feel when you are around,” Gabrielle said. “And when you are around I know nothing bad will happen.”

“I won’t always be there Gabrielle,” the taller woman tried to caution her mate but the smaller woman only ignored her entreaties and encircled her waist with her arms giving her a hug.

“Yes, you will,” the small blond replied before planting a kiss on the other woman’s skin at the base of the neck. “You promised to remain with me for now and forever at our joining ceremony ten summers ago.”

“Yeah well I didn’t know that I would spend the rest of my life getting you out of scrapes,” Xena groused but Gabrielle only laughed rising on her tiptoes to plant a warm kiss on the taller woman’s lips.

“You are in a frisky mood,” Xena said catching her breath, aware of how the smaller woman’s action had caused her pulse rate to increase.

“I am happy we are soon going to be home,” Gabrielle replied thinking of the small cottage on the outskirts of Amphipolis that they had built several summer earlier. “I miss Cyrene’s nutbread.”

Xena laughed, amused that her companion was always thinking of her appetite.

“Mother will be surprised by how the children have grown,” she commented thinking of the three orphaned children that they had adopted over the course of their travels.

“Yes, and we have to take them to Potedaia to see their aunt Lila and my parents,” Gabrielle reminded her lover.

A grimace crossed the taller woman’s face. Though their children were loved by Hercuba and Herodatus, the man had still not forgiven her for taking his daughter away fifteen summers earlier. He had not understood the friendship and love that had grown up between them so quickly and certainly hadn’t understood there desire to travel across the land helping those in need.

“Maybe in the new moon,” Xena conceded and Gabrielle went up on her tiptoes and placed another kiss on her lips. Neither could remember a time when the other hadn’t been in their life.

“Okay, now that that is settled we should get back to the caravan,” the small blond said bending to collect her pouch. “I left little Lila with the trader Salomenous and I believe by now she probably has talked his ear off.”

Xena laughed and caught her lover’s hand, drawing it to her lips for a quick kiss before turning and falling into step beside her. Theirs was a good life and no matter what situation they found themselves in they always seemed to come out for the better. They had little money and few possessions but they were happy and that was what was important. It was as if they were being watched and cared for by the Gods.

 

 

THE END

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