Petal Of The Rose part 2 by LJ Maas

Chapter 13: I Dare No More Acknowledge My Own Name

I found her at the lake, not too far from the castle. During the warm summer days, it had been a favorite place of hers, to lie about and write in her scrolls. It was the first place I looked.

She never turned around when I walked up behind her. She was seated facing the water, her knees drawn up under her chin, and her skirt tucked around her. The wind blew her hair about, shrouding her face in a cloak that prevented me from seeing her features. I heard her sniffle, though, and I knew she must have been crying. The pain of that notion sliced into my heart like a dagger.

“Gabrielle?” I touched her shoulder.

She didn’t pull away from me, but she turned her head aside.

“Are you angry that I stayed to comfort Solan?” I asked.

“He’s your son,” she answered flatly.

“And you are my wife,” I retorted.

“Not yet.” She sniffed.

“Perhaps not by a ceremony, but in my heart we are already wed. You know this, don’t you?”

“How could he?” she asked tearfully. “How could he have been there, and done nothing? What sort of a human can actually do that?”

“I don’t know, love, but I do know that it has affected him deeply. If it’s any consolation at all, his very soul seems tortured over his actions.”

“I don’t take solace in his pain, but how can I forgive him, Xena?” she whimpered.

“Did I not just hear you say that forgiveness is not so much about absolution for another, but for the peace it offers you inside yourself?” I answered. “Gabrielle, know that you have to do nothing that you don’t want to. You are a free woman now, and no one can ever again force you to do anything you don’t want to do.”

“But, he’s your son!” She answered as if everything hinged on that little point. Perhaps, to her, it did.

“Gabrielle,” I reached out and drew her face toward me. I brushed the golden hair away, and cupped her cheek within one hand. “Solan is my son, and I have come to care for him, but hear me when I say this. If you were to ask, I would send him back to Kaleipus this very day. If it were your wish, there would never be contact between Solan and me again.”

She looked up at me, and I feared that I had said the wrong words anyway. Her tears began anew.

“Why would you do that? He’s your flesh and blood.”

“Yet you are my life,” I answered. “You are the air that I breathe, the water that I drink. You are what gives meaning to my life, and the reason that I live. You are my sustenance. When all others left me at the wayside, dying of thirst, it was you who offered me a drink. If those reasons aren’t simple enough, I would do this because I love you, little one.”

It was then that she fairly dove into my embrace, and I smiled.

“Oh, Xena, I don’t want you to lose your son.”

For once, I had spoken from the heart. I said the right words, and that pleased me greatly.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Yes, I admit, I recognized the young man immediately.” Yu Pan said as he slowly poured tea into a cup for each of us.

Gabrielle and I sat with the healer in his room. We had agreed to go to Yu Pan first, believing he might know more of that night. We sipped at the steaming brew, and waited as the old man settled himself into a comfortable position on the floor.

“The night is not one I will soon forget.” He nodded in Gabrielle’s direction. “It made even an old man such as me thirst for vengeance. I used to lose my temper too easily as a young man, and I thought my ways of violence were mended. When I looked upon my small nuér, I felt all the old anger bubble forth.

My student woke me in the middle of the night. I peeked through the curtains and saw a young man. In his arms, he held a small woman, but being unable to see her face at the time, I never would have thought it to be our Gabrielle. By the time I put on my robe, the young man fled. He left a pouch of talants, telling my student to heal the woman, and that her master would come for her later. The young man was your son, Tong zhi zhe.”

“Solan attacked me, then brought me to you?” Gabrielle asked in wonder. Her question made it apparent that she didn’t quite believe Solan when he said he didn’t join the men in their debaucheries that evening.

“I have found that it is extremely rare for a man to treat a woman so, then to bring her to a healer. No, nuér, I do not believe the young man harmed you in any way. I saw non of that blackness within his heart. He never returned throughout the whole season you lived in my home, and he never told your master where you were either.” Yu Pan responded.

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “You mean you lived with Yu Pan for a year? What of the man who owned you? How did–”

Yu Pan held up a hand and I went immediately silent.

“Perhaps we should shed light upon the past. Some little time after delicate Gabrielle had been lost in a game of chance to the Pirates who owned the ship in question, I was given my freedom. I had saved and purchased my freedom from a forgiving master. It was my home that Gabrielle was brought to that evening. I practiced the healing arts, and taught my students the same.

The night in question, I did not think I would have a patient to care for come the morning. She was badly off, many hurts to attend, physically as well as mentally. It took much time for the girl to finally fight her way back. She accomplished what no other patient of mine has ever done, and she has truly become my best pupil.”

I knew I held tears in my eyes as my mind’s eye conjured up the images of my little Gabrielle, and her broken body. She reached out, took my hand, and smiled at me in reassurance. How like her, when it should have been me heartening her.

“It must have been so painful for you, my little one.” I said.

“I don’t know, Xena. I don’t remember any of that season that I lived with Yu Pan.” Gabrielle responded.

“Nothing?”

“No,” she answered quickly. “It’s missing time from my life.”

“But–” I began.

“Perhaps the rest of the tale should be told with an audience of only one.” Yu Pan interjected tactfully. “May I suggest that we reconsider young Solan’s healing?” He looked between the two of us.

“I’m not sure Gabrielle’s up to confronting Solan just yet.” I added.

“No, Xena, if Yu Pan believes that this might soften Solan’s heart to the healing, then we can’t deny him this chance. I can do this.”

When she set her jaw in that determined sort of way that she possessed, I absolutely believed her. “She truly is your best pupil Master Yu Pan.” I said. Then I watched as Gabrielle blushed.

Perhaps it was unnecessary, but I bestowed the title of Master on this old man, for truly there was much more to him that met the eye. If Yu Pan had one jot of influence in Gabrielle’s edification, then he was indeed a Master educator.

“There is no better time than the present,” Yu Pan said.

The old man rose, fully expecting us to follow him. I allowed him to take the lead for one reason only. He walked through the door, and out into the stone corridor. It was then that I slipped an arm about Gabrielle’s waist and stole a most pleasant kiss.

* * * * * * * * * *

I paced and Yu Pan watched. His head never seemed to tire from swiveling to and fro, watching my movement. The man’s calm demeanor could drive a Hestian Priestess to hard drink. Gabrielle sat at Solan’s bedside for a long time. They whispered to one another in voices so low that even my hearing couldn’t pick up but a few of the words exchanged.

I wondered if Gabrielle would share with me what they were saying. I knew, however, that I would not ask her to. I suppose I mostly wondered if they were discussing only their own mutual past, or if my pitiful presence as a mother figure in Solan’s life came up.

Gabrielle cleared her throat, and when I looked up, she was standing there in the doorway, her eyes swollen slightly from another bout with tears.

“Yu Pan, Solan regrets his earlier behavior, and wishes to know if you would consent to meet with him again?” Gabrielle asked the healer.

We all knew it was a formality, but I still think I held my breath a bit before I saw the old man rise, and walk into the other room.

“Are you well, little one?” I asked as tenderly as possible.

“Yes, love, I am.”

“And . . . between you and Solan? Is it settled between the two of you?” I continued to prod.

“Xena, he was a boy in a man’s body. He did what he did because he was afraid.” Gabrielle responded with her usually compassionate tone.

“Fear is no excuse!” I hissed in response. Now it was I who was angered. I feared that perhaps Gabrielle was doing this because she knew what it meant to me. I should have known her better.

“My love,” she squeezed both my hands. “Who am I to discount someone’s fear? I lived most of my life in abject terror for my life, doing whatever others forced me to do because of it. I won’t disregard Solan’s fear.”

We moved to the other side of the room, out of eyesight, but within earshot of Solan and Yu Pan. We sat on the low-lying couch so I could hold Gabrielle close to me. Still, I listened to the sounds emanating from the other room.

* * * * * * * * * *

“We meet again, my young friend.” Yu Pan greeted Solan as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened on what was turning out to be an exceedingly long day.

“Let me explain my life’s work to you, my friend. Would you mind indulging an old man?”

“Please, I’d like very much to hear.” Solan answered.

I was growing sleeping, having leaned back on the couch, Gabrielle snuggled close to me. I closed my eyes and listened. Solan sounded like someone else just then, and perchance he was. Have I not changed? Am I the same Conqueror who ruled this land five, or even ten seasons past? Hades, am I the same woman that crept down on my knees to convince this woman, I now hold in my arms, that she needn’t steal food from my table? I opened my eyes and found green eyes staring right back at me.

“I felt you thinking of me,” Gabrielle commented dreamily.

I chuckled and pressed her closer. “Indeed I was. All happy thoughts, little one . . . always happy thoughts of you.”

Again, I shut my eyes and relaxed. We are such different women now, grown different in such a short time. Why should it surprise me that this magic that now coils throughout my life, should not touch every single person living within these walls. I relaxed even further as I heard Yu Pan explain the philosophy of his art.

“A well and healthy body is a perfectly balanced machine. The idea of pairs of opposites hanging balanced against one another, such as day and night, sun and moon, light and dark, is expressed by yin and yang. Qi, which you pronounce, ch’i is often translated as vital force, vital energy, or life force. Qi is both energy and matter. Qi flows in, around, and through the body in channels or meridians.

I use my knowledge, and my ability of my own Qi, along with nature’s Qi, to look at what is out of balance within your own vital force. Through sight, sound, touch, the incessant questions I ask you, and my stories, I treat the cause of your illness directly. I treat the cause and, at the same time, support and encourage your body’s own ability to cure the illness. In this case, to mend broken and bruised areas that exists within you. In my language, this is called fu zheng.”

A rustling sound of cloth moving reached my ears. I was becoming as hypnotized as Solan must be by the healer’s tone.

“Whether you realized it, Gabrielle already taught you the breathing and meditative techniques called Qigong. This works by manipulating or affecting the flow of Qi through exercise, breathing, and meditation. Qigong exercises produce very strong healing effects. You may note that even the Conqueror has a daily practice, of using Qigong. I have seen her on the balcony. This daily use of Qigong maintains good health and prevents illness before it starts.

What you have already experienced is the massage techniques on your hands. This is Tui Na, and is translated as pushing and pulling. It refers to a system of massage, body manipulation, and stimulation of acupuncture points by hand.”

“Listen, my young friend, and I will tell you a story as I work.” Yu Pan finally said.

“Wang Zhaojun was born Wang Qiang in Zigui county, Hubei province. She was a Han dynasty court lady married off to a ruler of the Xiongnu, or as you say, Huns.

In her teens, she entered the palace as one of the numerous candidates from whom Emperor Yuan Di chose his concubines, said to number in the thousands. Again, I do not know this to be fact, as I did not see them all, but I suspect some exaggeration may have occurred.” I could hear the smile in Yu Pan’s tone.

“Wang Zhaojun was a daring and determined young woman who entered the court willingly to save her father, a scholar-official, from persecution. She was beautiful, intelligent, and well read. So confident was she of her own beauty, or perhaps so honest, that she refused to bribe the court painter. The artist, Mao Yanshou, accepted bribes when he did portraits of the candidates, from which the emperor used to choose his concubines. As a result, he painted an unflattering picture, and she was passed over by the emperor. She did not like the thought of wasting her life in court, and hoped that some day something would happen that would free her from her baneful existence.

Some time later, Xiongnus, a nomadic people to the north who you call the Huns, wished to establish friendly relations with the Han dynasty. Their Chanyu, or Khan, came to the Han capital Chang’an and requested a Han princess as a bride. This was a way of cementing relations between two lands. Instead, Han Emperor Yuan Di thought he would send one of his imperial concubine candidates, and give her away like his own daughter. He asked for volunteers. Of course, the idea of leaving their homeland, and comfortable life at the court for the grasslands of the far and unknown north was abhorrent to most of the young women, but not to Wang Zhaojun. She saw it as a chance to leave the empty palace life, and possibly play a far more important role than she ever would in Chang’an. She requested and was accepted.

She left her home in China and died many years later in a country far to the north. It is an unfortunate event in life that women have always been so married in the interests of diplomacy. Wang Zhaojun, was the exception to that rule, however. She chose her life’s path; she did not let it choose her.

You see, my young friend, selecting your own path is of the utmost importance. Choose for yourself, Solan…do not let the fates choose for you.”

* * * * * * * * * *

I stood on the balcony and breathed in the early morning air. Cool and crisp, it still held the pungent aroma from the recently harvested olive trees surrounding the castle. Yesterday’s turn of events sapped a great deal of my energy, and I came outside to stretch. Sometime last evening during Yu Pan’s healing, and stories, Gabrielle and I both fell asleep. When the moon was low in the early morning sky, Yu Pan awakened us, and I carried Gabrielle down to our own rooms.

I stared across the courtyard and out onto the training field. I watched the man to whom I owed so much. Yu Pan was confident that Solan would be well in the morning, and it comforted me on many levels. Most of all, I was glad because it meant that Solan had managed to purge himself of the anger and guilt he had been living with for so many seasons.

I continued to watch the old man in the sparse light dawn provided just before the sun rose. Dressed in a long black robe and loose fitting pants, he began to do his own daily Qigong. I had to take a step back in shock as I watched the healer go from old man, to a blur of complex movement. All my suspicions were answered as I watched his routine. I was completely mesmerized, not only by his ability, but for who I now suspected he was. I may have been correct in thinking that Yu Pan was more than simply an old man. Old, to be sure, but his skills were what kept him young.

As if reading my very thoughts, he stopped in mid-motion, and turned to face me. He looked up at the balcony where I stood and bowed deeply at the waist. I grinned at the apparent secret we now shared. I bowed in turn to the healer, and returned to my bedchamber to dress. I chose loose fitting garb, as opposed to my customary leather trousers.

Gabrielle was already awake when I entered the room, saying she wanted to check on Solan. . Impatient to prove myself correct, I kissed her on the forehead and told her to meet me on the training field later, that there may be something of interest there.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found Yu Pan waiting for me. He was seated along the low stone wall that surrounded the training field. It was still early enough that we were two of the few people in the area, although shortly the barracks would empty and soldiers and cadets alike would begin their training regimen.

“Good day to you, Conqueror.” Yu Pan greeted me as I came up behind him.

“To you as well, Master Yu Pan.”

To the both of us, the use of our official titles was more of a familiarity than protocol. Rather like Gabrielle teasing me by calling me, Conqueror. I sat down beside him and we both simply enjoyed the sounds of the early morning. He took a puff from his pipe every now and then, finally emptying the ivory bowl of its tobacco by tapping the end of the pipe on the wall.

I watched a couple of female soldiers as they began their own morning sparring routines. Engaged in some easy hand-to-hand combat, they were oblivious of my watchful gaze. Yu Pan, however, seemed to have Gabrielle’s ability of knowing precisely what I was thinking. I turned to look at him and he smiled knowingly, looking back himslef at the female soldiers.

“Some days I wish that Gabrielle knew more about taking care of herself in that way.” I answered his unasked question.

“I am most sure that when the time comes, Gabrielle will possess all the abilities that she needs. She has survived her life thus far without such skills,” he answered.

“At what cost? I’m not content to have her simply survive. I won’t have her become a victim, ever again.”

“Be careful what you wish for, Conqueror.” Yu Pan cautioned me. “Shall I tell you a story?

“By all means,” I answered.

“Sun Wu, known to history as Sun Zi, Philosopher Sun, was a great military strategist who you no doubt have heard. A native of the State of Qi, he was once summoned by King He Lu of the State of Wu in the lower Changjiang valley.

I’ve read all of your thirteen articles on military strategy and tactics, said the king, and I want you to command my army, at least on a trial basis.

Sun Wu willingly accepted.

Sun Wu had claimed that discipline was the key to any army’s effectiveness. The King wanted to test his abilities and asked, would your training methods work even with women?

With Sun Wu’s agreement, the King assembled 180 of his concubines to be trained. Sun Wu divided them into two companies and appointed two company commanders.

The women were asked whether they knew their right hands from their left, and back from front. Then Sun Wu told them how to carry out military orders.

When the drum signals a left turn, you must turn to your left. When it signals, turn completely around. So the general raised his battleaxe, the drum signaled a right turn, and the women stood there and laughed.

Perhaps the rules are not clear and you are not familiar with orders. That’s my fault, said Sun Wu. Sun Wu patiently reiterated the rules and the drum sounded again. Again, the women laughed and made no move. The first time was my fault, said the general. But now I have repeated the instructions and you still do not follow, so the blame is on you. He ordered both company commanders executed.

The King was stunned. I cannot live without these two women ! I hope you’ll spare them, he said.

Sun Wu replied, you have appointed me your commanding general, and I must exercise a general’s authority.

The executions were carried out, and the next-ranking women appointed commander. The orders were given again, and this time the terrified women followed instructions exactly.

Sun Wu turned to the king, the women’s companies are now at your service.

The unhappy king said, Please return to your home. I don’t want to see you any more.

The general then asked gravely whether the monarch’s professed admiration for good military strategy was only talk, or was he willing to put it into practice? King He Lu took the point and confirmed Sun Wu’s authority. The women’s troop, which started as a joke, later became an effective fighting force.

With Sun Wu at their head, the Wu troops defeated the powerful State of Chu in the west and occupied its capital, thereafter threatening the states of Qi and Jin to the northwest, becoming a dominant power in the area.” Yu Pan finally finished his story and he looked across at me as he added.

“As I said, Conqueror, much like the King in my story, perhaps you should take care in what you wish for. Gabrielle is already a formidable opponent. She possesses skills, which might make some rulers wary.”

“Are you saying I should have reason to fear Gabrielle?” I chuckled. “That she might take command of the Empire?” I laughed it off, but then I thought more earnestly about the notion.

“It would not be the first time such a thing has occurred. ”

I laughed aloud this time and watched as the healer smiled along with me. “Gabrielle already knows that the Empire is hers for the asking.”

“You have changed much, Conqueror. It seems as though you have your life well in hand, and do not need the interference of an old man.”

“Somehow, for some reason I think there is more to you than wisdom and age. I feel there is much to your story still left untold, and I consider your advice far from interfering.”

“I have no secrets, Conqueror.”

“I doubt that.”

“It is the truth,” Yu Pan reiterated. “Is a man considered secretive, merely because he does not proclaim his lineage from the mountaintop? Should he be looked upon as mysterious because he does not offer up easy answers? Perhaps it is the inquisitor who should ask himself, am I asking the correct questions?”

The old man smiled and hopped down from the wall. He landed on his feet so lightly that I suspected my opinions of him were completely correct. I took heart that his previous words had been thrown down as a sort of hint, if not challenge, for me.

I rose to stand alongside the much smaller man. “Would you do me the honor of practicing on the sparring field with my Master Yu Pan?” I asked.

“Perhaps I am not the one you seek,” he answered. “Will you be disappointed in the outcome?”

“I think not,” I responded

Then shall we put our physical selves to the test?” Yu Pan questioned me.

As always he walked ahead of me, never turning to see if I’d decided to join him. By this time, there were a number of trainees on the field, and I met up halfway there with Atrius.

“Conqueror.” Atrius greeted me with the familiar nod of his head.

“Atrius. How goes the day thus far?”

“Quite well, Conqueror. Uhm, may I ask . . .?” he stammered.

“Master Yu Pan and I are going to stretch our muscles a bit.” I grinned.

“You . . . and him?” he asked in bewilderment. “That doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, Conqueror.” Atrius chuckled.

Never let your eyes belie the truth that you see in here.” I answered the Captain by pointing to me heart.

I heard Gabrielle’s voice as I stretched, and threw a couple of roundhouse kicks in the air. I winced, realizing Gabrielle would understand none of this. Actually, I would consider myself lucky if she didn’t think me completely insane. I put a pleasant smile on my face and walked over to where she stood.

“It’s a beautiful morning, isn’t it?” I asked after I’d kissed her cheek.

“Xena, what manner of foolishness has gotten into all of you this morning? I just asked Atrius, and he said you and Yu Pan were going to fight one another.” Gabrielle questioned.

I raised a perturbed eyebrow at my Captain. “Gabrielle, it’s not like that at all. Your friend knows how to take care of himself, and it is just friendly.”

“I’m not altogether sure I see the friendliness in it. You do realize you weigh almost twice as much as he, don’t you?”

“Little one,” I silenced her with my words. “No harm will come. Trust in me, eh?”

“You make that hard some times, Xena.” She stood there shaking her head, but with a small smile firmly fixed on her face. “All right, go play your games, but no one gets hurt,” She admonished.

“I promise.” I kissed her again for reassurance. I walked back into the fighting circle, and realized that I felt suspiciously like a schoolboy who’d been allowed to play outside for a time longer.

The healer and I each moved into the large combat area. The octagonal area was roped off, and we bowed first to one another, then to the rising sun in the eastern sky. If I had any lingering doubts in my mind as to Yu Pan’s true identity, they were erased in the first twenty heartbeats of our mock battle.

No longer was he Yu Pan, elderly healer, but suddenly his years melted away. He moved about, parrying, dodging, ducking, twisting every blow I came at him with. My years seemed to catch up to my much more quickly. I was breathing harder and eventually found myself on the defensive. I flipped to avoid a leg sweep, but after some time of our sparring back and forth like this, my legs had lost a bit of their spring. I saw an opportunity, a hole as big as Tartarus appeared in his defenses.

I seized the opportunity immediately, and reached in with one leg to trip him up. I was good, quite good. Very few warriors live to be my age, but I saw the error in my judgment just a hair too late. Gods, what a fool! I was led to the slaughter like some virgin cadet, and not the seasoned fighter I was. With one leg committed to kicking out at Yu Pan’s leg, a limb that seemed to disappear before my eyes, I watched as he tucked, rolled, and popped himself upright, nearly behind me, and kicked my own legs out from under me.

My back hit the ground with an appropriate thud, and a burst of applause ran through the crowd for the healer’s victory. I leaned up on one elbow, glared at the trainees, and was rewarded with instant silence. Some of the soldiers suddenly remembered pressing engagements elsewhere within the palace. I couldn’t keep the straight face plastered on and grinned mightily at Yu Pan, as he and Atrius assisted me to my feet. The healer had gone back to being the frail, elderly man he appeared to be, and I was amazed at the disguise, the way he could literally convince those around him that a stiff breeze might knock him from his feet.

I bowed low to Yu Pan, who returned the respect and I grasped his hand once more in admiration.

“Do you feel all right, Conqueror?” Atrius asked, stepping forward once more.

“Tell me, Atrius, what is the only animal in the jungle that has no fear of the Lion? That beats him at his own game, as a matter of fact.”

“The tiger, of course.” The Captain answered.

“I don’t understand, Xena.” Gabrielle commented. She’d had the oddest look on her face as she watched Yu Pan after our little match. “You are supposed to be the Lion in this scenario?”

“Indeed, my love. But I would like to introduce you to the Tiger, a man whose skill far exceeds mine on the battlefield, however.”

Yu Pan smiled with his eyes at me then. I think he was almost happy that I’d figured it out.

“Gabrielle, Atrius . . . allow me to introduce the Tiger of Shao-Lin.”

I knew Gabrielle and Atrius alike would know of the infamous warrior monk of Chin. Gabrielle would surely have studied the man’s teachings during her time being schooled, even by the Order of the Rose. Atrius, well, let’s just say warriors always have a habit of knowing other great warriors.

“The Tiger of Shao-Lin?” Atrius muttered in amazement. “It is truly an honor,” he said quietly, while Gabrielle merely stared.

I wore a smug smile at realizing that the healer’s alternate personality was that of one of the greatest men to walk through Chin, or any other land for that matter. He was not only a warrior, but also a man of exceeding wisdom and learning. I knew in my heart that a man who holds himself so, had to be trained as a warrior. What I didn’t know was that this man all but prepared the training manual for great warriors, those who mastered mind as well as body. Even now, in Chin, Shao-Lin Temples trained young boys to be warrior monks, all with the ideologies and concepts that Yu Pan provided them.

“I don’t understand, you’re not a healer?” Gabrielle looked confused.

“No, love, he is most definitely a healer, one of the greatest we shall ever know, but he is so much more.” I answered.

Yu Pan stepped forward and reached out to hold Gabrielle’s hand in his own. “My, nuér, I am still the same man whom you befriended those many seasons past. I was many things in my past, but now I am, and always will be the healer, Yu Pan.”

Gabrielle smiled finally, and I knew that it would be all right, simply from seeing that smile. I hadn’t even realized that I was holding my breath, waiting for Gabrielle to accept or deny this newly discovered aspect to her friend’s life.

Nearly a candlemark later, Yu Pan held center stage at our breakfast table. Myself, Gabrielle, Atrius and his betrothed, Anya, and finally Delia were all invited to hear Yu Pan’s story.

“It is a very short tale,” the healer began. “At the age of six my father brought me to a temple, many days journey from our village. The temple was one of prestige to uneducated men such as my father. He understood that without something special, I would be destined to lead the same sort of life as my father. He was a poor farmer, yet he knew that a better life indeed existed, and he wanted this for me. He told me it would only be through hardship and hard work, but that if I persevered, my life would be better than his, and his father’s before him.

My father left me in the Temple of the Shao-Lin priests, high in the mountains. There were many, many other boys there, some my age, some who were much older. Our days were filled with teaching and work. There was time for little else. We were taught many concepts, but chief among these was the philosophy that we could attain peace within the disciplines of war. I seemed to have a natural ability for the Sanshou that was taught us. It was the art of the Shao-Lin movement, kicking, punching, and throwing punches. The incorporated something called Kung fu, boxing, and wrestling type movements, but always with the idea of self-defense in mind. I came to love the Temple, my work, and the life I led. For some reason the Heavens smiled on me, and blessed me as a son. I found it easy to practice the many Shao-Lin principles, they came easily, I flourished above, and beyond anything, the Priests had ever known. There came a time when they told me that they could no longer teach me, that I had grown far beyond their abilities.

Young men were only allowed to study at the Shao-Lin Temple until they reached the age of eighteen. At that time they had to choose the life they would lead. They could take their final vows, and live their lives out within the walls of the Temple, or they left the Temple, to spread the ideas of peace among men.

Because I found the life within the Temple to be to my liking, I took my vows and became a Warrior Monk. Soon, teaching students became secondary. I was blessed with an ability, there was no man alive who could best me in Sanshou. Therefore, when I turned twenty-four I was given permission to open my own school, dedicated only to Sanshou, in the shadow of the Shao Lin temple.

I have lived my life since, teaching others the principal, I have come to love, and which I have learned to use in fighting as well as healing. Use your mind to control your body.”

I looked around the table and every face there was completely mesmerized by Yu Pan’s short, but eloquent tale. The old man simply solidified one fact in my mind. Few people on this earth were ever what they appeared to be.
Chapter 14: He Had Subdued the Amazons by Force
“It itches,” I complained.

“Oh, it can’t possibly be that bad, stand still.” Delia commented on my remark.

“It itches I tell you, and it’s too tight!”

I tugged on the collar until a silver button popped off. One of the maids scrambled for the loose object, and I began to pace the room. Two young maids were assisting my seamstress, Anya. And Delia, well, Athena only knows why she was there, but as the situation now called for her brand of diplomacy, I saw the wisdom in it.

“I’m sorry, Lord Conqueror.” Anya apologized, to which I felt about half a head tall. “Perhaps I didn’t take into account the fact that your neck . . . uhm . . .is . . .”

“Yes?” I arched an eyebrow in the young woman’s direction. It’s funny how one of those looks can make a soldier in my army cower in fear, but does seemingly little for the women in my employ.

“Well, rather the neck of a proud warrior.” Anya finished nervously.

“What she really means is it’s stiff and stubborn.” Delia huffed.

“Hades! When will this be over with?” I whined. Yes, it came as much of a surprise to me as it did to those around me. I truly did whine.

“Xena, we need to talk.” Delia stated in a commanding tone.

I looked around the room at the young women with their heads bowed to the floor, afraid to meet my eyes. Delia walked into the other room without even checking to see if I was following. Gods! When did I lose such control over my own household? A woman giving me orders . . .me!

They asked me to come in for a fitting for my wedding uniform. It was a stunning outfit of silk and leather. Anya really did a wonderful job, and the short jacket was perfect. I don’t know what had come over me the last few days. Everything was going very well. Solan and Gabrielle were talking a little easier, my son was beginning to exercise on the practice field, and my wedding was scant days away.

Right now, I was watching as my friend retreated into the next room, leaving me feeling like a scolded child, as opposed to the Ruler of the Greek Empire. There was nothing to be done, but to take my medicine, and follow Delia.

“Xena, sit down.” She ordered the moment she closed the door behind me.

“I prefer to stand, thanks.”

“Sit!” she barked.

I immediately felt myself bend at the knees. It’s amazing really how one woman can sound so much like a mother. I flopped down on a stool and scowled.

“Xena, what’s wrong?” Delia asked gently as she sat down before me. “And,” she raised her hand, “if you tell me nothing I’m walking right out that door.”

I took her admonition seriously, but couldn’t keep from grinning a tiny bit at her motherly ways. “I don’t know,” I said honestly. “I know I’m being a jackass, but I can’t seem to stop myself.”

“Have you and Gabrielle had a row?” she asked.

“No,” I responded quickly. “Things couldn’t be better between us. The Empire is thriving. Personally, things couldn’t be more wonderful. I mean in a few days I’m about to marry a wonderful girl, life should be great, right?” I asked the rather rhetorical question.

“And you’re not worried about that at all?”

“About the Empire? No, we seem–”

“Xena, I mean about your impending nuptials.” Delia smiled.

“Ohhh!” I could be so thick sometimes. “Worried . . .me? No, of course not.”

Delia’s smile grew and it was clear she’d caught me. “Xena,” she drawled.

“Not worried. Terrified is more the word for it.” Suddenly my shoulders slumped and I rested my head in my hands. “She’s such a tiny thing. How does she possess the ability to scare me so much?”

“Xena,” Delia chuckled. “It’s perfectly normal, a marriage union is a daunting thing if you let yourself think about it too long. The significance of it is frightening, but you need to look at the benefits as opposed to the fears. You’ve been alone too long, my friend.”

“I’m becoming painfully aware of that. I love Gabrielle, truly I do. I can’t understand why I suddenly feel like bolting from this whole thing.” I confessed.

“I wish Galien were here. I think he might know exactly what to say to you.” Delia said of her long departed husband.

“I miss him. He would have loved Gabrielle,” I said.

“I miss him too, everyday. You’re right; he would have loved your Gabrielle. He would be very proud of you, Xena. He loved you as a daughter.”

“I know it pained him some days, to see what I’d become,” I answered. I truly did miss that man. He was the closest thing I’d ever had to a father. I hoped he could hear our thoughts, and know how changed a woman I was now.

“So, what would Galien tell me about my fears?” I asked with an amusing smile.

“Hmmm, let’s see. Well, with the exception of the vulgarities you warriors seem fond of,” she gave me a wink and I chuckled. “I think he would tell you to remember your first battle. Not Amphipolis, but the first fray you entered once you had your own army. Do you remember?”

I smiled. I’d forgotten the faces and names of a great many people and places over the seasons, but I can recite every battle in which I’d ever engaged. I remember where, with who, and all the particulars in between.

“I had an army of fifty, big for those parts. I was seventeen.” If I closed my eyes, I could smell the jasmine from the mainland, and the salt blowing in from the ocean. I could almost remember the way the sun felt on my back and the ocean breeze against my face, as we charged down the hill on that garrison of Roman soldiers.

“And how did you feel?” Delia asked knowingly.

“You mean before or after the fighting started,” I asked. Suddenly I knew where she was headed.

“Before.” She chuckled at my attempts to stall.

“Like I was going to toss my breakfast up. I was nervous and edgy, barking at everyone.”

“And what would Galien have said to you about that?”

I smirked at her, remembering her husband’s no-nonsense attitude about everything in life. “He would have said to suck it up and relax. You always feel afraid like that. It’s a fear of the unknown, and it’s natural. You put one foot in front of the other, and pretty soon you’re in the thick of it. By then, you forget all about your nerves.”

When I looked up again, Delia had tears in her eyes, and I know she was thinking those words sounded very much, like what Galien would say.

“Sorry,” I muttered in embarrassment.

Delia took one of my hands and gave it a quick squeeze. “I think you owe the same words to the women in the other room.”

I nodded, at the same time filled with dread at that prospect. I rose and Delia followed me into the next room where all the women quickly jumped to their feet.

“I . . . uhm . . . think my temper got the best of me, you know, earlier. I–I apologize.” It wasn’t much as apologies go, but I was slowly getting the knack of saying I was sorry. It was a slow process, but it was coming along.

“I have an idea, Lord Conqueror,” Anya said. “Perhaps if I were to line the collar with silk, then it wouldn’t fret you as much.”

One couldn’t help but smile at the women in this palace. They tended to be a good-hearted, agreeable bunch. I wondered briefly if Gabrielle was rubbing off on them, or if they had always been here, right before my unseeing eyes.

“Yes, Anya, I think that will do nicely. Thank you.”

“Message for the Conqueror, message for the Conqueror!”

I recognized the voice before the youngster burst into the room. Petra worked as a palace messenger, and his cry of ‘message for the Conqueror’ always caused people to scramble out of the way of the speedy boy. He skidded to a stop before me and held out a rolled piece of parchment.

“Take a deep breath, boy.” I grinned at the out of breath youngster.

“It’s the Amazons, Lord Conqueror,” he said breathlessly.

I scanned the note from Atrius, who had already sent word to Gabrielle. Indeed, it was a delegation of Amazons. All the neighboring nations were sent invitations to the royal wedding, but few could send more than token emissaries because of the great distances involved. According to Atrius, the Amazon’s were at least a hundred strong, and led by their Queen.

“Real Amazons.” Petra whistled through his teeth.

I smiled at the boy’s enthusiasm. I had a hard time feeling the same elation. The Amazon Nation and the Empire teetered on a very thin branch. Our alliance, as we both liked to call it, was precarious at best. Queen Melosa was a few seasons older than I was, but Atrius had quickly written to tell me that she was heading the delegation herself. There was certainly no love lost between the two of us, but I thought it odd that the Amazons would come all the way to Corinth to wish me well. I thought it very odd indeed.

“Well, ladies, as much fun as we’ve been having,” I fixed a charming smile on all of them. The maids blushed. It was amusing how that rakish grin had the ability to have so many of my bad manners forgiven. “I must go and attend to our guests. Petra, find Atrius and tell him I’m going to change clothes, and Gabrielle and I will be on the main steps of the palace directly. Tell him to have our Amazon friends meet us there.”

“Aye, Lord Conqueror.” Petra gave me a small salute and dashed off.

“Ladies.” I excused myself and made my way upstairs to my own chambers. What does one wear to a meeting with a Queen that you conquered so many seasons previous?

* * * * * * * * * *

“Real Amazons?” Gabrielle repeated for the third time.

“Yes, love,” I chuckled. “They most certainly are, and they’re going to be upset Amazons if you don’t finish dressing quickly.”

“I’m nearly ready,” Gabrielle answered.

I watched as she brushed her hair, deftly pinning it atop her head. This girl was no fool. Gabrielle knew she looked more regal, even older looking with her hair pulled back that way.

“I don’t know very much about Amazons, Xena.”

“Not many people do unless you’ve lived among them. They’re very secretive about their ways, and the training their warriors receive.”

“Do they have a library, do you suppose?”

“A what?”

“A library. A place where they keep their own collections of stories and histories.”

I looked at her face just then, and Gabrielle seemed to be in her own world. I smiled at the wistful expression on her face. If I was a Conqueror, then Gabrielle was certainly an explorer. The thought of learning something new caused her as much exhilaration as a good battle did to me. I frowned when I realized that Gabrielle would probably never get the chance to read those Amazon scrolls.

“Gabrielle, I need to tell you a few things about my history with the Amazons before we meet with Melosa.” I wasn’t sure exactly how to begin this small tale, especially since it would have to be a quick one. As always, Gabrielle made it easy on me.

“That you betrayed the Northern Amazons when you were much younger.” She stated simply, placing a comb in her hair.

“Yes,” I admitted. “You know they were times I’m ashamed of now, but–”

“Xena,” Gabrielle interrupted. “I know you would change your past if you could. You don’t have to explain, or try to right anything with me.”

“Thank you,” I answered.

“Tell me, though, why didn’t you ever try to destroy the Southern tribes?”

I shrugged my shoulders. I thought back to the hundreds of bloody campaigns against the Amazon Nation. “It seemed as if I’d met my match, but I was never ready to admit it. I had more pride than brains in those days. Melosa was good, and her warriors put most of mine to shame, but I had numbers on my side.

I put a bounty out on the head of any Amazon caught outside the land they inhabited. There were plenty of takers, and slowly the Amazon numbers started decreasing. Melosa was good, but even she couldn’t hold back the whole Empire. I had too many allies on my side. I think the turning point came when Melosa lost her sister.

Her name was Terreis. She was a good warrior, not quite as seasoned as Melosa, but good. I heard that she was in a group patrolling the border of the Amazon territory, and some Centaur archers attacked them. I’m not sure I believed the story at the time. Centaurs had never been the kind for sneak attacks like that. Of course, the Centaurs denied it, but that didn’t stop the Amazons from capturing who they thought the culprit was. I can’t remember the boy’s name, but he was a young, good-looking stallion.

The Amazon’s tried him, found him guilty, and slit his throat. Phantes!” I suddenly snapped my fingers together. “His name was Phantes. Well, that pretty much started it. It was tit for tat for quite a few seasons between the two nations. An occasional Amazon would be caught outside the protection of her land, or a Centaur would wander too far into Amazon held territory.

By then, I had taken Athens and set up my rule in Corinth. Every territory around those two nations cried to me to do something about it. When I was younger, I had hoped they would kill each other off. Now that I was ruler of the lands, I guess everyone expected me to handle it. So, I went in as peacemaker. Of course, I took an army of a thousand with me. Trust me. Neither Centaurs nor Amazons are stupid. They knew when I said to form a truce or I would form one for them that it wouldn’t be good for them if I did.

They formed a treaty between the two nations, swearing allegiance to the Empire. In return, I let them pretty much rule themselves. You can see why I’m not overjoyed at the idea of a hundred Amazons on our doorstep. In addition, we’re expecting Kaleipus and his delegation any day now. This could get rather involved.”

“We’ll simply do our best to accommodate them all.”

“Accommodating Amazons isn’t always easy,” I answered.

Gabrielle was standing before me, her hand stretched out, offering to take my own. I had been talking so much I hadn’t even noticed that she’d finished getting ready. She looked as regal and beautiful as any Queen I’d ever seen. She wore the necklace of emeralds that I had given her only last night as a sort of pre-wedding present.

“You’ll take their breath away,” I said. I rose and kissed her lightly on the lips.

“As will you, Conqueror.” Gabrielle pointed to my own formal attire.

Dressed in all black leather, with the exception of a white silk blouse, I knew I looked imposing. I strapped two swords to my hip for this formal occasion. One, a short Amazon blade presented to me by Melosa after our treaty had been signed. The other was my customary blade with the silver Lion’s head.

“Shall we, My Lord?” Gabrielle asked in a coy fashion.

“Lead on, My Lady.” I laughed, hoping we still felt this joyful at the day’s end.

* * * * * * * * * *

Flanked by half a dozen of the Royal Guard, Gabrielle and I were announced, and made our way to the palace steps. I recognized the masked figures, standing in tight formation before us. Gabrielle’s hand squeezed mine, and I squeezed right back in reassurance. The masks did it. I remember the soldiers in my army back so long ago. Those Amazon masks scared the Tartarus right out of them.

A young woman stepped forward, and knelt with one knee to the ground. She looked up, and tilted the mask back on her head until I could see all of her face. I never forget a warrior, especially a good one, and I remember Ephiny as being one of the Amazon’s best. We were about the same age, but she looked to still be in as good a shape as I was.

“Lord Conqueror, the Amazon Nation greets you on the occasion of your bonding ceremony. May I present the leader of the Southern Tribe, Queen Melosa.” Ephiny rose and stepped back a pace.

Melosa came forward, flanked by four of her own Royal Guard, two on either side of her. I knew it was Melosa from the Gods awful mask she wore. Some said the red streaks dripping down the front of it came from the blood of slain enemies. I only knew that it unnerved even me to fight the woman when she had the thing on.

Melosa removed her mask, and I could tell the seasons had been kind to her. She was a handsome woman, more than beautiful, but she was charming. I suspect it was the charm that caused her never to want for a young woman to warm her bed.

She inclined her head, bowing slightly, and I did the same. Releasing Gabrielle’s hand I descended the steps, my Guard flanking me in much the same fashion as the Amazons. I thought I’d be magnanimous and offered my arm first.

“Melosa,” I said.

“Conqueror,” she replied, taking my arm in a warrior’s clasp. I never once heard the words ‘Lord Conqueror’ pass her lips.

I turned back to Gabrielle, and held my hand out to her. She descended the steps and stood beside me.

“Queen Melosa, let me introduce my betrothed. Gabrielle of Potidaea, Melosa, Queen of the Amazon Nation.” I finished formally.

Gabrielle had a genuine smile on her face, and held her hand out to the older woman. Melosa took the smaller hand within her own and bowed slightly, releasing the young woman. The Amazon Queen spoke to me however.

“I see the tales they tell are all true, Conqueror. She is gracious as well as beautiful. You are a lucky ruler indeed. Please allow me to introduce my second in command, Ephiny.”

Ephiny stepped forward, again dropped to one knee, and quickly rose. “Lord Conqueror,” she said flatly.

“Yes, Ephiny. I never forget a good warrior’s face.”

We clasped forearms, and I could tell that I surprised her with my amiable comment. She surprised me even more by again kneeling, rising in front of Gabrielle.

“Lady Gabrielle,” she said.

“It’s a pleasure to meet such a fine Nation of warriors.” Gabrielle replied with just the right words to fluster the blonde Amazon.

Ephiny stepped back and a young woman all but bounced up to stand beside Melosa. Her mask was removed, revealing a young woman, perhaps sixteen or seventeen summers of age.

“May I present my daughter, Princess Timara.” Melosa added proudly.

The young girl bowed deeply before me. “Lord Conqueror.”

“Your Highness,” I responded.

“Lady Gabrielle,” she bowed also to Gabrielle.

“Your Highness,” Gabrielle repeated my words.

I noticed just then that the young girl’s cheeks blushed red as Gabrielle took her hand in greeting. Another one smitten, I thought to myself.

“Well, now that those formalities are out of the way, Melosa, will you allow us the pleasure of your company here in the palace?” I asked, knowing what her answer would be.

“Thank you, Conqueror, but your Captain has already shown my Amazons to a fair piece of land on the hill beside the palace. My tents are being prepared as we speak.”

“Then at least join us in a dinner,” Gabrielle chimed in. “You and any in your party you would care to invite, are welcome to dine with us this evening.”

“How does one refuse such a beautiful woman?” Melosa smiled. “We would be honored.”

Atrius came down the steps to stand beside me, and leaned close to whisper in my ear.

“Well, this day just seems to keep getting better and better, doesn’t it?” I whispered back.

“Is there a problem, Conqueror?” Melosa asked at my behavior.

“Melosa we’ve run into a small situation, and I’d like to remind you that you are here for our wedding ceremony. All I can say about this situation is that I request that you let the past remain buried, and I do apologize ahead of time for this difficulty.”

Everyone but Atrius looked at me as though I had Cerberus’s three heads on my shoulders.

“Xena?” Gabrielle questioned.

The answer to everyone’s question came when the large gates to the palace courtyard opened up, and nearly thirty Centaurs trotted into the open area. Just when I was trying desperately to figure out a way to avoid certain disaster, Gabrielle saved me again.

“Of course we’ll have no trouble, Xena. The Queen isn’t the kind of woman, or warrior, to let old wounds ruin this occasion for us.” Gabrielle finished by taking a step closer and laying one gentle hand on Melosa’s forearm.

I watched in awe as this small woman, who I held in such high esteem, literally tamed the wildness from Melosa’s heart. The Amazon’s jaw was set as she watched the Centaurs warily ride in. I could see the expression on her face soften at Gabrielle’s tender touch, and her easy words.

“Do you still wish us to dine with you tonight?” Melosa turned to Gabrielle.

Even I wondered how the small blonde would now answer; knowing Solan’s adopted father led the Centaurs. We couldn’t possible refuse to dine with either of these leaders.

“Of course I still wish it,” Gabrielle answered as if she’d been using these diplomatic skills all her life. “It seems, however, we will have other guests joining us also, but there is room enough for all around our table.”

Gods, she was good! I thought to myself. Melosa stood there practically biting her lip. To refuse to dine with us now would not only be an offense to us, but appear childish and petty as well.

“Very well. As you request it, My Lady.”

With a few short nods, Ephiny had the rest of the Amazons following their Queen from the courtyard. They passed by the Centaurs with nary an Amazon flinching under the hard stares. That must have taken some doing too. Centaurs can be huge beasts, and they towered over the Amazons.

From the corner of my eye I saw Solan rush from his hiding spot along the castle wall, out to where Kaleipus stood. The large Centaur engulfed the young man in an embrace, and I could hardly contain my smile. Solan’s embarrassment was that of every young man being hugged by his parent in front of other men.

Kaleipus ignored the young man’s discomfort, and I felt for my old nemesis just then. It was, and had always been apparent that the Centaur loved the boy greatly. It must have broken his heart that Solan was not of his own flesh.

Gabrielle was literally grounded to the steps beside me. I realized with some amusement that she’d never seen a Centaur before. I figured that as long as she didn’t have to sit atop one, she wouldn’t be too afraid of them. Kaleipus and two lieutenants walked our way, with Solan beside them. Gabrielle backed up a bit, and at first, I thought it was fear that caused such behavior. In reality, she stood on nearly the top step to put her virtually shoulder level with the large Centaurs. I took her hand in mine for reassurance, as her eyes were unable to hide her level of excitement.

“Lord Conqueror.” Kaleipus lowered his head in respect, as did the two younger stallions alongside him. This show of deference touched me. In the past, the good-natured Centaur greeted me as a warrior and an equal, usually slapping me on the back hard enough to break bones in a weaker woman. It was when he finally looked up at me and winked his one good eye that I knew he hadn’t changed at all.

“You look older every day, Conqueror. Is that gray hair I see?”

“If it is, you put it there.” I bantered back.

This was more the exchange I was expecting. It took a long while for me to become accustomed to Kaleipus’s sense of humor. He had always been the serious one, but he confided in me once that as age crept up on him, he felt the need to laugh more and more. He was a number of seasons older than I was, and at the time, I didn’t quite understand him. Now, of course, I knew exactly what he meant. Ah, perspective. What it can do for one’s perception.

“He looks good, eh?” Kaleipus cuffed Solan affectionately. “I thought when you said that he’d been injured, you’d finally managed to beat some sense into him.”

Before I could answer, Solan jumped into the conversation.

“It’s a rather long story, Rä.”

It shouldn’t have surprised me, the term of affection the boy used. It was a well-known term among the Centaurs meaning, adopted or second father. Kaleipus had more than earned the name where Solan was concerned, but I must admit, it pained me somewhat. How odd, considering I hadn’t had one maternal thought in the last twenty seasons. Perhaps it was Solan’s willingness to be civil, or even the way he asked me for instruction on any number of things of late. Whatever it was, I was feeling as if the pain would be far reaching, should the moment come when Solan told me he did not wish to acknowledge me as his mother.

” Rä, I would like you to meet someone very special.” Solan continued, much to my surprise. “Lady Gabrielle, the leader of the Centaur Nation, the warrior Kaleipus.” The young man introduced the Centaur to Gabrielle. No one was more surprised at that than I was.

“So, this is the one.” Kaleipus said rather gently. “The one who tamed the heart of the Lion.” He bowed low at the waist, which is not an easy feat for a large Centaur. His forelegs bent as he moved low enough to reach for Gabrielle’s hand.

“Perhaps now that you have tamed the Lion, I finally have a chance at besting her on the battlefield.” He said in jest.

Not one to see my reputation weakened at all, Gabrielle kept pace with the Centaur’s dry humor. “But you do that at your own risk, my new friend,” Gabrielle replied. “For can anyone ever really tame the wild from a creature as fierce as the Lion?”

Kaleipus looked at the small young woman as if in shock, then he leaned his head back and roared with laughter. “She will keep you on your toes, Conqueror!”

That’s when he slapped me on the back hard enough to nearly knock me over.

* * * * * * * * * *

Once again, I was sitting at a formal dinner with Gabrielle leagues away at the other end of the table. I hadn’t been in the best of moods lately. The situation with the Centaurs and Amazons, both showing up at the same time for the upcoming wedding, wasn’t helping my disposition any. I was nervous, tense, and edgy. Well, that’s certainly not new. I thought I was hiding it rather well. I always think that, though.

So, I sulked and brooded, while those around me talked, ate, laughed, and drank the evening away. I was much less nervous about Gabrielle. She seemed to actually be enjoying herself, listening intently to the animated conversation of Princess Timara. As always, Gabrielle was a rapt listener, her thoughtful smile occasionally gracing her features. I could see the slight flush of excitement on her face, however. While to me, Amazons and Centaurs in one room made for a tense, on edge sort of evening, Gabrielle could hardly contain herself. I teased her as I escorted her out to the open air balcony earlier by reminding her to take an occasional breath.

Knowing that Kaleipus and the Centaurs would be visiting for the wedding, the carpenters had already been hard at work. The tables were quite massive. The chairs were stools that Gabrielle had to practically scale, to sit upon. The tables were large and high to accommodate our equine-bodied guests. Delia, as was her style had ordered the kitchens to prepare plenty of grains, fruits, and fresh vegetables. There was plenty of variety for all, since our friend had been overseeing the rest of the palace cooks since early morning when our guests first rode through the castle gates.

The late season weather had remained unseasonably warm, and so the large outdoor veranda situated off the banquet hall served as our banquet hall. Torches and lamps had been lit, and placed around the perimeter of the area. It caused a bright and cheery effect, pushing back the darkness. Gabrielle insisted on musicians. Not raucous tavern music, but something light. As she put it, background music. She was right, as I was becoming accustomed to her being. The harps that accompanied a young man’s lyre blended perfectly with the natural music of the cicadas.

I suddenly realized that a royal change was in order. I was feeling a little forlorn without Gabrielle by my side, and the conversation down at the Centaur end of the table was getting a little dull. Seems young Centaurs only want to talk about the same thing old Centaurs want to talk about, and that’s war. Time was, I would have been more than happy with talk of strategy and weapons all night. I was certainly in a bad way because all I could think about now was Gabrielle. Why in the known world did we have to sit on opposite ends of the huge table anyway? Who started that ridiculous tradition? Probably, some King who didn’t want to be around his wife in the first place.

As I sat there, I glanced down at her again. She was nodding at something one of the Amazons said. I felt it just then, just as she must have, for she looked up. She searched the faces at the table quickly; surely looking for the one she felt was calling to her. I would never have allowed myself to believe in that romantic nonsense in seasons past, but now . . . well, perhaps I have become that romantic she accuses me of being after all.

Gabrielle’s eyes found mine, and I looked at her in a way that said I expected her to feel my thoughts. She grinned a bit, and then she did something that caused me to grin back. She winked at me. When she saw my smile, she went back to her conversation as if it had never happened, but I knew it had. I felt that little gesture all the way down to my boots. Now, I have to ask myself. Why is it when I am looking most like a lovesick fool, someone catches me at it?

“You’re grinning like an idiot, Conqueror!” Kaleipus leaned over my left elbow to tell me.

Well, I could have denied it, huffed it off, or even glared at him in my best intimidating manner. The best thing about growing older, however, is having people who know you so damn well, that those tricks are no longer necessary. Kaleipus had become more than an ally over the seasons, and for all my cold-heartedness, I think he always knew something more was in me.

I looked him in the eye, realizing now that he quite possibly sent Solan here on purpose. That perhaps he’d heard of my ways softening a bit. I smirked at him and arched one eyebrow.

“She’s worth grinning over,” I replied confidently.

“I’ll just bet she is,” he added with a smile.

It wasn’t the scream I heard next. It was a sound that filtered through the air, just heartbeats before her pained cry, which caught my attention.

“Gabrielle!”

I immediately stood up to shout a warning, but the moment I met those green eyes, I knew it was too late. The sound that I heard was the noise an arrow makes as it cuts through the air.
Chapter 15: There Is No Other Way, Let That Be Plain
Princess Timara cried out. The young Amazon looked down at her chest, to the growing crimson stain spreading across her pale-colored leathers. An arrow protruded from a spot just above her right breast. It’s odd the things one thinks about in such situations. I remember thinking that from the position of the arrow, at least the wound would not be fatal. My only words had been to shout, “Weapon!”

That cry, in the middle of a Royal Banquet, was nearly enough to rouse the entire Empire’s army. In an instant, less than the flicker of an eye, really, Atrius and the Royal Guard sprang into a posture of defense. As the entire incident took only moments, I was already moving to protect Gabrielle. Before I was halfway there, another arrow struck the young princess in the center of her chest. It all happened so quickly, not even her Amazon Guard had yet reached the young woman.

The force of the arrow strike flung her down across the table. Two more arrows in rapid succession embedded themselves deep into the wood of the table. It was with horror that I watched Gabrielle’s next action. I was much too far away, especially with not knowing in which direction the attack was coming. Gabrielle quickly reached out and grabbed the young girl’s body, pulling her to the ground. The sniper’s arrows never stopped. They followed the two women all the way to the ground. Gabrielle threw her own slight figure across the fallen princess, and all I could do was watch as another arrow pierced the side of Gabrielle’s body.

Torava, Gabrielle’s personal guard deflected two more arrows with the metal of her blade, just as they would have surely found their mark in Gabrielle’s back. Then as suddenly as the attack began, it ended. I could see the fire of torches as my men entered the copse of trees near the palace wall. Either the culprits had been caught or they had left as silently as they appeared.

My only concern was selfish. It was for the small blonde who risked her life for this Amazon stranger. Melosa and I knelt beside the two figures, fear etched deeply into the older Amazon’s face.

“Gabrielle?!” I cried out to her unmoving figure. She stirred, but didn’t completely lift herself up.

“Son of a Bacchae!” Torava hissed under her breath.

I followed the guard’s line of sight to the arrow that appeared embedded in Gabrielle’s side. I’m sure the soldier was cursing herself right now over her inability to stop all of the arrows.

Again, Gabrielle’s body moved. “I’m all right, but the arrow has me pinned to the floor.”

I reached in, running my hand along the shaft of the arrow. It had pierced Gabrielle’s dress, and the vest she wore, but Athena was surely making up for the young woman’s previous lack of protection. It had lightly grazed her skin, enough to draw an extremely thin line of blood, but nothing more. It was sunk deeply into the terrace floor, trapping Gabrielle’s body along with it.

I ripped the arrow from the floor and pulled Gabrielle into my arms. I examined the arrow as I held her trembling figure against me. I recognized the markings along its shaft, and when I looked up again, Melosa’s eyes met mine. There was a rage mixed with pain there that I hoped to never feel within myself. Her eyes dropped to the arrow in my hand, but she said nothing.

Melosa took her daughter into her own strong arms. The young princess was pale but still breathing. Kuros, who was attending the banquet, was there kneeling down along with us. He quickly examined the girl, but the girl’s fate was obvious to even the untrained eye. A steady trickle of blood made its way from her mouth and nose, and her breaths were short and uneven. My best guess was that the first arrow pierced her lung, and the second, her heart. Kuros looked up at Melosa and the slight shake of his head told the Queen all she needed to know.

“I could try to remove the arrows if you desire,” Kuros said quietly. “To make her more comfortable.”

Melosa seemed to be thinking about it for a moment, but Timara raised her hand, as if waving the thought away.

“No, mother, it doesn’t hurt.” She coughed and more blood came from her mouth. “It doesn’t really hurt at all,” she finished.

Gabrielle moved from my embrace toward the young princess and used her own dress to wipe away the blood on the girl’s face. Timara smiled weakly and grasped Gabrielle’s hand within her own.

“Thank you,” the Amazon said. “You risked your own life just for me. You are truly everything the people have said you were. I want you to have my right of caste.”

“Timara, think about what you’re doing.” Melosa responded immediately.

“Mother, she did what only another Amazon would do. She did what only a sister would do.”

Melosa looked up at Gabrielle, then over at me. My mind was reeling at the political implications this moment had, and I’m sure Melosa had the same thoughts in her own head. She was holding her dying daughter, but she was also a powerful Queen. I’m sure there wasn’t a notion about this whole thing that had passed through my mind, that hadn’t already occurred to her. She looked back down at Timara and tenderly stroked her face, nodding her head to concede to her daughter’s wish.

“Will you take my right of caste, Gabrielle?” Timara practically whispered the words.

“I–I–” Gabrielle looked between Melosa and I.

“Handing her right of caste down to you entitles you to Timara’s birthright, and all she possesses as an Amazon. You will take her place in the eyes of our people.” Melosa explained without emotion.

“It’s up to you, Gabrielle to accept or decline,” I answered when her eyes met mine. Even I knew that this could change things, but to what extent, I had no way of knowing. “Simply know that it can’t change things between us, and it is a great honor.”

I watched as Timara squeezed Gabrielle’s hand as a wave of pain must have come over her, and the small blonde looked on in anguish at the dying girl.

“I’m so sorry, Timara. I’m sorry I wasn’t quicker.” Tears filled Gabrielle’s eyes and spilled down her cheeks. “Yes, I will accept your right of caste.”

Timara smiled and squeezed Gabrielle’s hand once more. “Don’t worry, mother, it hardly hurts at all.” The young girl assured Melosa. I’d never seen the Queen cry before, but even I had tears in my eyes at the young girl’s strength.

“Ssh, rest now.” Melosa whispered, stroking her daughter’s face. “Look for your Aunt Terreis when you reach the Land. She’ll take care of you.”

With those last words, Melosa commended her daughter’s soul to the Amazon land of the dead. It was with a great deal of pain that we watched the young princess take her last breath, and die in her mother’s arms.

Once the young princess was dead, Melosa became the Queen once more. She snapped up the arrow from the ground, and jumped to her feet. We all saw the telltale feathers and markings. It was a Centaur arrow, and I hoped to Athena that war was not going to begin within my own palace. Three of my Royal Guard stepped back, surrounding a confused Gabrielle.

Melosa tossed the broken arrow toward Kaleipus.

“This was not the work of a Centaur! We don’t murder innocents.” Kaleipus defended.

“You’ve done it before!” Melosa hissed back.

“Be reasonable, Melosa,” the Centaur explained. “Why would we choose now, surrounded by a hundred Amazons, and in the midst of the Conqueror’s army? Think about it. It doesn’t make sense.”

“Unless that’s exactly what you want us to think! You killed my sister, and now, the despicable cowards that you are, killed my only child.” Melosa took a step closer, her anger and grief outweighing her better judgment. “We should have wiped you out ages ago! I’ll see that the roads to Amazonia run red with Centaur blood!”

“Don’t push me, Amazon.” Kaleipus was beginning to lose his sense of humor.

These are just the kinds of situations why no one is allowed to carry a weapon to a Royal Banquet. Different peoples, different beliefs, and old wounds that never healed. I was the only one carrying a weapon, besides my soldiers, but that offered me little comfort. Amazons and Centaurs turned loose upon one another, it wouldn’t matter if they were armed or not.

“No one starts anything in my palace!”

I’d let them both vent, but I didn’t want this escalating beyond what I could control. It was preposterous, the idea that Kaleipus would set up an attack when he was hopelessly outnumbered. The Centaur markings on the arrows looked incriminating, but even Melosa should be able to see that it was too easy. I realized just then that her grief was blinding her. Would I be any different, if it was Gabrielle lying on the floor of the terrace?

“Kaleipus keep your number camped on the East Ridge. They are not to leave Corinth, and under no circumstances are they to engage the Amazons. Melosa, take your daughter and return to your camp. You and your people will have your privacy while you mourn for Timara. You may take her ashes to Amazonia, but not until we straighten this out. Know this,” I looked from the Centaur to the Amazon Queen. “I will get to the bottom of this, and I’ll have no one declare war in my Empire.”

Melosa stared all of us down, but it was Ephiny who cajoled her Queen into returning to their encampment. Melosa turned to Gabrielle, flanked as the small blonde was by her personal guard.

“Princess,” Melosa bowed her head. Whether Gabrielle knew it or not, Melosa’s actions where very important. She was officially recognizing Gabrielle as having taken Timara’s right of caste. Without that official notice, anyone of Royal blood could challenge Timara’s dying request.

“I’m so sorry,” Gabrielle said softly.

Melosa knelt beside her daughter and looked up at me. “Hear me, Conqueror,” she began. “If I find that the Centaurs are guilty of this crime against me and my Nation, it will be war.”

In a show of strength that surprised me, Melosa lifted her daughter into her arms.

“Melosa,” I responded. “Go and be with your people. Our hearts grieve just the same for your loss.”

“Just the same, Conqueror?” She took one step toward me and I could see Atrius coiled beside me, watching the heartbroken woman with a wary eye. “You hold your only child, as they die in your arms, then you tell me if it feels the same.”

“Come, My Queen.” Ephiny quickly intervened before I had the chance to say more.

The warrior instructed two other women to take Timara’s body from the Queen’s arms. They led their Queen and slain princess from the palace. Ephiny lingered, walking out last. I saw something in her eyes, something that told me that perhaps she didn’t subscribe to Melosa’s philosophy about the Centaurs. Then again, perhaps it was only my imagination.

“Help her to try and see reason,” I offered to Ephiny.

“I’ll do what I can, Lord Conqueror.” Ephiny returned just before she walked from the palace.

* * * * * * * * * *

“We searched the entire palace grounds, Lord Conqueror, this is all we were able to find.” The Lieutenant placed two quivers, a longbow, and a crossbow upon the table before me. “They were under the trees, the olive grove directly in the line of site of the outdoor portico. I have 3 squads of men searching the woods outside the palace walls for any signs of the snipers.”

“Good work, Berio.” Atrius answered for me, dismissing the officer.

It felt like candlemarks had gone by, when in reality, only moments had past. My soldiers were nothing, if not efficient. They already had the evidence in their possession.

“You know as well as I that a Centaur didn’t commit this crime.” Kaleipus’s voice was the first to refute the physical evidence.

“I only know what I see before me, and it certainly doesn’t look good,” I answered.

“A Centaur would never be so obvious as to leave all his weapons there, in plain sight!” Kaleipus raged. “It’s obvious they were planted to make it look like one of us did it. Open your eyes, Xena.”

“I do have my eyes open, my friend. Yes, it is quite obviously a ruse, but by whom? I agree that it looks as though the items were planted there to cast suspicion your way, but on the other hand, if it were me, I might think it a perfect plan. If I were to leave such obvious clues, everyone would think they had been planted, and I would be getting away with, quite literally, murder.”

I turned toward my Captain. “Atrius, see that Gabrielle is taken to our rooms and guards placed inside, as well as outside.”

“Aye, Conqueror.”

“No!”

Gabrielle’s small cry was fairly muffled by the ring of soldiers already taking her welfare quite seriously. Suddenly every eye in the room turned, first, to me, then to Gabrielle. I’m sure it had been many, many seasons since anyone had said no to me in this palace, if anyone ever had. All eyes focused on me. Seeing me do nothing about the young woman’s seeming insolence, all heads then turned and concentrated on Gabrielle. She appeared suddenly nervous. The expression on her face told me she just realized what she’d said to me in front of my soldiers, and our guests.

“I–I–mean…” she pushed one of the young soldiers aside to come stand before me. “My Lord, I. . . I don’t want to be apart from you.” Gabrielle said in a low voice.

I smiled then. I’m not sure why, but Gabrielle’s concern had a way of touching me in such a fashion.

“Gabrielle,” I touched her cheek. I drew her to me, not caring whether I received stares, or if my soldiers thought less of me. I took her face in both my hands, looking into her eyes. “Gabrielle, what I need to do, I can do better if I don’t have to worry for you. Please, do as I say, just this once, eh?”

She wore an expression of sad resignation, but nodded her head all the same.

“You promise to take care, Conqueror.” She whispered to me. My smile grew larger at the remark that was part admonition, part taunt.

“I promise, little one,” I answered, kissing her on the forehead. “No one will best me today.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“You know that Kaleipus, or any Centaur for that matter, couldn’t have assassinated that girl in cold blood like that.” Solan defended his adopted family.

“I only know what I see, Solan. I want to examine the area where these were found for myself. Then, and only then, will I make a judgment.”

“Then I’m going with,” my son answered.

“Aye, I’ll go as well,” Kaleipus answered.

“Look–” I started, before hearing the husky voice behind me.

“Well, I suppose it’s only fair that the Amazon’s interests be represented as well, then.” Ephiny hopped over the low patio wall to join us.

She hadn’t been there the whole time, I would have heard her if she had. Besides, she now wore an Amazon short blade on her hip, so I knew she’d gone back to her tent first. I briefly wondered at my sanity, going out into the forest with a couple of very irate, sworn enemies, but once again, Ephiny seemed almost hospitable toward the Centaur who now stood beside her. She lost points with me, though when she turned to Gabrielle.

“Princess.” She acknowledged. The Amazon practically spat the word in Gabrielle’s direction.

“Keep some civility about you Amazon,” I growled, “and remember who it is you’re speaking to.”

She seemed to come to her senses, and the expression on her face changed, softening a bit. “Your Highness.” She added in a more even tone.

“Please, Ephiny, won’t you call me Gabrielle?”

That seemed to throw the Amazon off her stride a bit. She opened her mouth to speak, then, appearing nonplussed, changed her mind, and held her tongue. I wanted to laugh aloud, and I would have, had the situation been less severe. Gabrielle had a way of taming the beast in many a hard heart; I’d seen it happen repeatedly. Could one Amazon warrior possibly hold up under the onslaught from my small consort? We would see.

I kissed Gabrielle once more and watched as the six soldiers who escorted her to our private rooms swallowed her from my sight. I had to have words with Atrius, however, when he realized just what I had planned.

“Lord Conqueror, it seems risky and foolish to go into the woods without a squad of men to watch your back.” Atrius chided.

“That, my dear Captain, is why I have you,” I answered glibly. “Atrius, I understand your reservations, but a whole troop of soldiers tramping around out there, we’ll be lucky if they haven’t already destroyed some important bits of evidence. It’s important that we go this alone.”

“Aye, Conqueror.” Atrius answered, and then glanced around at the faces in our small party. I could see he didn’t hold much trust in our unholy group.

“Let’s go, then.” I spoke up, and made my way down the palace steps.

* * * * * * * * * *

I had been sitting in the dark for quite some time. In fact, it was nearly dawn. It was my favorite chair, in front of my favorite window, at my favorite time of the day. The view looked down into the rose garden, and out across the rooftops in the village that lay just within the palace gates. I was feeling a bit lonely, and I suppose I could have simply gone in and awakened Gabrielle, but I was so tired, and just then, it seemed like such an effort.

We had found more than I thought we would last night. In a way, more than I wanted us to find. My soldiers had done a better job than I earlier gave them credit for. They had cordoned off the area they suspected the snipers had shot from. Beyond searching the area, however, there was little more they could do. What few clues we did find, did not serve our Centaur friends well. The weapons we already had, of course.

The grove of olive trees was set atop the bit of land that sloped upward. The trees stopped at the palace wall, but continued on the other side. The area was thick and overgrown, yet had recently been trampled. Technically speaking, a man on horseback might have made the sparse tracks we found. I knew better than that, though. We were having a dry spell, common during the end of the growing season. The soil under our feet was hard as stone. For the hoof print we saw to have been that visible, the horse would have had to have been a massive beast. No, it was surely a Centaur’s print, scuffed into the dirt. I remember the look on Ephiny’s face, at Kaleipus’s dry comment, as the Amazon knelt down to examine the marks.

“It doesn’t much look good for us, does it, Amazon?”

“No, it certainly doesn’t.”

The Amazon’s expression struck me as considerably odd. Ephiny bore none of the animosity with which her sisters enjoyed expressing toward the Centaurs. She almost looked as if it pained her as much as Kaleipus. I wondered what Ephiny knew that caused her to act so differently toward the Centaurs than the rest of her people.

I had the worst feeling that this whole situation wasn’t going to end well. Melosa was already acting like a gourd full of black powder about to blow. Timara’s body would be put to the flames this evening, and then Melosa’s mourning period would end. At that time, the Queen would be free to exact her revenge. Once Ephiny told her Queen of the evidence we found, I knew it would take no time at all before Melosa started a war. Could I blame her? Would I react any differently? Grief takes its toll on the psyche, and Melosa had been through more than her fair share of loss throughout the seasons.

I thought of Gabrielle and the inequity of the situation. We were to be married in a matter of days. It wasn’t fair the day that should be the happiest of her life be marred by this tragedy, not only the death of young Timara, but a war, and on our own doorstep.

I closed my eyes and breathed in the cool outside air that blew in from the window. As often happens when I think of Gabrielle, I can hear her voice inside of my heart, calling to me. Only this time, when I opened my eyes, she was there, softly calling my name.

“Xena?” She whispered again.

I smiled up at her and she settled herself upon my lap, my arms immediately wrapping around her slight figure. I wasn’t completely certain who was comforting whom, but I do know it felt rather good.

“I could hear your deep thoughts all the way into the bedroom, my love.” Gabrielle laid her head on my shoulder, touching her lips lightly to the exposed skin on my neck. “It didn’t go well, did it?”

I shook my head and explained the events of the evening to her.

“All that seems a bit too easy, doesn’t it? I mean, if one of Kaleipus’s men did it, even on orders, he wouldn’t be foolish enough to leave so many clues that could be traced back to him. Would he?” Gabrielle asked.

“You see that, little one, along with me, the Centaurs, and even Ephiny. Melosa just lost her only child. Somehow, I don’t think she’s going to be in the mood to listen to reason.”

“But, Timara wasn’t her only child,” Gabrielle added.

“What do you mean? Where did you hear that?”

“Two of the Amazons came back to see me after you left this evening–”

“Gabrielle!”

“Xena, it’s all right. Torava and Sentius were both guarding me. As a matter of fact, I could barely see past them they had such a human wall around me.”

I chuckled at the vision in my head, but still it worried me. “It’s just that those Amazons–”

“Could have been assassins, I know, Xena. I’m not a fool, my love, I tried to take precautions.”

“Forgive me, little one. I’m only thinking of you.” I smiled at my own embarrassment, and my constant underestimation of this woman before me. “Sometimes I forget that you’re a competent woman, and not a young girl who needs my constant protection.”

“You are forgiven,” she smiled sweetly. “But only because I love you so much.”

“So, what did these Amazons want?”

“They came with instructions from a woman named Langris. They said she was the High Priestess in the Amazonian Temple of Artemis. Doesn’t that sound odd, Xena? That a Priestess would travel with a delegation of Amazons, so far from home?”

“Odd is exactly the word I would use.” What kind of Amazon delegation travels with their Queen, princess, and Artemis’s Priestess in one band? It didn’t seem smart, especially for Melosa. “What kind of instructions did she give you?” I asked.

“About my part in accepting Timara’s right of caste. Some of the things they said, Xena, do you know these women expect me to live with them in the Amazon Territory?”
“Sorry to override them, but that won’t be happening any time soon,” I added.

“Good,” Gabrielle smiled at me. “I was a little worried there for a moment. They told me some very interesting traditions about accepting the right of caste. Basically, I’m an Amazon. From the moment Timara died, I inherited everything that she possessed, and all that her blood entitled her to.”

“That does sound about right. I’m sorry, love, but there wasn’t enough time to explain it to you. Gabrielle, you’ve been given a great honor. These women don’t give up their right of caste to anyone but sister Amazons. For someone of Royal blood to do so, well, it’s practically unheard of. I believe Timara saw what I’ve always seen in you.”

Gabrielle blushed and lowered her head in that endearing way she had. I couldn’t help but smile.

“That’s the only reason I accepted, Xena. That young woman lost her life– no, someone took her life from her. She had so much to look forward to, so many things she had planned. She told me so much about the life she wanted for herself and her people. She told me that she had a girlfriend back in the Amazon village. I guess I just thought that to decline her gift would not only be an insult, but it would negate the dreams she had. It was as though if I keep going, Timara’s spirit can still experience some of the future. Does that make any sense at all?” Gabrielle asked, brushing the hair from her face.

Gods, could Athena have been any kinder to me? To bring a woman like this into my life was more than I deserved. “Yes, love, it makes perfect sense. Even though you won’t be living there, it’s still a big responsibility you’re taking on. Are you sure you’re ready for it?”

“I think so. Will it disturb you, Xena? Do anything that might embarrass you as ruler of the Empire?” Gabrielle asked; her brow furrowed in concern.

“I can always find problems with a situation if I think about it long enough, but there’s certainly nothing that would embarrass me. It will probably be a feather in my cap,” I grinned in her direction. “I can just hear the tavern bards now, detailing the stormy relationship between the Conqueror and her Amazon bride.” I laughed aloud, and Gabrielle seemed unable to keep from laughing right along with me.

“Gabrielle,” I began seriously. “If it’s your wish to see this through, then I’ll be behind you in your decision.”

“Even if it conflicts with your wishes and desires?” she asked me in earnest.

“Even then. Because I love you, and because your wishes are my hopes. It’s as simple as that, little one. Now tell me about this other daughter of Melosa’s.”

“Who? Oh, yes. Well, they said she was Melosa’s daughter, but not her blood child. I couldn’t seem to find out any more without appearing nosy. Do you know what it means?”

I thought about the statement for a moment. It wasn’t unusual for Royalty to adopt a protégé, especially when they had no heir. What I couldn’t understand was why Melosa would adopt an heir when she already had one. Unless the Queen had performed the adoption before Timara was born.

“Did the women say anything about how old this daughter was?” I asked.

“As a matter of fact, they said she was at least twice as old as Timara was. Funny thing about that, Xena…” Gabrielle hesitated.

“Funny in what way?”

“Well, the two women didn’t seem to care much for this other daughter. Supposedly, she was expected to be there when we first greeted the delegation. They hinted around that Mother and daughter had words, and the daughter stalked off. It didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary to the two Amazons who spoke to me.”

I wondered at Gabrielle’s amazing abilities. I remember trying to interrogate captured Amazons. We starved them, tortured them, and deprived them of everything but the most meager necessities of life to get them to talk. I never had a one even give me the time of day. Gabrielle on the other hand . . .

“Gabrielle, how long were those women here?”

“I’m not certain, perhaps a candlemark? Is it important?” Gabrielle asked.

I could do no more than smile. “No, little one, it’s not important. I was just thinking about something that happened a long time ago.” I finally allowed myself a chuckle.

“So,” I began again. “I don’t suppose you got one of your new sisters to give you this elusive daughter’s name, did you?” I asked, continuing to grin.

“Well, Conqueror,” Gabrielle teased. “It just so happens that I did. I remembered it, especially since I’d never heard a name like it used before.

Her name is Velasca.”
Chapter 16: Besieged And Taken, Fair Courageous Queen
There was a loud gasp, and I turned to see Gabrielle bolt upright in bed. She hadn’t cried out, but I could hear her audible breaths, which she seemingly struggled to bring under control.

“Gabrielle?” I sat up beside her.

When she turned to look at me, her face held such a blank look. It was as if she didn’t recognize me, or at the very least, as if she were straining to remember me. The expression only lasted a few heartbeats, and then she physically shook her head to concentrate on her present surroundings.

“Gabrielle?” I repeated.

“I–I think I must have been dreaming,” Gabrielle replied hesitantly.

“A bad dream?”

“Partly, but then some was . . . well . . . confusing.” She ran her fingers through her hair then looked up at me with a sleepy grin. “I guess I’m still half asleep, but I’m all right, really.”

“Come here, love.”

Gabrielle settled herself into my embrace, as we both lay back down against the pillows. I wasn’t sure what to make of her sleepy explanation, but since her breathing had already turned into the deep, relaxed sounds of sleep, I thought little more about it. Why is it, that in hindsight, it’s the smallest of things that come to be the most important?

* * * * * * * * * *

Every soldier in Corinth was on alert this night. Numerous fires illuminated the southern hills, outside the palace gates. For one full pass of the sun, Melosa had been in private mourning. I wanted to find out more about the other daughter of hers, but the Queen was in seclusion, and even I couldn’t bring myself to intrude upon her grief.

Gabrielle had been sequestered with a number of Amazons, along with their Priestess for quite some time. I lived with Cyane and her Amazons for a short time, and I learned as much as I could about their history and customs. I knew that even though Gabrielle’s part in tonight’s ceremony would be small, the Priestess was most probably filling my consort in on some of that history.

I stood with Atrius, me looking less like a Conqueror than a fidgety spouse. I suppose I should have felt honored, considering few non Amazons were ever allowed to witness an Amazon princess being committed to the flames. It’s only that I had a lot weighing on my mind just then. I was wondering how smoothly this Amazon ceremony was going to go, how Gabrielle would handle the whole situation, and whether I would be able to stop a certain Amazon Queen from waging a senseless battle with the Centaurs. I have to say that every one of those thoughts dissipated into thin air the moment I saw Gabrielle walk out of that tent.

Gabrielle was dressed in a short leather skirt and halter. A very short skirt and not really enough to even call a halter. Her neck, upper arms, and waist were encircled with feather and bead ornaments. Now, I suppose that I’d seen more revealing Amazon wear in my time. Actually, the women who flanked both Gabrielle and the Priestess were wearing less than my future bride. If the truth be known, I certainly wasn’t averse to seeing Gabrielle’s beautiful body. It’s simply that I had planned on being the only one to ever see this much of it. I could feel that familiar heat creep up my neck, and I looked around, watching everyone else watch Gabrielle!

“What are you looking at?” I hissed to Atrius.

He had his mouth open a slight bit, mostly in surprise, I’m sure.

“Me?” He answered with uncharacteristic embarrassment.

“Yes, you! Quit looking at her that way!” I commanded.

“Me?” He stammered again.

“You keep saying that like I’m talking to someone else!”

“No, I mean . . . it’s just that . . . looking? I–I would never . . . for Athena’s sake, she’s like a daughter!” He was finally able to say.

“Oh.” It was the only thing I could think of to say. It made sense, though.

Gabrielle looked good. In fact, she looked damned good, and as I studied the women who were sneaking glances as she passed their way, I realized something. My first instinctual feelings of jealousy, and then anger were based on emotions that belonged to the Conqueror, not the woman I had since become. It would have been so easy to let the beast come out to roam over a situation like this, but this moment wasn’t about me.

Of course, we stood there as a way of saying goodbye to a young woman who lost her life much too soon, but it was more than that. In some way, this moment belonged to Gabrielle. I had no idea how we would eventually handle her status as an Amazon, or even the fact that she was Amazon Royalty. I did know that she was taking this honor seriously, and that it meant something to her. Perhaps because it was the first time in her young life that people looked up to her for something that she alone had done, and not because she was my consort.

Whatever the real reason, I realized it wouldn’t be the first time I would be tested in such a manner. I had grown up on the battlefield, thinking that you had to show your power to be respected. That was fine for the battlefield, but it would only serve to make me a tyrant when used in every day life. It would also humiliate Gabrielle, and lower her status with these people, a thing I was loath to do.

I took a deep breath, and I had a rather comforting thought. So what if a hundred Amazon eyes were now coveting my consort. The key word was, my. In my heart, I knew whom Gabrielle loved, and when she walked up to me, my stomach flipped a very little bit, as I saw that exact sentiment in her eyes.

“Xena, we have to talk.” Gabrielle whispered between clenched teeth, her lips shaped into a forced smile. “This is what they want me to wear. I might as well be out here naked!”

I grinned heartily at that. Knowing this wasn’t Gabrielle’s choice put me even more at ease. Let the Amazons look if they wanted to. She was mine, and suddenly I reveled in the thought that I possessed something completely unattainable to them.

“You look absolutely breathtaking, my love,” I whispered back in reassurance.

“That’s not all. Xena, I may have to kill a Centaur!” she hissed again.

“What?!” I made no pretense of lowering my voice this time. “Come on, we need to talk.” I began to usher her back into the tent she’d just exited.

The two Amazons that had obviously been assigned to guard the new princess were close on our heels. Gabrielle entered the tent first, then me. When the two guards attempted to follow, I turned and growled at them.

“Don’t even think about it!”

I don’t know if it was the fire in my eyes, or the smoke coming from my ears, but they suddenly realized they could just as easily guard her from outside the tent.

Gabrielle was waiting for me when I got inside. “Xena, these women have some seriously one-sided ideas about the Centaurs,” she said.

“I suppose that’s to be expected. They’ve been at odds with them for most of their lives,” I answered.

“Well, when you look at it that way . . . ” Gabrielle trailed off. I saw her features soften. It was uncharacteristic of Gabrielle not to see the other side of the coin, but her own fury, and worry, had gotten the best of her.

“Now, how about what you said out there?” I motioned with one hand. “Who wants you to kill a Centaur, and why?”

“They’re pretty convinced here that a Centaur did it, Xena. I didn’t say a word about what you found the other night, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had. They’re determined in thinking that a Centaur killed Timara, and they don’t seem very concerned about whether they catch the guilty one or not. The only one who doesn’t seem convinced is Satena; she’s their Priestess. In fact, she doesn’t say much at all, which is a little unnerving. She watches me in the oddest way.”

“Sweetheart . . . the killing?” I prompted.

“Oh, yes! Do you know they said that once they catch whoever was responsible for Timara’s murder, actually their words were, once we catch the Centaur responsible, I’m the one who has to execute the sentence, which will be death. Something about me, accepting Timara’s right of caste, and because of that I have to exact her revenge. Xena, I don’t think I can kill anyone, not in cold blood like that.”

“I know that, love.”

Gabrielle stepped into my arms and I held her that way for a few moments. “Don’t worry, you’re not going to be killing anyone, least of all any Centaurs.”

“Promise?” she asked.

“I promise, little one. We’ll figure something out. Okay?”

She nodded, and just as we kissed and pulled away from one another, the Amazon guards were clearing their throats. They cautiously entered the tent, requesting Gabrielle’s presence. She nodded to them and started after them. I pulled her back at the last moment to whisper in her ear.

“Remember, little one, you belong to me, as well as the Amazons.” I smiled and I felt her lean back into me. “Torava and Atrius are here as your guards also. I don’t know, or trust, everyone here. If anything does happen, stay with those two and I’ll know you’re safe.”

I kissed her ear, and I watched as she nodded her head in understanding. We left the tent and I walked beside Gabrielle, the two guards apparently flustered at my continued presence. They followed along, and then looked even more confused when Atrius and Torava slipped into step with us.

We were stopped by a group of warriors I accepted as Melosa’s Royal Guard, some twenty feet from the funeral pyre. The Queen stood directly next to the pyre, accompanied by Artemis’s Priestess, and another Amazon I didn’t recognize. She was tall, muscular, and had auburn hair. I wondered if she was the other daughter. Her eyes appeared filled with tears as she stared up at the platform, upon which Timara’s body was laid.

Ephiny came toward us and stopped before Gabrielle. I could tell there was still a certain animosity residing within the Amazon toward Gabrielle. She didn’t go out of her way to be courteous, but then she didn’t do, or say, anything that could be considered intentionally mean. It was more the disdainful expression her eyes held when they settled on Gabrielle.

“Your presence is requested at the family’s side, Princess,” Ephiny said flatly. She motioned with her hand and the two Amazon guards moved to the front to lead Gabrielle away.

I felt Gabrielle squeeze my hand and I returned the slight pressure. She followed the Amazons, and Atrius and Torava moved along with her.

“Just the Princess,” Ephiny said.

Gabrielle looked back at me, and I realized she was unsure what to do.

“She may be your Princess, but she is also about to become Queen to the Greek Empire. Either they go with her, or we all stay here,” I stated.

Ephiny didn’t seem to think it was worth causing a situation over. She shrugged her shoulders and waved again to the two guards in the lead. I was a little surprised when Ephiny stayed behind, electing to stand beside me during the ceremony.

The ceremony began, and as I watched the women at the pyre interact with one another, one thing became clear. Melosa was in obvious grief. It showed in her face and in her body language. Gabrielle appeared sad, somber, and nervous.

“Who’s the woman beside Melosa?” I asked Ephiny under my breath.

“Velasca, Melosa’s adopted daughter.”

“Adopted. So, she’s not a princess then?” I asked the question I already knew the answer to, but wanted to hear how the Amazon would answer.

“No. Only blood family may be considered in line for the throne. Unless they become family through right of caste, however. Velasca would have become Princess upon Timara’s death, because she would then be Melosa’s only heir. Your consort seems to have put a crimp in those plans, Lord Conqueror.”

Ephiny shot me a sidelong glance and I heard what I wanted to in her voice. It seemed she didn’t care for Velasca’s royal position any more than she did for Gabrielle’s new Amazon title. Things began to look like Ephiny could be one of those fanatical Amazons, unwilling to allow outsiders in so easily. Of course, that was no crime, but the whole scenario began to take on a dangerous air for Gabrielle.

Suddenly, I saw an adopted daughter whose only obstacle to the throne was her younger sister. If she somehow went over the top, killing her sister, would she stop there? She probably had no idea that Timara would have given her right of caste away, to a stranger no less. Would she try to eliminate Gabrielle as well?

I shook myself mentally. I was adding things incorrectly, jumping to quick and easy conclusions. Velasca had the motive along with the opportunity. But what of all the Centaur evidence? The weapons may have been circumstantial, but there’s only one thing heavy enough to make Centaur tracks in stone-dry earth, and that’s a Centaur. Plus, something we hadn’t discussed out in those trees. Amazons are excellent archers, incredible even, but the distance from the grove of trees to the patio we dined on was tremendous. That was most of the reason we never worried about more than occasionally patrolling the area. I couldn’t see the best Amazon archer hitting Timara with as much accuracy as those arrows did. No, either a Centaur, or a being with astonishing strength would have had to shoot those arrows. That’s where it all fell apart. Even I know that there isn’t an Amazon on earth who would collaborate with a Centaur. I’d never known anything to be worth the two putting their differences, and long-standing hatred, away for.

“What did Melosa say when you told her about what we found?” I leaned over and asked.

“I haven’t told her yet.” Ephiny answered, never taking her eyes from the pyre that was now being lit. “She’s been in mourning,” she added.

“What do you think she’ll do?” I asked.

“I’d like to not think about that one.” Ephiny commented in her flat alto.

“Me too,” I quickly added.

Ephiny surprised and worried me at the same time. Any other Amazon here would have jumped at the chance to bring the bad word against the Centaurs, but she hadn’t even attempted it. Yes, Melosa was in mourning, but something like this? I would have chucked protocol and killed myself attempting to reach her. Ephiny’s amiable behavior toward the Centaurs could have been a voice of reason among her people, someone I might want to ally myself with. On the other hand, she might be just the kind of person to become partners with a Centaur for a like-minded cause.

There was only thing to be done. Trust no one, see that Gabrielle was never without protection, and sit down with Kaleipus. There’d been a great deal of bad blood between the Centaur Nation and myself. It was now time to see if there were any Centaurs around who still remembered the good old days.

* * * * * * * * * *

“It’s an insult to even think any of the Centaurs here could be responsible!”

Solan’s tone was one of righteous indignation, and I wasn’t sure I disagreed with him. I was probably seeking for answers where there were none, but I was running out of time, and clues. Last evening we watched as Timara’s funeral pyre lit the southern sky. I was prepared to be confronted by Melosa with her demand for Centaur blood over the murder of her daughter. I was quite surprised when, after candlemarks of keeping vigil at her daughter’s funeral pyre, she simply looked up at me, and then turned and walked away.

She was a smart woman. Her grief was controlling her right then, and even she knew enough not to want to meet with me in that condition. I would suffer this woman much for her grief, and the price she’d paid, but even my tolerance had its limits.

“Keep a civil tongue about you, Solan.” Kaleipus warned his adopted son. “The Conqueror has good reason to ask.”

“Thank you my friend. I don’t know whether this will help us, or curse us. Solan, I’ve lived long enough to know that no one species holds the commodity on truth and integrity. I’ll not have anyone convicted falsely, but neither can I allow a war to begin between the Centaurs and the Amazons. I’m doing the absolute best I can in this situation.”

I answered Solan as honestly as I could. I’m sure he heard the tone of defeat in my voice, even though I took pains to hide it.

“Solan, most of my life has been spent in Conquering and taking. No matter that it already belonged to another. It became my own manifest destiny to become the Destroyer of Nations. A witch prophesied it, and I gave her the blood, and the means to bring it about. Along the line somewhere, a woman like me makes enemies, loose ends that make you vulnerable some day. I don’t pretend that I wasn’t this woman, so do me a favor. Please don’t insult me by saying you know of no one who would like to see my head on a spike for some past deed.”

I finished my little speech, and when I looked up into Solan’s face, he had an odd sort of expression on his face. I think it might have been fear, or maybe even concern. I suppose I could have been reaching there, but the look stayed with me.

I took a chance on this young man, who had changed so much. I decided to tell he and Kaleipus all that I suspected. Something told me I could trust Solan now, especially when I played my trump card, by revealing Gabrielle’s involvement.

“Why would someone with a grudge against you want to kill Gabrielle?” Solan asked quickly.

I told him then what I thought about an Amazon and a Centaur working together. That odd look returned to his face. Once again, I could see that worry plagued him. Solan and Gabrielle had grown close in the last fortnight. If I were a younger Conqueror, jealousy and rage would have consumed me by now.

Gabrielle met with Solan, more for him than herself I feared. She had every right not to forgive his acts so quickly. Somewhere in their time together, however, Gabrielle and Solan became friends. I do not attempt to understand how the changing took place, nor will I question it. Both of these beloved people, the child of my body, and the woman of my heart, meant more to me than words could adequately express. The fact that I didn’t have to choose between them meant just as much.

The next two candlemarks were spent going over the names and history of the twenty-two Centaurs in Kaleipus’s delegation. We talked about their habits, the kinds of politics they played, and exactly where they were on the evening of Timara’s murder.

I stood and stretched muscles that had grown tight while sitting. We had our meeting in the Great Hall, always perfect for a Centaur meeting. The large columns opened out onto the portico on the east side of the room. High, easy access was necessary when entertaining Centaurs indoors. I suppose it was this access to the outdoors, which made it so easy to hear the commotion around the corner on the palace steps. Gabrielle materializing in the hall, flanked by two guards was my next clue that we had trouble brewing. The words she spoke didn’t help the situation any.

“Xena, I think Ephiny finally told Melosa.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“Atrius, take Gabrielle back inside,” I quietly said, as soon as we exited the palace. We found ourselves facing a hundred armed Amazons on one side of the area outside of the palace, Centaurs on the other, and five formations of my own men in between.

“No! Xena, please, I need to be here,” Gabrielle pleaded.

She was right, in a way. It may have been a quirk of fate that brought it about, but Gabrielle was now an Amazon. I didn’t have time to agree or not before Melosa was at the steps, followed by Ephiny and Velasca. I stepped in front of Gabrielle slightly, my protective mode taking hold I suppose.

“The time for talk is over, Conqueror!” Melosa raged. “It’s obvious you’re protecting those bastards. Will you give me and my people satisfaction, or not?”

“Nothing is apparent from where I stand, Melosa,” I answered.

“Those sons of Cerberus murdered my daughter!”

“Amazon slut!” This came from Kaleipus, who finally lost his temper.

“Freaks!” Someone from the Amazon side yelled out.

“All right!” My voice boomed out. I was trying my level best not to lose my temper, but these people where pushing me to my breaking point. I slowly walked down the steps, anger evident in my very gait. I was heartbeats away from screaming at the top of my voice that they could all go to Hades.

I reached the Amazons, and even Melosa cautiously backed up. I could feel my hand shake as it ached to pull my blade from its scabbard. I clenched my jaw, and tried to take in a calming breath.

“Now,” I began. “We are all going to take a deep breath. We are not going to start a war that our children will pay for by calling one another names. This is not worth going to battle over.”

“It is to me, Conqueror,” Melosa responded. “You saw the evidence. Everything points to a Centaur.”

“Melosa, it may look obvious to you in your grief, but the evidence truly is circumstantial.” Gabrielle was suddenly beside me, her hand on my forearm.

“I’m not surprised that you feel this way, Gabrielle. Your loyalties are certainly divided here, but did you learn nothing of the Centaurs from your teaching with Satena?” Melosa commented.

“I did learn, Melosa. I learned that your people are being taught a very one-sided vision of the history between the Amazons and the Centaurs. I’ve also learned from the Centaurs themselves. They are proud, and stubborn, but no more so than you.”

“You’ve not seen what I have, Gabrielle.” Melosa growled. “Can you tell me a Centaur did not kill my child, Conqueror?” The Queen directed her question toward me.

“No,” I answered sadly. “I cannot. Just as I cannot say that it wasn’t an Amazon, or anyone else.”

“Then we go to war,” Melosa hissed. “I want to see Centaur blood on my blade.

“I can’t let you do that, My Queen.” Ephiny stepped up from behind the woman, and Melosa did a small half turn to look at her. “As much as it pains me to agree with anything she might say, I must agree with the Princess.”

“You?” Melosa seemed genuinely taken aback. She stepped back and folded her arms against her chest.

Melosa now appeared more amused than angry. I didn’t know what Ephiny was trying to do, but it seemed her words had calmed the older woman in some fashion. Although, I believe Ephiny’s words touched something in Gabrielle. The small blonde had also crossed her arms, an irate flush beginning to show in her cheeks.

“You surprise me Ephiny. What do you expect to do . . . challenge me?” Melosa asked.

“We both know that’s something that I cannot do, My Queen.” Then, Ephiny looked directly at Gabrielle, who was still fuming at the Amazon’s last comment. “We all know that only another Royal can challenge the Queen.”

I caught the inference immediately, and suddenly knew what Ephiny was playing at. It was happening so fast, I wasn’t sure how I felt about using Gabrielle as bait. I remembered the old law that went along with any Royal challenge and suddenly knew Gabrielle would be safe.

“That’s right,” I gave the slightest bit of an elbow to Gabrielle, and repeated Ephiny’s words. “Only Royalty,” I stared into Gabrielle’s uncomprehending eyes, “can contest the Queen in a Challenge.”

Gabrielle wasn’t stupid, but sometimes the most obvious things are the ones we miss. I swear if the girl said oh aloud, I would cuff her on the back of the head.

The oddest thing happened just then. I noticed that off to Melosa’s left, at the bottom of the palace steps, Velasca opened her mouth to speak. It appeared very much as if she were going to administer a challenge. Before her voice could be heard, however, Gabrielle snapped into action. She must have suddenly grasped all the innuendo because she nearly jumped up when she said the words.

“I challenge you!”

Hundreds of eyes trained themselves upon the small blonde, who swallowed and looked as if she wanted to make herself invisible.

“I think.” Gabrielle added.

“Do you or don’t you, Gabrielle?” Melosa asked.

Somehow, the current situation had gone from possible bloodshed to entertainment. I knew that Melosa was fond of Gabrielle, besides the Queen wasn’t a fool. I’m quite sure it was obvious to her what Ephiny and I were trying to do. Rather than let anger rule her, I believe Melosa couldn’t help but be mildly amused at the small girl, challenging the Queen for her throne.

“Yes, yes I do.” Gabrielle answered confidently.

“Gabrielle,” Melosa drawled. “You do understand what a Royal Challenge is, don’t you?”

“Uhm . . .” Gabrielle looked between Ephiny and I, as we both nodded our heads up and down slightly. “Yes. Yes, of course I do,” she answered.

“And you do realize that you will have to fight me.”

“Fight?” Gabrielle’s voice rose a notch, and she looked between Ephiny and myself once more.

“To the death.” Melosa finished.

“What! Oh, I–”

“Of course,” Ephiny began. “Amazon law does state that a member of the Royal family may choose a Champion–”

“Someone, a trusted warrior, to fight in her stead.” I finished Ephiny’s thought, directing my words more toward Gabrielle than Melosa.

“I know what the law states, Ephiny. I would like to know whose side you’re on here, however?” Melosa asked.

“The side of my people, My Queen.” The Amazon responded.

“So, Gabrielle, will you battle yourself, or will you select a Champion?” Melosa asked; curiosity in her direct gaze.

“I’ll be her Champion!” Ephiny and I both said in unison, taking a step forward.

Everyone froze at that moment. Ephiny and I turned to look at one another, and suddenly, I felt as if I were playing a part in a play by Euripides. I not only felt a little foolish, but I’m positive I looked the part as well.

“She’s my wife!” I hissed at the Amazon.

“I’m sorry, did I miss that wedding, Lord Conqueror?”

“Just what–” I stated, only to be interrupted.

“Will you two please sort this out another time?” Gabrielle turned to us both and growled under her breath.

“It seems you have more than enough willing Champions, Princess. So, which what will it be? Will you select a Champion, Gabrielle?”

Once more Gabrielle’s head turned to look at the blonde Amazon and myself, standing side by side. We both nodded our heads to the young woman.

“No, I’ll fight for myself,” Gabrielle answered.

“What?” Two voices in unison again, mine and the Amazon’s.

“Do you mind?” I growled at Ephiny.

“Gabrielle, take a moment and think about what you’re saying.” I implored her. I suppose I could have ordered the whole thing stopped, but how would that make Gabrielle look, in front of the Amazons, as well as the people of Greece. I wanted them to know she was not simply a pretty toy of mine, but I didn’t want them to see her die before her wedding day.

Gabrielle temporarily ignored me. “I won’t fight you to the death, though.”

“And just what kind of parameters would you set for this combat?” Melosa questioned.

“That if I win, you will not proceed with your war. You will listen to reason with your head, and not your heart.”

“And if you lose?”

“I–I haven’t anything to offer,” Gabrielle answered softly.

“Haven’t you, Gabrielle?”

I knew exactly what Melosa was thinking by the way she looked at Gabrielle just then, and I would have none of that. The Amazon Queen surprised me, though, when she continued.

“If I were a younger woman, I’d make you put your charms up as part of the wager. I like you, Gabrielle, and if you think you have enough skill to best me, then that’s all we’ll wager. I’ll give you a candlemark to compose yourself, and then I’ll meet you on the Conqueror’s training field.”

Melosa walked away, but stopped and turned back to the small blonde. “What weapons would you like to use, Princess?”

I watched as a different expression stole across Gabrielle’s face. She looked down at the palm of her hands, slowly turning each of them over as if to examine them.

“My hands,” she said at last.

Melosa smiled as if she were indulging a small child in a nonsensical request. “Very well. Hand to hand combat it is.” She walked off, followed by the Amazons.

Ephiny was the last to leave. “I hope you taught her well.” She tossed at me in that flat, dry sort of tone she had.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Gabrielle, are you insane? I mean, have you recently hit your head, or suffered some sort of massive brain injury that I know nothing about?” I shouted.

We were alone in our rooms. Gabrielle sat on the bed, her hands clasped together in her lap, patiently looking up at me. I paced, and I raged. I suppose it was all fear that was causing me to yell like this. The good thing is that I think Gabrielle knew that because she just sat there as if waiting for my fury to calm, knowing it eventually would. Like the summer storms that passed through quickly, all thunder and lightning, my ire did finally calm.

I sat down beside Gabrielle, and ran my fingers through my hair. I sighed deeply.

“Little one, do you understand what’s happening?”

“I’m not a fool, Xena! I know what I’ve done,” Gabrielle answered. It was the first time she’d ever spoke to me sharply, and I could see she was afraid, as well.

“You can still change your mind, choose me as your Champion, Ares balls, choose the Amazon, but don’t try to fight Melosa. She’s almost as good as I am, Gabrielle. She could hurt you, even if it’s not a fight to the death.”

“Xena, I . . .”Gabrielle took a deep breath and turned toward me, taking both my hands in her own. “I need to do this. I have no idea how to explain it to you, Hades teeth, I don’t know how to explain it to myself!”

It was the first time I’d ever heard her swear, and I couldn’t help but smile. It was that smile that allowed me to open my head, and my heart, enough to hear what she had to say.

“I don’t know what it is, and I could be insane, but I can do this . . . I must do this. I can’t explain how or why any better than to say this feels like my destiny, Xena. It’s as though my whole life has been leading up to this one moment. I’m sorry, I’m not explaining this well at all.”

She hung her head in defeat. I didn’t know how to tell her just then that I knew exactly what she meant. I felt the same thing on the evening I walked into Gabrielle’s room, got down on my knees, and asked her to forgive me. I freed her from slavery, and asked her to marry me. At that moment in time, in that semi-darkened room, I felt that my whole life had been leading up to that space in time. That my destiny was clicking into place. I wanted to tell Gabrielle all of this, but as was my habit around her, my tongue froze. When I needed my eloquence the most, it deserted me.

I pulled the smaller woman against me, and wrapped my arms around her. At last her body relaxed, and I felt mine do the same. When she looked up into my eyes, I knew that I didn’t have to voice ant of my thoughts. Gabrielle seemed to always know what I was thinking, anyway.

“Athena will protect me, Xena, I have every confidence.” Gabrielle whispered.

“I hope so because if Melosa hurts you, I’m going to kick her ass from one end of Corinth to the other,” I growled.

“Xena!”

Gabrielle’s admonishment was interrupted by a knock on the outer chamber door. I was rather surprised that it was Yu Pan standing in the corridor. He was holding a small package in his hands.

“Ni hao? Lord Conqueror,” he acknowledged me.

“I am not so well at this very moment, thank you for asking,” I answered.

“I have something for Gabrielle.”

“Master Yu Pan, I’m not sure that now is a–”

“It’s all right, Xena.” Gabrielle stood in the doorway between the bedroom and the outer rooms, and smiled weakly. I could see her mind was on Melosa. What I still couldn’t understand was why she said yes. How did she think she was going to accomplish this?

“I have something that belongs to you, my nuér,” Yu Pan said. He crossed the room and placed a parcel wrapped in cloth into Gabrielle’s accepting hands. ”Please open.” The old man indicated the package.

Gabrielle looked at me, and then moved to a nearby chair. She placed the package in her lap, untied the string holding it closed, and finally peeled back the cloth. The look on Gabrielle’s face, I can only describe as equal part revelation, and astonishment. She fingered an article of clothing from inside the package. It appeared to be silk, deep blue, with very tiny yellow blossoms embroidered on it.

She slowly raised her head, and stared at Yu Pan. “It’s true, then?” was all she asked the old man.

“It is true,” Yu Pan answered.

“I thought . . . I don’t think I understand how this can be.”

“Gabrielle?” I nervously asked. She and the old man seemed to be having a conversation that revolved around something they alone were privy to.

“It’s all right, Xena.” Gabrielle repeated the same reassuring words to me, only this time her smile was genuine. Actually, it seemed as if her expression was one of relief.

” Tong zhi zhe,” Yu Pan addressed me by my Chin title. “Perhaps if I might have a few moments alone with Gabrielle, so that I might help her prepare?”

“You’re going to do something, right? Some spell or some tricks?” I asked desperately.

“No tricks, my friend. You are about to get that wish that you once hoped for, Conqueror,” Yu Pan commented in a cryptic fashion.

“Gabrielle,” I turned toward her to attempt once again to talk her out of this foolishness. “I can’t just–”

“Xena, you have to trust me,” she said quickly. “Please, love, we only have a short time, and there are things I need to ask Yu Pan.”

“But . . . ” I finally realized that it was so much easier to trust when you were the one doing the asking. How many times since I fell in love with her had I asked Gabrielle that very thing? Trust me.

Gabrielle came to stand before me as my mind warred with itself. She reached up and placed a gentle kiss on my cheek.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.

“Tell you what, love?”

“How hard trusting really is?” I responded.

“Perhaps you just haven’t had enough practice at it yet.”

She smiled that seductive smile of hers and I was reminded again why I fell in love with her in the first place. Because she made it so blasted easy to do, that’s why.

“I won’t let anything serious happen to you, little one.” I whispered fiercely.

“I know you won’t. Now go, and I’ll see you outside,” she responded.

I nodded dumbly, kissed her, and left her alone with Yu Pan. I prayed to Athena that Gabrielle was right, and that my patron Goddess truly thought enough of Gabrielle to protect the young woman.

“Children and fools,” I muttered to myself as I retreated from the castle. Surely there was a special place in the Afterlife for the both of them.
Chapter 17: For As Events Are Shaped, They Have To Be.
There was nothing, absolutely nothing in the world that could have prepared me for the sight of Gabrielle, as she made her way down the palace steps, accompanied by her mentor, Yu Pan. Her golden hair had been plaited tightly in one long braid down her back. She was wearing the silk that I had identified as being inside the parcel Yu Pan delivered. It was a deep, royal blue color with tiny yellow blossoms embroidered in a seemingly random pattern. It was exactly the same style outfit that I had seen Yu Pan wear during his Qigong routine. The long-sleeved silk jacket or robe came down to mid-calf, and it appeared that she wore loose fitting silk trousers underneath the robe.

There was something different about Gabrielle; I recognized it at once. Just as I knew, deep inside, that Yu Pan had been something more than he appeared, Gabrielle now held that same power. It was in her gait, and the direct, confident eye contact she made. The girl who now stood before me would never be mistaken for either a slave, or a victim.

“Are you sure about this?” I asked quickly.

“I’m positive. Remember, trust in me, Xena.” Gabrielle reminded me.

“I’m going to do my level best, love.” I answered. I was honestly giving it all I had.

We walked hand in hand to the training field, neither of us caring if people whispered at the sight. So many people showed up, it looked like the old Romans’ Coliseum. Obviously, word had gotten out that something interesting was going to happen. I merely hoped that the interesting part didn’t involve Gabrielle breaking her neck. Her body seemed to be practically humming, and I knew it was simply nervous energy.

There were formalities and preliminary instructions to go over, but finally the time was at hand. Each woman was directed to a corner of the octagonal fighting area. They each began to warm up in their own fashion. It was then that Gabrielle took off the long jacket. Underneath, she wore the same patterned blue silk, but in a tight fitting sleeveless top that clung to her skin, ending where it tucked into the silk trousers.

I never thought of Gabrielle’s body as it pertained to anything other than beauty or pleasure, but now, I could really see why I always took her embrace as deceptively strong. Her arms were short, but sleek, and muscular. Suddenly, my mouth went dry. I was seeing something of this woman that I hadn’t before, and I found myself rather enjoying the sight of her.

Gabrielle spun her body completely around, easily accomplishing a roundhouse kick. She stretched, and practiced some more kicks, but I was already awe struck. She moved like liquid in motion. Surely, Yu Pan had performed some sort of miracle while the two of them were up there. At this moment I didn’t much care what it was, I was merely happy that Gabrielle had a chance at holding her own.

Both women met in the middle of the ring, and the contest began.

Did I say, hold her own?
Sweet Athena, had I been living with this woman for all this time now? I turned my dumbfounded gaze to Yu Pan, who I found standing next to me.

“D–Did you . . . do . . . this?” I motioned with my hand toward Gabrielle. Right now, the girl looked like poetry set to music. “Is it some form of magic?”

“I told you, no tricks, Conqueror. As you said once before, however,” he replied as he focused his attention on Gabrielle’s movements. “Gabrielle is indeed my greatest student.”

Whereas Melosa was a larger woman, she fought more like me. She wrestled and boxed, using her size and strength to beat an opponent. Gabrielle was fast, incredibly fast. Her movements were a blur. She looked as if she were doing a Qigong routine, only faster. Every single one of her actions were reactions. They were defensive moves, nothing offensive.

After close to a quarter of a candlemark, Gabrielle had tossed Melosa from one end of the ring to the other. It was mesmerizing watching Gabrielle. Each time Melosa came at the younger woman, Gabrielle reacted as if every movement was pure instinct, as if her body knew exactly what to do. After a full candlemark of the strenuous activity, Gabrielle’s technique still appeared as effortless to her body as breathing out and breathing in.

I know I keep telling you how stunned I felt, but I don’t think you can truly appreciate how astonished I was. Here was my little Gabrielle, and she was kicking the Amazon Queen’s ass!

Just as I thought that, Melosa came across with a glancing blow that caught Gabrielle high up on her left cheekbone, near her eye. The force knocked the young woman to one knee, but then she quickly managed to shift and duck to one side as Melosa flew by her instead of tackling the young woman to the ground. My fingers reflexively wrapped around the hilt of my sword.

Melosa landed on her back, obviously winded, but even before her body hit the ground, Gabrielle was tucking her small body into a backwards somersault. Just as Melosa hit the dirt, Gabrielle rolled against her. All it took was one hand pinning Melosa’s arm to the ground, and the smaller woman’s knee pressed against the Amazon’s throat. In her state of exhaustion, The Queen hadn’t the strength to remove the steady pressure Gabrielle seemed to be placing on the Amazon’s larynx.

“Mercy,” Melosa gasped at last. The entire crowd was stunned into silence.

Gabrielle immediately rose, holding out a hand to the surrendering Queen. Melosa sat upright, leaning her forearm on one bent knee. The whole time she simply stared at Gabrielle. She didn’t look happy by my estimation. She looked even less so when Gabrielle offered her arm.

The Queen finally grasped it, however, pulling herself up. The two women stood before one another, Melosa towering over Gabrielle. There was still quite a bit of collective breath holding going on as everyone watched the two women in the center of the ring. At last, Melosa smiled slightly, nodding her head in appreciation. She placed her hands on each of Gabrielle’s shoulders.

“Timara chose well, whether she knew it or not,” Melosa quietly commented.

I think everyone watching breathed a sigh of relief. Except for me, that is. There were too many people surrounding the two women for my comfort, far too many. I must have been getting old, complacent, or a little of both because it was only now that I was taking notice of the fact. Between my soldiers, and the Amazons, there were at least three hundred trained warriors on that field. Armed warriors. As I always say about hindsight, however; if we didn’t have it, we’d have no way to kick ourselves later.

All it took was one shout. “Weapon!” Someone screamed.

To shout that under ordinary circumstances might not mean much. To scream it among a bunch of soldiers is dangerous, but to hear it when three members of Royalty are present throws things into complete chaos.

I didn’t even have to give orders, Atrius and the Royal Guard had already surrounded me, and I saw three of them tossing bodies out of the way to get to Gabrielle. That’s when I lost sight of the small blonde in the sea of bodies being jostled around us. As nature would have it, that’s when total pandemonium broke out.

It happened so fast, and my mind was trained on only Gabrielle. Even I couldn’t be absolutely certain what the first words were.

“Amazon treachery!”

“Centaur betrayal!”

Then surprisingly enough, it all went down hill from there. I don’t mean to make light of the matter, for this was well and truly the first battle the palace in Corinth had seen for at least a dozen seasons. I fought just as the guards around me, taking a few blows to the chin as I pressed my way toward the center of the fighting area. I noticed Torava fighting beside me, and grabbed her by the neck.

“Get in there and find Gabrielle!”

“I can’t leave my position beside you, Conqueror!”

“Fuck that! She’s in there without protection!” I jammed my left fist into an attacking Amazon’s face, just as she was about to slice open Torava. “Go on!”

I suppose she made a career decision by obeying me, but she saw that I was surely the master of my own space as I tossed people off me as if they weighed so little. I admit, it had been a while since I did battle, but this was even more difficult. I was trying hard not to use my blade, even though I had it in my hand. I didn’t need any more Amazon blood on my hands than I already had.

I caught a Centaur rearing up from off to my left. When I looked up, a young Amazon took a swipe at me with her sword. She caught my free arm, slicing my shirt open, and then into the skin below. It wasn’t deep, more of a scratch, but all it took was the slight tinge of red to breathe life into the beast.

How I held back from plunging my blade into her, I never will know. I fought for some sort of control, my hand raising my blade toward her. I shouted a string of curses, and brought the Lion’s head of my sword directly across her chin. Her jaw would most likely be broken, but she wouldn’t know that until she woke up, as she fell into a heap on the ground.

The beast had gotten the better of me, but at least I hadn’t lost complete control. I sunk my blade into the ground at my feet, and bid the nearest Amazon to come take it. I had no trouble finding takers, and one by one, I fought with my hands, not actually aware what was going on around me. My monster had won its freedom, and was taking advantage of its limited independence.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Conqueror . . . Lord, Conqueror . . . Xena!”

Atrius’s voice came at me as if I were listening to him from underwater. With each syllable, the sounds became clearer. I grabbed on to his voice and allowed his words to pull me away from the clutches of the beast’s grasp. When I shook my head to clear the last bit of haze from my brain, I found myself kneeling upon the ground. My hand was held tightly to my blade, my forehead rested lightly on the pommel.

I rose quickly with only one thought in my conscious mind. “Gabrielle!”

“She’s over here, Conqueror. It’s not good.” Atrius said heavily.

I felt my chest constrict at his words. “How bad is she?” My voice broke on the last word.”

“It’s not Gabrielle, Lord Conqueror. It’s the Amazon Queen. This way.”

“Casualties?” I asked as I followed Atrius to the center of the fighting ring.

“I called in six squads of soldiers to put down the insurgence. We were lucky, overall. There were so many of our men here, the Centaurs and the Amazons had a hard time getting to one another. Six Amazons dead, one Centaur, and ten soldiers of the Empire.”

I stopped abruptly at the sight before me. The center of the ring had cleared. Empire soldiers held the majority of Amazons back at the point of their crossbows. Ephiny, Velasca, and an unidentified Amazon knelt beside Gabrielle. The small blonde sat upon the ground, and held the fallen Amazon Queen in her arms. Kuros was placing a thick bandage upon the Amazon’s belly. When he stood and turned to me, he quietly shook his head back and forth. We weren’t giving the healer much to work with lately.

“A blade,” he answered my unasked question. “It won’t be long.”

Gabrielle looked up and I could see that dirt streaked her face. She had the beginnings of a shiner on her cheek, apparently from where Melosa had struck her earlier. Tears stained Gabrielle’s cheerless face.

“Oh, Xena.” She cried when she saw me.

I knelt on the ground beside them, and slipped my arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders. I reached in and kissed her temple, and she leaned against me heavily. Neither of us spoke; words seemingly useless at that moment. Finally, her voice penetrated the silence.

“I don’t know what happened,” Gabrielle began. “All of a sudden everyone was fighting. Someone came at me with a sword. There were so many arms, and people pushing. I couldn’t keep them all away. When I turned around again, Melosa was just standing there looking down at her stomach. When she pulled her hands away . . . there was so much blood.”

Melosa opened her eyes, and I thought this scene looked eerily familiar. It had only been days since the Queen’s daughter lay dying in her mother’s arms. The Amazon was pale and still, her teeth clenched together against the pain.

“Ephiny, Velasca,” Melosa gasped.

“We’re both here, My Queen,” Ephiny answered for the two of them.

“I need you to know . . . I’m giving my right of caste to . . . Gabrielle.” Melosa managed to say.

“No, Melosa, no. I can’t, I–” Gabrielle tried to object.

“I understand, My Queen,” Ephiny answered. The warrior’s face seemed a mask of pain, but her voice kept its customary even tone.

You choose well, Melosa,” Velasca responded.

Now that surprised me. I watched as Velasca reached over and squeezed Melosa’s hand. The Amazon glanced across the Queen’s body, and smiled gently at Gabrielle. Velasca’s actions raised more questions than they answered, but I simply wasn’t in a mood to think on them at the moment.

“Please, Melosa,” tears continued to fall from Gabrielle’s eyes. “Please, don’t ask this of me. I can’t, I can’t do it.”

“Yes, Gabrielle . . . you can,” Melosa said softly.

“No. I’m not really an Amazon . . . ”

“But you are, my young friend. Gabrielle . . . you are what Artemis had in mind when she created our race.” Melosa coughed, and a slow trickle of blood fell from the corner of her mouth. “You are the kind of person that I tried to become . . . but failed.” Another coughing fit overtook the Queen, and I saw that she could no longer hold her own head up. “. . . Too much hate fills me now. Will you, Gabrielle? Will you accept my right of caste . . . and become Queen to my people? Be to them what I could not be.”

I knew what Gabrielle’s answer would be before she gave it. I expected nothing less from the woman who was quickly becoming all things to all people. She would answer Melosa from her heart, and I was quickly learning that it would always be so with her.

“Yes, Melosa,” Gabrielle responded in a quiet, confident tone. “I will accept your right of caste.”

I hardly remember what passed between the two women after that. I do know that the last words Melosa spoke were in a tongue that was foreign, even to me. I could only surmise that it was an ancient Amazon language, known only to their race.

Melosa closed her eyes one last time, and I saw something that I would long remember. Ephiny raised a tear-stained face to Gabrielle, who still held the dead Queen. The Amazon warrior bowed her head.

“My Queen.” Ephiny acknowledged in a strong voice.

Every Amazon still standing in the palace courtyard lowered herself to one knee. Ephiny threw a cautious glance at Velasca, and I saw no hesitation in the adopted daughter’s action.

“My Queen.” Velasca accepted Gabrielle’s right to the title with a bowed head.

“Please, Ephiny” Gabrielle began. “Take the Queen back to your camp, and prepare her for her journey.”

“Yes, My Queen.”

Ephiny motioned to a number of Amazons who stepped forward to carry out the task. We stood, and Gabrielle wrapped her arms around my waist, and rested her head on my chest. I kissed the top of her head, and pulled her away from the scene. I wanted nothing more than to have Gabrielle away from these people, and the area that suddenly, was not as protected as I would have liked. I was not prepared for Ephiny’s next statement at all.

“My Queen, will you be returning to the encampment with your people?” the Amazon asked.

“She will not be!” I lost my temper, and quickly turned to answer the Amazon.

“She is our Queen.” Ephiny took a step closer, but didn’t really seem to hold a great deal of malice in her tone.

“She was my Queen first!” I hissed.

“Xena,” Gabrielle placed her hand upon my abdomen, her other still firmly around my waist. She simply wanted my attention and she had it, along with every other person within hearing distance.

“Ephiny, Please do as I ask. I will be staying in my own quarters as usual. Xena?”

Gabrielle looked to me. I’m sure she felt the tension in my body. I was growing angry, angry with these people, these Amazons, Centaurs, and all who would take Gabrielle from me.

“The Amazons are ordered to their encampment. I want the Centaurs taken to their own camp. No one leaves Corinth without my permission.” I spoke in a tone of voice that I hadn’t used in quite some time. It was the commanding sound I used when I wanted no doubt as to who was in charge.

Ephiny and Velasca both looked from me to Gabrielle, and then back again. They nodded their heads and were gone.

“Atrius, set up guards at each camp. I don’t expect a repeat of this fiasco,” I commanded.

Gabrielle and I left together, but my anger was still holding on to me, and I wasn’t sure why. I was angry at everything and everyone, Gabrielle included.

* * * * * * * * * *

Gabrielle and I left the training field arm in arm. By the time we reached our rooms, I was striding ahead, and Gabrielle quietly followed behind. Did I know I was acting like a complete ass to the woman I professed to love more than my own life? Of course I did. At that moment, did it matter? Not exactly. Did I feel badly over the way I was acting? Not entirely. Not at that moment, anyway. That would come later, as always.

“Xena?” Gabrielle finally asked once we entered the outer rooms.

“I just need to be alone, Gabrielle.” I said, and turned to walk into the bathing chamber.

I sat there for I don’t know how long as the cauldrons of water heated over the fire. When I finally slipped my bruised body into the hot water, my anger had turned to self-pity. Only, I didn’t see it as self-pity. I let my thoughts wander to the first moment I met Gabrielle. Unkempt, and with a dirty face, she couldn’t even look me in the eye. She was afraid of everything, afraid to feel, afraid to love, even afraid to want. It became my job to see that she knew she was loved, that she had enough to eat, and to see that no one hurt such a fragile flower. The most delicate rose in my garden, and I took care of her as I would one of my newest blossoms. Now the plant was grown, and suddenly . . . I felt unnecessary.

I knew Gabrielle would one day become her own women. That was what I wanted, was it not? I just never expected it to be so soon, and in such a manner. Gods, the implications! She was no longer Gabrielle of Potidaea, a former illegally kept slave. In the space of a few days time, Gabrielle had become the Queen of the Amazon Nation. Sweet Athena, what have you done to me? Cursed me or blessed me?

If I was no longer Gabrielle’s provider, protector, did I serve a purpose in her life? Would she still want to be with me? Would she have any need for a warrior twice her age, a woman with an angry temper, and a childish temperament? Did Gabrielle need me anymore?”

I splashed water onto my face to wash away the tears that I could feel streaming down my cheeks. How ironic that the woman who taught me to feel, could now cause me to feel so much it hurt. My chest felt empty, but there was an ache there that I simply couldn’t ignore.

A sound of rustling cloth brought my attention to the robed figure that moved about the room. I looked on as Gabrielle bent to retrieve the articles of clothing I’d strewn about the floor in my haste to be free of them. I noticed that she made a point of not meeting my eyes. The look of sadness on her face hit that spot in my chest that I had previously thought of as empty. It pained me terribly, thinking that once again, I was the cause of her sorrow. My anger had disappeared, and all I was left with now was a bundle of childish insecurities.

“Gabrielle?” I called out gently.

She stopped, but didn’t look over at me. I watched as she reached for the shirt I’d been wearing earlier. She picked up the article of clothing, and abruptly turned toward me.

“Xena, you’re hurt?”

I looked down at her hands and saw the bloody area on the sleeve where someone’s blade sliced at me.

“No! It’s just a scratch, really.” I held out my forearm so she could see the angry red line that ran from wrist to elbow.

In an instant, our ire was forgotten as she tenderly examined my arm, and I selfishly enjoyed her touch.

“I’ll get a salve from Kuros,” she absently commented, as she looked at the superficial wound.

“It’s not necessary, love.” I took her examining fingers in my free hand and held them there. I saw she still had dirt smeared across one cheek where she must have fallen to the ground. “Come in here, love, the water’s still warm.”

She shrugged off her robe, and I set about the task that Gabrielle usually performed for me. I bathed her body, then washed her hair, tenderly examining the darkening bruise on her cheek.

“I’m sorry,” I said at last.

“For what?” she inquired.

Good point. Gods, could I possibly explain it all to her? What will she think of me? “For treating you badly when we came up here.”

“Then thank you, and I forgive you,” Gabrielle answered quietly. “Can you tell me, Xena?”

“Tell you what, love?”

“What it was I did that angered you so.” Her eyes filled with tears and I felt my own do the same. She was so quick to believe that it was she who was in the wrong. “I thought . . . that you wanted me this way, able to defend myself . . . that perhaps then you wouldn’t worry so much . . . ”

Suddenly Yu Pan’s story came back to me, along with the words he used to caution me.

Be careful what you wish for, Conqueror . . .

“Oh, Gabrielle, no. It wasn’t you, not really, anyway. I just . . . please, let me try to explain?” I felt I owed her at least that much.

“Can I do anything to help?” she asked.

“Give me a moment to dry off, then sit by the fire with me?”

She nodded her head quickly, and the small smile encouraged me slightly. I rose from the bath and toweled myself dry. Gabrielle’s eyes wandered across my body as I dried myself. It stirred something inside of me, to see her gaze linger appreciatively on my body that way. Perhaps I was not as broken down as I claimed to be.

Suddenly realizing that I was watching her watch me, Gabrielle blushed a deep pink color.

“I’ll pour us some wine.” She quickly wrapped her own robe about her, and excused herself from the room.

When I entered the room, Gabrielle was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t until I entered the bedhamber that I saw her. We usually lay on the thick rug before the fireplace in the outer room. Instead, Gabrielle had stoked the fire in our bedchamber, and laid a coverlet and a thick pile of cushions before the stone hearth. She laid waiting for me, looking as enticing, and desirable as she does every time she comes to my bed.

We settled against the cushions, and it didn’t take much to convince her to lean back into my embrace. We sat there that way, sipping our wine and staring at the flames for some time. I knew I had to begin at some point, but now I was loath to spoil this mood. Gabrielle always seemed to know my heart better than I did myself, most of the time. She began to gentle me with her touch, running her fingertips along my arm, and entwining her fingers with my own.

I took a deep breath, and closed my eyes. I said the words I’d never said to another person in my life. “I fear that you have no need for me now.” I whispered into her ear.

Gabrielle turned quickly to look at me. “Oh, Xena, is that what you’ve been worrying over?” she asked with such concern that a new wave of guilt washed across me. “Have I given you cause to feel this way . . . did I do some–”

“No,” I shook my head back and forth. “But it feels that way just the same.” I could feel the emotion tightening my throat. I knew I would either begin crying or become unable to speak at any moment now. “If you don’t need me to protect you, to care for you, then what do you need me for?”

“How about, just to love me?” she suggested. “Xena, that’s what you allow me to do. You don’t really need me, yet you love me.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, little one. I do need you. For the first time in my entire life, I need someone else. Don’t you know that?”

“No,” Gabrielle whispered, reaching out to lightly touch my cheek. “I didn’t know that, but it’s nice to finally hear. Xena, I need you, too. Even if I never need you to fight for me, or clothe me, and feed me, I’ll always need you. I’ll need you to hold me just as you are now, to comfort me when I have nightmares, to stand with me against people who would see me as nothing more than a slave. There are so many times, and things that I want to share with someone, and you My Conqueror, are that someone.”

I was struck dumb by her eloquence, and her ability to hit at the very heart of my fears. It struck me just then that although we were two very different people; we still had the same fears, insecurities, wants, and desires. I leaned my face close to hers, until our foreheads were lightly touching.

“Are you sure that Athena didn’t create you just for me?” I teased. “I am sorry I’m acting so foolish. Why you put up with me I’ll never know.”

“It’s not foolishness, love. I do hear that Athena does reward her faithful, however.” She smiled that mischievous smile of hers. Then her features grew serious, just before she placed a tender kiss upon my lips. “Never, ever doubt my love for you, My Conqueror.”

“Nor mine for you,” I answered, returning the kiss. I sighed deeply, knowing there were many things we had to discuss about the day. Our private times were becoming fewer, and farther in between. I looked back on the times when we could stay like this for a full day, locking the doors from the rest of the Empire. Recent events precluded that from our list of things to do.

We needed to talk about so many recent happenings. The death of Melosa, which came as quite a shock, and Gabrielle’s acceptance as the new Queen to the Amazon Nation. We needed to examine in more detail Velasca’s whereabouts, and who really killed Timara, and Melosa. Lastly, my curiosity could hardly contain itself. How in the known world had Gabrielle come up with the necessary skills to do what I witnessed on that practice field?

All of these questions, and more, rolled and churned like a stormy sea in my brain. I knew Gabrielle and I needed to talk, beyond settling our personal issues. I knew the responsible thing would be to put aside my own wants, and to sit down with Gabrielle to discuss all of these matters. Unfortunately, at that very moment, I was thinking with something other than my head. It sounded completely selfish to me, and wickedly self indulgent, but at that moment, I wanted nothing more than to make love with Gabrielle.

I kissed her shoulder lightly, the feel of her skin against my lips causing a slight tingling sensation in my belly. Yes, I was being dreadfully irresponsible. At the very least, I should be observing some sort of solemnity over the death of an ally. It’s amazing how one’s thoughts can escape from all sense of accountability when the libido is involved.

“Xena, are you listening to me, love?” Gabrielle asked.

“Mmhmm,” I answered, moving my kisses up along Gabrielle’s neck. I traced along the outer edge of her ear with the tip of my tongue, and enjoyed the feel of Gabrielle’s body as it shivered against me.

“Xena . . . should we?” Gabrielle asked. “I mean . . . ohhh . . . ” she trailed off.

I drew the skin along her neck into my mouth, sucking lightly at first. At that first sensual moan, I pulled the flesh into my mouth and pulled it against my tongue harder. Everyone has that one small thing that a lover does that causes complete surrender. This was Gabrielle’s weakness. It usually took most of my own self-control to keep from having my lover’s neck appear as though a wild animal attacked her. I gave in and continued the sensation that she found most pleasurable.

I didn’t need to ask if Gabrielle desired my intimate touches, as she pushed the silk robe from my shoulders, and then pulled my body down on top of hers.

“Gods!” I groaned. The feel of her skin, her breasts pressing into mine, it nearly stole my very breath away.

I spread my legs, my thigh settling itself between Gabrielle’s legs, my own center rubbing against the top of her leg. I felt Gabrielle’s soft touch playing along my shoulders, then down my spine. Her fingertips sliding with feather light contact all the way down to my backside. She squeezed the flesh there, parting her legs further, and pulling me down harder against her. It was all the encouragement I needed.

I kissed her once, slow and deep, then pulled back slightly to look into her face. The skin of her cheeks was lightly flushed, her mouth open slightly as she struggled with her need to breathe more heavily. What caused the tightening in my abdomen, what pulled at my heart were her eyes. The green irises, normally as green as the forests in northern Thessaly, had darkened. She had a look of desire, of need, that urged me on that much more.

The next kiss was harder, more possessive, demanding. Every one after that told her in every way I could, of my need for her. I wanted her to feel me, take pleasure in me the way I did in her. Simply touching her, kissing her, making love to her this way, it intensified the way my heart ached for her. I knew at this moment, that there would never be another. There would never be anyone to ever love me, care for me as Gabrielle did. I wanted her to feel the same as I.

Up to this point, my kisses had swallowed every whimper, moan, and sound that Gabrielle made. I felt her hand weave its way into my hair, her fingers entwining themselves within the locks. She pulled my head down, positioning me once more over her bared neck. I took full advantage, pleasing her with my lips, teeth, and tongue.

One hand of mine roamed, luxuriating in the silky softness of her skin. It wasn’t simply the way she felt beneath me, or under my fingertips, it was the way she fit to me. Her curves pressed against me in all the right places, and my hand . . . as I brought it along her outer thigh, and up across the swell of her hip. I loved feeling the valley as my palm came inward to just under her ribcage. I looked down at my hand as it rested below her breast, cupping the soft flesh, and feeling its heaviness. I watched in rapt fascination as my thumb brushed across the smooth, pink flesh surrounding her nipple. The smooth skin quickly pebbled, and grew hard. My mouth fairly watered at the site, and in an instant, the flesh was in my mouth, and I sucked on it greedily. So many sensations, so many that were new to me, yet without Gabrielle, I would feel none of them.

“Xena.” Gabrielle breathlessly called out my name, arching her back to press herself upward against me. “Xena . . . I need you!”

I moved my head back in to kiss her again. Even if she hadn’t asked, my hand would have found its way automatically to her center. I stroked the silky wetness, thrilled at the sound of Gabrielle’s languid moan of relief. Every motion, every movement against one another from that moment on was true synchronicity. We were each of one mind as we strove toward a common goal, taking and giving with our actions.

I could feel Gabrielle’s body movements intensify and become frenzied. I knew she was close, and the thought alone was nearly enough to send me over the edge. I wanted this to be with her.

“Gabrielle,” I panted into her ear. “Please . . . Gods! Touch me.”

It was as if molten steel had been doused in cold spring water. Gabrielle’s fingers pressed into me deeply, until each of us were mimicking the other’s movements. It came as naturally as breathing, with no conscious thought at all. Then suddenly it was all motion and light. Nothing but our sweat-slicked bodies shivering, pausing, and then letting go. I remember thinking later that was why Sappho described a woman’s orgasm as waves from the ocean. When Gabrielle cried out at last and let herself fall, my fingers, deep inside of her, felt those waves. Rhythmic and pulsing, the sensation was truly as if the ocean surf were undulating against the shore.

“Sweet Athena!” Gabrielle kept murmuring, until I had to smile.

Frankly, the smile was all I had the energy for. At least that’s what I thought at the time. After some moments, when our hearts returned to a more normal cadence, Gabrielle pushed me over and to my back. The expression on her face was very nearly feral as she began to make a meal of me. I had neither the strength nor the inclination to stop her attentions at that point.

“Gods, woman! Where are you getting the energy?” I cried out.

It was the last coherent sentence I was able to utter for quite some time. Just before I slipped into a state of unadulterated ecstasy, I remembered my own appetites after a battle. They called it battle lust, and I believe my consort was experiencing that very thing. I laughed aloud inside my mind, wondering at my own good fortune, and how lucky one Conqueror could get.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now this was something I’d never done before. Draped in towels, Gabrielle and I were lounging before the fire, devouring nearly two platters of food Delia had graciously prepared for us. Our lovemaking required another bath, and now we sat beside the warm fire.

Our dinner consisted mostly of finger foods, and we ate, talked, laughed, and finally seriously discussed the events of the day. We had saved the most somber for last, eventually discussing Melosa’s death, Gabrielle’s acceptance of her right of caste, and the implications of such an action. There was one more thing that Gabrielle had not brought up yet, but I could no longer hold my tongue about it.

“Gabrielle . . . little one,” I began.

“You’d like to hear the story, wouldn’t you? How I knew what to do on the training field today.”

I grinned at her gentle smile. She didn’t act as if I was prying at all.

“Let’s get comfortable first, all right?” Gabrielle moved the trays and our wine cups to the table in the outer room. It wasn’t long before we settled in bed, the sun having gone down long ago.

“I love being with you, Xena. I forgot to say thank you.” Gabrielle said softly as she nestled her back against me. I sat against a mound of pillows at the head of the bed, and kissed her exposed shoulder, remembering that’s what got me in trouble the last time.

“That sentiment is highly mutual, my love,” I answered. “Now, I understand you have a tale to tell. There is nothing I love more than a good bard, and I have it on high authority that you are an exceptional one.”

Gabrielle chuckled, and then I felt her go still. She took a few breaths and it seemed that this was much more than she normally went through to begin a tale.

“Gabrielle, is this too hard to talk of? Little one, if it’s too difficult right now, we can always wait until–”

“No, Xena. I mean yes, it is difficult, but not in the way you’re thinking. It’s difficult, mostly because there are so many holes, missing pieces of time.”

I think she became aware of my confused expression, and rapidly began again.

“Perhaps I should start at the beginning. I told you of the time after the attack, when I lived with Yu Pan. It was such a confusing time for me then. I felt alive, but not really alive. I look back at it now, and I can see myself, doing as Yu Pan instructed, my body slowly healing, but up until this morning, I didn’t remember. This is confusing I know, love. Let me start with my dream this morning, do you remember?”

“Of course. You said it wasn’t really a bad dream, only confusing,” I answered.

“Yes, that was it exactly. I was dreaming, and in my dream, I was doing the most extraordinary things.”

“Like the fighting techniques you used against Melosa?” I questioned.

“Yes. The odd thing was that I had begun having the dreams ever since Yu Pan came to the palace. I thought that perhaps the dreams were the way I would have liked to see my life. They were disjointed, as dreams will be, but when I awoke, I always had the curious feeling that I had experienced more than an escapade in Morpheus’s realm. It was as if it was a true memory of the past, which is why it was that much more mystifying to me.

I don’t know what came over me when you and Ephiny hinted that I should challenge Melosa. It was something that just . . . I don’t know how to describe it exactly. It was as if a bowstring had just been loosed. It was sudden like that. I knew; I simply knew that I was the woman in those dreams, and that I could accomplish what I’d seen myself do in the dreamscape. Do I sound quite insane yet?”

I chuckled at her question. “Only if I were hearing anyone else in the known world tell this story.”

“It truly was the most extraordinary experience, Xena. I had no idea how I was going to accomplish the task of defeating Melosa, but I simply knew that I possessed the ability. When Yu Pan brought in that package, and I saw what it contained, I realized that life I had been dreaming of had been my own. The outfit he brought to me, the one I wore today, it was the one I was always clothed in when I experienced the dreamscape.”

“And so?” I asked. “Was it some sort of a spell, or reality?”

“It was very real, Xena. Which is why I wonder how you feel at my possessing such skills?”

“Little one, you should know that your welfare has always been uppermost in my mind. I know I acted poorly today, but that was because of my own fears and insecurities. Anything in the world that keeps you safe from harm is something that I will wholeheartedly support. But how? How was it possible? Gabrielle, to possess such skills you would have had to train on a daily basis for many moons.”

“That’s exactly what I asked of Yu Pan! He reminded me, Xena, that I had taken the time to train. For one full season that I had no clear recollection of, I lived and trained with Yu Pan.”

“Gods!” I exclaimed. “It all makes perfect sense though, doesn’t it?”

“I suppose it does explain a few things,” she answered.

“Do you remember your time with him then?” I asked, excited to learn more of Gabrielle’s lost time.

“It seems to come to me in bits and pieces. Yu Pan explained as much as he could in the short time that we had together this morning. I told him what I knew, and he filled in many of the gaps. As well as I can put it all together, Yu Pan thought that I’d settled into a form of madness after I’d been raped. He said that my body had healed, more quickly than even he thought it would, but I had hid myself so deep within my inner self that I was a shell. I could learn, and take instruction. I could eat, drink, and breathe, but I was without feeling.

I look back, and I’m able to see the agony without the physical pain. I suppose that’s why I found myself able to forgive Solan so quickly. I only see the anguish of my broken body as one would see another’s suffering, not as though it happened to me. I don’t mean to say there was no pain, for there was, but I can only remember the mental pain.”

I found it difficult to listen as Gabrielle explained. Every time she used the word, pain, or referred to her broken and abused body, I felt rage rise up in my throat. I swallowed down the emotions, and simply held her to me tighter. She had turned in my arms now, so that I was able to see her face. Her eyes took on a faraway cast, and her brow furrowed as she attempted to recall the events of her past.

“I lost any memory of who I had been before. I knew that I was Gabrielle, but I knew very little else. I remember watching Yu Pan each morning as he went about his Qigong routine. I sat tucked away in a corner at the top of the stone steps, as he practiced below me in the courtyard. It looked so simple when I watched, but when I tried to do it myself, it was difficult. It wasn’t until Yu Pan caught me imitating his moves that he explained each movement. There was a story in every maneuver, mostly tales of a crane fighting off a snake. Once I learned more, the stories behind the movements, and how to breathe properly, it came quite easily. I felt as if I had been meant to perform such a routine. Yu Pan once said that the most difficult part of Qigong was to clear your mind, to think of absolutely nothing as you performed each movement. Perhaps that’s why I excelled at his teachings, for at that time I knew nothing, had no memories, nor felt any pain. My inner self was already a blank parchment.

I performed Qigong with Yu Pan every morning, but suddenly I felt myself working and practicing many times during the day. Finally, Yu Pan came to me and told me that we would learn to use Qigong in another way. The movements were precisely the same, but now he instructed me to make my actions sharp, focusing on strength rather than fluid technique. He called it Chi Kung instead. Soon I found that I could brush a fully armed man away with a short sweeping motion of my arm. With another, I could disarm him, and with another still, incapacitate him. I suppose that was my undoing.

It was in the market, as I ran an errand for Yu Pan. I was still a slave, after all, a runaway slave at that. I had no name, or lineage to provide me with proof of freedom. I was far from my homeland, many hundreds of leagues away. At that time, I lived with Yu Pan in the Peloponnese, near the mouth of the Alpheus River. His cottage was outside a small coastal town near the Ionian Sea. Travelers and soldiers made their way to Sparta, and Athens along the coast. It was inevitable that I would run into them, I suppose, even though Yu Pan tried to restrict me from going into the village. He did his best, but I was young and didn’t listen.

Some men approached me and it wasn’t long before they laid their hands on me. I did what came naturally for me. I used my skills to defend myself. I had wounded three of them before I was captured and thrown into the local jail. It was there, sitting in a dark cell for days that I finally remembered who I was. I then knew that I was Gabrielle, a slave. All my memories, the good, and the horrible, came back to me. I had lost my freedom once again, and I was filled with despair. I could no longer serve a master as I had become. My body had been trained to never allow a hand on me against my will. I was going to be placed on the auction block, but I knew as soon as any man, or woman, laid a hand on me, I would retaliate. I would fight back, and then I would be put to death. I shared my fears with Yu Pan.

He came to see me in the jail on the pretense that he was treating some of the prisoners. The slavers wanted nothing more than healthy slaves on the auction block. Aside from virgins, healthy women bring the highest prices, and so they allowed him in. He cursed himself over and over again for ever taking me as a student. I was afraid, terrified of what would become of me. I was Gabrielle the slave, but suddenly, I was something more, something dangerously more. Yu Pan asked my forgiveness, mostly for being a poor man, and being unable to purchase me to give me my freedom. Finally, I told him I wished I could simply forget, forget what I had learned, so I would never be tempted to use it. He surprised me when he said that was entirely possible.

I was almost afraid to lose what I had learned, but I was just as terrified at possessing the warrior-like skills. I knew, however, that I was a slave. These newfound abilities would only bring me trouble, if not death, and so I asked Yu Pan to do what he could. He mixed me a drink, a pleasant smelling tea that caused me to grow sleepy. I could tell that Yu Pan was talking to me, but my ears didn’t seem to be working correctly. I remember the last thing he said, though, just before I fell asleep. Yu Pan kissed my forehead and told me that my skills would remain hidden within my soul until the day came when I would need them. ‘When you need to understand who you are, then I will be there,’ he whispered to me.

When I awoke the next morning, I had no memory of what I had done or learned in the past season. I knew only that Yu Pan had healed me, and that I was being sold on the auction block once more. I was able to see Yu Pan two more times in the passing seasons, in various parts of Greece. His heart was always heavy, and he always asked me to forgive him. All these seasons, I thought he asked me that because he could not give me my freedom. Now, I know what he really meant.”

Gabrielle finished her amazing tale, and lay silent in my arms. I knew she was back there, reliving her days as a slave. With all that had happened to the both of us since she had come to this palace, I sometimes wondered if she would ever truly be able to forget.

“I’m thirsty, would you like something to drink?” she asked suddenly. She pulled away and I shook my head when she waited for my answer. Just as I needed my time alone, I’m sure Gabrielle occasionally needed the same.

I gave her some time alone, and then I grew worried, as was my nature. I wrapped a heavy robe around my body and made my way into the outer room. Gabrielle had just finished splashing some water, from the basin set before her, onto her face. She was toweling her skin dry when I came up behind her. She felt my presence first. With her eyes closed, a smile formed on her lips. When she opened her eyes, she could see my reflection in the large looking glass before her. Standing behind her, I wrapped the robe around her figure, enclosing the two of us in its warmth.

“I’ll need to speak to the Amazons tomorrow, won’t I? Will Melosa’s funeral pyre be the same as Timara’s?” she asked.

“Yes, pretty much. I’m sure you’ll be asked to officiate at this one.”

“Perhaps I can ask Ephiny to tell me what I need to do.” Gabrielle commented absently.

My body tensed immediately, and Gabrielle felt it against her skin. “What?” she asked.

“I don’t trust Ephiny with you,” I stated honestly. Although the Amazon had treated Gabrielle with disdain at first, that had changed. I didn’t like the looks Ephiny had been giving Gabrielle lately.

“Don’t trust her?”

“Gabrielle, I don’t like how possessive she is with you. I don’t like her acting like you belong to her.” I finally admitted my true feelings. It was simple. I was jealous.

“Xena, what on earth would she want with me?” Gabrielle laughed as she turned her head to look at me.

That’s when it struck me. Gabrielle really had no idea how attractive she was. “Gabrielle,” I turned her chin gently so that she was looking into the reflective glass. “What do you see?”

“Me?”

I chuckled. “All right. What do you look like? Are you ugly or pretty?”

“Pretty?” Again she questioned.

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

“Very funny, Xena. I’m telling you. I’m pretty.”

“You are much more than that, little one. You are beautiful, Gabrielle. Absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful.”

She blushed, and then frowned. “So, people will want me simply because of this beauty?”

I bent to kiss her neck. “People will want you because of your physical beauty, my love. They will become enamored of you once they realize what I already know. That your beauty exists here,” I touched her chin. “As well as here.” I placed my hand on her chest, directly over her heart.

“And what will they think when they realize that my beauty, and my love exist for only one woman?” she answered in a teasing voice.

Again, I bent to kiss her neck, then the edge of her ear, sending goose bumps along her skin. “That my love, is a very good answer.” I grinned.

In a few short moments of my teasing touch, I found my small consort tugging my hand, and pulling me back toward the bedroom. Yes, a very good answer indeed, I smiled.

* * * * * * * * * *

The palace was eerily quiet in the predawn light of day. It was still very dark in my study where I sat mulling over the events of the previous day. I watched the oil lamp’s flame flicker with each small gust of wind that ran in under the thick tapestries that covered the windows.

I was concerned with having two Amazons killed on my doorstep, yet still not having a shred of evidence as to the guilty party. Actually, the problem was that there were too many clues, and I was uncertain as to how to interpret them all. Which clues meant something, and which were intended to confuse?

I remembered all the way back to the moment when Ephiny and I were attempting to use not-so-subtle hints, so that Gabrielle would force Melosa into a challenge. I recalled the expression on Velasca’s face. If I hadn’t been so preoccupied at the time, I would have enjoyed watching her further. I could have sworn that when Gabrielle finally raised her voice to make the challenge, that Velasca was about to do that very thing.

Now, that would make sense, if I suspected Velasca, anyway. If I was Velasca, and I had killed Timara, or had her killed, I would be gunning for Melosa next. If I wanted the throne, I would eliminate those who stood ahead of me, then take the Queen. It wouldn’t have made any sense in eliminating Gabrielle for the throne. To an Amazon, Gabrielle probably presented very little threat. Of course, now it was another matter.

Perhaps that was why Velasca agreed with Gabrielle’s point of view so quickly. Being on opposite sides of an opinion on the Centaurs would certainly give Velasca fuel to call Melosa out on a challenge. What if she had done just that? Had it not been for Gabrielle’s acceptance, I was sure that Velasca looked as though she were about to issue one herself.

What if she were only doing that to protect Gabrielle, though? Velasca knew, or at least assumed at that point, that Gabrielle had little or no fighting ability. Could Velasca have been standing up for Gabrielle? The Amazon did accept Melosa’s decision to give Gabrielle her right of caste rather quickly. Besides, Velasca was in line for the throne, and yet graciously acknowledged Gabrielle’s claim to it. She acknowledged the small blonde as Queen before nearly a hundred Amazons.

Then again so had Ephiny.

I kept running it through my head, trying to differentiate between my jealousy where Ephiny was concerned, and my feeling that she was hiding something. She was a fanatical Amazon, that much was certain, but there was still something off about her. I knew no Amazons as even tempered as she when it came to Centaurs. There was also the fact that Ephiny appeared to have detested Gabrielle at first. Something changed the Amazon’s mind about my consort. It happened after Timara was killed.

What I had on my hands were two Amazons, with both the ability and potential to kill. Velasca had a motive, but I was beginning to like her. Ephiny had no motive, but I . . . well, I think I made it rather apparent how I felt about her.

One thing I was certain of was that Gabrielle needed to be protected every moment of the day. If Timara and Melosa were each killed because they were in the way of someone who wanted to leapfrog their way to the top, Gabrielle was in grave danger. She was the last thing that stood between the murderer, and the Amazon throne.

My worrisome nature had me send a messenger to have Atrius meet with me. The sun was in the sky by this time. When Atrius arrived, I voiced my concerns about Gabrielle’s safety. Atrius agreed and notified me that he’d already doubled the guard around our rooms, and the palace in general. I immediately felt more comfortable knowing that my friend had Gabrielle’s safety uppermost in his mind as well.

By midmorning, Atrius and I stopped to eat. Delia sent a serving girl up to my study, and we worked right through, talking and planning as we ate. I know I seemed distracted to my old friend, as a matter of fact, he commented on it more than once.

I had been going over the scenarios in the back of my mind as we worked. Who the players were, and what they had to gain from the death of the Amazon Queen and her daughter. That was it above all else. What would someone have to gain from such an action? If they were working alone, was it then plausible that they committed the crime? In this case, the people with the motive could not have physically committed the crime. Yet, those who were physically capable had no motive. The easiest assumption was that two people acted together, which in this case I thought nearly impossible.

All this time I had been thinking that each of them would be driven by the same motive. What if they each wanted something different? Would there be any honor among thieves? Could they work together for a common goal? I asked Atrius his opinion.

“Atrius, why does a man kill? Aside from battle, I mean.”

“Well, I suppose for profit . . . greed . . . revenge?” he replied.

“Hhmm, can it be for more than one of those reasons? Would I kill a man to profit from his death, yet have revenge as my underlying motive?” I asked him. Suddenly, I remembered a conversation I’d had with Solan when he first arrived. More importantly, a memory I had of when Solan and I first met.

“In my opinion? No,” Atrius replied. “Of course, there might be certain advantages, or bonuses that may occur. If I were to kill a man for revenge, and it just so happens that by killing him I inherit his wealth. If I ask myself the question . . . would I have killed him anyway, even knowing I would not obtain his money? If the answer is yes, then my motive is solely one of revenge. Profit from my act was simply an additional benefit.”

I chuckled, even as I took his reply seriously. “You should be a magistrate in my court, my friend. This does answer a question that’s been plaguing me, however. I think what we may have here is a case of two people committing the same crime, but for two entirely different reasons. They each get the results they want, and the crime seems fool proof since I cannot gain enough evidence to surely say that one or the other did it.”

It was at that precise moment that I heard Gabrielle’s scream coming from our private rooms next door.
Chapter 18: And Cruel Wrath That Glowed An Ember-Red

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea

I had to nearly shove Torava from the room once Ephiny was shown into our private quarters. I understood the need for the heightened security, around me as well as the palace. My personal guard, Athena bless each and every one of them, took their positions extremely seriously. It was a testament to their training, and perhaps a tiny bit of fear on their part. I would not like to think about what would happen to these courageous soldiers should some harm befall me. Xena was a wonderful woman, but she was also a passionate one. Whether in our bedroom or on the battlefield, when she felt strongly about something, she felt it with her entire being. There was oftentimes a very subtle thread separating the Xena I knew from the madness that was her dark side. I envied no soul a look at her when the beast took hold.

Ephiny didn’t look pleased at having to relinquish her weapons, but she stood patiently, allowing Torava to search her. When my guard finally left the room, Sylla went about setting up a midmorning meal at the table. Xena’s maid had become mine also, with some reluctance on my part. I had served too long to ever want anyone else to serve me. Sylla and I had a long talk over the situation. She carefully explained her role as a servant, not a slave. She told me that the Conqueror paid her well for the work she did. We made an agreement of sorts. She would keep her curtsies to a minimum, as long as I agreed not to pick up so much after Xena, and leave the cleaning and serving to my new friend.

I watched as Ephiny rolled her eyes at my personal guard once Torava left the room. We were now alone, with the exception of Sylla’s presence.

“Meeting with me, alone in your private chambers, My Queen? What will the Conqueror think?” I could hear the teasing tone to her voice.

“Xena trusts me,” I answered.

“But not me, eh?”

“Being a warrior yourself, Ephiny, I think you know what a difficult task it is to trust. Especially since two women have been killed in our home.”

“Do you agree with the Conqueror? Do you not trust me?”

“I want to, but I have to say that I don’t know you. All I can say, at this time, is that if I were told tomorrow that you were guilty of these crimes, it would disappoint me greatly. You see, for some reason, I want to be able to trust you, Ephiny. I just can’t say for certain, though. At least not right now.”

“Do your guards really think I’d need a weapon, though?” she asked, as if making light of my heartfelt sentiment. “If I intended to kill you, I wouldn’t need anything more than my bare hands.”

I tried not to react at her words. She had such a dry sense of humor. It was difficult to tell whether she was serious or not. I decided to treat it as a jest.

“If I thought you had any intention of killing me, Ephiny, you wouldn’t be here right now.” I sat at the table, and thanked Sylla, whose eyes had gone wide at my bold statement. “Please.” I motioned Ephiny to join me in my meal.

“It’s true then,” she said. The Amazon sat down across from me rather slowly, as if her knees had suddenly lost some of their suppleness. “You are an oracle, as they say.”

“I’m not sure who they are,” I replied as I poured two cups of tea. “I am no oracle. I’ve learned to be a student of human nature, and that is all. I have an idea Ephiny. Why don’t you and I be honest with one another?”

“Do you feel I’m being less than truthful?” she replied with a sly grin.

“Let’s just say that I don’t believe stoic silence is the same thing as unqualified candor.”

Her face took on a serious expression, I assumed because of my remark. Ephiny rested her elbows on the table, and leaned forward. “Gabrielle, no one but Satena knows that I’m meeting with you. I think an Amazon killed Timara and Melosa. Furthermore, I believe the woman responsible is a trusted member of our community.”

“Who?”

“The High Priestess,” she answered.

“Satena? Why would she kill her Queen?”

Ephiny sighed, and she had that look about her. Xena wore the same expression when she was about to divulge more information than she thought best. It was a look comprised of equal parts sadness, exasperation, and determination.

“Satena didn’t do the actual killing, but she was indirectly responsible for the event.”

“I think I’m confused, which isn’t at all difficult to do to me these days.” I offered the Amazon an embarrassed smile, which appeared to calm her a bit. She smiled back at me and rubbed her jaw.

Another deep breath, and Ephiny began again. “Actually, Satena and you are the reason we are here. You know of the Amazons’ history with the Conqueror. We have a tenuous arrangement at best with the Empire. We swore our allegiance, but that’s not worth the parchment it’s scribed on. It only means we agree not to make trouble. The Conqueror wanted fealty from us back then. If we had done that, we’d be oath bound to stand beside the Empire no matter what. Against no matter who. About three moons ago, Satena was given a message from our patron Goddess, Artemis. The message was that that the time had come for the Amazons to begin anew. She was told that our future lay in the hands of the woman who would become Queen to the Empire.”

I was a little stunned by the news. Why would an Olympian Goddess that I’d never even prayed to tell the Amazons such a thing? It did explain why the entire royal family had come together, though.

“I’m not sure I understand what that means, Ephiny. Are you sure, I mean, can Satena be trusted?”

Ephiny grinned then, her eyes apparently unable to meet my own. “Yes, I trust her with my life. In fact, I have, on many occasions. Satena was my mother’s bond mate.”

“You mean she’s your parent?” I asked stupidly.

“Yes,” she chuckled. “So, you can see why I have faith in her words.”

“But, how can you believe she had a part in this then?”

“I think she was an unwitting accomplice. Gabrielle, only three people knew of this news before we journeyed to Corinth. Melosa, Timara, and–”

“Let me guess. Velasca?” I questioned dryly.

Ephiny nodded her head.

“And somehow I have the impression that you don’t believe Velasca is the next intended target?”

“No, My Queen, I do not. I only learned of Satena’s message this morning.”

“She told you?”

“Yes. She fears for your safety.” Ephiny’s lips curled into a smile tinged with irony. “I think she knew all along . . . what Artemis meant. I think she saw you as our Queen before we ever left Amazonia. It’s rather funny, in a strange way.”

“You’ve found some humor in this?” I asked incredulously.

“Not that kind of funny. More like odd. Satena asked me to be honest with you, and tell you the entire story, including my own. I guess I just found it strange that you essentially asked me the same thing. Are you sure you’re no oracle?”

I laughed then, even though the idea of people thinking me a seer disturbed me on some level. I wasn’t about to tell Ephiny about the occasional dreams that I had. “No, no oracle. So, Satena believes I’m at risk of suffering the same fate.”

“She believes in her heart that Velasca is directly responsible for the murders. That she planned to seize the throne while we were away from the Village. Velasca is a different sort of warrior than I am. She’s hard and bitter. She has a number of friends among our delegation to Corinth, as opposed to Melosa’s supporters in Amazonia. Don’t let her sweetness act fool you. I haven’t trusted that girl since she was a child. Now, of course, since Melosa gave her right of caste to you, well, you’re in the way. In Velasca’s eyes, you’re blocking the path to her destiny, and you’re expendable.”

“Well, I certainly couldn’t have planned my own demise better, could I?” I asked the rhetorical question, partly from fear, and somewhat out of frustration.

“Gabrielle, I have no intention of letting anything happen to you. I’d give up my own life before that happens.”

I looked into her eyes and saw the promise there. She reminded me of Xena just then. I’m not sure I would ever understand warriors, but I thanked Athena for their dogged determination to protect those unable to fight for themselves.

“Thank you, Ephiny.” I reached out and lightly touched the top of her hand. “Let’s work on it never coming to that, shall we? Now, tell me. With whom might Velasca be working? Xena swears that even an exceptional Amazon archer wouldn’t have been able to fire those crossbow bolts from that distance. Do you think it’s possible it’s one of the Centaurs, that perhaps Kaleipus is lying?”

“It would take a great deal for an honor bound warrior such as Kaleipus to lie. That doesn’t come easy to Centaurs. Sure, I suppose they have their characters just as every race, but on the whole, they’re an honorable bunch.” Ephiny explained.

“Most of your sisters would disagree,” I replied.

“They haven’t seen what I’ve seen,” Ephiny said in a tired voice.

She stood and walked away, stopping before the open window. I gave her the time she seemed to need. She stood there, not uttering a word. By the winged chatter outside, I assumed she was watching the birds build their nests in the garden below. I joined her, sitting on a chair, patiently waiting for her to tell me why she was the way she was. Why was she so different, almost compassionate when it came to the Centaurs?

“Most of these girls have never even seen live Centaurs, let alone talked with one before,” she began. She didn’t look up at me. “Rather they only know what they’ve been taught from their elders. I certainly don’t mean it to sound like I’m some perfectly compassionate person. I am a warrior, Gabrielle. I take my orders, and I do my job. Some times the job is unpleasant, but it comes with the territory. Above all else, I think of my people, and always obey my Queen.

We didn’t always hate the Centaurs this way, you know. If you read the scrolls–”

“History scrolls . . . about the Amazons?” I interrupted.

“Yes.”

“Do you have a . . . library for these scrolls? A place where I would be able to read them?”

“Yes,” she drawled cautiously. “Is that important somehow?”

I suddenly realized that I wasn’t focusing on the task at hand at all, neither was I paying attention to Ephiny’s story. Gods, Xena was right. One mention of scrolls and my mind is off somewhere else.

“Um . . . no, no not really. I’m sorry, please go on.” I asked her in embarrassment.

“Well, provided you go back far enough, you can see that the Centaurs and the Amazons were always thought of as allies. At one time we even shared some of the same territories. The trouble with the Centaurs actually started before I was born, but both sides managed to keep it from escalating into much. When I was a young woman, Melosa’s sister was killed in a raid. It was near the outer fringes of the territory we shared with the Centaurs. A volley of arrows that were shot at her party killed Terreis. They were Centaur arrows. It was shortly afterward that Melosa learned who committed the crime. We carried out our own justice.”

“You found the Centaur who killed Terreis?” I asked.

“We found a Centaur,” Ephiny responded.

“Oh.” It sounded rather inane, but it’s all I could think of to say just then. I took her hint to mean that when the Amazons carried out justice, it was their own particular brand of judgment. “What happened?”

“It was my job to guard the prisoner until his execution. His name was Phantes,” she began. The name came back to me as the one that Xena spoke of in her quick description to me.

“I remember that evening as if it was yesterday. We gave the Centaur until the sun was high the next day to confess. Although it didn’t really matter, we intended on killing him no matter what he would have said. It was a long night, and I was surprised when the Centaur started talking to me. I think he was bored at first, and then we actually found that we had a number of things in common. He talked about a great deal that night. His family and friends, where he grew up, and what he’d planned for his future. As morning drew closer, he grew more silent. Even I hoped that by some miracle the whole thing could be stopped. I hoped someone else would confess; anything to free him. I’d come to like him, maybe even care for him a little.”

Ephiny paused in the telling of her story, and before she turned away to look out the window, I thought I saw tears fill her eyes. She simply couldn’t hide the pain as she was once more drawn back to that time.

“When his time came, I asked him. Just before we walked from the jail cell, I asked him if he really killed Terreis or not. She was not only a sister, but she was my friend, as well. At that point, he knew he was going to die. He had no reason to lie to me. He swore, knowing it wouldn’t save his life, that he didn’t kill her. The last thing he whispered to me was that he didn’t want to die. Not that he was afraid, mind you, but just that he wasn’t ready to die. Those words stayed with me for a very long time. Actually, I’m not sure they ever left.”

“So you had to kill him?” I asked.

“Velasca did it. It was her right, actually expected of her.”

“I don’t understand. Expected?” I asked in confusion.

“The same way it will be expected of you to avenge Timara and Melosa’s death. When you received their right of caste you also became responsible for bringing their killers to justice.”

“First you speak of revenge, then of justice. You are aware that they’re two different things, aren’t you?”

“Not between Amazons and Centaurs they’re not,” Ephiny answered before turning to face me.

“Ephiny,” I began. I knew I was abruptly changing the subject, but I also knew that once this was all settled, then this strange Amazon and I could find time to discuss the meaning of justice. Until then, the subject would have to wait. “Why did Velasca have to avenge Terreis’s death?”

“Velasca was one of the young warriors with Terreis’s party that day. When they were attacked by the unseen assailants and Terreis was killed, she gave a provisional right of caste to Velasca.”

“Provisional?”

“Velasca hadn’t yet reached the age of maturity. That and the fact that she was already Melosa’s adopted heir. Existing members of the Royal family can’t be placed in line for the throne unless there are no other heirs available. The first elders felt by creating that law, we would be different from the men who lied and murdered to attain power. Timara was just an infant at the time, but she was still in line for the throne before Velasca, since she was Melosa’s blood daughter.”

“So, that couldn’t change, even if Melosa wished it?”

“No. Velasca’s only chance at the throne would have been if something happened to Timara. Even then, Velasca would either have to wait until Melosa’s death, hoping the Queen didn’t give birth to, or adopt any other heirs. On the other hand, she could offer a challenge to Melosa at any time.”

“You make it sound as if Velasca’s been planning this for a long time, Ephiny.” I stood and walked to the window where she stood, and waited for her response.

“The women in Terreis’s party, the ones who were attacked that day. It was a random attack, but Terreis was the only one injured. The four other women were all Velasca’s friends. Over the seasons these friends have mysteriously disappeared or suffered accidental deaths.”

Ephiny finished and I was stunned. “I think I spoiled her plans this time, huh?”

“It looks that way, but we can’t be certain,” she admitted.

“I think we can. Xena confided to me that before I spoke up to challenge Melosa, she thought for certain Velasca looked as though she was about to do the same thing. I have the feeling she would have let it be a fight to the death.”

“You would have been safer, that’s for certain.”

“What?”

“Even though Timara gave you her right of caste, Velasca came before you. As Queen, she would have had no reason to hurt you, not right away anyway. I’m sure that if you ever came to live with the Amazons, or if you ever became too interested in the throne, you would have had some sort of innocent looking accident. Now, however . . .”

“I’m all that stands between her and her goal,” I finished for her.

“Not all, Gabrielle. I can think of a few people who would stand beside you, and in the case of your Conqueror, perhaps in front of you.”

I smiled at that. She certainly was an astute woman. “All these seasons, Ephiny. Why didn’t you ever go to your Queen with what you suspected about Velasca?”

“I just did.” She smiled.

The smile turned into a frown, as she looked me in the eyes. It looked strangely as if she was trying to tell me something, but I never got the message. Suddenly her arms were around me, and her body propelled me back onto the couch. I did the first thing that came to my mind.

I screamed.

End of Addendum added by Queen Gabrielle

* * * * * * * * * *

I was only a half a step behind the guards who where bursting through the door to my private chambers. Torava and Glandell skidded to a halt and I heard a voice I was growing to dislike more and more.

“An archer, out in the trees!” Ephiny cried out.

It only took an instant for the well-trained Empire soldiers to surround the palace, and search the grounds. Of course, as I would scream at Atrius later, if they were that well trained they never would have let an assassin onto the palace grounds in the first place.

Torava moved aside to let me enter the room and I was met with a sight that took all of my self-control simply to restrain my emotions. Gabrielle lay on the long couch and Ephiny nearly covered the smaller woman’s body, lying atop her, carrying her weight on her elbows. The Amazon looked slightly amused when her eyes met mine.

“Good afternoon, Conqueror,” she remarked rather flippantly.

I didn’t say a word, although some very choice ones were at that moment racing through my brain. My eyes met Gabrielle’s, and I could see the entire situation was neither comical nor romantic to her. She looked frightened.

“Ephiny, I think you can get off me now,” Gabrielle diplomatically suggested.

Once everyone was in a vertical position, Gabrielle quickly explained what the Amazon had been doing there, and that Ephiny had saved Gabrielle’s life. I didn’t care how it looked. I walked over to the small blonde and wrapped my arms around her. I could feel her trembling body relax instantly, and I hoped that it would always be so. I hoped that my presence would always be able to calm her fears, that she would always trust me that much.

I walked over and pulled out the arrow, which was embedded in the high, carved back of my most comfortable chair. The chair sat in front of the window so that I could enjoy the sunrise every morning. The arrow hit the back of the seat at about the same height as Gabrielle’s chest. Whoever took aim was close enough to see into the room, and whom they were shooting at.

Before I could say anything, I saw Atrius intercept a young officer at the door. When the Captain turned back to face me, he wore a dour expression.

“They found nothing,” the Captain said grimly.

“Again,” I added.

“Xena, perhaps we could have some privacy,” Gabrielle indicated the guards standing about our room. “Ephiny has some very important things about all of this that could help you discover who’s behind it all.”

It didn’t thrill me that this Amazon possessed news that I didn’t, but it seemed that I owed her a debt. After all, I don’t think it hit me yet how close I came to losing Gabrielle. If she’d been there alone . . . I let my thoughts in that direction trail off. I couldn’t think about that right now.

Once a little order had been restored to the palace, and our private rooms in particular, we sat down to discuss what news the Amazon had. Besides Gabrielle and myself, and Ephiny, of course, there was Atrius. He was my most trusted commander, and I considered him my best friend. I trusted his loyalty along with his intellect in such matters.

Gabrielle related the events surrounding Velasca, and Ephiny stopped her at certain points to interject, adding additional detail to the subject. After I’d occasionally interrupted with my own questions, and the tale was over, I sat back in my chair, the one that now held a knot where the arrow had been.

“It all fits, doesn’t it?” I asked of no one in particular. Up until this point, I hadn’t heard a scenario that felt halfway decent. In my heart, I could discount all the others. There was still the question of an accomplice. Then again, with Ephiny here, meeting with Gabrielle, Velasca might think she’d been all but caught and flee. I voiced those very concerns.

“I can pretty much tell you for certain that Velasca doesn’t know that I’m here, Conqueror,” Ephiny commented.

“And how can you be so certain?” I asked.

“Well, for one thing, this is an Amazon arrow,” she said, as she picked up the shaft lying on the table.

“Yes?” I already knew that, but I had assumed it was simply another clue left to distract me.

“You see the markings, these notches hidden just under the fletches, here?” She gently lifted the feathers near the end of the shaft. There were indeed small designs, simple, yet carved into the arrow.

“And this proves something?” Gabrielle asked in confusion.

“It proves that someone doesn’t like me very well. These marking are very personal, a small sign of ownership. This arrow is mine, and I certainly haven’t found a way to be in two different places at once. I suspect Velasca sought to blame me for your death, my Queen. It’s sort of confounded her plan, me already being here.”

“So it would appear,” I replied. “Or it would be a very good ruse. Perhaps even you are Velasca’s accomplice.” I thought about what Atrius and I had been discussing earlier in the day. Could two people so different come together for a common goal, but for two very different reasons?

“After today, and you still don’t trust me, Conqueror?” Ephiny asked.

It was odd, but for all the jealousy, animosity, whatever you wanted to call it between this Amazon and myself. For all that, I found myself wanting to believe her. I think it was simply one of those gut feelings. For me, however, the real proof would lie in Gabrielle’s intuitive self.

“Gabrielle?”

“Yes?” She looked at me, almost anticipating my question, I’m sure.

“Do you trust her?”

Gabrielle looked directly at Ephiny, searching the Amazon’s features for what I didn’t pretend to know. She smiled then, seemingly caught in some past moment remembered only by herself and the Amazon.

“Yes,” Gabrielle said. “Yes, I do trust her.”

I would be wrong about many people, and many things, now, and in the future. One thing I would always be right about, however, was Gabrielle’s innate sense of people. She could be misled, and even deceived on occasion, but those instances were rare. She felt things in a way that I could never hope to comprehend.

“Then I would say that we have a trap to set.” I grinned at those around the table, feeling more in my element than I had since the whole fiasco began.

We set about a plan to lure Velasca into the open. We agreed it would take place the following morning, all of us mindful to take extra care, along with additional guards, at Melosa’s funeral ceremony this evening. After Ephiny spoke with Gabrielle, and informed her of the Queen’s part in Melosa’s funeral pyre ceremony, the Amazon was ready to leave. I agreed to show her out through the tunnels below the castle, in order to keep her visit a secret. One of the passageways exited not too far from the ridge where the Amazon’s were camped.

We neared the exit to the tunnel. I could see small bits of sunlight filtering through the cave-like opening. Ephiny and I were alone, but that’s what I wanted.

“I haven’t thanked you yet for saving Gabrielle’s life. I’m in your debt.”

“I didn’t do it for thanks, Conqueror, but you’re welcome just the same. As to the debt . . . what is the going rate for saving one’s consort?” She grinned slightly.

“Anything my Empire has to offer,” I replied seriously. I took notice of the arch to her eyebrow, and the mischievous smile she now wore. “With the exception of my wife,” I added quickly.

We both chuckled. “There you go again, Conqueror, bandying that word, wife, around again. I’ve still seen no evidence of a ceremony at all.”

I glared and she laughed aloud at my discomfort. I couldn’t help but join in her laughter. She was good-natured, but could be a thorn in my side, especially where Gabrielle was concerned. I clasped her arm in a friendly warrior’s embrace, and suddenly pulled her closer to me with a strength that I believe surprised her. I gave her a full smile, one that looked as if there were more going on here than just a friendly discussion.

I kept smiling, even when I opened my mouth to speak. “You do know, my Amazon friend, if I ever catch you lying on top of her again, and her life is not in mortal danger, I’ll see your head drop into a basket on the palace steps.”

Her laughter continued. “Aye, Conqueror, I do know, but it’s been great fun seeing you squirm in the meantime.”

I shook my head as she made her way outside, and the silence of the tunnel surrounded me. I was reluctantly coming to like this Amazon. I certainly hoped Gabrielle’s trust in Ephiny was sound.

* * * * * * * * * *

I splashed water on my face to wash the sleep away. The moon was still high in the black sky when a guard bearing an urgent message from the Amazon, Ephiny, awakened us. It had been a most tiring day, and the funeral ceremony didn’t make it any less so. The pyre was set ablaze, and Gabrielle handled her part of the ceremony flawlessly. We were both so tired that we fell asleep the moment we laid down in bed after arriving back at the palace.

The guard informed me that Ephiny had two other, unarmed Amazons with her. I ordered the messenger to go and rouse Atrius and another of my officers. I also gave him instructions to have Atrius personally take all three of the Amazons to my study, not my personal study, but the one on the first floor of the palace. I told Gabrielle to remain in our rooms this time, and to let me visit with the women myself. This request didn’t endear me to my consort, but I saw her sigh with resignation, warning me to take care. I thanked Athena for such a girl. I could see the day coming, however, when Gabrielle would be my equal in everything, including ruling the Empire. I was certain there would come a time when Gabrielle would never do what she was told.

By the time I reached the study, Atrius was already there. He looked remarkably more awake than I felt, which depressed me some considering he was a few summers older than I was. I clasped Ephiny’s arm and she introduced her two companions. They were young for warriors, perhaps fourteen or fifteen summers. There was a distinct resemblance within their facial features, and I guessed them to be sisters. They each shifted nervously from foot to foot, and one of them continually gnawed at the end of her thumbnail. Neither of them raised their eyes from the floor as Ephiny explained why she was there.

“It appeared as though someone were trying to rob my tent as I was sleeping tonight,” she began. “I decided to watch the thieves, simply to see what they made off with. Oddly enough, they were after one of my arrows. Since I didn’t think one Amazon arrow would bring in much at the market, I decided that questioning them might be a wise thing to do.”

I almost smiled, and had the entire situation been less fraught with peril for all concerned, I might have. I could picture the two girls as bumbling thieves, only to be caught by the intimidating warrior. I moved behind the large wooden desk, and sat down wearily on a cushioned chair.

Ephiny tossed the shaft on my desk. I lifted the edge of the fletches and saw the same markings as from the arrow used to attack Gabrielle.

“And when you questioned them about the theft?” I asked.

“Very interesting indeed, Conqueror,” the Amazon answered. “It appears that Velasca talked the girls into aiding her in what she told them was a joke. Of course, this isn’t the first time Velasca asked them to play this joke. Stealing my arrows is becoming quite a game with these two. So is being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Donai here is the older of the two, that’s her younger sister there, Inez. It seems that Inez has never been out of the Amazon Village before. So, on the evening of our arrival, the night Timara was killed, Inez decided to sneak out of camp and explore some of Corinth. Upon her return, she realized the gates to the palace had been closed, doubtless as a security measure while the dinner was going on. She found that you have an olive grove running alongside the palace walls, along with some very lax guards. She found it the perfect place to sneak back into the palace.”

Ephiny paused, and I waited for her to continue. “And?” I prompted. “I expect she saw something? Perhaps someone there in that olive grove.”

“She refuses to say.” Ephiny nodded her head in the girl’s direction. “Actually, they both do. You see, they didn’t tell me about Inez’s little escapade. I learned that from one of her bunkmates this evening. I suspect, Conqueror, that whoever they saw had something to do with allowing themselves to be coerced into stealing my arrows.”

“I told you we shouldn’t have! Didn’t I tell you not to get involved with her? Didn’t I tell you not to sneak out of the camp?” The older Amazon girl punched the younger one in the arm, which caused Inez to begin crying.

Donai tried to defend her sister. “It’s not her fault, Lord Conqueror, she–”

“Quiet!” I roared. I felt badly for the youngest, Inez, who was crying in a most pitiful fashion by this time. I wished to intimidate them into revealing the truth, and I figured my reputation just might do the trick.

“Let me tell you what I know of this situation. Tomorrow, someone will be beheaded in the palace courtyard for the murders of Princess Timara, and Queen Melosa. I’ll not think twice about adding accomplices to the list.”

“We don’t have the death penalty in the Amazon Nation,” Donai answered a little too confidently.

I saw it then, the look in her eyes. It became clear to me that Inez must have seen Velasca that night. I’m sure she talked the girl into thinking she had snuck away from the encampment too. Whether Inez had actually seen Velasca participate in Timara’s murder, or if Inez had simply run across the older Amazon, it mattered little. Either way, Velasca must have blackmailed Inez and her sister. It was a good bet that Velasca bought their silence, and guileless assistance by threatening to turn Inez in for the murder. There was no motive, but plenty of people in the Amazon camp, and the village, who was sure to have seen the young girl about. Men had been hanged for less circumstantial evidence.

The redeeming factor to Donai and her sister must have been when Velasca assured them that even if they were caught, they were too young to sentence, and the Amazon’s had no death penalty. I decided to squelch their last hope.

In a voice dripping with menace I said, “Well, we’re not in the Amazon Nation now, are we?”

Her eyes went wide as I leaned back in my chair. Silence now reigned within the room. Inez’s sobs instantly quieted, and I watched Ephiny, who was trying to hide the amusement on her face.

“But . . . we . . . I–” Donai began.

Again, I interrupted her frightened stammering, this time with as much concern as I would show for my own child. I moved in front of my desk, seating myself on one edge. “Donai, Inez, I understand the position you’ve been put in. Inez, you ended up being somewhere you weren’t supposed to be, and someone saw you, didn’t they?” I asked gently.

Inez appeared as though she wanted to speak, but looked at her sister for guidance. It was then that Ephiny stepped up and began to speak.

“What the two of you have been involved in so far is forgivable, Donai, but don’t escalate the problem. You know the truth of what happened on the night of Timara’s death. Whatever Velasca told you was really going on, she lied. She is a murderer, and a betrayer of her people. If she’s not stopped, more innocents will die.”

“Don’t fool yourself, Donai,” I added. “If Velasca promised you anything, she’ll never make good on it. There are a string of bodies over the seasons that prove that she never leaves loose ends. To her, you and your sister will always represent one of those loose ends. Help us put an end to this madness, and I’ll see that no harm comes to you or Inez.”

When I looked up, Ephiny was staring at me with a strange expression. I could only guess that she’d never seen a gentler Conqueror. It was a new experience for her. Donai looked down at her boots for a few moments, and when she raised her head, she looked at Inez.

Nodding her head in her sister’s direction, Donai said, “tell them.”

* * * * * * * * * *

For as few candlemarks as I’d slept, I felt surprisingly alert. I think it was the surge of excitement, the thrill of the unexpected one feels right before a battle. It was equal parts exhilaration and terror. Everyone knew their parts in our little play. We hoped to set Velasca up to catch her, certainly, but also to cause her to confess, which would be more difficult. Only Ephiny knew of my other plan, however.

I spent the morning in the Amazon camp, under the pretense of speaking with some of the younger warriors, making a show of good relations between the Empire and the Amazon Nation. I also spent the morning with an unobtrusive eye on Velasca. It was easy to do considering Ephiny had briefed me on the particulars of their tribe. Nearly every question I asked of my tour guides was within Velasca’s area of expertise, and therefore she was quite indispensable to me.

Velasca was nervous, especially around me. That was another surprise. I had assumed that anyone who spent more than half their life manipulating, even murdering, those who stood in their way would act somewhat calmer. Her behavior might have come from my reputation alone. She was swimming with the big fish now, and I wanted her to know it.

I warned Ephiny before she left my study this morning. She was to be my eyes. Velasca had a habit of looking to see if I was watching her before she would glare, or roll her eyes menacingly at some underling. My exceptional peripheral vision noticed this tendency. It was apparent that the moments of compassion I had witnessed up to this point, were simply good acting on her part. If Velasca did what I anticipated today, Ephiny would catch her when I would deliberately turn my back.

Initially, I wished Gabrielle to stay safely inside, away from harm’s way. I know I could have ordered it to be so, and Gabrielle would have reluctantly obeyed me. A part of me truly did want that, but I had to ask myself, was that the way I wished for Gabrielle and I to rule together? I honestly wanted us to be partners, in every sense of the word. Would that happen if I tried to shelter Gabrielle away like one of the delicate roses in my garden? Did I want a fragile blossom, meant only to be displayed like some prized possession? The answer, of course, was no. Hence, the reason my beautiful consort was on my arm now.

I called all the Amazons and Centaurs together. From among our visitors, I trusted Ephiny, as long as she wasn’t around Gabrielle, and Kaleipus. They, Gabrielle, and Atrius were aware of what I’d hoped to accomplish on this day. I was tempted to include Solan among those whom I would place my trust in this situation, but since the Centaurs had arrived, he was suspiciously absent from our lives. Gabrielle pointed out that these creatures were his family, and so it made sense that he would find their company comfortable, and familiar.

Once again, I thought back to a memory, the day I first saw Solan as a child. I remembered how, as a child of eight summers, he attacked me. I also remember where he got his information. That’s what worried me the most. If what I suspected today came to fruition, I wondered where Solan’s loyalty would lie.

Therefore, our company, or prisoners depending on how you viewed the situation, stood before us. I left Gabrielle on the top of the stairs surrounded by her personal guard. I walked down the first few steps and paused.

“I have brought you here, to the palace courtyard, to clear the air.” My voice rang out strongly, and confidently. Public speaking had never been a problem for me. In my younger days, I could incite my men before a battle with my voice alone.

I looked into each and every face as I spoke. I took note of every twitch of their skin, and each nervous shuffle of their feet. “We all grieve the loss of the former Amazon Queen and her daughter. Although, I suspect that there might be one of us who grieves not at all. These were murders, and they weren’t fabricated in our minds. They were real, and someone you know, perhaps someone you trust, committed them.”

I walked to the bottom of the steps, and stepped out before the mass assembled before me. The Amazons stood to my right, Velasca in front. Ephiny stood in the forefront, but a few paces away from our suspect. The Centaurs stamped, and pawed at the earth impatiently over on my left. In between, and all around them were armed soldiers of the Empire. I didn’t intend for a repeat on what happened here the other day, but I was reluctant to disarm these two proud nations of warriors.

“The crimes that have been committed are particularly heinous, and being thus, there will be a swift punishment for the guilty.”

“And who is guilty, Conqueror?” One of the Amazons shouted out.

I loved a crowd. They were so predictable. I could have foretold that, at that moment, someone would ask that question. It was the perfect lead in to my plan.

“A very fair question,” I answered.

I turned to look up at the top of the palace steps. “With the Amazon Queen’s permission, I have some information that should lead us to the traitor in your midst.”

Gabrielle played her part perfectly. She looked rather regal, and nodded her head in my direction.

I then waved a hand at Atrius, who stood waiting at the top of the steps, beside Gabrielle. My Captain disappeared momentarily. When he stepped once more from the shadows, the two young Amazons, Donai, and Inez followed him.

My back was turned toward the Amazons, and so I had to rely on Ephiny to see what I could not. I couldn’t very well start accusations in the middle of the courtyard. I had to exude the confidence that said I was already aware of Velasca’s betrayal. Before I could actually take Velasca in custody, however, I had to be certain in my own mind that she was guilty. If my suspicions held true, her next action would give her away, and name her accomplice at the same time.

Ephiny’s job was two-fold. At my request, she had her eye on Velasca’s face. I fully expected the Amazon to give herself away, but as to giving her partner in crime away at the same time, well, I simply had to hope that Athena wished to see justice done as much as myself.

Donai and Inez took two steps forward, putting them in plain view. Armed soldiers flanked them. I wasn’t about to take any chances with these girls’ lives. I turned my head just slightly, placing Ephiny within view. The Amazon simply nodded once. To tell the truth, she looked rather surprised. I wondered if she thought me clairvoyant, but in all honesty, if I had been a mystic, I would certainly have anticipated the next disastrous sequence of events.

As with all unexpected actions, to say it happened too fast to calculate who did what, is perhaps redundant. The first shout I heard was definitely from a male voice.

“Look out, Conqueror!”

I ducked and turned at the same time, hoping to avoid what was obviously either a weapon, or a body, attacking my unprotected back. In the tick of a heartbeat, which was certainly all the time it took for me to spin around, I witnessed Velasca fall to the ground. She had a Centaur crossbow bolt sunk so deeply into her chest that the arrow’s head protruded through her back. That’s when the courtyard erupted into chaos for the second time in as many days.

It was a controlled sort of chaos, lasting for only a matter of heartbeats. I had carefully set up over a hundred Empire soldiers along the parapets of the castle, and the walls surrounding the courtyard. Every one of those soldiers, including the overwhelming number of foot soldiers on the ground, now had a crossbow trained on the delegations of Amazons and Centaurs. There were many shouts, curses, and cries, but all movement within the courtyard froze as my soldiers took immediate control. I learned long ago that whoever held the playing field, usually took the battle. This instance merely proved my theory.

I motioned to Ephiny, and my soldiers let her pass to meet me at Velasca’s body. In the meantime, I could hear Broh, one of Kaleipus’s Centaurs, shouting repeatedly.

“She had a weapon, I saw it. She was drawing a dagger from her boot to kill the Conqueror. I saw it, didn’t you? Solan, boy, you saw it, surely.”

I was kneeling over Velasca’s dead body when I looked up to capture Solan’s expression, as he was standing beside his old friend, Broh. My son appeared as confused as everyone else did. He rapidly turned his head between Broh, and myself.

“I–I’m not sure . . . I think . . .” he paused and trained his eyes on me. “I think . . . maybe she did. Yes, I think she did.”

I turned Velasca’s body over, her arms falling limply at her side. I saw the bulge against the fawn colored boots. Reaching into the leather boot, I drew out a throwing dagger. I looked across at Ephiny, who knelt on the other side of the body. I raised my eyebrows in silent question, as I handed over the dagger for her to examine.

“It’s hers. Anyone who knows her would have known she carried this in her boot, though,” Ephiny whispered.

“Yes,” I paused. “Anyone who knows her.”

I straightened up and nodded to the Amazon. She called two women forward to care for Velasca’s body. The Amazons were chomping on the bit, as it were, to make someone pay for another Amazon death. I am positive that most of the women there had no idea what Velasca was like, but just as certain that there were perhaps a closed-mouth few, who were not surprised by the turn of events. I left Ephiny to explain Velasca’s part in the murders to the rest of the women.

I slowly walked to the group of Centaurs. My men, along with the help of Kaleipus’s command, disarmed Broh, who complained mightily the whole time.

“I save your life, Conqueror, and this is the thanks I get? Treated like a common criminal?” Broh complained.

“I wouldn’t want to be remiss in thanking you, Broh, although it comes as somewhat of a surprise. I would have thought my death would have caused some happiness on your part.”

Like Kaleipus, Broh was one of the older Centaurs who remembered me from my siege against Corinth. Many good warriors lost their lives in battle during that campaign, Broh’s twin brother, Branah, among them. Broh took to hard drink for many seasons after that, but I remembered him, and the subtle attempts at assassination that he made on my life.

It was when I first went back to the Centaur Nation to see Solan. Only eight summers old, my own son tried to attack me. He admitted that he had been told of me, told that I killed his mother and father. He could have heard those tales anywhere. After all, there were no easy feelings between the Conqueror, and the Centaur Nation. I suspected it was Broh, however, and my suspicions had been confirmed after only a fortnight among them.

It seemed that Broh was a constant companion to Solan, and I always suspected that Broh had discovered my secret regarding Solan. Kaleipus said the boy had been good for the older Centaur, and so I said no more, but now . . . it all caused me to worry.

My suspicions had led me all along to believe that a Centaur was involved in some way, but it seemed evident that Velasca was a part of the plan, as well. I believed it had to be one or the other until my talk with Atrius. He helped me to see that two very different people, even hated enemies, could come together for a common purpose. There was one thing Velasca forgot about, however. Murderers rarely have a conscience, or are willing to think twice about killing their partners. Ephiny confirmed this last bit when she nodded to me.

The Amazons job in this scenario was to watch Velasca. My hidden card in this little game was Donai, and Inez. I played the odds, and hoped that once Velasca thought her plan, if not her very life, was in jeopardy; she would turn to her partner for either help, or encouragement. Ephiny’s signal to me told me that Velasca did as predicted.

It took some convincing that morning to talk Kaleipus into helping me. Finally, all I could convince him to do was position Broh at the end or their group, perhaps off to one side. I wanted Velasca to have a clear shot at eliciting his help, but most importantly, I wanted there to be no confusion to Ephiny, that when Velasca thought all was lost, she would look up and over at her accomplice in a plea for assistance.

“Why don’t we go into the Great Hall,” I directed my words to Kaleipus. “We can sort out who did what, away from the eyes of the Amazons.”

“Aye, Conqueror, a good idea,” Kaleipus answered.

My Centaur friend’s voice was tinged with sadness, though. I think he was just realizing that my suspicions regarding Broh were coming true. I worried more for Solan, though. The boy had been through so much recently. It’s a hard thing, to realize your childhood idol has feet of clay.

Once I saw that Gabrielle was properly protected, I agreed when she asked to stay and speak to the Amazons. Who was I to refuse her request? She was their Queen now, but I think it would always be this way between us. It would take many, many seasons before I could convince Gabrielle of her own measure in this world.

* * * * * * * * * *

“A crossbow is your specialty weapon, isn’t it, Broh?” I asked as I turned the Centaur’s weapon over in my hands.

“I pride myself on my ability with it,” he answered arrogantly.

I’m sure he thought he was beyond reach, having killed the only witness that knew of his part in the murders. Then there was Solan. Broh would end up, unwittingly, or not, using my own son against me in this. I don’t think Solan would lie. He had recently come to understand, and develop by such attributes as integrity and honesty. He was young, however, and he was being called on to stand up for a friend. I sent a silent prayer to Athena that this young man would be able to live with his part in all of this.

“Tell me again, Broh, what did you see before you shot?” I asked.

“We’ve been over this six times,” he grumbled. “Very well, it was simple. I saw you turn your back, and the Amazon went to draw a dagger from her boot. It was obvious from where I stood, I’m sure you saw the same thing, Antis.” Broh asked the Centaur next to him for confirmation.

“I can’t say as I was actually looking that closely, Broh. I could have missed it, I suppose,” he replied haltingly.

“Well, I know Solan saw it,” Broh turned to me once more. “He was standing right next to me, right lad?”

“Well, yes, I suppose I did see it . . . I think.”

“You think?” Broh laughed. “Why it was as plain as a blossom in the snow!”

“Well . . . I, um–”

“Solan, come here and look at this,” I requested.

Solan left Broh’s side to stand before me, and I held out the dagger for him to examine. In truth, I wanted him away from Broh. I was uncertain about the Centaur, his hooves clicked on the stone floor impatiently, as his tail swished about in an involuntarily nervous gesture. I didn’t want to take the chance that, if confronted, Broh would use Solan to make an escape.

“Is this the dagger, Solan?” I questioned him.

“Um . . . I suppose, I mean I guess it could be. It was rather far.”

“It’s all right, Solan, take your time.” I placed my hand on his shoulder and allowed myself a small smile at my son. I wanted him to know that his best would always be good enough for me. I could feel the muscles in his back relax a bit at that.

“It could be, but . . . I mean, it happened so fast!” He looked at me, then turned to Broh with his words. I didn’t like the expression of hatred I now saw in Broh’s face, and I think Solan was noticing it for the first time. “I’m sorry, Broh, but I don’t know if I can say for certain.”

“She’s made you soft, boy! Being with women’ll do that to you!” Broh hissed.

The statement surprised me as much as Solan. “Wait a minut–” he took a step toward the Centaur, but I stopped him by grasping his arm.

“Which boot, Broh?” I asked.

“What?” he stopped and looked around.

Kaleipus took a step away from the angry Centaur. Whether the move was intentional or not, it’s effect was in my favor. Broh now felt as if he were standing alone.

“Which boot?” I repeated. “Which did she try to draw it from?”

He had half a chance at guessing rightly, but I could see the calculation already going through his mind. It was taking him too long to answer because he was trying to remember which was Velasca’s dominant hand. A good warrior kept a dagger in the boot opposite their sword hand, so they could have quick access to it. Broh was trying to figure out something that I already knew about Velasca from the morning I spent with her.

“Well, it was her right. Yes, her right because I wouldn’t have seen it from the other side of her body.”

He all but grinned at me when he finished the statement. He finally realized that he’d seen her use a sword in her left hand at some point. He answered confidently because he knew if she fought with her left hand, she carried a dagger in her left. As I said, he had half a chance at getting it right.

The small tidbit of information I gathered from Velasca was that she was a two-blade woman, equally adept with both right and left hand. She had no dominant hand. In addition, I had slipped the dagger out of her left boot.

“I took that dagger from her left boot,” I said quietly, motioning to the weapon still in Solan’s hand.

“Impossible!” Broh shouted as he backed away from the group. “Solan, now’s the time to speak up lad. Back me up.”

Solan looked confused, but he also wore an expression of pain. More than pain, I believe it was hurt. My son may have been a young man, but he was far from stupid. It took him only moments longer to come to the conclusion the rest of us had already met.

“Back you up?” He repeated in a strangled whisper. “Broh, Timara was . . . she was just a girl.”

“She was an Amazon!” Broh spat out.

It was his undoing. It sealed his fate, but he was beyond caring. Every other Centaur, and soldier in the room now had their weapon fixed on him.

“You think you’re so much better off now, being that whore’s son?” He shouted out and I had to use both hands to hold back the boy this time.

“She’s no better. She killed for sport in her day. Killed ’em all! Centaurs, Amazons, women, children! She has no idea the pain she’s caused to those of us who lost our loved ones at the end of her blade!”

“I live with the pain, too, Broh.” I said in a strong, even voice.

He spat on the floor near my feet. “You’re no better than that Amazon. She wanted her own killed just so’s she would have all the power. You’re just the same.”

“She’s not!” Solan jerked free from my hold, but held his ground before me. My son would defend my honor? Even though the situation was deadly serious, I found that lovingly amusing.

“Her pain has changed her. You let yours control you, eat you away from the inside.” Solan’s eyes filled with tears, and no mother could have ever held more pride for a child than I did at that moment.

“Are you admitting the deed?” Kaleipus asked.

“You’ve become the Conqueror’s puppet, old man! Of course, I admit it. The Amazon was too stupid to do it on her own. I killed the girl, but the Amazon killed her own Queen. It was easy, once I shouted out that there was a weapon. I almost avenged my brother’s death, too. I had your little slut in my bow sights, Conqueror!” he spat.

“That’s what all this was for?” I had to confirm his words. “Two women dead, simply to cause me pain?”

Broh just glared, and I looked over at Solan. The young man was staring at his old friend as if he’d never seen him before.

“If it’s pain you want to see, Broh, then prepare yourself.” Kaleipus’s face was one of determination and anger. “You will learn of Centaur justice today.”

The others led him out onto the terrace, to go out to their encampment without going through the throng of Amazons. It surprised me somewhat. I didn’t expect him to be led to his death quite so quietly. He neither fought nor said another word. He merely followed his captors along like a docile lamb. Perhaps, a heart as black as his wished for nothing more than death to end his pain. I knew that feeling. I had experienced it many times in the past seasons. Too hurt to go on, yet too afraid to meet the consequences of the afterlife.
Chapter 19: Roaming The Garden Yonder To And Fro
Gabrielle turned her head, and buried it against my shoulder. I turned my mouth into a grim line to steel my emotions against the site before us. The Centaur delegation had entered the Amazon camp with a large travois being dragged between two of their number. On the stretcher lay the body of Broh, his body riddled with more arrows than I could easily count. It was true; Broh had experienced Centaur justice. They believed in letting the punishment fit the crime. In this case, Broh had been condemned to die in the same manner as his young victim.

Kaleipus came forward, looking grim and full of sorrow. I felt for my old friend. He looked all of his seasons in age at this moment. He stopped before Gabrielle and myself, and bowed deeply at the waist to Gabrielle.

“Queen Gabrielle, the Amazon’s loss at the hands of one of our own wounds us deeply. The Centaur Nation owes the Amazon people a debt that cannot easily be repaid. We have brought the offender’s body before you as proof of our sincerity in wishing peace between our two nations. I ask that you allow us to cremate Broh’s body, so that we might bury his ashes on Centaur soil.”

Kaleipus finished, but couldn’t seem to bring his eyes up to meet with ours. As always, Gabrielle possessed the ability to being compassion to the moment. She reached out and touched the Centaur’s forearm, which was crossed across his middle. When he looked up, Gabrielle offered up her most heartwarming expression.

“Kaleipus, there is no need for shame among friends. It’s time for this cycle of hurt and pain to end. Let us move on from this time into a new era of peace between the Amazons, and the Centaurs,” Gabrielle said.

I don’t think my old friend could have spoken a coherent word if he had wanted. Tears filled his one good eye, and he mumbled his grateful thanks to Gabrielle, and then stopped to grasp my hand. Within moments, the delegation was gone, and Gabrielle turned, and asked Ephiny to explain to all of the Amazons what she knew about Velasca, and how her lies lead to the enmity between Centaur and Amazon.

I looked at Atrius with a worried brow. It all seemed too easy, somehow. Velasca had killed Melosa in the surrounding confusion in the courtyard of the palace as an attempt to push herself up the royal ladder. Broh had killed Timara as a way to get to me. Killing Gabrielle would have suited either’s purpose. The pieces had been put back neatly upon the game board, but then again, that’s exactly what this had looked like, a neat and tidy game board. A little too neat. Things that went too well always caused the hairs on the back of my neck to prickle with a sort of anticipation mixed with dread. I used to get the same feeling when . . .

“Atrius!” I suddenly barked. All eyes immediately turned toward me. “Take Gabrielle back to the palace, double her guard. Now!” I shouted again.

Atrius was a good soldier, good enough to realize that explanations weren’t always necessary. There were times when an order was simply all that was necessary. The Captain quickly scanned the surrounding area and shouted out orders to the guards, who closed ranks around Gabrielle.

“Xena?” my frightened consort questioned.

“Gabrielle, I want you to go back to the palace this instant. I need to go to the temple.” I closed the distance between us in a matter of strides and kissed her, then leaned in to kiss her once more, in a more gentle fashion. “Please, little one, I haven’t time to explain. I must ask you to trust me.”

This had become sort of a catch phrase for the two of us of late. I know that Gabrielle read the concern in my expression, but she was no longer a slave, and wasn’t willing to admit defeat so easily.

“Xena, if something is wrong I want to be with you!”

“Gabrielle,” I began with an impatient sigh. “I can’t do what I have to do and protect you at the same time. Please, just do as I say this time.”

I could wait no longer. I kissed her once more and made my way at a fast run to Athena’s temple, leaving everyone else stunned at my sudden antics.

* * * * * * * * * *

The temple was quiet, and much cooler than the outside air. The room was so still I could hear the faint sputter of the candle wicks as they burned down into the wax. We had no temple in Corinth to the God that I wanted to talk with, but I was hoping any deity’s place of worship would suffice. When I was a younger woman, I could stand in the middle of a field and he would come when I summoned him. That was twenty seasons ago.

“Ares! Show yourself for the scum you are!”

There was a pause, and nothing but silence surrounded me. The quiet lasted just long enough for the tiniest bit of doubt to plant itself within my brain. Perhaps, I was imagining it all after all. There was only one thing to do.

“I knew you weren’t smart enough to mastermind this!” I shouted.

When I turned away, I ran smack into a very large fist that not only took me by surprise, but also nearly broke my jaw. I sat on the temple floor and rubbed my chin. It had been a long time since a God had hit me. I made a mental note for the future not to antagonize them until I could see them.

“I knew you’d call again some day, Xena.”

Ares stood looking down at me, looking every bit as handsome and smug as he had in the old days.

“Don’t flatter yourself, leather boy. I’m here to warn you to stay out of my life. If you even think about harming Gabrielle, I’ll drag you behind my chariot until there isn’t enough of you left to feed the dogs!”

“Oh, you mean like putting that little idea into that Centaur’s head to nail your little pet with an arrow? Oooh, Xena, it would have been good. He had her right in his sights.” Ares grinned and I sprang into action.

I rushed at him, drawing my sword as I cried out. Ares and I had always been pretty evenly matched skill, and strength-wise. Only the last time we did this, I was twenty seasons younger. There were no strands of silver beginning to weave their way within my raven locks. Although I still possessed a strength that would best any mortal man, a God was a different story. I held my own, and even got in a few self satisfying jabs to his face, but after we fought for a good half a candlemark, I began to tire. Ares saw my weakness, and began to take advantage. I had a swollen eye, and a bloodied lip by the time he finally got tired of toying with me. He simply stepped back and tossed a bolt of energy toward me. I was too sapped to dodge it in time, and so the bolt caught me in the belly. It flung me backwards a good fifteen feet and I lay there on my back, unable to even summon much more strength to lift my body up from the stone floor.

“I told you you’d regret crossing me, Xena. Remember that night when you said you were going to dedicate yourself to Athena? I told you that someday I’d make you pay, that I’d make you know what it was like to care about losing the one thing that kept you going. Didn’t I? Well, it’s payback time Warrior Princess. Oh, wait! They call you the Conqueror now, don’t they? Well, Conqueror, how will it feel when your little slave is dead?”

I called all my remaining strength into play, and launched my body at him. I know I hurt him because I felt the breath expelled from his lungs, as I punched him in the belly. He kicked out, and hit me in the ribs. When I fell to my knees, an uppercut tossed me away from him. Once more, I found myself staring up at him from flat on my back.

“Come to think of it, Xena, this whole thing just isn’t worth it. Instead of killing your slave, maybe I should just kill you.”

He drew his sword, and all I could think about was the fact that I was supposed to get married in another day. So odd, the things that run through our minds when the end comes. All my mind’s eye could picture was Gabrielle. The vision was so real; I could hear her voice.

“Xena! No!” Gabrielle’s voice cried out as my vision stood before me.

“Gabrielle?” Suddenly I realized that it was Gabrielle standing over me, actually placing her body between Ares and me. “Gabrielle, get back.” I winced and tried to rise again, taking in a sharp breath at the pain in my side; I fell back to the ground. The only agony I felt was in knowing that I had failed at keeping Gabrielle safe, and the realization that there would be no lifetime of love for us.

“Please, don’t hurt her anymore,” Gabrielle pleaded.

I thought how strange it appeared, Gabrielle defending me. She only stood as high as Ares’ chest. He on the other hand, looked as he did when I first saw him. I was now forty-five seasons old, yet he looked as he did when he came to me in Amphipolis that day. I was a young girl, enamored by the life of a warrior. He stood before Gabrielle looking as young and handsome as when he first seduced the young girl who was Xena.

There was something different in his expression this time. I recognized it, but not from ever having seen it in his eyes. He backed up a step and I knew that it was fear he was feeling. Fear of Gabrielle?

Ares bared his teeth and snarled at the small woman. The snarl turned into a rabid scream and Gabrielle fell backward against me. The God of War stepped forward again and Gabrielle pressed herself against me. I was about to summon what little reserve of strength I had left, to protect Gabrielle from Ares wrath, when I felt that familiar sensation. Like a cool breeze on sweat soaked skin, the feeling caused goose bumps along my arms.

“He won’t harm you, little one. He can’t, it’s forbidden.” I heard a voice from somewhere above me.

Gabrielle turned her head to look behind me and I saw her green eyes widen in surprise.

“Athena?” Gabrielle asked.

“No, child. I am Artemis, and you are my chosen.”

I was beginning to feel as if I had already lost consciousness. It had been many seasons since I had dealt with the Gods, and seeing them step into my life was like revisiting an old dreamscape.

I swiveled my head around when I felt Athena’s presence.

“She’s your problem.” Artemis tossed her head in my direction, to which Athena kneeled down beside me.

One touch from her hand, my strength returned, and my wounds were completely healed. I jumped up and searched the floor for my sword, but Athena stepped in front of me.

“Are you anxious to make her a widow even before the wedding?”

“Look, he–”

“Will be dealt with accordingly, Xena,” Athena interrupted. “Besides, I think we’ve scared young Gabrielle clean out of her ability for speech.” Athena nodded her head at Gabrielle.

It was true. Gabrielle had tucked herself into a nearby corner, but I knew the expression she wore, just as I knew my own feelings. It wasn’t so much fright that affected her, as awe. My young consort had yet to see a God or Goddess in her lifetime. Odd, since I could never seem to rid myself of them.

“Gabrielle.” I rushed over to her side and that seemed to shake her brain back to the present moment.

“Xena!” She looked up as though seeing me for the first time. “You’re not hurt?” She felt my arms as if to be sure I was real.

“No, love, thanks to Athena. Gabrielle, you’ve met the patron Goddess of the Amazons, Artemis, now let me introduce you to Athena.” I pulled Gabrielle away from in between the stone columns and brought her to stand before Athena.

Tears filled my consort’s eyes, so overcome with emotion. All her life Gabrielle gave her devotion to Athena, even through the worst times. Most mortals go their entire lives never seeing the Gods they pray too, until they meet up with Hades at the end. Gabrielle’s nature never caused her to wonder at the situations Athena led the young woman to. The true disciple that she was, Gabrielle simply lived her life, always praying for enough strength to get her through.

Gabrielle knelt before the Goddess, who looked on the act with, what I thought of as, uncharacteristic compassion.

“Up on your feet, Gabrielle.” Athena took hold of the young woman and drew her upward. “For the past that I could not prevent from happening, I should be kneeling before you.”

“But you always gave me strength,” Gabrielle answered sincerely.

“It was the least I could do.”

Athena slowly turned away from Gabrielle to face Ares who had grown suspiciously quiet during our exchange. He seemed to be attempting to blend in with the walls when his sister crooked a finger in his direction.

“Ares, you’re not leaving our little party so soon, are you?” Artemis asked.

“Who, me?” he replied innocently. Well, as innocent as the God of War can sound.

“Don’t you even think about acting innocent about this, Ares!” Athena hissed. Her voice, usually so even and under control shook with anger. “When father finds out, you’ll be lucky if he doesn’t banish you to Tartarus for this! You were under strict orders. Gabrielle was under my protection.”

My brain suddenly ceased to function. I had only one thought to train my mind’s eye upon. It sounded very much as though Athena was blaming Gabrielle’s life on Ares. The things Athena said she could never prevent. The Goddess had said that it almost seemed as if someone was one step ahead when it came to Gabrielle’s life, but even the Fates couldn’t have been that cruel. It was Ares.

“You son of a bitch!” For the third time today, I launched my body in Ares’ direction. My attempt at homicide was thwarted by Athena’s body, and the strong grip she had on my arms.

“He did that . . . all of that to her?” I asked with a strangled moan.

“Yes, but you have my word that he will never be able to harm her again, not now that we know.” Athena answered.

“Xena?” Gabrielle had come up beside me. Her voice calmed me, as always. “I don’t want to see you hurt again.”

“Forgive me, little one. I didn’t mean to frighten you. It’s only my anger speaking.”

“It’s in the past, Xena. Please don’t let him goad you into a fight over a past we can never change.”

“Your maturity and your compassion prove your worth as Queen of the Amazons, Gabrielle. You cause me to believe that I’ve chosen well.”

“Did you mean it when you said he can’t hurt me?” Gabrielle asked of Artemis. The question seemed to take everyone by surprise.

“Yes, Ares can’t harm you directly in any way, and now that our father knows what he’s been up to for the last twenty summers, he’ll not be allowed to influence anyone else either,” Artemis answered.

“What about Xena? Could he hurt her?” Gabrielle questioned further.

“Not while I’m around.” Athena took a protective stance beside me.

We all watched as Gabrielle turned around and walked the half a dozen strides to stand before Ares. They looked comical standing there like that, as if facing off against one another. I was rather mistrustful of Athena’s statement about Ares being unable to harm Gabrielle, but the Goddess read my thoughts and simply smiled at me.

“You’re the God of War?” Gabrielle finally asked.

“The one and only.” Ares held out his arms and fixed a blinding smile at Gabrielle.

“You’re the one responsible for the darkness that still plagues Xena. You’re the one who seduced her by telling her it would be a gift.”

“She was a grown woman and able to make her own decisions,” Ares replied. His charm was beginning to slip and the smile was gone.

I watched, as Gabrielle’s demeanor changed. I saw something that I hadn’t really witnessed before. Gabrielle was angry. I stood there shocked and amazed. Gabrielle, the young woman who couldn’t seem to muster the strength to hate the men who took and used her all her life, was angry. She couldn’t show any anger for herself, but here she was, facing down the God of War, preparing to defend my honor.

“She was a child, and you used her!”

“Yea, well, I’ll let you in on a little secret, shorty.” Ares leaned in closer to Gabrielle until his face was a hands-width away from her own face. “She was the best piece of ass I ever had.”

He looked down at her with that smug little arrogant grin, and I wished for nothing more at that moment than to smack that smile clean off his face. Gabrielle must have been reading my mind. In one swift motion, my small, compassionate consort displayed a love and a loyalty that I’d never known from anyone. She swiftly drew her hand back and slapped Ares across the face so hard it rocked him back on his heels. Time seemed to freeze as we all waited to see if he truly could not harm Gabrielle.

Ares raised his hand to the small woman, but to Gabrielle’s credit, she never flinched. She stood there waiting for his move. He wanted to hit her; you could see that. He made a motion in the air as if to strike her, then simply followed his punch through into mid air.

“You are monumentally annoying!” he cried out.

Athena and I merely looked at each other and burst into laughter. Our mirth was a release of sorts. We let go of the tight edge of tension surrounding us with ordinary laughter. I believe what amused us the most was that the more we laughed, the angrier Ares became.

“What I want to know is how you found out?” Ares shouted in Athena’s direction.

“I had a little help, Ares, from a most unlikely source,” Athena answered.

With that statement, a shower of shimmering pink sparkles filled the air beside Ares. In the blink of an eye another Goddess appeared. Aphrodite wore her customary diaphanous gown, and looked not one heartbeat older from the last time I saw her, nearly twenty-five seasons ago.

“Big bro, you didn’t tell me the truth,” Aphrodite accused. “You said keeping these two apart would benefit mortals everywhere.”

“What he really meant was benefit himself,” Athena answered dryly. “Ares knew what all of us knew about these two mortals. Really, Aphrodite, if you paid attention to things a little more.”

Athena looked at her sister and gave an exasperated sigh seeing that her younger sister’s head was already occupied with other thoughts.

“Oh, Sweet Pea, you are just too cute,” Aphrodite crooned at Gabrielle.

“Wait a moment. Ares, is that father calling you?” Artemis tilted her head and the other Gods appeared to be listening to something that Gabrielle and I couldn’t hear.

“Oh shit!” Ares muttered. “I’ll be back, Xena.” He pointed a finger in my direction and then he was gone.

“Oh no he won’t,” Athena chuckled. “At last not for a very, very long time. Don’t worry, Xena, it will be a mortal lifetime before you’re bothered with him again, even indirectly.”

I moved to stand beside Gabrielle. I held her in my arms and could feel her trembling. “Are you all right, love?”

“I–I just have never been so mad at anyone before. I didn’t mean to hit him.”

I arched an eyebrow at her obvious fib.

“Well, not much anyway.” She smiled. “I don’t know about you, Xena, but I’m very confused. What’s happening here?”

“I told you once before, the Gods have always taken a very active role in my life. Even I’m just finding out how active it was.” I paused to look at the three women surrounding us.

“Earlier, when we were in the Amazon camp, I had the strangest feeling that everything had been tied up much too neatly. In my life that usually meant that I’d been set up, or that people around me were used, and usually by the Gods. No offense intended,” I said to the trio of Goddesses.

“None taken,” they all automatically responded.

“I haven’t seen or spoken to Ares in twenty seasons, Gabrielle. This just felt like him. He was always manipulating my life to suit his purposes, but when I was younger, I let him. I could always tell when he was about, though.” I paused to run my fingers through my hair and took a step away from my consort. I always spoke better, when I was moving.

“I didn’t think he’d show himself just anywhere for me. We didn’t part on the best of terms. I came here and called him out.”

“But why does everyone act like Ares is after me?” Gabrielle asked.

“Because he is, Gabrielle,” Athena answered. “More appropriately he has been, very nearly since the day you were born.”

“Why would the God of War have any interest in me?” Gabrielle chuckled nervously, as she spun around searching all of our faces for an answer. I could offer little assistance being as I was just as much in the dark as Gabrielle was.

“Gabrielle, according to the Fates, you have had one purpose in this lifetime; to save the known world from a great darkness.”

“Oh, I don’t think–”

“Ssh, little one. Let her tell the whole story,” I said. I had an inkling of what Athena meant, but even I didn’t yet know the extent of Gabrielle’s involvement in history.

Gabrielle sat down upon one of the marble steps and I lowered myself to sit beside her.

“Let me tell you a story, Gabrielle. Once there was a small girl running through the fields on her father’s farm. She met a warrior whose sadness touched the girl’s heart. Even at such a young age, the girl did what she could to make the warrior feel better. She gave the warrior a rose, and that simple act changed both of their lives for all eternity.” Athena moved to sit down beside Gabrielle.

“After the warrior left the girl, a fire broke out that claimed the lives of her family. By the time the small girl wandered into the warrior’s camp, and she led the warrior back to the farmhouse, there was nothing left. The warrior took the girl with her. The warrior was destined for greatness as well, but was standing on the precipice of decision. Because of the girl, who was now in the woman’s life, the warrior gave her allegiance to good over evil.” Athena paused in the telling of her tale to look up at me.

“The warrior raised the young girl and gave her every advantage in life. The girl turned into a loving and compassionate woman, and somewhere along the way, as is the way with life; the warrior fell in love with the young woman. They shared a love the world had not yet experienced, and they brought only goodness and light to the world.”

“What a beautiful tale,” Gabrielle said in a breathless sort of tone. “Is it true?”

“It was supposed to be, Gabrielle. What happened instead was that the youngster never lost her parents and she never went away with the warrior. The warrior wanted to do good, but the lure of the darkness was more than she could fight against on her own. Alone, the warrior made the attempt to throw the darkness from her, but she failed. She spent many seasons quenching her appetites for evil and blood. The blackness of her heart spread across the world and everything she touched withered and died.”

“I like the first ending better,” Gabrielle commented sadly. “Whatever happened? Did the warrior and the girl ever meet?”

Athena looked at me once again. This time she smiled.

“Yes, love, they did.” I gently took Gabrielle’s hand within my own and brought it up to my lips. I placed a light kiss on her palm and continued to hold her hand in mine.

“You mean . . . you . . . us?” Gabrielle asked.

I nodded. “After you gave me that rose I went back to my camp and committed myself to Athena. I tried to make myself worthy, but she was right. The call of my dark side was too great, and I gave in to it. I think what Athena meant to say is that I’m the great darkness that you were meant to save the world from.”

“I don’t understand,” Gabrielle looked at me, then Athena. “Why don’t I remember, and why didn’t it happen the way you told it the first time?”

“Ares,” Athena answered. “He was more than a little angry when Xena told him she refused any further patronage. When I found her that night she was barely alive.”

Gabrielle turned to me and I quickly explained. “Ares and I had quite a fight. He knocked me up one side of the countryside and down the other. I don’t ever remember hurting that bad, but somehow I managed to crawl away when he left me alone.”

“That’s when I found her,” Athena added. “Her body was one big crushed bone. When Ares left Xena that evening, he formulated a plan to go back and change the events of that morning. Ares always did have a way of talking the Fates into whatever he wanted. Instead of a fire decimating your life, Gabrielle, Ares sent the slavers. Xena left Ares anyway, but he knew that as long as he kept you and Xena from ever meeting, Xena’s life would be misery. I think he was truly hoping she would one day return to him.”

“The pathetic bastard!” I hissed. I jumped up from my seated position on the steps and stalked a few strides away.

Artemis came closer and looked down upon Gabrielle. I could see the concern in her eyes and it gladdened me a small bit to think of my consort with more than one protector.

“Gabrielle, we can never make up for the times we were unable to keep Ares from turning your life black with his evil, but hopefully we can begin to repay you for your devotion. Please, come with me for a moment.”

Artemis held out her hand, which Gabrielle immediately took. My consort’s face held an expression comprised of equal parts awe and trepidation. She followed the Goddess to a spot in the Temple a small ways apart from the rest of us. I left them their privacy, knowing that Gabrielle would never really belong only to me. She was my savior, but she also saved the world from me. I would simply have to learn to share.

“You are one lucky Conqueror,” Aphrodite said. She kissed me on the cheek and I believe I felt the beginnings of a blush..

“I just recently found out that this was the deal that Artemis made with father. Once Gabrielle found her way to you–”

“And saved the world,” I interjected.

“That’s right.” Athena grinned. “After she did all that, Artemis was within her rights to claim Gabrielle as the chosen Queen of the Amazon Nation.”

“She’s going to be a busy young woman. You both do realize she’s going to be my Queen too?”

“Don’t pout, Conqueror. We wouldn’t dare presume that our needs come above yours. We are only Olympian Gods after all,” Athena replied sarcastically.

“Well, as long as you all realize that then.” I smirked over at the two Goddesses beside me.

Gabrielle returned alone. She had a pleasant, even relieved expression on her face.

“All right?” I asked.

“Mmm hmm.” Gabrielle answered with a nod of her head. “May we please go home now, Xena. My head is spinning with all of this.”

“Yes, love. Athena, as always, it’s been interesting. I thank you for your patronage.” I bowed deeply to the Goddess. I may have always been testy with the Gods, and their meddlesome ways, but I knew enough to give respect when it was due.

“Gabrielle,” Athena addressed my consort. “What can I offer you child? A repayment of sorts?”

“Thanks you, but I have everything I want,” Gabrielle answered.

She wrapped her arm around my waist, and I draped mine protectively across her shoulders. I took a moment to allow Athena and Aphrodite both to see my small gloating smile.

“Hhmm, there’s nothing you wish for, Gabrielle?” Athena prodded.

“Well . . . ” Gabrielle trailed off.

“Ahh, yes,” Athena nodded her head. “But do you think Xena is ready to change diapers?”

I felt the heat creep up my neck and I wasn’t sure I was prepared for the turn this conversation had taken.

“Can’t I even know? Will it happen someday?” Gabrielle pouted and looked down at her feet.

“Heavens above. What do you do when she makes an adorable face like that?” Aphrodite turned to me as if for advice.

“I usually give her what she wants.”

Athena chuckled softly then drew closer to Gabrielle. “It’s not such a good thing to know too much about our future, is it?”

I’m sure Gabrielle was remembering some of her more disturbing visions of the future. Athena bent over and whispered into the small blonde’s ear. Gabrielle’s whole face lit up and I worried at the expression.

“Is that good enough?” Athena asked.

“Yes, very much so. Thank you, Athena.”

“You’re welcome, my child. Now, off with the two of you. I shall see you on your wedding day. Wait, Xena, look ’round here.”

Athena lightly grasped my chin and tilted it upward. “You have one small cut that I didn’t attend to,” Athena said.

I felt a shock run through my body, more so than during any other healing. My heart raced along, then just as suddenly returned to its regular cadence. After saying our goodbyes, Gabrielle and I walked from the temple, hand in hand.

“Gabrielle,” I drawled. “You were supposed to stay in the palace.” I tried to muster a stern look and somehow failed.

“I know, love, but Xena . . .”

“Yesss?” I drawled, arching an eyebrow down at her.

“I just knew that you needed my help.”

It was to be the first of many times that we would exchange those very lines over our many seasons together, and I would always love every moment. I was now certain that the day would come when Gabrielle would truly be free enough to do nothing I ever told her.

* * * * * * * * * *

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
Conversation related to Queen Gabrielle by Athena, patron Goddess of the Empire.

“Do you think she noticed?” Aphrodite asked Athena.

“No. She’ll notice someday, but probably not all at once.”

“Until her wedding night. She’s probably going to wear little Sweet Pea out.” Aphrodite laughed at the thought.

Athena joined her sister in amused laughter. “Xena deserves a little something extra in her life too. With her heart twenty seasons younger, she and Gabrielle can grow old together.”

“She may look the same, but she’s sure not going to feel the same!” Aphrodite laughed again as the two sisters vacated the temple.

End Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript

* * * * * * * * * *

“Xena?”

Gabrielle had popped her head into my private study as I finished sealing the last scroll I had been working on. So much had filled our day and yet the sun hadn’t even set. As much as we wanted to spend our day in one another’s company, there was much to do before tomorrow’s event. Gabrielle wisely spent some of her afternoon at the Amazon camp. She met with a few of their elders, then spent the rest of the time answering questions about herself, and where she saw the future of her new people.

I had a thousand small tasks to complete, not the least of which was finding Solan. I hadn’t seen the boy since they’d taken Broh away, and I was certain my son must be off somewhere wrestling with old demons.

“Yes, little one?”

“Xena, I need to speak with you.”

“Of course, come in.”

“I mean, in an official capacity.”

I looked up, some sharp quip on the very tip of my tongue. When I saw the serious expression, and the look of hesitation upon Gabrielle’s face, I thought better about using my witticism. It was apparent that Gabrielle didn’t yet know how she and I were to handle our new roles, she as Amazon Queen, and myself as the ruler of the Empire. I was determined never to cause her to lose face, nor to be intimidated of me. So, I straightened up, prepared to take her words seriously.

“Very well, Gabrielle. What would you speak of, something concerning the Amazons?”

“Yes, in a way. I’ve invited a number of the Amazons, along with Kaleipus and the Centaurs to the Great Hall. I thought you might hear a request?”

“I don’t see why not,” I answered. “Lead on, my dear.”

I pointed the way out the door to a slightly confused Gabrielle. I think she thought it was going to be harder than that.

Our guests were already in the Hall when we arrived. Solan nodded to me and smiled, but I saw the sadness in his eyes. There were an equal number of Centaurs and Amazons, along with two of my staff members, one set to scribe this official meeting. Gabrielle was certainly prepared.

I assisted my consort into the chair beside my own and bid her to begin our meeting.

“I would like to address the Amazon Elders, if I may?” Gabrielle turned to me and I nodded my head.

“As you know, I find myself in the position of serving as Queen to all of you, and becoming Queen to the Greek Empire. As much as I would enjoy visiting Amazonia, and even staying with you for a short while, I have to say that my home is here in Corinth. I cannot, nor do I desire to leave my home here in the palace. I have offered to return the crown to an Amazon more deserving, but it seems I’ve been out voted on that point. In keeping with your need to have a full time ruler, I have appointed Ephiny as Queen Regent of our Amazon tribe. I have heard only good things of her and I know she will do an admirable job.”

Gabrielle paused as Ephiny received congratulations from those around her. The Amazon warrior and I traded smirks, feeling, I was sure, as if we’d both won.

I’ve talked with Kaleipus, Ephiny, and the Amazon Elders,” Gabrielle now addressed me. “We have some maps to show you.”

One of the young scribes placed two maps in front of me and I instantly noted that the second map had new, hand drawn boundary lines along the borders of the lands that belonged to the Empire, and the two races who sat before me.

What I propose, My Lord, is a new division of lands, now owned by the Empire, yet formerly belonging to both the Amazons and the Centaurs. The borders that run to the north and south would be expanded by forty leagues, and the two Nations would share this land.”

“Share?” I asked skeptically. “I seem to remember them having a problem doing that.”

“In the past, My Lord,” Gabrielle explained. You see both the Amazons and the Centaurs have agreed to change their ways. Their time of enmity and hate is over and they wish to begin anew. They’ve each agreed to a set of programs, so that the younger generations can learn from each race. In addition, families could settle the shared land. As it stands right now, if a male child is born to an Amazon, she must either leave the tribe, or give her child away. The shared land would allow Amazon families to stay together without losing the essence, or the integrity of the tribe.”

Gabrielle paused and I had to admit that she was quite well prepared. I knew that I wouldn’t be saying yes simply because she was my consort, but because it was an intelligent and well thought out plan. I waited for her to drop the other boot, though.

“Lastly, the Empire would agree to not only give up the lands marked on the map, but would also give up any claim, now or in the future on such land. The Amazons and the Centaurs would truly rule their own Nations.”

I have to say that one shocked me. Gabrielle was turning into quite the negotiator, but I had to think like the Conqueror, and not Gabrielle’s intended.

I stood up and walked around the room, my hands clasped casually behind my back. I always thought better moving around like this.

“There is something that all of the players in this scenario should realize. I am caught within a tight spot. While the points you have brought up are ones to consider, and are not without merit, there is another aspect I must consider. If I give in to requests such as these, people will believe that it is because the Amazon Queen is my wife. I must take care so that the rest of the world does not see my actions in such a light.”

I paused briefly to look at Gabrielle’s face. Her expression remained neutral and I silently applauded her control.

“So, my question is, what will the Empire receive from an agreement such as this?”

“Peace,” Gabrielle answered without hesitation. “I have in my hands,” she rose and stepped forward, “A treaty between the Amazon and Centaur Nations. They agree to all of the conditions set within regarding an immediate peace between their two nations. In addition, they agree to swear fealty to the throne of the Greek Empire.”

Gods, this girl was amazing! I had a precarious relationship at best with these two nations. If they swore fealty to the throne, they would be committing themselves to me should I ever need their assistance during times of war. Now this was the kind of win-win situation a Conqueror prayed for.

“Done,” I stated. “Make it so,” I said to the scribe.

Once we’d all spoke our piece, and I put my seal upon the agreements, I stood and bowed low to Gabrielle, who appeared nonplussed by my actions.

“My Queen, you are truly a worthy and gracious adversary.” I smiled and watched as my consort smiled in return. I also caught the breath she nervously released. Gabrielle had come through her first royal negotiation, and had succeeded where few others had.

* * * * * * * * * *

The sun was easing its way behind the eastern ridge, and it made for a beautiful magenta and azure sky. I sat on the stone bench in my rose garden thinking of all that the recent days had brought about. Gabrielle had to go for one last fitting to her gown, which brought tomorrow evening’s event that much closer. I had so many things on my mind, so many regrets, and hopes for the future. I had to get away and find some peace. My garden always brought that to me. Surrounded by the multicolored flowers, watching birds and butterflies flit past in a vibrant burst of speed; all of this calmed me in a way nothing else in life could.

“Conqueror? Uhm, Xena?”

I recognized the hesitant voice and smiled at the sight of my son. “Solan.” I rose and he stopped before me.

We both hesitated awkwardly, as if we weren’t entirely sure how to greet one another now. I told myself that I wasn’t going to keep my heart, and my emotions, locked up anymore. I threw caution to the wind, and embraced my son. He seemed unsure at first, his body stiffening slightly, and then I felt him relax. His easy smile when we separated told me that we’d both come so far.

“Gabrielle told me that you like to come out here to think,” Solan said.

“Yes, it’s sort of an extension of my study. How are you, Solan?” I inquired about more than simply his health, and I hoped he understood that.

“I’m fine,” he quickly answered. He looked up at me and I could see the pain still lingering in his eyes. “Well, I will be,” he finally admitted. “What Broh did . . . I didn’t know. I never had any idea. He could be angry and spiteful, but I never knew him to harbor such anger, such a thirst for revenge. It sickened me.”

“Don’t judge him too harshly, Solan. Although it doesn’t justify his actions, he’d experience some of my more hateful past. He was consumed with a lust for revenge. I don’t think I ever made it any easier for him to accept the ghosts of our past and to move on.”

Solan nodded, and then he looked around as if noticing the true beauty of the garden for the first time.

“It’s quite peaceful here, and beautiful. No wonder you come here to relax.”

“Haven’t you been to the garden with Gabrielle before?”

“Yes, but never this far. Gabrielle always told me it would be for you to show me,” Solan answered.

“Then come with me,” I smiled in answer. “Come, walk with me.” I urged.

We walked deeper into the garden, until we were in an area that was quite private. Surrounded by high hedges and thorny bushes, this space could only be seen from above, via our bedchamber window. This was my private rose garden. This was the plot of land I had first portioned off to my landscapers. I showed them some crudely drawn sketches of the blossom that the child I now know was Gabrielle had given me. I had no plants to show them, but they immediately knew what I wanted. I remember hovering over them as they carefully planted each of the plants. I expressed my constant doubt in their abilities, since I had no faith that the thorny branches they buried in the ground would ever blossom. Yet, blossom they did.

In the past ten seasons, I’d taken more of an active interest in my garden. I planted and weeded, and I took more pride in the results after I’d worked a little myself to attain the beautiful blooms.

“It’s breathtaking,” Solan said, as he turned in all directions to examine the flowers.

I dropped to one knee and pulled some weeds that I spied taking root in the rich soil. Intent as I was at eradicating the weeds, I didn’t at first hear Solan’s comment. Then I heard his, now familiar, chuckle.

I turned my head and looked up into his amused face.

“Forgive me, but this isn’t a view of the Conqueror that many men would have.”

I grinned myself. I stood up and dusted the dirt from my hands off onto my trousers. “I suppose you’re right, but I trust you will keep my secret?”

“Absolutely,” he answered. “You take good care of them. They seem to be flourishing here.”

“They’re a lot like people in that respect.” I reached down and pinched some dead blooms off a particularly delicate bush. It was a lovely ivory color, clean and pristine looking. “Take this one for instance. It needs more care than some others do. It needs to be protected a little bit more. I have to watch that it doesn’t get too much sun, or too much water. Sometime it doesn’t know how to take care of itself. It’s as if it lives only to please. It puts on more blooms than it could ever hope to cause to blossom and yet live, but still it tries. If I didn’t pinch some off, the whole vine would wither and die.” I paused and noticed that Solan was listening intently to my story.

“This one is my most fragile plant, but look here, near the base. See how thick the branches are? It has a good, strong foundation, and although it might require outside help and protection occasionally, it will last for a very long time. It may not be the strongest plant, but it’s smart. Notice how in the heat of the day, just before the sun sets, it curls its petals in against itself? It conserves its water that way. Plants like this are timeless. They will flourish with the extra care and attention I pay to them.”

I rose and took three strides to my left, off the stone path.

“Now, look at this one here.” I pointed to a sprawling mess of vines that grew over the hedge, and part of a low stone wall. The blooms were a brilliant ruby red.

“It seems to go exactly where it wants to, doesn’t it?” Solan observed.

“Precisely. It’s a wild rose. I never planted it here. Most likely carried inside some bird or the seed was in the manure we spread into the soil. This is the kind of rose you find growing out of the rock crevices up on the Acritas range,” I said of the mountainous area in the Peloponnese. “These roses grow without much care at all, anywhere they can find a spot. It does best on its own, away from others of its kind. It will flourish when it finds purchase in a garden of cultivated roses, away from other wild plants. In fact, if I were to tend this one the same as the white rose, it would perish. It’s what they mean when they say you can’t tame a wild rose. If I treated it as I do the white rose, it would feel smothered. Like people, there are some who do better when they’re not socialized too much. You can literally kill a wild rose with too much kindness.” I finished with a smirk.

“Just like people,” Solan mused. “The delicate flower has the same characteristics as Gabrielle. The wild rose reminds me of you. They’re both beautiful, but they have different needs to flourish and grow strong.”

“Excellent interpretation!” I slapped him on the back. “You’re beginning to see what I see out here.”

“So, where do I come in within your rose garden?”

“Step over here,” I said, and I motioned with my hand.

I pushed aside a long stem of the papery, pink blossoms known as myrtle. They offered shade to the small bushes. Besides, myrtles were never cut down in my garden as they were associated with the Goddess Aphrodite. Partially hidden under the myrtle branch was one of my most beautiful rose bushes.

The plant was approximately three feet tall with blooms in various stages all over. The full blossom was a deep red color, so deep a hue as to be almost black. It looked as though a painter had come by and carelessly dripped white paint from his brush onto the red blossoms.

“Exquisite,” Solan breathed the words. “How did you get it this way? It looks like it’s one half of the white rose, and the other half from the wild rose.”

“You’re quite right. I didn’t do a thing, though. This plant came up all on its own. There’s a word for it, my landscapers would know, but it’s sort of a mix. Wild rose meets cultivated rose, and this is their offspring.”

“So,” Solan chuckled as he stood up straight. “You’re my mother, but what kind of plant was my father? I mean, what does this make me?”

“Merely a petal of the rose, my boy. No more no less. Solan, your father was a decent enough sort, I suppose. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking he was more than he was, though. The centaurs caught him at the point I was, in my life, when I met Gabrielle. Borias was a warlord, just as wild and full of the wanderlust as I was. He just saw the light a lot sooner than I did.” I motioned Solan to sit beside me on one of the stone benches that I’d had placed throughout the garden.

“Solan, you’ll have characteristics of the wild rose, to be sure, but you’ll not be fated to emulate it unerringly. You have my looks, it’s true, but you are not me. Look at my life, my son. Look at how long it took me to change my path’s direction, and how many people I hurt along the way. You’ve made a good start here, Solan, keep that going. You have the power to be different than I ever was. You can take the best parts of the wild rose, and the cultivated one, and create a new mix. The time you’ve spent already with Gabrielle has changed you. I could see that at once.”

I watched as his brow furrowed together at the mention of Gabrielle’s name.

“There’s something more between you an Gabrielle yet, isn’t there? Something I’m missing.”

Solan shrugged the comment off, but the mere fact that he hadn’t answered me convinced me of the fact.

“Solan, look at me.” I dropped to one knee before the boy and in an unconscious gesture; I reached up to brush the hair from his eyes. It reminded me of the numerous times I’d felt Gabrielle do the very same thing to me. I fully expected him to pull away from me then, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. He was suddenly that small child again; looking at me with an uncertain gaze.

“I’m afraid if I voice my concern, you’ll think me a child.”

“Well, you are my child.” I grinned slightly to try to put him at ease. “Please, Solan, tell me what troubles you about Gabrielle.”

“All this . . . she . . . I mean. You did it all for her,” he finally blurted out. “I mean, you changed for her. Why couldn’t you change for me? Was it because I wasn’t good enough? Did you know I’d be bad when you gave me away? I know Gabrielle is so good, but–”

“No, Solan, wait.” I stopped the emotional young man’s tirade. “Is that what you think? That I changed for Gabrielle?”

He nodded his head, and I knew he refused to meet my eyes because his own were filled with the same tears that suddenly sprang into mine.

“Solan, my son, no, that’s not the way it is. Those were not, nor have ever been my thoughts. Children are not born bad. Hard as it may be to believe, even I was a good little girl at one time in my life. Your grandmother raised me as well as she could, but some things are simply fated to be.” I stopped to take a breath, and gather my thoughts. How best to convince your child that giving him away was the best thing you could do?

“Solan, giving you to Kaleipus to raise was the hardest, most gut-wrenching thing I ever did. At the same time is was the only noble thing I ever did in my whole life. If I’d kept you in my life, I don’t think it would have changed me, Solan. For one thing, you wouldn’t have survived long enough to make a difference in my life. Someone would have killed you, kidnapped you, or I would have died trying to protect you. You would have become a target for anyone who wanted to hurt me.” Again, I paused and tilted his face upward until our eyes met.

“With Kaleipus, weren’t you happy? When you were growing up, did you feel loved, have plenty of friends to play with, and always know there was someone you could consider a parent to come home to at the end of the day?

“Yes, but it was never the same,” he answered.

“I know that, son, but you would have grown up with none of that had I raised you, if you’d lived long enough. I couldn’t have loved you the way a child needs to be loved because I had no idea how to love. After all these seasons, it wasn’t until I met Gabrielle that I even learned what it meant to love, let alone offer that to someone unconditionally.”

“Because she’s so good? You changed for her. Why couldn’t you change for me?”

“Solan,” I gently ran my fingers through his unruly dark locks one more time. “I didn’t change for Gabrielle. I changed because of her. I hadn’t the strength, or the emotional wherewithal to change for anyone. I promise you, son, if I could have changed for you, I would have.”

He looked up and nodded. I could see his expression was now one of relief, as if a burden had been lifted from his shoulders. The guilt that children take on often amazed me. Their worries would rival the burden that Atlas bore on any given day. I knew exactly what he felt. All those seasons, I used to think that I was inherently bad, that Toris and Lyceus had been the good children deserving of Cyrene’s love.

Solan sniffed and wiped his eyes and nose with the sleeve of his tunic. I smiled and shook my head.

“Here.” I offered him my handkerchief. “Your sleeve is meant to clothe your arm. This is meant to wipe your nose.”

“Hey, you do make a pretty good mother.” He grinned back at me.

I wasn’t sure what to say, so I gave my customary roll of the eyes, and arch of an eyebrow.

“I wouldn’t mind you know . . . calling you that,” he mumbled.

“Calling me what?”

“You know, uhm . . . mother.”

“Do you want to call me that?” I asked, uncertain I wanted an honest response.

“Do you want me to?”

I could see we weren’t going to get far this way. The apple certainly doesn’t fall far from the tree. I decided to take a chance and put my heart out for it to fall or be taken in.

“I would be honored to be called that, Solan. Although, you may pay the price if some realize you’re my son. That, and the fact that I can’t say that I deserve your love, or the title.”

Solan brightened considerably at my words. “Well, when it comes to paying the price. I would consider it a privilege to be known as the Conqueror’s son and to Hades with those who don’t like it. As to the latter, wouldn’t Gabrielle say that love isn’t something you can earn?”

“You’re hanging around her much too much,” I chuckled. “The next thing I know you’ll be beating me at King’s Men.” I leaned over and ruffled his hair, and then placed a small kiss on his temple. It pleased me that he didn’t pull away, but reached out and squeezed my free hand. Thank you, Athena, I whispered in my mind.

“I’d like to tell Gabrielle, you know, that it’s right between all of us. I only hope that I find someone like her when I’m ready to settle down.”

“You will. I’m sure of it. Here,” I stood and went to our beautiful hybrid rose bush. I pulled my dagger and made a neat, diagonal slice at the stem of one of the full blooms. “Give her this. She’ll know what the giving means. Speaking of future weddings,” I nervously began.

I turned my back, took a few steps away, and then paced back. “Tomorrow evening at sunset is my big moment. Atrius will be my second, but Gabrielle insists that Anya, as well as Sylla should stand with her. She has some odd idea that the numbers should match. You know, she has two witnesses standing with her, so I should have two. I just . . . well, I can’t imagine anyone I’d enjoy having stand with me more on such an important occasion than my son. Do you think you might, I mean if you–”

“You have a little problem asking for things, don’t you?” Solan interjected.

I laughed. “How’d you guess?”

“It must be some keen sense I inherited from you. I’d be honored, mother. Perhaps we could talk after the wedding, maybe about me staying on for a while. I understand that I’ve been more trouble than I’m worth since I’ve come, but I truly can be a good emissary. If you have an opening, I’d be honored to work for the Empire.”

“It just so happens that we could use a good man. Let’s talk more with Gabrielle next week, all right?”

We left the garden together, and I couldn’t help but look up at the olive wood statue of Athena that I loved so. On this evening, I could have sworn that the statue winked at me.
Chapter 20: And What A Feast There Was When They Were Married
She stopped my wandering hands, feigned jumping up from my lap, and then halfheartedly slapped my hands away, telling me I promised to write this evening. With an exasperated sigh, I gave up trying to bed her. I was hoping she had forgotten the promise I made only last night.

It is the eve before my wedding. Gods above, I have existed in this mortal realm for forty-five summers and am to be married for the first time in my life, tomorrow at sunset. Talk about a spinster! I have promised her that I will accept the tradition surrounding a royal marriage, meaning that we will spend tonight apart and will not see one another until the ceremony in the Great Hall tomorrow evening. Given the fact that my more carnal nature makes an appearance whenever she is near, I couldn’t help but make an attempt at seducing her when she kissed me goodnight.

Alas, my future Queen is a strong woman with an equally strong will. Frankly, she makes my stubborn, pigheaded nature look tame in comparison. It’s just that my lovely lady is more subtle about it. And so I sit here, quill in hand, to continue on with the promise I gave her several moons back, that I would reveal something of myself for posterity.

I admit, I thought the idea rather inane at first. I am neither bard nor poet. I am far from a masterful historian, having a tendency to remember things in a rather biased manner, mostly how they revolved around me. I do love to read, preferring histories and war stratagems to the flowery writings of Pindar and Ibycus. Philosophers are my favorite. Socrates and Pythagoras could entertain me for days, but it was Plato’s Dialogues, which captured my mind. His knowledge of reality fascinated me. Perhaps that is why I spared his life.

Ironic, how things that happened when I was quite young, appear fresh in my mind so many seasons later. It was right after I conquered Athens, and destroyed a majority of the city mostly because of what Pericles did to my homelands during the Peloponnesian War. I was so foolish in those days. I killed to make a point that might have impressed just as strongly without the bloodshed.

Critias and Charmides were the only two I was after that day. They were extremists who I couldn’t afford to let live after I took Athens. It was unfortunate that Socrates was so closely involved with them. I had to execute all three. I remember when they brought Plato, Socrates disciple, before me. I was rather impressed with the young man, and believe me, you had to be quite extraordinary to do that in those days. He was from a good family, even served in the Cavalry for his military service. I found his views on life in general to be refreshing and inventive. Perhaps it was the mere fact that he shared his bed with men and not women that caused us to get along so well. There was no sexual tension between the two of us and I think that, and the man’s uncommonly quick wit, were what saved his neck that day. He started an academy after Athens was rebuilt. I have often received invitations to visit him, but I have never gone. It hurts too much to go back to that place where I destroyed so much. Perhaps she would wish to go. Gods, I know she would be in Elysium to enter that academy and speak with one of the greatest philosophers Greece has ever known. I’ll keep that in mind, since there are so many places I wish to show her.

Well, I’ve let my memories of the past carry me away, but that is what she had in mind when she thrust the quill in my hand for very first time. I sit here and smile when I think of the engaging way she had of coercing me into doing something I would have done for her anyway.

“Xena?”

“Mmm?”

“Xena?” Gabrielle’s voice came at me louder this time.

I knew she was waiting for me to raise my eyes from the scroll I was reading. She detested talking to the top of my head, bent over a scroll as I was during our morning meal. Usually this time of the day I gave to my Consort, but I had a full day of hearings to preside over and I was trying to stay caught up.

“I can read and listen at the same time, little one,” I responded. I finally lifted my face to gaze into the intelligent green eyes across from me.

“I know,” she smiled, “but I like looking into your beautiful face.”

I felt the beginnings of a blush creep up my neck and offered her a crooked smile in return. Her forward comment flustered me. She knows what it does to me when she says things like that. Of course, I think that’s why she says them half the time. I sat my scrolls aside and took her hand in mine from across the table.

“All right, my love, now that you have my beautiful attention, what may I do for you?”

“When you say it like that I think you might do anything for me,” she replied coyly. I didn’t yet realize the danger I was in.

“I would,” I answered without hesitation.

“I’d like for you to write down your thoughts, a sort of a history of your life,” she said softly, in halting tones.

“No.” I still smiled.

“But you just said–”

“I lied, pick something else. Some new gowns…”

“Xena…”

“Some new scrolls, perhaps a case to carry them in…”

“Xena…” she said even more softly, with more of a whispering tone.

“Maybe a horse of your very own…you wanted to learn to ride…” I trailed off, looking into eyes that appeared as if they might cry at any moment. Gods, she’s good!

She sat there, her delicate hand within my own, a small, childlike expression on her face. She didn’t have to say another word, we both knew who was going to win this argument.

“Oh, okay,” I relented.

So, as a fearsome battle, it was slightly on the tame side, but it is an example of what I see for my future as a married woman. She has the ability to cause me to feel so much, a sensation that is new for me. Whether in our bed or a seated beside me at a formal dinner, she instills feelings of love and desire, family and home. I find that I had been looking for her all my life and never even knew it, and now that I have her beside me, I won’t ever take a chance on losing her.

I have said it before, but the words were never truer than at this moment. The story of the Conqueror does not begin until she steps into the tale. For, the tale of the Conqueror cannot accurately be told without the telling of Gabrielle.

* * * * * * * * * *

I finally put my quill aside. I re-read this opening passage once more and smile. The candles in my study have long since burned down, having left me with only the oil lamp to see by. Gabrielle is surely sound asleep by now. How could she know that I’ve gone to lie in our empty bed a dozen times already? Where am I getting this unexpected energy? Usually I am exhausted by this time, and the only thing that keeps we awake is worry. Now, I feel as if I could engage in any physical activity until the sun comes up. It must be my nerves, and the anticipation of what tomorrow brings.

I’ve been unable to find my way into Morpheus’s realm without Gabrielle lying beside me, so I arise one last time to finish the scroll on which I’ve been working. I am also adding some final additions to a special gift to be used in the ceremony.

Tomorrow evening at sunset, that is to be the moment of the most joyous event in my life. Actually, when I look outside my window and see that the moon is falling lower into the horizon, I realize that today is the day. I will seal this scroll for now, and re-open it in a fortnight’s time. I know I will only get away with that short respite before Gabrielle bids me write of our wedding experience. I already feel light headed and slightly ill at the prospect of making an ass out of myself in front of most of the land. Athena, give me strength!

* * * * * * * * * *

“Are you done with that yet?” I asked in that peevish tone that indicated I was rapidly losing my patience.

“Almost,” Solan replied. He finally hooked the last button of the cape around my shoulders to the collar of my jacket. “You look a little pale, mother. Kind of like you’re going to lose your morning meal.”

“Did that already. Twice,” I added.

I saw Atrius grin over in the corner, but he at least had the good manners to hide it when I glared in his direction.

“You do want this, don’t you?” Solan asked. I could see confusion in his expression.

“Of course,” I snapped. I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Solan, I don’t mean to be so ill-tempered. Yes, I do want this, very much. I just . . .well, I just get uncomfortable when I know everyone’s eye are on me.”

“You?” he asked in an astonished voice. “I guess I thought that nothing ever affected you in that way.”

“Well, now you know that I have weaknesses just like everyone else.”

“Well, Conqueror,” Atrius placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. “If it makes you feel any better, I think that if you’re standing beside Gabrielle on this day, not all the eyes will be on you.” He grinned and suddenly I was struck by how much he reminded me of my older brother, Toris.

“Thank you, Atrius. It’s nice to know that you’re here to keep my ego on an even keel.”

Solan laughed aloud and Atrius continued grinning. “Aye, Conqueror.”

We stood about in one of the private rooms off the Great Hall. Philateus, one of my lead advisors came in and instructed us on the evening’s event. Stand here. Kneel there. I decided, for this one night, to simply follow orders. I presumed I’d look less the fool that way. The bonding ceremony would be followed by Gabrielle’s crowning. Philateus said that the timing of the whole evening was critical. I knew this had something to do with sunset, but since I’d never had this kind of a ceremony within these palace walls, I had no real idea of what he meant.

I wondered if Gabrielle was feeling this nervous, or if marriage was again one of those things that women like her understood, and took in their stride. Then again, Gabrielle was accustomed to hiding her emotions. If I was a different woman in Gabrielle’s presence, then my consort was certainly the same in front of me. Gabrielle never feared displaying her fears and inadequacies before me, but old habits are the hardest to break. When we were in the company of others, Gabrielle’s emotions were usually as masked off as mine. It amazes me most days that two people such as we ever found the courage to express our love for one another.

Philateus was back again, this time indicating that we should make our way to the dais. When I walked from the room, Atrius stood to my left and Solan to my right. The room I was exiting was nearly at the back of the Great Hall, which meant we had to walk the entire length of the hall to reach our appointed destination. I said a quick prayer to Athena, requesting that I not trip, or embarrass myself too badly today. Although we’re all human, a foolish misstep today would be remembered for seasons to come.

The hall had been filled with seats, with the exception of a purple-carpeted area that became the center aisle. As we walked toward the front of the hall, or the side that faced the outside patio, everyone in the congregation either bowed or curtsied. I nodded to a few whom I knew well enough. The room was filled to the rafters, and I couldn’t even hazard a guess at how many people were there. Most likely, they wanted to see if my consort had enough sense to leave me standing there at the dais.

The entire partition and tapestries had been removed from the western wall. The sun had not yet slipped past the protection of the lofty trees to sink behind the mountains, so the daylight lit up the entire hall. There were a number of musicians set up on the patio outside, along with the enormous banquet being prepared for the evening. Since our marriage vows did not become absolute until sunset, it would be a late evening. It would not be considered a successful celebration unless most of the partygoers saw the sun rise on their way home.

When I reached the dais, I took the four steps to the top and breathed a sigh of relief. Then we stood waiting. I wondered if I looked as stiff and uncomfortable as I felt in the tight, short-waisted jacket. I glanced around the room and thought that Gabrielle would truly love the way the staff had decorated. Roses, from someone else’s garden, adorned every space in the hall. On top of the dais, just in front of me when I faced outside, was a small altar. Two golden and jewel-decorated crowns lay there on a velvet cloth. Behind the crowns, in a vase, were two of my special roses that Gabrielle loved so well. I wondered who had been responsible for that.

Two women stood behind the altar. Lydia was the high priestess in our Athenian temple. She was some seasons older than I was. I remembered when we first constructed the temple, and she’d traveled from Athens to select young women to serve in the temple. I don’t recall how it happened, but she never went back to Athens. I only know that she has been here since the beginning of the Empire, and that it was fitting that she preside over my bonding ceremony.

To Lydia’s right stood Satena, the Amazon priestess. Gabrielle’s new heritage brought other concerns regarding our ceremony. After some careful consideration, the Amazons were asked to incorporate some of their traditions into the event.

When Satena and Ephiny came to me yesterday and told me that I would be expected to provide the binding tie, I was at a loss. I knew what it was from my time with the Amazons earlier in my life. I just never thought I would have to make one. I’m sure everyone thought I would have Anya come up with something, but I was determined. The bonding tie was to be wrapped around our joined hands near the end of the ceremony. The woman asking for the hand in marriage was usually the one to make the tie, and I had seem some stunningly crafted ones in my day. I found myself still working on mine, even as Gabrielle slept in a separate room last night. I admit; I did have Anya assist me with most of it. She was a good sport about it, and she even gave me the embroidery materials I asked for. I spent the rest of the night writing, and sewing a pattern of a lion’s head onto both ends of the silk cloth.

The cloth had a special meaning behind it that only Gabrielle might recognize. It was cut from the silk of one of my traveling robes. Gabrielle had first been presented to me while wearing that robe. As long as I live, I will never forget the sight of her kneeling before me in the dressing gown that was too large for her. It had slipped off one shoulder, and she had looked the very picture of innocent sensuality.

I looked around the room as my mind rambled on. My eyes caught the olivewood statue that hung down in front of the open wall to the patio. It was usually up so high you couldn’t see it. I thought it’s positioning rather odd for this ceremony. The statue was of Athena on a spirited mount, giving chase during a hunt. She had her long spear in hand. I always thought of it as a most stunning work. At the end of the spear, set in the blade portion was a large jewel as big as my fist. Rumor had it that it was a diamond, but I never believed it was more than a crystal such as the ones found in abundance throughout the caves in this area. The statue was hung quite low, which registered as strange.

I took another deep breath. That action was becoming a habit of late. In a matter of moments, I would be a married woman. I was the Conqueror of the Known World, after all. What manner of magic could Gabrielle possibly possess that could scare me? Nothing. Right? So why in Hades why I so terrified? I fidgeted and shifted my weight from foot to foot, cursing under my breath at having to wear such uncomfortable boots and clothing. I wondered once more, what I would do to mess up the day, and that’s when I saw her.

Gabrielle paused at the end of the carpeted aisle. In that moment, my cares about anything at all merely vanished into the air. That sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, the headache that had been gnawing at the fringes of my consciousness, even my uncomfortable attire. Suddenly there was only an incredible feeling of joy and unworthiness. To say she looked beautiful seems so mundane, but words failed me at that moment, just as they fail me now in the telling of the tale. I only remember the feelings, and I find them so difficult to translate into words. If any one ever asks me in the future, I would say that up until this moment, in my entire life, this was my best day.

Gabrielle wore a traditional Greek gown, all flowing pieces of sheer material. The train that was situated around her waist gathered behind her, and fell to the ground. It appeared to drag along the ground a full fifteen hand lengths behind her.

Gabrielle was flanked on either side by her two witnesses, as I had been. Anya and Sylla looked as lovely as I had ever seen them. Sylla definitely appeared the more nervous of the two. Gabrielle had asked the young woman because they had formed a true friendship, and not just as employer and servant. It took some convincing on my consort’s part to finally persuade Sylla that it would not be out of place for a woman who worked in our home to stand alongside us on this day. I enjoyed Gabrielle’s attitude. It was as if a clean breeze had begun to sweep through the Empire. Who better to instill such feelings of equality than a slave who was about to become a queen?

The musicians played softly in the background. It was the customary music for a Greek wedding, but I never heard one note. I only had eyes for the woman coming down the aisle to marry me. Three Amazon guards, dressed in full masks and looking as though they took their job very seriously walked ahead of Gabrielle and her witnesses. In keeping with sharing the young Amazon Queen, three Empire soldiers, who made up Gabrielle’s personal guard, followed close behind the whole procession.

My brain propelled me into action just as Gabrielle reached the steps to the dais. I positioned myself on the second stair, and offered my hand to my consort. I wanted to say something to her just then. I wanted to tell her how magnificent she looked, and how happy I was that she chose me. I wanted to express to her how much I loved her, and what I wouldn’t give to always have her in my life. Instead, I was struck dumb. My tongue turned into a wooden block, and so I settled for my best smile to convey what was in my heart.

I knew it fell far short of what was in me, but Gabrielle, in her infinite capacity to know me, simply looked up and whispered, “me too.”

She took her place beside me and suddenly everything I was supposed to do, every instruction I had been given fully disappeared from my mind. Gabrielle must have noticed the sheer panic in my eyes. I think for a heartbeat or two, I was slightly perturbed that she didn’t look as unnerved as I felt. Her calm demeanor belied her true emotion, however. When she took my hand, seemingly to calm me, I felt how warm her skin, and how damp her palms were.

Gabrielle was always cold. The very first moment she wakes in the morning, she burrows herself against me, bundling the blankets all around her. She shivers and I know she must feel the cold much more so than I must. I often wondered if it wasn’t something psychological. Perhaps one of the many abuses she suffered during her time as a slave. Whatever it was, I knew that if Gabrielle was warm, and her palm sweaty, she must indeed have been as nervous as I was. I must be a sick woman, for at the time, that knowledge pleased me just a small bit. I think it was simply a matter of misery finding companionship in numbers.

Gabrielle and I went through a series of small formalities. We both did exactly as we were told and no calamities arose. It was, basically, as I suspected. Stand here. Say this. Turn that way. We were headed for the home stretch as both Lydia and Satena came to stand directly before the two of us. This was the part of a marriage ceremony were I’d seen grown men either bolt from the room, or break down and cry like an infant. It all came down to our final vows.

Lydia began by first nodding to me, and then began the questions I had been anticipating.

“Xena, Lord Conqueror of the Greek Empire. Do you stand before the patron Goddess of the Empire, Athena, along with these assembled witnesses, and declare your intention to wed Gabrielle of Potidaea, Queen to the Amazons?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Is it your intention to acknowledge Gabrielle’s right to become Queen to the Empire, and to crown her as such before all in attendance?”

“Yes, it is.”

Lydia then indicated that I was to kneel before Athena’s altar. I dropped to one knee and the priestess reached around and took hold of the golden crown on the right. She gently settled it on my head, and I just knew I would have a headache before the evening was over. It was one reason why I had only worn the blasted thing a total of three times since I became ruler. It was incredibly heavy. I kept pushing it around on my head until Lydia glared at me.

“Can’t help it. It’s uncomfortable,” I complained under my breath.

Gabrielle smiled as Lydia continued to eye me.

I stood up, thankful that I hadn’t done anything to make a fool out of myself. Lydia then turned toward Gabrielle.

“Gabrielle, Queen to the Northern Amazon Nation. Do you stand before the patron Goddess of the Empire, Athena, along with these assembled witnesses, and declare your intention to wed Xena of Amphipolis, the Lord Conqueror of the Greek Empire?”

“Yes, I do.” Gabrielle answered.

It surprised me when I heard Lydia recite the name of my birthplace. It had been many seasons since I had been known as Xena of Amphipolis. At first, the people of Amphipolis forced me to leave my home. The people blamed me for the family and friends who died during the fighting when Cortese invaded the village. They wanted someone to blame, and I suppose I was handy. Even my own mother cursed me. When I took on the moniker of Destroyer of nations, and proceeded to lay siege over the known world, that’s when the people of Amphipolis refused to acknowledge their home as my birthplace. After all these seasons, to hear the word Amphipolis in association with me sounded strange to my ears.

I listened as Lydia continued with Gabrielle much the same as the Priestess had with me.

“Is it your intention to acknowledge your right to become Queen to the Empire, to accept the crown and all its responsibilities before all in attendance?”

“Yes, it is.” Gabrielle answered once again.

Lydia nodded to me, and I assisted Gabrielle to kneel before the altar. The Priestess handed me the smaller of the two crowns and I gently placed it atop Gabrielle’s head. The young woman grimaced immediately. I helped her rise and Anya assisted in returning her gown to its original state.

Gabrielle gave me a sideways glance. “Why is it so heavy?” she asked. Her eyes rolled upward indicating the crown on her head.

I nearly laughed aloud. “See, it’s not just me.” I muttered to Lydia.

Lydia shook her head at the both of us as if we were misbehaving children. I looked over at Gabrielle. She looked so regal, and every bit the Queen that she now was. It was amazing really. With just a few words and a piece of jewelry, albeit a large piece of jewelry, Gabrielle was now the Queen of the Greek Empire. Although, there was one small bit of business left. She actually had to marry me.

Lydia and Satena exchanged places before us. The Amazon Priestess would lead us through the actual bonding ceremony. This was to be more reminiscent of an Amazon Ceremony than a traditional royal wedding.

Satena looked between the two of us. “Who provides the bonding tie?” she asked.

I would have loved to capture Gabrielle’s expression when I spoke up. “I do.”

I turned to Solan who had the cloth tucked inside his tunic. He pulled it out and handed the item to me, and I in turn handed it to Satena.

Will you face one another and join hands?” Satena requested.

We did as instructed, and were able to look at one another fully for the first time. I watched as tears filled Gabrielle’s eyes, as Satena loosely wrapped the green silk tie around our clasped hands. She instantly recognized it for what it was, and it appeared to touch her heart. I can be very thick at times, and I am positive there will be future days when I might disappoint my wife greatly, but some days I do things right. I occasionally have flares of brilliance, and taking the time to create this Amazon binding tie was one of those times.

“Just as this physical tie binds you together,” Satena began. “Let your love for one another do the same. Xena, do you agree to this match?”

“I do.” I was never more terrified, yet more certain about any course of action in my entire life.

“Do you promise Gabrielle your love, trust, and fidelity, for as long as you shall live?”

“I do.”

“Gabrielle,” the Priestess turned to the young woman before me. ” Do you agree to this match?”

“I do.”

“And do you promise Xena your love, trust, and fidelity, for as long as you shall live?”

“I do.”

Gabrielle’s gaze never left mine. With all eyes now upon us, we could have been alone for all the thought we paid them. There were only the two of us at this moment. No matter how old I become, and how feeble my mind might grow, I would always remember this moment. I would remember the song that was played, the way Gabrielle’s green eyes sparkled, and the light scent of the perfumed oil she had bathed in. Not one detail would ever fade with time. This day was to be forever in my heart.

“Then, with the blessings of Athena and Artemis, I declare your bond complete.” Satena said in a loud voice.

The Amazon Priestess slipped the bonding tie loose from around our joined hands. Then she reached in and fastened the cloth around Gabrielle’s slim waist. Lydia looked out towards the outside patio before turning back to face us.

“The timing is perfect,” she said. I thought it odd because that’s exactly what Philateus kept telling me, that for the evening to be perfect, timing was critical.

Lydia motioned us both to step forward to the altar, and to remove the crowns from our heads. Athena’s Priestess took both of the heavy circlets of gold, and placed them upon the altar. Each crown was encrusted with a seemingly random pattern of jewels, and they caught slivers of the light as the sunset crept down into the horizon.

Lydia set the larger crown down into a circular groove embedded into the wood of the altar. She then placed the smaller crown onto it’s own carved space beside the other one, except that the smaller crown came down and interlocked with the first. They looked as thought they were two circles, forever sealed together. I was to quickly discover that this wasn’t the only magic of illusion that the crowns provided.

“Perfect, simply perfect,” Lydia commented to herself.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spied Philateus grinning like an idiot. Gabrielle and I exchanged curious glances. Frankly, I feared that the excitement had gotten to him. Just as Gabrielle tried to cover her growing smile over the spectacle before us, the sun dipped low in the sky.

The moment the sun neared the apex of the mountain range in the distance, a sharp beam of light struck the exact center of the crystal in the center of Athena’s spear. At first, the crystal burst into a thousand tiny rays of sunlight. Within the space of a dozen heartbeats, the illumination converged into one single shaft of light that struck the golden crowns upon the altar.

It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. A collective gasp came from the many people assembled within the hall, my own added to the mix. Suddenly the hall was filled with stars. Not just any stars, but the entire Great Hall held the summer sky. Above us on the high ceiling, and around us on the walls was an exact replica of the nighttime sky, and the stars that twinkled like diamonds against a black silk cloth.

I turned round and round, my mouth surely hanging agape. I felt Gabrielle’s arm slip about my waist. I looked down into her face and beheld the same awe that mine must be reflecting at that moment. Her eyes expressed the question that her voice didn’t ask.

“I never knew,” was all I could think to say.

I held my new wife, as I stared around us at the wonder that would surely come just this once in our lifetimes. It would never come again, of that I was absolutely sure. For Gabrielle would be the only Queen, I would ever take. If anything ever happened to separate us, Gods’ forbid enmity or death, I would never join with anyone this way again. As I felt Gabrielle’s hold on me tighten, I knew that she felt the very same way. It seemed as if we receiving a blessing from the very cosmos, from Gaia herself. The air within the hall pulsed with energy.

It lasted for long moments, and then as quickly as it came, the magic faded. The servants had obviously been well coached by Philateus and others who were aware of the phenomenon, and what would happen. The lamps and candles were lit immediately, and the guests in the Great Hall looked around as if dazed. We all returned our attentions to the task at hand. I looked up to see Lydia smiling from ear to ear.

“Now you know, Conqueror, why I never returned to my place in Athens. I have waited for half my life to see the blessing of Athena,” Lydia said.

It was something that the guests of the royal wedding would talk about for the rest of their lives. They would tell their children, and some would nod their heads in disbelief. All who attended the day, however, would remember that for one moment in time all the heavens came together. For me personally, it would forever be a reminder that I was finally doing it right. For the first time in so long I could say that I was proud of my actions. Loving Gabrielle and accepting her love of me seemed to cause the world to tip slightly. It was as if nothing would ever be the same again. My world, as I had made it, was about to change. I had no idea at the time just how much.

* * * * * * * * * *

The feast had been going on for candlemarks. Many of the guests were either drunk, or well on their way to that state. Guards and soldiers in and around the palace had been schooled in diplomacy for this occasion. They were to be respectful, but to keep the peace, and encourage some of the more inebriated guests to sleep it off in the palace.

Gabrielle was truly the most beautiful woman in attendance. I may have been slightly biased, but not by much. She had removed the train on her gown so she could move around more easily. We ate, drank, and danced. We enjoyed one another’s company until a number of women requested Gabrielle’s presence. I always had one eye trained across the room on Gabrielle, but I soon joined in the challenges from some of the officers and Amazons. Usually the challenges were competitions in sport or drinking. I tactfully bowed out of the latter. I had no intention of going to bed drunk on this night.

Frankly, getting Gabrielle into our own bed had been all I could think about the entire time we were dancing. I admitted as much to her, discreetly whispering in her ear until her face blushed a stunning pink color. I had no idea what had come over me, but I felt a need I hadn’t experienced in at least a dozen seasons. At one time, when I was a younger woman, sex was like that for me. It was more than something I used as a pleasurable diversion; it was a driving need that usually caused a pounding ache between my legs. The difference between now and twenty or so seasons ago was that now I knew that only one woman’s touch could satisfy my need. Back then; a thousand women could not quench my thirst.

I found myself the last contestant in an arm wrestling challenge. When I sat down to the table, Ephiny sat across from me. We both grinned. The Amazon couldn’t hide her admiration for my wife, but I knew two things for sure. One, Ephiny would never do anything that would disrespect either Gabrielle or me. Two, a physical challenge would be the only way I could ever hope to come close to pounding the Amazon for those thoughts.

“At last you have her, Conqueror,” Ephiny muttered as we set our elbows to the table.

“I do indeed,” I answered with a smile.

Not another word was spoken. We each produced our own feral grin, and a look of fire as struggled toward victory. She had me first, but that was always my way. I liked to test my opponents. I let her pull my arm over until she felt victory was hers. It was with sheer strength that I came back, as I pulled my arm upright again.

I held her arm straight up until I felt a surge of adrenalin, as I’d not felt in seasons, course through my body. I graced her with a smile that could have been a snarl. It was as if I bared my teeth as a warning. One more heartbeat elapsed and in one swift movement, I slammed the Amazon’s arm to the table. A loud cheer went up from the soldiers, and even a few exclamations of surprise from some of the Amazons.

Ephiny stood as I did, and she rubbed her hand while staring at me. “Your message is well received, Conqueror.” She smiled.

I returned the smile along with a friendly slap on the back. “Tonight belongs to the warriors, my friend. There are more than a few lovely ladies who have never been in the company of an Amazon, perhaps you should drink up.”

The Amazon returned my good humor. “You’re right, Conqueror. Perhaps there are a few highborn noblewomen who have never had a taste of Amazon love before. So, how does one go about the introductions?”

I groaned at her play of words. “Come with me.”

We sauntered over to where Gabrielle was surrounded by a circle of lovely women. In all humility I will admit that when the two of us came into their midst, more than a few jaws dropped open. I stood behind Gabrielle, desperately trying to keep my hands from wandering. I placed them on her shoulders, and then introduced the Amazon Regent to the group. It didn’t take long before at least three of the women had taken an earnest interest in our friend. I also learned that Ephiny could be a charmer when she wanted to be. When I turned my attention away, to focus on Gabrielle, I knew that Ephiny would be a busy woman for the rest of the night.

I bent to kiss Gabrielle’s neck and she lifted her hand, and placed it around my neck. I pressed into her and I wondered if she could feel the trembling of my body. I splayed my hand across her abdomen, probably lower down her belly than I should have in public. I felt her breath hitch as I pulled her back against me. I whispered in her ear.

“Follow me.” It wasn’t a command, or a simple request. It was a desperate plea, and I think she recognized that fact by the tone of my voice.

I held her hand and walked off to the back of the hall. I quietly opened the door of the room that I’d been in earlier that day. I hurriedly lit one lamp and turned back to Gabrielle. She stood in front of the large desk with a slightly confused expression on her face. I slipped one arm around her waist and drew her to me so that not an inch of space existed between us.

I kissed her gently at first, but her mouth eagerly sought mine, which simply fueled my desire all the more. We took turns pulling and pressing against one another. It quickly brought us both to a state of some acute need. I pushed her back slightly, until she was sitting on the end of the desk. I could feel my kisses becoming more intense, more insistent, even demanding. I pressed my weight back against her, and as I lowered her back to the top of the desk, I swept papers and small objects out of the way with my right hand.

“Gods, how I want you,” I groaned.

A low guttural moan, such as did not usually emanate from Gabrielle, came rolling from her chest. I felt her legs wrap around mine. That sound, the feel of her enveloped around me, it was all the encouragement that I needed to continue in that fashion.

I straightened myself to remove the jacket I still wore. Gabrielle sat up, pushing the garment from my shoulders as soon as I had it unfastened. She tugged at the buttons to my shirt, and I temporarily let her have her way. I pushed the soft material of her gown up and along her legs, stopping when I reached her thighs. I slid my hands in further until I had a firm hold of her backside and pulled her body against my own body once more. I slid the fabric of her dress down her shoulder, and exposed a perfectly beautiful breast. Her skin was flushed pink, and her nipple pebbled and tight with excitement. It was simply too inviting to resist.

My lips, my teeth, my tongue, they found every inch of Gabrielle’s body absolutely delectable. I could barely understand my own body. Perhaps it was that we were now married, or that I’d finally found all that I desired. Whatever the cause, I was experiencing sensations that I hadn’t had since I was a much younger woman. Coupled with my love and passion for this woman before me, I was insatiable. I could not touch her, kiss her, love her enough.

She lifted her hips as I slipped the silk breeches off her. I tossed them away and kissed my way down her body. I paused, and pushed the silken material further up her belly. I kissed the damp curls between her legs, and allowed my tongue to flick lightly over her wet folds in a teasing manner. I felt her fingers entwine themselves within my hair. She attempted to pull me closer, lifting her hips at the same time. Her moans grew louder, and her legs trembled against me. I draped her legs so that they lay along my back and shoulders, and allowed myself one long languid stroke against he sex. I pulled away before she could press herself more fully against my face.

“Xena,” Gabrielle at last breathlessly pleaded.

I looked up, waiting until I heard the words. She knew exactly what I wanted, and in other circumstances, she might have attempted to hold out longer. By this point, her need to be taken seemed as great as my wish to have her.

“Please,” she begged.

I didn’t hesitate one moment, quick to reward my wife’s willing submission. I buried my tongue deep within her, pulling back only to lovingly stroke the small area of swollen flesh that desired my most intimate attention. I gently sucked on the bit of flesh until I could feel Gabrielle’s orgasm begin. She convulsed against me, stifling her cry in mid voice. I think she might have suddenly realized where we were. She came hard and fast for me, and I continued to kiss the silky wet flesh until her quivering ceased.

Still breathing deeply, I helped her to sit up straight, her legs wrapping even more tightly around me. She brushed my shirt aside to suck at the skin at the base of my neck.

“Mmm,” I murmured. “Not yet, my love. I’m not through with you yet,” I whispered seductively into her ear.

She moved her hands to cover my breasts, pinching, and then releasing the taut nipples. Her roaming hands pressed up between my legs, and I involuntarily spread them further apart. I felt her pulling loose the laces of my trousers.

“What are you up to, little one?” I teased as I grabbed both her hands.

“Please, Xena, I want to feel you against me. Please.”

I laughed. “And when someone opens the door? What will they think when I have my trousers around my ankles?”

“Oh?” She pulled back slightly, and looked down at her own disarrayed attire. “And you don’t mind them seeing me this way?”

“Yes, but I’ll be the only one with my bare ass facing hundreds of gawking guests.” I kissed her and she chuckled evilly.

“I’m willing to take my chances on that scenario, Conqueror,” she replied.

Before I could take a firmer hold of her hands, she wriggled free and pressed the heel of her left hand directly against me. The small rotating move she added left my knees weak. Then with a lightning quickness, she pressed her fingers to that spot on the inside of my thigh.

I gasped as the effect of the pressure point registered within my brain. “Oh Gods! Off . . . get them off,” I now begged.

It took only heartbeats until my trousers were down around my ankles, and I had one knee braced upon the desk beside Gabrielle. I groaned in relief at the feel of Gabrielle’s fingers upon my drenched sex. Under previous circumstances, Gabrielle’s pressure points led to some rather mind numbing orgasms. In the mood I was in tonight, I could only speculate how the building pressure would release itself. I suddenly envisioned my body literally exploding.

I felt Gabrielle’s free hand reaching for mine, guiding me to her own center. I easily slipped two fingers inside of her just as her mouth covered my own. The sound of pleasure she made, the way her moan vibrated against my lips caused an additional flood of wetness from my own body. We moved together without words, only numerous sounds of pleasure.

The physical need to be pleasured was great, but greater still was the need to have Gabrielle. True, our lovemaking had always been inventive and passionate, but I always took care to do everything in my power not to make Gabrielle feel used. Her days as a slave, having been taken in any manner, and as rough or as coarsely as pleased her master were not times that were that far behind her. It had not even been a full season since we were together, let alone in love with one another.

Although I wanted her in that way now, simply because she fueled my passion beyond anything I’d ever known, I was reticent to have her in such a manner. I was unsure about her feelings. Thus fearful to treat her body as something I possessed. It’s what I wanted at that moment, however. I wanted to claim her, to exert my right of ownership, but the truth was, the feelings were quite reciprocal. I wanted Gabrielle to feel the same way about me. I wanted her to want me, to claim me as no other ever had or ever would. As in all things between the two of us, I needn’t have worried so much. Her next breathless words affected my libido more than any other ever had.

“Oh, Gods, Xena . . . harder. God’s, harder!”

I did as she asked. I forgot that I’d always promised myself to treat Gabrielle like the most delicate flower in my garden. I made love to her with as much passion and physical force as her body dictated. When she requested more, I gave it to her. Anything at all that she requested, I immediately provided.

I felt Gabrielle’s thumb press into the hollow space high up on my inner thigh, and I realized she loosed the pressure point that had kept me suspended, moments away from my release. Our bodies and our excitement melded together perfectly. I was so caught up in Gabrielle’s pleasure that I’d nearly forgotten my own, until I felt her tighten around my fingers, the area pulsating wildly.

All at once, my body felt as if it had exploded into a thousand shards of light. The pieces burst from me with such a force that I loudly cried out Gabrielle’s name. She fell back against the desk, and my body followed, lying over her. The pieces of my conscious self were softly floating back down to earth and reattaching themselves to my physical body. That’s what it felt like anyway.

Gabrielle and I both stopped breathing and looked anxiously toward the door. We heard the sound of music and loud conversation, and released our breaths once we realized that we hadn’t been noticed. Looking back at one another, we laughed, and I kissed her soundly. She wrapped her arms around my neck, and kissed my ear.

“I don’t even understand where that came from. I mean . . . I’ve never wanted . . . that was . . . ”

Her words trailed off as she tried to form some conclusion about the different sort of passion we’d just shared. I could not see into her heart completely, but I could share what I knew of her.

“I think it’s called coming into your own, love.” Gabrielle looked at me with a confused expression, and I leaned up on one elbow to look at her better. “Any sort of loving such as this would have reminded the old Gabrielle of a time when she had no choice in the matter, therefore it would have caused you emotional pain. It wouldn’t even have occurred to you to find it pleasurable. Perhaps it’s different now that you know your body and your heart will always be safe with me, and they always shall, my wife.” I punctuated the statement with a gentle kiss.

“I’m so happy that I’m married to you Xena!” Gabrielle said in a rush of emotion.

“You’ve made me quite a happy woman as well, little one. Will I make a good wife, do you think?

She kissed my nose and released her hold on my neck. ” I think you will make a splendid wife, my Conqueror.”

We both jumped at the timid knock at the door.

“Maybe they’ll go away. It’s locked, isn’t it?” Gabrielle asked.

“I find it a most interesting time to ask that question, my dear.”

We paused. The knock came again.

“Ahem,” a male voice was clearing his throat. “Conqueror?” It was Atrius’s hesitant voice.

“Go away, Atrius,” I teased, as I pulled away and started to redress.

I helped Gabrielle up, and scrambled around the room in an attempt to find the panties I’d taken off her. She straightened her clothes while we heard Atrius continue to shuffle around outside.

“Conqueror, the Governor of Argos wishes to bid you farewell.” Atrius commented softly from the other side of the door.

“All right, all right, we’re coming!” I shouted out.

Gabrielle replaced a comb in her hair; we looked at one another, and burst into a fit of laughter over my words. We laughed like two schoolgirls.

“Well, at least not until we get upstairs again,” she said, wiping her eyes, and our laughter began again.

Finally calm and presentable, I opened the door to face my Captain. Atrius stood there, his manner as staid as ever.

“Lord Conqueror . . . My Queen,” he said as he nodded to us both.

Atrius quickly explained that, Thalpius, the Governor of Argos, wished to speak to Gabrielle and I before he left to return home.

“Did uhm . . . did anyone realize we were gone?” I asked my captain.

Atrius grinned at that question and I knew this was going to be good.

“Not a single solitary soul realized the two of you were missing.” He clapped me on the back, and just before he moved away, he said, “right up until the moment they heard you scream out Gabrielle’s name!”

Atrius laughed as he walked ahead of us, a sound that rarely came from him so heartily. I cringed, and I’m sure my face was turning scarlet, yet I tried to retain what little shred of dignity I had left.

“Look at it this way,” Gabrielle whispered to me, as she tried to hide her own embarrassment. “You have just become very human in their eyes, My Conqueror.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Two nights had passed since our wedding. On this night, I sat alone in my chair before the window. The heavy tapestry was fastened back to expose the night sky to my pensive gaze. I left Gabrielle sound asleep in our bed chamber.

The first pass of the sun after our wedding was spent in bed. Gabrielle and I took turns wearing one another out. We made love, enjoyed relaxing in a hot bath, and sometimes talked by the fire. All our meals were delivered to our rooms, and we enjoyed every moment of our personal time together.

My body ached somewhat now. It seemed as if I was trying to make up for the lack of sexual activity for the last few seasons, all in the space of a few days. I had my suspicions at my renewed vigor. I wasn’t sure if I was insane, or if the physical manifestation of energy was real. I debated telling Gabrielle of my sudden youthful feeling. How would she feel to know the Gods sometimes took an active hand in my life?

Today, Gabrielle spent time with the Amazons, and took care of a number of palace situations that demanded the Queen’s touch. That simply meant they were too diplomatic a nature to have me attend to them. Solan and I spent a great deal of time mapping out his position within my new family. It gladdened my heart to see Solan and Gabrielle so at ease with one another. It made things easier all around. Kaleipus and I spoke briefly regarding Solan’s future, and while I could see that it broke the Centaurs heart to give up his claim on the young man, I reminded him of his place in Solan’s life. I assured Kaleipus that we would talk more before he returned north.

Solan wished to travel, to see the lands he had only heard about in stories. I was always looking for intelligent men to serve as emissaries to my court. Now that my conquering days were past me, it took more than the might of a large army to deal with provinces outside my immediate realm. I told Solan I had an idea, but it would require diplomacy, and hard study on his part. He agreed and I spoke to Yu Pan in the afternoon. The old man had expressed a wish to return to the province of Chin, to meet with people he knew, and to visit places that held his memories. He surprised me by agreeing rather quickly to my plan. I suppose he’s grown rather fond of Solan, and the boy’s constant attention, as the young man was eager to learn about the old healer’s homeland.

We agreed that Yu Pan would travel back under the protection of the Empire, and that he would travel along with Solan as an emissary. I was thankful that it would be Yu Pan’s tutelage Solan was under. The old man could teach Solan much. As happy as I had been over my new marriage, I still felt like I was losing Solan again. I had missed so much of his life. Now that we were mother and son, I felt a selfish desire to have him beside me for a while, but he was a grown man, and I had to allow him his freedom. I would worry less while he traveled with Yu Pan. Odd, how things turn out the way they are supposed to. I could ask for no better teacher and companion for my son, than the man who brought me so much life.

“Xena?”

I looked up to find a sleepy looking wife with a fur robe pulled close around her.

“Aren’t you tired?” she asked.

“A little, but you know how I get at times. Come here, love.”

Gabrielle wasted no time curling herself into my lap, her body pressed closely to my own.

“I was just thinking mostly,” I said.

“Thinking or worrying?”

I smiled at her intuitive response. “Perhaps a little worry, but a very small bit.” I described just how small by holding up my thumb and forefinger a hair’s width apart.

That caused her to smile, and instantly my worries were gone. It was as if the sun had risen within our room.

“Gabrielle, would you like to go on a trip? A sort of wedding trip?”

“I’d love to travel with you, Xena, but can we just leave like that?” Gabrielle inquired.

“Good point, but there ought to be some gain in being Conqueror.” I grinned and kissed the tip of her nose. “Actually, it won’t be very difficult. The circle of advisors do most of the day-to-day work anyway. Besides, there are so many places I’ve wanted to go back to again. I think it would mean so much more to be able to share them with you.”

“Xena, if we travel, do you think . . . ”

Gabrielle trailed off and refused to meet my eyes. “What, love? Is there somewhere you’d like to go?”

“Home,” Gabrielle whispered softly.

“Potidaea?” I asked.

Gabrielle nodded her head in silence.

“Of course, little one, forgive me for not thinking of that ages ago.”

She brightened considerably at that. My own happiness was so tied in with hers that I felt lighter just seeing her come to life again.

“I know that my mother and father . . . well, that there’s every chance they may be dead by now, but if I could only know.”

“I have an idea. Since Solan will be leaving with Yu Pan, and the Amazons and Centaurs, will all be heading north, why don’t we join them? A caravan of sorts. Solan wants to go back to his home and take care of some loose ends there. This will give you time to get to know the Amazons a little better, and we can have the ships meet us in the harbors of Potidaea or Scione. Solan and Yu Pan can begin their journey from there. It will even give us time for the Queen of the Amazons to visit Amazonia.”

“Oh, Xena, that sounds wonderful!”

Gabrielle kissed me and then began talking in an animated fashion. She started making lists of all that would need to be done, things to bring, clothes for travel. I listened attentively to every word, sincerely and utterly fascinated by the way my wife’s mind worked.

Once again, I wondered at my good fortune. How could my life have been so miserable and dead just moons ago? How is it that I was chosen at birth by the Gods to receive such joy by Gabrielle’s mere presence in my life? What one thing did I do, what one act atoned for my many crimes enough to know such happiness now? So many questions and too few answers. I knew that our lives would not always be as though sailing on a sea of glass, but even when the difficult times come, I know I will never again have to face them alone.

That is what will matter the most.

Gabrielle and I will travel the road back home, and then we will travel the road called life together, hand in hand, never breaking stride. We can’t know what the journey will contain, but like the petals of a rose, they will unfold one by one. When they have finally opened fully to us, we will look back at the blossom, in all its beauty, and say that it was love. Love made all the difference.

Epilogue

We will leave on our extended travels in two days time, and still my wife has me writing in these infernal scrolls. What I find most odd, and almost entertaining, is the fact that now I look forward to the writing. She has not made a bard of me, that much is certain, but Gabrielle has certainly given me a release of sorts.

I scribe my thoughts and feelings at the end of the day, along with the events that occurred. It helps me to see it in writing. I am learning, and at my age that is not always an easy thing to do. I look at the page before me, and some days I am able to look at it quite objectively, others I am not so good-natured. I try to look at the occasions when I lost my temper or spoke sharply to an underling. I remember the incident, and I try harder the next time to keep my feelings more in check.

A knock on my study door stops me in mid thought. “Enter.”

“Lord Conqueror.”

Acasia, a trusted soldier, salutes me. He is among the number of men and women I entrust with private matters. They are loyal to death, and have, in the past, been spies or assassins. These past lines of work make them perfect for discreet operations.

He hands me a scroll and I peruse it before speaking. I motion with one hand for him to sit, but he does not, I usually expect him to act no differently.

“The mother and father?” I ask.

“Still alive, a small farm just as you said in Potidaea, no word on the girl, though. If she was taken as a slave at the same time, she could be dead many seasons past. I still have a few connections. I have the word out, Lord Conqueror. If she’s still alive, I’ll track her down.”

“Excellent work! I’ll reward you amply for this, Acasia.”

“And the other, My Lord? Do you wish to know of the woman?”

“She must be quite elderly by now.” I answered, unsure of what else to say. I feared the soldier’s answer, no matter what it should be.

“Aye, Conqueror, that she is.”

“She’s alive then?” I asked, feeling my belly clench tightly.

“Aye, old, but spry. She still owns the inn there in Amphipolis. She married about fifteen seasons ago . . . has a family helping her. Her old man died a few seasons back, but she’s got a son and a daughter, some little ones that must belong to them.”

“Did she . . . how did she look? Well?”

“Aye, well enough, Conqueror,” Acasia answered.

“Thanks you, Acasia. You’ve done well. Have some of your men see that no harm befalls any of these people. We leave in two days time.”

I opened a drawer at my desk and handed the man a bag of talants, then dismissed him. I leaned back in my chair and wondered what she looked like. The little child in me still ached for acceptance, but I knew the time for that had passed. Cyrene had a new family, and hopefully they helped her to forget the heartache the first had left her with. Hopefully her second daughter gave her what I could not.

I pushed my melancholy aside and rose. I put out the lamp and returned to the rooms Gabrielle and I shared. The news for my wife was good, though. I would tell Gabrielle somewhere along the way that her parents still lived. I would do everything in my power to find her sister.

It was odd, but I wasn’t as sad as I expected to be, hearing of Cyrene and her new family. Perhaps now, being a wife and mother, I understood the woman a little bit more. With age come many things, understanding foremost among them. All I could hope was the long road home, which Gabrielle and I were about to embark down, would be one of happiness.

 

 

The End
Continued in Time’s Fell Hand

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