The Conqueror’s Stone by Djwp

THE CONQUEROR’S STONE

By Djwp

All we are, and all we seem,
is but a dream …
A dream within a dream

– Edgar Allen Poe

CHAPTER 1

“Stop him!” Xena commanded.

Instantly, Darfus moved into action.

The blond-haired intruder was too fast. He bolted past the royal guards clutching the precious jewel stolen from the Conqueror’s staff, took a running leap from the steps, and then simply disappeared into thin air.

Darfus froze, dumbfounded, hand still on the hilt of his sword which he had yet to draw.

The Conqueror was furious beyond words. Before Darfus could react, Xena was standing directly behind him. Both of them were staring at the empty yet slightly shimmering spot from which the intruder had vanished. And then recognition washed the anger from Xena’s eyes.

“That was him!” Xena’s voice caused Darfus to whirl around in surprise.

“Who?” the Royal Commander began to ask before the look in the Conqueror’s eyes made him stop.

Xena snarled and pointed the now bare end of her favorite scepter at the empty space. “That was him! The one who came to me in Cirra!”

“Cirra!” Darfus protested. “Xena, that was years ago!”

“You fool!” the Conqueror yelled and she pushed what was now only a stick unexpectedly into the arms of Darfus, throwing him completely off balance. “I want that jewel, and that man, found! I want him, Darfus!”

The Royal Commander shifted the staff nervously in his hands. “As you wish, Conqueror.”

“Just do it!” Xena lifted the bottom of her ornate gown and turned abruptly, stomping away.

“Great,” Darfus thought to himself as he watched the ruler of the known world’s angry departure. “Now where do I begin to look for a man who just disappeared into thin air?”

****

Xena stormed into the imperial bedchamber and slammed the door behind her so hard, the tall posts on the royal bed shook all the way down to the mattress.

Satrina paused in her task of folding the sheets and cringed.

“I can’t believe it!” Xena fumed as she stomped into the room.

The slave composed her features, put down the linen and turned to face her mistress. “What’s happened, Conqueror?”

“Quiet!” Xena glared at the girl. Satrina turned her eyes downward and stood very still, breathing a small sigh of relief when the Conqueror continued her pacing.

“He could have been an assassin! He could have stabbed me in the chest and then gotten away, just like that.” The warlord snapped her fingers and Satrina looked up with concern. Had there been an attempt on Xena’s life?

“I guess I’m lucky all he took was that odd jewel.” Xena almost laughed at the absurdity. The man could have ended her reign by taking her life, but all he took was a green stone. Her smile turned to a frown. “He took my favorite green stone and then he just vanished right into thin air!”

Satrina watched with fascination as Xena worked out the details. She loved watching the beautiful woman think through problems, the ideas seemed to wash across her blue eyes like shadows on glass.

“And it was him, I’m sure of it!” Xena bit her nail as her eyes seemed to stare through a window to the past. “The one they brought to me in Cirra. The one who knew about …” She paused and looked at her slave. The woman was watching her intently while she had almost said her son’s name. “What are you looking at? Don’t you have work to do?”

Satrina averted her eyes. “Yes, Conqueror.”

“Then get to it!”

“Yes, Conqueror.”

The slave turned back to her task, bending down to fumble for the sheets, until the unmistakable presence of her mistress filled the air behind her. Halting as she drew the pile of linen into her arms, she risked a glance and caught site of the tale end of a leather whip as it snaked along the floor at her feet.

“Drop the sheets,” Xena’s low voice purred in her ear.

“Yes, Conqueror.” Satrina smiled and did as she was told. She stood slowly and turned to find her tall, dark master staring at her with lust-filled eyes.

Xena grinned seductively and took a step closer to Satrina; close enough to hear the slight tremble of the slave’s breath at the sight of the whip. Suddenly, all thoughts of the theft of her jewel were gone. Instead of the blond-haired man from Cirra, Xena found herself thinking about the blond-haired woman she had sentenced to the cross just prior the incident.

The one who had stood tall and proud and unafraid before Xena, Destroyer of Nations, Conqueror of the World and had spoken her mind. Xena had surprised herself, and everyone else there, by rising from her throne and walking down the stairs of the podium to stand before the dissident. The beautiful woman had not flinched, did not look away. Instead, she stared right into the eyes of the Conqueror, and Xena had felt the uncontrollable urge to touch her.

She remembered grabbing the prisoner’s chin and running her thumb along soft, warm lips. The connection had sent a shiver right down to her very toes.

Just thinking about it was bringing back the most delicious sensations.

Xena grabbed Satrina’s chin and ran a thumb along her lips in exactly the same manner. “Are you guilty?” she asked, mentally replacing the face of the dark-haired slave with the glowing image of the beautiful blond.

But when the slave’s lips moved to answer, Xena shushed them to silence. “No, no, no. No need to answer. Of course you’re guilty,” Xena crooned, smoothing the dark curls of the slave’s hair, wishing they were straight and golden. “We all are.”

Then the whip snapped and Xena’s eyes turned cold.

****

Soft morning light found its way into the royal bedchamber, slipping over the windowsill and lighting the quiet room in a golden haze. It was the shift in temperature that woke the sleeping warrior; the change from cool to warm caused blue eyes to blink open a few times, only to close quickly, pained by the insult of bright light.

Xena groaned and threw an arm over her eyes. Her body had already registered that she had slept passed dawn — a rare occurrence and one that Gabrielle would no doubt not let her forget. Well, she might as well take advantage of the situation. Xena rolled over and wrapped her arm around the warm body lying next to her. The ground felt incredibly comfortable this morning. She pulled the bard to her and wiggled as close as she could, wanting to make contact with as much skin as possible. Her hand sought for, and found, a soft, warm breast. Xena took a deep breath and sighed happily.

The happy sigh halted abruptly. Gabrielle’s scent was different. Xena sniffed a few more times just to be sure. Definitely, the bard’s scent was somehow … wrong.

Xena shifted her hand. The breast she was holding was the wrong shape completely.

The warrior’s eyes popped open in alarm. She found herself staring at a mass of black curls, and she was holding someone who was most definitely not Gabrielle … not even close.

Xena yelped in surprise and attempted a quick roll out of the bedskins, only to find herself falling out of a bed and landing with a solid thump upon the floor. After a momentary jumble of long arms and legs, she managed to scramble to her feet simultaneously looking for her sword, chakram, knives and bard.

All she found was a terrified stranger staring back at her, eyes round with fear.

“Conqueror! What’s wrong?” the stranger said, bringing the sheets up to cover her naked body.

Xena backed away from the bed, instinct preparing her for an attack from all sides. Her eyes darted everywhere at once, trying to take in as much of the situation as possible, until the woman’s words worked their way to her brain and made themselves understood.

Xena froze and stared at the stranger. “What did you call me?”

The woman wrapped her naked body up in the sheets quickly and removed herself from the bed. She knelt on her knees, bowing in supplication before the confused ruler.

“Conqueror, please,” the dark-haired woman said, bringing her forehead to the ground. “I’ve displeased you.”

“Wha … what?”

“I’ve made you angry. Tell me what you wish me to call you, if not Conqueror.”

Xena had no idea whatsoever what was going on. She stared at the woman bowed before her in disbelief. “Did you call me ‘Conqueror’?”

The woman lifted her head. “Yes, Conqueror. Is that wrong?”

The warrior was too busy trying to get her mind around being called Conqueror to answer the question. That name was something she had dreamed up for herself in a time when all her dreams were centered around one day ruling the world. And then the question was all but forgotten, when Xena recognized the face staring up at her.

“Satrina?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes,” the woman answered bluntly.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m sorry, Conqueror,” the woman bowed her head again. “I thought you wanted me to stay the night.”

Xena knew for certain that she was missing out on a big part of this conversation.

“All right,” the warrior said, bringing her hands up in surrender. “Let’s start from the beginning. First thing’s first.” Xena pursed her lips and took some steps toward the window, careful not to take her eyes from the prone woman. “Exactly where am I?”

Satrina stayed quiet for a few moments, watching the Conqueror move to the window and thinking surely this must be a trick question.

“You’re in your bedchamber?” The slave attempted to answer.

Xena paused, the answer registering for the first time the fact that she was indeed standing in a bedchamber . Was that a trick answer? Xena continued to move cautiously to the window.

“And where is the bedchamber?” the warrior asked, taking a leaning glance outside.

Satrina thought carefully again before answering. “In your castle?”

Xena froze. “My castle?”

Satrina didn’t reply immediately. Was that a question? Hadn’t she just said that? “Your palace?” she tried as an alternative.

Xena stared at the woman in disbelief. My palace? She hesitantly took her eyes away to stare out of the window at the city stretched out before her. “Corinth? This is Corinth?”

Satrina knotted her brow in concern. “Yes, this is Corinth.” She suddenly found the courage to rise. “You are in your bedchamber, in your palace, in your city, Corinth.” When the expression of surprise and confusion on Xena’s face did not change, Satrina moved forward with worry. “Conqueror, are you all right?”

Xena was staring at the woman in unabashed amazement. She was in a bedchamber, that much was true. And it appeared to be in a castle which was definitely located in Corinth. She looked down at herself and noticed for the first time that she was completely naked.

“Where are my clothes!” she shouted. And then an even worse thought filled her mind. “Where is Gabrielle?” All other concerns suddenly became secondary.

“Where is Gabrielle, Satrina?” Xena asked, her voice suddenly turning menacing as she advanced on the slave. “What have you done with Gabrielle?”

Satrina’s worry turned to instant fear and she backed away quickly. “Conqueror, I have no idea who you are talking about.”

“Stop calling me that!” Xena grabbed the woman by the shoulders, hard. “What have you done with Gabrielle?”

“I don’t know, Conque …” Satrina swallowed the word when Xena growled. “Please …” she searched her mind desperately for another title. “Please … master … I don’t know,” she pleaded wincing as the iron grip on her shoulders became painful. She averted her eyes, finding the cold, hard stare of the Conqueror impossible to take.

The use of the term ‘master’ brought Xena to an abrupt halt. She released the pressure of her grip from the woman’s shoulders and took a step away, trying to compose herself. She had to stop reacting and think. She looked quickly around the room for her leathers and weapons, not surprised when they were nowhere to be seen.

There was something most definitely wrong. She needed to take stock in her situation and figure a few things out before she got herself, and possibly Gabrielle, into even bigger trouble.

“Would you find me something to wear?” she asked the obviously terrified woman.

The question jerked Satrina into action. “Of course,” the slave answered, exceedingly happy to have something to do. “Right away.” She purposely left off any titles, determined not to bring her master’s anger out again.

Xena watched her ex-slave, Satrina, as she walked directly to a wardrobe and quickly chose a robe for the warrior to wear. It seemed that Satrina knew exactly where to go and what robe to pick as though she had done it a million times. The slave was as efficient now in taking care of her master in this palace as she had been in a battlefield tent all those years ago. Just as though her role as slave to the Destroyer of Nations had never ended.

Satrina handed the robe over to Xena with a smile and a bow. It was made of the finest silk from Ch’in Xena noted as she allowed the slave to help her put it on. A knock at the door surprised them both. Xena quickly tied a sash around her waist, motioning with her head for the woman to answer the door.

Satrina swung two huge ornate doors inward and Darfus marched into the room.

If it had been possible, Xena would have had to bend down to pick up her jaw from the floor. If she had suspected something was amiss before, now she was sure of it. The warrior closed her mouth and decided not to say a word.

The man who Xena and Hercules had together once sent to Hades bowed to Xena and smiled nervously.

“Good morning, Conqueror. It’s late. Did you forget about the meeting?”

Xena said nothing. She didn’t know what to say. The last thing she wanted to do was appear vulnerable before Darfus and she had already revealed too much of her confusion to another enemy … Satrina. The warrior decided she needed to go with the flow as much as possible until she could figure out what was going on.

Darfus waited quietly for her reply.

“You’re not still angry about that ugly jewel, are you?” Darfus smiled, revealing a mouth full of rotten teeth.

Feeling silence was the best policy at this point, Xena sat on the bed and folded her hands.

Darfus lost his smile.

“Xena, we looked everywhere for him, but you saw it! The man disappeared into thin air! How could you expect us to find him.” Darfus sauntered confidently to the bed. “It’s obvious that the gods were involved,” he whispered in Xena’s ear.

Xena’s eyes grew wide at the mention of the gods. She should have known. Xena stood so abruptly, Darfus almost tripped backward. “What makes you think the gods were involved?”

The commander snorted. “You were there. You saw what happened.”

“Humor me, Darfus,” Xena sneered, falling easily into the role of a warlord. “Tell me what happened. Every detail. Leave nothing out. I want to see how observant you are.”

Darfus squared his shoulders accepting the challenge and grinned. “We were watching two gladiators battle it out. It was a good fight, too. Darius is good with the sword, but Marcus is better with the lance, don’t you think?”

“Cut to the chase, Darfus. What happened with the jewel?”

“Yeah, well, we were so wrapped up in the fight, we didn’t see the short, blond guy jump out from the side of the stage. He grabbed that ugly, green jewel off of the top of your scepter and before anyone could spit, he disappeared in a flash of green light.”

Xena’s eyes were wide. Things were beginning to come very terrifyingly clear.

“Short, blond man you say?”

“Yeah, you seemed to know him from somewhere …”

“Short, muscular … fast and agile … blond, curly hair about down to here?” Xena said, indicating hair at chin length with her hand.

Darfus nodded.

“And he grabbed a green jewel and then disappeared?”

Darfus nodded again.

There was only one man who fit that description, Xena thought quickly, her mind working overtime. Iolaus.

“Darfus,” Xena smiled and moved very close to her ex-Lieutenant. “Tell me EXACTLY what this green stone looked like.”

Darfus appeared to be loosing his patience with the Conqueror this morning. “Xena, you KNOW what it looked like. It was your favorite jewel!”

“I know I know, but I want to see if YOU know, Darfus. Tell me what it looked like!”

The Lieutenant growled in impatience. “It looked like a green piece of shit piled on top of a hunk of gold! Xena this is a waste of time. Forget about the jewel. Go pick out another from the vault. We have a meeting to get to and you are already late.”

What Darfus had just done was given Xena a perfect description of the Chronos stone. That stone and the presence of Iolaus could only mean one thing … TROUBLE.

Xena was still processing the possibilities in her mind when Darfus grabbed her arm.

“Xena, did you hear a word I said? Brutus is waiting. He’s BEEN waiting for an hour. You can’t keep the governor of Rome waiting all morning.”

“What?” Xena asked, the name of Brutus grabbing her attention. “Did you say Brutus?”

“Yes, Brutus. You had a meeting with him. Remember? He’s very grateful to you for taking the time to see him. And you want to see him while he’s still grateful. You don’t want to lose the advantage of that, by making him wait. He’ll get angry.”

“What do I care if Brutus is angry?” Xena snapped. Now, that was a statement that would be true no matter what was going on. The last thing Xena wanted to do was talk to Brutus of Rome. And then something Darfus said registered with the warrior. “What did you call him?”

Darfus sighed. “Governor of Rome. Come on, Xena. You made him governor after he assassinated Caesar. How could you have forgotten that?”

“I didn’t forget,” Xena stated, thinking furiously. “I just wanted to remind you. He is the governor and I am … who?”

Darfus nodded in resignation. “You are Xena, the Conqueror. Ruler of the world. I get what you’re saying.”

Xena paused at the title, taking all the facts in as they settled into place.

“I have a headache. Tell Brutus the meeting is off. I won’t be seeing anyone today. Got that?”

“But Xena …”

“Get out of here, Darfus. I leave you to take care of Brutus.”

Darfus sighed, resigning himself to the Conqueror’s will and left the room. Satrina closed the door quietly behind him and waited for Xena’s command. Normally, the slave would know exactly what to do to serve the Conqueror in the morning. Today, however, was anything but a normal morning.

Xena sat quietly on the bed and examined the beautiful silken robe which had obviously been fashioned in the land of Ch’in.

Satrina watched as Xena fondled the robe as though she had never seen it before. “Your favorite robe, Conqueror,” the slave explained. “A gift from Lao Ma.”

Xena looked up, her expression betraying nothing. “And how is Lao Ma?”

“She’s fine,” Satrina answered, frowning. “Why? Have you received bad news from Ch’in?”

“No, I just wondered if you had heard any gossip,” Xena responded softly, thinking quickly to cover up her reason for the question.

Satrina smiled at that. Xena always knew where to find the most accurate information. “No gossip … accept that the Roman toga you gave her is her favorite as well. She wears it all the time.” The comment got no reaction from the Conqueror. Satrina had expected at least a grin. She must miss Lao Ma. Understandable.

“Satrina,” Xena said, patting the place on the bed beside her. The slave walked over and sat down. “Did you see what happened yesterday … with the jewel?”

“No, Conqueror.”

“Have you ever seen or talked to the man Darfus described?”

“No, Conqueror.”

Xena forced her mind to think quickly. If Satrina was still her slave and Darfus was still alive, then maybe the Chronos stone was used to send her back to her past and trap her here. Perhaps Iolaus, with the help of some god, traveled back to the past to steal the stone in an attempt to help her escape.

But this doesn’t fit, because Caesar is dead and Brutus is governor … not emperor … and she … Xena … is Conqueror of the world.

Lao Ma is still alive. Gabrielle is nowhere to be seen.

Xena stood up abruptly from the bed. By the gods, this isn’t the past and it isn’t the future, either.

She was in the present, but it was a different present, an alternative present to the one she was living just yesterday.

Someone … or some god … has changed the course of events and altered her destiny. She has become exactly what she desired to be when she was a warlord, before she was turned to the path of good … by Hercules. The presence of Iolaus could only mean one thing: something terrible has happened to the demi-God; something so traumatic that it altered the shape of the present. Iolaus must have stolen the Chronos stone in an attempt to change things back.

But something must have gone wrong, because things have not changed back … at least, not all the way.

CHAPTER 2

Xena quickly reviewed the situation in her mind. Last night, she went to sleep next to a warm campfire with Gabrielle wrapped in her arms. This morning, she woke up in a strange bed, next to her ex-slave Satrina and she was Conqueror of the World.

All right, she could handle this. First things, first — she needed to determine what had become of Gabrielle in this new reality. If Iolaus was in the vicinity trying to change things, then her Gabrielle couldn’t be far behind. She needed to find them and then find a way to help them.

“Satrina, have you seen a woman with long, golden-blond hair?” Xena asked the slave, but Satrina stared back at her with a blank expression. “She stands about this tall, green eyes, very beautiful … talks a lot?”

A flicker of recognition lit up Satrina eyes, “Do you mean the dissident you sentenced yesterday? The one Darfus arrested who was speaking out against you at the Palladium?”

Xena’s heart fell to the pit of her stomach. “Was her name Gabrielle?”

Satrina shrugged, “I don’t know her name, but she was involved with the Resistance. At least that’s what Darfus said.”

Of course, Xena thought, that would make perfect sense. Gabrielle would have been the first one to rally against her had she indeed conquered the world. Xena was afraid to ask the next question.

“Did I find her guilty?”

“Well, of course,” Satrina replied defensively. “You always find them guilty. I heard she spoke out against you even as you were standing right next to her. Can you imagine the nerve?”

Xena couldn’t suppress a small smile despite the sinking feeling. “And what was her sentence?”

Satrina looked at the Conqueror like she was out of her mind. “Conqueror, are you sure you’re all right? Do you need to see a healer? Shall I call Alti?”

Xena blanched at the name. The last person in the world she wanted to see right now was Alti. Xena was beginning to believe this present was really just the who’s who of her worst nightmares. “What was this dissident’s sentence?” she repeated the question harshly.

Satrina shook her head in disbelief. This had to be some kind of test. The slave decided it was best not to question her master’s motives.

“You had her nailed to the cross and then broke her legs.”

A swirl of shadows passed before the warrior’s eyes as she barely fought off a loss of consciousness. She stood up from the bed, hand at her chest, gasping for air and control. The room twirled.

“Conqueror! Conqueror!” Satrina jumped up after her and helped Xena to stay standing. “I’m going to get Alti!”

“No … NO!” Xena yelled, grabbing the slave’s arms and holding her still. “I’m all right. It’s just this … headache. I need to get some air.”

Xena took a moment to collect herself. She mapped out a plan even as she was taking deep, even breaths to get her pounding heart under control. She turned to face her slave, suddenly appearing every bit the Conqueror.

“Satrina, get my leathers and horse ready. I want to be taken to the prisoner right away.”

The slave looked at her master, the doubt and confusion plain on her face.

Xena thought quickly. “I have a suspicion that the blond man who stole my stone and that dissident were working together.”

The simple logic of the Conqueror’s reasoning washed all doubt from Satrina’s mind. Her master was simply brilliant, she thought, always one step ahead of the game. She smiled proudly and nodded in agreement.

Xena strode over to the window and looked out. Even without knowing what was real in this strange new reality, the warrior princess surmised that outside of the city walls lay a field of horrors. Though she had no view beyond, she knew stretched out as far as the eye could see would be row upon row of the crucified bodies of her enemies. It was another one of those dreams she used to envision along with the title of Conqueror. Xena had no doubt that she had planted the very first cross with her own blood-soaked hands

“Get Darfus. I want to go to the Field. I’m going to question her myself,” Xena said, squinting into the sunlight, ” … if she’s still alive.”

Satrina turned and departed quickly to do her master’s bidding, the Conqueror having successfully disguised the fact that she had almost choked on those last few words.

CHAPTER 3

The field was everything she had dreamed it would be. A macabre harvest of human bodies landscaping the hillsides in all directions, filling the horizon with horror.

“From Corinth to the Aegaen Sea,” Xena whispered to herself, her words lost in the silence and whisked away by the breeze. Argo shifted nervously beneath her, disturbed by the smell of death.

Darfus coughed in a deliberate attempt to disrupt the Conqueror’s reverie. Gods, she was acting strangely today.

“Tell me again why we are out in the heat of the day in this smelly field?” the royal commander asked, waving his hand in front of his nose to emphasize the point.

“Because I wish it,” Xena answered flatly, not bothering to look his way. “Which way?”

“I have no idea,” Darfus replied. He smiled wickedly when the blasé remark finally earned him Xena’s glare. “We have to wait for Theodorus and his patrol. They’ll know where they put her.” Darfus sat back in his saddle and grinned. “What’s left of her anyway.”

Xena turned away to hide a grimace, choosing instead to stare at the faces of a few of the unfortunates who hovered above her, hanging crucified closest to the city’s gates. They had died a hard death, Xena knew. It had all been a part of her plan to instill fear into all who would oppose her. She had, after all, first hand experience in the pain of the cross and the undeniable message it delivered. At one time, her only wish was to pay the world in kind. Apparently, Xena thought as she studied the pain racked faces that floated in endless rows into the distance, she had gotten what she wished for.

Xena couldn’t afford to let her thoughts go in that dark direction. If it was only yesterday that Gabrielle had been crucified, then she would still be alive today — she had to be. Xena planned to order her removed and taken to the castle. She would have every healer at her disposal tend to her. If they failed, they would all end up in the Field themselves. There were, indeed, some advantages to being Conqueror of the World.

Xena guided Argo around to face the direction of the on-coming patrol. They were galloping at top speed, rushing to meet their unexpected visitors as quickly as possible.

Theodorus reared his horse to a dramatic stop, bringing the rest of the patrol to an equally dramatic halt. “Conqueror, your presence is an honor to my patrol,” he said breathlessly. “How may I help you?”

Xena sat relaxed in her saddle, an air of command and confidence gracing her features. “Take me to the pretty, young blond I crucified yesterday,” Xena ordered with an appropriate sneer.

“The … the blond?” Theodorus asked as though he had never seen one in his life.

“You haven’t cut her hair off and sold it yet, have you?” Xena leaned forward in her saddle. “She’s still alive, isn’t she?”

“No … I mean, yes … I mean … I don’t know,” Theodorus stammered in reply.

Xena lost her sneer. “What do you mean?”

Theodorus gulped, certain his life was about to end. “Her body was stolen last night.”

“What!” Darfus drew his sword in anger. “I’ll take his head myself!”

“No! Wait!” Xena held out her arm to stop Darfus and nailed Theodorus with an icy stare.

“You’ll take me to that cross and tell me everything. And you’ll tell me the truth or Darfus WILL have your head. I am making myself clear, aren’t I?”

Theodorus could only nod.

Xena pulled on her reigns and motioned for the guard to take the lead.

“Let’s go! And for your sake, we better not get lost.” Xena kicked her heels and Argo spurred forward. How easy it was to slip into the role of Conqueror, Xena mused as they rode off. She didn’t even have to think about it.

****

She looked up at the empty wooden cross, studying the way it appeared to drift along a backdrop of billowy white clouds and blue sky. The crucifix was the only barren one in a virtual sea of bodies.

“Where is she?” Xena asked softly, turning her head to stare at the clearly frightened patrol guard, Theodorus.

“I … I don’t know.”

Xena gave Argo a gentle nudge and moved the mare a bit closer to the patrol.

“You think she climbed down and walked away on her own?” the Conqueror asked in a silky, dangerous voice. Darfus snorted in amusement. Theodorus remained silent.

“Look at the ground,” Xena said, gesturing with her hand to the dirt below. “Tell me what you see?”

“Mud?”

Darfus grabbed for his sword. “Let me kill him, Xena!”

She raised her hand and halted the Commander’s actions. “No, I want him to climb down from his mount and take a closer look.”

Theodorus scrambled off his horse to do what he was told.

Xena folded her hands across her saddle horn and smiled. “Tell me what you see, Theodorus.”

“I see hoof prints.”

“Very good. Are they ours?”

Theodorus gulped. “No.”

“How can you tell?”

“The shoe prints. They aren’t our design.”

“Very good. Maybe you’ll live.” Xena smirked at the disappointed look on Darfus’s face. “I said, maybe. How many horses, can you tell?”

Theodorus scooted around on his hands and knees, studying the earth and all the hoof marks he could find very carefully.

“I see two horses and … wait! There are two sets of boot prints as well. Two people on mounts and two on foot,” Theodorus announced proudly and straightened up to smile at the Conqueror.

“Very good. Now … can you tell who they were?” Xena leaned forward in her saddle. Theodorus swallowed hard and shook his head.

“No. I can’t.”

“Yes, you can. Give it a shot.”

Theodorus looked with despair at the ground, shaking his head. “No, I can’t. I’m not that good at tracking. I have no idea.”

“Sure you can. I can tell from up here. Surely you can see it from down there.” Xena drew her sword slowly and pointed it to the ground. “Take a closer look. G’wan.”

Theodorus watched the deadly blade make a small circle in front of his eyes and he swallowed hard. Falling to his knees, he bent his face as close to the mud as he could to inspect the evidence. He tried hard to ignore Darfus’s chuckling, but the evil snicker was making him sweat more than the Conqueror’s sword leveled at his back.

Suddenly, the shape and size of one of the boots and a distinctive design in a horse’s hoof – print made the candle light over his head.

“Amazons!” he yelled in relief. “They were Amazons!”

“Verrry good,” Xena said, but she didn’t re-sheath her sword. “Now tell me how they got in and out of here without being seen?”

Theodorus stood and wiped off the dirt from his hands. “That’s what I can’t understand. We patrol this field regularly. How they got by us, I don’t know.”

“You patrol these fields a little too regularly, I would imagine,” Xena surmised, resheathing her sword. “They probably studied your schedule and waited until you were on the opposite end of the field. At any rate, it doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t matter?” Both Darfus and Theodorus asked incredulously.

“You don’t have to worry about patrolling the fields any longer. I want all these bodies taken down. Burn them and the crosses.”

“WHAT?” Darfus cried out.

“All the bodies?” Theodorus asked in disbelief.

“All of them. There will be no more crucifixions. Xena pulled on Argo’s reigns and turned the horse around.

“No more crucifixions? Xena, have you gone mad?” Darfus asked in complete bewilderment.

“I want this field cleared by tomorrow sunset,” Xena ordered.

“But Xena …” Darfus began until the look in The Conqueror’s eyes took his voice away.

“Just do it!” Xena kicked her golden mare into a gallop and thundered away, leaving a dumbfounded Darfus and a frantic Theodorus in her wake.

“Darfus! How in Hades am I supposed to get all these bodies down by tomorrow! It can’t possibly be done! I need more men!” Theodorus stared at the seemingly endless vista of hanging corpses. “I need a lot more men!”

“Use however many you need!” Darfus snarled, effectively shutting Theodorus up. “Just do it!”

He kicked his own stallion into a gallop and rode after his Supreme Commander – a Conqueror who hasn’t been herself since she woke up this morning and Darfus was damn sure going to find out why.

CHAPTER 4

Xena stormed through the doors of her bedchamber and pulled the long, black cape from her shoulders throwing it on the bed.

“Annoying thing,” she mumbled. She walked quickly to a basin of water on a table and washed her face in an attempt to remove the lingering smell of decaying flesh.

The thought of Gabrielle hanging in that field, amongst all those rotting corpses was enough to make her puke. She scrubbed her hands and face one more time in an effort to get rid of the smell.

Wiping her face with a nearby towel, she glanced around the room, relieved that the slave, Satrina was not present. At least she would have a few moments to herself to think. She paced over to the window and looked out over the city.

In a way, she was relieved. If the Amazons had taken Gabrielle from the cross, then she must have still been alive. At least the bard was in safe hands. This, however, did not help her in her own predicament. She could think of no one else to turn to, except Gabrielle. Certainly there was not a single person within the palace walls that she could trust with the knowledge that things were not the way they were supposed to be. There was not a person who would willingly help her return this strange present to its correct course.

In fact, now that she thought of it, the only people who would probably be more willing to help would be the members of what Satrina called “The Resistance.” No doubt, they would be more than happy to see present time changed to a reality that had no Conqueror in it at all.

The Amazons might be useful allies as well. Xena fingered the edge of her chakram as it hung on her hip and thought about the Chronos Stone. She knew so little about it, preferring to leave the details of legends and mysticism to the bard, who knew all about such things. In her past, she would have consulted Alti about it, but doing so now would be quite impossible, if not downright dangerous. There would be no way Alti would be willing to help her alter the current timeline.

The Amazons, however, would have their own shamans to consult. And if events had gone the way Xena once dreamed, the Amazons would be numbered amongst her conquered. They would, no doubt, be very willing participants in a conspiracy to do away with the Conqueror, no matter how fanciful the plan might be.

“I wonder how they would react to joining in a conspiracy against the Conqueror, headed by the Conqueror herself?” Xena asked the afternoon sun.

****

The sound of the door opening brought Xena’s attention away from the window. It was Satrina, returning to the room with a concerned look on her face.

“I’m going on a trip,” Xena announced, before the slave could say a word. “Have Argo readied for overnight travel.”

Satrina paused, but knew better than to ask. “You’ll need an escort,” she said instead.

Xena was about to answer that she didn’t, but decided that it would be too strange for the Conqueror to travel anywhere unescorted … and very dangerous.

“Yes,” the warrior confirmed and swept passed the slave to exit the door. “Have Darfus assemble them.”

Satrina had expected an explanation. All she got was another order. She hurried after Xena with her mouth hanging open.

“But Conqueror …” she stammered, trying to delay her, ” … your cape.”

“Burn it,” Xena snarled and disappeared through the door.

****

Darfus pushed back the curtain of hanging bones and stepped into the dark room, cringing at the distasteful smell of strange incense that assaulted his nose.

It smells like the Field, he thought to himself. He squinted through the smoky darkness looking for the woman he dreaded to see, but needed to find.

“What do you want, Darfus?” A gravely, deep voice drifted out of the shadows.

“We have a problem,” the royal commander stated simply.

“Oh, do we now?” the shadow’s raspy chuckle sent a shiver down Darfus’s spine. “And what might that be?”

Alti emerged from the gloom, stepping into the dim light of a flickering candle. The darkness remained around her, shadowing her face like a shroud.

“It’s Xena,” Darfus informed the shamaness.

“You mean, The Conqueror, don’t you?” Alti said, her harsh voice disputing the informality.

“Yes, the Conqueror. She’s not been herself.”

“What do you mean, Darfus?” Alti stepped closer to the soldier, making him even more nervous. He could see the blood dripping down her forehead from beneath her deerskin hood.

“She’s acting strangely today.”

“How so?”

“She was late to meet with Brutus …”

Alti’s wicked cackle reverberated though the darkness. “So? You find that strange? I’m surprised Xena agreed to meet with him at all.”

“When I went to get her, she seemed confused. Not herself. She said she had a headache and refused to see him. Told me to handle it.”

Alti’s brows knitted together. “A headache, you say? I’ve never known Xena to complain of illness. Go on. Is there more?”

Darfus nodded. “Yes, she seems obsessed with that stone that was stolen yesterday. And now she thinks that blond woman she sentenced to the cross is involved. She had us go out into the field to look for her. And when she found out that the body of this girl had been stolen by Amazons, she ordered the field burned and now Satrina tells me she wants me to prepare Argo for overnight travel and to get an escort together so she can leave the castle and ….”

“STOP!” Alti’s command halted Darfus’s words immediately. The shamaness’s eyes were wide and furious. Darfus felt like running from the room.

“What did you say?” Alti’s voice growled as though from the pits of Tartarus.

“She … she … wants to leave the castle …”

“Not that, you blithering fool! Did you say she ordered the Field burned?”

Alti was so close now, Darfus could smell blood on her breath. He nodded quickly. “She ordered the bodies taken down and then burned, along with the crosses.”

Alti stepped back and turned away from the soldier to disguise the fury in her eyes.

“How dare she,” she said to the shadows. “That is MY field.”

“Well, its gonna be gone come tomorrow sunset.”

Alti whirled around and stepped up to face Darfus. “You say Xena is leaving the castle? Going somewhere? Where?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Well, go do your Conqueror’s bidding. Get her escort together and then get back to me with her destination.”

Darfus nodded and started to leave. Alti reached out and stopped him with a withered hand. He stared at the hand on his arm in horror; her touch was as cold as ice.

“Send Satrina to me,” Alti ordered, smiling wickedly and letting her palm rest against the soldier’s skin just a little longer so he would remember the touch. “Tell no one that you spoke to me.”

“Yes, Alti,” Darfus replied.

Alti slowly removed her hand and smiled at the obvious look of relief that passed across the soldier’s face.

Darfus turned and ran, more to get away from the dark shamaness than to do her bidding. He could hear Alti’s laugh following him all the way down the hall.

****

“Where are you going, Xena?” Darfus asked, looking up at the Conqueror as she settled herself into Argo’s saddle.

“We’re going to the Amazons,” Xena answered and motioned for Darfus’s stallion to be brought forward.

“The Amazons? Why in Hades do you want to do that? You scattered the tribes to the seven winds! How do you think you’re going to find them – what’s left of them … did you say we?”

“Get on your horse, Darfus,” Xena ordered.

“Did you say we?”

“You’re coming with me.”

“But …”

“Get on your horse, Darfus.” Xena’s expression booked no argument.

“I can’t just leave, Xena. I have things to do … things to settle before I leave the castle. Let me go back and take care …”

“Darfus,” Xena’s purr let the commander know that she was one step from beheading him, “don’t make me tell you again to get on your horse.”

Darfus hoisted himself into his saddle wordlessly. He met Xena’s stare, trying to hide his fear at being unable to report back to Alti.

“Xena, this is a waste of time. There are no Amazons left. Themiscyra was burned to the ground.”

“Oh, there are Amazons all right,” Xena said, pulling her mare around to face the main gate to the compound. “You just have to know where to look.” She clicked a few times and urged Argo forward. Darfus and a small patrol-sized escort followed in formation.

“And what are we going to do once we find them?” Darfus asked as he followed his leader through the castle’s main gate.

“Nothing,” Xena answered flatly.

And now Darfus knew for sure that Xena had lost her mind.

****

“Tell me, Satrina, has Xena been acting strangely today?”

Alti fiddled with some flasks on a table, pouring one putrid looking liquid into another. Satrina winced at the odd smell, but tried not to show it. This was the first time Alti had ever spoken to her. A major step in the right direction, as far as the slave was concerned. Perhaps she could benefit from Xena’s strange behavior after all.

“She complained of a headache,” Satrina reported evenly.

Alti turned around. Her dark eyes bored into the slave’s. “She’s sick? Why wasn’t I summoned?”

“She didn’t ask for you.”

Alti rose from her chair and sauntered over to the indentured woman.

“In the future,” she said, her voice grating against Satrina’s nerves, “I want you to inform me immediately of any … abnormalities … in the Conqueror’s health.”

“Yes, Alti.”

“The Conqueror’s health is of utmost importance to the Empire.”

“Yes, Alti.”

“Any information of similar disturbances will be rewarded.”

Satrina smiled. “Yes, Alti.”

“Now tell me, Satrina, where is the Conqueror now?”

“She’s not here.”

Alti sidled up very close to the slave, looking deeply into her eyes. Satrina squirmed under the close inspection.

“Let me tell you something, slave. I can see into your very soul. You have great ambition for someone who is only a slave. Did you think just because you get to enjoy Xena’s whip, that you could one day have it for yourself?”

Satrina stared at the ground and Alti laughed.

“Don’t think you can hide anything from me. You’d help your cause more if you would understand that although Xena rules the world … I rule Xena. Am I making myself clear?”

Satrina nodded.

“Good,” Alti said as she stroked the dark curls, letting her craggy fingers run down the length of hair and over a pert breast. “You’ll find my whip just as pleasurable as the Conqueror’s … and a lot more supportive of your own ambitions.”

Alti gave her nipple a hard squeeze and cackled at the slave’s sudden gasp. “Now … tell me … who did Xena need to see that was so important she had to leave Corinth?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t tell me.”

Alti lost her smile and dropped her hand. “You don’t know?”

Satrina shook her head.

“What about Darfus?”

“He left with her not too long ago.”

“Damn!” Alti turned away from the slave and cursed in three languages. “You’re a sly one, Xena,” she whispered hoarsely to herself, “but I’ll find out what you are up to … one way or another.”

She turned back around to face her new accomplice and smiled.

“Tell me everything you know, Satrina, and leave nothing out.”

CHAPTER 5

Darfus watched from behind a bush as Xena disappeared into the forest beyond. Damn if she hadn’t led them right to a small Amazon stronghold hidden deep within the forest near Themiscyra. She could track like no one he had ever seen, he thought to himself with pride as he watched her dark head disappear from view.

Though he had no idea yet why they had come, and Xena had volunteered no further information, he felt a little better about the mission. The Conqueror was obviously on her way to a clandestine meeting, no doubt with some traitor to the Amazon nation who would reveal the whereabouts of their army in exchange for her favor. That would mean very soon, he and his forces would be riding into battle once again. The idea of this thrilled him to no end.

“Remind me,” he said to the officer crouched next to him, “never to doubt the Conqueror’s intentions again.”

The man snorted. “You ask me to remind you of that every time, Darfus. Haven’t you learned by now to try not to second guess her? Besides, how could you ever doubt someone who looks SO good in Amazon leathers.” The soldier’s mouth turned upward into a hungry leer.

Darfus knocked him on his rump with the back of his hand. “Don’t you ever talk like that about the Conqueror. Not around me.”

Darfus ignored the officer’s grunt as the man rubbed his face. He looked off into the trees silently agreeing that Xena looked damn good, but he couldn’t help wonder why in the known-world the Conqueror had insisted on dressing like an Amazon.

 

Ephiny smiled down at the reclining form of her golden-haired friend, her eyes knotting a bit in worry.

“How are you feeling?”

Gabrielle shifted to relieve some small discomfort, wincing at a stab of pain coming from her heavily splinted legs. She smiled up at the Amazon leader from the healer’s pallet despite the ache.

“I’m fine, Ephiny. Really. Getting better every day. I’ll be back on my feet in no time.”

Ephiny grunted and handed the bard a mug of tea. “Just don’t rush it. And drink the tea. Yakut’s orders.”

Gabrielle sniffed the steeping contents and made a face. “Why do these teas always have to taste so bad?” She tried to hand it back to Ephiny. “I think I’ll pass tonight. I don’t need it anymore.”

Ephiny scowled and refused to accept the mug. “Drink it, Gabrielle. It’ll help you sleep.”

“I don’t need it. My legs don’t hurt … much. I’m sure I’ll sleep fine without it.” The bard raised the mug higher, insisting.

“Gabrielle,” Ephiny said in warning, backing away, “drink the tea.”

“No, I don’t like it.”

“Yakut wants you to drink it. She says it’ll help you heal. Drink the tea.”

“It makes me gag.”

“Drink it.”

“I don’t need it.”

“Gabrielle …”

“Drink the tea,” a dark voice said from the shadows at the back of the hut.

Gabrielle nearly dropped the mug in surprise. Ephiny whirled around, taking a defensive position between the intruder and her friend.

Xena emerged, as though appearing out of thin air from a blanket of darkness at the back of the room. The beads and feathers of her amazon garb clacked loudly in the stunned silence that greeted her as she stepped forward.

“Who are you?” Ephiny demanded, standing tall to face the intruder.

Gabrielle, however, couldn’t surppress a gasp of alarm as she quickly recognized the intense blue eyes and astoundingly beautiful features of The Conqueror.

“By the Gods!” she exclaimed and promptly dropped the mug. It fell, crashing to the ground, spilling its contents and breaking into pieces all over the floor.

“There’s no need for alarm,” Xena said, her voice calm.

“Who are you and what are you doing in here?” Ephiny repeated strongly.

Xena ignored her, keeping her eyes locked with Gabrielle’s as she walked slowly forward.

Gabrielle’s surprise turned to anger. “What are you doing here,” the bard asked tightly. “Have you come to finish the job?”

Ephiny’s eyes widened with sudden recognition and her arm moved to draw the sword from her back.

“Don’t,” Xena said, raising her hand and shifting her eyes to hold the Amazon with a steady gaze. “If I came here to kill you, you’d be dead already.”

Ephiny halted the movement and slowly lowered her arm. She regarded the Conqueror warily, noticing that she was completely unarmed – at least, as far as she could tell. The amazon’s eyes wandered over the dark woman’s Amazon costume in a search for hidden weapons, appreciating the attention to detail.

“How did you get past our guards?” Ephiny asked evenly, trying to keep her voice from quaking.

“I promise to tell you how I got past your defenses, if you promise to listen to what I have to say first.” Xena relaxed her stance, hoping to relieve the tension in the air. Her eyes wandered over to Gabrielle and to her wood-bound legs.

Gabrielle watched with bewilderment as sorrow and regret filled the Conqueror’s eyes.

“Are you all right?” Xena asked, her voice filled with worry.

“Is she all right?” Ephiny repeated incredulously. “Is she all right? You had her crucified and her legs broken and you hung her up in a field to be food for the vultures, and you come in here asking if she’s all right?”

Xena’s eyes did not leave the bard’s.

“Why are you here?” Gabrielle asked softly. She would never forget looking directly into the cold, cruel eyes of the Conqueror, would always remember the soft, seductive touch of her thumb upon her lips, and would have nightmares about the pain of that encounter for the rest of her life. Despite this, she knew without a doubt that the eyes of the woman she was looking into now, was not the same person.

Xena took another step forward, heartened by the expression she saw on Gabrielle’s face. “I came to see if you’re all right.” When Ephiny moved to speak in outrage again, Xena held up her hand. “I know you don’t understand, so let me explain why.”

“Why should we let you explain anything?” Ephiny asked angrily. “What makes you think we should listen to you? What’s to stop me from just calling the guards and finishing you off once and for all?”

Xena smiled sadly. “And the world would be better off for it, but I wouldn’t recommend that. We’d only end up with a bunch of dead Amazons and you would not have had a chance to hear a much better … and safer … way for ridding the world of Xena, the Conqueror.”

Both Ephiny and Gabrielle were stunned to silence by the words. Finally, Ephiny moved earning her Xena’s wary attention. The Amazon warrior backed carefully to a chair and sat down.

“This I gotta hear.” Ephiny said as she leaned against the back of the seat and crossed her arms.

Xena nodded once and turned her gaze to Gabrielle. The bard was watching her intently, propped up in the bed on her elbows.

“Why don’t you relax,” Xena suggested, noting the uncomfortable position and smiling warmly. “Do you mind if I check your legs?”

“Don’t let her touch you,” Ephiny warned.

“It’s all right,” Gabrielle said and then nodded at the dark warrior. “Go ahead.”

Xena walked to the end of the pallet and carefully examined the bruising and the position of the splints. Her touch was so gentle, Gabrielle laid her head down, relaxing under the soothing inspection.

“Your legs are broken …”

Ephiny snorted. “No kidding.”

Xena winced, but chose to ignore the comment. “They’ll heal nicely as long as you stay off them and rest … and drink your tea,” the warrior pronounced with a grin. She straightened up and smiled fully at the reclining bard, who was watching her every move with suspicious green eyes.

Finally, Gabrielle returned the smile and Xena breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever her own destiny, Gabrielle’s would always be the same. Even here, the bard was gentle and forgiving and willing to give, even the Conqueror, a second chance.

“You have a good healer,” Xena commented turning to face Ephiny. “She’s done a good job. Gabrielle will be fine.”

“Despite your best efforts,” the Amazon leader stated bluntly.

Xena nodded in acquiescence. She stood tall at the end of the pallet and faced Gabrielle.

“There’s no amount of apologizing that could ever make up for what I’ve done to you …”

“or to thousand of others …” Ephiny added.

” … or to thousands of others. Many people have died at my hands. I won’t ask your forgiveness. I don’t deserve it.”

“You can say that again.”

“Ephiny, be quiet,” Gabrielle demanded softly, her eyes returning to regard the dark woman with speculation.

Xena took a deep breath and continued. “I know this is going to be very hard to believe, but this is NOT the way things are supposed to be.”

“What do you mean?” Gabrielle asked, leaning up again on her elbows. “That you hadn’t meant to crucify me, break my legs?”

“No, Gabrielle. I mean that all of this … me … the Conqueror … conquering the world, Corinth … none of it is the way it’s supposed to be.”

Ephiny was flabbergasted. “I don’t understand.”

“Will you listen to what I have to say? It may be hard to believe, I know – but it’s the truth, I swear it.”

Ephiny opened her mouth to say something, but the bard stopped her.

“Go ahead, Xena. We’re listening. Um, it’s all right if I call you Xena, right?”

Xena’s smile lit up the dark hut. “Of course.”

She glanced at Ephiny who was sitting in the chair, arms crossed and a sardonic smile on her lips. “Go on … Xena.”

This was going to be even harder than she imagined, the warrior thought and she took a deep breath to begin. “On the day of your sentencing …”

“you mean the day you had her crucified …”

“Ephiny,” Gabrielle chided. The Amazon became silent.

“After I sentenced you to crucifixion and had your legs broken,” Xena continued, the pain evident in her eyes, “a man rushed past my guards, and stole a jewel from the tip of my scepter.”

“This is about a jewel?” Ephiny said, laughing.

“Ephiny,” Gabrielle chided again.

“You think WE stole your jewel?”

“Ephiny, please be quiet. Let her finish.” Gabrielle implored. Ephiny stared back sternly.

“Please?” Gabrielle pleaded sweetly.

“Can I finish now?” Xena asked the amazon warrior.

Ephiny waved her hand. “Go ahead.”

“A man stole the jewel right off my scepter and once it was in his hands, he disappeared into thin air. I can’t tell you what happened after that because I don’t know. In fact, I really have no memory of sentencing you either. The only reason why I know about the theft and you is because my Lieutenant told me what happened. All I know is, this morning, I woke up in a strange bed, with a slave I haven’t seen in years …”

Ephiny rolled her eyes and shot a quick look at Gabrielle.

“Suddenly, I was the Conqueror of the World, but the last thing I remember was going to sleep in my bedroll beside a warm campfire … with you.”

“What?” Ephiny exclaimed and snorted loudly.

Gabrielle shook her head. “Xena, you are not making sense.”

“Gabrielle,” Xena took a step closer, “the man who stole the stone was named Iolaus.”

“Iolaus?” Gabrielle asked, her eyes lighting with recognition.

“You know him?” Xena asked excitedly. She hadn’t expected Gabrielle to have met him in this timeline.

“Yes. Just before I was captured by your soldiers. He cornered me in the square. He told me this incredible story about … ” Gabrielle looked up at the Conqueror in wonder. “Are you telling me that what he told me was true?”

Xena nodded, relief lighting up her features. Thank the gods for Iolaus. “If he told you what I think he told you, yes … it was … all true. That stone he stole was the Chronos stone. He took it from the Conqueror and disappeared with it … ”

“To another point in time …” Gabrielle added, catching on.

“Yes, but wherever he went, he didn’t get the job done, because all that happened is I’m changed to what I should be, but the timeline isn’t.”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened in understanding. She thought back to the handsome blond man and the incredible story he had tried to tell her, hoping he could obtain her help. He had informed the bard, to her utter astonishment that she and Xena were really supposed to be the best of friends, and that the Conqueror of the known world was really supposed to be its hero instead of its destroyer. She remembered laughing at him, but listening to his tale, fascinated by the depth of his conviction in its truth. In the end, she had agreed to help him get the stone, but only because, if it was indeed the Chronos stone, she wanted it out of the Conqueror’s hands.

She arranged for him to meet with members of the Resistance when they gathered in the square, but then she had been captured and had not thought of him since.

“So,” Gabrielle said attempting to fit the pieces of the puzzle together in her mind, “you are the Xena that Iolaus was talking about. A Xena who fights for the greater good, on the side of justice. A Xena who never became the Conqueror because you were changed to the path of good by a man called Hercules.”

“Yes,” Xena said nodding, “Hercules made me see something inside myself that I didn’t know was there. He got me started on the path, but there is someone much more important in my life … someone who keeps me in the light and helps me stay there every step of the way. And I sure do need her help now,” Xena finished. She was standing over Gabrielle and looking down into questioning eyes.

“Who is that?” Gabrielle asked in a small voice.

“You. It’s you, Gabrielle. I need you … I need your help.”

“My help to do what?”

“I need your help … and the Amazons’ help,” Xena said turning to face a completely silent Ephiny, “to find another Chronos Stone. I have to find some way to aid Iolaus and put things right. This is not the way it’s supposed to be.”

Gabrielle’s eyes locked with Xena’s, and the bard knew, without a doubt, that every word the dark warrior was saying was true.

“You have got to be kidding me.” Ephiny’s words broke the connection. “That is the biggest crock of cyclops shit I have ever heard.”

“Ephiny,” Gabrielle pleaded.

The Amazon warrior stood up angrily. “Come on, Gabrielle. Please tell me you don’t believe a word of this Chronos stone mumbo, jumbo.”

“Ephiny, there is such a thing as the Chronos Stone,” Gabrielle said in support of the story.

“Oh, I know that! I have no doubt that there is a Chronos stone and that Xena had it once and wants it back. That man … what was his name … Iolaus? … stole it and now you want us to find it … and him … for you! Oh, your insidious manipulations are brilliant, Xena. But this! This one takes the cake!”

“If I simply wanted the Chronos Stone back, believe me, Ephiny, I wouldn’t need the help of you and your sorry bunch of Amazons to get it back,” Xena said, narrowing her eyes angrily.

“Oh, Methuselah shows her true, ugly face finally. Xena, do you really expect us to believe that you want our help in finding something that will effectively end your reign as Conqueror of the World forever?”

“That’s exactly what I’m asking you.”

“Why not just let us assassinate you? It’ll be quicker and a whole lot less trouble.”

Gabrielle raised herself up in alarm. “Ephiny.”

Xena held up her hand to stop Gabrielle. “It’s all right, Gabrielle. She’s right … in a way.” She took a step closer to the Amazon. “I’ll make you a deal. You help me to find another Chronos Stone or something like it. If we can’t, or it doesn’t work, you can assassinate me.”

“Xena!”

“You’ll let us assassinate you?” Ephiny repeated in disbelief.

“I’ll take my own life, if that’s what you want. In any case, the reign of Xena the Conqueror will be over.”

“How can I possibly believe you?”

“I swear on the blood of Ares,” Xena said, whipping out a concealed knife and, to their extreme surprise, she sliced across the palm of her hand, making a rent in her skin that quickly dripped a stream of blood.

“I swear on the blood of Ares and my own, if we cannot find a way to change things back, I will take my own life …”

“Or I will take it for you,” Ephiny finished, pulling out a knife and cutting her palm. She quickly grabbed Xena’s hand, letting the red fluid mix together in a solid, binding oath.

“Til death do us part,” Ephiny said with a wry grin.

They parted hands, both palms sticky with blood.

“So,” Ephiny said with a nod, “how will we do this?”

“Gabrielle needs time to heal. I’ll return to Corinth and find out what I can from my sources there. You have my permission to regroup your Amazons …”

“Gee, thanks,” Ephiny grunted.

Xena arched a brow, but chose to ignore the comment. “Consult all of the shamans from all of the tribes. When Gabrielle is healed, come to Corinth.”

“You want us to come to Corinth?”

“Make it appear as though you are coming to discuss terms or a treaty. We have to be very careful about this. We don’t want Alti to suspect anything. If she gets wind of what we are attempting to do, you can bet she’s going to fight us with all the powers at her disposal. Bring your best shamanesses. We’ll need their help.”

“And what will you be doing, while I’m healing?” Gabrielle asked, studying the Conqueror carefully.

“I’ll try to find a way to use Alti to solve the problem, without her knowing I’m using her. It won’t be an easy task. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to undo some of the wrongs I’ve done. If I have to pretend to be the Conqueror, I might as well put my powers to good use.”

“You could try the rest of your life, and you wouldn’t be able to undo all the wrongs,” Ephiny said in all seriousness, staring directly at the dark woman.

Xena held her gaze and nodded. There was more truth in the amazon’s biting words than she would ever know.

Ephiny’s noted the heavy weight of guilt slump the dark woman’s shoulders. Her expression softened a bit, despite her own misgivings. “Gabrielle will take a while to heal,” she commented, stating a fact.

“That’s all right. Take as long as she needs. Don’t you dare travel to Corinth until you’re completely healed, you got that Gabrielle? It doesn’t really matter how long it takes — once we find a Chronos Stone, we’ll have all the time in the world at our disposal,” Xena said and she smiled warmly at her friend.

Xena was graced with an adorable smile from her bard in return.

“There’s just one more thing,” Ephiny butted in. She didn’t care for the way Xena was looking at her friend. Not one bit.

“What is it?” Xena asked, tearing her eyes away from the precious face and very annoyed at the distraction.

“You said you’d tell me how you got in here, past our guards?”

“Oh that,” Xena answered with a smirk. “Watch and learn, Ephiny.”

Xena placed her hand lightly on Ephiny’s shoulder and moved her out of the way. The Amazon watched as the Conqueror walked nonchalantly through the room, to the door and out of the hut.

“Where is she going?” Gabrielle asked in alarm. She shifted in frustration at not being able to get out of the bed.

Ephiny followed quickly after the amazon-clad Conqueror. Xena left the hut and walked as calmly as you please, right through the center of the small Amazon village. Ephiny stood at the door to the healer’s hut and stared as Xena passed several strolling warriors, actually nodding at them as she walked by. The Conqueror strode up to the commissary, took a plate and filled it with food. Then, to Ephiny’s complete amazement, she sat down at a table, and ate a very satisfying breakfast.

Several Amazons passed her, giving her the once over, but not because they suspected who she was. Xena was quite fetching in her Amazon garb, and not a few paused to leer in keen appreciation. Xena pretended not to notice, but she lifted an eyebrow in Ephiny’s direction and grinned seductively.

After a quick bowl of cereal, Xena downed some fresh juice and smacked her lips. She stood, smiled at a neighbor and left the table.

The Conqueror grinned as she walked back in the direction of the healer’s hut, passing a hurried Solari, who was obviously rushing to perform some duty or other as guardsmaster. The guard commander actually nodded in greeting at the Destroyer of Nations as she passed by.

It took a few seconds, but eventually Solari stopped dead in her tracks and whirled around, the utter disbelief of recognition dropping her jaw toward the ground.

Ephiny almost had to laugh. She crossed her arms watching as Xena approached looking like the cat who just ate the canary.

The Conqueror of the Known World leaned to whisper sage words of advice into Ephiny’s ear.

“Know your enemy.”

Xena turned on her heels and sauntered by the still gaping Solari. The guardsmaster stared in disbelief as the Conqueror passed her and headed down the path that led out of the village. She strolled through two flanking outposts without causing nary a look and disappeared into the forest.

Solari stumbled over to Ephiny in complete denial.

“Ephiny! That was … wasn’t that? … I could swear that woman looked just like …”

“It was,” Ephiny said simply, patted her commander on the shoulder and walked back into the healer’s hut.

CHAPTER 6

Peeking in from the corner of the archway, Satrina watched as the Conqueror lifted a soapy sponge out of the steaming waters of the bath and slid it down the length of a long, elegant arm in a sudsy caress.

She is so beautiful, the slave thought to herself following the path of the sponge with her eyes. I want to be with her – I want to BE her.

Her mistress had been gone for over a week. Satrina had expected to be ordered into the tub to perform her usual duties. Instead, Xena had just asked for the bath to be drawn and then ordered her away. Biting the bottom of her lip, the slave watched with growing jealousy as the soapy sponge slid over two perfect breasts then disappeared below the water.

Xena leaned back against the cool marble of the tub and sighed. She closed her eyes and made lazy circles with a sponge over and around her breasts. After a week of hard riding, reclining in the hot, steamy waters of a large marble bathtub felt like Elysia. It sure beat the cold lakes and mountain streams she and Gabrielle were used to. A small smile graced her lips. One could get used to this.

The warrior tilted her head and washed her neck, letting the soft sponge do its work against a week’s worth of grime. Though she could feel the slave watching her from the doorway, she ignored her. The woman obviously expected to be ordered to join her mistress in the bath. Xena could only imagine what duties the Conqueror of this time might have forced the slave to perform, knowing herself as well as did. And as nice as some of those services might be right at this moment, the only person she could imagine sharing the steamy waters with was the bard. She squeezed the sponge against the side of her neck, sighing as warm water dribbled across her shoulder and down her back.

It would sure be nice to have her back scrubbed, though.

She was about to call the slave over, when she felt a dark presence. Her skin began to tingle and it wasn’t from the hot water. No, she recognized this particular sense of danger – it had an allure like no other.

“Alti,” Xena said as she dipped the sponge into the water and washed the other side of her neck. “To what do I owe the honor of this visit?”

The voice was as grating as nails against slate. “You’ve been away, Xena. I’ve missed you.”

“Really? I’m touched.”

“Did you enjoy your trip?”

“Hmm. Very much. It was nice to get away,” Xena answered with a small grin, her eyes still closed.

“It would have been nice if you had told me you were leaving.”

“Sorry about that. It was very unexpected.” Xena lifted a shoulder and reached around to wash it with the sponge.

“Would you like me to wash your back for you?” Alti asked, her low, raspy voice moving closer to the tub.

Xena opened her eyes and smiled at the shamaness. “No, thanks.”

She sat up in the water and took care of her back by herself. “What do you want, Alti?”

The dark shamaness tossed away the veil of politeness. “I want to know what’s going on, Xena.”

“What do you mean?” Xena replied, unconcerned.

Alti took an angry step forward. “Don’t play games with me, Conqueror. You left the palace without a word of explanation.”

“I had a reason. Why are you so angry?”

“Because, that’s a dangerous thing to do.”

Xena pursed her lips in an exaggerated pout. “Oh, you were worried about me? How sweet. Come on, Alti, I know why you’re angry. Why don’t you just say what’s on your mind and be done with it.”

Alti let her full fury show in her eyes, though she remained very still. “The view from my room has changed since you left, Xena.”

Xena had expected this. She willed her heart and breathing to stay calm, though she could feel the danger of Alti’s power filling the room.

“Oh? Has it?”

“You’re trying my patience, Xena. You had my field destroyed. Ordered the bodies and crosses burned!”

A deadly closeness squeezed the air in the room. Xena could feel it pressing against her from all sides. She had to be very careful here. Alti could smell a lie as easily as she could blood and Xena needed to take her off the scent.

She stood suddenly, lifting herself out of the water and turned on the shamaness, letting the water cascade down her shoulders, over her breasts, and along her skin, drawing attention to her nakedness.

Alti’s eyes were irresistibly drawn to the sight. A smile played upon the witch’s lips in spite of herself.

Xena lifted her leg and stepped over the wall of the tub, leaving the bath and taking slow, commanding steps toward the shamaness.

“Consider yourself lucky that’s all I did,” Xena said, letting her voice drop to a low purr. She stood before the powerful shamaness and narrowed her eyes.

Even though she knew better, Alti allowed the sight of Xena’s naked body to distract her. Before she knew what was happening, the Conqueror had her up against the wall and a hand around her throat.

“I should have ordered you killed!” Xena growled out, giving the neck one hard squeeze for good measure before letting the woman drop to the ground.

The display was enough to shake the shamaness’s confidence. Alti rubbed her neck and shot an angry look at her prodigy, but the heavy squeeze of angry power had dissipated from the room.

“What do you think you are doing, Xena?” Alti’s rough voice sounded even more chafe.

Xena turned away to retrieve a towel, leaving a bewildered Alti leaning against the wall. She found one and wrapped it around her naked body, then grabbed another and started drying her hair.

“You remember that stone that I use to have adorning my scepter, Alti? The one that was stolen from right under my nose at the public audience last week?”

“This is about that stupid bauble?” The shamaness dropped her hand from her neck and pushed angrily away from the wall.

Xena paused and leveled Alti a steely gaze. “That stupid bauble, Alti, was the Chronos Stone.” Xena let the effect of that revelation sink in.

“The Chronos Stone?” Alti repeated with less confidence.

“That’s right. The Chronos Stone. You’ve heard of it, haven’t you?” Xena asked sarcastically. Then she threw the towel she was using to dry her hair to the floor. “Alti, how many times have I had to listen to you prattle on about the Exion stone? How long did we spend looking for it? You’ve been promising me its powers for years!”

“Could I help it that Borias got to it first? Besides, you’re the Conqueror of the World, Xena – Destroyer of Nations – with or without the Exion stone – thanks to my help!”

“Yes, but the power, Alti … the POWER! You and I both want that power,” Xena sauntered up to the shamaness and looked her straight in the eyes. “We spent all that time looking for the Exion stone. Precious resources squandered, soldiers’s lives, money … all to own the power of the Exion. And all that time, I had in my possession a stone ten times more powerful … no … TWENTY times more powerful.”

Xena let the full fury of her wrath wash over the witch. “By the gods, Alti, I walked around with it on the end of my scepter for years! What kind of shamaness doesn’t know the Chronos Stone?”

Alti’s resolve broke under the glare of the Conqueror. Her eyes fell to the floor as her voice became small. “You didn’t know either.”

“I shouldn’t HAVE to know those things. That’s what I have YOU for!”

Xena gave Alti a dangerous smile as she pressed the witch back against the wall. “Give me one good reason why I don’t kill you on the spot.” Xena held her breath. Alti could destroy her with a thought, but she didn’t want the shamaness remembering that particular fact. She gave Alti a hard push. “C’mon, one good reason.”

Alti’s eyes looked everywhere but at the Conqueror. Then it dawned on her. She stared at Xena expectantly. “You need me to find it for you?”

“Verry good,” Xena purred and relaxed her hold. She fixed the front of the woman’s cloak with a grin. “I know you can do it.”

Xena walked away from the powerful woman to sit on a marble bench. She picked up another towel, crossed her legs and started drying off a foot.

“How do you know it was the Chronos Stone?” Alti asked, wheezing the question through the pain in her chest.

“I knew the stone had to be something special when that thief disappeared into thin air along with it. Since there was no way that bastard could have gotten close to me without help … ”

“The Resistance ..”

“Yes,” Xena confirmed, nodding her head. “The bitch I had just crucified was Resistance, so I went to question her. When I found she had been rescued by the Amazons, I decided to go and pay my female warrior friends a visit.”

“Amazons? There are more Amazons?” Alti asked excitedly, her eyes shining at the prospect.

Xena grinned knowingly. “Yes, Alti, I found more of your favorite food group. They’ll be coming here in a few months. They think they are coming to sign a treaty.” Xena’s laugh made Alti smile and relax. “You have that long to find the Chronos Stone and return it to me. Do it … and you can have them.”

Alti leered like a hungry wolf.

“But, there’ll be no field until you do. I want that stone, Alti.” Xena’s voice booked no argument.

“I need my sacrifices, Xena … those Amazons … my power …” Alti raked a dry tongue across cracked lips. “I need that field.”

“Then I suggest you get to work.”

Alti nodded and adjusted the deer skin hood on her head. Giving Xena a brief nod and a smile that looked more like a grimace, she fled the room.

Xena waited until the dark sensation of Alti’s presence dissipated completely. She sighed and dropped her towel, letting her body relax and the tension leave her spine.

She was walking a very thin line here, a dangerously thin line.

****

Satrina stepped out from her hiding place in a dark corner by the side of the arch. Waiting until Alti’s presence was completely gone, she crossed the floor quickly and exited the bedroom, closing the large door to the chamber quietly behind her.

She turned to run, but found herself bumping into the armor-clad body of a soldier.

“Where do you think you’re going?” the man’s deep voice growled at her.

“Darfus, I was just coming to find you.”

“Really?” Darfus’s rotting teeth flashed in a smile.

“I have some very interesting news. And if you act on it quickly, you and I can become the rulers of the world.”

CHAPTER 7

It was not befitting the military leader of the Amazon Nation to be hiding behind a rock, peeking at the Amazons’ domestic leader soaking in a hot spring. Ephiny had to laugh at herself as she quietly pushed aside the leaves of a bush to clear the way for an unobstructed view of the bath. This is where her Amazon training really came in handy.

She was rewarded with the site of a naked Gabrielle lowering herself into the heated waters of the natural spring. The curly blond squinted through the leaves, watching as the princess first gasped at the temperature of the water and then sighed, allowing her body to slide into the soothing warmth of the pool. Ephiny smiled at the way the strain on her friend’s arms caused her triceps to flex and stand out in etched relief beneath golden tan skin. Tiny droplets of water only aided in the definition. Even the steam seemed to be enjoying itself as it caressed its way up and around the taunt, attractive body.

By the gods, Gabrielle was getting more beautiful every day, Ephiny pondered in wonder. So different from when they first rescued her from the clutches of slavery. Who would have guessed that the young girl who had once been the property of Draco, one of the Conqueror’s most blood-thirsty lieutenants, would grow to become such a beautiful woman … and such a valuable member of the Amazon community.

Suddenly, Ephiny felt a little guilty spying on her friend in such a way. She had hidden herself from view, not to leer, but to give Gabrielle a little more time to get into the bath. Despite spending the last few years living amongst a nation of women who would just as soon go naked, Gabrielle had steadfastly held onto her modesty. Her friend still, to this day, preferred to take her baths alone.

Ephiny’s smile widened as she watched Gabrielle lean back against the rock wall. The bard was lazily washing her neck and grinning, almost seductively, at some private thought.

I think she’s had that bath to herself long enough, Ephiny decided and let go of the branch.

The rustle of the leaves caught the bard’s attention and she jumped out the sound.

“Ephiny!” Gabrielle squawked, her eyes growing round at the sight of her best friend emerging from the bushes completely naked. “What are you doing?”

“Need a soak,” Ephiny answered as she lowered herself into the hot water. “Aaah, this feels good … good and sexy.”

“Yeah, it does,” the bard grinned and then gasped, realizing her breasts were completely visible above the water. She covered them quickly with crossed arms. “I mean … Ephiny … really … must you soak now?”

Ephiny reached blindly behind her, searching for and finding the rock ledge in the bath. She sat and the water rose up to her shoulders, the ends of her curls growing heavy and wet as they bounced in and out of the steam. She leaned her head back and sighed.

“Why not now?” Ephiny replied, closing her eyes in bliss. “I won’t bite.” She grinned wickedly. “Unless you want me to.”

Gabrielle almost dropped her arms in surprise at the comment.

“What? Ephiny, what’s gotten into you?”

The blond amazon laughed and slapped the water, sending a splash in the bard’s direction. “Lighten up, Gabrielle!” Then she he looked at her friend, noticing the deep blush of her cheeks. “Look at you blushing! What’s gotten into me? What’s gotten into you?” She took a closer look at the bard. “Who were you thinking about in here?”

Gabrielle averted her eyes and turned away. “Nobody.”

Ephiny bobbed around in the bath until she was in front of her friend. “You’re lying.” She chuckled at the deepening red climbing up Gabrielle’s neck. “C’mon, Gabrielle, this is me you’re talking to. You were thinking about someone while you were soaking in here, weren’t you?”

“Ephiny!”

“C’mon, Gabrielle! You’re attracted to somebody. Finally! C’mon, c’mon, Gabrielle. Tell me! Who is it? Is it, Solari?” Ephiny was delighted to see Gabrielle squirm under her gaze. “C’mon, Gabrielle … it’s Solari, isn’t it?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Eponin, then. I knew it.”

“Ephiny!”

Gabrielle turned away, only to be pursued by the insistent Amazon.

“Gabrielle … Gabrielle.” She caught the bard by the shoulders and gently turned her around, studying the seriousness in her eyes. Ephiny lost her smile as she felt the humor in the matter disappearing.

“It’s not Eponin, is it?” She suddenly became very nervous. “Gabrielle, it’s not me … is it?” Ephiny watched the light in Gabrielle’s eyes change and suddenly felt her heart rising in her throat at the possibility.

Gabrielle grinned at her friend’s strange expression. “Don’t worry, Ephiny. It’s not you.” She ducked her head in the water, completely missing the brief look of disappointment that passed over the amazon’s face.

“Oh,” Ephiny said with a swallow. “Well, that’s good. You had me worried there for a moment.” She took a step back and wiped wet hair from her face. “So, who is it, then?”

“It wasn’t anybody. I wasn’t thinking about anybody,” Gabrielle replied as she continued to wash her skin in the hot spring water.

Ephiny narrowed her eyes and her heart took a sudden plunge into the pit of her stomach. “It’s her, isn’t it?”

Gabrielle hit the water with her hand. “Would you get off it, Ephiny! I wasn’t thinking about anybody.”

“It’s Xena. You were thinking about Xena, weren’t you? The Conqueror.”

“I was not.”

“You were. You were thinking about Xena.”

“So what if I was?”

“So what if you were? Gabrielle, that’s the Conqueror you were just daydreaming about. The woman who nearly destroyed the entire Amazon nation.” Ephiny took angry steps toward her friend and grabbed her by the shoulders, this time not so gently. ‘The same woman who sentenced you to crucifixion and had your legs broken, remember?”

Gabrielle shrugged away from the grip and turned her back. “I can’t forget it, Ephiny. And I never will.”

“You better not,” Ephiny stated bluntly, and waded over to the opposite end of the bath. “I can understand fantasizing about the woman. I mean, afterall, she is very beautiful.”

Gabrielle smiled briefly and then turned to face Ephiny. She slid down onto a rock, pretending to wash an arm. “I can’t help but think about her,” Gabrielle said, glancing at Ephiny and noting the scowl on her face, “about her story, I mean. The Chronos Stone and all.”

“That hogwash,” Ephiny exclaimed, rolling her eyes, “you believe that story and I have some marshland in Mesophetamia for ya …”

“So, we aren’t planning to go to Corinth then?”

“Oh, we’re going to Corinth, all right. Just as soon as Yakut is ready.”

Gabrielle sat up in the water. “She knows something about the Chronos Stone?”

“Not the Chronos Stone, but another stone with a legend similar to it. There are as many legends as there are countries when it comes to time and destiny, I’ve discovered. This one is about a blue stone, the world’s largest diamond apparently.”

“A blue diamond?”

Ephiny shook her head, wet, blond curls bounced in ringlets. “I don’t know, something like that. You’ll have to ask Yakut about it if you want to know more. All I know is that it’s stuck in the head of a statue of a Hindu god somewhere in a city in India — Golconda, I think. It’s supposed to be very powerful and has something to do with kharma.”

“Kharma?”

“Yeah, you know … kharma … destiny … fate … one of those spiritual, shamanistic ritual kind of things. Just what Xena was looking for.”

“A way to travel through time? Change the course of events?”

Ephiny held up her hand. “Don’t jump to conclusions, Gabrielle. To me, it’s just all a bunch of mumbo jumbo. But it doesn’t really matter whether I believe it or not. Just so long as the Conqueror believes it.”

Gabrielle knotted her brows. “What do you mean?”

“It will be our ticket in. It just has to be believable enough to sound convincing.”

“Convincing enough for what?”

The corner of Ephiny’s mouth twisted into a satisfied grin. “Convincing enough for her to trust us so we can get close to her.”

Gabrielle stood up in the water. “You’re not going to try to help her at all … you’re planning to assassinate her.”

Ephiny shrugged. “Of course.”

“Ephiny, that’s despicable!”

“Despicable! Gabrielle, how can you say that?”

Gabrielle threw her hands into the air with an angry gesture and paced back and forth as fast as the water would allow.

“It’s … it’s … it’s … unbefitting of an Amazon!”

“Oh, really? How so?”

“What are you going to do? Stab her in the back?”

“That’s what she did to Caesar!”

“Caesar was a monster!”

“So is she.”

Gabrielle froze and glared at her friend. “Ephiny, didn’t you see her when she was here?”

“I saw her, all right. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but I saw her.”

“Whether you believe the Chronos Stone story or not, something has happened to her.”

“Maybe she got knocked in the head once too often,” Ephiny hypothesized, scratching her nose.

“Ephiny,” Gabrielle sighed. “Why are you so thick headed when it comes to this … when it comes to her?”

Ephiny stood angrily in the water. “Because I’m looking at you and seeing something in your eyes when you talk about her that I don’t like … I don’t like one bit.”

“What you’re seeing,” Gabrielle answered back calmly, “is compassion.”

“She sure as centaur shit didn’t show you any.”

“Look … Ephiny. You are not the one who stood before her in judgment. I did. On the day I was crucified, I looked into a pair of the coldest, cruelest eyes I thought I had ever seen in my entire life. There was no heart behind those eyes … no heart whatsoever. I felt such … despair … after looking into her eyes that day. Despair for the world because I knew, under her rule, there would be no hope. No hope at all.”

The bard, now Amazon Queen, took a few wading steps through the hot water to her friend. “But when she came to us that night, I swear by all the gods, Ephiny — I swear by Artemis …”

“Don’t …”

“I swear by our goddess, Artemis, that was NOT the same woman. Whether the story of the Chronos stone is true or even if we can’t change the destiny of this world as it stands today, I’m not so sure assassinating her would be a good idea.”

“Gabrielle, what are you saying?”

“I’m saying, Ephiny,” Gabrielle said, placing her hands on her friend’s shoulders, “I saw hope for the world in her eyes that day. A great hope. The same hope I see in your eyes for the Amazon nation, the same hope that Melosa had before she died. I saw it there, Ephiny … didn’t you?”

Ephiny shrugged away. “Like I said, maybe she’s been knocked in the head a few too many times.”

“She’s changed.”

“Yeah. Maybe she has. If so … so what?”

“She deserves a chance.”

“Are you crazy? How can you say that, with all that she’s done?”

“She’s a great leader.”

“Now I think YOU’VE been knocked a few times in the head!”

The corner of Gabrielle’s mouth curved upward in a slight grin. “You used to say so yourself. What did you call her? A great woman, leading the greatest army …”

“… the world has ever known … yeah, I remember. That was after the Horde and before she slaughtered all those people in the Peloponnesos.”

“Look at what she’s done in the last four months. Those villages along the Strimon River were given aid … food and military support to rebuild after that flooding. I read a scout report of hospices being started, she’s sent out groups of healers and their apprentices to start them.”

“Yeah, I read that. But how many people has she sentenced to life imprisonment in these same four months?”

“Life imprisonment. It used to be crucifixion, remember?” Gabrielle said with her hands on her hips.

“Being sentenced to a work farm for the rest of your life is not much better.”

“It’s not as bad as crucifixion. Trust me … I should know.”

“Yeah, you should know,” Ephiny commented. “How’s your legs, Gabrielle?”

“My legs are fine,” Gabrielle replied, ignoring the implication. “Look, Ephiny. There has to be some kind of punishment against crime. What did you do to Velesca and her group after Melosa was killed?”

“I challenged Velesca and killed her. Then I banished her supporters, all according to Amazon law. It was a fair punishment.”

“Is banishment from Amazon land any worse than a work camp?”

“At least they’re free to live as they choose!”

“Except the choice to be what they were born to be … Amazons,” Gabrielle stated sadly. “They can never come home, Ephiny. Never. How would that make you feel?”

“A lot better than if I had my legs broken.”

“Ephiny.”

The amazon leader sighed. “So, you’re saying we should have work camps instead?”

“No. Work camps are not part of our justice system. But they are a solution in many other parts of the world. There has to be some kind of punishment for criminals and Xena can’t use banishment. She has no place to banish anyone to … she rules everywhere. At least the work farms are planting fields of food, instead of fields of crucified bodies. Ephiny, all I’m trying to say is that Xena has already made changes to the way she used to do things before. Positive changes all pointing in a good direction. Instead of planning to assassinate her, maybe we should think about supporting her efforts to change … we should be helping her change things for the better, instead of plotting and planning something that will only bring about more bloodshed.”

Ephiny shook her head in wonder at her friend. “Gabrielle, I swear you could find good in anyone … even a five headed hydra.”

“Hey, a five head hydra makes for a great story.”

“See, I told you.”

“I’ll make you a deal, Ephiny. You give me a chance to work with Xena. Just give me some time, that’s all I ask.”

“That’s all you and Xena talk about lately … time.” Ephiny sighed again, pausing a moment to stare into her closest friend’s beautiful green eyes. “Maybe. We’ll see.” She lifted a hand out of the water and pointed a wet finger at the bard. “I promise you this, Gabrielle. One small step in the wrong direction and I’ll make sure that Xena gets her precious stone … right through the heart … if she has one.”

“Oh, she has one, Ephiny. She has one.”

“Well, I know one thing for sure, you have one, my friend. You have a big heart. Just don’t go giving such a wonderful gift to the likes of Xena.”

Gabrielle turned her back on her friend and ran her fingers lightly along the place near her lips where Xena had touched. “Come on, Eph, I’m turning into a prune. Let’s get dressed and get out of here.”

“All right,” Ephiny said smiling, “you first.”

Gabrielle covered her breasts with her hands. “No way. You first and go back behind that rock.”

“What rock?” Ephiny asked, smiling innocently.

“The one you were hiding behind when you were doing your peeping-Tominius thing.”

Ephiny pulled herself up out of the water and took her sweet time getting to her clothes. “You’re too modest for an Amazon, Gabrielle.”

“And you’re a pervert, has anyone ever told you that?”

“Constantly,” Ephiny answered sauntering away from the bathing area with all of her clothes draped over a shoulder.

“… and an exhibitionist!” Gabrielle yelled after her friend.

The bard made damn sure she was completely alone before getting out of the water. She scooted over to where she left her garments —

— only to find all of her clothes were gone.

CHAPTER 8

“I said SHUT UP!” Darfus yelled to the crowded room. Instantly, the din subsided. All argument ceased as eyes stared with anticipation to the center of the assembly room, to the imposing figure that sat relaxed upon an old wooden throne, silently watching everything going on around her.

Darfus adjusted his sword belt and straightened his back. “That’s better,” he said and turned his gaze expectantly to the Conqueror.

Xena raised an eyebrow and shifted in her seat. The fingers of her right hand tapped upon the ornately carved wooden armrest of the throne as she stared out across the room.

The giant hall was packed to the rafters. Warlords, statesmen, politicians, merchants, officers, regents, ambassadors, landowners, farmers and some with titles she couldn’t even imagine crowded into the great chamber today, all with their own agenda to present to the Conqueror.

The room reeked of sweat and subterfuge. There wasn’t a person here who wouldn’t enjoy putting a knife in her back, Xena mused as she looked over the crowd. Purposely aiming an intensely intimidating blue stare at as many challenging eyes as she could, the corner of the Conqueror’s mouth lifted as each and every pair of eyes she captured shifted away to stare at the ground.

Spineless, plotting cowards all, Xena thought with a small smile. It was exactly as she had imagined it would be, years ago when all her dreams were of one day ruling the world. Now, here she sat in the center of her wildest imaginings and the old wooden throne fit very well indeed.

Armor and leather creaked as the silence in the large hall became overbearing. One warlord dared to cough, quickly swallowing the sound when the Conqueror’s steely gaze turned his way.

Gods, but she loved this, Xena’s inner voice chuckled as she turned her attention back to the issue at hand -to Lucretius, Regent of Thessalonka, Fastidius, a wealthy land-owner, and his only daughter, Bolemia — the cause of the current controversy.

Xena’s long, elegant fingers ceased their tapping. She lifted her hands and folded them gracefully in her lap.

“Lucretius,” Xena said slowly, her low voice managing to fill the hall, “what are you saying here?”

Lucretius was a gruff man who was once a general in Xena’s conquering army. Apparently, she had awarded him with the regency of Thessalonka for services rendered which included the defeat and death of General Marmax and his forces. Lucretius had knelt before the Conqueror on bended knee swearing fealty to her and the realm for the honor, and now here he was threatening to sever that allegiance if he didn’t get his way. Thessalonka was a considerable territory in Greece and Lucretius’ regency was an important one. That he would even think of succeeding from the realm over such a ridiculously inconsequential matter was inconceivable. The fact that he had just voiced this position aloud was reason enough for Xena to order him nailed to the cross.

And she would have done just that, if she still did that sort of thing. Maybe now was a good time to reinstate the practice.

“You wanna say that again?” Xena asked her ex-general, keeping her voice unnervingly calm.

“I said, either you support me on this, or my troops will ride on Fastidius’s castle and I’ll take want I want whether you approve of it or not, Xena.” Lucretius puffed up his chest and grabbed onto the hilt of his sword threateningly. The posture caused Darfus to begin to draw his own weapon, until a wave of the Conqueror’s hand halted the action.

But, it wasn’t the threat that had gotten her hackles up. Xena sat forward in the throne. “What did you call me?”

Lucretius gulped, realizing his mistake. “Er … I mean, Conqueror.” But it was too late; the impropriety had already been spoken.

Xena stood and the rising commotion throughout the hall dropped to utter stillness. Deep within the crowd, two robed figures pushed their way closer to the front for a better view. From under the shadow of one of those hoods, a pair of green eyes watched the situation intently.

Xena smoothed out the wrinkles in her silk robe and glided from the throne to stand before the Regent.

“It’s as I told you, Conqueror,” the father’s voice said, drawing Xena’s attention. “The law means nothing to the man. The power you gave him has gone to his head. He wants my daughter, and will stop at nothing to get her. He has pursued her relentlessly, forcing himself upon her at every opportunity. He nearly raped her at a recent affair of state, had I not stumbled upon them and intervened.”

Lucretius leered at his opponent. “The woman wanted it!”

“I did not!” the daughter cried out.

“She asked for it!” Lucretius shouted, pointing his finger accusingly. “Her dress was provocative and she practically threw herself at me.”

“I did not!” Bolemia implored to the Conqueror, tears beginning to fall.

“The man has no honor!” the father exclaimed.

Lucretius bristled. “I gave you the courtesy of asking for her hand in good faith.”

“He marched onto my lands and demanded they be wed.”

“You should be grateful I didn’t burn your house down! I offered you a dowry!”

“Two cows.”

A burst of laughter broke out in the room. One look from the Conqueror and it ended.

“Lucretius,” Xena said softly, moving closer to her Regent as though to speak in confidence, “the woman does not want you.”

“That’s not the point,” Lucretius shrugged, “I want her.”

“And just how much do you want her?”

“I offered a dowry …”

“Two cows?” Xena responded, raising an eyebrow, “that’s not a dowry, that’s milk for breakfast.”

“It was a gesture … a token of my good faith. I didn’t have to offer anything. I could have just taken her and made her mine.”

“And what makes you think you could have done that?” Xena asked, folding her arms across her chest.

“I am the Regent of Thessalonka! Everything in that territory belongs to me! Including him, his house, his lands, his cattle and … her!”

The father was appalled. “That’s preposterous!”

“It is the law,” Lucretius smugly replied. “I am Regent, named by the Conqueror herself. Thessalonka … everything and everyone in it … belongs to me!”

“You’re wrong, Lucretius,” Xena stated sharply.

“See, I told you,” Fastidius commented proudly.

“Everything in Thessalonka,” Xena announced, raising her voice so the entire hall could hear, “your house, your lands, your cattle, your daughter and you,” she looked squarely at Lucretius and then Fastidius, “both of you … belong to me.”

The chamber erupted in cheers and shouts of agreement. Peering out from a curtain up on one of the balconies, Alti sneered and gurgled a rough chuckle. Finally, Xena was acting more like herself instead of the sentimental fool. The witch had been growing tired of the tedious and boring proclamations of late: hospices and aid, food and clothing. What would be next? Freedom for slaves?

Xena circled around the now silent debaters.

“I should crucify you both for wasting my time.”

Alti’s dark eyes glowed. Maybe she would get her field back sooner than she thought.

“It is NOT a waste of time,” the father argued, “I have a grievance with one of your appointed Regents. Where was I to go for help, if not to you? Unless, of course, he is above reproach.”

Ephiny adjusted her hood and gave Gabrielle a dubious look. The bard flashed her friend a ‘give her a chance’ expression, then pulled on her arm to move them forward through the crowd.

Xena raised an eyebrow at the accusation. “And what would you have me do?”

The father placed a protective arm around his daughter and pulled her close. “Tell him to leave my daughter alone!”

Lucretius turned red in the face. “I will have her Xena. I must have her. If you don’t give her to me, then I will take her.”

“You’re not thinking with your head,” Xena commented as she walked a circle around Fastidius and his daughter, checking the attributes of the very beautiful woman out for herself. The blatant inspection by the Conqueror caused the girl to blush.

Xena finished the inspection and paused. A little thin for her taste, the Conqueror mused, but appetizing. She leered at Lucretius. “And what if I take her for myself?”

The father blanched. The daughter smiled.

Up on the balcony, Alti laughed while, in the audience, Ephiny leveled an icy stare at Gabrielle.

“Then you will find yourself facing my army!” Lucretius exclaimed, sputtering in disbelief.

Oh yeah, we’re having fun now, Xena thought to herself and licked her lips. “Willing to fight for her then, are ya?”

“I will have her, Xena … by the gods, I will fight for her!”

Xena’s laugh surprised even Darfus and before the commander knew what was happening, Xena had grabbed his sword from his own sheath and had drawn it. She twirled it in her hand, the sword sparkling in a single beam of fading sunlight that cut through the dim of the hall.

“Then fight you shall, Lucretius,” Xena announced. She plunged the sword into the wooden floor causing everyone in the room to jump at the resulting thud. She left it quivering upright and, with a quick pull, ripped apart her robe and tossed it to the side.

Lucretius’ eyes grew wide as he stared at the sword, still vibrating from the impact. His eyes lifted slowly to find the Conqueror tossing away her fine silken threads and standing before him clad in a pair of Turkish black trousers and a criss-crossed piece of black silk cloth that supported her breasts, but left nothing to the imagination.

Xena yanked the sword out of the floor and pointed it at her Regent’s nose.

“You want her,” Xena stated, her eyes going wide, “you’ll fight me for her.”

Alti clapped her hands in glee and stepped out from behind the curtain onto the balcony. She wasn’t about to miss this for all the tea in Ch’in.

“Con … Con … Conqueror … this isn’t necessary,” Fastidius stammered out.

“You came here because you wanted your problem solved for you, didn’t ya?”

Fastidius gulped and nodded.

“Well, I’m a problem solver and this is how we’re gonna do it.” She pointed her sword at Lucretius. “He wins, he gets the girl. He loses … the girl is mine. Agreed?”

When the father didn’t answer, Xena shifted the sword to him. “If not … he gets the girl and YOU get the sword. So … whadda ya say, you want me to solve your problem?”

“This is ridic .. ,” the father began to yell angrily, but the daughter covered his mouth with her hand.

“Shut up, father,” the daughter said and smiled demurely. “I agree.”

Xena grinned at the girl and then turned her sneer to Lucretius. “What about you, Lucretius? You got the jewels for this? You must, seeing as they’ve been giving you so much trouble in this matter.”

A few laughs echoed in the hallway.

“You want me to fight you?” Lucretius asked backing away from the point of the blade.

“What’s wrong, Lucretius? Losing your nerve? You were willing to ride your army against me. Why not just fight me outright? It would save a lot of time … and lives. Then again, you could just kneel and let me chop your head off … that would really save us a lot of time.”

An increase in laughter caused Lucretius to blush in anger.

“I’m not afraid to fight you, Xena.”

“Good, then draw your blade.”

“You leave me no other choice,” Lucretius stated as he pulled slowly on his sword, “you’ll be sorry you started this.”

“Oh, I didn’t start this. But, I’m sure gonna finish it,” Xena growled through clenched teeth as she swung her sword in a downward arc. Lucretius barely had time to lift his blade up to block the powerful blow. The impact sent him stumbling backward and falling to the floor.

The room howled in approval. Xena grinned wickedly, waiting patiently as Lucretius scrambled to his feet.

Gabrielle grimaced at the reverberating ring of the first strike of blades. This was not what she had expected to find when they came to Corinth. Could her intuition about Xena be wrong?

Lucretius growled and hurled himself at Xena, striking a series of blows which the Conqueror blocked easily. The sound of clashing metal sang out above the shouts of the crowd as the swords met. The Regent attempted a horizontal slash which Xena deflected, sending him spinning around from the force of his own swing. She kicked him in the ass when his back was turned and sent him sliding along the floor into the crowd.

Once again, laughter brought out the anger in Lucretius. Shouting incoherently, he shoved away Gabrielle’s helpful hands and pushed himself to his feet.

Xena was leaning on her sword in the center of the room in a relaxed manner.

“Lucretius, you were once a general in my army. Now, I know you must be able to fight better than this. Or has being a Regent made you soft? Then again, if you’ve gone soft … what are we fighting for?” Xena cackled with glee as her opponent’s face flushed a deep red and his eyes bulged in anger. He rushed at her, sword raised, foam at the mouth.

His wild swing met with empty air. Xena had launched herself upward, spinning her body in a half twist before landing solidly on the floor directly behind him. Lucretius turned and found himself eating a nice helping of the Conqueror’s fist.

Xena punched him so hard, the man’s head snapped back with an audible crack. The crowd roared. Ephiny and Gabrielle cringed.

Somehow, Lucretius remained conscious and, to Xena’s surprise, countered with a roundhouse swing of the fist holding his sword. It swept into Xena’s field of vision, whacking her on the left cheek with enough force to snap her head to the side.

Time came to a standstill as Xena touched the bruise and narrowed her eyes. The audience held their breath. Even Alti’s dark eyes grew wide.

Lucretius barely had time to gloat before a foot was kicking him in the side of the head, first in one direction and then the other. Xena’s amusement had turned to rage and now she was pummeling him mercilessly. The Regent stumbled across the floor, propelled by a series of staggering blows to the head and body. A solid side kick landed squarely in his stomach, and he doubled over in pain. Xena sprang into the air and caught his head in a vice-like grip between her legs, then fell to the ground, pulling Lucretius along with her. She flipped him over, slamming him to the floor onto his back.

With a swift kick from her legs and a push of her hands and the Conqueror was on her feet, advancing on her target, sword in hand.

Lucretius scrambled to his feet and attempted to take a defensive stance.

Xena swung her blade in a sideward arc, allowing Lucretius to block it easily. But before the Regent knew what was happening, Xena had twirled his sword up and out of his hand. It clattered to the floor, a useless distance away. The next swipe of the Conqueror’s blade came at his midsection, and Lucretius thought his life finished, for surely he was about to be disemboweled.

But the edge of the sword only sliced through his belt. It, too, clattered to the floor, followed quickly by his pants.

Lucretius’ jewels lay bare before the Conqueror and all the audience to see.

The regent gulped and used his hands to cover his wares.

With one quick and low sweep of her leg, Xena took his legs out of under him. Lucretius landed on his rump with a fleshy thud and then felt the ice cold point of a sharp sword against the base of his penis.

“You’ll never force yourself on anyone again,” Xena’s voice was as low and dangerous as Alti had ever heard it. The sorceress smiled, already planning what she would do with the spare appendage.

“Kiss it good-bye,” Xena said as she pressed the point of her sword against the tender skin of the scrotum.

Lucretius’ skin paled. Xena sneered wickedly.

Then a movement behind her opponent, at the edge of the audience, caught the Conqueror’s attention. Xena lifted her eyes away from the alluringly fear-filled stare of her victim and found herself looking in to a pair of very disapproving emerald green eyes.

The sword faltered and Xena took a step back.

What is this? Alti nearly screamed out. The witch strained over the railing to see what had distracted the Conqueror from her delicious task.

Xena took a deep breath and let the sword fall to her side. She looked at Gabrielle again, but the bard’s expression was carefully neutral. The sword suddenly felt very heavy in her hand.

Lucretius was beginning to turn blue from lack of oxygen.

“Breathe, Lucretius,” Xena said, taking another step back. “Today is your lucky day. You get to keep your jewels, but you lose your crown.”

The ex-Regent gasped the first breath of air he had taken in minutes and then fainted dead away.

“Looks like I have an opening for Regent of Thessalonka.” Xena flung the sword away. It clattered on the ground at Darfus’ feet. The commander bent down and picked it up, putting it back in the sheath at his side.

“Take him away,” the Conqueror ordered with a wave of her hand. She strode back to her throne and sat wearily down.

“Clear the hall,” she said to Darfus, leaning over so only he would hear, “except for the two in the front — the ones with the hoods. They stay.”

Darfus nodded once and then motioned to his soldiers to start clearing things out. The room began to empty as Xena massaged her temples.

“Not you,” Darfus said, blocking the doorway just as Ephiny and Gabrielle were about to exit. “The Conqueror wants you to stay.”

“Well, maybe we don’t want to stay,” Ephiny stated threateningly.

Darfus edged up to her — nose to nose, “You don’t have a choice.”

Ephiny drew in a deep breath, about to retort, when she was halted by the soft hand of Gabrielle on her arm.

“Ephiny, don’t,” Gabrielle said and smiled apologetically at the commander. “It’s what we came here to do, after all.”

Ephiny and Darfus continued their staring contest for a few more seconds before the Amazon leader smiled. “Sure, why not?”

“Have a seat,” Darfus offered with a wave of his hand, “make yourselves comfortable.” And he turned and marched away.

Ephiny sighed and sat down in the nearest seat.

“Who’s idea was this, anyway?”

CHAPTER 9

Ephiny and Gabrielle walked together to the front of the chamber, toward the quiet figure of the Conqueror. Xena was sitting on her large throne with her eyes closed, rubbing against the temples of her head with the fingers of both hands. She listened as the footsteps against the wooden floor echoed throughout the now empty chamber, growing louder as her unexpected visitors approached.

For long, lonely months she had awaited the bard’s arrival and now, here she was. Knowing Gabrielle, however, Xena was certain that her bard was not going to be happy with what she had seen. The Conqueror continued to rub her temples against the throbbing headache that had been plaguing her for weeks now.

The walk across the large hall seemed to last forever. For so long, the bard had waited to heal, waited patiently for the moment when the healers would pronounce her safe to travel. She finally convinced her over-protective friend Ephiny that it would be all right for them to make good on their promise to the Conqueror. And now she was here. Though Gabrielle’s heart was thudding in her chest with excitement to see Xena again, her brain was warning her that coming here to the palace of the Conqueror might have been a mistake.

Gabrielle took a few moments to look around the chamber, noting briefly that someone appeared to be watching them from behind a curtain on a balcony above. She could see the curtain sway as the spy tried to hide from her probing stare. For some odd reason, a shiver worked its way down her spine. The bard shook it off and looked across to the other side of the room. There was a similar observer on a balcony there as well, but this person made no attempt to hide herself. A young and attractive dark-haired servant was watching their every move, her attention riveted on the Amazon Queen herself.

When at last they stood before the Empress, Xena stopped rubbing her head and opened her eyes to look at her guests.

Both Gabrielle and Ephiny removed their hoods and waited patiently for whatever was going to happen. Unaware of the audience above, Ephiny was only interested in the fact that the Conqueror’s gaze was steadfast on the beautiful woman at her side. She took a sideways glance at her friend; Gabrielle’s eyes were similarly locked with the Conqueror’s.

“Darfus, leave us,” Xena ordered with a wave of her hand, her gaze steady and warm at the welcomed site of her bard.

The Royal Commander hesitated a moment. He looked up at the far balcony and noticed Satrina emerging from behind a curtain, trying to get a better look at the golden-haired woman who had so captured the Conqueror’s attention.

Darfus jerked his head at the slave. Satrina caught the disapproving glare of the Commander and withdrew from the balcony, back behind the curtain. But that wasn’t about to stop her from still peeking out.

“Darfus, go,” Xena repeated the order, annoyance coloring her voice. Darfus looked one more time to make sure Satrina was concealed behind the curtain and then departed.

Xena waited until her Commander was well out of the room before she spoke.

“How are you?” the Conqueror inquired in a quiet voice, her eyes never leaving Gabrielle.

“We’re fine, thank you,” Ephiny answered curtly.

Ephiny earned a quick look and a small smile from Xena before her attention returned to the bard.

“Your legs, Gabrielle. How are your legs?”

“They’re good,” the bard answered, instinctively leaning down to give her shin a rub. “They ache a little when it rains and sometimes when it’s cold, but other than that, I’m fine I guess.”

Xena nodded her head. “Good,” she said as she leaned back in her throne. “It’s been a long time …”

“Four months,” Ephiny inserted.

Xena nodded again, “Four months, 2 weeks, 3 days — I was getting worried.”

“What’s the matter? Afraid we wouldn’t come to help you find your pretty jewel?” Ephiny asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Ephiny,” the bard protested.

“No,” Xena replied staring directly at the curly-haired Amazon. “I was afraid Gabrielle was having trouble healing.”

“Two broken legs take a long time to heal.”

“You’re not gonna give me an inch, are you?” Xena asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Nope.”

“Ephiny,” Gabrielle protested again.

“No, it’s all right,” Xena said and lifted her hand. “It’s all right. She doesn’t trust me, and she shouldn’t.”

“Damn right, I don’t trust you. Not after what I saw here today,” Ephiny stated as she crossed her arms over her chest.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Xena commented and she cast her eyes to the ground. “I got a little carried away. I lost my temper.”

Ephiny smirked. “Looked like you were having tons of fun to me.”

Xena sighed. That was exactly what she had been doing. She lifted her eyes to find the Amazon leader staring at her intently. She’s got me pegged, Xena thought and rose from her seat.

“I lost my temper. A good leader doesn’t lose her temper.”

“A good leader just chops off her Regent’s testicles with cold indifference,” Ephiny said, raising her own eyebrow and giving Gabrielle a glance to make sure her sardonic comment had made its point. To Gabrielle’s annoyance, it had.

Xena took a deep breath. It had been a long day and she was beginning to get annoyed … again. “A good leader resolves a sensitive problem the best way she can. My intention was to win the fight and then dismiss Lucretius from his Regency.”

“And then claim the girl?” Ephiny asked with a cynical grin.

“Ephiny, that’s enough.” The bard’s voice was firm.

Xena stood before the Amazon leader and scowled. “Of course not. I never wanted the girl.”

“Then exactly who do you want?” Ephiny asked silkily as she took a step closer to the Conqueror.

From their hiding places, on opposite sides of the hall, two separate eavesdroppers strained to hear the Conqueror’s reply. Satrina was more than a little concerned with her master’s answer to that question. The slave was developing an intense dislike for the attractive woman whom the Conqueror kept gracing with looks of affection.

And Alti couldn’t believe that Xena was allowing this insolent Amazon to speak to her in such a manner.
She spread the curtain a little more so she could get a closer look at the brazen woman. The sorceress chuckled as she watched Xena’s expression turn dark.

“And what do you care who I want?” Xena closed the distance between herself and Ephiny, allowing her height to add weight to the displeasure in her voice.

“Depends on what you are really after … Conqueror. Just what is it you really want from us?” Ephiny lifted her chin to stare Xena directly in the eye, not at all intimidated by the Empress’s towering presence.

Oh, Xena, Alti cackled to herself as she rubbed her scaly hands together, this one is a fine catch … a fine, fine catch! The evil shamaness silently hoped that there was more where this one came from.

Xena’s upper lip began to quiver into a sneer, and then suddenly her entire demeanor changed. The warrior felt the heavy weight of this unwanted destiny baring down upon her shoulders. With a heavy sigh, Xena took a few steps back, breaking away from the confrontation.

“I just want the stone, Ephiny. That’s all I want is the stone.”

“So you keep saying,” the Amazon leader stated skeptically. “Well, we found one for you.”

Xena’s eyebrows lifted and disappeared into the bangs of her hair.

“Come,” Xena said and she motioned to a rear door, “let me take you on tour of the castle grounds.”

“A tour?” Ephiny asked incredulously, “Right now? You want to give us a tour?”

“Ephiny,” Gabrielle said softly. She took a step beside her friend and placed a gentle hand on her arm. “The walls have ears,” the bard whispered as her eyes shifted to the balcony above them, “and eyes.”

Ephiny looked up to see a curtain swaying as though someone had hastily tried to hide, but not before the Amazon leader caught a glimpse of the darkest, most evil eyes she had ever seen staring out at her.

“A tour sounds nice … real nice. I’d love a tour.”

****

Satrina ran down the steps as fast as her legs could carry her. She rounded the corner of the hall and was about to head down the corridor after Xena and her visitors, when a cold hand grabbed her arm and pulled her into a doorway.

“And just where do you think you’re going?” Alti’s grating voice sent a chill down the slave’s spine.

“I’m … I’m … going to get some food ready in case the Conqueror wants to …” Satrina stammered trying to avoid looking in the witch’s dark eyes.

“Just make sure you listen closely and remember every word. I want to know exactly what they talk about … everything, even if it’s the weather.” Alti squeezed Satrina’s arm, letting her nails bite into skin until the woman squirmed. “Report back to me as soon as you can. Every word, my dear or I’ll be having slave on a wooden cross for dinner, do you understand me?”

Satrina nodded mutely.

“And try not to let Xena know you’re spying on them, though I doubt that’s possible.”

Satrina nodded again and Alti allowed her to pull her arm free from the painful grip. The shamaness chortled as the slave ran down the hall — she wasn’t sure if Satrina was running to catch up with Xena or running to get away from her.

Alti licked the tiny bit of blood from her nails that had scratched into Satrina’s skin.

The slave was tasty indeed, but the sorceress enjoyed Amazon so much more.

****

“It was dangerous to come here alone,” Xena commented as she led her visitors into the large garden area in the center of the Conqueror’s castle. It was a peristyle in the manner of Pompeii; an open-aired atrium landscaped with manicured plants and flowers from all over the world. They paused beside a marble fountain, the ever trickling water helping to mask their words from prying ears.

“You shouldn’t have entered the city unescorted,” Xena continued.

Gabrielle took in the beauty of the garden, while Ephiny inspected their surroundings, looking for unwanted visitors. When she was satisfied that they were alone, the Amazon responded to the Conqueror’s comment.

“Do you think I would come to Corinth alone? Bring myself and our domestic leader into the clutches of the Conqueror? Xena, you all but destroyed the Amazon nation. There’s only a handful of us left. And as military leader, I’m sworn to protect what’s left of us, especially from you. I’m not about to march into Corinth, the capital of your empire — not without checking it out first.”

Xena smoothed out the rear of her silken robe so she could sit down upon the fountain’s edge. “So, if you thought it was a trap, then why did you bring your domestic Queen with you?”

“Have you ever tried to stop Gabrielle from doing something she wanted to do once she has her mind made up?” Ephiny asked, the corner of her mouth lifting into a grin.

Xena answered with a smirk of her own. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I have.”

The Amazon leader was about to protest with a question as to exactly when, but then she remembered why they were here. “Right … the Chronos Stone story. I almost forgot.” Ephiny scratched her chin. “So, were you successful? In changing her mind?”

Xena chuckled softly. “Nope.”

“Me neither,” Ephiny said, smiling for the first time. “It’s safer to walk in a garden with the Conqueror, then get in an argument with Gabrielle.”

“I’d rather fight Centaurs,” Xena agreed with a nod.

“Ya know,” Gabrielle interjected, “it’s impolite to talk about somebody as though she isn’t here.”

The amusement in Xena’s eyes turned to serious concern. “And it wasn’t very smart for the only two living leaders of the Amazon nation to enter the capital of an enemy unescorted and unprotected.

Ephiny smiled fully, her teeth shining in the darkness of the garden. “Oh, we’re not alone. Not exactly.”

With a soft whistle from the blond warrior that sounded more like a bird, several fully-armed Amazon warriors swung down from the trees in the atrium and onto the grassy floor of the garden.

Ephiny crossed her arms proudly as the Amazon soldiers flanked her on either side.

“Very good,” Xena said, remaining calm and still, though her mind was busy thinking of a suitable punishment for the unfortunate guards who had been on duty tonight. She looked at Gabrielle, who was watching her reaction intently. Xena couldn’t help but notice the way the bard’s green eyes sparkled in the moonlight. All thoughts of punishing anyone disappeared from her mind. “So, are you here to kill me or are you here to help me?”

“That depends on you,” Ephiny answered. “Are you still standing by that Chronos Stone story? Are you no longer the Destroyer of Nations?”

“What do you think?” Xena asked, speaking directly to Gabrielle.

“I think there have been a lot of changes … a lot of good changes … in the way you are running things. You’re turning into a good leader, Xena. The world could do a lot worse than have you as its conqueror now.”

“What are you saying?” Xena asked as she studied the bard’s face. “That you would want me to remain Xena, the Conqueror?”

“No,” Gabrielle answered, taking a step closer so that she could see Xena’s face a little better in the darkness. “I’m wondering why someone who has all the riches of the world, who lives in the most gorgeous castle I have ever seen, someone who has tens of thousands of troops at her command — a woman who has conquered and now rules the world — why would she want to change this? Why would she prefer a reality where she roams the world with hardly a penny to her name … to all this.” Gabrielle waved her arm around indicating the beautiful peristyle, the surrounding magnificent castle, out to the city of Corinth and the entire world beyond.

Xena smiled and looked at the woman who she felt closer to the any other person in the world — a woman who might as well be a million miles away right now, it seemed that she would never be able to bridge the distance between them.

“Because here, I’ve lost something far more important to me than all of this,” Xena answered sadly and turned her eyes to the ground so that this stranger who was really not her bard at all could not see the loneliness there.

But Gabrielle saw it, and though she was not sure what it was that Xena was missing in this reality, she felt touched by the same sadness nonetheless.

She sat down next to the Conqueror, tempted to lay her hand across Xena’s own, but she did not.

“Then we’re here to help you,” Gabrielle said with a small smile. “At least, I think we can.” She looked at Ephiny and nodded her head.

Xena studied the expression on Gabrielle’s face for a moment, hoping she would see some recognition of what they had been to one another, but there was nothing. Only the bard’s innate desire to help. She looked with disappointment to the military leader of the Amazons and waited.

“Our shamaness, Yakut, says there is another stone, similar to the Chronos Stone.”

“Go on,” Xena prompted as she stood, suddenly very interested in what Ephiny had to say.

“The Third Eye of Lakshmi. It sits in the head of a statue of a Hindu avatar god,” Ephiny explained, pointing to the middle of her head. “There’s one problem.”

“And what’s the problem?”

“The statue is in a holy shrine in the center of a very religious city … a very well-protected, religious city.”

“And this is a problem, how?” Xena asked, raising a brow.

“The city is Golconda … Golconda, India.”

Xena snorted. “Indian statues are usually located in cities in India.”

“India is very far away.”

“Then we better get started,” Xena said simply.

Ephiny was surprised. “We’re leaving — just like that?”

“The quicker the better.”

Xena’s haste made Ephiny instantly suspicious. “You believe what we’re telling you?”

The Conqueror shrugged. “Why shouldn’t I?”

“We could be luring you into a trap.”

Xena looked at Gabrielle. “Is it a trap, Gabrielle? Would you knowingly lead me into a trap that would take my life?”

For a moment, the bard did not respond, then the answer came in a small nod ‘no’.

Xena smiled. “I didn’t think so. Go back to your camp. I’ll meet you there at dawn.”

Ephiny was not convinced. “Just you?”

“Just me,” Xena confirmed.

“You’ll just pack up and leave Corinth to go with us all the way to India? What about your empire? Aren’t you worried someone will take your throne in your absence?”

Another shrug from the Warrior Princess. “Does it matter?” At the suspicious looks from her companions, Xena grinned. “If we succeed in our mission, everything will change anyway.”

“And if we don’t?”

“Then you’ll assassinate me, remember?”

Ephiny’s expression turned thoughtful. “Right.” She looked at Gabrielle, but the bard was staring at the Conqueror intently.

Time to get out of here, Ephiny mused. “Let’s do it then. As you said, one way or another …”

“… it is the end of the reign of Xena, the Conqueror,” Xena finished the vow with a smile. “Til death do us part.”

“Rrrigght,” Ephiny drawled out, studying Xena speculatively. She gave a tug on Gabrielle’s arm to get the bard’s attention. “Let’s get out of here.”

Xena watched as the two Amazon leaders and their escorts disappeared into the branches of the lush garden’s trees. They became shadows in the darkness of the atrium, climbing over the castle’s walls with ease before disappearing into the night.

So many stars, Xena mused as her eyes wandered upward to the infinite sky. So many possibilities to change one’s path with every single step. Who’s to say that the destiny she walked now wasn’t the right one after all? Had she made the right choice to change things back to how she remembered them? Or was it just her selfish desire to be with Gabrielle again influencing her decisions?

Could the greater good be better served if she ruled the world?

These questions were impossible to answer without her partner, who was her moral compass, by her side. Xena turned her eyes back to the garden and the rich darkness of the soil at her feet. Better to put her steps back on the path she knew, then to walk a strange road alone.

She turned around and headed back into the castle, pointedly ignoring the hunched figure behind the fountain. It was far preferable that Satrina had been eavesdropping than Alti herself. The sorceress would have been able to ascertain so much more from the conversation than the slave.

The Conqueror left the garden, knowing full well what Satrina would probably do with the information. Considering what her own plans were, she should care less what Darfus and the slave did with Corinth and her empire after she abandoned the city.

But the truth of the matter was, she cared very much.

****

Satrina waited until the dark shadow of the Conqueror disappeared from the garden before she left her hiding place behind the bush. Though the running water of the fountain made listening difficult, she had heard enough to believe that the Conqueror was planning to leave Corinth and join the Amazons in search of a stone in India.

This information almost made the slave jump for joy. With the Conqueror gone, she would have an easy time convincing Darfus to lay claim to the leadership of Corinth in her absence. Darfus would command the capital and the immense army that came with it, and she would control Darfus. By the time Xena returned to Corinth, the Conqueror’s army would be theirs. One simple assassination later, and the Empire … and the stone … would be hers forever.

Satrina ran as quickly and quietly as she could through the groomed bushes, heading into the castle in search of Darfus.

****

“Alti,” Xena’s low voice called out as she pushed through the hanging curtain of beads and bones. The Conqueror’s warm, seductive tone brought a smile to the shamaness’s cracked lips.

“Xena,” Alti answered as she put down a bowl and turned to greet her visitor, “what a pleasant surprise. What brings you to my humble chambers? Finished visiting with your two little friends?”

Xena smiled and entered the dark, foul smelling room. “Oh, so you saw them, did you? Guess that ruins my surprise. I came here to tell you that your dessert has finally been served.” The Conqueror pulled up a chair and eased herself down. “But then you already know that. How disappointing.”

Alti grinned gratuitously. “There isn’t much that goes on around here that I don’t find out about, Xena. You know that.”

“Oh, really? Then tell me, Alti, have you found a Chronos Stone for me yet? How long has it been since you promised to find it for me? Two months? Three?”

Alti shrugged and turned back to mixing a powder in her bowl. “These things take time, Xena. All good things come to those who wait.”

“Good. Then you won’t mind waiting for your field of Amazon sacrifices.”

Alti whirled around to face the Conqueror, her eyes flashing with anger. “You promised me that field AND those Amazons, Xena!”

Xena pursed her lips. “Yes, I did. But AFTER you found me the Chronos Stone.”

“I need sacrifices to find what you seek, Xena! My power depends upon it and I can’t find you another Chronos Stone without my power.”

The Conqueror stood and brushed off the dust of crushed bones from her silken robe. “Funny, the Amazons didn’t seem to having any trouble finding me one.”

The feigned expression of surprise on Alti’s face made Xena chuckle. “So, you heard about that, too?”

The shamaness gave Xena a nonchalant shrug. “I figured you would find a way to put both the Amazons and me to use in conjuring up another Chronos stone for you.”

“Of course, I did. Twice the chance for success,” Xena commented. “I should fire you from your position and take on their shamaness, she did such a good job.”

Alti smiled contemptuously as she stirred the contents in her bowl. “Use their shamaness all you want, Xena. Just so long as I get the rest. I need those Amazons.”

“And you shall have them,” Xena stated, smiling indulgently at her dark mentor as she traced a finger along the shoulder of the witch’s human skin cloak, “but there is something that I need you to do for me first.”

Alti raised her eyes to meet the Conqueror’s, a dark light causing them to twinkle. “Tell me, what do you need, Xena?”

“The stone that I seek is in India. The Amazons have volunteered to lead me to it.”

Alti raised her eyebrows. “Have they, now? And how did you get them to do that — they’re your sworn enemy?”

Xena chuckled, letting her tongue slowly caress a sneering upper lip. “Let’s just say, I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. I’m going with them to India to retrieve the stone. I should be gone just over a month, no more than two.”

“The stone will be easy to get?” Alti asked as she studied Xena’s face closely for signs of deceit. The Conqueror looked as happy as she always did when one of her devious plans were playing out to perfection.

“As easy as taking candy from a baby,” the Conqueror replied with a satisfied twinkle in her eye.

The expression seemed to put the sorceress completely at ease. “So what is it you need me to do? Shall I come with you?”

“No, no. I need you to stay behind.” As Alti was about to protest, Xena pulled up the chair and sat down very close to the shamaness to whisper. “You see, my little slave, Satrina was eavesdropping just a little bit in the garden just now.”

Alti tried to look innocent. “Oh, really?”

Xena nodded, trying very hard not to laugh. “Really. She and Darfus think they are going to start a coup here in Corinth once I leave with the Amazons. Now, we don’t want that to happen, do we?”

“Absolutely, not.”

Xena rose. “Good, I knew I could count on you.”

Alti looked up to the towering and beautiful warrior standing over her. “So, you want me to stay behind and foil their efforts at a takeover.”

Xena grinned. “Not too quickly. Let them have their little fun. Just make sure that both of them are dead and hanging from a cross by the time I get back.”

Alti stood and grinned evilly at the Conqueror. Finally, things were getting back to normal. “It’ll be my pleasure.”

“I thought it would be.”

“And what happens after you get back?”

At this question, the Conqueror let a full smile fill the darkness of the dusty, rank chamber.

“I’ll have the stone … and you … you can have the Amazons.”

The shamaness threw back her head and cackled with glee.

****

Alti rushed along the corridor, footsteps echoing against the cold, marble floor. Her steps were urgent, her eyes angry as she passed a Corinthian column in search of her prey.

She found them, entwined in a narrow alcove. The Royal Commander’s pants were to his knees and he was thoroughly enjoying the slave pressed hard against the wall of the dark corner.

Satrina froze at the presence of the witch and cursed.

“What do you want?” Darfus asked, sneering over his shoulder at the interruption.

“Celebrating already?” Alti rasped, “I wouldn’t count your griffins before they hatch.”

Darfus pulled out of the slave and drew up his pants.

“What are you talking about? How could you know?” He glared at the slave. “Is this some trick to get me in trouble?”

“You’re already in trouble,” Alti commented with a chuckle, sneaking a peak at the slave’s wares as she shuffled her skirt down. “You’re both just too stupid to realize it.”

Darfus narrowed his eyes at the witch. “What do you mean?”

“Listen closely and learn. Xena knows you better than you know yourself. She knows the minute she leaves Corinth, the two of you will conspire to take her place. Any fool could plan that type of coup. She just leaves you happily busy in your silly little plans while she goes off in search of a far greater prize. Corinth is nothing compared to the power she seeks now. What you don’t realize is that with a gem like the Chronos stone in her hand, and the power of the Amazons at her side, she’ll not only be able to rule the world, but she’ll rule over time as well.” She pointed a crooked finger in their direction. “You and I are nothing compared to this.”

Satrina gulped. “Xena knows we plan to move against her?”

Alti laughed openly now, her grating voice bouncing off the cold stone of the corridors as though it would crack the marble.

“This is why you will never come close to being Xena. Poor little slave, wants to be a warrior princess so badly. Consider yourself lucky that Xena beds you, if she still does.” Alti sneered as anger and embarrassment shifted across the slave’s features. “Not even whipping you any more, is she? My, my, Xena really does seem to have Amazon on her mind. Especially `blond’ Amazon.”

The witch eyed the slave speculatively then licked her lips. “Xena certainly seems to have a taste for that little blond beauty, doesn’t she Satrina? And you have a taste for Xena. Bet that doesn’t sit well in your mouth?” Once again, abrasive laughter disturbed the hall. “How you two made it this far, I will never know. Fools! Xena is playing those Amazons the same way she is playing the two of you. She leads you off in one direction, while she continues on her own path unheeded.”

At her own words, Alti froze, a sudden realization filling her thoughts. “Very clever, Xena, very clever,” she said as she tapped the dirty nail of her finger against her chin. “You almost managed to manipulate all of us, the Amazons, these two fools … and me.”

Darfus and Satrina watched in fear as a dark shadow seemed to float across the hallway and settle upon the shamaness.

The witch continued to talk as though she were alone. “Thought you had me fooled, did you, Xena? But I’m not that easily manipulated. I know you too well. You think I’ll just stay behind and baby-sit these two idiots while you go off and get one of the most powerful jewels in the world, then keep it AND the Amazons for yourself? I don’t think so, Conqueror.”

“Darfus!” She turned on the soldier so fast, both he and Satrina jumped at the name. “Prepare your soldiers. We’re going on a little journey.”

“A little journey?” Darfus asked, looking confused. “Where are we going?”

Alti took two steps forward and leered over the slave. “Where are we going, Satrina?”

The slave swallowed as she watched her plans for conquest swirl away, down the drain.

“Golconda,” she said as she pulled up her underpants. “Golconda, India.”

CHAPTER 10

I guess it does pay to have a conqueror around every once and awhile, Ephiny mused, staring off the port side of the ship as it left the dock of Myos Hormus heading out to the Red Sea. They had crossed the Mediterranean, landing in the exotic city of Alexandria only days earlier. Taking no time for sightseeing, Xena led them quickly over land to Clysma.

Ephiny laughed into the salty air remembering the look on the dockmaster’s face when the Conqueror arrived in Clysma to commandeer her ship. It had been the same in Piraeus. Her Amazons made a very colorful and impressive escort for Xena, the Conqueror. They paraded into the city as though she were on a royal tour for all the world to see.

At first, Ephiny had balked at the pretense, refusing to escort the Conqueror into Piraeus as though they were her guards. However, when their display resulted in the use of one of the most luxurious galleys that she had ever sailed on to cross the Mediterranean to Alexandria, she quickly swallowed all objections.

Gabrielle had been right again. Xena knew how to make an entrance, and she also knew how to wield her power. By all rights, every ship in the dock belonged to the Conqueror. She could have taken any one of the merchant ships that were following the trade route to India, ordering them to abandon their cargo in favor of transporting the Conqueror and her royal escort. There was no need, however, to do so. Xena, it seemed, maintained a fleet of ships at the port in Piraeus and simply ordered her own private galley to take them across the Mediterranean to Alexandria — one of the largest trade cities in her empire.

The spectacle worked so well, that they repeated the procession through Alexandria and into Clysma, where Xena commandeered an even larger and more elegant vessel for their journey across the Indian ocean. The only thing that left a bad taste in Ephiny’s mouth at their success was the fact that Xena was resplendent in her silk robes and golden headdress, looking for all the world like she belonged at the center of an Amazon procession.

If Gabrielle hadn’t been the one to suggest that she wear the outfit, Ephiny might have ripped that golden crown right off of her miserable head.

Ephiny followed the flight of a seagull as it drifted along an updraft caused by the billowing sails. The Amazons could have never afforded the sea route to India. They would have followed the Silk route instead, taking months to travel over hostile lands.

Yes, indeed, it must be nice to have the world at your disposal.

The seagull banked and flew across the bow of the ship, leading the amazon’s eyes to the form of the Conqueror standing alone. She was leaning against the godhead, a wooden effigy of herself — the resemblance remarkable. The carved statue tilted out from the deck over the water, pointing them onward toward their destination with a determined scowl.

Its beauty was matched only by the woman standing beside it.

Maybe it would fall on her, Ephiny wished with an evil snicker, her pleasure at the thought disappearing as she watched Gabrielle approach the dark woman with a smile.

Damn, damn, damn. She had been doing her best to keep those two apart, but she kept catching them together the moment her back was turned.

Ephiny wiped a bit of sea spray from her face and then made a determined bee line for the bow of the ship.

****

Xena leaned against the godhead and stared out at the ocean ahead of them. Her keen eyes, accustomed to travel by sea, could easily make out the dim shape of land to the port side as they sailed the length of the Red Sea heading for the Indian ocean.

It was good to be out at sea again. She had always enjoyed her time on the oceans on the world. Even her years as a pirate held fond memories, painful as some of them may have been. Enjoying the slap of the wind against the skin of her face, Xena pondered the number of oceans she must have had to travel to effectively conquer the world. She had no memory of the voyages, but she was certain she must have enjoyed each and every ocean crossing very much.

Xena closed her eyes and tried to imagine what it must have been like to have sailed in this royal galley at the head of an attacking flotilla, rushing across the waves of an ocean, unstoppable, toward their enemy and victory. Her heart quickened its pace just thinking about it, sending a rush of exhilaration through her veins and a flush to her cheeks. Xena breathed the sea air deeply, letting her nostrils flare to enjoy the excitement in the air.

“Hi, how’re ya doing?”

The soft and unexpected voice caused Xena to whirl around in alarm.

Gabrielle held up her hands. “Hey, sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.” The bard smiled at the dark woman, wondering at the guilty look on Xena’s face and the flush in her cheeks. “Am I disturbing you?”

“No, no,” Xena said quickly, moving over to make some room at the bow by the godhead. “Just enjoying the view. C’mon, take a look.”

At the expression of doubt on the bard’s face, Xena motioned her over with her hands. “C’mere. It’s perfectly safe.”

“You sure?” Gabrielle asked with uncertainty, but taking a step closer nonetheless.

“Sure I’m sure. C’mon, it’s beautiful,” Xena coaxed with an encouraging smile.

Gabrielle was convinced and stepped up to the bow to stand right next to the godhead and peer out over the rail. The rush of wind picked up her golden locks and whipped them away from the bard’s face. Xena smiled as Gabrielle’s features lit up with pleasure.

“This is great!” the bard exclaimed.

“See, I told ya.”

“I’ve never stood out like this before. Well, honestly, I’ve only been on a ship once, and that was to cross the Strymon. It didn’t take but a few minutes and there was no wind like this, and certainly no waves. And the boat we were on was nothing like this.”

A bright smile filled Xena’s face as she listened to Gabrielle. Hearing the bard prattle on made her realize just how much she missed even the sound of her partner’s voice.

“It was a rickety old boat. Didn’t have but one sail and it certainly didn’t have a godhead,” Gabrielle commented as she rested her hand on the finely carved wood. Her eyes wandered up to the face on the statue and then widened in surprise. She whirled around to find the same face smiling back at her in amusement.

“It’s you!” the bard blurted out. She turned back to study the carving of the face. “Or it’s the Conqueror, I should say,” Gabrielle added, noting the cruel scowl on the godhead’s features. She turned to the smiling ruler once more. “You know, you’re a completely different woman when you smile. You should do it more often.”

“Oh, I should, should I?” Xena responded bemused, lifting an eyebrow.

“Yeah, and I kinda like that eyebrow thing you do, too.”

“Oh really?” Xena said, raising the aforementioned brow a little higher.

“Really.”

Xena offered the bard the full extent of her smile. “Well, maybe I’ll do it more often, just for you.”

“Just for me?” Gabrielle answered with a grin of her own, “Really?”

“Really.”

Xena was beginning to wonder just how long they were going to stand there smiling at one another like two silly little kids, when the bow decided to take a sudden plunge and slice into an unexpected wave. The jolt sent Gabrielle tumbling toward the rail.

Without thinking, Xena wrapped her arms around her friend, pulling her away from danger. It took a moment for it to stink in before the warrior realized that she had her arms around Gabrielle for the first time in months and months. She let the moment last as long as she possibly could, reveling in the feeling of the bard’s warm body against her own.

“Er … thanks,” Gabrielle said, pushing herself gently and rather a little too slowly away from the Conqueror’s embrace.

At least, that’s the way it looked to Ephiny. She had witnessed the entire thing as she approached the bow of the ship. And although she hadn’t heard any of their conversation, the look in both of their eyes was enough to turn her stomach into knots.

“Trying to throw her over already?” the amazon leader asked loudly, announcing her presence to the pair.

The sound of Ephiny’s voice caused Gabrielle to start. She pulled herself the rest of the way out of the Conqueror’s embrace, assuming a much safer distance as she scratched at the back of her head.

Ephiny chose to ignore the guilty expression on Gabrielle’s face and stared directly at the Conqueror, unimpressed by the annoyed look being flashed her way.

“Gabrielle, can I talk with you for a moment?” she asked, her gaze never leaving Xena’s.

“Sh … sh … sure,” the Amazon Queen replied, “what’s up?” Gabrielle’s face finally regained some amount of regal composure.

“Below,” Ephiny ordered with a nod.

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow of her own.

Ephiny huffed. “Please?” she added, none too pleased at all.

“Certainly,” Gabrielle responded in a very Queenly manner. But before leaving, she turned to Xena. “Will I see you at dinner?”

“I’ll be there,” Xena answered with a bow.

“Til dinner, then.” Gabrielle returned the bow. “I’ll be looking forward to it. And thanks.”

“For what?”

“Not letting me fall overboard just then.”

Xena inclined her head. “It was my pleasure,” she said, watching with a small smile as Gabrielle walked away.

“I’ll bet,” Ephiny commented, giving the Conqueror one last long look before turning to follow her friend.

Xena watched Ephiny’s back until she disappeared below deck. She stared up at the godhead, matching the stern expression with a scowl of her own.

“I will not throw her overboard,” referring to Ephiny as she tried to convince her own image, “much as I’d like to.”

****

Darfus paced back and forth along the dock of Clysma.

“How long do we have to wait?”

Alti sighed, tired of having to explain it to the soldier again. “We need to wait at least two days. I’d like to wait more, but that would give Xena too much of a headstart.”

The Royal Commander fumed. Two days was an eternity when one was strategizing the movement of an army. And this battalion was hardly an army, at least not the numbers that he was used to working with. He could have these 300 odd men suited up and on the ships in half a day. And with no horses or heavy artillery, he could even beat Xena to Muzuris if the wind was right. Why wait two days?

“Why wait two days?” Darfus blurted, repeating the same question for the umpteenth time.

Alti whirled on the soldier. The Commander found himself choking as though invisible hands had grabbed him by the neck.

“I’ll explain this one more time, Darfus. If you ask again, Satrina will be walking at the head of this army. Are you listening?”

Not too far away on the same dock, the slave smiled beautifully, hoping upon hope that the question might come up one more time.

Darfus attempted to choke out a gurgle of agreement, deciding instead to nod his head.

“I don’t want Xena to know we are following her. She has the uncanny ability to sense my presence, just as I can sense hers. We dare not follow any closer or she’ll know I’m on her heels. Do you finally understand?”

Darfus nodded briskly, gasping in great gulps of air when the invisible grip was finally released.

Alti sneered, “And if she didn’t sense me, she would certainly smell you.”

Satrina waited until the witch stomped away before she allowed the chortle she had been holding to leave her throat.

“What are you laughing at?” Darfus rasped. “She could probably sniff you out as well,” the soldier commented as he rubbed his throat and marched away.

Satrina’s laughter subsided as she looked out across the sea. “Oh, I wish that she would.”

CHAPTER 11

At sea, it was hard to tell where the ink of the night sky ended and the ocean began. Sometimes, however, like tonight, the sky was so clear and the stars so vivid, one could imagine they saw the heavens tumbling downward into the gaping black mouth of the ocean, devoured by time and the ever surging waves.

Xena stared out from the railing at the stern, watching white waves flow behind them as they sailed forward to their destination. Two parallel lines of breakwater marked their passage, converging far off in the distance, at the point where sea met sky. The wind was high and their speed good. If all things stayed as they were, they would reach the port of Muziris, India by high noon tomorrow.

I can feel you following me, Alti, Xena mused as she squinted into the dark horizon. There was no sign of any other vessel present on the ocean, not as far as her eyes could see. But her inner sense — that was another matter. She could feel the presence of danger, faint as it was, and knew that it could only mean the shamaness had not stayed behind in Corinth as instructed.

No matter, Xena thought to herself, she had figured as much. No doubt Alti had forced both Darfus and Satrina to accompany her, and that would have had the same effect as the witch staying behind. It prevented the pair from starting a revolt in Corinth that would only end up in causing a whole lot of bloodshed.

Xena pulled at a piece of silky black hair which had flipped into her eye. They had to be at least one, if not two days behind, which left more than enough time for Xena and her Amazon escort to make their way to Golconda. Once they reached the city, Xena could only hope that this stone and the Amazon’s shamaness Yakut, could help her to put things right. If her plan worked, then none of this would matter at all.

The Warrior Princess sighed as she watched the white breakwater disappear into the distance. Strange, but she felt some comfort in knowing that, had Hercules not interceded in her life, all her dreams would have come to pass. If she had not changed, she would have ruled Greece and, not just Greece, the world. If only she could have done so without cruelty and fear, without the hatred which surely would have devoured her had Hercules, and then Gabrielle, not come along.

Perhaps it wasn’t possible to have power of the magnitude that she and Alti coveted without the sacrifice of one’s heart and soul. Xena stared at the blackness and wondered, if all things remained as they were, how long it would take for that darkness to overcome her again.

“What? During the day, you stand at the bow and watch where you’re going … then at night, you stare off the stern to see where you’ve been?” Gabrielle commented with a smile as she approached the Conqueror.

Xena turned at the comment, grinning as she considered the statement. “Yeah, I guess I do,” she replied.

Gabrielle stepped up to the rail and stood beside the warrior. “Aren’t you cold out here? Don’t you ever sleep?”

“Yes … and yes,” Xena answered, then leaned an elbow against the railing, “don’t you?”

“I was feeling a little queasy. I get seasick, kinda. Boats and oceans and I don’t seem to get along, especially at night, when I’m below. I thought it would be better for me and everyone else if I came up and got some air.”

The warrior chuckled sympathetically. “Sorry, I forgot about that. Here.” Xena gently took a hold of Gabrielle’s hand and turned it over, palm up.

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at the contact, but let the Conqueror proceed.

Xena placed two fingers from her other hand at a point on her wrist and Gabrielle jumped at the pressure.

“Hey!”

After a moment, however, when the bard’s queasiness subsided, Gabrielle looked at Xena with surprise.

The warrior grinned. “Feel that bump right there? Just put pressure on it, just like I showed ya. It’ll settle your stomach.”

“Wow! That’s great! I really do feel better,” Gabrielle said, watching where the Conqueror’s fingers pressed against her pulse point with awe.

“Just be careful. This pressure point also has a habit of dulling the taste buds. Makes you eat things that you probably would never have eaten before.”

“Really? Like what?”

“Just stay away from strange foods and watch what you eat. If you do that, this should help you get your sea legs in no time.”

Xena held onto the bard’s wrist, keeping her fingers against the pulse point probably a little longer than she needed to. She let herself enjoy the warmth of her friend’s skin for a few more seconds, before withdrawing her touch.

Gabrielle didn’t seem to mind at all.

Xena took a quick glance at the deck behind them and raised an eyebrow. “I’m surprised Ephiny hasn’t shown up to join us. She usually does the minute you and I are alone.”

“I know, she’s worse than a mother hen. But she’s just looking out for my best interests.”

“Why, is she afraid I’m going to take a bite out of you?”

“Maybe,” Gabrielle replied, eyeing Xena speculatively. “You know, that man who stole the Chronos Stone, Iolaus, told me that you and I were really supposed to be friends.”

Xena nodded and looked out to the sea. “That’s right. The very best of friends.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s hard to imagine. Tell me, how did we meet?”

“I rescued you from being captured by slavers just outside of your hometown, Poteidaia.”

“Really? That’s funny. I really was captured by slavers just outside of Poteidaia. The only difference was that I was rescued by an Amazon raiding party. I ended up saving the life of their princess, so they made me an Amazon and, Terreis — that was her name — made me her sister.”

“That’s not much different than what happened in my time. Only your attempt to save Terreis’s life failed. She rewarded your courage by giving you the Rite of Caste with her dying breath.”

Gabrielle nodded sadly. “Terreis was killed here, too.”

“Fighting the Centaurs?”

“No, we were allied with the Centaurs, fighting against you.”

Xena let out an ironic snort. “Well, at least I managed to end the feud between Amazons and Centaurs here as well.”

“You also managed to wipe most of us out … Centaurs, too.”

“So it seems,” Xena sighed, keeping her eyes staring out at the black sea.

“Look, Xena, I don’t pretend to completely believe what you are telling us here. You have to admit, it’s quite a fantastic story. But I do know you seem to be truly regretful for all the pain and suffering you’ve caused.”

“My regret won’t put things right.”

“But the stone will? What if it doesn’t?”

Xena shrugged. “Then I’ll have to come up with some other plan.”

Gabrielle put a hand on Xena’s forearm, forcing the Conqueror to look at her. “Like allowing Ephiny to assassinate you? Come on, Xena. If you know me as well as you say you do, you have to know that I’m not going to let that happen.”

“Why not? It would be what’s best for the world.”

“Really? I’m not so sure about that. In all honesty, that’s what I used to think. I even plotted to make that happen. But now …”

“But now, what?”

“Now that I’ve gotten to know you,” Gabrielle said, giving the arm under her hand a squeeze, “I think that maybe you wouldn’t make such a bad ruler, if things keep going the way they are.”

Xena allowed Gabrielle to keep her hand on her arm. She even took a step closer, unable to resist the chance to be close to the bard. “Listen to me, Gabrielle. Have you ever been attracted to something, something that you knew was absolutely dangerous, but you simply couldn’t resist its pull?”

Gabrielle had no choice but to look up at the woman towering over her, her presence overwhelming, her eyes riveting. “You mean, like a moth to a flame?”

Xena closed the distance between them now, drawn by the hypnotic tension that was building. “That’s exactly what I mean,” she said, her voice a low, warm purr.

Gabrielle’s eyes drifted closed, “Yes …”

Xena found herself staring at the bard’s soft, pink mouth — at the beautiful face and hair that, despite the darkness of the ocean night, sparkled golden like the sun. It would be so easy, Xena mused, so easy to kiss her now, take her and make her mine. She could almost taste the salt of the sea air on her lips, feel the heat of her body against the cold of the night. In this moment, she could rule her world and have Gabrielle, too.

Xena opened her eyes. Their lips were barely a breath away. Gabrielle’s sweet scent was filling Xena’s senses, her own skin tingling where the bard’s hand still rested. She could even feel the delicious pressure of soft breasts rubbing lightly against her cloak.

It would be so easy.

She couldn’t do it. Xena pulled herself away, quickly putting an arm’s distance between them. Gabrielle opened her eyes in alarm as though she hadn’t been aware of her own actions.

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely, Gabrielle. You should stay away from me. I can’t be trusted.”

“Truer words were never spoken,” Ephiny said, appearing as though out of nowhere on the deck behind them. They both turned in guilty surprise.

“Gabrielle, go below.” When the amazon princess Queen to protest, Ephiny glared. “As military Queen, I’m ordering you to go below, Gabrielle. Now!”

With one last questioning look at the Conqueror, Gabrielle departed, leaving the Military Queen and the Destroyer of Nations facing one another, alone at the stern of the ship.

Ephiny studied the dark form of the Conqueror in silence. Her gaze was strangely calm as she took in the vivid blue eyes staring back at her and the wind-whipped black hair that danced around a sculpted face. A long cloak concealed the sharp sword at the Conqueror’s shoulder and covered the rest of what Ephiny knew to be a tall, strong and incredibly seductive body adorned in tight leather and the bright brass of body armor.

“Stay away from her,” Ephiny warned, her quiet gaze turned threatening before she stomped away.

****

“I don’t trust her!” Ephiny yelled to a pacing Gabrielle.

“She doesn’t trust herself!” the Amazon Queen responded in exasperation.

“Good! That makes two of us.”

Gabrielle sighed. “I would never do anything to risk the safety of the Nation, Ephiny.”

“I know that, Gabrielle,” Ephiny stated as she sat down on her bunk. “I’m not worried about the Nation. But I am worried about you.” The amazon warrior studied her friend with concerned eyes.

“Don’t be, Ephiny. I can take care of myself. I’ll admit, I’m attracted to her … a little.” When Ephiny started to comment, Gabrielle lifted a hand. “I said, a little. You have to admit she is a very attractive woman. But it’s curiosity more than anything else, I think. This story of hers …”

“You don’t think it’s true?”

“I don’t know,” the Amazon princess said thoughtfully and she sat down on the bunk next to her friend. “Whether it’s true or not, Xena believes in it enough that she has changed her ways. I just don’t want you rushing to judgement, even if this whole stone thing doesn’t pan out.”

“What do you mean, rush to judgement?”

“You can’t kill her in cold blood, Ephiny.”

“Yes, I can.”

“No, you can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because I won’t let you, not without just cause.”

“And just what do you consider just cause, Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle sighed and leaned her head on her hands. “I don’t know, Ephiny. We’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it. I just don’t want any itchy fingers drawing a crossbow aimed at her heart.”

“I was thinking more of a dagger myself. Up close and personal.”

The bard scowled at her friend. “You know what I mean.”

“You’re probably right,” Ephiny said, mirroring her friend by leaning her head on her hands as well. “Besides, she would never let anyone get that close to her.” The amazon warrior gave her co-leader a sideways look. “Except, maybe, for you ….”

“Don’t even think about it,” Gabrielle warned and she pushed her friend off the bunk.

CHAPTER 12

“So, now what do we do?” Ephiny asked, peering from behind a tree as she watched a group of local women walk by. They had set up camp not far from the main road which led into Golconda. Xena had recommended sending a small advance scouting party to assess the situation before marching into the city with a battalion of Amazons. Of course, the Conqueror insisted on being in the advance party, and if Xena was going, then Gabrielle was going, and if Gabrielle was going … well. Ephiny would have preferred to rest after the hot and sweaty march from Muziris, but here she was, with Xena, Gabrielle, Yakut, and a few chosen others, in the heat of the midday Indian sun, hiding being a tree and peeking at a road.

So much for advanced Amazon military tactics.

The thoroughfare was busy with market day traffic. Several groups of scantily clad women had sauntered by the trees and Ephiny raised her spirits by eyeing the intricate artwork on the skin of their bodies with deep appreciation.

“So, what are we going to do? Knock on the temple door and say: Hey! Give us your sacred jewel?”

“I could,” Xena replied, ignoring the pointed look she received from Gabrielle, “but I won’t.”

“Then what are you planning to do?” the Amazon warrior asked with suspicion.

“Time for the Conqueror to make an appearance.” Xena hid behind her tree and reached for her back, trying to unlink a small clasp on her armor.

“Here, let me help,” Gabrielle offered, walking up to do the job. Ephiny pushed passed her.

“I’ll do that,” the blond warrior said, giving the princess a not so gentle nudge out of the way with an elbow.

The bard scowled but acquiesced.

Xena gave her back to Ephiny, taking a glance over her shoulder at the Amazon. “Send someone back to get your warriors.”

The Conqueror’s request sounded suspiciously like an order to Ephiny. She paused in her task and frowned. “There is no way in Hades my Amazons are going to attack that city!”

Xena sighed. “Ephiny, I’m not planning to attack anything. Xena, the Conqueror is about pay an official visit to the city of Golconda. She can’t just stroll into the city, unescorted, like she was some kind of tourist or somethin’.”

Ephiny tugged hard on the stubborn clasp. “I just don’t want you getting used to being escorted around by Amazons, Xena.”
Xena lifted her arm to give the amazon a bit more room. “I’m only doing it to get to the stone as quickly as possible.”

“We know, Xena,” the bard said, offering the warrior a warm smile, “don’t we?”

The bard’s eyes narrowed as she sent a glare Ephiny’s way. The amazon warrior answered with a hard jerk of the clasp.

The clasp released and Xena lifted the armor over her head. She pulled her silken robe out from a pack at her feet and slipped the garment on. “My presence will get us an audience with their leaders quicker than doing anything else.”

“And then what?”

“And then,” Xena said, placing the crown of the Conqueror on her head, “we ask to see the stone.”

“And then?”

“You’re just full of questions, aren’t you?” Xena said calmly as she adjusted the elaborate crown on her hair. “I don’t know every detail. All I know is I have to get in there and get a hold of that stone … as soon as possible.” Xena paused in fastening the front of her robe, wondering how long they had before Alti caught up with them. The thought of the witch made the warrior tie up the front of her tunic all the faster. “Yakut, what will happen when I touch the stone?”

The young shamaness sniffed and shrugged her shoulders. That action and the fact that the shaman headdress she was wearing was too large for her head, made Xena realize just how young and inexperienced this woman might actually be. It was her own fault, Xena mused, as she was the one who had killed off the best of the Amazon leaders.

“I’m not sure,” Yakut answered, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable under the close scrutiny of the Conqueror’s intense blue eyes. “I know this, the stone is supposed to be cursed.”

“Cursed?” Gabrielle asked. “What do you mean cursed?”

“I mean cursed, as in protected by a spirit. I don’t know what would happen if you touched the stone, Conqueror, but I don’t think it’s a very good idea.”

“Great,” Ephiny commented, rolling her eyes.

Xena advanced angrily on the young shamaness. “What are you saying? That we came all the way out here and I can’t even touch the stone?”

“Hey!” Yakut took a step away from the Conqueror with raised hands. The overly large headdress fell down a little on her forehead. “Ephiny ordered me to find a stone similar to the Chronos Stone. This one is as close as you’re gonna get. The Third Eye of Lakshmi sits in the statue of Sita’s head and watches over our destinies. I figured if something was wrong with yours, this Third Eye ought to know about it.”

When the intensity of the Conqueror’s glare did not abate, Yakut pouted. “These things don’t come with written instructions, you know.”

Xena narrowed her eyes. “All right. So, if it’s not a good idea to touch it, what should I do?”

Yakut slipped the headdress away from her forehead with the tip of her finger. “If you can get close enough, just try looking into the stone. See what happens.”

The Conqueror nodded. “So the plan is, I request an audience in the temple. I’ll tell them I came to pay tribute to Vishnu or Shiva or Krishna or whoever. Once I get in the temple, I’ll bow before the statue and offer …” Xena looked around, searching for something that would work as an offering. Her eyes fell on the attractive necklace hanging around Ephiny’s neck.

She pulled it from the amazon before Ephiny could blink. “I’ll offer this.”

“Hey!” Ephiny exclaimed, grabbing at the now empty spot on her neck. “That’s my necklace!”

“It’s very pretty,” Xena stated as she admired the sparkle.

“Why not offer your fancy crown?”

Xena frowned, appalled at the suggestion. “This crown is a symbol of my Empire.”

“That necklace was a present from Gabrielle!”

Xena looked at the jewelry with even more appreciation. “Really? It’s very nice.”

Gabrielle shook her head in amusement. These two were going to drive her to drink. “Ephiny, let her use the necklace. I’ll get you another.”

“I like that one!”

“I’ll get you another!”

The blond warrior shot the Conqueror a dirty look. “All right. Just one more question, Conqueror. What if they don’t let you in to see the stone?”

Xena took a deep sigh, not even wanting to think about the answer. “Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“Just don’t think we’re going to lay siege to this city to get it.”

“That’s not a part of the plan. But there is something we are going to need if this is going to work.” Xena stepped away from the group. “I’ll be right back.”

“Where are you going?” Ephiny craned her neck around the trunk of the tree, trying to see what Xena was up to.

Xena stepped out into the road and ran her hands down the front of her beautiful, silken robes in an attempt to get out the wrinkles. “Well, the Conqueror cannot enter a city for a royal visit on foot. I need to arrive on something a bit more regal.”

“More regal? More regal? What’s more regal than marching in with an Amazon escort? It worked in Clysma.”

Xena searched the incoming and outgoing traffic passing them along the road. There were merchants and travelers of all sorts, using many modes of transportation, but none seemed to satisfy the Conqueror’s needs.

Ephiny grew impatient. “If you’re looking for your guilded carriage, you left it in Corinth.”

“No,” Xena responded squinting into the distance. “I’m looking for something even more impressive.” Her blues eyes sparkled when she spied the perfect answer lumbering toward them down the road.

“That!” she announced happily as she pointed, “is just what we’re looking for.”

The object in question slowly came into view above the heads of the many pedestrians traveling toward them along the road.

Ephiny’s eyebrows shot to the top of her head. Gabrielle’s mouth dropped open, speechless. And Yakut jerked so hard in surprise, her headdress fell down completely covering her face.

****

“I have to admit, she sure knows how to make an entrance,” Ephiny commented, glancing up from her position in the entourage.

“I’ll say,” Gabrielle replied, taking the liberty of a long and appreciative look at the incredible vision that was Xena, the Conqueror. The scant, colorful outfits and feathered headdresses of the Amazons only added to the spectacle of the procession as they marched into the city of Golconda.

The sight of a parade of a full regiment of Amazon warriors marching through the city’s gates was nothing compared to the image of Xena, the Conqueror riding atop an elephant at the center of the escort. She sat upon the great beast as though she had been doing it all her life, moving with it’s rolling gate and heavy steps as though she had been born to it.

The throng of the city’s pedestrians parted to make way for the procession, forming two lines all the way into the center of Golconda. Their cheers and yells made even Ephiny hold up her head in pride.

Xena looked down at Gabrielle and sent the bard a happy wink. The Amazon princess flashed a bright smile in return. She pushed her shoulders back and raised her head in an attempt to maintain her own regal aura. One hand held her staff which clicked against the ground in time with the elephant’s slow gait, the other held onto the tip of one of the magnificent beast’s long, billowy ears. The skin was surprisingly soft and fuzzy.

Xena looked down on the bard out of the corner of her eye, enjoying the way she held her head and walked with her staff. She was all Amazon princess, marching proudly, hair shining golden in the sun, until the elephant took the liberty of reaching around with its long trunk to give the bard’s belly a gentle tickle.

“Hey!” Gabrielle cried out in surprise, swatting the soft, snake-like thing with her hand. The elephant must have liked what it felt, because it slinked its trunk around to tickle her again.

“I said, cut that out!” the bard pushed the appendage away.

Xena laughed and patted the elephant’s head. She couldn’t blame him one bit.

****

The procession came to a halt in front of what could have only been the great temple of the city of Golconda. A long row of stairs made of the flawless white marble led up to its grand entrance. Carvings along the columns and across the facade were intricate in their detail, depicting Rama and Sita and all the Hindu avatars in their various manifestations. Eloquent tapestries hung down from marble balconies, leading the eye upward to the spherical roof which curved into a spire and reached for the heavens, pointing the way to nirvana.

Xena felt the elephant shift into a comfortable stance, then she took a moment to discreetly study her surroundings. There were guards everywhere: lined up in front of the temple, positioned along the rooftops of adjacent buildings, even scattered along the inside of the city’s fortress walls. This place was heavily protected, the temple obviously an important one.

With an order from Ephiny, the Amazon escort drew their swords, performing a series of intricate moves that brought them to attention. Xena raised an eyebrow. The display was very impressive.

The Amazon leader stepped forward and saluted the contingent of white robed men at the entrance to the temple, assuming they were the leaders.

“Xena, the Conqueror!” she announced with a loud and commanding voice, saluting the leaders once more and then turning to salute the Conqueror. She hated this part of the job, but she did it.

The announcement sent a wave of whispers through the crowd in the square.

Xena waited calmly atop the elephant, knowing that this was an important moment. India was a distant part of her empire, not as removed as Ch’in, but not as heavily allied either. Though it belonged to her, it remained to be seen how the people of a lesser city would react to her presence.

The priests seemed unsure. The sun reflected brightly off their white robes as they looked at one another with concern. Xena waited patiently, letting the majesty of the spectacle make the decision for them. It wasn’t long until all of the men kneeled and bowed before their sovereign ruler.

The rest of the audience followed suit.

Xena breathed a sigh of relief and then vocalized a series of clucks which aroused the elephant to movement. Gabrielle and Ephiny had to step away as the beast bent both front legs and kneeled its immense bulk all the way down. Xena slid gracefully from her place on its back, wiped her robes, then glided to the stairs to talk with the city’s leaders.

She gave a tug on the young shamaness’s robe as she sauntered by.

“Come,” Xena’s low voice commanded.

Yakut’s eyes grew round. “You want me to come with you?”

But the question only bounced off the back of the Conqueror’s golden silk robe, she was halfway to the stairs.

Ephiny jerked her head at the shamaness, and so Yakut hurried after.

****

Xena glided up the stairs to the temple, knowing that the length of her robe made it appear as though she was floating. She had practiced the illusion many times.

Reaching the top of the staircase, she paused before the group of priests. They eyed her with an expression that Xena easily recognized as fear. The warrior resisted the urge to smile.

“Xena,” one of the priests addressed her and bowed.

“That’s Conqueror to you,” Xena replied, answering in their own language. She felt the presence of Yakut stumble up beside her, but did not spare the young shamaness a glance.

“You honor us with your presence,” another priest offered, also adding a bow.

Xena inclined her head and took a quick look at the carvings and illustrations which adorned the marble all around them.

“I’ve come to give a tribute to Sita,” Xena said, motioning for Yakut to show them the necklace, “Lakshmi has been good to me.”

The young shamaness looked at Xena blankly, not having understood the language.

“The necklace, Yakut, show them the necklace.”

“Oh.” Yakut reach under her deerskin cloak and produced the offering, which she showed to the priests.

The priest stared at the necklace without expression.

“They are rare and valuable stones from Greece, an Amazon symbol of courage. An appropriate offering for Sita, I thought.”

All the priests smiled. Xena smiled. Yakut smiled, though she had no idea what she was smiling at.

“You cannot go into the temple,” the priest in the center said, still smiling.

“You cannot go in,” another confirmed.

“I’ve come a long way …” Xena began, but the priest in the middle held up his hand.

“No women. It is a blasphemy.”

Xena lost her smile and looked down at Yakut. The young shamaness was still smiling, not understanding a word.

She turned back to the priests, her expression not so delighted. “But you have a statue of Sita in there and Sita is a woman …”

“Sita is an avatar and blessed above all others.”

“You cannot go into the temple.”

“It is a blasphemy.”

The tense expression on the Conqueror’s face made Yakut lose her smile. “Conqueror …. is there a problem?” Yakut asked softly.

Xena forced her face to relax, trying very hard to stop her hand from drawing the knife she had hidden inside her cloak and disemboweling them all. She looked down at her companion instead.

“Tomorrow, they said. We have to wait until tomorrow.”

Yakut put the necklace back under her cloak and shrugged. “Oh, well, that’s not so bad.”

Xena turned her back on the priests and marched down the stairs. Yakut, taken by surprise by the abrupt departure, stumbled down a few seconds later.

****

Xena drew the sharpening stone across the edge of her sword with an angry swipe.

“I should already have that stone in my hand!” she fumed, staring into the darkness of the forest. She made another angry stroke across the sword. “I should have just walked in there and taken it.”

The sharpening stone paused in its task. That was exactly what she needed to do. She couldn’t tell Gabrielle and the Amazons she had been refused access, and she couldn’t wait until tomorrow to try again. Alti was hot on their heels and there was no way in Tartarus she was going to let that witch get her hands on the Third Eye of Lakshmi.

Xena halted her sharpening and listened to the sounds of the Amazons cleaning up after the evening meal. Dishes were being washed, swords were being sharpened, conversations beginning around the various small campfires scattered throughout the forest. It had been a hard day’s march to get here, and a stressful procession into Golconda. They should all be asleep in no time.

And when the last of the Amazons had been tucked in for the night, Xena would handle the situation as she should have handled the situation in the first place.

Curse or no curse, she was going to sneak into that temple and take the stone. Once it was in her hands, it was up to the Gods what would happen after that.

“Xena?” A soft voice called out in the night.

“Over here,” Xena replied, putting the sharpening stone away her sack.

Gabrielle stepped out from the bushes and into the small clearing that Xena had retreated to after dinner.

“Hi!” the bard smiled. “Thought you might like some company.”

“Sure, have a seat.” Xena moved over a bit on the log she was sitting upon, making some room for Gabrielle. “I’m surprised Ephiny let you walk around in the woods alone.”

“She’s sharpening her sword,” Gabrielle grinned. “Is that what you were doing?”

“Yeah. Old warrior habits die hard.”

They smiled at one another, both finding a surprising comfort in their companionship.

“Xena,” Gabrielle began, “Yakut told me you spoke to the Hindu priests in their own language.”

“Yeah, so?”

“That’s very impressive. How many languages do you speak?”

Xena bit her bottom lip and looked up at the trees. “I don’t know. I never counted them. I tried to learn all the languages …”

“Of all the lands you conquered?”

“Of all the places I’d been. I enjoy learning different languages. It seems to come easy to me. I was always good at that, even as a child.”

Gabrielle chuckled.

“What’s so funny?” Xena asked.

“I don’t know. It’s just hard to imagine the Conqueror as a child.”

Xena picked up the leather sheath and slid her sword inside. “I am human, after all. I was born and raised just like everybody else, although my mother would probably like to deny that.”

“I’m sorry,” Gabrielle said, suddenly feeling bad about the statement. “I was only trying to tease you. But the truth is, there are people who do believe that you are not human.”

“That I’m a heartless monster formed out of clay? That Ares himself breathed life into me and placed me on the earth to lay waste to everything in my path?”

Gabrielle nodded slowly.

“I’ve heard the story. There was a time when I almost believed it myself. The truth is, Gabrielle, that I have blood in my veins, just like everybody else. If you cut me, I’ll bleed. And a sword through my heart will kill me just as surely as it will kill anybody.” Xena looked at the sword in her hand and then tossed it to the ground.

“You’re going to touch that stone, aren’t you?” Gabrielle asked suddenly. “Your going to walk in there tomorrow and grab that stone right out of the head of the statue, curse or no curse. Am I right?”

Xena raised her head in surprise and stared at the bard. “Yes,” she replied simply. “I have to.”

“Why, Xena? Why would you risk your life in such a way?”

Xena raised her eyebrow. “If you hardly believe in my stone story, then how can you believe in its curse?”

“I don’t,” Gabrielle responded, “but I do believe there will be a roomful of guards who will happily put a sword right through your heart.”

“They’ll have to catch me first.”

“You’ll have nowhere to run … in there.” Gabrielle sighed and folded her hands in her lap. “Xena, once you grab that stone out of the statue’s head, if it doesn’t whisk you back to wherever you say you’re from, then you’ll be facing a roomful of Hindu guards. Too many, I think, even for you to handle alone. They’ll kill you, Xena. Have you thought about that?”

“Then they’ll be saving Ephiny the trouble.”

“That’s not funny. No one wants to kill you.”

Xena snorted.

“I won’t let them.”

“You won’t, huh? Maybe I should take you in there for protection.”

Gabrielle grinned. “I’d go in a heartbeat, but somehow I don’t think Ephiny will let me.”

“Thank you for the thought, Gabrielle. But I wouldn’t let you either.”

The bard nodded. “I know.” She moved a hair closer to the warrior. “Xena, why risk it at all? Maybe, this is what was meant to be, that’s why it all changed in the first place. Why not leave things the way they are?”

Xena turned on the log so she could fully face the bard. “Gabrielle, why are you so intent on keeping things this way? I would think you, of all people, would like to see the reign of Xena the Conqueror come to an end.”

“Because the reign of Xena, the Conqueror has already come to an end. You’re not the same person, you don’t have to rule in the same way. You can do a lot of good now, I’m sure of it. What I’m not so sure of is what would happen if you are killed. There is a world full of warlords bent on world domination. Any one of them would be a whole lot worse than you. That scary woman, Alti, comes to mind right now.”

“If Ephiny heard you talking, she try you for treason.”

“Ephiny can see the difference in you. She just won’t admit it.”

Xena shifted on the log, turning away. Even here, where Xena was the Conqueror, Gabrielle found a way to believe in her. “There are other reasons … things you don’t know, Gabrielle.”

“Then tell me.”

“I can’t.”

Gabrielle grabbed her shoulder and turned the warrior around. “Why? Why not? I hope you’re not risking your life because you miss me as your friend?”

Xena looked guiltily to the ground. “I do … miss my friend.”

“But you don’t have to travel through time to find your friend. Xena, your friend is right here, sitting beside you.”

“Is she?”

The bard grinned crookedly, “Yes, she is.” But the warm smile faded. “Xena, please don’t tell me your willing to risk the fate of the world because … because of me?”

Xena remained silent for a moment, trying to think of all the reasons for putting things back the way they were. There were more reasons than just the desire for her partner, that was certain, but the truth was, to the warrior none were as important. But, she couldn’t tell Gabrielle that.

“It’s not just because of you. There are lives out there that have been changed. Some for the better, I’ll admit, but others not. Most importantly, there is a man named Hercules …”

“Hercules?”

“You don’t recognize the name because he doesn’t exist here, but he was hero to the entire world and more than that to me. When I met him, I was on the road to conquering the world, to becoming what you know now. He showed me a different way, and because of him, my life was changed forever. I don’t know what happened to wipe his existence from the face of the earth, but if Iolaus risked traveling through time to steal the Chronos Stone, then it couldn’t have been good.”

“He has helped this world in ways that you do not know, Gabrielle. I owe it to him to try and put things right. But most importantly, I owe it to everyone. This world is not meant to be ruled by one person and one person alone. No good can come of it, and it never will, no matter who does the ruling.”

As fantastic as it might sound, Gabrielle knew that everything Xena was saying was true. “So tomorrow, you’re going to hold the Third Eye of Lakshmi in the palm of your hands.”

Xena nodded. “Either I’ll be able to use its power to heal this rip in time or I’ll be standing there in a roomful of Hindu fanatics with their sacred stone in my hands. If that’s not cursed, I don’t know what is.”

“Maybe I should go in there with you …”

“No.”

“I could distract them with my bard thing …”

“No.”

“I could explain what has happened …”

“No!”

“Send a signal to Ephiny if things go wrong …”

“I said NO!”

Gabrielle crossed her arms angrily. “Xena, I’m not going to sit back and let you get yourself killed.”

“I’m not going to get killed. Hopefully, it’ll work just like the Chronos Stone.”

“And send you through time to somehow change things back?”

“Yeah.”

“If it works, I won’t forget this, will I? Forget you, I mean?”

Xena grinned, her eyes warming at the sight of Gabrielle’s concerned face. “I don’t know if either of us will remember any of this. But there is one thing I do know, no matter what the destiny, you won’t forget me. And I could never forget you.”

Gabrielle mirrored Xena’s smile and placed her palm on the warm skin of Xena’s thigh. The contact sent a thrill through the warrior, like being caressed by the sun on a warm summer’s day. She should have discreetly pulled her leg away and broken the connection, but it just felt too good.

Xena’s smile faded to a tiny grin as she arched her brow. “Isn’t this where Ephiny is suppose to come in?”

“I made sure she would be busy for a while after dinner.”

“Really?” Xena commented, letting the bard’s hand stay where it was. “And what did you do to keep her off your trail?”

“I switched her sword for a dull one. She’ll be sharpening it for hours.”

“Gabrielle, a warrior knows her own sword.”

“Uh uh,” the bard answered, shaking her head. “You may be able to afford a custom sword, but ours are all standard Amazon issue.”

“All the swords are the same?”

“Uh huh. All the weapons.”

“All? Even staffs?”

Gabrielle nodded, “All the way down to the arrow heads.”

“But I’ve seen your staff. Your staff is different from everyone else’s.”

“That’s because I’m special.”

“You certainly are,” Xena commented softly, placing a large hand over the smaller one still her thigh. “I’m not too sure about this plan of yours, Gabrielle. A warrior like Ephiny knows her own sword. We better get back to camp, before she sends an entire patrol out after you. Besides, tomorrow is going to be a big day and we should get some rest.”

“Oh, all right,” the bard said with a disappointed sigh.

Xena gave the soft hand a pat and then rose. “C’mon, before Ephiny has a centaur.”

The comment made Xena stop and think. “I mean a cow,” she corrected with chuckle and extended her hand.

When Gabrielle took it, Xena pulled the bard to her feet and led her back to camp.

****

“WHERE IS MY SWORD!”

Both Xena and Gabrielle winced as they heard the cry. They walked into camp trying to look as innocent as possible.

“Somebody gave me a dull sword! Who switched my sword? GABRIELLE!”

The Amazon whirled around, searching the camp with enraged eyes. “GABRIELLE!”

Ephiny froze, spying her friend as she emerged from the woods hand in hand with the Conqueror. Hand in hand?

Ephiny’s eyes grew wide with anger.

Gabrielle dropped the hand like it was a hot potato.

When the glare aimed itself at Xena, the warrior raised her palms in surrender. “Don’t look at me. I didn’t take it.” The Conqueror brushed passed the fuming Ephiny as quickly as she could.

The Amazon warrior turned on the princess. “What do you think you were doing?”

“We were talking about tomorrow.”

“Oh, you were talking about tomorrow, were you?” Ephiny asked, crossing her arms. “And I suppose you had to hold hands to do that?”

“No, Xena didn’t have to take my hand. She could have just let me trip over that log and those rocks in the darkness there.”

“Hmmpf.”

“Hummpf, yourself. Look, I’m tired Ephiny. What do you say we call it a night and get some rest. It’s been a long day.”

The bard walked off without further comment, heading toward their tent.

“It was long, but it sure wasn’t dull,” Ephiny commented, watching the bard as she walked away. “Hey! You better give me back my sword!”

CHAPTER 13

Alti stood at the top of the hill, looking out over the valley below. In the distance, she could see not only the lights of Golconda, but the twinkling of multiple small campfires scattered throughout the forest just to the west of the city’s gate. More importantly, she could smell the scent of Amazon floating in the air. The sorceress breathed deeply, filling her lungs with the fragrance of the dark night.

“I can smell them, Xena. But you … I can feel you,” the shamaness whispered hoarsely to the valley. “You may be a few hours ahead of me, but I’m going to get to that diamond before you.”

Alti looked to the dark sky and studied the position of the moon.

“It is time,” she announced to the restless spirits in the trees. “SATRINA!”

Alti turned her back on the view, facing their own encampment. “SATRINA!” she yelled, her hard voice seeming to rustle the leaves overhead in alarm. She could see the shadow of the slave step out of a tent and look up the hill questioningly.

“GET UP HERE.”

Satrina dropped the flap of the tent as she stepped into the coolness of the night. She wasted no time sprinting up the hill to answer the shamaness’s call.

“You summoned me, Alti?” the slave said a bit out of breath as she reached the top of the grassy knoll.

Alti smiled seductively. “Come here, Satrina,” she said and beckoned her over with a long finger. “I want to show you something.”

The slave took hesitant steps toward the witch, cringing when the woman placed an arm around her shoulder.

“It’s time you and I had a little talk,” Alti’s coarse voice whispered in Satrina’s ear.

“About what?” the slave asked. She tried to keep her eyes on the witch, but Alti guided her by the shoulders to stand in front, giving her a full view of the valley below.

“About your future,” Alti answered.

Satrina looked out into the darkness and smiled. This was it. It was what she was hoping for. Alti was going to take her under her wing.

The scorceress rubbed the slave’s shoulders, a dark light sparkling in her eyes. “I know you’ve always wanted to have the kind of power that Xena has, haven’t you?”

Satrina nodded.

Alti moved her head around to whisper into the other ear. “You’ve served her, studied her, even slept with her, hoping to learn all that you could. You gave your body to her, feeding her dark tastes, secretly believing that with the contact of your skin on hers …” Alti ran a sharp nail along the smooth skin of the slave’s neck, “… you might actually be able to absorb that power, and make it your own. Isn’t that so, Satrina?”

The slave nodded again, trying to control the shiver of rising goosebumps that Alti’s touch had produced.

“I think you must realize by now that Xena is selfish with that power. She doesn’t share that part of her with anyone. I, on the other hand, live to share in that power. The question is … what are you willing to share, Satrina?”

Satrina smiled. Finally, she was going to get what she had always desired. At last, the secret that gave women like Xena and Alti their incredible power was going to be hers. For that, she would give the witch anything she wanted.

“I can serve you far better than Xena ever did, Alti,” Satrina said, pressing her body into the witch’s, giving a promise of the services to come.

“Oh, I know you will.” Alti’s hot breath tickled against Satrina’s ear, sending a cold shudder down her spine.

“Just tell me what you want and I’ll do it.” Satrina leaned her head to the side, giving the witch full access to a scrumptious neck.

Alti’s eyes flashed in evil anticipation. “What I want?” She ran a thin and chapped hand over Satrina’s shoulder, letting her bony fingers inch their way down to cup and squeeze a soft and ample breast.

“You’ll give me anything I want?” The witch’s fingers played with a taunt nipple for a few moments before giving it a hard squeeze.

“Yesss,” Satrina moaned and leaned harder against the shamaness, rocking her hips seductively.

Alti’s hand left the breast and Satrina moaned at the loss of contact.

“I’ll tell you what I want,” Alti whispered, pressing hard, dry lips against her neck. “I want your soul!”

The knife was so sharp, Satrina felt the flow of her own hot blood before the shooting pain of the slash. Her mouth opened to scream, but Alti had cut her throat through the vocal cords, almost to the spine. The slave lifted her hands, mouthing a silent scream at the sight of her own blood spilled upon them.

Satrina’s last thought was how black blood looks in the night.

Alti caught the body as it fell, helping it to slip to the cold ground. She fell to her knees and worked quickly, using the knife to slice through the chest cavity. Then her own hands prodded through the gash to grab at the bone. With a hard tug, she cracked open the ribs. Speed was of the essence.

Her eyes glowed with delight at the site of the heart, still beating a slow and occasional thump.

The witch reached into Satrina’s chest and pulled the heart out with both hands. She bit into the organ just as it beat its last.

The rush of life poured into the shamaness, its power flooding through her body and throwing her back onto the grass. She convulsed, resisting the urge to vomit and watched with unblinking eyes as the dark sky above her began to spin out of control.

Her body convulsed again and then a strange stillness ran through her limbs. She felt nothing, could move nothing, could see only the black sky and hear the steady sound of her own breathing hissing in her ears.

Just as she thought she would remain in this peaceful moment for eternity, a violent pain shot through the length of her body. As though an ungodly hand had ripped her own heart out from her chest, she was suddenly floating above herself, hovering amongst the leaves of the trees and looking down at the still oozing corpse of Satrina and her own dark form.

Alti laughed at the sight, a cackling laugh filled with gravel that echoed through the woods and caused the wolves nearby to begin to howl.

She knew she was not dead, but separated from herself and for only a short time. She had much to do and she had better get to it.

With a insidious howl, Alti’s form shimmered briefly and then shot off into the woods, rocketing above the trees and whizzing away in gleeful circles, speeding toward the city of Golconda.

****

The statue of Sita sat in the center of the temple. The legs were crossed, arms lifted in praise to Lakshmi. In the center of the forehead of a beautiful and serence face was set a diamond. So large and so many were its facets that the gem reflected light the color of a rich and mysterious blue. The slight smile on the lips of Sita only hinted at, but never betrayed, the secrets that lay hidden within the sparkle of the Third Eye of Lakshmi.

Alti materialized beside the statue, barely disturbing the dark quiet of the chamber. Her eyes darted quickly around the room, but the chamber was empty, the temple still. Not even the flower petals scattered at the avatar’s feet had been disturbed by her presence.

She smiled and, wasting no time, reached for the stone.

The witch’s hand paused. Was she imaging it or had this ugly statue just seemed to frown? Alti shook off the feeling, grabbed the edges of the diamond with the tips of her fingers and pulled. The stone slipped easily into the palm of her hand – almost too easily.

Alti looked down at the large blue diamond in her palm. It shimmered once of its own accord. And then again. And then the stone began to pulsate until a glow filled the temple chamber, engulfing the shamaness in a brightness that burned right through to the core of her soul.

Suddenly, the sorceress was travelling at a great speed down a tunnel of light, shooting through the corridor toward a destination even Alti didn’t know. In all her dark years, she had never experienced such a power. She was being propelled at a dizzying speed, twirling and whirling helplessly forward. And then her flight slowed, until she finally stopped. She was hovering at an intersection as though the power that had been propelling her did not know which way to go.

She could see a fracture in the tunnel — a rip, a tear. She floated slowly to the fissure and studied it. The tunnel appeared split in two directions and she was unable to travel forward any further or go either way. The witched stretched out a cautious hand to touch the flow of color and light that was seeping through one end of the fissure.

Alti’s eyes widened.

It was Xena. She could see Xena on this side of the fissure, but it was not the Xena she knew – not Xena, the Conqueror. It was some other Xena that exuded so much goodness, it almost made the witch cringe. And the blond amazon was by her side – the one called Gabrielle.

Alti pulled back her hand and looked at the other side of the tunnel. There was a similar fracture with an equally similar flow of light. She placed her hand within that flow.

There was Xena again. On this side, there was no blond at her side, but there were plenty of bodies at her feet. Now here was the Xena she knew and loved.

Alti withdrew her hand and studied the two cracks watching as the flow of light seeped into the center of the tunnel and mixed. She reached out a hand to caress the combined flow.

Just as suddenly as she had begun the journey, she found herself back in the temple with the Third Eye of Lakshmi still in her hand and the statue of Sita staring at her, its smile somehow disturbing.

So this is why Xena was so hot to get this stone, Alti thought as she eyed the blue gem. Now it was all beginning to make sense: her strange behavior, the tearing down of the crucifixion field, the way she had been avoiding Alti for months, her obsession with the Chronos stone and its disappearance … and her preoccupation with a certain blond amazon.

Yes, it was all beginning to make sense.

Alti looked at the statue and held up the stone. “Thank you, Sita,” she said to the figure. “You’ve answered a lot of questions.” She turned in the direction of the city’s gate and to the Amazon camp that she knew lay beyond. “It was never about power, was it Xena? It’s all been about time … time and destiny.”

She flipped the stone once in the air and chuckled as her long fingers closed around the Third Eye of Lakshmi.

“Well, your destiny is in my hands now, Warrior Princess.”

And with that she twirled so quickly, her form became a blur of motion until it faded and finally disappeared completely. The temple was quiet and empty once more.

Until a shadow rippled along the surface of the statue of Sita. Blank, lifeless eyes turned dark and angry. Hard bronze coalesced into warm, tan skin. The apparition dropped her hands and stood, her enigmatic smile changing to a stern frown.

The image took one graceful step away from the altar, leaving a cold statue still sitting in its place. She lifted her arms, shimmered and then disappeared.

****

Like a kitten … purring, Xena mused as she watched the sleeping form directly across from her. Even in the darkness of the tent, she could see a few locks of golden hair sticking out from beneath the covers, shining like a candle in the night. The bard was asleep on the other side of the tent and snoring softly. What Xena wanted to do was crawl into that warm bedroll and hold her partner in her arms, tucking her in close so she could enjoy the vibration of those contented, soft sounds as she had on so many nights in the past.

Instead, the Warrior Princess studied the body lying between them.

Though there was no way Ephiny wanted them sleeping anywhere near each other, she also had not wanted Xena out of her sight. So, while she had insisted that Xena sleep in the tent, she promptly placed her own bedroll between them, keeping the two of them as far away from one another as the walls of the tent would allow. The military leader of the Amazons slept with her body facing the Conqueror, one hand on the hilt of her sharp sword and a knife in the other.

As though that could stop the Conqueror from taking what she wanted, if she desired to do so. Xena shook the thought out of her mind, concentrating on the steady rise and fall of the breathing of the two women beside her instead.

Her tent mates were obviously asleep, but Xena waited a while longer just to be sure before slipping out of her bedroll.

Sparing one last, long look at the peacefully sleeping bard, Xena split the seam at the rear of the tent with her knife and slipped away into the night.

****

Xena was a shadow floating along the streets of the city. A whisper of a breeze, a soft scrape against a stone — barely a sound marked her passage over the gate and down the winding corridors and alleys that led to the great temple in the heart of Golconda.

She pressed her body into a dark alcove and smiled. Many a war could be won with such an act of stealth. A sharp knife and the right target could end a conflict before it had even begun; a monarch overthrown before his subjects could wipe the sleep from their eyes. Though Xena had taught and trained many assassins, none were ever as good as she, but that was because no one enjoyed it as much as she did.

It was something she had learned from Loa Ma a long time ago — how to become invisible. Of course, Loa Ma taught her the skill for a different purpose, but like everything else Xena had absorbed in those early days, she had adapted the ability to blend into her surroundings to suit her own purposes. There was nothing more thrilling than sneaking past an opponent’s defenses and standing at the foot of your enemy’s bed as he slept with a knife in your hand.

Xena rubbed her itchy, and empty, palm against the skirt of her leathers. Best she get into the temple, get that stone, and put things right as quickly as possible.

With barely a sound, the Conqueror left the alcove, following the shadows along the wall as they led to the Temple of Lakshmi.

****

The main chamber in the temple was cold and empty. Xena eyed the rear of the bronze statue in the center of the room, feeling a strange stillness emanating from it. She walked silently and swiftly toward the sculpture, pausing just behind it to narrow her eyes in suspicion.

Something was wrong. There was an icy dread in the air and it was coming from the center of the room — from the statue of Sita.

Xena tiptoed around the figure, noting the raised hands and half expecting them to drop and grab her. She paced to the front of the statue of Sita and froze.

The diamond was gone.

There was an empty, octagonal space where there should have been a stone.

The Third Eye of Lakshmi was gone and the statue did not seem happy about it at all. Nor was Xena.

“ALTI!” Xena cursed under her breath.

She backed away from the bronze sculpture and ran from the chamber, determined to get back to the Amazon camp before the shamaness did.

CHAPTER 14

Happy and warm in her bedroll, Ephiny snorted at a tickle and reached up to scratch her nose, almost cutting it off with the knife she held still grasped in her hand.

“Shit!” she whispered, feeling the poke of the tip of the blade inside her nostril. She dropped the knife quickly and touched the tips of her fingers to her nose, half expecting to find blood. Luckily, she had only managed to scratch the itch.

The Amazon looked guiltily at the bedroll across from her, hoping the Conqueror had not witnessed the unwarrior-like display.

She didn’t have to worry. The bedroll was empty.

“SHIT!” Ephiny yelped and jumped up from her blankets.

“Ephiny, what’s wrong?” Gabrielle mumbled sleepily as she poked her head out of her blankets.

“Where is she?” the Amazon demanded of her friend, pointing to the empty bed. “She’s not in there with you, is she?”

“Ephiny!” Gabrielle protested, rising from the covers. “Don’t be ridiculous!” The bard shuffled over and looked down at the empty blankets. “I have no idea where she is. Maybe she had to go … you know … relieve herself?”

Ephiny huffed and picked up her sword. “Not without me, she isn’t.”

Gabrielle grinned. “What? You gonna help her wipe?”

“Very funny,” Ephiny replied and took two steps toward the front flap before turning to face her friend. “Don’t you even THINK about leaving this tent to look for her. She doesn’t need your help either.”

“Spoil sport.”

The Amazon scowled and turned to exit the tent, almost crashing into the guard that was rushing in to enter.

“Ephiny!” the guard exclaimed, out of breath.

“What is it?”

The guard could not reply, taking huge gulps of air instead in an attempt to steady her breathing.

“Easy now,” Gabrielle prompted, stepping up to calm the woman down. “Take it slow.”

The guard nodded and smiled weakly, waiting until she had her breath under control before continuing to report. “There’s an army approaching just over the hill, less than a mile away.”

“An army?” Gabrielle asked, looking at the woman with great concern. “What do you mean, an army? Who’s army?”

“About 300 foot soldiers, no cavalry, and moving quickly, heading right for us.”

“Indian?” Ephiny queried.

The guard shook her head. “No, Ephiny. Greek. They’re flying the flag of the Conqueror.”

Ephiny whirled on Gabrielle, the anger in her eyes flashing through the darkness. “I knew it! Gabrielle, this was a trap.”

“No, Ephiny!”

“I should have known! She lured what’s left of the Amazon Nation into the open, onto foreign soil no less. Used us to help her find a powerful stone. By the gods! We led her right to it! All the while, her army is following close behind.”

“I don’t believe it, Ephiny.”

“Have you lost your mind, Gabrielle? Or have you just lost your heart? Look at the empty bedroll! She’s gone to join her army, and if we don’t do something quick, she’s about to attack that city, get the stone, and wipe out the rest of the Amazon warriors and the last two leaders, all in one grand swoop! I’ve got to hand it to her — it was a brilliant plan — had me fooled.

“No,” Gabrielle said weakly, shaking her head in denial.

Ephiny took Gabrielle by the shoulders and gave her a hard shake. “You’re just another conquest to her, don’t you know that?”

“This is all my fault.”

“No, it’s my own damn fault. I should’ve know better,” Ephiny said, shaking her head at her own stupidity. “C’mon, we’ve got to get out of here, and I’ve got to get you to safety.”

“What are we going to do?” Gabrielle said as she grabbed her staff and followed Ephiny outside.

Ephiny attached her sword to the back of her armor and smiled. “What we always do. Take to the trees. We’re not going out without a damn good fight!”

The Amazon military leader cupped her hands to her mouth and yelled.

“TAKE TO THE TREES! PREPARE TO FIGHT!”

****

Xena slid silently around the last few trees, finally seeing the dim form of the rear of the tent in the clearing just ahead. Her return to the Amazon camp had been far easier than her departure.

No guards, she thought worriedly as she used a shadow of the last bush to mask her approach. Xena slipped a fingertip into the seam and opened it slowly, peering warily inside. The tent was dark and quiet. She opened the flap a little wider and searched the interior with bright and alert eyes. There were still three bedrolls inside, but all of them were empty.

Xena entered quickly and paused, listening with all her senses for any indication of what was going on. All was quiet — too quiet. The Warrior Princess tiptoed her way across the tent, stepping carefully over Ephiny’s scattered bedding. As she approached the flap to the front, she quietly drew her sword — its very slight metallic ring disturbed the unsettling silence. Xena held her breath and pulled open the door.

She was greeted by a smiling Alti and the knuckles of Darfus’s fist as he slammed her right between the eyes. Xena’s head snapped back from the surprise blow and she stumbled backward.

Darfus knew he needed to press his advantage quickly with Xena or the tables would turn. He rushed at her through the door of the tent, driving his fist first into her midsection and then crashing the metal spiked side of his gauntlet down on the back of her head as she doubled over. The blow sent Xena to the ground. Darfus wasted no time and kicked her in the ribs, grinning wildly at the sound of breaking bone.

By the gods, the Conqueror was down by his own hand! Darfus foamed at the mouth at the thought of it and kicked again.

“THAT’S ENOUGH!” Alti commanded. She grabbed Darfus by the shoulder and pushed him away. The shamaness stared at the unconscious form of the Conqueror sprawled out across the floor. “That’ll do … for now.” She grinned at the Commander and patted his face. “You did good.”

Darfus smiled and licked his lips.

Alti knelt next to her fallen protege, noting the dark trickle of blood that was seeping from the corner of Xena’s nose. The witch wiped at the blood with the tip of a finger and then licked it clean. “My turn next,” she said and cackled.

The sound of her abrasive laughter made even Darfus back away a few steps in fear.

****

The first thing Xena became aware of was the bitter taste of blood in her mouth; the next thing she felt was the pain. Any attempt to move caused her ribs to scream out in agony. At least two broken, she though as she forced down the feeling of nausea and slowly opened her eyes. There were a pair of boot heels right in front of her nose. She must be on the floor. Another attempt to move brought more pain and the realization that her hands had been tied behind her back.

The boots shifted at her motion and their owner squatted to take a closer look.

“Finally awake? ‘Bout time. Thought you were gonna be out ‘til noon.” Darfus stood and nudged her shoulder with the tip of his boot. “Get up,” he ordered.

Xena swallowed a moan, choosing to growl instead. She gritted her teeth and shifted on her knees, refusing to let her captor know that she was in any pain whatsoever.

“You’re going to regret this, Darfus,” she promised through clenched teeth, using the threat to mask her discomfort as she rose to her feet. Her ribs protested the action greatly, as did her pounding head. For a moment, darkness swam before her eyes threatening to engulf her.

“Need help?” the Commander offered with a sneer.

“Don’t you touch me,” the Conqueror warned. Xena stood and waited for the room to stop spinning before she opened her eyes. She pinned the man with a look that promised to kill him and his entire army.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Darfus replied, swallowing a gulp despite his bravado. “I’ll leave that to Alti.” He stepped to the rear, revealing a gloating shamaness standing to face her prisoner.

“Xena! How nice of you to join us,” Alti said, thoroughly enjoying the pallor in the Conqueror’s face and the trickle of blood still leaking from her nose. “What happened to all your little Amazon friends? Scare them away already? No matter, we’ll find them later.”

Xena breathed a silent sigh of relief. Apparently, Gabrielle and the Amazons had managed to escape. Thank the gods.

“All right, Alti. I know how you love to gloat. So g’wan — get on with it,” Xena said as she spit blood to the dirt. She wasn’t sure if the sight of the shamaness or the pounding of her head made her feel like throwing up.

Alti chuckled and circled around her opponent. “Take a little stroll in the forest last night, Xena? Find what you were looking for?”

Xena stared at the witch, remaining silent.

Alti held up her hand. The sparkle of the giant blue diamond she was holding in it took Xena’s breath away.

“Was this what you were looking for by any chance … Warrior Princess?” Alti asked, slowly and carefully.

Alti stepped closer, lifting the gem higher, forcing the sparkle to fill Xena’s eyes.

“Yes, that’s what I called you, Xena … Warrior Princess. I know what’s going on now. The diamond told me everything. You were right to go after this stone, Xena. Its power is remarkable.” Alti twisted the gem in air, letting a beam of sunlight burn through its center and split the dim of the tent into a shower of brilliant light. “And it’s beautiful, too, isn’t it?”

Alti moved the gem closer, letting Xena study the many facets and planes of the glowing blue diamond. The witch brought her face close to the warrior’s, watching the way Xena was watching the stone.

“It told me all about you, Xena … all about your destiny … or destinies, I should say.”

Xena tried to turn away from the stone, to stare at the sorceress, but its luster was too demanding, its lure too hypnotizing. She forgot all about the pounding in her head or the pain of her ribs as she stared into the midnight clear depths of the luminous blue stone.

“You’re a very lucky woman, Xena. It seems you have two destinies to choose from.” Alti turned the stone to one side and brought it closer to Xena’s face.

“You can follow the path of the Warrior Princess, with that pretty blond amazon by your side …. and in your bed.” Alti laughed seductively. “Look deeply, Xena and see where that path will lead.”

The clear center of the stone clouded and then the clouds coalesced into an image. It was an image of a cold, blue snow field and roman soldiers. There was a reflection in a shield, her own reflection. She was wounded and bleeding and being lowered onto a cross. Her head turned, as painful a movement as moving her head was now, and she could see that she was not alone. Another battered and broken body was being prepared for crucifixion. Xena watched as all her worse fears came true before her very eyes.

Gabrielle turned her head and smiled at her even as they tied her legs to the cross. Despite the horrific scene, her beauty took Xena’s breath away.

“Gabrielle …”

The bard’s warm, green eyes caused the warrior to smile despite the pain that was coursing through her heart.

“Gabrielle … you are the best thing in my life.”

Her partner’s smile filled Xena’s heart beyond anything she had ever known.

“I love you, Xena.” The words were the kiss of forgiveness.

“I love you, Xena …. I love you, Xena …”

The words repeated themself over and over as the picture in the center of the stone faded; the last visible image — the pounding of a hammer as it drove a crucifixion nail home.

Xena felt her knees giving way. If not for Darfus, she would have tumbled to the dirt in a useless heap. The Commander held her up, forcing her to continue to look.

Alti’s upper lip quivered in a sneer. “Don’t like that destiny, Xena? Well, I’ve got another one for you.” She flipped the stone around to the other side and pushed it into Xena’s face. Xena tried to avert her eyes, but Darfus grabbed her by the hair, pulling her head back, forcing her to look.

Xena watched as, once again, the center of the blue diamond clouded and then cleared, a new image filling her vision.

This vision was of the great and invincible Conqueror, ruler of the world — the greatest warrior ever known. Xena stood tall and proud, sword in hand and a cruel, small smile upon her lips as she stood in the middle of a vast battlefield. The Conqueror lifted her sword and pointed across a sea of slaughtered Amazon warriors littering the landscape as far as the eye could see.

Alti sidled up beside the warrior and chuckled. “So you see, Xena, you can turn goody-two-shoes, get the pretty blond and end up together on the cross, or you can keep things as they are. Of course, there’s no blond Amazon in the Conqueror’s future — they’re all dead, you see,” Alti shrugged, ” but you will live a nice, long life and rule the world while you do it.”

Alti pulled the stone away from Xena’s face and replaced it with her own leering one. “Now, why do I get this feeling that you traveled all the way here so you can switch to the goody-two-shoes path?”

Xena tried to swallow, wishing that she could sit down, but Darfus was still pulling her hair and holding her up. She strained at the bindings on her wrists, but they were too tight and she was too weak. “Because that’s the way it’s suppose to be, Alti. I think you know that.”

“Nothing is carved in stone, anymore, Xena — if you’ll pardon the pun,” Alti said with a smile. “After all, someone, somewhere, somehow messed it all up. And now the stone is in my hands.” She flipped the gem once and chuckled. “And so is your future, it seems. What if I told you, there was a third option? One that Darfus and I like much better than either of these two.”

At the statement, Darfus laughed heartily.

“C’mon, Xena, let’s go take a look at a brand new day.” Alti jerked her head toward the exit to the tent.

Xena really had no desire to go into the bright sunlight of the morning, but Darfus’s knee in her back gave her little choice. The Commander pushed his captive forward. Xena stumbled through the flap and into the harsh daylight.

She had to close her eyes at the intense glare of the sun. After several blinks and a sharp tug on her head from Darfus, she looked out into the Amazon camp.

There were no Amazons anywhere to be seen. But there were two lines of the Conqueror’s own soldiers on either side of her, facing one another, forming a final path meant for their sovereign leader to walk.

“Time for the reign of the Conqueror to come to an end,” Darfus stated. “And you’re going to exit the only way a true warrior can.”

“The Gauntlet?” Xena whispered hoarsely, a sense of inevitable dread filling her guts.

Darfus laughed in confirmation and shoved her forward. “Not much of a future in it, is there Xena?”

Xena stood alone to face the final walk of a warrior.

“At least untie my hands,” she said, tugging weakly at the bindings.

But Darfus only laughed and gave her another push.

****

Ephiny shifted her position to a more secure one on the thick branch and squinted through the leaves of the tree.

‘What in the name of Artemis is going on down there?’ she asked herself as she watched the two lines of soldiers waiting patiently outside of the tent.

They had retreated into the trees, forming a classic crossfire formation that would place their archers in the best possible positions for an attack on the approaching army. Her Amazons were perched in the surrounding branches, camoflaged by leaves and ready to fire a downpour of arrows on the enemy once they were inside the perimeter of the camp.

By her own orders, Ephiny’s bow alone would be aimed at the Conqueror.

“You’re all mine, Xena,” Ephiny vowed as she pulled the string of her bow taut and aimed the deadly arrow at the entrance to the tent. “Now, where are you?”

Their patient waiting paid off when the flap to the tent opened and Xena, the Conqueror was shoved out. Ephiny almost lowered her bow in surprise.

“She’s hurt!” Ephiny heard Gabrielle gasp from a branch in a tree close to her own. “Ephiny, she’s a prisoner!”

Ephiny watched as the Conqueror staggered, apparently bound and injured. She was shoved to stand at the head of the long line of soldiers with Alti and Darfus leering closely behind.

“The Gauntlet — they’re going to make her walk the Gauntlet,” she heard one of her warriors comment. Indeed, it looked as though that was exactly what was going to happen.

“Good,” Ephiny thought harshly to herself. “I hope they beat the stuffing out of her!” She lowered her bow, happy to let the Conqueror’s own soldiers do the deed for her.

Then she heard a shuffle in the trees. Gabrielle was trying to make her way down. The Amazon Commander held up a palm in an angry and silent order to cease.

Gabrielle was frantic.

“Ephiny! You can’t just sit there and let that happen!” Gabrielle whispered harshly across the distance.

“Gabrielle … SHUT UP and GET BACK!” Ephiny whispered back angrily.

“Her hands are tied and she’s injured! They’ll beat her to death!”

Ephiny shrugged and leaned against her trunk, ready to watch.

The bard was furious. She glared at her friend in disbelief. “Ephiny, she didn’t betray us! Without our help, she doesn’t stand a chance! If you don’t do something about this, I will!”

Ephiny looked at the scene before her. Xena was about to walk the Gauntlet. A fitting end for the Conqueror and justice would be served. But would it be a true warrior’s death if Xena’s hands were tied? The Amazon leader suddenly felt a bit of compassion for the dark warrior standing before her own soldiers, about to take a final, very painful and brutal walk.

She looked at Gabrielle and nodded. All right then, she thought to herself. Xena had lived by the code of a warrior, she deserved to die by that same code – not beaten like an animal, with her hands tied behind her back.

Ephiny raised her bow and aimed.

‘I hope you really do have a heart, Conqueror,” she thought as she slowly drew the arrow and aimed right for it.

CHAPTER 15

“Time to meet your true destiny, Xena,” Alti said, nodding to Darfus. The Commander, in turn, nodded to his own lieutenant and the officer raised his sword. Shifting to attention, the two lines of Gauntlet soldiers straightened their ranks as the remaining men thumped the ground with their spears and swords in lieu of drums.

Xena stood tall and prepared to take the final walk of a warrior. She took one step forward and paused, feeling a strange disorientation invade her senses. The world around her seemed to slow and falter. Alti’s evil cackle distorted and extended as though the seconds were stretching to an agonizing crawl. Xena turned her head to the shamaness and watched in wonder. Alti was laughing in slow motion.

It was then Xena realized a strange woman had materialized next to them: a strange and beautiful Hindu woman. Her long, midnight black hair framed an elegant and serene face. Dark tones painted her skin the color of a bronze statue. The woman raised her arms letting the gossamer thin scarf of her colorful sari flutter in a suddenly warm breeze.

“Xena,” she said simply in greeting and smiled. Her voice was low and warm, like the wind rippling through the ephemeral fabric of her robes.

Xena looked at Alti. The shamaness was frozen in place. She looked quickly at Darfus, the commander was similarly as still as a statue.

“What’s going on?” Xena asked, turning to face the new arrival, noticing an empty hole in the middle of Hindu woman’s forehead. “So, you’ve come to collect the stone?” Xena surmised, smirking at the frozen form of her evil mentor, Alti. “The curse?”

“The Third Eye belongs to Lakshmi and no other,” the apparition said, making a stern nod at the rigid Alti. “But your destiny belongs to you.”

“Looks like I have no choice at the moment,” Xena commented sarcastically, motioning to the line of soldiers and her own tied hands. “Who are you? Lakshmi?”

“No, I am not Lakshmi. I am her avatar, Sita,” the manifestation replied. “And there is always a choice. The Third Eye has seen a disruption in the normal flow of your destiny — a small crack, if you will.”

“Some crack,” Xena commented.

Sita shrugged. “It is easily repaired.”

Xena raised an eyebrow. “Repaired? Easily? How?”

“It is your destiny that has been damaged. You’ve been wavering between two paths, Xena. You must choose — one or the other.”

“Easier said than done, Sita. Each one has its own consequences – and neither of them are good.

Sita smiled at the warrior indulgently. “Actually, whatever path you choose, your destiny remains the same.”

Xena looked at the apparition incredulously. “How can you say that? In one, I am the Conqueror. In the other, I’m just a warrior.”

Sita shrugged. “A difference that makes no difference, is no difference.”

Xena pursed her lips. Why was it that gods and goddesses always found it necessarily to talk in riddles?

“So, you’re saying it doesn’t matter which path I choose because either way, I end up hurting Gabrielle.”

“This is about your destiny, Xena, not someone else’s.”

“But Gabrielle’s destiny is a part of mine.” The warrior shook her head. “I can’t choose. I don’t want either of those destinies for either of us.”

“But you must, I’m afraid. There is no choice, but to choose.” The avatar smiled patiently at the scowl on the warrior’s face. “The crack in time must be healed.”

“So, to heal this crack, I need to choose which way I want my life to go?””

Sita nodded. “Your destiny does, after all, belong to you. Tell me which path you wish to walk and the crack will be healed. You need only choose.”

“And the stone?”

Sita frowned and glanced at Alti. “The Third Eye belongs to Lakshmi and no other.”

Xena nodded. She knew what her heart wanted; her heart wanted to be with Gabrielle. But she saw where that path led — to the cross. And the other choice — the other choice was to be the Conqueror. That path would only end up consuming her in darkness. And either way, it was Gabrielle who would end up paying the price. The stone may belong to the Goddess, but her destiny belonged to her — no one was going to pay the price for choosing her own destiny but she.

Xena squared her shoulders. Alti was right. There was a third choice after all.

“I want the destiny that gives Gabrielle a long and happy life,” she said to the avatar as she stared off into the trees, very aware of the fate that waited for her there.

Sita nodded and lifted her hands. “So it shall be.”

Xena looked up at the trees, knowing full well that Ephiny was up there and had an arrow aimed at her heart. A gentle peace settled over her as the knowledge that Gabrielle would live a long and happy life filled her heart. Perhaps this was the best destiny for everyone.

The Conqueror smiled and nodded her acceptance.

****

Ephiny drew the bowstring back, slowly and carefully. The fingers of her right hand held the notch of the arrow’s end firmly in place as she pulled and rested the string against her cheek. With her left arm stiff and strong, she lowered the bow and aimed.

One deep breath to steady her sight and she would release. She could hear the frenetic voice of Gabrielle in the distance, pleading with her to stop — not to shoot. Ephiny ignored it. She drew a breath and willed her vision to tunnel to its target: the heart of the Conqueror.

She could see Xena standing proudly at the head of the Gauntlet. Though the Conqueror’s hands were tied behind her back leaving her chest completely exposed, to Ephiny she still appeared a true warrior in every sense of the word.

She pulled back on the bow, stretching the tension of the string to its fullest. The sharp point of the arrow aimed, ready to fly, its mark clearly in sight.

And she froze.

Across the distance of the field and even though she was hidden within the trees, Ephiny watched as Xena’s eyes left the soldiers before her and turned up to the very spot where she was hidden, perched in the branches and aiming at her heart.

And then Xena seemed to give Ephiny a slight smile and nod in approval. The Amazon’s resolve faltered.

For a brief moment, Ephiny could see clearly the courage and confidence inherent in the dark woman. Xena seemed to sparkle, like a priceless diamond, with strength and power enough to bathe the entire world in the light of a brave new day.

Maybe Gabrielle was right. There could have been hope for the world with Xena.

And then Ephiny’s attention was drawn to Gabrielle. She had left the trees and was running at full speed, knocking through a line of very surprised soldiers, and heading directly for Xena.

Hardening her heart, Ephiny cursed the Fates and let the arrow fly.

****

Time sped up and the arrow was let loose. Xena watched it hurl toward her. Her instincts told her hands to catch it, but they were both tied behind her back. She turned her chest fully into its path, ready to take the blow.

A blur of blond in the corner of her eye caught Xena’s attention. In the next instance, her breath was knocked from her as she was thrown to the ground by the weight of the bard’s body. Despite the pain, Xena’s eyes tracked the arrow as it flew by, missing them both completely, and embedding itself deeply, right in the middle of Alti’s chest.

The shamaness gasped in shocked surprise as the arrow thudded home, piercing her heart. She grabbed at the hilt with both hands and the blue diamond fell out of her grasp, to the ground, forgotten.

Sita caught the gem before it touched the earth, and stood smiling down at a speechless Xena. Then she and the Third Eye of Lakshmi disappeared.

****

Ephiny cursed her friend in three different Amazon dialects, then shook off the astonishment and cupped her hands to her mouth.

“COO COOOO!” she yelled, giving the order for the Amazons to attack.

A rain of arrows fell down upon Darfus and his soldiers.

****

Xena watched the avatar of Lakshmi shimmer once and disappeared. She turned her head to glare at the bard who felt as heavy as a full sack of potatoes laying flat on top of her.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Xena demanded.

“I’m saving you,” Gabrielle replied and kissed her. Xena’s eyes widened in shocked surprise and then closed, responding enthusiastically to the soft lips and tongue that were caressing her own.

She could have forgotten completely where she was until an arrow thudded into the dirt very near her left ear.

“Hmmmpf!” Xena pulled away and tried to look stern. “Gabrielle, we’re in the middle of a fight!”

“That’s Ephiny’s department,” the bard responded and tried to pick up where they had left off.

Having no hands, Xena used her brute strength to roll them over, covering Gabrielle’s body with her own.

A few more arrows thwacked the earth close by.

“I think Ephiny could use a hand, don’t you?”

Gabrielle pouted. “If you insist.”

Xena looked over her shoulder and found her target. Darfus. She rolled off the bard and was on her feet in an instant, hurling herself at the man in an impossible move that had her flying through the air in a series of spins that seemed to defy gravity. She sent him tumbling to the ground, her own body crying in pain at the contact. The screams and shouts of soldiers dead and dying filled the air as arrows fell in a deadly downpour all around them.

Darfus rolled away from Xena and stood to watch his soldiers fall as wave after wave of arrows spilled their blood. The men, having heard no order to counter were scattering and fleeing the battlefield in panic.

He was about to yell an angry command when the Conqueror once again threw herself at him, sending him sprawling to the ground.

“It’s over Darfus!” Xena growled as she kicked her lieutenant in his side. “I told ya, you would regret this.”

Darfus tried to crawl away from the attack, and found himself face to face with Alti’s corpse. She was lying face up in the dirt, her features frozen in an expression of astonished agony and her hands still clutching at the shaft of the arrow embedded in her blood-stained chest. He screamed in anger and horror and jumped to his feet, sword in hand.

“I’m gonna beat you with both hands tied behind my back,” Xena sneered. A roundhouse kick hit Darfus in the side of the head, sending the soldier reeling.

Xena shifted. An arrow whizzed by, barely missing her and thudded nearby in the dirt.

“Come on and fight me, you ugly pawn of a third-rate witch,” Xena spat. She kicked with her other leg, catching Darfus in the mid-section and breaking much more than two ribs.

Darfus’s eyes glazed and the sword dropped from his hand.

Xena stood, watching the soldier falter. A dark and wicked smile worked its way across her lips. “If my destiny is to be the Conqueror, Darfus, then this is yours.”

The hook kick was so quick, Darfus didn’t even see it. It broke his neck cleanly and just as quickly.

Darfus fell to the ground, dead before his head ever hit the soil, while all around him his soldiers were crying out in alarm. An army of Amazons descended upon them from the trees.

Xena stepped back from the corpse, smiling at both the bodies of Alti and Darfus in satisfaction. Her nostrils flared as the smell of blood and death filled the air. Ducking to avoid a sword, she kicked out sending her assailant stumbling away.

All around her, Amazons were fighting Greek soldiers. Xena watched as the women were neatly dispatching what was left of the enemy. Those who had not been impaled by an arrow, were now falling under Amazon sword. It was a thing of beauty.

She sent another soldier to Hades with the help of a neck-breaking hook kick, happy to join in the fray even with her hands tied behind her back. Spinning around to search for another victim, the Conqueror froze.

Gabrielle was in the heat of the battle. The bard was swinging her staff with the precision of an expert, knocking away soldiers one after another before they could even get their swords close. The bard ducked under a strike and brought her staff around, sweeping her opponent off his feet. In the same fluid motion, another received a breath-shattering strike to the mid-section, followed by a blow to the side of the head.

She was beauty in motion, skilled at the staff far beyond the bard that Xena knew. The warrior was transfixed, almost allowing a sword strike to her back before her reflexes threw a kick that sent her attacker to the ground before she had even realized she had done so.

Xena looked up from the fallen soldier to find the bard surrounded by one too many men, even for the Amazon Princess.

Her instincts to protect her partner kicked into over-drive.

Two fast and strong strides forward and the warrior launched herself into the air, her warrior cry ululating across the battlefield. She flipped over the heads of Gabrielle’s attackers, landing on the back of one attacker and kicking the face in of another.

Gabrielle halted a swing in surprise and pulled back, watching the one woman force who was the Conqueror descimate the opponents around them with both hands tied behind her back. Gabrielle leaned on her staff and relaxed, smiling at the warrior while she worked.

There wasn’t a part of the Conqueror’s body that wasn’t a weapon. Xena’s head butted one man unconscious and her shoulder broke the ribs of another. A sidekick took out two followed by a sweeping roundhouse that sent three to eat the dirt.

Suddenly, there was no one left standing but Xena and the bard.

The warrior looked at Gabrielle and smiled sheepishly at the bodies littering the ground all around them.

“I thought you could use a hand,” Xena said with a shrug.

“Your hands are tied,” Gabrielle replied. “I hate to think what you could do with them untied.”

Xena smiled wolfishly. “Untie them and find out.”

Gabrielle was about to retort when the smile on Xena’s face vanished. The bard was ducking even as Xena was yelling the words, but the knife was already spinning for her. Xena threw herself at her partner, her arms straining against their bindings in an attempt to catch the blade, but the rope held fast.

At the last moment, Xena twisted in mid-air, knocking the bard away and took the blade in her own body instead.

The last thing she felt was a painful thud as she hit the ground and then, the world went black.

CONCLUSION

Xena felt much too warm and much too comfortable to be waking up, wounded, in the dirt and blood of a battlefield. She opened her eye a crack. There were bedskins covering her and a warm body lying beside her. Xena reached out a tentative hand and drew back the skins just a tad.

The top of a golden head peeked out.

The warrior ran her fingertips lightly along the silky blond strands and then slipped her hand under the cover in a search for familiar skin.

She had no trouble finding some.

As soft as silk and as warm as the summer sun — her bard was lying right next to her. Xena shifted over to get close and buried her nose in the luscious hair. It was definitely Gabrielle; she would know her scent anywhere.

Sighing, she pulled the bard as close as she could and let her hands travel an expanse of delicious skin.

“Hmmm,” Gabrielle mumbled, shifting to fit her body into the warrior’s.

Xena smiled contentedly and closed her eyes.

They popped opened only a moment later, her mind jumping to alert at the realization that she no longer felt the pain of her broken ribs. Never mind the ribs, what was the Amazon Princess doing in the bed of the Conqueror? She sure didn’t remember getting them here — and that was not a thing she would have forgotten.

Xena lifted her head and inspected her surroundings.

They were in a forest, camped in a clearing under the cover of a large tree. The sun was up, a breeze was blowing causing the leaves overhead to dance, birds were chirping; the forest was alive with the sounds of mid-morning.

For a moment, Xena thought perhaps she was dreaming. Then an impatient snort followed by an insistent thump of a hoof brought the warrior’s attention to a very annoyed mare.

“Argo?” Xena stiffened in surprise.

“XENA!” the bard jerked awake and sat up, pushing the covers away in alarm. “Xena?”

Gabrielle’s long hair swung from side to side as she looked around. She found her partner laying in the bedroll and staring at her, apparently as confused as she was.

“By the gods!” the bard said as she laid her palm against her chest and tried to catch her breath. “That was some dream!”

When Xena didn’t respond, Gabrielle shifted in the bedskins to look at her. “Xena, are you all right?”

“I … I … don’t know. I think so,” the warrior mumbled uncharacteristically.

Gabrielle became alarmed. “Xena what is it?”

Xena sat up and wiped her hand across her brow. “I don’t know. I think I had a bad dream.”

“A bad dream?”

“I think it was a dream.”

Gabrielle scratched her head. “I had a pretty strange dream myself,” she said with a chuckle, “I was an Amazon Princess and you were ruler of the world, if you can believe that.”

Xena’s eyes went wide. “WHAT?”

“You were … I don’t know … this Conqueror person … and I was saving your life. It was kind of nice to be saving your life for a change, I must say.” Gabrielle smiled at her partner, but when Xena didn’t return the smile, the bard became concerned. “Xena, what is it?” she asked, laying her hand on Xena’s arm.

“I had the same dream … I think.”

“The same dream?”

Xena nodded. “Yes, I dreamed exactly the same thing as you.”

“Great,” Gabrielle commented, “not only do we cycle at the same time, but now we are dreaming the same dreams.” Her voice faded off as her attempt to ease the concern in her partner’s expression failed. Gabrielle recognized the look on Xena’s face. “What? You don’t think it was a dream?”

“I don’t know.”

“If you don’t think it was a dream, then what do you think it was?”

Xena pressed her lips together and squinted her eyes in thought. “I’m not sure.”

The bard looked around their camp. Everything was where it should be. The campfire was cold, but just where they had build it. Argo was tethered nearby, a little annoyed at the late hour, but still there. Their packs were in their places — nothing had been disturbed. Not even the half-eaten meal which they had abandoned the night before in favor of making love had been disturbed.

Gabrielle grinned at the memory. “Xena it was just a dream.”

The warrior was not satisfied. “I’m not so sure about that.”

“Well, what else could it have been?”

“I’m not so sure about that, either.”

Gabrielle huffed. “Xena, you are always finding enemies behind every tree.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Xena responded, arching a brow.

“It means, sometimes a dream is nothing more than just that … a dream — no matter how vivid it may seem.” Gabrielle tossed the covers aside with every intention of getting up and getting dressed.

A strong grip on her arm stopped her cold.

“Now what is it?” the bard asked.

Xena’s expression had become deadly serious.

“There’s somebody behind those trees.”

The bard rolled her eyes. “Hardy, har, har … very funny, Xena.”

Gabrielle moved to stand, naked to the world. Xena pulled her down and drew the covers back over their bodies just as the intruders stumbled through the trees, into the clearing. They were both sweaty, disheveled and anxious, and very much out of breath.

“Hercules,” Xena stated calmly.

“Iolaus?” Gabrielle’s eyebrows rose and disappeared beneath her bangs. Hercules and Iolaus had caught them in bed … in the same bed. She pulled the covers a little higher in an attempt to cover them both. “What are you doing here?”

“Xena, are you all right?” Hercules asked with more than a little concern in his voice.

“I’m fine,” Xena replied as she looked at herself and Gabrielle, “I think.”

“Wow! We were really worried,” Iolaus commented and wiped the sweat from his face as he sat on a log.

“Worried about what?” Gabrielle asked.

Hercules looked at his partner uncomfortably. “It’s a long story.”

Iolaus nodded in agreement. “Yeah, a long story.”

“A long story, huh?” Xena repeated, giving her own partner a tiny `I told you so’ smile. “We’d love to hear it. Why don’t you tell it to us over breakfast?”

“Breakfast?” Iolaus asked, his eyes turning bright at the mention of food. “That’s a great idea. I’m starving.” Iolaus looked up at Hercules. “Sounds good to me, right Herc?”

“Yeah, sure, sounds great,” the demi-god replied and sat down on the log.

The conversation halted to an uncomfortable silence as both men tried to not to stare at the two beautiful women sharing a bed.

Gabrielle shifted nervously under the covers. “Well,” she said, a little indignantly, “what are you waiting for?”

Iolaus furrowed his brow. “Why breakfast, of course.”

Xena raised a finely arched brow. “Iolaus, we have to get dressed first,” the warrior stated shifting her eyes to indicate their condition in the bedrolls.

Hercules eyes widened in surprise, noticing for the first time that not only were Xena and Gabrielle under the skins of the same bedroll, but they were without a stitch of clothing to boot.

“Right,” he blurted, standing in a rush and pulling his partner up with him, “of course. You need to get dressed because you’re still in the same bed … in bed … and naked … I mean … not dressed … yet.” He looked down at Iolaus’s blond head for help.

“Yeah, right,” Iolaus chimed in, rubbing his palms on his pants, “We’ll just go get a couple of rabbits. You two get dressed and get the fire ready. All right, then?” He nodded to Hercules. “Let’s get going.”

Hercules nodded enthusiastically. “Right. Just finish what you were doing. Um, I mean take your time … oh Hades … we’ll be back in a little while with two nice … big … fat … juicy …” his voice trailed off as he watched Xena grab a hold of Gabrielle’s hand and smile, ” … rabbits.”

Let’s go,” the demi-god said quickly and they rushed away.

It didn’t take the sharp hearing of a warrior princess to be able to make out their whispered musings as they hurried off.

“Herc, did you see what I think I saw?”

“What?”

“Come on, Herc, you know what I mean!”

“What?”

“You know … they were in bed!”

“So what? We woke them up.”

“Yeah but Herc, they were naked … and in the same bedroll, for Zeus’s sake!”

“That doesn’t mean anything, friends do that all the time.”

“Oh they do, do they?”

Xena and Gabrielle burst into laughter as the voices disappeared into the forest along with their friends.

****

Iolaus tore off the meat of yet his third leg of rabbit, ignoring the juice that was running down his chin. Xena had lost her appetite somewhere around the point in the story where, despite Iolaus’s best efforts, Callisto had managed to kill Hercules’s mother, thus changing the course of history … specifically, her history.

She hadn’t eaten a bite since.

Iolaus threw the bone into the fire pit and reached for the last leg. “Umm, do either of you mind if I have the last leg?” he asked, pausing before he grabbed it.

“No, you go ahead. I’ve lost my appetitite,” Gabrielle answered for them both.

“Suit yourselves,” the blond warrior replied and bit into the juicy flesh with gusto.

“So, you used the Chronos Stone you stole from me, I mean the Conqeuror, to return to the past to try and save Alcmene from Callisto again?” Xena asked, anxious to hear the rest of the incredible tale.

Iolaus nodded and replied around a mouthful of rabbit. “This time, I managed to get her out of the barn just in time, but …”

“But?” Garbrielle gulped.

“Well, I had to get her out of the barn before Callisto blew it to bits!” Iolaus said loudly, almost defensively.

“Obviously,” Xena drawled.

Iolaus threw Hercules a sideways glance. “I couldn’t help it. She was moving a bit slow — she was pregnant, you know.”

Xena sat back and sighed impatiently.

“I had to move her along, so I shoved her out of that barn with one last push, just as Callisto threw the fireball!” Iolaus wound up and threw an imaginary fireball over all of their heads. Gabrielle followed it’s path with her eyes.

“It’s a good thing I did that too, otherwise we’d both be cooked rabbit!” Iolaus looked at the half-eaten bit of charred bunny in his hand and suddenly lost his appetite. He threw it into the fire. “We both fell to the ground and I covered Alcmene with my own body as pieces of the burning barn fell down all around us.”

“That was very brave, Iolaus,” Gabrielle commented.

Xena nodded, “You saved Alcmene, and Hercules in the process …”

“And managed to crack the Chronos Stone right in half,” Hecules added.

Xena lost her grin.

“I couldn’t help it. I fell on the stone and Alcmene fell on top of me. You were a big baby, Herc! Now that I think about it, I don’t know how Alcmene carried you around for nine months …” Iolaus’s voice faded under Hercules glare, “at any rate, the stone broke right in two.”

Xena and Gabrielle glanced at one another.

“It’s a good thing Hercules got himself out of that void. If he hadn’t used the power of Zeus’s thunderbolts to come back in time to help me out, I’d still be stuck there.”

“What did you do?” Gabrielle asked.

Hercules shrugged. “I just used a little elbow grease.”

“He fused the Chronos Stone back together again with his bare hands,” Iolaus finished proudly, mimicking the action with his own smaller ones. “It was as good as new, or just about. You can still see the crack, but it works just fine. We used it to get us back here. Then we rushed to find you.”

“I was worried …” Hercules began.

“What? That I was still a warlord?” Xena asked, a little offended.

Hercules frowned. “No, but I was worried that you might have been affected in some way.”

“Well, I wasn’t,” Xena stated, standing. She was upset, and wasn’t about to admit to Hercules that breaking the Chronos Stone had resulted more than just a bad dream.

“Good,” Hercules replied, standing as well. “Then I guess everything is back to normal.”

“I guess,” Xena mumbled and walked away.

Hercules raised his eyebrows at Gabrielle. “What is she upset about?”

“Well, for one thing, you just told her that she came very close to being a vicious and cruel conqueror of the world. I’d be a little upset too, if I were her.” Gabrielle smiled apologetically at her friends. “I better go talk to her.”

The bard stood and followed after her partner.

Hercules sat back down on the log and looked at his friend.

Iolaus had a strange look on his face.

“And what’s wrong with you?” the demi-god asked.

“Ya know, for a second there, I thought Xena was mad that we had changed things back.”

Hercules sighed. “Ioalous, when are you going to believe that Xena has changed?”

The blond warrior shrugged and reached for another piece of rabbit.

****

Xena stomped through the woods, pushing branches and leaves of bushes angrily out of her way as they blocked her path.

What was she so mad about? That had she not met Hercules, she would have continued on a path of evil until she had conquerored the entire world? Or was she angry that she was no longer the Conqueror?

Neither, she answered herself, slowing a little as she came to a small stream.

She was upset that this was not the destiny she had intended to choose. Sita had said that her destiny was her own choice, and she wanted the one that gave Gabrielle a long and happy life.

If what Alti had shown her in the stone was true, then this path would lead them both to crucifixion.

Xena watched the water flow in the stream. She studied the clear mountain rivulet as it wound its way around rocks and under logs in a never ending and unstoppable flow.

She had asked for the path that would make Gabrielle safe, especially from her. Had Sita given her that path? Did this mean they were safe from crucifixion? Or had Hercules interference by mending the stone disrupted the avatar’s influence?

Or had it all just been a dream?

Her musings were halted by the sounds of her partner stumbling after her through the woods.

“Xena!” Gabrielle called out, happy to have caught up. “What’s wrong?”

The warrior smiled, hoping it would put her at ease. “I’m sorry. I just got a little upset over the Conqueror thing.”

“Xena,” Gabrielle walked up and put her arm around her partner, “you were never meant to be the Conqueror. And even if Iolaus had failed and we had remained stuck there, you would have changed. You would have ruled in the name of the greater good, I’m sure of it.”

Xena huffed. “Eventually, you mean … thanks to you.”

Gabrielle shrugged. “Well, one of us was fated to change you — either Hercules or me. It doesn’t matter to me which one of us came first … that is, as long as I’m the one who ends up with you in the end.”

Gabrielle watched as Xena’s scowl turned soft. The warrior placed her arm around her partner’s shoulder and squeezed. “All I want is for you to live a long and happy life, Gabrielle.”

“Well, good. I’m glad to hear it. Because there is no way that I’d do either … not without you, Xena.”

Xena stared at her partner thoughtfully for long moments until her eyes wandered back to the waters of the bubbling stream.

She felt Gabrielle shift closer into her arm and sighed as the bard lay her head against her shoulder.

Sita must have given her what she asked for and so that meant the image in the stone Alti showed her must have been a lie. No doubt, the witch had concocted the vision on both sides of the stone towards her own evil end. If not, Sita would have allowed that arrow to hit its intended mark.

Xena felt a weight lift away from her shoulders. The specter of crucifixion disappeared from her thoughts, as a dream fades with the early morning light.

Yes, this was the way it was meant to be … and everything else must have been just a bad dream.

“Happily ever after,” Xena said softly as she leaned over to give the treasured blond head a small kiss, “happily ever after.”

THE END

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