The Curse of the Conqueror by Enginerd


The Curse of the Conqueror
By Enginerd

Prologue

Bards, who dare speak out, sing tales of how darkness descended upon the land. Those most bitter, claim darkness descended the day Xena of Amphipolis was born. Others claim it was the day she picked up the sword. A rare few acknowledge that in the beginning, she and her sword were both welcome.

Evil warlords threatening Amphipolis were the first to feel the power of her swift sword. They fell, one by one, until there were no more warlords. The young teen, who brought peace to the land, was heralded a hero and christened the Lion of Amphipolis.

Her sword was still welcome when raised against threatening armies of neighboring villages. And like the warlords before them, they fell, one by one, until there were no more threatening villages. The Lion of Amphipolis, barely out of her teens, was deemed their protector and called the Warrior Princess.

Then the praise turned into ridicule and fear as the Warrior Princess led her now-massive army into neighboring countries. And like the neighboring villages and warlords before them, one by one, kingdoms fell, until there was only one kingdom.

The Empire. Her Empire.

The Warrior Princess, no longer a hero but a destroyer of nations, proclaimed herself the Conqueror.

Over the years, those who dared to speak out against the brutality and ruthlessness, came to call the Conqueror a Goddess of Death. For how else could the sword of a warrior so young slay so many? How else could once-fertile fields transform into graveyards littered with bodies and drenched with rivers of blood?

For those who managed to avoid the Empress’ wrath on the battlefield, there were other deadly prospects that loomed over them: starvation, sickness, or if deemed of value, service to the Conqueror.

It is said that those who had served and failed prayed for a quick end.

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Chapter 1 – To Serve

The slave trembled as she was freed from her manacles by a large guard. As she rubbed her wrists, her eyes darted around the large, marble-covered room. There were two women attendants in white robes busily preparing a bath. Not yet acknowledging her presence, one attendant knelt at the edge of the steaming bath and gracefully drew her hand through the water as she poured a rose-colored liquid in. The other fussed over a beautiful green gown that hung over a large cushioned chair.

The slave noticed the handsome red-headed man with a goatee, obviously important from his rich clothing and jewelry, studying her and making her more nervous. After a nod from the important man, the large guard gently pushed the slave towards the bath.

Her heart sank as she watched the two attendants look at her then each other before shaking their heads sadly. They carefully removed the small woman’s dirty garb. Modesty drove her to cover herself in front of the strangers as she was guided into the large, steaming tub.

“W. . . Why am I here?” The young woman finally broke the unnerving silence when the attendants began to gently wash her dirty blond hair. Never had she seen such luxurious surroundings or received such pampering from anyone. She was just a fieldhand who was in the midst of a tavern argument which drew the Conqueror’s attention. Who knew the Conqueror would be in their small town’s tavern, she thought with amazement. Three dead bodies and a day later, the Conqueror’s soldiers came to collect her. But why? She didn’t do anything wrong but be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“You are to be presented to the Conqueror tonight,” the important man announced, absently rotating the large gold ring on his finger.

The slave’s heart almost burst with fear. “As a . . . b. . . body slave?” She gasped, looking into the eyes of the attendants and guard who uncomfortably avoided hers. All had heard horror stories of the Conqueror’s brutality and nefarious appetites in the bedroom.

The attendants nodded sadly.

Appearing to take pity on her for facing the Herculean task of pleasing the Conqueror, the important man walked to a small table and poured the slave a drink. Kneeling beside the bath, he presented the golden goblet to her. “Drink this. It will ease your nerves.”

The slave grabbed the goblet and eagerly gulped down the tangy contents.

“Some have survived,” one of the attendants offered with a hopeful smile.

The slave’s eyes widened with panic before they rolled back in her head.

***

The slave slowly came to, enjoying the feel of silk against her skin. She sighed contentedly as she shifted in the decadently comfortable bed. A bed that wasn’t hers. Her eyes popped open. She immediately sat up and glanced around, noticing the room awash in the warm glow of candles. It took a few moments before her eyes adjusted and noticed the rich tapestries covering the walls, flanked by various vases and sculptures on intricately carved pedestals.

She took in a sharp breath, realizing she was in the Conqueror’s bedchamber. Naked. Quickly, she pulled up the sheets, then jumped, hearing a liquid being poured into a cup. The slave trembled as she squinted to make out the shadow in the corner of the room. Though she didn’t really need to see the shadow, she could feel who it was. The dominating presence was unmistakable.

Emerging from the darkness, was a magnificent woman, wrapped in a dark silk robe that embraced each curve of her femininity. Her long black hair cascaded over one of her broad shoulders leaving exposed a surprisingly elegant neck for a battle-hardened warrior.

The Conqueror brought the golden goblet to her lips and took a long sip, her unnerving gaze never leaving the slave. The slave swallowed hard and her heart pounded wildly as the tall woman approached the bed. With each step, the Conqueror’s robe gracefully billowed, making her appear to float upon the air like a goddess, instead of walking the Earth amongst mere mortals.

Had the slave not been terrified, she would have been in awe of the incredible beauty carefully displayed before her. Yet, she could only think of how deadly the woman was, having witnessed how swiftly the Conqueror slaughtered the three men who were stupid enough to attack her in that tavern. Remembering all that blood, her eyes dropped, knowing she would never look at a steak knife the same way again.

The slave jumped as the goblet was suddenly hurled across the room. It crashed against the wall, then dropped to the floor, clinking angrily as it rolled about. When the goblet finally came to rest, the imposing woman sat silently on the edge of the bed, irritated. After a moment of intense scrutiny, the Conqueror slowly reached out. Gently tracing her long fingers over the trembling woman’s cheek, she finally spoke.

“You have a choice,” the Conqueror offered in a deep purr. “Please me or die.”

***

“Palimon!!” The Conqueror roared angrily.

The loyal lieutenant rushed into the bedchamber and deeply bowed. “Yes, Conqueror?” He asked through gasps as he gathered his breath from his sprint down the long corridor. His eyes darted from the Conqueror standing before him, to her bed and the still form in it. He cringed.
“Get my horse ready!” She snapped and started to storm out of the room. Abruptly, she stopped and eyed the dead woman that had captured Palimon’s uneasy gaze. “Remove her and burn the sheets,” Xena growled deeply and disappeared into an adjacent room.

“Yes, Conqueror,” he exhaled.

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Chapter 2 – Contributions

“. . . and realizing their love could overcome any obstacle, the prince and princess lived happily ever after,” Gabrielle finished with a warm smile. Enthusiastic applause erupted from the tavern audience.

Unlike other bards who dared tempt the fates, Gabrielle did not wish to dwell on the Conqueror’s bloody battles or perversions, which usually drew large audiences. Instead, she chose to lift the hearts of the oppressed souls. Through her captivating storytelling, for a short but precious time, she enabled the audience to forget the constant terror that hovered over them. That was her contribution.

As the pleased young bard stepped off the stage, a handsome farmer awkwardly bolted out of his seat and approached her. “Can I buy you a drink, Gabrielle?” He asked eagerly, gawking at her chest as if her conservative blue dress was exposing something it shouldn’t.

“Uh . . . no, thank you, Perdicus,” Gabrielle said, glancing around uneasily and crossing her arms over her chest as she awkwardly pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. She felt like she should have worn a coat . . . and perhaps a blanket.

“How about dinner?”

“Uh . . . no, I’m not hungry,” she lied uneasily. Seeing his dejected look, she added with a small smile. “But thank you anyway.”

He nodded with a shrug and walked off, to her relief.

“Gabrielle!” A young woman called.

“Lila!” Gabrielle responded excitedly, spotting her sister, who wove through the disbanding crowd. “I can’t believe you’re here!” The bard said happily, hugging her sister, who had finally come to see her. “But you just missed my story,” Gabrielle informed her with great disappointment.

“Yeah. Sorry,” Lila said flatly.

“Why are you here?” Gabrielle asked with an attempted smile, brushing aside her hurt feelings once again. Her family had never supported her choice to be a bard and never bothered to listen to her perform her “foolish little stories.” She should have learned by now to not get her hopes up, the bard scolded herself.

“Gabrielle, I’m going away to join the rebellion,” Lila whispered, looking carefully around.

“WHAT!?!”

“Calm down!” Lila said uneasily, hoping the Conqueror’s spies were not stalking about.

“Do Mom and Dad know?” Gabrielle said with a strained voice, attempting to be quiet as she nervously looked about.

“Yes. They are very proud of me,” Lila said firmly.

“But you’ll get yourself killed! I’ve heard how bards who speak out . . . ,” Gabrielle said with worry.

“I’m not going to be a bard,” Lila snapped with disdain. “I’ll be a political activist!” She announced a little too loudly, then cringed at her slip.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Well, it would be one less Solstice gift to buy.

“People can’t live like this forever, Gabrielle. We have to protest the oppression! Why, just the other night the Conqueror slaughtered another village!”

“Three drunken men, fighting over a woman in a tavern does not constitute a village, Lila,” Gabrielle said with irritation.

“How can you defend her?!?”

“I am not defending her! I just hate it when people don’t get their facts strai. . . ” Gabrielle blurted.

“Fine!” Lila interrupted. “You just continue to ignore what is happening around you and tell those foolish stories of yours while I actually go do something to help.”

“My stories are NOT foolish!” Gabrielle snapped as Lila shook her head and walked away. “And I DO help!” Gabrielle yelled, then growled with clenched fists. “I DO!!”

The tavern owner came up to her from behind the bar, startling her a moment. “Are you ok, sweetie?” The older women said and she gently stroked the obviously upset woman’s back. “Who was that?”

“My sister,” Gabrielle exhaled with irritation. “She just doesn’t . . . ,” Gabrielle said, then stopped and shook her head. Plastering on a smile and changing the depressing topic, she said “So. . . . how’s business tonight, Cyrene?”

“Wonderful, thanks to you! I don’t know how you do it,” Cyrene said with a smile.

“I think people are more willing to part with their money if they are happy,” Gabrielle said bashfully with a shrug, still not used to the praise she received from Cyrene. She constantly thanked the Gods for the day when Cyrene came to Poteidaia and into her life. For the first time, someone didn’t laugh at her dream to tell stories. For the first time, she felt important.

“I agree. And you make them very happy,” Cyrene said warmly, squeezing the younger woman’s shoulder, offering more support than Gabrielle’s own mother ever did.

“For a short time, I guess,” Gabrielle said dejectedly, glancing to the ground with a sigh.

“Hey. What’s that frown for?”

“Is telling stories enough, Cyrene?”

“Honey, don’t ever underestimate the value of making someone feel good, even if it is for an hour or two,” the tavern owner smiled. Cyrene was about to say something else to the bard but the bartender interrupted, needing her assistance.

“We’ll talk later. OK, sweetie?” Cyrene asked, eyeing the young woman, who smiled weakly and nodded as the kind-hearted woman left her side.
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Chapter 3 – Simple Gifts

Xena enjoyed the breeze against her face as she rode. Outside, in the cloak of night and away from critical eyes, she felt peace. Well, as much peace as the Empress of the Known World could. Especially considering the latest unfortunate incident in her bedchamber.

The Conqueror slowed Argo to a stop and looked up at the star-filled sky in awe. It was the one thing she couldn’t conquer. Well, another thing she couldn’t conquer, she considered with great frustration. Hearing a twig break, her attention was drawn down from the heavens to the seemingly empty road.

A feral grin emerged.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” she sang melodically, though she knew exactly where they were.

“Give us your money,” one man said, emerging from the bushes.

“What fun is that?” She said with an amused smile and innocent shrug. “You’ll have to earn it and take it from me.

As suggested, the five men charged her, causing her to laugh and draw her sword. She dismounted her horse with her usual flair and loud battle cry.

The men glanced uneasily at each other as the tall woman grinned at them and spun her sword in an intricate flourish.

“Oh, come on guys. Don’t just stand there. Earn those dinars. Attack me!” Xena called out impatiently. “Attack me NOW!” She commanded.

Three of the men gasped, finally realizing why that battle cry and her leather battle dress were familiar. They dropped their swords and ran.

“HEY! Get back here!” She yelled out with annoyance. Seeing her distracted, the remaining two thugs rushed her.

With a seemingly effortless leap, she somersaulted over their heads. Landing with a grin, she easily deflected their wildly swung swords. Only after a few moments of the frantic swordplay, she tired of their incompetence and swiftly impaled one after the other. Life fled their bodies as they crumpled to the ground.

She stared at them, then her bloody sword, exhaling with disappointment. It had been a long time since she really had a worthy opponent that could take her mind off of . . . things. She knew she had to find another way to blow off steam.

After wiping the blood off her sword with one of the dead men’s shirt, she whirled it in a flourish before sheathing her weapon. Eyeing the dead man’s purse, she mumbled “Waste not, want not,” before kneeling down to claim it. As she started to get up, she smirked, noting the other man had a small flask, which she also took. Pulling the lid off, she sniffed it, cringing at the odor before taking a long swig. She coughed as the strong liquid burned all the way down to her stomach, already full of wine. Tossing the empty flask next to the dead man, she dashed towards Argo.

Vaulting over Argo’s haunches, Xena landed squarely in her saddle, prompting a groan.

“Heeyah!!” she called out and raced Argo down the road as the early morning sun finally peeked over the mountains.

***

Nervous Poteidaians watched as the Conqueror rode proudly into their town. Her distinctive armor and leather battle dress, adorned with a broadsword on her back and that circle of death at her hip, accentuated her already imposing figure.

Dismounting in front of the tavern, Xena gazed around, causing the frightened eyes to quickly avert down. She sighed, then scratched Argo’s neck. “Wish me luck,” Xena whispered uneasily, gaining a whinny and a stomp from her mare.

At the tavern door, Xena stopped and scanned the room’s female population with great interest. The chattering of patrons enjoying their breakfast suddenly stopped as a blanket of fear suffocated the room. Xena shook her head slightly and headed to the empty bar as the customers quickly scattered until only the Conqueror was left. She sighed and grabbed a mug.

The bustling tavern-owner burst through the swinging kitchen doors, rear-first, with her arms full of breakfast orders. She halted in surprise. “Xena,” Cyrene said flatly, watching as the dark woman sat next to the mead barrel sitting on the bar, against the wall.

“Mother,” Xena said neutrally, filling a mug from the tap. “Nice place.”

The tavern owner looked around uneasily then shook her head. “You did it again,” Cyrene said with irritation as she put the now-unneeded food orders on the bar.

“Sorry,” Xena said flatly, taking a gulp.

“You know you scare away paying customers,” Cyrene scolded, prompting Xena to exhale heavily and reach for the pouch of dinars on her belt. “Oh no. I don’t want your blood money,” she quickly added.

“The dead don’t need dinars, Mother,” Xena said, finishing her mug and pouring herself another.

“And who killed them?”

“That would be me,” Xena said and guzzled her mead. Cyrene shook her head with disappointment.

“Where did I go wrong?” Cyrene exhaled with a heavy heart. “They say you destroyed another village a couple nights ago.”

“I don’t think three drunken bums constitute a village,” Xena said with irritation, looking into her empty mug.

“But you keep killing! When will it stop?”

“Who told me to not wallow in self-pity and make something of myself?!? Well I’m the Conqueror now, Mom. You’d think you’d be proud, but nooooo,” Xena said wearily, pouring herself another mead.

“Wasn’t I proud of you for cleaning up the streets of Amphipolis?” Cyrene countered with amazement.

Xena reluctantly nodded and took a large sip from her mug as Cyrene slid a plate of food and a fork in front of her daughter. Xena started to object but Cyrene interrupted. “I know you didn’t have a decent breakfast, Xena. And that’s the most important meal of the day.”

Xena exhaled heavily, picked up the fork and begrudgingly took a mouthful, satisfying her mother.

“And wasn’t I proud of you when you took care of those rude neighboring armies?” Cyrene continued, sitting next to her daughter.

Xena stared at her plate. “But you stopped being proud,” she offered softly.

“I did not! I . . . I’ve always been proud of you,” Cyrene blurted uncomfortably, glancing around the still empty tavern. “It’s just . . . every time they figured it out, I’ve had to move and start over. You scare away business, honey.”

“Why should you care??” Xena protested. “You don’t have to work now!”

“I’m happiest working,” Cyrene said softly. “And I love what I do. Keep eating, honey, you’re barely touching your food.”

Xena grunted, sipped her mead and shoveled in another mouthful of eggs. “You should be living in luxury, not like this. Did you even keep that Persian carpet I got you for Mother’s Day?”

“Actually, yes,” Cyrene said, earning a surprised look from the Conqueror. “And don’t talk with your mouth full, dear. I also love that silk outfit you got from Chin for my birthday,” she added warmly, pleasing her daughter, who quickly swallowed before speaking again.

“How about those wooden clogs?” Xena asked with enthusiasm. Finding that really neat gift had been the only thing that salvaged her very disappointing trip North to the land of dikes.

“Well, uh . . . it’s the thought that counts, dear. But honey, you really shouldn’t go around wiping out entire countries,” Cyrene said sternly.

“Mom,” Xena said with exasperation. “I never “wiped out” any country,” she said and emptied her mug. “I’ve only killed a few . . . thousand . . . or so,” she said as she poured herself another mug. “You know, they practically surrendered when they heard I was coming,” Xena said then blurted. “Ha!” Staring dejectedly into her mug, Xena muttered. “Like they’d ever hear that.”

“What’s wrong, dear?” Cyrene prompted softly with concern.

“You wouldn’t understand,” Xena mumbled and sipped her drink.

“You’d be surprised.”

“There are just some things I can’t talk to my MOTHER about,” Xena said with a cringe, making the problem clear to Cyrene. Xena never could discuss sex.

Cyrene remembered how her little one almost passed out the last time she attempted such a discussion. That was when she explained the birds and the bees to her when that nice boy Petricles first moved to Amphipolis. The boy that her stubborn husband forbade Xena to see.

“Oh, Xena. If only I had someone to talk to about . . . intimate matters . . . it would have saved me a lot of heartache,” Cyrene said with a heavy sigh. Xena looked up from her mug uncomfortably. “Honey, you can talk to me about anything, you know.”

“Uh . . . no thanks.” Xena got another mug of mead.

“Are you sure?” Cyrene pressed gently.

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“You mean you’ve never . . . ?”

“What?!? Of course I have!” Xena said indignantly. “I’ve just never . . . It’s never been . . . I haven’t had . . . Oh damn,” Xena exhaled gruffly and gulped her drink.

“Oooohhh.” Cyrene responded, enlightened and very sympathetic.

Xena uncomfortably eyed her mother then was overcome by a large wine, grain-alcohol, and mead-induced yawn.

“Did you get any sleep last night?” Cyrene asked accusingly, looking into her daughter’s drowsy eyes.

“I can go for days without sleep!” Xena announced with irritation and another yawn as her eyes blinked as they became very heavy.

“Of course you can, honey. But you obviously need your rest now. Go on upstairs and we’ll talk later, OK?” Cyrene said warmly as her daughter nodded groggily and headed for the stairs. “Things won’t seem so hopeless after you’re rested.”

“Hey!” Xena blurted, stumbling up the first step.

“I didn’t say YOU were hopeless, Xena,” Cyrene said with an exasperated sigh, shaking her head at her incredibly sensitive child.

Xena grunted as her mother helped her upstairs to a bedroom.

“Mom?” Xena said and plopped down heavily onto the bed.

“Yes, honey?” Cyrene lovingly took Xena’s sword and chakram and placed them by the night stand.

“Are you disappointed in me?” Xena said uneasily, blinking a few times to keep her mother in focus.

“Disappointed? Oh honey, no!” Cyrene said emphatically, squeezing Xena’s hand. “You may be a compulsive overachiever, who has killed a bit more than I would have liked, but I could never be disappointed in my little one . . . ,” Cyrene said as she removed her daughter’s armor, seeing a faint smile on Xena’s face as her eyelids struggled to stay open.

“. . . even if you do take after your father so much,” Cyrene muttered as she pulled her daughter’s boots off. “Gods know you are stubborn like him,” she added with a sigh, taking the bracers off each arm. “Never admitting to being wrong,” she said wearily, getting a grunt from her daughter. “Never admitting to needing help or not doing something right. Too focused on a goal to see that it’s really the journey that counts.”

“You always said goals are important!”

“Not if you forget to enjoy the journey,” Cyrene countered sagely as she took off her daughter’s boot, getting a furrowed brow from her inebriated daughter.

“But you know what, little one? Up until a few moments ago, I never realized how much you take after me too,” Cyrene said while she removed her daughter’s other boot, shaking her head thoughtfully. “But trust me, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, Xena. Many women find it difficult to orgasm. I know.”

Xena’s eyes flew wide open. “You mean, you had uh, . . . I mean, you didn’t . . . uh, you couldn’t, uh,” she said unable to say what her mother just had.

“For many, many years, actually,” Cyrene admitted with a nod and sat on the edge of the bed. “But then, I learned I could come. . . .” A fond smile appeared on the older woman’s face as Xena cringed. She didn’t really want to talk to her mother about this. “. . . many, many times,” Cyrene added, noting the pained look of confusion on her daughter’s face. “That’s what they call multiple orgasms, dear,” Cyrene informed her warmly.

“Yeah, right,” Xena said with a disbelieving laugh. “That’s just a myth!”

“Xena, I wouldn’t make something like that up,” Cyrene said firmly, sobering the amazed warrior.

“But how did you . . . !?! I mean, uh, what happened?? What did you do?” Xena blurted awkwardly, then fought a yawn.

“Well, after that unfortunate accident of your father’s . . . ”

“Mom, you killed him,” Xena said bluntly. “With an axe.”

“Yes, well, after your father, I thankfully met someone who showed me what I really needed,” Cyrene said softly, pulling the covers over her yawning daughter.

“What?!?” Xena asked, struggling between her need to know and the need to pass out.

“Well, let’s just say, someone with excellent oral skills,” Cyrene said with a warm smile as she gently brushed the hair from her daughter’s face.

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Chapter 4 – Strangers in the Night

Gabrielle squinted to make out the faces in the candle-lit tavern. She spotted a few regulars, who waved at her. Smiling warmly, she waved back. “Looks like a good crowd tonight, Rubus,” Gabrielle said to the barkeep as her eyes were drawn to the back corner of the tavern, where a hooded figure sat, alone with a mug. How lonely he must be, Gabrielle thought sympathetically.

“Yeah. They could use a good story to take their minds off the massacre last night. They’re a bit edgy,” the bartender said, drying a mug.

“Massacre?” Gabrielle gasped.

“Yeah, on the road to Amphipolis I heard that twenty bodies were found at the side of the road, brutally slaughtered.”

“Twenty?” Gabrielle asked with confusion, having heard from the priest about only the two bodies found.

“They say it was the Conqueror’s handiwork.”

“She was on the road to Poteidaia?!?” Gabrielle said with concern and curiosity. She had never seen the Conqueror, except for her handsome profile on their dinars. But she had heard the dark woman had eyes of fire, a heart of ice, and a soul as black as her raven hair. Though she had a great appreciation of poetic embellishment, Gabrielle still had no idea what the most powerful woman in the world really looked like.

“She was here, this morning!” Rubus said with enthusiasm, pointing to the bar. Gabrielle’s mouth dropped as her concern started to outweigh her curiosity. “The blacksmith told me how the breakfast crowd barely got away alive and how she threatened Cyrene that she would slice her into tiny pieces and feed her to the fish unless she got some port!”

“My Gods!” Gabrielle gasped, quickly looking around for the tavern owner she hadn’t seen all evening. “Is she all right?”

The barkeep nodded. “She won’t talk about it. But I bet she is thanking the Gods right now. From what I hear, the Conqueror’s quick temper is even quicker when she’s drunk. Why, I heard . . . ”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes at Rubus’ obviously tall tale, then jumped when a young man stood behind her with a big smile and asked “Can I buy you dinner tonight, Gabrielle?”

“Uh, I’m sorry, Perdicus. I already ate,” Gabrielle said, gaining a frown from the young man.

“How about a drink?” He asked hopefully, his eyes dropping down below her neckline.

“I can’t. Sorry,” Gabrielle said then offered with a small smile, “I have to be sharp for my performance. But thank you anyway.” Glancing at the stage then the crowd she added “the public awaits” and quickly left the amorous boy.

Now on the much more comfortable stage, she took a breath and looked out over the clapping audience, determined to lift the spirits of the townsfolk. Especially tonight, after the close encounter with the Conqueror that had sparked so much fuss. She would take their minds off their problems, she vowed.

After the applause settled down, Gabrielle smiled brightly and launched into an uplifting story of two dreamers who risked everything and overcame amazing obstacles to find happiness in each other’s arms. As she spun her tale, she tried to meet the gaze of every patron to draw them into her story. Still alone in the dark corner sat the hooded figure. Though she couldn’t see his face, she wasn’t deterred and attempted to draw him in too.

After a captivating candle mark, Gabrielle finished her story with a large smile. “. . . and they lived happily ever after.”

After a moment of complete silence that startled the insecure bard, thunderous applause and cheers erupted from the appreciative crowd who also showed their appreciation by showering dinars onto the small stage.

As the pleased bard collected the coins, she curiously glanced to the dark corner where the hooded patron had been sitting. Noting only the mug remained, Gabrielle’s smile quickly faded as disappointment filled her. Apparently not everyone in her audience was entertained that evening.

***

After making sure the unusually tense Cyrene was all right after her brush with the Conqueror, Gabrielle headed for home with her large bag of earnings. She usually looked forward to the relaxing walk home after a performance. But tonight, she felt uneasy. Looking around the moonlit streets once again, she didn’t see anything. But she felt . . . something. Shaking the odd feeling off, she heard her name called, causing her to cringe.

“Gabrielle!” Perdicus blurted as he jogged up to her.

“Hi, Perdicus,” she said with a heavy sigh, turning to him with a thin smile.

“I should walk you home. It’s not safe for a pretty girl like you to be walking alone at night. Especially with that,” he said, pointing at her bag of dinars clutched against her chest. At least he’d better be pointing at her dinars, she thought with irritation.

“I appreciate your concern, Perdicus, but the streets are safe. This is Poteidaia, not some deserted road. And you know the Conqueror doesn’t tolerate crime.”

“But. . . .”

“No.”

“How about to the end of the . . . ?”

“No.”

“How about . . . ,” Perdicus said, then froze, seeing a tall, ominous figure quietly emerge from the shadows.

“. . . you say goodnight,” the dark figure suggested, making the bard jump and seek out the source of the startling voice.

“Goodnight!” Perdicus blurted and ran.

“And he was going to protect you?” The dark figure asked with amusement, motioning towards the frightened boy with her hooded head. The silky voice was definitely female. But for some reason, that made the bard more unsettled.

“Why do you hide your face?” Gabrielle asked, attempting to hide the nervousness provoked by the imposing woman.

“I frighten people when I don’t.”

“Are you hideously ugly or something?”

The hooded figure was silent a moment before hesitantly answering “Uh . . . or something.”

“Oh,” the bard said, then asked the stranger who had disappeared from her audience “You didn’t like my story, did you?”

“I . . . The crowd appeared to be entertained,” the hooded figure responded, not used to such direct questions. “Would you say your oral skills are better than other bards?”

“Huh? Is that some kind of crack? If you didn’t like it, just say so!” Gabrielle said in a huff and started to walk off.

“Wait!” The hooded figure said as she caught up to the irritated bard. “I never said I didn’t like . . . .”

“Why are you bothering me?” The bard said, stopping in her tracks. “Do you need money? I can give you some but I’ve got bills to pay so I can’t give it all to you,” Gabrielle said as she started to open her bag of dinars.

“I’m not here for your money! I’m bothering you beca . . . ugh,” the hooded figure said with a growl, then announced in an official tone. “I’m here to inform you your services are required at the castle.”

“Excuse me?”

“You have been chosen to be the Conqueror’s bard and . . . . ”

“Very funny. Ha, ha. If Lila or her friends put you up to this, you can tell her you had me going, all the way to the castle door. I’m sure my humiliation will please her to no end. Everyone knows that she and her disgruntled little group are doing far more important things than a simple bard who just happens to like to tell happy stories. Everyone knows that reminding people just how miserable they are is far more important than making them happy for an hour or two each day. Everyone knows they need someone to blame for their misfortunes and couldn’t possibly be happy unless they are miserable! So why, you might ask, do I even bo. . . . ACK.”

Gabrielle’s tirade abruptly stopped when two sharp jabs were inflicted on her neck. The bard dropped to her knees as the bag of dinars fell to the ground.

“You have been recruited. But you have a choice. If you don’t want to go, you have about fifteen seconds left to live. If you do want to go, you will live. So what will it be? Do you want to go with me to the castle?”

Gabrielle used all of her strength to nod yes.

“Good choice.” The hooded figure said, releasing the pinch. Gabrielle gasped for precious air as her hands shot up to her throat.

As the wobbly bard stood, her eyes narrowed at the hooded figure.

“You’re not a people-person, are you?”
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 5 – Heeding the Call

The hooded figure felt the bard tugging on her cloak again. “What?” She said with exasperation.

“I have to go,” Gabrielle mumbled.

“Again?”

“I’m nervous, OK?!? I’ve never met the Conqueror but I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t appreciate me relieving myself on her nice floor when we meet!” The bard snapped.

With a heavy exhale, the rider reigned in the horse to a stop. The hooded figure dismounted and reached up for the small woman with another heavy sigh.

“Well, I’m sooo sorry to put you out!” Gabrielle said with irritation as she slapped away the helping hands and awkwardly dismounted on her own.

“You don’t ride much, do you?”

“If you must know, I prefer to walk.”

“Why??”

“Would you mind if we discussed this after . . .?!?” She asked motioning to the bushes.

“Don’t be long.”

“I’ll be as long as I need to be, OK!?!” The bard snapped and stomped off into the bushes for the third time that night.

Xena shook her head and scratched Argo’s neck. “What in Tartarus do I need a bard for?”

Argo whinnied.

“Extremely,” Xena agreed.

After a few moments of walking into the forest and satisfied she was finally far enough away from that rude, hooded woman’s ears, Gabrielle pulled up her long skirt and . . . ran.

Xena tilted her head and listened. A grin emerged.

Gabrielle’s heart raced as she ran for all her worth through the dark forest. She swiftly ran, deftly dodging low hanging branches and roots jutting up from the uneven terrain. But it only took one of the many roots to catch her foot.

“Ooof.” She exhaled as she hit the ground hard. Quickly, she picked herself up and grimaced with a mouth full of dirt. “Spifth, spifth”

Taking cover by a large tree, the bard listened for signs that the rude woman was following. Unable to hear anything, except her pounding heart and belabored gasps, she carefully ventured from the tree as a cloak of blackness descended over her.

***

Xena hauled the kicking and screaming, cloak-wrapped bundle over Argo and mounted. “Well, you got a lot farther than I expected. But, I have to say, you sounded like an elephant stampede,” she said and chuckled, provoking another stream of thankfully muffled responses.

“Hmm. Should I count ‘cursing like a sailor’ as one of your oral skills?”

After a few moments, a tired Gabrielle stopped kicking and screaming. To her surprise, she heard what sounded like soft humming coming from the rude woman. A very relaxing humming.

***

As the Conqueror lowered her loudly snoring bundle into the guest bed, a petite servant lit a few candles. When the servant quietly reached out to unwrap the guest, Xena surprised her by shaking her head no. Quietly retreating to a dark corner of the room, she dismissed the confused servant with a wave of her hand. Xena smiled when the door loudly shut.

It wasn’t long before the obnoxious snoring stopped and the bard wiggled free of the cloak captivity. The bard muttered something about the impossibly rude woman having the manners of a barn animal and looked around her room. After a moment of awe, she angrily muttered something else and got up.

Spotting a window, Gabrielle darted to it and looked out and down. Way, way, down.
Xena grinned at the deep, frustrated growl erupting from the feisty woman. Her grin faded as she curiously watched the bard look back out the window, then up.

The bard’s face sported a smile when she brought her head back inside. When she looked around the room, her smile got brighter. Xena watched with interest as the bard pulled the sheets off the bed and started to tie knots in it. The length of the sheets combined was certainly too short to deposit the small woman on the ground but would be long enough to get her to the window on the floor above, if she found a grappling hook.

Spotting the brass cloak rack, the bard walked towards it with great purpose.

The Conqueror almost laughed aloud when the bard grabbed it and almost toppled over when she tried to pull the much heavier-than-expected coat rack to the window. Another growl of frustration emerged but the bard seemed to become more determined as she rolled her dress sleeves up and tucked stray strands of hair behind her ears. Xena smiled at the girl’s tenacity, then grinned devilishly.

Inspecting the room’s objects as if she were shopping at the market, Gabrielle jumped when the already dimly lit room grew darker as a group of candles was suddenly extinguished. Her heart started to pound as she looked around, feeling . . . something. She squinted towards the darkest corner, almost certain the breeze from the window wasn’t strong enough to extinguish the candles. But it had to be the breeze, she concluded and continued her search for the perfect grappling hook.

Another set of candles was extinguished, making the room almost black. The bard swallowed hard, feeling very uneasy.

“Maybe this would work?” Xena whispered in the bard’s ear, placing a small statue in her hand.

“AH!” The bard jumped, dropping the statue to the ground, where it shattered.

“Maybe not.”

“You, YOU!!” Gabrielle growled with anger as she spun around. Squinting to see the person belonging to the unnerving voice, she realized with even more irritation that she could barely see the outline of the tall woman.

“You know, you act like you don’t want to be here. But I have to say, this room is much nicer than the dungeon. Sweet dreams, Gabrielle.” The woman vanished into the darkness.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 6 – The Last Meal

“Wake up.”

The bard felt the mattress shake but ignored it and rolled over.

“Wake up.”

The bard felt her shoulder being jostled but groaned and put a pillow over her head to muffle the obnoxious noise.

“The Conqueror wishes you to join her for breakfast, NOW,” the old woman said nervously.

Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered open. She looked around as she groggily sat up. “Who are you?” She asked the older woman.

“Taris, my lady.”

“Is she in a good mood, Taris?” Gabrielle said, suddenly concerned about her impending meeting.

“Surprisingly yes, my lady. But it would not be advisable to be much longer, or I expect that good mood will not last.”

“I’m up. I’m up.”

***

Taking a quick, final look at herself in the mirror, Gabrielle exhaled nervously and glanced to the anxious attendant, who opened the door for her.

“I didn’t mean to be so long, I just wanted to look OK. She is the Empress after all. You won’t get in trouble because of me will you?”

“I hope not, my lady. It is not healthy to displease the Empress.”

“It’s Gabrielle. And I will tell her it wasn’t your fault, Taris. I’m not really a morning person.”

Taris nodded uncomfortably as they walked down a long hallway. Gabrielle inspected her palatial surroundings with great interest as she nonchalantly asked “So . . . where did that rider go? Does she live here, or in a barn someplace?”

“Rider?”

“The woman with that cloak. The one who brought me here?” Gabrielle asked as the attendant stopped and pointed to the large, double doors. “Is she having breakfast with us too?” Gabrielle asked curiously, getting a confused look from the woman.

Gabrielle wondered if the attendant wasn’t a little slow. “Through here, huh?”

The attendant nodded, wondering if the bard wasn’t a little slow.

***

The attendant bowed and closed the doors behind Gabrielle, who stood alone at the entranceway to a large dining hall. She glanced around the cavernous room, eyeing the wonderful stage which was framed with embroidered silk curtains. She wondered what kind of plays and performers had entertained there. Everything was so grand, she thought with amazement, then gazed at the long table which could accommodate fifty people, with elbow room to spare.

“Do you always take so long getting ready in the morning?” A familiar voice asked from behind, startling the bard.

“Ah!! WHY must you always DO that?!? I was just trying to. . . .” Gabrielle blurted to the annoyingly familiar voice as she spun around to finally face her tormentor.

Her angry response was forgotten as she stared into the most amazing blue eyes and beautiful face she had ever . . . .

“You know, it’s considered rude to be late,” the raven-haired woman informed the bard and walked over to the table, successfully snapping the bard out of her haze of appreciation.

“Rude? Rude?!? You, of all people, are lecturing me about being rude?” Gabrielle, said, quickly closing the distance between them. “You’ve got some nerve!”

“Have a seat,” the tall woman offered, pulling out a chair for her bard, who stood defiantly with her hands on her hips.

“First, you threaten my life with that pinchy thing . . .”

“I think you’ll enjoy breakfast.”

“Then, you almost suffocate me with that cloak.”

“You’ve probably worked up an appetite after all that running and thrashing about you did last night.”

“Then, you throw me over your horse . . . ”

“Argo.”

“. . . You throw me over ARGO like a sack of potatoes. . . .”

“Do you like potatoes? My cooks can do some amazing things with potatoes.”

“Then, you keep sneaking up and scaring the begeebies out of me!”

“Well, I hope your appetite hasn’t been frightened away. My cooks will be disappointed. They’re the best in the kingdom and don’t get to show off often.”

“And THEN you have the gall to . . . .” Gabrielle said and paused her righteous tirade. Her eyebrows furrowed. “Your cooks?”

“Yep. I don’t settle for anything but the best,” Xena said, motioning proudly to the huge, empty dining hall. “I suppose you could eat standing, but I think you might enjoy sitting more,” Xena said, nodding to the bard’s chair as she sat at the head of the long table.

“I . . . uh . . . .” Her anger quickly fled as Gabrielle slumped down into the chair for what she expected to be her final meal. “Thank you,” she said feebly, wishing she could have at least said goodbye to Cyrene.

Xena sighed with disappointment. The Conqueror had not had anyone treat her like a real person in such a long time. The bard was a refreshing change, even if she did get angry and argue a lot. But now it looked like this bard would become just like everyone else. Afraid.
“Is there anything you prefer?”

“Why don’t you surprise me,” Gabrielle said weakly, then muttered “You seem to enjoy doing that.”

The Conqueror looked at her with a slight grin and picked up a small bell and rang it. Gabrielle’s eyes furrowed at the obnoxious sound.

“How about a little of everything?” Xena suggested as a cart of food arrived.

Gabrielle couldn’t help but appreciatively inhale the wonderful smells from the bounty that was being served.

After the servant left, Xena picked up a fork. “Dig in. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, you know.”

Gabrielle picked up her fork, then hesitated, looking between the two plates before staring suspiciously at her own.

“You don’t think I’m going to poison you after all I went through to get you here?” Xena laughed.

“After all YOU . . . ?!?” Gabrielle blurted angrily but stopped herself, remembering the rude woman was the infamous Conqueror. The woman she heard had recently killed three men with a spoon.

Gabrielle’s eyes dropped to the fork in the Conqueror’s hand as she imagined the damage that utensil could inflict. She didn’t even need a utensil, Gabrielle considered, remembering the jabs to her neck from those strong hands. Strong hands which had been offered to help her dismount that horse. Strong hands which she angrily slapped away. Oh Gods, Gabrielle thought, staring at what she expected to be the last juice she would ever have, then quickly finished it.

“You look pale.”

“You don’t say,” Gabrielle remarked then bit into the most divine pastry she had ever tasted. “Oh my GODs,” she gushed with reverence, surprising the Conqueror. “You weren’t kidding about your cooks!” She said with amazement and bit into the pastry again, relishing the flavor. Might as well enjoy my last meal, the bard thought.

Xena laughed softly. “I especially like the ones with the pink centers,” Xena said pointing to a plate full of them.

Gabrielle’s eyes lit up as she started to serve herself. She paused, then offered the plate to the Conqueror, who looked at her curiously, wondering if she would see fear in the smaller woman’s green eyes.

“Well, I’ve got to make sure they aren’t poisoned,” Gabrielle explained, amusing the Conqueror, who didn’t find fear. And it pleased her.

Xena picked up a pink-filled pastry as the bard did the same. They both devoured them, sharing moans of appreciation. Xena couldn’t recall them ever tasting this good and helped herself to another. She smiled as the bard did the same. “You know, I had a food taster once.”

“Really?” Gabrielle said with sudden concern, glancing at the pastry in her hand.

Xena nodded. “Marcus was putting on way too much weight. I put him on an exercise regimen to get him back in shape.”

“What happened?” Gabrielle looked around wondering where he might be now.

“He died. His heart couldn’t take it,” Xena said softly with a sigh.

“Oh. How sad.” Gabrielle said, noting the Conqueror’s now distant and melancholy gaze. The bard knew right then, the Conqueror did not have a heart of ice. And it pleased her.

“I’m surprised you didn’t replace him. I bet a lot of people would volunteer if they knew about your cooks,” Gabrielle said enthusiastically and offered another plate of food to the Empress.

“A smaller staff is easier to manage,” Xena said unconvincingly, then took another pastry off the offered plate. “That’s what my advisor, Daumas, said. He was rather surprised that I had enlisted a bard,” Xena smirked with satisfaction at the look on his face this morning and sipped her juice.

“He’s not the only one,” Gabrielle said, then uneasily added “your highness” out of deference when those blue eyes curiously returned to her.

“So, why do you think I enlisted a bard?” Xena asked, staring at her juice uncomfortably.

“To entertain your dinner guests?” Gabrielle guessed, looking at the large, empty stage then noticed the woman contemplate her answer for a few moments.

“That might work.”

“What might work?”

***

The slave was prepared for the Conqueror, having been bathed and dressed in a fine dress that would have cost her family a year’s wages. She entered the magnificent, but extremely large room with hope. The attendant had told her she was to have dinner with the Conqueror. Now it looked like there might be others too. She hoped so. The others might draw the Conqueror’s unwanted attention away from her. Or . . . Oh Gods, she thought with panic – what if she was this evenings entertainment for everyone? She had heard . . . .

“Leave us,” the Conqueror ordered Taris, who bowed deeply and closed the doors behind her.

The slave jumped, turning to find the Empress of the Known World standing near her. The tall woman stood proudly, radiating dangerous power in her black leather tunic and pants, which clung to her well-defined muscles like a second skin.

“Sit.”

The young slave nervously flattened out the wrinkles from the pretty dress and sat.

“You’ll enjoy this,” Xena said firmly, making the petrified young woman quickly nod. She silently watched Xena glance to the stage as she picked up a bell and rang it. After furrowed brows and a moment of silence, Xena rang it again, glaring at the stage.

The slave looked between the Conqueror and her bell uncertainly. “Uh, that was very nice,” she offered with an uneasy smile.

With an annoyed growl, Xena bolted up from her chair, frightening the woman, who watched with confusion as the Conqueror marched onto the stage and disappeared behind the curtains.

Xena quickly spotted the bard, who was checking her hair in a mirror.

“I rang the bell!” Xena said angrily, holding up the object and ringing it for the bard.

“Yes,” Gabrielle said evenly and turned to the Conqueror. “You did.”

“Then why are you still back here and not out there??” Xena barked, pointing to the curtain.

“I am a bard, not a pet. If you wish to summon me, I suggest you find a different method,” Gabrielle snapped.

“Were you dropped on your head as a child?”

“What?!? You’re . . . you’re. . . !”

“I’m the Destroyer of Nations, the Warrior Princess, the Empress of all the land you see, the CONQUEROR!! Any of those ring a bell?” Xena said, ringing the bell in her hand.

“That’s right! You are everything and I’m just a bard. A bard who YOU wanted to bring here to this castle. A bard who YOU wanted to tell a story this evening. But that’s NOT going to happen if you keep ringing that damn bell!”

“Or if I strangle you,” Xena growled menacingly at the bard, who didn’t cower but crossed her arms defiantly.

Somehow, she knew the bard was currently in the mood to die rather than back down. Xena’s upper lip quivered. She knew what she needed to do to get a story. “If you would come out now and entertain, I would appreciate it,” Xena said tightly, through gritted teeth.

“My pleasure,” Gabrielle said with a genuine smile that unsettled the Conqueror. Xena couldn’t recall the last time she caused such a happy smile, or felt so pleased for causing one.

“I’ll give you some time to get seated,” Gabrielle offered warmly, gaining a furrowed brow and half-hearted, disgruntled grunt from the Conqueror.

As Xena approached the table, she glanced at the nervous slave in the beautiful dress. She should have seen to it the bard had a new dress too, Xena thought with irritation, having over looked that obvious detail.

The slave looked up a moment then quickly averted her eyes for fear of irritating the Conqueror further. Shaking her head with disappointment, Xena sat and exhaled heavily. The slave should appreciate the bard, she thought, sipping her wine as she waited for the bard’s appearance.

Finally, Gabrielle emerged from behind the curtain with a big smile that faded as she looked around the dining hall that was empty, except for the Conqueror and her guest.

The Conqueror lifted her goblet to the bard and smiled thinly as she nodded for her to start. The bard glared at her a moment, then glanced at the nervous dinner companion with great sympathy before speaking to her audience of two.

“Good evening, ladies. I have a story to share this evening. It is of two lonely people who find one great love. . . .”

As Gabrielle spun her tale, Xena occasionally glanced at the nervous slave who had finally begun to relax. The slave started to freely smile at the engaging bard, which was understandable, Xena thought as she glanced back to the stage where the bard continued to skillfully spin the story.

Though Xena preferred stories about great battles and amazing victories, she had to admit the bard could tell a decent love story. It was perhaps because the fiery bard made you want to listen to it. She had . . . a presence. And it demanded attention, Xena concluded, watching the young woman’s graceful gestures perfectly accentuate her tale.

The timid young slave surprised the Conqueror when she enthusiastically applauded at the story’s end. She suddenly stopped, fearful that the clapping was annoying.

“You don’t have to stop. I am pleased you enjoyed it,” Xena offered with a smile.

“It was wonderful,” the slave gushed, making Xena’s smile wider as she poured more wine for her dinner guest.

Xena noticed the slave suddenly grow tense again, then glanced at the stage, where the bard had discreetly disappeared behind the curtains.

“Uh . . . would you like to meet the bard?” Xena suddenly offered, surprising herself and the slave, who nodded.

Xena smiled then reached for the bell, catching herself with a silent curse. “Uh . . . I’ll be right back,” she said to the confused young woman and jumped up.

Dashing up onto the stage then behind the curtain, Xena spotted the bard. “Wait . . . ”

Gabrielle turned around impatiently, crossing her arms over her chest.

“She would like to meet you,” Xena said uneasily, noting annoyance in the bard’s eyes.

“Who.”

“My dinner guest,” Xena responded, absently pointing back over her shoulder.

“Who??”

“My dinner guest,” Xena repeated with irritation.

“I don’t suppose she has a name, does she?” Gabrielle smiled thinly.

“Of course she has a name!”

Before Gabrielle could challenge the Conqueror on what that name might possibly be, they heard a crash.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 7 – Getting to Know You

“She’s dead,” Gabrielle said in a stunned whisper as she gave up feeling for a pulse. The bard looked up at the Conqueror, whose vacant look startled her.

Xena turned and stormed out of the room as an attendant with a cart of food came in.
Seeing the girl on the floor, the attendant shook his head. “Another mess. I’ll get someone to clean that up,” he said with a heavy sigh.

“Another mess?” Gabrielle asked, looking back in the direction where the Conqueror had left.

“Aye. But it is unusual for her to kill a body slave outside her bedroom,” Ungar said quietly, scratching his chin curiously.

“She didn’t kill her,” Gabrielle responded with irritation. “The girl collapsed at the table while the Conqueror was talking to me.”

“Fear is as deadly as the Conqueror’s hands,” he said ominously, then rolled his cart out of the room.

Gabrielle also left the dining hall and jogged down the hallway in search of the Conqueror. Turning a corner, she collided into Palimon.

“Oooof!

“Where’s the fire?” Palimon chuckled, peeling the Conqueror’s bard from his chest.

Sorry,” Gabrielle said, glancing around, paying little attention to the lieutenant. “Where’s the Conqueror?”

“Most people don’t run towards the Conqueror. Why are you looking for her?” Palimon asked suspiciously. He didn’t know why the Conqueror would recruit a bard. And now this. Odd. Very odd, he thought.

“She was upset after her . . . guest . . . dropped dead,” Gabrielle said awkwardly and glanced around.

“Again?”

“Look, it wasn’t like you think. She was talking with me at the time and . . . ugh, do you know where she is?” Gabrielle growled impatiently.

“She is probably out on Argo. If she is upset, she won’t be back for a while. You shouldn’t be around her when she’s like this,” he warned.

“How do you know that?!?” Gabrielle challenged, firmly believing the opposite.

Palimon pointed to the long scar on his face. “I tried to cheer her up once.”

***

Gabrielle entered her room and dejectedly plopped on the bed. Staring at the ceiling, she wondered where the tall woman could have gone. Tears sprang to her eyes. She had an overwhelming need to help the obviously pained woman, but couldn’t.

***

As the early morning rays spilled through the window and fell onto her face, Gabrielle shifted and blinked. Slowly sitting up, she stretched and rubbed her eyes. Needing to see if the Conqueror had returned yet, she quickly got up. As she straightened her wrinkled dress, the bard glanced over to a corner in her room, startled to find the Conqueror sitting in a chair.

“Are you all right?” Gabrielle asked with concern, noting the disheveled and tired appearance. “You left so quickly last night I . . . ”

“You are free to go.” Xena exhaled with defeat and got up, looking lost.

“Wait a minute,” Gabrielle said, reaching for the Conqueror’s arm which recoiled from her touch.

“Please, I want to talk to you.”

“Why?”

Gabrielle didn’t really know what to say. It really didn’t make any sense. This was the Conqueror, the woman whom everyone feared and loathed. But for some reason, Gabrielle needed to try and help this woman. But how does one explain a need she couldn’t explain to herself?

“Uh, I would at least like to know why I’m being fired after one story.”

“You are not being fired.”

“You brought me here for a reason. I must have failed if you let me go so quickly.”

“You didn’t fail. I did. . . .” Xena said vaguely with that same vacant look in her eyes Gabrielle recognized from the night before when they found her dead dinner guest.

“You didn’t kill her,” Gabrielle said firmly, getting a sharp look from the Conqueror. “I was there, remember?” The bard added.

“Fear can kill as well as these hands, Gabrielle,” Xena said sadly, glancing down at the deadly weapons. The comment disturbed the bard.

“Xena, she was not an old woman with a bad heart that you said “BOO” to.”

“But . . . ”

“And how do you know it wasn’t my story that did her in? Did you think of that?”

“You are being ridiculous.”

“And you’re not?”

“But . . . ”

“No buts, Xena. Something is not right here and we will get to the bottom it,” Gabrielle declared confidently, surprising the Conqueror.

“Why?” Xena asked without suspicion, just pure amazement. “Why are you trying to help me?”

Gabrielle looked deeply into curious blue eyes a moment and almost forgot to answer.

“Because it’s wrong not to help when you can.”

***

After the servant left the food cart behind, Xena grabbed a plate of pink-filled pastries and sat with the bard at the small table in the bard’s room.

“Now, isn’t this more cozy?” Gabrielle smiled approvingly at the Conqueror, who bit into a delicious treat and shrugged as she glanced around the room. It was kind of nice, she thought. And at least there wasn’t that draft.

The bard got down to business. Opening up a blank scroll and dipping her quill into ink, she was ready to take notes. “Ok, we need to document the circumstances of each of your. . . .”

Xena coughed as she swallowed the pastry. “Do we really need to dredge up the past?” She wheezed.

“I am not trying to dredge up the past, Xena, only use the scientific method to establish patterns and trends to define the problem so we can find a . . . ”

“I know what my problem is,” Xena bemoaned, pushing the pastries away having lost her appetite.

Gabrielle looked at her expectantly.

“I am cursed when it comes to . . . you know.”

“Know what?”

“You know . . . ”

“No, I don’t. What?” Gabrielle said with irritation.

“Must I spell it out for you?!?”

“Well if you can’t say it, I suppose so.”

“Sigma, Epsilon, Chi.”

“Ooooh,” Gabrielle said, then furrowed her brows at the beautiful woman sitting across from her. “But you? Cursed??”

“I must be! Ever since I hit puberty, I’ve had nothing but bad things happen when I’ve tried to . . . when I wanted to . . . you know. And then, I find out I’m not just missing out on . . . you know, but multiple . . . you knows, too! It’s just not fair,” Xena blurted and shook her head dejectedly.

Gabrielle stared at her a thoughtful, slightly confused moment.

“So . . . since puberty, huh?” Gabrielle asked. “What happened the first time?” She asked delicately.

Xena cringed.

“Xena, what you say here doesn’t go beyond those doors. You have my word.” Gabrielle offered softly.

Xena got up from the chair and paced. She glanced at the bard, grimaced, and reluctantly began. “I was more than ready to . . . you know.”

“You can say SEX, Xena. I’m a bard after all.” Gabrielle blurted and shook her head, earning a glare from the Conqueror.

“Look, this is MY story and I’ll use MY words!”

“Ok, ok,” Gabrielle said holding her hands up in surrender. “You know best,” she added.

“Well, my dad didn’t let me date anyone. He thought I was too young. But I was fifteen! I was ready to . . . you know. Petricles, the only guy my age in Amphipolis who didn’t disgust me, was also ready and we found a nice secluded spot to . . . you know. It was his first time too. He was awkward but was getting me uh . . . aroused,” she said and coughed, turning a shade of pink. “It was obvious I wasn’t the only one,” Xena quickly added with a smirk. “But then just as he was about to . . . we were interrupted by a gang of bandits. They laughed at us and decided to show us what real men with big swords could do,” Xena said with an angry snarl.

“Oh Xena,” Gabrielle gasped with concern.

“Well, I showed them what a real girl with a real sword could do. I killed them. I killed them all.”

“What happened to Petricles?”

“Not a scratch. I protected him,” Xena snorted. “After he got up enough nerve again, we tried it again . . . and again, over the next couple of seasons,” Xena wearily said. “But each time, he couldn’t even start or he’d finish before I’d even . . . you know,” Xena said with irritation.

“That must have been incredibly frustrating,” Gabrielle offered softly.

Xena readily nodded. “Of course, he told all his friends a different story . . . that I was this wild woman in bed and that if he wasn’t such a stud with unlimited stamina, I’d go elsewhere.”

“Why that BASTARD!” Gabrielle’s response surprised the Conqueror, as did Palimon, when he entered Gabrielle’s room.

“How dare you barge into my guest’s room without knocking!” Xena roared at the lieutenant as she bolted up from her seat. The Conqueror’s ferocity startled the bard.

“My apologies, Conqueror,” he blurted nervously, quickly bowing. Shit, shit, shit.

“You owe Gabrielle your apologies too, Palimon,” Xena warned.

“I’m very sorry, Gabrielle,” he said sincerely, gaining a nod from the bard. “We are not used to real guests,” he added with a cringe.

“You should tell the castle staff that if anyone dares enter without knocking, I will remove the hand that should have knocked. Is that understood, Lieutenant?” Xena snarled.

“Yes, Conqueror!” He said, snapping to attention.

“Why are you here, Palimon?” Gabrielle asked.

“The Conqueror’s advisor would like to see you.”

“If he wishes an audience with MY bard, he should see me,” Xena growled.

“Lord Daumas did not know you were back, my lord,” Palimon said, his head hung low like a scolded puppy.

“Well he will now!” Xena said angrily and started to storm out of the room.

“Xena!” Gabrielle shouted with concern, surprising the lieutenant and the Conqueror, who stopped in her tracks. When the Conqueror’s angry glare was directed at the bard, Palimon winced, worried for the unwisely bold woman.

“My lord, I would be grateful if you would stay with me a moment more, before your meeting with Lord Dumbass,” the bard spoke and respectfully bowed her head.

Xena’s eyebrows shot up at the mispronunciation which diffused some of the Conqueror’s anger.

Noting the two women silently staring at each other and ignoring him, Palimon smirked. “If you’ll excuse me?” Palimon said, no longer concerned about the bard, he left the women alone.

“What!” Xena finally snapped with impatience, and placed her hands on her hips as she continued to glare at the bard.

“When I was really, really angry, my mother told me to count to ten before doing anything,” Gabrielle offered.

“One, five, TEN!” Xena stubbornly growled and left the room. Gabrielle rolled her eyes.

***

“Count to ten, she says,” Xena muttered and shook her head with amazement as she marched down the hall. An amused grin emerged as she entered Lord Dumbass’ office.

“Conqueror, you’re back!” He said with a warm smile as he stood from behind his desk.

“Yes. It appears so,” Xena responded dryly, glancing down at herself.

Daumas chuckled softly. “A good thing. I need you to review the changes to the tax laws that are needed to . . . ”

“Daumas, I don’t have time for that now. Just send them to my room and I’ll read it later with the other laws you want to revise,” she said, hating the administrative details of her position.

Daumas nodded in understanding.

“You wanted to see my bard,” Xena said bluntly. “Why?”

“Well, I had hoped to get her to tell a few tales at the next meeting of your generals and governors at the end of the month. But if that is not to your liking, I will arrange other entertainment.”

Xena never liked those gatherings that Daumas always suggested. She hated crowds and found everyone terrified of having a good time. “Yes, Conqueror. Of course, Conqueror. As you wish, Conqueror,” she would always hear. Respect was one thing, but terrified yes-men were another. Perhaps the bard’s presence could change that, she thought, remembering how the terrified slave started to relax during the bard’s story last night. It was a shame more women were not like the bard, Xena considered. Gabrielle didn’t fear her. And that pleased her.

Xena’s small smile faded when she noticed Daumas was waiting for an answer.

“Your idea is good, Daumas,” she said evenly. “But next time, speak to me first before acting.”

“Of course, Conqueror,” he said, bowing his head.

***

Xena returned to her room to find Palimon waiting at her door.

“What now, Palimon?” She sighed heavily.

“You have a visitor at the front gate who claims you will want to see her.”

“Who is it?” She said, wearily rubbing her eyes.

“Cyrene of Poteidaia. Do you wish to see her?”

“No . . . but let her in anyway. Take her to the throne room and make sure we have privacy.” Xena instructed the Lieutenant, who nodded.

***

“Hello, mother,” Xena said as she entered the throne room and spotted the pacing woman.

“You stole my bard!”

“I didn’t realize she was your property.”

“No, of course she’s not! But she has worked for me ever since I got to Poteidaia,” Cyrene countered with irritation. “She’s been great for business, Xena. You . . . you can’t just take her!” Cyrene said, flustered.

“I gave her a choice,” Xena offered with a shrug.

“A choice? Let me guess. Either death or your way?”

“It was a choice.”

“Xena, you can’t keep doing that. . . .”

“Well, it certainly makes it easier to get my way,” Xena muttered under her breath.

“. . . . And why on Earth do you need a bard? Especially, MY bard!” Cyrene snapped, amazing her daughter.

“You said that was what I really needed!” Xena snapped back in frustration.

Cyrene looked at her daughter incredulously.
Part 2
“Come in?” Gabrielle said curiously, then smiled brightly as the older woman entered the bard’s room with the Conqueror following behind, looking down uneasily.

“CYRENE!” The bard jumped up to hug her.

“Are you all right, sweetie?” Cyrene asked, pulling back from the embrace and looking her over with concern.

“Of course I am,” Gabrielle said warmly. “I was worried what you would think about me disappearing on you. I’m really sorry about that.”

“You are not the one who should be apologizing, Gabrielle.” Cyrene responded crisply, glaring at her daughter, whose eyes were still preoccupied with the floor.

“Well, now you know where I am,” Gabrielle smiled.

“Are you ready to go home?” Cyrene asked, making the bard’s smile fade.

“Go home?” Gabrielle said in confusion, glancing at the tall warrior who could not look her in the eye.

“Xena knows you can’t stay here now. Isn’t that right, Xena?”

“You can’t stay now,” Xena repeated, briefly glancing at the bard, then to the ground in embarrassment.

“Oh,” Gabrielle said in confusion as her heart fell, not understanding why Xena was telling her to go . . . especially now. “It is good to know I still have a job in Poteidaia, then,” the bard managed a feeble joke, forcing a weak smile at the pleased older woman.

“Of course you do, sweetie. Let’s go.”

“Uh . . . Cyrene? Could I say goodbye to Xena . . . alone?”

“I’ll be right at the front gate, waiting. Don’t be long,” Cyrene said, casting a warning glare at her daughter before she left them alone.

Gabrielle looked at Xena, whose eyes seemed to want to look everywhere but at the bard.

“Well, goodbye,” Xena said briskly, briefly glancing at Gabrielle before inspecting her nails.

“Why?” Gabrielle said with poorly disguised hurt.

“Your trip ought to be more comfortable going back,” Xena offered with forced nonchalance, trying to ignore the sadness radiating from the smaller woman.

“Why are you sending me away now? I thought we were going to . . . ?” Gabrielle argued with desperation.

“The simple fact is you are a bard. And that’s not what I need,” Xena explained.

Gabrielle cringed at the painful words. The disappointment she constantly received from her family never hurt this much. “Of course you don’t,” she said, blinking back tears. “Who needs a bard?” She whispered rhetorically.

“You will be happier in Poteidaia, Gabrielle,” Xena offered, needing to try and erase that miserable look on the bard’s face.

Gabrielle laughed numbly. “Funny. I’ve been told by many people what would make me happy. The first person to actually ask was Cyrene . . .”

“She’s a good and respectable woman,” Xena said firmly. “And she cares for you.”

Gabrielle nodded weakly and steeled herself against the ache in her heart. “Xena?”

Xena nervously looked at her, not sure what she would do if tears started falling from those sad eyes.

“I want you to know, that even if you don’t need a bard, if you ever just want to talk . . . I’ll listen,” she said softly.

Xena swallowed hard and nodded uneasily at the sincere and unexpected gesture of friendship. Her heart pounded as the bard started to walk out of the room and out of her life. Towards a happier life, Xena silently repeated what her mother had told her.

The bard stopped at the door and turned back. “And Xena?” The bard motioned weakly towards the small, cozy table and said “You have my word,” before she stood tall, took a deep breath, and left.

***

Xena stood alone in the castle’s highest tower, watching her mother’s wagon riding away. She watched as the two women and the wagon grew smaller until they disappeared over the horizon.

***

For the next few hours, Cyrene occasionally glanced at the bard, who hadn’t said a work since leaving the castle.

“Are you all right, Gabrielle?” Cyrene asked, only getting a nod and a sigh from the bard, who continued to stare at the terribly empty road ahead of her.

“We’ll be home in time for dinner,” the older woman said, hoping to strike up a conversation with the usually talkative bard.

Gabrielle sighed again and nodded.

“If you aren’t up to performing tonight, I’ll understand. You’ve been through a lot the past couple days.”

“I’ll be fine, Cyrene,” Gabrielle offered with a weak smile. “The show must go on.”

“Of course, sweetie. You want to stop for lunch now?” Cyrene asked, gaining a shrug of indifference from the bard.

***

Xena sat on her throne, staring at the huge portrait of herself covering most of the wall. She used to take pride in that picture, which depicted her magnificence as she stood victoriously, with her bloody sword raised towards the heavens, her raven hair blowing in the wind, and her fiery eyes looking down at the contorted and bloody bodies of the pompous Caesar and his defeated army littering the ground. It was her most amazing victory. She had conquered the unconquerable.

She recalled the amazing high she had felt. Never had she felt so alive, until now. But this ‘alive’ was so very different. It was as if a piece of herself that had been missing had just been found. And now it was lost.

“Conqueror, am I disturbing you?” Daumas asked as he came in and bowed.

“Daumas,” Xena said wearily and sighed, waiting for the red-headed advisor to explain his presence.

“I have the scrolls on the revisions to the tax laws for your review.”

“I thought I told you to send them to my room, Daumas,” she said with irritation, getting up from her throne and walking towards another portrait of herself. It depicted her defying the Gods and defeating the half-god, Hercules.

How was she supposed to know that beautiful woman was Hercules’ wife?

Thankfully, Daumas was right there, ready to deal with the fallout. As usual, she considered with a weary sigh. And Daumas was good at what he did.

No one had learned the embarrassing story of how, out of the blue, this beautiful woman had hit on her and taken her to a remote cottage, where the Conqueror found out the woman was Hercules’ wife. The demi-god himself barged in on them kissing on his own bed. She ended up fighting the enraged husband in her shift. But because of Daumas’ quick thinking, the embarrassment became a “bold act of defiance.” She had felt bad about killing the big guy because she was, after all, groping his wife in his own bed. But he was intent on killing her and she was not about to give up her life without a fight.

“So you did, your highness. But I thought I could save you time and brief you on them. I know how you hate the drudgery of reviewing law.”

“There always seems to be changes to the laws, Daumas. Why is that?” She asked, looking at another portrait. It depicted her standing on a hill in Ithaca after a victorious battle. She didn’t feel bad about killing Ulysses. It just felt right. He slobbered when he kissed, she recalled with a shudder. Then she found out the bastard was married! Why was it that people failed to mention to her that they were married? She pondered that mystery as Daumas continued.

“The people need them, Empress. Especially, these new taxes.”

Perhaps it would help to know potential partners a bit more, Xena considered. Perhaps even ask a few questions, like “are you married?” Maybe if they learned a bit about her too, some of them wouldn’t be so afraid. She used to welcome the fear. It helped her rule, Daumas said. But fear was really putting a big crimp in her . . . you know . . . life, she considered with a heavy sigh.

Where to begin, she wondered. She really wasn’t a people-person, like Gabrielle . . . .

“The times are hard and to properly finance the government to help those people, we need to escalate the . . . . ”

“Enough!” Xena boomed with great anger, startling her advisor. “I am not in the mood to discuss taxes, Daumas. Leave,” Xena snapped, waving him away as she returned to sit on her golden throne.

“As you wish, my Lord.” He said through gritted teeth as he bowed and left.

“As I wish,” Xena whispered dejectedly to the empty room.

***

As Gabrielle filled the waterskins by the river, Cyrene unpacked the lunch and sighed. She was worried about the bard, who had barely spoken to her since leaving the castle.

Xena had no right to abduct the poor girl, who was obviously still disturbed by the experience. Xena, Xena, Xena, Cyrene thought with a heavy sigh.

“Cyreeeeene !!!”

The older woman scrambled to her feet, knocking the food to the ground as she dashed towards the river.

“Gods no!” Cyrene blurted as the two horsemen rode off into the forest with the bard.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 9 – Sisters in Arms

“Get your filthy hands off me!!” Gabrielle spat as she was thrown into a cage on a wagon, joining three other women.

“Behave, little girl, or you’ll be wishing it was just my hands on you,” the thug with a few missing teeth and bad breath hissed and left the irritated bard with her cell mates.

Gabrielle looked uncertainly at the three women, who were dressed similarly in rather revealing leather outfits. The red-headed woman smiled at her, seeming much more friendly than the other two, who had scowls on their faces. Those two frightened the bard a little bit.

“Don’t worry, they won’t touch you,” the red-headed woman responded softly.

Gabrielle’s eyebrows furrowed, glancing at the two intimidating women.

“Yeah. They don’t want to soil the merchandise and bring your price down,” the blond, curly haired woman explained.

“Great,” Gabrielle blurted, resting her head against the bars. “And I thought my day couldn’t get any worse.”

“The day isn’t over yet,” the brunette pessimist offered as the wagon began to move.

The friendly red-head, Terreis, introduced herself first, then the two women with her. Gabrielle learned the cute blond was Ephiny and the moody brunette was Solari. Then she learned where they were from.

“You’re Amazons?” Gabrielle asked with fascination as she moved to attempt to sit more comfortably on the bouncing wagon floor.

“Yes,” Ephiny said proudly.

“Wow.”

“Not exactly “wow” since we did get captured,” Solari countered, shaking her head.

“We got ambushed,” Terreis muttered with annoyance, drawing glares from the other two.

“Melosa’s gonna be really pissed,” Ephiny said, rubbing her temples.

“If you’ll remember, it wasn’t MY idea to go all the way to Athens to shop for earrings!” Solari snapped at Ephiny and they once again glared at Terreis, who rolled her eyes.

“You guys worry too much. My sister will realize we are late and send a rescue party,” Terreis said with great confidence.

“How will they know where to find you?” Gabrielle asked, doubtful.

“Amazons are the best trackers, you know,” Terreis explained to Gabrielle, who smiled with relief.

“You seem to forget what Queen Melosa said the last time we were rescued, Terreis,” Ephiny said with a sigh.

“Wait a minute, your sister is the Queen?” Gabrielle asked with amazement.

“Shhh,” Solari and Ephiny said, looking around for guards who might have overheard.

“Sorry. So that makes you a Princess?” Gabrielle whispered to Terreis, who nodded with a warm smile.

“If Melosa doesn’t kill her,” Solari blurted, getting a glare from the Princess.

“Shut up in there!” A guard rode up and banged his sword against the bars.

“No respect for his weapon,” Ephiny muttered, gaining nods from the Amazons.

***

Gabrielle noticed they were heading near a river, then the wagon stopped.

“What’s going on?” Gabrielle said with concern.

“We are going to be taken to the river to get cleaned up before we are presented to the buyers,” Solari said.

“We could escape!” Gabrielle whispered with enthusiasm, intriguing Ephiny.

“Not likely,” Solari said, making Ephiny sigh and nod reluctantly.

“Why not?”

“She can’t run,” Solari informed the bard, pointing to Terreis.

“I can too run!” Terreis snapped defensively, then reluctantly added. “Just not fast.”

“Why do you think we always get captured?” Solari offered.

“Can you swim?” Gabrielle asked Terreis, intriguing Ephiny.

“Yes!” Terreis responded happily.

***

The four women slowly walked to the river, surrounded by their six captors. Two of them were archers.

“We’re outnumbered,” Terreis whined. Solari and Ephiny looked at each other and rolled their eyes.

“We’ll have the advantage of not being bogged down with weapons or clothing,” Gabrielle offered optimistically, greatly intriguing Ephiny.

“The archers will be the most dangerous,” Solari said, getting a nod from Gabrielle, who glanced to Ephiny, who was gazing at the bard with a smile. A shy smile was returned, making Ephiny’s smile brighter.

As the women stripped down to their birthday suits, they endured wolf-whistles and disgusting suggestions from their captors.

“I’ll definitely need to take a long, hot bath after this,” Gabrielle said, intriguing Ephiny, whose eyes quickly lifted to meet beautiful green. Ephiny smiled and nodded at the genuine strawberry blond.

“The water’s cold!” Terreis complained as she dipped her big toe in the water and made a big show of rubbing her arms. Solari glared at her Princess.

As the women started to go through the motions of bathing themselves, they slowly drifted into deeper water.

With very subtle nods between the women, they took deep breaths and submerged, except for Terreis, who squeaked in panic, finding herself alone and being shot at by the archers. The other guards scurried frantically around, blaming each other for the unexpected escape attempt.

Gabrielle popped back up, next to Terreis, as an arrow came dangerously close. “I thought you said you could swim!”

“I can. You never mentioned I had to get my head wet!!!” Terreis shouted back, making the bard groan.

“Follow me or die!” Gabrielle barked, then took another deep breath, before submerging. A very reluctant Terreis took a deep breath and pinched her nose, just before the bard grabbed her and pulled her under.

More arrows were fired, piercing the water as they made their watery escape. One arrow pierced flesh.

***

Ephiny and Solari broke the surface of the swiftly moving river and gasped, filling their lungs with precious air as their bodies were carried by the strong current. They looked around with concern when they didn’t see Terreis or Gabrielle. Unable to fight the current, they had no choice but to swim to the river bank and wait for them to appear.

***

Terreis and Gabrielle finally broached the surface, gasping. They looked around for Ephiny and Solari.

“We need to get to shore,” Gabrielle said to Terreis, who struggled with her injured shoulder. “I’ll help,” the bard said and pulled them both to the river bank.

“Ow,” Terreis groaned and coughed as she was helped out of the water. She continued to gasp as she sat. Gabrielle knelt down beside her and inspected the shoulder wound.

“Thank the gods,” Gabrielle said. “It is only a small flesh wound.”

“Are you sure? It’s bleeding an awful lot, Gabrielle” Terreis said with concern, gingerly touching the area.

“Gabrielle? Terreis!” Ephiny and Solari called out as the Amazons emerged from the forest. “What happened back there?” They asked, kneeling down beside the injured Princess.

“Terreis was . . . ”

“Mortally wounded! Look! I’m bleeding!!” Terreis said with irritation, pointing to the scratch and a trace of red running down her shoulder.

“We can pack it in moss, to stop the bleeding,” Ephiny offered.

“Eeew,” Terreis said with disgust, making Solari want to strangle her.

“I’ll help you gather it,” Gabrielle said to Ephiny, who nodded.

“I guess I’ll stay here and protect the Princess,” Solari muttered to herself.

***

After a long walk into the forest, Gabrielle and Ephiny found what they were looking for. As they busily started to gather the moss, Ephiny kept glancing over at the bard. When the emerald eyes caught her, the bard flushed and looked away uncomfortably, making Ephiny feel guilty for staring.

“Sorry,” Ephiny said, clearing her throat. “So, what do you do in your spare time, when you’re not running naked through the forest?” Ephiny said to Gabrielle, who chuckled, making the Amazon smile with relief.

“Uh . . . Well, I’m a bard,” Gabrielle said hesitantly, wondering if a warrior like Ephiny would consider that a dumb career.

“Really? Amazons have a great oral tradition,” Ephiny said with a smile.

“Oh, I would love to hear Amazon tales!” Gabrielle responded enthusiastically, pleased Ephiny didn’t seem to mind her chosen profession.

“I am sure, if you want, you will get your fill of Amazon tales when we get back,” Ephiny said, glancing appreciatively over the bard.

“Wonderful!” Gabrielle gushed happily. “I can’t wait.”

***

As the two walked back to the water’s edge, they stopped their chatting when they saw Solari kneeling over Terreis, frantically shaking her. “Wake up!”

“Terreis!” Gabrielle shouted as they ran towards the downed Princess.

“What happened?” Ephiny asked Solari, who looked up from the unconscious Princess in panic.

“I don’t know! She said she was going to the forest. She was there a while, then came back. Then she just collapsed! Come on and wake up, Terreis!” Solari said, shaking her shoulders again.

“Come on Terreis, stop scaring us,” Ephiny said uneasily, gently slapping her Princess’ cheek and feeling for a pulse.

Gabrielle looked down at the Princess’ hand and saw a red smudge. Inspecting the smudge more closely, the bard noted some berries on the ground that had fallen from Terreis’ hand.

“Sweet Artemis. She’s dead,” Ephiny blurted.

——————————————————————————–

Chapter 10 – Decisions

Xena sat in the grand dining hall, alone, as she had done for many years. Though, tonight was the first time she had felt how big and empty it really was. She pushed her fork through her food and sighed heavily, having no appetite. Glancing at the small bell by her hand, she smiled slightly, remembering how indignant the bard got about the bell. She picked up the bell and weakly rang it with a sad chuckle. It was an annoying sound, she supposed, if you were on the receiving end.

“Yes, Conqueror?” Ungar quickly came in, anticipating her desire for another bottle of wine.

“I didn’t . . . ” she said and sighed, eyeing the bottle. “Leave the wine.”

“Yes, Conqueror,” he said, setting the bottle down. “Will there be anything else?”

“No . . . yes,” she quickly corrected herself, surprising him with her unusual indecision. “Here,” she said and handed him the bell. “Take it away.”

He stared at it curiously. “Do I need to repeat myself, Ungar?”

“No, Empress.” He said, clenching the bell as he bowed.

“Thank you, Ungar,” she said softly, startling the servant with the surprising manners.

“Y. . . your welcome, Empress,” he said uncomfortably, and left the Conqueror to her dinner.

She sighed and looked at the enormous, empty stage, remembering each word and each gesture of the small woman whose large presence easily filled that emptiness. Though she didn’t believe in all that mush about love, the bard seemed to, the way she told her stories. It almost made her believe too. But love was not for rulers, Daumas said. It made you weak.

She shook her head, having never felt so weak in her entire life. A tear fell. Then another, startling the ruler who had not cried since Marcus’ death many years ago. Xena cleared her throat and angrily wiped her eyes.

“I am not weak! I am the Conqueror!!”

She shot up from her seat, angrily knocking her plate and goblet to the floor.

“Palimon!!”

***

They set the raft on fire and watched the Princess’ body become engulfed in flames and taken away by the swift river.

Ephiny and Solari silently watched with great sadness. “The raft was a good idea,” Solari said to Gabrielle, who scratched under her newly made hemp and moss shorts.

“Well, the slavers may still be out there,” Gabrielle said, glancing around uneasily.

“And I’ll bet they are not pleased at having lost the dinars you would have brought them,” Ephiny said, scratching under her irritating hemp brassier.

Gabrielle blushed.

“Ephiny, may I speak with you a moment?” Solari said with worry, though the warrior was very comfortable, never having mastered weaving.

“Ok,” Ephiny eyed her uneasy friend curiously.

“Alone?”

“You don’t mind?” Ephiny asked Gabrielle, who shook her head no and watched the raft’s journey as the Amazon sisters stepped back into the forest.

“What?” Ephiny asked, scratching under her brassier again.

“What are we going to do?!?” Solari said in a stressful whisper. “She died under our care.”

“It’s not our fault! She killed herself eating the damn berries!” Ephiny blurted, then the situation sank in. “Shit.”

“Welcome to Tartarus,” Solari said and mentioned “She never gave away her Rite of Caste either.”

“SHIT!” Ephiny said again, starting to pace.

“I think we’ve already covered that,” Solari said and sighed heavily.

“Well, Melosa won’t believe it if we tell her you got it. You two never got along that well,” Ephiny said, making Solari sigh and nod.

“Yeah, but everyone knows how ambitious you are. It would look pretty suspicious if you got it.”

“Melosa knows I would never harm one hair on Terreis’ royal head!!!” Ephiny blurted indignantly.

“Yeah, but Princess Valeska would now have real competition for Queen, if anything happened to Melosa. You know she’d make things very uncomfortable for you, if not come right out and accuse you of murder. Terreis did die under our care.”

“SHIT!” Ephiny blurted and paced.

“I knew it was a mistake to accept this job. Of course, the Queen ordered us and we had no choice. But that won’t matter at our trial, if we get one. . . .”

“SHIT!”

“But there might be another option,” Solari offered, glancing back to the river’s edge.

***

After riding all night, Xena made it to Cyrene’s tavern by morning. She was going to take the bard back, the Conqueror thought with great focus as she dismounted into the deserted Poteidaian street. When she entered the tavern, she found were the people were. A crowd was gathered around her mother, who stood on the small stage.

“Group alpha will canvass the Northern roads, group beta, the South, group gamma, the East, and group delta, the West. Rubus and Perdicus will go with me back to the site and see if we can pick up their trail,” Cyrene said.

“What is going on here?” Xena demanded, eyeing the older woman, who was startled to see her.

“The Conqueror.” Some gasped with worry as the crowd made a wide berth for the dark woman who approached the tavern owner.

“Gabrielle was kidnapped by slavers,” Cyrene admitted, seeing concern, then anger flash in her daughter’s eyes.

“Show me where she was taken,” Xena said evenly, noting the older woman look around the room-full of people with concern. “Please . . . Cyrene,” Xena added softly, making Cyrene nod.

“I’ll go with you too,” Perdicus said, stepping out from the crowd as Cyrene got down from the stage with her daughter’s help.

“No. You won’t,” Xena hissed.

“Ok,” Perdicus squeaked and stepped back.

Xena stood and looked over the crowd assembled to help. “I will handsomely reward anyone who brings Gabrielle back safely,” she announced, gaining some nods and murmurs of approval from the surprised crowd. “Slavery is wrong. I will severely punish those who practice it,” she promised, provoking loud chatter from the gathering.

“What?” Xena asked with annoyance.

“Uh . . . you have slaves,” a young man mentioned nervously, scratching his head. Cyrene looked down with embarrassment. “Yeah!” another woman chimed in.

“Oh. Yeah,” Xena said uncomfortably. “Well, that’s gonna stop. But right now, we must save Gabrielle!!” She said, thrusting her fist into the air, provoking a cheer before the groups left on their mission.

***

“Rite of Caste?” Gabrielle repeated curiously as they sat down by the small camp fire. “No . . . ” the bard responded thoughtfully, shaking her head. “No, I really don’t recall Terreis mentioning anything to me about that.”

Ephiny and Solari looked at each other uncomfortably. “Well, it’s not really spoken about aloud, you see,” Solari explained with a shrug. “But she did give it to you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely,” Solari said, then smiled uneasily.

“She did?” Gabrielle asked flatly.

Ephiny swallowed hard when curious green eyes looked at her expectantly. The Amazon smiled weakly.

“All right, what’s really going on here?” Gabrielle asked suspiciously, looking between the guilty looking Amazons.

“Nothing,” Solari said. Gabrielle eyed Ephiny, who quickly crumbled.

“TerreisdiedunderourcareandnevergaveawayherRiteofCaste. Wearegonnabekilledif wedon’thaveagoodstorythatsomeonereceivedit,” Ephiny blurted. Gabrielle blinked.

“Huh?”

“FUCK FUCK FUCK!!!” Ephiny blurted and stormed away from their camp.

“Ephiny! Wait!” Solari got up and started to go after her friend but felt a surprisingly firm grip on her arm.

“Solari, please, tell me what is going on,” Gabrielle asked.

***

“Why did you come back?” Cyrene finally asked her daughter as they rode side-by-side in search of Gabrielle.

“To talk to her,” Xena said, which was partially true.

“To take her back, you mean,” Cyrene accused with irritation. “Honestly, Xena, I don’t know where you’ve learned to be so selfish.”

“Try looking in a mirror, Mother,” Xena said coldly. Cyrene wanted to respond, but sighed, realizing the truth in Xena’s words.

***

“Oh dear,” Gabrielle said, pacing. “But she was the one who ate those berries,” the bard argued.

“But we were the ones protecting her,” Solari said with a heavy sigh.

“How can you be expected to protect her from herself?” Gabrielle asked incredulously. “You’d have to lock her up!”

“Don’t think we didn’t think about that,” Solari blurted, shaking her head.

“I understand your problem, Solari, but I really don’t feel right lying about this.”

“You don’t have to lie. We’ll lie for you. We’ll just say you don’t want to talk about it. That would be the truth, wouldn’t it?”

“I guess. But not saying anything and accepting something like that . . . would be a lie.”
“You don’t have to keep it. You can give it back after we get back to the territory and get through this problem. No harm, no foul,” Solari said with a shrug, glancing back at the forest uneasily.

“I . . . I don’t know.” Gabrielle said hesitantly.

“Please. You don’t want to see us get killed because of Terreis’ mistake, do you?”

“Of course not.”

“It’s the only way, Gabrielle,” Solari said. “Please help us. We need you.”

Gabrielle looked at the Amazon, unable to refuse the plea for help.

——————————————————————————–

Chapter 11 – A Friend In Need

“It was here,” Cyrene said, pointing to the clearing by the river.

Xena crouched down to inspect the ground, where hoof-marks were deeply imbedded in the moist soil.

“They went into the forest over there,” Cyrene offered, pointing. Xena nodded and stood up with narrowed eyes. If those slavers harm one hair . . . .

“I should have done something, chased after them. She doesn’t deserve this,” the older woman bemoaned, wincing with guilt.

“You would have been killed or captured, mother,” Xena said, then added, “But you’re right. Gabrielle doesn’t deserve a life of slavery. She doesn’t deserve someone telling her what to do,” the Conqueror said softly. “Or someone manipulating her feelings to get her to do what they want,” Xena added, glancing at her mother.

“Are you saying I did that?!?” Cyrene asked defensively.

“Are you saying you didn’t?” Xena said, looking critically at her mother, whose eyes dropped guiltily. “Mother, no one is innocent here . . . except Gabrielle,” Xena added and sighed heavily.

“Why did you come back, Xena?” Cyrene probed cautiously, eyeing her daughter.

“To do exactly what you said, to take her back,” Xena admitted stiffly. “But I’d be just like those bastards, wouldn’t I? Taking away her choice, as I did before. She doesn’t deserve that,” Xena said with a heavy heart.

“You really do care for her,” Cyrene said with amazement, making her daughter stiffen uncomfortably.

“It really doesn’t matter,” Xena said briskly. “I hurt her. The best I can hope for is that she lives a long life . . . despising me.”

“You know she isn’t like that,” Cyrene softly scolded her daughter with a small smile. “And I don’t think she would have been hurt, if she didn’t care for you too. So stop wallowing in your self-pity, Xena. You’ve got a bard to save.”

***

The next morning, the three women finally made it to Amazon territory. They looked at each other as they heard the loud duck calls.

“Big ducks,” Gabrielle noted, looking around curiously.

“Put your arms up in the air, like this,” Ephiny said with urgency, clasping her hands and holding them above her head as Solari did. Gabrielle nodded and quickly mimicked the action.

Four Amazons descended from the treetops and gracefully landed in front of the trio.

Gabrielle eyed the tallest Amazon, who stood proudest and fiercest. She was almost as tall as Xena, the bard noted, then felt a pang of sadness.

“I’m sure there’s a good explanation for this,” Valeska said, crossing her arms over her chest as she eyed the unfamiliar woman in a crude hemp outfit that matched Ephiny’s, then Solari, who apparently felt the chilly breeze.

“We have grave news about Princess Terreis, your highness,” Solari announced.

Valeska’s eyebrows shot up with interest.

***

“Are you saying SHE was given the Rite of Caste?” Melosa blurted with amazement, eyeing the uneasy bard, who was scratching herself beneath her hemp top.

Ephiny, who scratched the waist beneath the hemp bottom and nodded with Solari, who apparently wasn’t as cold in the hut.

Valeska snorted with amusement, eyeing the petite and nervous blond with disgust. Terreis would pick someone like a bard, she shook her head.

Gabrielle cringed at the contempt radiating from the Princess.

“Your highness,” Solari said. “The bard bravely pulled the injured Princess to shore. But alas, the Princess died anyway.”

“Why were you swimming? Terreis was never a good swimmer,” Melosa asked the bard pointedly.

Gabrielle cleared her throat. “I . . . I had suggested we attempt to escape from the slavers while we were bathing,” she said, impressing Melosa with her ingenuity.

“I asked the Princess if she could swim and she said yes.”

“She would.” Melosa sank down on her throne, shaking her head with a heavy sigh. “She was always sensitive about her lack of athletic ability. I knew one day it would kill her,” the Queen said sadly.

“Queen Melosa, I am no warrior,” Gabrielle began uneasily. “I do not deserve such a great honor as Terreis’ Rite of Caste. I think it would be best if I gave it to Ephiny or Solari. I would not want to dishonor Terreis’ memory or the Nation.”

Valeska quickly opened her mouth in protest but Melosa silenced her with a wave of a hand. Ephiny looked over to Solari in confusion. The brunette Amazon had told her the bard agreed to be an Amazon Princess and stay in the village. She even said the bard really, really liked her. Could that be a lie too?

“Princess Gabrielle,” Melosa said. “You do understand, that to give your title away, you have to die?”

“Uh, no,” Gabrielle said uneasily, trying not to faint. “No, I can’t say that I really understood that part,” the bard said, then glared at Solari, as did Ephiny.

“So now that you do understand, do you still desire to give the Rite of Caste away, Princess Gabrielle?” Melosa asked.

“Uh, no. Un uh. I’m fine here,” Gabrielle said briskly, then glanced at the imposing Amazon, Valeska, who continued to eye her with contempt.

“Well, then,” Melosa said, standing up. “We shall have a ceremony to bid my sister goodbye and my new sister welcome.”

***

“She really has spunk, you know. I should have sensed she was your type. And of course, you already know she’s very pretty,” Cyrene said with a warm smile as they followed the deep trail of wagon wheels, reminding the Conqueror why she never really talked to her mother.

***

“Thank the Gods I’ll at least be in comfortable clothing when I die,” Gabrielle said as she inspected her skimpy leather outfit. “Though, I might catch a cold first.” She added, touching her bare stomach.

“You’re not going to die,” Ephiny said uneasily and started to apologize again. “You are not a threat to Valeska’s position. She’s Melosa’s heir.”

“She’s Melosa’s daughter?? Isn’t she a little old?”

“She was adopted.”

“Still. . . .”

“The point is Princess, that you’ll be fine. . . .” Ephiny stressed.

“Unless they find out we lied,” Solari blurted out as she barely entered the Princess’ hut. Ephiny jumped at her, tightly wrapping her hands around Solari’s neck. “Blech!!”

“Ephiny, no!” Gabrielle said, grabbing the furious Amazon’s arms.

“Uufpt!!”

“Why not? She tricked you. She tricked ME. She probably fed Terreis those berries, for all we know,” Ephiny growled, reluctantly releasing her grip around the brunette’s throat, after the gentle coaxing of the bard.

“I did NOT feed Terreis those BERRIES!” Solari sputtered with a ragged breath. “And even if I didn’t like her much, I would never harm her or any Princess.”

“That’s good to know,” Gabrielle said, wishing she had assurance Valeska felt the same way.

***

“But you really don’t have anything to worry about. . . .” Cyrene said to her numb daughter, who rode silently, staring blankly at the road ahead.

Kill me.

” . . . Perdicus is a really sweet boy who has always had a huge crush on her, even when they were toddlers,” her mother continued with a smile.

Kill me now.

” . . . but he never really turned her head, well, except perhaps to look for an escape route.” Cyrene snorted a laugh.

Xena looked up to the sky and blinked. If that’s too much to ask, just make me deaf.

” . . . Oh, did I mention, her all-time favorite food is nut bread?” Cyrene asked warmly, waiting for a response.

Xena slowly turned her head, smiled thinly at her mother, and weakly shook her head no. She could just take her own life, and be done with it. But then, that would just be giving up. And while she might be many things, she was NOT a quitter. I’d rather die than do that!

Her eyebrows furrowed a moment. Whatever. . . .

“Well, it is. Though, she really isn’t picky about food as long as she’s fed enough,” Cyrene said with a chuckle. “Though you really wouldn’t know how big her appetite is from her figure, which I’m sure you’ve noticed. Haven’t you dear?” Cyrene said with a smirk, winking at her cringing daughter.

Ok. What if I just make up for every bad thing I ever did? Xena looked up again to the still-silent, clear-blue sky.

“She is a real cutie, isn’t she?”

Please?

“Oh, little one! Look up there,” Cyrene said with excitement, pointing at the wagon on the road ahead of them. It contained a large cage on the back with two prisoners inside.

“Thank you!” Xena blurted with relief as four riders quickly rode towards them.

“What wa . . . ?” Cyrene started to ask as Xena eagerly pulled her sword from its sheath and raced to meet the slavers.

***

The slavers were easily and quickly defeated by the skilled warrior, who didn’t even break a sweat.

Heavily bruised and incredibly sore, they nervously waited on their knees by the wagon. While the Conqueror hadn’t killed them, that did not mean they were better off. They had been slaving without the many expensive permits. And they had heard all those stories about what she personally did to those who failed to pay their enormous taxes . . . .

“Well done, dear. You didn’t even kill one of them,” Cyrene said as she galloped up.

“Thanks, mom,” Xena said with a bit of pride as she went to the back of the wagon. With a swift motion, the hilt of her sword smashed the lock, opening the cage.

The two prisoners in the back looked at the woman warrior uncertainly.

“Go on, you’re free,” Xena announced as she glanced at the slavers with contempt.

The women jumped out of the back and stared at the dark woman. “You’re the . . . the Conqueror?”

Xena sighed and nodded, causing the women to drop to their knees. “Get up,” Xena said with irritation, not having time for this foolishness.

“Yes, your highness,” they said with bowed heads.

“Go home,” Xena said and turned to the slavers, who trembled with fear.

“Why?” One of the women timidly asked. The soft voice reminded her of the bard’s.

“Because that’s where you live . . . ??” Xena turned and eyed her as if the woman was daft.

“No, why are you helping us?” She asked curiously. Cyrene smiled proudly, waiting for her suddenly uncomfortable daughter to answer.

“Enslaving you would take too much time right now! Go home now, before I change my mind!!” Xena snapped, startling the two women who looked at each other before they ran away.

Cyrene sighed and shook her head. Her daughter still had a long way to go.

Xena stood before the shaking slavers, eyeing their apparent leader.

“All right, there’s a girl, who is about this high,” Xena said, holding her hand at her collarbone. “Who has strawberry blond hair . . . that kind of sparkles in the candle light . . . like fine gold,” Xena said thoughtfully, surprising Cyrene. The slavers looked at each other curiously and shrugged, shaking their heads no.

“Her eyes, well, they’re a rich green, like emeralds. And when she looks at you, it’s like she can see right through all the crap and really see what. . . .”

“Xena, dear?” Cyrene interrupted.

“What?!?”

Cyrene discreetly motioned for her to hurry up.

“If you think you can describe her any better, then be my guest!” Xena snapped, causing Cyrene to sigh.

“All right, dear.” Cyrene turned to the head slaver and smiled politely. “Did you happen to capture a blond young woman with an ugly peasant dress by the river?” Cyrene asked bluntly, as the slavers’ eyes lit up with recognition.

“Oh! The one with the icky blue top?” the head slaver asked as the others nodded, remembering that dress.

“It wasn’t that ugly,” Xena muttered guiltily, knowing she should have gotten the bard a better dress.

“What happened to her?” Cyrene asked.

“She escaped with the Amazons.”

“What! Tell me what happened! And don’t you dare leave out any details or . . . !” Xena threatened and roughly grabbed the head slaver’s shirt but was interrupted by her mother, who cleared her throat. Loudly.

Xena growled with irritation, glancing back to the older woman, who had that “be nice” glare. Xena wearily sighed, stood up, and walked to her mother. “Have a minute?” She asked with a thin smile.

“Of course, d . . . ” Cyrene said warmly as Xena grabbed her arm and quickly walked them away from the curious slavers. “. . .ear.”

“Mom,” Xena growled angrily, then took a calming breath as she quickly counted to ten. “You do realize that when you threaten someone, it kind of ruins the effect if you’re nice, right?”

“But why must you threaten them?”

“It’s more efficient.” And kinda fun.

“But they’ve answered our questions so far. Is it really necessary to be “Evil Xena” all the time?”

“Mom, fear is a powerful tool.”

“Would it really be so horrible if you smiled more?”

“The Empire would be far more difficult to manage if people thought I was a. . . .”

“But honey, you have such a pretty smile.”

“. . . pushover.”

“Please, won’t you at least try to smile more, dear?”

Xena blinked at her. Her mother never asked her for anything, even though she could give her a country or two. Xena sighed with a furrowed brow. I’d rather give her a country.

Slowly, a grimace filled Xena’s face and she returned to the slavers. Her attempt at a polite smile managed to disturb the men far more than any threat. As she requested, they told her all about the escape.

Cyrene looked on, smiling approvingly that her daughter got someone to spill their guts without a sword.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 12 – The Princess Bard

On the royal platform, Gabrielle nervously sat on Melosa’s left and Valeska sat proudly on the Queen’s right. The Amazon village and neighboring tribes stood before them, at attention. It was a truly impressive sight, Gabrielle considered. These are the kind of women that would impress even the Conqueror, she thought with a depressed sigh.

Melosa rose and turned to the newest Amazon. “Rise, Princess Gabrielle,” she said.

Gabrielle stood and faced the Queen, glancing at Princess Valeska, fearing that those cold, hateful eyes reflected what was in the Amazon Princess’ heart.

“You have been given Terreis’ Rite of Caste, an honor that has elevated you to Amazon royalty,” Melosa announced grandly to the quiet crowd.

Valeska rolled her eyes. They’ll make anyone royalty these days. . . .

“And, as Terreis was my blood sister, I give you my silver arm band, designating you as next in line upon my death,” Melosa said, pulling off her arm band and displaying it to the gasping crowd.

Gabrielle was already overwhelmed with becoming Amazon royalty under the stressful circumstances. But she was now ranked above Valeska? She could feel the tension grow tenfold with that statement as well as the hatred emanating from the woman.

“Oh no,” Ephiny blurted to Solari, who cringed with panic. They, like everyone else in the Amazon crowd around them, focused on Valeska, whose face was red with anger.

“Should anyone object . . . .”

“I most certainly object!” Valeska said as she quickly got to her feet and came face-to-face with the nervous bard.

“She is not an Amazon! She is not a warrior! She is JUST A BARD! How could . . . .”
“Now WAIT just a DAMN minute!” Gabrielle snapped, poking the taller Amazon in the chest.

“I am not JUST a bard.”

Poke.

“I’m the BEST . . .”

Poke.

“DAMN BARD…”

Poke poke.

“. . . you’ll ever HEAR!” Gabrielle spat at the stunned taller woman. “And if Queen Melosa wants to make me, a mere bard, second in command, she’ll make me, a MERE bard, second in command! Isn’t that right, Queen Melosa?” She looked at Melosa, who nodded and smiled with amusement.

“Well then . . . ” Gabrielle cleared her throat, somewhat embarrassed by her angry outburst as she gingerly withdrew her finger. “Please continue, Princess Valeska,” Gabrielle said with a polite smile for the woman who was still stunned speechless. “Continue, if you still wish to second-guess the wisdom of your Queen,” Gabrielle added and stepped back with a small bow.

“Wow,” Ephiny uttered with amazement.

“Stop drooling,” Solari said, glancing around at the crowd who also appeared impressed with the newest addition to the tribe.

“Oh, why don’t you put some clothes on,” Ephiny snapped.

Solari frowned and glanced down at herself, wondering what Ephiny’s problem was.

“A royal objection to a Queen’s selection of a second must be dealt with by the counsel,” Valeska said firmly.

“I am aware of Amazon law, Princess Valeska,” Melosa said evenly, not surprised by the objection.

“Uh, what Amazon law? What counsel? What . . . ” Gabrielle asked nervously.

“All will be explained soon enough,” Melosa interjected. The bard’s eyebrows furrowed unhappily. “For now, you have proven your Amazon spirit, Princess Gabrielle,” Melosa said with an approving smile. “Welcome to the tribe,” Melosa said warmly, heartily clapping the bard on her back, propelling her a few steps forward as the Amazons began to cheer.

Gabrielle smiled weakly as she awkwardly waved to the crowd.

Valeska growled and stormed off the platform as a small, loyal group followed.

“She is spoiled and used to getting her way, Gabrielle. But she’ll eventually learn the wisdom of my choice,” Melosa quietly informed the bard.

“Uh huh.” Gabrielle said, not yet seeing the wisdom herself.

***

The sun set over Amazonia as the large bonfire was lit in the center of the village, signaling the beginning of the celebration. Music filled the night as women sang and danced to the rhythms of the drums which carried upon the evening breeze for miles.

At the edge of the territory, Cyrene and Xena could hear the faint beating sound. “A celebration,” Cyrene said to her daughter, who nodded.

Hearing duck calls, the skilled warrior quietly informed her mother “they’re not really ducks, they’re . . . .” Xena stopped when she found Cyrene already raising her clasped hands over her head in the Amazon signal of peace.

Amazons quickly descended from the trees in ceremonial masks and confronted the two travelers.

“Who trespasses on Amazon land!” One bold Amazon barked.

“The Empress of the Known World does not trespass on her own land!” Xena roared.

“What does the Conqueror want with us?” The once bold Amazon asked, swallowing uneasily.

Xena eyed the woman with irritation and almost growled, just to see her jump, but her mother put a calming hand on her forearm.

“Take off your masks. I want to see the faces of those who speak with me,” Xena ordered. “Unless you are hideously ugly or something,” she added with amusement.

The women awkwardly removed their masks.

“We are looking for a woman named Gabrielle,” Xena said, growing concerned when the Amazons glanced at each other uneasily.

***

“Is this a peace pipe?” Gabrielle asked, as she was handed a long, intricately carved pipe by the Amazon named Eponin. The bard sat in a circle with a group of high-ranking Amazons as the junior warriors danced tirelessly about the fire.

“You could say that,” Eponin smiled, encouraging the bard to smoke it. “Henbane makes you VERY peaceful.”

“By any chance, has Valeska smoked it?” Gabrielle asked getting chuckles from the relaxed women. “I really don’t smoke,” Gabrielle said politely, trying to pass the pipe to the next Amazon.

“It would be rude to refuse,” Eponin said.

“But, I really don’t. . . .” Gabrielle started to respond but stopped when the relaxed women suddenly clenched their weapons and sprang to their feet as the drums stopped beating.

“Sheesh, I’ll smoke it already,” the bard said with irritation and took a long puff and coughed. “Gods!” She wheezed as the Amazons nervously turned to the camp’s edge.

“Hey, what’s going on, you guys?” Gabrielle asked, starting to feel more relaxed than she had in a long time. Taking another long puff, she coughed again, looking up at the group of warriors standing around her. “Guys?”

Well, this is great. I’m a Princess, second-in-command even, and no one wants to answer my question. What kind of outfit is this? Gabrielle took another puff and started to crawl on her hands and knees to look through the Amazons’ legs. But she couldn’t see what was going on because too many legs were in the way. She sighed and looked up with mild irritation as she took another puff.

Whoa!! I guess quite a few Amazons prefer going commando don’t they? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised considering Solari. The bard giggled and tried to see through the Amazon legs again, but couldn’t. Gabrielle looked up with a sigh. Oh, there’s Solari! I wonder if anyone told her what a fascinating birthmark she has. Oh, and look at that pretty tattoo on that firm butt over there.

Actually, they all seem pretty darn firm.

Gabrielle frowned.

***

Xena and her mother approached the Amazon Queen surrounded by her entourage.

“Conqueror,” Queen Melosa said tightly with a respectful nod.

“Queen Melosa,” Xena responded and added “this is Cyrene of Poteidaia.” She curiously noted the glances exchanged between her mother and the Queen.

“To what do we owe this honor?”

“I am looking for a friend,” Xena said.

“You’re looking in the wrong place,” Valeska responded coldly, eyeing the Empress, who responded with a cold smile.

“Valeska!” Melosa snapped. “Your disrespect will not be tolerated.”

“Yes, Queen Melosa,” Valeska hissed, bowing her head slightly.

“What is the celebration for?” Xena asked curiously, looking over the crowd of tense warriors, whose eyes were all fixed on her.

“To welcome our new sister and Princess, who needs a few lessons on royal protocol,” Melosa said with a little irritation as she turned to the crowd. “Princess Gabrielle! Come and greet our honored guest.”

“Princess Gabrielle?” Xena and Cyrene uttered with surprise as they looked at each other, then eagerly scanned the crowd for a glimpse of their friend, who would no doubt have one interesting story to share about her adventure.

Ephiny eyed the Conqueror suspiciously, then turned back to escort her Princess.

“Gabrielle is your . . . ?” Melosa asked the Conqueror, who firmly completed her sentence “FRIEND.”

That certainly complicates things, Valeska thought, eyeing the round weapon on the Empress’ hip with interest.

“Princess Gabrielle?” Ephiny turned to see the princess sitting on her hip, intently inspecting her butt. An angry glare was thrown at Eponin, who shrugged.

“Ephiny!” Gabrielle exhaled happily, looking up at her friend with a big smile.

“You have to get up now,” Ephiny said.

“OK! Weee!” Gabrielle said as Eponin and Ephiny helped the Princess up. “Oh! Psst! Psst!” The suddenly anxious bard blurted into Ephiny’s ear. The Amazon looked at her questioningly as she wiped away the moisture. “Is my butt firm?” Gabrielle asked in a loud whisper.

“Uh, I’d say so, your highness. Very.”

“Whew,” Gabrielle said and smiled broadly as she was taken to greet the visitors. But what about my abs?

Xena and Cyrene watched as the bard, who was curiously looking at her stomach, was helped towards them. Something wasn’t right, they each thought, looking at each other with concern.

“My apologies Conqueror, our Amazons and new princess have been celebrating like they fight – hard. Perhaps tomorrow we will have a more appropriate welcome for our distinguished guests,” Melosa said with irritation.

“Gabrielle, are you OK?” Xena asked with concern.

Hearing a familiar voice, Gabrielle’s head snapped up from her inspection to find mesmerizing blue eyes and a face that made the bard’s heart pound.

“By the gods! You are beautiful,” Gabrielle gushed, making the Conqueror blush as she self-consciously glanced at the curious Amazons. Xena had been told she was beautiful before, but never by someone who wasn’t trying to get something from her, except her mother and Marcus the food taster.

Ephiny glanced to the ground with great irritation.

“Uh. . . .” Xena said, shyly glancing over the bard and her disturbingly becoming leather outfit, and mumbled the answer to her own question. “You look ok.”

“Oh Xena! What a sweet thing to say!”

“I guess a lot has happened since you left Xena’s castle, Princess,” Cyrene offered with a grin.

“Cyrene!” Gabrielle blurted happily with a big smile. “You have nooooo idea!!” The bard’s smile quickly faded. “Poor Terreis. She died,” the bard princess said with great sadness. “They made me Princess. Someone had to do it. Oh! This is all just a horrible, horrible mis . . . . ,” she moaned guiltily, drawing a curious gaze from Valeska.

“Princess Gabrielle!” Ephiny interrupted. “You look exhausted. Perhaps you should retire to your hut?”

“OK!” Gabrielle said agreeably, suddenly happy again.

——————————————————————————–

Chapter 13 – A Good Friend

As Ephiny started to escort Gabrielle back to her hut, Xena stepped up. “I’ll see to my friend,” Xena growled.

Gabrielle smiled and turned to Xena.

“No need, Conqueror. I will tend to my Princess,” Ephiny said tightly.

Gabrielle smiled and turned towards Ephiny.

“It was not a request,” Xena said coldly, making Ephiny very uncomfortable.

Gabrielle yawned and turned towards Xena.

“Xena,” Queen Melosa said with warning.

Gabrielle rubbed her eyes and turned to Melosa.

“Princess Gabrielle is Amazon royalty now, not your bed warmer. You will get a fight if you think otherwise.” Gabrielle’s eyes widened.

Cyrene cringed but held her tongue.

“I am only going to remind you and your Amazons once,” Xena snarled at Melosa, who stood her ground, almost without flinching. “Your nation exists because I allow it. I will not be spoken to as if I must honor any of your customs. I am your Empress,” Xena said angrily. “If you choose to forget that the next time you speak, your nation will be no more.”

Valeska stepped angrily towards the Conqueror, unafraid. The cocky Amazon did not believe the incredible battlefield stories of hundreds being felled by the Conqueror’s sword alone. What glory there would be in defeating the Conqueror, she thought. Empress Valeska. What a nice ring, she mused. Even better than “Queen.”

“Just. Try. Something,” Xena growled with a feral grin, making the Amazon hesitate.

“Valeska!!” Melosa snapped. “Xena!!” Cyrene called out.

“Whoa people! People! Can’t we just smoke the peace pipe and be friends?” Gabrielle said. “You too,” she added, glancing at Valeska, who snarled at the blond pest.

“Queen Melosa, Xena has never ever, ever, done anything improper,” Gabrielle announced, blinking at the fuzzy woman. “Well, except abduct me against my will, throw me over Argo like a sack of potatoes, and scare the beegeebees out of me. But she never harmed me and she let me go,” Gabrielle declared and added sadly “she just didn’t need a bard.”

Xena grimaced. The way she told it, it all sounded kind of bad.

“So you see, she’s just a friend.”

Xena glanced at the bard, wincing slightly. I should be happy she doesn’t despise me. Why am I not?

“As I said before, Amazon. I’ll see to my friend,” Xena said, glaring at Ephiny, who looked to her Queen. Getting a nod, the Amazon stepped back reluctantly. Xena looked at Gabrielle and asked softly. “Where’s your hut?”

Gabrielle smiled and looked around happily. “I don’t know,” she responded and looked straight up. “How many stars do you think there are, Xena?”

***

The brooding Ephiny begrudgingly pointed to the hut, prompting Xena to quickly redirect Gabrielle towards her quarters.

“Look! They gave me my very own hut!” Gabrielle said enthusiastically.

“I can see that,” Xena said with amusement as she opened the door for Gabrielle, who entered. Xena and her mother followed the giddy bard.

“I never had anything like this before,” she said with awe. “Oh and did you notice the new clothes they gave me?” Gabrielle said, plopping on the mattress.

“Yes,” Xena croaked, trying not to notice them too much more, which was difficult since the bards’ hands were now rubbing over her bare stomach. That peasant dress was certainly much less . . . distracting, Xena considered.

“Aren’t you cold?” Xena said, grabbing a blanket and offering it to the bard.

Cyrene smirked at her daughter’s discomfort.

“No. You know this leather is much more comfortable than hemp and moss. Have you ever worn hemp and moss clothes, Xena?”

“Nope. Never have.” She responded, eyeing the fascinating . . . table. Look at that finish. Amazon workmanship isn’t half bad.

“It’s not very comfortable.”

“I can imagine,” Xena said as her eyes drifted back to the bard’s body and winced at her not very helpful imagination. Averting her eyes, she glanced at her mother and found an amused smile. Bitch.

“Though the hemp was better than being naked. People stare when you’re naked. How can you possibly be comfortable then?” Gabrielle stretched with a yawn.

Look! Those chairs! Boy, they have . . . magnificent legs. Oh GODs.

“Depends entirely on who is doing the staring, sweetie,” Cyrene offered helpfully, getting a glare from her daughter. “Perhaps I’ll go see the sights. Don’t worry about me, children. I’ll find a place to sleep. Wouldn’t want to crowd you two,” she said with a wink at her uneasy daughter.

Cyrene stepped outside and noticed the Amazon escort lingering outside uncertainly. “She’ll always be safe with Xena,” she offered softly.

Ephiny looked at the hut skeptically then at the confident older woman. With a sigh, she reluctantly left.

The Amazon drums started again. Cyrene smiled as she headed towards the infectious beat.

***

“Xena?” Gabrielle asked as Xena poured the bard a cup of water.

“Hmm?”

“Why are you here? Did you get lost or something?”

“Well, I . . . ”

“Oh! You know, I was thinking. . . .”

“I’m impressed,” Xena said dryly as she pulled up one of those well-crafted chairs and handed the bard the water, while admiring . . . the blanket on the bed . . . with the fine weaving.

“Funny. No, I was! How did you know I was thirsty? You seem to always know what I need,” Gabrielle gushed with great appreciation before taking a big gulp.

“You said something about thinking?” Xena said with amusement.

“OH, yes! I think your dinner date must have had some berries. You know, I’m kind of hungry,” Gabrielle blurted.

“Huh?”

“Hungry? As in I’m starving! There goes my theory about you knowing what I need.” Gabrielle sighed heavily and stretched her surprisingly fit body as she yawned. “But I guess you’d have to read my mind. And I don’t know how I’d feel about you knowing what I’m thinking.”

Xena blinked, grateful the bard didn’t know what she was thinking, then quickly retrieved an apple from a basket on the table and handed it to the bard.

“Thanks!” Gabrielle said and crunched into the fruit. “MMMMMmmm. This really hits the spot,” she gushed, as Xena watched the juice dribble from the bard’s lips and onto the top of her right breast.

“Oops,” Gabrielle said, wiping the juice away with a giggle. “That felt kinda cold.”

Xena quickly reached for the finely woven blanket again and offered it to the bard.

“No thanks, I’m kinda hot.” Gabrielle responded.

Xena looked at her a moment, then blinked and cleared her throat. “Uh, what was that about berries??”

“So what was her name?” Gabrielle challenged with annoyance.

“Whose name?”

“You know, what’s-her-face! The woman who actually liked my story that night. Honestly, Xena, you really should make an effort to at least know their names. I’m just saying, Terreis died from poison berries. She ate them and bam! She’s dead. She looked fine, except for being dead.” Gabrielle’s eyes suddenly started to water.

“Oh Xena! This is such a mess!!!” She started to bawl and reached out.

Xena suddenly found the bard in her lap, clinging onto her for dear life. Awkwardly, Xena’s arms embraced the smaller woman, whose body shook with sobs. “Shhhhh, it will be OK, Gabrielle. Shhhhhh.” Xena attempted to soothe her. She hesitantly patted the bard’s back as if afraid she might break the smaller woman. After a few moments, she felt the bard calm and relax in her arms.

Xena’s eyes closed a moment as she enjoyed the rare feeling of peace she had holding the woman who had become her friend. Her peace was short-lived, however, when her eyes opened and she noticed the bard’s fingers absently tracing over her breastplate swirls and heading for the scar over her left breast.

“Uh, SLEEP. You should sleep, Gabrielle,” Xena said nervously, lifting the bard, and quickly deposited her on the bed. “You’ll feel better in the morning.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever feel better,” Gabrielle muttered, reluctantly letting go.

“What’s wrong?”

“Everything. . . .” Gabrielle said, falling asleep as her head hit the pillow.

***

In the early afternoon, the bard stirred awake and saw the woman she dreamed about, sitting in the chair by her bed.

“Xena?”

“Good afternoon, Gabrielle,” the tall warrior said with a small smile.

“You really are here,” Gabrielle said with amazement as she sat up. “Oh my GODS!” Her hands shot up to her throbbing temples.

Xena smirked. “That’s what smoking henbane will do for you.”

“The least you could do is have SOME sympathy, ugh!”

“Why? You did it to yourself, you know.”

“Did you come here just to pick on me?” She said with irritation, wincing at her throbbing head.

“No. That would be too easy. Drink this,” Xena said, offering a cup.

“What is it?” Gabrielle didn’t touch the cup, but looked in it suspiciously.

“Hair of the dog.”

“Isn’t that just for hangovers? What’s in it? It really doesn’t contain dog hair does it?” She blurted uneasily, sniffing it. “Eeeck.”

“Just trust me.”

Without any more argument, Gabrielle sighed, took the cup, and drank the liquid. It was a simple gesture of trust for Gabrielle, but to the Conqueror, it was a rare gift.

“Ahhhhh,” the bard sighed with relief, starting to feel much better. “Thank you, Xena,” she said softly.

“You’re welcome.”

“But it still stinks,” Gabrielle added stubbornly, getting a grin from the warrior. “So, why are you here?”

“To rescue you from slavers?” Xena admitted uneasily, seeing Gabrielle’s eyes widen with amazement. “Guess I’m a little late,” Xena said with an embarrassed chuckle and shrug as she started to get up from her chair. A soft hand on her forearm stopped her as effectively as if she had collided into a stone wall.

Incredible worry and turmoil emanated from the young bard, making the Empress want to fix whatever it was.

“I know I have no right to ask . . . ” Gabrielle said with difficulty, not wanting to involve the Empress in her self-inflicted problems but she needed to talk to someone. And as odd as it all was, the Empress of the Known World, whom she had known for only a few days, actually seemed to care about her . . . a mere bard. And that fact gave her hope.

Xena looked deeply into Gabrielle’s eyes. “Ask, and it’s yours, Gabrielle.”

The intensity of the offer startled Gabrielle, prompting Xena to awkwardly add “I mean, we’re friends, right?”

“Yes. I hope we still can be,” Gabrielle said guiltily as her eyes started to water again.

Damn! Not again. Gotta stop those tears.

“Gabrielle, I can’t help if you don’t tell me what’s making you so upset.”

Gabrielle bit her lip and admitted the horrible truth. “I never received the Rite of Caste.” Sobbing once again, the bard instinctively sought comfort in the Conqueror’s embrace.

“Uh . . .” Xena said, finding the bard in her lap once again, though this time she was confident she could provide comfort without breaking her. “What happened?”

“We were escaping the slavers in the river when Terreis got a nick on her shoulder from one of their arrows. When we got ashore, Ephiny and I went to get moss to stop the bleeding. When we returned with the moss, she was dead.”

“From the berries?” Xena said, gently caressing the bard’s back.

The Empress felt Gabrielle nod.

“Then why did you let Melosa think . . . ?”

“I had no choice!” Gabrielle blurted, pulling back to explain. “Ephiny and Solari were supposed to keep Terreis from harm – but she died in their care. They would be killed if Melosa finds out. Valeska already hates me. Now that I’m second in command – she’ll want to kill me too!”

“I’ll kill her first.” Simple, problem solved.

“Xena, no.”

Xena’s brows furrowed. “I will not sit by and have someone threaten you.”

“Thank you,” Gabrielle said warmly, feeling . . . safe. “But she’s just angry. And she has every right to be. She should be second. She’s Melosa’s heir.”

“Isn’t she a little old to be . . . ?”

“She’s adopted.”

“Still. . . .”

“The point is Xena, you can’t kill her when I’m the one at fault here.”

“This isn’t your fault! If anyone is to blame, it’s Terreis. What you can and cannot eat in the forest is one of the first things Amazon toddlers learn!”

“Xena, I have to take responsibility,” Gabrielle said firmly, gaining a frown from the Empress. “But I don’t want to be responsible for two deaths,” the bard added and stood up.

The Destroyer of Nations, who was struggling to understand this particular dilemma, offered, “You could just leave. I’ll take you back to the castle,” but saw the startled look and quickly added “or Poteidaia, or wherever you want to go. Anywhere. . . .”

“I don’t think I can leave. . . .” Gabrielle said and started to pace.

“Gabrielle, if you’ll recall, I am the Empress of the Known World. That beats an Amazon Queen and Princess every time. If they object, I’ll wipe them out.” Xena stood with determination.

Simple. Problem solved.

“Xena, that would be running away from my problems. And if you wiped them out, I’d still have blood on my hands.”

“Actually, I’d be the one. . . .”

“Xena, I appreciate the sweet thought. Really, I do. . . .”

“But?” Xena said with a heavy sigh, rolling her eyes.

“But I wouldn’t be able to look in the mirror if I didn’t face the consequences of my actions.”

“No problem. I’ll give you a servant to help with your hair.”

“Xena.”

“You are really making this complicated, Gabrielle,” Xena complained and wearily added “Any idea of what you want to do?”

Gabrielle’s face filled with uncertainty and worry, making Xena wish she could do something to make her feel better. Awkwardly, Xena opened her arms.

Silently, the bard accepted the offer and stepped into a hug.
Part 3
As they ate lunch, Queen Melosa and Cyrene chatted as Valeska coldly eyed Xena and Gabrielle.

Gabrielle wasn’t eating, electing to push the sticky gray mush around her plate with her fork.

“Now I know you’re hungry. Would it help if I got rid of your audience?” Xena suggested quietly, glancing at Valeska, then smiling a little too eagerly at the bard. “I bet it would.”

Gabrielle chuckled softly. “Your concern about my appetite is touching. I think I’ll just stick to things that don’t stick to me,” she said, releasing her fork in the center of the gray mound of mush, which held it firmly at attention.

“I wish I had brought my chefs,” Xena responded, reaching for an apple in the fruit basket on the table and handing it to the bard.

“Thank you,” Gabrielle said with a shy smile as she caressed the shiny offering. When she heartily bit into the fruit, its juice dribbled over her chin. “Oops.” She said sheepishly.

As the bard dabbed a napkin around her chin and full . . . red . . . lips, Xena’s eyes drifted over the delicate neck to the bard’s chest, then widened as they quickly averted to the interesting, the interesting. . . .

Oh for GODS’ sake! There’s gotta be something. . . .

“Queen Melosa,” Valeska said loudly, gaining everyone’s attention.

“Yes, Princess Valeska?”

“Perhaps the Conqueror would honor us with her presence at the Amazon games.” Xena’s eyes narrowed suspiciously at the Princess.

“That sounds like fun. What are the Amazon games?” Gabrielle asked with excitement. Valeska smiled and the Queen explained.

“A way for our young warriors to demonstrate what they have accomplished in their training and compete against each other. They begin in two days. Princess Valeska’s idea is an excellent one,” Melosa said, smiling proudly at her daughter. “Would you do us the honor of presiding over the games, Empress?”

“Oh yes, please! ” Gabrielle gushed, not realizing she had just made it impossible for Xena to refuse her. “But you’d have to stay longer than you probably planned,” she quickly added with concern. She knew she couldn’t expect Xena to stay at her side, though her heart felt otherwise.

“I would be honored, Queen Melosa, Princess Gabrielle . . . Valeska,” Xena said with a smile, eyeing the fuming Amazon, who caught the intentional slight. “Perhaps, Cyrene could be persuaded to stay as well,” Xena said glancing at her mother.

“No need for persuasion, Empress,” Melosa said with a grin. “Cyrene has agreed to stay . . . indefinitely.”

“What?!?” Xena, Gabrielle, and Valeska blurted as Cyrene smiled uneasily.

***

“And just where did you stay last night??” Xena barked at Cyrene as she paced in Gabrielle’s hut.

“Xena, why are you so upset?” Gabrielle asked curiously.

“Xena . . . ” Cyrene said uneasily.

“Never mind, Mother. Even I can figure it out. But you want to stay after just one day? What happened to the tavern? Huh?!? What happened to that career you said you loved more than anything? You TOLD me . . .” Xena said in an annoyed whisper, glancing at the door, knowing there were Amazon ears close by. She was surprised to find the bard leaving.

“Gabrielle, where are you going?”

“I thought you two would want your privacy,” Gabrielle said evenly, eyeing the two women and finally noticing how much they looked alike. The eyes. She should have noticed the eyes.

“That’s not neces . . . ”

“Yes. It is,” Gabrielle said curtly and added “It’s a family discussion” before she left.

Xena growled with frustration, looking between the door and her mother.

“Go apologize to her, Xena. We’ll discuss this later,” Cyrene said.

“Apologize for WHAT?!?”

***

Xena left the hut to go after the bard, but stopped, spotting her leaving camp with Ephiny, the Amazon who always seemed to be hovering around Gabrielle. Xena’s eyes narrowed.

“Empress?” Solari said.

“WHAT!” Xena snapped.

“Uh . . . I can show you to your hut, when you are . . . available.” Solari said nervously, bowing slightly.

Xena hesitated, glancing back at Gabrielle’s hut then at the expectant Solari, who added. “Unless you and the Princess are . . . uh, have other arrangements.”

“Lead the way,” the Conqueror said with a resigned sigh. With mild curiosity, she asked “Is there some reason you’re not wearing any clothes?”

***

“Princess Gabrielle?” Ephiny looked at the upset bard, sitting next to her at the water’s edge.

The bard sighed as she stared out over the lake. “I’m just Gabrielle, Ephiny.”

“Are you ok?” Ephiny asked softly.

Gabrielle chuckled sadly. “Sure. Why wouldn’t I be ok? I’m a fake and I don’t know who my friends are anymore.”

Ephiny frowned. “You are an amazing woman who I’d always be proud to call friend.”

Gabrielle sighed then glanced at the earnest look on Ephiny’s face. With a small smile, the bard reached up and tenderly brushed Ephiny’s hair off her brow. “Thank you . . . friend. You know what would really cheer me up?”

Ephiny quickly shook her head no, hoping it involved the bard’s beautiful lips and . . . .

“A good story. Where are all those great Amazon tales I’ve heard so much about?”

***

“Princess Valeska! Are you ill?” The young healer jumped up from her medicine inventory with concern and greeted the tall warrior who entered the healer’s hut.

“I hope not, Ashea,” she smiled warmly and sat down. “But I have had some trouble sleeping lately,” she sighed wearily. “With Terreis’ death and Princess Gabrielle being Melosa’s favorite, I’m afraid I’m letting it all get to me. Some Princess I make, huh?” She said then looked up with concern. “You’ll keep this between us right?” she quickly asked.

“Of course! Discussions between a healer and her patient are held in the strictest confidence,” the young woman responded firmly, making Valeska smile. “You know, Princess, it is a sign of great strength to admit your weaknesses.”

Did that just sound incredibly stupid, or what? “Thank you.” Valeska smiled thinly as the healer went to her collection of medicines.

“Let’s see, perhaps some Chamomile tea?” The healer turned, holding up a bottle of the herb.

“I’ve tried that already,” she said with a heavy sigh. “Perhaps you have something stronger?” Valeska asked, standing up and joining the healer, glancing over the interesting assortment of bottles and containers.

“What about this?” The Princess picked up a bottle and looked at it curiously.

“Oh no,” Ashea giggled. “That’s for hemorrhoids.”

Well, she is a royal pain in the ass.

“Oh,” Valeska said flatly as she placed the vial back down. “What does that do?” She pointed to a dark blue vial.

“That’s for knocking out patients going under the knife. It’s very powerful and only used as a last resort.”

“Why?” She said as she picked up the interesting blue vial and started to open it.

“Be careful!!” The healer blurted nervously, covering Valeska’s hands to prevent the top from being removed.

“Sorry,” Valeska said flatly, releasing the vial to the healer, who carefully placed it back on the table.

“I’m sorry for snapping, Princess, but if ingested in its pure form, a person would fall into a deep sleep.”

“Well, that sounds like exactly what I need,” Valeska said brightly.

“You don’t need that kind of sleep.”

“And what kind is that?”

“The kind you don’t wake up from.”

“Oh,” Valeska said, eyeing the vial with great interest. “Thanks for the warning.”

***

Gabrielle spent the day in the scroll hut absorbing the bounty of Amazon stories under the amused eye of Ephiny.

“Oh, that was . . . amazing,” Gabrielle sighed with satisfaction putting another scroll down and shaking her head. “Have you read this one?” She asked Ephiny, who smiled and nodded.

“So, Cyane was a common name for Amazon Queens, huh?”

“Yep. Until recently. . . .”

Gabrielle got up from the chair and went to another shelf of scrolls she hadn’t touched yet. Ephiny’s eyes widened.

“Uh, Gabrielle, you might not want to read those scrolls,” Ephiny said unable to stop the bard.

“Scrolls that I wouldn’t want to read? You must be joking,” Gabrielle smirked, unrolling the parchment. “Oh look! Pictures.” She smiled broadly at what she found. She liked good picture scrolls. But she had never seen any that had pictures of two women. . . . “OH!”

Ephiny winced. “Youmightwanttoreadthemalone, I’llbeatthelakeifyouneedme, I mean, uh. . .” Ephiny blurted uncomfortably as she retreated to the hut door, but Gabrielle didn’t seem to notice. Her Princess just sat down, her eyes riveted to the scroll.

“I’ll be at the lake,” Ephiny said louder, prompting Gabrielle to absently nod as she turned the scroll and critically inspected the picture at a different angle. “Hmm,” Gabrielle thought with intrigue as the Amazon left. Oh come on, that isn’t physically possible, is it?

She finished studying the picture scroll and pulled out another one entitled “Advanced Amazon Oral Skills.” Gabrielle laughed. The other was basic??

She shook her head as she read the detailed descriptions of various techniques and looked at the associated pictures. She smirked at a few of the more physically demanding skills, wondering what Xena might think about . . . It suddenly hit her like a ton of stones.

Rereading the title, she didn’t know whether to be extremely offended or deeply hurt. But her heart chose for her.

——————————————————————————–

Chapter 15 – Challenges

“I’m surprised,” Xena said, startling the Amazon who jumped at the Conqueror’s sudden appearance. “You’re not with her.”

Ephiny wondered with irritation how she could possibly sneak up on her without any sound.

“Lose another princess, did we?” Xena added with an innocent smile, successfully annoying the Amazon, who would have pulled her sword and demanded a fight had it not been the Conqueror. She was aware her satisfaction would be short-lived.

“She is back at the scroll hut . . . Empress,” Ephiny gritted out. Her anger grew into concern when the blue gaze bore into her. “What?” The Amazon finally asked.

“You like Gabrielle,” Xena stated evenly as her eyes narrowed slightly.

“She’s a very likable. . . .”

“I mean, you LIKE Gabrielle.”

Ephiny swallowed hard, seeing the gaze turn even colder.

“Yes,” Ephiny admitted with a crack in her voice, then quickly countered. “And what about you, Empress?”

“Care to spar, Amazon?” Xena smiled.

***

Ephiny stood before the Empress on the practice grounds. Perhaps I should have said no. I should have said no to Melosa about guarding Terreis, too. But do I ever get any choices? Noooo.

“Choose your weapon, Amazon.”

Ephiny’s eyebrows furrowed. Great! I get to choose how I die. With a sigh, Ephiny moved to the display of weapons by the weapons hut. Why can’t I choose when?

She eyed the sword. It was her best weapon. But it could too easily incapacitate her, or rather, decapitate, she thought, rubbing her neck uneasily. Nope, too sharp. Looking at the mace, she winced. Nope. Too pointy. Backwards acne. Looking at Melosa’s favorites, the chobos, her eyebrows furrowed. What the hell are those things, anyway?

Determined to at least look good while she was getting her ass kicked, Ephiny selected a weapon.

“Staff,” Ephiny announced firmly as she grabbed one from the cradle. Xena nodded and eyed the remaining three staves before selecting one. Testing the balance of the weapon, Xena smiled with appreciation as she executed a routine with a flourish that made Ephiny’s stomach drop.

Xena nodded approvingly and entered the ring, waiting for her opponent to join her. Ephiny sighed. Delaying her impending doom a few moments, the Amazon walked over to the water bucket on the bench at the edge of the ring. Lifting the ladle to her lips, taking what was perhaps her last sip of water, she glanced at the Empress, who was grinning with amusement. Ephiny sighed. This so totally sucks.

A crowd gathered, which quickly grew in size when they realized the Empress would be sparing with Ephiny.

“What did she do?” Eponin asked Solari, who shrugged, grateful it wasn’t her. “Aren’t you worried about sunburn?”

***

“Gabrielle! Xena and I were worried . . . ,” Cyrene said as the dejected bard finally returned to her hut with a scroll in hand.

“Have you resolved things with your daughter?” She asked, clenching the scroll tightly.

“Not exactly,” Cyrene said uncomfortably.

Gabrielle looked at the woman as if she was about to say something but elected not to. Instead, the bard nodded and sat down with a heavy sigh.

“I suppose you wonder why I never told you about Xena,” Cyrene said with a forced laugh that quickly died.

“Let me guess. If people knew she was your daughter, your business would suffer.”

“Y. . yes!” Cyrene said with surprise and a relieved smile that faded as Gabrielle shook her head and looked at her with pity.

“I used to think my parents were mean for never supporting me. But they’ve never pretended they weren’t my parents.”

“Gabrielle, you have to understand . . . ,” Cyrene said uneasily then stopped with a heavy sigh, unable to understand herself anymore.

An Amazon guard burst in, out of breath. “Princess Gabrielle! The Conqueror and Ephiny are fighting!”

***

Ephiny knew she was losing. She was drenched in sweat and breathing as if she had just run to Tartarus and back, twice, while the Conqueror hadn’t even broken a sweat. But the Amazon had gotten in a few good hits, which at least gave her some satisfaction that her death would not be a total embarrassment.

Staves swiftly clashed in the violent ballet.

Xena smiled. It had been ages since she had a worthy opponent. Block, hit, parry. And this Amazon was really good.

When Gabrielle and Cyrene got to the practice field, Cyrene noticed Queen Melosa and Princess Valeska arriving, drawn to the commotion like the rest of the village.

Gabrielle’s eyes were immediately fixed on the Empress, whose grace was displayed with each skillful movement. Never had the bard seen such beauty in motion. Not even the famous dancers from that troupe in Athens. And never had the bard seen such power, certain there was much more not yet unleashed, hidden from her unsuspecting opponent.

Having difficulty tearing her eyes away from the mesmerizing smile on the Conqueror’s face, the bard watched the Empress’ muscles flex and relax as she blocked her worthy opponent’s swift and multiple strikes.

With a delighted laugh at the Amazons’ energetic and almost successful attempts, Xena spun around and swept Ephiny’s legs from beneath her.

When her friend’s back hit the ground, hard, Gabrielle’s eyebrow’s furrowed. “What is going on here!!” She finally demanded and marched into the ring.

“Sparring,” Xena simply answered, as Ephiny moaned and attempted to get up. To her surprise, she found the Empress’ hand extended, offering help. Hesitantly, Ephiny accepted and found herself quickly hoisted to her feet.

“This Amazon is very good,” Xena said with an appreciative smile that managed to make the mere bard feel even more inferior.

Gabrielle nodded silently as Melosa grinned with approval at the tired Amazon, who was hunched over and leaning on her staff, breathing heavily.

“Conqueror, I would be honored if you sparred with me tomorrow.” Valeska smiled, though it didn’t reach her eyes.

Xena grinned at the gift and looked at Gabrielle, who focused on Ephiny. The Conqueror’s grin faded. “How about now?”

“I wouldn’t want your loss to be blamed on fatigue,” Valeska added boldly, the feeble taunt amusing the Conqueror.

Melosa and Cyrene glanced at each other uncomfortably.

“Tomorrow then,” Xena said, with an easy smile. She glanced at her mother then Gabrielle. Her smiled disappeared as she watched the bard quietly help Ephiny from the sparring circle.

***

“We should go to the healer’s hut,” Gabrielle said with concern at Ephiny’s pronounced limp.

“That would be admitting I was hurt!” Ephiny argued, continuing to lean heavily on the staff and bard as they approached the huts.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the stubborn warrior. “Fine. My hut’s right here. Come on, before you collapse and prove how unhurt you really are.”

As they entered the Princess’ hut, Gabrielle pointed to her bed. “Sit.”

Ephiny stared at the bed, never having been invited to sit on a Princess’ bed before.

“Uh . . . ”

“SIT.” Gabrielle snapped and the Amazon sat. “I don’t suppose common sense is something they teach Amazons these days, is it?” She asked with annoyance.

“I. . . .”

“Whatever possessed you to spar with Xena?”

“Uh. . . .”

“And I can’t believe you are too stubborn to admit your ribs are broken,” Gabrielle said, gently touching the Amazons ribs.

“OW!”

“See! Now, when I get the healer to come here, I am not going to tolerate ANY arguments about her treating you. Is that clear?”

“You won’t tell anyone why, will you?” Ephiny asked with concern.

“Ephiny. . . ”

“Please Gabrielle, I have a reputation . . . ”

“I’ll bet.”

“Please?”

“Ok. I promise I’ll be . . . discreet. But if you argue with her treatment, the deal’s off. Understand?” Gabrielle said, glaring at the Amazon.

“Yeah.”

With a nod of satisfaction, Gabrielle left on a mission. Ephiny shook her head and sighed heavily, which made her grimace from the pain. Her whole body ached but she was alive, she considered. Even with all the stories, she couldn’t believe how good the Empress was. But what was really surprising was how good a sport she was. She never heard any stories about that.

She looked around the Princess’ hut and spotted a scroll on the table. Curiosity overcoming her better judgment, she got up. Shaking off the pain, she picked up the scroll, and opened it. Ephiny’s eyes widened. It was one of those scrolls.

Glancing at the bed, her eyebrow rose curiously. The bard did suggest they go to her hut and then ordered her to sit on her bed. And Solari did say Gabrielle really, really liked her. Oh man!

After a knock at the door, Ephiny grinned. “All clear,” Ephiny said with amusement. Her amusement fled, quickly replaced by fear when the door opened and she found the Conqueror glaring at her.

“Where’s Gabrielle?” Xena asked coldly, noticing Ephiny looking guilty with an uneasy smile as she quickly attempted to roll up the scroll, which Xena quickly snatched from the Amazon’s hands. Glancing over the scroll, the Conqueror’s eyes widened.

“She’s out,” Ephiny said with panic, seeing Xena curiously inspect an apparently interesting picture at a different angle, before leveling a very cold glare at her.

The door swung open, drawing the Conqueror’s gaze away from the Amazon. Gabrielle entered, gasped, and quickly slammed the door.

“Xena! What a surprise,” Gabrielle said, leaning against the door.

The healer outside rubbed her sore nose and sighed. Foolish warriors.

“Yes,” Xena said, rolling up the scroll. “What a surprise,” she said evenly, handing it to the bard.

“Is there a reason you’re here, Xena?” Gabrielle asked briskly as she took the scroll without flinching from embarrassment. The mere bard was far too hurt and angry at the Conqueror.

“Yes. But I wouldn’t want to interrupt.”

“How thoughtful,” Gabrielle said, opening the door, briefly looking out to see if the Healer was still there. She wasn’t, the bard noted with relief.

“I can see you have . . . company.” Xena said with irritation, glaring at Ephiny, who swallowed hard.

“Yes. Miracles of miracles, I do!” Gabrielle said grandly then firmly motioned for the Conqueror to leave.

“Good for you,” Xena said tersely.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“Ok.”

“OK!”

Xena and Gabrielle stood a moment staring at each other, clearly annoyed. Finally, Xena growled and left the hut.

“Who does she think she is,” Gabrielle grumbled as she shut the door and turned back to Ephiny.

“The Empress of the Known World?”

Gabrielle shook her head with a heavy sigh. “Ephiny, I need a favor.”

“Uh, will it involve me getting killed?” The Amazon glanced at the door with worry.

“I guess it depends on how good I become.” Gabrielle smirked, but noted the unsettled look still on the Amazon’s face. “Look, Ephiny, if I’m going to be a Princess around here, I really need to learn a few Amazon skills.”

Ephiny swallowed hard, glancing at the scroll in her Princess’ hand, and remembered the Conqueror’s glare. Death. A painful death. The Amazon looked up into the pleading green eyes. Oh, but what a way to go.

Ephiny kissed the bard soundly.

——————————————————————————–

Chapter 16 – Helping Hands

Xena returned to her hut to find her mother waiting for her. “So, Melosa was busy tonight?”

“Xena, don’t be that way.”

“I am what I am, mother.” Xena grunted, irritation radiating from the tall woman.

“What’s wrong?”

“What could be wrong? I command the largest army in the Known World. I’m the greatest warrior living, perhaps of all time, and I’m wealthy beyond reason. I’m the most powerful woman on Earth. What could possibly be wrong?!?”

“Did you speak with Gabrielle?” Cyrene softly asked, causing her daughter to flinch.

“No. She’s busy. With that . . . that . . . Amazon,” Xena hissed.

“Xena, you need to talk with her and clear the air. She’s probably still upset we didn’t tell her we were family.”

“Well, I can’t now. She’s . . . she’s with that . . . that . . . Amazon,” Xena growled as she paced.

“With?”

“Yeah. You know. . . .”

“Know what?”

“You know!”

“Ohhhh. How can you be so . . . ?”

“She had a scroll! She practically threw me out of her hut so she could try it out on that . . . that . . . Amazon,” Xena growled. “I’ll have to kill the Amazon now. It’s a shame. She’s a really good fighter.”

“What scroll?”

“One with lots of explicit pictures of . . . you know.”

“OH! Was it basic or advanced?”

Xena’s eyebrows furrowed.

“Well, they were all very helpful,” Cyrene offered. “The descriptive ones were OK. But I’d have to say a good picture is worth a thousand words. And a good tutor, well,” Cyrene said, then snickered. “A thousand . . . ”

“Mother!!” Xena stared at Cyrene in amazement.

“It was a good thing for me the Amazons were dedicated to the hands-on approach to education,” Cyrene continued, chuckling fondly. “Or should I say . . . ”

“NO!! Don’t,” Xena quickly interjected with a cringe. “Mom, you really don’t you seem to understand the problem here!”

“Actually, I think I do, dear. You should study those scrolls yourself. I can tell you, it was a turning point for . . . ”

“UGH! Mom, Gabrielle is with a dedicated Amazon right NOW!!”

“Well, what are you complaining to me for? If you got a problem with that, don’t you think should tell Gabrielle? Before that Amazon shows her a little too much dedication?” Cyrene smiled as the hut door slammed shut behind her daughter.

***

Like a fierce storm, Xena roared into the Princess’ hut.

“Gabrielle, we need to. . . .”

The hut was empty.

“. . . talk.”

***

Sitting at the edge of the lake, Gabrielle sighed heavily and wiped the tears that kept falling.

Why did Ephiny have to go and kiss me? I just wanted to learn the staff. It was just so sudden! It wasn’t like it was horrible. I should be happy someone thinks of me that way. Well, besides Perdicus. But she didn’t even give me any warning! Gods, she must hate me.

Now I’ve lost a friend.

The bard’s tear-filled eyes looked up into the sky. The vast sky she used to get lost in with her dreams. Dreams of being important. Dreams of being respected. Dreams of being loved. More tears fell as her head sunk back down to the earth.

Just dreams . . . .

“I think there are millions,” Xena said softly as she looked up into the star-filled sky, suddenly standing near Gabrielle. The startled bard turned towards her but avoided eye contact as she quickly wiped her tears away.

Seeing the tears, Xena cringed, wondering how she, a woman who could see men’s heads splattered across a bloody field without batting an eyelash, could become so uncomfortable by simple moisture falling from the bard’s beautiful eyes. All she was sure of was that she had to stop them.

“Of course, that’s only a rough estimate. Every time I start making some real headway on the exact number, it becomes day,” Xena explained, feigning irritation as she sat down next to the bard.

The begrudgingly amused bard sniffed and curiously glanced at the Empress, who continued to look up at the sky.

“I talked with Ephiny,” Xena said, receiving a concerned look. “She’s sorry for assuming you wanted to . . . you know.” Xena said as she struggled not to smirk, recalling that very amusing look of terror when Ephiny bumped into her, sporting a bright red hand-print on her very pale face.

Gabrielle cringed guiltily and looked back to the lake.

“She said she would like to teach you the staff, if you still want her to,” Xena informed the silent bard. “You know, I could teach you too . . . if you want,” she added softly with a shrug, causing the troubled bard to struggle with her jumbled emotions. Gabrielle wanted that more than anything but she wouldn’t accept the Empress’ pity.

Silence, which Xena was normally comfortable with, stretched on too long. The Conqueror sighed. “Gabrielle, I know you’re mad at me and I’m sorry,” Xena said uncomfortably, getting a surprised look from the bard.

“It’s not your fault,” Gabrielle said weakly, her heart heavy.

Xena’s eyebrows furrowed curiously. She didn’t expect an apology to go so easily, but then, she really didn’t have a lot of experience in apologizing.

“Well actually, it is,” Gabrielle corrected herself, making the Conqueror roll her eyes and steel herself for what was coming next. But it shouldn’t be too bad, Xena thought. Cyrene had known Gabrielle longer, so the bard should really be madder at her mother.

“No one should be treated like that, Xena,” she said with irritation. “But it doesn’t matter now. I shouldn’t let it upset me,” Gabrielle said.

“Of course not,” Xena readily agreed then offered “It wasn’t personal. And you weren’t the only one.”

The bard winced at the disclosure which did not help to boost her self-esteem one bit. But a disclosure which explained so much, the bard thought.

“Xena,” Gabrielle responded with concern, pushing her own heartache aside. “I really think that’s a problem.”

“What’s a problem?”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “You didn’t even know her name, did you?” Gabrielle asked.

“Whose name??”

“What’s-her-face, at the castle!” Gabrielle said with irritation.

“What does that have to do with anything?!?”

“It needs to be personal, Xena. Don’t you see??”

“But I just said it wasn’t personal!”

Gabrielle groaned with frustration. “Which is why it is a problem!”

“Why are you so upset?!? I was just respecting my mother’s wishes. It doesn’t mean I didn’t trust you, Gabrielle. I do. I just couldn’t tell you.”

Gabrielle stared at her a moment then snapped, “What are you talking about?!?”

“What are you talking about?”

Gabrielle blinked. When the pieces fell in place, she blurted uncomfortably “Uh . . . never mind.”

“Gabrielle, talk to me. Tell me what has you so mad at me,” Xena said with such need, it surprised Gabrielle.

The bard winced, feeling foolish. It was foolish, she finally admitted to herself. She was upset because the Empress didn’t need her or think of her “that” way. Her heart had played a cruel trick on her, ignoring the obvious facts. She was just a bard and the Empress was the most beautiful, incredible, accomplished . . . .

“Please.”

Gabrielle looked into those mesmerizing blue eyes, aware she could not refuse the Empress anything. Good thing she didn’t just ask me to jump off a bridge or I’d be getting . . . oh GODS.

The bard blinked then tore her eyes away from the dangerous sea of blue.

“Uh . . . I . . . Well, uh, when I read the Amazon scrolls on . . . uh, you know,” Gabrielle said, biting her lip as the Conqueror shifted uncomfortably. “I remembered you asking me if my skills were better than other bards, before you did that pinchy thing. I finally put two and two together. I got really mad! Then, I guess . . . hurt . . . ” the bard finished softly. She’s going to laugh at me, Gabrielle thought with a cringe.

Xena winced, injecting emphatically “Gabrielle, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Your friendship means the world to me.”

Gabrielle was amazed. The Conqueror seemed to truly value their friendship. But why does my heart still ache so?

“I just didn’t. . . .” Xena continued guiltily.

“Don’t!” The bard snapped startling the Empress, not really wanting to hear the list of reasons that Xena didn’t want her. “Please,” the bard added softly. “Let’s just say things turn out they way they do for a reason, and leave it at that, OK?” Gabrielle offered with a forced smile, then glanced down and combed her fingers through the grass.

Xena eyed her, then sighed heavily. Her eyes dropped to the bard’s fingers which danced through the blades. With an attempted smirk, she asked “Things turn out like they do for a reason, huh? Like you becoming a princess?”

Gabrielle shook her head with a weary chuckle. “I think that’s just punishment for something bad I’ve done.”

“I don’t think you could ever do anything bad,” Xena offered softly.

“I’m a princess because I lied, Xena,” Gabrielle said flatly.

“You were trying to help, Gabrielle. And you are still a good choice, regardless of the circumstances.”

“I’m an Amazon princess who can’t fight,” Gabrielle muttered, shaking her head.

“Anyone can learn how to fight. But you have a good head and a good heart. You just need to work on self-confidence a bit more,” Xena relayed confidently.

“Easy for you, Empress of the Known World,” the bard responded with a heavy sigh.

“Do you play poker?” Xena suddenly asked.

“Poker?”

“Yeah. Poker.”

“Have we ever had a discussion where I knew what you were talking about?”

Xena grinned. “Poker is a card game where. . . .”

“I know what poker is!”

“Do you play?”

“I don’t gamble.”

“Now Gabrielle, I know that’s not true,” Xena scolded her silkily, amused at the bard’s face.

“I don’t!” Gabrielle repeated indignantly.

“Tell me, my bard, what do you do every night when you go up on stage and tell one of your stories?”

Gabrielle paused at the insightful comment, then noted the satisfied smirk on the Conqueror’s face. “I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” she muttered with irritation.

The Conqueror’s smirk grew with amusement. “Come on,” Xena said and got up, reached down, and pulled the bard to her feet.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 17 – Raising The Ante
In the Princess’ hut, the Conqueror pulled out a chair for the incredibly curious bard. When she sat down, Xena smiled and produced a deck of cards from what appeared to be thin air.

“How did you . . . ?” Gabrielle asked, only getting a satisfied smile from Xena as she sat down on the other side of the table from the bard and started to shuffle.

After watching skillful hands manipulate the cards for a few moments, the incredibly curious bard grew incredibly impatient. “All right, Xena. Why are we playing poker?”

The Conqueror smiled happily as she continued to shuffle the cards. “Because I want to.”

“Oh.” Gabrielle sighed, watching the amazing hands shuffle. Finally, the Dealer of the Known World swiftly distributed the cards between them, put the deck down, and picked up her hand with enthusiasm.

Reluctantly, the bard picked up her hand and glanced at it with a sigh.

“What are we betting?” Gabrielle asked as she glanced up from her cards.

Xena looked up over her hand, her piercing eyes locked on the bard’s. When a dark eyebrow rose in challenge, Gabrielle’s heart skipped. “Points,” Xena responded flatly and her eyes dropped back to her cards.

“Oh.” Gabrielle exhaled with disappointment and glanced at her hand.

“I fold.” Xena suddenly said, tossing her cards onto the table.

“But you just got your cards!”

“They weren’t any good.”

Gabrielle stared at the Conqueror a moment. “Not that I’ve ever really played poker, mind you, but I get the impression that you are trying to tell me something.”

“Every leader needs to know how to play poker, Princess Gabrielle.”

“Ahhh,” the bard responded knowingly. “It’s the “knowing-when-to-bluff-even-when-I-have-nothing-in-my-hand” idea, right?” Gabrielle said with a smirk.

Xena shook her head, causing the bard to frown.

“Oh,” Gabrielle said, then guessed “Is it the “play-the-cards-dealt-me” idea?”

“No.”

“Uh huh,” Gabrielle said with a heavy sigh, waiting for an explanation that didn’t come. Finally, Gabrielle’s eyes rolled with frustration. “Would you care to share with me why every leader needs to know how to play poker?”

“I just like to play poker so much, I made it a law,” Xena said with the perfect poker face.

Gabrielle’s hearty laugh brought a pleased smile to the Conqueror’s face as she collected the cards.

The bard shook her head. “I didn’t think I’d ever find anything funny again.”

“Gee, thanks,” Xena said flatly, making Gabrielle chuckle and place her hand over Xena’s.

“Thank you,” Gabrielle said warmly. “I don’t know what I would do if you weren’t here.” Suddenly self-conscious, Gabrielle started to remove her hand but Xena captured it and held on firmly. Xena gazed at their hands for what seemed to the bard to be an eon. Finally, she looked up into the bard’s questioning eyes.

“Gabrielle,” Xena said hesitantly, wanting to say so much. But after a painfully long pause, Xena released her hand as if it were too hot to hold. “. . . it’s getting late,” the Conqueror said uneasily and stood.

“It’s not that late,” the bard quickly protested with furrowed eyebrows as she followed Xena to the door.

“Valeska wanted me to make sure I’m not too tired for our match. I wouldn’t want to disappoint her,” Xena said with a fire in her eyes.

“You’re not going to kill her are you?” Gabrielle asked with concern.

“Never say never.”

“Xena.”

“Not unless she does something to deserve it.” Xena smiled with hope.

“Xena. . . .”

“Gabrielle.”

“Xena.”

“Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle sighed with frustration. “Well, at least you know my name.”

“Renna.”

“What?!?”

Xena smiled.

Gabrielle looked at her a moment. “You’re bluffing.”

Xena’s eyebrow rose. Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed skeptically. Xena sighed, rolled her eyes, and started to leave.

“You’re not bluffing?” Gabrielle asked, reaching out for the Conqueror’s forearm. Xena smirked with amusement.

“Yeah, you are bluffing.” Gabrielle said with conviction as Xena sighed again and started to leave.

“Xena, as your friend, I’m only trying to tell you that if you want a satisfying, intimate relationship, you really should begin by knowing the person’s na. . . . ” Gabrielle’s lecture was silenced when the Conqueror gently cupped her cheek with a well-placed thumb pressing against her lips.

Eyes locked, like many times that evening, drawn together by a force which they had little control over. The storm of emotions they each had struggled to understand began to overwhelm them.

“You didn’t know my name at first,” Xena argued, then softly added “Gabrielle.”

The Empress’ voice whispering her name resonated within the bard, provoking a weak whimper that rocked the Conqueror to her core.

Driven to coax yet another, stirring whimper, Xena instinctively began to caress the soft flesh beneath her fingers. The tender touch easily obtained the desired response. Never before had the Conqueror felt so powerful or so frighteningly vulnerable. Offering her heart would make her completely defenseless to its acceptance or destruction. The power this small bard held over her startled the Empress of the Known World.

Daumas had warned her about letting anyone get close. It would ruin all that she had worked for. It would ruin her Empire. But she didn’t care anymore. Her goal of being the best and most powerful warrior had been achieved years ago. And what good did that do? She brought some order to the troubled land. But the people were not happy. And they feared her, which was a useful tool for a Conqueror, but she was tired of being feared. And she was so very tired of being alone.

Xena couldn’t even share her successes with her family. Instead of a life of incredible wealth and comfort, the only thing her mother ever asked for was that she smiled more. Xena had everything and yet, she had nothing. Until now, the Conqueror realized, gazing into the curious green eyes of the woman who made her smile.

Seeing the turbulent emotions in Xena’s stormy eyes, Gabrielle feared to breathe for the spell might be broken and the tender touch taken away.

As long as Gabrielle was with her, she would have everything, even if she had nothing, Xena concluded with amazing clarity. But she would have to proceed carefully in this campaign of the heart, the Conqueror shrewdly considered. Declarations of forever right now would just scare her away. She would just indulge in a simple goodnight kiss, then go back to her hut to plan out the next important move, the Conqueror decided, satisfied with her plan.

Long fingers slipped through the strawberry blond hair as the Conqueror slowly leaned down. After what the bard would officially classify as an eternity, Conqueror’s lips brushed against hers.

The jolt of arousal that accompanied the kiss startled both women.

“Again,” Gabrielle whispered, surprising the Conqueror, who stared at those slightly parted lips with the same thought. But Xena knew she would still have to proceed carefully and limited herself to just one more goodnight kiss before she would go back to her hut to plan out the next important move in the most important campaign of her life. The Conqueror smiled slightly, satisfied with her plan.

Once again, their mouths met. But this time, formerly chaste lips parted, allowing tongues to tentatively touch in a shy dance that grew bolder as each fed upon the contact which only made them hunger for more. The bard’s suddenly possessive hands pulled their bodies into each other, provoking deep moans from each woman.

Startled by her body’s intense arousal, Xena pulled away, well aware her strategy to go back to her hut and plan her next important move was not going well at all. When fingers slipped around the back of her neck, urging her back into a kiss, a very disturbing thought entered the Conqueror’s insecure mind, enabling her to resist the tempting bard, barely.

Gabrielle’s eyes opened. With ragged breaths, the two women looked at each other with a mix of amazement and confusion. When Gabrielle attempted to pull the Conqueror back, she was met with disturbing resistance.

“Don’t you want this?” Gabrielle whispered with hurt. The look of devastation on the bard’s face made the Conqueror cringe.

“Oh Gods, more than anything,” Xena exhaled heavily and blurted “wait,” when the bard attempted to pull them together again.

“What’s wrong?” Gabrielle asked with confusion.

“Gabrielle . . . ” she said.

“What?” the bard asked as she kissed Xena’s chest and neck, provoking a groan.

“Gabrielle!”

“What!?!”

“Y. . .You, You’re not married are you?” Xena finally croaked and intently searched the bard’s face.

Gabrielle’s eyebrows furrowed with confusion, then irritation. How could Xena possibly think I could be married and be with her like this? How could she possibly think I was that type of . . . !!

“Oh Gods.”

“Xena?” Gabrielle said, startled at how ill Xena suddenly looked.

“I knew this was too good to be true,” the tall woman blurted, trying to back away.

“Xena! I’m not married,” Gabrielle said firmly, preventing the Conqueror’s retreat.

Xena looked at her uncertainly. “You’re not?”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Of course not! I can’t believe you! How could you think I was! When I pledge my heart, Oh Empress of the Known World, that’s it. Call me old fashioned, but I will not tolerate any “you know,” or to be perfectly clear, SEX, outside our marriage. And no wife swapping or multiple partners, either. It’s going to be just the two of us. Period. You and me. Forever! Do you understand?”

Xena stared at the fiery bard. So much for my plan.

“Uh,” Gabrielle blurted with incredible embarrassment. Tell me I just didn’t say the “F” word. Oh Gods . . . .

“Just the two of us? Forever?” Xena asked.

“Yes?” Gabrielle said with a mix of hope and fear. Hope, because Xena was still standing there instead of running out of her hut. Fear, because the dazed woman looked like she had just been run over by a turnip cart. No one wants to hear about “forever” the first time they kiss, you idiot! That’s like telling the ending of an epic story in the first chapter!! UGH!!! Stupid stupid stupid!

Xena blinked. Her eyes dropped to the ground.

Oh Gods, she’s thinking now. Thinking how to let me down. With a sinking feeling, the bard convinced herself she had ruined everything.

“You don’t want kids?” Xena asked.

Gabrielle stared at her with surprise, not sure if Xena was serious or teasing. If she was teasing, the bard was certain she would die.

“I, uh . . . well, I want, uh . . . a few, I think,” the bard answered, attempting to sound confident but failing miserably.

A broad smile filled Xena’s face before she kissed the bard and joyfully swept the woman up in her arms.

“Ahhh!” Gabrielle blurted and found herself gently deposited on the bed, looking up at the most beautiful smile she had ever seen. “I gather none of this frightens you?”

“It scares the Tartarus out of me,” Xena admitted, causing the bard to cringe. Kneeling before the concerned bard, Xena took her hands and tried to explain. “I’ve never been in a relationship before, Gabrielle. I don’t want to fail you,” Xena said earnestly, filling Gabrielle with joy.

“I won’t let you.”

“I kind of figured,” Xena said with a smile as she stood, starting to remove her armor.

Gabrielle got up, slapping her hands away.

“But I thought I . . . you . . . we,” Xena started to complain as Gabrielle deftly reached around and quickly unfastened the armor, which dropped to the ground with loud clanks.

“Oh,” Xena said, then smiled as the diligent bard quickly removed her bracers and flung them across the room. The crashing sound drew Xena’s eyes away, but for only a moment. Her chin was firmly redirected back to the bard, who kissed her soundly.

Their kisses continued and Xena’s hands finally claimed the leather-clad body that her eyes had coveted. She explored the back of her thigh, her firm rear, the small of her back. Soon tired of the leather beneath them, her fingers hovered at the edge of the bard’s top for a few frustrating moments before she felt the bard pull away.

Gabrielle started to untie her top. But this time, Xena stopped her. Gently grasping the smaller hands, Xena kissed them.

“Fair is fair,” Xena said softly as she did the honors.

When the top dropped to the floor, Xena gazed at the exposed breasts, amazed at how strongly her body responded to the sight of the bard’s flesh. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t seen someone naked before. She had, many times. But none had provoked such desire.

Gabrielle whispered “touch me.”

The soft command startled the Conqueror, who looked up a moment, then nodded and gently trailed her fingertips over the bard’s chest. Gabrielle sucked in a breath when fingertips brushed over her hardened nipple. Encouraged by the response, Xena pinched and pulled the nub, getting a loud moan. Instinctively, Xena took the sensitive flesh in her mouth, continuing the teasing which sent a surprising jolt of need between her own legs.

“GODS!!” The bard gasped.

“What?!?” Xena popped up with concern, only to have her head firmly pushed back down to the bard’s breast. Taking the less-than-subtle hint, Xena smiled and returned her attentions to the flesh.

Between the many kisses, caresses, and moans shared by each woman, the remaining clothes were awkwardly discarded. Finally naked and of similar minds, they paused to drink in the sight of each other. “Beautiful” each whispered and small smiles emerged.

Leaning down for a kiss, Xena was startled when Gabrielle pulled back. With anticipation in her eyes, Gabrielle made room on the bed and extended a hand in silent invitation. The focused warrior gazed into the bard’s eyes as she took the offered hand and slowly crawled onto the bed to join her. The bard suddenly pulled the warrior into a searing kiss. Xena lost her balance and plopped on top of the bard.

“You ok?” The concerned Conqueror asked, looking for any hints of injury.

“Yep,” Gabrielle said with a grin, slightly shifting beneath the Empress, enjoying her weight on her. “Very ok.”

“Good,” Xena said with a relieved smile, enjoying the feel of the bard beneath her.

Tucking a strand of the Empress’ hair behind her ear, Gabrielle made a point of kissing her very carefully. Xena chuckled. “I don’t think I’ll fall again,” Xena informed her confidently, kissing the bard back more firmly.

“Well, just make sure you don’t get too close to the edge,” Gabrielle warned, as they looked at each other then the edge of the bed. Xena nodded thoughtfully before chuckling with the bard.

When their eyes returned to each other, their amusement faded. The bard’s hand traveled through the raven hair and guided the Empress into a long, slow kiss that they savored as their bodies shifted and limbs entangled, allowing more intimate contact.

‘Oh Gods’ repeated through Xena’s mind as her body caught fire like never before. Her heart pounded as if she had just fought an army. The scent of the bard, which mixed with her own and grew noticeably stronger as they continued their intimate dance towards release, was intoxicating. Xena’s skin was never more sensitive or responsive, tingling with each of the bard’s touches. Though amazingly, when the bard’s teeth sank into her shoulder, it didn’t hurt, but inflamed her desire more.

Nothing compared to what Xena was feeling with this beautiful woman writhing in pleasure beneath her, not even the excitement of a good fight. It was a gift she wanted to savor. It was a feeling Xena wanted to last.

Pulling back from a deep kiss, Gabrielle looked into Xena’s eyes and whispered “take me.”

Xena’s brow furrowed. The bard grabbed the Conqueror’s hand and guided it between her legs and into her slick entrance.

“Yessss…” the bard hissed as Xena began to thrust and stroke. The Conqueror marveled at how the bard’s beautiful body arched and responded to each intimate touch. Each moan was an aphrodisiac that compelled Xena to take the nearest erect nipple in her mouth and coax another.

The bard’s head flung back onto the pillow, hard. “Ugggh!”

Needing to see the bard’s face, Xena kissed and nibbled her way up to the bard’s neck as she continued her intimate strokes.

“Harder,” was the coarse request and was the immediate response. Digging her nails into Xena’s back as she called her lover’s name during release, Gabrielle almost brought the moaning Conqueror with her.

Xena felt the bard’s grip slowly loosen as her breathing started to return to normal. The Conqueror smiled with joy for bringing pleasure to the young bard and looked into the green eyes that focused on her. Xena’s smile faded when her body responded to the primal and blatant gaze of want.

Well aware ‘almost’ wasn’t nearly good enough, Gabrielle suddenly rolled the Conqueror on her back. A slight grin crossed her face as she noticed Xena’s eyes widen slightly with surprise.

“Fair is fair,” Gabrielle said in a husky voice as her hand slowly traveled down the long body.

“I want you,” she said as her hand reached the dark curls and Xena softly moaned.

“To feel me,” the bard said and gently kissed the Conqueror’s lips as her fingers focused on the hypersensitive flesh between long trembling legs.

“Loving you,” Gabrielle added as she plunged into the moaning Empress.

“Gods,” Xena gasped as her hips desperately countered each thrust.

“Body . . . and soul,” the bard vowed as her lover finally cried out in release.

Many silent moments passed as their ragged breaths and pounding hearts calmed. Xena blinked, trying to fight the tears that welled up from the flood of emotions that had been unleashed. When the bard’s arms tightened protectively around her, the tears spilled forth. After their raw emotions calmed, the bard slowly pulled back and propped herself up on her elbow to gaze at her lover. The emotionally spent and embarrassed warrior avoided looking at the bard as she awkwardly tried to wipe the evidence of her tears with a trembling hand.

“Hey,” the bard said softly and lovingly caressed the warrior’s tear-stained face.

Feeling a tear splash against her face, Xena curiously looked at the bard. “You too?” she whispered with surprise and joy, reaching out to reverently touch the bard’s wet cheek.

“Big time,” Gabrielle answered honestly and tenderly kissed the Empress’ palm before pressing it against her cheek with a warm smile.

The Conqueror looked at the young bard with amazement. “That was. . . .” Xena offered, then was at a loss.

“Intense?”

Xena nodded.

——————————————————————————–

Chapter 18 – Rise and Shine

As she slowly woke, Gabrielle smiled, feeling the strong arm wrapped around her.

“Good Morning,” Xena whispered softly and kissed the bard’s temple.

“MmmHmmm” Gabrielle agreed and turned onto her back to find her lover with her head propped up on her hand, watching her. Xena had been like that since dawn.

The two looked into each other’s eyes and small smiles were exchanged.

Gabrielle reached up and pulled Xena down for a morning kiss.

***

“Do you think they’ll at least make it to lunch?” Solari asked, glancing back in the direction of the princess’ hut as they stood in the lunch line. “You can’t live on love alone.”

Ephiny leveled her with a glare. “What the hell is with you and being naked all the time?!?”

“Look, my clothes-burdened friend. You can either choose to be a grump or you can be happy for her. She is obviously happy with Xena. And Xena is happy with her.”

“Obviously. They were happy all night. Happy all morning. I’d say they are disgustingly happy,” Ephiny snarled, prompting Valeska to chuckle as she walked up.

“It won’t last,” Valeska offered.

“Why do you say that, Princess?” Solari asked.

Valeska smiled. “For one thing, the hotter the flame, the more quickly it burns itself out. They’ll tire of each other.”

“Something tells me you are not a romantic,” Solari responded.

“Or I might accidentally kill her during our match,” Valeska added with amusement, ignoring Solari.

“You can’t beat her, Valeska. She’s . . . ” Ephiny said with concern.

“Just because she bested you, Ephiny, does not mean she’ll best me,” Valeska said evenly, controlling her anger at the insult.

“If she knows you are going for blood, you’ll die,” Ephiny said with conviction.

Valeska laughed. “You are way too serious, Ephiny. I only want to have some fun out there.” The princess winked and walked to the front of the line.

The two Amazons looked at each other with concern, then stared at Valeska, who sat down at the royal table with Melosa and her very good friend, Cyrene.

“You know, it might not be such a bad thing if Xena does. . . .” Solari said quietly, then jumped when she felt someone suddenly behind her.

“If Xena does what?” The Empress asked with an amused smile.

“Uh . . . ”

“Good morning,” Ephiny muttered, glancing over the tall woman, who sported her leather battle dress but not her armor.

“Yes. It is, isn’t it?” Xena said with a big smile as she glanced around the camp and took a deep breath of fresh air. It was a beautiful day too, she considered. “Now, what is it that might not be such a bad thing?”

“Uh . . . I was just saying that if you should happen to kill Valeska, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing,” Solari said in a hushed tone.

“Even thinking about the death of an Amazon princess would be treason and punishable by death,” Ephiny reminded Solari, who rolled her eyes.

Xena smirked. “Don’t worry. I’ve already promised Gabrielle I’m not going to kill her,” Xena said with a dismissive wave of a hand. “Excuse me, I’ve got a hungry bard to feed.”

Ephiny and Solari silently looked at each other then the Empress, who happily gathered food on a large tray and headed back to the hut.

“Why doesn’t that give me a warm and fuzzy?” Solari said, noticing Valeska’s cold eyes following the Empress.

***

“I don’t want to make you late for your match,” Gabrielle said as her arms wrapped around the tall woman and she kissed Xena’s neck. They had almost made it out of the hut before the bard decided they should share a private kiss, or twelve, before they were seen in public.

“You know, that’s really odd. Your actions seem to be telling me something entirely different,” Xena said thoughtfully as the bard kissed her chin.

“Really?”

“Uh huh. You know, Gabrielle, the sooner I get this over with, the sooner we can come back and . . . you know.”

Gabrielle pulled back and eyed her lover. “Xena, I think you can say SEX now.”

“I didn’t mean SEX.”

“Don’t tell me you wanted to play poker.”

Xena laughed. “You still need to learn, but no. I meant to say, make love.”

Gabrielle responded with a big smile as Xena leaned down to kiss her.

A knocking at the hut door interrupted the Empress, who growled.

***

“Xena, you’re scaring her,” Gabrielle scolded softly as they walked behind their nervous escort, Solari, who had been told by Princess Valeska to remind the Empress of their match.

“I don’t like being interrupted,” Xena growled, continuing to coldly stare at the Amazon. An eyebrow suddenly rose. Interesting birthmark.

“She was only following orders, Xena,” Gabrielle said, gently touching the Empress’ forearm. “And you were making us late.”

“Me?!?” Xena blurted as they arrived at the practice field, which was full of Amazons.

“Wow. Amazing how everyone in the village needs to practice at exactly the same time, isn’t it?” Gabrielle remarked dryly.

“Do you always change the subject like that?” Xena asked.

“Only when I’m finished discussing something,” Gabrielle informed her and looked for Valeska. She found her at the side of the sparring ring, sitting on a bench next to the water bucket.

“And if I’m . . . ?” Xena said with a raised eyebrow.

“Empress, so nice of you to make it,” Princess Valeska said with a smile and put down the ladle in the bucket of water.

As much as Xena disliked interruptions to her time with Gabrielle, she really looked forward to kicking her. . . .

“Finally,” the Princess added flatly. Gracefully, she stood and walked proudly to her opponent.

With irritation, Gabrielle noticed Valeska didn’t acknowledge her. As much as the bard hated interruptions to her time with Xena, she really looked forward to her partner kicking Valeska’s . . . .

“Valeska,” Xena greeted her tiredly, managing to wipe the smile from the princess’ face. “Why don’t you choose the weapon.”

“What is your best weapon, Empress?” Valeska asked, surprising the Conqueror.

“I’m not really sure,” Xena answered honestly, being an expert at so many. “But the chakram is a favorite.”

“Yes, well, as I don’t have one, yet, why not swords?” Valeska said, gaining a nod from the Empress.

Silently, Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other a moment before Gabrielle glanced at Valeska and joined a very tense Melosa and Cyrene. As Gabrielle sat down, she smiled at Xena.

For me. Xena grinned, feeling incredibly happy.

“Well?” Valeska said flatly, standing in the center of the ring.

Returning her focus to the irritation at hand, Xena unsheathed her weapon. Now why did I promise not to kill her??

***

The opponents faced each other and the crowd grew quiet. Valeska whirled her sword in an impressive flourish.

Xena feigned boredom as she briefly looked at her nails, amused at the annoyed look it brought to the Princess’ face. The Empress waited for the Princess’ attack, which didn’t take long. With a flurry of motion, Valeska’s sword furiously sliced through the air . . . not once contacting her intended target. Xena had gracefully avoided the Amazon’s sword.

Xena smiled at the Princess, who sneered back.

***

“Gabrielle?” Cyrene softly spoke to the bard, whose eyes were riveted on the tall woman in the ring.

“Hmm?”

“I hope someday, you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me and we can be friends again.” Cyrene said softly, getting Gabrielle’s attention.
***

Valeska attacked again and like before, Xena swiftly dodged the attempted strikes and left the Princess tired and her sword swooshing the air.

After another vicious attack of the air, Valeska taunted between breaths “Hard to believe you are afraid of my sword, Empress.”

“Hard to be afraid of something so slow, Val,” Xena responded with a smile, irritating Valeska more.

***

“Cyrene, I’d like to think we never stopped being friends,” Gabrielle said warmly. “And now that your daughter and I are . . . ” the bard paused, thinking of the appropriate term. “Involved” was entirely too inadequate. What they shared was far deeper. It was truly profound, the bard considered and smiled. They were . . . .

“Sex partners?” Cyrene offered helpfully.

***

Xena smiled and waited for another attack which came quickly.

“You’re dropping your guard on your left,” Xena pointed out helpfully as she slapped the Amazon on her left side with the flat of her sword, getting amused chuckles from the crowd.

“Oh, look, now it’s your right,” Xena said, slapping the infuriated Amazon on her right.
***

“I want you to know, even though she is my daughter, I think of you as one too,” Cyrene said warmly.

Gabrielle smiled, knowing if she had a mother that cared half as much as Cyrene did, she would have had a much happier childhood.

“You two make such a perfect couple,” Cyrene continued, pleasing the bard, who wholeheartedly agreed.

“And, you know, it’s fortunate for you that I am your lover’s mother. Because if you have any questions about her, you can just ask,” Cyrene said with a conspiratorial smile and wink, getting a furrowed brow from the bard, who nodded weakly, hoping the older woman was finished.

“And if you have any problems or concerns about sex . . . . ” Cyrene discreetly informed her, briefly smiling at Melosa, who patted her hand.

“UH . . . thanks,” Gabrielle quickly interrupted with a cringe. “But we’re fine.”

***

Enraged at the insults and the humiliation in front of her people, Valeska growled and charged the Empress, who finally parried the sloppy blows with her sword.

“You anger too quickly, Val. Have you tried to count to ten? I’m told it helps.”

***

“Oh, sweetie, just fine?!?” Cyrene said with great concern, getting a startled look from the bard. “I thought from the sounds of things last night, then all this morning, it was much better than fine. But then, even I’ve been known to fake a few or. . . ”

“Cyrene!” Gabrielle said in a shocked whisper, looking around to see if anyone had overheard the unwanted conversation.

“Gods know, I had to when Xena’s father was still alive.”

“But . . . ”

“Don’t worry, it happens sometimes, honey.”

“But . . . ”

“And I’m sure Xena has no idea. She really isn’t as worldly as people might think. Well, you probably already know that,” Cyrene said sympathetically, shaking her head.

“There’s nothing wrong!”

“Of course not, Gabrielle. Just be patient with her, she never did care much for reading. But you’ll find she’s a quick study,” Cyrene relayed helpfully and offered “and don’t worry, I won’t tell a soul,” she quietly vowed, motioning locking her mouth shut and throwing away the key.

“Cyrene, there’s nothing to tell!”

“Tell what?” Cyrene said innocently with a conspiratorial wink. “And sweetie, don’t you think it’s about time you called me Mom?”

***

Taking the Empress’ advice, the Amazon waited to attack and found her strikes more effective. Though even with her anger under better control, Valeska was clearly no match for the Empress. When the Princess attempted to sweep the Empress off her feet, she found her legs swept out from beneath her and her back hitting the ground.

She jumped to her feet and angrily thrust her sword as she flung the dirt into the Empress’ eyes.

“HEY!” Gabrielle jumped up onto her feet angrily, seeing Xena cringe at the painful sting in her eyes as she deflected the Princess’ blows.

“Do not interfere, Gabrielle,” Melosa said evenly.

“She’s not fighting fair!!”

“Honey, Xena will be fine,” Cyrene said uneasily.

“Ugh!! And Valeska considers herself worthy to be QUEEN?!?” Gabrielle snapped.

Melosa silently looked at the angry bard, then her adopted daughter. The same question had plagued her for years.

***

The Amazon crowd murmured uneasily, concerned the Empress might punish them for Valeska’s actions.

“Sorry about that,” Valeska said insincerely. “Let’s take a break. You need to take care of your eyes.”

Xena blinked at her, gripping her sword, ready to fight blind if the Amazon made one move. Even now, she knew she could beat the Amazon.

“I mean it. You were right about my anger being a problem. That was uncalled for and I apologize.” Valeska motioned to the water bucket on the bench. “I’ll be here when you get back.”

Prompted by the pain in her eyes, Xena carefully moved to the side of the sparring ring. Exhaling with irritation, she scooped up a handful of cold water and splashed it into her face to remove the stinging dirt. She glanced over to the Amazon waiting in the center of the ring with annoyance then splashed another handful of water into her watering eyes.

“Are you ok?” Gabrielle asked with concern as she jogged up to her lover’s side.

“I’ve had far more challenging fights, Gabrielle,” Xena snapped with frustration, rubbing water over her face again. She should have anticipated dirty tricks from the Amazon. And she was still up to something, Xena considered, glaring at her opponent.

“Oh,” Gabrielle said in a small, hurt voice.

Xena’s attention quickly returned to the bard. “I . . . I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I’m not used to anyone caring,” she said with guilty cringe.

“Well, I do care, Xena. And you’re just going to have to get used to it,” Gabrielle said firmly.

“Thank you,” the Empress said softly with a smile.

“Yes, well, you should hurry up so we can . . . ” Gabrielle said and glanced back toward the hut.

“Play poker?” Offered Xena, who sipped a handful of water.

“If that’s what you really want,” Gabrielle said with a weary sigh, causing a smirk from the Empress.

“Well, we could play for something a little more interesting than points,” the Empress suggested.

“Oh? Well, carry on,” Gabrielle said with a smile and motioned her lover to continue with sparring. “Quickly.”

***

Xena returned to the center of the ring, stifling a yawn as Gabrielle sat back down with Melosa and Cyrene.

“Am I boring you, Empress?”

“Boring isn’t the word I’d use.”

“Ready?”

Xena rolled her eyes and stifled another yawn. “Go ahead.”

With new confidence, Valeska grinned and whirled her sword in a flashy display before she attacked. Xena blinked, feeling oddly sluggish. Her eyelids also felt incredibly heavy.

Shaking her head, she continued to spar with the cocky Amazon who seemed to put up a better fight now. In a swift attack, Xena blinked trying to keep her opponent in focus. Something was wrong.

Valeska grew more bold in her attacks and nicked the Warrior Princess’ arm, drawing a trickle of blood.

“Do Amazons usually go for blood when they spar!” Gabrielle stood and snapped at Melosa, whose attention was on the match.

“Melosa, something’s wrong,” Cyrene said, concerned the Queen was doing nothing except quietly watch the fight.

Valeska swept the feet from beneath the Empress, who quickly got back on her feet, surprising the Amazon.

The Amazon knocked the sword from Xena’s tired grip and delivered a round-house kick to her head. The Empress’s head snapped back as she collapsed to the ground. Sensing her need to move, Xena summoned her strength and rolled away from a blow meant to kill.

“Stop this!” Gabrielle yelled to Melosa. “Valeska is trying to kill her!” Seeing no action from the Queen, Gabrielle bolted from the older women to the sparring ring.

Feeling her sword by her hand, Xena instinctively grabbed it. Rolling on her back, she thrust up and felt a heavy jolt. Blinking her opponent into focus, Xena saw wide eyes of surprise as Valeska looked down at the blade sticking into her gut.

“Pleasant . . . dreams,” Valeska snarled before collapsing to the ground, dead.

“Xena!” Gabrielle rushed through the crowd to the Empress’ side.

Xena fought to remain conscious and looked up into the bard’s face with great concern. “I broke my promise,” Xena whispered, blinking to keep the angelic face in focus.

“I don’t care! Xena, Xena what’s wrong?” Gabrielle said, trying to remain calm.

“Water . . . must have been . . . drugged,” Xena said, fighting to stay awake.

“Get the Healer!!” Gabrielle urgently commanded to the crowd hovering around them, and returned her attention to Xena. “The healer will be here soon, you’ll be ok.” She said nervously. “Do you hear me? You’ll be ok!”

“Gabrielle?” Xena said weakly as her eyelids shut.

“What is it, Xena? Xena?!?”
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 19 – The Awakening

The bard’s kiss consumed her. The Empress pulled her closer, relishing the contact that she hungered for and could never get enough of. Their bodies melded together perfectly as they once again reached the edge of release.

“Xena.” A faint voice called out. The startled Empress broke away from her lover’s kiss and looked around the darkened bedchamber, unnerved by the familiar voice. She shivered as a cold breeze blew across her skin.

The warm bard pulled her back into a heated kiss, which made the Empress wonder if she had imagined it.

“I need you,” the voice said more loudly as a chill swept over Xena.

“Who’s there!” The Empress jumped out of bed and demanded as she pulled a robe around herself.

“Xena, come back to bed, I need you,” the bard said reaching out for the confused Empress, who looked at the dark corner of the room with concern.

“I don’t know what to do,” the familiar voice admitted despondently.

“Don’t you hear that?” Xena asked, quickly glancing back to her lover with irritation. The cold made her shiver and tie her robe around her.

“Hear what? Xena, I’m getting cold. Come back to bed.”

“I need you, Xena,” the voice called out, drawing the Empress deeper into a dark, cold, corner of the room.

“Gabrielle??” Xena asked in confusion, squinting into the blackness, finally recognizing the needful voice.

“Xena, come back and help me warm up,” her lover said with a smile, moving the covers down, in invitation for the Empress to return. Xena glanced back at the bed, where a beautiful, naked bard was waiting for her.

The great temptation to return to bed was countered by the disturbing voice, pleading in the darkness. “I need you.”

The confused Empress’ heart started to pound, knowing there was a problem. A huge problem. One that involved Gabrielle.

“Please come back to bed, Xena. I need you.”

Xena looked back at the bard in her bed in helpless confusion as Gabrielle’s voice called to her again from the darkness. “I need you more than ever. . . .”

The cacophony of pleas swirled through her throbbing head, tearing Xena from her warm cocoon and into the cold, frightening darkness.

“UGH!!!” She growled as she sat up and clenched her head. A thin veil of material fell from her face and torso. Angrily, she ripped the material from her body, tossing it to the floor as she blinked and tried to focus on her surroundings. But she was in complete darkness. She shivered, the chill in the air going straight to the bone.

“Gabrielle?” Her voice cracked as she called out and awkwardly got up from her pallet. As her voice echoed, her sluggish body stumbled over something and into a rocky wall. Her body had never ached so much.

She tried to remember what happened and how she got to this cave. She remembered killing that Amazon . . . Valeska . . . then . . . nothing. She shook her head, trying to clear the cobwebs clouding her mind. It didn’t help. Still shivering from the cold, she groaned with irritation.

Recalling she just tripped on something, she slowly knelt down. Her hands searched the ground and knocked over a few containers. She felt a few scrolls and continued searching until she found something that she really needed right now, a torch. She smiled with relief when she also found what felt like a flint stone near by.

After a few unsuccessful sparks that were quickly swallowed by the blackness, her unsteady hands finally ignited the torch, causing her to cringe at the sudden light. She continued to shiver as she wedged the torch in a crack in the cave wall. Holding her hands near the flame, she slowly started to warm up.

Inspecting her surroundings, she spotted a deep, narrow crevice. The exit, she hoped, though she couldn’t see any light at its end.

Her stomach growled, prompting her to examine the containers, correctly guessing that whoever thought enough to supply a torch, would also supply some food. Gabrielle, she thought with a smile. Her smile disappeared when she noticed mold covering the food in one cracked container. Tossing it aside, she looked for more food in the vessels and found dried fruit. After ensuring it didn’t have fur on it, she sniffed it. Concluding it was OK, she popped a piece in her mouth.

As she chewed, she sighed heavily and rubbed her temples, still feeling very groggy. Now needing water, her eyes lifted to a large barrel against one wall of the cave. She smiled. After drinking her fill of water, she curiously looked around, still wondering why she was there. Her eyes dropped to the scrolls. There were a number of them. Her eyebrow rose with interest.

The first scroll she unrolled contained a sketch . . . of her. She laughed. “Wanted: Xena’s head – five thousand dinars,” she read with amusement. “Hey! What about the rest of me??” She said with mock irritation, shaking her head as she read on. “For crimes against Cirra.”

Her amusement died as she recalled how that horrible fire consumed that village and its people. A fire she caused, she thought guiltily.

Daumas had handled that problem for her, just like the others. It was better for people to think she deliberately destroyed the village, he said, reminding her they were behind on their taxes. He told her that her ability to rule would be severely damaged and the people would laugh at her if they ever found out the fire was a result of a disastrous roll in the hay with that farmer’s daughter.

Those candles seemed like a good idea at the time. Who knew it was going to be such a dry season?? Xena shook her head with regret, wishing those people had thought enough to run away from the fire. That only made the tragedy that much worse. Not only did she kill a bunch of people that day, she killed a bunch of dim-witted people. Oh the shame, the warrior thought with great guilt.

But those kinds of horrible experiences were a thing of the past, she thought with a sense of hope. And no longer would she be obsessively looking for a good lay. She didn’t have to. For she found so much more when she stumbled upon that passionate bard, who happened to be her soulmate, the Conqueror thought, shaking her head with amazement. Glancing around the cave, she wondered where her soulmate was, feeling uneasy at her absence.

She picked up another scroll and unrolled it. More beautiful than the handwriting was the greeting, Xena noted with a smile.

My Dearest Xena,

I knew one day you would wake to read this letter. I wish I was at your side, holding you and telling you everything that has happened. But I can not be with you and still ensure your protection from the many bounty hunters that now roam the land. Would you believe they only want your head? What fools.

Xena chuckled, recalling Gabrielle’s unabashed appreciation of her body. Her smirk faded as she read on.

You have been in a deep sleep. Valeska drugged you in an attempt to kill you during a sparring match. She did not count on how stubborn you are. Even drugged, you were able to kill her. Please do not feel guilty. I was naive to ask you to make a promise not to kill her. Her death was justified and much more merciful than the punishment I would have demanded had she lived, for she stole something very precious that can never be returned. Our time together.

Xena’s eyebrows furrowed. Gabrielle, who wouldn’t harm a soul, wanting a punishment worse than death for the Amazon? How much time are we talking here, Xena wondered.

The healer said you would not wake, but I knew she was wrong. So, I sat with you, read to you, talked to you, and tried everything I could think of to rouse you. But you didn’t wake. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into horrible months.

Months? Oh Gabrielle, Xena thought with a heavy heart, amazed anyone would have been so devoted or cared that much for her.

It only took a few months before greedy and power-hungry people took advantage of your mysterious absence. Battles were fought. Lands were lost and gained. Many innocent and not so innocent people died. The Amazons fought nobly, attempting to restore peace where we could. But we were foolish to think we could defeat the new Empress, Callisto, in a head-to-head conflict. She has an amazingly devious mind which we all underestimated, not to mention many spies and a very large army. I only wish the cost of that lesson had not been Queen Melosa’s life.

Xena worried how her mother was handling Melosa’s death and quickly read on.

Cyrene is strong, as I knew she would be. I eventually convinced her to return to the tavern. She’ll be much safer there than roaming the country-side with us. She agreed only after I promised to call her ‘Mom.’ I hope you don’t mind. She was rather persistent and it somehow made the brief time we had together more real.

We will continue to fight Callisto however we can, until the day she is defeated. She must be defeated. She is insane, killing the innocent, even children, who pose absolutely no threat, just because it amuses her. Oh Xena, I wish they were just bards’ tall tales, but I have seen these heinous acts and I will have nightmares for a very long time. I wish I could have done something, anything, to stop it.

A sinking feeling in Xena’s stomach grew. Gabrielle was living through this horrible time . . . alone. The Conqueror silently vowed her soulmate would not be alone for long.

Callisto has no honor, promising to discuss peace, then slaughtering those who dare seek it. We all had great hope that our friend, Najara, who I found to be a kindred spirit, would help us conquer this evil.

Xena’s eyebrow rose. Najara?

Amazingly, with her army, we broke Callisto’s hold on the Eastern kingdom. That, and Najara’s enlightened way, instilled many with hope – a precious thing we were beginning to lose, including me. When Najara spoke of opening hospices across the country for the poor, I actually started to think of the future again, instead of the horrible present. The country will need rebuilding and it will be a great challenge. It will need farmers, carpenters, teachers, and healers of both the flesh and the soul. But sadly, as I had reminded Najara, until Callisto is defeated, we must continue to face reality – the country needs warriors, today and for the foreseeable future.

Against my pleas for caution, Najara met with Callisto on supposedly neutral land, confident she could bring peace once and for all and start on our future.

This Najara must have been nuts, Xena thought. Our future?? Hey . . . .

When she didn’t return to camp, I went to find her. I discovered Najara had been burned at the stake.

Stupid is as stupid does, Xena considered.

I was told by a man who saw the whole thing, that at the very end Najara kept begging for gin. I can only imagine how horrible the pain must have been. Najara never drank alcohol.

I lost a good friend that day . . . and many other days, because of Callisto. But we will fight on. We must. And even though the once-proud Amazon nation has been reduced to a small band of warriors, we have still managed to be a thorn in Callisto’s side.

Xena smirked with a bit of pride for her bard’s accomplishment.

In fact, Callisto has placed a bounty on our heads too.

Xena’s smirk faded, not thrilled at the result of her beloved’s accomplishment.

As far as Amazons go, my head fetches the most, four thousand dinars.

Well at least Callisto realizes the Conqueror’s head is more valuable, Xena thought, reminding herself to point that important fact out to Gabrielle when she saw her next.

But I would like to note that your head only brings more money because it is so much larger than mine.

The Conqueror laughed.

You might be interested in knowing that even though people feared you and blamed you for their troubles in the past, I hear many of those same people now say they wish you would return. That is my wish every night.

As much as it hurts, I can no longer visit you. I put you at risk every time I give into my weakness. I wasn’t thinking and two bounty hunters followed me this time. They are no longer a threat to either of us, but I was lucky. I know one day, there will be someone better when I make another mistake. I can’t risk them finding you too.

Great sorrow washed over the Conqueror, who couldn’t imagine what Gabrielle must be going through.

When you leave this cave, be very careful, my love. Everything has changed. Except my love for you. My heart aches every moment we are not together. Hurry up and come home to me. I need you.

Queen Gabrielle
Xena stared at the writing, trying to digest the incredible news. A horrible, sinking feeling grew as the plea for help that roused her from the deep sleep haunted her.

***

As the sun set, the Amazon Queen sat alone on a hill, overlooking the camp of Amazons as they prepared for one of the few peaceful evenings they had left. Soon, they would be joining with the Centaurs for a real chance of defeating Callisto. But with that chance, would come the death of many, regardless of the outcome. The young Queen’s heart weighed heavy for what she had to do.

“Xena.” Tears fell from her eyes as she softly spoke to her long-missing lover. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”

***

Taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, Xena slowly rolled up the scroll and placed it on the pallet. Her fingers and eyes lingered over the parchment a moment before she sought her weapons.

Spotting her sword and chakram, she went to them with purpose in her stride. She was going to return to Gabrielle and rid the land of this monster Callisto! As she knelt, she found in the midst of the weapons, a deck of cards with a note wrapped around them. Opening the note, she read its contents.

I learned more about that “fascinating” game called poker. Did you know you could use clothing instead of points?

She laughed softly, picturing Gabrielle asking her that. Taking a deep breath, she stood with determination.

“I’m coming, Gabrielle.”
Part 4
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the most powerful Empress of them all?” Callisto said melodically as she looked at herself in the mirror and carefully shifted some blond strands of hair. “Don’t be shy, Daumas. You can speak up.”

“Why, you are, Empress. Of course,” he said.

Callisto was the most powerful ruler – currently. She had more land and military might under her control than any king or queen that had sprung up since the Conqueror’s disappearance, thanks to him.

He knew the Empire was in trouble after Xena’s extended absence. Besides the outbreak of skirmishes, that grew into bigger and bigger battles over land and power, revenue was way down. Daumas needed someone to reestablish order and was smart enough to realize it wasn’t him. After Callisto took over, he knew Xena must have finally died on one of her outings, for she would certainly not have allowed this woman to take over unchallenged.

Still looking at the mirror, Callisto watched the advisor bow his head respectfully. “Of course,” she hissed with a thin smile and swirled around to face the bearded man. His eyes widened slightly at the sudden movement.

“Do you tell that to all your Empresses, Daumas?” She asked airily, pushing a strand of his red hair behind his ear as if they were intimate. But Callisto was too smart for that.

“No, your highness. Just you,” he responded, knowing it was the truth – Xena never asked him questions like that. But even with the truth, Callisto still might decide to cut his throat and he wouldn’t be able to stop her. He was not a warrior, only a master manipulator . . . well, until Xena disappeared. Now he was living day-to-day wondering whether he’d survive Callisto’s unpredictably violent personality. And she had seemed like such a good replacement at the time . . . .

“Are you saying Xena was more powerful?” She snapped.

“No, Empress,” he answered her specific question truthfully, though Xena was much more powerful in her day. The Conqueror’s army was much larger and protected far more land than Callisto’s ever would and most importantly, the Conqueror’s empire brought in much more revenue. Ah, those were the days, he recalled fondly.

“So you are saying she wasn’t more powerful?”

“No, Empress,” he answered nervously.

“What are you saying, Daumas?” Callisto crossed her arms and tapped her foot impatiently.

“At this point, your highness . . . I’m not sure,” he said with forced calm.

Callisto looked at him, suddenly cackled, then stopped. “You amuse me,” she said flatly, causing a brief sigh of relief from the advisor.

“So when is that little Amazon getting here?” She asked with irritation. “I really hate to be ignored. It’s like she doesn’t know her parents are in my dungeon,” Callisto complained then suddenly asked with concern, “She does know I have them, doesn’t she, Daumas?”

“Yes, Empress. My spies have reported she knows.”

Callisto nodded, abruptly turned, walked across the room, and sat on the throne. She took a deep breath and glanced around the room, which was still full of paintings of Xena and her grand battles, though now they all sported large, black moustaches on each of the Conqueror’s likenesses.

She would never get the satisfaction of crushing the Empress, Callisto thought with great disappointment. She believed the rumors that the woman, who destroyed her hometown, killing all but a few citizens, was indeed dead. But at least this Amazon Queen was providing an interesting challenge. If she’d ever get around to making her next move, Callisto thought with a heavy sigh. It had been very quiet since she took the Amazon’s parents.

Impatiently strumming her fingers on the arm of the throne, Callisto sighed again.

“I’m tired of waiting!” Callisto finally blurted. “Just what does it take to get the Amazon Queen’s attention these days? Maybe, I’ll just go find her!” Callisto stood up with enthusiasm for that idea and marched to the door.

“NO Empress!” The blond halted in her tracks and turned slowly with a cold glare. “Uh . . . I wouldn’t advise it,” he quickly added uneasily, causing her to smile sweetly.

“Daumas, Daumas, Daumas,” Callisto said silkily as she circled the nervous man. “Tell me why, before I get really annoyed and kill you.” His eyes grew wide. “Quickly, quickly,” she briskly commanded.

“Uh, I have heard a rumor she was heading towards the Centaur camp yesterday,” he said with concern. “Their numbers are large and. . . .”

“What?!?” She screeched, making him cringe. “She’s actually trying to persuade the Centaurs to join her?”

“Uh . . . so I understand. My spies are working to confirm this,” he said with a cringe.

“Oh this is excellent news!” Callisto relayed with joy.

“But . . . with the Centaurs, she will be a serious threat,” Daumas said with concern.

“Yes! Isn’t that delightful? She might be planning to visit. Hmmm, I wonder what I’ll wear.”

“Do you think she might actually be planning to attack the castle and rescue her family?”

“One can only hope,” Callisto gushed, then frowned, looking down at her black leather battle dress. “Do you think this makes me look fat?” Callisto asked, getting a concerned look from Daumas, who quickly shook his head no when she glared at him.

“But I wear this all the time. Maybe I should go with something new? It can’t be too restrictive for our fight. Something in silk, perhaps? Oooo, I know! I’ll go all natural, like that one Amazon of hers!” Callisto giggled.

“Surely, she must know we’d kill her family as soon as she attacked,” he noted with concern, fearing he had incorrectly assumed the Amazon Queen could be controlled through her family.

“It must be just eating her up, not knowing what will happen. Will I kill them now? Will kill them later?” Callisto said with relish. “I am so ashamed of myself!” The Empress blurted suddenly with irritation. “How could I doubt her? Just when I think she’s being too inattentive, she does something like this!” Callisto smiled happily.

Daumas eyed her with unease then continued. “Uh . . . the Northern army is between us and the Centaur camp. If she decided to forfeit her family and attack, she’d have to go through them first. We should minimize our losses by warning them she might attack soon. And if we call back all our regiments from the West, we might even be able to capture her and crush the Amazons and Centaurs for good!” Daumas said with enthusiasm. He was tired of all this battling, longing for the day when things settled down and he could focus on increasing the Empire’s revenue.

“Now that would be rude, Daumas,” she scolded him. “And I really don’t want to scare her away after all this time. If we alert the Northern army or call back any regiments now, she’ll know we know of her plans. She isn’t above using spies, you know,” Callisto said thoughtfully and went back to the throne.

Daumas rolled his eyes and exhaled with frustration as she sat and brushed off some invisible specs of dust from her leather outfit.

“Be a dear and keep an eye on her movements, Daumas,” Callisto reclined back in the chair. “She’ll want to move before we find out what she is planning and call in reinforcements. She will move within the next few days,” Callisto said insightfully with a small smile.

Daumas listened to the woman who spoke with disturbingly obscure thoughts one minute and amazing clarity the next.

“And when she does, I want to be there to personally thank her for all those little inconveniences she’s provided over the years that have weakened my hold on the East and South.”

“But if we do nothing, they’ll have a chance to . . . uh . . . ” he started to complain but noted her eyebrows rise as she curiously looked at him. “We could sustain heavy losses on the battlefield . . . which we could avoid if . . . ,” he added nervously, interrupted by her amused laugh.

“Daumas, Daumas, Daumas. What kind of hostess would I be if I spoiled her plans now?” She said and leaned back contentedly on her throne, wearily adding “Besides, this Empress gig can get really tedious without a real challenge.”

“So I understand, Empress.”

***

The Centaur general and his son, Phantes, looked at each other then back to the Amazon Queen, who explained her plan as she pointed out the key parts on the map covering the large table.

Lila stood nearby in the tent, watching her sister with great concern. Gabrielle had changed so much since they lived in Poteidaia.

It had been ages since Gabrielle told those frivolous romantic stories. And she no longer wore that ugly blue dress, instead electing more flattering, and her Father would say indecent, red leathers. She even broke Mother’s heart and kept her beautiful hair short after it was partially hacked off in a battle with Callisto. Though Gabrielle had said it was better for fighting, Lila wondered if it wasn’t because Najara had short hair.

But it was much more than the change in occupation and physical appearance, Lila considered with great concern. Gabrielle had become . . . cold.

“She has the advantage,” the Centaur general said bluntly. “She has a big castle and a big army.”

Gabrielle looked up at her ally and smiled thinly. “It’s not always size that counts, General.”

The Centaur general and his son grumbled. “The Northern Army should not be dismissed. They are formidable,” the general noted.

“There are weaknesses even in the strongest armor, Tyldus. And we will exploit them,” Gabrielle said wisely. “And we have surprise on our side.”

“Gabrielle, what about Mother and Father?” Lila said uneasily, drawing a sharp gaze from her sister.

“She has a point, Gabrielle,” Tyldus noted.

“Attacking the Northern army will risk your family,” Phantes added with concern.

“Not attacking the Northern army now, when we are finally strong enough to beat them and take the castle, will risk everyone’s family. Callisto must be stopped once and for all. And we have a chance NOW, before she can gather all her troops,” Gabrielle argued as she pointed to the map, where the other armies were a few days ride away. “Am I the only one who sees that?” Gabrielle barked with frustration.

***

“You can’t attack the Northern army! Mother and father will be killed!” Lila yelled as she paced in Gabrielle’s tent, finally alone with her sister.

Gabrielle sighed and sat down on her cot. “That’s a risk I’ll have to take,” she noted wearily, rubbing her temples.

“A risk YOU’LL have to take?!? I know you never got along with them . . . ”

“They never got along with ME! They never tried to hear me once! NOT ONCE!”

“Gabrielle, do you hate them so much to sentence them to death?!?”

Gabrielle sighed wearily and blurted sarcastically. “Works for me.”

“Stop this madness!”

“I’d LOVE to! Just tell me what I should do, Lila. Perhaps we should just ignore everything and settle down. Yeah. Maybe Callisto will just let our parents go. That’s it! But let’s hope the town we choose isn’t one Callisto decides to destroy. Oh, better yet, how about I just go to her and plead for peace? Now there’s a bright idea. Well, wait a minute, the peace idea didn’t work out so well for Najara now, did it?” Gabrielle said, feigning deep thought.

“Najara was a nutcase! Callisto probably got tired of hearing her talk to herself,” Lila responded.

“Oh wonderful, Lila. Blame the victim.”

“Well she was odd. Even you have to admit that!”

“I can’t believe you are speaking ill of the dead!”

“UGGGG!” Lila growled back in frustration. “You just can’t do this!!”

“I have to,” Gabrielle said coldly, her eyes hard.

Lila shook head with disbelief. Who was this woman who looked like her sister?

“I can’t stand to be around you any more!” Lila said in a huff, turned, and bumped into Ephiny. “Ugh!!” Lila growled and went around the Amazon, pausing at the tent opening. “I’m going home to Poteidaia, or what’s left of it.”

The two watched as Gabrielle’s sister stormed out of the tent.

“Shouldn’t you . . . ?” Ephiny asked softly.

“Solari will,” Gabrielle briskly interjected, then changed topics. “Did you get it?” She asked with hope in her voice. Ephiny grinned and pulled out the parchment from her belt.

“I knew you could do it!” Gabrielle said and hugged the Amazon, allowing herself to feel encouraged by the small victory.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 21 – Catching Up

Xena had seen poor people before. She saw quite a few before she became Empress. And even after she became the Conqueror, she’d occasionally spot a few when she ventured out of the castle on her outings. But never had she seen so many gathered together in so many places.

She slowly rode through one of the smaller camps she passed that day. They were all the same – depressing. And like in the other camps, many frightened eyes, peaking out of tents and from behind trees, followed her and her horse. Argo whinnied with displeasure. “Easy girl.”

Xena noticed a small child, unhealthily thin, sitting dejectedly in front of a tent, holding a dangling rag doll by an arm as she stared at the ground. The curious Warrior Princess slowed to a stop and watched an old woman emerge from the tent and shake her head at the child.

“Mamma!” The girl bawled as a very thin, old man came out of the tent and attempted to comfort the girl. The cry tore at Xena’s heart.

“Sex for food.”

Xena’s attention was quickly diverted to the scruffy young woman, who had boldly marched up to her. “Excuse me?”

“You got any food?” The gawky brunette asked directly, putting her hands on her ample hips.

“Uh . . .” Xena responded, glancing around the camp uneasily.

“Minya, get away from her!” A boyish looking man rushed up and attempted to pull her back, away from the dangerous looking stranger. “Don’t you see, she’s one of the Empress’ soldiers!” He hissed nervously, eyeing the stranger in a battle dress and cape that emphasized her regal bearing as she sat on her mount.

“You think I’m a soldier of the Empress?” Xena laughed with amazement.

“You saying you’re not?” Hower challenged, nervously stepping behind Minya when the stranger’s cold blue glare fell on him.

“Hower, it never mattered before,” Minya snapped. “So how about it? I’ve got good teeth,” she said, pulling her lips back with her fingers to show her.

Xena’s eyebrows furrowed. “Uh . . . I’m fine, thanks.”

“Aw come on, we haven’t had anything to eat in days,” Minya pouted, motioning to the camp.

Xena pulled out a small bag of jerky and tossed it to the woman, who grinned and eagerly opened the bag as a few peasants emerged from the tents.

“Hey!” Hower said, eyeing the tall, beautiful stranger with concern as Minya passed out the food until it was gone. Minya returned to Hower’s side, eyeing Argo with interest then elbowed Hower, who got the hint and valiantly stepped up.

“How many nights of unimaginable bliss would it take for your . . . ?” Hower offered with bravado, standing tall, willing to make this huge sacrifice with this beautiful woman for his beloved . . . what’s her name.

“Touch my horse and die,” Xena growled, her sword already unsheathed and at the peasant’s throat.

“Okie Dokie,” Hower said and stepped back away from the horse. Minya eyed him with disappointment. “Can I help it she prefers women?” Hower explained defensively.

“Can you blame her?” Minya said, shaking her head. “Ok, I got the food and I always keep my word. Where do you want to do it??” She said gruffly, looking around the camp.

“I’m not interested,” Xena said bluntly, but saw the hurt look on the peasant’s face. “Uh . . . I’m already involved,” Xena offered with a weak smile and shrug.

Minya glanced at her boyfriend with dissatisfaction, then the beautiful woman rider. “So?”

“She’s very possessive.”

“Oh,” Minya said with disappointment, then tried “But a deal’s a deal . . . . ”

“What if you pay me with information, instead?” Xena offered with a thin smile.

***

Xena sat at the campfire with a group of the peasants, including the old woman and the old man she saw by the tent earlier, and Hower. She was rather relieved that Minya hadn’t joined them.

“So, tell me about this Callisto,” Xena asked pointedly, provoking disturbed looks from the group.

Xena cringed uncomfortably when Minya finally joined them. The gawky brunette had washed her face, combed her hair, and changed into a dress without as many holes. Hower’s eyebrows furrowed with irritation.

Attempting to be graceful when she sat but not quite succeeding, Minya flattened out the wrinkles in her dress then smiled coyly at her guest, who returned a weak smile and redirected her gaze to the fire, scratching the back of her neck.

“It’s hard to believe you don’t know, Callisto,” the old woman and apparent leader of the camp said skeptically. “How do we know you aren’t a spy for her?”

“First, I’m a soldier for her, then a spy?” Xena responded shaking her head with amusement.

“You haven’t answered my question,” the old woman said.

“No, I haven’t. And as I see it, you owe me information, not the other way around,” Xena said tightly, eyeing the old woman, who swallowed uneasily.

“Or we could go back to the original conditions,” Minya suggested helpfully, suddenly tossing her handkerchief to the ground and leaning over to pick it up, pausing to display her attributes.

“I am not a spy nor a soldier for the Empress,” Xena blurted quickly to the old woman. “I am the Empress,” she added firmly.

The peasants burst into laughter. “I am!” Xena blurted with anger, making them laugh more.

“Your hair is not blond,” the older woman countered.

“And you certainly are not skinny like her,” Minya said, eyeing the stranger’s build appreciatively.

“So you’re saying you’re Callisto?” Hower asked with amusement.

“Ugh!” Xena growled as she pulled out a coin from her pouch and tossed it to the old woman.

“My eyesight cannot be bought, warrior,” the old woman said with irritation.

“I can,” Minya blurted with a smile and added “Callisto,” and fluttered her eyelashes.

“Minya!!” Hower snapped.

“Look at it,” Xena commanded, startling the old woman, who inspected the coin.

Xena really wished Gabrielle was here to talk with these people. Talking to people was not her strong suit. Commanding or threatening them . . . sure. Why in Tartarus was she even bothering to be nice to them anyway?!? Because it’s what Gabrielle would want her to do.

“So, I haven’t seen a BC coin in a while. What is this supposed to prove?”

“BC?” Xena asked curiously.

“BC . . . Before Callisto,” the old woman responded with surprise at the tall woman’s genuine ignorance.

“When Callisto took over, she had her image placed on all the coin. Just like Empress Xena did,” she noted, then eyed the likeness. She glanced between the coin and the stranger curiously. When she saw the stranger’s eyebrow rise questioningly, she gasped. “By the GODs.”

Suddenly the old woman fell to her knees, trembling. “I beg you forgive this old fool, Empress Xena.”

“Please get . . . ” Xena said wearily, interrupted when the old woman gasped, clenched her chest, and fell over.

***

Xena quickly placed the old woman on a cot inside the healer’s tent as the peasants waited nervously just outside, except for Minya who hesitantly entered.

“Is she dead?” Minya asked as Xena checked for a pulse.

“No,” Xena said with a relieved sigh. “Where’s your healer?”

Minya pointed to the unconscious old woman. “Wonderful,” Xena said, rolling her eyes. “Bring me the pouch of herbs out of my saddle bag and some hot water.”

***

“How long have you lived like this?” Xena asked Minya, while she opened the pouch and inspected the herbs.

“About three winters, your highness,” Minya said shrugging. The startled Conqueror looked up at her with surprise, which was quickly masked as she returned to gaze at her herbs.

“What happened three years ago?” She asked evenly and mixed together a few herbs in a cup.

“Callisto destroyed our town, your majesty.”

“Why?” Xena asked as she poured the hot water into the cup.

“We had rebelled, oh great one.”

“Minya,” Xena exhaled with irritation, then took a patient breath and forced a smile. “Do me a favor and just call me Xena. Ok?”

“Ok,” she said hesitantly and added with a shy giggle “Xena.”

Xena stared at her. The pinch would be so much quicker. “And why did you rebel?” She asked the giddy peasant tightly.

“Well, Xena,” Minya said with a grin and another giggle. “After you disappeared, no one wanted to be stuck with another selfish, oppressive dictator with high taxes, uh, what I mean is, uh . . . ” the peasant said nervously.

“Minya,” Xena snapped with irritation, then let out a long exhale. “I just want the truth. I’ve had enough ass-kissing for a life time.”

“Oh,” Minya said with disappointment then continued. “Well, like many other towns, we thought we’d finally be able to live free, under our own rules. So we declared our independence from the new Empire and stopped paying taxes. The next thing we know, Callisto arrived with a huge army. The only reason anyone from our town is alive today is because the Amazons came to help,” Minya said, provoking a small smile from Xena, who stirred the herbal tea.

“But many were lost, even children,” Minya said uncomfortably, Xena nodded sadly, recalling Gabrielle’s disturbing account in that scroll.

“The Amazons even lost their Queen and their Princess was seriously injured. The town was quickly leveled after that.”

“Seriously injured? What happened?!?” Xena blurted with concern.

“She was plowing through the soldiers, whacking them silly with her staff. You should have seen it! Bam, bam, bam. She was amazing! They couldn’t touch her,” Minya recounted enthusiastically. “But after Callisto killed Queen Melosa, she nailed Princess Gabrielle with her cross-bow, right here,” the peasant pointed to her shoulder and shuddered.

“But instead of finishing her off, Callisto dragged her behind her horse, into the center of town,” Minya relayed, making Xena grit her teeth and want to cause Callisto ten times the pain she had caused Gabrielle. “The Empress made her watch the town’s destruction, threatening the Princess that more destruction would come if anyone else dared to rebel,” Minya said. “Then Callisto left. I can still hear her laugh,” the peasant woman said and cringed, shaking her head.

“The Princess almost died right there. She was bleeding really bad. But two Amazons, got her to Cumae in time,” Minya relayed, eyeing the older woman.

Xena looked at the healer with amazement, then gratitude.

“We never could figure out why one of them was buck naked though,” Minya said thoughtfully then added with a shrug “I guess it did distract a lot of the soldiers during battle but you’d think it would . . . ”

Glancing up from her ample breasts to seeing Xena’s irritated gaze at her tangent, Minya continued. “Anyway, Callisto made her biggest mistake. Her actions that day created her worst enemy – Queen Gabrielle. She has vowed to stop Callisto. The people want her to and eventually, she will,” Minya said with confidence, which was quickly replaced with concern.

“But what will you do?” Minya suddenly said, disturbing Xena from her thoughts.

“Do?”

“Yeah, now that you’re back, what are you going to do??” Minya said uneasily.

“I’m going to help your healer,” she said, glancing at the older woman.

“Then what?”

“Go to sleep.”

“THEN what?”

“Find Gabrielle.”

Minya suddenly grabbed a small knife and nervously pointed it at the former Empress. “Queen Gabrielle is fighting for us. She is our only hope. I won’t let you kill her,” Minya said defiantly, bringing a pleased smile to Xena’s face. “I mean it!” Minya added with irritation.

“I know,” Xena said softly. “Put down the knife, Minya. I would never harm, Gabrielle.”

“Why not? She would be a great threat to you if you regained the throne,” Minya challenged the former Empress.

“Well, I guess I’d have to get her one too, so we don’t fight over it,” Xena offered with amusement, confusing the peasant.

“But . . . she wouldn’t just sit around on a throne and allow you to dictate like you used to,” Minya argued heatedly.

“No, I don’t expect she would,” Xena said with a smile. Her eyebrow rose as she looked at the loyal peasant then the knife still clenched in her hand.

“Oh, put the knife down, Minya. Before you stab yourself,” the old woman said with a gravely voice, shifting in her cot. “Gods, the only thing worse than an old fool is a young fool,” she grumbled.

“Good, you’re awake. Sip this,” Xena said, handing the mug of herbal tea to the old woman, ignoring Minya, who stood with the knife, still confused.

“Ah, you know your herbs,” the old woman said approvingly as she sipped the mug of tea. “You wouldn’t mind leaving a little behind for us when you go?” The healer asked, eyeing the bag of herbs.

“They’re yours,” Xena quickly said, making the old woman smile.

“Wait a minute! How do we know you won’t just go after Queen Gabrielle and Empress Callisto to get your Empire back?” Minya challenged, still holding onto the knife.

“Minya, she helped us. Why would she do that if she was an enemy? Queen Gabrielle isn’t in any danger from this woman,” Cumae said.

“How do you know?” Minya argued, still holding onto the knife.

“Because it seems that this woman loves her,” Cumae said, looking at Xena, who smiled and glanced down feeling suddenly shy from this woman’s comment.

“She could be a stalker,” Minya said knowingly and added ominously “they claim to love, but as soon as they are rejected . . . .”

“Minya, quiet! I don’t believe that will happen,” Cumae said with a smile. “When I treated Queen Gabrielle, she said she loved Xena. Though, I thought she was just delusional with that high fever she had,” the old woman admitted sheepishly.

——————————————————————————–

Chapter 22 – Bended Ear

At night, Xena made camp by the river, away from the peasant camp, though she was invited to share a tent with Minya, a number of times.

After placing a few branches on the fire, she lay on her bedroll. Her mind was too busy sorting through the incredible news to let her sleep. So, she stared at the stars, thinking.

War changes people, she knew. What if Gabrielle’s claim in the scroll was no longer true. What if, like everything else, the bard’s love for her had changed? So much time had passed. Almost five winters . . . .

Why did this have to happen just after finding happiness with Gabrielle, she wondered angrily, gazing at the heavens with a furrowed brow. Because she was still cursed, she concluded as loneliness welled up within her heart. Hearing a twig break, she knew she wasn’t alone anymore.

Heavy, shuffling footsteps and muffled grunts clearly announced the intruder’s every movement. With shut eyes, Xena waited, listening as he came closer and closer. When the footsteps finally stopped, she jumped up, unsheathed her sword and pointed it at the intruder, who dropped a heavy rock onto his foot with a deep thump.

“Ahhhh!” Hower screeched and clenched his foot, hopping around on one leg until he fell over. “Ooff.”

Xena eyed him and sheathed her sword, shaking her head. “So what’s the rock for, Hower?” She asked flatly, crossing her arms across her chest.

“Please don’t kill me,” he pleaded into the dirt.

“Why not? I’m usually not too receptive to people trying to bash my head in.”

Hower shifted into a sitting position on the dirt. He looked pathetic and lost. “Your head is worth five thousand dinars. That would feed us for a very long time.”

“And if you actually succeeded in bashing my head in, how would they know it was mine?”

“Oh,” Hower said dejectedly, not having really thought about that. He had spent all day just coming up with the rock plan.

“You need to cut it off,” she said helpfully, pulling out a dagger with a smile as she slowly crouched down next to him. “Nice and clean, so the face is recognizable,” she explained pointing to his neck with her dagger exactly where to cut. “. . . and the trophy can be presented.”

“Please don’t kill me,” he whimpered, eyeing the dagger with fear.

Xena sighed. “Have you ever thought about hunting for food?”

Hower looked at Argo, who neighed with irritation.

“Think about her again and I will kill you,” Xena said evenly, causing the man to quickly avert his gaze from her prize horse.

“The land seems to have some game,” Xena offered, putting her dagger away. “And there’s a stream that’s bound to have a few fish.”

“Callisto killed most of the men in our village. I’m no good at hunting or fishing,” he said dejectedly. “I’m no good at anything, ask Minya.”

Xena rolled her eyes.

***

Xena sat staring into the small fire that Hower kept feeding with branches while he talked. And talked. And talked. . . .

Why me?

“When we first met, she only had eyes for me,” Hower said, smiling fondly at the memory.

I don’t recall inviting him to talk my ear off. But here he is. She glanced at him with a weak smile.

“Then her eye started to wander,” he said with amazement at that possibility.

How did “You need to learn how to hunt and fish. I’ll teach you in the morning,” give him the impression I wanted him to stay and chat??

“Sure, I was starting to gain a little weight . . .”

Well, at least I should be able to sleep now. Xena yawned.

“. . . but I wasn’t fat,” he said defensively.

I wonder what Gabrielle is doing right now. Probably something fun, like planning a battle . . . .

***

After long hours of debating over the Queen’s plan, the Centaur General had enough.

“Let us sleep on it,” the General said tersely.

Gabrielle would not be put off easily. “You know as well as I do there will never be an opportunity like this one. She has her troops scattered about the lands. She has never been as vulnerable as . . . ”

“Queen Gabrielle, I am not arguing. But we will not settle all the details this evening,” Tyldus said with a yawn.

“But . . . ”

“I am tired. We will work with you – tomorrow. Goodnight, Queen Gabrielle,” the Centaur general said briskly and left the tent with his son, who paused and smiled at Ephiny before he left.

Gabrielle sighed heavily and suddenly slapped her hand against the map table with frustration. She wanted the details to be ironed out quickly, certain they didn’t have time to waste. Callisto must know that with the Centaurs, they had a chance of defeating the Northern army. So she would obviously call for reinforcements, Gabrielle thought. Then the advantage, and a real chance of victory, would be lost in only a few days.

Ephiny looked at the tent opening, then back at her Queen uneasily.

“Go ahead, say what’s on your mind before I beat it out of you,” Gabrielle said with irritation, rubbing her temples.

“I really like him.”

“Huh?”

“Phantes.”

“Oh?” Gabrielle said hesitantly.

“What do you think of him?” Ephiny asked expectantly.

“Uh . . . I, really don’t . . . uh, he seems to be really . . . sharp. A good head on his shoulders,” Gabrielle said with a smile for her relieved friend.

“We’ve been seeing each other,” Ephiny relayed shyly.

“Really??”

“He’s a great dancer,” Ephiny offered wistfully.

“Centaurs dance?” Gabrielle’s eyebrows furrowed curiously.

“Not all of them. But Phantes is a really great hoofer.”

“Ah.”

“My mother used to tell me it’s very rare to find a man who will dance with you,” she added, recalling her mother’s little talks fondly. “And if she had ever found one, he would have been a keeper.”

“A keeper? That sounds rather serious.”

“Phantes and I have actually talked about getting married.”

“You can do that?!?” Gabrielle asked with amazement.

“Sure, why not?”

“I . . . uh, no reason.”

Ephiny smiled. “We wanted to tie the knot before the attack. Just in case things didn’t go so well.”

“So soon? But you only just met him, Ephiny,” Gabrielle said with surprise.

“I’ve known him a week!”

“But how can you really be ready for a life-long commitment after such a short . . .” Gabrielle blurted then paused, realizing she was the last person to question knowing one’s heart after such a short time. “You’re sure, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

Gabrielle nodded with a small smile and looked at the map. She sighed and felt obligated to offer her best friend an option. “You don’t have to lead them into battle, you know. You and Phantes could . . . . ”

“Queen Gabrielle, I am an Amazon,” Ephiny said testily. “I have had many sisters die because of Callisto. I will not shirk my duties and dishonor those who died or risk those who remain, including my Queen, who happens to need my help!”

“And I certainly do,” Gabrielle said and nodded at her friend, expecting no less from her.

“Once we bring peace to the land, we’ll settle down and have a family,” Ephiny said with confidence looking at the map.

The Queen never saw a scroll on that. How on earth . . . ?

Ephiny continued to study the map. “It will be difficult,” the regent said, pointing to the area where the army was.

Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully. No doubt . . . .

“But I know we’ll succeed,” Ephiny continued with confidence, glancing to her Queen.

“Or die trying,” Gabrielle offered with a smirk, glancing back at the map.

“Well, that would be better than dying of old age in a rocking chair.”

“If you say so,” Gabrielle said flatly. “I happen to be a big fan of old age and rocking chairs.”

“If you say so,” Ephiny said skeptically.

“Hey! Thanks to you, I now have a map of the castle, Ephiny,” Gabrielle responded defensively. “I am planning on coming back, WITH my parents.”

“I’d argue with you, but I know that wouldn’t do any good.”

“My plan will work. And I can handle myself, Ephiny,” Gabrielle said with irritation, crossing her arms over her chest.

Ephiny looked at her friend, who had become a force to be reckoned with. Her skills had dramatically improved. She could beat any Amazon now with almost any weapon. But the bard Queen’s most formidable weapon was her mind, which was perfectly suited for strategy. She had won many small battles against Callisto and was successfully eroding away her power. And now she was on the verge of a monumental victory.

But still, Ephiny worried, Callisto was an insane, unpredictable wildcard that Gabrielle was trying to predict. And she had Gabrielle’s parents.

“This is Callisto, Gabrielle. She’s not your typical evil bitch.”

“I know,” Gabrielle said with a weary sigh.

“I still wish you would take us with you,” Ephiny grumbled.

“She has spies, Ephiny. I know the moment any of my Amazons are noted missing from the camp, she’ll figure out what I’m trying to do. And I need you at the front, Ephiny. Now more than ever. Once you punch through the Northern Army, we’ll be ready for you at the castle. There will never be another opportunity like this. This will work.”

Ephiny grunted unhappily.

Gabrielle chuckled at her friend. “I bet you never imagined any of this happening when we were by the river with Terreis.”

“No, can’t say that was anything close to what I was imagining,” Ephiny said with a smile finally filling her face. “So . . . will you marry us?”

“I can do that??”

“Sure, why not?”

“Uh . . . no reason. I’d be happy to marry you, Ephiny.”

***

“Then she started dropping hints about trying new stuff,” Hower continued as Xena blinked numbly at the fire.

I could still kill him. After all, he did try to bash my head in with a rock.

“I don’t know any new stuff, you know?” He said with great frustration.

And it would get me out of my promise tomorrow.

“So I was thinking . . . ”

Can’t teach a dead man to fish . . . .

“Do you have any special . . . techniques you could share with me?”

But he seems like a nice guy . . . kinda. Did he just stop talking?

“Hmm?” Xena said, looking up from the fire.

“Techniques? Do you have any techniques that you could share?”

“Huh?”

“Look, I know you have a reputation for being . . . well, amazing in the bedroom and I was . . .”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!”

“Come on, Xena, please! I want to please her. I’m desperate here.”

“You sure are, if you’re asking me.”

“From all those stories I’ve heard, you must have something you can share that will help me satisfy her.”

Xena cringed when she heard a pathetic “please.”

With a sigh, she shook her head wearily and eyed an expectant Hower, who quickly blurted “Please, please, please, please. . . .”

“Ok!” Xena sharply interrupted and rolled her eyes, getting a huge grin from the man. “I’ll share a few things,” she relented. Her new student eagerly leaned forward to hear every sage word from the infamous Empress.

“Let’s see,” Xena scratched her chin, thinking through her list. “You already know her name. . . .”

Hower’s eyebrows furrowed curiously.

“Uh, she’s not married, right?”

Hower shook his head hesitantly.

“You don’t seem so sure. You don’t want to be surprised about that, Hower. That certainly will ruin the mood. Trust me,” Xena said wisely. “And when your mood is ruined, her mood will be ruined. . . .”

“She’s not married,” Hower said with irritation.

“And you aren’t either, I hope.”

“NO!”

“Hey, you’re the one who asked the question,” Xena said with irritation.

“Sorry,” he grumbled softly.

“Ok,” Xena said and looked up at the stars and smiled. “Do you trust her?”

“What? Aren’t you going to tell me about any techniques?”

“Answer my question.”

“But,” Hower said, then saw the stern look on the Empress’ face. “Yes,” he answered hesitantly. “But what has that. . . .”

“Really trust her?”

“Yes. I do,” he said with irritation.

“Good. That’s very important. You need to trust her. Trust her to tell you what she wants when you ask her.”

“You mean I have to talk to her about this?” He blurted with surprise.

“I know, it’s scary, Hower. But you said she has already mentioned she was interested in new things. Did you ever let her actually show you what she wanted?”

“But I’m the man. I’m supposed to lead and know things!” He said with frustration as Xena rolled her eyes. “Are you going to tell me about any techniques or not??”

“You are looking for a quick fix . . . ”

“Yeah?”

“Hower, there aren’t any. If you aren’t comfortable talking with her about this then it’s no wonder you are having difficulties with . . . you know.”

“Know what?”
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 23 – Dearly Beloved

The atmosphere was tense in the Amazon and Centaur camp. All knew that tomorrow, history would be made, regardless of the outcome.

But for today, the focus was not on battles but on unions as the Amazon sisters and Centaur brothers gathered, taking a short break from their war preparations. Years ago, no one would have imagined an alliance between the Amazons and Centaurs. Their history had been one of distrust, at best. But times had changed. And thanks to the Amazon Queen, who stood before a crowd in her ceremonial leathers, a new age of cooperation had begun. One which Gabrielle prayed would last well beyond tomorrow.

As the happy couple approached the Centaur General and Amazon Queen, Gabrielle raised her hand to hush the murmuring crowd. After a pleased grin at the couple, the Queen spoke, looking out over the gathering.

“Since I have become Queen, the ceremonies I’ve performed have been to honor our noble sisters who have died in our struggle against evil. But for today, I am truly pleased to be part of a ceremony that celebrates life, love, and hope for our future,” Gabrielle smiled down at Ephiny and Phantes, who grinned and glanced at each other.

“Love is a precious gift. And as Ephiny and Phantes know, time with a loved one should not be wasted. So, to not waste any more time, let’s get down to business, shall we?” Gabrielle said with a grin, eyeing the couple as chuckles erupted from the audience.

“Please face each other,” Gabrielle said. After the couple stood hoof to toe, the Queen continued.

“Ephiny, do you promise to love Phantes, above all others and cherish each day with him?”

“I do,” Ephiny said, glancing at the General, who nodded happily.

“Phantes, do you promise to love Ephiny, above all others and cherish each day with her?”

“Yes,” Phantes said confidently to Queen Gabrielle, though his tail whipped about.

“As Amazon Queen, I pronounce Ephiny and Phantes married. May your life together be lived with honor and purpose, and be full of love,” Queen Gabrielle said with warmth. “You may kiss.”

Phantes smiled and leaned over, kissing Ephiny gently as the crowd cheered.

***

Solari stood at the front of Gabrielle’s tent and softly called out “Gabrielle?”

“Solari! Come in,” Gabrielle said happily as she finished changing out of her ceremonial leathers into a dark green tunic. “Tell me, did my angry sister go to Poteidaia like she said?”

“No. She went to the castle again, like you said,” Solari said with irritation.

Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully and eyed the angry Amazon. “She’s doing what she thinks is right.”

“By spying for the enemy?!?”

“She’s only trying to help our parents. I didn’t give her much choice,” she said guiltily for having used Lila and in doing so, endangering her.

“Do you really think Lila will be able to just walk away from the castle with your parents, Gabrielle?”

“No,” Gabrielle said and exhaled wearily. “This time, I expect she’ll be put into the dungeon with them. She won’t be able to give them any more information before the attack,” the Queen added, almost as if she were discussing the weather.

“My family will be fine as long as Callisto thinks she can have fun killing them in front of me. They’re all just pawns in Callisto’s game,” Gabrielle said, desperately wanting this game to end. She was always aware that, like in the game of King’s men, the Queen might have to be sacrificed to secure the victory. But she prayed the sacrifice did not have to include the Queen’s family.

“Gabrielle?” A soft voice called from the back of the tent.

Solari’s hand immediately grabbed the hilt of her dagger. Gabrielle waved off her tense Amazon friend and knelt by the tent wall. Pulling up the edge, the Queen allowed a blond Amazon to enter.

Solari’s eyes widened, then she grinned. “You found them!”

“Shhhh,” Gabrielle said as she helped the Northern Amazon up.

“Yakut, did you have any trouble?”

“Nope,” she said with a shrug. “They are by the river with Otere, waiting for you.”

“Wait a minute. By the river? Waiting for you?” Solari snapped.

“SSSSSSHHHH!” Gabrielle said, clamping her hand over her friend’s mouth.

“I need your help, Solari. We can’t have anyone knowing about the Northern Amazons or our mission tonight,” Gabrielle said with urgency.

“Toodngmpft?!?” Solari looked at Yakut, who nodded, then noticed a very interesting birthmark.

“Yes, tonight.”

“Mmookoodofbrustedme!”

“I know, but I didn’t want Lila, or anyone else, overhearing any conversations or picking up that something was going on besides the attack with the Centaurs. I couldn’t take that chance. Do you understand?”

Solari nodded.

***

Pulling her hood over her head, Xena emerged from the night and entered the busy Poteidaian tavern. Some things never change, she thought, glancing around the room full of people trying to escape their troubles.

Two uniformed guards wearing leather tunics, entered the tavern, eyeing the suspicious cloaked figure that sat quietly at the bar. Rubus, the bartender came up with a tired smile. “What will you have?”

“Port.”

“Coming right up,” Rubus said, glancing at the guards uneasily as he quickly poured the port and served it to her. She pulled out a dinar and tossed it on the bar as he placed her mug in front of her.

He picked up the old coin and looked at it with surprise.

“Barkeep, two meads,” the smaller guard ordered.

“Yes sir,” Rubus blurted and quickly got them their drinks. They took their mugs and headed for a table, which was immediately vacated by three nervous patrons.

“Excuse me? I think you forgot to pay,” Xena said politely. The chatter in the tavern suddenly quieted as the guards halted in their tracks and turned around to the cloaked figure.

“Who dares question us?” The smaller guard snapped and pulled out his sword.

“Please, please, we don’t want any trouble,” Cyrene called out nervously, quickly descending the stairs.

Xena glanced at her mother, startled at the grey that now streaked her hair.

“Then teach your customers to respect the imperial guard,” the large man snarled.

Not likely. Xena sipped her port as her hand rested comfortably on her chakram.

“Of course. Please, take your mead and enjoy, please,” Cyrene said wearily with a forced smile. The guards grumbled and sat down.

The tavern owner turned to the hooded woman. “Please, I don’t want any more. . . trouble,” Cyrene finished absently, noticing the familiar round weapon at the customer’s side peaking out from beneath the cloak.

Xena said in a low, quiet voice. “I’m afraid the trouble is just really starting, mother.”

Cyrene blinked, struggling to believe her eyes. Xena had come home.

“Do you have rooms?” Xena said loudly as she stood, causing the lazy guards to briefly glance her way, satisfied the hooded patron would not challenge them again.

***

As they entered a room, Cyrene immediately hugged her daughter, who gratefully returned the embrace. “Dear Gods. Look at you!” Cyrene said as she laughed and cried, wiping tears from her eyes as she pulled back and inspected her daughter. Xena looked as if no time had passed. “No one thought you’d wake. Except Gabrielle,” she added with wonder.

“Where is she?” Xena asked softly, searching her mother’s face.

“I don’t know,” Cyrene said, guiltily cringing at the disappointment on her daughter’s face. “The last I heard from her, she was going to recruit help to attack the castle. She’s an Amazon Queen now, Xena.”

Xena nodded as she paced. “She wants to attack my castle?”

“It’s Callisto’s castle now. And yes, she wants to attack the castle and stop that mad woman.”

Xena looked at her mother, concerned Gabrielle’s desire to stop the new Empress had clouded her judgment. “You don’t just go and attack a castle without major losses,” Xena blurted with frustration. “Why do you think I built those big stone walls with turrets around the castle?!? She’ll be a sitting duck!”

Cyrene cringed at the outburst and Xena’s unsettling point.

The Conqueror exhaled her frustration as she sat. “How is she?”

Cyrene smiled, heartened to see the concern and love her daughter expressed for the young woman.

“It’s been almost five winters,” Cyrene said. “Gabrielle is . . . ok, considering,” she said hesitantly. Seeing her daughter’s expectant gaze, she continued. “You don’t know what she’s been through,” she relayed uneasily, sitting with her daughter at the small table.

“Tell me,” Xena urged her mother softly.

“She’s seen much death. So many have died, including Melosa,” Cyrene said, glancing down and pausing a moment.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” Xena said sincerely, grasping Cyrene’s hand and squeezing it. “I heard she died honorably, defending a town from Callisto and her army.”

Cyrene nodded and sighed heavily. “The town was destroyed. Melosa was killed. And Gabrielle was seriously injured.”

“I’ve heard she was shot with a cross-bow,” Xena said tightly.

Cyrene nodded. “After she regained her strength, the Amazon resistance increased. The Southern and Eastern lands are no longer under Callisto’s control.”

“It sounds like Gabrielle is doing . . . well,” Xena said cautiously.

Cyrene laughed derisively. “No, Xena, she’s not. That sweet, young bard has been scarred by all the bloodshed. I don’t know if those wounds will ever get a chance to heal. And now, Callisto has her parents. They are in the castle’s dungeon.”

“She must know they’ll be killed if she tries to storm the castle,” Xena said with worry.

Cyrene frowned. “I don’t know if it really matters.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“When Callisto came for Gabrielle’s parents, they claimed they didn’t know her,” Cyrene cringed guiltily. “The blacksmith and his wife heard everything. The news, all of it, quickly got back to her.”

“Look, Gabrielle might have been hurt, but she wouldn’t just let them die.”

Cyrene sighed. “She’s changed.”

“But she wouldn’t let them die,” Xena repeated with irritation.

“She’ll do whatever it takes to defeat Callisto, Xena.”

***

Shortly after the sun set, no one saw the Amazon Queen leave the camp, as was intended. Gabrielle paused, looking through the trees, back at the small camp fires with a heavy heart. She knew that even with victory, there would be fewer fires the next evening.

Saying a small prayer that Artemis would watch over them all, she continued her journey.

Gabrielle arrived at the river, which calmly rolled along in the moonlight, blissfully unaware of the turmoil that would soon erupt. A breeze rustled through the leaves and Gabrielle paused to listen, enjoying the precious moment of peace while she could, for she knew peaceful moments never lasted very long.

“Quack, quack.”

Hearing the faint call of her sisters, Gabrielle looked up to the tree tops. Pleased they were still well hidden, she clasped her hands above her head and responded with the ancient reply, “Quack, quackquack, Quack, Quack . . . .”

“Quack, quack,” responded her sisters as they quietly emerged from the trees. There were only a dozen of them, Gabrielle included. But a dozen was all that she needed to penetrate the castle and do the job they needed to do.

“Patrols will come through here soon. We must go,” Otere said as she clasped Gabrielle’s forearm in greeting.

“Let’s go then.”

——————————————————————————–

Chapter 24 – Towards Destiny

Moving through the tree tops, the dozen Amazons carefully watched the Army camp in the distant clearing. Soldiers sat around their fires, just like in the Amazon and Centaur camp, Gabrielle noted with a heavy heart.

Hearing footsteps crunching through leaves, the nervous Queen glanced at her sisters in nearby branches, who had stopped their movement. They silently waited as the muscular guard stopped just beneath them, stood tall, and looked around. Gabrielle held her breath, hoping he hadn’t heard something that would betray their position.

Everything depended on them getting past this army undetected.

As she watched the guard, she noted he seemed familiar. She cringed, as did the rest of the Amazons, when he pulled his manhood out and relieved himself in the bushes.

“Perdicus, where in Tartarus . . . there you are!” another guard said as he jogged up.

“Just taking care of business,” Perdicus said with a sigh.

“Can’t hold your mead?” The other guard said with a snicker.

“I didn’t have any,” Perdicus said with irritation.

“Hold on,” the other guard said tensely, grabbing the man’s arm as he looked around.

The Queen shut her eyes and prayed they had not been discovered.

“What is it,” Perdicus whispered nervously, whipping out his sword.

The other guard chuckled at Perdicus’ gullibility.

“You’re an ass, Talbot, has anyone ever told you that?”

“You, my friend,” he smiled proudly. “You’d better put that thing away, before someone gets hurt,” Talbot looked down at Perdicus and chuckled.

“Jerk,” he growled and quickly put his sword and himself away.

Gabrielle looked at her old friend with mixed emotions as the men walked away from the area. He had joined the army because they recruited him. But he had a choice, either join or die. The kind of choice Xena used to give people, Gabrielle thought with a sinking stomach.

Hearing the soldier’s continued chuckling at her friend, her eyes narrowed. She felt like kicking that jerk’s butt. But she was well aware she couldn’t indulge in that pleasure at the moment. At least she’d have more than enough opportunity to release her pent-up frustration soon, she considered. And after five winters, she had a whole lot of frustration, she sighed.

The other sisters curiously watched as their preoccupied Queen looked up and uncomfortably realized their eyes were on her. Before she could signal for them to move, another commotion captured their attention. A lone rider raced into camp on her black horse and pulled on the reigns hard. The horse stopped, neighed wildly as he reared up on his hind legs. When he settled down, Callisto dismounted.

Gabrielle’s heart pounded as a cold chill spread through her, like someone had walked on her grave. But realizing the Empress had done exactly what she had expected – left the castle – a slow, satisfied smile emerged.

***

“Empress! We didn’t expect you,” the senior officer said nervously after rushing from his tent to greet the blond ruler.

The tired camp suddenly seemed to liven up. Soldiers stood more alert and the sound of whet stones sharpening swords increased.

“Apparently,” she said flatly. “Bring your perimeter patrol here,” she ordered and dismounted. Seeing everyone standing frozen, she sighed. “In my lifetime?” She added impatiently, prompting two soldiers to rush off to find them.

“S . . . so to what do we owe the pleasure, your highness?” Captain Faulks asked, poorly masking his fear.

“I thought it was a nice night for a visit,” she said, glancing around the camp, then smiled at him. “Don’t you think?”

“Uh . . . if we had known, we would have had a royal tent prepared.”

She looked at him with narrow eyes. “Luxury makes one weak, Captain. I’m concerned my troops have had it too good. Do you think they are ready for battle?”

After glancing quickly around the camp uneasily, he answered “Of course.”

“Really?” She purred.

“Yes,” he said with a firm nod.

“How about tomorrow? Oh, let’s say . . . against Centaurs and Amazons?”

He looked at her. “Huh?”

“Huh? Huh?” She mimicked, then spat “Imbeciles. Well, I did say I like challenges,” she said and exhaled wearily. Suddenly, she perked up. “So, where are those crack perimeter guards of yours?”

Perdicus and Talbot jogged up to the Empress and stood at attention.

“These are the men who’ve been on patrol for the past two candle marks,” the captain informed her uneasily.

Callisto walked up to Perdicus and slowly circled him, looking him over. He trembled, thankful he had just relieved himself earlier. When Talbot became the focus of her attention, Perdicus began breathing again. Slowly, the Empress walked around the other soldier, stopping just behind him.

“What’s your name, tiger?” She spoke softly in his hear.

“Talbot, your highness.”

“What a nice name,” she said sweetly.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said and added proudly “It was my great grandfather’s.”

“Uh huh. Now Talbot,” she said and smiled. “Tell me what you’ve seen on your little patrol.”

“Nothing?”

“Are you asking me or telling me, son?” Callisto asked, placing her hand on his shoulder in a fatherly manner.

“Telling you?”

After she punched him in the gut, he huddled over gasping. She grabbed his head and violently twisted it, causing a loud snap and a few muffled gasps from the surrounding soldiers. Releasing the limp body, she dusted off her hands as she watched the body crumple to the ground.

Her eyes darted to Perdicus and she smiled.

“Can I count on you to do a better job on the perimeter?” Callisto asked Perdicus sweetly as stepped over Talbot’s body.

“Yes, Ma’am!” Perdicus blurted as he trembled.

“Good boy,” she said with a warm smile that disappeared when she added “Captain get your men ready to move at dawn.”

“Where are we going?” The captain asked.

“Towards destiny,” she said vaguely, staring out into the trees.

***

With ceremonial masks donned, Solari and Ephiny rode beside Yakut, as the Amazon troops started to assemble for the dawn march towards the enemy.

“Are you saying she already told you about all of this?” Solari asked Ephiny with surprise.

“Yeah?” Ephiny said. The sore Amazon grimaced as she shifted in her saddle.

“Why did she tell you and not me?!?” Solari snapped.

“Because you can’t keep a secret?” Ephiny offered, shifting in her saddle again with a cringe.

“Now wait a minute. You’re the one who . . . !”

“Would you two stop arguing?” Yakut said with irritation. “We need to focus on the battle.”

“Just because you get to wear the Queen’s mask, don’t be thinking you can order us around,” Solari warned.

Yakut sighed and shook her head. Looking over Solari, she asked “Are you really sure you don’t want to wear something besides your mask?”

“No, I don’t want to wear anything besides my mask!” Solari responded heatedly as the Centaur general trotted up with his son. “If the Gods wanted us to wear clothing, we would have been born with it! Don’t you agree, General?” Solari asked the Centaur, who looked curiously at the only three Amazons in masks.

“Actually, I’ve always wondered why humans were so preoccupied with clothing,” Tyldus said honestly.

Solari looked at Yakut and triumphantly said “Ha!”

“And I didn’t realize Amazons fought in masks,” the General said, looking at them curiously.

“We do it all the time,” Solari said as Ephiny blurted, “It’s for special occasions.”

The General and his son looked confused as Ephiny nervously added “which we have all the time,” as Solari blurted “occasionally.”

The Centaurs looked at each other.

“Actually, they’re for good luck,” Yakut explained in a deep, stilted voice, which made her cough and the Amazons cringe.

“Are you all right?” Tyldus asked with concern.

“Bad cold,” Ephiny said as Solari blurted, “Just a sore throat.”

“From her cold,” Solari added as Ephiny blurted “and sore throat.” The two Amazons glared at each other. Yakut rolled her eyes.

The General looked at his son, who shrugged.

***

In the forest by the castle, the small group of Amazons searched for the entrance to the tunnels. Gabrielle had anticipated getting inside the castle before dawn, but dawn came and they had not yet found the markers. Each moment they searched in the daylight, Gabrielle grew more concerned her map was wrong.

“Queen Gabrielle! Over here!” An excited young Amazon called out in an urgent hush, prompting the group to gather about a small pile of stones, buried beneath years of growth.

“Good eyes, Celeste,” Gabrielle said to the proud young Amazon. “All right, this is the way in and it may be our only way out if we can’t secure the castle. I need two volunteers to guard this exit.”

The Amazons looked at each other not exactly thrilled with that job. Finally, two Amazons reluctantly raised their hands.

“Thank you,” Gabrielle said with a warm smile for them that made the others wish they had volunteered.

***

Racing through the forest, Xena pulled on Argo’s reigns as she came upon a caravan.

On foot, on horse, and in various dilapidated wagons, a large group of people traveled with assorted clothing, furniture, pots and pans, which were haphazardly tied down to whatever would carry their belongings.

“What’s going on?” Xena asked an old man and woman as she pulled Argo up next their wagon.

“Fighting. It just moved into our village,” he said, shaking his head and glancing over his shoulder to the road behind them.

“I haven’t seen a battle like that in years,” the old woman said with amazement.

“Yeah, one of them Amazons was buck naked, wielding a sword,” the man said with a little too much amusement and got an elbow from his wife.

“She wore a mask,” the wife clarified.

“She did?” he asked, getting elbowed again.

The old woman was about to say something, but noticed the dark woman race away, kicking up a cloud of dust.

“How rude,” she huffed.

——————————————————————————–

Chapter 25 – A Call to Arms

Bodies littered the blood-stained streets as swords frantically clashed in the struggle for the future. As the battle waged on, both sides continued to suffer losses without either gaining a clear advantage.

Putting her foot on the Amazon’s chest, Callisto yanked out her sword in time to deflect a Centaurs’ blow as he galloped by. He turned around and watched her mount her black horse.

“Hey, big fella!” She smiled and charged him. After a few traded blows, she sliced a deep gash across his chest. His legs buckled and he crashed to the ground.

She pulled her horse around, eagerly searching the various conflicts for the elusive Amazon Queen. Having spotted the masked queen only a moment before, Callisto got the distinct impression she was avoiding her. “You can run, deary.”

Finally spotting the masked Amazon she was looking for, she grinned. “Yoo hoo! Over here!” Callisto called out, waving her fingers delicately at the Amazon, who gasped just before blocking a soldier’s sword blow with her staff.

“I wondered where you disappeared to,” Callisto said with great relief, momentarily distracted by the Centaur that started to charge her. She pulled out her cross-bow and aimed it at his stomach and fired. The Centaur clenched the bolt sticking out of his gut and stumbled to the ground.

Felling her attacker, Yakut backed away nervously as Callisto reloaded her weapon. She thought of running but expected Callisto would just shoot her in the back. Facing her enemy, she believed, she had a chance – however slim that might be.

“You have been busy, haven’t you?” The Empress said with appreciation, looking at the soldiers on the ground around her.

“We have so much to catch up on, Gabrielle. It’s been, like forever,” she pouted, then suddenly fired the crossbow at the Amazon’s leg.

Yakut let out a cry as she crumbled to the ground clenching her leg.

Callisto smirked and slowly walked towards her prey and reloaded her weapon. “And I have to tell you, it’s so much easier to catch up if you’re not running away.”

“Gabrielle!!” Perdicus ran over and knelt beside the injured Amazon curled up in the fetal position, clenching her leg. He looked up angrily at the approaching Empress, ready to protect the Queen.

“So you know the Amazon Queen? My, my, my. I didn’t give you enough credit, did I? Now step away little boy. I might even let you live,” she said, pointing the crossbow at the downed Amazon to finally put her out of their misery.

He looked at her with cold eyes and stood up slowly.

“Good boy. Back away. Come on boy, you can do it. You can do it,” she cheered him on.

He growled and charged her. Without hesitation, she fired the crossbow and watched his eyes widened as the bolt hit his chest. Perdicus tumbled to the ground.

“So you had some backbone after all,” she said thoughtfully, tossing her cross-bow to the ground next to the dead soldier. “What an unfortunate time to find it.”

“Now, where were we?” Callisto said with enthusiasm as she unsheathed her sword in a flourish, looking down at the Amazon, who struggled to sit up and pull off her mask.

“Queen Gabrielle sends her regards,” Yakut said defiantly through gritted teeth, knowing her pain would end soon.

“Noooooo!!” Callisto screeched at the ruse. She angrily raised her sword above the Amazon. Growling, she powerfully brought down her blade for the killing blow when it was knocked from her hands by a metallic disc that soared through the air.

The livid Empress quickly sought the person who dared to intrude.

Sitting regally on her pale horse, a stunning raven-haired warrior caught the amazing object with a feral grin.

“Oh,” Callisto said with great appreciation. “. . . my.”

The dark warrior let out a battle cry as she rode into the struggle, startling many of the soldiers, who remembered that chilling sound. Many fled into the woods as the Amazons and Centaurs continued to fight those left, pressing their sudden advantage.

Callisto laughed with delight at this unexpected return of the legendary Conqueror. Now that she was alive, she would be able to kill her, Callisto thought happily. Hearing the injured Amazon shift below her, the Empress glanced down. Her eyes narrowed with incredible anger. She still had the rude Amazon Queen to kill, who was likely trying to save her family at this very moment, she thought with irritation and admiration. Dismissing the felled Amazon as insignificant, Callisto vaulted onto her horse.

As the Empress raced away, Xena somersaulted off of Argo, landing near Perdicus. As she glanced at the man who earned her respect for trying to save Gabrielle’s life, two soldiers charged at her. Grabbing one soldier, she thrust his sword into the chest of the second and kicked the first soldier in the head. They didn’t even hit the ground before she spotted a Centaur struggling under a net held by two soldiers. With a swift throw, her chakram knocked over the soldiers and returned to her hand in time to clash with a sword. Grabbing the soldier’s dagger from his belt, Xena buried it in his chest and pushed him away.

The fighting continued around her as she glanced to the injured Amazon, curled up in pain. “Gabrielle?” Xena called out with concern as three soldiers circled with their swords carefully trained on her.

“The Conqueror’s head for five thousand dinars,” the bearded soldier said with a greedy glint in his eyes. Xena’s eyes rolled. “And four for the Queen,” another added, leering at the injured Amazon. Xena’s eyes grew hard.

“Not a bad haul, all-in-all,” the bearded man said, making the others chuckle.

“You shouldn’t count your heads before they’re severed,” she said with a chilling smile.

In a burst of deadly force, she unsheathed her sword and thrust it into one soldier’s chest. With a morbidly elegant, economy of motion, she rapidly pulled the blade out, sliced the second soldier’s chest, decapitated the bearded soldier, then the second soldier, then the first, and released a high pitched cry “Sheeeee Yah!”

Xena looked up from three heads to see stunned faces of soldiers, Amazons, and Centaurs, who stood frozen, having witnessed the brutal slaughter or its aftermath. When Callisto’s army regained the ability to move, they quickly fled, handing the victory over to the Amazons and Centaurs, who still stood stunned as the Conqueror swiped her sword on a soldier’s tunic.

After returning her sword to its sheath, she was quickly at the downed Amazon’s side. “Gab . . . ,” she said with concern as she knelt down, stopping when she recognized with great disappointment it wasn’t her bard.

Yakut looked up from the severed heads with concern.

“We’ll need to get the bolt out,” Xena said softly, looking down at the injury. “I’m afraid it will need to pulled away from the bone and pushed through. Pulling it out will cause more damage. Do you understand?” Xena said, looking at the young Amazon with a sympathetic grimace.

The Amazon nodded hesitantly, feeling uneasy as she glanced back to the three heads, despite the current help being offered from the deadly woman. Looking back up, her eyes widened with concern.

Xena jumped up and unsheathed her sword in time to meet General Tyldus’ blade with a resonating clang.

“We were victorious over Callisto, and we will be victorious over you!” he said with venom as he swung his sword at Xena again.

“Tyldus, I have no desire to fight you,” the Warrior Princess said with irritation as she deflected his powerful blow.

“Then you will just make it easier to kill you, Conqueror” he spat as he continued to attack his former enemy. As Xena easily parried his blows, Ephiny, Solari, and Phantes ran towards them.

“NO!” Solari shouted. Ephiny, hobbling awkwardly behind Solari, called out “General, stop. Xena’s a friend!”

The General hesitated, eyeing the Amazons, then the Warrior Princess, who stood tall and looked him in the eye as she lowered her weapon. Certain he would never have another opportunity like this, he lifted his sword to strike down the Destroyer of Nations.

“No, Father! Please. She saved my life with her round thing!” Phantes called out, standing beside his wife.

Tyldus looked at Phantes with shock at the impossible claim, but his son never lied. The General hesitantly lowered his sword, praying it wasn’t a mistake.

“Xena,” Ephiny exhaled with wonder as she hobbled closer to her long-missing friend.

“Ephiny! Are you all right?” Xena asked her limping friend with concern.

“By the GODS, Xena. No one thought you’d ever wake,” Ephiny said with astonishment. “Except Gabrielle.”

“Where IS she???” Xena asked uneasily, looking around the battlefield.

“That’s a very good question,” the General asked, glaring at the Amazons.
Part 5
Gabrielle and her nine Amazons entered the damp and cold tunnel that led to the Castle. They were making swift progress until they came to a fork in the tunnel which split into three branches. Holding a torch over the map, Otere watched with concern as the Queen looked between the map and the three tunnels a number of times.

Finally, Gabrielle pointed to the tunnel to the right. “That way to the dungeon.”

Otere eyed the Queen then looked at the creepy blackness in front of them. Jumping when she saw a pair of rats scurry across their path and disappear into the tunnel, she asked “Are you sure?”

“Now you ask?”

***

As the Centaurs and Amazons got ready for their march to the Castle, Xena pulled Ephiny aside.

“I can’t wait for the army. Callisto is heading towards the castle.”

“I’m going with you,” Ephiny said firmly.

“Uh, I’m going to ride hard,” Xena warned, glancing at her friend with concern.

“Fine,” Ephiny said with a shrug, hobbling over to her horse. “We’ll ride hard.”

“Ride hard where?” Solari asked as she walked up to them as Xena and Ephiny mounted their war horses.

“To the Castle,” Ephiny offered with a slight grimace as she shifted in her saddle. “The troops will be too slow. Callisto is probably already there by now.”

“Count me in. Are you sure you’re ok to ride?” Solari asked.

“Yes!”

“Ephiny?” Phantes trotted up to his wife as Solari mounted. “Aren’t you going to ride with me?”

“No, Xena, Solari, and I need to ride ahead. We can’t ride with the troops.”

“You just made that decision, without talking with me first?” Phantes said with irritation.

“Look, Phantes, sweetheart,” Ephiny said then leaned over and whispered something into his ear.

Xena looked at Solari curiously, then back at Ephiny and Phantes, who were now kissing. The surprised Conqueror looked back at Solari, who shrugged. “Newlyweds, what can I say?”

Newlyweds? Xena’s eyebrows furrowed as Ephiny rode up with a grin that matched her husband’s.

***

Crawling on hands and knees in the small tunnel, Otere tapped one of Gabrielle’s sais.

“What?” Gabrielle turned back with exasperation.

“See anything yet?”

“No. And would you stop asking me that? I’ll tell you as soon as I see something.” Gabrielle snapped and turned forward, and abruptly stopped her crawling.

“Hey . . . ” Otere said, almost colliding into the Queen.

“I see something.”

***

“What?” Ephiny said with irritation, catching Xena staring at her again. The ride was hard enough. She didn’t need someone reminding her of it.

“Nothing,” the Conqueror quickly said with a shrug as the three rode towards the Castle.

***

Otere and Gabrielle looked through the small window of bars into the dark dungeon below. The orange glow of the torches cast enough light to see a walkway, with a row of solid metal doors on each side.

Otere watched the Queen grab the bars. Pushing as hard as she could, Gabrielle couldn’t budge the bars.

“Ugh. If we just had a rope and pulley . . . ” Gabrielle said, noticing a wooden beam in the dungeon that would have been a perfect pivot point, had they been on the other side . . . with a rope . . . and pulley. She rolled her eyes and shook her head with frustration.

“I’ve got an idea,” Otere said and motioned for the Queen to move back.

Gabrielle curiously gave Otere the requested space. The younger Amazon got on her back and braced herself in the small tunnel. Taking a breath, she pushed her feet against the bars, making the metal grill move slightly. Gabrielle smiled at the Amazon’s ingenuity. With another push, then another, the bars were almost out.

“Otere,” Gabrielle suddenly said with concern.

“Almost there,” Otere said, gritting her teeth, and pushed again.

“But O . . . ,” Gabrielle said as the Amazon finally freed the metal bars, which came crashing down to the stone floor. Loudly.

The Amazons froze.

“You think anyone heard?” Otere whispered, then cringed as she heard two guards run into the area.

Gabrielle eyed the young Amazon, smiled, and grabbed her sais.

***

The Warrior Princess, Ephiny, and Solari crouched behind the bushes and spied the castle.

“A frontal assault now will cause significant Amazon and Centaur casualties,” Xena said, eyeing the closed gate and the guards in the turrets on either side. “We need the gate open.”

“We’ll have to go in through the tunnels then,” Ephiny replied, getting a nod from the Warrior Princess and Solari.

As they carefully backed up from the bushes and stood up, Ephiny caught Xena staring at her again.

“What is it!” Ephiny snapped. “Don’t be such a coward, Xena. Spit it out. You’re appalled I married a Centaur, aren’t you,” Ephiny said angrily.

Within a blink on an eye, Ephiny was slammed and pinned against a tree, looking into frighteningly blue eyes as her feet dangled beneath her.

Solari sighed and looked around, scratching the back of her neck.

“No one has ever called me a coward and lived,” Xena growled then let the Amazon drop down. “Consider this your wedding present.”

Ephiny gasped and rubbed her throat.

“I don’t know about you, Ephiny. But in my family, we take marriage very seriously. Until death do you part,” Xena said eyeing the Amazon, who nodded.

“That’s the way Phantes and I feel,” Ephiny said, getting a small smile from the Conqueror, who nodded.

“I’m sorry I missed the ceremony. I’m sure it was a sight to see.”

“A day earlier, and you would have seen it . . . Gabrielle married us,” Ephiny offered softly.

Xena nodded and smiled sadly. “I’ve never been very lucky with my timing,” she said and looked back at the castle with concern.

“She’s waited for you, Xena,” Ephiny offered. “Just remember that.”

Xena nodded, clinging onto that truth.

“Ladies!” Solari finally hissed with impatience. “Unless you have something important to discuss, like the kind of draperies Ephiny will need, would either of you care to take a little time out of your busy day to save our Queen??”

The two women looked at each other. “Still no interest in clothing, huh?” Xena asked Ephiny as they walked past Solari, towards the tunnel entrance.

“Nope. Not even after that nasty bout of poison ivy.”

“Ugh,” Xena said with a grimace.

“Yeah, wasn’t pretty.”

“You know, it’s really rude to talk about a person when they are RIGHT HERE!” Solari huffed.

***

After quickly subduing the two guards, the Amazons looked at their Queen.

“Otere and Renna, check the guards for keys. Shawna, Ursula, Melina, and Talut,” Gabrielle said, looking at each eager Amazon, poised and ready for action. “You know your jobs. Make sure the front gate is open for our troops,” she said with a grin, receiving enthusiastic nods. “Be careful.”

“Artemis be with you, Queen Gabrielle,” Ursula responded with a smile and quickly left the dungeon with her sisters.

“Gabrielle?” A timid voice called out through a small slit in one of the metal doors.

“Lila?” Gabrielle turned, unable to tell where the voice came from. Quickly, she looked through a small opening of a door, then another. “Lila?”

“Over here,” Lila said, wiggling her fingers through the opening. “Thank the GODs,” she said with relief when her fingers where grasped by the Queen.

“Are you OK?” Gabrielle asked with concern, squeezing her hand.

“Yes,” she said wearily. “I’m so sorry, Gabrielle. I didn’t think you cared anymore,” she said guiltily and started to weep.

“Queen Gabrielle, we’ve got them,” Otere said with a triumphant smile, holding up the keys as she joined Gabrielle at Lila’s cell.

“It’s OK, Lila. Where are mother and father?” Gabrielle asked as Otere tried a key, then another.

“Father is two cells down, and mother’s is right next to his,” Lila informed Gabrielle as they heard a click. Otere looked at Gabrielle and waggled her eyebrows, making Gabrielle grin as the Amazon pulled the heavy door open.

As Gabrielle opened her mouth, Otere interjected “second and third cells down. We’re on it.”

Lila rushed out and hugged her sister as another click echoed through the dungeon.

“One down and one to go,” Otere said happily as she moved to the last cell as Renna and Darla helped Gabrielle’s weakened father out of the cell. “Gabrielle?”

The Queen quickly went to her father’s side, startled by how much weight he had lost.

“Gabrielle, your mother . . . they brought her back only a candle mark ago,” Herodotus blurted with concern, glancing at her cell as the Amazons tried to open it.

“Damn it,” Otere said, sifting through the keys, and tried another one. The two eager Amazons behind her looked over her shoulder, then crowded her as they tried to peek through the slot.

“Something’s wrong. I hear her, but she hasn’t spoken one word,” Herodotus said nervously. “I think she’s injured.”

“Would you guys give me a little space here?” Otere said with irritation, causing the Amazons to back up a step. “Thank you!” she said as she tried another key.

“What happened to her?” Gabrielle asked, looking between Lila and her father, who shrugged helplessly.

“We don’t know,” Herodotus said with worry. “She was taken about two days ago . . . I think . . . the days run together down here,” he rambled guiltily as his hand combed through his thinning hair.

A metal click sounded. “Finally,” Otere said and started to open the heavy metal door.

Gabrielle felt her skin crawl. Something wasn’t right.

“Gods, please let her be all right,” Lila said, sniffing through tears as she hugged her father.

Nooooo.

Gabrielle turned with fear as the two eager Amazons entered the dark cell. “Don’t . . . ” she tried to warn them, but was too late. After horrified gasps and sickening grunts, two Amazon bodies hit the cell floor.

“Surprise!” Callisto burst out of the cell, knocking Otere across the walkway with the heavy swinging door.

“I thought you’d appreciate this, Gabrielle, since you seem to enjoy surprises so much. And I have another one for you,” Callisto eagerly revealed, sheathing her blood-stained sword as the Queen stood protectively in front of her family with her sais. “But you have to catch me first,” she said with a grin, beckoning the Queen with a single finger before retreating into the darkness, laughing.

“Get my father and Lila out of here,” Gabrielle quickly ordered the remaining Amazons as she anxiously kept glancing back to the darkness.

“You can’t be serious,” Otere argued as she got up from the ground.

“Now!”

“She’s luring you into a trap,” Otere protested.

“Here,” Gabrielle said, handing the map to the Amazon. “Take the tunnels. You’ll have a better chance of leaving unnoticed.”

Otere stood still, clearly not pleased with her Queen’s recklessness.

“Are you going to disobey me?” Gabrielle snapped at Otere, who cringed. Gabrielle let out a breath to gather patience. “Please, Otere. Keep them safe. For me,” she said, looking into the young Amazon’s still uncertain eyes. Reaching out, Gabrielle briefly caressed her cheek, crushing any further rebellious thoughts.

Otere hesitantly nodded, getting a reward of a warm smile from her Queen before she left to find Callisto and disappeared into the darkness.

***

“Which way?” Ephiny asked as they arrived at a fork in the tunnel.

Xena pointed to the right. “The dungeon is that way, the main hallway is the center tunnel, and my . . . the Empress’ chambers are to the left.”

“Are you sure?” Solari asked, getting a raised eyebrow from the Conqueror. “Uh, I mean, you’ve been asleep for five winters. Your memory might not be as sharp as . . . ”
“Otere! Lila!” Ephiny interrupted as the group emerged from the right tunnel and entered the chamber.

“The Conqueror,” Lila said with a horrified gasp, stumbling back into her father as they stared at Xena fearfully.

However, Otere pulled out a knife. She lunged towards the Conqueror, who quickly disarmed the girl and tossed her onto her butt.

“Otere!” Ephiny called out in shock.

“She killed Queen Cyane and most of my tribe!” Otere said angrily, looking up with eyes of hate.

Otere had heard of the horrible losses her tribe suffered years ago at the hands of the Conqueror, who first killed their Queen when she dared to refuse her advances. Then, in a legendary killing frenzy, almost obliterated the rest of the tribe.

Ephiny quickly looked to Xena for an explanation.

“It’s true,” Xena said, awash with guilt, recalling that horrific day.

About fifteen winters ago, she had found the Northern tribe on one of her outings. When the impressive Queen confronted her, Xena found her exhilarating. She was certain she had found someone who could please her. She was blond, strong but feminine, had a great body, and was intelligent and articulate. But the Queen deflected her clumsy advances and only seemed interested in lecturing the Conqueror about how she should change her ways and be a better ruler to her people.

The longer Xena was around the woman, the more her frustration grew. She even stooped to stealing glances at this woman while she bathed, which only frustrated her more. On the positive side, though, during that frustrating time she had become an expert of the chobos.

Her voyeurism expanded to include the steam hut, where the beautiful Queen stripped out of her leathers to relax in the soothing heat. The last time she had gazed upon that beautiful body, Xena was amazed to see the Queen doing something she had never witnessed before – a woman caressing herself. The Queen’s hands kneaded and squeezed her ample breasts, then teased her hardened nipples before slowly traveling down over her stomach.

Needing to get a better look, the eager Conqueror quietly climbed closer. In one tragic moment, the mesmerized voyeur focused on the writhing Queen as she moaned with pleasure, instead of her hand, which went right through the thatch roof. The Conqueror came crashing down and landed on top of the Queen.

Xena scrambled off Cyane and nervously checked her neck for a pulse. Two guards rushed in, seeing her hands at the dead Queen’s throat. The Conqueror had to fight her way out of the village or be killed. And she almost was. Getting hit in the side by an arrow, she stumbled through the forest and upon a traveler, who hid her from the remaining Amazons. He successfully diverted them the wrong way with the most convincing lies. And from that moment on, Daumas had been the Conqueror’s advisor.
Otere jumped to her feet and angrily launched herself at the Conqueror again, but was intercepted by Solari and Ephiny.

“Otere, Xena is helping us now,” Ephiny said.

“Where’s Gabrielle?” Xena asked, pushing aside the guilt.

“Are you going to try and kill another Amazon Queen, Conqueror?” Otere snapped, ignoring her Amazon sisters.

“Otere, enough! Xena is a friend. She helped us win the battle today. She even saved Yakut’s life,” Ephiny informed her, successfully defusing the confused young Amazon’s anger. “She’s here to help Gabrielle.”

“Where is she?” Xena asked again, looking at Gabrielle’s father. He noticed genuine concern in her eyes.

“She’s gone after Callisto to get her mother back,” Herodotus offered. “We don’t know where they went.”

“Gods!” Ephiny blurted with frustration, glancing over to Xena, who had already disappeared into the tunnels.

***

Gabrielle didn’t need to see the blond blur when she darted into the throne room. She could easily follow the Empress’ amused cackle. Callisto was obviously enjoying the chase, Gabrielle thought with irritation as she stopped at the doorway and slowly entered the room. With her sais at the ready, she glanced around the large room with huge paintings on the wall and a throne proudly elevated a few feet on an intricately carved platform.

“So you wanna play, little girl?” Callisto purred, jumping in front of her with her sword ready.

“Where’s my mother, you bitch!”

“Oh, Gabrielle, such language,” she said with great disappointment. “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”

“Where is she?!?”

“Hanging around,” Callisto said with amusement, then saw the color drain from the Queen’s face. “Oh, cheer up. Just killing her would be no fun at all. She’s alive. For now.”

“What have you done to her?!?”

“Well, she’s in the kitchen, hanging by a thick rope over some really pointy knives,” she said melodically. “Oh, did I mention? You don’t have much time. The rope is being burned through as we speak.”

The panicked daughter made a mad dash towards the closest exit.

With a somersault, Callisto landed in front of the Queen. “But we’re not finished visiting!” She pouted. “Or you could be rude and just defeat me, Gabrielle,” she said silkily.

Gabrielle growled as she lunged with her sais. The Empress’ blade and the Queen’s sais clashed in a fury of motion. The clanks and clinks of each violent strike echoed through the room.

Breaking the volley with a feigned sweep of her legs, Gabrielle spun around and kicked Callisto in the stomach, knocking the surprised Empress back onto the floor.

“Ugh . . . nice,” Callisto said, shaking off the hard hit. Quickly jumping to her feet, she launched another furious attack with great enthusiasm.

The Empress’ deadly sword moved through the air in a blur. But practiced sais blocked and countered each and every thrust and slice.

The Empress backed away a bit winded, eyeing the Amazon Queen with a smile. “You’ve improved.”

“I’ve had practice.”

“It’s a shame your improvement isn’t enough to help your mother.”

As Gabrielle eyed the doorway again with worry, Callisto’s blade snuck through the slow defense and nicked the Amazon Queen in the arm.

“Oh, you’re hurt! Let’s take a time out and clean that. Infections can be such nasty things,” Callisto said with a chuckle. Gabrielle’s eyebrows furrowed as precious moments quickly passed.

“Concentration is important, isn’t it? I’m sure your mother would agree.”

Struggling to focus, Gabrielle launched a rapid round of kicks and lunges.

***

Xena ran down the hall towards the sounds of a furious fight. Entering the throne room, she abruptly stopped, watching the two warriors trade quick and solid blows that resulted in occasional sparks as the metal weapons clashed.

She almost didn’t recognize the bard with her short hair and more muscular build. But she was still breathtaking, Xena noted, mesmerized by each move, which was performed with grace, agility, and a strength that only comes from much practice.

“Oh look, Xena’s here for the fun!” Callisto said, pointing behind the startled Queen, who felt an odd tingling at the mention of her lovers’ name. “I’ll kill you after I finish with her, OK?” Callisto called out happily.

With a snarl, Gabrielle was determined to not allow Callisto’s insane taunting to distract her. She was driven to continue the attack, well aware her mother’s time was running out. But the wild, brown eyes of her enemy continued to glance over at the doorway behind her. Unable to resist, the curious Amazon Queen finally glanced to the doorway.

“Xena,” Gabrielle gasped with uncertainty. The brief moment of distraction was enough for the Empress’ blade to pass her defenses and slice deep into her side. Reacting on pure instinct, Gabrielle captured the blade with one sais and buried the other into the Empress’ chest.

“Ow!” Callisto said with annoyance, stumbling backwards onto the floor.

“Gabrielle!” Xena ran towards Gabrielle, who stood, holding her bleeding side a moment before Xena’s arms were around her, gently helping her to the floor.

“Xena?” Gabrielle said in confusion.

“I’m here, Gabrielle. We need to stop the bleeding and . . . ,” Xena blurted with worry.

“No! My mother,” Gabrielle called out, her panic giving her a boost of energy. “She’s in the kitchen. She doesn’t have much time!!”

“Decisions, decisions. Help the Queen, help the mother, help the Queen . . . ,” Callisto said and coughed, wiping the blood from her lip and looking at the uncomfortable sai jutting out of her chest.

“Is she always that annoying?” Xena said.

“You could use a coin,” Callisto suggested helpfully.

“Please, Xena,” Gabrielle begged, grabbing Xena’s arm. “I’ll be ok. Save my mother. Please,” she pleaded. Xena looked into the panicked eyes a moment before briskly nodding.

“Keep holding your side, just like you are doing. I’ll be right back,” Xena promised, gently cupping Gabrielle’s cheek and kissing her forehead before leaving for the kitchen.

When the Queen glanced to Callisto, the Empress grinned.

***

Bursting into the kitchen, the Conqueror startled two cooks. One dropped his tray and the other said “Empress Xe . . . ,” and fainted.

“Where’s the woman?!?” Xena asked the cook, who shrugged and shook his head. “Hecuba?” The cook shrugged.

“Damn!” Xena growled and started back towards the throne room. Hearing the claxon ring, she glanced out the window and saw the Centaurs and Amazons charging through the front gate. She never thought she would see the day where she would actually welcome someone overrunning her castle.

Knowing the longer she delayed helping Gabrielle, the more likely the Queen would not survive to enjoy this day, Xena sprinted back to the throne room.

***

“Knock, knock,” Callisto said again with some difficulty, stroking the sai sticking out from her chest. “You know you’re . . . supposed to say . . . who’s there,” she wheezed with irritation.

“Why do you do that?” Gabrielle asked wearily, her breath belabored.

“Because I know . . . it annoys you,” Callisto said with a pleased smile, then coughed.

“And you made that your life’s work?” Gabrielle responded as she carefully wiped the hair off her forehead with the back of her hand since her hands were full. One hand nervously clenched onto a sai and the other pressed against her throbbing side.

“Well, one should choose . . . a career . . . doing what they’re good at. And I’m . . . very good at it . . . don’t you think?” she wheezed reasonably.

“Yes. Yes, you are,” Gabrielle admitted and sighed, knowing better than to have expected any better understanding of her enemy. She briefly moved her hand away from her side, noting it was pretty deep and continued to bleed. More stitches, she thought as she reapplied the pressure on it, feeling as battered inside as she did on the outside.

“Heh. I knew . . . we could finally agree . . . on some . . . thing,” Callisto said drowsily, and closed her eyes with a grin on her face.

Finally, there was a peaceful silence. After a few moments, Gabrielle looked at the blond Empress, who lay still, unable to hurt anyone else. She had thought this long-awaited day would bring her relief and a sense of satisfaction for the hard-fought victory over evil. Even Xena was here to see it, she thought with amazement. But she felt no satisfaction or relief.

Perhaps she would be able to celebrate the victory and Xena’s return later, after she knew her family was safe and after she learned how many friends had sacrificed themselves this time. Yes, perhaps later, when she was able to actually feel something other than fear and frustration, the Amazon Queen considered. Closing her eyes with a weary sigh, she tried to remind herself that the nightmare was finally ov . . . .

“Knock, knock.”

***

Xena ran into the throne room and found an unmoving Gabrielle sprawled out on the floor next to the dead Empress, who had two sais sticking out of her chest. Fear flooded the Conqueror’s heart.

“Gabrielle!”

Gabrielle’s eyes blinked open as she felt herself quickly lifted from the floor. Attempting to focus on the worried eyes gazing at her, she asked “My mother. . . ?” before passing out.
——————————————————————————–

Chapter 27 – The Flesh and Soul

The castle quickly fell after the wave of Centaurs and Amazons rushed through the front gate. Swarming the grounds, the Centaurs and Amazons met with little resistance as the overwhelmed guards immediately surrendered.

Ephiny, Solari, and Otere quickly entered the castle to search for their Queen. The three stood in the middle of the grand hallway for a moment, uncertain where to start. “Wow” Solari uttered looking around, impressed at the opulence, though years of neglect were apparent.

“We’ll cover more ground if we split . . . ,” Ephiny said as the Conqueror burst out of the throne room with a bloody Queen in her arms, causing the Amazons to gasp.

Before Otere could blame Xena for harming her Queen, the unstoppable Conqueror stormed past them without a word. From the intense aura of determination and the urgency in Xena’s stride, she knew Death had a formidable enemy if it dared claim Gabrielle. All thoughts of accusation were immediately replaced with questions of how and why this terrifying force of nature had suddenly appeared to become her Queen’s champion.

Hesitating a moment from the shock, the Amazons quickly followed after the Conqueror. When they entered a very large bed room, Solari stopped at the door as her mouth dropped in awe. An irritated regent grabbed her arm and pulled her into the room.

The three Amazons watched the Conqueror carefully lay Gabrielle down on the bed. When the hard blue eyes lifted from the injured woman and focused on them, all knew better than to dare waste time with questions.

“Make a fire,” the Conqueror commanded Ephiny, who nodded and promptly went to the fireplace.

“Get two large pots of water from the kitchen,” she ordered Solari, who nodded and promptly left.

“Come here,” Xena ordered the young Amazon, who looked at her with suddenly wide eyes. “NOW!” she barked, startling the girl to her side. “Press here, like this, until I tell you otherwise.”

“But I’m not a healer . . . ” she blurted.

“Do you want her to die?” Xena snapped fiercely.

“NO!”

“Then press here,” Xena growled, getting the girl to nervously apply pressure to the Queen’s wounds as instructed.

“Where are you going?!?” Otere squeaked with panic as Xena turned away.

“I’ll be right back,” Xena said and went to the wall by the fireplace. After tracing her fingers over a few stones, she focused on one and pressed it. To Otere’s surprise, a compartment the size of a breadbox opened up.

“What’s that?” Ephiny asked, having completed her task of building a fire.

“Things I need to treat the wound,” Xena said as she promptly returned to the bed. Seeing Ephiny’s curious gaze at the wall then the box, Xena sighed. “I kept this here, so I could take care of my wounds.” Ephiny nodded in understanding.

“Didn’t you have healers?” Otere asked with surprise.

“The best in the Empire,” Xena said flatly and pulled out a needle.

“Then why would you . . . ?” The younger Amazon was confused.

“It wouldn’t do for an invincible ruler to be running to her healers all the time,” Ephiny explained as the Conqueror threaded the needle.

“It wasn’t all the time,” Xena muttered as Otere nodded thoughtfully then stepped back as directed when Xena inspected the wound.

***

With precision and skill that had the three Amazons mesmerized, Xena cared for her Queen. Long, nimble fingers swiftly tended to the injured flesh with a gentleness that amazed Otere. She knew of the Conqueror’s legendary strength and deadly grace on the battlefield, but she had never heard one story about the tenderness or compassion, which was being displayed with each small stitch.

When the wound was finally sewn up, the Amazons looked at the Conqueror expectantly.

For the first time, they saw weariness in Xena’s eyes. “We wait,” she said. The three quietly watched as she pulled up a chair, sat down, and took Gabrielle’s hand.

“We need to be prepared for the remaining regiments. They might want the castle back,” Ephiny said to Otere and Solari, as they watched Xena lift Gabrielle’s hand to her lips and gently kiss it.

Otere got her answer as to why Xena had become Gabrielle’s champion, but still wondered about the mysterious how.

“Ephiny’s right,” Xena said softly. “The tunnels should be blocked from another invading force and food stores should be replenished while we have a chance.”

***

As the Centaurs and Amazons busied themselves with preparations to fortify the castle, rumors flew about how the Conqueror suddenly appeared on the battlefield after all this time to help them and Queen Gabrielle. One popular one was that the Gods had made her return from the dead because Tartarus was afraid of her and she had not yet earned a place in the Elysian fields.

***

Herodotus paced as the healer, Ashea, inspected his daughter’s stitches. Lila stole glances of the Conqueror, who had not budged from Gabrielle’s side for many candle marks.

“Your stitches are the neatest I’ve ever seen,” Ashea said as she placed a fresh bandage on the wound. Xena looked at her blankly, then returned her gaze to the unconscious woman. “She’ll still scar. And infection is still a concern,” Xena noted, making the healer nod and feel the Queen’s forehead and cheeks.

“Her temperature is normal, no sign of infection so far,” Ashea said, glancing up at the concerned father, who sighed with relief and resumed pacing.

“What do you think happened to her?” Lila finally stepped up and asked the Conqueror uneasily. Herodotus stopped his pacing and listened.

“She got sliced open by that bit . . . ,” Xena responded with irritation.

“No, to mother,” Lila interrupted.

“Oh,” Xena said, then thought a moment and offered “Well, the mother of the person who defeated Callisto would be valuable.”

“So you think Mother is still alive?” Lila asked with cautious optimism.

“Yeah,” Xena said, hoping she was right. But Callisto was twisted enough to have Hecuba killed just to taunt Gabrielle with the hope, then devastate her with the truth that there never was any hope. Xena prayed for Gabrielle’s sake that wasn’t the case as she gently brushed the hair off of Gabrielle’s brow.

Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered open.

“Gabrielle?” Xena said with surprise as Lila and Herodotus stepped closer.

“Xena?” Gabrielle whispered, blinking her eyes to focus on the beautiful woman of her dreams. Her happy smile faded when she saw her father’s and sister’s faces appear by Xena’s shoulders.

Gabrielle’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion as the memories of Callisto and their fight flooded back. “Mother!” She said with panic and tried to sit up.

“Gabrielle, no,” Xena said, unable to stop Gabrielle from causing herself excruciating pain.

“Ugh! Oh Gods,” she groaned in pain then gasped “Mother’s in the kitchen,” still trying to get up. But strong arms kept her pinned down. “Let me go!” she growled.

“Never!” Xena shouted, causing the Queen to pause. “Gabrielle, please. Listen. She wasn’t in the kitchen,” the Conqueror quickly said as Gabrielle looked at the door with concern, weakly trying to move again. “She wasn’t in the kitchen,” Xena repeated firmly. Green eyes focused on her as the words sank in.

“Where is she?” Gabrielle asked tightly, preparing herself for the worst.

“We don’t know,” Xena said, watching the anger slowly dissolve.

Gabrielle lay still and stared blankly at nothing. She had been prepared for two outcomes this day. Even with the worst one, she had expected closure, not this.

Will this ever end?

The dejected look tore at Xena’s heart.

“Who were Callisto’s ranking officers?” Xena asked softly, knowing Gabrielle would know no peace unless her mother was found.

“Why?” Lila asked when Gabrielle failed to respond.

“It’s possible they have her as protection against the new Empress’ punishment,” Xena said, surprising Lila and Herodotus.

“I don’t want to be Empress,” Gabrielle said hollowly.

“It doesn’t matter what you want, Gabrielle,” Xena said honestly, getting Gabrielle’s irritated attention. “People will see the person who defeated the Empress as the new ruler,” Xena explained softly and asked again. “Who were Callisto’s advisors?”

Gabrielle looked at Xena, who was offering something she desperately needed right now. Strength.

“Captain Turks,” Gabrielle said softly. “He’s new, just replaced Palimon as Captain of the Castle guard.”

“Palimon?!?” Xena snapped, feeling sick the once-loyal guard would have served that blond bitch.

“He was a good man, Xena,” Gabrielle said defensively. “He was executed for spying,” the Queen said weakly, her eyes dropping guiltily.

Xena sighed. “Then he died for something he believed in, Gabrielle. Not everyone gets that chance,” Xena said, knowing that was small consolation to the burdened Queen.

“Hundreds already have, Xena,” Gabrielle countered firmly, surprising the Conqueror, who began to guiltily wonder, what if . . . .

“Turks isn’t shrewd enough to have anticipated Callisto’s defeat,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully as Xena watched something spark within the Queen. Hope?

“Who else?” Xena asked, watching Gabrielle with concern as she shut her eyes and exhaled heavily.

“There’s Faulks, the commander of her Northern Army, he’s . . . .” Lila suggested.

“Dead,” Xena said, feeling Gabrielle’s forehead for a fever.

“The battle went well?” Gabrielle asked as she swallowed hard and fought her battle with pain. Xena reached for a cup of water.

“Not for the Northern Army,” Xena responded, pleased to see a small smile on Gabrielle’s parched lips. Lifting her head, Xena carefully helped Gabrielle take a small sip. As Xena started to take the cup away, Gabrielle’s hand guided her back for a longer sip.

“You might leak if you drink too much,” Xena warned with a smirk. Green eyes quickly rolled as Gabrielle held the Conqueror’s hand firmly in place as she took another sip. Xena’s eyebrow rose with amusement which faded as the smaller hand caressed hers and green eyes gazed at her with wonder.

“Her Southern Army commander is Draco. They are a day’s ride from here,” Lila offered helpfully, startling the preoccupied women.

“But Hecuba was taken only a day or so ago. How would he know what was going on here?” Herodotus interjected as Xena placed the cup down and quickly reclaimed the Queen’s hand.

“Then someone at the Castle?” Ashea chimed in as Gabrielle gently squeezed Xena’s hand and looked troubled, which concerned Xena.

“Who?”

“Daumas,” Gabrielle said with sad certainty.

——————————————————————————–

Chapter 28 – The Return of the Conqueror

As they rode South, Xena glanced at a very annoyed Solari, who fingered the large, uncomfortable, leather collar around her neck. “Thanks for doing this,” Xena said, jiggling the long chain that attached to the collar.

“I didn’t have a choice,” Solari growled, looking straight ahead.

“Sure you did.” Xena smirked, jiggling the chain again, because she could.

“Exactly when did we have the conversation “Gee Solari, do you want pretend to be my slave or perhaps help me figure out another way to get close to the bad guys and rescue Gabrielle’s mother”. . . Hmmm?” she snapped.

“You had another idea?” Xena asked with surprise.

Solari glared at her.

***

His senior officers stood next to Draco in his tent as they looked at the map and assessed their unexpected situation.

“Messengers have confirmed that the Amazons and Centaurs have defeated the Northern Army and taken the castle. We even heard . . . ” the lieutenant said and stopped uneasily.

“What?” Draco blurted with irritation.

“We even heard that the Conqueror was back and helping the Amazons,” a lieutenant said with concern.

“The Conqueror?” Draco laughed. “They’d say anything to explain such an overwhelming defeat. We should be more worried about how to defeat Queen Gabrielle than a ghost,” he scoffed.

“Boo,” Xena said, startling the men as she entered the tent.

“Xena,” the men gasped with fear, watching the Conqueror tug her reluctant slave’s chain to get her to follow behind.

“Here, hold this. Tightly,” she said, handing over the chain to the uneasy soldier. “She likes to run away,” Xena explained and added “Oh, if you touch her, I’ll let her kill you,” Xena smiled as Solari growled at the trembling man.

“Xena, I am . . . ”

“Draco. I know,” she said with an unimpressed sigh as she looked around the tent. “I’ve heard about you and your pathetic battle record,” she said, making the proud soldier pull out his dagger and lunge at her. Grabbing his arm, she quickly spun him around, and held his knife at his throat.

“Well, you have spirit,” she offered. “But that’s not enough for victory, Draco. Captain Faulks learned that.”

“They said you were dead,” he snarled.

“Beaten by a ghost. Now that’s really pathetic,” she said into his ear as he struggled futilely in her vice-like hold. “And who has been spreading these rumors about my death?”

“Lord Daumas. But . . . you were gone for five winters!” Draco said as she pushed him away from her.

“Well, I’m back. And it looks like there is a big mess to clean up, Draco. Why is that?” She asked, sitting down in his chair, running her thumb over the blade as she glared at him.

“Callisto . . . ,” he tried to explain.

“Is dead,” she interjected flatly.

“You killed her?”

“No. I didn’t get the chance. Queen Gabrielle beat me to it. Two sais. Right in the chest. Rather impressive handiwork,” Xena offered.

“Are you . . . with the Amazons?” He asked cautiously, looking at the naked slave, who looked uneasily between Draco and Xena, then suddenly growled. Xena rolled her eyes.

“We heard you beheaded a dozen of the Northern Army,” Draco continued.

Solari’s eyebrows furrowed curiously, only recalling three.

“Apparently some of the Northern Army thought they could profit by severing my head. I taught them otherwise,” Xena said with a cold smile.

“Have you come back to take over?”

“What do you think?!?” She boomed as she stood up and drove the dagger deep into the map table, making Draco and his men jump.

“Queen Gabrielle won’t let you,” he offered.

“Perhaps I should ask you, whose side are you on, Draco?” She asked with a smile.

“Yours, Conqueror. Of course,” Draco said with a weak smile. For a long, silent moment, Xena stared at him. He swallowed hard.

“We need to start by regaining the Castle. And rebuild our strength from there,” Xena broke the silence as she sat down and leaned comfortably back.

“How?”

“I have a few ideas. Where’s Lord Daumas,” Xena asked nonchalantly, noticing Draco’s eyes dart around uneasily.

“He’s still alive after all this, isn’t he?” She asked, looking at her nails then him with boredom.

“Of course,” Draco blurted then cringed.

“I know he’s here, Draco,” she said with a sigh, daring him to argue. She smiled when he didn’t. “Just tell him I want to see him within a candle mark to discuss something that will be beneficial to both of us.”

***

After the last soldier left the tent, Xena leaned back and shut her eyes for a few moments, disturbing Solari, who paced.

“How can you can rest around here?” Solari whispered, shaking her head.

“Gotta get rest while you can. Every warrior knows that, Solari,” Xena offered, her eyes still closed.

“Yeah, but you had five winters of rest,” Solari said, still pacing.

“Well, some of us need our beauty sleep more than others,” Xena said, making the Amazon roll her eyes.

“Uh huh,” Solari responded and shook her head.

“So, are you seeing anyone?” Xena asked, surprising Solari.

“No,” Solari blurted with irritation.

“Ah,” Xena said, her eyes still closed.

“Ah? What does that mean?” Solari said defensively.

“Nothing. Didn’t mean to upset you.”

“WHO SAID I WAS UPSET??”

“My mistake.”

“Ughh,” Solari said. “I want to meet a nice girl, have a good relationship, share a hut and all that . . . but I can’t seem to get past “hello.” I don’t know,” Solari said wearily. “Do you think I might come across a bit too strong?” She asked earnestly.

Xena opened her eyes and looked at the naked woman standing before her. “Well . . . now that you mention it. . . .”

Daumas interrupted as he nervously entered the tent. “Empress! You are alive!” He gushed.

“You haven’t changed a bit, Daumas,” she said with a smile, looking him over. Though a little older, he still was a striking figure in his fine clothes. He had done well even under Callisto’s rule.

“Where have you been? We all thought you had died after Callisto took over.”

“It’s complicated, as you probably can guess,” Xena said and sighed wearily, Daumas nodded sympathetically, his mind racing with possible lurid scenarios. “Rumor has it you worked for Callisto.”

“Under the most extreme duress, I can assure you,” he quickly blurted.

“No doubt.”

“She also recruited many of your soldiers the same way. Join or die,” Daumas continued uneasily.

“I’m not interested in reliving in the past. We have the future to think about. And I don’t care how much time it takes. I want it all. I hope I can count on your help.”

“I would be honored,” he said, visibly relieved at the offer.

“As you should be, Daumas,” Xena said pompously, making Daumas smile.

“Oh indeed. I have to say, after being subjected to Callisto’s chaos, we need a leader who can bring order to the land. One who cares about the law and collecting a fair tax to help the people rebuild. And you can do it, as you did so brilliantly before.”

“Yes, yes. You worry about those details, as you did before, Daumas,” Xena said with boredom, making Daumas grin with delight. “But that bard Queen will be an obstacle,” Xena sighed shaking her head. “You remember her, don’t you Daumas?”

“Uh, yes?”

“Who would have thought that young bard I hired would end up as the Amazon Queen?” Xena said, shaking her head.

“Certainly, not I.”

“She is tough, I understand. It will be difficult to convince her I should be Empress again,” Xena said as the advisor nodded.

“An extended conflict will not only be tough on the spirit, but on the purse as well,” she said with a sigh. “There should be sufficient funds in Callisto’s war chest to cover us a while. And when we run out of that, I’m sure we can sell off a few assets,” she said, making his brow furrow. “Life will be hard and many sacrifices will be needed, but in the end we shall be victorious. I hope I can count on you for the long haul, Daumas.”

“Uh . . . of course. But I do not think we have to endure too long of a haul,” he offered.

“You’ve got a plan already, Daumas?” Xena asked with a pleased smile.

He smiled.

***

When they entered the prisoner’s tent, they found a woman lying in a metal cage. Solari glanced at the Conqueror with concern.

“She’s a lot tougher than she might appear,” Daumas explained with a shrug as they approached the hooded woman, whose wrists and ankles were bound in metal shackles.

“Is she in good health?” Xena asked with forced nonchalance.

“Certainly,” Daumas said, getting a nod from the Conqueror, who handed Daumas Solari’s chain, then opened up the cage. The noise alarmed the prisoner, who scooted back in the cell.

“Conqueror, what are you doing?”

“Just checking for myself, Daumas,” Xena said, then paused. “You don’t object, do you?” she said with a cold smile.

“Of course not, your highness,” he said uneasily.

“I’m so glad to hear that,” she said with a smile.

She entered the cage and carefully removed the hood from the prisoner’s head. The older woman’s familiar green eyes widened, making Xena smile. If she had any lingering doubts about the prisoner’s identity, they were quickly forgotten when the prisoner started yelling what Xena could swear were profanities though her thick gag.

Exiting the cage, Xena took Solari’s chain back from Daumas, then handed it to the Amazon. “Go get the horses,” she told the startled Amazon as Daumas eyed her curiously.

“If you run away, I’ll kill you,” Xena added with a smile, making Daumas smirk as the slave rushed off as ordered.

As Daumas walked over to the cage to lock it, Xena placed her hand on his shoulder. “I’m not going to kill you, Daumas,” Xena said with a smile before jabbing the confused man in the neck.

The advisor gasped and crashed to his knees.

“Though the thought of killing you is amazingly tempting,” she added as she entered the cage and pulled the stunned prisoner out. “However, that’s not nearly enough to repay you for all your years of service,” she relayed as she threw him in the cage and released the pinch.

“What are you doing?” He gasped, rubbing his neck.

“Well,” Xena offered thoughtfully. “Without your prisoner, you have no more leverage against the Queen. With your track record with Empresses, I really don’t think anyone will want your advice. And there won’t be anyone to protect you from the Queen, who has quite a chip on her shoulder these days – thanks to Callisto and you.”

“But I . . . I saved you, from those Amazons! I protected you! I helped you!!” He blurted in panic.

“No, you controlled me and I was stupid enough to let you. But not anymore. And just as you wanted to keep me, Daumas, you’ll be alone. And that is the most horrible punishment I can think of,” she told him, her cold eyes seeing the man for what he was. A greedy leech.

“Guards!” Daumas yelled before Xena knocked him unconscious. She pulled out her dagger and swiftly cut his fine silk clothing into a fine silk gag and rope.

As she left the cage and locked it, Solari returned. The Amazon cringed with embarrassment as she entered the tent at sword point.

“What’s going on here?” Xena barked, her eyebrows furrowing at Solari.

“That’s what I want to know,” Draco said looking at the new prisoner in the cage.

“Daumas and I had a disagreement on where to keep the prisoner,” Xena said. “I don’t like it when people argue with me.”

“Where do you want to take her?” Draco said suspiciously eyeing the frightened woman whose eyes darted between Xena and Draco.

“Who are you to question me, Draco?” Xena growled angrily.

“I’m the one with the sword, Xena,” Draco said boldly, pointing it at Xena’s chest.

Xena looked down at the sword. “Surrender your weapon or die.”

Draco smirked. “I think you don’t realize that your days of ruling have long gone, Xena. It’s time for a new ruler. One who would make the kingdom prosperous,” he said confidently.

“And who would you have rule this “prosperous” kingdom?” Xena asked, wondering if the Amazon Queen’s allies could possibly include this annoying man.

“Me, of course,” he said with a smile as he lunged his sword. In a blur of deadly motion, Xena turned, blocking the blade with her arm bracer, grabbed his sword and impaled him on it.

After Draco collapsed to the ground with a heavy thud, a second thud quickly followed. Solari and Xena looked down at ground where the prisoner had fainted.

——————————————————————————–

Chapter 29- Handle with Care

The sun began to set over the mountains as the Conqueror, Solari, and Gabrielle’s unconscious mother quickly rode away from the Northern Army’s camp. After a candle mark, the riders finally slowed.

“No one seems to be following us,” Solari said, looking back over her shoulder.

Xena nodded as they came to a small clearing. “Why don’t you gather up something for us to eat. I’ll make a fire and take care of Mother,” Xena said with a smirk.

“Rabbit?” Solari asked as they dismounted.

“I could go for some oysters,” Xena said as she carefully pulled the older woman off the horse and lay her gently on the ground.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said and jogged out into the woods.

Xena quickly gathered branches and built a small fire, then tended to the still unconscious woman.

Inspecting the heavy shackles on her legs, Xena sighed. After placing the leg irons on a flat stone, she inspected a couple of nearby rocks. Finally picking one, she went to work on freeing the older woman.

After many strikes, Xena could finally remove an ankle cuff. Smiling at her handy work, she started on the other ankle. With more pounding of stone against metal, the cuff finally gave way. Tossing the leg irons to the side with a heavy thunk, the Conqueror eyed the wrist shackles. Tired of pounding stone, she inspected the lock closely. Pulling out her small breast dagger, she heard a gasp and glanced up to find frightened green eyes looking at her.

“I won’t harm you,” Xena said softly with a smile as the older woman sat up uneasily and scooted back, keeping a close eye on the dangerous woman’s dagger. “Oh! This is just to help pick the lock, Hecuba,” Xena said, startling the older woman by using her name.

“I’m a little rusty,” Xena offered as Hecuba nervously watched her attempt to pick the lock. When the frightening woman suddenly stopped and looked towards the horses, Hecuba panicked.

Without a second thought, Hecuba swiftly clobbered the Warrior Princess on the side of her head with the heavy metal shackles. When the dazed warrior stumbled over, the older woman jumped up and ran away from camp.

“UGH!” Xena growled as she shook her head, wishing she had worked on the wrist shackles first, and awkwardly got up.

When three soldiers came into her camp wielding their swords, Xena sighed heavily and drew her sword.

Solari came running back into camp with her sword drawn. She frowned with disappointment when she found Xena already sheathing her sword and three dead men on the ground.

“Where’s Queen mum?” She asked with concern and received a cold glare.

“Once I bring HECUBA back, we will be heading back to the castle,” Xena snarled and started to march out of the small camp.

“No dinner?” Solari asked curiously but just earned another cold look. “Ok. No dinner,” Solari said holding her hands up in defeat as Xena growled and disappeared into the forest.

Xena’s head ached and she was not amused. Standing perfectly still, she listened for the older woman, but only heard a persistent ringing in her ear.

“Hecuba! I will not harm you! I am here to help!” Xena called out, cringing at the loudness of own voice as she touched the side of her throbbing head. Xena’s eyes narrowed as she quietly approached a suspicious sound. To her surprise, she heard a noise behind her, right before the older woman jumped on her back and started to choke her with the chain of her shackles.

“Ack!” Xena blurted as she struggled to loosen the chain around her neck before she blacked out.

When the tall woman collapsed to the ground hard, Hecuba nervously waited. Seeing no movement for a few moments, she slowly loosened the chain and removed it from the Conqueror’s neck.

Suddenly, the older woman was on her back, pinned beneath a very irritated Conqueror. “I am here to hel . . . .” Xena said as the older woman’s forehead slammed into her face.

“Oh GOBS!” Xena cried out as her hand shot up to her now bloody and painful nose.

The older woman attempted to wiggle out from beneath Xena’s strong hold but the Conqueror’s weight and other hand kept her pinned, until she felt teeth sink deep into the flesh of her forearm. “Uhhhhgtt!” Xena retracted her throbbing arm and found herself pushed to the ground by the surprisingly strong older woman, who got up, grabbed a large branch, and waved it menacingly at her, daring the Conqueror to try something.

Xena looked up at the woman, her hand still covering her nose.

“Go ahead,” she finally said with a sigh. “Just make sure you tell Gabrielle I never hurt you,” Xena said wearily, confusing the older woman.

The two of them turned towards the heavy laughing as the Amazon approached them. Solari opened her mouth to say something but she barreled over with laughter.

“Could you hurry up? You’d be doing me a favor,” Xena said and glared at the Amazon, who was gasping for air between the annoying laughter.

“You really are here to help me.” Hecuba said. “Oh my Gods!”

***

After the Warrior Princess silently unlocked the manacles from Hecuba’s wrists, she silently walked over to Argo, silently mounted, and silently rode out of camp . . . alone.

Solari looked at the worried older woman with a shrug, trying not to chuckle.

“How was I supposed to know?” Hecuba said guiltily as the Amazon smirked and mounted her horse.

When Solari held out a helping hand, the older woman looked up disapprovingly.

“For Gods’ sake, don’t you have any clothing?!?”

***

“I should apologize,” Hecuba said uneasily to the Amazon walking in front of her. She winced as she watched the proud woman riding ahead gingerly touch her cheek and lips.

Solari bit her lip but that didn’t help prevent the chuckle that escaped.

“Your laughing is only making it worse!” Hecuba hissed.

Solari nodded, then snorted again.

“Someone should really take a look at her nose . . . and face . . . and arm,” Hecuba rattled off with concern, making Solari laugh aloud.

With irritation, Hecuba yanked the reigns from the nearly incapacitated Amazon, who continued to laugh as she trotted up next to the proud warrior.

“I’m so sorry,” Hecuba gushed guiltily.

“No worries.”

“How’s your . . . ”

“I’ve had worse,” Xena responded, continuing to look ahead. “Granted, not by much.”

“I’m really . . . ”

“You didn’t know,” Xena said. “And you fought for your life. I respect that,” Xena said, making the older woman nod and feel much better.

“Why don’t we stop so I can take a look at . . . ” Hecuba offered.

“No,” Xena said.

“Are you s. . . ?”

“You are not to touch me,” Xena informed her firmly as she thankfully spotted the castle on the horizon.

***

As Xena rode through the gates with Hecuba, Amazons and Centaurs cheered loudly, startling the Conqueror. She hadn’t heard such genuine support since the early days when she picked up the sword and cleaned up the streets of Amphipolis. It had been a long time since she had felt this good about something.

“Things have changed, haven’t they?” Hecuba said with amazement as Xena nodded absently, seeing warriors nod to her out of respect as they rode past.

General Tyldus trotted up to the Conqueror and took her arm firmly in greeting. She winced. The tooth marks still bothered her. “Ah, it looks like you had a little trouble along the way,” he said, glancing at her arm and face. He slapped her in the arm with a chuckle.

“Yeah, well,” she said with a weak smile.

“There must have been thirty or forty men! You should have seen her,” Hecuba quickly volunteered, lying through her pearly white teeth. Xena stared at her, shocked.

“Oh I have, Hecuba. I have seen what this woman is capable of, both as an enemy and a friend. And I have to say, I prefer her as a friend,” the Centaur smiled. Xena looked at the General and nodded, preferring being a friend as well.

“I think the Queen might be interested in your return. And I know the warriors are ready for a well-deserved celebration,” he said. “And tonight there will be a celebration worthy of these warriors!” He yelled out, causing the Centaurs and Amazons to whoop and holler.

As the General trotted off, Xena dismounted. Going to Hecuba’s side, the Conqueror offered her a hand to dismount.

“I thought you said no touching,” Hecuba said, looking at her hand uncertainly.

“We won’t make it a habit,” Xena countered with a raised eyebrow and further extended her hand. Hecuba smiled, and gladly accepted the offer.

Otere and Ephiny jogged up to them with smiles. “We knew you could do it!” Otere gushed.

“How’s Gabrielle?” Xena asked.

“Stronger,” Ephiny said, gaining a curious look from Hecuba. “Your face looks like you were kicked in the head by a Centaur,” Ephiny noted to Xena, who sighed.

“You said she’s stronger? What happened to my daughter?” Hecuba asked with concern.

“She was injured when she defeated Callisto,” Ephiny informed her.

“Xena saved her life!” Otere gushed. “She knew exactly how to treat and sew up the wound. The stitches are the best Ashea, our healer, had ever seen. In fact, there really shouldn’t be much . . . ”

“Uh . . . Let’s go see Gabrielle,” Xena interjected uneasily. Hecuba nodded, needing to see her daughter.

“Hey. Where’s Solari?” Otere asked, looking around.

“She should catch up shortly. She was walking,” Xena offered before they left.

——————————————————————————–

Chapter 30 – Celebrations

As they walked down the long hallway, Hecuba looked around with amazement. “This is all yours?”

“It’s Gabrielle’s,” Xena said, getting a surprised look from Hecuba. “She’s in there.” The Conqueror pointed to the bedroom door. Hecuba nodded and nervously entered the room, not knowing in what condition she would find her daughter.

“Mother!” Lila called out happily as she jumped up from Gabrielle’s bedside as the tired Queen sat in her bed, watching with a relieved smile.

After getting a hug from her daughter, Hecuba found herself in her husband’s arms. “Oh Hecuba!” He said emotionally before kissing his wife soundly.

Xena grinned, better understanding why Hecuba had fought so hard to live. She had someone she had to live for. Her eyes drifted to Gabrielle, whose beautiful smile was something she hoped to see every day.

“Should we leave you two alone?” Gabrielle asked from the bed with amusement, causing the parents to break off their intimate display and cough with embarrassment.

“Uh . . . it’s been a while,” Hecuba shrugged. Gabrielle nodded wearily as Lila winced.

“Eww. Too much information!”

Hecuba shook her head at her youngest daughter and went to Gabrielle’s side. Concern immediately flooded the mother’s face as she looked over her unusually pale daughter.

“I’m OK, Mother. Thanks to Xena,” she said, eyeing the warrior who was curiously lingering in the shadows.

“Ashea could have . . . ” Xena offered uncomfortably, stepping further away from the candle light.

“But Ashea didn’t. And you did,” Gabrielle quickly countered. “Why are you standing way over there?” Gabrielle asked with frustration.

“I uh, should leave you all alone,” she mumbled and started for the door.

“HALT!” Gabrielle said causing Warrior Princess to cringe. “Turn around.” Xena sighed heavily and turned around. “Now march yourself over here.”

Hecuba looked between the two women curiously. Why was her daughter bossing the Conqueror around? And why was the Conqueror letting her?

“Oh my Gods, Xena! You look awful,” Gabrielle said with worry.

“Thanks.”

“Lila, go get Ashea.”

“No! That’s ok. I’ll be fine. Looks worse than it is,” Xena said. “This is family time, I should be going.”

“Xena! Sit here, right now,” Gabrielle snapped and the Conqueror sat on the edge of the bed, reluctantly. The Queen reached out and gently inspected Xena’s now puffy face, then the red chafing at her neck with a cringe of sympathy.

Hecuba’s eyes widened with understanding.

“What happened?” Gabrielle asked softly.

“Well . . . ” Xena said and hesitated uncomfortably, glancing up at the older woman, who quicky interjected “Well, I’ll tell you if she’s too embarrassed.”

Xena sighed.

“It was a huge fight. We thought we had escaped the Army camp without anyone following but we were mistaken. We were followed. It was a blur as forty or fifty soldiers jump out from the night,” Hecuba relayed with enthusiasm, making Xena roll her eyes. “Fists flew, swords clashed. But they were no match for Xena. I’m here today because of her,” Hecuba finished with a smile and a shrug, noticing all eyes on her, including narrow blue ones. “Thank you,” Hecuba said softly to the Conqueror, who nodded uncomfortably.

“Wow,” Lila said in awe. “Thank you so much! You saved Gabrielle, then my mother,” she said and started to tear up as she hugged Xena, who couldn’t take it any longer.

When Xena opened her mouth to explain what had happened, Herodotus put his hand on her shoulder. “I don’t know how to thank you, Xena.”

“Don’t mention it,” Xena said flatly, eyeing Hecuba, who smiled uneasily and quickly offered. “Well, it’s been a long day for us all. We should all get some rest,” Hecuba said, and yawned.

“Good idea,” Xena said and started to get up but Gabrielle’s hand covered hers, preventing the attempted escape.

“Good night, Gabrielle,” Hecuba said, kissing her daughter’s cheek. “Night, mother.”

“Good night, Gabrielle. I’m very proud of you,” Herodotus said and kissed the startled Queen on the forehead. Xena smiled.

“Yeah. Not bad for a former bard,” Lila said and hugged her, getting a weak smile from Gabrielle.

As the family left, Xena looked uneasily at Gabrielle, whose hand still covered hers. “You need your rest too,” Xena offered, trying to leave, but the expectant look in those demanding green eyes pinned her in place.

“So . . . how was your day?” Xena asked with a weak smile, her eyes darting around with a sudden interest in the room.

“Oh, typical. Recovering after having defeated an evil Empress and waiting for my missing lover, who just returned after five winters and brought my mother safely back to me, to stop trying to run away from me . . . ,” she said.

“I’m not running away from you! You just need . . . ” Xena said uncomfortably.

“And just tell me . . . ”

“. . . rest. . . ”

“. . . why her face looks like she used it as a battering ram.”

“People have always said I had a hard head,” Xena shrugged.

“Spill it.”

“Spill what?” Xena asked with a weak smile.

“And you actually win at poker with that face? You are such a horrible liar.”

“Hey! I was not the one who lied,” Xena said then saw a satisfied look on Gabrielle’s face. “Damn it,” Xena blurted, sighing heavily.

“Tell me.”

“Just promise me . . . ” Xena said hesitantly and sighed again.

“What?” Gabrielle asked, starting to get concerned.

“You won’t get mad at your mother.”

“Why would . . . ?”

“Just promise me?” Xena said.

“Ok. I promise.”

“And promise me . . . ” Xena continued.

“More?” Gabrielle asked with surprise, getting an annoyed look from Xena. “Ok, ok, what else?”

“You won’t laugh at me,” Xena said firmly.

Gabrielle eyed her and nodded hesitantly.

“I mean it. No laughing.”

“Must I write this all down and sign it for you to believe me?” Gabrielle asked with irritation.

“No, that’s ok.”

When Gabrielle rolled her eyes, Xena quickly blurted “your mother beat the crap out of me.”

“My mother . . . did what?” She asked, knowing she had heard incorrectly.

“You mother did this,” Xena said, pointing to her nose, which still had traces of dried blood caked around one nostril. Gabrielle’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

“And this,” Xena pointed to the side of her puffy face which was starting to bruise. Gabrielle’s eyes widened.

“This,” Xena pointed to her neck which now sported a chaffed skin at the base of her throat. “And this,” Xena displayed the half-crescent bite marks on her forearm.

Gabrielle’s mouth dropped. “My mother beat you up?”

“She thought I was the old me and . . . ” Xena explained as the horrified look transformed into a huge, annoying smile.

“She really likes you,” Gabrielle said happily.

“Then I’m relieved she doesn’t love me,” Xena said flatly. “You don’t happen to take after her that way, do you?” she asked with narrow, suspicious eyes.

“No silly, she lied about it,” Gabrielle explained the obvious.

“Yeah, well, I guess she felt guilty and wanted to spare me the . . . ”

“No, you don’t understand. . . .”

“I’m beginning to realize that.”

“She never thought . . . well, she always thought that . . . Well, I mean, she . . . ” Gabrielle sighed heavily, struggling for the right words.

“Much clearer, thanks.”

“Ugh.” Gabrielle slapped her arm.

“Hey!” Xena said with annoyance. “Oh, wait a minute, does that mean you like me? Or not,” she frowned. “This is getting complicated,” she sighed wearily.

“Xena!” Gabrielle growled. “My mother always thought that being a bard wasn’t an honorable profession because bards just told lies and lying is a sin.”

“You’re kidding.”

Gabrielle shook her head. “And yet, she lied about beating you up.”

“So that’s a good thing?” Xena asked hesitantly, not quite understanding.

“YES!” Gabrielle smiled happily.

***

The beat of Amazon drums marked the start of the celebration to end all celebrations. Around the castle grounds, Amazons and Centaurs ate, drank, sang, and told loud, incredible tales, which mainly focused on the Conqueror and the Amazon Queen’s noble deeds during the past few days.

After standing in line and swapping exciting stories of her own with a bunch of warriors, Otere finally made it to the barrel of ale. Pouring two foaming mugs, she smiled as she eagerly brought one to her lips. A hand stopped her from taking a sip.

“Hey!”

“You be careful with that,” Ephiny warned, eyeing the two mugs with disappointment.

“This is my first one! And Yakut wanted one too!” Otere responded with irritation, pointing to her friend, who was sitting on a bench with her crutches.

“Calm down. She’s just doesn’t want you to wake up with a hangover and a brand-new birth-mark,” Solari interjected as she poured herself a mug.

“Solari! When did you get back?” Otere asked with surprise.

“I’ve been standing next to you in line for the past half candle mark!” Solari said indignantly.

“Nice leathers,” Ephiny said, looking over the Amazon’s new clothing approvingly.

“Uh . . . thanks,” Solari said self-consciously.

“Hi guys,” Lila said as she approached them nervously.

“Hey,” Ephiny said with a nod. The Amazons looked at the young woman uneasily.

“Here, you look like you could use a drink,” Solari offered, feeling bad for the young woman who had been put in a tough spot. Lila gratefully accepted.

“Thanks. I’m Lila,” she said, holding out her hand.

“Ugh!” Solari growled and stormed off.

“Why is she so mad?” Lila asked as Otere shrugged.

“Solari! Wait up!” Ephiny said, jogging after her.

“Solari?!? Wow. She really has pretty eyes, doesn’t she?” Lila said with amazement, sipping the mead.

***

“I suppose you’ll want to go,” Gabrielle said glancing to the window, hearing the lure of the Amazon drums. “It will be a historic celebration.”

“With historic hangovers. I can do without, thank you,” Xena said as she gently finished wiping her face with a damp cloth and rolled her eyes at her battered reflection in the mirror. “Besides, the only person I’d want to celebrate with isn’t participating.”

Gabrielle smiled as Xena returned and sat on the edge of the bed.

“I wish I could celebrate with you tonight. We have so much to celebrate,” she said warmly, squeezing the Conqueror’s hand. “But I’m afraid what I want and what I am physically capable of, are not exactly compatible right at the moment.”

Xena looked at her with a big smile. “I’m not exactly in top form at the moment either. But I promise you, when we’re better. . . .”

Unable to resist, Gabrielle leaned forward with a slight groan and kissed her on the lips.

“Ow,” Xena said, touching her tender lip as her heart soared. “It works,” she said happily, getting a curious look from the Queen. “It feels much better. Try this,” Xena offered her throat, considerately getting up and leaning close so Gabrielle didn’t have to move much.

Gabrielle chuckled before gently planting a kiss on the warrior’s chafed neck. “Oh . . . yes. Much, much better,” Xena said, clearing her throat as she sat back down. “Though, interestingly, my legs are starting to give out.”

Gabrielle laughed. “Well you’re in luck. The bed is big enough for two. You should stay, so I don’t have to worry about you falling and hurting yourself further,” Gabrielle said and grinned as Xena quickly took her up on the invitation. After shedding her armor and boots with a few “ows” and pained groans, the safety-minded warrior claimed what would, from that day forward, be known as her side of the bed.

Silently, the warrior removed unnecessary pillows and helped the happy Queen lay back for an evening of slumber. Rolling on her side with a grimace, Xena looked at the beautiful woman, whose emerald eyes for the first time in many seasons started to fill with tears. Silently, Xena offered her injured forearm with a raised eyebrow. Gabrielle chuckled as she rolled her eyes then gently kissed the offered limb, making Xena smile.

When Xena leaned over and pointed to her nose, Gabrielle drew the line.

“Xena, you’re my soul-mate and I love you. But I’m not kissing your nose.”

The retreating pout made Gabrielle crumble. “Xena . . . ” Gabrielle said, prompting the Conqueror to smile with victory and move closer to collect her kiss as Gabrielle started to sit up. The Conqueror’s nose collided with the Queen’s chin.

“Uuughkt!” Xena’s hand shot up to her nose as she retreated to her pillow.

“Xena!” Gabrielle rolled on her side with a pained grimace. “Oh Gods, I’m sorry! Are you all right?” She asked.

“Find.”

“Find?”

“I’m find,” Xena repeated with irritation.

“If you’re fine, why are tears falling from your eyes?!?”

“Joy. Tear of Joy,” Xena said, blinking rapidly.

“I don’t suppose you want to see Ashea?” Gabrielle said uneasily.

Xena shook her head no and gingerly touched the bridge of her nose.

“Xena, do you want some water? Perhaps something stronger?” Gabrielle asked, starting to move.

“Don’t move,” Xena ordered firmly.

“It’s ok, Xena, I’ll be right . . . ow . . . back.” Gabrielle said, slowly moving.

“STOP!” Xena commanded. “Don’t move. Don’t even think about it. Stay perfectly still.”

“Can I breath??”

“Yes. But not heavily.”

Gabrielle lay on her back with irritation. She could have gotten her water or something.
After a quiet, pain-free moment, Gabrielle smiled when her hand was gently taken by Xena’s. After another moment, four of the most soul soothing words she had ever heard were softly spoken to her.

“I love you, Gabrielle.”

“I love you too, Xena.”

——————————————————————————–

Epilogue
Bards, who dare speak out and risk embarrassing the Conqueror, sing tales of how darkness was cast from the land. Those most romantic claim it was the day that the Conqueror lost her heart. But the Conqueror strongly disagreed, for she knew exactly where her heart was. It was safely residing with her Queen, who had found her atrophied organ buried beneath years of heartache and neglect, and nurtured it back to health.

The Conqueror’s declaration brought a smile to the Queen’s lips.

Others, believing in the higher powers, claimed darkness was vanquished by the Fates, who had sealed the Warrior and bard’s destiny long ago. The Conqueror, who never before believed anything good would come from the higher powers, begrudgingly admitted she felt blessed for the first time in her life.

The Conqueror’s admission brought tears of joy to her Queen’s eyes.

And those bards who were skeptics claimed their love was not fate but dumb luck. The Conqueror did not disagree, stating that she would never look a gift horse in the mouth.

The Conqueror’s statement brought a furrow to the Queen’s brow, which quickly prompted profuse apologizes to reassure the Conqueror’s beloved she had not just been equated to a beast of burden.

A rare few, who claimed to have divine insight on right and wrong, had warned that a more insidious evil now suffocated the land. A great threat to all that was good loomed as the masses accepted that which should be spurned. The rare few declared that the supposedly life-altering love between the Conqueror and her Queen was not to be viewed as a sacred gift but an abomination! The people were warned not to be fooled by the extravagant commitment ceremony, where vows of love and promises of patience and understanding were publicly made, for it was nothing more than a gross mockery of the holy institution of marriage!

Those rare few owed their lives to the sage Queen, who reminded her wife of her vow of patience and understanding, though the Conqueror quickly reminded her Queen that vow of patience and understanding was for the Queen alone, not the scum-sucking morons who wouldn’t know true love if it bit them in their fat, hairy ass. But the reluctant Conqueror finally promised not to waste any more energy on those blinded by their righteousness, thanks to the adroit persuasion by the Queen’s advanced oral skills, which provided many, exhaustive examples of where their energy was better spent.

Then a rarer few, who did not grow tired of condemning the happy couple, claimed that Evil was spawning when the Conqueror and Queen bore twins. The rarer few declared the birth an obscenity and a devious attempt to undermine the last pillar of family values which the Conqueror and Queen had yet to grossly mutate for their own nefarious purposes. Those rarer few urged the people to shun the children of that unnatural union for should they embrace the poisonous offspring they too would be destined to rot in hell!

Those rarer few quickly vanished and were never heard from again.

But no bard’s tale or historian’s fact could truly capture how happy or full the lives of the Conqueror and her Queen were with their children, now numbering four but were not going to become five then six like the Conqueror wanted, unless the Conqueror got off her large royal throne and had another one, because as the Queen declared, fair was fair.

The End

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