Stranger In A Strange Time chapter 22 by Red Hope

Chapter 22 – Xena of Amphipolis

“Goodnight, Xena,” whispered Cyrene. She touched her daughter’s back and she still hadn’t lost that smile on her face since the beginning of the meal.

“Sleep well tonight, mother.” The Conqueror gave a small smile only meant for her mother. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Cyrene agreed with a gentle squeeze to her child’s shoulder. She then turned to the quiet girl at her left side. “Let’s go, Melpomene.”

The girl nodded and she stopped staring at the ruler. She took her grandmother’s hand then led her away.

The Conqueror let out a low sigh as she watched her mother and the child, who her mother adopted, leave the dining hut. She could only wonder how long it would take for the young girl to speak to her but she wouldn’t push it. Instead she returned her focus to the rebel leader left at her table. She was still adjusting to the fact that she was allowed to freely move about the Amazon Nation but it was certainly an improvement to the jail hut and chains. Still though, she knew her feathery shadows were never far away from her.

Gabrielle just finished a drink of her water then set the mug aside. “Are you ready for tomorrow?”

The Conqueror stretched her legs under the table then she nodded. “Its time to finish this trial.”

“I agree.” The bard settled her left elbow onto the table and leaned against her propped hand. “I think everybody is ready to move forward.”

“Even you?” challenged the ruler.

Gabrielle opened her mouth to reply but her words fell short. She closed her mouth then truly mulled over the question then she nodded. “I think I am… yeah.”

The Conqueror slightly grinned at this but then she suggested, “Let’s go for a walk…?”

“Mmmm,” murmured the bard, “the stars should be out tonight.” She chuckled then slowly worked her way out of the seat and got her cloak on because of the cool night.

The Conqueror had been given a new set of leathers that were simple but they at least covered her midriff unlike most Amazon fashion. She was also given an Amazon cloak to keep her warm on the cooling days and chilled nights. She was considerably surprised that the Amazons were being so gracious to her but Gabrielle was right when she said the Amazons were grateful.

Together the new friends quietly slipped out of the dining hut and they ignored the staring gazes of many Amazons. They were quite use to it anymore but they were growing fewer and fewer as everybody grew use to the new changes around the Nation. They were met by the cool night air and behind them were the three guards that were tugging on their cloaks too.

Gabrielle kept the pace slow considering her limp but her wound from four days ago was well healed after she’d spent yesterday and today just mostly sleeping. She finally felt like she could sleep well because there was less to worry about in her life.

The Conqueror glanced down at the silent bard however she wasn’t fooled because she’d come to understand that a verbally silent bard was a quickly thinking one. “What is it?”

Gabrielle peered up but she gave a shrug. “I’m just still trying to…”

“Take it all in,” completed the ruler.

“Yes.” Gabrielle inhaled the brisk air around her, which awakened her senses. “What happens after the trial?” She glimpsed up to the tall ruler. “If you’re pardoned of your charges, I mean.”

“Then we returned to Corinth to take care of unfinished business,” stated the ruler.

“Such as?” tried the bard.

“Such as your punishment that you agreed upon, Gabrielle.”

The rebel stopped walking and faced the ruler. She wanted to ask why the ruler was still upholding the punishment when she’d hoped that was one of the things that would change but it seemed not to be.

The Conqueror saw the bleak features of the rebel leader, which made her grin. “Although I think the punishment is meant more for me than you.” Without anymore information, she continued the walk to the sparring fields.

Gabrielle’s eyebrows almost touched together but she quickly limped forward to catch up with the long legged ruler. “What do you mean?”

The Conqueror smirked at the bard’s obvious confusion but she saw the sparring field up ahead. “Let’s sit down first then I’ll explain.”

The anxious bard wanted to know quickly but she conceded and took a seat on a bench in the sparring field. It happened to be the same bench she and the Conqueror occupied not so long ago. “What’s the punishment, Conqueror?”

The ruler held up her hand then lowered it after the bard took a calming breath.

Gabrielle understood then she sheepishly grinned. “I’m sorry… I’m just not use to calling you by your name.”

The Conqueror did understand as she wasn’t use to many people calling her by her name. She liked how her title displayed her rank as much as distanced her from people subconsciously. She no longer wanted the barrier between her and Gabrielle, which she didn’t understand why yet but she knew she would later down the road. “It’s okay… just give it time. I’m not exactly use to people calling me Xena these days.”

“I bet,” murmured the rebel.

“To answer your question,” started the ruler, “I’ve already decided your punishment.”

“When did you decide this?” probed Gabrielle.

“This morning,” admitted the ruler and she peered down into curious green eyes. She could see that Gabrielle was straining from exploding with a demand to know and trying to remain calm. That made the Conqueror grin and she decided to play along more. “I believe it is a very fitting punishment.”

“I think you’re already trying to do that now,” drew out the bard’s throaty voice.

The ruler revealed her hidden grin but she lost it and seriously informed, “I’ve decided you will serve as my advisor of state for one term.”

The bard blinked and she stared very oddly at the ruler like she was Medusa. “You’re… you’re joking, right?” When there was no response she carefully asked, “You’re advisor of state?” At the Conqueror’s nod she carefully asked, “Why?”

“You’re so keen on me reforming right?” The Conqueror shrugged then declared, “Then you can write and argue all the reforms in front of me and the court. You’ll have your voice… and your words.”

“By… the gods,” muttered the stunned bard. “You’re really serious, aren’t you?”

“And have I ever lied to you, Gabrielle?”

The bard knew the ruler hadn’t as every promise, whether it was a threat or not, was readily kept. She shook her head then a thought occurred to her. “What about Rhodes? He’s been your state advisor for two terms now.”

The Conqueror internally cringed at that small detail that she suspected Gabrielle did not know. She steadied herself to tell the bard, who she claimed as her friend now. She knew this could make or break things between her and the rebel. “Rhodes is no longer the advisor of state.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed then she carefully asked, “Why? His term hasn’t ended.”

The Conqueror inhaled slowly then saw that darkening look on the rebel’s face because she already seemed to suspect the truth. She prepared herself for her former enemy’s reaction as she quietly answered, “He’s dead… I killed him for treason to the polis.”

Gabrielle hastily reacted without thinking because she wanted to get away from the ruler. She got to her feet with her cane rolling off her lap and falling to the ground. She only made it one step before her legs gave way.

The Conqueror swiftly acted and captured the small bard by her waist to steady her.

“No!” angrily yelled the bard, “Let me go!”

The Amazon guards appeared out of the shadows but they hadn’t drawn their swords. They stopped short when they saw that the Conqueror was holding the bard rather than hurting her.

“Gabrielle-”

“No!” The rebel tried to shove the ruler away but she wasn’t as strong.

The Conqueror was frowning but she gently lowered the bard onto the ground so that she was sitting. She then knelt down beside her after letting her go. “Gabrielle-”

“I don’t want to hear it,” snapped the angry bard, who stretched forward for her walking stick.

The Conqueror grabbed the outstretched hand and pulled it back. “Listen, please?”

The rebel’s shadowy features lifted up to the ruler and a few tears brimmed at her eyelids. She was angry but more at herself for letting herself believe that this ruler could change.

The Conqueror let go of the small hand then gently spoke again. “I know Rhodes was a friend to you… he was a good man. He was even a good state advisor.” She sighed then her mind flashed with images from her torture she performed on the man. She shoved them away then continued to talk. “As a ruler I can’t tell you that I regret what I did or that I am sorry.”

Gabrielle turned her head away and her tears finally spilled.

“I wouldn’t be a true ruler otherwise,” urged the Conqueror, “because if things were reverse and I was the good ruler and he was the evil traitor then the results still would have been the same.”

Gabrielle’s jaw flexed as she struggled between her emotions and thoughts, the ruler’s words rolling around in her mind.

“As a person, Gabrielle I can tell you that I do regret what I did and that I am sorry.” The ruler huffed at her last words as she murmured, “And sorry is fairly worthless in the face of death… especially with all the lives I’ve taken or ruined.”

Gabrielle’s head was slumped as she gained control over herself again. She kept her head down as she quietly mentioned, “He had a wife… five kids too.”

“I know,” softly responded the ruler, “and they are being cared for. They did nothing against the polis… they’re still receiving his salary until the end of his legitimate term.”

The bard wiped at her cheeks then lifted her head. She read the Conqueror’s revealing face that clearly displayed remorse for the past. She could also see some hidden pain deeply buried somewhere in the ruler, which was something Gabrielle had never witnessed. She realized this ruler, crouched next to her, was very different to the ruler she stood against almost two moons ago.

The Conqueror lowered her head closer to Gabrielle’s. “Do you understand, Gabrielle the differences?” She knew she needed the bard to differentiate between the two.

Gabrielle could understand the two mindsets when she separated them logically. She knew sometimes people had to wear two masks to perform various duties in life but sometimes that became very complicated. She cleared her dry throat then whispered, “I do understand, yes but that doesn’t mean I like it.”

“I’m not asking you to like it,” murmured the ruler.

Although when Gabrielle read the ruler’s underlying tone and her face, she could tell some part of the ruler wanted her to not exactly like it but more so accept it. That’s what Gabrielle assumed what it was and she would have to mull it over later.

“This isn’t going to be easy for me, Gabrielle,” admitted the ruler. “I’m use to being a ruler… only a ruler and it’s easy when you don’t have any emotions or people you care about in your life. The judgments are simple, the verdicts are quick, and nobody makes you question your motives.”

Gabrielle bit her lower lip as she processed what the Conqueror was telling her. She nodded her head then peered up at the changing ruler. “Cut you some slack huh?”

“For now,” urged the ruler.

Gabrielle slowly nodded her head to show her agreement.

“Come on.” The tall woman helped the smaller woman get onto her feet and sit back on the bench. She then collected the walking stick and put it into her lap.

Gabrielle got comfortable again and reined control over her emotions. She studied the quiet sparring field and then lifted her gaze to the beautiful twinkling night sky. “Conqu….” She fell short then she heard the Conqueror teasing her with a clearing noise from her throat. The bard had a faint grin but lost it when she went back to her original intent. “Xena, what about Alti?”

Well the Conqueror enjoyed hearing her name spoken from the bard’s lips for the first time. She just disregarded the fact that Alti’s name happened to be included in that sentence as well. She stretched out her legs, put her hands behind her on the bench, and tried to relax despite the seriousness of the question. “I’m going to take care of her.”

The bard understood the context of the sentence. “Nobody is safe from her… not even you.”

“I know.” The ruler glimpsed down at the bard then back at the starry sky. “But I’m overdue to correct my mistake, Gabrielle.”

The bard understood what that mistake was that the ruler meant. “What if she… if she… what if something happens to you?”

The Conqueror sadly smiled at her new friend’s growing concerns for her well-being. “Nothing will happen,” she promised.

Gabrielle frowned and shot a glare at her former enemy. “You know you just completely jinxed that?”

The Conqueror couldn’t help but chuckle and she shrugged. “I always know what I’m getting myself into ahead of time, Gabrielle.”

The rebel’s eyebrows tightened together and she thought about the ruler’s word. She quietly asked, “Did you know that Darphus set you up?”

“I knew he was up to something because he wouldn’t have gone through all that trouble to lead me away from the battle.” The Conqueror now sat up straight. “I mostly figured it out.”

“Then why did you follow him?”

“Because I wanted to kill him,” honestly answered the ruler. “It was the only way to stop his men because once they knew he was dead then they would fall back.”

Gabrielle realized that was true as Darphus’s army did quickly crumble from what she heard of the rest of the battle. She then recalled the fight that day when the Conqueror fought against Darphus in the clearing. Something made her curious so she questioned the ruler. “Couldn’t you have caught that third arrow?” She inquisitively peered up into the dark features of the ruler and she knew her answer when the ruler wasn’t forthcoming. “Why didn’t you catch it?”

“I’ve already told you.” The ruler peered down. “The known-world doesn’t need a tyrant,” she softly reminded.

Gabrielle remained still as it dawned on her that the Conqueror had basically wanted death that day and in some shape she’d committed suicide.

“I didn’t plan on leaving that battle alive, Gabrielle.”

The bard swallowed against the truth and she peered up at the ruler. She sincerely whispered, “I’m glad you’re still here… Xena.”

The Conqueror didn’t have any words but all she could do was smile in return. She then swiftly stood because she wanted to end the emotional moment that she wasn’t totally comfortable with yet. “Come on, it’s getting late and tomorrow will be long.”

Gabrielle stifled a yawn at the thought of getting some rest. She slowly got up then started the walk back to the huts. Her guest hut that she shared with Cyrene and Melpomene was near the Conqueror’s so they walked in the same direction. She said goodnight to the ruler then slipped away into the dimly lit hut and prepared for bed.

The Conqueror slipped into her hut without saying a word to her guards. She removed her cloak first then set it down on the chair by the small table. She disappeared into the washroom and changed into her nightshift that’d been given to her. When she came out of the washroom in her nightshift, she also carried M’Lila’s necklace in the palm of her right hand. She came over to the bed, sat down, and her head was bent over and her eyes transfixed on the necklace.

“I wish you were here, my friend,” murmured the ruler. She clenched the charm tightly and closed her eyes. “This won’t be easy, Ly.” She released a deep breath as she thought about her brother. “But nothing is ever easy with me, is it?” She sadly grinned in consideration of her past. “At least this time I’ll have some help.” She opened her hand and studied the Gaelic pendent that shined back up at her. The old yet familiar design reminded her of the specially made armor she’d had designed many moons back that she’d never worn. It was the same Gaelic design that M’Lila wore on her shirt that she’d copy in honor of her last friend. She’d had the armor made along with a matching sword but she’d never dared to wear them as she felt too disgraceful to wear them. Just maybe that would change now though.

The Conqueror turned and gently set the precious necklace onto the nightstand. She then slipped from the bed and blew out the candles in the room then she crawled back into her bed. She didn’t bother with the matt over the window or starting the fireplace because it just really didn’t matter to her tonight. She was fairly use to sleeping through chilled nights.

By the following day, the Conqueror was standing with her back to the thinned out Amazon Nation and she carefully listened to the rebel leader’s continued defense of her. Today was the last day of trial for the Conqueror and tomorrow she would hear her sentence or be pardoned and there was no definite on either option. Instead the ruler prepared for either outcome and placed faith in her friend’s abilities as a bard to work it out.

“Ephiny,” started the bard, “on the day of the battle against Darphus you released the Conqueror. I was there as well and I recall that you were originally completely against the idea of freeing her but you changed your mind. You’re highly respected among the Nation for many things and particularly your abilities as a leader. So why did you change your mind and release the Conqueror?”

The Conqueror listened to the head guard’s explanation to Gabrielle. Her attention broke for a heartbeat and she glanced over at Queen Cyane, who had recovered from the arrow wound and was now well on her way back to health.

Queen Cyane sensed the ruler’s studying so she turned her head to the left, over her shoulder.

The Conqueror didn’t change her demeanor into something sneering or taunting as she would often react. She could tell that the Amazon Queen held no malice for the Conqueror anymore but she was merely on even keel now.

Cyane discreetly nodded at the ruler then turned her head back to Gabrielle and Ephiny. She knew something had happened to the ruler out there on the battle field several days back. Cyane knew it was something life altering and whatever it was she was happy for it but it would take her time to fully accept it.

The Conqueror too turned back to the rebel and head guard for the second to last inquisition of the trial.

“And looking back on it now, Ephiny do you believe you made the right decision?”

The head guard kept her head up, her hands behind her back, and her eyes glued on the rebel leader. “Yes, I do not regret my decision and I believe by releasing the Conqueror that many lives were saved. The Amazons and the Conqueror had a common threat and for the first time that brought us common ground.”

The bard’s head was down as she took a few paces away then turned back to the Amazon. “It was mentioned that during the battle that the Conqueror saved you?”

“Yes she did,” agreed the Amazon guard. “I was fighting two foot soldiers and my back was unprotected so a horseman charged me. The Conqueror stopped him before he made his mark.” Ephiny’s amber eyes flickered to the ruler that was several paces away. “For that I am in debt to her.”

Gabrielle was inwardly stunned that Ephiny was that open about it and willing to publicly state this before the Nation. She also admired Ephiny because it seemed that Ephiny could accept that her foe could become her alley. “Ephiny, you have been guarding the Conqueror since her kidnapping from Corinth. From that first night to today have you noticed any changes in the Conqueror?”

“Yes, I have,” answered the head guard.

“Can you explain?” urged the bard. She shifted her weight onto her cane.

Ephiny’s lips slightly puckered as she tried to mentally explain it before voicing her answer. She glanced at the ruler then back at the rebel. “It’s hard to exactly explain without actually witnessing it like I have over these days. When she first arrived she was very much the ruthless ruler that we all know… that we all fear.” She stopped and shifted on her feet as she mentally composed her next words. “Over the course of the trial she was still that ruler but I could see it was affecting her somehow. It wasn’t until after the battle that I realized she seemed to figure out she’s human like the rest of us. She isn’t that deity she’s made herself out to be because even she believed she was too.”

“Human?” questioned the rebel. She sidestepped and pointed at the Conqueror. “She’s human?” Her hand fell to her side. “Did you see her as human before you met her, Ephiny?”

The guard sarcastically laughed at the question. “Even I can admit I saw her as that god she pretended to be. Once you’ve heard the stories so many times about her rulership, skills, and her campaigns it’s easy to believe she’s from Olympus. How many kings, rulers, and warlords have tried to accomplish what she’s done? Plenty have tried and all have failed but her.” Ephiny shook her head, which made her curly locks move. “However if you strip her of her throne, her skills, and her history then all you have left is this lonely and cold woman… and that’s exactly what we did to her when she was brought here.”

Gabrielle sadly smiled at the Amazon’s beautiful insight about the Conqueror and these past days. “The Destroyer of Nations simply became Xena of Amphipolis.” She stepped closer to Ephiny. “How do you view the Conqueror now, Ephiny?”

“I see her….” Ephiny tilted her head as she paused and truly thought over the question. Her eyes met the Conqueror’s openly intrigued gaze then she clearly answered, “I see her as my equal… warrior to warrior.”

The rebel leader thinly smiled at this as she understood Ephiny. “Thank you, Ephiny.” She limped away and stood next to the Conqueror.

Ephiny glanced at the councilor for dismissal.

The head councilor nodded her head then gave a warm thank you.

The Amazon march forward and took her position behind the Conqueror where Solari and Callisto kept post.

“Next,” spoke the head councilor, “we will move onto the final inquisition. Xena of Amphipolis, please come forward.”

“You’ll do fine,” murmured the bard so that nobody would hear her but the ruler.

The Conqueror glimpsed down, faintly nodded, and then marched up to the claimed spot for questioning. She turned and faced the Amazon Nation but it was Gabrielle and Cyrene’s faces that kept her grounded.

The head councilor waved a hand at the defense’s new representative that’d been selected.

Magdelus stepped away from Queen Cyane and approached the Conqueror. She was an Amazon from Melosa’s Nation and she was tall with wavy dirty-blond hair. She began the rigorous questions for the Conqueror.

The Conqueror kept up with the questions but then she was thrown off by a blind question.

“When you killed Velasca were you doing it to protect Gabrielle or were you extracting revenge because she was prosecuting you?”

The Conqueror knew she needed to reply hastily or else her lack of forthcoming would be answer enough. “I was mostly protecting Gabrielle but maybe there was a piece of me that wanted her for prosecuting me,” replied the ruler.

Magdelus nodded her head then stepped back, her hand held out to Gabrielle.

The rebel limped up to her friend and her eyes were down, which meant she was thinking out Magdelus’s last question. “What were you thinking, Conqueror when you saw Velasca was about to run her sword through me?”

“I was thinking that I would show her my justice for deceit.”

“But she didn’t deceive you,” argued the bard. “So why your justice?”

“Velasca allied with Darphus so that made her my enemy. Velasca deceived you… she deceived the Amazon Nation.”

Gabrielle shook her head then questioned, “Then why wouldn’t you have let the Amazon Nation carry out their justice instead of killing her yourself?”

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow then stated, “It was either her life or yours… I chose hers.”

The bard was internally rattled by the truth behind the answer but she didn’t show it. Instead Gabrielle took a few pacing steps away then turned back for her next questions. “The other day I was told by Princess Terreis that you’re very familiar with Amazon Law. Is this true?”

“It is,” answered the ruler, her head turned to the bard. “I’ve thoroughly studied Amazonian History as well.”

“Why is this?” questioned the bard.

“I know my enemy,” honestly replied the ruler.

Gabrielle shook her head then held up her hand. “When did you study the Amazons?”

The Conqueror dipped her head as she quickly ran through her memory then she answered, “When I was about seven I started learning about the Amazons.”

“Seven,” repeated Gabrielle. “I happen to be a Conqueror expert,” she joked while limping back to the ruler, “You hadn’t even lifted a sword by seven years old. Care to explain?”

The Conqueror nodded her head. “The Amazons always interested me as a child… a lot of bards came to my mother’s tavern and often they had stories about the Amazons. I grew very interested in them so I would go to the local market in Amphipolis and put in a request with a merchant to get scrolls on them whether it was history, stories, law… I didn’t care.”

“It sounds like you thought highly of them,” theorized the bard. “Did you?”

“Yes I did.”

“When you came back from your campaign in Chin you went directly to the Amazon Nation. What drove you to Queen Cyane’s Nation?”

The Conqueror watched the bard limp back to her and stand in front of her. “I knew I could learn from them.”

“Did you intend to join them?”

“No,” answered the ruler, “I only wanted to learn from them.”

Gabrielle’s head was dipped some then she tilted it back. “Did you have any intent to kill the elders and Queen Cyane?”

The Conqueror clenched her hands behind her back but she formed her honest answer. “Originally I did not have any intentions to kill any Amazon because I knew then I’d lose my chance to gain any skills and knowledge.”

“What changed your motives?”

“Who changed my motives,” corrected the ruler, “Alti showed me the Darkness that I’d only previously tasted. She promised that if we joined that I would become the Destroyer of Nations. That was far more than the Amazons could provide me with.”

“Was there a catch to Alti’s… partnership?” questioned the bard.

“Of course,” answered the Conqueror, “ten dead elders and a queen. Then from there out she required a constant flow of dead bodies as she has a large appetite.”

The bard was grim at this honest reply as her taste for the shaman was growing more disgusted. “The day prior to the battle against Darphus, I asked you to join the Amazon Nation to fight. Do you recall this?”

“Vividly,” simply replied the ruler, “And I said no.”

Gabrielle nodded her agreement. “Obviously you changed her mind so what was the cause of this? Was it so you could be pardoned from the charges of this trial?”

“No,” answered the ruler, “I could have cared less about the trial or the outcome.” She lifted her chin then clarified things. “I chose to fight to protect my mother and to protect you.”

Gabrielle studied the ruler’s calm expression and she knew it was true. She tilted her head. “What about Darphus?”

“The fact that I’d meet him in battle was only an added bonus.” The glint in the Conqueror’s eyes showed but only Gabrielle could pick it out.

The bard limped away a few steps then turned back around. “Who were you when you first arrived here?”

The Conqueror slightly grinned at this question then coolly answered, “I was the Conqueror… I was the Destroyer of Nations.”

“And now?” probed Gabrielle.

“I am still the Conqueror,” replied the ruler, “but I’m a daughter… and a friend.”

The rebel leader tapped her cane on the ground. “What happened out on that battle field, Conqueror?”

“My death happened,” replied the ruler, who was the only one that truly understood what her statement meant. Yet when she studied the bard she began to wonder otherwise.

Gabrielle tilted her head. “Almost,” she murmured then turned and went back to her defense spot.

Magdelus stepped forward with a serious expression. “Is any of this an act, Conqueror?”

“No.”

The Amazon shrugged then tried, “You’ve fooled the Amazon Nation once before.” She sidestepped and loudly called, “Fool us once then shame on you but fool us twice and….” She turned back the ruler. “Shame on us.” She folded her arms over her chest. “How many death threats did you make against Gabrielle since arriving here?”

“What’s this have to do with the trial?” demanded the bard.

“It establishes exactly how little the Conqueror has changed since her arrival here,” argued Magdelus.

The head councilor had a thoughtful expression then she nodded. “Answer the question.”

The Conqueror focused back on the Amazon. “Four times.”

“Four times?” repeated the Amazon. “When was your last threat?”

The ruler glimpsed at the bard, who was remaining collective despite the line of questioning. She returned her attention to the defense Amazon. “The day of the battle.”

Magdelus nodded then backed away from the ruler.

As Gabrielle approached her friend, she questioned, “How many times did you save my life since being here?”

“Three times,” countered the Conqueror.

“The day of the battle after you defeated Darphus you would not allow me to find help. Why not?”

The ruler rocked her boots for a heartbeat. “I wanted to die.” She listened to the hushed voices of the Nation.

“Why?” urged the rebel.

“As I’ve told you,” started the ruler, “The known-world doesn’t need a tyrant.”

Gabrielle nodded and backed away to show she was finished.

The head councilor saw that Magdelus wasn’t stepping forward. “Nothing else, Magdelus?”

“No, council.”

“Then we have completed the trial,” announced the head councilor. She stood up and waved for the ruler to step away. When the Conqueror was beside the rebel leader, the head councilor spoke out again. “The council will spend the rest of the day discussing the trial along side the Conqueror’s assistance in the battle against the warlord Darphus. Then tomorrow at first light the judgment will be passed. The trial is concluded.”

The Amazon Nation broke apart and a din of chatter rose up.

Cyrene slipped forward and joined her daughters. “That was excellent work, Gabrielle.”

The bard smiled but it wasn’t quite sincere. “I just hope this pays off.” She peered up at the ruler. “So what now?”

“We wait,” simply replied the Conqueror.

Gabrielle sighed and muttered, “I’m not much for waiting.” This earned her a distant grin from her friend. “How’s Melpomene, Cyrene?”

“She was busy trading stories with the kids about the battle.” Cyrene rolled her eyes then teased, “She’s bragging about her crazy aunt’s bravery.”

Gabrielle wanted to act like a kid and stick out her tongue but she just refrained from it but did manage a glower. “The kid knows how to pick them… look who she selected for a grandmother.”

Cyrene softly laughed then jested, “With any luck she’ll fit right in.”

The bard had to chuckle back but she returned her serious focus to her friend. “I think I’m nervous about the outcome of this trial.”

“You did everything you could, Gabrielle,” reminded the Conqueror. “You did what you shouldn’t have done.”

Gabrielle tilted her head as she absorbed the unexpected words and praise. “Its what I wanted to do.”

The Conqueror expression softened at this declaration then she asked, “Are you hungry?”

The bard coyly smiled and her cheeks were touched by pink. “Am I really that obvious?” She glanced at both women for an answer.

Cyrene folded her arms and mocked her daughter’s arched eyebrow.

Gabrielle giggled at it then teased, “Now I know where she gets it from.”

The Conqueror grunted then walked off towards the dining hut.

Cyrene relented, slipped her hand through Gabrielle’s left arm, and they followed after the ruler.

The rest of the day crept by but eventually Apollo raced his chariot over the western horizon and left the known-world with sparkling dust in the sky. The night was chilly yet brisk as Gaia called on winter to take over within the next moon cycle. The Conqueror this evening decided the cold called for a stoked fireplace especially considering the small bard was in her hut tonight.

The Conqueror finished pouring hot water into five mugs that held tea leaves. She stirred them each with a wood spoon and picked up the first one from the table. She carefully carried it over to the bard and held it down to her.

Gabrielle was sitting on a cozy fur in front of the fireplace and she received the warm mug. She inhaled the pleasant scent of the tea that instantly peaked her interest of flavors. “Cinnamon?” she questioned.

The ruler only nodded then walked back to the small table where the remaining mugs rested. She pushed three of the mugs together then with her large hands she was able to grasp all three. She came over to the door then called, “Ephiny, open the door.”

The rebel leader had a grin slowly shaping her lips because the ruler took her suggestion to make some tea for the guards outside. She held back her chuckle by sipping on her tea.

Ephiny opened the door and her features showed she was absolutely perplexed. She stepped back when the ruler came out some then held out the mugs. She blinked at the steaming mugs and looked up at the ruler’s stone face. “Um….”

“Is that cinnamon tea?” inquired the excited Solari.

The ruler shrugged. “The bard in there wanted cinnamon.” She extended her hands and ordered, “Go on. This should keep you three warm.”

Solari just glowed as she happily took the first mug. “Thanks.” She sipped the tea right away and moaned in happiness of the warm tasty liquid flowing into her belly. “That’s great.”

The head guard wiped away her dumbfounded look as she took a mug too. “Thank… you.” She then glanced over at Callisto, who was more cautious.

The Conqueror knew this but she met the Amazon’s uneasy eyes. “I don’t think you have to worry about anything other than it warming you up.”

Callisto narrowed her eyes up at the ruler but she lost that rejecting look. Her small hands came out and her slim fingers came around the mug, her fingertips touching the ruler’s.

The Conqueror released the mug then decided it was time to escape back into the hut. “Just knock when you’re finished.” Then she was gone.

Callisto peered into the steaming mug then looked up at her friends.

Solari had a silly grin then stated, “It’s really good.” She took another draw of her tea.

Ephiny shook her head then teased, “She won you over with a cup of tea, Solar.”

The Amazon shrugged and kept drinking the tea happily.

Callisto took a hesitant sip but after the tiny drops warmed her stomach she took a longer drink.

The head guard had a content smile and she leaned against the hut while breathing in the warm steam over face. Her thoughts wondered off to Janice Covington and wishing the archeologist was here to see what just happened. Hades if Janice would ever believe this one.

Gabrielle leaned over to her right, closer to the Conqueror. “So are they still conscious out there or did they pass out when you offered them tea?”

The ruler shrugged then mildly stated, “It’s just tea.”

“Sure it’s just tea,” teased the bard, “Tea from the Conqueror.”

The Conqueror was inwardly smug but her exterior showed her as stoic. She sipped on her tea that had a nice flavor from Gabrielle’s selection. It was no Chin tea but for what it was it was fairly nice.

Gabrielle had her legs stretched out in front of her as she could no longer sit cross legged since it hurt her knees too much. She’d come to realize her right knee typically ached more than her left so she had to always use her cane on the right side. She stared into the fire then murmured, “I can’t believe I’m sitting here with you in the Amazon Nation and drinking tea.” She laughed at the situation then turned her head to the ruler and Gabrielle studied the ruler’s calm profile.

The Conqueror had the mug wrapped between both her hands but she lowered it to her lap. “I can’t either,” she finally admitted.

Gabrielle cocked her head to the side then carefully asked, “Can I ask what really happened out there on the battlefield?” Her confusion clearly showed as her eyebrows pushed inward and her lips widened from her cheeks moving up slightly. “You’ve changed a lot… you’re like a stranger.”

“Yet I’m friendlier,” quipped the ruler.

Gabrielle mulled over this then nodded once. “You’re a stranger by comparison… just when I thought I had you figured then you do an about face.”

The ruler chuckled then finally turned her head to the rebel. “I like to keep things interesting.”

“No kidding,” agreed the bard. She went silent though and waited for something else from the ruler. After a little bit she thought maybe she wouldn’t receive any explanation.

The Conqueror searched her friend’s face for awhile then turned her head away. She felt compelled to share her story with the understanding woman beside her. “I did die, Gabrielle.”

“How… how can you be sure?” murmured the bard.

The Conqueror lifted her mug to her lips and sipped on it. She lowered it to her lap then finally answered, “I’m very sure because there’s no such place like I was in… I don’t even have an imagination to conjure it up.”

Gabrielle had taken a sip of her tea but she probed, “What happened?” She shook her head then argued, “How can you be here then?”

The Conqueror chuckled then remarked, “Like I said… I like to keep it interesting.” She could tell the rebel truly wanted to know the story about what’d happened. So after she stole some more tea between her lips she proceeded to tell her everything despite she wasn’t the bard.

Gabrielle was captivated by the incredible tale about the ruler’s journey through Tartarus. She never imagined that the ruler would fight so hard to come back and for reasons that did not deal with greed, hatred, or for dominance. About halfway through the story, the Conqueror paused as the Amazons quickly returned the mugs then Gabrielle was happy that the ruler continued.

At the end of the story, Gabrielle let out a deep breath as if she’d gone through the trials. She was astounded and she held a sense of respect for her friend for it all. She ran her right hand through her blond bangs and mentioned, “I never knew of M’Lila.”

“Not many did,” agreed the ruler.

Gabrielle sighed then whispered, “I wish I could have met Lyceus.” She frowned and peered into her mug. “Cyrene often would tell me stories about you and him.” A sad smile touched her lips. “He always sounded like quite the character.”

The Conqueror had a sad smile too at the memories of her and her brother. “He was… among other things.” She took the last gulp of her tea then placed the empty mug aside.

“You and Lyceus were stuck at the hips, Cyrene use to tell me.” Gabrielle grinned at this image then lost it at other thoughts. “She always said if he hadn’t died that none of this probably would have happened.”

“Maybe… maybe not,” whispered the ruler. “We all have our destiny to follow.”

“Yes… yes we do,” murmured the bard. She finished off her tea also then put the mug off to her right, away from her friend. “So you plan to stop Alti?”

“Yes,” quickly answered the ruler. “No good comes from her and none is in her.” She turned her head to the bard. “I plan to leave tomorrow if this trial finishes off the way we hope it does.”

Gabrielle stared into the fire as she processed what the ruler told her.

“I don’t expect you and mother to come to Corinth until its safe… until I deal with Alti.” The Conqueror now was the one studying her friend’s profile. She momentarily enjoyed the firelight flickering across the bard’s soft face but then determined green eyes turned to her.

“I’m going with you.”

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow at the rebel leader. She opened her mouth but was cut short by the faster bard.

“I’ll just follow you.”

The ruler sighed then turned her head away. “This isn’t your fight, Gabrielle. You know where I’m headed there’ll be trouble.”

Gabrielle casually replied, “I know.” Then the Conqueror turned back to her and they held searching stares for several heartbeats.

“Then why would you want to go into that with me?” whispered the ruler.

“That’s what friends do.” Gabrielle tilted her head as she reminded them both of their new friendship. “We stand by each other when there’s trouble.”

Xena lost her Conqueror mask as her blue eyes visibly softened for only the bard. “Alright… friend.”

Gabrielle didn’t stay much longer that night as she knew tomorrow would probably be very busy. She wished the ruler a goodnight and thanked her for spending time with her. She donned her Amazon cloak and crossed the short distance to her hut where she suspected Cyrene and Melpomene were already asleep. Her night’s sleep was fairly peaceful after she pressed away her thoughts about her conversation with the Conqueror tonight.

When Apollo mounted his chariot at dawn the overnight fog was burned away. The Amazon guards at the Conqueror’s guest hut were jarred awake from sleeping against the hut by the Conqueror coming out. They tried to play it off knowing that they’d catch Hades for having any winks and luckily the ruler didn’t comment on it. Although the Amazons suspected that the ruler knew of their small error.

Just as the Conqueror was making her way for the trial’s space she spotted her mother, Gabrielle, and Melpomene exiting their hut. She decided to go to them first.

“Good morning, dear,” greeted the mother.

“Mornin’, mother.” The Conqueror was only recently getting accustomed to using mother again in her vocabulary. She then set her sights on the sleepy looking bard. “Morning, Gabrielle.” All she received was a grumble.

Cyrene smugly whispered to the Conqueror, “She’s not a morning person.”

“Auntie Gabby,” started Melpomene, “you would be a morning person if you got to bed earlier.”

Cyrene stifled a laugh.

Auntie Gabby lowered her gaze to her niece and asked, “Did you want honey with your apples today?”

Melpomene smiled very sweetly and rocked on her feet with her hands behind her back. “Yes, auntie.”

The bard sighed then held out her hand to the child. “We need to hurry.” And she was right as they made it to the trial just in time as the council was preparing to take a seat at their table. She and the Conqueror took their usual spot while Cyrene and Melpomene stood at the front of the onlooking crowd.

Magdelus and Queen Cyane took their positions.

The head councilor stood up from the table then walked over to the spot where the inquisitions took place. She raised her chin and after a deep inhale, she announced, “For many candlemarks the council discussed the information brought to light during the trial. We have decided that despite Xena of Amphipolis committed these crimes that she did not fully act under her own will. As a result, Xena of Amphipolis cannot be held fully accountable for the crimes that she performed but she certainly is accountable for a certain weight of it.” The head councilor waited a beat as she recalled her next piece. “Then there was the battle against Darphus that may have resulted in higher casualties or maybe even the destruction of the Amazon Nation if not for the help of Xena of Amphipolis. So it is the council’s belief that Xena of Amphipolis has repaid her debt to the Amazon Nation by saving these lives. In light of this, the council can see no reason to carry out a punishment thus Xena of Amphipolis is pardoned from her chargers.” She then met the ruler’s gaze then directly stated to her, “Xena of Amphipolis, see that in the future you take care of how you tread in the Amazon Nation. Nobody wishes to repeat such events again.” She then held out her arms and loudly announced, “Our murdered sisters and our queen have found justice… now find peace.” She lowered her hands and then turned away.

Gabrielle let out a heavy breath then whispered, “Its over.” She touched her forehead. “By the gods.”

“Not completely,” murmured the ruler, who turned when her mother quickly approached her. She swallowed then quietly asked, “Mother, forgive me please.”

Cyrene released Melpomene’s hand then stepped up to her daughter. “There’s nothing to forgive, my little one.” Her right hand stretched out to touch her child’s cheek. “We both made our mistakes and we’ve both suffered. Its time to move forward… together.” Her eyes burned from her emotions surfacing. “So happy to have you back again.” She then pulled her daughter into a warm embrace.

The Conqueror drew her mother in tightly and held on as she didn’t care about all the gawking looks of the Amazons.

Melpomene took her aunt’s hand and quietly asked, “Does this mean the Conqueror is family too?”

Gabrielle was shaken from her staring of the mother and daughter reunited. She digested the girl’s question then peered down at her. “I think so, Melpomene… I think so.”

Melpomene turned her head to the Conqueror hugging her mother. She tilted her head and her thoughts became quite deep for such a young child.

Queen Cyane neared the newly increased family of outsiders and she cleared her throat after the mother and daughter broke their embrace.

The Conqueror faced the Amazon Queen and tried to remain passive as she wasn’t sure what to expect from her old enemy.

“We met on the battlefield many times,” commented the queen.

The Conqueror clenched her hands at her side and only nodded.

“For first time we met on the battlefield without crossing swords, Conqueror.” Cyane rested her hands on her hips. “Maybe this will be a continued trend.”

The Conqueror knew it was statement that required her confirmation or disagreement. “Yes, hopefully it will be.”

Queen Cyane nodded then slowly her right arm came up.

The Conqueror clenched her jaw then relaxed it as her right arm rose up. Then she slowly collapsed the muscular arm of her enemy for many moons now. She made her grasp firm to backup her words. “To the future, Queen Cyane.”

“To the realm and the Amazon Nation,” agreed Queen Cyane. She broke the shake then walked away feeling as if she’d accomplished more than she ever imagined she would in her lifetime. She actually had a faint smile while she walked away from her allied enemy.

Solari turned to her superior. “Ephiny, does this mean we’re finished with duty?”

“Why?” clipped the head guard, “You have a hot date?”

“Not if you’re staying on duty then I don’t,” teased the Amazon.

Ephiny was caught off guard then she grinned at her friend. “We’ll check with the queen first.”

“So… to Corinth now?” asked the rebel leader.

“To Corinth,” softly agreed the ruler.

“My queen!” called a familiar voice.

The Conqueror turned her head to the left when she heard the shaman’s voice. Her eyes narrowed and her head tilted as she honed in on the distant conversation.

“What is it?” asked the bard.

The Conqueror’s eyes narrowed as she tried to focus on the low conversation better. “Wait here.” She turned and approached the queen and shaman that were quietly arguing.

Yakut stopped short then her eyes rose to the nearing ruler.

Queen Cyane turned her head and inquisitively questioned the ruler with her eyes.

The Conqueror ignored it and focused on the shaman. “Why can’t they cross over?”

Yakut’s mouth hung open for a beat as she realized the ruler overheard their conversation from so far away. She glanced to the queen, who sighed and nodded. She finally answered the question. “Alti has locked them outside the gates to Eternity. Our holy word should have been strong enough to undo whatever has kept our sisters from Eternity.”

“Then maybe you need a new holy word, one stronger than the last,” mentioned the Conqueror.

Queen Cyane shook her head then whispered, “Our holy word is Courage… nothing’s stronger than Courage.”

Gabrielle had unknowingly neared the group. “Even Alti knows Courage.”

“There’s one thing she doesn’t know though.” The Conqueror focused back on the shaman. “I’ll need your help with something, Yakut.”

Yakut was uncertain but she was curious too. “With?”

“I hear shamans are good with astral projections,” commented the ruler, “I could use a projection of what Melinda Pappas has been doing since I was taken.”

Queen Cyane’s eyes slotted. “You’re going to face Alti?”

“We’re going to face Alti,” corrected the bard.

The queen glanced between the bard and the ruler as she realized this was quite serious. She turned back to Yakut. “Do it.” She then waved at the three guards to come forward. “Ephiny, I have one more task for you, Solari, and Callisto if you three will accept?”

Ephiny glanced between her fellow Amazons and saw them agreeing easily with nods. She nodded back at the queen too then proclaimed, “Of course, my queen.”

“Excellent. It’s time Alti settled her debt with the Amazon Nation.” Queen Cyane turned her head to Yakut. “And our sisters can enter Eternity without her petty tricks.”

By the mid afternoon, Gabrielle finished a heated argument with her adopted mother about going to Corinth. Her head was throbbing and she knew she’d lost the argument completely. She ended up stomping out of the guest hut and going to the stables as she figured that’s where the Conqueror was most likely.

The Conqueror finished getting the face tack onto the mare when she heard the distinct footfall of the rebel leader entering. She twisted her head around and saw the frustrated features. “I take it you lost.”

The rebel huffed with a lot of aggravation coming out too. “How in Zeus’s name did you put up with her?”

The ruler tossed the saddle onto the mare’s back and worked at strapping it down with the girth. “The same way she put up with me all those moons. So I take it she and Melpomene are coming then?”

“Yes,” answered Gabrielle. She leaned against the stall door. “Hopefully Ephiny and Solari won’t mind them riding too.”

“Melpomene shouldn’t be coming,” stated the ruler.

Gabrielle threw up her hand and hotly stated, “That kid is two of me put together!”

The Conqueror couldn’t hold back her grin as she teased, “Poetic justice, bard.”

The bard scowled her friend and grumbled for a bit.

“So did you ask Callisto if you could ride with her?”

Gabrielle snapped out her curses and sheepishly smiled at the ruler. “I… uh I really didn’t… I just thought… since….” She just stopped her ramblings and sighed.

The Conqueror patted the mare’s neck after finishing with tacking up the horse. “Its fine, Gabrielle.” She opened the stall door and came out while adjusting her cloak. “Are you packed?”

“Cyrene was getting everything ready.” The bard became even more sheepish as she muttered, “I told her since she wants to come she has to pack everything.”

The Conqueror actually quietly laughed at this and shook her head. “Well I see my family’s idea about sweet revenge has been carried on to you.” She slowly started for the door with the limping bard at her side.

“It did make me feel better,” agreed the bard then her nose crinkled up. “For about five heartbeats. I need to go help her though.”

“Well be ready in a candlemark.”

Gabrielle nodded her head. “We will be. I just need to catch up with Princess Terreis to say goodbye and return her dagger.” She stopped, which caused her friend to do the same. “And she’s in the opposite direction.”

The ruler nodded her understanding and said, “I’ll see you in a candlemark.” Then she continued her way through the village to her guest hut.

The rebel sighed then decided she better hurry if she didn’t want to get left behind. When she found the princess, they spoke for awhile and promised to contact one another then later visit. The princess also refused to take back her dagger and told Gabrielle to keep it even if she didn’t carry it. Eventually the pair separated after a long hug then Terreis wished the bard good luck and safer travels.

Gabrielle hurried back to the guest hut and helped Cyrene finish with the packing then they all left to meet in the stables. Just as they arrived the three Amazons were filing out with horses in tow then a few heartbeats after came the Conqueror with her burrowed horse. Cyrene helped get their small amount of items loaded up into the saddles then she was given a spot behind Ephiny on her horse. Melpomene rode with Solari then all was left was to get the rebel into a saddle.

The Conqueror inquisitively eyed the bard then ordered, “Let me get up first then I’ll lift you up.”

Gabrielle inwardly sighed because she didn’t feel comfortable riding with Callisto, which she thought was odd considering her history with the Conqueror compared to Callisto. She watched as the ruler easily mounted the chestnut mare then adjusted the reins. Gabrielle limped forward and dropped her head back some.

The Conqueror leaned over to Gabrielle. “Give me your walking stick first.” She received the small cane and quickly lashed it down to the saddlebags because she knew any longer would pain the bard.

Gabrielle used the horse’s side to balance herself with one hand while her other hand adjusted her Amazon cloak. When the ruler leaned back over, she gazed up and something around the ruler’s neck caught her eye. A necklace poked between the ruler’s cloak and shined its bronzy colors in the sunlight.

The Conqueror held out her hand and she noted how Gabrielle broke away from staring at her neck. She bit back her grin from the bard’s observations then she hefted the small woman into the saddle behind her.

Gabrielle released a small yelp but she settled into the saddle behind the ruler. She cautiously wrapped her arms around the ruler’s waist then tried to relax however it was very nerve wracking. It’s only the Conqueror of most of the known-world I’m clinging to here, inwardly joked the bard.

“We better move before it gets any later,” suggested Ephiny.

The Conqueror’s agreement was simply her urging the mare to veer to the left and aimed for the gates.

“You know,” mentioned Gabrielle, “this is the second time in my life I’ve rode a horse.”

The Conqueror almost asked when the first time was then it struck her blindly. Her only advice to Gabrielle was: “Just hang on and don’t look down.”

At that instant, Gabrielle had just finished staring down at the ground, which she felt was very far below. She let out an audibly groan then murmured, “Don’t they make these things lower?”

The ruler had a small grin but she didn’t respond as she guided the group out of the gates and towards the thin path that twisted through the woods. Gabrielle stole quiet time to admire the beautiful forest that was turning golden colors mixed with the green. Her eyes were wide in appreciation. It was just under a half of a candlemark when they broke onto a main road that led directly to Corinth as all roads in the realm led to Corinth now.

“Gabrielle, remember what I said about hanging on?”

“Yes,” answered the bard.

“I suggest you heed that advice… right about… now.”

Gabrielle squealed when suddenly the horse rocketed into a canter down the road. Her arms instantly clamped around the Conqueror’s firm waist and she buried her face into the ruler’s wool covered shoulder. She jammed her eyes closed and sent out a pray for life.

The Conqueror however had the opposite reaction as she came to life in the blustery wind. Her cheeks slowly flushed red as her blood pumped harder to counter act the chill. Behind the horse, her ears detected the other horses’ pounding hoofs quickly following. Horseback riding had always been her most favorite as she felt so free and especially at faster speeds.

Gabrielle’s breath was warm against the ruler’s back. Her hands were somewhat numb at the front but her grip was sure. She tried to gain some serenity about this riding concept and she used the Conqueror’s body as her anchor. She eventually built some confidence so she lifted her head and peered around the ruler. Her eyes watered against the wind factor but she was amazed to see everything move by so quickly. This ride was much different than the one she experience on the battlefield.

The Conqueror sensed the rebel leader’s boldness. It made her slightly grin in appreciation.

“So does this thing go faster, Conqueror?” called the bard over the noise.

“Possibly, rebel,” jested the ruler.

Gabrielle grumbled but she knew the Conqueror couldn’t hear her. “Does the horse go faster, Xena?” she corrected.

The Conqueror decided to find out and her thighs squeezed harder against the hot chest of the mare.

The horse inhaled sharply then pressed forward with all her stamina.

“Oooh my… gods!” cried out the rebel and her arms tightened harder.

The Conqueror thought breathing was going to become an issue from the rebel’s squeeze. She glanced back over her shoulder and saw that the Amazons were falling behind but she figured they’d slow down soon enough.

Gabrielle squinted when she thought she saw something just ahead in the road.

“There’s a fallen tree just ahead so hanging on tight.” The ruler anchored them down by tightening her legs. Her right hand clutched the horse’s mane then she bent forward. She sensed the mare preparing to jump the fallen tree so she lifted her body from the saddle with her feet.

Gabrielle tried not to scream but she was unsuccessful when she, the ruler, and the horse were all airborne. She dug her face into the Conqueror’s back and rammed her eyes shut. Her butt then slammed on the saddle and she muffled a moan into her friend’s back. She knew without a doubt that tonight she would forever regret riding and wish never to do it again.

The Conqueror lowered back down into the saddle then gently tugged the reins so that the mare slowed down. She didn’t want to tire the horse out too early as it’d be awhile before they’d be upon Corinth. It wasn’t until just before sunset that she decided it would be best to take a break and eat dinner.

The group pulled off the road and went into a clearing where they were able to eat some heavy trail rations that Ephiny and Solari packed. They then ate plenty of flatbread to put some weight in their stomachs. Afterwards the bottomless bard was popping in several dried grapes that she absolutely loved. Then she soon discovered herself eyeing the Conqueror and the mare again and she debated whether to fight it or not. She knew it was mostly impossible not to ride so she was lifted into the saddle again.

The Conqueror knew the rebel was most likely getting tired especially because she recalled riding when her legs were mangled from the cross. While they continued the ride to Corinth, the Conqueror considered what she’d done to the bard about three moons ago. She couldn’t believe it’d only been three moons ago as it seemed like a lifetime in comparison. Regardless, the Conqueror sensed the growing seed of guilt because of what’d happened and how it now permanently scared the bard’s memory and life.

Gabrielle sensed her friend’s deeper thoughts. She knew she couldn’t exactly ask what she was thinking about especially since they were riding at a gallop down the moonlit road. Her friend had to remain completely at focus so that they wouldn’t run into danger. Gabrielle did figure she could break the ruler’s deep thoughts with a quick and easy question. “I’m not hurting your back wound am I?”

The Conqueror shoved away her dark thoughts as she repeated the bard’s question in her head. She silently cleared her throat then replied, “No, you’re fine.”

“How much longer you think it’ll be?” called the bard over the din of the ride. “There’s no way we’re going to make it there tonight.”

“No,” agreed the Conqueror, “but hopefully tomorrow night if we keep this pace up.”

“We’ll stop just north of Thebes?”

The ruler debated that then decided from her mental map that Gabrielle’s position was perfect. “I think so.” She said nothing else as she wanted to remain focused on the ride. She figure they’d travel for another three candlemarks then stop to make camp. About six hours of sleep and continue the ride at first light or so and they would make it to Corinth only a candlemark or two after sunset tomorrow.

True to her consideration, the Conqueror slowed the group down and paced the horses for a quarter of a candlemark so they could cool down from the hard ride. She then guided everybody into the woods and found a large enough clearing for them. She first got off the horse then helped her friend next.

Gabrielle gripped the ruler’s arm for balance while the ruler retrieved the cane. When she had her cane she carefully tried to work her aching legs forward.

The Conqueror unlashed the saddlebags and hefted it free from the tired mare. She came along side the bard and murmured, “Sit down on that log. We’ll setup camp.”

“I can-”

“Don’t argue with me,” clipped the ruler then she walked past the bard with the bags.

Solari, Ephiny, and Callisto hastily worked together to get the camp together. Cyrene discovered that Ephiny had been hiding a package of dried herbs and a few fresh carrots. Callisto had disappeared to catch a couple of rabbits so Cyrene prepared to make a rabbit soup that would surely calm everybody’s hungry stomachs.

Gabrielle sat on the log as her friend had told her to do. Her legs did ache badly and she knew there wasn’t much she could do to help around the camp. She had her legs stretched out and occasionally she would lean over and massage them, more so her right than her left.

The Conqueror kept her back to the group while she untacked the mare then gave her some feed.

Solari and Ephiny took care of the camp fire and made sure to use correct wood that wouldn’t smoke. They didn’t feel like attracting any attention tonight especially considering who was in this band.

Melpomene had been given the task of laying out her bedroll along with Cyrene and Gabrielle’s. She then came to sit next to her aunt.

Gabrielle smiled at her niece and ruffled her sandy hair with a warm smile.

“Do your legs hurt, auntie?” questioned the girl.

“Not too bad, sweetie,” lied the rebel.

The Conqueror paused in her administrations to the mare when she heard this because she too knew it was a lie. She inwardly sighed and finished off her duties with the mare. After she was finished, she mentioned to whoever was listening that she was going to check things around the camp to make sure all was quiet. By the time she surfaced from her perimeter patrol the soup was ready and Cyrene was serving everybody.

Once everybody had full bellies, they each curled up into their bedrolls and furs one by one. The only one to remain awake was the Conqueror, who didn’t even bother to set out a bedroll and furs. She planned to take watch all night as she required little sleep compared to everybody else. She remained sitting on a cold rock near the fire and occasionally she would silently put a piece of wood into the fire to keep it alive.

Gabrielle stirred a few candlemarks later, got up to her weak feet with her furs, and made the few paces over without her cane. She slumped onto the ground in a huff and studied the golden profile of the ruler. “You’re not going to sleep.”

The Conqueror poked the fire with a long, thin branch then simply nodded her head.

The bard stifled a yawn and buried deeper into her furs that wrapped around her body completely. “What are you going to do with Alti?”

The Conqueror poked the fire and let the silence hang for a bit. She finally rotated her head to the rebel. “Do you want the truth?”

“Would you think I’d accept anything else?” argued the bard.

The Conqueror grunted at the truth behind the statement. “I plan to kill her,” she calmly answered then turned back to the fire.

Gabrielle furrowed her eyebrows and not because she didn’t expect that answer but that the Conqueror had no other answers. “I guess there’s… nothing else you could do….?”

The ruler pulled the stick out of the fire and balanced her elbows on her knees while leaning forward. “Gabrielle, I’m considered evil but she makes me look like Aphrodite in comparison.”

Gabrielle’s nose crinkled up at this image and then she broke into quiet giggles when she tried to visualize the Conqueror with pink, frilly ribbons in her hair.

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow at the rebel’s amusement.

“I’m sorry,” murmured the still giggling bard. “I am a bard, you know.” She cleared the giggles out of her throat then went serious. “I wouldn’t say you’re evil, Xena just that… you’ve been misguided and misunderstood.”

“We all make our own choices, Gabrielle,” argued the ruler, “and I made mine. Mine require a lot of payment… a lot.”

Gabrielle swallowed then tugged her furs closer against her body. “At least you recognize that though.” She shook her head then whispered, “That’s the step in the right direction… probably the hardest step.”

“Admitting you were wrong all your life?” questioned the sarcastic ruler. “You hit the Roman nail on the head when you said that I became the very thing I tried to stop.”

“Maybe so,” agreed Gabrielle, “but now you have a chance to change that… to be better than them.” She studied the ruler’s passive profile yet she could read into her friend’s longing blue eyes.

“It won’t be easy.”

The bard nodded. “It won’t be but neither were your campaigns,” she reminded. “Besides… you like to keep it interesting, I hear.”

The Conqueror’s lips slowly spread into a small grin, which broke her grim features apart. “I was right about one thing,” she murmured.

“What’s that?” quietly asked the bard.

“That you’re a great enemy but a better friend.”

Gabrielle shrugged and simply replied, “I’m glad you’re finding that out.”

Xena turned her head to her friend and murmured, “Me too.”

Gabrielle shyly smiled then lost her eye contact as she gazed into the fire. She didn’t stay up much longer as the Conqueror warned they’d be up not long after dawn. She yawned once or twice then said goodnight and even tried to urge her friend to get some sleep too but she couldn’t win that battle. At least she won the war, she decided as she curled up into her bedroll for the night.

And dawn came all too quickly for the bard as her grumpy mood reined in for the first two candlemarks. They quickly ate, broke camp, and to her detest she was up on the high horse again. She just clung to the ruler when they broke out into the full gallop down the road to Corinth. She would be absolutely relieved when she could put her two feet and cane on the ground and casually stroll into Corinth. After all this was over she secretly promised herself she’d steal a day alone and dedicated it to sleep, food, and writing however she somewhat doubted she’d find that day.

The Conqueror’s estimation about reaching Corinth had been exact as they came to a fast walk with the horses when the road turned into cobblestones. Night had already set in but the Conqueror wasn’t taking chances so she dismounted as did everybody else. She pulled her cloak’s hood over her head then softly ordered Gabrielle to stay near her. The Amazons kept close to Cyrene and Melpomene.

The party approached the road that rolled down the hill that went into the city so they tried not to grow edgy. They entered through the large, open gates without any problems then came through the quieting marketplace. Gabrielle took the lead because it’d been decided to spend the night in Gabrielle and Cyrene’s home since it would be safest for tonight. Gabrielle also promised she could get word to Janice and Melinda once she made contact with her faction.

Gabrielle first came down the alley where the door to her home was located. She was only a few limping paces away from the door but she stopped short when a shadowy figure at the other end started to move for her. She clenched her hand at her side but she thankfully heard everybody behind her catching up to her. “Who’s there?” she called.

“Gabrielle?” called Joxer and he formed out of the dark under the torchlight that was overhead. “Is that really you?”

Gabrielle smiled happily at seeing the young man. She took a step closer to him but hesitated when his face fell. She knew his gaze was beyond him but before she could explain anything Joxer went for his sword.

The Conqueror was much faster as she stood behind the bard, towering over her and her lightening reflexes had her Amazon sword out. She extended her right hand and let the sword’s tip loom just under the unknown man’s chin. “Who are you?” she growled in a dangerous tone.

“It’s okay,” gently assured the bard. She tightly gripped her cane as she felt the ruler’s protective and powerful presence just behind her. The ruler’s warm leathers slightly brushed her back. “He’s one of my faction guards.”

“Guards?” repeated the Conqueror.

Joxer’s fingers were wrapped around his sword’s hilt but he wasn’t moving it. Those piercing blue eyes under the hood were rooting him and he knew who it was as he was familiar with such a cold and threatening gaze that bore into his very being.

“Yes, I have several faction guards,” explained the bard. She lifted her left hand and lightly touched the ruler’s extended forearm. “He’s fine.”

The Conqueror secretly admired the rebel leader’s insight to build a small security unit. She assumed it was how the faction often knew her very movements and probably explained how the bard escaped Corinth so long ago. She realized just how excellent of an enemy Gabrielle had made and would come to benefit her greatly in the court.

“Are we here?” questioned Ephiny.

“Yes, just in that door,” answered Gabrielle.

Joxer stepped aside after freeing his sword’s handle. He went to the door opened it and let the group file into the house before he entered backwards. He scanned the alley but didn’t think anybody saw them so he closed the door and locked it up from inside. When he turned around he was embraced in the bard’s one arm hug that he always loved. “I’m so glad you’re alright, Gabrielle.”

The rebel leader withdrew with a warm smile. “Me too. It’s good to be home.”

Joxer was staring beyond his friend when the tall ruler removed her hood and her high cheek bones showed and her raven hair spilled out. He swallowed plus the tension in his body shot up.

Gabrielle touched the faction guard’s arm to help ease him. “There’s a lot going on, Joxer.”

Joxer kept staring at the ruler, who seemed to materialize out of the darkness when the candles in the house were lit one by one. He finally broke away and lowered his head to Gabrielle. “A lot has happened here too.”

“I need either you or Perdicus to get a message into the fortress… to Janice or….” Gabrielle wavered because she realized that Joxer may have no idea about Melinda Pappas.

“Melinda?” finished the faction guard.

Gabrielle studied her friend then slowly nodded. “Do you and Perdicus think you can do it?”

Joxer’s jaw tightened then he whispered, “Gabrielle… Perdicus….”

Gabrielle shook her head and clenched the young man’s arm tighter. “Perdicus what?”

The Conqueror slightly turned her head down as she already knew what’d happened thanks to Yakut’s astral projection. She hadn’t mentioned it to the bard because there hadn’t been a right time but now there was if it was even right. She stepped closer to her friend and rested her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “He’s dead, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle became frozen then she side stepped and looked between Joxer and the Conqueror. “No… no, he’s not.” She turned her head to Joxer.

Joxer lowered his gaze to the floor.

The bard peered up into the ruler’s revealing face and she hotly whispered, “You knew?”

The Conqueror wasn’t ready for these impending emotions that she never had to deal with and it wasn’t easy. “Yakut showed me in the astral projection.”

Cyrene had just come back from her bedroom after placing her things in there. She approached the cluster because the Amazons were standing away but intently watching and listening. “What’s happened?”

Gabrielle met Cyrene’s gaze and whispered, “Perdicus is dead.”

Cyrene became very solemn as her emotions raced faster than her thoughts. She hoarsely whispered, “How’d he die?”

“One of the squad soldiers killed him,” answered the faction guard.

“What? Why?” Gabrielle ran her fingers through her bangs as her mind quickly tried to piece the puzzle together. She peered up at the Conqueror and asked, “Do you know what’s happened?”

Slowly the Conqueror nodded her head. “A lot has happened since we both left Corinth.” She sensed her mother also studying her so she steeled her mind because she would tell them the truth. She clenched her hands at her side then whispered, “Perdicus died trying to protect Janice.” She didn’t want to voice who the killer was because she was already having trouble fathoming that it was true. “It was Toris.”

“Toris?” murmured Cyrene. “Xena, how can-”

“I know because he tried to attack Melinda… he thought Melinda was me.”

“By the gods,” rasped the bard. She quickly felt weak on her knees so she went over to the table and pulled out a chair. She almost fell into it and she dropped her cane with a loud clank. She lowered her face into her hands and tried to control her tears that wanted to rise up.

Cyrene first went to the Amazons and whispered something to Ephiny.

Ephiny only nodded then took Melpomene’s hand. She soon disappeared back into Cyrene’s bedroom with the door closing.

Cyrene finally knelt beside the bard and touched her knee lightly. “Gabrielle?”

The rebel lifted her head; her reddening face met Cyrene’s gaze. “My brother killed the man I was going to marry.”

Cyrene’s words were lost at that point when she read the pain in her daughter’s eyes. She hadn’t realized that Gabrielle was still harboring thoughts of marrying Perdicus in the future.

The Conqueror slightly turned her head and closed her eyes. Not only had she ruined the bard’s abilities to walk but now she’d managed to bring her vengeful brother into this and steal away Gabrielle’s future.

Gabrielle roughly asked, “When does this cycle ever stop?”

“When there’s love and forgiveness,” tenderly reminded the mother.

Gabrielle repeated her mother’s words then her green eyes lifted up to the Conqueror and locked on her.

Cyrene followed Gabrielle’s gaze to her eldest daughter, who she loved unconditionally.

The Conqueror opened her eyes to the world around her and saw that Gabrielle and her mother were watching her. She matched their stares as she repeated the quiet conversation that passed between Cyrene and Gabrielle and she began to believe her mother’s words too. She just hoped it was enough to help her stop Alti.
Chapter 23 – The Return of the Conqueror
Doctor Janice Covington stepped into the Conqueror’s office after being called to enter. Once she closed the door, she quickly asked, “What’s going on, Mel?”

Melinda Pappas was standing by the open window that over looked the right side of the fortress. She was watching the city of Corinth buzz with activity despite the winter chill that was settling. She turned her head to the left and somewhat smiled at her lover.

Janice was in her usual Amazon garb of simple leather. Her leather and wool jacket had been cleaned and her wounds from Toris’s attack were healing over. The torture that the Conqueror had performed was mostly gone other than a few of the deeper cuts.

“I received word from Gabrielle this morning.” Melinda waited for her friend and lover to come closer to her.

Janice admired the Chin attire that her lover had selected this morning. “Didn’t you just get a message from her yesterday?”

“Yes.” Melinda held out her hand and when slim fingers slipped through hers, she pulled Janice closer. “They’re here.”

Janice inhaled and read her lover’s beautiful features. “In Corinth?”

“Mmmm.” Melinda pulled the archeologist in closer to her body.

“And exactly who is they? What’s happened to the trial?”

The linguist chuckled at her lover’s keen interest about everything. She’d kept Janice regularly updated on everything she’d heard from Gabrielle as she didn’t like keeping Janice out of the loop. “She was pardoned from her charges because she helped fight against Darphus.”

“Jesus,” murmured the archeologist, “is that good or bad?”

“Apparently it seems to be good,” remarked the translator, “as Gabrielle believes she’s changed. She didn’t go into details.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” chided the archeologist, who leaned into the taller frame next to her.

“You’re going to have that chance tonight,” informed Melinda. “We’re going to Gabrielle’s home to meet with ’em.”

Janice stiffened and dropped her head back some. “And who is them?”

Melinda lowered her head and pressed her lips against Janice’s temple. She pulled back some then murmured, “Ephiny, Solari, Callisto, Cyrene, Gabrielle, the Conqueor….” She lifted her head some. “Little Melpomene.” She saw how Janice’s glowing smile shaped at hearing the girl’s name. “There may be a few others there.”

“I’ve missed Ephiny and Melpomene,” quietly admitted the archeologist, who rarely confessed to missing anybody to herself or voicing it to somebody.

“I know.” Melinda ran her fingers through the back of Janice’s short, golden locks. “Can ya come tonight?”

The archeologist sighed as she stared over the ancient city of Corinth; she particularly studied the area where Gabrielle’s home resided. “This is going to be very awkward, Mel… and uncomfortable.”

“It will be,” agreed the linguist, “but if it gets us outta here and home then….”

Janice slowly showed her agreement with moving her head. “I’ve had enough of this dekarchos crap… I’m ready to play archeologist again.”

Melinda had a faint grin at this.

The archeologist was transfixed by the city but she whispered, “You really think the Conqueror has changed?”

“Would Gabrielle stand by her if it were any different?”

Janice quickly understood then she turned back to her lover. “I’m not sure I can….” She wrapped her arms around her body.

Melinda took her lover’s smaller hands into hers and gently promised, “I ain’t gonna leave your side tonight.”

The archeologist absorbed the promise and nodded her head. “Thanks, Mel.”

“My pleasure,” murmured the linguist, who leaned down for a gentle kiss. After her lips parted from Janice’s, she whispered, “I need to tell Lao Ma what’s happening… she’ll stay here to watch things.”

Janice nodded her head. “How’s Toris doing?”

“I hear he’s cursing up a storm in the dungeons.” Melinda straightened up, which revealed her worried features.

“Mel, there’s not much we can do to help him,” reminded the archeologist. “He’s just going to have to sit tight until the Conqueror can deal with him.”

The linguist knew this too but she didn’t completely like it either. “And exactly how do ya think she’s gonna deal with him?”

“I guess we won’t have an idea until we see what these changes are,” theorized Janice. “This is going to hurt Gabrielle the worst… I mean Perdicus….” She shook her head and looked away. “I don’t know what Perdicus was thinking.”

“He was protecting you and stopping Toris,” reminded the linguist but even her assuring words seemed hollow in comparison to Perdicus’s wasted death. She knew too that once Gabrielle heard of his death that she would be the most devastated. Cyrene would follow suit too.

“Its events like that,” murmured Janice, “that I think life is so fucked up.” She was instantly reminded of her mother’s death, which made her bitterness curl in her stomach. “If I’d just not been so goddamn trusting.”

“Janice,” debated Melinda, “it ain’t your fault.” She tipped her lover’s head up so she could see those emotionally lit green eyes. “Toris made his choices and obviously he resigned to ’em a long time ago. It was his hands… not yours.”

“I know,” whispered the archeologist, “I just should have-”

“Learn to let it go, Janice.” Melinda released Janice’s chin then softly added, “The cycle has to stop at some point.”

The archeologist sighed then faintly nodded but she would still debate it over for some time.

“How is Hu doing, Janice?”

“He’s still with Lao Ma and slowly recovering.” Janice was relieved for that much as she knew any tiger, human or otherwise, was quite stubborn especially in the face of death. “I can’t believe he dragged himself all the way from the beach, across the city, and into the fortress to stop Toris.” She slightly showed a grin. “It must be a tiger thing.”

“Must be,” lightly agreed the grinning linguist. “Go finish up with your squad for the afternoon. Meet me here after sunset… we’ll eat then head over to Gabrielle’s.”

Janice readily agreed, kissed her lover goodbye, and slipped out of the office. She spent the afternoon sweeping through the city with her patrol and more times than she cared to admit she wanted to stop at Gabrielle’s home. Instead she kept her patrol busy and making sure all was quiet in the city. She also enjoy a little side trip to the market and picked on Salmoneus, which made her feel good for a bit. Salmoneus too pretended to enjoy his little friend’s surprise visits and he was always quite pleasant but he knew the female dekarchos saw right through him. Still though, like any good salesman he continued trying to persuade his little friend that he was a changed merchant and had no products that remotely had to do with the Conqueror. Of course as soon as the dekarchos and her squad marched off his stall did an almost magical transformation and there were Conqueror products up for resale.

Janice ran a little behind in her patrol as she made it to the fortress half an hour after sunset but she dismissed her men for the night. She then decided first to go to the Conqueror’s bedchambers because she wanted to pick up something for tonight. She entered the quiet and dimly lit chambers and noticed that Nakia had come through to clean up things. She rarely saw the Egyptian slave these days as she was so busy sashaying around as a dekarchos. She picked up her leather pack that she’d originally bought when first coming to Corinth and filled it with a couple of items then hurried out of the bedchambers.

When the archeologist started down the hallway her brisk walk went slower as she spotted the dark shaman, Alti, waiting at the end of the hallway. She knew she had plenty of protection on her between her sword and gun plus they were in the fortress, which was not only swarming with sentries but with Melinda Pappas as the Conqueror.

Alti slowly developed a dark smile when the small woman cautiously approached her. “I heard about your little incident yesterday… dekarchos.”

Janice narrowed her eyes at how the shaman drew out her title as if it were a joke.

“Its strange how the Conqueror hasn’t dealt with her brother,” mentioned the thoughtful shaman. “She’s usually swift with her executions.”

“Maybe because it is her brother,” chewed out the archeologist.

Alti laughed then leaned over the prone archeologist. “Who are you trying to fool, Janice? The Conqueror does not know change but if she ever found it then the realm would be lost.”

Janice’s lips curled into a smirk as she too knew that the Conqueror was the realm. “What you so afraid of change for, Alti? You afraid to lose your spot as the biggest leech sucker in the world?”

Alti’s face flickered with an angry reaction but then it disappeared as she threateningly whispered, “There are plenty of others that follow in Darphus and Velasca’s wake, Janice Covington. You are just one minor passing in the Conqueror’s life just like the rest.” She lifted her right hand to bring it near the stranger but she paused. “There is change coming and you’re days of sunrises are almost over.” Suddenly she turned and glided down the hallway with her back to the archeologist.

“Yeah fuck you too,” muttered the angry archeologist as she was so tempted to show Alti how many sunrises she had left. She adjusted her pack then turned to her right and entered the stairwell to go to the third level. She raced up and quickly ducked into the Conqueror’s office because she couldn’t be any later for Melinda.

Melinda informed Janice that she would need to leave first tonight and asked her to wait on the edge of the market for her. Janice found that Melinda had changed at some point into her leathers, bronze armor, and hooked on her sword and chakram. Janice received a quick kiss then left the office and eventually the fortress.

The translator passed some time by finishing up work on a scroll. She then stood up, pulled her black cloak off the back of her chair, and quickly put it on then went to the open window of the office. She scanned the torch lit city then she quickly moved about the office to blow out all the candles and torches. Her tall form disappeared in the bleakness of the office but she materialized by the dimly lit window that was rather large.

Melinda crouched on the edge of the window as her sights focused on the market where she hoped Janice was waiting for her. She pulled her hood over her head, peered down at the fortress grounds far below, and she quickly rolled out of the window and disappeared into the darkness without a sound.

Janice Covington studied the few passerbys that didn’t give her much of a second glance. She toyed with a button of her jacket then she suddenly jumped when an unexpected hand touched her shoulder. She whirled around with her shocked features but sighed in relief. “Don’t do that, Mel,” she hissed hotly. She spotted her friend’s devilish grin under the hood.

“Let’s go quickly, Janice.”

The archeologist conceded by swiftly moving along side her lover through the city. She guided Melinda through the city then finally ducked into an alleyway where the entrance to Gabrielle’s home. She knocked on the door as Melinda inched closer to her, which comforted her greatly.

Joxer answered the door and he smiled at the archeologist. “Glad you made it, Janice.”

“Come on, let us in before I freeze,” complained the gruff archeologist.

Joxer quietly laughed at the woman’s abrasive attributes but he side stepped and watched as Janice entered followed by a tall, unknown figure. He assumed it was this mysterious Melinda Pappas he’d heard so much about but hadn’t met yet.

“Janice,” warmly greeted Cyrene first. She wiped her hands on her apron and quickly came out of the kitchen to the pair. She first hugged Janice for awhile.

Melinda removed her hood and tried to stop eyeing Joxer because he certainly reminded her of Jack Kleiman. She then discovered that Cyrene had a hug for her too, which she warmly received.

Janice then saw at the bare dinner table sat the three Amazons she knew so well. “Can’t you get off your ass and say hi, Eph?”

The Amazon in question laughed then quickly got up to hug her favorite irritating blond. She whispered in the archeologist’s ear, “It’s so good to see you, Janny.”

“Yeah, yeah you too, feather head,” teased Janice when she broke the hug.

Solari stepped up to the former stranger that she’d come to adore. “Ephiny and I have the most unbelievable story to tell you later.” She then embraced the archeologist.

“Jesus Christ,” complained the hugged stranger, “I thought you Amazons hated me.”

“We should for sending us another irritating blond,” jested Ephiny. She smirked at Janice’s scowl then she faced Melinda Pappas, who she hugged too.

After the greetings between the friends Janice asked, “Where’s Gabrielle and….” She fell short because her attention was grabbed by the bard, who stood at the top of the steps and was followed suit by the Conqueror.

“Glad you made it,” commented the rebel leader from the top. She went down the steps as fast as she could then come up to her descendant.

The Conqueror stood back and watched with intent.

Gabrielle wouldn’t be denied a hug from Janice.

Janice finally smiled as she tightly held her ancestor from another world. When she pulled back she found a warm hand against her cheek and concerned green eyes looking her face over.

“I was worried about you,” sadly brought up the bard.

“I was worried about me too,” confessed the archeologist. She took Gabrielle’s hand into hers then partially turned to bring Melinda into the conversation. “Mel though took care of everything.”

Gabrielle lifted her gaze to Melinda Pappas and warmly smiled as she greeted, “Its good to see you again, Melinda.”

Janice tugged on her lover’s bracer covered wrist and pulled her forward.

Melinda received a gentle hug from the rebel leader, which made her smile too. She’d been in continuous contact with the rebel but face to face was always different in her opinion.

Gabrielle then half turned to urge her silent friend to join them because she knew this would be hard for the Conqueror. “A lot has happened while I was in the Amazon Nation.”

“I reckon a lot has happened in Corinth while ya been gone,” commented Melinda Pappas. Her features stoned over when she met the Conqueror’s watchful gaze. She also unknowingly pressed her body against Janice’s in a protective manner.

Janice’s eyes swept over the dark woman that’d tortured her body for a week. The scabs were gone from her body but her mind was scarred by the memories. She wasn’t quite ready to face any music that may sing of the Conqueror’s changes. She cleared her throat then asked, “Where’s Melpomene?”

“She was asleep,” commented Cyrene, “but I would think she’d be up with all this noise.” She glanced off to her right when she heard a sound. She smiled when she saw the girl’s young and sleepy face.

Janice slipped past everybody and her grim face broke apart by a beautiful smile. “Hi, Mel.”

Melpomene worked out the sleep fuzz in her vision. She smiled brightly at seeing the older woman she considered her sister. She broke into a charging run while squealing, “Janice!”

The archeologist knelt down and rocked back on her heels when the child landed into her body. She scooped up the girl into a powerful hug.

“I missed you, Janice,” murmured the child.

Janice melted into Melpomene’s affection and whispered back, “I missed you too.” She slightly pulled back then gently stated, “I want you to meet my Mel.” She saw the slightly offended look, which made her grin and correct, “My other Mel.”

Melpomene switched back to her smile and clung to Janice.

Janice slowly stood up and hefted the girl so that she held her at her right side. Her newly increased arm strength made it much simpler compared to her past attempts. She was all a smile as she came over to her lover and introduced, “Melinda, you remember Melpomene?”

Melinda Pappas graced the child with a warm smile. “Oh yes.” She stepped forward and gave the child a warm hug then a kiss to her cheek while Melpomene remained in Janice’s hold.

“Sit down, everybody,” offered Cyrene, “I’m almost finished dinner.”

Janice lit up at the mention of food. “Mel and I ate already but….” She inquisitively peered up at lover for an answer.

Melinda chuckled then grinned at the mother. “I think Janice is still hungry though.”

Everybody laughed together at the linguist’s joke that fell on the blushing archeologist. Eventually the large group of friends filled in chairs around the table except Cyrene, who’d picked up plenty of food in the market today and was making a classic fish dish for them. Melinda sat beside Janice, who was flanked by Ephiny, Gabrielle, and then the Conqueror. On Janice’s lap sat the excited Melpomene, who couldn’t be pried or bribed from Janice.

The Amazons sat lumped together and occasionally helped fill in the holes of Gabrielle’s story about the trial and the battle against Darphus. She only left out the details about the Conqueror’s trials through Tartarus as that was something just between her and the Conqueror. By the time she finished, Cyrene was putting the food down with Ephiny and Joxer’s help. The meal itself was rather quiet as everybody was thoroughly absorbed in the home cooked dinner that was enough to feed an army. And despite some of the underlying tension Cyrene’s meal that was filled with her love seemed to ease that tension. For the first time in countless moons, Cyrene had most of her family together that seemed to be growing, which made her a glowing mother inside and out.

Janice shoved her cleared plate aside and happily moaned at her filled belly. “Damn… I think that totally beats the food back in the fortress,” she remarked and grinned up at her lover.

Melinda chuckled and shook her head.

“Now who do you think ate more?” brought up Ephiny, who was grinning from ear to ear. “Gabrielle or Janice?”

“Hey,” shot back Janice, “be nice, Eph. I’m in a good mood right now.”

Ephiny folded her arms over her chest but she didn’t lose her gloating expression.

Callisto now got up and started to clear the plates around the table. Cyrene joined her as did Solari. Once the dishes were removed Cyrene was busy warming up water for tea for whoever wanted any, which she suspected would be everybody but Melpomene. In the meantime, Janice and Melinda were prompted by Gabrielle to tell what’d happened in Corinth while they were away.

The Conqueror at this moment listened the most as this information confirmed much of what she saw in the astral projection. She’d stayed relatively quiet the entire time, which was obvious to everybody but it seemed to bother the bard out of anybody. Gabrielle understood the uncomfortable situation between the Conqueror, Janice, and Melinda too. She knew it wasn’t something that would be corrected tonight or tomorrow but hopefully it would ease overtime.

“Toris is in the dungeons?” finally spoke up the Conqueror.

Melinda took the question so her lover wouldn’t do it. “Yes and he’s quite comfortable.”

“He isn’t hurt?” questioned Cyrene, who stood besides Ephiny and filling up a mug with steaming water from her bronze kettle.

“He had a shoulder wound,” replied Janice, “but Mel had a healer take care of it.”

Gabrielle was biting her lower lip as her dinner in her stomach turned. “He’s just going to have to wait until after you deal with Alti huh?” Her view centered on the Conqueror next to her.

The ruler slowly nodded. “It’s the safest place for him right now.” Nor was she quite prepared to face her only living brother, who had clearly been plotting for moons to seek revenge for all her wrong doings.

“And everybody else,” muttered the sighing archeologist.

Melinda secretly touched her lover’s side to assure her.

“I don’t understand what he was thinking,” murmured the confused bard.

“That’s the problem, he wasn’t,” remarked the ruler.

Gabrielle peered up at her friend. “But why would he… he just disappeared without telling Cyrene or me. That’s not like him.”

The Conqueror raised an eyebrow but murmured, “I’m sure he and mother could have said the same thing about me.”

The rebel leader’s mouth closed as she didn’t consider that.

“Hatred changes people,” sadly reminded the ruler.

Gabrielle shook her head but Cyrene’s kiss to her temple calmed her a degree or two. She watched as her adopted mother filled her mug with the steaming water that mixed her tea. “Thanks, Cyrene.”

“So now what’s the game plan?” brought up Janice.

“I need to retake my place as the Conqueror,” answered the ruler.

Melinda wasn’t completely comfortable with this as she was going to argue it but Janice’s hand on her thigh stopped her.

“I think the question here is what’s going to happen to Alti?” challenged the archeologist and she locked on the ruler.

“I am going to rid of her,” declared the ruler, “with or without anybody’s help.”

Janice Covington raised her face up to meet Melinda.

Melinda read her lover’s concerns and questions in her honey green eyes. She wondered too if they could trust the Conqueror however when she saw how Gabrielle seemed to stand beside the ruler she knew she couldn’t argue any points. If the rebel leader highly trusted her long time ruthless enemy then there wasn’t much left to question. “What do you need us to do?”

The Conqueror inwardly relaxed at now receiving the support. She’d been working out her plans since she arrived back from Tartarus. She didn’t plan on anybody truly facing Alti other than her and Lao Ma would be the key to Alti’s soul being locked away. She just hoped she could get everybody to agree to letting her do this alone.

Quite later that night, Gabrielle had changed into a nightshift after saying goodnight to Janice and Melinda, who left for the fortress. Gabrielle was rather weary after what felt like an endless argument with the Conqueror and she failed to win. It seemed lately her bard skills were just failing her whenever she tried to argue her points, which caused her a headache tonight.

The Conqueror came into the bedroom after changing in the washroom that was across from the bedroom. She recognized how the rebel leader was trying to ignore her but she let it go for right now. She set her leathers down beside her boots and Amazon sword she’d been burrowing. She sat on the edge of the bed and remarked, “We’ve been through too much for a silent game.”

The bard’s shoulder slumped but her back was still to the ruler. She was fishing around in her small dressed but gave up. She faced the ruler however didn’t reply as she first took a seat on her bed. “Why do you have to do this?”

“I’ve already told you,” answered the cold ruler.

Gabrielle sighed then leaned to her right. She propped her cane against her nightstand that was between the beds. “Why can’t I help or Janice and Melinda? You can’t do this alone.”

“Yes I can,” rebuked the Conqueror, “and I’m not endangering anymore lives but my own. This is my fight, Gabrielle.”

“It’s mine too,” refused the bard.

“No.” The Conqueror’s face hardened as she coldly stated, “Alti made me and I made her… its time she’s undone.”

“This could kill you,” hotly whispered the upset bard.

The Conqueror shrugged as if she didn’t care. “As long as I can take her with me then who does it matter to?”

“It matters to me,” shot back Gabrielle. Her eyes burned with her resolve. “It matters to Cyrene.”

The Conqueror got up and knelt down in front of her friend. “And did you see mother fighting me about this?”

The bard turned her head away and swallowed. “She knows you’ll do what you want… but that doesn’t mean she agrees with it.”

“Mother understands what I have to do… that for me to begin fixing all that I’ve done has to start with Alti.”

Gabrielle dropped her head down then whispered, “You’re not going to be able to fix much if you end up dead.”

“I can’t fix much with Alti in my path,” reminded the Conqueror. “And it won’t stop with me… she’ll be after mother, Toris… you.”

Gabrielle swallowed against the hard lump in her throat as she met the ruler’s stare again. “I know. I’m just….” She shook her head and suddenly stared up at the plaster ceiling that flickered from the candlelight. Her eyes filled with the tears that wanted to be shed from her emotions. “I just scared… scared for you.” She lowered her head and found a concerned expression watching her. “What if she’s able to reestablish the link between you two?”

The Conqueror understood the root of the bard’s fears. “Do you really believe that link of Alti’s controls me?”

“I don’t know,” murmured the rebel. “I do know you started to change after Yakut severed it.”

“Did I really change after she did that?” argued the ruler.

Gabrielle sighed and shook her head. “I know… I just… Alti is so dangerous.”

“So am I,” reminded the Conqueror, which she knew caught the bard off guard.

Gabrielle bit her lower lip. Her right hand stretched out and clutched the unusual bronze charm around the ruler’s neck. She tightly held it while whispering, “Promise me you won’t become that monster again.” Her voice pitched with emotions but her gaze stayed true on the Conqueror.

The Conqueror wanted to escape at that point because it was a guarantee she could never make in life. She’d been that monster most her life and it was often all she knew especially at the darkest points in her life.

“Cyrene was right,” urged Gabrielle, “this cycle of hatred and revenge won’t end until we learn to love and forgive again. And not just each other… but ourselves too.”

Xena turned back to the bard and revealed herself in another rare display. “If I do that then I will become that monster again, Gabrielle.”

“No,” argued the bard, who gently tugged on the charm. “You’ll become that monster because you can’t forgive and can’t love… isn’t that what got you here in the first place?”

Xena lowered her head some because she knew the bard was right. Her entire life had been driven by hatred and revenge while love never found a place in her or even around her. She faintly nodded then whispered, “I don’t know what love is, Gabrielle.”

“Yes you do,” argued the bard. “You knew as a child. You’ve just forgotten.”

“It’s not easy teaching an old warlord new tricks, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle sadly grinned at her friend’s joke. “Neither is it easy to teach an old bard how to hold her tongue but I’m going to put my faith into you facing Alti alone.” She lowered her head closer and murmured, “You promise me, Xena that you won’t become that monster again.”

Xena knew it was trade on some level and she slowly nodded. She huskily whispered, “I promise.” When Gabrielle released her Gaelic necklace, she quickly decided it was time to recoil so she softly ordered, “Get some sleep.” Then she stood up.

The rebel leader allowed her friend the retreat because it’d been a hard conversation for them both. She slinked up the bed some, pulled the sheets back, and blew out the candles on the nightstand. She curled up in the cool bed but it slowly warmed up, which put her to sleep eventually.

The following day was spent getting prepared but the preparations were mostly made by Melinda. Janice kept up the regular duty of running the squad through the city. Melinda however went to Lao Ma and delivered a sealed message to her from the Conqueror. Lao Ma was also updated on the plans to stop Alti, which she carefully listened to but she didn’t read the scroll until Melinda left her chambers.

Melinda then ordered her sentries to bring in a dozen bodies back from the cross field where prisoners were often sentenced. She knew this would keep Alti very busy as the shaman would feed off the souls of the dead prisoners. By early afternoon, she went to the Conqueror’s bedchambers and collected the ruler’s requested leathers, armor, and boots with leather greaves that had bronze support. She left the items near the door in leather satchels then disappeared to carry out her next item on the check list.

The fortress sentries were given an order by the Conqueror that their duty shift would be extended late tonight. The sentries were curious as to the reasoning, which the Conqueror never specified nor did their superior, Iolaus. Finally Melinda returned to the office and did her daily work so that suspicions wouldn’t arise throughout the fortress. She only stopped her work when Janice arrived with concerns.

“Is everything ready?” questioned the archeologist, who closed the office door.

“I reckon so,” agreed Melinda. “Alti has been rather busy today.”

“So I heard,” remarked Janice and she took a seat in one of the chairs. “The squad was talking about how many crucified prisoners the Conqueror ordered to be removed from the fields. You don’t think Alti will wonder?”

“She will,” agreed Melnida, “but not before it’s too late. She’s too busy with them.”

Janice slightly nodded. “You want me to head over to Gabrielle’s?” She stretched out her legs some. “Are the Conqueror’s things ready?”

“Yes.” Melinda sat back in her chair then added, “Can you take a pack with you?”

“Does it matter which one?”

The translator shook her head. “Just take one and I’ll be over a candlemark after dark or so.”

Janice tilted her head and asked, “How did you sneak out of the fortress anyway?”

Melinda smirked and smugly replied, “I have many skills.”

Janice groaned and rolled her eyes then stood up. “I personally like your skills in-”

“Jaaaanice,” drew out the linguist, her blue orbs twinkling.

The archeologist smirked. “You started it.”

Melinda laughed at how her lover always reverted to that kid like remark just to poke at her. She stood up and neared her lover with a tender expression. “Will ya be okay going by yaself?”

“Christ, Mel I know I pretend to act like a kid but-”

“I know,” cut in the linguist, “but I’m talkin’ about the Conqueror.”

“I’ll be fine,” assured the archeologist. Then she was on her tiptoes for a tender kiss. She brushed her hand across Melinda’s face and whispered, “You be careful too, Mel.”

“I’ll see ya in a bit,” promised the translator.

Janice went to the Conqueror’s bedchambers and picked up one of the satchels. She also grabbed three more oranges from the fruit bowl and tucked them away. It wasn’t long before she found herself knocking on the door to Gabrielle and Cyrene’s home. Joxer let her in and she smiled to see Ephiny sipping on some tea at the dinner table with Solari. “I brought you feather heads some more.”

Solari put her tea down and grinned. “You brought those… round ones right? I liked those better than the yellow things.”

“Bananas,” clarified the archeologist. She chuckled and swung her pack off then popped an orange out of the bag. “I brought only oranges.” She tossed one orange to Ephiny then the last one to Solari.

“I love these things,” murmured Solari and she started to peel off the skin as Janice showed her and Ephiny last night.

“Gabrielle and the Conqueror are upstairs,” informed Ephiny, who was busy peeling her orange too.

“Thanks.” Janice slung the pack over her shoulder and marched up the steps to find the Conqueror alone in the bedroom. Janice was tense but she curtly remarked, “I brought some of the things you asked for. Mel is bringing the rest.”

The Conqueror only moved her head in understanding and received the heavy pack from the small woman. She set the bag down on the bed she’d slept in the past two nights. She returned her focus to Janice. “Janice-”

“I really don’t want to hear it,” argued the archeologist. “I’m not like Gabrielle… I’m not a forgiver like her.” She folded her arms over her chest. “You tortured me for six damn days and you would have probably killed me at the end. Just because you did a hundred eighty degree switch doesn’t mean I’m going to rollover and forgive you.”

“First, I didn’t just rollover and forgive her,” came the bard’s hard voice.

Janice turned her head to the bard and a sigh escape her.

“Second,” continued the annoyed bard, “nobody is expecting you to forgive the Conqueror for what she did because that’s your choice.”

“And third?” urged the archeologist.

“Third that damn stubbornness of yours won’t help anybody, especially you,” remarked Gabrielle. She limped closer to her descendant. “I understand how you feel, Janice.”

Janice did realize that as her ancestor suffered far more than her between her family lost and her legs. It did make her wonder how the bard was able to forgive the Conqueror.

“You were right, Janice.” Gabrielle saw the confusion written on her descendant’s face. “Without the Conqueror here the realm will crumble and there will be chaos.”

The archeologist glimpsed at the silent ruler then back at Gabrielle. “And as you reminded me there are no tyrants that reform.”

Gabrielle sighed as her words were thrown back in her face.

“There’s always a first,” remarked the Conqueror. She stepped closer to the archeologist. “Tell me, Janice who am I in your world?”

Janice narrowed her eyes then shook her head at her dark thoughts. She was rarely the persecuting type but for some reason she was in this case; she was with the Conqueror. Maybe she was trying hard to separate the Conqueror from Xena the Warrior Princess and even from Melinda Pappas. She didn’t want to believe that this monster could lie within Melinda Pappas yet she had to face the light of truth.

“Melinda told me that the Conqueror is a hero in her world?” tried the bard.

The archeologist faintly nodded then whispered, “Before she was a hero she was a warlord.”

Gabrielle stepped closer to her descendant and gently questioned, “How is this any different in the end?”

Janice angry resolve crumbled and she met her ancestor’s determination. “It’s probably better… this way,” she sadly mentioned. “This way the Conqueror can lift a finger to bring peace to the entire realm… Xena and Gabrielle sacrificed everything for nothing.”

“They wouldn’t have tried so hard if they thought it was nothing,” argued the bard.

“No… they wouldn’t,” finally agreed the archeologist. Unexpectedly she released hidden tears but Gabrielle grabbed her up into a warm hug.

Gabrielle held onto her descendant in a strong embrace that she knew she needed too.

The Conqueror tilted her head when she heard the door downstairs open and close. She lightly touched the bard’s back to let her know she was leaving and she silently disappeared.

Gabrielle pulled back from the hug but used Janice’s body for balance. Now that the Conqueror was gone she mentioned, “She’s been through a lot too and she’s trying hard. If we don’t try and move forward together then we’ll only end up falling apart.”

“I know,” agreed Janice. “It’s just easier said than done.”

“If it was so easy then would life be worth living?” Gabrielle didn’t wait for an answer and instead guided her distant family member out of the bedroom.

Janice Covington was relieved to see her lover downstairs. She followed her ancestor down the steps then greeted Melinda.

Everybody conversed while the Conqueror took Melinda’s pack and disappeared upstairs. While everybody talked the Conqueror was changing into the clothes that Melinda and Janice had provided her. When her heavy boots with her bronze and leather greaves announced her approach at the top of the steps everybody stopped talking and gazed up.

Gabrielle realized she was staring at her friend, who was now truly the Conqueror again. Her stomach pitched briefly yet she reminded herself that this was a change Conqueror and she had to have faith.

The Conqueror’s black cape had a purple interior and it flowed behind and it was fastened by the large claw like pads over her shoulders. Her leathers were as dark as her hair then there was the gold that stood out from the rest. The thin wire armor twisted around her breasts then over top but the golden chain across her chest reflected the candlelight the most along with the few gold plated skirt tassels. Last her arms displayed dark leather bracers and the black gauntlets had gold weaving a Gaelic like design to match her outfit. The top of her right hand was covered by bronze chain mail while she wore a black leather glove on her left.

Gabrielle stood up and approached her friend. “Well… that’s a change.”

The Conqueror slyly grinned as she felt more in control than ever. Her eyes honed in on Melinda Pappas. “It’s time to switch, Melinda.”

Melinda Pappas stood up from the table and she removed her cloak. Her armor echoed that of the Conqueror’s except it was the armor and leathers the Conqueror had specially made in honor of M’Lila. It was the same ensemble that Xena the Warrior Princess wore according to Gabrielle’s descriptions in the scrolls.

The Conqueror admired the attire her descendant had worn mostly. She’d never tried on the armor, leathers, boots, and matching sword because she’d never felt right in doing it. Since Melinda was her mirror she could see that the outfit gave Melinda a completely different light.

Melinda Pappas reached to her back and unclipped the sword and sheath. She tossed them to the ruler.

The Conqueror easily clipped the sheathed sword to her side so that it was slightly tucked within her cape.

Melinda took a step closer and lifted her right hand with the chakram firmly gripped.

The Conqueror stretched out her right hand and held the other side of her infamous weapon. She fixed eyes with her descendant and conveyed a promise that she knew Melinda would understand.

Melinda finally released the weapon and bent down to retrieve a few daggers from her boots. She held out the handles to the ruler.

The Conqueror tucked them away then reminded, “The breast dagger and key too.”

“We need that key,” cut in Janice, who stood up beside her lover.

“You’ll have the scepter,” promised the Conqueror.

“What do you need it for?” argued the archeologist.

Melinda touched her lover’s shoulder then whispered, “Its okay, Janice.” She removed the breast dagger along with the key.

The ruler slipped the dagger away and the key into her cleavage with a simply blurring motion. Without another word, she marched to the door that Joxer guarded.

“Wait,” called Gabrielle, who limped up to the ruler. “How will we know if you succeeded?”

The Conqueror knew the rebel was stalling but she relented for a few beats. “You’ll know.”

Cyrene appeared beside her daughter and Gabrielle but she was focused on her child. “Please be careful, Xena.”

The Conqueror made no promises as she could only nod.

The mother stepped forward and made her daughter hug her goodbye. She was relieved when her child hugged her back fiercely and she whispered, “I love you, little one.”

The Conqueror closed her eyes then murmured back, “I love you too, mother.”

Cyrene withdrew and touched her daughter’s cheek then without another word she slipped away.

Gabrielle opened the door and followed the ruler out of the home. She closed the door then found the ruler facing her. “Don’t stake your life on this.”

The Conqueror stepped up to the worried bard and sadly smiled. “Now I never thought I’d heard those words from you.”

“Neither would I but things change.”

“Things only change because people change,” remarked the ruler. “I need to go.” She turned to leave but a nimble, small hand caught her leather wrist and stopped her.

“Thank you, Xena.” Gabrielle viewed the misunderstanding from the ruler. “You helped me see the Light when I’ve been so blind to it.”

“I didn’t do that,” argued the ruler, “you did that yourself.” She came back to her friend and whispered, “Thank you for believing in me when nobody else could.”

“I didn’t do that,” mimicked the bard, “you had to see it in yourself first.” She started to release her friend while reminding, “Don’t forget your promise to me, Xena.”

The Conqueror started to move away as her hand grazed over Gabrielle’s. She vanished into the darkness of the alley but her voice called, “I won’t ever forget.”

Gabrielle wanted to fold her arms over her chest even though she couldn’t do it. She caught a brief glimpse of the Conqueror at the end of the alley then she was gone around the building. She opened the door and entered to a small argument between Janice and Melinda.

“Mel, we needed that damn key.”

“Janice-”

“No,” snapped the archeologist, “we don’t know if she’ll win against Alti or not.”

“She’ll make it,” argued the nearing bard. “Just have some faith, Janice.”

Janice sighed then stated, “I do but I don’t like this… something just doesn’t feel right.”

“And if ya listened to me instead of barkin’ at me I could show ya something.”

Janice rested her hands on her hips and bit off her remarks.

Melinda extracted a small sterling box that she opened and turned it to her lover.

The archeologist’s eyes widened and she snapped, “Why didn’t you tell me! Christ, Mel.” She almost touched the Cronos Ring that was tucked in the box but she stopped.

“Well if ya let me talk then I could have,” reminded the southerner.

“Way to go, Janny,” chided Ephiny.

The archeologist glared at her feathery friend but lifted an apologetic look to her lover. “Sorry, Mel.”

“Mmmm,” replied the linguist.

Janice sighed at her lover’s unforgiving tone so her shoulders slumped. “I am sorry… I’m just really….”

“Tense,” finished the translator. “I reckon we all are, Janice.”

Janice took a seat beside Ephiny and murmured, “Something just doesn’t seem quite right.”

Gabrielle sat on the opposite side of the table. “I don’t like much sitting around and waiting.”

Melinda remained standing and she folded her arms over her chest. “It is odd that she wanted to do this alone.”

“Maybe the Conqueror knows something we don’t,” brought up Callisto, “She’s great at being devious.”

Gabrielle glanced at the Amazon and she knew Callisto hadn’t said it with hatred but with open observation.

“Well did she say anything that makes you think that, Janice?” probed Ephiny.

Janice shook her head and slumped back in her chair with her legs stretching out. “It’s not the Conqueror that makes me wonder. It’s something else and I can’t put my finger on it.”

Melinda watched as Cyrene took a seat at the table.

“Did somebody else say something?” questioned Solari.

Janice’s features twisted tighter then she stopped staring at the floor. “Wait, wasn’t there a leak in the Amazon Nation? You said Velasca was, right?”

Gabrielle nodded at the archeologist’s question. “Yes, she was teamed up with Darphus.”

“Mel, did you know before last night that Velasca had been the leak?”

The southerner was confused by her lover’s questioning but she shook her head. “No, Janice… why?”

Janice suddenly popped out of her chair, which made everybody jump in their skin. “Holy shit!”

“What is it?” urged Melinda.

“Alti… shit… why didn’t I see it before!” Janice threw up her hands then faced Melinda. “Last night before I left to come here, I bumped into Alti.”

“You didn’t mention this,” remarked the southerner.

“It wasn’t a big deal,” argued Janice, who shook her head then continued her explanation. “She said something that I just realized she couldn’t have known.”

“What?” demanded the translator.

Janice grabbed her lover’s hands and repeated what Alti had said. “There are plenty of others that follow in Darphus and Velasca’s wake.”

“By the gods,” rasped Gabrielle, “Alti was helping Darphus and Velasca.”

“I bet that’s how they got that army built so fast,” suggested Callisto, she then laughed and reminded, “If Alti knew the Conqueror was in the Amazon Nation then she knew who Melinda was too. What a clever little shaman.”

Janice’s jaw snapped shut as she realized this too.

“She’s setting up the Conqueror,” whispered the bard in fear. She quickly got to her feet and announced, “We have to warn the Conqueror.” She scanned her friend’s faces.

Janice peered up at her lover and whispered, “Mel?”

Melinda saw the plea on Gabrielle’s face and in Janice’s too. She nodded then stated, “Let’s go.”
Chapter 24 – Et Tu?
Alti swept down the torch lit hallway after two sentries reported to her that the Conqueror requested her audience in the courtroom. She approached the courtroom and expected there to be some masses there but it was quiet. Her black eyes centered off to the right where the Conqueror was seated at her throne.

“Come in, Alti,” greeted the ruler’s cold voice. She waved the shaman into her court while she slumped in her throne. Her legs were stretched out and sprawled open while her arms now rested on the chair arms, her hands curled over the ends.

The shaman glided into the empty courtroom and stood before the ruler, who was flanked by two guards. She slipped her hands into her robe and respectively bowed. When she straightened up she realized that to the right of the throne stood the golden scepter that shined the Cronos Stone. “Welcome home, my liege.”

The Conqueror’s lips curled into a vicious smile. “The mice will play when the tiger is away,” she remarked. She tilted her head and her eyes slotted. “I’ve already killed two of the mice… now you’re all that remains, Alti.”

The shaman’s full lips eased into a ruthless smile. “My liege, I do not know what you speak of.”

The Conqueror laughed with her head dropping back. She shook her head as her laughs echoed away in the courtroom. “The games are over, Alti.” She sat up in her throne then gave a piercing whistle.

Alti stiffened when doors in each of the columns of the courtroom that usually remained locked suddenly opened. Two sentries each stepped out of the doors, closed them, and unsheathed their swords and made sure to lock the doors back up.

The Conqueror grew smugger when the main doors that led outside threw open and six soldiers armed with spears and swords marched into the court. She waved them to close and lock the doors from outside. Then her eyes lowered to the dark shaman. “I would offer you the easier way out of this, Alti but I know your answer already.”

The shaman’s upper lip twitched from her mounting anger. “You owe me everything… I made you the Destroyer of Nations.”

The Conqueror’s eyes lit up with such a challenge. “No, Alti I made myself the Destroyer of Nations and I will continue doing so without you.” She drummed her right fingers on her throne’s arm. “I do not require any shamanism to conqueror the world.” She slowly stood up and plucked her scepter up into her right hand.

“Do not fool yourself,” whispered the shaman. “That little warlord rebellion has already caused unrest in the realm.”

“And I’ve almost put that rebellion down.” The Conqueror stood poised at the top of her dais and her eyes fixed on the evil shaman.

Alti body trembled with her rage. “Did the rebellion not show you how weak you’ve become? You’ve lost your destiny, Conqueror but I can return you to it.”

The Conqueror slammed her scepter onto the dais’s floor, which loudly echoed through the court. “I make my own destiny, shaman and it’s time we’ve parted destines.”

Alti growled then hotly questioned, “And what happened to our agreement to conquer the world, my liege?” Her pupils shrunk from fury, which made her eyes grow blacker.

The Conqueror recalled her mortal enemy’s impacting words from her past as she lifted her chin. “There was never an us, Alti… there is only the realm.” Her hungry smile developed as she definably declared, “And I am the realm.” She proudly descended the throne while casually mentioning, “But don’t think what we’ve shared was meaningless. I’ll always remember it… remember you.” The Conqueror lifted her scepter so that the Cronos Stone tilted the shaman’s head back. “You’ll have a special place of honor among….” She leaned in and huskily finished, “my conquered.”

Alti snarled as her right hand whipped out of her robe and her swiftly obscured hand rammed into the Conqueror’s left side. She snidely whispered, “Long live the Conqueror.” She twisted the dagger then ripped it from the Conqueror’s side, which dripped the ruler’s blood.

The Conqueror didn’t flinch despite the hot pain flashing up her side.

Alti lifted the dagger up between their faces and it hummed a bright green. “If I can’t have your soul here then I will find it another time.” She laughed as the ruler’s blood trickled over the handle and over her hand.

The Conqueror hastily tried to take a swipe at the Cronos Dagger but she was too late as the shaman vanished in a green light. She scanned the soldiers while barking out, “Nobody passes through any doors!” Her left hand quickly came up and touched the Cronos Stone, which flashed green and the ruler vanished.

The Conqueror’s body felt like it was being torn apart as the Cronos Stone linked to her mind. It read her destination she had in mind then suddenly the dark world exploded green so that her eyes felt burned. She then suddenly sensed a firm grounding under her boots as she remained hunched over and gasping for air. She slowly stood up while clenching the scepter in her right hand. She rose up to her feet gradually as she stared at her hometown of Amphipolis nestled in the base of the valley and sprawling along side the Strymon River. It was just as she recalled it- the village that was growing into the focal city of the Macedonian Providence before it was attack by Cortese.

Suddenly a sharp scream pierced the peacefulness on the hilltop that the Conqueror resided and she immediately recognized the cry. Her heart wildly beat as she broke into a powerful sprint away from her village. Her bleeding wound protested the energetic run up a hillside but the ruler ignored it. She erupted over the side and discovered the dark shaman towering over a young, fallen girl in the tall grass with her hands up.

The Conqueror put the scepter into her left hand while she extracted her sword from her side. She didn’t wait another beat as she quickly ran the rest of the distance, gave her powerful war cry, and leaped into the air with her right leg stretching out.

Alti heard the echoing cry that she didn’t expect. She looked up too late and was slammed by a hard boot to her chest. She yelled when she went flying into the air across the hill top and landed in front of some shrubs. She growled and lifted her head.

The Conqueror stood between the young girl and the shaman but her back was to the child.

The girl of about seven winters old sat up with her hands behind her back. She was awed by the woman that’d just saved her from the darker woman that’d attacked her.

Alti rose up to her full height and held out her hand with her fingers pointing at the Conqueror. “Time to relive some of your past, my liege.” She called on her shamanism powers and her wild eyes centered on the Conqueror’s soul. She clenched her hand, which sent out her power after the Conqueror to relive her past when she was attacked in previous battles.

The Conqueror braced herself because she knew of the shaman’s abilities. Her teeth clenched and showed while her muscles tensed and protruded from under her skin. Then the pain never shocked her body as she anticipated and instead M’Lila’s Gaelic necklace brightly shined a beautiful gold. She peered down at the glowing charm that obviously repelled Alti’s shamanism.

Alti lowered her hand and stared at the charm with rage. “The eternity emblem of Danu,” she hissed hotly. “It makes no difference.” She aimed her shamanism for the girl behind the Conqueror.

The Conqueror hastily acted as she charged the shaman.

The young girl’s scream expelled from her lips that vibrated all her pain. She fell to the grass and balled up as her mind flashed with images of some warrior’s life in a battle. The corner of her lip trickled out with blood.

The ruler slammed her hilted fist across the shaman’s head.

Alti’s shamanism broke from torturing the girl. She swiftly grabbed the Conqueror’s protecting necklace but she growled when the charm blazed against her palm in protest. Alti released the ember hot charm when she couldn’t hold it anymore. She went for her only weapon and took a swipe.

The Conqueror easily leaned back as her enemy missed her face. She then did a fast roundhouse kick, which sent her opponent reeling into the air again. She then saw that the shaman was preparing to use her dagger to transport off. She leapt into the air and landed next to the shaman. She kicked the Cronos Dagger out of her hand then knelt down beside Alti. “Ah ah aaaah, Alti… no more time travel for you.” She slammed her fist into the shaman’s face to knock her unconscious.

The Conqueror climbed to her feet while Alti moaned and her head slumped to the right. She turned her head to the young girl curled up on the ground. She hastily went to her and knelt beside her; her right hand carefully touched the child’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”

The girl’s watery blue eyes met the older woman’s. “I… I think so,” she rasped and furiously wiped her tears away.

“Try to sit up,” offered the Conqueror. She steadied her voice to be even while she helped the girl sit up. She inspected the girl’s face and wiped the blood from the corner of her mouth. “You’ll be fine, Xena.”

The girl’s eyes widened at her mysterious savior. “How do you know my name?” She shook her head then hastily asked, “Who are you? Are you a goddess?”

The Conqueror’s lips curled into a grin as childhood memories floated back to her. She leaned in and whispered, “No, I’m not a goddess… I’m mortal just like you.” She then stood up with her golden scepter in her left hand and her right hand was her sword. She tried not to chuckle at the girl’s worshipping trance that was locked on her. There was so much she could tell her younger self however she knew the risks that were involved too.

Instead the Conqueror turned her back on the girl and went back to the Cronos Dagger. She picked it up then tucked it away in her belt. She marched over to the moaning shaman that would wake any heartbeat. She placed her sword hand on the shaman so that her skin met the shaman’s but she paused and peered over her shoulder at her young self.

Young Xena was sitting up and stared in amazement as the raven haired god-like warrior vanished with the unconscious woman. She whispered, “Ly will never believe this.” She then heard her mother frantically yelling for her so she tried to get up.

“Open the damn gates!” furiously demanded Melinda when she raced up to the gates of the fortress. Just behind her were the Amazons and her lover was at her side.

“M-m-my liege, we thought you were-”

“Hurry, fools,” snapped Melinda then when the gates were open wide enough she raced through it.

Janice slipped through then waited for the Amazons to come too. She then turned to the gate guards and waited for her ancestor to move through the gate. She knew Melinda would race ahead with the Amazons so she focused on the sentry guards. She noticed how they were gawking at her and Gabrielle but she hotly ordered, “Lock up the gates and don’t let anybody in or out.”

The guards wavered because they still gaped at Gabrielle and Janice.

“Now,” clipped the archeologist, which got their attention.

“Yes, dekarchos,” replied a sentry. He shoved his partner to hurry with the heavy iron gates, which were merely the first layer of the gates.

Janice turned back to her ancestor and whispered, “Come on.” Up ahead, she heard her lover in a heated argument with the three guards in front of the heavy doors to the courtroom. When she and Gabrielle ascended the steps the soldiers were opening the doors for them.

Melinda and the Amazons poured into the courtroom just past the six soldiers that stood inside. Her eyes swept the courtroom that was only occupied by lined up soldiers. She instantly noticed the guards all became confused at seeing her presence plus three Amazons behind her.

Janice and Gabrielle ambled in last and also were shocked to see only sentries. Then a bright green light flashed in the center of the courtroom and two bodies slowly materialized.

“Close the doors and lock them!” demanded Melinda to the sentries outside.

The sentries hastily acted and threw the doors shut then slipped the heavy wood bolt that required two to work.

The linguist turned her head back as she witnessed the return of the Conqueror and the shaman.

Alti was awake that instant and she brought her fist into the Conqueror’s jaw.

The Conqueror growled but she was thrown onto her back when the shaman kicked her off. Her scepter was thrown from her left hand thanks to the extra shot of pain from her wound.

The gold scepter rolled several paces away from her fingertips.

Alti tried to chase after it but the Conqueror’s long legs moved and made her stumble away.

The ruler snarled and flipped onto her feet but she staggered from side to side as her bleeding wound was affecting her more. She glimpsed to her left and saw the newcomers. “I told you to stay behind!” she furiously yelled at the group.

Alti’s features lit up at seeing the prospect of new casualties. “My liege, you’ve allied with the enemy?” She laughed in amusement and tormented, “I’m so glad they’ve decided to join the fun.” She stepped back twice then lifted her arms. “You’re all just in time to see what a few thousand souls gives.” Her grin widened and her feet started to hover over the marble floor.

The Conqueror’s features darkened dangerously as she knew Alti had grown powerful. Her stomach knotted at the concept of having to fight a super powerful shaman and especially with everybody now in the courtroom. She didn’t mind sacrificing her soldiers but this was far more risky.

Alti yelled and her shamanism allowed her to quickly fly at an alarming speed.

The Conqueror was abruptly slammed by Alti’s brute hit that made her airborne. She smashed hard into the floor and moaned from all the pain coursing through her body. She forced her body to get up.

Janice snapped out of her awestruck stare and grabbed Melinda’s arm. “You and the Amazons distract her. I’ve got six bullets so move when I tell you to do it.”

Melinda glanced at the Amazons, who all unsheathed their swords in agreement. She had the Amazon sword that’d been the Conqueror’s earlier. She and the Amazons hastily joined the Conqueror in fighting the dark shaman.

Janice Covington knelt and swiftly ripped her revolver from her holster. She cocked the hammer then turned to Gabrielle. “Whatever you do, don’t make yourself a target to Alti.” She didn’t say anything else as she approached the ensuing fight. She lifted her gun and carefully aimed it at the flying shaman that was attacking her friends.

Melinda slashed at Alti and caught her on the leg.

Alti growled then quickly flew up higher away from the four women that were trying to attack her.

Janice smirked as she lifted her gun and had perfect aim. Her index finger started to pull back on the trigger.

“Janice!” yelled Gabrielle however the bard’s warning was too late.

The Conqueror had already lunged and slammed the archeologist to the ground.

Janice was on her back, her body crushed by the powerful body over hers. She peered up as her revolver was mere inches from her grasp but she hotly growled, “What the Hell are you doing?”

“I won’t let you kill her,” the ruler hissed back.

Alti’s cold eyes flickered to the Conqueror wrestling with the archeologist then her sights centered on the shiny metal weapon that Janice Covington had since the beginning.

Melinda followed the shaman’s gaze. “No,” she breathed when Alti dove for the gun. She gave a warcry then sprinted after the gun and shaman.

Gabrielle turned to the sentry next to her, who stood stiff. She ripped his spear from his grasp and took aim at the swooping shaman. She tossed the spear with amazing precision thanks to her strengthened arms.

Alti’s fingers curled around the barrel of the gun but the spear pierced through the top of her palm. She dropped the weapon as she soared back up into the air and ripped the spear from her hand. She screamed in pain then turned her angry eyes onto the rebel leader.

Melinda scooped up the revolver as it dropped from the air. She backed pedaled so she could get a better aim at her flying target.

Alti heft the spear towards the rebel and prepared to hurl it.

The Conqueror sprung to her feet while yelling, “Chaaaayaaaaa!” She rocketed straight up into the air with her right hand reaching up and her fingers wrapping around the shaft of the flying spear that was aimed at Gabrielle. She spotted Melinda’s actions and in midair she spun the spear around then when her feet hit the ground she threw it at her descendant.

The linguist’s face broke with shock when the revolver was ripped from her hands by the spear.

The revolver flew in the air then resounded on the floor with the spear rolling over top of it.

“Spears, now!” yelled the Conqueror.

The soldiers with the spears all pulled their arms back simultaneously then aimed at the flying shaman. They hurled the spears at the dark shaman flying high above.

Melinda quickly backed flipped across the court and landed beside the Amazons so she wouldn’t be caught in the rain of spears.

Alti dodged the spears with ease thanks to her incredible speed.

Janice Covington climbed to her feet and unsheathed her sword but she tried to inch for her revolver without rousing the shaman’s suspicions.

“Come down here and fight us, Alti!” shouted the ruler.

Alti laughed and replied, “I don’t think so, my liege.” She then set her eyes on Gabrielle because she knew the Conqueror would protect her above all.

The Conqueror sneered that Alti was targeting her shamanism on Gabrielle. She reached for her chakram but she knew she was too late when Gabrielle painfully cried out behind her.

The rebel leader’s mind filled with the images of her legs being broken when she was lashed to the cross. She lost her grip on her cane and started to tumble down the steps.

The Conqueror jumped up the few steps and caught her friend with her left arm with her sword falling to the ground. She held the crying bard while taking aim with her chakram then something caught her eye on the balcony.

Alti knew that leering look of the Conqueror, which broke her concentration on attacking the bard. She followed the ruler’s line of view and when she turned around her eyes filled with the view of a flying tiger with his claws and teeth out.

Hu’s powerful roar resounded through the courtroom.

Alti’s painful scream followed as she was sent crashing onto the ground. Her shoulder screamed in pain when claws entered through her shoulder and ripped her skin open. She grabbed the tiger by his face and held him back from ripping into her throat. She focused her shamanism on the tiger and flashed images of Toris’s sword ripping his gut open.

Hu howled then fell off the shaman.

Alti slowly staggered to her feet but when she was standing a hard fist slammed into her face. She hissed and went stumbling back but a kick to her stomach landed her on her back.

The Conqueror towered over her enemy and in her left gloved hand was her chakram.

Janice Covington cocked the hammer on her revolver and aimed it at Alti, who was trying to stand up again. Her aim though wasn’t true as the Conqueror’s body was in the way. She growled in annoyance so she took a side step.

Melinda waved at the Amazons to move.

Ephiny, Solari, and Callisto hastily encircled the shaman with their blade tips pointed at the bleeding shaman.

Melinda stood behind Alti with her dark face mirroring that of the Conqueror. “Move, Alti and we’ll run you through,” she snarled dangerously.

Gabrielle was finally on her feet again with her cane. She was breathing heavily but she glimpsed up when she spotted the beautiful Chin woman standing on the wrap around balcony high above.

Lao Ma pointed her index and middle finger at Janice Covington.

The archeologist’s gun was mysteriously pried from her hands and it floated across the court.

The Conqueror lifted her chakram and placed the blade under the shaman’s chin. She leaned into Alti and huskily whispered, “This is your destiny, Alti… death by the Conqueror.” Her right hand was behind her and her fingers wrapped around cold steel.

Alti wanted to move but the sword blades all reacted to her slight motion. She now trembled in fear but she angrily promised, “If you kill me then the Amazons will never be able to enter Eternity.”

Ephiny shifted her grip on her sword hilt when she heard this.

“Here’s a riddle for you, Alti.” The Conqueror’s right hand slipped between their bodies and she moved her face into Alti’s; her lips almost brushing the shaman’s. “What are you destined never to find in any of your lifetimes?”

Alti’s features twisted in anger. “You can’t kill me, Xena… you need me like I need you.”

“If she doesn’t then I will,” promised Melinda from behind.

Alti ignored the remark as she held the Conqueror’s gaze. She stared deep into the Conqueror’s eyes until she read into her soul. Then her astral projection abilities suddenly pin pointed a moment in the Conqueror’s life and she huskily rasped, “No, you knew all this time!” She inhaled sharply when something pressed up against her gut. “Our destiny is to rule the world, Xena don’t betray it.”

The Conqueror slowly pulled back from Alti’s space while murmuring, “The betrayals end here… with you.”

The courtroom echoed with a loud shot then there was silence.

Alti peered down at her stomach when the immense pain ravaged her body. She stared in shock as the smoking revolver remained in the Conqueror’s hand and her blood oozed from the wound the bullet made in her stomach. The bullet had traveled up through her ribs and just grazed her heart then buried itself into her left shoulder.

The Conqueror lowered the gun to her side. Her blue eyes remained steely as she watched the shaman slowly die from the bullet.

Alti grasped the Conqueror’s forearm and rasped, “Et tu, meus leodium?”

The Conqueror’s upper lip curled and she replied, “Yes, Alti.” Then she stepped back twice. “Enjoy Avici.”

Alti collapsed on the floor and her crimson blood pooled around her body.

The Amazons lowered their swords simultaneously and stared at the dead shaman.

Melinda read the ruler, who was shaking some but nobody could tell but her.

The Conqueror twisted her head and called, “Lao Ma, where is she now?”

Lao Ma had her eyes closed but her eyes were flickering under her eyelids. “She is in the Chamber of Blood,” she gently answered. “She is still descending to the Chamber of Avici.”

Janice was knelt beside Hu and was relieved to see he was okay after all. She stood up as Hu carefully tried to get up onto all fours.

Gabrielle limped to her descendant.

Ephiny shook her head then questioned aloud, “How will our sisters enter Eternity?”

The Conqueror’s brow was covered in sweat and her body burned hotter than normal even for a battle. “The new Holy Word that Yakut must give the Amazon dead is Love.” She then rapidly fell to her knees and her head rolled as her eyes spun uncontrollably.

“Conqueror!” cried the scared bard, who hastily limped towards the ruler.

Melinda Pappas made it over to the ruler just as she pitched forward. She turned the moaning ruler over in her arms found the source of her pain; the wound was bleeding profusely now from the continuous fighting.

“What’s happened?” demanded the rebel leader.

“She’s been injured,” answered the southerner. She turned her head to the sentries and furiously ordered, “Get the damn healer!” She worked her arms under the Conqueror and with gritted teeth she stood up with the ruler cradled in her arms.

Everybody stared in amazement at the display of strength from Melinda Pappas. Gabrielle broke from the trance first and quickly followed along side the linguist.

The sentry opened the door and stepped aside when the two seeming Conquerors stepped past. He was absolutely confused by two rulers that he didn’t have time to question anything.

Melinda carried the ruler up to the bedchambers. She carefully deposited the wounded ruler onto the bed then she quickly inspected the wound. Behind her she heard Solari, Callisto, and Gabrielle following after her. “Solari, get the fireplace started.”

The Amazon jumped at the barking order but she hastily went to the fireplace across the chambers. She stole a few heartbeats as she assessed how to start the fire.

“Callisto, I need a bowl of water and some towels from the washroom.”

Callisto quickly crossed the bedchambers and disappeared into candlelit bathroom.

Gabrielle stood at the side of the bed near the Conqueror’s head. She gently touched and ruler’s moist forehead and whispered, “Conqueror?”

The ruler’s eyes were closed; her breathing heavy but she clasped her hand through Gabrielle’s. “Xena,” she reminded in a hoarse tone.

The bard’s tears reached the edge of her eyes yet she contained them. She peered up at Melinda, who was ripping a dagger out of the Conqueror’s boot. “Is she….?”

The translator rolled the ruler onto her right side while saying, “She’s lost a lot of blood.” She knew time would be wasted by removing the armor and leathers so instead she used the dagger to efficiently cut away the blood soaked leathers around the wound. “Where’s that damn healer?” she hotly complained.

Janice Covington quickly entered the bedchambers with Hu behind her then Ephiny following up. “I took care of the men in the courtroom. The healer is coming now, Mel.”

“Janice, help Solari with the fire and put the poker into the fire.”

The archeologist slightly grimaced but she quickly went to help Solari.

“Ephiny, I need you to balance the Conqueror.”

The Amazon came up to the right of Melinda and carefully held the ruler still.

Callisto finally appeared with a soaked towel then another dried one.

Melinda picked up the wet towel and carefully dabbed it along the bloody wound to clean it up. She was able to assess the wound better and realized it would require more than just a few stitches. It looked as if Alti had twisted the blade in the ruler’s side making it a lot worse.

“What’s the fire for?” murmured the bard.

“The wound can’t be stitched closed,” answered the Conqueror.

Melinda sighed and nodded. “It has to be burned closed before she loses anymore blood.” Then from the corner of her eye she saw the healer rushing into the bedchambers.

The healer stopped short after he scanned the room that had two rulers, the rebel leader, the prisoner, and three mythical Amazons not to mention a tiger. His eyes were wider than Helios and his chest still.

“Get over here, Cadmus before the next thing you see is Elysia.”

The healer snapped out of it when he processed the threat from the ruler’s voice but he didn’t know which had spoken. He raced over to the bedside and setup his medical kit on the nearby nightstand. He mentally switched into his healer mind state and clipped, “What happened?”

“A dagger wound to the left side. It’ll have to be burned closed,” informed Melinda.

Cadmus turned around and inspected the bleeding wound then nodded his agreement.

Janice yanked out the poker from the fire and saw it was indeed red and white. She hurried over to her lover and carefully handed the poker to her lover.

“Hold her down,” ordered the translator. She placed her left hand on the ruler’s upper ribs then lowered the poker close to the wound.

“Do it,” snapped the Conqueror.

Gabrielle closed her eyes when the poker descended the small space. She tightly held onto her friend’s slick hand but the Conqueror didn’t squeeze any harder. There was a sizzling sound then Gabrielle smelled burning skin, which almost made her nauseas.

The Conqueror growled lowly and her right hand clawed into the bronze bedside. The coursing pain ripped even harder when the burning poker turned over her skin and her eyes rolled up into the back of her head. The pain was instantly gone and her world went black.

The Conqueror lifted her right hand to her forehead and moved her moist bangs back. Her forehead was blazing hot but she disregarded it as she inhaled the all too familiar smell of salve. When she opened her eyes, she was met by darkness so she remained still and let her eyes adjust. She soon realized she was staring up at the ceiling of her bedchambers but with the right turn of her head she focused on a slumped form in a chair.

“Deja-vu,” murmured the Conqueror and she must have been slightly too loud.

Gabrielle stirred awake and lifted her head off the wall. She sadly smiled and leaned forward in the chair so she could inspect the injured ruler. “How you feel?”

“Like I just was-”

“Don’t say it,” cut off the rebel. She stretched out her left hand and touched the burning forehead. “Melinda mentioned you’d have a fever tonight.”

The ruler noticed how Gabrielle kept her voice down. She squinted and focused her view beyond the rebel then she spotted the two forms lying on the sofa and Lao Ma’s tiger sprawled out on the floor by the sofa.

Gabrielle twisted her head and studied how Janice was securely held in Melinda’s arms. She sadly smiled at the new couple on the sofa then turned her head back to the Conqueror. “They refused to leave.”

“I see you did too,” remarked the ruler.

The bard shrugged. “I was worried.” She picked up the wet cloth from the water bowl on the nightstand. She squeezed out the water while saying, “Janice told Cyrene what’d happened and of course she refused to stay in the house. She came here to check on you.”

“Where is she now?” whispered the ruler. She closed her eyes when the cool, wet cloth was moving over her brow.

“She took one of the bedchambers with Melpomene. The Amazons also took rooms… I hope you don’t mind?”

The Conqueror softly laughed. “Not at all. I’m glad some people are smart enough.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes yet she had a smile. “How do you feel?”

The Conqueror studied the rebel after the cloth was gone and she asked, “Honestly?” After the rebel’s nod, she answered, “I’ve had worse.”

“I didn’t ask that,” reminded the bard.

“I’m fine,” simply stated the ruler. “Why don’t you take one of the bedchambers?”

“I’m fine too,” argued Gabrielle and she enjoyed the ruler’s scowl after she threw the words back at the ruler. “I’m not leaving.”

The Conqueror knew she wasn’t going to win especially when she was so worn down. “Listen, I need to get my armor and leathers off.”

“Alright,” agreed the bard, who started to move her hands but the ruler stopped her.

“You can only help if you lay down in this bed. It’s big enough for three and you need some rest.” The Conqueror’s ice blue eyes caught the few candles’ light and shined with determination.

“Alright,” relented the rebel. She was sitting close enough, which allowed her to use both her hands versus standing and having one hand.

The Conqueror sat up very carefully but she needed the help because her body strength was much weaker. Between her and Gabrielle, she was quickly out of her armor and then her leathers. Her boots, greaves, and cape had been removed earlier, which was a relief. The last to go were the bracers since the gauntlets were long gone too. She was only left in her black nightshift that she wore under her leathers for the colder seasons. “Come on,” she quietly ordered.

Gabrielle picked up her cane from the floor then steady her body weight as she stood up. She limped over to the other side of the bed, sat, put her cane down, and took her boots off next. She sighed in relief when her back met the incredibly soft bed and she had to be an arm length away from her friend. “This bed is huge,” she commented. “Why in the world do you need such a huge bed?”

The Conqueror turned her head to the bard and her right eyebrow hiked up her brow.

Gabrielle turned her head and saw the look then there was the seductive grin that appeared. She blushed in response when she realized the answer to her question. “Well….” She cleared her throat in hopes it would remove her flush but it wasn’t working.

The Conqueror knew her friend was uncomfortable so her grin disappeared and she changed the topic. “What happened to Alti’s body?”

“Melinda ordered the sentries to have her cremated down in the dungeons.” Gabrielle was confused and quietly asked, “Why’d she do that?”

“Alti could be reborn,” mentioned the ruler, “but without a body… there’s not much to come back to.”

“Huh,” muttered the thoughtful bard. “Janice picked up the scepter and your weapons.”

“Good.” The ruler closed her eyes. “Go to sleep, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle couldn’t argue that order at all. “Sleep well, Xena.” Then it wasn’t long before she drifted off into a more peaceful state knowing that her friend would be okay.
Chapter 25 – Family is Forever
It wasn’t until the afternoon of the following day that Janice and Melinda had disappeared into a bedchamber. They soaked in a warm bath and worked off the stress from the months. While they were cleaning up, the Conqueror was easing out of bed then donning her finest Chin attire of red and black. She then met with Lao Ma later to discuss the fate of Alti’s soul in the afterlife. The Amazons kept busy by searching through Corinth’s endless marketplace where they were highly amused by one merchants selling Conqueror merchandise. Gabrielle spent time with Cyrene and Melpomene and told them what’d happened last night.

Gabrielle was startled from her story when there was a knock on the bedchambers door. She was seated at the table by the window with Melpomene in her lap and Cyrene sitting across from her. “Come in,” she called.

The Conqueror opened the door and glided into the room.

Cyrene smiled as her daughter approached them. She’d seen her daughter dressed this regal but never so up close. She’d come to realize her daughter had a fascinated with Chin by the way much of the cultural was here in the fortress. One day soon she’d speak to her daughter about it. “How do you feel?”

The Conqueror softly smiled and replied, “I am better, mother.”

“Just don’t push yourself,” reminded the mother, who realized exactly who she was talking to but this was still her child.

The Conqueror had an arched eyebrow but her smile wasn’t lost. This would certainly take some adjusting but she wouldn’t have it any other way. “Gabrielle?” Her eyes lowered to the bard, who was inquisitively looking at her. “I need you to come with me. Are you free?”

The bard could tell it was important so she dipped her head down to Melpomene. “I’ll finish the story later,” she promised.

“You promise, Auntie Gabby?”

The bard grinned while lifting the child. “Double promise.” She lowered the girl to her feet then she picked up her walking stick from the table. She gradually stood up then limped over to her friend.

The Conqueror glanced at Melpomene, who was still cautious with her but she would address that when it was time. Instead she focused on the limping rebel and together they silently left the bedchambers.

“Is something wrong?” questioned the bard.

“Not at all,” answered the ruler. “I want you to meet my Chin counterpart since you will be the advisor of state soon.”

Gabrielle faintly smiled at her future title in the ruler’s court. She peered up and carefully asked, “Lao Ma, right?”

“Yes,” answered the ruler, “but go by Lady Lao unless she tells you otherwise.”

“Got it,” softly agreed the bard.

The Conqueror stopped in front of another bedchambers and opened the door to a larger bedchambers that had the sun streaming through the open balcony. She walked in then closed the door after the rebel entered.

Gabrielle grew still when the beautiful oriental woman from the balcony last night floated up to her. She was dazzled by the matching Chin style dress to the Conqueror’s and her lips were ruby red. From her ears dangled golden chandlers and across the chest of her robe was the design of a dog in gold trim.

The Conqueror bowed her head to the Chin ruler then held out her hand to Gabrielle. “Lao Ma, this is Gabrielle. Gabrielle will soon be taking over the position as state advisor in my court.” She turned her attention to Gabrielle. “Lady Lao has reined over Chin for many moons now and we’ve been allied with the House of Lao for twelve moons.”

Gabrielle realized she was getting her first taste of politics but she sensed too that the Conqueror had other intents. “It’s an honor to meet you, Lady Lao.” She mimicked the ruler’s custom by bowing down as much as she could with her cane in hand.

Lao Ma returned the bow then straightened up simultaneously with Gabrielle. “The Conqueror has informed me that you and she were once enemies.” At the bard’s nod she mentioned, “I too was once her enemy.”

Gabrielle glanced up at the silent Conqueror but returned her attention to the Chin ruler. “I think the Conqueror and I have moved beyond that point now.”

“Yes, we have,” softly agreed the Conqueror.

Lao Ma thinly smiled at the pair but she centered on Gabrielle again. “I wish to give you a gift, Gabrielle.” She saw how the bard was about to protest so she ceased it with her next words. “It was a gift I gave the Conqueror when I first met her.”

Gabrielle wasn’t sure what to say so she peered up at her friend for help.

The Conqueror bent over and murmured, “It is rude to refuse any gift in Chin culture.”

The bard trusted the ruler’s wisdom and she smiled at Lao Ma. “I’d be honored… thank you.”

Lao Ma returned the smile then bowed her head slightly. She peered up at her counterpart and informed, “She must lie down for this.”

The Conqueror understood so she signaled for Gabrielle to take the nearby sofa.

Gabrielle was confused but the Conqueror guided her over to the sofa. She sat on the sofa first then propped her walking stick against the sofa. She painfully lifted her legs onto the sofa then rested flat on her back.

The Conqueror stood beside the bard’s head while Lao Ma came around her. “This may hurt briefly, Gabrielle but don’t fear it.”

Gabrielle tried to calm her twisting stomach. She nodded then focused on the Chin ruler.

Lao Ma raised her hands up in the air then pulled back her heavy sleeves. She closed her eyes and her hands glided over the bard’s stomach and came lower to her thighs. She slowly grazed her hands down the bard’s marred legs hidden by the long, brown skirt. Then when her hands were at Gabrielle’s ankles, she heard a sharp intake of breath from the bard and she slowly glided her hands back up.

Gabrielle sensed some strange pain in her legs then something moving under her skin. She squeezed her eyes shut tighter and then the pain was quickly gone, completely from her legs. She sharply exhaled then breathed in an exhilarating breath that derived from some unknown source.

The Conqueror pleasingly observed then when Lao Ma pulled away, she gently ordered, “Sit up, Gabrielle.”

The rebel’s eyes fluttered open then she had an unknown burst of strength in her legs. She slid her legs off the couch and pressed her hands into the sofa. She reached for the walking stick first but the Conqueror snatched it.

“Stand on your own,” softly urged the ruler.

Gabrielle was confused yet she commanded her normally weak legs to lift her up. Her rear thigh muscles responded and raised her up with simple pleasure. Then her feet went flat against the inside of her boots as her calves lifted her completely up and perfectly straight. “By the gods,” she gasped and her face suddenly mixed over with excitement and astonishment.

The Conqueror revealed a beautiful smile at her friend’s happiness.

Lao Ma had gentle features as she stepped back.

Gabrielle tested her legs with a step forward. She stared down at her legs that seemed to return to her like the shattering never happened on the cross.

Simultaneously the rulers stepped aside and made room for the rebel leader.

Gabrielle took another step and her smile grew. She made a third step then a fourth and walked past the rulers until she was across the room. She turned around with an amazed expression.

Lao Ma neared the bard and explained, “I hope by healing your legs that your memories will also begin to heal.”

Gabrielle suddenly cried at the Chin ruler’s words. She abruptly pulled the oriental woman into a strong embrace. “Thank you so much.”

Lao Ma eased into the hug as her smile revealed. She hugged the younger woman, who released tears of joy.

The Conqueror’s head slightly hung then she lifted and sadly smiled at the bard’s peaceful face nestled between Lao Ma’s shoulder and neck. She slowly inhaled and her chest gradually fell as another weight lifted off her shoulders.

Gabrielle opened her eyes as she withdrew from the hug but Lao Ma held her hands. “Thank you again, Lady Lao. You don’t know… I…” She shook her head as her bittersweet face was moist from tears.

Lao Ma freed her right hand and wiped the tears away. “Please call me by my first name, Ma.”

The bard’s tears returned and she whispered, “I can never repay you for this.”

“You already have,” murmured the Chin ruler, who would not elaborate on her words. She sensed the Conqueror beside her and she peered up. “I must return to Chin soon, Xena.”

“I understand,” agreed the ruler, “you have been here for almost a moon.”

Lao Ma released the bard completely then turned to her counterpart. “Now that I know you have finally found peace then I am no longer needed.”

“I wouldn’t quite put it like that,” argued the Conqueror.

Gabrielle was wondering how her friend would reword it but by Lao Ma’s revealing smile she knew it was good. She then found the Conqueror switching her attention to her.

“We must speak to Toris soon.”

“With Cyrene?” urged the rebel.

The Conqueror nodded then said to Lao Ma. “When will you leave?”

“Perhaps tomorrow at first light,” answered the Chin ruler.

The Conqueror moved her head with understanding then whispered, “We’ll leave you to prepare.” She then collapsed Lao Ma’s hands into hers and whispered, “Thank you, Ma.” She released her then glided out of the room.

Gabrielle thanked the Chin ruler again then trailed behind the ruler.

Lao Ma quietly watched the new friends leave her chambers. Her eyes wondered over to Gabrielle’s walking stick that she left behind in all the excitement; it made her smile in content.

Gabrielle walked along side the ruler and she gently questioned, “Did you ask her to do that?”

The Conqueror considered the question then honestly replied, “It was actually the reverse. She asked me.” She went silent though when Melinda and Janice’s chambers opened up just a few paces ahead. She and Gabrielle came to stop as the strangers from another world slipped out of the room. Her eyebrow slowly rose up when she saw the strange attire on the women.

Janice Covington tipped her fedora back with a flick of her finger, her brim allowing her to see the Conqueror’s face. “I had enough of those damn Amazon leathers,” she remarked gruffly.

Melinda Pappas was in her attire she first wore when arriving in this world. Her hair was pulled back in a bun and her black glasses on again. “Well good afternoon, y’all.” She pleasantly smiled at them.

“Where are the Amazons?” probed the archeologist.

“They went to the market,” answered Gabrielle.

“Shit,” muttered Janice, “I should have been on patrol with my squad.” She sheepishly laughed as she realized this.

The Conqueror waved her off. “I had my tetrarchès take care of them.” She tilted her head then mentioned, “He was rather complimentary of you, Janice.”

Janice acted cocky as her hands went to her hips and she joked, “You should hire more female dekarchos like me.”

Melinda rolled her eyes from behind her lover’s back. “What of Toris?”

“We were getting ready to take care of him now,” informed Gabrielle.

“We’ll help out.” Janice dropped her hands from her hips. “Besides I wanna see that dumb look on his face when he sees double.”

Gabrielle quietly laughed and shook her head. “Melinda, how do you do it?”

“She does it very well,” quipped Janice Covington.

The rebel leader flushed at this innuendo of the joke. She wasn’t absolutely naïve to sex but she was naïve to two women being together.

Melinda decided to cut into the uncomfortable conversation for the bard. “Can we help, Conqueror?”

The Conqueror thought it over then nodded her head. “Gabrielle, can you get mother?”

Gabrielle answered by stepping around the ruler and quickly heading down the hallway to her shared bedchambers with her adopted mother.

Melinda tilted her head then stared in awe at Gabrielle’s receding back.

Janice blinked and she loudly voiced, “Holy shit! She’s walking without the limp.”

Gabrielle paused in front of the door, turned her head, and teasingly called, “It’s not polite to talk about somebody in third person when they’re here.” She opened the door then disappeared into the chambers.

Janice’s jaw snapped shut and she muttered, “She’s been waiting all this time to say that too.” She shook her head then peered up at the ruler. She asked the question that Melinda already knew the answer. “How were her legs healed?”

“Lao Ma,” simply supplied the ruler.

The archeologist blinked then peered up at her lover. “The qi?”

“Yes, I reckon so,” agreed the southerner.

Gabrielle and Cyrene crept out of the bedchambers then quietly closed the door. Unexpectedly the bard was enveloped in a hug from Cyrene and Gabrielle pulled back while murmuring some promise to explain it later. She and Cyrene wondered down to the group and Gabrielle mentioned, “Melpomene is sleeping.”

“She’s worn out huh?” questioned the archeologist.

“Exhausted,” agreed Cyrene.

Melinda slipped her hand through Janice’s and followed behind the Conqueror for the dungeons. She listened to the idly chitchat between Gabrielle, Janice, and Cyrene yet her thoughts wondered off to her and Janice’s soon voyage back to their world and time. She noticed how the Conqueror seemed to know exactly which cell to go to despite the Conqueror hadn’t been around for the Toris incident.

The guard at the door pulled out his ring of keys and fidgeted with them. He was taken aback by the doubles before him but he could tell if he didn’t hurry up that the real Conqueror would have his hide. He finally unlocked the door then stepped aside.

Cyrene decided to go first so she carefully entered the cell.

Toris stood up from the bedded pallet and gawked at Cyrene. “Mother?”

“Hello, Toris.”

Toris’s grey-blue eyes rose up when his sister emerged in the cell next. His face dimmed and he seemed as if he would have lunged if his mother hadn’t been there. Then he lost that look when he saw Gabrielle, who’d often filled his heart that his sister had held. “What’s going on?” He narrowed his eyes at his sister. “What’ve you done, Xena?”

The Conqueror tilted her head but she didn’t reply.

Cyrene stepped up to her son and asked, “Is this what you’ve been doing?”

“We thought something happened to you,” piped up the bard.

Toris glanced between his family members then he stiffened when two more women filled the dungeon. He stared dumbfounded at the two strangely dressed women that were mirror images of his sister and Gabrielle.

Janice Covington folded her arms over her chest then leaned towards her lover and muttered, “Told you he’d have a dumb look on his face.”

“What in Ha…. ” Toris touched his forehead.

Gabrielle understood her adopted brother’s confusion so she simply explained, “This is Janice.” She directed at her twin then pointed at the tall linguist. “And this is Melinda. They’re our descendants… sort of but it’s a long story.”

Toris stared at Melinda and Janice as he quickly realized he’d almost killed the wrong people. He slightly paled, which caused his mother to come closer.

“What were you thinking, Toris?” urged the upset mother. “Gabrielle and I were convinced something happened to you. We haven’t heard from you in moons.”

Toris faltered under his mother’s onslaught plus he was still stunned by the doppelgangers. “I… I… mother, I’m sorry.” He tried to regain control then stated, “I was trying to….”

“Get somebody killed?” remarked Cyrene.

Toris scowled at his mother’s defense of his sister. “That is not my sister!” He pointed at the Conqueror.

“Incase ya forget,” mentioned Melinda, “ya tried to kill me and Janice.”

“I thought you were Xena,” shot back the annoyed brother.

Gabrielle cleared her voice to grab everybody’s attention. She peered up at her tall friend, who’d remained silent but assessing her brother. “You know, my sister and I use to argue. Yeah, yeah we would go for hours without talking to each other.” She noticed the Conqueror wasn’t budging from her judgmental evaluation of Toris and Toris was returning the look. “Come on,” argued the bard, “A brother and sister, who haven’t seen each other for ages should have more to say to each other than just….”

“So, you’re an assassin now, hmm?” The Conqueror’s tone was deep and husky.

“It’s… a start,” muttered the bard.

“You’re a monster, Xena and it’s about time you paid for it.”

The Conqueror stepped forward so that she was next to her mother. “By assassinating me? I learned the hard way about justice since-”

“That hard way?” interjected Toris sarcastically. “Are you bragging? What I saw of you when we left our village, Xena was not something to be proud of.”

The Conqueror’s temper flared quickly. “And what did you see with your back to it all? Someone had to step forward. Cortese would have killed us all if we hadn’t fought.”

“If our people would have followed me into the hills-”

“Cortese would have hunted us down like dogs,” hotly spat the Conqueror, “I had to make a stand, and I wasn’t the only one who believed that.”

“That’s right,” chided Toris. He stepped forward so that he matched his sister’s stance. “Our brother believed it. Lyceus stood by you ’til the end, and it was his end. Remember?”

“I said fight,” chewed out the furious ruler, “because it was our village. Lyceus believed that and I will say it again.”

Toris prepared to come at his sister but then he stopped short when his mother stepped between them. “Now you’re protecting her?” he snapped.

Cyrene’s temper matched her son’s and she hotly warned, “I’m protecting you from each other. This family has been torn apart long enough. If you’re so much behind your baby brother then tell me this is what he would have wanted, right?”

Toris faltered when the table was turned on him. He shook his head then angrily reminded, “I’m sure Xena was thinking that too when she took over Greece and Rome… Gaul… Britannia,” he spat, “and now the Norselands.”

“Stop it,” snapped Gabrielle, who neared her family. “You’re so damn lucky, Toris.” Her green eyes were on fire. “You have your mother and now Xena is trying to make amends.” She shook her head then sadly whispered, “I have no family left so stop squandering it.”

Toris’s anger slowly died at the bard’s upsetting confession. He’d always adored Gabrielle for everything she represented, which was much of what inspired him to face his sister. He could no longer sit in Amphipolis and watched Gabrielle fight her life long tormenter when he thought he could swiftly solve it… for everybody.

Janice stepped forward and touched her ancestor’s shoulder. “You have family, Gabrielle… me and Mel included whether or not we’re from different worlds.”

Gabrielle touched her descendant’s hand on her shoulder as her pain slightly eased.

“And we are your family too,” reminded Cyrene. Her eyes fell on Toris first. “Right?” Her gaze flickered up to her tall daughter.

The Conqueror faintly nodded then touched her friend’s forearm. “We all are family.” Her stare settled on her brother. “Whether some of us recognize it or not family is forever.”

Gabrielle sadly smiled at the echo of her words she reminded her friend of back in the Amazon Nation.

Melinda silently came behind her lover and lightly placed her hands on Janice’s hips, her fingertips grazing the strapped on gun holster.

Toris released a deep breath when his mother stepped aside from between him and the Conqueror. He slightly nodded then murmured, “You’re right.”

Janice Covington grinned at finally witnessing things piece together again and it made her miss her mother and father. Well I wonder if we should all say ‘hike, hike go team’ right now, inwardly joked the archeologist. Janice though decided her smartass remark would certainly be lost on everybody but Melinda, who probably wouldn’t appreciate it.

When Helios touched the western horizon the red and orange colors washed over the clouds then spilled over the dark woman standing in the tall, open window in the fortress that jutted out of the rocky hillside. The flock of seagulls swooped past then made a straight line for the meeting seas far beyond Corinth’s lands.

The Conqueror broke away from her musing when there was a knock at her office. She called the person in and she greeted the rebel leader.

Gabrielle scanned the large office and mentioned, “Wow. It’s almost as large as your bedchambers.” She noticed how the Conqueror was silent and went back to staring out the window. She joined her at the window and figured out what had her friend’s attention.

The gates of the fortress were creaking open and Toris was hugging Cyrene back. He withdrew some then his lips were moving while Cyrene’s head was tilted to the side to show her listening.

“Did you say goodbye to him?” probed the ruler.

“Yes,” answered the bard. She then solemnly peered up at the ruler. “He’s just going to need some time.”

The Conqueror didn’t respond but she kept observing as her brother started through the gates.

Toris sensed somebody watching him so he stopped and partially turned. His grey-blue eyes met his sister’s distant stare. He felt uneasy about staying in Corinth let alone in the fortress; he needed space to work this out. However before he stepped through the gates, he lifted his hand up in a wave.

The Conqueror hesitated but she unlocked her right hand and waved back at him. She lowered her hand when her brother turned his back and disappeared out of the gates.

Gabrielle sadly sighed and rested her hands behind her back. “He’ll come around,” she promised.

“I can’t blame him,” muttered the ruler. She dropped her head against the frame of the window but her stare rested on her friend.

“Are you sure about this dinner party tonight?” Gabrielle tried to read the ruler yet had very little luck. “I’m sure Lao Ma won’t mind.”

“It’s traditional,” reminded the ruler, “I don’t plan on changing it.”

Gabrielle relented as she knew the limitations between them right now. She just hoped overtime their relationship would strengthen and she could gain more insight about what made her friend tick. “Melinda and Janice seem excited to be going home tomorrow.”

“Mmmm,” merely replied the Conqueror.

The bard sighed then quietly offered, “I’ll see you later tonight, Conqueror.” She dipped her head then moved away to leave the office. She hesitated at the door though when the Conqueror’s voice floated to her.

“Thank you, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle paused with her hand on the door ring as she looked at the ruler.

“For trying,” elaborated the tall, dark woman.

“Always,” softly promised the bard, who pulled the heavy, creaky door open and disappeared out of it.

The Conqueror peacefully watched the remaining streams of red and orange disappear over the horizon then high above the black sky was painted by stars. She slowly drew in a deep breath then studied her capital city that she’d fought so hard for. Her memory flashed of her siege against the Corinthians so long ago, which was her hardest battle next to taking over Sparta but she accomplished what the philosophers and bards called impossible.

At the same time as last night, the Conqueror discovered herself seated back at her throne but this time she didn’t celebrate death but life in her realm and with her allies, masses, and her newly acquired family. Her expression was passive as she displayed herself as the ruler of her amazing realm. She wore a purple Chin robe tonight that had gold etching of a typical Chin design around it but a tiger on the front. Her hair was pulled into a tight bun behind her head then a dragon hair clip kept it all in place while a few strands in the front framed her face. She wore a gold ring on her right hand that sparkled a beautiful deep ruby.

Lao Ma was positioned at the base of the dais just like the evening Melinda Pappas, posed as the Conqueror, held a feast.

The Conqueror repeated much the same events of that feast as tradition called for it. The realm celebrated the arrival and departure of their allies in such fashion to always keep in good graces with the ally. It certainly wasn’t that the Conqueror was a socialite yet she knew the importance of politics, especially with her allies. Yet tonight did not feel like politics as this feast was very much the celebration of her family that she’d lost and now reclaimed her as much as she reclaimed. For the Conqueror, this was a celebration of change for her, for her realm.

The feast went into full swing when the Conqueror sat at the head of the main table. She had Cyrene to her right while Gabrielle was to the left then followed by Janice, Melinda, Melpomene, the Amazons, and Lao Ma sat at the head at the other end of the table. The table was filled with chatter among the friends and family except for the Conqueror, who merely carefully listened. The rebel leader noted the ruler’s continued silence but she contributed it to her being worn out and especially her side wound. Gabrielle remained concerned that the Conqueror was pushing too hard yet she knew it wouldn’t be her place to ask and certainly at the table with all the ears.

Janice leaned closer to her lover and muttered, “You think she’ll ask you know who to dance?”

Melinda pushed her glasses up onto her bridge then she peered over the rim of her glasses at the Conqueror. “I reckon she is tired… she may have the dancing started without her.”

The archeologist huffed but didn’t reply as she took a drink of wine from her bronze goblet.

The Conqueror leaned back into her regal wood chair after finishing her meal. She calculated that everybody in the court was mostly finished which meant the entertainment would be required. She folded her hands in her lap then she decided whether to ask Lao Ma to begin the dancing. She knew however that Lao Ma wasn’t one to dance and she didn’t want to make the Chin ruler uncomfortable or lose face.

Cyrene leaned over to her daughter and softly asked, “What’s next on the agenda?”

The Conqueror softened at her mother, who was well dressed thanks to the Conqueror’s personal assistant’s help. She leaned forward then quietly answered, “The entertainment, which is dancing. I usually start it.”

Cyrene smiled at this prospect as it’d been along time since she’d done any dancing. Her eyes darted to the chatting bard, who was in the throws of a wild tale that was captivating everybody’s attention at the table. She returned her focus to her daughter and suggested, “Ask Gabrielle. I think she’d like that since her legs are healed now.”

The Conqueror had considered this already so she murmured, “Perhaps.” She leaned back into her chair.

Cyrene knew she planted the seed so she wouldn’t press the topic. She stole a drink of the sweet wine she’d been poured earlier.

Gabrielle laughed then kept talking, her hands waving around and her eyes bright. She finished her tale with a punch line and the table erupted into laughs, which made her smile happily.

The Conqueror had been listening too and she grinned at the bard’s talent that she secretively admired. She breathed deeply then her husky voice called, “Gabrielle?”

The bard’s laugher was already into chuckles then they stopped. Gabrielle smiled at her friend and centered her attention on the ruler.

The Conqueror observed that the bard’s cheeks were flushed red from the wine tonight. She quickly theorized that the bard would most likely grow silly and relaxed from the wine.

Gabrielle cleared her throat then respectively asked, “Yes, my liege?”

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow at hearing her title drawn from the bard. She suddenly stood up with her chair’s legs scraping over the marble floor. The court went silent and the Conqueror became the focal point.

Gabrielle’s stomach knotted and she briefly feared she’d done something wrong however when the Conqueror held out her hand her stomach unknotted and instead filled with butterflies.

“I would be honored if you began tonight’s dancing with me,” spoke the ruler’s deep voice.

Gabrielle sensed her cheeks burning and her eyes dropped under the piercing blue stare above her. “I’m really, really bad at dancing. I have two left feet facing backwards.”

The Conqueror leaned over and her whispered words were only heard by the bard. “I promise if you dance with me that you’ll only enjoy it.” She straightened up with her hand still poised in the air.

Gabrielle slowly lifted up her hand and slipped hers into the ruler’s much larger hand. She then climbed to her feet while the Conqueror pulled her chair back for her.

Janice nudged her lover and teasingly whispered, “Bingo.”

“Hush,” warned the southerner although she started to wonder if her lover wasn’t a hopeless romantic secretly.

When Gabrielle stepped around her chair, her beautiful solid emerald dress made of silk flowed down to her ankles. The dress hugged her curves and emphasized her breasts with a slight v-cut then it finished off with a straps that covered her shoulders.

“Time to dance, bard,” hooted Solari, who gave a wave of good luck.

Gabrielle was walking past the table with the Conqueror and announcing, “They wouldn’t let me dance at the crop festival because I brought a bad harvest.” Her joked earned her a round of laughs at the table but once Gabrielle was away from the group, her stomach nervously tightened.

The Conqueror guided her dancing partner to the dance floor then she signaled the musicians to begin the tune. She then focused on her dance partner, who cautiously neared her. “Slip your arms around my waist,” she quietly instructed.

Gabrielle did so but murmured, “What about your wound?”

“I’ll be fine,” promised the ruler. She encircled the bard while whispering, “Do you recall the syrto pyleas dance?”

The bard chuckled and answered, “How couldn’t I? It’s classic to our providence.” She saw that hidden smile on the ruler’s face, which warmed her.

The Conqueror heard the lyre begin the classic song to the dance so she led her dance partner. “Feet together,” she murmured, “Right foot to the right, left foot to the right behind your right.”

Gabrielle carefully listened and followed her partner.

“Right foot to the right, left foot to the right in front of your right,” softly reminded the ruler. She then sensed that Gabrielle was picking up the steps as the dance came from her childhood memory. She smiled up at her friend as the dance flowed from her naturally.

The Conqueror mirrored the smile then she dipped her head some. “What’s with the ‘my liege’ tonight?”

Gabrielle broke away from her focus on the dance steps as she let her body naturally move with the ruler. “I thought I’d practice for when I become the state advisor.”

“So are you already thinking up proposals for the court?” The Conqueror devilishly grinned.

The bard matched the grin then murmured, “How long do I have ’til the next court?”

“I hold court every new and full moon,” answered the ruler.

“I think I can be ready by then,” teased the rebel leader. “Thank you again for having Lao Ma heal my legs.”

The Conqueror waited a beat before replying as her and Gabrielle’s bodies brushed together during the reverse steps. “She spoke to me about it… I didn’t force her to do it.”

“Yes but I have a feeling you had every intent in seeing her carry it out if she hadn’t offered,” mentioned the bard.

The Conqueror didn’t respond to the probing statement, which was answer enough between them but instead she stated, “Well hopefully it will heal some other wounds.”

“A lot of those wounds were healed prior to Lao Ma’s gift.” Gabrielle recognized the fact that her friend wouldn’t dip into the topic so she let it go by softly declaring, “It’s so wonderful to move like this again.”

The Conqueror completely understood. “Yes, I know.” Her body then detected the faster rhythm of the song as it was coming to a close. She and Gabrielle swiftly moved across the dance floor with the beat.

“Gods I can’t believe I’m dancing,” breathed the stunned bard. She then scanned the intent faces of the masses, which made her blush. “I guess we’ll be the talk of the realm huh?” She never considered the fact that very few knew her, the rebel leader, and the Conqueror, ruler of the realm, were now friends and allies. “Wait ’til the next court,” she joked.

The Conqueror realized that the wine also promoted the bard’s chatty side if that was possible.

Gabrielle must have realized this as she went quiet and just enjoyed the last steps of the classic dance from her and the Conqueror’s providence. She then was dazzled by the Conqueror’s conclusion of the dance as she was spun away and the Conqueror’s hand grazed down her bare arm and linked their hands.

Gabrielle’s expression was so soft and she glowed as the Conqueror pulled their bodies back together then the music went silent. She remained staring up into a warm, sapphire gaze.

“Thank you for the dance, Gabrielle,” whispered the ruler.

The rebel flushed for the second time and softly replied, “Thank you too, Xena… it was wonderful.”

The Conqueror broke away but still held the rebel’s small hand into hers. “Let us finish the night in song and dance,” she announced to the masses. When her voice died the masses quickly filled the silence with clamor and moving about to get on the dance floor. She ordered the musicians to begin rather upbeat music to commence the night’s entertainment.

Gabrielle released her friend’s hand as her group of family and friends joined her and the Conqueror. She was lit up by her smiles and her laughter occasionally filled the court. The Conqueror joined Lao Ma and conversed with her for some time while promising a nice supply of feta cheese to accompany her back to Chin.

Solari, who was the socialite above all, called for everybody to gather in a circle. She announced the large group that they were going to learn a traditional Amazon dance. She instructed her group to link together by slipping arms over shoulders until the circle was locked.

Ephiny laughed as she watched her friend demo the steps.

Solari smirked and ordered, “Your turn, Eph.”

Ephiny lifted her chin proudly and mimicked Solari’s steps then called, “Janny, come on.”

“Shit,” grumbled the archeologist, who’d been forced into this and agreed with Gabrielle about dancing skills or lack there of.

Melinda detected her lover’s uneasiness and she already had the steps down. She murmured the steps to her lover, who easily displayed them thanks to her.

“All together now!” Solari led the circle’s movement and the dancing circle moved across the floor without hitting other dancers.

The Conqueror tilted her head and watched the dancing circle of friends. She shook her head as she’d never seen this done in her realm. Typically everybody danced in pairs but leave it to the Amazons to form a collective dance in her court.

Lao Ma leaned closer to her counterpart. “The realm will now fair well, Xena.”

The Conqueror slipped her hands into the large sleeves of her robed dress.

“The changes in you will reflect in the realm,” further added the Chin ruler. She peered up at the silent ruler. “Perhaps this will bind the realm and Chin closer.”

The Conqueror met Lao Ma’s view with a serious expression. She knew it was a silent offer from her ally. “I believe it will bring the House of Lao and the realm closer.” She returned her attention to the dance floor. “What will you do when Lao dies?”

“He is aging,” quietly relented the Chin ruler.

“A woman cannot rule in the Kingdom of Chin without their husband,” whispered the Conqueror.

“Yes,” solemnly agreed Lao Ma.

The Conqueror lowered her head but didn’t look at her counterpart. “We will devise a plan for you to remain the ruler of Chin.”

Lao Ma studied the ruler’s profile and she saw no thirst for power but merely a ruler wanting another ruler to stay in power for the good of the people. “Perhaps yet tens of thousands of bones will become ashes when one ruler achieves his or her fame.”

The Conqueror understood her former mentor’s proverb. “There’s more than one way to win a war,” she softly reminded, “and without blood. The Kingdom of Chin will follow the House that is most just once they look beyond the source of that wisdom.”

Lao Ma was silent as she considered her ally’s words. She quickly realized that the Conqueror had grown since the moons back when they first met. “Indigo is derived from blue but is more pleasing than blue; ice is formed out of water but is colder than water.”

The Conqueror took a beat to translate the proverb that spoke that a student can surpass their mentor. She was inwardly surprised by Lao Ma’s indirect praises of her yet she didn’t show it except within her eyes. “Thank you, Ma.”

The Chin ruler merely bowed her head in response yet her face was soft and eloquent.

The Conqueror had a thin smile then she glimpsed over the dancing masses. Something or rather somebody caught her attention so she whispered, “Please excuse me, Ma.”

Lao Ma nodded then watched her counterpart glide off. She turned her head to the left and ran her fingers through Hu’s fur.

The Conqueror came over to the steps to the main entrance doors of the court. She took seat beside the young girl, who barely acknowledged her. She found this quite amusing seeing as she could capture the entire masses’ attention by merely lifting a finger or eyebrow. “You’re not joining the dancing?”

Melpomene kept staring at the dancers. “I don’t know how to,” she quietly admitted. “My sister was going to teach me but….”

The ruler sighed because she understood the exception. She leaned over and whispered, “I am sorry about your sister, Melpomene.” When Melpomene’s confused eyes were transfixed on her, she gently added, “I can never return her to you but I hope to give you something back in life.”

Melpomene turned her head away. “Grandmother loves you even though you’ve done so many evil things.”

The Conqueror’s anger didn’t react like most would expect instead her emotions surfaced. “Yes, I have and I’m lucky to have my mother.”

“She and Auntie Gabby say you’re changing… that you’re like your old self.”

The Conqueror tilted her head at hearing this news. “Well I don’t completely agree.” She saw how Melpomene now leaned in as if waiting for some secret, which made the Conqueror sadly smile. “I’m still the Conqueror but you know what’s different than before?”

Melpomene only shook her head while holding her breath for the truth.

“I’m also Xena too,” answered the Conqueror.

“What’s the difference? I thought that was your name?”

“It is,” confirmed the ruler, “but I forgot what it was like to be Xena… to be myself.”

“How could you forget?” argued the thoughtful child.

Yes, the Conqueror wondered, how could I forget? She inwardly discovered the answer and whispered, “I forgot because I let myself become consumed by anger and hatred.”

“Because your brother died,” theorized the child.

The Conqueror was surprised Melpomene knew her history but then again there was Gabrielle and her stories. “Yes.”

Melpomene shook her head then challenged, “But wouldn’t your brother be upset that you did that? I know my sister would be if I reacted that way.”

The Conqueror slowly dipped her head in acknowledgement of the question and statement. “Yes, now I’m going to try and fix that.” She rested her arms on her propped up knees then asked, “Do you think you can help me, Melpomene?”

Melpomene’s eyes grew wide at the request for help from the great and powerful ruler. “Like Auntie Gabby and grandmother are helping?”

“Yes,” answered the ruler.

“Auntie Gabby says you’re family.” Melpomene tilted her head in consideration and her thoughts carefully worked it out. “That means you’re family to me and family helps each other.”

“Yes they do,” huskily agreed the ruler.

Melpomene revealed a smile and her eyes harbored no malice for the ruler. “Then I want to help too, Conqueror.”

The ruler’s lips curled into a warm smile. “And family calls me Xena… not Conqueror.”

Melpomene’s small smile grew brighter at this declaration. “You can call me Mel if you want,” she shyly offered as her smile went coy.

“Alright, Mel.” The ruler then rose up with her robe cascading down and flashing gold. She came down the steps and held out her hand, palm up. “Let me teach you a dance, Mel.”

Melpomene was shy but she took the strong hand after a beat of hesitation. She was lifted onto her feet and she hurried down the steps then was guided to a clear spot on the dance floor.

The Conqueror positioned herself beside the child. “Have you heard of the tsamiko dance?”

Melpomen became enthralled and hastily gushed, “Yes, I saw it performed in my village once.”

“Do you know who created the tsamiko dance?” At the girl’s frantic head shake, the Conqueror explained, “It’s a warrior dance that they perform before battle.”

“Are you going to do the real tsamiko? The leader has to do the back flips,” recalled the girl.

“Is there any other ways to do the tsamiko?” queried the grinning ruler.

Melpomene grew even more excited at this prospect. “What are the steps?”

“They’re very simple,” instructed the ruler. “You step to your right eight times first.” She lifted her robe to show her feet while moving.

Melpomene mimicked the dance steps then stopped and watched the next set the ruler performed. She followed them too.

“Those are the steps,” proclaimed the ruler.

“That’s easy!” Melpomene and the Conqueror continued the steps until the dance fit the beat of the music. She had her head down watching her feet move in sync with the Conqueror’s. When she lifted her head she realized a circle of dancers formed around her and the Conqueror and they started to clap with the beat. “What about the flips?” excitedly urged the child.

The Conqueror quietly chuckled at the girl’s enthusiasm. “Any… heartbeat.” She took the last two back steps then gave her incredibly warcry and leapt into the air, tucked, flipped, and opened as she hit the floor with her feet and continued the dance.

The crowd cheered wildly at the Conqueror’s rare display. Then several people from the crowd jumped into the circle’s center and dance beside the Conqueror and Melpomene. The Conqueror kept her position as leader of the dance.

“What’s that dance?” inquired Melinda to her lover.

The archeologist grinned and answered, “It’s an ancient warrior dance called the tsamiko. I’ve seen it done before in Athens but never this traditional with the back flips.” She peered up at the linguist. “They perform the dance before battles… sorta a ceremonial thing for good luck in battle.”

Melinda filed that away for later consideration and reference. She paused in her clapping and quietly asked, “Ya reckon they’d like to learn the Carolina Shag?”

Janice couldn’t help but laugh at the concept of Ancient Greeks learning a swing dance traditional to the Carolinas. “I’ll be your partner but you’ll have to be patient,” she agreed.

“I’ve already been using plenty of that with ya.”

Before the archeologist could banter back the Conqueror’s warcry resounded and she watched the amazing skills of the Conqueror.

The Conqueror landed and went still as the song ended. She took Melpomene’s hand and bowed her head.

Melpomene followed suit and saw the other dancers repeated the bow. She grinned when everybody cheered.

Melinda dragged her lover into the circle and announced, “Since Janice and I will be leaving soon we wanted to give y’all something to remember us by. Janice and I would like to show y’all a dance from our time period. It is native to where I am from.”

“Hey, I didn’t pick this dance,” announced Janice Covington with her hands up in defense but a grin on her face.

The crowd laughed.

“Don’t fall on your butt, Janny,” teased Ephiny.

The Conqueror tiled her head and asked, “What is the dance?”

“It’s called the Carolina Shag,” answered Melinda Pappas, who eased a grin into her expression, “And it’s uh style of dance we call swing.” She saw everybody was curious and backed away to make room.

The Conqueror took a spot beside the rebel and her mother. She signaled the musicians to begin playing.

“This is a partner dance,” explained the southerner, who faced her lover.

Janice’s hands grew slightly wet from nervousness, her body already warm. She took off her hat and tossed it at Ephiny.

Ephiny snatched it in mid air and put it on for the fun of it. She then was smacked in the face by the leather jacket.

Janice met her partner halfway then quietly mentioned, “This won’t be easy with this music.”

“It ain’t jazz,” agreed the linguist, “but it’ll do. Jus’ follow my body.”

The archeologist smirked and teased, “That’s easy.”

The translator held out her right hand. “I’ll start it.” When Janice took it, she slowly moved her feet on the floor that would have been the man’s moves. She pointed at Janice with her freehand.

The archeologist mirrored the moves slowly; right back, left, right forward, slide to the left and continue. She stopped then grinned at her partner.

Melinda repeated the steps faster and then she stepped back twice for some space and quickly spun in place with her right leg up then ascending to the floor as she twirled. She danced back up to her partner and took her hand again before spinning her with their locked hands overhead.

Janice laughed and repeated the steps before her lover backed up but kept their hands together. She mirrored her lover’s steps for several beats then Melinda pulled their bodies together and spun them in a circle.

The masses hooted at the couple demonstrating the shag dance.

“Come on, Ephiny.” Solari grabbed her friend’s hand and hauled her onto the dance floor. Solari took the man’s assumed role as she stood beside Melinda and copied her.

Ephiny watched Janice while tilting the fedora back on her head. She mimicked the archeologist’s booted feet.

Melpomene happened to be standing by Callisto, who’d remain still and quiet most of the evening. “I bet you can do that dance.”

Callisto’s brown eyes lit up at the child that reminded her of her lost little sister. She slowly grinned.

Melpomene chuckled and grabbed the tall woman’s wrist then guided her to the floor.

Callisto copied Melinda and Solari’s move then she paused to see Melpomene take the woman’s mirroring moves. She laughed at how ridiculous she felt yet as she kept going she started to relax and enjoy it.

Janice met her partner halfway and as they held hands and danced, she whispered, “Nice job, Mel.”

The translator winked and molded their bodies for a long spun but she took her lover’s lips in a quick kiss. Melinda’s plan to teach the Ancient Greeks a wild, new form of dance paid off as the masses all tried the dance.

The night’s entertainment continued into the late night and much later than a feast would normal go in the realm. However the feast and court broke apart when it became too late. The rich masses left the fortress while the Conqueror and her guests retired to their respective chambers. When Helios was kissing the eastern horizon the fortress was buzzing with life again and the Amazons were first up as they knew they needed to return to the Nation. Not only was the queen waiting on them but so was Yakut and the answer to the riddle for entrance to Eternity. The Amazons said goodbye to everybody and made sure to thank the Conqueror for her hospitality. Much to Ephiny’s surprise the Conqueror informed her to tell Queen Cyane to send a representative in the near future for an alliance.

Solari finished hugging Janice and was mounting her horse near the open gates.

Ephiny stepped up to her friend and her expression dimmed. “You won’t ever come back here, will you?”

The archeologist sighed then tipped her hat back for a better view. “No, it’s not safe for Mel and me to be here to begin with.”

The Amazon nodded her understanding yet she didn’t like it. “I’ll miss you, Janice Covington,” she quietly admitted.

Janice pulled her friend into a long embrace while whispering, “I’ll miss you too, Ephiny.” When she withdrew from the hug she was rather choked up and trying not to get anymore upset. “Thank you for everything.”

Ephiny touched her friend’s cheek and gently teased, “It was my pleasure, Janny. Take care and don’t forget me.” She moved away before it grew anymore emotional for her. She climbed onto her horse. “I hope to see you in the Nation soon, Gabrielle.”

The bard grinned. “You can count on it.”

Ephiny ordered her comrades out of the gates and she tapped her mare’s sides. She saw that Callisto had the reins for the other mare that the Conqueror had burrowed. She turned in her saddle and waved at Janice, Melinda, Gabrielle, and Melpomene.

Janice waved back then when her hand fell to her side; she dropped her head and pushed her fedora forward to hide her face. She then felt strong hands massaged her shoulders to ease her emotions.

Melpomene grabbed Janice’s hand and stated, “Family is forever, Janice… don’t forget.”

The archeologist sadly smiled at the child’s words then knelt down and picked up the girl. “You’re right about that, Mel.”

Gabrielle swallowed against her own emotions then she announced, “I think its time for you and Melinda to get home.”

Melpomene rested her head on Janice’s shoulder and closed her eyes at the words she didn’t want to hear. She clung tightly to Janice’s opposite shoulder.

“The Conqueror is waiting in her office with the scepter.” Gabrielle started walking with her friends. As she climbed through the fortress’s levels her happiness from last night descended. She had to remind herself that Janice and Melinda had made it possible for her and Cyrene to achieve the impossible. Melinda and Janice had gifted her and Cyrene with the changes in the Conqueror; with the return of Xena.

The Conqueror rose up to her feet from the sofa when the group entered her office. She felt her mother stand up behind her.

“Are you two ready?” questioned Cyrene, who stepped around her daughter.

The Conqueror saw Melinda’s nod so she went to her desk where her scepter leaned against her desk. She picked it up and strolled over to the group.

Melinda and Janice went through the rhythms of saying goodbye to everybody but it felt surreal to the couple. Janice still held Melpomene in her left arm. She felt warm tears now trickling down her neck so she turned her head and kissed the child’s head. She then knelt down and set Melpomene on her feet but she stayed kneeling and sadly smiling.

“Do you really have to go?”

The archeologist frowned and brushed the girl’s hair out of her face. “I have to go home.” She wiped the tears from the child’s cheek.

Melpomene choked out, “This is home now too.”

Janice bitter sweetly smiled because the child’s words rang true. “It is, Mel but Melinda and me have to go back to our time. There are people there that miss us too.”

Melpomene dropped her head and stretched out her hands to play with Janice’s hands and fingers. “Will you forget about me?”

Janice’s heart broke and her eyes stung. “No, never… will you forget me?”

Melpomene quickly shook her head then she threw herself into Janice’s body.

Janice wrapped the child up into her arms and held tightly.

Melinda removed her glasses from her face when her tears started to spill. She wiped them away then touched her lover’s shoulder in comfort.

“I love ya, Mel,” promised the archeologist.

Melpomene tightened her arms and whispered, “I love you too, Janice.”

Janice slowly withdrew but as she stood up, her hand laced through Melpomene’s. She and Melinda gave a round of hugs to Gabrielle and Cyrene then they paused at the standoffish Conqueror.

The Conqueror held the scepter in her left hand but she extended her hand to Melinda first. “Thank you, Melinda.”

Melinda Pappas took the matching hand and reminded, “I reckon ya found what ya’ve been missing… don’t lose it again.”

The Conqueror thoroughly agreed with a nod. “I pray my descendant in your time is at least half of who you are.” She then shifted to the uncomfortable archeologist and held out her hand again.

Janice bit her lower lip as she read the Conqueror’s face. She knew that the Conqueror was so different compared to Melinda yet when she studied those blue crystals above her she saw the tenderness of her lover deep down. She slowly extended her hand and collapsed the large hand in a strong shake.

The Conqueror had no words yet she and Janice let understanding pass between them. She released the archeologist’s hand then held out the scepter to Melinda Pappas. “Its all yours.”

The translator accepted the scepter as her eyes reflected the glowing green stone. She and Janice with Melpomene stepped away from everybody. She let the scepter’s base touch the floor so that it was level with Janice’s chest.

The archeologist knelt down one last time, hugged Melpomene, and whispered a promise before releasing her completely.

Melpomene separated from the woman she considered her sister. She went over to her aunt, who took her hand to comfort her.

Janice stepped up to scepter that was between her and Melinda. Her right hand touched the scepter’s shaft, just above Melinda’s left hand.

Melinda sadly smiled at her lover. “Ready?”

“I’m ready,” agreed the archeologist.

Melinda lifted her right hand with her palm facing down. She watched as Janice lifted her left hand and laced their fingers together. She lowered their hands close to the brightly humming stone.

“Mel,” came the archeologist’s teasing voice, “click your heels and say three times ‘there’s no place like home.'”

Melinda quietly chuckled as the joke helped lightened the mood. She lowered their hands down the remaining quarter inch while she did think there was no place like home.

Instantly the Cronos Stone flared a bright green in the room and took the strangers away. It traveled through space and time then snapped brightly green again then calmed again.

Janice lifted their hands away from the Cronos Stone and she gasped for air. “Wow.”

“Wow is right,” murmured the aching southerner. She then glanced about their location.

The archeologist mimicked her lover’s scan and she easily realized that they were in a museum’s backroom where artifacts were stored. Then the table to her left caught her eye as she spotted the same stone like that on the scepter.

“Janice,” spoke the linguist, “I reckon we outta let go of the scepter.”

The archeologist nodded then together she and Melinda lowered the scepter to the floor. She let go first then Melinda relinquished her hold on the scepter last. She and Melinda watched in amazement at the scepter’s vanishing act. Janice’s head though snapped up when she heard voices on the other side of the door of the room. She narrowed her eyes when the voices became clearer and silhouettes formed on the opposite side if the door’s small smoky window.

There came a knock on the door then a man opening it up while saying, “Miss Pappas, I’m sorry but there’s….” He was caught off guard when he spotted the small woman beside the southern belle. “I…uh….” He touched his bald head and stared confusingly at the archeologist.

Melinda Pappas cleared her throat then introduced, “Doctor Timothy, I’d like you to meet Doctor Janice Covington.”

The archeologist instantly processed the man’s name; he was the curator of the Archeological Museum of Corinth so now she knew where she was. “Great to finally meet you, Doctor Timothy.”

Doctor Timothy remained in the half open doorway with his perplexed expression. “You as well, Doctor Covington… I didn’t hear you come in.”

“Sorry about that,” properly apologized the southerner, “I let Doctor Covington in only a moment ago.”

Doctor Timothy faintly nodded as he relaxed. “Well… actually this works out perfect.” He opened the door more, which allowed the woman behind him to take shape. “There’s somebody here looking for Doctor Covington.”

Janice’s eyes slotted because it was never good news when somebody was on the hunt for her.

Melinda stepped closer to her lover then she stiffened when the unknown woman entered the storage room.

Doctor Timothy was puzzled again as he realized he hadn’t caught this woman’s name.

The woman must have noticed, which made her roll her brown eyes. She stepped up to the archeologist with her hand coming out. “I am Doctor Erin Alexander,” she formally introduced.

Janice stared dumbfounded at the curly dirty-blond woman that was about her age. She shoved aside her astonishment before she appeared anymore silly looking. She quickly took the woman’s hand and stated, “Doctor Janice Covington.” She then turned on her heels some and held her hand out to Melinda. “This is my partner, Melinda Pappas.”

Melinda stepped around the table to meet this familiar woman. “It’s uh pleasure, Doctor Alexander.” She held out her hand.

Erin smiled warmly at the southern accent. “Wait… are you related to Doctor Mel Pappas?” She asked after the hand shake.

“Yes.” Melinda pushed her glassed up onto her face then properly informed, “Mel Pappas was my father.”

“I heard rumor that you were here in Greece,” spoke Doctor Alexander. “I just didn’t realize you and Doctor Covington were working together.”

Janice rested her hands on her hips. “It only happened recently.”

“Is there something we can help you with, Doctor Alexander?” probed the linguist.

Erin worked past her excitement at having found the archeologist and linguist together. “Yes, I believe so.” She revealed a pleased smile and informed, “I am a professor at the University of Pennsylvania but I’ve taken a sabbatical.” She brushed back her curly locks. “I’m rather interested in doing some research on the mythical Amazons.” She glanced between the silent women then further added, “I have reason to believe they really existed and I was hoping I could get some help with my research. I’m afraid I do not have much archeological experience.” She steadied herself as she carefully asked, “Do you think you could help?”

Janice Covington shifted her weight onto her right foot as she peered up at her lover.

The translator peered down while saying to her partner, “Do we have time to fit this into our schedule?” She already knew the answer to Erin’s question but she wasn’t going to voice it when it had to be Janice.

“I also believe that the Amazons are somehow linked to Xena,” suggested Doctor Alexander. “I’ve been following your work, Doctor Covington… call me a fan.”

Janice slightly grinned as she returned her attention to Doctor Erin Alexander, who was truly Ephiny’s descendant. “I believe we can help, Doctor Alexander.”

“Momma?” called a small, puzzled girl’s voice.

Doctor Erin Alexander spun around and saw her daughter wandering into the room through the open door. “Sweetie, I told you to wait in the car for momma.” She hastily came over and took her child’s hand then brought her over to the women. “I’m sorry.” She indicted her child while saying, “This is my daughter… Melissa.” She bent over and said, “Can you say hello to Doctor Covington and Miss Pappas?”

Melissa blinked and studied the archeologist’s softening expression and for some strange reason, Melissa smiled at the archeologist. She instantly liked the archeologist then when she looked at the linguist she too seemed so familiar.

Janice Covington melted at seeing the descendant of Little Melpomene and she felt so happy. She knelt down and smiled at the child. “Hello, Melissa. How are you?”

“I’m good, Doctor Covington,” properly answered the child.

The archeologist grinned at Melissa’s formality obviously taught to her by her mother. “You can call me Janice if you’d like.” She then twisted and pointed at the tall translator. “This is Miss Melinda Pappas but I’m sure she won’t mind you calling her Melinda.”

Melissa peered up at the tall southerner for that confirmation.

Melinda smiled while kneeling down too. “Hi, Melissa… you can call me Melinda.”

Melissa beamed at her new friends and announced, “I like being called Mel… my friends call me that.” She then tilted her head and asked, “Are you going to help my momma find the Amazons?”

Janice Covington adjusted her fedora then peered up at the carefully listening Doctor Alexander. She smiled warmly back at the girl. “You bet we are.” She and her partner stood up simultaneously and she came to Doctor Alexander’s left side with her arm going around the professor’s shoulders. “You don’t mind Er do you?”

Doctor Alexander opened her mouth for a protest as the archeologist turned her and her daughter around. Before she could get her protest out the archeologist cut her off.

“Great. I like it too.” Janice guided the curly blond out of the backroom to the door. “So do you know much real history on the Amazons, Er?”

Doctor Alexander was having an odd feeling of deja-vu yet she tried to keep up. When she opened her mouth to respond the archeologist about how she knew the Amazonian myths she was cut short again.

“You see the Amazon philosophy,” started Janice, “was that it was a man’s world at the time and not because it should be but because women let it be. So the Amazon world is based on….” Janice continued her rant right out of the storage room and into the museum.

Melinda Pappas was shaking her head and was highly amused. She approached Doctor Timothy with a polite smile. “Thank you, Doctor Timothy for your help.”

The curator smiled and held out his hand for a shake. “Did you find the answers you were looking for, Miss Pappas?”

“I reckon so,” replied the southerner.

Doctor Timothy led the translator out of the storage room then wished her goodbye and safe travels.

Melinda Pappas met up her lover, the professor, and Melissa just outside in the gravel parking lot. She stood next to the trunk of a beautiful black sedan with chrome trim; it was most likely a 1937 Pontiac De Luxe.

“If neither of you have plans I would be a pleasure to have you come to my hotel room,” politely offered Erin. “I understand though if you do not have time.”

Janice Covington wanted to reply right away but she couldn’t speak for her lover. She instead answered, “If I could have a minute with Melinda I’d appreciate that.”

“Of course,” agreed Erin. She then told Melissa, “Get in the car, sweetie.” She released her daughter’s hand, who went around to the passenger side. Erin then climbed into the car to give the archeologist and linguist some sense of privacy.

Janice turned to her lover and stated, “Mel, can you believe this?” She then corrected herself when Melinda gave her a funny look. “Okay, don’t answer that but… I mean if Ephiny’s descendant is here… then that means the Amazons are real too.”

“We don’t know if Ephiny was an Amazon in our world,” reminded the southerner.

The archeologist grinned and joked, “I’m willing to bet my cigars that her ancestor was also an Amazon.”

Melinda chuckled and replied, “Keep ya cigars, Janice.”

“Mel….” Janice stepped closer to her lover and wanted desperately to take the southerner’s hands into hers but she couldn’t in the public eye. “You know what this could mean if the Amazons were real? What if they are connected to Xena and Gabrielle somehow?”

“Oh my, the havoc it could cause on the social standards today,” joked the prim southerner.

Janice snickered then went serious. “Melinda, I understand if you don’t want to do this with me. I mean home is in the Carolinas for you. I’m not exactly the safest person to associate with these days… being a Covington and all. Then there’s always the problem with-” She was silence by Melinda’s fingertips over her lips.

“Ya just need to learn when to quit while you’re ahead, Janice.” Melinda removed her touch from the soft lips that she loved to kiss. “I told ya we’re in this together. Where ya go, I go.”

Janice wanted so badly to wrap the amazing woman into her arms and show her happiness and appreciation for this beautiful southerner. She revealed a wide smile and her eyes lit up at the prospect of the adventure ahead of them. “What about Jack?”

“I reckon he’s still in the hotel I left him in. We outta get the Xena Scrolls before going.”

Janice nodded her agreement then turned and tapped on the driver’s window.

Erin Alexander hastily cranked the window down then had a hopefully expression on her face.

“You got room in this De Luxe for an archeologist and linguist?”

Erin’s expression broke into a thrilled expression. “Hop in, Doctor Covington and Miss Pappas.”

The archeologist faced the car, opened the back door and grinned up at her lover. “You ready for this, sweetheart?”

Melinda smirked then answered, “Like I was made for it, Janny.” She then shoved her lover into the car by her hips. She listened to Janice’s excited laugh echo back to her.

Melissa twisted in her seat and peered over the front bench seat. “Buckle up ’cause my momma is a wild driver.”

“Hush, Mel,” ordered the professor.

Melinda bit her lower lip from laughing and kept busy by buckling up.

Janice however couldn’t resist a poke. “Do you need me to drive then, Doctor Alexander?”

The professor’s response was reversing the car in the parking lot then saying, “I prefer to return this car in one piece, Doctor Covington.”

Melinda smirked but her hand slid across the bench seat and slipped into the archeologist’s small hand.

Janice laced their hands together then flashed a tender smile at her lover. That’s when Janice truly believed that family was forever, even through time and across realities.
The Extra Long Epilogue – Beauty and the Beast
The Conqueror remained rigid in her throne while she listened to the tail end of the advisor’s report. “Then the canal will be complete in four moons?”

The advisor nodded then replied, “Yes, my liege as we are ahead of schedule due to your promotion of keeping the slaves’ healthy.”

The ruler made no visible reaction to the advisor’s praises. “See that things stay on track so that the Isthmian Games will celebrate the completion of the canal.”

“Of course, my liege. The Isthmian Games and the Corinth Canal will be a testament to your rein and the realm’s power.” Cyd bowed to the Conqueror to show he’d completed his speech.

The Conqueror’s eyes scanned the masses of her court when nobody else stepped forward to bring up a political issue. She then felt inwardly disappointed at one particular possibility. “There is nothing from my advisor of state?”

Gabrielle, the new advisor of state, sifted through the masses until she was in the front. She bowed her head then lifted it again and replied, “I am only saving the best for last, my liege.”

The ruler’s lips curled into a pleased grin. “What do you have for the realm this new moon, Gabrielle?” She waved for the new advisor of three moons to speak to her. How she’d come to enjoy the court now that her friend proudly took the position as advisor of state. She looked forward to the ideas and debates she held with the former rebel leader and especially because she and Gabrielle would pretend to get into heated fights, which made the court squirm.

The bard observed her friend regally poised in her throne and dressed in her leathers, armor, greaves, and cape cascading over the chair. The shining chakram always fascinated the bard the most. She knew that meant the Conqueror had been training the squads this morning. “My liege, I believe the realm could do with a major social overhaul.”

“Oh?” prompted the ruler.

“Yes.” Gabrielle mentally unfiled her reasons then swiftly claimed, “The polis should require that every citizen in the realm to have a second name or rather a family name.”

The Conqueror had seen this before so she questioned, “Like the Roman naming convention?” Her eyes narrowed in warning at the advisor.

Gabrielle didn’t back away from the threat since she knew better. She could tell the air in the court though grew thick. She lifted her chin then she carefully chose her next words. “Similar, my liege however the Greeks, under your rein, always surpass anything the Romans fumble to do.” She stopped and listened to the silence ringing back in her ears but she held the ruler’s powerful stare.

The Conqueror’s hard face abruptly broke by a grin. “Tell me why I should bother with such an endeavor, Gabrielle.”

“Well, my liege,” began the bard, her hands moving with her words. “How many Hectors would you guess reside here in Corinth?”

The Conqueror pretended to calculate then with a wave of her hand she guessed, “At least six.”

“Try a dozen,” remarked the bard, “And not to mention seven in Sparta then would you believe there are twenty-one in Thebes?” She cocked her head as she could see her friend was waiting for her point. “A little confusing isn’t it?” She then turned on her boot’s heels and called, “Jericho, do you receive complaints from your collectors about keeping these Hectors straight?”

The advisor of finance stepped forward some as he knew Gabrielle meant his tax collectors. “Yes, actually… it’s rather frustrating.”

Gabrielle faced the ruler then continued her explanation. “My liege, if the realm was to require the citizens to have a second name then a lot of things will run smoother in the systems.” She lifted her left hand and grabbed one finger as she verbally ticked off the list, “The military’s conscription and pays, the taxation, the deeds of land ownership, crime will lower, and we’ll be able to take a proper census.” Gabrielle saw the ruler’s resolve was starting to waver as the ruler reverted to her thinking position where her right elbow rest on the chair arm and her chin in her palm.

“This will be exceedingly costly, my liege” spoke up an advisor.

The Conqueror’s ice eyes flickered to the advisor. Recently she’d disclosed to her advisors that they may now speak out during court and it took awhile for the advisors to grow accustom to this new freedom. Of course they unknowingly owed this new freedom to the advisor of state, who’d privately suggested to the Conqueror to open the floor. Sometimes the Conqueror wondered if Gabrielle had suggested it just so Gabrielle could debate with the other advisors and wipe the marble floor with them. It was rare that any advisor bested the state advisor when she had such bardic skills for her armor and weaponry.

“Yes, this would be quite costly,” agreed the Conqueror, her statement falling on the state advisor. She waited for Gabrielle’s expected retaliation.

“It would be definitely,” agreed the bard, “but think how costly it is to the realm right now without a second name? This is causing such trouble for the realm that there’s some unrest… especially in the cities where there are more people with same names.”

“My liege,” spoke up the advisor of finance, “because we cannot properly identify who is who my collectors become frustrated and improperly tax the people. We do not know what lands they own, the family size, or their income because they can easily dodge us. Our records are poor.”

“Why have you not corrected those records, Jericho?” questioned the annoyed ruler.

“My liege, you have not authorized the proper funds to take on such an undertaking. My collectors do not have the manpower or resource to correct this.”

Gabrielle bit back her grin as the financial advisor easily supported her points. “My liege, the poor are being taxed like they are the rich while the rich dodge the proper taxes for their income level. Much of this derives from the fact that the polis has kept improper records and that we cannot discern who is who.” She lifted her hands and factually stated, “And the realm is growing? How am I or the other departments to keep up with this?” Her hands fell to her side.

The Conqueror drummed her fingers on her chair arm’s edge. She straightened up from leaning against her other arm. “Commander Meleager, this unrest that Gabrielle speaks of have you heard of it?”

The commander stood out from the rest of the court due to his silver plated chest, black leathers, and his helmet while the rest of the court wore togas, except for Gabrielle. He respectively removed his traditional Greek helmet then answered, “Yes, my liege. There is some unrest across the realm but it is only minor… nothing to cause alarm.”

“Yet unrest has a way of growing into rebellions,” reminded the Conqueror.

The commander said nothing but dipped his head in agreement to the truth.

The Conqueror studied her advisor of state while she considered this incredibly endeavor that Gabrielle was asking of her and the realm. She knew that Gabrielle’s solution may just calm this aged unrest going on in her realm because she knew that her old use of fear wouldn’t work here. “And have you already selected a second name, Gabrielle?”

The state advisor’s eyes glinted and her lips showed a faint grin. “My liege, I would only select such a second name after you have chosen yours.”

The Conqueror’s hard expression broke by an amused grin at how the bard could stroke her ego. By the gods she hadn’t realized how well Gabrielle had come to know her. Her expectations and hopes of Gabrielle being a decent advisor had been far exceeded. “And I assume you have written the proposal?”

“My liege, would I do any less?” Gabrielle placed her hands behind her back. She stood straight with her brown skirt slightly fluttering and her blue peasant top made her blond hair stand out along with her rich green eyes. She’d claimed her traditional clothes despite the court masses wore togas but she liked representing her stock plus she loved annoying the masses by not fitting in.

“I will further consider this after I’ve read your proposal, Gabrielle. See that you bring it to my office.” The Conqueror straightened up in her throne while her hands rested on the arms of her chair. “I will say that I am pleased with this concept.”

“Thank you, my liege.” Gabrielle bowed while promising, “I will bring it by this afternoon.” She straightened up then stepped away from the base of the dais.

The Conqueror glimpsed over her court and loudly questioned, “Is there anything else?” When nobody answered her call she stood up and stated, “Then we are dismissed until the full moon.”

The masses broke apart and the courtroom filled with the din of chatter. Groups of people pocketed into various spots around the huge courtroom.

The Conqueror descended her dais and was greeted by her advisor of state.

“How were the squads this morning?” inquired the bard.

The Conqueror slid her arms back so that her hands rested between her backside and cape. “They were lacking,” she complained.

“I’m sure you corrected them,” remarked the grinning bard.

The Conqueror displayed a half grin. “Walk with me to the stables… I have riding lessons with Melpomene today.”

Gabrielle chuckled and mentioned, “So I heard. Melpomene has been looking forward to this since you offered.” She and the Conqueror easily passed through the busy courtroom as the people moved out of the way for them.

“So I can’t interest you in joining us?” tormented the ruler.

The bard grinned at their growing, friendly banter in recent moons. “Oooh no… I leave that to you and Melpomene.” She chuckled and joked, “They don’t make those things low enough for me to ride.”

“Then perhaps this spring I will purchase a pony for your birthday.”

Gabrielle scowled at the smug ruler. “Oh yeah I can see that now. The galloping pony will fall several Roman miles behind a trotting horse.” She then did a mental image of herself mounted on a pony, which brought on a fit of giggles.

The Conqueror was amused too but she went a bit serious at a thought. “What are you doing tonight?” She let Gabrielle walk through the partially opened entrance doors then followed.

Gabrielle paused just outside the doors until her friend was beside her again. “I’m actually going over to Cyrene’s taverna. Are you free tonight to come?” She quickly added, “I think mom wants me to do the bard thing tonight so she promised a free dinner.” She then smirked and teased, “I’m sure I can convince her to thrown one in for you.”

The Conqueror’s body shook with a silent laugh while she went down the steps to the grounds. “Seeing as I couldn’t afford it otherwise?”

“Well with this new proposal of mine,” jested the bard, “you’ll need every drachma you can get.”

“I believe so.” The Conqueror sighed dramatically then turned to her left to head to the stables that were attached to the barrack.

“So, about dinner?” tried the bard.

The Conqueror walked closer to the bard and quietly answered, “I’d love to join you. What time are you going?”

Gabrielle’s eyes were lit up happily as she smiled at the ruler. “Whenever you’re free… Cyrene didn’t have a set time.”

“A candlemark after sunset?” prompted the ruler. “Melpomene and I should be finished by then.”

The state advisor nodded her head then quickly asked, “Just meet me there?” She came to a stop just outside the entrance of the stables.

The Conqueror nodded then rested her hands on her hips. “Be sure to drop your proposal off in my office.”

“I’ll put it on your desk,” agreed the bard, who was one of two people authorized to enter the ruler’s office.

“You will lose face among the aristos kratein,” mentioned the ruler. She knew that lately Gabrielle had been gaining favor by the court then the two lower classes approved immensely that the Conqueror appointed the rebel leader as the state advisor. The two upper classes however were weary of the rebel leader filling the position but they held their breath.

“Screw them,” muttered the bard, “if they paid their taxes properly to the polis then we wouldn’t be here.” She huffed but she noted that amused look on the ruler’s face. Both she and the Conqueror knew how disgusted the bard could get with the aristocracy of the realm especially since the Romans influenced the division of classes. “It shouldn’t take you long to read it and approve it.”

“If I approve it,” reminded the ruler.

Gabrielle mocked glare at her friend then folded her arms over her chest in a defiant stance. “If you don’t then you can find yourself another state advisor and good luck finding somebody as good as me.”

“Is that blackmail, Gabrielle?”

The former rebel leader let her nose crinkle up to give her that innocent look. “Never, my liege.” She then dropped her arms and started to walk off while saying, “I’ll see you tonight.”

The Conqueror was left shaking her head and watching the bard stroll off. She certainly had come to realize that Gabrielle’s punishment for being the rebel leader was truly her bittersweet punishment. She thoroughly enjoyed working along side the bard despite at times it was very frustrating when they truly had opposite views.

The Conqueror was soon met by Melpomene in the stables and she spent the first candlemark showing the child how to tack up a horse properly. Then her next lessons were how to mount the horse and what commands a rider could give a horse.

Gabrielle however returned to the fortress and went to her office. She was the state advisor and running the polis required her to have her own office. Her office was by no means the size of the Conqueror’s however it was on the same floor as the Conqueror’s and only a few doors away. The only other allowed offices on this level was the commander and the Conqueror’s assistant, Galen, who Gabrielle had become rather fond of lately. Galen would often lend a hand to the bard and he especially did when Gabrielle first started her position.

Gabrielle picked up her proposal first from her office and dropped it off in the Conqueror’s. She then returned to her office to work out her proposal for the next court meeting as she would push it along side her last name proposal. She had a feeling though that this proposal would get shot down; she was actually expecting it to however she hoped it would at least plant a seed and cause a stir in the court.

Just after sunset, Gabrielle finished off her scrollwork that was regularly required of her from moon to moon for the daily activities of the polis. She put her quill into the inkwell then she picked up her wool and leather cloak from the back of her chair. After she shrugged on her long cloak, she blew out the few candles in the room and silently left to head to Cyrene’s taverna.

While Gabrielle worked her way out of the fortress, she checked to make sure she had her Amazon dagger that Terreis had given her. She never liked carrying it but that was one of the dire arguments that her and the Conqueror hit only a moon and half ago. The Conqueror insisted on some small form of protection and when Gabrielle refused to have sentry shadows then the Conqueror told her to carry a small weapon. Finally the bard realized if she didn’t conceal a dagger on her body then the Conqueror would put the sentries on her heels whether she liked it or not.

Finally the bard made it across the city and stepped into Cyrene’s taverna that she was the proprietor of for two moons now. Cyrene didn’t own the taverna or its small square land it was built on but she ran the show and paid rent. Cyrene’s business had started out slow in the city then she became well established for her amazing food and atmosphere. Also Gabrielle’s occasional drop ins and story telling helped to promote the business.

Cyrene peered up from wiping her bar clean of some spilled wine. She smiled at seeing the blond beauty come through the door. She set her rag down and came around her bar then hugged her adopted daughter. “How was your day?”

Gabrielle pulled back and smiled at the older woman. “Well I took the proposal before the court and Xena.”

“How’d she handle it?” Cyrene raised an eyebrow much like her daughter would have done.

“Really well,” answered the amazed bard. “I think she’s figured out I’m hard to tell no.”

Cyrene laughed then nodded her head. “It only took me twelve moons… hopefully she’s quicker to figure it out.” She then saw her barmaid coming to her with an order already spewing from her lips. She promised the barmaid to get the drink order and the hastily told the bard, “Eat first or story first?”

“Xena is coming so I’ll sit down and have dinner with her first.”

Cyrene smiled at the idea of her daughter coming tonight. “There’s a small table over in the corner.” She then started to go around the bar while saying, “I’ll have Sara bring the drinks over.”

“Thanks, mom.” Gabrielle smiled then weaved through the busy taverna to the table indicated. She chuckled because Cyrene knew how the Conqueror preferred the tables in corners so that she could not only hide from prying eyes but also keep an eye out for trouble. The bard took the seat that faced the wall instead of the taverna but she turned her chair around some. She got her cloak off then sat comfortably in the chair. She then tilted her head when the taverna’s patrons went silent as a tall, dark woman entered. Suddenly the chatter picked up after the woman walked into the taverna more.

Cyrene greeted her daughter quickly then pointed at Gabrielle waiting for her.

The Conqueror quickly came through the tables, chairs, and people to sit with her friend. “Were you waiting long?”

“No, not at all.” Gabrielle smiled at the ruler. “How was the ride with Melpomene?”

“She’s a fast learner,” admitted the ruler. “She seems to have knack for it.”

“Hmmm,” muttered the bard, “sounds like somebody else I know.”

The Conqueror grunted but she peered up when the barmaid dropped off their drinks then left. She shook her head because the mug was filled with the special port her mother made.

“Your mother is a mind reader, I swear.” Gabrielle had cider as she didn’t need any alcoholic drinks before her story telling. “I’m not sure what she’s making tonight.”

“It’ll be good either way,” murmured the ruler, who adored her mother’s home cooking.

Gabrielle fell into idle conversation with her friend and as normal Gabrielle had the longer sentences while the Conqueror had shorter words but meaningful ones. Eventually the bard took her position in front of the patrons and reeled into a story about the god, Zeus, coming to the mortal world dressed as a mere mortal and stole away in a woman’s bed for one night. Then a demi-god was born, who was named Alcides and his first summers of growth included discovery of his strength that matched ten men. It was an ongoing saga that Gabrielle had composed with her muses and she’d only recently started writing the tales down about this young demi-god. She planned to expand it into his adulthood and the trials he faced to help mankind.

After the bard finished her tale of the young demi-god she bowed and absorbed the loud praises and applauds. Her eyes though settled on the Conqueror, who she always wondered whether or not listened to her stories. She knew the Conqueror read her reforms, satirical play, and poetries back when she was the rebel leader but this was truly a bardic right. And honestly, the bard was amazed that the Conqueror even allowed her to do this in Cyrene’s taverna as the ruler long ago demolished the Athens Academy of Performing Bards just to stop stories such as this.

The Conqueror had her chair leaning back against the wall and the mug of port in her lap. She settled the chair’s front legs onto the floor when her friend sat back down with her after fending off her loyal fans. She didn’t mention how much she enjoyed the story about this fictional demi-god however she did mention, “You’ve acquired quite a fan base, Gabrielle.”

The bard slightly blushed but first she stole a drink to ease her parched throat. She set the mug down after having a few beats to compose her response. “The only reason I do is because there are no other bards.”

The ruler slightly grinned. “Don’t fool yourself because I certainly don’t… there are other bards out there despite my laws.”

Gabrielle knew this was a dangerous topic to tread with the ruler but she thought she’d try for once. “I use to be apart of the underground theatre society.

The Conqueror didn’t respond but finished off her port first. She set the mug down. “Yes, if I recall correctly you almost were caught for that play you tried to put on.”

Gabrielle stared in shock at the ruler because the ruler knew her half cocked play she tried to perform despite the risks. She’d tried to do it so many seasons ago and much to Cyrene’s chagrin. “How do you know all this?”

The Conqueror was smug as she huskily declared, “I have many skills.”

The bard glared but her face broke by a grin. “I think you were as obsessed about me as I was about you.” She then realized that probably wasn’t far from the truth either.

The ruler stretched her legs out then shrugged. “I know my enemy.”

Gabrielle huffed then leaned back in her chair. “Can I ask you about something?” At the ruler’s prompting eyebrow, she quietly added, “About Alti?”

The Conqueror discretely nodded for her friend to continue.

“You knew the entire time that Alti was going to betray you, didn’t you? That’s what she meant just before she died, right?”

The Conqueror inhaled then slowly released her breath. “Yes. I remembered from my childhood when Alti attacked me as a girl. When I grew older it struck me blindly that it was myself that saved….”

“Saved yourself,” finished the bard with a silly grin. “That meant you already knew you’d stop Alti… otherwise none of us would be here already.”

The Conqueror nodded her head. “When I first met Alti I decided it was safer to keep her closer to me than fight against her or lose sight of her.”

“Keep your friends close but your enemies closer,” whispered the bard, who brightened with understanding. “By the gods….” She shook her head and asked, “When did you realize what was going on?”

“I suspected it when Janice showed up in the fortress. It was impossible for you to have a twin unless something was fishy. Then you confirmed it when you told me what the Cronos Stone could do.”

Gabrielle had carefully listened to the mouthful of words from the quiet ruler. She chuckled at how her friend was quite good at being able to step out of situations and figure out the overall picture. She composed another question but she stopped when somebody entering the tavern captivated her.

The Conqueror already had her head turned and straightened up in her chair as the dekarchos of a squad marched over to her and Gabrielle.

The dekarchos clapped her fist across her bare chest. “My liege, I bring news from the fortress.”

Gabrielle leaned over the table to listen since she was the advisor of state. She’d come to admire the new dekarchos that the Conqueror had employed after Janice left a spot open.

“What is it, Najara?” questioned the ruler.

Najara rested her hands behind her back then answered, “Queen Terreis has arrived along with her escort.”

“What?” piped up the bard, “She wasn’t due here for another day or so.”

Najara turned to the state advisor then informed, “It seems with this mild weather this winter they made it sooner.”

Gabrielle shrugged but she agreed with the dekarchos. Her stare wandered over to the Conqueror to see what she’d say.

The Conqueror sighed at losing her quiet night but she met her friend’s gaze. “Did you want to come back with me?” She then saw the bard’s smile, which was answer enough. “When did they arrive?”

“Not long ago, my liege.” Najara stepped back when the women stood up from the table. “I will escort you back.”

The Conqueror decided not to argue even though she wanted to because lately she’d noticed the dekarchos’s personal interest in Gabrielle. She knew that Gabrielle would want the dekarchos to escort them so she could talk to Najara on the way. At that thought, she side stepped the squad leader and hurried out of the taverna. She paused in the middle of the taverna and told her mother goodnight and thank you.

Cyrene said goodnight back to the ruler and the bard before they left.

“Go ahead, Gabrielle,” insisted Najara with a warm smile.

The former rebel leader returned the smile as she put on her cloak and walked ahead of the dekarchos to leave the taverna. She caught up to the ruler however her focus was on the dekarchos. She considered Najara a rare creature because she was a female warrior not of the Amazon Nation. The only other like that, in the bard’s eyes, was the Conqueror. Gabrielle had spent some time with the dekarchos and learned she was from Phoenicia, which was an eastern providence in the realm along the Mediterranean Sea. This seemed to explain Najara’s unusual dress that consisted of thin light brown leather mixed with a blue shade, a belt with a buckle’s design traditional to Phoenicia. She wore leather gloves of blue and brown then half arm bracers and carried her sheathed sword on her back. Yet what Gabrielle really liked about Najara’s style was that she had short blond hair and that was viewed as unusual in Greek society. When Najara first arrived she wore a headdress that matched her outfit but Gabrielle convinced her to not wear it anymore and that revealed the silver hoop earrings.

It wasn’t long before the Conqueror’s strides carried her into the fortress then as she climbed the steps of the fortress, the sentries opened the doors. Right behind her was the chatting bard and dekarchos and they went quiet once they entered the courtroom.

Queen Terreis had been glancing over the courtroom until she heard the Conqueror’s arrival. She smiled at seeing Gabrielle when she didn’t expect to see her until tomorrow.

The Conqueror stepped up to the Amazon Queen and held out her arm. “Welcome to the Corinth, Queen Terreis.”

The Amazon took the ruler’s forearm in a firm grip. “Thank you, Conqueror.” She released the ruler’s arm then side stepped to introduce her escorts. “This is Eponin the Nation’s weapons master.”

The weapons master stepped up and held out her arm for a strong grip. She stepped back after meeting the ruler even though she’d seen her previously.

“And of course you remember Ephiny and Solari,” mentioned the queen.

The Conqueror nodded but took arms and greeted the Amazons back to Corinth. She then allowed Gabrielle to greet the Amazon escorts while she talked to the queen. Gabrielle also made sure to introduce Najara to the Amazons as well. The Conqueror though could tell the Amazons were weary from their long trip down to Corinth. She interrupted her friend from the chatter to get her attention.

Gabrielle cocked her head at the ruler as she knew she was about to say something.

“Can you escort Queen Terreis and her Amazons up to the third level?”

The bard nodded and asked, “Which rooms, my liege?”

“The queen may take the Thessaly bedchambers,” informed the ruler, “And the Amazons whichever rooms they’d like.”

Gabrielle nodded and smiled at her friends. “Follow me.” She guided the Amazons across the quiet, torch lit courtroom and through the side door near the throne.

The Conqueror turned to the dekarchos. “Did you instruct the stable hands to take care of their things?”

“Yes, my liege,” answered Najara. “Is there anything else?”

The ruler slowly lifted her right eyebrow and her eyes slightly darkened. “Yes, actually.”

As soon as Gabrielle was out of the courtroom with the door shut, she turned to the queen and enveloped her into a hug. She was happy she wasn’t under political scrutiny now. “It’s so great to see you, Terreis.”

Terreis smiled when she pulled back in the hug and rested her hands on the bard’s shoulders. “You look great, Gabrielle. Ephiny mentioned your legs had been healed.” She tilted her head then asked, “You’ll have to tell me…?”

“Definitely.” The bard’s nose crinkled up then she turned to Ephiny, Solari, and Eponin for hugs. She finally guided the Amazons through the fortress to the third level. She admitted she didn’t know Eponin that well but maybe this would be a chance to do that. As they climbed through the fortress, she mentioned, “I think the Conqueror planned for the meeting when you arrived in a couple of days.”

“Yes,” agreed the queen, “the weather has been mild so we made it sooner than expected.”

“It has been rather mild.” Gabrielle shrugged at this as she strolled down the hallway lined with doors to bedchambers and at the end was the Conqueror’s. “Most likely she’ll make the meeting tomorrow.” She stopped in front of one door but faced Terreis. “I’ll be there too.”

“The Conqueror mentioned that in her message.” Queen Terreis tilted her head. “How is the position of state advisor?”

Gabrielle noted the other Amazons were carefully listening too. “It’s a lot of work but I’m learning quite a bit.”

Queen Terreis let it go there as she would pry later when they were in private.

“Oh this is your room.” Gabrielle’s cheeks flushed but she quickly opened the door. “This is the Thessaly bedchambers… the Conqueror reserves it only for her allied leaders.”

Queen Terreis stepped into the room and scanned the large space. “I can see why. Impressive.”

Eponin grunted then remarked, “The taxes at work.”

Gabrielle sighed at the jab towards the ruler but she held her tongue because she was in a sticky position. “I’m sure your things will be up shortly, Terreis.”

The queen nodded after facing the bard again. “Stop by before you leave, Gabrielle.”

“I will,” promised the state advisor. She then backed out of the room and shut the door. She escorted her friends to the other rooms that were smaller by comparison but still large. “Did you each want separate rooms… um….” She flushed.

Ephiny chuckled and informed the bard she and Solari would share, which said plenty to Gabrielle. Eponin took her own bedchambers though. Gabrielle told Ephiny to stop by tomorrow at her office for a visit. The bard then decided it was best to tell the ruler what rooms the Amazons took for security reasons. Repeatedly the bard received lectures from the ruler about how important security was in the fortress. She sometimes wondered if the Conqueror’s security insecurities weren’t prompted by Toris’s infiltration.

The Conqueror held out the long scroll and scanned over the writing.

“I apologize for disturbing you so late, my liege.” Galen set a rolled up scroll on the corner of the ruler’s desk. “But I know you’ve been waiting on this for a moon now.”

The ruler paused in her scrutiny of what was obviously a list. “No, Galen I’m glad you caught me.” She lowered the long scroll and started to roll it up. “Did you hear how long it would take to compile the resources?”

Galen’s lips puckered and his brown eyes fuzzed over from his thoughts. “I believe the timbers from Gaul will not take long. The transportation time is the lengthiest part.”

The Conqueror set the scroll down beside the other one. “Legio IX in Eastern Gaul should make quick work of this.”

“I agree, my liege however with the rainfall there it may make it a sticky situation to haul the timbers here.” Galen shook his head then added, “The commander is quite irritated by your plans to build this.”

The ruler grinned at this news. “Is he now?” She folded her arms over her armored chest. “What of Egypt?”

“Queen Cleopatra is prepared to begin query however….” The assistant peered up and saw the ruler’s curious look so he sighed and informed, “Queen Cleopatra has only agreed to do this if you come to Egypt to inspect the limestone prior.”

“By the gods,” complained the ruler, “She is relentless.”

“My liege, the project will not be successful without the limestone, hydraulic cement, granite-”

“Galen, I know.” The Conqueror lowered her hand after silencing her assistant. “What about the Kingdom of Chin?”

“Lady Lao has agreed to send her resources.”

The Conqueror nodded then asked, “And does she require a visit first?”

Galen actually grinned at the ruler’s joke. “No, my liege.” He was growing accustom to the ruler’s bantering side that’d been developing lately. It was a welcomed change that made it easier to serve the ruler. “When will you order the resources to be allocated?”

“At least not for several moons,” decided the Conqueror, “I expect the canal not to be completed for another four moons. Only one project at a time.”

Galen thoroughly agreed but he was distracted by the knock at the door. He pivoted to his left when the Conqueror called the visitor in and he couldn’t hide his thin smile at seeing the state advisor. “Good evening, Gabrielle.”

The Conqueror briefly glanced down at the assistant and filed away the note about how he seemed to be taken with the bard. She was quickly realizing that Gabrielle had a profound affect on everybody; her included in that list.

“I stopped by to let you know that the Amazons took rooms three and five,” offered the bard.

“Just two?” questioned the ruler, her right eyebrow going up and it went higher at Gabrielle’s blush.

“Solari and Ephiny,” merely elaborated the bard. She was glad when the Conqueror easily pieced it together.

“Are you going home now?”

“I think I’m going to visit with Queen Terreis.” Gabrielle shrugged. “It’s been awhile since we visited.” She tied her fingers together in a nervous habit but her voice stayed strong when she spoke again. “Do you want me to….”

The ruler tilted her head. “Stop by my chambers before you go.”

The bard gladly agreed and mostly because her friend understood her unfinished question. “Yes, my liege.” She dipped her head in respect then quietly excused herself.

Gabrielle made her way back to Terreis’s bedchambers and spent over a candlemark talking to her friend. She and the Amazon Queen traded stories about what’d been happened recently. Gabrielle had heard how Cyane stepped down from the throne and passed the queen’s caste to Terreis. The news had surprised the bard however Cyane believed it was time for Terreis to take power so that the Nation could move forward. Cyane realized that the Amazons were entering a new era now that the Conqueror was changing and allying with the Nation. Or so everybody was hoping and why Queen Terreis journeyed to Corinth. Gabrielle was even stunned to learn that the Amazon Nation was recruiting new Amazons at an alarming rate due to word about their success against Darphus. Suddenly the Amazon Nation took on life again in the realm and they no longer were fantasy tales or a brief Greek history lesson.

After her visit, Gabrielle kept to her word and traveled down the hallway. She entered the Conqueror’s bedchambers after she was called to enter. She spotted the ruler straightening up with a kettle that had steam rising from it.

“Perfect timing,” mentioned the ruler. She stepped over to her small table and poured the hot water into tea cups.

Gabrielle neared her friend, who was only clothed in a silk robe. She admired how the Conqueror’s hair was pulled up into a loose bun then a few strands in the front fell around her face. “What kind of tea?”

“The Jie tea,” answered the ruler. She straightened up with the warm mugs in her hand.

Gabrielle was dubious because of her tea lessons with the ruler she knew this was an expensive tea from Chin. “Any particular reason?” She gratefully took the tea.

“Do I need a reason?” challenged the slightly grinning ruler. “Come out on the balcony with me.” She glided across the bedchambers towards the balcony, which was already open of its heavy curtains.

The bard slowly followed because she was busy sipping the Jie tea, which was a green tea. She softly moaned at the pleasing taste that slid across her tongue and down her throat. The tea she made at home could never match what the Conqueror offered her.

The Conqueror arrived on the balcony and leaned against the marble rail with her arms stretched out and the mug wrapped between her hands. “How was Queen Terreis?”

The bard stood near her friend but not against the rail. “She was tired but we had plenty to talk about.”

The Conqueror glimpsed at her friend and she had that entertained expression.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Just don’t say it.”

The Conqueror silenced her comments by taking a sip of her tea. Her eyes lowered to the fortress grounds when she heard the iron gates open and a file of soldiers marched in then towards the barrack. She knew it was time for some of the squads to rotate.

Gabrielle had spied the squad returning too, which was the topic of her next question. “Why do you have so many squads lately?” She tore away from the soldiers below and stared at her friend’s profile.

The Conqueror peered into her mug then casually replied, “Security.”

The bard shook her head at the simple answer and it engaged her into a rant. “Ever since Toris you’ve increased security by double. You had four squads and now you’ve double it. Plus you have them on duty around the clock, Xena.” Gabrielle sighed and remarked, “I mean are you getting ready for some attack on the fortress? You’re starting to make me paranoid.” She went silent when she realized her friend was growing aggravated by the way the ruler’s grip tightened on the mug then her jaw was set tightly. Gabrielle bit her lower lip when she considered she may have crossed a line here. She dipped her head then murmured, “I’m sorry, Xena.”

The Conqueror’s head turned and her ghostly expression settled on the bard.

Gabrielle’s stomach sank and her heart pounded harder. “I guess I just don’t understand why you’ve grown so concerned about security when you’re… well you’re you.” She waved her hand up and down the tall woman’s length. “You’re the-”

“Destroyer of Nations?” cut in the ruler.

Gabrielle’s hand fell to her side and she let out a sigh. “I was going to say the Warrior Princess.”

The Conqueror turned her head away and stared at her capitol city. “It’s not security for me.”

“Then….” Gabrielle’s features were pressed together by puzzlement then it struck her blindly. “It’s about Cyrene, Melpomene….”

“And you,” uttered the ruler.

The bard sighed but she stole a drink of her tea so she would have time to mull this over carefully. The tea warmed her body back up considering she was standing out in the chilly night. “I’m really sorry, Xena. I didn’t mean to go on like that when you’re trying to protect us.”

“Its fine,” brushed off the ruler. She took a long drink of her tea and almost finished it off.

Gabrielle leaned her side against the rail and watched her friend’s dark profile. “Is it really that serious? I mean eight squads, who patrol day and night?”

“Yes,” softly replied the ruler. “I have plenty of enemies and my family is a target for them.” She finished tea and balanced the empty mug on the rail to her right.

Gabrielle body warmed more from the ruler’s words than the tea could manage. She knew the ruler considered her family just as she considered the ruler her family yet it was different hearing the ruler say it. “I know you’re doing this to protect us but… I have to say I can’t walk around in fear like that, Xena.” She moved her head with disagreement on her face. “I can’t be scared about what lays ahead in the shadows or around the next block.”

“I know,” uttered the ruler, “and I wouldn’t want you to live life like that.”

“That’s why you’ve strengthened the security,” concluded the bard. The only response she received was the Conqueror’s faint nod, which told the bard it was time to switch topics. “Thanks for coming out to dinner with me.” She drank the last swallow of tea then also placed the mug on the rail but to her left.

The Conqueror’s cold eyes flickered to her friend then back at the city. “Do you plan to scribe those stories about this demi-god Alcides?”

Gabrielle nervously nibbled on her lower lip but she knew to answer truthfully. “Yes, I’ve been planning to as soon as I get a break from my work with the polis.” She tilted her head then dared to ask, “Is that okay?”

“Yes.”

The bard quietly sighed but not out of relief but because something was going on in that ruler’s head. She faced the view of the city then gently asked, “What’s wrong?” She inhaled then she uttered, “And don’t tell me there isn’t anything.”

The Conqueror glanced at her friend briefly before responding. “There are a lot of changes going on, Gabrielle.”

The bard silently conceded but she waited to see if the ruler would say more or if she required prodding for this.

“And maybe too much change at once,” murmured the ruler. She quickly noticed the bard grew slightly alarmed because something was wrong.

“But it’s good change, right?” argued the concerned state advisor.

“Whether or not it is good,” explained the ruler, “too much of it can be dangerous. Everything in life must have a balance.”

Gabrielle carefully tossed the idea around in her head then she accepted it too. “Then is the last name proposal too much?”

“Yes and no,” murmured the ruler. “It’s a needed change as far as the polis is concerned. When it comes to the people it will be too much.”

“The aristocracy,” muttered the realizing bard. “Will they react that badly? I mean the taxation system isn’t fair on the lower classes and favoring the upper classes.”

“Life isn’t fair,” reminded the ruler. “Money is power, Gabrielle and for them to lose that power… they won’t take kindly to it.”

“Xena, it’s not the realm has a senate where they can buy politics and such.” Gabrielle shook her head then argued, “We’re not like Rome.”

“The realm is what Rome would have become if I hadn’t conquered it.” The Conqueror now studied her curious friend. “Julius Caesar was well on his way to destroying the senate and taking full dictatorship.” She then dropped her head to the left side some. “The upper classes can buy political power just not at this level. There are still the legions, the hoplites, cavalries, the polis positions, and so on for them to gain power in the polis.”

“But highest authority, you, can’t be tainted by that, which is important,” debated the bard.

“To some degree,” relented the ruler, “however my realm is only loyal as my most corrupt polis agent.”

Gabrielle hadn’t considered this and her head drooped then her right hand massaged her now aching eyes. “That means I need to weed out my corrupt agents, don’t I?” She let out a heavy sigh then glanced at her friend. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin, Xena.”

“You start your way at the top and work your way down,” suggested the ruler.

“Then what do I do if I find somebody that’s taking bribery?”

The Conqueror smirked. “Tell me.”

Gabrielle put her hands on her hips as she faced the ruler. “So let me get this right. I find out who’s corrupt then run to you and tell you.” She dropped her hands from her waist. “Now why does that sound like… maybe a tad-tail?” She leaned her side against the rail. “If I plan to be a respected state advisor I have to handle the corrupt agents myself.” Her head dipped forward.

The Conqueror shifted on her feet silently then quietly asked, “Are you prepared to do that?” She turned her head and studied her friend’s distant stare. “You’ll make a lot of enemies and keep only a couple of friends.”

“It’s definitely not a popularity contest,” sarcastically joked the bard. She turned and mimicked her friend’s stance of leaning against the rail. Her thoughts wandered off to this major problem ahead of her. She truly wasn’t sure if she was mentally prepared to weed out corruption in the realm then punish them because being harsh was never in her nature. Hades she didn’t even know what that punishments could consist of for a particular corruption. Would she have to sentence somebody to death because of bribery?

The Conqueror could tell her friend was deep in dark thoughts, which she instantly disliked. She straightened up while saying, “Come on… it’s late and we both have a long day tomorrow.”

Gabrielle’s thoughts broke apart and she returned to the present. She picked up her empty mug and headed into the bedchambers. She thanked her friend for the tea and the evening then made her way out of the fortress. Gabrielle knew that tomorrow would be extremely busy between her regular work plus her meeting between Queen Terreis and the Conqueror. That particular meeting did come and quite quickly as the Conqueror decided to do it a candlemark after Helios high. Gabrielle found herself tiredly sitting in a wood chair, next to Queen Terreis, and the Conqueror behind her desk in a formal mode.

Queen Terreis’s head was down and she was scanning over an open scroll in her lap. She finished reading it, lifted her head, and shook it. Her face showed she was astonished and she rasped, “Is this real?” She glanced between the state advisor and the ruler because it seemed impossible.

“It’s real,” confirmed the Conqueror. She finally leaned back into her chair and laced her hands in her lap. “You need to read through all the details then we can come to a full agreement before signing it.” She glanced at the bard, who’d remained silent but carefully watching and listening.

Queen Terreis’s lowered her head, her right elbow now propped up on the chair arm, and her cheek sunk into her palm. She stared at the main highlights of the alliance between the Amazon Nation and the realm. “By Artemis,” she uttered, “I don’t know what to think much less say.”

Gabrielle faintly smiled and her features softened. “It’s a lot to take in, I agree.” She crossed her legs at her ankles then gently offered, “I think it shows the realm is serious about this.” When Terreis’s amazed green eyes met Gabrielle’s she promised, “The realm wants to join an alliance with the Amazon Nation… a real alliance.”

The Conqueror tilted her head as she interrupted the Amazon Queen’s reactions to this alliance.

The queen’s fingertips grazed over one particular line as she questioned the words there. “All of former Athens’s lands?” She glanced between the bard and the ruler.

“Yes,” answered Gabrielle, “you said the Nation is growing… you’ll need the land to develop on too.”

“What about our current lands?” questioned the concerned queen.

“You may remain on them,” answered the ruler, “however I do not wish the Amazons to keep it as their official capitol.” She held out a hand to indicate the alliance scroll. “Athens will be rebuilt and it will be the Amazon Nation’s capitol.” She lowered her hand back to her lap. “In return for every five hundred Amazon warriors the realm reserves the right to take a hundred.”

“And the port?” Queen Terreis noticed in the scroll that the port was also a highlight of this alliance.

The Conqueror inhaled slowly as she worked out her explanation for the port aspect of the treaty. “There is no major port city on the Attica peninsula and this is a way to correct that problem.” The Conqueror didn’t care to admit to her error about destroying the city of Athens so long ago however she figured this may pay off better than she hoped if the Amazon Nation agreed.

Queen Terreis was slowly piecing the plans together. “Isn’t that the purpose of the Corinth Canal? So you can bolster the trade here?”

“Yes and no,” answered Gabrielle. “It’s also about a better naval port.”

Queen Terreis read that the port would have to authorize the Greek and Egyptian navies in and out plus incorporate plans to build naval shipyards.

“Corinth has plenty of triremes however the distance from Corinth to the mouth of the Saronic Gulf is great. By having a naval port reestablished in Athens’s location then this could prevent enemy attacks sooner.” The Conqueror watched as Queen Terreis seemed to take in this information.

Queen Terreis’s eyebrows furrowed and she theorized, “Plus it gives the realm a chance to produce shipyards that can push out a Roman style navy.”

“The Byzantine navy as well,” informed the ruler. She inwardly enjoyed the astonished features of the Amazon Queen.

“Greek fire,” murmured the shocked queen, “you’re after the Greek fire from the Byzantine Empire.” She shook her head then dangerously asked, “Is the realm building a navy to surpass the Byzantine’s?”

Gabrielle’s eyes flickered to the ruler as she wondered if the Conqueror would honestly answer.

The Conqueror was quiet then she leaned to her left in the chair. “Yes.” Her lips slightly puckered from her thoughts. “There is no shipyard in the realm that can construct all types of ships from the various parts of the realm.” The Conqueror straightened up then spoke again. “The realm is also dependent on the Egyptian navy for further support.”

Queen Terreis peered down at the alliance scroll then back up at the ruler. “So you plan to surpass both Egypt and Byzantine’s navies?” She shook her head then asked, “Why the Amazons? Why wouldn’t you do this yourself?”

“It’s rather simple,” replied the ruler, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. If the Amazons make Athens their capitol then that gives me a better defense than any legio or phalanx could provide.”

“We’ll be more determined to protect our capital,” agreed the Amazon.

The Conqueror slightly grinned at the queen’s intelligence about this so far. “I will provide a legio and phalanx for a solid twelve moons to help the Amazons reconstruct the city. They will also provide protection until the Amazon Nation can support itself enough.”

“What about laws?” inquired the queen.

“The Amazon Nation will act as its own internal polis,” explained the ruler, “but must cooperate with the realm’s polis. If the realm goes to war then so must the Amazon Nation. If the realm is in search of a traitor that resides in the Amazon Nation then they must hand them over. If the realm declares no trade with another empire then so must the Amazon Nation. And so on….”

“You’ll be independent,” promised Gabrielle, “but the cooperation of the Amazon Nation as well as the realm’s will be essential. It’s a co-dependent relationship.”

Queen Terreis faintly nodded. “What about religion?”

Gabrielle glanced at the ruler, who took the question.

“The realm has always had a free religion policy. You may worship Artemis or….” The Conqueror held up her hands and stated, “Anubis.” Her hands lowered. “You may even produce your own monetary system however I would advise it’ll be expensive and most likely will not be as strong against the drachma.”

Queen Terreis leaned back against her chair then mentioned, “Exactly how can the Amazon Nation afford to build this city?” She stared puzzled at the scroll and considered the size of city before it was demolished. “We don’t have the money or the supplies to take on such an undertaking.”

“The realm will provide resources and money,” explained the bard. “I already have the financial advisor working out some numbers.”

The Amazon Queen didn’t hear any rebukes from the Conqueror so it must be true. She stared down at the scroll again as if it wasn’t real then she lifted her gaze to the ruler. “Why are you doing this?” Her eyes narrowed because of her perplexity to understand this riddle. “You wanted to destroy the Amazons and now… this….” She signaled the alliance scroll.

The Conqueror was about to speak but then she was cut off by her state advisor.

“I know right? It’s too good to be true,” summarized the bard. “I kept wondering too what the Conqueror had up her gauntlets for this one… as if she hasn’t toyed with the Amazon Nation enough.” Gabrielle paused then glanced at the carefully listening ruler but she turned back to Queen Terreis. “Then I figure out something about this entire deal.” She pointed at the scroll then honestly stated, “If the realm politically shows allegiance to the Conqueror’s long time enemy, the Amazon Nation, then the other empires will follow suit.”

Queen Terreis stared at the Conqueror and tried to read anything hidden behind those usually cold blue eyes yet she found nothing.

“I owe so much to the Amazons.” The Conqueror held up her chin then declared, “I took so much from them. I took their lands, their people, and almost their faith. I want to return those things to the Amazons and the best place I can think of starting that is by giving them lands they can grow on and allying to the Amazon’s polis.”

Queen Terreis slowly inhaled as she tried to absorb all the surprises thrown at her.

Gabrielle noticed this so she carefully informed, “You have plenty of time to consider this, Terreis. I know it’s a lot to take in.”

“Carefully read over the scroll,” ordered the ruler, “and stay here in Corinth as the realm’s guests until you’ve decided.”

Queen Terreis slowly rolled up the scroll while she spoke, “I will consider it.” She nodded at the ruler then she stood up because she needed to get out of this office. She held out her hand when the Conqueror stood and sidestepped her desk.

The Conqueror firmly took the queen’s arm and shook. “I’ll have Galen check on you regularly to take care of your needs. Enjoy your afternoon, Queen Terreis.”

The queen dipped her head then stated, “You as well, Conqueror.” She then quickly left the office with scroll in hand.

“Well,” murmured the bard, “that went….”

“Just as expected,” finished the ruler. “She doesn’t trust it.”

Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest. “And can you blame her?” She shrugged. “How long have the Amazons and you been enemies? Now you’re suddenly offering a chance in… history for them to either survive or lay in ruins.” She sighed and uttered, “It’s a big decision… especially for Terreis.”

“And had she agreed to it immediately I may have declined.” The Conqueror went around her desk and took her seat.

“Huh,” mumbled the thoughtful bard. She shook her head then decided to take her leave too. Gabrielle spent the rest of her day going through her scrollwork that was regularly required of her. Her late afternoon was happily disrupted by Ephiny coming in for a visit. She and Ephiny chatted for a solid candlemark and caught up on stories and life. Ephiny was surprised to hear how close the Conqueror and Gabriele were growing considering their history. Ephiny did wonder if maybe the Conqueror had changed because she never thought it was possible for the Conqueror and Gabrielle to get along much less become friends.

Gabrielle’s last few candlemarks of work after sunset dragged past but she was relieved to go home and rest. Cyrene wasn’t home yet but Melpomene was just finishing up with her tutor. The tutor had been hired by the Conqueror to provide the child with an education so that her future would open wider. Gabrielle had argued against the ruler paying for the tutor but she gave in when the ruler stated it was one of her few opportunities to give back the child something in her life that she’d taken. The bard could only wonder what other ideas the ruler had thought out to fix the things she’d done so wrong. Just maybe the ruler would allow the arts again in the realm however that still seemed like such a joke to the bard.

The following day Gabrielle was surprisingly visited by Queen Terreis, who seemed to have very concerned features. Gabrielle offered her friend a seat in front of her desk but Gabrielle got up and sat in the chair next to her friend. She wasn’t much for staying behind her desk when it came to her friends.

“Gabrielle, I’ve thought a lot about the Conqueror’s offer.” The Amazon Queen remained rigid in her chair but slightly turned to face her friend. “I’m shocked by it but I really like the possibilities and opportunity for the Amazons. It’s a way for us to secure our future and with the realm there to protect us.”

The bard however could tell there was some exception to this so she asked, “But what is it?”

“I just… I have one stipulation though before I could accept it.” Terreis wavered as she debated whether to bring this up yet when she met the bard’s caring gaze she knew she had to try this. “I will only accept it if you will take a caste as queen.”

Gabrielle stared at the Amazon then her eyebrows slowly started to push inwards. “Terreis… I… but I….”

“I know.” Terreis leaned closer to her friend. “Just hear me out first.” She saw the bard’s distraught nod so she reeled into her explanation. “If I accept this alliance then that means there’ll essentially be two tribes on a very simplistic level. The capitol would rein while the current tribe would become more of a colony or outpost tribe.” Terreis stopped so she could formulate her next words and take an inhale of air. “I believe if you take rein over the capitol that it would be very important to the Amazons’ future. Not only because of your strong relations with the Conqueror but also because I can see that you’re meant for this.” Terreis grabbed up the bard’s hands into hers. “It wasn’t Cyane, it wasn’t me,… not even my sister, Melosa, that made the Nation believe again that they were destined for so much more. It was you, Gabrielle.”

“I just said ‘believe’… that was all,” argued the bard. “How does that make me the one to… to guide the Amazons forward?”

“Because when you told the Amazons to believe… they did without question and you were the outsider.” Queen Terreis shook her head then quickly added, “You convinced Cyane to kidnap the Conqueror, you represented the Conqueror when none else would, and you convinced her to fight for us. And now….” Terreis squeezed the bard’s hand and murmured, “And now because of you the Conqueror is giving us these lands.”

“She wanted to do this though,” argued the state advisor.

“Yet if it wasn’t for you, she wouldn’t even be at this point, Gabrielle.” Queen Terreis smiled and declared, “You have been the Amazons’ savior… whether or not you accept it. You are truly an Amazon.” She released her right hand and touched the bard’s cheek. “I think its time you finally joined the Amazons and took your place as queen.”

Gabrielle suddenly jumped up from the chair and separated from her friend. She started to pace, muttered words spilling from her lips, and her head down.

Terreis climbed up to her feet and stopped her friend in her tracks. “Gabrielle?” She grasped the smaller shoulders in front of her and peered into perplexed green eyes.

“Terreis, this is… a lot.” Gabrielle shook her head and reminded, “I just took my position as the Conqueror’s advisor.” She touched her forehead with her freehand. “I don’t… I can’t….”

“Gabrielle,” murmured the Amazon Queen, “please?” She searched the bard’s softening face. “You feel the draw to the Amazons too… don’t you?”

Gabrielle’s jaw was flexing then she hoarsely murmured, “Yes.” And she did ever since her childhood, which was suddenly sparked to life again after her time in the Amazon Nation. She wanted more than anything to follow that mysterious feeling and discover where it would take her. Yet at the same time there were other influences in her life that she refused to lose and some she wanted to shake loose.

“What is here for you?” urged the queen. She half turned and pointed her left hand at the desk. “A desk and a chair… a mountain of scrollwork?” She shook her head. “I refuse to believe that this is you. You have such spirit, Gabrielle and anybody can fair as the Conqueror’s advisor of state. They’re a drachma a dozen, Gabrielle but you are not.” She brought out her confident smile and declared, “You are meant for the Amazons.”

“But… I wasn’t even born Amazon,” weakly argued the bard.

“And that doesn’t matter, Gabrielle.” Queen Terreis finally released her hold. “The first Amazon wasn’t Amazon because she was born as such but her spirit was Amazon. There are some born Amazons that don’t even have the Amazon spirit… like Velasca. Then there are Amazons, who aren’t born Amazon and have the spirit.” She nodded at Gabrielle’s calming features. “And that, my friend is what makes you a real Amazon.”

Gabrielle read the confident and proud face of her friend, who was a born Amazon and now the queen. Her gaze focused beyond the Amazon and locked on the desk covered in scrollwork. Could the Conqueror find another state advisor so easily? Yes, the Conqueror certainly could do just that within a few days’ time. Then there were her ideas about the changes that the realm could make and from her discussion with the Conqueror the other night she’d come to realize maybe that they were too radical. Her next proposal in mind was to introduce the idea of abolishing slavery in the realm yet it would be ludicrous in the eyes of the court. Would she even be laughed at by the Conqueror considering the Conqueror kept slaves too? The realm’s court wasn’t meant for her and she wasn’t meant for the realm’s court because maybe a dreamy bard could find her niche in a Nation of women that demanded high hopes and dramatic changes.

Gabrielle shifted out of her deep thoughts and centered on the Amazon Queen. And then very slowly, Gabrielle of Potidaea nodded her head.

The next couple of days were agonizing for the bard as she worked along side Queen Terreis and the Conqueror. She helped with finalizing the details of the alliance between the Amazon Nation and the realm. When the final copy was written and read over, Gabrielle found relief to watch the Conqueror and Queen Terreis dip quills in ink and sign their names across the bottom. Then the last step was the seal of the realm and the seal of Amazon Nation pressed into the red wax blotch at the bottom.

The real root of her frustrations and pure nervousness rested with her future explanation to the Conqueror about why she was going to drop her position as the state advisor. Most her nights were spent laying in bed with no sleep and several scenarios and words rolling across her mind’s eye. Her muses berated her and her fears made her worry. She wanted to take on this challenge as the Amazon Queen and she found a great sense of meaning in bringing the Amazons forward. That meaning brought depth to her life and she believed purpose in life unlike what the state of advisor could provide her. From the start, Gabrielle was leery of the polis’s position however she’d agreed upon it because she thought she could make a difference to the realm. Now those chances seemed rather slim and her ideals extreme. So what was left for her?

About two days after the signing of the treaty and alliance, Gabrielle decided it was the day to face the ruler… her friend. She wasn’t getting any scrollwork done at her desk because her stomach kept knotting up. She put her quill in its inkwell then got to her feet and went out of her office. As she drew closer to the Conqueror’s office she tried to silence her fears and she found strength in knowing she would find her place with the Amazons.

Gabrielle gently knocked on the Conqueror’s office door and waited. She was finally called in so she slipped into the office to find the Conqueror speaking to the commander.

The Conqueror had one eyebrow lifted and her passive expression showing. “What is it, Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle steadied her nerves and calmly replied, “I need to speak to you about a personal matter.” She paused then added, “A family matter is some regards too.”

The Conqueror’s mannerism shifted enough for Gabrielle to notice it but not the commander. She switched back to Commander Meleager. “Will you excuse us, commander?”

“Of course, my liege.” He crossed his chest with a fisted hand clap, slightly bowed, and turned on his heels. He stopped beside the state advisor. “How are you today, Gabrielle?”

“I’m fine, commander. Yourself?”

“Well,” answered the commander with a smile. He then quietly left after a word of goodbye.

The Conqueror wandered behind her desk and sat down for her talk with Gabrielle. “What’s going on, Gabrielle?”

The bard neared the ruler and decided it was best to sit too. She remained somewhat ridged in the chair, which was a giveaway about her anxiety. “Several days ago Terreis came to my office to talk to me.” She hesitated and glanced at her friend, who was leaning back comfortably in her chair and carefully listening so she pressed forward. “She explained to me that she would only agree to the alliance with the realm under a certain condition.”

The Conqueror straightened up at this as she hadn’t heard anything of such. She prepared for it to be anything as her fast mind worked out the possibilities. “What was her stipulation?”

Gabrielle inwardly winced at the Conqueror using the same word that the Amazon Queen had used with her too. “Terreis asked me to become the Amazon Queen for the new capitol.”

The Conqueror held her breath as she repeated the bard’s words in her head. That possibility surely did not come to mind whatsoever and she was rather blind sided. She then realized a key factor to this since Queen Terreis accepted the alliance. “You took her offer.”

Gabrielle’s skin chilled by the Conqueror’s cut tone that she hadn’t heard is so long. “Yes, I accepted it. I plan to leave with the Amazons when they depart for the Nation.”

The ruler sarcastically laughed then shook her head as a dark smile broke her angry expression. “Well you’re not going, Gabrielle. You have your role as the advisor of state to uphold.”

“I am going to resign,” informed the bard.

“You misunderstood me.” The Conqueror climbed to her feet, laid her hands flat on the desk, and leaned towards the prone, small woman. “You… are… not… going,” dangerously ordered the ruler.

Gabrielle’s anger instantly retaliated and she was swiftly on her feet to meet the Conqueror’s furious glare. “I’m not a gods-be-demand prisoner here nor will I put up with such centaur shit.”

The Conqueror’s upper lip on the right side slightly lifted to show her clenched teeth. “You agreed to a term as my state advisor as your punishment for your rebel faction. If you can’t uphold that agreement then I’ll find another one that I can make you… uphold.”

Gabrielle’s mind flashed with the threat of the cross at how the ruler drew out her last word. She instantly reacted by coldly snapping, “With family like you, who the Hades needs enemies?” She quickly walked away from desk towards the door but she stopped and turned to the Conqueror again. “It’s comforting to know that you truly see my role as a punishment. I thought maybe it really was my job that you offered me… I was pretty stupid to think otherwise.” She held her hand out at the ruler. “Thank you for being that understanding friend… as if you really care.” She turned and walked the rest of the way to the door but the Conqueror’s voice made her stop.

The Conqueror was coldly cut by the bard’s honest words yet she wouldn’t show it. Her heartbeat was wild and almost frantic as if it was screaming at her but she shoved it all away. “Don’t you turn your back on me, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle did just that and grabbed the door’s handle. “Why?” She turned her head to the ruler. “I’m just returning the favor… my liege.”

“If you walk out that door,” menacingly threatened the ruler, “then keep going down that hallway. Don’t stop until you walk out the gates of this fortress.” The Conqueror waited for the bard to make her decision and every pulsing fiber in her wanted to grab Gabrielle, stop her and yet she forced her body to remain still. The only movement she made was her nails digging into her wood desk in hopes to still her raging and confusing emotions.

Gabrielle stared for longer than she knew at the strange woman that truly reverted back to the old ruler she stood against so long ago. She wondered if she’d fooled herself into thinking that the Conqueror had changed and yet this old ruler was back and attacking her again. She closed her eyes, pulled the door open, and made her legs carry her out. She silently closed the door and walked down the hallway in a complete daze. She didn’t think about the Conqueror, about her life, or even her future but she just became hollow on her journey out of the fortress. She passed the staring sentries that were blank faces to her. She went out of the gates without ever realizing that the Conqueror was by the window and watching her leave until she was a speck in the city. Gabrielle just followed her body’s habitual walk to her house.

Gabrielle was truly proud of herself that she made it all the way into her house before she broke apart. She just made it into the quiet house, closed the door, and leaned her back against the rough wood. She slid down it and her tears spilled because now everything felt so wrong in her. This change in her life had to be the right choice because for once she wanted to believe that she had a purpose in life.

The following moons passed by so swiftly for the bard. After her incident with the Conqueror, Cyrene first tried to convince her adopted daughter that the Conqueror would come around and to wait it out. Gabrielle refused to listen after what she’d heard from the Conqueror’s lips and she wanted to move on with her life. It wasn’t long before she left Corinth, packed, and with the Amazons to return to the Amazon Nation.

Queen Terreis announced the amazing alliance made with the realm. Gabrielle couldn’t recall much during these moons however she recalled the party that took place after Queen Terreis’s announcement. The celebration was gigantic and the Nation spared no wine for it. Gabrielle also recalled the pounding headache the next morning because of the wickedly strong wine she’d indulged for most the night.

It was only a moon after Gabrielle’s departure from Corinth that she found herself ascending a dais very slowly in the Amazon Nation. Queen Terreis smiled proudly and held a newly made queen’s mask that would be bestowed on the bard. Gabrielle though already wore a mask of hollow happiness when she received the beautiful mask from the queen. What was astonishing was the cheer from the Amazon Nation when Gabrielle accepted the mask and became the second queen of the Amazons since the days of Queen Melosa and Queen Cyane. Together with laced hands, Queen Terreis and Queen Gabrielle embraced the growing Amazon Nation and celebrated under Artemis’s watchful eye the future of the Amazons.

Then it wasn’t long after Solstice that Gabrielle found herself in a temporary hut in the Nation and writing a formal letter to the Conqueror. She put in the required request for the legion, phalanx, workers, tools, and money to aid her and her Amazons in the ruins of Athens. She wrote out a rough date of when her and her selected Amazons would arrive there to begin the rigorous work of building the Amazon capitol. Last, she signed her name with her royal title as an Amazon Queen and her signature bore the Amazon seal along side.

Just before the heliacal rising of the Sirius star, Queen Gabrielle and Queen Terreis heavily debated with the council about what to name the Amazon capitol that would be built. After the heated debate and a selection, Queen Gabrielle was rounding up her split of the Amazons that would make up her Nation and she marched her Nation south to the capitol of Artemisia.

It was a solid seven days before Queen Gabrielle and her Nation arrived just at the ridge of the mountains that embraced what was once Athens. She and her second in command, Ephiny, climbed what was known as Mount Lykavittos in former Athens.

Gabrielle scanned the rubble of the former glorious city and tried to imagine what rage the Conqueror felt when she leveled the great city. This was a stark reminder to the bard about the Conqueror’s dark side and it stared back at her in the setting sun.

Ephiny rested her hands on her hips and stared at the Acropolis hill that only bared the remains of what once were the temples to some famous goddesses such as Nike and Athena. She tilted her head at the crumbled pillars, jutting and broken walls, and then the disfigured yet weathered statues in the distance.

Gabrielle too was taking in the ruined Acropolis and she slightly turned to Ephiny. “The Sacred Rock will be the perfect place to erect a temple to Artemis.”

Ephiny brightened in realization and her imagination widely built the temple on the Sacred Rock. How glorious would it demonstrate as the center piece of Artemisia. “We can reconstruct the Temple of Artemis from Ephesus,” uttered the awestruck Amazon. “We still have the original design from the building of the temple.”

Gabrielle smiled at this thought. “I think that would be perfect.” She then went back to studying the ruined city.

Former Athens was nothing but half temple columns, cracked and burned homes, the theatres blown apart by siege weapons and then there were the walls or what was left of them.

“Where will we begin?” questioned the second in command, who stared at her new queen. She stole a silent moment to admire the Amazon Queen because she was beautiful garbed in her Amazon leathers that were a soft brown and golden, swirling pattern caught anybody’s eye. Her feather necklace made of bronze reflected the sunset’s rays and made her straightened blond hair glow. Gabrielle wore leather gauntlets and bracers that had matching designs to her leather top and skirt. Ephiny though tilted her head when Queen Gabrielle slowly leaned her head against the Amazon quarter staff in her left hand. The brightly colored feathers and straw of the Amazon mask on her head ruffled in protest.

“We’ll start in the north portion of the city,” softly spoke the bard, “and work south.” She inhaled and let out her breath slowly while already working out her plans. “We need to remove the rubble.” Gabrielle lifted her head off the staff that Ephiny had gifted her not too long ago when she took the new queen caste. The staff originally had a bird head on the top but under Ephiny’s recommendation she’d removed it as it was for decoration purposes. Gabrielle usually had a wool cloak on, which she would need soon but since she didn’t her Amazon sword at her left side was visible. She honestly couldn’t use the weapon since her staff was her choice however the sword was carried out of tradition.

“Perhaps we can reuse the rubble,” mentioned the Amazon. Ephiny felt her words were lost on the queen since Gabrielle didn’t reply and kept staring sadly at the ruins.

Gabrielle swallowed and uttered, “Maybe she can’t really change… it’s just a temporary thing until something sets her off.”

Ephiny grew solemn because she knew her friend had greatly struggled with the Conqueror and the friendship. At first Ephiny hadn’t heard the details about how the Conqueror and the bard parted ways but one emotional night the bard caved in and told Ephiny everything. That was one of Ephiny’s hardest nights yet she was grateful to be there beside her friend.

“It’s so sad to see this,” solemnly added the bard. “Athens was such a beautiful city and she… rolled across it like it was an ant hill.”

“And yet she’s giving us these lands, Gabrielle.”

“For her benefit,” reminded the queen.

“I don’t know,” murmured the second in command. Ephiny folded her arms against her chest and continued to make a point. “If she really wanted Athens rebuilt she would have done it herself and not trust her old enemies to do it.” She then glanced at her friend. “Plus if she really was back to her old self then she would have renagged on her offer to the Nation.” She shook her head then held out her hands at the dead city. “Yet here we are and we’re going to rebuild it with all her money, supplies, and men.”

Gabrielle really hadn’t considered that perspective and maybe she didn’t want to admit it. The old and ruthless Conqueror would have made the alliance null yet she hadn’t and stood beside it despite their ugly argument. “Am I being too hard on her?”

“I think the question is how do you perceive her, Gabrielle?” Ephiny shook her head and asked, “Do you accept that she’s changing? Can you accept that she’s changing?” She tilted her head when Gabrielle had that longing look. “Just maybe you’ve seen her as the Conqueror for all your life that trying to perceive her any other way is almost impossible for you.”

The Amazon Queen swallowed against her surging emotions and her stare floated off to the beautiful sunset. “I’ve dedicated my life to stop her and now….”

“Now there’s nothing to stop,” uttered the Amazon. “It would seem that she’s not the only one that requires changes.”

Gabrielle rested her head against the staff. Ephiny’s words slipped deep into her mind and would heavily be considered for many candlemarks and days. “Ephiny, I think this is a new beginning… and not just for the Nation.” She wouldn’t look at her friend as she spoke her last words. “The ashes of Athens will bring life to the Amazon Nation… to Artemisia.”

Ephiny lifted her eyes up to the heavens and mentally repeated the queen’s words in a prayer to Artemis.

Gabrielle straightened up and touched her friend’s forearm lightly. “Come on… we better get back.” When she arrived back at the camp her hundred fifty Amazons had hastily built this afternoon she was happy to see everybody settling down.

“Queen Gabrielle!” called a rushing voice.

The Amazon Queen and her second in command turned to the running Amazon, who was Solari. “What is it, Solari?”

Solari stopped beside her superiors and gulped a deep breath then finally answered, “The Conqueror’s phalanx is here… well the phalanx commander is here. He wishes to see you, my queen.”

Gabrielle nodded her agreement and signaled Solari to lead the way. She and Ephiny followed Solari through the camp and to the other side where there was a heavily armored and regal hoplite dismounting a warhorse. Gabrielle was certainly able to tell that the hoplite was the commander of the phalanx because of his steel chest that reflected the last rays of sun. He also wore steel greaves, a bronze helmet with cheekplates, and his xiphos sword sheathed to his left side. When his sandaled feet hit the dirty his red cape swooped up then settled around his body. “Queen Gabrielle?” As he approached the Amazon Queen he removed his helmet to reveal his striking features. He tucked his helmet under his left arm and extended his right.

Queen Gabrielle smiled warmly and held out her right arm to take the hoplite’s arm. “I am Queen Gabrielle.” She briefly observed the two other hoplites dismounting horses along with another man that seemed to be a civilian.

“I am the hègemoon of Phalanx V from Thebes.” The hègemoon clapped his fisted hand across his chest, bowed, and lifted his head again then declared, “Commander Nikolai at your service, Queen Gabrielle.”

Queen Gabrielle had a warm smile then held out her hand to Ephiny. “This is my second in command Ephiny, commander.”

The hègemoon instantly took the second in command’s arm for a powerful grip.

“And this is my weapons master, Solari.” Gabrielle directed to the proud Amazon to her left side.

Again the hègemoon repeated his arm clasp but with the weapons master. He then stepped back and waved the civilian man forward to stand beside him. “I would like for you to meet Eupalinos of Megara, Queen Gabrielle.”

Eupalinos stepped forward with his sandals scrapping the dirt underneath. He took the bard’s small hand into a proper handshake. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Queen Gabrielle.” He released her hand then stepped back next to Commander Nikolai. “Your legend proceeds you.”

The Amazon Queen was perplexed because she swore she’d heard the man’s name somewhere but she couldn’t place it yet. Instead she introduced Ephiny and Solari to Eupalinos then hoped the man would explain why he was here.

Eupalinos adjusted his wool cloak then informed, “I was hired by the Conqueror to help design the new capitol of the Amazon Nation.” He formal put his hands behind his back. “I am a highly regarded engineer from Megara. I engineered the Corinth Canal.”

Queen Gabrielle’s eyes widened as she realized why his name was so familiar. “I apologize,” she swiftly started, “I recognized your name however I wasn’t sure where I had heard it.”

Eupalinos dipped his head in understanding. “I am a legend in my own sector as you are in yours, Queen Gabrielle.” He then tilted his head. “An architect will be joining us as well… his name is Polykleitos. Perhaps you know him, Queen Gabrielle as he once was a famous sculptor?”

The Amazon Queen had furrowed eyebrows then she softly questioned, “Polykleitos the Younger?” At the engineer’s simple nod, her expression became somewhat dazzled because she knew Polykleitos had also designed the Tholos theatre in Epidauros many moons back before the Destroyer of Nations. “Um….” She tried to shake away her astonishment about receiving a highly regarded engineer and architect. “When is he due here?”

“Any day now,” answered the phalanx commander.

Eupalinos nodded his agreement then focused back on the Amazon Queen. “When he arrives it would be best to begin the plans for your capitol.”

“Of course,” agreed the bard.

“Also,” continued the engineer, “Commander Nikolai, his phalanx, and I have already begun construction of an aqueduct from Lake Vouliagmeni, which is only a quarter of a candlemark ride from here. The Conqueror recommended and authorized that the lake should be used to supply the capitol of its fresh water supply.” The engineer slowly grinned then proclaimed, “The Conqueror is not an engineer however she is very worthy of being one. I expect the aqueduct to reach here in about a moon.” He paused to take a breath then proclaimed, “We will also be able to incorporate the aqueduct into a sewer system for the capitol.”

Gabrielle exhaled in an amazed breath as she stared at the engineer. “Well… I would say that is a start.”

The engineer’s grin grew and how dipped his head. “I apologize.” He then straightened up again. “My life is guided by the Conqueror’s dreams however my passion is engineering.”

The Amazon Queen quickly concluded that Eupalinos had spent much time with the Conqueror. She could only guess what his relations were like with the Conqueror but obviously they were on excellent terms as the engineer thought highly of her. It wasn’t much longer until she said goodbye to the phalanx commander and the engineer.

Within a few days after arriving at the capitol, she heard word that Legio VII from the Macedonia providence was marching south to former Athens. Gabrielle learned that Legio VII was bringing down supplies of hydraulic cement leftover from making the walls around Amphipolis. She couldn’t imagine it being much however she discovered just how much when the Roman legion arrived.

Queen Gabrielle, Ephiny, Solari, Eupalinos, Polykleitos, and the commanders from the phalanx and legion worked out plans for the first steps to cleaning up the city. Polykleitos and the engineer encouraged that they could recycle much of the leftover stones and materials from the city. What Eupalinos believed would take more time would be running the aqueduct and sewer system through Artemisia then dumping it into the Sardonic Gulf. The phalanx, legion, and Amazons worked hard to remove the rubble from the north end of the city and worked back to the gulf.

In the meantime, the Amazons also setup a temporary village just north of the city over the mountainous ridge that they trekked down each day and up each evening. The phalanx and legion also made temporary camps known as castra stativa where they would reside for the twelve moons. The castra stativa held barracks, a few public buildings, and a small stone wall.

By the early spring, Queen Gabrielle was excited to learn that within a moon to two moons they would be able to move into Artemisia at the north side. The first villas had been constructed and were hooked up to the aqueducts but not yet to the sewer system. The sewer system had been run through most of the city and was growing closer to the gulf. Despite the continuous work, Gabrielle often found her thoughts wandering off to the Conqueror. The only time her mind was at peace was when she was practicing her quarter staff with either Ephiny or Solari. Her practices were releases of frustrations as much as her thoughts because all her senses, her body, and her focus were centered on her opponent. Ephiny grew proud of her best friend’s ability to learn the quarter staff so quickly.

When the queen was allowed some free time she usually spent it scribing and remembering the one part of her that’d never changed in her life. She kept up on messages to several important people in her life namely Cyrene and Melpomene then Queen Terreis. Gabrielle’s sleep remained fairly restless though because of hydra thoughts that would make her toss and turn. She couldn’t recall feeling this lonely yet she was surrounded constantly by friends and her Nation.

Then around the Spring Equinox, Ephiny caught up with the queen as they were climbing up the path that wrapped up the mountain to the village above. She could tell the queen was rather weary today and most likely not so much from the physical labor today but more from lack of sleep. She noted that the Amazons following behind or ahead were far enough yet she came closer. “We covered a lot today.”

Gabrielle faintly smiled and nodded. “It won’t be long before we can move into the city.” She paused briefly and gazed over Artemisia, which was barren of the wreckage from the Conqueror’s siege. The city’s western edge harbored several piles of stone, cement, wood, and mix of metals that would be recycled in the construction of the new city. The soils were exposed and from a distant view one could see veins of disturbed soil running through the cleared lands, which were the underground aqueducts and sewer system. Down by the gulf, where the port once had been, there was much more heavy construction going on for the last piece of the sewage dumping into the gulf, which would wash it away into the sea.

“Just under a moon,” softly agreed Ephiny. “We’ve worked so hard.” She saw the queen’s worn smile so she stepped closer and touched her midback. She and Gabrielle continued climbing the worn path up the ridge. “We will have to celebrate when we move.”

Gabrielle laughed and shook her head, which caused her tired face to be broken by amusement. “I thought we were going to celebrate when the sewage system is dumping into the gulf…?”

“That too,” agreed the Amazon.

The bard smirked and thoroughly teased, “Any excuse for a party, Eph.”

“Now, Queen Gabby we do have traditions to keep up.” Ephiny smirked at that dangerous glint in her friend’s eyes because of the nickname. “All work and no play makes for a featherless Amazon.”

The queen thoroughly laughed and shook her head. She slowly lost her grin then gently asked, “How are you and Solari doing?”

Ephiny smiled at her friend’s caring question. “We’re really well.” She put her hands behind her back as she strolled up the incline. “You haven’t found anybody yet huh?”

Gabrielle shrugged then tugged her cloak against her body for warmth. “No, Ephiny… you know me.” She peered up into concern amber eyes. “I just….” She shook her head then mentioned, “For most my life I always thought I’d marry my friend, Perdicus.” She frowned as her thoughts darkened. “I still can’t believe he’s gone.”

“I’m sorry.” Ephiny touched her friend’s back and rubbed it for a few beats. “You loved him a lot huh?”

Gabrielle shrugged and replied, “It wasn’t so much about love… honestly. I was betrothed to him when I was a child but when Potidaea was attacked that just changed everything.” She came around the bend then started the next incline slope. “I guess because I spent most my childhood envisioning my life with him… I never thought about anybody else. He would have made a wonderful husband unlike most men.”

“I didn’t really get a chance to meet him,” sadly admitted the Amazon.

“He was a gentle soul,” softly admitted Gabrielle, “but I think the time in the Conqueror’s army hardened him.”

“The Conqueror has hardened many people,” reminded the Amazon, “in many ways.”

“Yes.” The queen inhaled then slowly let the air trickle out with her chest falling.

“Have you spoken with her?” tried the second in command.

Gabrielle’s head dipped after she shook it. “I send her messages to keep her updated on the city’s production but… nothing personal.”

“Does she respond?”

The Amazon Queen peered up to Ephiny.

Ephiny quickly figured out the response by Gabrielle’s passive features and emotional eyes.

“No.” Gabrielle turned her head away.

Ephiny remained silent for awhile as she watched her friend’s profile. She’d come to admire Gabrielle for her strength and persistence in life then there were Gabrielle’s beliefs like not taking a life, which she greatly admired. She understood now why Gabrielle had chosen the staff over the sword and despite it was a tightrope act Gabrielle seemed to balance well on it. “Have you tried writing a personal message to her?”

“I’ve tried a hundred times… and in a hundred different ways,” uttered the bard, “but I just keep throwing my scrolls into the fireplace.” She unknowingly walked closer to her friend. “I never know what to say… or where to start. I don’t feel like I did anything wrong and she should answer to me.” She stopped, shook her head, and murmured, “Then other times I feel that I betrayed her by walking out of her life like that.” She studied Ephiny’s features and emotionally asked, “How can I be of any help to her, Ephiny? She and I were enemies so that doesn’t make any of it easy. All I’ve ever known was this ruthless, heartless woman and isn’t that how I’m always going to see her?”

“Sometimes, Gabrielle your best friend was once your worst enemy.” Ephiny came around the last bend and they were at the top. She glanced off to her right where the village was only several paces away. “I think maybe you’re not moving forward because you’ve been too focused on her… on her evil image. You just need to let that go now then you’ll find your answers.”

“Do you think I betrayed her?” Gabrielle’s head was hung down but she knew where she was walking, towards the village.

“I think you betrayed each other,” admitted the second in command. “I don’t think you’ll have this resolved ever until you talk to her… face to face. You both have your paths to follow.” Ephiny tilted her head so she could gaze at Gabrielle better. “Whether those paths are intertwined I couldn’t tell you… I’m not one of the Fates but I think you two will be seeing a lot of each other. Mind you, you’re sharing the same mother and brother now plus there are the politics.”

“Just whether or not we’ll keep our friendship,” muttered the bard. She shook her head and softly admitted, “I know what she said to me that day and now I wonder if maybe she said those things for another reason.”

Ephiny shrugged and offered, “Maybe she didn’t want you to leave and her old habits of handling such a situation took over. The Conqueror isn’t exactly the most emotional forthcoming person in the realm.”

Gabrielle laughed yet she knew it was very true. She settled down then lifted her head up when she saw the dining hut up ahead. “I guess she’s the only one that really knows that truth. I do wonder the same thing though. Cyrene I think was trying to explain that to me but I just… I couldn’t listen to it. I was too worried believing that the Conqueror was still the Destroyer of Nations.” She huffed and muttered, “And they say I’m so forgiving and understanding.”

“You are,” argued Ephiny, “but you’re not perfect, my queen.” She touched Gabrielle’s shoulder, smiled, and strolled into the hut first.

Gabrielle paused in front of the open door, watching Ephiny’s back recede, and she sighed rather contently. “I guess I have plenty to still learn too,” she murmured to nobody but herself. She then followed suit into the dining hut because her appetite made itself apparent.

Queen Gabrielle remained in the dining hut for about a candlemark until she found herself saying goodnight to Ephiny, Solari, and Karis. She then strolled across the small village that was lit by torches tonight. She entered her dark hut except one candle was lit at her desk thanks to somebody stopping in to do that for her. She stopped after closing the hut’s door and she worked her cloak off then hung it on the peg board to her left. As she ambled over to her desk, she lifted her sheathed sword from her back by lifting the strap across her chest. She set her sword down on the far left side of her desk and sat in her pulled out chair.

The bard glanced once at her staff that was propped up against the wall next to her desk yet her eyes switched to staring at the open scroll on her desk. It was a personal scroll to the Conqueror about her thoughts and feelings from the fight so many moons ago. She questioned whether the ruler would even clearly recall the heated fight or not.

Gabrielle lifted her hand and her fingertips grazed over her handwriting that was etched into the parchment. She felt the Conqueror’s title at the start of the scroll then her fingertips followed several sentences but she stopped. Gabrielle propped her right elbow onto the desk and leaned the side of her head against her open palm. “Gods,” she muttered. She shook her head and her eyes stung. She often hurt whenever she thought about the Conqueror and the recent memories they’d made together after they’d returned from the trial. She never realized just how much she gave up in Corinth until she made it to the Amazons. Her life tasted to sickening sweet because the Amazons provided her with meaning yet inside she felt so empty. How could this have happened?

Gabrielle closed her eyes against her dark emotions. Her lower lip quivered and her eyes stung harder however she refused to cry for the countless time again. Just for one night couldn’t she have a peaceful night? She bit her lower lip then horsy murmured, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.” She clenched her free hand into a tight ball but it remained in her lap. Then her memories with the Conqueror grew thicker and she heard the ruler’s deep yet drawing voice speak to her again.

“I’ve been saying the same thing.”

The bard’s moist eyes gradually drew open then focused and from the corner of her left eye she saw a dark outline in the shadows of her hut. She instantly realized she really heard a voice in her hut so she abruptly shot up from her desk and faced the shadowy figure in the corner. Her eyebrows drew together tightly as her heart pounded wildly against her chest; her breathing heavy. “Conqueror?” Gabrielle’s lips parted and her eyes grew more amazed over confused when the shadowy form stepped into the ring of the candlelight from the desk.

The cloaked silhouette shaped into a tall woman, who when she pulled her hood back her raven hair washed over her shoulders and her piercing ice eyes flickered the candlelight. “Hello, Gabrielle.”

“Oh… my gods,” uttered the shocked bard. She slightly trembled between being awestruck, shocked, and purely happy at seeing her friend. “How did you… when did youuu… why are….” She couldn’t finish a single question and her right hand touched her forehead as if checking for reality.

“Through the hut’s front door. About half a candlemark ago.” The Conqueror tilted her head and then quietly added, “And because I needed to see you.”

Gabrielle’s hand fell to her side then she took a hesitant step forward, her left hand now rested on the back of the desk chair. She took a deep calming breath while still gaping at the ruler as if she were a dream. Then Gabrielle’s marvel wore off and she didn’t care anymore about titles, pasts, and fights. She hastily crossed the short distance then threw her arms around the ruler for an emotional hug.

The Conqueror now exchanged shocked features because she didn’t expect such a warm welcome from her friend. She hesitated for a few beats then slowly her arms came up around the small woman and she drew Gabrielle in closer to her body. This was the first time she and Gabrielle had ever hugged and she secretly admitted it was beautiful to her.

Gabrielle soaked in the feeling of the Conqueror’s strong presences against hers. Then the protective arms around her upper and lower back that held her solidly. She hadn’t cared originally if the Conqueror had intended to refuse the hug but she was relieved that it was returned in full strength of need. Gabrielle closed her eyes then rested the side of her right head against the broad chest before her. Her emotions choked her throat up as she rasped, “I really missed you.” Gabrielle didn’t receive a verbal return of the sentiment yet instead she received a physical one from the ruler.

The Conqueror lifted her right arm and wrapped across the bard’s shoulders. Then her left arm tightened to completely mold their bodies. Finally she lowered her head until her face just touched the soft blond hair below her.

Gabrielle remained unmoving from her position for a long time. She memorized the entire embrace to her memory. How the ruler’s body felt against hers and the way the bronze armor that she’d barely seen earlier was now warming between them. Her right temple rested on top of the Gaelic necklace and she smiled from the old memories that charm brought to mind. And Gabrielle was surrounded by the intense smell of sandalwood and leather that made it feel so real. Yet what made Gabrielle feel alive was the constant heartbeat under her right ear that she’d never forgotten since first hearing it.

Very slowly, Gabrielle first drew from the long embraced and lifted her head however she didn’t move out of the ruler’s arms.

The Conqueror still had her head dipped down and she carefully studied the bard’s face.

Gabrielle’s eyes were intent and she waited for something that she could tell the Conqueror wanted to say. She kept her hands resting on the ruler’s hips, which she gave a reassuring squeeze. Then she saw the Conqueror’s ruler mask slowly crumble and those icy eyes were a crisp blue.

“I’m sorry, Gabrielle,” whispered Xena; her features reflecting her turmoil.

Gabrielle’s tears from tonight broke free but for an entirely different reason. “I’m sorry too, Xena… I really made a mess of everything.”

Xena sighed and shook her head as she freed a hand from Gabrielle’s back. She carefully wiped her friend’s tears away while softly speaking. “We both did, I think and I want to fix it.” She stole away the last tear then urged, “I need to fix this.”

Gabrielle smiled through her tears and took her friend’s hand into hers. “We will,” she promised, “Together. That’s what friends do.”

Xena squeezed the small hand in hers as she mirrored the smile back. Her stomach unknotted after several days from when it first started, when she first left Corinth in pursuit of the bard.

“Did you ride here?” asked the Amazon Queen.

The Conqueror answered by nodding.

“Where’s your horse?”

“I left Argo tried to a tree just outside the village. I need to get my gear off her.”

Gabrielle had a lopsided grin and teased, “Is she as big as the ship Argo?”

Xena playfully glowered then gruffly replied, “Just as fast too.”

Gabrielle chuckled then seriously spoke again. “We better get her and stable her up.” She urged her body to move out of the embrace, which was hard to do but she eventually made it over to the door. She grabbed her heavy cloak, swung it on, and waited for her friend to come over. “Have you eaten?”

Xena inwardly grinned at the bard’s endless care for her. “Yes at sunset I stopped for dinner.” She didn’t mention though that she could barely eat or keep it down from being so nervous at the thought of seeing the bard tonight. She followed Gabrielle out of the hut and into the torch lit village where there were only a few Amazons moving.

The Amazon Queen strolled closely to the ruler as if she feared her vanishing already. “I can’t believe you’re here.”

“It was a long ride,” admitted the ruler, “but worth it.”

Gabrielle smiled up at her friend. She then considered where she would put the ruler for the nigh then it struck her blindly. “Oooh Hades… we don’t have any guest huts built.” She sheepishly peered up at the ruler. “Um… are you comfortable with staying in my hut? I mean if you’re not, I can always find another Amazon that doesn’t mind having me over. Or I could-”

“Gabrielle,” cut in Xena, “I’ll be fine staying with you.”

“Uhhh… well we’ll have to stay in the same bed,” rambled on the bard. “It’s a big bed though… even for us both.” She saw that arched eyebrow look coming from her friend so she flushed red hot. The old reference to big beds just didn’t help her at all.

“Yes,” agreed Xena, “I realize this.” She quietly chuckled at the queen’s increased flush. For a young woman, who stood against a ruthless tyrant now turned Amazon Queen, Gabrielle could be easily flustered under the right circumstances. She then threw her right arm across the bard’s shoulders quite playfully. “You don’t mind, do you?”

Gabrielle swallowed and smiled up at her friend. “Nope… plenty of room to spare.”

“You’re such an accommodating host, Queen Gabrielle,” toyed the ruler, who had a sly grin.

Gabrielle shook her slumped head as her blush stayed rather fixed. She was guided out of the village and into the nearby woods where she spotted a large palomino not too far ahead. “You ride… that tall thing?” She then glanced up and down the ruler’s lengthy as she made a decision. “Then again….” She shrugged.

The Conqueror chuckled yet she came up to her horse. She untied the reins, patted Argo’s side, and led her back to the village. “I promised an apple when we got here, didn’t I?”

Gabrielle walked along side but she had a perplexed look as she listened.

Argo whined and threw up her head.

The ruler smiled and promised, “As soon as I get you untucked, girl.”

Gabrielle opened her mouth, closed it, and opened it again then at last she was able to ask, “Do you always talk to Argo this much?”

The Conqueror darkly glanced at her friend yet her twitching grin at the corner of her lips gave her away. “She listens well.”

“Hmmm.” Queen Gabrielle’s lips puckered and then she tried another poke. “So if I… just keep my mouth shut then you’ll talk to me a lot too?”

“Theoretical speaking yes,” agreed Xena, “however that’s impossible for you to do, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle stopped, put her hands on her hips and watched the ruler take a few more paces away. When her friend slightly turned to her, she saw that smug expression on Xena’s face. “I have you know I’m an excellent listener.”

Xena shrugged. “I didn’t argue that… I just agreed you couldn’t keep your mouth shut.” She smirked then continued walking while directing her next words to somebody else. “So girl, you want honey with those apples?”

Queen Gabrielle’s jaw dropped and she was quite offended. She hastily marched up to her friend’s side. “I think you came down here just to torment me, Xena.”

“Possibly.” The Conqueror’s expression was teasing and her eyes soft. “It does make me feel better though.”

Gabrielle was inwardly surprised by the off handish admission to the ruler’s feelings. Although Gabrielle thoroughly agreed because she felt calmer but she knew they had plenty to discuss later when it was time. “I’m glad you came down.”

The Conqueror faintly smiled as she whispered, “Me too.” She and Gabrielle steered into the small stables where she untacked her mare. She decided to brush Argo down tomorrow as she knew Argo’s top priority was that apple then she put out some feed with water. After she hefted her saddlebags onto her right shoulder, she followed her small friend out of the stables and back to the hut. “How has the construction gone? From what I’ve been hearing it sounds like you’re moving fast.”

“Thanks to your legion and phalanx,” admitted the bard.

“Hmmm.” Xena shifted her saddlebags some then remarked, “For once they’re building a city instead of destroying one.”

Gabrielle peered up and knew that her friend was being sarcastic. “They seem to be enjoying the work… I don’t know why though.”

“Its good physical labor for them that doesn’t involve risking their life and they still get paid.” The Conqueror shrugged. “What’s there not to like?”

“Hmmm… never considered that angle.” Gabrielle pushed open the door and let Xena through before closing it up tight. “I need to get the matt over the window and the fireplace started.” She slightly shivered from the thought of sleeping in a cold bed tonight.

“I’ll get the fireplace,” offered the ruler, “you take care of the windows and the candles.”

“Deal.” Gabrielle went to work while her friend took care of getting the fire going to warm the hut. It wasn’t long before she found the chill down her back gone and she could take her cloak off.

The Conqueror mimicked the bard by taking her black cloak off and tossing it on top of her saddlebags by the fireplace. She crouched down beside the fireplace and let the growing flames warm her up. Her curious gaze though went over to the bard, who stood beside her desk.

Gabrielle was rolling up the scroll on her desk but staring at her Amazon sword.

Xena memorized her friend’s newly shaped body that basked gold in the firelight. The fire’s light flickered across Gabrielle’s body and revealed her toning muscles over her stomach, arms, and her legs seemed to be solid muscle. Xena was amazed as she never envisioned the former rebel leader being anything other than a bard only outfitted with words. This was certainly a different woman before her and Xena enjoyed how the Amazon leathers accented the Amazon Queen’s shaping body. Xena was abruptly shaken when she realized she’d been staring heatedly at her friend’s attractive body. “So you carry a sword now?”

Gabrielle set her scroll down then pulled away from staring at the said sword. “Yes but I really don’t use it.” She sidestepped her desk, grabbed her Amazon staff gifted by Ephiny, and came over to the ruler. “I use the quarter staff actually.”

The Conqueror climbed up to her feet and held out her hand in request for the weapon. When the wood entered her palm, she hoisted it some and felt the weight that would most certainly fit to Gabrielle. She held it by both hands at either end and gave it a hard bend so that the middle bowed out yet resisted from snapping. “It’s a good staff for you.” She returned it to her friend.

“I’ve been practicing since I received my right of caste as queen.” Gabrielle tapped the staff on the floor but walked over to the wall it claimed as home when it wasn’t in its owner’s hands.

Xena did a hasty calculation and figured that Gabrielle most likely had developed some skills then. She made note to ask for a challenge tomorrow or so. “How do you enjoy being an Amazon Queen?” She knelt back down in front of the fire.

The Amazon Queen didn’t answer right away but she came next to her friend and knelt down too. She stared into the fire for awhile then honestly replied, “I really enjoy it.”

Xena could feel the hesitation in the words so she studied her friend’s profile.

Slowly Gabrielle met her friend’s gaze. “I just… I don’t know how to explain it other than I feel really empty. It brings a lot of satisfaction and meaning into my life but it just doesn’t stop this loneliness.” She turned away and bit the inside of her mouth.

The ruler of the realm stretched out her hand and touched the bard’s hand that rested on the small knee. “I know… I really know, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle swallowed and stopped nibbling on her lower lip. “Yeah… I guess you do huh?” She turned her hand up and squeezed the larger one. She was silent then eventually asked, “How about some tea?”

“You read my mind,” murmured the ruler.

Gabrielle chuckled and released her friend’s hand. She got to her feet and wondered into the washroom while rambling on about some things. “Normally I’d take a bath around now but it’s so much hassle to get the water in here and out of here. Plus by this time I’m usually exhausted from all the hard work down in the city.”

Xena chuckled at her friend’s chatter and not just because of the topic but at the fact she knew she’d missed it. “So you take one in the morning huh?”

“Pretty much,” agreed the bard. Gabrielle materialized out of the washroom with a kettle that had few droplets rolling down its side. She set it near the fireplace and let it hang by the small metal hook. “I only have some… well blah tea,” she sadly admitted.

The Conqueror climbed to her feet and her bronze armor grew golden thanks to the fire. “I brought some of mine… if you’d like that instead.”

The bard narrowed her eyes then questioned, “The Chin tea?”

“What else would I bring?” challenged the ruler.

Gabrielle laughed and asked, “What ones?”

“There was only one to bring,” remarked Xena, who went to her saddlebags and weeded through her belongings. She came up with a small leather pouch of tea and held it open to her friend.

The bard squealed and declared, “My favorite… I missed this so much!” She plucked the pouch up and dashed into the washroom where she kept her clean mugs.

“I’ll take that as a thank you,” muttered the ruler, who chuckled and sat on the floor. Her left leg went flat on the floor while she propped up her right leg and leaned against it for support. “Don’t tell me you forgot how much to put in there?”

“After that lecture you gave me,” chided the bard from the washroom. She came back out with two mugs full of Chin green tea leaves and the small pouch. She set the mugs beside the tall woman then quickly stashed the tea pouch into the side of the saddlebag. Gabrielle crossed over to her dresser that was near her bed and she pulled out the bottom drawer. She soon came back with a fur in her hands and she unrolled it by the fire.

The Conqueror heard the sounding kettle so she stood up with the mugs.

Gabrielle grabbed for the kettle’s wood handle and smiled at seeing Xena already up on her feet with the mugs. She poured the hot water for them then placed the kettle back on the floor near the fireplace.

Xena handed her friend a mug then together they sat on the fur and slowly enjoyed the Chin tea.

Gabrielle smiled happily as the green tea she’d missed filled her senses again. She absolutely loved this tea. She then turned her smile to her friend and mentioned, “You look good in that.” Her eyes swept over the ruler’s armor and leathers.

The Conqueror peered down at the attire in comment then grinned at the bard. “I thought a new look would be good.”

“Its kind of the same… design as M’Lila’s necklace.” Gabrielle grew quite puzzled. “I just realized that.”

“Mmmm.” Xena finished sipping her tea then mentioned, “That’s because it is.” She knew Gabrielle would want more details so she explained, “M’Lila wore this top that had this exact design as my armor. I had the armor specially made a long time ago.”

“I’ve never seen it… well since Melinda wore it that night in Corinth.” The Amazon Queen shook her head while shifting around on the fur more comfortably. “It really gives you a different feel, I think than what you usually wear.”

“Oh?” Xena further prompted her friend by arching an eyebrow.

“Yeah.” Gabrielle nodded then waved her left hand between them. “A good feel. You have less of a… ruler thing going on.” She watched that dark eyebrow’s curve deepen and Xena’s blue eyes glow. “Come on, you have to agree. You have no cape and your armor is bronze plus you’re not flashy with all this gold.”

The ruler snorted but went silent by drinking her tea. “I guess I’ll have to show you my hoplite uniform one day.”

Gabrielle laughed then slowly revealed a grin. “Hoplite uniform huh? Do you always play dress up?”

Xena’s eyes slotted and she gave a dark warning. “You know the stories already from mother.”

The bard bit the inside of her mouth because she just recalled those stories about Xena and Lyceus. She’d heard often how those two would dress up as soldiers and run around with wood swords. They would play hoplite against Roman or hoplite against Persian then at times Xena would pretend to be an Amazon Queen while Lyceus was a Greek king. Those were the stories Gabrielle adored about her friend and she believed them too where as before she’d wondered if they were just stories. “So do you have a Roman legion outfit too?”

“Ha. Ha.” Xena ignored her friend by drinking her tea. “You wouldn’t catch me dead in a Roman legion uniform… I’m not pig material.”

“And yet you have how many Roman legions?” argued the bard.

The Conqueror sipped her tea as the number forty-seven passed through her thoughts.

“Isn’t it almost fifty now?” Gabrielle heard no disagreement so she knew she was on target. “Plus all the phalanx units then the cavalry… ooo the naval league too.”

“Is there a point to this?”

Gabrielle stopped now then grinned at the annoyed ruler. “I’m just… noticing how many ways you could… dress up.”

The Conqueror rolled her eyes then muttered, “I’m so glad I came down.” While she sipped on her tea Gabrielle bumped their shoulders together. When she lowered the mug, she saw that soft smile on Gabrielle’s face and that settled her down.

“So….” Gabrielle faltered at her next words yet she mentally took a step forward for this pending conversation. She would have to ease into it carefully. “Mom in her last letter mentioned you’re on your seventh advisor of state now.” She played with her half full mug. “That’s almost an advisor per moon.”

“Mmm,” simply agreed the ruler.

The bard second guessed herself about treading this topic but she would try because it was needed for them both. “What’s the problem with them?”

“They’re idiots,” clipped the ruler.

Gabrielle cleared her throat quietly then scratched her nose to buy another few heartbeats. “Any… reason why?” She drank her warm tea then set it down on the floor. “I mean they must be doing something wrong to set you off.”

Xena sighed and her head slightly lowered. “All of them so far have tried to press for your proposal to become null.” She shrugged. “So I fire them.”

The bard opened her mouth yet nothing was forthcoming. She slowly closed her mouth when the blue gaze came at her.

“Your family name proposal I approved a moon after you left,” mentioned the ruler. “I plan to make it law in the polis near the Summer Solstice.”

Gabrielle remained silent. She didn’t believe it because she was convinced after the argument that the ruler would destroy any shape of Gabrielle’s work. She couldn’t understand why she felt that way about the situation yet here she was proved completely wrong. “Wow.” She shook her head then stared into her mug.

“Do you really thing I’m that petty?”

The bard lifted her head to answer the question. She tasted no malice in the ruler’s words and she knew Xena was truly asking her. “I guess some part of me did,” she honestly replied. She saw the hurt deep in Xena’s eyes and she spoke what she felt too. “Thank you for proving me wrong.”

The Conqueror could only nod as she gracefully accepted that because she had little room to be angry. After as much as she’d done to Gabrielle, she knew it would still take time to earn the bard’s complete trust.

“You really came here to see me?” urged the bard, who really needed to hear that.

Xena finished off her tea first then set the mug aside. “Yes.” She leaned back on her hands then further mentioned, “I had excuses incase you wouldn’t accept the reason.”

That perked the bard’s curiosity so she hastily finished off her tea and as she put the mug aside she asked, “What were the excuses?”

The ruler shrugged then casually went down the list in mind. “That I wanted to see Artemisia, check on the legion and phalanx, and ask you about going to Egypt with me.”

“Oh.” Gabrielle’s head bobbed but she stopped and turned her head to the ruler. “Going to Egypt? What?”

Xena chuckled at grabbing the bard’s attention. She slyly grinned when her friend demanded her to tell her more. She remained casually while she explained, “I have to go to Egypt for some foreign affairs.” She shrugged then mentioned, “I thought maybe you haven’t been there and you may want to meet Cleopatra.”

The Amazon Queen gaped as her imagination tried to take her to Egypt however she had no idea what the magical lands were like. She’d always admired the Egyptian culture from what she’d heard and wanted to visit the lands but never seen it possible. “You’re… joking right?” When Xena gave her that arched eyebrow she knew better. “I just… wow. I….”

“It would be an excellent opportunity to establish relations with Egypt,” mentioned the ruler. “For trade when Artemisia’s port is developed.”

Queen Gabrielle tilted her head to show her consideration of the idea. “You think Cleopatra would really set up a trade agreement with the Amazon Nation?”

The Conqueror gradually felt a sly grin shape her lips. “I can guarantee it, Gabrielle.”

“Huh.” Gabrielle rested her hands on her knees since her legs were crossed. “I’m not sure I could leave Artemisia though. There’s just so much work that has to be done and it wouldn’t look right if the queen just shuffles off to the Egypt.”

“For important foreign relations,” reminded the ruler. “Besides I’m sure Ephiny could handle things perfectly fine.”

The bard’s lips were puckered and her eyes glossy from thoughts. She drummed her fingertips on her kneecap then stopped and decided, “I’ll think about it.”

Xena bit back her grin because she knew she pretty much won the bard over. “You do that.” She uncrossed her legs and stretched them out, which made the soles of her boots pretty close to the fireplace. “We need to talk about what happened, Gabrielle.”

The bard bit the side of her mouth but she knew her friend was right. She was surprised to hear Xena’s persistence to go to the topic so she questioned herself about how hard she’d been on the ruler. “We do,” she softly agreed.

The Conqueror quickly sat up straight and drew her legs back into her body. She slightly turned her body towards the smaller woman. “I was wrong to threaten you like I did, Gabrielle and you were right to walk out like that. You were right about everything you said that day.”

Gabrielle’s head drooped down because she’d never felt right about it. It made sense logically to her but it just never felt right to do it. “I just snapped when you said that you’d find a different agreement that I could uphold.” She saw the ruler’s flinch however she kept talking. “All I saw was that damn cross. I thought we were pass that point.”

“We are pass that point,” argued the ruler. She read the doubt in Gabrielle so she pressed forward. “I’m not going back to that place, Gabrielle but it doesn’t mean I won’t have my moments.”

“What if one of those moments costs me heavily?”

Xena grimaced at the honest question. She didn’t react angrily at the question because she wondered the same too.

Gabrielle studied her friend’s revealing eyes and she whispered, “I recognize the fact now that inside of you that dark side still lurks. I accept that you’ll always have a dark side about you and that at times you may even need it too. What I don’t know that I can accept is that it won’t turn on me… again.”

“No,” hotly whispered Xena. She pulled the bard’s hands into hers then clutched them tightly. “You’re right about my dark side. I will never lose it and at times it may be of use to me. What you don’t realize is how you affect me.”

“Xena,” murmured the bard, “I can’t be paranoid like this. I can’t wonder what I may say or do will set you off. That’s not how it should be.” Gabrielle freed a hand and pressed her palm against the ruler’s cheek. “I really like this woman you’ve become but I have the ability to provoke the wrong things from you. Call it old history between us but maybe we’re olive oil and water.”

Xena grabbed the bard’s hand from her cheek and laced their fingers together. “No you listen to me for once, Gabrielle. The day you walked out of my office I wanted more than anything to tell you to stay because I needed you by my side. I couldn’t say those words because I didn’t know how so I reacted the only way I knew how to and for that I am sorry. It’s taken me these four… five long moons to realize what’d happened because I thought too maybe I could never be anybody else but this monster. I made a promise… I won’t break it.”

Gabrielle had listened to each word carefully and understood what her friend was saying to her now. Never had she expected such a speech from the ruler but it made sense to her when she replayed that fight in her head. Her features tightened up from constricted emotions on the surface.

“Gabrielle, you’re the only person that saw the good in me… don’t tell me you don’t see it anymore?” Xena’s voice quaked and her need for any answer showed clearly.

And Gabrielle knew she’d almost betrayed her friend that day. Maybe she had done the right thing otherwise Xena may have never considered her reaction to the fight. Gabrielle’s long guilt these past moons finally released from her as she started to cry. “I was scared I lost you that day.” She shook her head then she hoarsely whispered, “I’ll never stop believing in you, Xena.”

Xena quickly pulled the small woman into her and held her in a long hug as the emotions swept through them both. She held onto Gabrielle while that emptiness that Gabrielle had spoken about earlier slowly faded away from the gut of her stomach and the recesses of her mind. She’d grown accustom to that feeling much her life and she didn’t know it could be rid of until Gabrielle had gradually and unknowingly made it disappear. It’d only recently returned when Gabrielle walked out of her life back on that day.

Gabrielle emotions ebbed after some time and she eased out of the warm embrace. “Okay instead of me crying on you and getting your armor rusty we should get some sleep.”

“Armor is easy to come by,” reminded the ruler, “but sleep however….”

The bard sighed and poked the leather stomach between them. “I know… sleep keeps a bard telling stories.”

“Particularly this bard,” muttered the ruler. She extracted her body from Gabrielle’s and got to her feet.

Gabrielle stood up too and gave a small stretch, which made her muscles strain against her skin and shine in the firelight.

Xena briefly observed then decided on a safer view by going to her saddlebags and hunting for her nightshift. She quietly sighed when the Amazon Queen was going into the washroom with the mugs. Could Xena really keep to herself tonight when this well developed woman would be resting beside her? She knew it’d been more moons than she cared to count since her last satisfaction in bed. It was one of her many personal resolutions she’d made to herself after a ruined night of trying to bed her slave, Nakia, after coming back from the Amazon Nation. She recalled that night quite well.

The Conqueror had found herself, one night, in the throws of unexpected lust just after the bard had left her bedchambers. She couldn’t understand the source of it but she always understood the urgency of it so she called Nakia to her chambers. When the slave was stripped of her clothes and prone on the ruler’s bed, the Conqueror had demandingly started the pursuit with a rough kiss. It had been Nakia’s moans from the kiss that shattered her lust and she’d hotly ordered Nakia to dress and leave her.

The Conqueror’s lust raged into anger because she couldn’t correct it let alone understand it. She also hated how she’d been so willing to take Nakia because it was something she knew Gabrielle would have been disgusted by. It was the following morning that the ruler secretly promised not to indulge in sex for the satisfaction of lust and especially expecting her slave’s agreement.

It’d been a harder resolution at the start for the ruler but each day seemed to make it easier. She was too use to instantly getting and taking what she wanted to the action of being still when her sexual desires peaked was not simple. The Conqueror often tried pleasing herself such as when she took bathes but that often half worked yet it was enough to still the hunger for awhile.

Now though as the Conqueror rested in the bed beside her friend, she quickly recognized that mysterious lust that’d she’d felt on certain nights after the bard’s visit. Gabrielle’s revealed and changed body in those accenting Amazon leathers easily confirmed her suspicions. The Conqueror was unmistakably attracted to Gabrielle and Xena wasn’t sure if she liked that about herself.

The following morning, Gabrielle and Xena found themselves in the sparring field by dawn and sparring together. Gabrielle typically sparred in the early mornings before she went to work on Artemisia because it was the best way to get herself awake and exhilarated for the day. She discovered though that she was more than exhilarated when she practicing with the Conqueror. The sparring had started off slow as they each picked out one another’s movements then it became a dance form.

The Conqueror’s sword could be heard echoing against the Amazon Queen’s staff. Her known laugh of amusement rang in the field as she parried or dodged the bard’s excellent attacks. She was quite impressed by Gabrielle’s skills with the staff but she knew there was still much Gabrielle could learn.

“You know, I’m really… getting hungry,” commented the heavily breathing queen.

The Conqueror smirked at the comment too. She back stepped after the staff just missed her. “Better think about other things than your stomach.” She suddenly dropped and swept Gabrielle’s feet out from under her.

The Amazon Queen yelped and went on her back with an audible moan. Her hand touched her forehead as her eyes refocused on the gloating face above her. “You think you’re funny huh?”

“I know I am,” tormented the ruler.

Gabrielle growled and unexpectedly swept her feet at the ruler’s that were so near by. She realized she’d made a mistake as her friend came falling down towards her.

Xena had dropped her sword next to the bard as she fell. She hastily put her hands under her and her palms met the dirt first and her heavily armored body just hovered over the bard’s. “I could have hurt you if I fell on you,” she hotly reminded.

The bard crinkled up her nose innocently at the angry face only a hand length away from hers. “I knew you’d catch yourself… besides you need to think about other things than my body.”

The Conqueror’s eyes narrowed at being completely caught by the bard. How in Hades had Gabrielle known this? Just maybe the bard had grown experienced in other matters or else Gabrielle just knew her well enough these days.

Gabrielle seemed to sense the battle in the ruler so she smugly answered the internal debate. “I see how you keep staring at me. I might be naïve at times but I’m not blind.”

The Conqueror kept her body from touching the bards because she wouldn’t know what’d happen otherwise. Her body was already enjoying the fact she was over top of the bard but she refused to take advantage of it or Gabrielle. “Am I really that obvious?”

“Just to me,” softly promised the bard. She then lost her smug expression as she played innocent again. “I’m really hungry… come on.” She patted the broad shoulder in front of her.

Xena really debated whether Gabrielle was talking about food or not. She sighed then relented by standing up but she made sure to get her sword. “So you will give me a tour of Artemisia today?”

The Amazon Queen got up with her staff in hand. She patted the ruler’s leather stomach and teased, “Would I do any less, my liege?” She started off in the direction of the food hut. She and Xena ate their breakfast without much incident until just at the end.

Ephiny had come casually strolling into the food hut, waved and smiled at Gabrielle, and called, “Good morning, my queen.” She received the greeting back so she kept walking then something registered with her. She stopped then back peddled several paces and gawked at the queen’s breakfast mate.

The Conqueror nudged her friend when she saw the Amazon coming over to them.

Gabrielle sweetly smiled at her second in command when she was upon her and Xena. “Yes, Ephiny?”

Ephiny snapped her jaw shut then pointed at the ruler. “When did she… how did she… why is she-”

“Last night, by horse, and to see me,” hastily answered the bard. “Any other questions?”

Ephiny dropped her hand to her side then settled her perplexed face onto the ruler. “Well… you couldn’t send word ahead of time?”

“I prefer surprise visits,” clipped the Conqueror.

Ephiny grunted.

“She just wanted to skip the… royal stuff,” waved off the bard with her hand. “So, care to join us?”

The second in command put her hands on her hips and despite she saw both women had already eaten she ordered, “Don’t disappear on me.” She quickly headed for the buffet table.

Gabrielle muffled a fit of giggles and grinned at her friend. “Boy am I going to hear it now.”

“You obviously need to learn one thing about being queen,” commented the ruler. When Gabrielle leaned closer she grinned and explained, “You’re always right, Queen Gabrielle.”

The Amazon Queen barked with laughter then nodded a few times. “I’ll see what Ephiny’s opinion is on that concept.”

By late morning, the Conqueror received a tour of Artemisia that started at the top of the ridge so she could get the overview of the plans. Gabrielle then escorted her down into the valley of what would be the city and showed her the north end where most of the work had been done. The Conqueror was impressed by the progress but very pleased her legion and phalanx had been assisting so well. She then sought out her commanders of each army as well as the engineer and architect she’d hired for the project. She made sure to make the engineer, Eupalinos, sweat out his plans for the city because she knew if she didn’t he’d get over zealous and especially with Queen Gabrielle.

When Helios sunk over the horizon, Queen Gabrielle entered her quiet hut and she stood still by the closed door; she stared with a lopsided grin at the Conqueror’s saddelbags. She then considered when her friend would leave the Nation and it wasn’t a comforting feeling either. The knock at her door jarred her from her thoughts so she opened the door to find the ruler filling her view. “Hey, you didn’t need to knock just come in next time.”

The Conqueror came in but didn’t comment on the bard’s words.

“How was your meeting with everybody?”

“It went well,” answered Xena. “I’m pleased with their performance so far.” She then went over to the made bed and sat on the foot of it. “You look like you’ve been thinking about something.”

Gabrielle shook her head then came over to her friend. She sat next to Xena yet her focus was on her hands. “I was just thinking about you going back to Corinth.”

“Ready to get rid of me huh?” teased the ruler but she quickly realized her joke didn’t pay off. “What is it, Gabrielle?”

“It’s not easy admitting your wrong, is it?” Gabrielle lifted her head and watched her friend’s changing expression.

“No,” softly agreed the ruler, “but it makes things easier.”

The bard’s head bobbed as she now stared mindlessly across the room. Her thoughts though were very centered. “I was wrong to walk out of your life like that… especially when I said I was a friend.”

“If you hadn’t done it, Gabrielle then it wouldn’t have made me stop and think. I reacted instead of acting.”

Gabrielle released a low sigh. “I could have handled it differently.” She saw that Xena had been hurt by her actions because those beautiful blue eyes showed it to her. “I said I was going to be there for you but I failed. My excuse was that I figured you could go on without my help.”

Xena jaw clenched then she relaxed her tension because she would take this step. “I’ll tell you a secret, Gabrielle.”

“Oh another secret?” gently bantered the bard, who fell silent and listened.

Xena leaned closer then whispered, “I may have the largest empire in the known-world, which makes me the most powerful ruler. The truth though is that around you, I feel absolutely powerless and… I really like that because it means I can be myself with you.”

Gabrielle sadly smiled and stretched her hand up to lightly caress her friend’s cheek. “I think we’re both learning, Xena.” She watched the flicker of emotions above her then she softly asked, “Can we learn together?”

“I couldn’t think of a better way,” softly agreed the ruler.

The bard’s eyes brightened and her cheeks plumped thanks to her huge smile. “Is your offer to Egypt still good?”

The Conqueror nodded.

“When will you leave?”

“Not for another moon or so… I need to get a few things inline before I can leave.” Xena tilted her head. “I could… use your help with the polis and getting your proposal more cemented before the Summer Solstice.”

Gabrielle shook her head then questioned, “Can’t your advisor do that now?”

“I’m sure he could,” agreed Xena, “but he won’t do it right. Its yours, Gabrielle and I’d prefer it set in motion by you.” She hesitated then reminded, “If you have to decide though if you have time. I know you’re busy here.”

“Let me talk to Ephiny first,” murmured the bard however she had a rather set feeling that she’d follow the ruler anywhere at this point. She knew she couldn’t return to how she felt without her friend.

The ruler licked her lips as she turned her head away. “By the way….” She swallowed then quietly continued speaking. “I read your unfinished proposal about abolishing slavery.” Gabrielle flinched at her words, which she somewhat expected. “It’s not half bad really.”

Gabrielle shook her head. “I think it’s too radical… and too personal.”

The Conqueror almost replied to that statement but she stopped and mulled over Gabrielle’s use of personal. “Because of Lila.”

“Yeah,” whispered the bard, “I don’t know where she is… who she is… Hades she could be dead.”

The Conqueror had long ago considered the bard’s younger sister. She’d also secretly ordered Iolaus to her office one day and set him off on a secret mission where he could use any means necessary to find the information she wanted. She just hoped it would pay off well for her… for Gabrielle. “I’m sorry for what happened that day, Gabrielle.” Her anger for her past increased and crashed into her. “If I had known….” Old memories of her sword running through a soldier’s stomach couldn’t even ebb her anger.

“Known what?” Gabrielle huffed. “That we’d be here? Now? Today?” She worked her fingers through her bangs.

“That too,” murmured the ruler.

The Amazon Queen lowered her hand back to her lap then throatily questioned, “Why did you kill Draco not long after he enslaved my village? I always heard how great of a warrior he was.”

“He was a great warrior… and a terrible follower.” Xena slipped off the bed while saying, “He disobeyed my orders at Potidaea.” She ambled over to the left side of the fireplace, bent over, and loaded up some wood.

“What you mean?” urged the puzzled bard.

Xena was busy tossing the wood into the fireplace but she stopped and turned her head sidelong at her friend. “I ordered him to make an alliance with Potidaea… not ransack it and enslave it.” She plucked the flint stones off the small mantle then bent over the fireplace. “By the time I received word about the women being sold to slavery it was too late for me to do anything.” She angrily cracked the stones under the larger logs where the leaves and twigs were located. “I should have run him through sooner.”

Gabrielle’s face grew blank as her mind reeled at this news. She’d never known that the Conqueror had ordered the alliance and that it was Draco that chose to enslave Potidaea. It made sense to her though because no other Macedonian towns were enslaved besides Cirra and that happened to be done by Draco too. Towns like Amphipolis, Mani, Stagira, Therma and the like were all brought under the growing realm by alliances and pacts. Why hadn’t she seen that earlier?

Xena stood up when the fire was lapping against the wood happily. She turned to see the distant bard far away in her thoughts. “Gabrielle?” When she received no answer, she came up to her friend and knelt beside her. “Gabrielle, no matter how you look at it I am still responsible for what happened that day. I put Draco in charge so that means I was responsible for whatever he did.”

“That’s what makes you a better leader too, Xena.” Gabrielle sadly smiled but gently reminded, “He still made the final choice though.”

The ruler patted her friend’s knee and whispered, “Don’t change too much on me, Gabrielle. How about dinner?”

Queen Gabrielle dropped her head then spoke to her belly. “How about it?”

Xena rolled her eyes yet a lopsided grin found her. She and her friend were soon migrating across the small village and enjoying a hot, delicious meal that was freshly caught from the gulf. Of course the Conqueror didn’t forget to smartly remark that she hoped the fish wasn’t caught by the sewer system’s dumping area in the gulf. Gabrielle had let out a sigh and quickly reminded her friend that the sewer system wasn’t active yet.

The next days move by rather swiftly Gabrielle concluded compared to her previous days before the Conqueror’s surprise visit. The third day since the Conqueror’s arrival, Gabrielle finally dragged her second in command away from prying eyes and well listening ears. She ended up in her friend’s hut and was thankful Solari was rather busy.

“So what’s going on?” urged Ephiny, who took a seat at her desk.

Gabrielle blew a deep breath straight up, which ruffled her bangs. “I’m not sure exactly.”

“Don’t give me that.” Ephiny pointed at the chairs to the left and ordered, “Get a chair. Bring it here. And talk to me.”

The Amazon Queen put her hands on her hips and saucily declared, “Yes, my second in command.” She sashayed over to the table that had a couple of chairs. She grabbed one and plopped it down in front of her friend then she flopped into it. “I’m not sure what’s going on, Ephiny… seriously.” She dropped her head back and covered her face with her hands. “It’s really confusing.”

“Well what would you like to do if you could do anything?”

Gabrielle dropped her hands then stared dumbly at her friend. “You really want me to answer that?”

The Amazon held up a finger for silence. “Let me rephrase that then.” She lowered her hand to her lap. “If you had no obligations right now, what would you do?”

“If I was just a regular ole Amazon instead of Queen Gabrielle of Artemisia?”

Ephiny nodded.

“Hmmm.” Gabrielle patted her knee with her palm then fairly answered, “I’d run away to Corinth.”

“Back to the Conqueror?”

“With the Conqueror,” corrected the bard. “Remember, I was once a famous rebel leader… there’s no back to the Conqueror for me.”

Ephiny chuckled at her friend’s attempt to ease the mood.

Gabrielle eased back into her seriousness after an audible exhale. “The Conqueror invited me to come with her to Egypt… to meet Queen Cleopatra. She seems to think it’ll be an excellent way to setup trade relations for Artemisia.”

“Especially when we have such a large port,” mocked the Amazon.

The queen shrugged and reminded, “It’s never too early to think about relations, Ephiny.”

The second in command gave in because there was a lot of truth behind that fact. She sometimes figured that was the downfall of the Amazons because they never built outside relations so maybe it was a good idea. “Do you want to stay in Corinth?”

“I think so, honestly.” Gabrielle licked her lips then her head was down for a beat. When she looked up again, her emotions shined in her eyes. “I enjoy being the queen and I want this but I also want to be beside her, Ephiny. I just don’t know how to handle it.”

“Why is she so special to you, Gabrielle?” Ephiny needed an answer yet she questioned whether Gabrielle had that answer for herself.

“I don’t know yet why… but I need to find out, Ephiny. I feel like if I let her slip… that if I let whatever is between her and I slip then I’ll be missing out on the greatest thing in my life.” Gabrielle leaned closer to her friend. “It doesn’t make sense does it?”

Ephiny dipped her head then quietly whispered, “It makes sense.” She lifted her head. “I ignored Solari for the longest time because I was scared to try. I didn’t really think about it until Janice was here and I saw her situation… how she may never make it home but she tried against the odds.”

“She had a lot of faith,” murmured the bard, “she demonstrated that to all of us.” She sighed and quietly begged, “What should I do, Ephiny? I don’t want to betray my Nation and I don’t want to lose her.”

“Who said you had to choose, Gabrielle?” Ephiny gathered up her friend’s small hands into hers. “I think you can find a balance between both especially when the realm and the Nation are so integrated now. Maybe that’s the key to the Amazons’ success… because of your relationship to the Conqueror.”

“Maybe,” whispered the queen. “I don’t want to disappoint the Nation… my Amazons. They believe so much in me and I can tell that they’re so happy about the progress we’ve made so far with Artemisia.”

“And they are.” Ephiny smiled proudly to her queen then she steadily went serious. “Just remember this key factor about the Nation… how goes the queen so goes the Nation. If you’re not happy then neither is your Nation.”

“Ephin-”

“Don’t even argue my point,” cut off the Amazon. “I know you’ve been down and mostly due to what happened between you and the Conqueror. Can you honestly tell me how you’ll be once she goes back to Corinth?”

Gabrielle nodded. “I understand what you’re saying.” She then emotionally smiled at her friend. “Where would I be without you, Ephiny?”

“You probably wouldn’t be here because nobody else would have let you in the Conqueror’s jail hut.”

The Amazon Queen laughed and her emotions settled thanks to her friend’s joke. She released her anxiety through a deep sigh. “What now?”

“Well,” started the thoughtful second in command, “what size is your mask?” She thoroughly enjoyed the queen’s shocked face.

The Conqueror patted her mare down then gingerly led her out of the stall. “You ready, girl? I promise we won’t ride as fast as last time.”

Argo threw up her head gratefully but she whined.

“Yes, the blond is coming too.”

Argo inhaled until her girdle was tight then she exhaled very loudly but she still followed her master out of the stables. She then saw that little blond that she knew her master was growing fond of lately.

“Are you sure about this, Gabrielle?” questioned the Conqueror.

Gabrielle lifted her head after having it rested against her staff. “I’m positive.” She had on a heavy leather and wool jacket, her regal Amazon leathers on, a pack on her back, mask on her head, and a hilt protruded from her back under her jacket. “The sooner we get out of here the sooner we can get to Corinth.”

“My kind of woman,” teased the ruler, who threw her arm around the bard and jerked her close. She guided her friend through the village towards the north side where a few Amazons waited. After Gabrielle had a chance to say goodbye to everybody she and Gabrielle continued the trek through the hilly terrain until they met the slightly overgrown road that led north out of the Attica Providence.

Xena eventually found herself astride Argo while her friend remained walking beside or sometimes ahead depending on whether they were talking or not. She’d offered Gabrielle a spot on Argo however the bard laughed and quickly picked up her pace as her refusal. She muttered something about beastly horse then passed by the huffing mare.

The Conqueror continued to sway to Argo’s rhythmic motions yet her senses were always alive. She tasted the air, heard life far beyond the surrounding forest, and felt the world’s movements around her. It wasn’t until mid afternoon that something prickled her senses. “Gabrielle?” she called hastily.

The bard was slightly dazed but she broke away and stopped until the horse and rider were beside her. “What is it?” She read the urgency and tension rippling off her friend.

“We’re about to have company,” uttered the ruler, “so be ready.”

“For what?” asked the perplexed bard.

The Conqueror had no time to explain when six armed bandits formed on the road. She freed one hand from Argo’s reins.

“Well hello, ladies,” greeted a smiling bandit in the front. “You happen to be using our little road and we have a tax for that too.”

Queen Gabrielle rested her left hand on her hip while she leaned against her staff. “I didn’t realize the Conqueror was now collecting road tax.”

The same bandit smile to show his yellow and missing teeth. “Well she’s a little clueless at times.”

The Conqueror’s right eyebrow arched up at this remark. Oh yeah she would have fun with this particular bandit out of the six.

“You really don’t want to start this,” warned the bard because she knew what was about to happen but hey it was worth a try to give them a notice.

“Oh yes they do,” drew out the ruler in a seductive tone.

Gabrielle sighed and lifted her staff. She sent a prayer to whatever god would protect these poor fools.

The leader bandit unsheathed his sword and he was about to order his men to attack. He hesitated when the tall woman on the mare gave a piercing cry and went flying into the air.

The Conqueror vaulted from her horse, spun, and landed on her boots in front of the bandits. Somehow she’d magical unsheathed her sword during her jump. “Come and get some, boys,” she hissed and bent her knees.

The Amazon Queen shook her head when all the bandits lunged at her friend. “I almost pity them but they asked for it,” she commented to Argo.

The horse huffed and nodded.

Gabrielle then spotted two men breaking away from the fight so she hurried past Argo and met the pair. She mentally prepared for her first real fight against an opponent and it charged her body. Gabrielle parried away the first sword swipe as the second enemy came at her with his mace. She dodged him then came back at her first enemy.

The Conqueror easily manipulated her enemies and managed to get one bandit to accidentally skewer one of his comrades. She set her sights on the leader bandit, who was rather persistent on his attacks. She gave a resounding kick to one bandit and knocked him out against a nearby tree. She then refocused on her last two opponents with a sneering expression and anticipation to have them.

The Amazon Queen took her right opponent’s feet out from under him, which disorientated him. She then came at her remaining opponent with renewed effort. She managed to land a snapping hit to the bandit’s hand and his mace hit the ground. Gabrielle lifted her staff higher and gave a furious glare since she’d been taught that half the battle was intimidation.

The bandit back stepped once, then twice when the compact woman advance on him, and he turned and ran off into the woods.

Gabrielle sighed in relief then lowered her staff to her side. She studied her friend just finishing off her last opponent, who happened to be the leader.

The Conqueror gave her warcry and swiftly flipped over the bandit. She brought her blade around yet at the last beat before her blade would have met the bandit’s throat, she rammed her hilt into his head. She completely turned around and stared disgustedly at the unconscious bandit at her feet. She kicked him in the side, which caused him to moan. “I should kill you for this, pig.” She knew why she wasn’t though as her gaze met her friend’s.

Gabrielle smiled proudly at the ruler’s ability to resist the urge to kill. She knew it wasn’t easy for Xena but it was doable when the ruler set her mind to it.

Then Xena’s calmer expression grew fearful without reason and she surged towards Gabrielle.

The Amazon Queen already heard the bandit getting up to his feet and his sword scraping across the dirt. She raised her staff for any attack while she turned to him.

The bandit was wild with anger as he lunged for Gabrielle.

Gabrielle’s scream when she was slammed so hard. She fell onto her back and lost her staff but the bandit hadn’t lost his sword because his blade was across her throat. Before the bandit could cut through her skin she spotted the furious Conqueror over them.

The Conqueror was so swift in her motions. Her hands blurredly came down and clenched the bandit’s hand. There was a load snap then she watched in satisfaction as he slumped lifelessly before he could harm his friend. She then grabbed the dead bandit by his clothes, lifted him up, and tossed him off the small woman.

Gabrielle groaned and slowly opened her eyes to find Xena’s face a mix of anger and fear. The adrenaline rush from nearness of death still quaked the bard’s body but she tried to focus. Then it felt like so many hands were on her body at once as the Conqueror hastily checked over her.

“Are you okay?” Xena’s hand finally came down to Gabrielle’s legs where she was squeezing every spot. When she got the bard’s right ankle there was an audible hiss.

“My ankle… I think I twisted it.” The Amazon Queen bit her lower lip to stop the welding tears from the pain. She now tried to sit up and inspect her leg not that her boots allowed her to see much.

“Damn.” Xena acted quickly by untying the boot then loosening the laces. She opened the flap of the boot and peered around where the developing color was forming.

“You know, this really figures,” complained the bard. She was irate about how blind she’d been to that bandit’s movements.

“Let’s just worry about this right now.” Xena scanned around the road and saw there were two bandits that would most likely be up soon. She didn’t feel too keen on fighting them and protecting the bard. “Let’s get out of here first. Just stay right here.” She grabbed the bard’s staff while whistling for Argo.

The mare trotted over, stopped and waited while her master tied the staff to the saddlebags.

The Conqueror came back over and knelt beside her friend; she then worked her arms under the bard.

Gabrielle yelped when she was airborne then adjusted comfortably in her friend’s arms. “Wow… you really can see a lot up here.”

“Glad to see you didn’t lose your sense of humor.” Xena clicked her tongue to get Argo’s attention then she walked towards the forest with her cargo in her arms.

Argo followed behind, her head bobbing up and down then side to side. She wanted badly to grab some grass but she knew her master was worried about that silly blond in her arms so she followed behind.

Gabrielle rested her head against her friend’s shoulders and mumbled, “What is it with me and my legs?”

“What is it with you and trouble?” chided the ruler, who at last spotted a clearing.

“You think those bandits will follow us?”

“No.” The Conqueror entered the clearing and lowered her friend beside a log. “Let me get the medical kit.”

The bard could only imagine what the Conqueror had that could help with swelling.

“Can you get your boot off?”

Gabrielle bent forward and loosened her laces better. She then tried to work her boot off but it was very pain staking; she was just barely able to hold in her hisses between clenched teeth.

Xena slowly came over while mixing something in a small bowl with a pestle. She bent down next to the bard’s outstretched leg and settled the bowl nearby. She dipped her fingers into the slightly green tainted paste then carefully tried to work it over the bruising and swelling ankle.

The bard dug her nails into the ground, her eyes closed.

The Conqueror listened to the labored breathing from her friend and she tried to keep her touch gentle. “Almost finished.” She’d used most of the paste but left enough for tomorrow morning. “There’s a stream nearby… it should have cold water.” She left the mortar and pestle by the bard, went to Argo, and unlashed the staff and grabbed a waterskin. She returned the weapon to her friend while saying, “Stay here. Yell if you need me.” Before Gabrielle could say a word, Xena was gone through the woods.

Gabrielle unclenched her hand and tried to asses her ankle that was darkening. Then she considered how the Conqueror left the camp with so much tension written in her mannerism. She decided she’d have to work it out of the ruler in hopes to keep the mood light tonight.

The Conqueror hurried back into the camp and came to a kneeling position beside her friend. Her chilled hands pressed the cold waterskin against her friend’s sprained ankle in hopes the cold water would calm the swelling. “Keep it there. I’m going to get the camp setup.”

The bard let her friend go. She watched her friend quickly setup the camp with such ease but occasionally she checked her ankle to see the swelling was stalling. The bruising however was another story that didn’t bolster well. It wasn’t long before the bard grew warm from the intensifying fire beside her that the Conqueror had started. She was grateful for it considering the red sun rays in the western horizon.

The Conqueror was almost finished brushing her mare down, her back to the bard. “Do you feel like rabbit or quail tonight?”

Very slowly Gabrielle had a wicked grin. “I was hoping for fish from the stream.” She carefully watched how her friend’s brush stopped on Argo’s rump. She knew despite the Conqueror couldn’t see her smirk that it was laced in her tone.

The Conqueror turned her head sidelong then retorted, “At that rate you won’t be eating tonight.” There wasn’t any common sense reason she could think of to go into that freezing stream to fish out dinner.

“You don’t want to see me when I miss a meal,” joked the bard. She became happy when she saw that faint grin spread over the ruler’s features and break apart the sour mood from earlier. “There’s that grin.”

The Conqueror shook her head then finished up with Argo. She patted her horse’s side while whispering only something the horse could hear. She then strolled over to the sitting, prone woman by the fire. She rested her hands on her hips and inquired. “This is your last chance… quail or rabbit?”

The bard thoughtfully stared up at her friend. She drummed her right fingers on her kneecap. “Such a wide variety to choose from here… it’s like dining in Cyrene’s taverna.”

The Conqueror rolled her eyes, turned, and marched off into the darkening woods.

“Surprise me!” called the Amazon Queen but the only response she received was a hoot from an owl. “Tough nut to crack, sheesh.” She settled her view on the mare. “How do you put up with her, Argo?”

The mare turned her head to the chatty blond then she flicked her tail and huffed. She lowered her head and munched on the nearby grass.

The bard sighed then peered down at her ankle. “Damn bandit.” She shook her head but she kept her annoyance away since she decided it wouldn’t do her any good to be moody like the ruler. Two wrongs never make a right, she mentally reminded herself, or is that two grumpy asses never make a party?

Gabrielle then received the largest scare when the ruler suddenly materialized in the camp. After her gasp, she was raggedly breathing and touched her chest with her freed left hand. “Gods… do you have to do that?” She then caught the smug features of her friend so she glowered at her. “Yes you do, don’t you?”

The ruler said nothing as she went to the supplies she’d back for this trip. In her left hand she had a skinned rabbit that was quite plumped and she knew it’d feed them both. She worked on getting some herbs spread over the bloody meat then she pushed a skewer through the rabbit for the fire.

Gabrielle intently observed the ruler setting up a small spit over the fire, which kept the rabbit high enough above the fire put low enough to cook right. She was inwardly stunned. “So, did mom teach you how to cook?”

The Conqueror glanced at her friend and arched a questioning eyebrow.

The bard smirked. “I guess not.”

The ruler returned her attention to the cooking rabbit and she gave the rabbit a turn over the fire. “I learned while in the army.” She was kneeling so she stood up and went to her saddlebags. She washed her hands with clean water from a waterskin, dried them, and fished out for some other food items.

The Amazon Queen was pleasantly surprised when her friend came over with a small wood board that held bread and feta cheese. She tried so hard not to chuckle at the small bowl of herbed olive oil for dipping the bread into it but she failed.

The ruler sighed and set the wood plate beside her friend. She then went back to the spit and gave it a turn. She returned to the munching bard’s side and sat beside her. She placed the board on her lap then broke a piece of bread free.

“I didn’t think you could be such a hostess,” teased the bard.

The Conqueror had slightly slotted eyes. “Is this pick on the Conqueror night?”

Gabrielle’s gloating features broke apart by her compassion for the ruler. “I’m sorry… it’s just that….” She held out her freehand to the cooking rabbit over the fire. “I would have never guessed you could cook.”

“When you’re surviving on your own you learn quickly and how to make the food taste half decent.” The ruler picked up a small cube of feta and popped it into her mouth.

“I don’t know how to cook,” secretly admitted the bard. “I never learned because Cyrene always cooked for me.”

The Conqueror softly laughed and nodded her head. “I know exactly what you mean. I never learned because mother cooked all my meals and she didn’t have the time to teach me.” She shrugged. “Plus I was always playing around with Lyceus so I doubt I would have taken interest in it anyway.”

Gabrielle’s head was bobbing before she spoke again. “Mother was getting ready to teach me but of course with Draco and everything it never happened.” She tilted her head and muttered, “I’ll have to ask Cyrene to teach me although that could be dangerous.” She noted her friend’s perplexed look. “If I know how to cook I may be my own best customer.” She enjoyed the grin playing the ruler’s lips now.

“How do you like your rabbit?” inquired the ruler. “Cooked all the way through?”

“Mmmm yeah… I don’t want it hopping out of my stomach tonight.” Gabrielle giggled at the ruler’s quick disgusted features. “This is really good feta.” She shot a cube into her mouth. “Is it from the fortress?”

The Conqueror smirked. “You can take the Conqueror out of Corinth but you can’t take Corinth’s food out of the Conqueror.”

“I bet you’d hire mom to be your cook if you could.”

The Conqueror gave a knowing smirk but she set the board aside and got up. She checked on the rabbit then came back over to her spot beside her friend.

Gabrielle broke more flatbread apart and dipped it into the herb oil. “How is Cyrene and Melpomene?”

“They’re well,” answered the ruler. She swirled a piece of flatbread in the oil but held it still over the wood bowl as she spoke. “I’m sure you haven’t heard yet but mother plans to buy the taverna she’s been renting these past moons.”

“Really?” Gabrielle grew ecstatic. “I didn’t hear. When did she decide this?”

“Only a few days ago,” answered the ruler, “She’s been saving up money from working the taverna. She seems to think she’ll have enough soon to buy it from the owner.” She swallowed the small morsel of bread. “I tried to offer her money but….”

“Trust me, I know how your mother is,” agreed the bard. “The olive didn’t fall far from the tree,” she admitted.

“Sometimes I think it did,” argued the ruler, “I think the olive rolled down a hill.”

The bard touched her friend’s nearby knee that protruded from under the smooth board. “I’ve been around your mother long enough to know her qualities. I see a lot of the same ones in you too.”

Xena turned her head to her friend. “Sometimes I see it and sometimes I don’t at all.”

“And that’s exactly true,” agreed the bard. “I don’t know your father but I think you’re a mix of the two of them.”

The ruler silently agreed because she knew her father and her mother so she had her days when she was more like her mother and others when she was like her father. She wasn’t perfect but she certainly was a blend of them. She often considered Lyceus mostly like mother while Toris… well he was just an odd ball most the time. She had yet to figure out where her eldest brother fit into the family. She broke away from her thinking and set the board down between them while saying, “Let me get the rabbit ready so finish up the cheese.”

Gabrielle peered down at the board and grinned at the two cubes left. She took one and swirled it around in the last bit of olive oil. She happily moaned at the flavor as she ate it. It wasn’t long though before she was dining with her friend on a nicely cooked rabbit that had a thyme flavor. She complimented her friend at the excellent flavor.

The Conqueror realized she enjoyed the compliment coming from her friend. She and Gabrielle quietly ate their meals but at the end she mentioned she had a surprise for the bard. After cleaning things up, she came to a squatting position beside the Amazon Queen and in her right hand she presented a clothed wrapped item.

Gabrielle eyed the ruler but she slowly grinned while she pulled the cloth away. She beamed at the loaf of nutbread.

“Mother sent it,” mentioned the Conqueror.

“Oh my gods,” breathed the excited bard. “I have been dying for some of her nutbread.”

The ruler softly laughed and set the bread into the bard’s hungry care. She retrieved a knife, came back over, and sat with the loaf now in her possession. She sliced up a piece and handed it to the bard. She amusingly watched as the bard became a wolf with the bread.

Gabrielle paused after her first bite and asked, “What is that?” She’d broken a piece off so she looked at the whole slice that rested in her palm. “I’ve never tasted that.”

The Conqueror shrugged and noticed that the loaf’s swirled filling held poppyseeds. “Poppyseeds?”

The Amazon Queen shook her head and inspected the slice better but Hades if she could figure out anything in the firelight. “No, taste it.” She broke a piece free and slipped it between the ruler’s lips. She drew her fingers away after they were moistened by the ruler’s lips. She was surprised to receive a shock of excitement from the ruler’s touch. She cleared her throat and hoarsely asked, “Do you taste that like… sharp sour-ish flavor?”

The Conqueror’s eyes brightened from enjoyment of the flavor. “Lemon.”

“Lemon?” asked the puzzled bard. “What’s lemon?”

The ruler softly laughed and explained, “It’s a yellow fruit from the Chin Empire. It’s a very tart taste like most citrus fruits.”

“You mean like those oranges you have in your bedchambers?” tried the bard. At the ruler’s nod, she brightened and inspected the remains of her slice as she finally noticed the slightly yellow tint to the bread. “No wonder,” she muttered. She broke another piece off and popped it into her mouth but this time she hummed happily as the lemon flavor mixed with the poppyseed. After her true tasting of the new fruit, she decided it was a delicious mix of tart, poppy, and dough all in one. “This is really good. Where would mom get the idea to use this fruit?” She shook her head while the ruler was cutting her another slice. “You can’t just pick up lemons anywhere.”

“No, you can’t,” agreed the ruler. She held out the next slice to her friend.

Gabrielle carefully considered her friend’s words then it dawned on her. She hastily swallowed down her morsel and accused the ruler, “You gave her the lemons!”

The Conqueror shrugged and remained passive.

“You did, didn’t you?” urged the shocked Amazon Queen. “Admit it.”

“It was a lucky guess that you’d like it,” informed Xena, who had a glint in her eyes.

The bard warmed at the ruler’s consideration for the idea for a new flavor in the bread. “Thank you.” She finished off her slice then asked, “You’re not having any?”

“Mother made it for you.” The Conqueror had just finished cutting another slice, which she guessed would probably be her friend’s last slice considering how heavy the nutbread was but then there was Gabrielle’s bottomless appetite.

The bard broke a piece off then grinned as she lifted to the ruler’s lips. “And I can share.”

The Conqueror accepted the nutbread being fed to her, which she wasn’t accustomed to having done. The nutbread’s lemon flavor erupted in her mouth then her lips were brushed by the bard’s nimble, soft fingertips.

The Amazon Queen couldn’t hide her grin as her face was lit up by the warm fire. She pulled back and ate more of the nutbread herself. The lemon flavor was truly growing on her. “Has mom done any other new baking?”

“Mmmm.” The ruler leaned back against the log comfortably. “You remember those bananas you don’t like?”

The former rebel let her nose crinkle up as she recalled the odd flavor of that yellow fruit. “I just couldn’t get into that taste.”

The Conqueror smirked then teased, “That’s because the first one you tried you ate the skin with it on.”

Gabrielle laughed but she blushed at her mishap from that day. “I didn’t realize you weren’t suppose to eat that. I mean you eat apples, strawberries, and grapes without peeling anything off.” She inwardly squirmed at the odd flavor of the banana that her friend had given her to try that day. “So mom made a bread with banana in it huh?”

“Mmmm… it’s very good. I think you might like it though because she’s added cinnamon to it.”

The Amazon Queen considered this mix and she was a woman that would try any food at least once. “Yea but you love bananas.”

“You have to try it,” argued the ruler. “Mother is a great baker.”

“She is that,” agreed the bard hastily. “This lemon nutbread is the best.”

The ruler chuckled and started to wrap the bread up. “When Summer Solstice is close then I’ll be receiving shipments in from Chin on this other fruit that’s my favorite.”

The bard had a curious face. “What’s that?”

“In Chin it is called míhóu táo.”

Gabrielle chuckled and shook her head. “There’s no way I’m going to try and say that word.” She tilted her head then asked, “Does it translate into Greek at all?”

“Not exactly,” argued the ruler. “It’s an unusual fruit that Lao Ma said Chin developed recently.”

“Really?” Gabrielle became intrigued it the idea of a fruit being made.

Xena grinned at her friend’s curiosity. “There is one nickname I’ve heard for it. Lao Ma sometimes calls it a Chin gooseberry.” She held up her right hand and made an oval shape by connecting her thumb and index finger. “It’s about the size of a hen’s egg but it has a brown skin and a hairy texture.”

Gabrielle’s face wrinkled instantly. “That doesn’t sound pleasant, Xena.”

The ruler chuckled and lowered her hand to her lap again. “Like the banana you don’t eat the skin.”

“Then what’s inside of it?” inquired the bard. “Brown fruit? That doesn’t sound very tasteful.”

Another soft laugh escaped the ruler but she explained, “It’s not a brown fruit inside but a green color with black seeds and white center. You cut the skin away and then eat it. The part you eat is soft like a banana but very juicy like a grape.”

Gabrielle tilted her head and thought this new fruit out. “How do they taste? Like a grape?”

“Not at all,” answered the ruler, “more like a cross between a banana and strawberry.”

“When do you get them in from Chin?”

Xena shrugged then answered, “In a few moons. I think you’ll like it.” She got to her feet and stowed away the last half of the bread for tomorrow night. She then sifted through it to get the bedrolls and furs. Luckily the Amazon Nation had given their queen another set of furs and bedrolls for her since the ruler only came with a set for herself.

Gabrielle took the silent time to removed her other boot and set them off to her left side. She inspected her ankle and saw it was finished swelling and the bruising was proudly displayed. She sighed at it while setting the warmed waterskin aside. She lightly prodded her ankle to see how it felt.

The ruler glanced over when she heard the bard’s sharp intake of air. “It’s going to hurt for a few days.”

“I know.” Gabrielle head was drooped down, eyes set on the ankle. “Should I put more of this paste on it tonight?”

“Yes.” The Conqueror caught Gabrielle’s motions to get the paste filled bowl off to the left. She took the time to set her bedroll further from the fire while setting Gabrielle’s closer to the fire so that she’d be warmer. “I’m going to check things out.”

When the Amazon Queen lifted her head to say something her friend was already gone. She shook her head then muttered, “Just like a ghost. How’s she do that?” She huffed then went back to rubbing the paste carefully into her skin. After she was finished, she set the bowl aside then noted the bedrolls’ positions. She figured hers was closer to the fire plus it was quite far from the ruler’s.

The Conqueror reappeared in the camp to find the bard just staring into the campfire. She came over and knelt beside her friend. “Are you tired?”

“A little,” admitted the bard. “I think I’m still catching up on my rest.” She sadly smiled at her friend. “Do you need to do anything else?”

“No, everything is set and it was quiet.” The ruler took a seat claimed her seat beside the young woman. She observed Gabrielle’s outstretched legs from afar. “Did you use the rest of the paste?”

“Yes… thank you.” Gabrielle smiled at the ruler. “Thank you for saving my life back there. I didn’t see that bandit at all.” She shook her head. “That was my first time.”

The Conqueror understood what Gabrielle meant by her last words. The situation was always much different when fighting in a real scenario versus from training because nobody could calculate life perfectly. “I will have to increase patrol in this area of Attica.”

“I’m surprised they’re around here with the legion and phalanx just in Artemisia.”

“It doesn’t matter,” debated the ruler. “Once Artemisia begins heavy activity with a market then the roads will require security again.”

Gabrielle thought this out then mentioned, “You do keep heavy patrols on the roads throughout Greece.”

“It serves a dual purpose… the people are protected from thugs like that and the patrols have a better chance of giving out warnings of more serious problems.”

“Like invasions,” theorized the bard.

“Or rebellions.”

Gabrielle released a sigh at her friend’s words. “Do you think the realm will have any rebellions?”

The Conqueror glanced at her concerned friend. She often worried about those things in her waking candlemarks and they haunted her late at night. She knew her empire was the largest in the known-world however the problem was that she only had two sets of eyes, ears, and hands to deal with the numerous issues in the realm. When she was younger she never imagined all these hardships of being such a powerful ruler. Just maybe if she’d known at an earlier age it would have curved her hunger for power. Finally she answered the bard’s question in the only way she felt necessary. “Don’t lose any sleep over it, Gabrielle.” She stared at the fire then murmured, “We’re quite safe.”

The bard quieted for awhile as she mulled over the entire empire and she wondered how such a large empire could fit on one woman’s shoulders. “Do you sometimes think you bit off more than you can chew?”

The Conqueror was quiet.

Gabrielle didn’t think her friend would respond because the question was overstepping but she didn’t detect any tension coming from her friend. She was glad for that much.

“Some days I think so,” softly confided the ruler, “especially more so these days.”

The bard turned her head and studied the ruler’s solemn face. “Well… you could sell the realm to the highest bidder but keep Crete. Then we can all move there, take the navy, and we’ll just build paradise there.” She grinned and further teased, “That way you still have a little kingdom and a navy so nobody can bother us.”

Xena quietly laughed and it caused her to relax from the earlier conversation. “If there was a drachma for every time I’ve considered that idea I would be richer than the realm by now.”

Gabrielle was remotely shocked the ruler admitted to having considered the idea in past times. “Do you really tire of the rulership?”

“I tire of being a ruler but I never tire of taking over.”

The Amazon Queen carefully turned this idea over in her head and digested it. “You were a warrior before you were a ruler.”

“Mmhmmm.” Xena hated to admit it to her friend but she knew it was apart of who she was despite she rarely was able to partake in her warrior persona anymore. “There’s nothing like the thrill of battle… figuring out your enemy’s tactics, breaking them, and finally defeating them.”

Gabrielle couldn’t understand the desire behind it because she was only a bard. What she could appreciate was the fact it was apart of who Xena was no matter what. “There is nobody like you, Xena.”

The ruler softly laughed and teased, “You’re stroking my ego, Gabrielle.”

“No, not really.” Gabrielle shrugged. “I mean how many people have tried to accomplish what you’ve done? Not even Alexander the Great accomplished what you’ve done.”

“Yet I’ll be remembered as the Destroyer of Nations,” clipped the ruler.

“You don’t know that yet,” argued the bard, “You still have so much time ahead of you to change all of that.”

“Tyrants like me, Gabrielle do not live that long.”

Gabrielle shook her head quickly. “You’re not that tyrant anymore though and you’re showing that to the people. Just give it time and the stories… titles will change. How goes the Conqueror so goes the realm.”

The ruler grinned at the bard’s analogy to a captain and his ship. She then lost her grin then seriously stated, “Let’s get some rest. I want to be up early.”

“Before or after the sunrise?”

The Conqueror heard Gabrielle’s warning tone in the words so she carefully chose her response. “After sunrise.”

Gabrielle laughed and nodded her head. “Good.” She then sought help from her friend on getting up and slowly limping over to the bedroll. She was gradually lowered into the soft furs and she took the time to get most of extras off such as her soft gauntlets, arm bracers, and necklace.

The Conqueror brought her friend the staff and set it beside her bed. She then cleaned up the remnants from the mortar bowl then she tucked it away with her medical supplies. She then tossed the skin Gabrielle had been using back with the saddle. Finally, she fished out her sharpening stone then took a seat on the log this time.

Gabrielle had most of her gear off except for her leather top and skirt. She combed her fingers through her hair after just getting the mask off. She studied the ruler setting up to sharpen her sword. “Goodnight, Xena.”

The Conqueror tapped the whet stone at the end of her horizontal blade in her lap. “Sleep well, Gabrielle.” She listened to the Amazon wiggle under the furs then sigh contently. She fell into an old habit she use to do during her campaigns. Her whet stone ran down the blade then she lifted it back to the top and repeated the cycle. The rhythmic sound filtered down to her subconscious and soothed her greatly. She hadn’t realized how much she missed this process until now.

About a candlemark after Gabrielle had fallen asleep, the Conqueror was finished with her sword by wiping it clean. She sheathed the blade at her back then balled up the dirty rag in her hands. Her attention was drawn by the muffled cries from the bard. She could only guess what nightmares were troubling her friend. She debated whether to wake Gabrielle or waited it out. Her decision was made for her when Gabrielle abruptly sat up with damp features.

The Amazon Queen threw her boiling furs aside then her head fell forward.

The Conqueror had a tilted head and she observed her friend from across the camp. “A bad nightmare huh?”

The bard wiped her brow of the sweat then she forced her legs to get her up. She slowly limped over to the ruler and sat on the log beside the ruler. “It’s an old, repeating dream.”

The Conqueror set the rag down beside her whetstone on the ground. “What’s it about?”

Gabrielle sighed out her frustrations from the dream. “Just something from my childhood, I guess.” She wrapped her arms against her body since her wet skin was now cooling against the night. She was hunched forward but she lifted her head and stared at the slightly cloud covered starry sky. “I’m… I’m funny about sleeping in the woods… or just being in the woods at night time.” She scanned the dark forest that surrounded them since the crescent, low moon provided very little light. “I really hate when I hear wolf cries.” She involuntarily shivered.

Several thoughts passed through the ruler but she quietly asked, “Why is that?”

“Its kind silly really,” murmured the bard. She peered up at her friend, who was a feared ruler and here was Gabrielle confessing her fears to the ruler. It seemed so odd. She could tell that Xena was truly interested and deeper in those blue eyes she read the concern. “I don’t remember everything from journey between Potidaea to Amphipolis when I escaped. I don’t think I want to remember,” she admitted. “What I do recall were a lot of wolf cries at night. I was so scared that they were hunting me because the cries kept getting closer to me. I traveled the road all night… I didn’t stop until I made it to Amphipolis. The thing was I was scared if I traveled on the road that I’d be caught so I traveled in the woods but close to the road so that I knew I was headed in the right direction.” Gabrielle stopped and her stare went deep into the fire. “I just remember how dark it was and how badly I hurt from the wounds… and the blood.”

Xena’s face was dark at the image drawn for her. She brought her left arm across the bard’s shoulders and tugged her closer. She placed a kiss to the bard’s sunny hair and murmured, “I’m sorry, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle slipped her right arm around the ruler’s back and rested the side of her head against her friend’s shoulder. “It was so long ago… I’m just glad I’m here now though.” She felt the ruler’s chin touched the top of her head and it gave her a bittersweet smile. “I’m glad we’re here now.” She then extracted herself from the ruler then ordered, “Come on. We both need to get some sleep. You’re not staying up tonight.”

“I didn’t put out two bedrolls for you,” jokingly reminded the ruler.

The Amazon Queen grumbled then pointed out, “That doesn’t mean anything when it comes to you.” She then carefully got to her feet without putting too much weight on her sprained ankle. She held out her hands then commanded, “Come on.”

Xena’s lips curled into a soft grin at her friend’s demand. She then lost the grin as she absorbed the beautiful sculpting body that glowed from the firelight. She closed her eyes and turned her head away while saying, “Go on, Gabrielle… I’ll get ready in a beat after I check the perimeter.”

Gabrielle didn’t like the instant mood change. She also knew the brush off was something else especially when she saw her friend’s very consuming gaze on her. She knelt down in front of the ruler until she was on her knees and fairly eye level with Xena. “Hey.” When she received no response, she placed her right palm against Xena’s cheek and drew her face back to her. “You think I don’t know what you’re dealing with?”

The Conqueror clasped her friend’s hand into hers and explained, “You wouldn’t understand what this is, Gabrielle.”

“I don’t think you understand what this is either,” rebuked the bard.

“Oh I think I do.” Suddenly the agitated ruler got to her feet swiftly. “Now get back to bed.” She began moving away while saying, “I’ll be-”

“I don’t think so.” Gabrielle was on her feet but her weight on her good foot. She wrapped her strong hand around the ruler’s gauntlet covered wrist. “We’re not finished this conversation.”

The ruler turned back and hotly snapped, “Yes we are finished.” Again she tried to move away but the relentless bard jerked her back. “Gabrielle-”

“Stop,” harshly ordered Gabrielle. She was steeled and her determination made the Conqueror’s temper deflate. “You’re not escaping this one, Xena.”

“I’m not escaping it,” argued the Conqueror, “I’m keeping myself from making a mistake.”

“What mistake is that?” urged the Amazon Queen. “Taking me?”

The Conqueror turned her head away and wanted to free from the bard’s grasp but she was rooted by the piercing green gaze set on her. “You don’t understand this, Gabrielle.”

“And like I said, I don’t think you do either but you wouldn’t know that unless you hear me out.” Gabrielle saw the blue eyes open but Xena wouldn’t look at her yet. “You know, my ankle is really hurting me like this. Can was just sit down and talk this out?”

The ruler agreed by moving back to the log with her friend. She was completely uneasy and kept a certain space from the bard.

“Usually when people agree to talk things out it requires both to speak,” pointed out the bard.

Xena sighed but made no response.

Gabrielle wanted to growl in frustration at the gap between them. She knew sometimes her words were fairly fruitless against the ruler’s armor. She decided the next best weapon was action and especially in the ruler’s mindset. She quickly leaned forward and brought her lips against the Conqueror’s.

The Conqueror’s desire for Gabrielle instantly flared to life by the feel of Gabrielle’s moist lips against hers. She moaned from the sensation then hungrily responded for the kiss to deepen.

Gabrielle firmed her lips against the ruler’s and she found her mouth opening to invite the ruler. Her tongue soon met the Conqueror’s and she whimpered from the amazing feeling. Her stomach quivered from excitement and she forgot much of the world around her.

The Conqueror slowly retreated from the kiss when her thoughts confronted her again. She withdrew then hoarsely whispered, “We can’t do this, Gabrielle.”

“Xena, we both want this.” Gabrielle leaned her forehead against the fighting ruler. “I’ve seen how you look at me.”

Xena had her eyes closed and her breathing was heavy from the battle between her emotions and feelings. She lifted her right hand and pressed her palm against the bard’s cheek. “You can’t understand this, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle lifted her head from the ruler’s and opened her eyes. She met the ruler’s now open eyes and she didn’t refuse the ruler’s hand on her cheek. “You don’t think I haven’t heard the stories about your sex life, Xena? Come on.” She grabbed up Xena’s hand into hers. “Sometimes I wonder if half that stuff isn’t exaggerated.”

“Some of it may be,” admitted the ruler, “but not too much of it.” She shook her head then stated, “I promised myself I wouldn’t do this anymore.”

“Do what?” argued the Amazon. “Have consenting sex?”

“I won’t have sex out of lust, Gabrielle… or just to have it.”

Gabrielle sweetly smiled at this resolution the ruler had resided herself to now. “Xena, that’s really….” She decided it was safer not to finish that thought aloud and moved onto her tactic. “This isn’t about lust.”

The Conqueror withdrew further so she could gain better control of the situation.

Gabrielle didn’t buy it as she moved on the log so that she straddled it and fully faced the Conqueror. “Don’t do this, Xena. I know this isn’t about lust… it something else and Hades if I know what it is because I’m not going to pull out my bardic tricks and whip something up. I don’t completely understand what’s between us but I know enough to know it isn’t something as shallow as lust. Do you think I’d press this so hard if it was just about lust?”

The Conqueror knew it was true what Gabrielle spoke but it was hard to accept in her position. “I do want you, Gabrielle.” She steadied her gaze on the concerned bard. “Whatever is between us I just don’t trust because you’re right that we don’t understand what it is.”

Gabrielle scooted closer to her friend and gathered the larger hands into hers. “I know you don’t trust it, Xena and I understand but if you don’t trust it then trust me.” She tried to bring Xena down closer by tugging her. “I really do want to be with you and on several levels. I don’t want to go back there.” She freed a hand and pointed in the direction of Artemisia. “I don’t want to be that far from you.” She lowered her hand. “I thought I did because I thought I could find some meaning with the Amazons. I only realized I lost that meaning when we separated and I don’t want to do that again.”

“This won’t be simple, Gabrielle.”

“Gods forbid it was too,” rebuked the bard. “I don’t mind complications in my life when it’s something I want so bad.” She squeezed the ruler’s hands. “And I want you… I want to find out what this is… together.”

“I don’t want you to end up hurt in this,” confessed the Conqueror. She leaned closer to Gabrielle finally. “Not again.”

“Well I can pretty much guarantee we’re both going to hurt each other,” reminded the bard. “Just comes with the territory but its different when it’s done with intent.”

Xena agreed with Gabrielle’s words. She sighed but said nothing as she read the determination painted in Gabrielle’s eyes and across her face.

Gabrielle took the offense by straightening for some height and leaned in again. She captured the Conqueror in a soft, tender kiss in hopes it’d draw her out. She pulled back with her fingertips grazing over Xena’s cheek. “Please, Xena.”

The Conqueror closed her eyes and whispered, “If we’re together then there can’t be anybody else for either of us so long as we’re together.”

Gabrielle softy smiled because she knew it was more Xena’s declaration than anything else. She then discovered intent blue eyes reading her.

“Promise me if this gets too much for you, Gabrielle that you tell me?”

“I will,” promised the bard. “I trust you.”

The Conqueror finally responded by leaning in for a kiss that started soft then pressed harder. Gabrielle easily met her back and she moaned at the end of the feverish kiss. She then grinned at the bard’s darkened features after the kiss but as excited as she was to be with Gabrielle she couldn’t hide from the nervousness. Never had anybody in her life made her nervous but this younger woman and that fact reeked havoc on her thoughts now. Xena was hard press to set her fears aside about how this would go between them. She tried to remain focused on her coursing sensations while helping Gabrielle sit in her lap.

Gabrielle enjoyed her advantage from straddling the ruler’s lap. She grasped Xena’s broad, padded shoulders and leaned in for another kiss. She was excited by the sensations and her skin meeting the ruler’s skin or her leathers. She tried to remain balance in Xena’s lap but her focus was diverted by the searing kiss.

An alarming realization about being with Gabrielle came to mind at the end of the kiss. The Conqueror unexpectedly broke the kiss, which caused Gabrielle to lose her equilibrium then without warning the pair lost their narrow stability on the log. The Conqueror landed flat on her back off the log then the air was shot out of by the bard’s body slamming against hers.

Gabrielle remained still then unexpectedly she started to laugh and she buried her tear streaked face into the ruler’s neck. “Oh… my gods,” she rasped between the fit of laughter.

Xena didn’t know what else to do beside join in at the unpredictable moment. She wrapped her arms around the small woman on top of her and tried to untangle their legs as not to hurt the bard’s ankle.

Gabrielle tried to settle down but the fact that they just had such a terrible episode was beyond her. Here she was about to sleep with the rumored ruler, who was known for her sexual appetite that matched a predator and yet they ended up falling off a log. It would take her awhile to figure out why it’d happened.

Xena breathed deeply then quietly asked, “Are you okay?”

“I’m great,” muttered the giggling bard. She lifted her head then her amused features met the ruler’s. “We better not tell anybody about this one, my liege.”

The Conqueror sighed and rolled her eyes. “Let’s try the bedrolls.”

“Maybe that would be safer,” joked the bard.

“Don’t ruin my reputation, bard,” teased the Conqueror.

Gabrielle got to her feet carefully with her friend’s help. She then was slowly led to the bedrolls and she let the Conqueror moved them together for a more comfortable situation.

Xena straightened up but came closer to the bard.

Gabrielle read the underlying tension in the Conqueror’s body. She slipped her arms around Xena’s waist and whispered, “You’re nervous.”

The ruler knew it was a keen observation but she couldn’t admit it out loud.

Gabrielle softly smiled at how precious she found that about the Conqueror. “I’m nervous too,” she admitted in hopes it’d ease Xena on some level. “Come on, turn around.” She kept her weight on her other foot while she helped with the armor after getting the sheathed sword off.

Xena dropped her heavy armor away from the bedroll but in her left hand was her sword. She quickly placed her sword and chakram then breast dagger close by the bedrolls yet not in a dangerous spot. She saw that Gabrielle sat down on the bedrolls, which gave her an opportunity to remove her boots and greaves. She put those aside with her armor then finally sat on the bedroll beside the bard. “You’re sure about this?”

“Very sure,” answered the nearing bard. Gabrielle lured the ruler in for another kiss to warm them back up. She sensed the tension streaming through the Conqueror but she was set to work it out of her. “Come on,” she whispered after the kiss, “I know you can’t normally be like this.”

“I’m not,” agreed the ruler. “I just….”

Gabrielle stroked the Conqueror’s cheek and smiled warmly. “It’s okay. It’s just us and it’s not perfect but… it is to me.” She leaned in for another kiss to persuade the ruler.

Xena’s response grew as she let go of the control. Gabrielle’s words having helped settle her self arguing. She warmed up by the third kiss and was pushing Gabrielle down on her back. She lay on top of the bard but kept her weight off of her mostly.

The bard smiled up at the now calmer ruler. “Xena?”

The Conqueror raised an eyebrow but her eyes were rather smoldering.

“Not to… um….” Gabrielle started to blush. “Not to add any pressure to this situation but I thought this deserves warning.”

The Conqueror’s eyebrow hiked up even further if it was possible. “Gaaabrielle,” she drew out in a sultry tone.

The bard shivered at the tone but she sheepishly smiled then muttered, “I know I’m the Amazon Queen and all but I haven’t really….” She waved her hand at their current position and situation. “I’ve just never….”

The Conqueror audibly groaned, her eyes now closed and her head slumped. “Don’t tell me you could still join Hestia, Gabrielle?”

“Yes,” squeaked the bard. “I always told Perdicus we were going to wait until he and I were married. I… uh….” She stopped and just groaned with her eyes shutting.

Xena lifted her head and gazed at the distraught bard below her. She lowered her head and kissed the bard lightly while whispering, “I don’t want me to be your first experience, Gabrielle. You deserve-”

“Let me decide that,” cut off the bard. “It is my choice and I’ve made it.” She waited a beat then pulled out her trumpet card. “Please, Xena I want it to be with you.”

The Conqueror couldn’t help a soft laugh at the ego stroking technique. “You’re relentless, Gabrielle.”

“I like to have my way when it comes to you.”

“You’re very good at it too,” admitted the ruler.

“I’ll keep it a secret between us,” teased the bard. She then was kept quiet by a light kiss. Then she tensed up sharply when Xena’s lips lowered to her neck. She wasn’t a hundred percent sure what to expect tonight but she was educated enough to know the general process. She wasn’t an expert on male-female sex and two women, well that was slightly beyond her but she had to guess it would be somewhat similar.

The Conqueror came back up to capture Gabrielle’s lips in a longer kiss. At the end of the kiss, she softly instructed, “Relax, Gabrielle.”

The bard nodded but she was still somewhat tense.

The Conqueror could understand why and she didn’t take it personal. She would go slow so it would ease Gabrielle into everything. She also had no idea what Gabrielle would enjoy so she began testing the waters. After a kiss, she tried the bard’s left ear, which made the bard respond well.

Gabrielle’s moans filtered in the air and her left hand dug into the furs while her right arm was around the ruler’s back.

Xena moved and tried the bard’s right ear with the same repeating patterns with her tongue and sucking.

Gabrielle couldn’t help her reaction and she started to giggle. When Xena slightly pulled back she quietly explained, “It tickles… don’t ask me why.”

The Conqueror’s frame shook from a silent laugh but she decided to bring back the mood swiftly. She gently nipped the bard’s ear knowing that wouldn’t tickle a bit.

Gabrielle sucked in her breath and her nails dug into the ruler’s back.

Xena still sensed the tension in the younger woman but she continued to work at it. She came to Gabrielle’s neck and placed a few soft kisses in calculated spots. She then took bites more to the sides, which brought moans out of the bard.

The bard felt her body burn all over but it was centered between her legs and her desire heightened. Xena’s hot lips left her upper chest then suddenly appeared against her bare stomach. She softly moaned and her back somewhat arched into Xena’s kisses. Then Xena’s hand was sliding up the outside of her thigh, which enticed the bard.

The Conqueror brought her lips brushing over the bard’s navel then her tongue lightly touched over the soft skin. She didn’t expect the light giggle from the bard again. She lifted her head and smirked when Gabrielle lifted her flushed face. “Another ticklish spot?”

The Amazon Queen showed a coy smile and groaned while dropping her head down. She threaded her hands through Xena’s hair and managed to pull the cascading raven hair back so that it would tickle her stomach as badly.

The Conqueror moved back up to Gabrielle to steal a kiss. She sensed Gabrielle’s hands going to the back of her neck instead. She lifted up some to study Gabrielle’s passionate face and it made her grin. She huskily whispered, “Sit up for me.” Xena rocked back some until she was more upright.

Gabrielle sat up then captured Xena’s lips for another kiss.

The Conqueror busied her hands behind Gabrielle’s back. She tried to work the leather halter’s clasp in the back but wasn’t succeeding. She ended the kiss.

Gabrielle determined the agitated features of the ruler because of the top. “Wait.” Her imagination already predicted the ruler going for her dagger to solve the problem of the disagreeing top. “There’s a trick to it.” She reached behind and her fingers mixed with Xena’s around the metal clasp.

The Conqueror bared her teeth and growled from frustration. “This is ridiculous.” She was surprisingly breathing heavily.

The bard helped Xena get the clasp but she noted something interesting; Xena’s hands were shaking. “You’re still nervous?” Her features showed her compassion and she thought it was enduring of the ruler.

“I’m not,” lied the ruler. She released an annoyed sigh when the clasp freed and she was able to slip the top off Gabrielle. Together they set the top aside and Xena lowered Gabrielle back down.

Gabrielle closed her eyes then she took a sharp intake of air when Xena’s leather brushed over her hardening nipples. She was entranced by another searching kiss. Then her breathing escalated as Xena’s lips made the slow journey down her neck, across her chest, and pausing beside her right nipple. Her muscle tightened against her skin around her arms and legs when Xena’s hot hand slid up her left side and closer to her other breast but not too close.

Xena toyed with Gabrielle by running the tip of her tongue around the tanned ring of the nipple but never touching. She nipped just beside, which caused Gabrielle to growl between frustration and desire. Then finally her tongue lightly grazed across the waiting nipple but she lifted her head and lightly blew across the moist nipple.

Gabrielle followed her instincts to correct the torment. She arched her back and was pleased by the silky lips going around her throbbing nipple. She groaned while she clung to her partner’s stronger body.

The Conqueror tested the bard’s pleasures by first rolling her tongue over the nipple then flickering it. She was met by digging nails on her back followed by moans. She then pulled back slightly so that her teeth clamped the nipple then she increased the bite. She tensed at the extra sharp hiss from the bard and she knew it was too hard. Xena eased her pressure and brought her tongue back over the nipple to sooth any previous pain.

The bard freed her left hand and placed it over Xena’s right hand by her other breast. She urged Xena’s hand closer to her breast then overtop.

The Conqueror grinned at Gabrielle’s silent instruction to knead her other breast. She did so while Gabrielle’s hand stayed on top of hers. She kept her lips over the other nipple and her tongue working it. After several more heartbeats, Xena paused and freed from the left breast. She came back up for a kiss.

Gabrielle opened her eyes at the end of the kiss. “Don’t stop this.”

“I’m not… just switching sides,” murmured the grinning ruler. True to her word, she kissed her way down to the other breast and repeated much of what she discovered Gabrielle enjoyed. Xena kept moving slowly through the rhythms and at first it was increasing awkward as she didn’t know Gabrielle’s body. The slow pleasure led her to certain conclusions about what Gabrielle really enjoyed, somewhat enjoyed, and what was her limitations. She even discovered yet another ticklish spot just at the lowest point of her abdomen and Gabrielle almost squirmed right out of the bedrolls.

This first time together wasn’t perfect as most poetic bards would write as each move was new and unknown for the couple. The Conqueror had never once been nervous during sex but tonight was different when she discovered Gabrielle’s body. She was slow, cautious, and for the first time she felt pleased by giving to her partner and that new experience was precious to the ruler. Gabrielle, at a few moments, felt rather embarrassed by all her ticklish spots that came to light between them. She then was convinced that Xena would rip the Amazon skirt apart when another clasp refused to agree but Gabrielle hastily solved the problem.

Xena then demonstrated how easily her leathers slipped free. Then when her skin met Gabrielle’s, their moans of pleasure and desire mixed in the air. Gabrielle felt amazed by the feeling of her moist skin gliding across Xena’s but she grew tense when Xena’s fingers came closer to her center.

The Conqueror was resting partially on her left side, next to Gabrielle, but her legs tangled with the bard’s right. She observed how Gabrielle had her legs open in anticipation yet the strain coursing through the small body was evident. She somewhat lifted her body up by her left arm and gently gazed into Gabrielle’s nervous face. “If you relax it’ll be easier.”

Gabrielle nodded then lifted her head some for a soft kiss. The kiss kept her attention and coaxed her while Xena traced her fingers through Gabrielle’s moist, warm folds. She deeply inhaled at the end of the kiss but peered up into the dark blue eyes above her.

Xena offered a smile to settle the bard. She lowered her head and whispered, “Are you sure?”

“More than anything,” assured Gabrielle. She received a quick kiss but when Xena lifted away some she felt the longer fingers slowly ease into her. Gabrielle slowly lowered back down into the furs but her gaze kept on Xena’s watching face.

The Conqueror carefully moved her fingers forward and observed Gabrielle’s face for any indication of pain. She then paused when there was an abrupt stopping point so she lowered her head closer to Gabrielle’s. “You truly are beautiful, Gabrielle… thank you.”

Gabrielle instantly had a smile and her eyes burned but she laced her fingers through Xena’s tresses when Xena’s fingers moved forward. Her eyes closed and a brief display of pain flashed past followed by a sharp breath. Her body tensed all over but she didn’t tighten her grip on Xena.

The Conqueror watched intently but stayed her movements for a beat. She let her younger lover get use to the sensations because Gabrielle was extremely stiff and any sudden moving could worsen it. She lowered her head and gave slow kisses to ease the bard.

Gabrielle settled against the furs and her shoulders lowered back down. She left fingers didn’t dig into the furs as much while her right hand massaged the ruler’s neck. Her stomach muscle hid back under her skin and her body focused on the beautiful feeling of Xena inside of her.

Gradually Xena pulled her fingers back closer to the entrance, paused for a beat, and moved them back deeper. She kept the slow pace and was relieved to detect Gabrielle’s inside muscles accepting her better.

Gabrielle partially opened her eyes but they were heavy from desire again. She smirked and huskily whispered, “I’m repeating myself but… does this thing go faster?”

The Conqueror chuckled and grinned at the smart remark. She kept her slow tempo just to frustrate her partner; her vibrating voice asked, “What’s it worth to you?”

The bard figured she could play too as she quipped, “What’s it worth to you later?” She quickly received an answer when the rhythm doubled and her thought process shattered by pleasure.

Xena grew smug at seeing Gabrielle lifted her hips into the motions. She enjoyed seeing the bard widening her legs in a demand. Xena took an advantage by capturing the nearby nipple and teasing it.

“Oh gods,” whimpered the excited bard. She clawed her right hand into the furs while her left hand slipped to Xena’s shoulder and her nails dug into muscles.

The Conqueror’s pace grew faster and faster to match the bard’s hungry desire. She pulled back from teasing the nipple, which allowed Gabrielle to lift her head. Xena enjoyed seeing how Gabrielle actually watched Xena thrust her fingers in and out. Xena realized it seemed to bring Gabrielle an extra wave of pleasure. Together, she and Gabrielle watched Xena pump the bard faster and harder.

Then one of the deep thrusts sent Gabrielle past her highest point. She gave a cry and Xena’s fingers stilled inside of her from the sudden tightness. Gabrielle slumped into the hot furs while her body flashed with more than she currently understood. Her mind was blank of thoughts and her emotions quiet for several heartbeats.

The Conqueror very carefully withdrew her fingers so that nothing would hurt. She knew Gabrielle may be sore later but right now that wasn’t something Gabrielle felt in this moment. She felt both of Gabrielle’s legs tangling with hers then short arms coming around her waist.

Nothing at first seemed perfect during their first time but it was beautiful as Xena learned Gabrielle’s innocence and Gabrielle experienced Xena’s most hidden side. It wasn’t until Gabrielle felt Xena completely in her that her tension had faded away and something else passed into her, which she didn’t understand yet but she knew it was beautiful. The bard couldn’t imagine any other experience being so perfect to her; it was her sweet memory for life.

The Conqueror held tight to the fact this felt like her first time because she found pleasure by giving it. It was her personal secret. Yet it showed because she normal would separate from her sex partners after being with them and instead she pulled Gabrielle into her body.

Gabrielle’s breathing started to regulate and she nuzzled her face into her lover’s sticky neck. She turned onto her right side and was able to snuggle deeper. “Thank you, Xena.”

The Conqueror ran her fingertips up and down Gabrielle’s back lightly just to soothe her. “Thank you too, Gabrielle.” She closed her eyes as the words, you don’t know how thankful either, passed through her head.

It wasn’t long before the couple faded into sleep. Xena was amazed she was fairly spent like Gabrielle because typically afterwards she found herself more energized and needy. It seemed like a mystery to the ruler but she accepted it happily as a few candlemarks claimed her. She was awaken by nimble fingers playing with certain parts of her body.

Gabrielle followed her partner’s earlier demonstrations yet she realized Xena’s enjoyments were different compared to hers. Where Gabrielle would prefer lighter nips Xena found pleasure in harder ones. The bard was quite intrigued that her lover seemed to find gratification from having her stomach given attention. Gabrielle also counted at least a dozen various scars of different lengths, depths, and widths from old battles and she made notes to ask later. She also slowed on the newer scar on the ruler’s left side, made by Alti, and she kissed it in gratification for it healing.

When Gabrielle came close to entering Xena, she moved more on top of the ruler. She sought Xena’s support on how to please her properly and at first she was uneasy in being able to do it. Under the Conqueror’s confidence, Gabrielle quickly learned the right pace and somehow Xena showed her how to use her thumb over her clit. Gabrielle grinned wildly at the immediate response this technique brought out of the ruler.

The Conqueror fell silent in her instructions when she couldn’t possible think anymore. Gabrielle’s quick fingers stroked her well while her clit was being rolled. A few moments Xena grew closer to the top but when Gabrielle’s thumb lost position it made her growl out of frustration.

Gabrielle steady her self frustration from what she thought was messing up. She calmed her lover by kissing her then centered her focus on Xena’s moving hips. She followed the consistent beat and learned it quickly. She returned to the faster pace and she found her grin again when Xena moaned in pleasure. The Conqueror’s pleasure set Gabrielle forward and she tried faster.

The Conqueror released her right hand from the furs and laced her fingers through Gabrielle’s freehand. She opened her eyes and locked on the beautiful features of the bard above her.

Gabrielle’s earlier grin was coaxed into a smile because of Xena’s exposed emotions. She read the mix of emotions clearly slipping through the ruler’s brilliant eyes. It made Gabrielle feel incredible to see the real Xena before her.

Xena bit her lower lip, her eyes shutting, and her body arching ever higher. She didn’t overly squeeze Gabrielle’s hand but held tight while her passions over threw her senses. She was shocked by one last jolt from Gabrielle’s unexpected thrust then it all calmed. Her breath held for a few beats then her chest fell quickly as her labored breathing returned.

Gabrielle mimicked Xena’s earlier administrations of removing her fingers from the tight swell of Xena’s center. She then kissed Xena’s cheek and rubbed her cheek against Xena’s in an affectionate manner.

The Conqueror combed her left hand through the bard’s hair and turned her head to place a kiss on Gabrielle’s temple. She then murmured, “Thank you.”

Gabrielle nervously asked, “It was okay?” She then started to toy with the Conqueror’s Gaelic necklace.

Xena slightly grinned at the worries. The sex she’d had in her life had always been the same but this was different than all of it. It was that difference that brought her to a more satisfying climax than previous times. “Very okay.”

The bard rested her face against the ruler’s so that they couldn’t see each other but their lips were a brush away from their ears. “I’ve heard it gets better when the partners get to know each other’s bodies….?”

“Mmmm.” The Conqueror slipped her left hand across the bard’s back while Gabrielle’s hand clung to her shoulder. They still held hands at her right side. “It does over time… as we learn more.”

Gabrielle gently chuckled and whispered, “I learned a lot tonight.”

“You’re a quick study too,” teased the Conqueror.

Gabrielle kissed the side of Xena’s neck then remarked, “It’s a bard thing… being good with my hands.”

Xena heartedly laughed after she twisted her head away. She turned back when Gabrielle lifted her head.

The bard mirrored the smile that showed on her lover’s face. “I like this.”

“What’s that?”

Gabrielle shrugged and answered, “You and me… nothing and nobody else here.”

“Ah.” The Conqueror understood what her young partner meant, her features slightly dark at the thought of returning to the duties of the realm.

“I know,” muttered the bard, “duty will call soon.” She tilted her head then decided on a certain truth. “That’s what made this so special… to me.”

Xena completely agreed. She ran circles over the bard’s bare back. “To me too.” She then freed both her hands and reached around for the furs to cover them. With a quick glance to the fire, she decided it would last the rest of the night and the now warming furs would keep them warm tonight. Her cooling skin warmed back up from her body heat and Gabrielle’s trapped under the furs.

Gabrielle curled up against her lover and rested her head against the broad shoulder. “It’s okay?”

The Conqueror understood the Amazon’s underlying question since they were snuggled up together. “Yes. Go to sleep because dawn will be here soon.”

Gabrielle yawned some then settled in comfortably then sleepily muttered, “Sleep well… my liege.”

The Conqueror’s lips thinned from her consideration at how the bard said her title. She tasted a very different tone in the title as if it was more of an endearment than just her title. Her response was a kiss to Gabrielle’s head then she quieted down until her dreamscape came for her.

Helios’s wakening wasn’t too far away from when the new lovers fell asleep. Apollo mounted his chariot and started his daily journey across the sky. The sun’s rays streamed through the darkness and chased Artemis’s moon away. The gentle red hues washed over the new lovers curled up under the furs and beside an almost dead fire.

The Conqueror, of her great realm, carefully slipped out from the tangle of arms and legs. She silently put on her leathers, boots, and greaves but she left the rest for later. She ran her fingers through her messy hair while unknowingly smiling down at her younger lover. She actually felt stumped by all the changes her life had seen in these past moons but she welcomed them all. She decided Gabrielle would sleep for awhile longer and this gave her time to prepare a quick breakfast and warm up water in the renewed fire.

Gabrielle slowly sat up but her right arm clamped the fur over her bare chest. She blinked a few times so that the fuzziness worked out of her eyes. She tilted her head at seeing the Conqueror knelt beside the fire and pouring steaming water into mugs.

Xena slightly grinned at the young woman then greeted, “Good morning.” She got to her feet with the brewing mugs and took a seat on the furs beside Gabrielle.

The Amazon Queen just bit back her yawn then she grinned. “Good morning too.” She accepted the very warm mug from her lover. She happily groaned at the tea flavor.

The ruler sat cross legged and quietly sipping on her Chin tea. She cupped her mug with both hands when she settled it into her lap. “How’s your ankle feel?”

Gabrielle stared down at her fur covered ankle in question. She wiggled her foot under the fur and it didn’t bother her yet she knew it could be a different story once she stood on it. “It doesn’t hurt to move it around.”

“That’s a good sign,” agreed the ruler. She then set her mind when she stated, “You’re going to ride Argo today.”

“Ugh,” grumbled the Amazon. “And I can’t complain my way out of that one either.”

Xena chuckled but lost her amusement. “Afraid not, bard.”

Gabrielle peered up into vivid blue eyes that were more alive than Gabrielle could ever recall. She went still in the moment and Gabrielle enjoyed how her lover called her a bard in an affectionate manner. She sighed contently then asked, “Will we make it to Corinth tonight?”

The Conqueror considered the question as her eyebrow slowly climbed up. “We can be.”

The bard’s lips puckered as she carefully calculated what was being said to her. She sipped on her tea to give her an extra beat then she asked, “We don’t need to rush back, do we? Or do you have to be back for… something?”

The ruler took another swallow of her warm tea before answering, “I just have scrollwork waiting me and it’s not going anywhere.” She saw that hope written in the bard’s eyes so she made her decision. “We’ll get there tomorrow morning or so.”

Gabrielle agreed by her smile. She then wiggled out of the furs to get dressed.

The Conqueror passed the time by getting the breakfast together and she quickly ate with Gabrielle. Afterwards she hastily walked down to the stream to clean the dishes. She knelt beside the shore and submerged the mugs in the chilled water.

The water was slowly moving through the stream but it rippled when the mugs broke the surface. When the mugs came back out the ripples faded away.

The Conqueror instincts heightened abruptly and she saw the smiling face reflecting in the water. She jumped to her feet with the mugs forgotten on the bank. She held up her hands in defense but she visibly relaxed and murmured, “M’Lila?”

M’Lila’s smile brightened and she silently stepped closer to her friend. “How are you, my friend?”

The Conqueror was dumbfounded but she stepped closer as her hands went back to her sides. “I’m well. Why are you here? How are you here?”

The Gaelic warrior signaled the necklace around the ruler’s neck.

Xena peered down and saw that it was glowing much like it had against Alti. She returned her focus to her friend. “What kind of magic is this?”

M’Lila stepped closer then quietly answered, “It is not magic, Xena but power from the earth mother.”

“You mean Danu?” At M’Lila’s nod, Xena stated, “You knew the emblem would protect me from Alti.”

“I could not let you face her completely alone,” urged the Gaelic. “You and Alti would have killed each other if you had no protection against her shamanism.”

The Conqueror was solemnly but she sincerely offered, “Thank you, M’Lila… I owe you my life again.”

M’Lila felt her friend’s compassion and she instinctively reached out to touch Xena but her hand passed through the ruler’s shoulder.

Xena saw it and the even sadder expression on M’Lila’s face afterwards. “Why did you come?”

“I came to thank you,” answered the Gaelic. At seeing Xena’s perplexed features she explained everything. “Borias, Chuang, and I have been rejudged because you defeated Alti. Originally Hades had been furious we helped you escape but when Alti was defeated the souls she’d taken were released. Hades and the judges decided that our motives in saving you were good and just.”

The Conqueror became stunned but she was relieved too. “Where are you now?”

M’Lila softly smiled and answered, “We have been moved to the meadows. It will not be long before our karmas will be granted life again.”

“What of Lyceus?”

“Lyceus has found peace in Elysia now… I hear he spends time with Gabrielle’s family.” M’Lila enjoyed her friend’s further shocked features. “Lyceus visits me on occasions and tells me such.”

A thought occurred to the ruler so she hastily asked, “Did Lyceus mention which of Gabrielle’s family members he sees?”

“Her mother and father,” replied the Gaelic.

The Conqueror felt hope for Gabrielle’s sister at that point but she wouldn’t rest faith in it yet.

“I have heard your thoughts often,” mentioned M’Lila, “I am happy you have found Gabrielle.”

Xena glanced back towards the camp then to her friend. “So am I.”

M’Lila tilted her head then observed a hidden aspect about the ruler. “It has been a long time since you’ve been this scared, my friend.”

The Conqueror’s head drooped but she rose it up again. “I have so much I could lose now, M’Lila… and I don’t want to risk it.”

“You will find your balance, Xena… and Gabrielle will help you do such.” The Gaelic read the tension softening in the ruler.

The Conqueror’s attention snapped to the left when she heard somebody approaching.

M’Lila turned her head to the right and her smile showed at seeing the young, small blond only several paces away.

Gabrielle stopped and stared very confusing at the darkly tanned woman standing next to her lover. “I… I was concerned… when you didn’t return sooner.” She adjusted her staff in her right hand but her eyes flickered between Xena and the stranger.

Xena signaled for the bard to come closer and when she stood beside her she held out her hand to M’Lila. “Gabrielle, this is M’Lila.”

The Amazon Queen smiled warmly and out of habit she held up her right hand. “I’ve heard so much about you. I’m sorry we didn’t get to meet before you were… killed… you’re dead.”

M’Lila’s smile went into an amused grin. She saw the outstretched hand that went back to the bard’s side so she peered up at her tall friend. “You did not mention she was so cute, Xena?”

The bard’s mouth was wide and she glimpsed up at her lover for help. That’s when Gabrielle first noticed that the Gaelic necklace was quite lively by a golden aura.

The Conqueror lifted her right hand and rested it on Gabrielle’s closest shoulder. “M’Lila came to tell me that she, Borias, Chuang, and my brother have been rejudged for better afterlives.”

“By the gods,” murmured the Amazon, who returned her attention to the Gaelic. “Why?”

M’Lila rested her hands on her hips. “It is because Xena has defeated Alti for the Greater Good.”

“You were rewarded for helping then,” concluded the bard. After M’Lila’s nod Gabrielle’s anxiety eased about the ghost of M’Lila being here. “That’s wonderful.”

M’Lila smiled at those simple words. “I owe you as well, Gabrielle for standing beside Xena when she was at her darkest.” Her focus was on Gabrielle but she felt Xena watching her. “Xena has been lost much of her life but you have guided her back.”

Gabrielle shook her head then claimed, “I only pointed her in the right direction… Xena found her way home.” Her shoulder was squeezed gently so she peered up at her partner.

“I didn’t do it alone,” murmured the ruler.

“You never will have to,” quietly promised the bard.

M’Lila sadly smiled at the growing bond between the women. She’d always hoped to create such a bond with her friend yet she was happy seeing her friend discover her life again. “I must return to meadows, my friend.” She tilted her head then spoke to the bard. “It was a pleasure to finally meet you, Gabrielle.”

“You as well, M’Lila.” The Amazon Queen flashed a smile.

M’Lila nodded then gave Xena a tender smile. “Stay well, my friend… our paths will cross again.” She held up her left hand.

The Conqueror lifted her right hand and she almost felt her palm touch M’Lila’s but then her fingers passed through M’Lila’s smaller fingers. Then she sadly watched as the smiling Gaelic vanished like steam. “Goodbye, my friend,” she emotionally murmured.

Gabrielle watched the ruler’s arm lower then she slowly turned around. “You okay?”

The Conqueror’s chest no longer radiated yellow from the necklace but she tried to smile. “Yes. We need to break camp.”

“Right behind you,” promised the bard, who leaned onto her good ankle.

It wasn’t long before the pair found themselves about to depart the now empty camp. Gabrielle was already on Argo and she was about to slip her boots into the stirrups but then she felt a solid hand on her thigh.

“Keep your feet out of the stirrups.”

“I’ll fall out,” argued the bard.

The Conqueror faintly grinned but patted the warm thigh under her hand. It only took her three beats to haul her armored body into the saddle, behind the smaller woman.

“Oh,” murmured the bard.

The ruler’s grin widened as she settled into the saddle. “Comfortable?”

“Mmm,” agreed Gabrielle. She then was about to lean into her partner but she stopped. “Can you tie this to the saddlebags?” she questioned as she removed her mask.

The Conqueror did so without hesitation. She then twisted back in the saddle, gathered up the reins, and gave Argo the signal to begin the walk towards the road. “We’ll camp about two candlemarks south of Corinth.”

Gabrielle mutely agreed. She grasped the saddle to anchor her but then she caught sight of the ruler jumbling up the reins into her right hand. Next she felt the ruler’s strong arm snake across her waist and hold her tightly. It made a smile shape her lips. “You know, we should just not go to Corinth.”

The Conqueror could tell her lover was playing the bard; a wistful dream was on the horizon and she decided to indulge it. “Oh?”

“Melinda told me that you and I were partners in her world… that we fought for the Greater Good.” The bard tilted her head and she spotted the road not far away. “We just roamed the countryside and helped people.”

Xena tilted her head and was provided with a profile view of the younger woman. “So I was a do-gooder huh?”

The Amazon Queen tasted the witticism in the ruler’s voice. “Not exactly… she mentioned that Xena, in her world, followed much of the same path as you did here.”

“Oh?” Xena straightened up in the saddle. “What changed me?”

“Who changed you,” corrected the bard, “some man by the name of Hercules.” She noted her lover’s quietness so she filled the air again. “We could do a lot of good.”

“And have we not already?” countered the ruler.

Gabrielle smiled at the memories of her and the Conqueror working together back at the fortress during those moons. “We have already… its just different.” She shook her head then mentioned, “In Corinth we must adhere to certain rules. We are watched there. We have deadlines to maintain.” She shook her head. “To be on the road is to be….”

“Free,” finished the Conqueror in a low voice. “A long time ago I realized my throne to the realm meant my life long servitude. I am a slave to the polis.”

“Do you really see it as such?” argued the queen.

“Sometimes.” Xena went silent as she carefully considered it more. Unknowingly she ran her thumb up and down her lover’s taut stomach in sync to her thoughts. “I am bound to the polis by my throne but I am committed to Greece by my will.”

A thought occurred to the bard and she gently asked, “If you could descend the throne, knowing it would go in good hands, would you do it?”

The Conqueror was quiet for some time.

Gabrielle waited patiently as she knew she’d receive an answer. She gazed down the road they’d just rode onto and it was fairly quiet.

“No,” definitely answered the ruler.

The Amazon Queen twisted and peered up into her friend’s determined features. “The power?”

“At one point in my life, yes.” Xena saw the confusion written in her lover so she finally answered, “The peace.”

“But if the realm is left in capable-”

“You can’t know how the enemies are, Gabrielle,” softly reminded the ruler. “You cannot trade one ruler for another and not expect change either within the realm or outside of it.”

Gabrielle shook her head then she challenged, “If it’s about the peace then… then why the Norselands?”

The Conqueror knew the bard was questioning her motives and typically she wouldn’t allow such from anybody. She wasn’t prickled or defensive by the question because Gabriele clearly was trying to understand her. “I plan to move my legions to the east… there are invasions from the Germanics.”

“You’re not taking the Norselands?”

“No,” murmured the ruler, “and I want peace from the Germanics but it won’t happen anytime soon.”

“What changed your mind?”

Xena sensed the bard relaxing into her body, which she took as a good sign. “You changed my mind.”

Gabrielle was stunned by the honest confession. She rested her hand on the top of the saddle horn and she let out a long exhale.

“I am only one woman, Gabrielle… I cannot rule the entire known-world from my throne in Corinth.”

“Then what do you mean to do?”

The Conqueror wasn’t sure her route yet but she knew she’d find a new way to do it. “I don’t know yet but… I could use your help on it.”

The Amazon Queen was silent for awhile. She sensed the ruler tensing against her because she was taking so long to reply to the offer. She moved her hand off the saddle horn and covered Xena’s with hers. “As your advisor of state?”

The ruler conceded that it would be the best starting point for them. “Yes.” She lowered her head then whispered, “I cannot speak for all of the realm’s future but I can speak for Greece’s. Greece will remain in internal peace so long as I stay in power.”

“You love Greece,” whispered the bard.

“How can I not?” argued the ruler. “I will not abandon my Grecian polis. I will not allow Greece to fall under the plunder of petty kings and warlords.” She shook her head then promised, “Nor will I allow the tyrant to return.”

Gabrielle squeezed her lover’s hand. “When we return from Egypt I will return as your state advisor… my liege.”

Xena lowered her head then placed a grateful kiss to her lover’s shoulder. She felt a smile touch her. “Thank you.” Her smile grew as she felt how Gabrielle had made an endearment of her title compared to anybody else that spoke it.

The day quietly passed without any trouble on the roads. Xena made sure to divert from any populated areas as she knew that may prove the opportunity for her to be identify. When they were roughly two candlemarks from Corinth she veered Argo off the road and stopped only when she discovered a nice clearing. The rest of the late afternoon kept the ruler busy as she prepared camp. Gabrielle tried to help as much as she could but her ankle kept her slow moving. The pain had subsided quite a bit however she was too fearful it’d be easy to encourage it to heal slower if she wasn’t careful.

When they finally settled down for dinner, they shared gentle banter and remained relax compared to what many would expect from the Conqueror. After cleaning up from dinner, Gabrielle happily reclined beside her lover in the furs and together they star gazed for the first time. The bard recalled doing this as a child with her sister much like Xena recalled doing this with her brother. Now they shared stars together.

“Look, it’s a dipper there, Xena.” The Amazon Queen extended her right arm and drew the constellations together with her index finger. “See?”

The Conqueror chuckled and replied, “What the Hades is a dipper?”

The bard dropped her arm to her stomach. “Yeah, you know, like one of those cups you use to draw water out of a bucket.”

Xena’s features crinkled together. “It looks like a bear to me.”

“A bear?” Gabrielle turned her head to her lover. “Where do you get a bear?”

The ruler sighed, lifted her left arm, and carefully traced the stars to form the bear she saw up there. “There’s the body.” She stopped and moved her hand further. “See its little ears?”

The bard’s lips puckered. “No.” Her imagination just wasn’t capturing this bear in the heavens. Abruptly she laughed but tried to weakly get out, “I’m the bard and I can’t even see this bear.”

The Conqueror sighed as her arm went back over her leather clad stomach. She was bare of her armor and weapons plus her boots were already off. She’d just taken her gauntlets off but she kept her arm bracers on for now. “I see a bear.” She glowered at her friend. “Tomato… Tamoto.”

Gabrielle went into a fit of giggles again and shook her head. She covered her reddened faced with her right hand then whispered, “And you said ‘little ears’. By the gods.” Her body was racked by more giggles.

“I think I may go sleep on the other side of the fire.” Xena started to sit up then was working to get onto her feet. Just as she suspected a small hand shot out and yanked her back onto the furs.

“I’m sorry.” Gabrielle’s tone though showed she was far from serious.

“Nope… that’s okay,” protested the ruler. She tried again to get up. “I try to be imaginative and I get poked at.”

The bard giggled again but not as much. She still held her lover’s wrist but she needed to act quickly. She used her best card and sweetly asked, “You’re not going to make me get up on my bad ankle to stop you, are you?”

“You’re rotten, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle smiled innocently.

The Conqueror was stern as her eyes narrowed. She relented after a deep sigh then she sunk back into the bedroll and furs. “Happy now?”

“Very.” The bard had her head turn to her partner. Her eyes glowed brightly.

The Conqueror softly smiled at the younger woman beside her. Gabrielle’s small hand still held her wrist but slowly moved up and their fingers laced together. But then it was Gabrielle’s longing in her eyes that made her worry. “What is it?” She squeezed the bard’s hand.

The Amazon Queen drove away her deep thoughts. “I guess… I… what are we… what we doing, Xena?” She signaled their linked hands by lifting them. “I’m not complaining or anything but… I mean I want to be with you but when we hit Corinth….”

Xena slowly exhaled because she’d been considering the same things. “We’re going to take it a day at a time, Gabrielle.”

The bard’s lips creased into a smile. “I know we will.” She turned back to the starry sky and softly spoke again. “I still have to be the Amazon Queen… I have to balance this along with being your state advisor.”

“Are you up to it?” carefully asked the ruler. “It will be a lot of work.”

“Just keep your current advisor until we get back from Egypt,” urged the bard.

“I will try,” teased the Conqueror.

Gabrielle chuckled but went sober again. “I want to do this… together.”

Xena turned her head and showed a smile. “We can do this together.”

“There’s so much we can do,” murmured the bard, “together we’ll be unlimited.”

“It won’t be easy, Gabrielle.” The Conqueror grew serious and held the listening bard’s gaze. “You will have many enemies… people will challenge you and the changes will take time.”

“It’s my choice,” reminded the bard, “and it’s what I want.” She then rolled onto her right side so that her body faced the ruler. “Besides I know you’ll be there by my side just like I will be at yours.”

Xena studied the young woman that held so much faith in her and the dreams. She felt as if she was hearing Lyceus all over again as he’d spoken of doing such things together. Again Xena found the stakes high but she found herself repeating what she told Lyceus so long ago. “We’ll make a stand, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle squeezed her lover’s hand tightly and her smile broadened.

Xena mirrored the smile back. Her mind knew this dangerous game from her past but she believed this time she was better prepared for what trials may lie ahead. Her heart wanted this too much to refuse it. She hadn’t felt this alive since her days with her brother and by the gods she wasn’t going to lose this.

Gabrielle rolled onto her stomach, which brought her partially on the ruler.

Xena met her halfway and drew the bard’s soft lips down for a warm kiss. The passions from last night were burning again and she would have Gabrielle again tonight. She couldn’t be sure if every time they were together would be as tender as tonight and last night were but she tried to keep it that way. Xena knew though that her ravaging passions were only lurking below and the right occasion would bring it out; she just hoped it would be something her and Gabrielle could work out.

Tonight though the couple found themselves in another passionate night and they didn’t feel as awkward as the first night. Gabrielle was still slightly nervous while Xena had worked past that point. Gabrielle was better familiar with her lover’s body but she continued to test and added more to the list. Xena, for her part, couldn’t recall having such a long night full of pleasure considering most of her sex partners barely lasted in her bed for two candlemarks. It wasn’t until about two candlemarks before dawn that Xena found herself with her worn lover wrapped around her body. Her body was able to cool off, her breathing regulating, and the exhaustion filled her but it was a beautiful night. She fell asleep with a smile.

The road to Corinth grew closer as it went from a dirt road into a cobblestone road with every bump included. A tall mare carried her master and a sleeping blond in the front of the saddle. The Conqueror felt a smile tug at her lips at returning to Corinth with Gabrielle not only with her but in her arms. Also just beyond the city gates waited her mother and even little Melpomene, who favored her greatly now.

Gabrielle stirred when the constant swaying stopped. She groaned and rubbed her face with her hand. “Are we… ‘ere?” she asked groggily.

The ruler shifted in the saddle some. “Yes but on the ridge. I want you to see something before we go into the city.”

The bard tried to rid of her sleep then she nodded. She was carefully helped off the horse and her sore ankle didn’t overly both her.

Xena pulled the reins over Argo’s face then tied them to a nearby tree. She then started forward while offering, “This way.”

The Amazon Queen slowly followed while tugging her jacket closer to her body to keep her warm. She ducked under a low branch and came out onto the ledge that overlooked the beautiful city surrounded by two seas. “Gods,” she whispered.

The Conqueror rested her hands on her hips while she scanned her capitol. “Come here… you can see it better from this spot.” She held out her left hand receptively.

The bard limped over and Xena’s hand went to the small of her back. The Conqueror then pointed for her towards the direction she should be observing. Her eyes widened then she breathless whispered, “By the gods.”

“No,” argued the ruler, “by the Conqueror.”

Gabrielle blinked and peered up at her lover then the joke sunk in with her. She laughed and shook her head. “Xena, that’s amazing… you accomplished it after so many could not do it.”

“I didn’t do much,” debated the ruler, “a few hundred slaves did the work. I just signed the contract.”

“Still.” Gabrielle shook her head but she remained dazzled by the great canal being complete. The two seas now mixed together in the Corinth Canal that would become legendary in much of the known-world. She then noted a particular. “It looks like you’re finishing the bridges?”

“Yes,” agreed Xena, “the project isn’t fully complete. We have to finish the three bridges but the temporary bridges have sufficed for now.”

“When do you think you’ll have the bridges complete?”

“I’d say in a moon or two… that’s why I don’t plan to rush off to Egypt.”

Gabrielle smirked and teased, “Oh is that why? I thought you were just trying to irritate Queen Cleopatra more… you’ve only been making her wait for several moons.”

“The realm comes first then my allies,” whispered the ruler. “When we come back from Egypt I will hold the Isthmian Games to celebrate the canal.” She then turned her attention to the bard. “I plan to free the slaves that completed this canal.”

The Amazon Queen went still but she locks eyes with her lover. She exhaled sharply then whispered, “You’re serious?”

“Yes,” answered the Conqueror. She turned back to the canal. “They have worked hard to build the canal for the realm. The project was not simple and many risked their lives for it.” She held her chin up. “They’ve more than earned their freedom. I plan to give them all offers to work for the realm as constructors if they wish to continue.” She already had her next construction plan in mind and it would require a lot of man power.

“Gods,” rasped the bard. She touched her forehead to make sure this was real. “That’s…” She shook her head. “I don’t know what to say.” She smiled as her hand lowered to her side. “That’s a wonderful thing you’re giving them.”

“It’s the least I or the realm could do,” murmured the ruler. She then pulled away from her thoughts. “We should go.” She then pulled her hand away from Gabrielle’s back and started for Argo.

Gabrielle remained still at her spot and stared at the canal. She saw the hard working slaves on the three bridges and she smiled at thinking about them being free soon. She could no longer misjudge her faith that she’d been resting in Xena.

The Conqueror sensed the bard coming back. She partially turned and saw the contentment surrounding the bard. She held out her hand to Gabrielle. “We’ll walk into Corinth… together.”

The bard stretched out her hand and she locked it with Xena’s. “Are we making a statement?”

Xena chuckled then grinned. “The Conqueror making a statement… impossible.” She tugged on Argo’s reins to draw her head up from the grass. She and Gabrielle marched through the woods back to the main road; her mare was in tow.

The Conqueror and the Amazon Queen slowly traveled down the busy road that led into Corinth. The citizens that passed by the dual rulers were either trying to pretend not to notice them or couldn’t help but stare. The Corinthians were very familiar with their ruler as well as the former rebel leader but what they did not know was that the rebel had become an Amazon Queen. Then what made each citizen gape were the lock hands between the former enemies.

Gabrielle, for her part, had become beat red all the way into the marketplace. She couldn’t believe she was doing this but when she studied Xena’s stoic features she wondered how the ruler could be so calm. They were silently announcing the true nature of their relationship to anybody that passed them and it wasn’t easy for Gabrielle not to grow shy. Where she found her resolve was in Xena’s ability to ignore the stares and whispers that floated around them. And if Gabrielle knew better she could easily win a wager that within three candlemarks everybody in Corinth would know about her and the Conqueror.

“I want to make a quick stop,” prompted the ruler.

Gabrielle kept searching the faces in the marketplace. She heard her lover so she followed off to the right when Xena targeted a particular stall.

The Conqueror slyly grinned when the man behind the stall blanched at seeing her.

“Ooo proud empress!” gushed the merchant.

“Salmoneus,” sharply greeted the ruler. She released her lover’s hand but brought her closer by touching her back in a hidden signal.

Salmoneus was instantly drawn to the petite blond beside the formable ruler. “By the gods… is this… no,” he breathed and brought his sly grin to the ruler. “I guess I won the wager after all.”

“What wager?” coldly questioned the ruler.

The merchant froze for a beat then quickly came out of it. “Just that… errr… well you see, my liege….”

Gabrielle decided it was best to save the poor man. “I hear you helped solve the mystery man,” she interrupted.

Salmoneus beamed at the small woman’s interjection. “Yes, I actually did… didn’t I?”

The Conqueror rolled her eyes then sighed. “Salmoneus,” dangerously drew out the ruler, “I brought Queen Gabrielle here so that you could meet her.” She stepped closer to the stall and informed, “It seems that the queen will be retaking her position as the state advisor.”

Salmoneus’s eyes flickered between the ruler and Amazon Queen. “She did such a fine job last time too, my liege.”

“She did,” agreed the Conqueror. “I do, however, believe that Queen Gabrielle may require your assistance later down the road.”

Gabrielle curiously peered up at her lover as she wondered where this would go.

The merchant leaned over his stall at this news. “Assistance with?” He looked between the bard and ruler.

“In a couple of moons or so the realm will be issuing a new decree and Queen Gabrielle will be handling this decree. She’ll need somebody to help her get this decree… publicized so to speak.” The Conqueror leaned closer to the merchant and sensual whispered, “I believe your… resources could be of assistance to my state advisor.”

Salmoneus smiled broadly at the ruler. “Indeed it could be, my liege.” He then showed more of a devilish grin. “Are we talking employment to the realm?”

“Perhaps,” granted the ruler. “Maybe we can strike a deal.”

Salmoneus jumped back with his hands up. “That last deal almost cost me my life! Noooo thank you.”

The Conqueror bit her lower lip at the deal that Melinda Pappas had struck with the merchant so long ago. “This one wouldn’t be so sensitive.”

Salmoneus narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

“Maybe some exclusive marketing rights would be more to your liking, Salmoneus,” suggested the ruler and she saw the merchant was clearly interested. “Just come by the fortress soon.” She stepped back to her spot beside her quiet lover.

“You said queen,” prompted the Salmoneus but his attention went to the bard.

Gabrielle grinned and solved the riddle for the merchant. “I am a queen of the Amazons.”

“Amazons?” Salmoneus stared stupidly at the bard. “I heard they were extinct.”

The Amazon Queen held out her arms in demonstration. “You heard wrong.” She dropped her arms to her side then peered up at her lover. “Ready, my liege?” She held out her hand.

The Conqueror’s eyes glowed warmly and she took the bard’s hand. She walked off while calling to Salmoneus. “Don’t forget to stop in, Sal.”

The merchant grew offended and he yelled, “That’s Salmoneus, my liege!” Then it struck him that the Conqueror and the Amazon Queen were holding hands as they walked off together. “By the gods… I could market this… the Conqueror and the Amazon Queen….” He eyes grew larger from an onslaught of marketing ideas. “I can see it now… tales of beauty and the beast!”

Finally the couple was welcomed into the fortress grounds and the Conqueror went to the stables to care for Argo. She wouldn’t allow many others touch her horse. Gabrielle decided to follow because she wasn’t completely comfortable with entering the fortress without her lover at her side. She remained quiet as she watched the Conqueror deal with untacking the mare. She was tempted to ask Xena about her intent with Salmoneus but she fell short when a voice floated through the stables to them.

“Welcome back to Corinth, my liege.”

The Conqueror offered her assistant a warm smile. “Hello, Galen.”

Galena dipped his head respectfully to the ruler then he smiled at the bard. “It is great to see you again, Gabrielle.”

The Amazon Queen smiled warmly at Galen because she was always fond of him and his warm disposition around her. “How have you been, Galen?”

“Excellent and yourself?”

Gabrielle glanced at her lover’s back then to the assistant. “I’m well, Galen.”

The Conqueror came over to the closed stall door and dropped her saddlebags there. “Is everything the way I left it, Galen?”

“Of course, my liege.” Galen’s eyes showed no deception otherwise. “You have been missed.”

The ruler grunted and returned to her mare. “Now that is a lie, Galen.”

“It is not,” argued the assistant, “Melpomene has inquired each day about your return.”

“Oh?” prompted the ruler.

“She wishes to continue her lessons.”

The Conqueror chuckled as she listened to her assistant. “I’m sure she does.”

“Your mother stopped in just yesterday to hear of your arrival or not.”

“How was she?” questioned the Conqueror.

Galen waited a beat then truthfully replied, “I believe she is worn from her hard work at the taverna.”

That made sense to the ruler as she knew her mother had been working towards buying the taverna from the current owner. “She was fine otherwise?”

“Yes, as well as can be.” Galen put his hands behind his back then turned back the bard. “Will you be staying here, Gabrielle or with Cyrene?”

Gabrielle wasn’t expecting the question so she turned her gaze to the Conqueror for assistance.

The Conqueror noted the prolonged silence and she knew it was meant for her. She filled the void with her final statement. “The choice is up to Queen Gabrielle, Galen.”

Galen’s lips puckered at hearing the title then he assessed the attire that Gabrielle wore now. He bowed his head then stated, “I apologize, Queen Gabrielle.”

The former rebel sighed and her hands found their way to her hips. “Don’t even start, Galen because you know I prefer my name.”

Galen’s lips curled into a grin but he knew he couldn’t step over the lines with his ruler here. “Of course, Queen Gabrielle.”

The bard rolled her eyes as her hands fell to her side again.

“And your answer, Queen Gabrielle?”

“I’ll be staying with Cyrene, Galen.” Gabrielle glanced over at her lover so that she could decipher something but she couldn’t from the passive features.

The Conqueror came out of the stall with the saddlebags on her shoulder now. She stopped in front of Galen, glanced at Gabrielle, and back to Galen. “Queen Gabrielle will most likely be spending… late nights in the fortress.”

Galen bowed his head, which helped him get rid of his knowing smirk then he washed it away with a serious look when he lifted his head again. “Of course, my liege… I’ll be sure to pass word onto the tetrarchès.”

“See that you do.” The Conqueror then slipped between the pair and headed for the exit of the stables.

The Amazon Queen stared oddly at the ruler’s receding back then she looked to Galen.

Galen chuckled at the still stunned bard. “The Conqueror walks with a bounce now, Gabrielle… it is obvious to anybody that’s been around her long enough.” Without another word he slipped out of the stables to find the ruler.

Gabrielle glanced to her right and saw that her lover had propped her Amazon staff against the stall door. She chuckled, grabbed it, and slowly limped out of the stable.

The moon slowly passed as the Conqueror prepared to ready for the trip to Egypt. Gabrielle had been given a temporary space for work in the Conqueror’s office. She hadn’t imagine sharing the office with her lover and at first didn’t think it would work out but it was easy for them to find a certain rhythm like many other things in their life. The bard had written out the decree for the family name convention that would take immediate affect when she and the Conqueror returned from Egypt. After Gabrielle had written the decree she spent time working out a plan on how to begin this long winded process with few bumps as possible. Gabrielle continually teased the Conqueror by asking if she’d selected a last name yet. The Conqueror’s consistent response was that she was waiting for the decree to be proclaimed and for Gabrielle to ask her then. Gabrielle knew though that her lover had most likely selected a last name by now and maybe even plotted it out with Cyrene since she’d be taking the same family name.

Gabrielle remained slumped over her desk, her head propped up by her hand, and her eyes scanning over the scroll in front of her. She sighed deeply while stretching her legs under the desk. Her attention was drawn away when she sensed the tall form of her partner beside her. Then large hands came over her shoulders and massaged her tension away. Gabrielle let out a low groan, dropped her head back into a leather stomach, and smiled up at the ruler.

Xena smiled down at the younger woman but kept kneading. “How about you come down to the sparring grounds soon and we’ll work out some of that stress?”

The bard thoughtfully considered. “You have to train the patrols?”

“Mmmhmmm.” The Conqueror glanced at what Gabrielle was working on but she decided it was too much for even her right now. “The plans for the family name convention?”

“Yes,” sighed out the Amazon Queen. “I think I was spoiled with all that grunt work I was doing in Artemisia.” She waved her hand at the ink covered scroll. “This is just too much.” Then she felt the ruler’s tickling tresses brushing her shoulders and Xena’s warm breath by her right ear.

“Take a break and come spar with me,” sensually whispered the ruler.

Gabrielle’s eyes closed and she murmured, “Start with the patrols… I’ll be down soon.”

Xena leaned in closer and her teeth touched the bard’s outer earlobe. “Promise?”

The bard groaned but managed her words. “Yes, my liege.”

The Conqueror grinned then pulled back from her lover.

Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered open from the receding ruler. “Xena, we need to talk to Cyrene about us.” She heard the Conqueror’s chuckle so she twisted her head up.

“I’ll bet you a drachma she already knows about us.”

“You think so?” Gabrielle had a wrinkled up face.

The Conqueror slid her hands down Gabrielle’s arms and over her Amazon arm bracers as she leaned back down again. She uttered, “How can she not when you return home late at night or not at all?”

“Good point,” agreed the bard. “She never questions me about it.”

The Conqueror softly laughed then she brought her lips down and against her lover’s neck. “She knows.” She gently nipped the lush skin under her lips. “We’ll tell her… soon.”

“Xena,” warned the bard, “if you keep this up then you’re not going to make it to the drills.”

The Conqueror chuckled and purred, “I’m just getting my juices flowing for the drills.”

Gabrielle responded with a laugh. “Go before you get mine started.”

The Conqueror was quite smug as she withdrew and teasing, “As you wish, Queen Gabrielle.” She headed for her office door and she noted that her lover was watching her with a smoldering expression.

Gabrielle sighed after her lover left. She returned back to her parchment with a frustrated expression and not so much from the parchment but more so because of her body’s desires for the Conqueror. “Come on, Gabrielle… it’s been over two moons that you’ve been in her bed… you should be past this point.” She kidded herself because she knew as time passed and she discovered not only Xena’s body but her amazing mind and spirit she was falling deeper. She kept that as her personal secret and she’d never discussed it with the ruler because she was too afraid it was one-sided.

The Conqueror crossed the short distance over the fortress grounds to the sparring field. She spotted her tetrarchès already there along with one of the files. Relief filled her at finally seeing the tetrarchès after so long from when he was sent off on his mission. “Welcome back, Iolaus.”

The tetrarchès bowed then clapped his right fist across his chest. “Thank you, my liege. I see you’re in excellent spirits.”

The Conqueror dared him with a dangerous look.

The tetrarchès chuckled because he was all use to it but he decided to get to the topic at hand. “I have much to report, my liege.”

“Did you find her?”

Iolaus knew his ruler always cut to the chase. “Yes, my liege… she is alive.”

The Conqueror exhaled a weight from her. “Where is she?”

Iolaus stepped closer to the ruler then quietly answered, “That part is a bit disheartening.” He tilted his head, which caused his wavy blond hair to move. “Do you recall the raider Gurkhan?”

The Conqueror darkened and she hotly whispered, “I remember. He has her?”

“Yes, he purchased her from another slaver about twelve moons ago.”

“Gurkhan escaped to Mogador,” she murmured, “when I ascended the throne.”

“And he’s still there too,” confirmed the tetrarchès. “My liege, I’m afraid this will be risky getting her back. I understand your… close relations to the Amazon Queen but this could endanger your relations with the Phoenicians.”

The Conqueror knew that her tetrarchès had a point because her realm held key trade relations with the Phoenicians. “Let me worry about that, Iolaus.”

“Perhaps you can buy her from Gurkhan with a handsome price,” suggested the soldier.

“No.” The Conqueror steeled and reminded, “If Gurkhan pieces together he has something I want then he’ll use that as leverage. See that word doesn’t spread about Queen Gabrielle’s sister being his slave.”

“I have not spoken of it,” agreed Iolaus. “However my liege, there is one… detail I haven’t mentioned.” At seeing the ruler’s arched eyebrow he nervously explained, “There is no solid confirmation but I have heard that Lila is Gurkhan’s first wife.”

The Conqueror cursed under her breath. She glanced at the waiting squad but she collapsed the small man’s shoulder tightly. “Do not speak about this… especially to Queen Gabrielle.”

“I understand, my liege.” Iolaus stepped closer then carefully questioned, “Will you discuss it with her?”

The Conqueror released her grasp then let out a heavy sigh. “When it is time, yes.” She paused then gratefully stated, “Thank you, Iolaus.”

The tetrarchès warmly smiled at his leader’s praise. “Do you wish the spies to continue their work?”

“Yes, see that two of them take an extended trip to Mogador.”

“I will have them do so,” agreed the tetrarchès, “as I know you’ll be inclined to have word of Gurkhan while you’re in Egypt.”

“Yes.” The Conqueror considered it then grinned. “A detour to Mogador may be required.” She then started to move away while saying, “See to it, Iolaus.”

The tetrarchès grinned but didn’t answer as he hurried off to take care of his new orders.

The Conqueror approached the waiting squad and her evil grin shaped when she saw that the dekarchos was Najara. She loved sparring with Najara second to her partner. She spent the next half candlemark working with the squad and Najara before she took on the second squad. It wasn’t until the third squad that the Amazon Queen showed up with her staff in hand and her sword hanging from her back.

The Amazon Queen took her spot beside the Conqueror and she casually leaned against her staff. She listened to her lover brief the third squad about what today’s practice would be. She made mental notes as she would work along side her lover to train them.

The Conqueror finished her orders then turned to the small Amazon. “Ready?”

Gabrielle had a glowing aurora as she hefted her staff to show she was prepared. “Five-five or six-four?”

The ruler tilted her head spun her sword then replied, “Five-five?” Her right eyebrow gradually lifted.

“You’re on,” agreed the queen but she grinned and teased, “Just watch my back.”

“Always,” promised the ruler, who winked then turned back to the waiting squad. “Let’s begin!”

Gabrielle stepped back once, slightly bent her knees, and lifted her staff as the squad swarmed her and the Conqueror. Her grin widened as she knew this would be a good training day not only for her and the Conqueror but for the squads. Together the Conqueror and the Amazon Queen were a team to be reckoned and every squad soldier knew it.

The drills eventually wound down to just the Conqueror and Gabrielle sparring together. The Conqueror continually was training the Amazon Queen with better techniques, defense, and offense. She found it increasingly important since Gabrielle kept refusing to submit to any security from the realm. The Conqueror couldn’t force the security on her lover considering Gabrielle wasn’t an official yet and she didn’t want to anger her lover. The Conqueror was fairly confident though that Gabrielle had excellent staff skills and she calculated that in six to nine moons Gabrielle will have mostly mastered the art.

Gabrielle jumped back but kept her staff up at seeing her lover’s leering features. She knew that look quite well now; it meant the Conqueror was toying with her.

“Come on, Gabrielle,” taunted the ruler. She stretched out her hand and tapped her blade against the bard’s staff.

The bard growled and hastily shoved the ruler’s blade away with her stuff push. “How are those juices now?”

The Conqueror laughed quite deeply. “Very… hot,” she drew out in a husky voice.

The Amazon Queen shook her head then challenged, “Don’t know what to do with all those juices?”

The ruler smirked. “I can think of something.” She suddenly lunged for her partner.

Gabrielle parried the rapid attacks away but she started to back step because of the rush. She ducked just as the blade passed over her head then she hastily back peddled to give herself some space from her opponent.

The Conqueror spun her sword then tormented, “Is it too much for you, Queen Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle shot a dangerous look but she paced over to her right. She abruptly cried out and rushed her lover. She slammed the end of her staff into the dirt, lifted her body up, and stretched out her right leg for a perfect kick.

The Conqueror, completely surprised, took the blow and was knocked harshly onto her back and slid a ways.

Gabrielle fell to her feet and lifted her staff while she remained crouched. Her smugness was quite visible but then she lost it when her lover flipped onto her feet with a furious expression. “Oooh… Hades,” muttered the worried bard. Again she was suddenly rushed by her lover, who was in an attack rage. Gabrielle fully trusted her partner not to harm her but she knew this would be a lesson and a half.

Every part of the Conqueror was alive and she was beautiful as her dangerous attacks were blocked by the bard. The Conqueror doubled her speed, which she’d never shown to the bard and she easily broke the bard’s defenses.

Gabrielle gasped when her staff was slammed from her hands and it sailed a few paces away. She stepped back once but held her defiant gaze against her opponent.

The Conqueror grinned as she lowered her sword in respect. She casually sauntered the short distance to her lover then murmured, “Nice technique, Gabrielle.”

The Amazon Queen inwardly sighed from the relief she felt. “I try to teach myself some tricks.”

“Mmmm.” The Conqueror closed the distance so that their bodies touched. “You’re beautiful when you fight.”

Gabrielle grinned but she was too entranced by the energy flowing off of her lover to make a comment. She discreetly pressed her hand against the hot leather stomach in front of her. She slipped her right hand around the Conqueror’s neck then drew her down for a sensual kiss. Their public display was a rare scene.

The Conqueror ended the kiss by nipping at the bard’s lower lip. She kept her head down and she breathed, “Go inside… I need some time to cool off.” She started to back away but Gabrielle caught her by the hip.

“No,” argued the Amazon Queen, “Come back inside with me.”

“Gabrielle, I need-”

“Please,” softly begged Gabrielle. “I trust you.” She slid her hand down the taut stomach, which would send a thrill through her lover.

The Conqueror tried to clear out some of her battle lust. “Gabrielle, I could hurt you… it could be too much.”

“I know the risks and I know you won’t.” Gabrielle lifted her head and met the hungry eyes above her. “Plus I’d be lying if I denied that this part of you didn’t excite me on some level.” She moved away, picked up her staff, and held out her hand. “My liege?”

The Conqueror took her partner’s hand and followed her partner back to the fortress. She sheathed her sword when they came to the steps then she realized her and Gabrielle weren’t going to the bedchambers but to their shared office. She didn’t care at this point as she wanted the bard more than anything. Her passions won over her just as they reached the closed office doors.

Gabrielle hadn’t expected it when she was spun around. She was transfixed by her lover’s lust and ravaging blue eyes.

The Conqueror shoved her lover against the left door and her left hand came up to wrap around the staff. She pulled it from Gabrielle’s hand and set it against the door, away from them. Her hips pressed hard against Gabrielle and she brought her head down. “If its too much then say my name. Do you understand me?”

Gabrielle moaned as her head fell against the door. She managed to whisper, “Yes.” She closed her eyes just as her hands knotted through her lover’s long tresses.

The Conqueror continued to bite deeply against her lover’s neck and trailed down to her chest. She lifted her head and roughly kissed the bard.

Gabrielle pushed her lover back some at the end of the kiss in hopes it’d encourage her more so.

The Conqueror growled and pressed her body harder back against Gabrielle. “You want this, Gabrielle.” She slammed her right hand against the door then her left hand was on Gabrielle’s thigh.

The bard groaned because she realized it was true. She’d always been drawn to the ruler’s darker side but she’d tried to ignore that aspect because she thought it was wrong. Now she speculated whether it could help their relationship grow because of her acceptance. She gave into that knowledge as she pulled Xena down for a passionate kiss. She then unexpectedly brought her legs around the ruler’s waist.

The Conqueror moaned and slipped her left hand under the younger woman to hold her up. Gabrielle’s hands wrapped around her neck and she knew the bard was safely held. She stepped back once then effectively kicked the right office door open and entered. She kicked it closed then she was drawn into a long kiss. She managed her way over to her desk.

Gabrielle now sat on the edge of the ruler’s desk. She coaxed her lover’s dominating side through her demanding kiss.

The Conqueror growled at the end of the kiss then she commanded her lover to open her legs.

Gabrielle easily followed then her Amazon skirt was pushed up. She quickly discovered how the Conqueror’s lust could take not only her over but them both. Gabrielle’s passions were excited and she matched her lover’s every demand. Her thoughts were silent and she only felt what coursed in her body. After being taken once on the desk, the Conqueror lifted her off the desk and carried her to the sofa in the center of the office.

The Conqueror kept ravaging her young lover that accepted her this way. She stripped Gabrielle of her clothes finally but she didn’t remove anything of hers.

Gabrielle clung to the ruler’s broad shoulders, her skin burned, and her head was dropped back against the sofa. She felt the Conqueror owning her with each thrust. Her moans depended from the thrill of either the Conqueror’s warm leathers touching her skin or the cold bronze. It was exhilarating. After Gabrielle reached her new height that was only sensations, she was soon laying down on the long sofa.

The Conqueror slowly removed her armor, boots, and leathers until she was bare. She softly moaned when her burning skin slide over Gabrielle’s. She met Gabrielle for a tender kiss.

Gabrielle was gaining back some strength but her breathing remained labored. She could see the returned tenderness in her lover by how Xena’s eyes could match the skies. She smiled and drew her lover back in for another kiss. She and Xena silenced the last of their passions through slow and gentle touches. Her climax reached the top just as Xena’s did the same, their fingers stilling inside of each other.

The Conqueror kept her weight mostly off her lover. When she gained some composure again, she adjusted them so that she rested on the sofa with her back sunk in and Gabrielle resting on top of her.

The bard sighed contently and her moist skin slightly goose bumped from the chill in the air. It was a wonder earlier to her whether or not her body would be able to ever cool off again. She closed her eyes and listened to her lover’s steady heartbeat. “I can’t believe I just did that.”

The Conqueror had distant grin but she started running her fingertips up and down her partner’s back. “The commander most likely heard you.”

The Amazon Queen flushed as it dawned on her that his office was just across from the Conqueror’s. “Oh gods.” She moaned and buried her face into her lover’s neck. She laughed at the situation and mentioned, “He’ll be jealous.”

The Conqueror thoroughly laughed. She quickly kissed Gabrielle’s nearby head. “Indeed.”

Gabrielle smiled then she moved her right hand up. Her index finger started to trace the Gaelic necklace that rested on Xena’s rising and falling chest. “I noticed you have two triremes down by the Aegean Port.”

“It is for the trip to Egypt. They’re starting to take on supplies for the trip.”

Gabrielle adjusted her head then inquired, “We going to leave in ten days?”

“Around there,” agreed the ruler. “We’ll be traveling in a cargo ship though.”

The bard paused from tracing the necklace. “Why is that?”

The Conqueror chuckled and replied, “Do you want to travel across the Mediterranean with all those oar men?”

Gabrielle considered it then laughed. “That could be interesting.”

“This is a vacation,” reminded the ruler.

“I thought it was a working vacation,” teased the Amazon Queen. “I have trade relations to build while you have them to maintain.”

“Mmmm,” consented the ruler. “We seem to manage to mix pleasure and business together.”

Gabrielle lifted her head at hearing the husky pitch from her lover. “We?” she challenged lightly then she teased, “You started this.” She signaled their current situation.

“It takes two,” coolly reminded the ruler.

Gabrielle smirked but didn’t argue as she lowered her head again. She went back to following her fingertip over the necklace’s design. “I need to return to Artemisia soon.”

The Conqueror had suggested that her lover do such before they left for Egypt. She wanted Gabrielle to return with a handful of Amazons not to only protect their queen but also to display she was a serious queen in search of relations with Queen Cleopatra. Nor would it go well if Cleopatra thought that the Amazon Queen was under the Conqueror’s full guidance and instructions. “Perhaps it’d be wise to go in a few days.”

“I’ve already mentioned it to Joxer and Palamon.”

The ruler sighed then carefully tried her next words. “I’d like it if you took a squad.”

“Xena, I’ll be fine with my faction guards going with me… they’re more than capable and so am I.”

“I don’t argue that.” The Conqueror sat up some on the sofa and peered down at her lover. “What you don’t have though are enough numbers. Anything can happen to you on your trip down to Artemisia.”

The bard sat up a bit. “You and I traveled together back from Artemisia… and you never had a problem with me going the last two times with my faction guards.”

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow at her lover.

Gabrielle grumbled then relented, “Okay granted you’re a walking armory but I was fine before. Why now?”

“I’m just concerned… each passing day, Gabrielle you become a bigger target.” The Conqueror touched her lover’s cheek and whispered, “Please do this.”

The bard’s eyes dropped and she stared at the Gaelic necklace. She slowly nodded. “Can I take Najara and her squad?”

The Conqueror tried not to visibly cringe but she knew she’d have to submit to the terms or else Gabrielle wouldn’t agree to anything else. “Alright. I’ll inform her.” She then leaned forward to steal a kiss then she questioned, “You won’t leave for Artemisia until after your birthday?”

The bard chuckled and teased, “Why? You have something big planned?”

“I don’t but mother does,” tormented the ruler.

“Oh gods.” Gabrielle laughed as she lowered her head onto her partner’s shoulder. Her right arm stretched across Xena’s shoulders. “I’ll leave the day after.”

“Good,” murmured, “because your pony should be here by then.”

The Amazon Queen laughed and swatted her lover’s stomach then returned her hand back to Xena’s left shoulder. “I don’t want any four-legged presents.” She heard no response and she missed Xena’s glowing features. She kissed Xena’s chest then lifted her head to see now passive features. “We need to get moving… we both have a lot of scrollwork to do.”

The ruler sighed as her thoughts about the realm returned. “I need to inspect the work on the bridges for the canal before sunset.”

“And I need to complete my plans for this family name decree or else no trip to Egypt for me.” Gabrielle patted the ruler’s chest then moved about to get up onto her feet.

The Conqueror stood up but remained behind her lover. She slipped her arms around Gabrielle’s waist, drew her in closely, and huskily whispered, “Thank you.”

Gabrielle dropped her head back and smiled at the words that rarely came from the ruler yet held so much depth. She knew it meant that Xena was grateful for the acceptance and new dimension added to their relationship. “Thank you for trusting me,” she murmured back then pulled Xena down for a warm kiss.

The next days swiftly passed before the eyes of the couple. Gabrielle though took a needed break when it was her birthday and mostly from the insistence from the Conqueror. The Conqueror was away most of the day and took care of various work that was required of her. This left Gabrielle to freely do things for herself all day. She started her relaxing morning by doing some needed writing; her scrolls had been sitting off to the wayside lately. She’d come home last night after spending a late night in the fortress with Xena but she wanted to be home that night. After she finished her writing, she wandered down stairs and realized Cyrene had already left to carry out her work at the taverna. Gabrielle was pleasantly surprised though to see that her adopted mother left her a prepared breakfast with a note about her birthday. Cyrene had planned out a small get together this evening in the taverna.

The bard smiled at the note, set it aside, and after her breakfast she dressed and decided to first visit somebody she missed greatly. She made a half of candlemark journey from her home to the graveyard where Perdicus now rested. She spent some time there, visiting his grave that was located in the common burial grounds. She knelt beside his grave and softly spoke to him despite she’d never receive a response. Gabrielle missed her childhood friend more than many suspected. She’d lost so many loved ones in her life and she had yet to understand why it had to be. After she said her prayers to her friend, she rose up and returned back to the city.

The rest of her day was relaxing and she eventually met up with the Conqueror just inside the empty courtroom. Sunset was fast approaching so she and the Conqueror made their way to Cyrene’s taverna where many others were waiting for them. Cyrene had shut down her taverna early in the day in order to get the party together. She welcomed Gabrielle’s friends that showed up then the entire group warmly received the bard when she entered the taverna.

The group mixed together and Gabrielle was dazzled that her former faction members and guards could so easily mix with the people from the fortress such as the Conqueror, Galen, and Najara. She was convinced there’d never be any peace between the groups but she realized she was the key link that brought the groups together now. The extreme sides were grateful that Gabrielle had eased the tension built up and ultimately changed the realm for the better. After the large meal and cake, Melpomene sweetly urged her aunt to tell a story. Gabrielle tried to ward off her adopted niece but she miserably failed when the Conqueror whispered to her to tell a story.

The bard took her usual front stage in the taverna then asked for any suggestions for a story. Finally everybody settled on something Gabrielle hadn’t expected at all; the story about the Conqueror and her trial in the Amazon Nation. There were many known rumors about what’d happened over that moon back in the autumn but never had anybody heard the full story. Gabrielle was uneasy because she wasn’t sure how her lover would feel about it.

The Conqueror gave a discreet nod to her partner followed by an assuring smile.

The Amazon Queen was relieved and inwardly surprised but she stole a beat to compose her story in her mind. She opened her story be telling about her descendant, who was kidnapped by a crazed shaman and had to battle the odds to seek help. Gabrielle didn’t sugar coat the truth and the Conqueror’s true form was revealed and she depicted the changes the Conqueror faced from when she first entered the Amazon Nation. Her audience was enthralled and many now understood what’d transcended not only in the realm but inside the Conqueror.

Gabrielle kept watch of her listener’s faces. She caught sight of Cyrene’s tears at some points. At other moments, Melpomene would gasp in excitement from the drama of the battle between Darphus and the Amazons. Then there was the Conqueror, who remained sitting in the back and intently listening to each word. When Gabrielle drew closer to the end of her story when Melinda and Janice would be sent home, she focused on her lover.

The Conqueror was drawn into Gabrielle’s story. She saw it all happening again and she remembered why she was so determined to be this changed ruler for her realm. She then was taken away when Gabrielle’s closing words seem to be focused solely for her.

“It was a small change at first then another soft bend and the Conqueror was unprepared while the rebel leader was slightly scared. Together they placed their faith into the changes just as the sun would rise every day. It was an unexpected tale for them. The truth was bittersweet but finding out they were wrong about each other was what bound them together. Now they face the sunrises just as ever sure that their faith will raise them above all the trials that lay ahead.” Gabrielle lowered her hands to her side after having them up. She was met by a long silence then all her friends warmly clapped about the amazing story and Gabrielle’s beautiful words.

Melpomene secretly slipped past the people, who were warmly receiving the bard after her story. She went through the tables until she was upon the Conqueror.

The Conqueror brushed back her bangs and sat up in her chair at seeing the girl. Her movements made her bronze armor flash from the torchlight and candlelight. She tried to subdue her emotions from the story and she smiled at the girl. “Come here.” She was secretly grateful for Melpomene coming to her.

Melpomene mirrored the smile and she was warmly taken in to the ruler’s lap. She often tried to tell people how caring the ruler was with her but few people believed her. She didn’t care as she focused on the emotional ruler. “Auntie Gabby is a great story teller.”

The Conqueror softly grinned and gently teased, “You think so huh?” She adjusted the child on her right leg. “I think you’re right, Mel.”

“Have you ever told Auntie Gabby that you like her stories?”

The Conqueror leaned closer then murmured, “What makes you think I do like them?”

Melpomene tilted her head; she’d often heard her aunt chatting with Cyrene about how the Conqueror never brought up the bard’s stories. She knew it frustrated her aunt because her aunt had no clue whether or not the Conqueror was accepting of it. Melpomene though had figured out something by observing the Conqueror tonight. “You wouldn’t let her perform the stories otherwise if you didn’t want to hear them.”

The Conqueror grinned at the observant girl. “What else do you know, Mel?”

Melpomene smirked, leaned closer, and teased, “I know what grandma thinks about you and Auntie Gabby.”

“Do tell,” encouraged the ruler.

Melpomene giggled and leaned even closer so that she could tell her secret. “Grandma knows you and Auntie Gabby are together.”

The Conqueror smirked wildly at this news. “Oh? How do you know that?”

“Just the other day I heard grandma ranting on about how you two can fight like a married couple.” The girl’s lips thinned together as her lips pressed. “I asked grandma what that meant and all she told me was that you and Auntie Gabby are a tale old as time and a song old as rhyme.”

The Conqueror sighed but dared to ask, “You know what that means?”

“Sure,” answered the girl, “You and Auntie Gabby are a couple… like a husband and wife.” She stopped then her nose crinkled up tightly.

The Conqueror speculated whether or not the child learned that habit from her aunt.

“Xena, are you and Auntie Gabby a wife and wife?”

The Conqueror paled slightly at the thought of the marriage titles that were far from her and Gabrielle. “Not quite, Mel but we’re a couple.” She glanced up to see that her lover was still swarmed by her chatting friends. She glimpsed back at the girl. “Are you okay with your aunt and I being together?”

Melpomene brightened up and she nodded. “I think it’s so cool.”

“Cool huh?” teased the ruler. “Where’d you learn that word?”

“Janice taught me that word,” beamed the child then she persisted, “you and Auntie Gabby match really well. Auntie Gabby is very happy and so are you.”

The Conqueror couldn’t argue that point.

Melpomene tilted her head then quietly inquired, “Are you going to marry Auntie Gabby?”

The Conqueror heavily breathed as if she was briefly in labor. She touched the girl’s knee then carefully answered, “It’s too early to tell yet, Mel but time will see.”

“Can you and Auntie Gabby marry though?” Melpomene seriously considered this perspective. “I’ve never heard of two women joining.”

The ruler chuckled because of the child’s serious thoughts. “I’m sure I can get it approved, Melpomene.”

The girl giggled as she realized whose lap she was sitting on right now. “I sometimes forget you’re the ruler of the realm.”

“That’s good,” approved the ruler. She poked the small nose in front of her. She then saw that her partner was starting to break away from the mass of friends. She quickly brought Melpomene’s attention back by quietly asking, “Did grandma say what she thought of me and your aunt being together?”

Melpomene brightly smiled then leaned in and whispered, “Grandma complained that it took ‘Gabrielle and Xena too damn long to get over their stubbornness but better late than never ‘.”

“Those exact words?”

The girl’s bobbed and she crossed her heart with her right hand. “I swear it.”

“Good,” muttered the Conqueror, who lifted her head with a smile for a greeting to her partner.

Gabrielle smiled but her attention flickered to Melpomene. She touched the child’s closest shoulder. “Are you practicing for next Solstice, Melpomene?”

The girl’s quick wit caught the humor and she glanced at the Conqueror then to her aunt. “Well Xena is the Conqueror and I bet she can get me more presents than Senticles.”

Gabrielle laughed at the swift remark from the brilliant child. “Well I think Xena has to get approval from grandma.”

Melpomene paled and glanced at her grandmother behind the bar. “Really, Auntie Gabby?”

The bard brought on a fake frown and bent lower to the child. “Xena maybe the Conqueror but in this family Cyrene rules.”

Melpomene’s mouth hung open and she turned her had to the ruler for that confirmation of what her aunt just divulged.

The Conqueror shrugged and patted the child’s knee. “Have you upset your grandma lately, Mel?”

“No,” squeaked the child.

Gabrielle leaned closer into the huddle. “Are you sure, Mel?”

The girl glanced between Xena and Gabrielle then mumbled, “Maybe… um… I’ve missed a few chores around the house.”

Xena gave a few clicks with her tongue.

Gabrielle murmured, “You better say you’re sorry, Mel or else Xena can’t give you any presents next Solstice.”

The Conqueror’s eyes glinted then she whispered, “When I was your age, Mel and I forget to do my chores around the house… mother use to turn me over on her knee.”

Melpomene gawked at the ruler, who had recently become her idol. “Grandma did that?” She could even begin to imagine not only her idol being her age but Cyrene punishing her idol.

“Mmmhmmm,” confirmed the ruler, “until my cheeks were red.” She cocked her head to the side. “She hasn’t done that to you?”

“N-n-no,” stuttered the girl.

Gabrielle was biting her lower lip to stop her laughs because she knew Cyrene wouldn’t have laid a hand on her children. It was a bunch of horse stuff that her partner was feeding to the child. “You’re lucky, Mel.” When the girl’s wide, brown eyes returned to her she kept talking. “You better do your chores for now on or else grandma might start doing that to you too.”

“And I might get less presents for Solstice too,” added the worried girl.

The Conqueror had a thoughtful expression as she casually mentioned, “To think what a waste the new horse I’ve been training would be if you were bad until Solstice.” She shook her head then frowned at Melpomene. “I may have to give the horse to another child, who’s been good.”

“No way,” argued the girl, “I’ll be good, Xena.”

“Well,” started the ruler, who poked the child’s nose again, “there’s a difference between saying it and doing it.”

Melpomene nodded twice then declared, “Actions speak louder than words.”

Xena smiled at her advice she’d passed onto Melpomene some time ago. “Exactly. So are you going to do your chores for now on?”

Melpomene nodded then added, “And all my homework that my tutor gives me.”

Gabrielle smiled at this news. “Your education is important, Mel… we all want you to grow up smart.” She pointed at the Conqueror. “Xena isn’t smart because she slouched around.”

“No?” inquired the child.

The Conqueror shook her head. “Nope.”

Melpomene tilted her head then asked, “How’d you learn so much? You didn’t have a tutor like me, did you?”

Xena leaned back in the chair some then finally answered, “I taught myself everything I know… I wasn’t as lucky as you, Mel.”

“Wow,” gasped the girl, “and you know a lot too.”

“She sure does, Mel so you have a lot to live up to,” reminded the bard.

Melpomene blinked and turned away from her idol. “You’re smart too, Auntie Gabby… I hear people in the taverna say you are because you’re the only state advisor that knows not only how to run the polis but the Conqueror too.”

Gabrielle bit her lower lip then sweetly smiled at her lover.

Xena drummed her right fingers on her knee but she couldn’t suppress her grin.

The Amazon cleared her throat then decided on another topic. “What’d you think of the story, Mel?”

“It was really cool, auntie,” proclaimed the child.

“Cool?” repeated the confused bard.

“It means awesome,” defined Melpomene, “Janice taught me that word.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes because she should have known that came from her descendant. She could only guess when Janice Covington found the time to teach Little Melpomene that word. “Why don’t you go see if grandma needs your help huh?”

Melpomene nodded then slid off Xena’s lap. When her feet connected with the floor she quickly pulled her aunt in for a hug. “Happy birthday again, Auntie Gabby.”

The bard smiled as she wrapped her arms around the child. “Thank you, sweetie.” She messed the child’s hair up as she hurried off to help Cyrene. She then decided she’d take the girl’s spot on the Conqueror’s lap.

The Conqueror raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle’s open display of their relationship.

“Come on,” persisted the bard, “everybody knows already.” She shrugged and leaned her side into the ruler with her arm going across the back of Xena’s shoulders. “Besides you can’t say no to the birthday girl.”

Xena shook her head then she eased into it by teasing, “So what do you want for Solstice, Little Gabby?”

Gabrielle ran her tongue along the front of her teeth then she dangerously threatened, “I know what you won’t get for Solstice, Little Xenny if you keep that up.”

The Conqueror laughed but decided it was safer to say nothing else.

The bard brought her lips closer to the ruler’s ear then whispered, “I know what I want for my birthday tonight.”

“Oh?” prompted the ruler, her eyes darker. “Does that mean you’ll be staying with me tonight?”

Gabrielle hummed for a beat then sensually whispered, “I thought you’d never ask.”

“Hmmmm.” The Conqueror sucked in her breath sharply when Gabrielle nipped her neck. She cleared her throat then reminded, “We’re not in my bedchambers yet, Gabrielle.”

“Well you better get us there soon,” taunted the bard. She then hopped off her lover’s lap and went back to mingling with her friends and family.

The Conqueror sighed between contentment and frustration. She smiled at feeling so easy with her partner lately. She noted her mother’s carefully watching eye on her and she got up to talk to her. She leaned against the bar near her mother.

“So when were you planning to tell me?” brought up the mother.

Xena shyly smiled at her mother. “Soon.”

Cyrene rolled her eyes then flopped her wet rag onto the bar. “That’s like saying the weather is seasonal, daughter.”

The Conqueror chuckled and slipped onto a bar stool but she lost her amusement. “Mother, Gabrielle and I are together.”

Cyrene rested her hands on her hips and glared at her child.

“What?” Xena shrugged. “I told you.”

“Sometimes I think I may have adopted you,” teased the mother.

The ruler laughed then proudly reminded, “Oh no, mother you birthed me and I have your wicked streak to prove it.”

“You already have.” Cyrene grinned then she rested her arms on the bar and leaned against them. “She’s very happy, Xena.”

“I know,” murmured the ruler.

“You’re very happy,” commented the mother.

“I am,” agreed the ruler.

Cyrene smiled at this then stretched her right hand to collapse her daughter’s. “And I couldn’t be happier seeing you and Gabrielle together.”

The ruler laced their hands neatly. “Are you?” She peered up at her mother.

Cyrene realized very little had changed between her and her daughter after all this time. She could still see her little girl seeking approval from her and it baffled her considering her daughter was the ruler of such a vast realm. “I am, Xena,” she softly promised. “I was scared for some time that you two would end up dying because of your radical views and fights.”

Xena’s head dipped then she slowly nodded. “I know but that won’t happen.” She squeezed her mother’s hand. “I… I don’t think I am much without her. I wasn’t before I opened up to her.”

“Have you told her this?” murmured the mother.

Xena shook her head then turned her mother again after staring at her partner from across the room. “We’ve discussed it lightly back a couple of moons ago but nothing too serious.” She thought it out more then mentioned, “We’ve just been taking it slowly and seeing how it goes.”

“That’s important,” agreed Cyrene. “I know you’ve both faced a lot of changes pretty quickly.”

“Mmm,” softly murmured the ruler. “We’re getting adjusted.”

The tavern keeper smiled at this then squeezed her daughter’s hand to get her attention back. “When do you leave for Egypt?”

“As soon as Gabrielle returns from Artemisia,” answered the ruler.

“Gabrielle’s very excited to go,” mentioned the mother.

Xena chuckled. “Trust me I’ve heard enough about it too.” She swept her hair back with her freehand. “She pretty much has every day planned out while we’re there.”

Cyrene laughed and declared, “You don’t have to tell me either, Xena… I’ve heard the ongoings too.”

The ruler smirked then patted her mother’s hand that was locked with hers. “I better save her so we can get back to the fortress.”

“I guess I won’t expect her home tonight…?” Cyrene freed her hand from her daughter’s.

“If she does show up then worry, mother.” Then Xena was gone as she immersed into the people to seek her lover. She first went to Galen and quietly distracted him from his chitchat with a former rebel member. “Galen?”

“Yes, my liege?” The assistant smiled up at the ruler.

“Is everything prepared?”

Galen nodded once. “As you requested, my liege.”

“Excellent.” The Conqueror glanced at Gabrielle that wasn’t too far away. “See that Najara comes back with you when you two are ready.”

“You’re leaving?”

“Yes,” answered the ruler. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Have a good night, my liege.”

The Conqueror bittersweetly smiled at her assistant. “The gods willing it goes right.” She patted his shoulder then slipped away to collect her partner. After she and Gabrielle said goodnight to everybody they finally made their way through the quiet city.

Gabrielle walked closely to her partner. She slipped her hand into Xena’s and received a warm squeeze for it.

“Did you enjoy the party?”

The bard smiled at the Conqueror. “It was really nice… nice of mom to put it together.”

The Conqueror nodded her agreement.

“Did you enjoy it?” tried the bard despite she knew her partner wasn’t always keen on socializing.

“I did,” answered the ruler. “I’m impressed by the size of your faction.”

Gabrielle softly laughed and nodded. “I guess I never did tell you about the members.” She tilted her head from a thought. “They seemed pretty comfortable with you about halfway through.”

“Thanks to your story,” reminded the ruler.

“Not really,” argued the bard, “It was prior to that.” She stepped up onto the sidewalk when they crossed the street.

“I met Palamon,” brought up the ruler. She then sensed Gabrielle’s quipped curiosity. “I recall him being a hoplite during my campaign.” She peered down at her lover. “What does he do now?”

“I was talking to him tonight about that. He’s considered taking an apprenticeship as a blacksmith but he’s not really sure.” Gabrielle shrugged. “To be honest, I think he toys with the idea of rejoining your army especially now that you’ve changed so much.”

The Conqueror filed this away for later consideration. She would have to mention this information to Iolaus. She then switched the topic around. “What’d you do today?”

“I relaxed mostly since you told me to do that.” Gabrielle coyly smiled then shrugged. “It was nice.” Her mood slightly darkened as she gently mentioned, “I did go to see Perdicus.”

The Conqueror squeezed her lover’s hand in assurance. “You were betrothed to him?”

Gabrielle ran her fingers through her bangs then replied, “Yes. We were betrothed as kids and I always accepted the fact him and I would marry when it was time.”

“You never found that time?”

“No,” admitted the Amazon Queen, “and I may have later in life but I know I would have married him out of convenience. Its not that I didn’t love him because I do but it’s just… different.”

“Different how?” murmured the ruler.

Gabrielle gazed down then observed how she still held hands with her lover. She ran her thumb across Xena’s then finally answered the hard question. “A lot of what I feel with you… between us was something I never had with Perdicus and I know I never would have.” She was surprise when the Conqueror abruptly stopped.

Xena turned to her lover and drew her closer as a few people passed them. She lowered her head and ignored the people that watched them openly. She gently kissed Gabrielle then afterwards she sincerely murmured, “I understand.”

Gabrielle smiled then tugged on her lover’s hand. “Come on before these people pass out on the street.”

The Conqueror laughed and joked, “My city… my rules.”

The bard grinned up at Xena. “Come on, tiger you can rule me tonight.”

“Gabrielle,” hissed the Conqueror, “we don’t need people overhearing stuff like that.”

Gabrielle laughed but made no other comments as they approached the iron gates of the fortress.

The guards on duty easily recognized the couple and hurried to open the gates enough for them. After the Conqueror and Amazon Queen slipped through they pulled the squeaky gates shut.

Once the couple entered the low lit courtroom, the Conqueror stopped Gabrielle from going through the door that would take them to the bedchambers up on the third floor.

Gabrielle stopped and turned to her partner. “What is it?” She noted they were in the middle of the silent courtroom.

The Conqueror drew her lover in closer. “I have a gift for you but it’s in a different spot.”

“Xena, I told you I didn’t want anything,” argued the bard, “I have so much now. I have my family… the Amazons, a job.” She stepped closer and touched her lover’s closest cheek. “And you.”

“I know,” whispered the ruler. She pulled Gabrielle’s hand from her cheek and linked their hands together. “This is something I’ve been wanting to give to you.”

The Amazon knew her lover wanted to do this so she whispered, “Alright.” She smiled softly then teased, “Just don’t think this’ll earn you nutbread points for tonight.”

“Do I really need those for tonight?” jested the ruler.

“Now that you put it that way.” Gabrielle grinned.

“Come on, bard.” The Conqueror freed one hand but kept her right hand in Gabrielle’s as she led the way.

Gabrielle curiosity was peeked and she kept up the fast pace of the ruler. She mused that Xena must be nervous to give whatever it was because their hands were growing slick from Xena’s hand moistening. She couldn’t imagine what this was. She then realized they were coming to the entrance of the dungeons and she bit the inside of her mouth. She often strayed from the dungeons because it wasn’t the most pleasant place. She knew her partner had made a lot of reforms dealing with the punishment system and the dungeons were receiving a much needed overhaul. The dungeons were actually soon to be relabeled as the jail as it was transforming into such.

Xena sensed her lover’s uneasiness so she coaxed, “Its okay.” She walked slower when they came into the dungeons then she stopped when a guard approached her.

“My liege.” The guard bowed his head and clapped his fist across his leather chest. “Is it time?”

“Yes, is it ready?”

“Yes, my liege under Galen’s insistence.” The guard stepped aside then offered, “Follow me.” He turned and directed the couple down the newly altered jail cells there were double in size and now held bunk beds, bathroom facilities, and barred doors for better admittance of light. The soldier finally came to a stop by an often unnoticed door in the dungeon that remained locked as the only key was kept with the Conqueror. The door, for the first time in an unknown amount of moons, was unlocked and wide open.

The Conqueror let the guard go first but she turned to her partner. “Watch your step.”

Gabrielle nodded; too fearful her words would betray her about this mystery. She eased down the steep steps that were wet from dampness of the rocks. She could tell that this descending corridor was directly carved out of the surrounding rock by the rough cutting and chiseling. She was grateful for the torchlight overhead that revealed mostly the steps.

The guard came to the bottom and stepped next to another open door. He held out his hand to the doorway that glowed yellow. “The men already await, my liege.”

The ruler nodded then glanced at the bard slightly behind her. She squeezed the bard’s hand then warmly asked, “Ready?”

Gabrielle stepped closer as she stared into the dark room beyond the next door. “I think so.” She nervously wrapped her freehand around her lover’s forearm, just above her wrist gauntlet.

The Conqueror smiled then turned and ducked into the room with her lover in tow.

Gabrielle followed and she stopped after a few paces into the dark room. Her eyes required adjusting then she glanced to her right where there were several soldiers with torches; they seemed to be waiting for her lover’s commands. She quickly realized that this room wasn’t damp compared to the stairwell they descended. It was actually slightly warm and dry, which baffled her.

The Conqueror waved at her men and ordered, “Go ahead.”

Gabrielle moved closer to her lover but she was transfixed by the six soldiers, who split in half.

Three soldiers marched down either side of the walls of what was becoming a large room. They bore their torches in front of them to light their way then they came to a stop.

Gabrielle was surprised when the torchlight revealed a ladder on either side. She watched as two soldiers each climbed up the ladders on the right and left. She couldn’t make out what in the middle of the room as it was far too dark.

The Conqueror observed the soldiers climbing the ladder then finally they came to their perspective points.

“My liege?” called a soldier.

“Light the torches,” ordered the Conqueror.

The four soldiers on the ladders stretched out their torches to the left and the fire engulfed hidden torches that hung from the wall.

Suddenly the room started to light up from the newly lit torches.

The two soldiers remaining on the bottom each lit the wall torches last then stepped aside when their comrades came down carefully.

Gabrielle’s eyebrows furrowed together as the light grew brighter and revealed the opposite wall to her. She was almost positive that the wall had small, square holes running up and down. She couldn’t even count how many of these cubby holes that lined the wall. Then she squinted when she realized each square hole held a handful of scrolls. “Wha….” She shook her head and stepped forward but didn’t move any further. She couldn’t understand but her imagination was just going wild. She turned back to her partner.

The Conqueror smiled then offered, “Go look.” She squeezed the bard’s hand then released it.

Gabrielle was shy at first then after a few steps she crossed the short distance.

The Conqueror merely stayed planted in her spot. She folded her arms across her chest and watched her lover inspect the mystery. She glanced off to her right and observed her first, original wood trunk centered in the middle of the room that her lover obviously over sighted earlier.

When Gabrielle was close enough she realized that the columns of the holes had the first letter of the Greek alphabet placed in certain spots. Her fingertips touched a scroll but she didn’t remove it. Her fingertips grazed over the scroll then the next and she walked down the columns with her hand touching many scrolls. She finally came to a stop by the Greek letter for Sigma. She touched a random scroll but glanced over her shoulder to her partner.

The Conqueror tilted her head then nodded her consent.

The Amazon Queen turned back to the scroll then gingerly pulled out the scroll. She untied the red ribbon and slowly unrolled the scroll that clearly had dust on it. She blew off the dust carefully then let the words on the parchment compose in the dim light. Her mouth drew open and she stared at the title at the top of the scroll then the very familiar name below it. “By… the gods.”

Gabrielle began to tremble and the words on the parchment quivered. She shook her head then scanned further down the parchment. She then quietly read aloud, “I have not had one word from her. Frankly I wish I were dead when she left, she wept a great deal. She said to me, ‘This parting must be endured, Sappho. I go unwillingly.’ I said, ‘Go and be happy but remember whom you leave shackled by love. If you forget me, think of our gifts to Aphrodite and all the loveliness that we shared….'” Gabrielle stopped as her emotions choked her voice.

Gabrielle removed her left hand from the bottom of the scroll. She covered her mouth and stared at the scroll that hung from her right hand. Her breath came out quaking and she carefully rolled up the scroll. She inserted it back into the slot but she couldn’t completely believe this yet. She removed another scroll.

The Conqueror merely watched Gabrielle inspect the next scroll.

The Amazon Queen unrolled the next scroll part of the way then saw the title and the name below it. Her eyes watered and she proudly read, “Ismene, sister, mine own dear sister, knowest thou what ill there is, of all bequeathed by Oedipus, that Zeus fulfils not for us twain while we live? Nothing painful is there, nothing fraught with ruin, no shame, no dishonour, that I have not seen in thy woes and mine.” She bit her lower lip then gingerly rolled up the scroll.

Gabrielle moved back down the columns until she was at the first column again. She withdrew a scroll, unrolled it, and saw the next name and that it was an anthology of works. She read the first fable. “Wolf, meeting with a Lamb astray from the fold, resolved not to lay violent hands on him, but to find some plea to justify to the Lamb the Wolf’s right to eat him. He thus addressed him: ‘Sirrah, last year you grossly insulted me.’ ‘Indeed,’ bleated the Lamb in a mournful tone of voice, ‘I was not then born.’ Then said the Wolf, ‘You feed in my pasture.’ ‘No, good sir,’ replied the Lamb, ‘I have not yet tasted grass.’ Again said the Wolf, ‘You drink of my well.’ ‘No,’ exclaimed the Lamb, ‘I never yet drank water, for as yet my mother’s milk is both food and drink to me.’ Upon which the Wolf seized him and ate him up, saying, ‘Well! I won’t remain supperless, even though you refute every one of my imputations.’ The tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny.”

The Conqueror’s head dropped at the very true fable. She was certainly living proof of such a tale.

Gabrielle realized what she’d read and she rolled the scroll back up. She inserted the scroll back under the alpha section then turned her confuse gaze to her partner.

The Conqueror crossed the distance to take Gabrielle’s side. She held out a hand at the tall wall that was coated in cubby holes with countless scrolls. “Every scroll contains plays, poems, stories, and philosophy.” She lowered her hand to her side.

Gabrielle swallowed the forming lump in her throat. “I thought….”

Xena turned her focus to her choking lover and she gently touched the bard’s forearm.

Gabrielle licked her lips then hoarsely tried to speak again. “I thought you destroyed all of the literature?”

The Conqueror dipped her head then whispered, “I did except for what remains in here.” She scanned the columns. “These are the last known copies of all the literature in the realm.” She turned back to the bard. “I destroyed all the copies and all the originals except for these. These are the originals handwrote by each bard or philosopher. I’ve had them all categorized by the person’s name… as you can see. When I moved here to Corinth I had this room carved out of the hillside then I had this room specially kept warm and dry so that these scrolls’ lives would be prolonged.”

Gabrielle shook her head as she tried to piece together the mystery before her. Her green eyes were dark and her face twisted by confusion. “Why did you keep the originals?”

Xena slowly inhaled then released her breath. “Remember, Gabrielle at the time I was bent on power and often that comes from knowledge.” She paused and signaled the wall of scrolls. “This is knowledge… and now that they’re the only remaining copies they are also money.” She lowered her hand to her side again. “I may have been tyrant but I was smart tyrant.” She then tilted her head at the bard. “I also adored the bards for their stories. Plenty of them came to mother’s tavern when I was a child but I realized one key thing that the bards provided to their listeners.”

“Dreams and hopes,” murmured the bard.

“Exactly.” The Conqueror frowned then honestly stated, “I didn’t want the bards spreading that to the people.”

Gabrielle raked her fingers through her hair. Her emotions surged to the top once she realized she was standing before the last collection of so many bards’ and philosophers’ life work. “Why are you showing this to me, Xena?” Her tears spilled down her cheeks. “Why now?”

Xena stepped closer then lowered her head to Gabrielle’s. She freed one hand and wiped the tears away but they wouldn’t stop. Her next words she chose carefully and answered, “I’m not showing them to you, Gabrielle… I’m giving them to you.” She then pivoted on her right foot then pointed at the trunk in the middle of the room. “Let me show you something else.”

Gabrielle let herself be guided over to the trunk in the center. She noted that two soldiers with torches stood several paces away on either side to provide more light. She then spotted a scroll on the top of the wood trunk.

The Conqueror picked up the scroll, kept it in her left hand, and knelt down beside the trunk. She reached into her cleavage and pulled out a key. She inserted the skeleton key into the trunk’s small hole. She twisted the key, heard the familiar pop, and she lifted the lid as she stood up. She reached into the dark trunk and out materialized her hand with a scroll, which she held out to the bard.

The Amazon accepted it and slowly opened it. Her breathing went still when she saw her own handwriting before her eyes. “By the gods.” She shook her head then leaned over the open trunk to see it was filled with scrolls. “You… you saved all my scrolls?” She peered up at partner.

The Conqueror folded her arms over her chest, the one scroll in her hand protruding out. “Yes but I actually keep two copies of your work. There’s a set in my office desk then there’s this set.” She bit her lower lip then stared at the trunk. “I’ve read many bards in my lifetime… heard many too but you’re the only bard that’s captured my imagination.”

Gabrielle thought she was in a dream as she glanced between the full trunk to her lover then back down. “I… Xena… I don’t….” She touched her forehead and her tears returned. She shook her head. “I don’t know what to say.”

The Conqueror turned and took the scroll back. She carefully tucked it back in the trunk then lowered the lid, the lock resetting itself too. “It’s okay, Gabrielle.” She held out the last scroll in her hand and mentioned, “This is last piece to all of this.” She unrolled the scroll and took a beat to lay the long scroll flat on the trunk’s lid. “Come here.” She brought her hand to Gabrielle’s midback and urged her forward.

Gabrielle moved closer and stared down at what was obviously a drawing on the scroll; a blueprint. She bit her lower lip when she realized it was actually Polykleitos the Younger’s work and then on the margins were notes in Eupalinos’s handwriting. She bent over and carefully inspected what were blueprints for a very large building. Then the title at the bottom of the scroll was what finally grabbed her attention and she read it aloud, “The Corinth Academy of… Performing Bards.”

The Conqueror moved quickly when she saw the bard sinking down. She caught Gabrielle around the waist and drew her closer to her body. She felt the bard trembling and her skin chilled from nervousness. She too felt the same way but she was able to easily steady her weakened partner.

Gabrielle held onto Xena’s forearm and her watery eyes stared at the blueprints. “This isn’t real.”

“It is,” softly argued the ruler. She placed her fingertips under the bard’s chin and drew Gabrielle’s attention to her. “It’s very real and soon this building will be real.” She pointed at the building plans on the trunk. “This is just the first step, Gabrielle. It’s the first phase.”

“What do you mean?” urged the confused bard.

The Conqueror lowered her head closer. “After the Academy is built then the old theatres will be rebuilt throughout the providences in Greece. Then afterwards the rest of the realm will follow suit.” She glanced back at the Academy’s blueprints then explained, “Before I destroyed Athens I seized all of the city’s blueprints from the municipal building… I happened to get the Academy’s. This new Corinth Academy will be a duplicate of the Athens Academy including the Theatre of Dionysus except it’ll be bigger.”

Gabrielle could only listen as Xena explained it to her.

“There are certain additions such as a hall I want to dedicate to Melinda and Janice.”

The bard tested her voice and asked, “To record our history?”

Xena smiled that her younger partner caught onto her idea. “Exactly.” Her smiled grew tender as she continued talking. “There’s another hall that will be dedicated to you and I would like for it to house all these bards’ scrolls.” She signaled the large wall but focused back on Gabrielle. “There’s just one catch.”

Gabrielle dared to ask despite she feared her voice failing her. “What is it?”

“The only way this Corinth Academy will be built or even for me to reform my laws on literature I am asking you to lead the project.”

The Amazon Queen shook her head then rested her hands on the leather hips in front of her. “You want… you want me to direct the project?” She glimpsed down at the blueprints. “Building the Academy?”

“Yes,” murmured the ruler, “there’ll be plenty of help including myself.”

“When… when did you plan to start this?” Gabrielle’s red eyes lifted back up.

“Construction starts after the Summer Solstice but technically the plans begin when we arrive in Egypt.” Xena saw the smaller woman’s confusion and she elaborated. “Much of the resources are in Egypt and that’s why Cleopatra has asked me to come down so that I can inspect the materials.”

Everything was hastily adding up for the Amazon Queen. “Gods… this is….”

The Conqueror brushed back her partner’s stray blond hair. “I know it’s a lot.”

The bard slowly inhaled to help her calm down. She breathed deeply then tried to figure out another aspect. “Why are you doing this, Xena? After so long? Why now?”

Xena swallowed as her emotions trickled to the top. She knew this question was coming from Gabrielle and plenty of times she’s practiced her speech to give all the reasons. Yet when she gazed into Gabrielle’s emotional, raw eyes she knew it wasn’t so simple now. She inhaled a shaky breath then prayed her voice would stay steady.

Gabrielle moved her hand from her partner’s hip and collapsed the ruler’s arm. She conveyed her need to hear this out and that she was open.

“When I was a child, Gabrielle I spent my waking candlemarks playing with Lyceus. We role played every story you can think of and during the evenings we listened to the bards in mother’s taverna. Then the next day we’d reenact those stories if we really loved them. Those were the happiest days of my life for the longest time then I lost everything.” Xena felt Gabrielle’s hand caressing her arm to assure her. “Anger doesn’t even describe what I felt during my days as a warlord. I desecrated every memory of my brother by doing what I did as a warlord. I sealed it when I outlawed literature and philosophy from my realm. I didn’t want to remember anything from my childhood or of Lyceus because I couldn’t handle the grief and the rejection.”

Gabrielle freed her hand and reached up to remove the few tears on her lover’s face. She believed though that some part of the old Xena most likely didn’t completely give up or else she would have never saved the original scrolls like this. Even if it was about power, as Xena told her, she bet the underlying reason was Xena’s hidden memories linked to Lyceus through the bards.

“Then you came into my life, Gabrielle and I swore I would stop you.” Xena shook her head and she saw Gabrielle’s compassion for her. “It was as if I already knew the outcome would be us here, now and my hatred didn’t want to let that happen. You challenged me and I craved it more than my darkness. Then in the Amazon Nation I realized you weren’t trying to challenge me any longer but you were believing in me… because of the childhood stories that my mother told you. I thought I could easily chase you off by making you fear me yet your faith in me grew stronger. You’re the first person that never feared me for who I was and now you’re accepting me.” She shook her head. “It doesn’t make sense because somebody like me shouldn’t have somebody like you, Gabrielle.”

The bard unclenched her jaw then hotly argued, “Somebody like you needs somebody like me… just like I do with you.”

Xena lowered her head and she didn’t care about her men being here. She gently took Gabrielle into an emotional kiss and after the kiss their foreheads touched for awhile; their eyes remained closed. Xena pulled back some but her right hand touched her partner’s cheek. “And I need you to help me fix this wrong I did, Gabrielle.” She shook her head and her voice pitched deeper. “With you beside me, the bards will return from the shadows that I once casted them into and then the realm will find hopes and dreams again. The people should not fear their ruler but it should be me that fears them if I ever become a tyrant again.”

“You won’t go to that place again,” rasped the bard.

“I made a promise,” softly reminded the Conqueror.

Gabrielle sadly smiled and kissed Xena lightly before pulling back.

“If it wasn’t for these bards, Gabrielle I would have never had the beautiful childhood I did with my brother.” Xena cheeks burned from her returning tears; her breathing grew constricted. “If it wasn’t for arts then you would have never been a bard and you would have never reminded me of what was so precious to me in my childhood. I am in debt to you, Gabrielle.”

“No,” murmured Gabrielle, “you gave me back so much of what I lost too, Xena.” Gabrielle glanced at the endless scrolls in the carved wall. “And now you accept me completely… you accept my dreams and my hopes.” She covered her pounding heart and breathed, “Thank you so much, Xena.”

Xena drew Gabrielle in tightly to her body and held her. She lowered her head down so that her cheek brushed against Gabrielle’s and their hot tears mixed together. Xena’s heart opened more as she and Gabrielle grew closer. Xena knew no better faith than what she held in her relationship with Gabrielle.

Gabrielle’s aged wounds started to close over and her past faded behind her. She wouldn’t forget but she would no longer sit in the past memories or emotions. She was ready to move forward and especially with Xena now. She lifted her head and met Xena’s lips in a conveying kiss.

At the end, Xena opened her glowing eyes and saw what lay ahead of her because of the beautiful smile on Gabrielle’s face. Her smile matched Gabrielle’s and she warmly whispered, “Happy Birthday, Gabrielle.”

 

The End

Continued in A Stranger In My Family

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s