The Embrace Series Part 2 by CJ Wells

Story #7 Surprises In Rome

I. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG

I’ve wanted to ask Gabrielle to be my consort for I don’t know how long, but when she threatened to leave me and head back to Corinth to save that pervert that sold her to me, I knew at that moment that I was ready to finally ask her. Gabrielle stood up to me, she insulted me and she planned to defy my authority… and I don’t think I could possibly love her more.

So here I was, deep in the Albion forest, suffering stinging pain from two stab wounds inflicted by my greatest nemesis from that Isle, Niall of Calleva, and on my knees, asking the greatest gift the gods could give me to be my consort.

When she said yes to me, it was as if the earth melted away and we were in the Elysian Fields. The beauty that surrounded us, the trees with their stunning autumn colors, the wild flowers, the singing birds; they all were our captive audience. We embraced before our audience for a few moments before heading back to our little camp by a river that the local clans call the Sacred Stream. We sat down on a large, embanked driftwood log for a few moments and stared at the current of the water. We were silent, but we were happy. Gabrielle has brought me such happiness over the years. Even in the misery of my love for her when she was my concubine, there was this undercurrent of happiness; a euphoria whenever she was around me, when I watched her, when I listened to her voice and when I brought her sexual pleasure.

I put my arm around Gabrielle, rather bashfully I must admit, as we both watched the water flow and an occasional fish breach. “I think they’re enticing me to catch them, Gabrielle,” I said, finally breaking the peaceful silence.

“I don’t recall seeing a fishing rod in your saddlebag, Xena,” Gabrielle said.

“I don’t need one,” I professed as I began taking off my footwear. As I descended into the river, Gabrielle grabbed my lower arm.

“Xena, what are you doing?” she asked.

“Getting us dinner, dear,” I responded.

Gabrielle stood in wonder as I snagged two huge rock bass and five bluegills. “We’re a little too late in the season for salmon,” I said as I handed off some of my catch to a stunned Gabrielle. “The last of them probably ran about a week or so ago. It’s too bad, really. I love salmon.”

“By the gods, you’re amazing, Xena,” Gabrielle said as she neatly laid out my catch on the driftwood log. “How did you do that?”

The cold water was biting, but I didn’t care. I just love showing off to my Gabrielle. “I have many skills,” I simply said.
Gabrielle scurried off to busy herself while I cleaned and gutted the two rock bass. I imagined that she didn’t want to be sickened by the sight of their bloodied severed heads, bones and entrails. I carefully covered the much smaller bluegill in heavy parchment. The cold air would keep them fresh throughout the night and they would serve as our meal in the morning. While I prepared the bass for cooking, Gabrielle set up an eating area for us beside the small tent that I had erected earlier. She started our campfire and heated water for warm cider to drink with our dinner. We ate fish, bread and apples in a tranquil silence as Apollo’s chariot rode by to capture the sun. As I ate, I thought about just how fortunate a woman I am to have Gabrielle as the mate of my soul, my being. She was committing herself to me willingly, in word and in heart, and in spite of everything from our history together, and I don’t believe I’d ever been happier.

Once we were fully sated, we retired to our little shelter for the evening. Gabrielle insisted on changing my bandages before we bedded down. Ever so tenderly, she removed the bloodied dressings that my ship’s healer had placed over my wounds and replaced them with clean, fresh bandages. I’m sure this sight was more stomach turning to her than gutting fish, but my Gabrielle was determined to make me comfortable and prevent any infection. As she tended to me, I considered the notion that Gabrielle might have a future as a healer, although I prefer her as my special little bard. The night air was very cold, so Gabrielle retrieved every covering from both saddlebags for our bedding and we huddled under them fully clothed.

Of course, the clothes came off as soon as the heat from our bodies and our passions warranted it.

Making love that evening was, for me, symbolic of our love and our union. As I began my sensual ministrations, I hoped that Gabrielle was feeling the significance of this intimacy as well. I believed that she was as I took her into my arms and peppered her face with kisses. “I love you,” I whispered into her ear as I performed. We were lying on our sides, but I soon wanted to feel her body covering mine.

“But Xena,” she whispered as I began to deposit her form on top of me, “won’t my weight aggravate your wounds?”

“Not at all,” I responded. I knew that I wouldn’t even notice any discomfort with Gabrielle’s wonderfully soft skin pressing against me. Securely positioned where I wanted her, I began administering gentle kisses to her cheek and neck while I ran my hands all over her lovely back, the backs of her thighs and her sexy, taut ass. My massages seemed to make her desires erupt, because she brought her lips to mine in a deeply passionate kiss as her small fingers combed through my hair. I sighed at her wonderful touches. However, in the back of my mind, I remembered sex with her prior to her freedom. Every time that I had sex with Gabrielle, I enjoyed it. I would come to realize that much of that joy was due to the fervent and unyielding love that I felt for her. But in all of those years, I denied myself the added pleasure of her touches. Much more importantly, I know that I sometimes denied her any pleasure at all. Yet, here she was, once again bringing me great pleasure as I wished that I could erase those bad times and replace them with overpowering releases of great joy. To make up for what I denied Gabrielle, I felt committed to give to her all of my raw, natural and ultimately devoted passion.

We shared our wonderful kiss for a while before Gabrielle opened her legs and scissored my uninjured thigh. I cupped the cheeks of her ass at that moment and pushed her further onto me. As I kneaded her rear and then lovingly held her in an embrace, we began our delicious tribade. It may have been cold that night outside of our little shelter, but inside, it was as hot as a desert. Covered under several layers of bedding, our nostrils were treated to the aroma of our hot, wanting bodies and our saturated sex. By the gods, she felt so good! Our eventual screams of release likely scared away any curious critters desiring to either explore our camp for dinner remnants or steal our packaged bluegill.

Despite the fact that we were sleeping on the cold ground in a tiny tent, I don’t think I can recall the last time I had had such a peaceful, comfortable slumber.

I woke the next morning to the feel of soft fingers caressing my face and opened my eyes to the sight of Gabrielle’s beautiful jade eyes gazing at me.

“Sleep well, my love?” I asked in a whisper.

“Like a baby,” came her reply.

“Good,” I said. “So did I.”

Gabrielle began lightly stroking my bangs. “Xena, now that we’re to be joined, there’s something I’ve wanted to know for a very, very long time.”

My heart began instantly racing. I always shuddered at those moments when Gabrielle desires answers to the reasons for the darkness of my actions, to her and to others. Although I had promised myself that I would never deny her answers to her difficult questions, at this particular moment, I frankly didn’t want to deal with the intensity that those lines of questions usually brought. As I mentally prepared for another round of inquisition and introspection…

“How old are you?”

I released the breath I had been holding. “What?”

“How old are you, Xena?” Gabrielle repeated.

I began laughing. “What’s so funny?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I snickered as I cupped and then lovingly stroked her cheek with the backs of my fingers. “I was expecting a more… difficult question.”

“Oh,” she replied. “Well?”

“Well what?” I asked and then remembered. “Right, my age. I’m 32.”

“Thirty-two,” she said, processing. “I know you know my age, Xena.”

“Yes, you’re 25,” I responded. “You’ll be 26 next month. I’ll be 33 the following month.”

“I’m not surprised that you know the date of my birth, Xena,” she said smiling.

I knew what Gabrielle was indicating to me in that smile. I had learned when her birthday was less than six months after she came into my service. Gabrielle wasn’t one to make a big deal about it, but somehow one of my palace servants, Demitrius I suspected, learned of the date and organized with some of the other servants to have a special affair in celebration of her twenty-first birthday. I discovered them in the palace kitchen. Nearly half of my non-military palace servants, both paid and indentured, were standing around a stunned Gabrielle presenting her with small baskets of food and tokens of affection. I ordered the group to disperse immediately and commanded that Gabrielle go to her bedchamber. I did allow her to take her gifts with her, however. She had so many of them, my chambermaid Mia had to help her.

I remember going back to my own bedchamber and brooding about it for a long time. I was already falling deeply in love with her, but I dared not reveal it to her or anyone else. I so wanted to give her a gift as well, but I was terrified that she would discover my true feelings for her and, believing that she already hated my guts, I couldn’t afford to give her that added level of power over me. So I decided to myself that my gift to her would be that she would be spared servicing me on her birthday. Thus, I didn’t summon Gabrielle for service on that birthday or her next three birthdays.

On the day that she turned 25, however, I awakened with her on my mind after dreaming all night about holding her in my arms. She had slept in my bed with me the night before, so when I woke up, I looked over to find her sleeping form tormenting me further. She continued to consume my thoughts all of that day as I observed the palace servants shower her with adoration upon adoration, while I continued to anguish over the fact that I refused to allow myself to participate in this activity. I began drinking at noon, and by early evening I was thoroughly intoxicated and wanting her badly. I still didn’t summon Gabrielle for service. Instead, I waited until I was sure she had turned in for the evening and went to her bedchamber. Unfortunately, I was so drunk that I don’t remember much of what happened after that. I don’t think that I hurt her, as I do recall her expression the next day while I nursed my embarrassing hangover. Her demeanor hardly indicated that she suffered any trauma at my hands. Yet, it has been nearly a year, and I had never inquired of Gabrielle exactly what transpired that evening. Perhaps now was the time for me to start asking questions.

“Gabrielle,” I began, “do you recall your last birthday?”

“Yes, Xena,” she responded. “Do you recall my last birthday?”

She was still smiling. This was a good sign. “Well… not really,” I confessed. “I was quite inebriated that day.”

“Yes you were, Xena.”

“I remember barging in on you after you had turned in for the night, Gabrielle,” I said. “I don’t recall what happened after that, I’m ashamed to admit.” I ran my fingers through her lovely, shoulder-length hair. “Did I… hurt you, Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle lightly kissed my lips. “No, dear, you didn’t,” she said. “Would you like to know what you DID do?”

I was humbled to learn the answer as I nodded my response.

“You walked over to my bed and pulled my blanket off of me, Xena,” Gabrielle began. “You sat on the edge of my bed. I had my sleep shift on, so you slipped your hands under it and began running them over my breasts. You didn’t say anything, but you were breathing heavily and I could smell the wine.”

“I’m sorry, Gabrielle,” I whispered.

“Don’t be, Xena,” she responded. “I had been thinking about you that night, so I was already aroused. Your caresses aroused me even more. It was incredibly pleasant,” she declared, continuing; “You then pulled down my britches and performed your tongue magic on me, Xena. That was incredibly pleasant as well, a lovely birthday gift. After I climaxed, you climbed on top of me, but you still hadn’t said anything. You didn’t do anything to me either. By the gods, Xena, I wanted to throw my arms around you so badly, but of course I didn’t. You just laid there on me for a few moments.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yup,” she responded. “You know, I think you actually fell asleep. You didn’t move until I tried to shift your weight on me. Then you looked at me, Xena. It was weird. We gazed into each other’s eyes. Yours were quite drowsy and bloodshot, my dear.” Gabrielle snickered.

“I’m sure they were,” was all I could say in my humiliation.

“Then you kissed my lips, Xena,” she continued. “It was a brief kiss, but it wasn’t hard. It was actually a pleasant, but sadly very brief little kiss. After that, you got up off of me and left my bedchamber.” Gabrielle shifted so that she was lying on her back next to me. We both stared at the ceiling of our little shelter. The morning sun was upon us and my eyes followed the moving shadows of branches and leaves that the sun created on our tent canvas. The morning breeze was blowing a parade of vegetation over our tent. After moments of reflective silence, Gabrielle turned her head to me. “You know, Xena,” she said, “you never spoke a word to me that night.”

“I’m sure I wanted to avoid saying something I would later regret,” I admitted.

“Oh, like what?”

I turned my head and looked into her eyes. “Like, ‘I love you more than life itself,’ or something like that.”

Gabrielle grabbed my hand in hers and held it as I resumed my captivated observation of shadowed foliage.

* * * *

After our morning meal, we took down our camp and headed back to the ships. I didn’t want to reveal to Gabrielle that my side stab wound was now more painful than the night before. I applied some pressure next to the site of the wound and clenched my teeth as we rode back. As soon as the ships were in sight, I waved my hand to signal to my troops that we had returned. I was hoping that at least one of my commanders was awake and alert to greet us.

It was just before noon when we finally arrived at the ships. Palaemon and Marius both approached us. They looked well rested, which was not surprising. Palaemon enjoys reveling and he will engage in drink, but he has always maintained control of himself. I don’t think I’d even seen the man intoxicated. Likewise, Marius had never been one to indulge in the more sinister hedonisms of life. I was sure that Seumius, however, was somewhere on one of the ships, passed out, and surrounded by empty goblets of wine and naked island whores.

Before greeting the men, I asked Gabrielle to take both of the horses to the ship stables. After she was out of earshot, I addressed them.

“Palaemon,” I said, “I need a ship healer now.”

“I’ll get our best one, my Liege,” he responded before heading off to retrieve the healer.

I turned to Marius. “What are our losses?” I asked.

“Not too bad, Conqueror,” he replied. “Of your Corinthian centuries, less than half. Less than half of my men. Of course, your Imperial Guard didn’t have much of an opportunity to fight, since it was pretty much over before it began for them,” he chuckled, continuing, “I don’t know about Seumius’ Gaelic troops. He’s still sleeping. Shall I go awaken him?”

I smiled. “I think that would be best for him,” I said. “Although I do deserve some amusement this morning.”

We were both laughing as Palaemon and our most gifted ship healer, a Celt named Aneurin, approached.

“I have excellent news, Lady Conqueror,” Aneurin said before I could address him. “My assistant Kyros and I were able to purchase a rare ginger root from some of the Parisii. This substance should work much better than the yellow root on your young bard’s seasickness.”

My initial reaction was to punish him for speaking out of turn, but I was happy to learn of the ginger root. The thought of my Gabrielle spending another day miserably vomiting greatly bothered me and I had learned years before that this particular herb worked wonders with all types of motion sickness.

“That’s good news, Aneurin,” I responded. “But from now on, speak only after spoken to, got it?

“Yes, Lady Conqueror,” he humbly replied.

“Good,” I said. “Have Kyros prepare a potion for Gabrielle to take. I need you to tend to my wounds.”

I went aboard my command ship with Aneurin. Marius went with us. Before lying down on the bunk in the healing cabin, Aneurin gave me a potion to take that would sedate me. I turned to Marius. “We don’t set sail until I myself can raise the sails on this ship, Marius,” I told him.

“By your will, Conqueror,” he replied.

“Now leave us,” I demanded.

II. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY

Xena tried to hide it, but I could tell as we began riding this morning that she was in pain. My suspicions were confirmed when she asked me to take the horses to the stables after returning to the ships. I figured that she didn’t want me to be around to learn the level of her distress, but I found out after returning from securing the horses. Xena was somewhere on one of her ships being treated by her best ship healer.

As I stood on the main deck of Xena’s command ship and watched her troops ready it for the voyage back to Gaul, I was feeling guilt about her pain. We shouldn’t have made love last night, I thought. We both wanted to so much, and it was so spectacular, but I was convinced that lying on her and embracing her in passion as I did aggravated her injury. I didn’t quite know what to do, stay where I was or learn where she was being treated. So I wandered around looking for a familiar face; perhaps Palaemon, perhaps Aerol. As I dallied about, a young, attractive Greek, wearing a healer’s tunic, approached me.

“Morning, Miss. I’m Kyros,” he introduced himself. “I have a potion for you to drink.”

“What is it?” I inquired.

“Ginger root, Miss,” he responded. “Best cure for sea illness in the known world.”

“Well, in that case…” I gleefully said as I took the flask from him, “bottom’s up!” Amazingly, this medicine didn’t taste like sewerage from Tartarus.

Palaemon approached as I finished emptying the flask. “Morning, Gabrielle,” he greeted me.

“Hi,” I responded. “Where’s Xena?”

“She’s with the ship’s healer below deck,” he responded. “We’re not sailing until he finishes treating her.”

I decided that I wanted to be with her and had begun walking toward the lower cabins to join her when Palaemon gently grabbed my arm. “She wants to be left alone while he’s treating her,” he informed me.

“Did she tell you that?” I asked.

“Not exactly,” Palaemon responded. “But I’ve been in battle with her several times and she usually prefers privacy when she’s being treated.”

“Well, she’s never been in battle with me around,” I said. “So I believe the rules are different now.”

When I turned away from Palaemon to descend the staircase to the lower cabins, Palaemon spoke out from behind me. “She doesn’t want you to see her in pain, Gabrielle. You should know that by now.”

I stopped. Palaemon was right. During my years as Xena’s slave, if she was injured in battle, I never reported to her for service immediately after she returned from that battle. She had always sought treatment first. I also recalled the first time that I saw her injured after gaining my freedom. It was after her months-long war in Rome when I was able to see her scars of battle, the pain of her injuries and her despair and humiliation over my exposure to her injuries. I love Xena, and my love for her caused me to desire to be with her, comfort her and nurture her. But at that moment, Palaemon was reminding me of something equally important. I needed to respect her wishes as well.

I turned to Palaemon. “Where is Niall of Calleva?” I asked.

* * * *

At the bottom of the staircase leading to the lower cabins on Xena’s command ship, there were two corridors; one that led to the sleeping, eating and healer’s cabins, and the other that led to both the storage cabins and the second staircase that led to the bowels of the ship where the oarsmen were positioned. There was no official prisoner cabin on Xena’s particular ship, but a makeshift one was established for Niall. I didn’t know why, but I needed to see if Niall was being confined like the two traitors I had visited in the palace dungeon five months ago. Palaemon honored my request and took me to the cabin. As we approached the door, he warned me that the sight and smell inside the cabin would likely make me ill.

When he opened the door, I was instantly relieved to see the barbarian Niall sitting on a single stone slab. He was stripped of most of his clothing, but he did have on something to cover his privates. His stomach wound was properly bandaged as well. His wrists and ankles were shackled, but the shackles were attached to chains that were tethered to the wall. Surprisingly, he did have some limited mobility and a bucket was provided for him to relieve himself. Yes, the smell was rank, but it was mainly from his own body odor. Apparently, Niall was not an individual who believed in bathing regularly, if at all.

“He doesn’t speak Greek or Latin, Gabrielle,” Palaemon informed me. “His is a dialect of the Celtic language. Oh, and he’s alive only because he begged for it.”

I cautiously approached Niall. Palaemon was noticeably close behind. When I was only an arm’s length from him, I looked into his eyes. He returned the gaze, but for only a few moments before looking away. In an instant, I was satisfied with what I wanted to see.

Back on the main deck, I watched and waited and breathed in the crisp, clean sea air. It took some moments before the foulness of Niall’s stench was gone from my nostrils. It appeared that most of the troops were up and engaging in their duties. Like the voyage here a week ago, most of the surviving warriors would resume their duties as oarsmen, aiding the sails and the wind to guide us back to Gaul. With the logical exception of Niall, the Albion prisoners would be put to work in this capacity as well. I had also heard Palaemon and the other officers remark that the islanders had already begun repairing the ports that were catapulted. I had rested my arms on the gunwale and looked over at the activities taking place on Commander Seumius’ ship, which was anchored next to Xena’s ship, when a set of cold fingers touched the back of my neck. Startled, I turned to see the roguish smile of my Conqueror.

“Hi there, Gabrielle,” she said.

“Your fingers are cold, Xena,” I remarked as I folded my arms in protest.

“I know of some places on your body that could quickly warm them up, my dear.”

As much as I wanted to engage in a playful flirtation with Xena, I was too concerned about the state of her health. “How are your wounds?” I questioned as I took her hand in mine. “I know you were in pain this morning. I did this to you, didn’t I, Xena?”

She grabbed my other hand and held them both. “No, Gabrielle,” she said. “My pain had absolutely nothing to do with the love we shared last night. If anything, holding you so close made me feel better. And now I feel fine.”

“Are you sure?” I dubiously asked.

“Yes, Gabrielle, I’m sure.”

Xena playfully kissed my forehead. “Did you find Aneurin’s assistant?” she asked.

“The healer with the potion… yes, Xena. He found me.”

“Good,” she said.

At that moment, Aerol approached us. “My Liege,” he said after bowing in formal greeting. “After you left last night, the two Parisii women who fought with us came to our ships seeking word with you. We have detained them.”

“WHAT?” Xena asked obviously exasperated. “Those two women are allies of the Realm! What in Tartarus are you doing detaining them?”
“My apologies for misspeaking, My Liege,” Aerol responded. “We escorted them to the lower sleeping cabins on Seumius’ vessel last night. They remained there through the night as our guests. They were not disrespected in any way, but they still wish a word with you, Majesty. Shall I bring them aboard?”

“Yes, bring them aboard, Commander Aerol,” Xena demanded.

A few moments later, two strangely attired women approached us. When my eyes fell upon one of them, I found myself conspicuously staring at her. Her skin was as black as midnight and she had very short hair on her head, but the features on her face were bold and beautiful. I broke from my trance momentarily when Xena introduced me to them, but as she began speaking with the women in their native Celtic dialect, I continued my gawking.

“Gabrielle,” Xena finally said, “Hadiya is quite flattered, but you can return your eyes to your head now.”

I lowered my gaze and felt my face burning with embarrassment, glad only that the two women didn’t understand what Xena had just said to me. A few moments later, they departed. Xena grabbed my shoulder. “Stanislas and Hadiya will be joining us to Rome, Gabrielle.” I looked up at my lover. “I hope by that time you will have gotten over Hadiya’s appearance.”

“Oh no, Xena,” I said. “I think she’s gorgeous. I… I just didn’t think, you know… she doesn’t look like any of the other people that I’ve seen on this island.”

Xena playfully kissed my forehead again. “There’s an exception to every rule, Gabrielle,” she said, snickering. “Now, my dear, I have a ship to sail.”

I watched in amazement as Xena practically single-handedly raised the sails and then sprinted over to the forecastle to navigate the ship into the current that would guide us back to Gaul. Whatever that healer did to her seemed to have worked wonders. There was no restriction in her movement as she pranced about, giving orders and manipulating the massive sails. As the ship began to move, I began anticipating seasickness. Much to my delight, it never came.

* * * *
The remaining ships in our fleet set sail in the early afternoon. Xena had awarded two of her vessels to the Parisii for their assistance to her troops in the battle. The wind appeared to be against us on the voyage and I felt sorry for the hundreds of soldiers serving as oarsmen. These troops were required to row the ships to Albion after a week of rugged marching through the wilderness of Gaul, and then most engaged in a series of huge battles, only to be ordered to row us back to Gaul. As I thought about the troops, I decided that I would ask Xena to give them an opportunity to rest in Gesoria once we disembarked there. I believed that perhaps five full days of rest and relaxation would be enough before their journeys back to their respective posts in Gaul and Greece.

We landed at Gesoria well after dark. I had spent most of the voyage on the main deck watching Xena. She was such a sight to behold; a strong and beautiful woman fully in control of our journey and destiny. When the moon replaced the sun, I retired to our sleeping cabin. I wanted to make some final notes in a scroll that I had begun days before, recounting the movements and battles of Xena and her troops. My plan was to give my account to my dear friend Demi, so that he could include it with the other accounts of the Conqueror’s battles and victories in the palace library. It was an added pleasure for me to write that Xena had spared the life of her enemy, Niall of Calleva.

After completing my scroll, I lay back on our cabin bunk and slept. Xena eventually joined me, but her slumber was brief. Once we were ashore, Xena was back up on the main deck, giving yet more orders for the smooth disembarkation of troops, horses and weapons. It was just after dawn when Xena finally awakened me and informed me that almost everything was off the ships and that we would be journeying to Rome soon.

“That ginger root really worked, eh Gabrielle?” she said chuckling. “You’re the last person still on this boat.”

Xena took me to the stately home of the local magistrate. We were able to have a bath and eat a wonderfully filling morning meal there. She and I didn’t speak much, but I did manage to request that the troops be given a few days of rest. She responded that she would “entertain the idea.” Most of the troops, the Corinthian centurions, Seumius’ troops and Marius’ troops were reassembled near the docks at the noon candlemark. Palaemon and the Imperial Guardsmen were noticeably absent. Xena positioned herself on a makeshift dais. Aerol and I stood next to her. Marius, Seumius and their seconds-in-command were present on the platform as well. Raising her hand to gain the attention of her troops, Xena addressed them.

“Soldiers of the Realm,” she began. “You have once again displayed your supreme greatness as warriors in MY Empire. We were victorious because of OUR display of superior fighting ability.”

The troops cheered.

“For your faithful service to me, I command that you remain here in Gesoria, as guests of this village, for a period of five days of rest.”

A louder cheer erupted. I smiled.

“Be respectful of the citizens of this village,” Xena continued. “You are warriors, not barbarians! When you desire goods and food, purchase them. If you engage in drink, maintain control. Above all, I don’t want to hear about any mayhem, pillaging or the violation of women, girls or boys, AM I CLEAR, WARRIORS OF THE REALM!?!”

The troops shouted their acquiescence. “By your will, Xena the Conqueror,” “Hail, Xena the Conqueror,” was heard amongst the various responses.

“Very well,” Xena said and then pointed to Seumius. “Commander Seumius is hereby ordered the commander of these entire forces, including my warriors from Corinth and Marius’ men.”

Seumius beamed a smile that could light the sky. I rolled my eyes. As Seumius waved his fists in the air and basked in the raves and chants from the troops, Xena turned to Commander Aerol and said quietly, “Seumius is in command of the troops, but you’re in command of Seumius. See that he behaves.”

As Aerol nodded his understanding, I pondered just how clever Xena was in this decision. It had been clear, even to me, that Imperial Guard Commanders outrank any other officers of the Realm. Aerol, as second-in-command to Palaemon, only answered to two people in the entire world, Palaemon and Xena. Demi had once told me that if a soldier disobeys a commander in one of Xena’s armies, the punishment could range from imprisonment to public flogging. However, by her simple words, Xena was telling Aerol to kill Seumius if he engaged in any act of insolence against Aerol or the people of the village. Having Corinthian soldiers that tended to be most loyal to the Realm present amongst the troops was added security as well.

Furthermore, I was glad that Xena had decided to spare Aerol any punishment for disobeying her order to keep me on her ship during her battle with Niall. After our return to the ships, she never admonished him or even brought up the issue. Perhaps my acceptance to her proposal of marriage and our glorious lovemaking caused her to forget, I chuckled in my private musings.

As I reflected, Xena turned to Marius, who appeared visibly upset over Xena’s decision to relinquish control of his men to Seumius.

“Marius, I want you to put your second-in-command in charge of your troops here,” she said. “With the understanding that your second answers to Seumius.”

“Have I wronged the Realm, my Liege?” he asked, his voice strained.

“Quite the contrary, Commander,” Xena replied, smiling. “This change in command is merely temporary. I thought it might be a nice little holiday for you to accompany us to Rome. It’s your homeland and I’m sure you haven’t seen your mother and sister in quite some time.”

Marius’ eyes widened. “I… but I…”

“Take advantage of this offer, Marius,” Xena said. “It may not ever be extended again.”

“By your will, Conqueror,” he said, lowering his head. I looked at Xena as she and I wondered why such a wonderful opportunity seemed to be lost on Marius.

* * * *

The journey to the City of Rome was the most beautiful I had ever taken. Xena and I rode in a large and very regal looking carriage that was pulled by a team of horses. Our two horses, Argo and Chulytis were tethered behind our wagon as well. Usually covered, Xena had taken the carriage covering off so that I might take in the glorious countryside of eastern Gaul. I had learned that Palaemon and most of the Imperial Guard had left Gesoria for Rome early that first morning. They had the prisoners, including Niall, with them. At the same time, another smaller group of Guardsmen began their journey back to Corinth, probably to send word to Xena’s other military leaders of her victory and her plans in Rome. Marius and a few remaining Imperial Guardsmen accompanied us on our journey, some riding in carriages and others on horseback. The two Parisii women rode in a covered carriage with Xena’s healers.

The landscape in Gaul was a mixture of lush forests and rolling valleys, and when we passed them, the Alpine Mountains were a perfect milieu to the beauty. As we neared that area of land that borders Gaul and outer Rome, I saw more and more fruit-bearing trees and vines. There were literally hundreds of grape vines and olive, fig and cherry trees carpeting the land, and Xena and I often stopped the carriage to mischievously pilfer a few for us to munch. I simply love it when the Destroyer of Nations allows herself to be playful. She told me during one of our naughty trespasses that most of the grapes and cherries were used by the locals to make wine, while the oils from the olives were used to enhance the flavor of their foods. I knew that the people of Rome and Gaul loved to eat, but Xena went as far as to say that they treated eating like it was a form of artistic expression.

Our journey through Gaul took several days. While there, our entire entourage spent the nights at the estates of wealthy landowners. I noticed that in Gaul, Xena the Conqueror was fairly well received by nobles and peasants alike. It was obvious to me that however tyrannical she might have been, things were apparently far worse for the people of Gaul under Roman rule. However, things were far different for us during the nights that we stayed in outer Rome. Nights were spent in the small palaces of Xena’s own appointed Proconsuls. The Romans in general were much more reticent toward us. Much of it was fear, although I imagined that the structure of power the Conqueror established for herself did not sit well with the wealthy Roman patricians, all of whom were male and most of whom had flourished under Caesar’s rule.

During our journey, Xena spoke much about the land we crossed and the battles that she had fought and won on the land. She talked of the warriors she had defeated and those with whom she forged alliances. She also spoke of the riches of the land; the treasures that she acquired during her many conquests. I enjoyed listening to her. Her voice is low and rich and perfectly accentuates her overall stunning beauty. I could sit and stare at Xena all day.

However, there were other things about Xena that I preferred to learn. The morning after she asked me to join her in union, I finally learned her age. She’s only seven years older than me. I had always assumed that she was even older than that, probably because she had been in power for so long. It was now obvious that she was just very young when she began her conquests. I wanted to ask more questions about her, but she responded so strangely to that simple one. Thus, I fell silent during most of our trip and gave her the opportunity to tell her true tales of great battles and brokered deals.

By our last night together before reaching Rome, however, my curiosity was eating me alive. As I indicated, we were staying at the estate of one of Xena’s local governors. The Proconsul, one Arvis Longinus Postumus, was a rather strange looking man with thick, curly red hair and hundreds of large freckles that seem to speckle much of his body. He was tall and heavy and walked with a slight limp, but seemed pleasant enough. We were escorted to a stately bedchamber that had several rather gaudy tapestries draping the walls. After a late meal, we went to take a bath. The Romans believe in using slaves for everything. Postumus had slaves to bring us our food, different slaves to fill our bath, more slaves to wash us and still more to dry us off. I didn’t want any part of that. Xena, probably sensing my disdain, ordered all of the slaves to give us privacy. Slavery is and will always be a deeply disturbing issue with me and I promised myself that very soon, I would discuss with Xena her own ownership of human beings.

After the bath, we settled in bed. Xena and I had not been intimate since that night by the sacred river, and in addition to my curiosity, I was burning with desire for her. Her wounds seemed to have healed well and she had removed the stitches some days before. After our usual stripping of clothing, we settled into a comfortable embrace when I began nibbling on Xena’s neck. I wanted to give her one of those bruises that she often gave me during my years of servitude.

“Hungry, Gabrielle?” she queried jokingly.

“Not for food, Xena,” I responded in kind.

My mouth was close to her throat, so when she began moaning, I became even more excited as I sucked and nibbled on the soft flesh of her neck. Unwrapping my arms from around her waist, I cupped both of her breasts and began feverishly kneading them. That seemed to excite Xena, because she then began running her hands all over my back and rear as she threw her head back and let out a loud and deep moan. Still sucking her neck, I began pinching and fingering her hardened nipples. I felt her long fingers slip between my legs and enter me. Now I was the one who was moaning.

“Go inside, Gabrielle,” Xena implored. “Please go inside of me.”

At the moment I entered her, my mouth abandoned her neck and moved to her mouth. Our ensuing kiss was furious. My tongue wrapped around hers as the rhythm of our penetrating fingers captured our passions and then released them in a tsunami of satisfaction.

It was several moments before Xena and I came down from the storm. I was sweating profusely and needed to sit up and raise my arms.

“You have a beautiful back, Gabrielle,” Xena stated as I stretched.

I turned and saw her as she leaned up and rested her head on her hand. I immediately gasped at the mess that I had made of her neck. “You might want to wear a scarf around your neck tomorrow before you face our entourage, Xena.”

“Why, is it that bad?”

“It’s that bad.”

She smiled that breathtaking Xena smile of hers. “You naughty little spitfire you,” she said. “Come here and let me give you one.”

“No, Xena,” I protested lightheartedly as I returned the smile. “I don’t want one.”

“Come here, I said.” Xena demanded.

“I said ‘no,’ Warrior Princess!” I stated defiantly, smiling all the while.

“Is that right?” Xena said and before I could blink, she had me straddled, digging her hands into my side, tickling me like crazy.

Needless to say, by the end of the candlemark, it was decided that both of us would be wearing scarves in the morning.

* * * *

I woke up to the sound of slaves bringing in our morning meal. Xena was already out of bed and speaking with one of them. I rose up and grabbed the first available piece of clothing and walked over to her.

“Sit,” she said to me. “Eat.”

I began looking around the room.

“What are you looking for?” Xena inquired.

“A pet of some kind, because surely you weren’t speaking to me that way.” I was furious.

Xena immediately sensed my anger. “I’m so sorry, my love,” she said as she took my hands and raised them to her lips. “I guess I still have a lot of work to do.” Xena often addressed me in one and two-word commands when I was her body slave, and being around so many slaves since entering outer Rome must have rattled her foundations somewhat. She looked over at the seats surrounding the table that held our meals. “Please join me for morning meal, Gabrielle.”

I sat and we ate in a tense silence for a while. As I was finishing, I decided to break it. “When will we be in the city, Xena?”

“We should reach Rome by midday,” she responded. “I’m so excited for you to see it. There’s nothing more spectacular in the entire world, Gabrielle.”

“More spectacular than Corinth?” I asked. “Than Athens? Than Sparta?”

“Oh yes, Gabrielle,” Xena replied. “Our great land of Greece is a land of many celebrated cities, but here in Italia, all roads lead to Rome. It’s this land’s ONLY great city, and the Romans have pumped all of their riches into it.”

“Interesting,” I said and then decided to change the subject to that which has been consuming me. “Xena, tell me about your family.”

“What?”

“Where are your parents?” I began my inquisition. “Do you have sisters? Brothers?”

At that moment, Xena the Conqueror did something I had never seen her do before. She blushed.

“My mother still lives in Amphipolis,” she responded as she looked down at her food. “My father is dead.”

“I’m sorry, Xena,” I said. “What happened to him?”

“I’d rather not discuss it now, Gabrielle,” she responded.

I grabbed her hand. It was slightly trembling. “I don’t have any sisters,” she continued. “My brother Toris lives in southern Thrace with his wife… and two sons. I haven’t seen him in ten years.”

“Why, Xena?” I asked.

“When our village was raided almost 13 years ago, Toris refused to defend it. He left. My other brother Lyceus and I stayed behind and fought. A lot of our childhood friends fought as well, Seumius included. Lyceus died defending our homeland.”

“Oh, Xena,” I said, sighing.

“Toris was the oldest, Gabrielle,” she said, her angry eyes watering. “At the time, he was a man of 24 years, and yet he ran like the sniveling coward that he was… that he always will be.”

I gripped Xena’s hand tighter. “Lyceus and I were very close as children, Gabrielle,” she continued. “Like you and your sister, he was my best friend in addition to being my brother. He was only 17 years old, but he fought with courage, with honor. The fucking piece of shit that killed him wasn’t even man enough to face this proud young boy. He stabbed my brother from behind. I was running to Lyceus when I saw it, and when I saw my beloved brother lying in his own blood, I took my dagger and stuck it into that piece of shit. I cut him from his neck to his groin.”

“Where did Toris go when he ran, Xena?” I asked.

“To Thrace,” she replied. “He met his wife there. I ran into him again about six months after I defeated the northern Amazons. It was a short reunion.”

“When was the last time you saw your mother, Xena?” I asked.

“It’s been awhile,” she responded. “I’ve not exactly been the prodigal daughter, Gabrielle.”

Now I understood why Xena didn’t like discussing personal matters. So much of her past, as well as her estrangement with her mother, is obviously painful to her. As a tear slowly made its way down her cheek, I gently wiped it away with my thumb. She grabbed my hand and touched it to her chest. “I want you to know, Gabrielle, that I will defend you to the death, and I will obliterate anyone or anything that harms you in any way.”

“I hope you never have to live up to that pledge, Xena.”

* * * *

Xena was correct. Rome was absolutely spectacular! The main gateway leading into the city was made of tall marbled columns. Plastered across the propylaea in big, bold italics were the words; Veni! Vidi! Vici! I came! I saw! I conquered! People were everywhere. We had arrived just after the Romans had taken midday rest, which was something that they did every afternoon after lunch. Xena told me that during rest, the streets of Rome were as quiet as they were at midnight. As she spoke, I looked up at lavish homes that sat on the Roman hillsides overlooking the city. There were smaller homes and apartments nestled closer to the city’s center. The first great sight that I saw was the Proconsul’s palace. It appeared only slightly smaller than Xena’s palace in Corinth, but it was just as majestic. Xena decided to ride our carriage around the city before making our way to the palace grounds. Our entourage followed us. “Take it all in, Gabrielle,” she told me. “As the Romans say, ‘Carpe diem!’”

“Seize the day!” I acknowledged the term. “Yes, Xena, I will.”

* * * *

Rome was crowded, dusty and noisy. Beautiful temples and many public buildings lined the streets. Public bathhouses were everywhere. Xena told me that each bathhouse contained both hot and cold baths, steam rooms and saunas. The Romans had invented this hard, rock-like substance called concrete. They used it to build many of their homes and other structures. In addition, many larger than life Roman statues lined the streets. The statues were mostly of historic Roman orators and I immediately noticed that they were very realistic in their appearance. Unlike our Greek sculptures, which portray men, women and gods as perfectly featured, human imperfections, such as large noses or fat bellies, were featured on the Roman statues. In my studies with my dear friend, Demi, I had learned that while we Greeks may be the great philosophers and idealists, the Romans are gifted craftsmen and stark realists.

Riding through the core of the city, we came upon the Roman Forum. The Forum was the city’s central agora where courts held session and the great orators met and argued. It also appeared to me to be the main marketplace and business center of Rome. “After we’re settled, Xena, I want to come back here!” I exclaimed in my glee. Xena laughed. I had confessed to her months ago that I had developed this addiction to haggling with merchants for goods, an addiction that I had acquired accompanying my former bodyguard and dear friend Bahri around the Corinthian marketplace, and I simply couldn’t wait to try out my haggling skills and Latin on these Roman vendors.

After rounding a corner, my mouth dropped. Before me stood the famed Colosseum of Rome. The Colosseum was Rome’s premier public entertainment center. On the other side of the columned pillars of that great amphitheater, the gladiator games took place. Xena called the games a “blood sport” because she claimed that as much blood was shed in that stadium as on the battlefield.

“I don’t wish to attend a game while we’re here, Gabrielle,” she said as we passed by the massive structure. “I don’t want you to bear witness to the carnage that takes place behind those columns.”

“I don’t wish to watch men die either, Xena,” I responded. “Have the Romans more civilized forms of entertainment?”

“Absolutely,” she said with a smile.

The next structure that we rode by was the Circus Maximus, which was a huge amphitheater where chariot races took place. Engraved above the main entranceway to the theater was the inscription, Fortitudo est domina et regina virtutem; Courage is the mistress and queen of all virtues. “I like that inscription, Xena,” I said.

“Sometimes people get hurt racing chariots, Gabrielle,” Xena advised me. “Sometimes they die, but death isn’t part of the sport.”

“I don’t think I want to see chariot racing either, Xena,” I informed her.

The final amphitheater we passed was the Campus. There, men engaged in games that were similar to the Olympic games of Greek men. There was foot racing, jumping, archery, wrestling and boxing. The Campus was located next to the Tiber River. Xena informed me that often after competing, men would jump into the river to cool down. “I don’t wish to see a bunch of naked men bobbling up and down in a river either, Xena,” I said.

“By the gods, Gabrielle,” Xena said as we came upon the great Roman temple of the gods. “You’re a hard sell.”

We stopped our carriage at the temple. “This is the Pantheon, Gabrielle,” Xena said. “Feel free to come here to worship. The Romans may have different names for our gods, but they are still OUR gods.”

“By your will, my Conqueror,” I said as I took her hand and pressed it against my lips.

As we made our way back to the Proconsul’s palace, Xena pointed to a large circular agora. “Plays are performed in open air theaters here, Gabrielle,” Xena said. “They’re free of charge.”

“I think that between the orators in the Forum, shopping and plays, I’ll be thoroughly entertained, my Lady,” I quipped.

“Excellent,” Xena said. “Are you ready to meet Octavius?”

“Yes, I am.”

* * * *

Our entourage entered the palace as a group. Two Roman palace guards approached us and gave Xena some scrolls. They then escorted us down a long and elegantly decorated corridor to a large auditorium. Over the door to the auditorium was the inscription, Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt; Men readily believe what they want to believe. It was a quotation by Julius Caesar. I thought it a strange saying to have over a palace door. Inside the stately room, Proconsul Octavius, his Consul Hirtius Cassius Tubero, and three finely dressed civilians approached us.

“Ave, Xena the Conqueror,” Octavius greeted.

“Ave, Governor Octavius,” Xena responded. “Ave, Vice-Governor Tubero.”

“Bona Fortuna!” Tubero exclaimed exuberantly. “Welcome to Rome, Empress.”

I regarded the two men. Octavius was young, as I had expected. He was tall and handsome and had short, curly dark brown hair that was neatly combed forward. Tubero was slightly taller, slightly older, but distinguishingly handsome as well.

Octavius turned to the three civilians behind him. “I am honored to introduce to you, Conqueror, the three greatest orators and poets of Rome,” he announced. “Publius Vergilius Maro, Quintus Horatius Faccus, and Titus Livius.”

Xena gripped Maro’s hand. “Ave, Maro,” she said.

“Please, Conqueror, call me Virgil.”

As she gripped Faccus’ arm, he quipped, “And please, Conqueror, I prefer Horatio.”

The third poet was a young boy of no more than 13 years. “Everyone calls me Livie, Great Conqueror,” the cute lad said with a voice that was no deeper than my own.

Xena smiled at the youngster. “Livie is quite the prodigy, Conqueror,” Octavius declared. “He’s been performing in the Forum since the age of six and he has a sizeable following.”

Xena turned to me. “This is Gabrielle of Poteidaia,” she announced. “I dare say that she’s Greece’s most talented and beloved storyteller.”

Octavius gripped my arm in greeting. “I have heard of the famed Bard of Poteidaia.”

I was surprised. “You have?” I asked.

Octavius responded by shooting Xena a very devious smile. Xena, in return, began hastily introducing the others of our entourage, with the exception of Marius of course, to the five Romans. After all introductions were made, Octavius announced that the three poets would be our first evening’s entertainment. I was looking forward to hearing the threesome recite.

“If I may be excused, I do believe I have a quick errand to run,” Octavius said.

“By all means,” came Xena’s response.

The Proconsul practically dashed out of the auditorium. I immediately suspected that something was amiss. Marius and the accompanying Imperial Guardsmen began making themselves at home, turning their attention to a long table that had a feast of food on it. Tubero and the three poets were already there picking at the seemingly endless delectables. Likewise, the five healers began whispering amongst each other as they made their way to the table. Xena just stood next to me with this quirky look on her face. Only Stanislas and Hadiya seemed as unaware as me.

As I was pondering the myriad forms of mischief in which Xena could be involved, one of the auditorium doors flew open and a familiar voice yelled at me.

“HIYA GAB!”

________________________________________________________________________

III. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG

It was such a joy to see Gabrielle’s face light up. Standing under the columned entranceway of the palace stateroom were Gabrielle’s closest friends; Demitrius, Illiana, my chambermaid Mia, the Amazons Ephiny, Solari, Daphnis, Anthia and Charicleia, and my boisterous Imperial Guard Field Sergeant Bahri.

Gabrielle ran to the group and extended her arms, throwing one around Bahri and the other around Illiana. The others joined in, forming a rather silly looking group embrace. As they began a litany of mindless chatter amongst themselves, I watched them and thought about how I could just let myself get lost in Gabrielle’s spirited exuberance. When I sent word back to Corinth regarding the detainment of Chayym Eben, I also sent a second set of orders directing the Guardsmen to summon Gabrielle’s friends to Rome. It was my plan to have our ceremony of consortium in Rome, witnessed by two of my greatest military leaders, Palaemon and Marius, and Gabrielle’s closest friends.

After moments of reflective musing, I decided that I needed to remind the little group of my presence in the stateroom. “People,” I said, clearing my throat. Although I was only addressing Gabrielle’s friends, the entire room went silent. “Are any of you hungry or not?”

Gabrielle and her friends dispersed and joined the others from my entourage already indulging themselves at the food table. On cue, Octavius returned, accompanied by Commander Palaemon. Awaiting our collective appetites was a magnitude of edible delights; rolls of bread with olives or raisins sprinkled on them, different cheeses, fruit and vegetables, fresh meat and fish, and several mugs of honey and wine for dipping. Octavius sent in a platoon of slaves to assist with whatever we desired. I was immediately mindful of Gabrielle’s obvious distaste for the whole concept of slavery, so I discreetly ordered the slaves to stand away from the table and allow the group to do things on their own.

For a few moments, I observed the people in the room. Gabrielle was chatting excitedly at Demi, Illiana and Mia. There was no surprise there. These three individuals are Gabrielle’s oldest and dearest friends in the palace. The Amazons seemed to have attracted the attention of the various men in the room. They were surrounded by my Guardsmen, my healers, Virgil and Horatio. The youth, Livie, was fascinated with Bahri, who had immediately gravitated to Hadiya. They spoke with each other in a language with which I was not familiar, as the boy poet looked on with wide eyes. The language was neither Egyptian nor the language of the Moors. As Hadiya and Bahri bonded, I noticed that Stanislas made her way over to Charicleia. They didn’t speak, since neither knew the other’s language, but they smiled as they watched their two lovers converse as if they were old friends. I was looking forward to getting better acquainted with Stanislas and Hadiya. For some reason, these two women were very intriguing to me.

Moments later, Gabrielle broke away from her two favorite pastimes, eating and conversation, and wandered over to me. She was inspecting a small piece of bread that she held in her hand. “What is this called, Xena?” she asked.

“That’s focaccia, Gabrielle,” I responded. “The cheese and crushed walnuts are baked right on the bread. It’s a Roman delicacy.”

Gabrielle bit into it. “I like,” she said.

“It’s nice to see that Rome has done wonders for your ever-expanding vocabulary, Gabrielle.”

After our feast, I stole Gabrielle away from everyone and took her to the palace atrium. I didn’t think that we were going to have many opportunities to spend much alone time together with all that was about to transpire, so I wanted the chance to simply be with her in the tranquil peace of that central courtyard.

“This is beautiful, Xena,” she said as we sat next to the huge fountain that was the centerpiece of the atrium. “And thank you for sending for my friends. That was such a wonderful surprise.”

I took her hand in mine. “Gabrielle,” I began, “I sent for them because I would like for us to have our union ceremony here.”

“I thought we came here so that you can preside over the public judgments of Niall and his warriors,” she said.

“Well, that was part of it.”

“I don’t wish to get married here, Xena.”

“Why?”

“Several reasons,” she said. “We’re Greek. I’m an Amazon… and I wish for all of our friends from the palace to be present, all of my Amazon Sisters and my Queen, and your loyal commanders… and my parents… and your mother.”

Just then, I felt something. My skin began to crawl and the hairs on my neck rose. It was a strange disturbance. I had felt it in Gesoria the first night that we had arrived from Albion and again at least twice during our journey to Rome. I began looking around the courtyard. Someone was watching us.

“What’s wrong, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.

I didn’t want to alarm her. “It’s nothing,” I said.

There was a brief silence as I allowed my senses to become even more alert. “I respect your wishes, Gabrielle,” I said, tentatively returning my attention to my love. “Perhaps we can plan a traditional Amazon ceremony in the village of your tribe.”

“That would be nice,” she said.

“Gabrielle, your parents are not going to bless our union,” I asserted as I tried desperately to contain my tears.

“This is going to be a challenge for us, Xena,” Gabrielle declared. “But I have hope.”

One of the many things I love about Gabrielle is her eternal optimism, I thought as I watched… and listened… and waited.

* * * *

After our feast, everyone retired to the various guest chambers in the palace, but only briefly. It wasn’t long before we were all in the massive palace baths cleansing and readying ourselves for an evening of entertainment. In Rome, as in Greece, men and women bathed separately and I have to admit, I was a little uneasy about Gabrielle bathing with her female friends. I’ve not always been very secure about how much, if at all, my physique appealed to Gabrielle, so I actually found myself comparing my body to that of the tall and svelte Hadiya and Stanislas, the lean and athletic Ephiny, Solari and Bahri, the robust and stout Charicleia and even the delicate form of my attractive, 40-year-old chambermaid Mia. Of course, once my insecurities passed, all of my attention shifted away from my own body to that of the finest body in the bath and on the planet, my strong and sexy Gabrielle.

Octavius had a regal chamber prepared for Gabrielle and me. Several highly polished metal mirrors were placed in the room so that we might ogle ourselves the way Roman men seem to think we women do. I did finally check out my tattooed shoulder brand and was delighted with the result. Before dressing in traditional Roman togas, Gabrielle and I took turns applying a lightly scented cream to our bodies. The cream was made out of wheat germ oil, lemon balm, honey and propolis. Of course, doing this caused my loins to throb with desire for her, but I was able to ease my lust so as not to “spoil” the evening ahead. After dressing, we accentuated our attire with ornate pearl necklaces, earrings and bracelets. I decided to wear my hair up, holding it with pins made out of ivory.

“By the gods, Xena,” Gabrielle exclaimed as I turned to face her fully clothed. “You’re going to totally distract me from the entertainment tonight.”

“Is that your adorable way of saying that you like the way I look this evening?” I inquired, smiling.

Gabrielle put on her best mask of cynicism. “Yes it is, O’ mighty Xena the Conqueror, Ruler of the Known World.”

After the three poets entertained that evening, I excused myself from the group and took a guarded stroll around the palace grounds alone. I wanted to follow my instincts to whatever was irking me. I eventually made my way to Octavius’ dungeons. Like mine, they were underground, but his dungeons were actually underneath the palace. Niall and his men were being held there. I didn’t have any desire to confront Niall. I was just being thorough in my canvassing of the palace. On my way out, I confirmed with the dungeon guard the plans for the Albion enemies in the morning.

“I have been ordered to take the Britons to the Forum at dawn, my Lady,” the guard said.

“That’s correct.”

When I returned to the stateroom, all of the men were gone. Gabrielle and the women were sprawled out on cushions on the floor, drinking wine and talking. “We’re having a Bona Dea, Xena,” Gabrielle announced joyfully.

“What’s a Bona Dea?” Bahri asked her.

“It’s a Roman party for women only, Field Sergeant,” I responded. “If a man enters this stateroom now, I or any one of us can kill him under the full sanction of traditional Roman law.”

“Works for me, my Liege,” Bahri responded jokingly. The others laughed as I sat down next to Gabrielle. It wasn’t easy, but eventually I allowed myself to relax somewhat and enjoy this long abandoned concept of being in the company of friends.

* * * *

The Bona Dea lasted so late into the night that I didn’t have much time to sleep before I had to be at the Forum early the following morning to announce the capture of Niall and his surviving cohorts.

I stood center court with Octavius and Tubero, and Commander Palaemon. Marius had already been relieved of duty and was, presumably, visiting with his family. I advised Gabrielle that this was not going to be a public judgment, but only an announcement of victory to the Roman citizens. She didn’t really care to see that so she and her friends decided to take the opportunity to check out the Forum marketplace instead. The Parisii women joined her.

As the citizenry began to assemble around the central court, I began my oration.

“I, Xena the Conqueror, am proud to announce the capture of these Britons… these enemies of Rome and of the Realm!”

The audience cheered. I began announcing the names as each man was brought before me.

“Erall of Calleva… Denzill of Calleva… Byrle of Durnovaria… Rhys of Isca… Tristram of Londinium… Thaine of Londinium… Glen of Regnum…” The list went on until I came to the end and to the man who led them.

“Behold, citizens of Rome… citizens of the Realm… our greatest capture… NIALL THE MAGNUS!”

The crowd erupted. “ADOREA! ADOREA!” Victory, they repeated.

In the midst of the applause, I began feeling that strange sensation again. Just then, a woman’s voice yelled out; “Sit qui perulae inter faeces petit benedicta!”

“Blessed is she who seeks the pearls among the shit?” Palaemon questioned as he translated. “That’s odd.” Just then, a sword raised and sliced off the heads of one of my captives and the guard who held him. The crowd began a frantic retreat. As the sword rose again, I grabbed for my chakram and threw it at the slayer. A hand reached up and grabbed it.

At that moment, I saw a smile I hadn’t seen in over six years.

“Ave, sweet Xena!” My my my, you are still ever so pretty!”

I wasn’t about to ask how she had managed to escape the asylum in Sparta. As everything began falling into place, all I knew was that Marius’ life was over.

I began walking slowly toward her. “I’ve missed you, Xena,” she said.

I reached out my hand. “Hand it over, Callisto.”

She kissed my chakram. “Oh no, Xena,” she said. “This is much too precious for me to give back to you just yet. I have to play with this for a while.” There was a brief pause. “This and your other precious toy.”

She turned and ran as my heart sank. GABRIELLE, I thought. “Palaemon, go get Gabrielle and the others NOW!” I shouted as I began chasing Callisto. As I chased her, a million things went through my mind. If she had managed to abduct Gabrielle somehow, whatever plan she has won’t work as long as I’m able to catch her, I thought, determined.

She ran fast and swiped the chakram from side to side in front of her. Frightened people were running in every direction. In all of the chaos, that crazed bitch ducked in between two buildings. Had it not been for her flying blond hair, I might have missed the maneuver. Running down the alley, she was several paces a head of me, but I was closing in on her. At the end of the alley, she veered left. I had her nearly in my grasp when I reached the end. Looking to the left I saw… nothing.

I frantically searched the area for some moments. Several Roman guardsmen joined me. Unsuccessful, I spewed a few expletives before commanding them to continue their search and heading back to the Forum.

When I returned, Palaemon was present with Demi, Mia, Illiana, Bahri, the two Parisii women and the Amazons. Gabrielle wasn’t with them. My heart stopped.

Palaemon grabbed my shoulders. “Gabrielle was abducted, my Liege.”

I saw red and grabbed the one person who I felt was most responsible for her in my absence. “What the fuck did you let happen to her, Bahri!” I shouted as I grabbed her throat. Palaemon threw his arm around my neck in an effort to help his buddy while Charicleia threw her strong arms around my waist. She was willing to challenge me in order to protect her lover.

Bahri dug her nails from both hands into my wrists in an effort to pry my hands away from her neck. I couldn’t tell at the time, but she was just as angry as I was. “This… isn’t… my… fucking… fault!”

As I struggled against three people, another commanding voice rang out. “Let go of her, Conqueror!” It was Hadiya.

I released my grip as my emotions invaded me and the tears began flowing. “What happened to her!?!” I yelled at anyone and everyone.

Demitrius stepped forward. “She simply went into one of the Forum bathhouses to relieve herself, my Liege,” he said. “When she didn’t return, the Amazons Ephiny and Solari went in to get her. They were told that two men had grabbed her and taken her away.”

“Why didn’t any of you escort her!?!”

“Why would she need escorting just to take a piss?” Bahri queried in a flagrantly disrespectful tone as she rubbed her sore neck. Apparently, she didn’t seem to care at that point that her attitude could cost her life.

Ephiny stepped forward. “She had simply gone to relieve herself, Conqueror,” she said, trying to maintain calm. “Gabrielle traveled the Greek countryside alone and void of fighting skills for months. There was no reason for any of us to believe that any harm would befall her now that she’s a skilled Amazon in a crowded agora and only paces away from the Destroyer of Nations.”

I turned to Palaemon. “Go get Marius,” I ordered. “Bring him to me back at the palace. Take some of our Imperial Guardsmen with you in case he resists.”

“Why would he resist?” Palaemon asked.

“Just do it!”

“By your will, Conqueror.”

As Palaemon departed, I took a deep breath and began walking briskly toward the palace. The group followed me. I spoke not a word until we were within the safety of the palace walls. Once inside, I turned and faced the group. “Did anyone get a good look at these men?” I asked them.

“Others in the bathhouse said that they were ordinarily dressed men, Conqueror,” Ephiny replied. “The woman I spoke with there merely assumed that it was an angry husband or something.”

“Did any of you notice anything out of the ordinary?” I was grasping… hoping. “ANYTHING?”

“I noticed something, my Lady,” Mia spoke up.

“Tell me,” I implored, grabbing her shoulders.

“There were two men who stood around Gabrielle and me when we were at one of the fruit stands. They were eyeing her pretty intensely. I thought that they were admiring her looks or something.”

“Could you describe them? Was there anything unusual about them?”

“Well…” Mia pondered. “Actually, I noticed that both men had identical necklaces on.”

“Necklaces?” Demi chimed in.

“Yes, I remember,” Mia responded. “I thought it was rather strange.”

I threw my arms up in defeat. “Those were just bullas that you saw the men wearing. Roman men wear them…”

“No, my Lady!” Mia interrupted. “Please excuse the interruption, Majesty, but I know about the special bulla charms that the Romans wear. These men were not that young and those necklaces were not those charms. Both necklaces had the head of a cow on them.”

“A cow,” I thought out loud and then a voice shouted. “Mithraists!” It was Demitrius.

“Pardon?” I asked.

“The men who abducted Gabrielle belong to the cult of Mithras,” Demi responded. “Only they would wear jewelry bearing the head of a bull. But why would Mithraists abduct Gabrielle, Majesty?”

“They must be working with Callisto,” I responded.

“Who’s Callisto?” Bahri asked.

Just then, Palaemon returned with Marius in tow. “I didn’t have to go very far, my Liege,” Palaemon said. “He was on his way here.”

I grabbed Marius by his tunic and rammed him against one of the palace pillars. “Where the fuck is she, Marius?”

“I… I don’t know, my Liege,” he responded, whimpering.

“You fucking son-of-a-bitch!” I was livid. “When did you pull that cunt out of the asylum?”

“I… I…”

“WHEN!?!”

“A year after she was committed there, Majesty,” he responded.

I punched him twice and kneed him in his groin. “You defied me!”

“I couldn’t keep her there, Conqueror,” he cackled as he doubled over and grabbed himself. “She was suffering there and… and I love her. Surely, you can understand that now. You can understand being in love.”

His plea for understanding was falling upon deaf ears. All could think about was what butchery that bitch was doing to the greatest joy of my life. “She’s been with us since Gesoria, hasn’t she, Marius?” The disturbance I’ve been sensing.

“Yes, Majesty,” he answered. “When we returned from Albion, she met me there. I told her that I was going to Rome at your request. She insisted on coming. She rode in a fruit wagon that was always at least 200 paces behind us.” He began crying. “I thought she just wanted to be with ME, Conqueror. But when we got here, she disappeared. I never suspected that she would seek to harm Gabrielle, I swear.”

“As it is, you’re already a dead man, Marius,” I said. “If Gabrielle is dead, I promise you that I will fucking skin you alive… and then I will crucify you!”

I pointed to two Imperial Guardsmen. “Take him to the dungeons,” I ordered them. “Detain him there.”

“Is this necessary, my Liege,” Palaemon asked as he gently grabbed my arm. “Marius has been faithful to the Realm for…”

“SHUT UP!” I interrupted him. “His loyalty ended the day he let that animalistic bitch out of the asylum. Now, we need to find Gabrielle.” I turned to Demi. “Tell me what you know about these Mithraists.”

Demi began. “Followers believe in the one god, Mithras, and in one prime agent of evil, Ahriman, my Liege,” he said. “I don’t know the nuances of the cult, except to say that they believe in the fundamental goodness of all created things, in resurrection, in judgment after death and in a final conflict between good and evil. Theirs is a very secretive cult, but it’s not an aggressive or particularly harsh religion.”

“What Romans would abandon the Gods of Olympus?” I inquired.

“Most followers aren’t true Roman citizens, my Liege,” Demi responded. “The cult is popular among legions stationed in frontier areas; non-Romans, freedmen, Gaelic, Persian and Germanic peasants. It was these people that brought the cult here.”

“What’s the deal with the bullhead necklace?”

“The great legend of Mithras is that he sacrificed a bull, Conqueror,” Demi said. “I’m not sure of the symbolism behind it.”

“Have they a temple of some kind?”

“Oh yes, my Liege,” Demi replied. “The temple of Mithras is called the Mithraeum. It’s not far from the Pantheon.”

“The Mithraists who abducted Gabrielle probably took her to their temple,” I suggested.

“That’s impossible, my Liege,” Demi said.

“Why?”

“Women aren’t allowed to become members of the cult and thus, they are barred from entry in the temple.”

I turned away and looked up at the ceiling. I thought for several moments before everything began to make perfect sense. I turned back to Gabrielle’s perturbed group of friends. “No, Demi,” I said. “She’s there. Callisto’s there with her.”

“Um, is anyone going to tell us who this Callisto is?” Bahri asked.

I looked at the still very angry Egyptian. “Callisto is Marius’ wife,” I said. “She has this… problem with me and I fear that she wants to hurt Gabrielle as a way of hurting me.”

“Conqueror, if this cult doesn’t allow women, how can you be so sure that Gabrielle and this Callisto are there?” she asked.

“Because Callisto likes to play her little games, Bahri,” I said. “Finding her is part of it, so it’s totally within her to hide Gabrielle in the one place in all of Rome that, technically, I’m not allowed to enter.”

* * * *

I immediately began formulating a plan for Gabrielle’s rescue. I was operating on the assumption and pure hope that Callisto hadn’t killed her yet. I honestly believed that keeping Gabrielle alive was part of Callisto’s plan. Killing Gabrielle and dumping her dead body for me to find would have probably brought Callisto a great deal of sick pleasure, but not nearly as much pleasure as killing Gabrielle in my presence.

I needed two men to enter the temple on the pretext of joining the cult. These two men would provide me with a layout of the temple and learn its secret accesses. It was my firm suspicion that Callisto likely charmed only two or three members of the cult. Perhaps these seduced men were Mithraists from Gesoria or Castra Regina and had traveled with her in that fruit carriage. I was sure that a male-only Mithraist temple was always a part of her grand scheme. She wouldn’t have had much time to work on cultists living in Rome since she had only been in the city as long as we had. Thus, these “visiting” cultists could easily learn of any secret passageway from their local Roman brethren and pass that information on to Callisto. The local cultists were probably not involved in Callisto’s sick game or even aware that she was hiding in their temple. I deduced that once my two men discovered the passageway, I would enter through it and seek out Gabrielle, who was probably being held in an underground cell or catacomb.

Of course, my one big problem was that all of this was just an enormous theory of mine.

My other problem was that I didn’t want to involve any more than those who already knew about Gabrielle’s abduction. Because I’ll never fully trust him, I didn’t even want to tell Octavius. Thus, my plan was limited to a group of ten people. Besides Marius, of course, Palaemon and Demitrius were the only men aware of the situation. Palaemon would definitely be one of the two men to go, but Demitrius was too old and not a skilled fighter. He would be nothing more than a burden to Palaemon if the situation intensified. I thought about disguising myself as a man and going, but I knew that although Callisto was crazy, she wasn’t stupid. Through her cronies, she would somehow make it so that every man in the temple was on the lookout for a hostile “man” with my blue eyes. I didn’t want to risk it.

“I can do this alone, my Liege,” Palaemon announced.

“No,” I said. “One never embarks on a mission without backup.”

“I’ll go with him, Conqueror.” It was Bahri. “Gabrielle’s my friend and I want to help.”

“You’re not a man,” I said.

“No, but I’m pretty damn good at playing one, Majesty,” she reminded me. “Did it for eleven years. Even had you fooled, Conqueror.”

“Very well,” I said. “Go prepare.” Palaemon patted Bahri on her shoulder. Charicleia gave Bahri a hug and a tender kiss before she and Palaemon turned to depart. “Both of you,” I yelled out. “Be careful… and… and thank you.”

“What do we do now, Conqueror?” Charicleia asked as her eyes watered.

“We wait,” I responded.

The Roman hourglass was turned several times before Palaemon and Bahri returned.

“Were you successful?” I asked as I rushed to them.

“Too successful, Majesty,” Palaemon answered.

“I’ll say,” Bahri added.

“Either these cultist are hankering for members or they know our plan and they want you to storm the temple,” Palaemon continued.

“Well, we’re not doing that,” I said. “Is there a secret access?”

“Yes, my Liege,” Palaemon said. “I wasn’t having any such luck, but Bahri flirted with the temple head Pater and was able to extract all kinds of information from him. We both had an immediate sense that he fancied Bahri, so she ran with it.”

“Excellent!” I exclaimed. “We’ll make our move after nightfall.”

At that moment, Ephiny grabbed my arm. “We Amazons are coming with you, Conqueror,” she announced.

“I don’t need you.”

“Yes you do,” she said. “And even if you didn’t, we’re coming anyway. Gabrielle’s our Princess and we need to be a part of this.”

Stanislas and Hadiya approached. “We come too,” Stanislas said in Greek. I smiled at them. Gabrielle had even managed to touch the hearts of these two women with whom she was unable to communicate. At that moment, I wanted to drop to my knees and pray to the gods to keep her alive and unharmed, and not just because I wanted her back with me. Gabrielle didn’t deserve to suffer any more harm. She is a wonderful force, a light, and the world needs her.

* * * *

Palaemon and Bahri took us to a location about fifty paces from the rear of the temple. Lifting a hatch, we saw a staircase leading down into an underground chasm. “The Pater told me that this is the cult members’ escape route in case of trouble, my Liege,” Bahri whispered.

“Are there chambers below the temple?” I asked her.

“I believe so, but neither Commander Palaemon nor I were shown them,” she responded.

I instructed Palaemon and Bahri to go back to the temple and provide a much needed distraction. The Amazons were told to stay outside, provide a lookout and protect what I believed to be my only way of escape. I asked the two Parisii to follow me down below. I was putting a great deal of trust in these two women that I still barely knew. But of all of the people on this mission, I felt that they were the best choice to join me, if for no other reason than the fact that it was highly unlikely that Callisto spoke their language. If I had to, I could give them commands in her presence that she wouldn’t understand me.

After unsheathing our swords, we quietly descended the staircase. We took one small oil lamp down with us. Once we reached the bottom, I raised it only briefly to see the length of the corridor and note any chamber doors. There were only two at the end of the corridor. After extinguishing the lamp, I turned to the two women.

“If Callisto is on the other side of one of those doors,” I whispered in their language, “I don’t want her to see us coming.”

Surreptitiously, we walked the length of the corridor. I actually closed my eyes as I proceeded. In the darkness, they were of no use to me anyway and closing them allowed me to focus on my other senses. I listened for the sounds of pain and inhaled for the smells of agony. I was impressed at just how quiet my two comrades were as they walked behind me. When I arrived at the first door, I pressed my palm against it and felt it for coldness. And then I listened. On the other side, I heard a faint, raspy breathing. The pitch was high, like that of a woman. My Gabrielle, I immediately thought.

Before going any further, I felt for the other door. I pressed my ear against it and heard the faint sound of men talking. “This door leads to the temple,” I whispered ever so quietly to Stanislas and Hadiya. “We want to open the other door.”

I grabbed the door handle. “Stay out here until I call for you,” I told them.

The door opened inward, which was not to my advantage. I could easily anticipate that Callisto was behind it, but it was just as likely that she wasn’t. As I stepped in, the room was as pitch black as the corridor. I was still very much relying on my other senses. For the moment, my ears were directing me to the raspy breathing, although I didn’t rule out that the breathing could be Callisto herself attempting to deceive me.

In an instant, I began feeling that disturbing presence. “I see you’ve improved on your Latin, Callisto,” I said to the darkness.

“Numquam periculum sine periculo vincitur, Xena,” a voice said.

“You’re right, Callisto,” I responded. “Danger is never conquered without danger. And if my memory serves me correctly, you love danger.”

“As do you, my sweet,” she said. “Quisque creat suus veritatem proprium.” We each create our own reality, I interpreted in thought as I heard her stir slightly.

“Are you interested in the reality I’ve created for myself, Xena?”

“Sure, Callisto,” I lied. “Why don’t you tell me all about it.” Because her voice was coming from a different location than that of the raspy breathing I was hearing, I began slowly moving closer to the source of the breathing sound.

“Well, I have been the devoted wife, Xena,” she said. “But enough about me. I find it so interesting that you have carved out this wonderful little life for yourself, my dear.”

“Is that so?”

“Oh, yes, Xena,” she continued. “What I find so captivating is the fact that you went from having all of these little sex toys around you to play with, even when we were PLAYING… but lately, you’ve only been playing with one. She is a cutie, by the way, Xena. Not necessarily my type, but cute nonetheless.”

“Glad you think so.” I wasn’t yet close enough to grab Gabrielle, but I felt my distance from her narrowing.

“So, I’m sure you’re interested to know how your precious little Gabrielle is doing.”

Just then, a small lamp burst into flame in front of Gabrielle. She was next to a wall. Semiconscious, her arms were stretched over her head and her hands were bound. She had a bruise near her mouth and her lips were parched, but besides looking very tired and thirsty, she didn’t appear badly harmed. I still couldn’t see Callisto, who was hiding somewhere in the darkness of the chamber.

“As you can see, Xena my darling, your sweet Gabrielle is pretty much intact,” Callisto said, snickering. “Oh, and don’t worry. I didn’t rape her. From what I understand, you did enough of that to scar the girl for life, poor thing.”

A white-hot rage invaded me. “You fucking bitch,” I hissed.

“Aw, did I hit a sore spot, Xena?” she sneered. “Sorry… wait, no I’m not.” She began giggling.

As I slowly made my way toward her, Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked at me. “Don’t like being reminded about how much of a monster you are, eh Xena?” Callisto continued. “Well, I think it’s time to put one of you two out of her misery.”

I heard the instant clang of metal. “Nighty night!” At that moment, I dived for Gabrielle as the shrill sound of my chakram came closer. I was able to grab it before it impaled her. In my effort, I knocked over the lamp, but I was able to make out the sound of Callisto going for the door. I charged her in the darkness.

“Oh no you don’t, you bitch!” I yelled as I tackled Callisto from behind. I wanted to hack her to pieces with my chakram, but that would have been too quick and easy, and not nearly as much fun. Instead, I returned it to its safe resting place on the side of my battledress and straddled her.

“HADIYA! STANISLAS!” I yelled at the top of my lungs as I held Callisto down. “Come get Gabrielle out of here!”

The two women stormed into the chamber and cut Gabrielle down. One of them had relit our oil lamp and brought it into the room with them. As Stanislas carried Gabrielle out, I heard her raspy voice speak, “Please, Xena, don’t…”

Once Gabrielle was gone, I began pummeling that bitch with blow after blow. Callisto’s fighting skills had improved tremendously in the years since our illicit affair. She managed to block many of my blows and even got in quite a few punches as well. She probably would have faired better against me had I not been seething. As I was furiously fighting her, a single word was pounding in my ear and crushing my heart… rape.

In the corridor, all Tartarus was breaking loose. Some of the cultists, hearing my yelling and Callisto’s incessant screaming, began storming down from the temple. I heard the sounds of swords hitting and then I heard Bahri. “Hadiya,” she said in Greek. “Let’s show these cult guys what the black girls can do!” I had to believe that Stanislas got Gabrielle to safety.

I beat Callisto until she was too worn out and injured to resist any further. I was tired and aching as well. “Are you done, Xena?” she asked, now sounding just as raspy as Gabrielle.

“No,” I said as I applied my lethal pinch to her neck. “Now I am,” I said. “Nighty night.”

* * * *

I went through the second door that led to the main temple hall above. The inside of the Mithraeum was shaped to resemble a cave. The ceiling was high and vaulted. I approached the only two people standing in the main hall of the temple. The strange shape caused their voices to echo as they engaged in seemingly casual conversation before noticing me.

“I don’t think they ever figured out that you’re a woman, Bahri,” Palaemon said amused. “Perhaps you should stay here in Rome and take up the theater.”

“Naw… my Latin stinks, Commander.”
At that moment, both of my warriors looked at me.

“Is she dead, my Liege?” Palaemon was referring to the body that I had slumped over my shoulder.

“She should be, but no, she’s not,” I responded. “Was Gabrielle taken to safety?”
“Yes, my Liege,” Palaemon said. “The Amazons took her. She should be in Aneurin’s capable hands as we speak.”

“Good,” I said, relieved. “Where are the Mithraists?”

“I broke the news to them about Callisto, my Liege,” he answered. “They are off somewhere dealing with the cult members who betrayed them.”

“Demi was right, Conqueror,” Bahri chimed in. “These guys are major secretive. The gods only know where they are right now.”

“The two Parisii women are right outside, my Liege,” Palaemon added. “After order was established in here, they both promptly left the temple. The Parisii Hadiya told Bahri that they needed to honor the rule of the cult with regards to women on the premises.”

“I guess that I’m not all that ‘honorable,’” Bahri chortled.

“Neither am I,” I said to Bahri before returning my attention to Palaemon. “Any casualties?” I asked him.

“We kicked a few asses, but everyone’s alive, Conqueror,” he answered proudly.

“Fine,” I said. “Let’s join our Parisii friends outside and head back to the Palace.”

When I entered our guest bedchamber, Gabrielle was sitting up on our bed drinking something. She had bathed and changed into a simple white tunic. I walked very slowly over to the bed. I was battling a slew of emotions. I so wanted to take her in my arms and apologize for everything she had endured over the last few hours, but I was also distressing over what Callisto said. Gabrielle had been so wonderful about being open about her feelings for me; what she thought of me now and what she thought of me before gaining her freedom. But I found myself once again being unsure of her feelings.

“Come sit, Xena,” Gabrielle said. “Hug me.”

I rushed to her and threw my arms around her. I began crying. “It’s okay, Xena,” she said as she stroked my hair. “I’m fine.”

“I’m so sorry, Gabrielle,” I whispered into her ear. “I should have been there to protect you.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Xena,” Gabrielle said. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault. How could you know that this would happen?”

“I sensed something, Gabrielle,” I confessed. “I didn’t know what… but I could have told you, warned you.”

“Warned me about what, Xena?” she asked. “How could you have anticipated this?”

I released her from my embrace and then, taking her hands in mine, I kissed them. “Xena,” Gabrielle spoke. “Did you kill her?”

“Briefly,” I responded.

“What do you mean?”
“I… I put my pinch on her, Gabrielle,” I confessed. “But I revived her after her heart stopped.”

“HOW?”

“I released the pinch and hit her chest, Gabrielle,” I said. “It hurt her. I wanted to hurt her.”

“You didn’t have to make her suffer, Xena,” Gabrielle told me. “She never laid a hand on me. This bruise on my face was from one of the two men who abducted me. I punched him in the initial struggle and he punched me back. It’s the only real injury I have, Xena.”

“I… she… she paid for what she said.” I looked into the disappointed eyes of Gabrielle. I knew what she was thinking. Once again, I acted on what she called my “pure dark impulse.” Once again, I betrayed myself.

“Xena,” Gabrielle began, “I want you to do something for me.”

“Anything.”

“I want you to release Marius.” I opened my mouth to protest, but Gabrielle covered it with two fingers. “Let me explain,” she said. “Marius never knew about you and Callisto. I bet he still doesn’t know. What he did when he released her from the Spartan asylum, he did out of love for his wife. He was freeing a woman that he truly believed was devoted only to him. He rescued Callisto from that place just like you rescued me from her.”

“It’s not the same!” I exclaimed.

“It’s exactly the same,” she retorted. “She was suffering there, and out of love for her, he ended her suffering. And he wanted to be with her, just like you want to be with me.”

“Did she tell you all of this shit?” I asked in my growing fury.

Gabrielle remained calm. “No, Xena. All she talked about was you. She didn’t admit it, but it’s obvious to me that she has been consumed with you all of these years. I’m surprised that she didn’t try something sooner. Perhaps learning about me triggered something in her to make her move when she did.”

I considered Gabrielle’s request as she continued. “Marius cares a great deal about you, Xena. He is loyal to you, probably as much as Palaemon. Don’t end his life for being human, for being a man who loves his wife.”

I looked away from Gabrielle. “Niall’s public judgment is tomorrow, Gabrielle,” I said. “I want you there.”

“I’ll attend, Xena,” she conceded. “What about Marius?”

“I’ll entertain the idea.”

IV. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY

The public judgments were scheduled at the noon hour the day after my rescue from the Temple of Mithras. Xena had slipped out of our bedchamber early that morning before I awoke. I suspected that she had a great deal on her mind above and beyond what was about to transpire in the massive Roman Forum. The one staple in the psyche of the Conqueror is her periodic need to be alone. I don’t know what Xena does when she wanders off, but I imagine it involves a lot of brooding and cursing.

I had some brooding and cursing of my own to do that morning.

Bahri escorted me to the Forum. She had told me about the rescue mission Xena had concocted after figuring out where I was. Xena is truly amazing. However, Bahri also reluctantly admitted that Xena had initially blamed her for my disappearance. I suspected as much after noticing the prominent bruising on Bahri’s neck. I hated it that Bahri was often made the scapegoat for other people’s insecurities. I decided that Xena the Conqueror would be getting an earful from me when things had settled down. My future consort and I would have much to discuss during our journey back to Corinth.

Xena and Palaemon were already present at the Forum when I arrived there. People were congregating by the masses. At precisely the noon hour, Xena stepped up on the huge stage at the northern end of the Forum.

She raised her right hand bearing her sword. “Cum hic vincemus!” she shouted.

Bahri leaned over and whispered, “My Latin’s a little weak, Gabrielle,” she said.

“The Conqueror just said, ‘With this we conquer,’” I informed her.

“Thanks,” Bahri replied.

The Conqueror ordered the first prisoner to be brought out. It was one of Niall’s men. After announcing his crimes, she pronounced his sentence, which was a life of confinement in a Roman prison. The same fate befell the other prisoners from Albion. Finally, Niall was brought before the Conqueror. I was expecting crucifixion, knowing how much both the Romans and the Conqueror loved that form of punishment.

Much to my surprise, Xena the Conqueror turned to me. “Come here, Gabrielle,” she requested.

I stepped up on the stage and walked over to her. “What does he deserve, Gabrielle?” she asked.

I thought about the man whose eyes I had looked deeply into on that Egyptian-built ship those many days ago. I thought of the warrior who begged a greater woman warrior to spare his life. I thought about what punishment Niall would want for himself.

“Make him a gladiator, Xena,” I finally decided.

“Gabrielle,” Xena’s eyes widened, probably in amazement. “That’s a death sentence. If not right away, eventually.”

“I know, Xena,” I responded. “Niall wants to die. He wanted to die on that battlefield, but he was too afraid to face death there. He regrets that, Xena. Now, let him die the way he wants. Let him die fighting.”

“Very well,” Xena said, before returning her attention back to the crowd and pronouncing Niall’s sentence.

I wasn’t surprised at the faint smile that flashed across the dirty face of that man.

As he was being led away, Xena commanded the Roman guards to bring out the last prisoner. It was Callisto.

Xena announced Callisto’s crimes against the Realm; corruption, desecration of a holy temple, and the abduction and attempted murder of the Conqueror’s consort-to-be. She again turned to me. “Name her punishment, Gabrielle.”

I stepped down from the stage and walked over to Callisto. Her face was badly bruised and scratched. I looked down at her hands. Her knuckles were reddened. I turned and looked at the bruised and scratched face of the Conqueror that I had noticed the day before. I looked at the reddened knuckles on her hands. I returned my attention to Callisto.

“Hi, Callisto,” I said.

“You can dispense with the pleasantries, Gabrielle,” she said. “That’s your problem, you know. You’re too damned pleasant.”

I leaned into her. “You know, Callisto,” I whispered, smiling. “I totally understand your feelings about Xena.” Callisto cocked her head to the side. “Let’s face it. She’s beautiful, strong, authoritative, and by the gods, is she ever great in bed.”

Callisto smiled. It’s what I wanted her to do. “Well, Gabrielle darling, the Warrior Princess and I did have our many, many special moments.”

I was not amused. “I can see the evidence of your most recent ‘special moment,’ Callisto,” I said as I lightly touched her bruised cheek.

“Oh, Gabrielle my dear, you are so observant,” she retorted, still smiling.

“I’m to recommend your punishment, Callisto,” I said. “What will it be?”

“You’re asking me?”

“Yes, I’m asking you.”

“Hmm… this is a tough one,” she said sardonically. “I have it… why don’t you free me?”

“That’s not a punishment, Callisto,” I said.

“Being alive and knowing that SHE is still ruling the world after all that she’s done… I’d say that’s a punishment.”

“You don’t like being alive, Callisto?”
“Why, do you want to stake me to a cross, sweet little Gabrielle… hmm?”

“No, I’m just inquiring,” I was mindful that Xena was probably losing patience with my trifling conversation with Callisto.

“Make me a gladiator too, Gabrielle,” Callisto decided.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

Xena reluctantly announced Callisto’s punishment. For some reason, Xena wasn’t happy with the idea of Callisto becoming a gladiator. After Callisto was led away, Palaemon lead a cheer.

“Xena, Femina Indomabilis!” he shouted. Indominable woman, the citizens repeated.

“Xena, Femina Indomita!” he shouted. Untamable woman, the citizens repeated.

“XENA, VIRAGO PRINCIPESSA!” he shouted. Warrior Princess, the citizens repeated over and over. “VIRAGO PRINCIPESSA!” “VIRAGO PRINCIPESSA!” “VIRAGO PRINCIPESSA!”

* * * *

Xena and I returned to the Proconsul’s palace as the city of Rome was quieting for midday rest. After she and I entered our guest bedchamber, she immediately walked over to a window and began staring out of it. I undressed and, walking over to her, I wrapped my arms around her waist and rested my head on her back.

“It’s rest time, Xena,” I said. “Come and lay down with me.”

When Xena turned to face me, I saw the same sad face I had seen the morning of her hard death, the day I had returned to her from Poteidaia, and the day she freed me. Taking her hand, I guided her over to our bed and crawled up on it. She took off her Imperial chiton and regal accessories and joined me. Lying down side by side, I took her in an embrace.

“Callisto was right,” she whispered into my ear in a sad and strained voice. “I… I hurt you.”

I needed to look into her eyes. “No, Xena,” I said. “Callisto said what she needed to say in order to hurt you.”

“All of those times, Gabrielle,” Xena said ruefully. “As my slave…”

“You listen to me, Xena,” I countered as I grabbed her shoulders. “You did hurt me. Every time I reported to you for service as your slave… every time, Xena, I was in fear…”

Xena’s eyes dropped. “Look at me and let me finish,” I demanded as she returned her gaze to mine. “It was a strange, unexplainable fear. Yes, there was a part of me that feared your wrath. Thankfully, much of that took place only in the first couple of years of my service to you. But I had another fear that came along, Xena. It was an even greater fear than the fear of your wrath. It was the fear of not meaning anything to you. Most of those times when we… had sex… I had to convince myself that I was only performing a service. I so often enjoyed your gentleness and, yes, I even enjoyed some of the hard sex, the unusual sex, the Warrior Princess seductions, when it wasn’t painful… when it was all of your passion, when it was you, Xena. I wanted to believe that you felt something for me, that I was more than just your property, but I didn’t want to lie to myself.”

Tears began streaming down her beautiful face. “I loved you so much, Gabrielle, for so long. By the gods…” I wiped the tears away from her face as she began wiping them away from mine. “But still, Gabrielle,” she said, “you did feel my wrath. I did hurt you. I denied you pleasure. I wouldn’t let you touch me. I… I shamed you. How can you forget that?”

“I haven’t forgotten, Xena,” I proclaimed. “I’ll never forget. But I can forgive. You’ve apologized, Xena, in more than just saying the words. So much of what you’ve done to me, for me, since gaining my freedom has been an ongoing apology. I forgive you.”

Xena turned her head away from me. “Your parents will never forgive me.”

“Perhaps they won’t, Xena,” I said. “But perhaps you could give them the option?”

“You wish for me to apologize to them?” Xena returned her gaze to me.

“What do you wish, Xena?” I asked.

She and I looked deeply into each other’s eyes. “I want to atone,” she said.

We both lay on our backs and stared at the ceiling for long moments. “Gabrielle,” Xena finally spoke up.

“Yes, Xena.”

“Marius was pardoned this morning,” she said. “He’s with his mother and sister.”

I took her hand in mine. As Morpheus sought to claim us for the afternoon rest, I anticipated the days ahead. There would be much for us to discuss on our journey home. I planned on telling Xena everything Callisto said to me during my capture. I wanted to discuss Bahri, Marius, our new Parisii friends, slavery and our impending union ceremony. I wanted to learn more about Xena’s family and I was curious to learn about the other loves in her life. Most importantly, I was looking forward to learning more about Xena herself. I was looking forward to revealing to her more about me.

I smiled at all of the revelations that await us both.
Story #8 The Blessings Of Mothers
I. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY

It had been quite some time since the last occurrence, but during my afternoon rest with Xena, I had yet another one of those strange dreams. It was of an incident that occurred about a month after the last time that Xena had ever used her whips on me.

I was summoned to the Conqueror’s bedchamber for service. I entered her bedchamber and went to my reporting spot. The Conqueror walked over to me and ordered me to take off my garments. Since the brutal beating that she had inflicted on me four weeks before, the Conqueror had been insisting that I report to her in my sleep shift, since most nights now ended with me actually sleeping with her in her bed.

After I removed my sleep shift, the Conqueror began removing her beautiful silk chiton while standing in front of me. When she was completely nude, she stepped up close to me and began looking me over, as if she was inspecting me for wounds or infestations. She was so close as she did this, her hardened nipples periodically rubbed up against my face, chest, and shoulders as she circled me.

“Go lay down,” she commanded after her inspection.

I went over to my spot on her bed and assumed my servicing position. She waited a few moments before coming over and lying on top of me. She positioned herself so that both of her legs were between my spread legs, although her legs were somewhat spread as well. As we looked at each other, eye-to-eye, she took one of her fingers and gently ran it down my nose, my lips and my chin. Then she lightly kissed my lips before turning her attention to my left ear. She began licking it, sucking my lobe and biting the skin just below it. As she did this, she gripped my wrists, which were positioned above my head, and then she arched her back, spread my thighs even more and bent her knees so that her sex could connect with mine. Since I was wet from the moment she removed her clothing and exposed her glorious body in front of me, her subsequent rhythmic rubbing caused my already throbbing sex to pulsate intensely. Release for me came quickly.

The Conqueror’s release came several moments later. She had moments before turned her attention to my other ear and was breathing very heavily into it when her climax hit. She continued to lie on top of me until her body had completely relaxed. Then, rising up, she crawled over to the other side of the bed and sat on its edge. It was quiet for many moments.

“Go to your bedchamber,” the Conqueror ordered, her back to me. “I’m done with you.”

“Yes, my Lady.” I climbed out of her bed and put on my sleep shift. As I was walking toward the door, she spoke.

“Gabrielle,” she said.

I turned around and looked at her.

“You didn’t climax, did you?” she asked.

I was shocked by the question. The Conqueror had never before given any indication that she cared if I was receiving any pleasure at all. Above the shock was the fear of revealing that I had climaxed too early.

“Yes, my Lady,” I responded. “I did.”

“When?”

“It came moments after we… after I… began my service, my Lady,” I responded as I immediately looked down. I was instantly terrified at the error of my response and began anticipating a severe punishment. However, my response was met with a long silence. When there was no indication of movement on her part, I finally looked up at the Conqueror. She had a smile on her face that I had never seen before. Her teeth were pearly white and her blue eyes sparkled like gems. I didn’t know what to make of that smile.

“Go on now, Gabrielle,” she said as the smile vanished.

“Yes, my Lady.”

I awakened to the sounds of slaves milling about in our guest bedchamber. Xena was in such a deep sleep that I pondered the events of the last two days must have been very draining on her. Deciding not to awaken her, I slipped out of bed and, after relieving myself, wandered over to where the slaves were doing their various duties.

I approached a young slave wiping down one of the mirrors. “Hello,” I said to her.

“Good afternoon, my Lady,” the attractive, dark haired young woman replied.

“Please, please don’t call me that,” I said in gentle voice. “My name is Gabrielle.”

The girl looked down. “I’m terribly sorry for offending you, Lady Gabrielle,” she said.

“You didn’t offend me,” I responded. “And it’s Gabrielle, just Gabrielle.” I grabbed her trembling hand. “You needn’t fear me,” I continued. “I was indentured at one time as well.”

She looked up at me and I smiled at her. “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Esme, my La… Esme, Gabrielle,” she responded.

“That’s a nice name, Esme,” I said. “How long have you been serving in the Proconsul’s palace?”

“Since I was 15, my… Gabrielle,” she answered. “I’m 20 now.”

“How does he treat you?”

“He is a decent Master, Gabrielle,” she told me. “He doesn’t strike any of us, as I’ve heard… other rulers… do.”

I could feel the heat in my face rise. “I’m glad to hear that, Esme,” I said.

Esme and I spoke for a few moments. She told me a little about the atmosphere in the palace between Octavius and his slaves. She began telling me about her relationship with the other chambermaids when we both noticed Xena stirring. “Will the Conqueror be angry at me for speaking with you, Gabrielle?” Esme whispered.

“No, she’s fine,” I responded smiling before looking over at Xena, who ran her fingers through her hair and looked around the room. I squeezed Esme’s arm and smiled at her before dashing over to the bed and literally jumping on it.

“Hello, my Conqueror,” I said playfully. “Sleep well?”

“Apparently,” she responded. “That’s a pretty little thing you were talking to over there,” she said as she shot Esme a look that I didn’t like.

“Oh, you think so?” I asked smiling, trying to keep matters light.

“The question is, do you think so?” Xena queried in a tone that was getting increasingly uncomfortable.

I took her hand in mine and leaned into her. “She is pretty, Xena, but you’re beautiful,” I whispered in her ear with all frankness.

Xena looked away. Something was bothering her. Perhaps it was the conversation that we had had prior to our rest. Perhaps she had had a disturbing dream. Or perhaps she was still battling with that jealous and possessive part of herself that cannot stand to see me pay any attention to anyone besides her. “Would you like for me to get you something to drink, Xena?” I asked.

She was still looking away. “You’re not my slave, Gabrielle,” she said “Have one of THEM get it.”

I was offended by her words. Placing my fingers on her chin, I brought her gaze back to me. “What is the matter with you, Xena?” I angrily asked while Esme and the others in the room decided that that moment was the perfect one for them to leave the chamber and give Xena and me some much needed privacy.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said mockingly. “Perhaps I’m a tad bit miffed that you were off chatting with some cute house whore rather than lying here with me.”

Ah, so it’s the ugly jealous Conqueror, I thought. “Well, excuse me for having a mind of my own, my Liege,” I stated as I folded my arms in defiance.

Xena looked away again, but she didn’t move. She had learned quite some time ago that my anger toward her intensified when I began calling her by anything other than her name. I guess it was my way of signifying my anger with her and reminding her that we are lovers. Because I have a different level of expectation from her than that which she bestows upon her soldiers and her servants, I would resort to addressing her in the same manner that they do in order to make my point to her. Xena had made a great deal of progress in controlling her jealous nature over the last few months, but I had noticed her discomfort in our bathing with our friends and my Amazon Sisters during our first night in the palace. I don’t think it was lost on anyone just how close she sat next to me in the bath or the number of times that she placed her hand on my neck or my shoulder or my thigh as I scrubbed myself. She was even more obvious during the entertainment of the three Roman poets, when she had placed her arm around me firmly and kept it there for the entire oratory. Part of me finds Xena’s possessiveness flattering and endearing, but I am also quite unabashedly aware that this behavior in a woman like Xena, despite the changes that she has made, still could be dangerous or deadly.

“I’m thirsty, Xena,” I proclaimed after a long and difficult silence. “I’m going to get a drink.”

“Stay here,” she said. “I’ll get it.”

Xena marched over to a huge table where a jug of fresh water sat and poured two goblets. When she returned, she sat on the edge of the bed after giving me one of the goblets. She downed her drink in two larges gulps. I moved over and sat next to her.

“We both have demons of jealousy, Gabrielle,” Xena said after letting out a huge sigh. “You don’t like to be reminded of those in my past while I fear those who may come between us in our present and future.”

“Why do you worry about other people when I’ve so often professed my love for you, Xena?” I asked.

“Because of our past, Gabrielle,” she responded. “I’m afraid that you’ll meet someone or… or fall for someone you already know, and… and they… no one’s hurt you like I have. You’ll decide that you could be better off with them.”

“Well, I fear that you’ll eventually grow tired of me, like you’ve done with every lover before me, Xena,” I remarked.

“What makes you think that?” she asked.

I looked down. “You didn’t tell me the whole story about your life when you had your affair with Callisto, Xena,” I said. “You left someone out.”

“What did Callisto tell you?” Xena queried.

“Would you like to know everything she said to me during my abduction, Xena?” I responded with a question.

“Yes.”

* * * *

I was strolling through the Forum marketplace with my friends and Amazon Sisters. I had consumed quite a bit of water that morning and desperately needed to relieve myself. I announced that I would dash into one of the public bathhouses to use the pot. I gave Anthia my staff, which I had been carrying all that morning, to hold until I returned. It would be the biggest mistake I could make up to that moment.

As I stepped out of the bathhouse pot, a man came up to me and nudged my shoulder. At that same moment, I felt an arm wrap around my neck and begin to pull me. The man who bumped into me grabbed my arms and said in a heavy accent, “You come with us.”

I began fighting, kicking the man behind me and trying to free my arms from the man who spoke. When I yelled out, “HELP!” the man behind me placed his free hand over my mouth. They took me, struggling all of the way, to a carriage a very short distance from the public bathhouse. When the man facing me let go of my arms to mount the wagon, I swung at him and punched him hard in his face. He seemed at first startled, but it quickly turned to anger when he raised his fist and struck me in my face. Everything went black.

When I regained consciousness, I was in a dark, hot and musty cellar. My wrists were bound above my head. I looked up and saw a young woman sitting on a stool reading a scroll. Two oil lamps illuminated the room.

“Why, hello, Gabrielle, my darling,” the woman said. “Did you enjoy your nap?”

“Who… are… you?” I asked, still quite groggy from being knocked out.

“I’m Callisto, Gabrielle,” she responded. “Surely, Xena’s told you all about me.”

I looked around the room before returning my attention to my captor. “No, I’ve never heard of you.”

“Tsk tsk tsk tsk… naughty Xena,” the woman said. “But I’m not surprised. I’m sure there are a lot of things she hasn’t told you.”

“Where am I?” I asked. “Why am I here?”

“You need not concern yourself with your current whereabouts, Gabrielle,” she said. “As for why you’re here, well, perhaps your pretty Xena will explain things when she finds you.”

I was both angry and scared. At the moment, the pain in my arms was causing my anger to dominate over my fear. “WHO ARE YOU!?!” I yelled. “I want to know why I’m here tied up like an animal!”

The woman stood up and walked over to me. I expected her to strike me, but instead she pulled out Xena’s chakram and lightly touched my lips with it. “Shhhh…” she said. “I wouldn’t want the men upstairs to hear us down here,” she said before bringing the chakram to her own lips and kissing it.

“How did you get Xena’s chakram?”

“Pretty Xena threw it at me,” she responded. “Too bad for her.”

I looked at the woman from head to feet. Blond hair, dark eyes, sassy tongue. “You’re Marius’ wife,” I proclaimed.

“Oh, so she has told you about me,” Callisto said as she beamed me a wide grin. “Just left out the name.”

“At my request,” I said.

“Oh, why is that?”

I didn’t need to tell her anything. “Your issue is with Xena,” I said. “Why abduct me?”

“Because I want her attention, Gabrielle,” Callisto said. “And you’re the best way to get Xena’s attention these days.” She returned to her seat. “Also, I’ve been looking forward to some chit-chat with you.”

It was obvious that this woman was a lunatic, but I surmised for the moment that the key to my survival was to keep her talking. “What would you like to discuss?” I asked.

“You love Xena, don’t you, Gabrielle?”

“Yes, yes I do.”

“Interesting,” she said. “Tell me, darling, how is it that you can love someone who repeatedly raped you?”

“Xena’s not a rapist!” I exclaimed.

“Oh no?” Callisto smirked. “So you’re saying that in those many years of servitude, every single time that you had sex with her you would have done so willingly had you been given the choice?”

“It’s not that simple,” I responded. “Our… relationship… has so many complexities.”

“Uh-huh…” she retorted as she came back over to me. She lightly grabbed my chin between her thumb and index finger. “Well, Gabrielle, honey, the whip scars on your belly and the brand on your back seem quite simple to me.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but nothing would come out.

“She’s a monster, you know,” Callisto said as she again turned her back to me and sauntered back over to her stool.

“She has been, yes,” I whispered.

“Yet, you love her,” she stated almost as a question.

“I didn’t always,” I responded, ever mindful that talking was probably the one thing keeping me alive and from further harm. “I hated her for a long time.”

“For raping you?”

“I didn’t feel violated back then, Callisto.”

“What did you feel, Gabrielle?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Many things. Confused, used, shamed, unloved. I hated her when she hurt me… but I hated her when she was gentle too.”

“Please do explain, sweetie.”

“Sometimes, she was so gentle and… and almost loving, that I thought that, well, I… I… that perhaps she loved me. Ironically, she did love me. She loved me from almost the beginning. She was petrified about telling me.”

Callisto crossed her legs. I had her full attention. “Go on, Gabrielle,” she said. “This is very interesting.”

“She would do things… little things that made me think that she cared about me.”

“Really? Like what?”

“Just little things,” I said. “But then she would turn around and say or do something to humiliate me or hurt me or anger me. For years I believed it to be a sick game of hers.”

“Hmm…” Callisto grabbed a mug and drank. My head was aching and I was dying of thirst, but something told me not to request a drink. “Has Xena told you about her other lovers?” she asked.

“What other lovers?”

“Oh, really, she cannot have possibly kept such well-known information from you.”

“Do you mean Borias?”

“The nomad that she arranged to have murdered… no,” Callisto responded. “She didn’t tell you about Marcus Lucius Agrippa?”

The comment about Borias was still swirling through my head when she made her last statement. “Who’s Marcus Agrippa?”

“Why he’s Proconsul of Pompeii, my dear,” she informed me. “She gave him that position after she had my dear husband send me to the Spartan nuthouse.”

I lowered my head. “I know that there are a lot of men in Xena’s past, Callisto,” I said. “It bothers me, but she has assured me that no one has meant to her what I mean to her.”

Callisto burst out laughing. “Is that what she told you?” she blurted. “Well, dear, you keep telling yourself that and maybe someday you’ll truly believe it.”

My mind was a bit jumbled, but I was quickly realizing that this entire conversation was Callisto’s attempt to create in me an insecurity that could cause a rift between Xena and me. I wasn’t about to let on to her, but it wasn’t working. I have known Xena for almost six years, as her slave, and then as her friend and lover. I know Xena, much more than Callisto ever will. Xena is capable of many things, but she has always been honest with me. In all of those years of servitude, Xena never once told me that she didn’t want me anymore. She never threatened to sell me. Quite the contrary, her actions always suggested that she needed to have me around her. There was this one time that Xena claimed she wanted to turn me over to Palaemon. It was one of her silly games. I know that now. But even then, she made the choice mine. I chose her, but I know now that had I chose Palaemon and had he accepted my choice, Xena would have initially honored the deal, but would have eventually done something sly to undo it. Callisto was clueless about Xena’s ongoing struggle, with herself and her love for me, during my years of servitude. She only knew about the old Xena, the evil Xena, the corrosive yet also eroding Destroyer of Nations.

“Well, I’m waiting…” I said. I was about to play the game as well.

“Waiting for what?”

“Tell me about Marcus Agrippa.”

“Oh,” she began, “he’s a fine man, Gabrielle. African born… from Koumbi Saleh, I do believe, but Roman reared and educated. He’s taller and darker than your attractive little Egyptian Guard friend, but not nearly as black or beautiful as that Parisii Sapphic traveling with you. He is rather handsome and quite intelligent; more of a politician than a warrior. He fought alongside Xena and my dear husband Marius when she was battling Julius Caesar. They were quite the item when I met them. But Marcus was a person of integrity, so unlike the Warrior Princess, and he didn’t like being one of a crowd in her bedchamber.”

“I guess that didn’t bother you, eh Callisto?” I chimed in.
“As a matter of fact, no it didn’t,” she responded. “I knew that she was using me to get Marius to fight in her silly war. But I was using her too, you see.”

“How is that?”

“Well, Xena is the world’s greatest warrior, Gabrielle,” Callisto continued. “There’s no denying it. She has skills, skills that I wanted to acquire. The only way to learn how to fight like Xena was to learn from Xena. I was making some headway when she decided to convince my dear husband to have me committed.”

“Why do you want to be a warrior, Callisto?”

“Why, to kill Xena, my dear,” came her blunt answer. “One cannot beat the unbeatable unless one fights like the unbeatable.”

“Why do you want to kill her, Callisto?”

“Vengeance… for Cirra.”

II. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG

As Gabrielle told of her capture and conversation with Callisto, I looked into her sad eyes. I knew that she was battling many conflicting feelings. I was battling them as well. How dare that bitch dump so many embellishments and flat out lies on Gabrielle. How dare she use Gabrielle as her little tool to get to me. How dare she try to kill Gabrielle, merely to repay some debt she believed I owed her. I had suspected that Callisto had an agenda when she and I had our affair, but I didn’t dwell on the prospect back then. I had too many other things on my mind at the time. Callisto’s conduct over the last couple of days definitely shed new light for me. That fucking bitch!

When Gabrielle finished, she looked down at our now clasping hands. Her eyes filled with tears. I began weeping as well.

“Was what she told me true, Xena?” she whispered her question.

“Only some of it, Gabrielle,” I responded as I caressed her hands. “She exaggerated some facts and even told you a couple of lies. Would you like to know the truth, Gabrielle?”

My lovely Gabrielle looked up at me. “Yes, Xena, I would.”

I wiped my eyes. “I guess that I should start with Caesar, Gabrielle,” I said.

“Caesar?”

“Yes,” I began. “After my village was raided, I started pirating. About a year into it, I captured Caesar during one of my sea conquests, or so I thought at the time. I seduced him, but I was very young and rather impulsive, and I didn’t see that it was actually I who was being seduced… and conquered. Caesar’s Roman forces overtook my band of pirates and had us crucified. He condemned me to the cross and had my legs broken.”

“By the gods, Xena,” Gabrielle gasped. “How did you survive?”

“A young, Egyptian-born, Gaelic runaway slave rescued me off the cross,” I continued. “Her name was M’Lila. She had stowed away on my pirate ship some weeks before. We had become friends, Gabrielle. Although M’Lila was no older than me at the time, she was my first real mentor, having taught me hand-to-hand combat. I had only perfected sword battle up to that point, but under her guidance, I learned how to hit, kick and leap. She also taught me pressure points.”

“Were you lovers, Xena?”

“I was very attracted to her, but she didn’t respond to me in that way, so we never became intimate, Gabrielle.”

“What happened after she rescued you?” Gabrielle asked.

“My legs needed immediate attention, so M’Lila took me to a healer in northern Thrace,” I said. “Caesar learned of my escape and sent some of his centurions to find us. They eventually located the healer’s dwelling while I was still recuperating, stormed in on us, and in the ensuing fight, one of them killed her. In retaliation, I killed them all right then and there. Shortly thereafter, I met Borias in Thrace.”

“What did you do, Xena?”

“I loved M’Lila, Gabrielle,” I confessed. “She was the first person that I truly cared about after Lyceus. I felt that I had lost another sibling. When she was murdered, I was hardened with sheer hatred and a white hot rage and wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my life killing and conquering.”

Gabrielle began caressing my face. I kissed her palm before continuing. “Borias and I really only had a physical relationship. He had an efficient army and he was a brilliant tactician. We pillaged, stole and murdered during the day and fucked each other at night. I never really loved him, because I had lost my belief in love, but I did feel a connection with him. Eventually, our conquests took us east. I wanted to explore the Deccan subcontinent…”

“You mean that land that some call Magadha and others call India?”

“…Yes, but Borias was more interested in Chin. Back in those days, I rarely deferred to the wisdom of another, but on this occasion, I took his advice.

“Chin was a vast land divided by warring wealthy kingdoms. The wealthiest kingdoms were the kingdoms of Qin, of Zhao and of Ming. The most elusive, and thus challenging kingdom for us to conquer was the kingdom of Lao. Borias and I initially tried to forge an alliance with the leader of the Ming family, who was a greedy and corrupt despot named Ming Tsu. But when that fell through, we strategically approached Ming’s greatest enemy, the head of the kingdom of Lao.”

I looked down at our clasping hands. Gabrielle sensed my tension. “What happened, Xena?”

“I… I fell in love, Gabrielle,” I confessed. “For the first time in my life.”

“With whom?”

“The leader of the kingdom of Lao.”

“What was his name?”

“HER name was Lao Ma.”

* * * *

I told Gabrielle everything about my time with Lao Ma. I told her how I had initially attempted to kill Lao Ma in a drug-induced rage and about my abduction of her son. I told her about Borias’ betrayal of me to Ming Tsu, Ming’s vengeance and Lao Ma’s rescue of me. I told her about the months that I had lived with her in her palace, learning about the power of the mind, the will of the spirit and the passion of the heart. I told Gabrielle about Lao Ma’s desire to create from my murderous beast a noble Warrior Princess, and about how she entrusted me with the mysterious weapon that would become the icon that defines me as the Warrior Princess. I told her about how Lao Ma had eventually healed my crippled legs and tried very hard to salvage my crippled soul. I told her about how I ultimately betrayed Lao Ma, about my murdering Ming Tsu, my attempted murder of Lao Ma’s son and my banishment from her kingdom.

“She sounds like a truly wonderful person, Xena,” Gabrielle said as her tears flowed a steady stream down her beautiful face.

“She was, Gabrielle,” I said. “But as much as I loved her, my love for her wasn’t enough to yank the darkness and evil from my heart. It was still there. It was always there. I could actually feel it. Hatred and bloodlust had consumed me once again.”

“Is it still there, Xena?”

“The first day in my life that I no longer felt that darkness was the day that you told me that you love me, Gabrielle,” I confessed. “There was a light and a paradise that filled my heart that day. There is darkness still within me, but that hole in my heart has been filled. Lao Ma had great physical and spiritual powers, Gabrielle. But even she could not compare to the simple powers of your love and compassion for others, the gift of your storytelling and your ability to forgive. These are far greater strengths, strengths that captivated and overpowered me. I know that now.”

As both Gabrielle and I took in the words that I had just spoken, I realized that I had not yet actually answered her original question. “Gabrielle,” I continued. “Callisto lied about Borias. I didn’t have him murdered. He was murdered by one of my men, but I didn’t order it. I didn’t want it. When I learned which one of my men murdered Borias, I personally murdered that man.”

“Why was Borias killed, Xena?”

“That was my world, Gabrielle,” I said. “Part of the game of conquering the world was murder; ruthless, heartless, territorial. No one reason ever existed.”

“I see,” she whispered.

“As for Marcus Agrippa,” I said, “yes, he was my lover, but only for a short time. He had joined my army around the same time as Palaemon and Cassius Rommodus. I cared about him for much of the same reason that I cared about my brother and M’Lila and Lao Ma. He was a good man with a kind soul who was forced to exist in a corrupt world. But I didn’t love him enough to sacrifice my power-hungry ambitions.”

“Why didn’t you tell me about him when you told me about Marius and Callisto, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.

“Because there was no reason to, Gabrielle,” I answered. “Callisto wasn’t entirely honest about my situation with Marcus either. Marcus ended our relationship before I began my affair with Callisto. He ended it because of my plan to seduce Callisto, but he was out of the landscape when Callisto and I began our affair.”

“But didn’t he fight in your army, Xena?”

“Marcus wasn’t a battlefield warrior, Gabrielle,” I said. “He was a strategist. He organized battles and oversaw my spies, but he was definitely instrumental in our defeat of Caesar.”

“You could have mentioned him when you told me about Callisto, Xena,” Gabrielle concluded.

“I suppose I didn’t want to further trouble you with revealing still more of my former sex partners, Gabrielle.”

“Well, when you were having sex with Callisto, wasn’t she the only one at the time?”

I cleared my throat. “Uh, no,” I said as I diverted my eyes away from Gabrielle. “I had body slaves.”

Gabrielle stood up and walked over to the table. She refilled her empty goblet. Her back was to me. “Xena,” she said, “are there any other past loves that I should know about?”

“Marcus was the last person that meant anything at all to me… before you,” I responded.

* * * *

Gabrielle and I had spent much of the afternoon talking. Although I was initially scared to divulge my past sexual relationships with her, I was glad that we were getting things out in the open. I actually felt relief that she was learning all of this information about me. I still had one significant piece of history to divulge, but I had severe trepidation about how she would take it. I decided that, at that time, she had had enough Warrior Princess history to process for one day.

Later in the afternoon, we joined Bahri, Demi, Mia, Illiana, the Parisii couple and the Amazons for theatre. We walked over to one of the Roman amphitheaters and watched a rather silly pantomime performed by two Persian immigrants. Gabrielle suggested the pantomime so that our non-Latin speaking companions could enjoy the entertainment as well. It was delightful watching Gabrielle laugh hysterically at the physical antics of the performers. I found myself diverting my attention to her quite a few times as we were being entertained. I could literally feel the warmth that had months ago replaced the hardness and cold of my heart.

After the show ended, Octavius had arranged for a large carriage to take us back to the palace. During our short ride back, a brief but troubling conversation ensued.

“May I ask a question, Conqueror?” queried Bahri.

“Yes you may, Field Sergeant,” I responded.

“The barbarian Niall and that woman Callisto,” she began, “will they be receiving any type of training as gladiators, my Liege? Are gladiators even trained to fight?”

Gabrielle, who was sitting next to me, turned her body toward me and wrapped her arm around mine. “That’s a good question, Bahri,” she said. “I’m curious as well, Xena.”

“They will be trained in a special school that the Romans call a ludi,” I advised. “It’s a tough school, very disciplined, but if they survive, they’ll be as skilled as any of my greatest warriors on the battlefield.”

“If I may say so, my Liege,” Bahri continued, “Commander Palaemon told me that Niall was already a very skilled warrior.”

“Well, then I expect him to excel in his studies, Field Sergeant,” I stated.

“Do you think Callisto will make it through training, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.

“I fucking hope not.” Gabrielle released my arm. My words were harsh, but I was being honest. A successful gladiator who survives numerous combats would likely become a hero to the Roman citizenry and could eventually gain freedom. I didn’t want Callisto released back out into my world, to do the gods only know what. I wanted her to die in the Colosseum and I secretly wanted to be present and watch it happen.

After returning to the palace, Gabrielle and I went to take a private bath. We didn’t speak, but the covetous look on her face and the heat in my loins told me that a long night of glorious passion awaited us. Remembering something that she had said to me after my return from my war in Rome several months before, I had an idea.

After we dried ourselves and dressed in our evening robes, I moved a stool to the middle of the floor in the bedchamber as Gabrielle was helping herself to a bowl of grapes. I asked her to sit on the stool. She grabbed a goblet of water and complied with my request.

I walked up behind her and, kneeling, I pulled back a lock of hair covering her ear. “I want to dance for you, Princess Gabrielle,” I whispered in her ear. “Would you like that?” When I licked her lobe, she flinched and then looked at me startled. I walked around and faced her. “Would you?”

She nodded maniacally. Slowly and seductively, I removed my robe. It was all that I had had on. Still facing her, I spread my legs and sat on her thighs. I slipped my hands up under her robe and began lightly stroking her breasts. When I leaned in and gently kissed her neck, she dropped her goblet. It shattered on the floor.

I stood back up and began dancing in front of her. I danced for a few moments, circling her a couple times. When I was behind her again, I grabbed her robe and pulled it down off of her shoulders and then began massaging her neck and shoulders. I then sensuously rubbed her chest and breasts from behind as I planted light kisses on the back of her neck. She fidgeted from my touches until the robe was completely down to her waist. I then returned to face her. Her look of desire and the hardened nipples on her firm breasts were igniting me. Getting down on my knees, I opened her robe and licked. I licked from the blossoming nub of her sex up to her belly button, up to her chest, and then up to her neck. When I reached her chin, I began sucking it. I then brought her lips to mine. I kissed her passionately as I held the back of her neck with my right hand and kneaded her inviting breasts with my left. I was still on my knees.

“What do you want, my Princess?” I whispered after breaking the kiss.

“I want you…now,” she demanded before grabbing my arm and escorting me over to the bed. She forced me prone and then, spreading my legs, she slipped her tongue inside of me. As she licked, she enthusiastically stroked and massaged my inner thighs and pelvis. Gabrielle’s passionate lovemaking sent me over the edge in a matter of moments. As my body was still convulsing with the effects of climax, she moved up and positioned her sex on my face. I began feverishly licking her tangy center, stopping only for a moment to profess, “Mmm… tasty Gabrielle,” before resuming. Moments later, Gabrielle screamed when she reached climax.

After her storm passed, she laid down next to me and wrapped her arm around my waist. Her beautiful green eyes met mine. She looked startled. “I can’t believe I did that, Xena,” she said.

“Did what, Gabrielle?”

“Took you like that!”

“Do you hear me complaining?”

“No, but…”

I looked at her and smiled. “Hmm?”

“You temptress, you,” she said as she playfully nudged my arm.

“Only for you, my Gabrielle,” I said. “Only for you.”

Moments later, desire rekindled and we made love again.

* * * *

The following morning, Gabrielle and I both decided that it was time to head back to Greece. We were eating morning meal with our companions in the stateroom when we clasped hands and she whispered to me that she was ready to go home. I agreed. Palaemon, Octavius and Tubero eventually joined us. I had noticed since our arrival in Rome that Palaemon seemed to harbor a budding interest in the Amazon Ephiny. He inconspicuously sat next to her during the poetry recital. Because of some matters I had him attend to, he didn’t accompany us to the pantomime, but he approached our entourage before we began our walk to the amphitheater for no particular reason other than to show off to Ephiny the crisp new uniform that I had him wear.

Watching him that morning, babbling to Ephiny like some lovesick schoolboy, caused me to snicker out loud.

“What’s so funny, Xena?” Gabrielle turned to me and asked.

I leaned down and whispered in her ear, “Ephiny’s not Sapphic, is she?”

Gabrielle whispered in my ear, “I don’t think so, why?”
I whispered in Gabrielle’s ear, “Because someone’s got a crush on her,” before turning my head to indicate Palaemon.

Gabrielle giggled. “Oh, how cute,” she whispered in my ear. I threw my arm around her shoulder and chuckled in her ear. She chuckled in mine. We were both giggling like gossiping little girls when Octavius spoke up.

“Conqueror and friends,” he began, “I wish to propose a toast to you, our esteemed guests from Greece and beyond… It’s been delightful having you as our honored company.” He raised his goblet. “To you!”

As we raised our goblets, two scantily clad athletes entered the room. “Our morning entertainment,” Octavius announced as the two men began doing a series of strange, yet intriguing acrobatic feats. Everyone seemed to enjoy the performance. Everyone except Bahri, who turned up her nose in disbelief.

“You’ve gotta be kidding,” she said. “Does someone actually pay these guys to do this?”

“Ita, pecuniam nobis re vera solunt hoc agere,” one of the athletes proclaimed before flipping over the other athlete. Bahri turned to Palaemon for the translation.

“He said, ‘Yes, they actually pay us money to do this,’” Palaemon obliged.

The resulting laughter filled the entire room.

After our morning entertainment, Octavius wanted to show me the state of his Roman troops. “I’d be very interested, Octavius,” I advised.

Our entire group was taken to a military practice field that was adjacent to the palace. Octavius had assembled his finest palace guardsmen to stand in platoon formation.

“Well, Governor,” I said, “let’s see what they’ve got.”

Octavius raised his arm, indicating to his commanding officer to order the men to engage in defensive drills. I was impressed, but I had a lesson to teach.

When Octavius’ commander ordered the men to stop, I approached him. “Present to me your strongest swordsman,” I told the commander.

“Yes, Conqueror,” he said before gesturing to a very tall and muscular palace guard.

When the man approached me, I turned to Bahri. “Approach, Field Sergeant,” I said.

The differences in height, weight and strength were painfully obvious to everyone. “Engage,” I ordered.

The large guardsman drew his sword and growled at the Egyptian. Bahri stood fast, even smiled a bit. When the guardsman raised his sword to strike, Bahri kicked him in his groin. When he dropped his sword and grabbed his privates, she kicked him in his belly. When he doubled over, she kicked his face as if it was a play ball. He fell back unconscious. Bahri was still smiling.

“Three blows, Governor,” I said, proud at my little Field Sergeant and Gabrielle’s good friend. “Bahri doesn’t speak much Latin, but she knows three words that are tantamount to her existence as a member of MY Imperial Guard.”

Bahri unsheathed her sword and raised it. “Compone! Accomoda! Supera!” she shouted.

Octavius nodded. “Improvise, adapt, and overcome,” he translated. “Words for a woman to live by.”

“Yes, and that’s why women make the best warriors, Governor,” I said before turning on my heals and departing; Gabrielle and our entourage of friends in tow.

* * * *

Our group departed for Greece later that afternoon. Before leaving, I instructed Vice-Governor Tubero to keep me abreast of Niall and Callisto’s progress in the ludi and to inform me when both of them met their ends in the Colosseum.

Turning away from dark matters of state, I was pleased that our new Parisii friends decided to journey to Greece with us. They were quickly learning our language and I was beginning to sense that either an enlistment in my Imperial Guard or indoctrination into the Amazon Nation was in their future.

It took us less than three full days to cross outer Rome. We moved fast during the days and set up camp in the evenings rather than bask in the luxurious accommodations of the local politicians whose territories we passed. I found that staying with these blowhards caused us to waste valuable time and I was anxious to get back to Greece and marry Gabrielle. When we finally reached the Messapian village of Brundi at the shores of the Adriatic Sea, one of my Corinthian ships was docked there and ready to sail us home.

During our days of travel through outer Rome, Gabrielle and I talked about a lot of things. She told me that she wanted to see an end to slavery in the Realm. “Slavery destroys families,” she told me, remarking how although she understood how hard it was for me to watch my brother die, for years it had been equally hard for her not even knowing whether her parents or her sister were dead or alive. I tried to restrain tears when she told me that she still considered my allowing her to see her parents and attend Lila’s funeral to be one of the greatest gifts that I gave her.

I do have some decisions to make about slavery.

I told her more about Lao Ma. I spoke about her great philosophical teachings and her extraordinary healing powers. Gabrielle, as both a student of philosophy and a novice healer, was very interested in my tales of the Eastern beauty who was my mentor and first love.

I also told Gabrielle about Cirra. I told her how that Macedonian village, along with several other villages along the Aliakmon River, was destroyed in the months following my attack of the northern Amazons. Callisto was probably one of a lucky few to survive the brutality of those days, and in retrospect, I could understand why her hatred toward me was so strong.

Gabrielle and I spoke about our childhoods. It was wonderful to learn that, as children, neither one of us were “ordinary” girls. I never played with dolls or dallied in a kitchen. I much preferred to fish with Lyceus or throw ball with Seumius and the other village boys. Girls in Gabrielle’s village weren’t allowed to attend school, but instead of learning to sew, cook or deliver babies, Gabrielle and her sister would sneak off during the day and get into all kinds of mischief. Of course, they often got caught, but her misadventures were perfect plots for the stories that she concocted and told to the other village children, including her friend Seraphin.

I told Gabrielle about the fate of my father. “He was killed, Gabrielle… by my mother.”

“By the gods, Xena!” she gasped.

I explained that my father was often absent from our home. He would join a band of warlords here or there and be gone for months, leaving my mother to raise us and operate her tavern alone. I explained that when he was home, he was often crazed with drink and would abuse my mother. I told her that when I was seven, he came home after having been gone for eight months. He was drunk and started hitting my mother. My brother Toris, who was twelve at the time, tried to fight him off of her. He knocked Toris unconscious and then came at me. He grabbed me by my throat and said that he was going to kill me. He was crazed, saying that I had to die. Frantic, my mother grabbed an ax and sliced his back open.

“Was your mother punished by the village magistrate?” Gabrielle asked after I finished my story.

“No,” I responded. “My mother said that she acted in my defense and the magistrate pardoned her. There was no reason not to. My mother was and still is a respected citizen of Amphipolis. My father was a pile of horse dung.”

Talking about the darker elements of my past was deeply painful to me, but Gabrielle was always there, to brush away a tear, to hold my hands, to embrace me. I love her so much.

The night before we arrived in Brundi, I asked Gabrielle if she had ever been in love before me.

“There was a boy from my village,” she started. “His name was Perdicas. We were very good friends as children, and as adolescents he became my boyfriend. When we both reached 16, we were betrothed.”

My heart began racing. “Did you love him?”

“Yes I did, Xena,” Gabrielle said. “He was a kind and gentle boy and he loved to hear my stories, but I’m not sure if I would have actually ended up married to him.”

“Why?”

“I couldn’t see myself spending the rest of my life in Poteidaia, Xena. I didn’t want to sit around milking goats and having babies. I wanted to be a bard.”

“But you were betrothed to marry him,” I exclaimed. “How were you going to get out of that?”

“Well, I thought that maybe he would be willing to leave Poteidaia with me,” she responded. “Otherwise, I had planned to run away to Athens.”

I thought for a moment. Slavery could have hampered her dream, but ironically Gabrielle was able to fulfill it as a slave. She realized this as well. “Funny, Xena,” she said. “I know now that I would have never been admitted to the Academy in Athens because of my illiteracy, but you let me learn to read and write.”

“Yes, but only because of my love for you.”

“Perhaps, but I’ve been telling my stories… and writing them.”

“Yes, Gabrielle.” I kissed her beautiful hands. “Was Perdicas handsome?” I asked.

“Yes, I think so,” she said. “But he’s no Xena Warrior Princess.” She smiled.

“Did you and he ever… ever… anything?”

“We would kiss in his barn loft,” she said, blushing. “Boys don’t know how to kiss, though. He would pucker his lips too hard. He never…”

She brought her lips to mine.

“… touched them gently…”

She brushed her tongue across my lips.

“… I never felt his warm tongue in my mouth…”

She brushed her tongue across my teeth.

“… his lips weren’t soft like yours…”

Passion ensued.

* * * *

Once we reached Brundi, Gabrielle and I gathered our entourage together to advise them of our plans.

“We’ll be sailing to a sea port near Ambracia,” I explained. “Gabrielle and I will be continuing on to the Amazon village in Thessaly. I expect that her Sisters will accompany us.”

“Absolutely, Conqueror,” Ephiny spoke up. “But why are you coming to our village?”

“Xena and I want to have our union ceremony there,” Gabrielle chimed in. “Do you think that Queen Melosa will preside over the ceremony?”

“Queen Melosa would do anything you ask of her, Princess,” Ephiny said, and then looking at me, added, “Regardless.”

I turned my attention to Bahri and the palace servants. “I summoned you folks to Rome because I had originally planned to have the ceremony there. Of course, Gabrielle prefers that we unite in the presence of all of her Sisters and friends, and what Gabrielle wants, Gabrielle gets.”

Demi, Mia and Illiana chuckled. “We would be honored to attend your Royal union ceremony, my Liege,” Demi said.

Gabrielle grabbed Bahri’s arm. “I would like for you to be there too, Bahri,” she said.

“Well, you know I’m there!”

I turned to my loyal Chief Commander. “Palaemon?”

“It would be my sincere pleasure, my Liege” he remarked; obviously happy that he was going to allowed to spend more time with Ephiny.

“There are others that we would like to be present,” I said to Palaemon. “When we arrive in Ambracia, send word to my Commanders in Corinth, Athens, Thessaly and Thrace. I’m sure Gabrielle would like others from the palace to attend as well.”

“How much time will I have to assemble all of these people, Conqueror?” Palaemon inquired.

I looked at Gabrielle as my heart began racing again. “Gabrielle and I will only be in the village for a day or two, to set things in motion. We have to go to Amphipolis… and Poteidaia, but we’ll be back in three or four days. That should be plenty of time to assemble everybody.”

Palaemon’s eyes widened at my revelation. Ephiny spoke up. “Our village is going to get crowded, but we Amazons always welcome ceremonious visitors.”

III. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY

As we neared Poteidaia, I noticed that the ever stoic Destroyer of Nations was shivering like a frightened kitten. Over the last year, I had discovered that seeking forgiveness was the hardest thing for Xena to confront.

We had landed in Greece only four days before. Our entire entourage of friends from Rome; Commander Palaemon, Field Sergeant Bahri, the librarian Demi, Illiana the dressmaker, Mia the chambermaid, the two Parisii women, Hadiya and Stanislas, and my Amazon Sisters accompanied us to the Amazon village. Once there, my Queen established guest lodgings for our friends from Corinth after agreeing to preside over the ceremony. We left the village a day and a half before arriving in Poteidaia. Xena requested that Stanislas and Hadiya join us. I think she planned to use them in some military capacity, if the situation warranted. I almost laughed to myself at the prospect. The men of my homeland, including my father, were simple farmers and herdsmen. My father wasn’t even a skilled hunter, let alone a warrior. But as is the Conqueror’s usual practice, she never goes into a “situation” without backup, and hostile future in-laws were about as grave a situation that she had ever had to face.

We arrived on horseback in the early afternoon. Xena insisted that we set up lodging at a small military outpost just north of Poteidaia. We were able to bathe and eat an afternoon meal before proceeding on to my parents’ farm. I noticed that at the outpost, Xena barely touched her food. Her eyes were cast upward; her mind was many lengths away. She also meticulously cleaned her battledress, polished her breastplate and other armor and sharpened her weapons. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to make a good first impression or if she was preparing for war.

Clean and sated, I was ready to head over to my parents’ home. Xena, who looked absolutely stunning in her cleaned and polished attire, wasn’t sharing my enthusiasm.

“Perhaps you should ride over there alone, Gabrielle,” she suggested. “You know, break the ice.”

I grabbed her trembling hand. “Are you nervous, my Conqueror?” I asked.

“NO!” she yelled, yanking her hand from mine. “I’m sorry,” she immediately apologized. “I… I guess that I’ve never been in this situation before.”

I placed my hands on her shapely hips. “Having to seek blessings from the parents of the woman you are to marry?”

Xena looked into my eyes. “That and asking them to forgive me for shaming their daughter in front of them.”

I cupped her cheek. “Seeking their forgiveness is the best you can do, Xena,” I said. “The rest is up to them.”

When the four of us arrived at my parents’ farm, Father was in the front yard clearing away some brush. I suspected that Mother was preparing evening meal. Recognizing me, despite my Amazon attire, shorter hair and having just dismounted from a horse, Father ran to me and gave me a hard, yet loving embrace.

“By the gods, look at you!” he exclaimed. “You’re beautiful!”

“Thank you Father.”

“HECUBA! HECUBA!” he called out to my Mother. “GABRIELLE’S HERE!”

The door burst open and my mother ran out with the sprint of a woman half her age. “By the grace of Hestia!” she proclaimed as she threw her arms around me. “You look so… so different. These clothes, your… your body. What’s happened to you?”

“You disapprove, Mother?”

“Absolutely not!” she stated in excited glee. “You look… free!”

“I am free, Mother,” I said. “I was freed a week after I left here.”

Father, who had noticed the three tall women on horseback accompanying me, turned to me. “Why?” he asked. “Did that monster finally have enough of you? Did she find some new girl to torture?”

I immediately looked at Xena, who had looked away. I was surprised that my parents hadn’t recognized her yet, but it had been almost five years and they had only seen her once. Xena looked colder then, evil. The Conqueror was dressed in elaborate royal robes, had on heavy makeup, and her hair was pinned up and accentuated with a crown. My Xena of that afternoon looked nervous, but refreshingly beautiful with her sharp battledress, blushing cheeks and lovely, long and flowing black hair. Sitting atop Argo and alongside Stanislas and Hadiya, who were also outfitted in military attire that was provided for them at the outpost, Xena barely stood out next to the fiery redheaded Stanislas and black-skinned Hadiya.

Mother began crying. “Why did you not come back home then?”

“Mother, I…”
“Yes,” Father chimed in. “Perdicas has finally left that beast’s army and he is still unmarried, and I don’t think that he would hold it against YOU that you’re not, you know, untouched.”

I looked up at Xena again, who was now desperately fighting tears.

“Father, but…”
“He has inherited his father’s farm, Gabrielle,” Father continued. “Over a dozen goats and plenty of room in the house for raising children.”

I gently pulled away from my parents’ embrace. “Mother, Father, I’m an Amazon now.”

“An Amazon?” Mother said, perturbed.

“After Xe… the Conqueror freed me, I went on the road as a traveling bard,” I explained. “Circumstances arose and I met the Amazon tribe of Thessaly. I’ve been made a Sister of the tribe. I’m their Princess.”

“But that can’t be!” Father exclaimed. “Amazons are bloodthirsty savages. They hate men, rape women and murder children. They’re an abomination.”

“Where did you hear such lies, Father?” I was angered by my Father’s words, but then instantly remembered why staying in Poteidaia was so unappealing to me as a young girl. I could never truly adopt the closed-minded beliefs of my childhood friends and neighbors. It seemed that anyone who was not from our little province in Macedonia, who did not look like us or think the same way or worship the same gods, was somehow unworthy of existence. In a sense, their beliefs were more barbaric than the Conqueror’s lust for power.

Father returned his attention to the three women on horseback. “Are these some of your Amazons?” His tone was angry and disgusted.

“No, Father, these…” before I could continue, Xena jumped down off of Argo and stepped up to my parents and me.

“This is Hadiya,” she said, gesturing to our friend. “And this is Stanislas, her life mate. They are from the great island north of Gaul.”

At that moment, Father had apparently recognized the Conqueror. He ran over and grabbed his ax. Coming toward Xena, he raised it. “Get off of my land, you DEMON!”

Mother screamed. “Herodotus, NO! She’ll kill you!”

I grabbed my father’s arms as he held the ax over his head. “No she won’t,” I said to Mother before returning my attention to Father. “Put it down, Father,” I told him.

“No, Gabrielle, she…”

“Put it down.”

Tears began streaming down Father’s face, but he lowered the ax. “Let’s go inside,” I said. “I want to explain everything to you.”

“That beast is not welcome in MY house,” Father said.

“Fine,” I responded. “She’ll stay out here with the others, but I need to explain everything… please.”

Mother grabbed Father’s left arm and as I held his right, we escorted him inside the house. As we walked to the door, I turned to Xena and said in a voiceless whisper, “Stay here.”

Mother prepared warm broth for the three of us and we sat down at the kitchen table. I talked. They listened. I told them about the last incredible ten months. I told them about

my return to Corinth after Lila’s funeral and the week that Xena and I embraced. I told them how I professed my love for Xena and how she freed me. I told them about Xena’s long, unrequited love for me and how her fear of that love drove her to do the heinous things that she did to me.

I told them about Xena’s war against Marcus Antonius and my friendship with Bahri, about Xena’s return from war and my decision to leave Corinth and why. I explained my encounters with the Amazons and the wonderful things that I learned from them. I told them about how Xena was later instrumental in bringing to justice the man who murdered the Amazon Princess whose right of caste I bear, and about how she helped to reunite my tribe with the northern Amazons that she had long ago disenfranchised.

When I told them about the events leading up to and after Xena’s Hard Death, I saw a change in Mother’s face. Up to that point, both of my parents had held hard expressions as I spoke, but Mother’s face became softer, sadder. I wanted to believe that she was beginning to make sense of this implausible story that I was telling.

I pressed on, telling them about our amazing adventures in Albion and Rome. I didn’t mention Xena’s proposal of marriage or my acceptance. I wanted to save that until after Xena had had her chance to seek forgiveness, but I did tell them about my abduction in Rome and Xena’s successful rescue of me, as well as her decision to give me the role of Jurist as to the fates of Niall of Calleva and Callisto.

Finally, I told them about Xena. I told them about a girl with a troubled childhood who lost her younger brother when she was 19. I told them about the tremendous forces that brought about the Destroyer of Nations. “I know there is really no excuse for the monster that she became,” I told them, “but she has been working hard to make things right. I know she has a very long way to go, and I don’t think she’ll ever believe that she can atone for everything, but she knows that she has the power to enrich the lives of many in the Realm, and I truly think she wants to do that.”

I could tell that Father was unmoved by my explanation, but Mother seemed to be considering. “Why did you come here, Gabrielle?” Mother asked.

“Xena wishes to ask you something.”

Mother stood up and went outside. Father and I followed her.

Xena was standing by Argo and Chulytis. I immediately noticed that she had removed her breastplate, her greaves, gauntlets and her weapons. Stanislas and Hadiya had dismounted their horses and wandered over to my parents’ well to quench their thirst. When Mother approached her, Xena stepped away from the horses.

“What do you want to ask me, Destroyer of Nations?”

Xena appeared to be taken aback, but she knew the purpose of our visit. “I’m seeking your forgiveness for what I did to your daughter, for everything that I did to your daughter, and for what I did to you and your husband. I am so very sorry. I love Gabrielle very much and I want to spend the rest of my life proving it to her.”

“Has my daughter forgiven you?”

“She says that she has.”

“Well, she’s a bigger person than I am.”

At that moment, I ran up to them. “Please mother,” I said as I took her hands into mine. “I know this isn’t easy, but…”
“Easy?” she quipped. “Easy? Do you know what isn’t easy? Watching the child that I brought into this world, the child that drank milk from my breasts as a baby, the child who depended on me for everything, the child that I loved more than anything, stand in front of me and expect me to forgive the creature who beat her, who scarred her, who took her body whenever she pleased.”

Mother turned to Xena with a rage in her eyes that I had never seen before. “YOU ANIMAL!” she yelled as she started pummeling Xena with her fists. Xena stood there and took the beating, the tears streaming from her eyes the only clear indication of the pain she was feeling. Mother hit Xena’s chest over and over. She hit Xena until she was too exhausted to continue. Backing away slightly, she slapped Xena across the face. “I hate you!”

At this point I was crying, but I made no attempt to stop Mother. It was obvious that Xena expected this. That’s why she removed her armor and weapons. It was also likely that she welcomed it. When Mother backed away, Father approached. He spit at Xena’s feet. “Get off my land,” he said.

Xena turned and mounted Argo. A click of her tongue and the horse took off. “Goodbye Mother,” I said. “Goodbye Father. I love you both.” I mounted Chulytis and took off after Xena. As I rode away, I looked back briefly and saw Stanislas hand Mother a small scroll. I assumed that she and Hadiya left only moments after I departed.

Xena had returned to our small bedchamber at the military outpost. When I entered the room, she was sitting on the bed. I sat down next to her.

“That went well,” she said before burying her head in my shoulder and crying.

I began stroking her beautiful black hair. “We’ll leave tomorrow and head north to Amphipolis, Xena,” I said.
* * * *

Cyrene’s Tavern was the center point for socializing in Amphipolis. Residents of that village and many neighboring villages came to eat, drink and enjoy the local entertainment. I mused that if I had ever made it that far north as a traveling bard, I probably would have performed in her establishment.

I walked in with Hadiya and Stanislas. Xena had insisted that for this part of our mission, she needed to make a grand entrance alone.

Taking our seats at a table, the woman I believed to be Xena’s mother came right over to us. “Ah, strangers,” she said. “We always welcome strangers here at Cyrene’s.”

I regarded the woman. Beautiful, like her daughter, but much shorter. Cyrene was a woman of about 50 years of age, with buxom breast, a perky smile and the same captivating blue eyes.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hello to you,” Cyrene responded. “And where have you women journeyed from?”

“This is Hadiya and Stanislas,” I said. “They are of the Parisii clan from Albion.”

“Britons!” Cyrene exclaimed. “They’ve come a long way.” She smiled a smile that reminded me of Xena’s.

“I am Gabrielle, Bard of Poteidaia,” I announced.

The smile was instantly gone. “Where’s Xena?”

By the gods, I thought. “How do you know of my connection with Xena?”

“Word traveled here months ago of a pretty young bard named Gabrielle who told tall tales of my infamous daughter,” she explained. “The story has it that you were her body slave, but that she freed you out of compassion. Is that true?”
“Yes, ma’am, it is.”

“Where is she?”

“She’ll be here shortly, Cyrene,” I said.

“Well, while we wait for the Destroyer of Nations, would you women like some cider?” she asked the three of us.

We nodded. As she turned away, Hadiya gently grabbed my forearm. “I have question, Gabrielle,” she said. “I not understand how people of this village know about you as bard and no one hear about you in your village. Even your parents, they know not about you either.”

“Yes,” Stanislas chimed in. “And we further away north from Thessaly. Why is that?”

“My village is quite closed up,” I admitted. “They don’t welcome outsiders as folks around here apparently do.”

“Strange, very strange,” Hadiya said as Cyrene returned with three warm mugs of cider.

“Drink up, girls,” she said. “This is my house brew. I think you’ll like it.”

The cider was strong and it felt like it was going right to my head, but it tasted wonderful. We sat and sipped the hot fermented drink for a few moments before Xena entered the tavern.

“Hello Mother,” she said.

“Xena the Conqueror,” Cyrene announced as she walked over to Xena. The entire tavern went silent. All eyes were on the two women. “I’ve met your little slave.”

“I freed her.”

“So I’ve heard. Must be a first.”

“It was.”

“What’s your story, Destroyer of Nations?”

“Do you like her, Mother?”

“Yes, she’s very lovely.”

“I’m in love with her.”

“I didn’t know Xena the Conqueror was capable of love.”

“Well, I am.”

“That’s nice, Conqueror. Tell me, what does she call you?”

“She calls me Xena. We’re going to join in union, Mother.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Am I invited?”

Xena pulled out a small scroll like the one Stanislas had handed to my mother. “Yes, you are.”

“She’s a beautiful young woman, Xena,” Cyrene said as she grabbed the scroll. “You finally did something right.”

“I thank the gods for her everyday, Mother.”

Cyrene turned away from Xena and walked over to our table. I guess this is how Xena and her mother talk to each other, I mused as she approached us. The tavern was still silent and attentive. “I know that your life with my daughter hasn’t been easy, Gabrielle,” she said. “I know what she’s capable of.”

“No, it wasn’t,” I responded. “But it’s good now.”

“I’ll attend your consortium ceremony, but if she ever lays another hand on you, kill her.”

* * * *

That night, we stayed in Cyrene’s inn, which was adjacent to the tavern. I had another one of those strange dreams. It was of an incident that occurred about six months before I was freed.

I was summoned to the Conqueror’s bedchamber for service. When I entered her bedchamber, the room was very dark. I had to feel my way to my reporting spot. The Conqueror came up behind me.

“Afraid, Gabrielle?” she asked.

I was afraid. “Yes, my Lady,” I responded.

“Good,” she said as she grabbed my neck and walked me over to my side of the bed. “Lay down,” she commanded.

I laid down and assumed my servicing position. She laid on top of me and grabbed my left hand.

“I killed three people today,” she boasted. “Killed them with my bare hands.” She was stroking my palm with her thumb.

It was very dark, but light from a full moon came through one of the windows and I was able to make out the Conqueror’s majestic blue eyes. “Are you afraid, Gabrielle?” she asked again.

“Yes, my Lady,” I repeated.

“Afraid you’ll be number four?”

“Yes, my Lady.”

The Conqueror looked at my hand. “Your hands are so small, Gabrielle,” she said. “I don’t think you could ever take a life with them, could you?”

“No, my Lady.”

“Not even mine?”

“No, my Lady.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t wish to kill you, my Lady,” I said.

The bedchamber was silent as the Conqueror began gently running her fingers all around my hand. After moments of doing this, the Conqueror took in a heavy sigh and laced my left fingers with her right fingers. “Don’t be afraid. I don’t wish to kill you either, Gabrielle,” she whispered before positioning herself to give me oral pleasure.

I awakened before dawn the next day. Xena was beside me and was wide-awake as well.

“Did you sleep, Xena?”

“Not really,” she responded.

“I’m sorry about my parents, Xena,” I said.

“Don’t be, Gabrielle. I didn’t expect their forgiveness. I’m just glad I didn’t have to prevent your father from axing me.”

“Oh, Xena,” I said as I took her in an embrace.

Xena gripped my arms and pulled herself from my embrace. “Gabrielle,” she said, “there’s something that you need to know, something I haven’t yet told you about me.”

I was immediately concerned. “This sounds serious,” I said.

“It is,” she said. “It may change the way you feel about me. I’m regretting that we’ve come this far with our union announcement. This may change your mind, but you need to know.”

I grabbed Xena’s hands. “I’ve accepted so much of your dark past, Xena,” I professed. “I can’t imagine anything that will cause me not to want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

I embraced Xena again. “I want to believe that,” she said.

IV. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG

The time had come for me to tell Gabrielle that last, darkest part of my past. Holding her in my arms, I took a deep breath and began.

“Gabrielle,” I said as I hoped that my heart wouldn’t stop beating, “shortly after I left Chin with Borias, something happened.”

“What, Xena?”

“We went to Thrace. It was where we met the northern Amazons. I became ill.”

“What was wrong with you?”

I took a deep breath to slow my pounding heart. “I wasn’t sure at first, but I suspected. That shamaness in Thrace confirmed it for me.”

“Confirmed what?”

“I was with child, Gabrielle,” I said as I looked into her wide, shocked eyes.

“Oh, Xena!”

I took another deep breath. “I didn’t tell Borias right away, but he had to know eventually.” Another deep breath. “I was with child when I murdered Queen Cyane and the leaders of the northern Amazons, Gabrielle. I was with child when I pillaged and murdered throughout Thrace in those days.”

Gabrielle still held me, but she looked down. “I kept the pregnancy a secret from my men,” I continued. “As my belly got bigger, I wore heavier clothing. The weather was getting colder, so the timing was perfect. I was in Macedonia when the baby was born. Only two female body slaves knew of the pregnancy. I had sold off the rest of my body slaves when I started showing. The two that remained helped deliver the child. It was a boy.”

“What happened to him?”

“I returned to Thrace and gave him to Toris and his wife Iolanthe to raise,” I said. “The two sons that I told you Toris has, my son is one of his two boys. He doesn’t know that I’m his mother.”

“What about Borias?”

“Borias had split our armies and left me when I was five months pregnant,” I explained. “He hated what I had done to the northern Amazons. He hated the monster that I had become. I assumed that he had decided to abandon me and the baby, not that I really cared at the time.

“I didn’t know this then, but when I was close to delivery, Borias attempted to penetrate my stronghold. He had planned to take the baby away from me when it was born. He didn’t think I would be a fit mother. He had approached one of my two body slaves and asked for her assistance in abducting my child after its birth. She told him that she would help him, but that was a lie. She alerted one of my lieutenants of his presence in my stronghold. That lieutenant fought and killed Borias.

“I was sick with labor when all of this was happening. I would learn later that my son was born the day that his father was murdered. I killed the lieutenant and I killed that body slave as vengeance for the death of my son’s father.”

“What about the other body slave, Xena?” Gabrielle queried. “Did she betray you as well?”

“The other body slave was Mia, Gabrielle,” I confessed and then watched as her eyes widened with surprise. “She is the only slave that I had at that time that is still with me. She’s the only one, besides my mother, Toris, Iolanthe… and now you, that knows about my son.”

Gabrielle thought for a few moments. I imagined that she was processing all that I had revealed to her, the least of which was the fact that I had been, at one time, physically intimate with one of her closest friends. “You told me that you killed that shamaness because she tried to have you assassinated,” she finally said. “But she knew about your pregnancy as well.”

“If you’re wondering whether or not I killed her to silence her as well, yes, that was part of it, although I had already left her territory early in my pregnancy.”

Gabrielle was silent for many moments, but to my surprise, she was still holding me.

“Xena,” she said after the long quiet, “why did you give your son to Toris? Why didn’t you keep him with you?”

This was the question that I feared. “Because if he had stayed with me,” I responded, “he would have become a target for my enemies. He would have been exposed to things a child should never see, nor hear, nor experience.”

Gabrielle looked into my eyes. “Because I didn’t want my son to become like me,” I told her.

“You love your son, Xena?”

“I haven’t seen him since three days after he was born,” I said, “but deep down inside of me, I have loved him every day of his life. He is my child. He is of my body and giving him up was the most painful thing I had ever done.”

Gabrielle delicately ran her fingers down my cheek. “Well, perhaps now he should watch his mother get married.”

“I don’t want him to know that I gave birth to him, Gabrielle,” I said. “Iolanthe is the only mother he has ever known.”

“I know,” she responded. “Still, he should be there, with Toris, Iolanthe and their other son.”

I began quietly weeping. “You… you don’t find it revolting that I gave up my child?”

“Despite everything you were back then, Xena, you still wanted the best for your son,” Gabrielle said. “Toris wasn’t a fighter. He wasn’t a warrior. You knew that he wouldn’t abandon your son the way that your father had abandoned you and your family. Toris would be there for him.” She paused, then asked, “Tell me, does Toris have contact with your mother?”

“Of course,” I said. “Toris hasn’t disgraced her.”

“Then you have given your son a great gift, Xena. You’ve given him a normal childhood with a loving family and a doting grandmother.” She kissed my cheek. “You wouldn’t have been a good mother then, Xena,” Gabrielle said matter of factly. “You certainly weren’t mother material when I came into your service.”

Gabrielle was being honest. I wasn’t offended. “I was an animal,” I said, remembering what Gabrielle’s mother called me the day before.

“But you would make a fine mother now, Xena,” she said smiling.

I smiled as well. “You’d make a finer mother, Gabrielle,” I said.

Gabrielle and I relaxed in our comfortable embrace. I sighed once again, feeling that the weight of the world was finally lifted off of my shoulders.

“Xena,” Gabrielle said in an almost whisper, “what’s your son’s name?”

“Iolanthe named him Solan.”
V. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY

We left Amphipolis the morning that I had learned that Xena had a son. On our way back to Thessaly, I insisted that we stop by the home of my old childhood friend Seraphin. I wanted to tell her about the union ceremony and request her presence. Seraphin jumped for joy at the news and insisted on journeying with us to the Amazon village. She even brought her children and her mother with her.

We reached the Amazon village at noontime the next day. It was bustling. News of the union had spread fast in the five days that we were gone. Several of Xena’s loyal military leaders were present, including Commander Rhamos and the ever-pleasant Commander Glaphyra. More of my friends from the palace had also arrived, including Alithia, one of Xena’s chambermaids, her husband Khalit, Andronius, the head palace cook and Moyshe, the leather craftsman. I was also delighted to see several members of Xena’s Imperial Guard and the two women sergeants from Pharsalus, Favrie and Viera.

At one point, Queen Melosa approached Xena and me. Three female Imperial Guardsmen that I had occasionally seen patrolling the palace over the years, but had never actually met, accompanied her.

“Conqueror,” my Queen started, “I take it that you know Corporal Ambra, Corporal Mytilini and Sergeant Shay Na.”

Xena looked slightly startled. “Yes, but how do you know them?”

Queen Melosa looked at me. “Recall when I told you that we had Sisters in the Imperial Guard, Gabrielle?” she asked.

I smiled. “I recall.”

“Meet your Sisters in the Imperial Guard.”

I looked up at Xena and was relieved to see her smiling. “Operatives for the Amazons,” she said. “I’m impressed, Queen.”

I returned my attention to my Queen and the three Guardsmen. “Mytilini…” I said. “Interesting name.”

“My mother named me after the birthplace of the great Amazon, Sappho.”

* * * *

Although I was most happy to learn that many of my Sisters from the northern tribe had come to attend the ceremony as well, I was sad to learn that their elder, Comparat, the woman who had raised most of the tribe after Xena’s raids, had journeyed to the other side. I was told that she died peacefully in slumber and with happiness in her heart over the reunion and growth of the northern Amazons. Otere had been made Queen of the tribe, Ouri was their lead healer, Tania and Yakut their chief spiritualists, and the robust Escritt had become the tribe’s chief jurist.

Palaemon and Bahri also delivered bad news to me upon our return to the village of my tribe. My first slave Master, Chayym Eben, had died during our stay in Rome. When we were still there, Bahri had told me that Chayym was of ill health when he was removed from the palace dungeons, but that she had summoned, by request of the Conqueror, the palace healers to tend to him during his confinement in the Corinthian Military Compound. She said that he was improving when Xena summoned her to Rome. Palaemon was advised upon our return to Greece that Chayym’s chest had a severe ache that caused his breathing to stop.

Before turning in that night, I went to the village worship yurt and lit two candles; one for Comparat and one for Chayym. Xena still didn’t understand why I had any sympathy for him, but she respected my need to express my sadness at his loss.

I wanted to make love with Xena the night before our union, but I believed that she was still reeling from the events in Poteidaia and Amphipolis. I think she was also nervous about the prospect of Cyrene arriving with her brother Toris, his wife, their son and Xena’s son Solan. I couldn’t imagine having a child that I hadn’t seen since his birth, so I was very mindful of the mass of thoughts that were whirling through her mind that night. Instead of seducing her, as I would have liked, I held her lovingly. She responded with a tight embrace and a repeated “I love you” in my receptive ears.

Before dawn the next morning, two of my Sisters barged into my yurt and abruptly awakened Xena and me. It was Eirena, our head shamaness, and her assistant Jael.

“Time for cleansing!” she stated rather loudly as a very disoriented Xena instinctively reached for her chakram.

“Xena!” I shouted as I grabbed her arm.

Xena’s eyes flew open. “What the fuck!” she yelled. “It’s still dark out.”

“I know, Conqueror,” Eirena said. “The cleansing ritual takes place before the sun rises.”

We were taken to the baths yurt and literally scrubbed by Eirena and Jael. I was amused by this activity, but Xena was far less enthusiastic.

“What are you trying to do?” she said to Jael, “scrub my skin off?”

“This is an important part of your union, Conqueror,” Jael responded. “Amazons have been doing this cleansing ritual for centuries.”

“Well, hurry it up,” Xena demanded. “I’m not that dirty and I’m beginning to prune here.”

All I could do was laugh at the entire spectacle.

After the cleansing, Xena and I were dressed in ceremonial union tunics and then separated. I was taken to Daphis and Anthia, the two women who had trained me to be an Amazon. Xena was taken to Ephiny, probably because she was our leading tribal warrior. We were not allowed to eat or drink anything and we remained separated with our respective escorts in their yurts until the early afternoon, when everyone who had arrived in the village to observe the union ceremony was assembled at the village plaza.

When Daphnis and Anthia escorted me out of their yurt, I was shocked to see the number of people gathered to watch the ceremony. I recognized most of them, but my eyes fell upon two boys standing on either side of Cyrene. They were the same height and probably the same age. One boy had dark hair and eyes and closely resembled the nice-looking woman standing on the other side of him. The other boy had fairer hair and instantly recognizable blue eyes. I smiled at him, but then my eyes fell upon a woman standing off to their right and behind some other spectators.

“Mother,” I whispered to her. She wore a simple green dress and had a scarf over her head. She was weeping, but she smiled slightly and nodded.

I approached Queen Melosa, who was standing in front of the plaza banners. A moment later, Xena walked up and stood next to me. We regarded each other. Xena was the vision of perfect beauty. Moreover, she had a calm, happy expression on her face. I assumed that she had seen her mother and son.

“Your mother is here, Gabrielle,” she whispered as she smiled her most beautiful smile.

“So is yours, Xena,” I said, smiling back. “But I’m happiest to see Solan’s mother.”

We both looked at my Queen. “Down on your knees,” she ordered us. We complied.

“In the Amazon Nation,” Queen Melosa addressed the spectators, “an Amazon who professes her love for another, be it a woman or man, may request to have her love sanctified by the Nation. My Sister, Princess Gabrielle, Heiress to my throne, has requested that her love of Xena of Amphipolis, Conqueror of Greece, Empress of the Realm, be blessed in union. Bear witness, my friends and Sisters, to this blessing.”

Queen Melosa lifted a large and ornate bowl over our heads. “Before dawn, Gabrielle and Xena were purified of body. They were cleansed and have been denied food and drink. But they will receive their sustenance here.”

My Queen put the bowl down in front of us and reached into it. She lifted up some dirt that was in the bowl. “Amazons believe in the power of the Earth. It is our life force. It is part of a duality with the other elements that sustain us throughout our lives and the Goddesses that guide us through our lives. It is sacred.”

Balling the dirt up in her right hand, she sprinkled it in a line in front of us. “When an Amazon marries a man, she is awarded the two elements of female polarity. He is awarded the two elements of male polarity. It is that simple. When two women join in union, I take to task the designation of the four elements, one female and one male, to each woman.”

Queen Melosa looked at me. “Cup your hands, Gabrielle,” she said. I did. “Naturally, I start with the element of Earth itself.” She poured some of the dirt from the bowl into my hands. I rubbed my hands together. “Earth is female. She is the body. She is endurance, stability, survival, growth and wisdom. The Goddess Demeter blesses her. The color of Earth is the green of Gabrielle’s eyes, the sense of Earth is Gabrielle’s gentle touch, and the influence of Earth is Gabrielle’s undeniable power over the Destroyer of Nations. Gabrielle is Earth.”

My Queen looked at Xena. “Cup your hands, Xena,” she said. Xena cupped her hands. Queen Melosa took a flask and poured water into them. Xena rubbed the water onto her hands as Queen Melosa spoke. “Water is female. She is the womb. She is flowing, cleansing, sensual, emotional and intuitive. The Goddess Aphrodite blesses her. The color of Water is the blue of Xena’s eyes, the sense of Water is Xena’s taste for winning and ruling, and the influence of Water is Xena’s indisputable beauty. Xena is Water.”

Queen Melosa regarded the spectators. “When Earth and Water are joined, the soil of the Earth is nourished and vegetation blooms. Earth needs Water. The creation and life of every living thing comes from these basic female elements.”

Eirena and Jael approached Queen Melosa. My Queen gave Eirena the flask. She took it and poured water over my hands so that I could wash the dirt off. Eirena then gave me a cloth to dry them. Jael gave Xena a cloth to dry her wet hands as well.

Queen Melosa then pulled out a long hollow wicker tube and looked at me. She blew into the tube, which sent a burst of air to my face. “Air is male,” she said. “He is the breath. He is floating, imaginative, fresh, moving and clear. The Goddess Athena blesses him. The color of Air is the yellow of Gabrielle’s hair, the sense of Air is Gabrielle’s instinctive and keen smell, the influence of Air is Gabrielle’s supreme intellect. Gabrielle is Air.”

Queen Melosa ignited the hollow tube and waved it in front of Xena. “Fire is male. He is the energy. He is heat, strength, will, passionate, and destroying. The Goddess Hestia blesses him. The color of Fire is the red of the blood that Xena has lost and spilled, the sense of Fire is Xena’s amazing sight, and the influence of Fire is Xena’s remarkable charisma. Xena is Fire.”

Queen Melosa again regarded the spectators. “We need Fire to keep us warm and prepare our food, but without Air, Fire cannot light or breathe. Fire needs Air. The sustenance of life for every living thing comes from these basic male elements.”

She looked at us. “Rise, Gabrielle and Xena,” she said. We stood up.

“Gabrielle and Xena need each other. They want each other. When they join, when their four elements join, they become the Spirit. They are centered, throughout and about, north, south, east and west, up and down, transcendent, everywhere and nowhere. To each other, they are bodies joined, wombs intertwined, and they are the source of each other’s breath and energy. They are enlightened, they form a greater body, and they are soulmates.

Eirena gave me a ring. Jael gave one to Xena. We placed the rings on each other’s fingers.

“I bless your union, Gabrielle and Xena, in the presence of your mothers, your friends and family, your Amazon Sisters and under the watchful eyes of Artemis, Goddess of the Amazons. You are joined.”

Everyone began cheering as Xena and I bestowed upon each other a simple, tender kiss. We turned to face our friends and family, many of whom rushed to us to give us hugs and pats on our backs. I looked at Xena. “I’ll be right back,” I said before dashing over to Mother. We embraced.

“Thank you for coming, Mother,” I said.

“You’re my daughter, my only surviving child, and I love you,” Mother said. “I could not miss this moment of your happiness.”

“I love you too, Mother.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever really forgive her,” she professed, “but I suspect that she’ll never really forgive herself either.”

“You’re probably right, Mother,” I responded. “What about Father?”

“Your father does not believe that two women should marry,” she said. “He wanted you to marry Perdicas and he is angered that he will not be getting any grandsons, Gabrielle.”

“Well, that’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility,” I intimated, smiling. Mother cocked her head in question as I quickly changed the subject. “Please come and meet my Sisters and friends, Mother.”

I escorted Mother over to Queen Melosa, who promptly took Mother by her arm and began the introductions. I then looked over at Xena, who was lovingly embracing Cyrene as her brother, sister-in-law, nephew and son observed. My ever-growing family has just gotten a little larger, I mused.

This is a good thing.
VI. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG

My mind was floating during our union ceremony. I’m not sure if it was because of the euphoria I was feeling in joining with Gabrielle, the fact that Gabrielle’s mother, my mother and Solan were present, or if it was because I was famished, but I felt light, airy, almost as if I was in a dream.

This was a dream; a dream come true.

When I faced my love after Queen Melosa said the magic words, I saw perfection. Emerald eyes, a rose petal mouth, inviting cheeks and a sprightly smile. We kissed a kiss that sent a burst of energy throughout my body. I could die at that moment knowing that I had experienced life’s greatest pleasure.

As our friends surrounded us, Gabrielle went to speak to her mother. I needed to speak with mine. I excused myself from the crowd and walked, nervously I must admit, over to my family. I immediately took my mother into my arms. We embraced for many moments, the first time we had done so since I became the Conqueror.

“Thank you,” I whispered, “for everything.”

“Treat her right,” Mother responded in a whisper. “She deserves it.”

“I will,” I said. “I promise.”

Toris was now a man of 37. The once long, dark mane that he sported as a younger man was now closely cropped and had fringes of gray at the temple. He was still lean, however. Tending to his farm and raising the boys had kept him fit. Iolanthe was a little heavier than when I last saw her, but she was still very lovely. Her always deep and expressive brown eyes cast upon me as I took in the sight of my son.

“It’s been a long time, Sister,” Toris said as he looked down at his son. “Sergius was just an infant of one the last time we saw you. He’s twelve now.”

“It’s a good thing he looks like his mother,” I said in jest as I patted my brother’s arm.

“I look like my father!” Solan spoke up. I tried to contain my tears.

“You look like your grandmother,” I shot back at him.

“Nuh uh, she’s a lady,” he quipped.

“So, you still look like her,” I proclaimed, and he did. I saw some of Borias in his face. He has my eyes, but he’s Cyrene through and through.

“Father says you used to be evil, but the Amazon Princess made you good again,” Solan said. “Is that true?”

“Gabrielle brings out the good in me,” I said. “Are you good?”

Iolanthe stepped up. “Both of the boys are very good, Sister,” she said. “They do their studies and I don’t have to get after them about their chores.”

I couldn’t contain my tears any longer. “You two boys mind your parents,” I said. “They know best.”

“Why are you crying, Auntie?” Sergius asked.

I wiped my eyes. “Because that’s what women sometimes do when we’re happy,” I said weeping, “we cry. Silly, huh?”

“Yeah,” Sergius agreed.

“I haven’t seen you cry since you were a child, Xena,” Mother said as she took my hand.

Gabrielle approached at that moment and took my other hand. “Hello Cyrene,” she said.

“Hello, sweetheart.”

“This is my brother, Toris,” I introduced. “His wife, Iolanthe, and their boys, Sergius and Solan.”

“Pleased to meet you all,” she said. “Isn’t Xena beautiful?” She looked up at me.

“For a girl, I guess,” Solan retorted.

Sergius interjected, “Can we go and play with that older boy over there wrestling with the two dogs?”

“Oh, yes, can we?” Solan added.

Laughter broke through my tears. “Bahri’s a grown woman, boys, but I don’t think she’d mind if you fellas joined in.”

“Great!” they both yelled as they dashed off to help Bahri in her wrestling match.

I returned my attention to my brother. “Solan looks well, Toris,” I said.

“He is well, Xena,” he said.

* * * *

At long last, Gabrielle and I were allowed to eat. The Amazons Solari, Eponin and their hunter Sisters had caught two large bucks and several pheasants earlier that day, and in addition to the venison and birds, we had a parade of vegetables, fruit, nuts and bread to eat. Gabrielle was particularly amusing as she stuffed her mouth with morsel after morsel.

“I take it you were quite hungry, eh Gabrielle?” I asked as I ran my fingers through her hair.

“Umph, um,” she nodded, unable to better articulate herself because of all of the bread and walnuts stuffed in her mouth.

The celebration went on into the late afternoon. We were entertained with a tribal dance by some of Gabrielle’s Amazon Sisters while others played various musical instruments to accompany the dancing. At one point, some of the guests joined in dancing, including Commander Glaphyra, Sergeants Favrie and Viera, and my mother. Relaxing next to my bride, I sat back and observed the people around us. Many of the Amazons, once great enemies of mine, were eagerly mingling with my soldiers, palace servants and Imperial Guardsmen. Even Ephiny seemed to be responding to Palaemon’s flirtations. Demi and Gabrielle’s mother were talking. I thought that to be a good thing. He basically replaced her as Gabrielle’s parent when she came into my service and I suspected that he was sharing with her mother the many special moments of his relationship with her over the past six years.

I thought about my son and smiled. He and Sergius were off on an “adventure” with Toris, Bahri, Charicleia, and some of the Amazon children. For so long, I hated Toris for leaving Amphipolis rather than staying and fighting with Lyceus and me, but I needed him to be there for my son when I could not. I realized that Toris wasn’t a coward, he simply wasn’t a warrior either. I knew now that if Borias had been successful in taking our son away from me at his birth, Solan would not have ended up the happy and healthy eleven-year-old that I saw laughing and frolicking that day.

As I pondered a myriad of thoughts, Gabrielle leaned over and whispered into my ear. “Let’s go make love, baby.”

“Right now?” I whispered back.

She smiled that devious Gabrielle smile. “Right now.”

“Gabrielle, we’re in the middle of our union reception,” I protested.

“And your point being?”

I thought for a moment. Why am I arguing with her about making love. Am I sick?

“Okay!”

We jumped up and sprinted off toward Gabrielle’s yurt. “Where are you two going?” my mother yelled from behind us.

“We’ll be back!” Gabrielle responded.

I turned my head briefly to see my mother shaking hers. “By the gods, can’t they even wait until the end of the reception?” A huge smile masked her mock disapproval.

Inside Gabrielle’s yurt, we stood facing each other. “Hello, my bride,” she said to me.

“Hello, my bride,” I responded.

Gabrielle loosened my belt and reaching up, she began pulling my tunic off of my shoulders. I likewise untied her belt and opened her tunic to reveal her sexy stomach. I began running my hands all over her breasts and hips. She closed the space between us and grabbed the back of my head, bringing my lips to hers.

As we kissed passionately, my hands roamed up and pulled Gabrielle’s tunic off of her shoulders. The garment fell to the floor, revealing that she had not put on any undergarments. My hands then roamed south, taking full advantage of the glorious nude body before me. I ran my hands over her shoulders, back and rear. Our lips were still locked as our tongues danced back and forth between our two mouths.

As my hands ventured further south, Gabrielle let out a sensuous moan into my mouth. She had slipped her arms around my waist in a tight embrace. My tunic was still on, but it was open enough for the skin on our bellies and breasts to connect. We stood in this locked kissing position for quite a few moments before Gabrielle broke the kiss. “Lay down with me,” she said in a low, seductive tone.

I didn’t respond. Instead, I excitedly lifted Gabrielle up and carried her over to her high bed. Gently depositing her there, I removed my tunic and climbed up, straddling her at her hips. She reached up and began massaging my breasts. “Are we dreaming, Xena?” she asked.

“If we are, I hope that we never wake up,” I answered as I leaned down and kissed her again.

I stretched out so that I was lying completely on top of Gabrielle. She threw her arms around me once again, but this time she focused her attention on my rear. Alternately rubbing and kneading it, she broke the kiss and began sucking my neck. I was blissfully running my hands all over her upper body as I moaned over and over again at her touches.

Eventually Gabrielle’s right hand reached around in between us and her fingers began stroking my sex. I was beyond ready to receive the touch as I likewise felt my way down to her warm, inviting center. I leaned over to her right somewhat so that we both could look down and watch as we pleasured each other. It was so amazing looking at her beautiful hand moving back and forth under my sex while her hips responded rhythmically to my stroking of her sex.

As we continued our mutual stimulation, my eyes moved upward, looking at Gabrielle’s moving arm, her sweat-beaded belly, her erect nipples and her desire-filled eyes. Climax was coming soon for both of us.

“Kiss… me… Xena,” Gabrielle said in a moan.

I again pressed my lips to hers. Our tongues connected and then… CLIMAX! It sharply struck us both simultaneously. For brief moments, I thought that the world shook. Still shaking, I scooped Gabrielle into my arms and held her there for many moments. Finally breaking free from the embrace, I looked into the eyes of my love. I lived once. I had a life and then I lost it. I lost it to years of hatred and murder. I betrayed those who would love me and allied with those who would later try to destroy me. I sacrificed happiness for power and relinquished the child that I had borne because I believed that I wasn’t worthy of motherhood. And then Gabrielle came into my life, and for years, I tried to destroy any possibility of love from her while trying to extinguish my own love for her. Yet, she held fast onto me and I found my life again. And now here she is, my consort, my bride, my soulmate.

My Conqueror.

“Gabrielle,” I said. “You are the best thing that’s ever happened to me. You are the greatest thing in my life.”

“I love you, Xena.”

“I love you, Gabrielle, so much.”
Story #9 The Conqueror’s Campaign
PART ONE

I. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG
It was the day after my thirty-third birthday that I learned I would be going into battle with the Scythian warlord Shaikheti. I had awakened that morning, as I had practically every morning since our return to Corinth, wonderfully planted in my consort Gabrielle’s loving embrace. As she slept, her warm breathing sending waves of air across my chest, I was taken back to a place and time years before I had ever met her.

* * * *

I met Shaikheti shortly after my return from Chin. Years before, he and his Scythian kinsmen had joined Borias and his band of Sarmatian thugs in a series of battles against the Goths of Germania. The Goths won, but Borias and Shaikheti remained friends despite their embarrassing defeat. They separated, but while Borias pillaged throughout the lower Steppes and Thrace in the successive years, Shaikheti ventured south into Anatolia. When I met Borias in Thrace, he told me about his friend, but Borias had been led to believe that Shaikheti was murdered by the Persians near Byzantium. However, when the two reunited in Thrace in my presence twelve years ago, Shaikheti was very much alive and leading a small army of both Scythian and Persians warriors.

Shaikheti was about the same age and size as Borias, but he was not nearly as good looking. What he lacked in appearance was made up in temperament. He was smooth and charismatic and he possessed a melodic voice that was almost hypnotizing. The three of us decided to merge our armies, but this merger was short lived. A few weeks into our collaboration, I met the Northern Amazons’ expelled shamaness, Alti, and I allowed myself to be infected by her with the desire for ultimate power. After I murdered Queen Cyane and the elite of the Northern Amazons, Borias and I began arguing… a lot. Shaikheti seemed to share my enthusiasm for power and didn’t necessarily disapprove of my actions, but he maintained his loyalty to Borias. Thus, he never interfered with our quarrels. I recall many times Shaikheti, sitting in our command tent, calmly eating grapes and watching as Borias and I shouted at each other until we lost our voices.

However, I also learned early on that Shaikheti had a weakness. He was terminally lazy. He easily recruited and loved commanding warriors, but he never wanted to get his own hands dirty or bloody in battle. When we rode into a village, while Borias and I strove to take out as many men as possible, Shaikheti would sit atop his horse as if he was some sort of sanctimonious ruler, directing his men on what to take and whom to kill. I was over it fast. Thus, when Borias finally decided to split our armies and leave, I recall telling him to take his “useless boyfriend” with him. Borias was so offended by the implication that he raised his hand and balled his fist to strike me. Balling both of my fists as well, I dared him to do it. But I was pregnant with our son, Solan, and Borias was too honorable to hit a woman in that condition… even me.

After Borias left, I made Dagnine of Athens my Second-In-Command. He had committed more kills than any other man in my army, and always seemed to want to please me. I had heard that Borias and Shaikheti split their armies shortly after they left me. Perhaps Borias grew tired of Shaikheti’s ineffectiveness as well.

When Borias later returned in his attempt to take away my newborn son, Dagnine murdered him as an act of loyalty to me. Sadly for him, Dagnine never knew that I was pregnant, and thus didn’t understand it when I dug my boot dagger deep into his gut, avenging the murder of my son’s father. When word spread that my Second murdered Borias, falsely presumed under my order, Shaikheti attempted to have me murdered to avenge Borias’ death.

Ironic.

Shaikheti’s attempt was futile. Of course, he didn’t attempt the assassination himself. He sent two inept Persians from his army. Apparently, he wasn’t serious, because my new Second-In-Command, Darphus, easily disposed of them both before they could even get near me.

I didn’t hear the name Shaikheti spoken again until about two months before I freed Gabrielle.

* * * *

It was a strange time in my life. I was about to realize that my deep love for Gabrielle, which I had believed for a long time to be my own little secret, was shared by two other individuals in the palace, Palaemon, Commander of my Imperial Guard and the closest thing that I had to a friend, and Demitrius, my palace librarian and Gabrielle’s closest friend at the time.

I remember that it started out as a beautifully sunny day. The temperature was perfect, so Gabrielle was enjoying the flawlessness of that day by sitting outside in the palace gardens writing in one of her scrolls. I found her there and, concealing myself behind one of the palace columns, I peeked around it and stared at her for the longest time. I caught myself doing that quite often, staring at Gabrielle from afar. That particular day, Demitrius caught me as well.

“Pardon me, my Liege,” he whispered. I suspected that he didn’t want to alert Gabrielle to my presence.

Embarrassed, I grabbed him by his tunic and pulled him into the corridor of the palace and away from Gabrielle’s view. “What do you want?” I asked angrily.

“Palaemon has been looking for you, Conqueror,” Demitrius replied. “Something about the Persian warlord Shaikheti.”

“Shaikheti’s neither Persian nor a warlord,” I proclaimed. “He’s a lazy pile of dung.”

“I stand corrected, Conqueror,” Demitrius remarked. “Nonetheless, Palaemon is seeking you regarding this individual.”

“Very well,” I said as I released Demitrius’ tunic. I began walking toward the war council chamber when his voice stopped me.

“May I ask you a question, my Liege?” he queried.

I turned to face him. “What?”

Demitrius slowly approached me. “I am an old man who has seen and experienced much in my life.”

“Yeah, so?”

“And I believe that I have come to a place in my life,” he continued, “when my agedness has earned me enough respect that I may ask of Your Majesty that which a younger soul would not be permitted to ask.”

“Is there a question on the horizon, old man?”

“Yes, my Liege, there is,” he said. “You have practically everything that anyone could ever desire, but if you could ask of the gods to give you one thing that you don’t have now, what would it be?”

I planted my hands on my hips and let out a deep laugh. “What insanity propelled you to ask such a question?”

“I’m old and I have nothing to lose, Conqueror,” came his simple reply.

I grabbed Demitrius’ tunic again. “Oh, but you do have something to lose,” I said. “I could kill you right now, old man.”

He didn’t respond, but there was no fear on his face. I released him. “I’m not answering you, Demitrius,” I said as I turned from him again and began walking away.

“May I guess?”

I stopped and turned to face him. I’m not amused by this old man’s game, I thought. “If you feel that you must entertain yourself at my expense, yes, guess,” I said.

Demitrius didn’t hesitate. “I believe the one thing that you would ask of the gods is Gabrielle’s love.”

I ran up to him and stuck my finger in his face. “You’re wrong,” I lied. “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” I turned and stormed away from him, but then stopped and turned to face him again. He hadn’t moved.

“If you ever mention this ridiculous conversation to anyone, I’ll kill you,” I said. “Do you understand me?”

“I understand, my Liege.”

I summoned Gabrielle to my bedchamber that night. We didn’t have sex as we were both having our cycles, but I couldn’t sleep that night either. Thus, I lay there, my head propped up on my hand, staring at her as she slept and hating Demitrius for knowing me all too well.

* * * *

The following morning, Palaemon and I sailed to Lydia to fight Shaikheti. We weren’t away very long. As I suspected, Shaikheti sent his troops to confront us. I never saw him. Although he had managed to build an army of considerable size, without the presence of a more effective leader, his men didn’t stand a chance against my mighty force. The day that his pathetic warriors surrendered, I decided that we would spend that one last night in Lydia resting at our army camp before sailing back to Corinth. I remember that that particular night was rather cool and, because I was still too energized from fighting, sleep eluded me. I decided to spend the night perched next to a fire sharpening my weapons.

Palaemon eventually joined me, trying very hard to engage me in casual conversation.

“Easy battle, huh, my Liege?”

“Yes.”

“Gets pretty chilly here at night, doesn’t it, Conqueror?”

“Yes.”

His ambitious questions and my disinterested answers went on for a while before he finally said something that captivated my attention.

“I had this interesting conversation with Demi… Demitrius before we left Corinth, my Liege,” Palaemon said.

I stopped sharpening my sword. “Is that so?”

“Yes, Majesty,” he responded. “He told me that he and Gabrielle had the most unusual exchange.”

“You don’t say.” I tried to sound as impartial as possible, but inside I was burning like a lighted torch.

“Yes, Majesty,” he said. “Would you be interested in knowing the question he asked her?”

I lifted my sword to look at my reflection in it. “Go ahead, Palaemon,” I responded after a few moments.

“He asked Gabrielle if she could have anything in this world, besides her freedom, what would it be,” he said. “Do you care to know her answer?”

I impatiently sighed and looked at Palaemon. “Demi told me that she said she would wish to be able to touch you, Conqueror,” he said. “Mighty strange answer, huh, Majesty? Isn’t touching you the most important function of your concubine?”

“What else did Demitrius tell you?”

“Nothing.”

I reached over and positioned the tip of my sword under Palaemon’s throat. “You’re lying!” I exclaimed.

He seemed shocked. “No I’m not, my Liege,” he insisted.

I looked deep into his eyes to detect his deceit. “Demitrius didn’t tell you about asking me that very same question?”

Palaemon gasped. “Demi isn’t crazy enough to do that… is he?”

I removed my sword from Palaemon’s throat. “Did he, Conqueror?”

I resumed sharpening my sword. “By the gods, he did, didn’t he? Ha! That old man’s braver than I thought.”

“Give it a rest, Commander,” I warned.

“Well, what did you tell him?”

I didn’t respond. “Let me guess, my Liege,” he continued. “You told him that you would wish to kill Caesar over and over and over again. Am I right?”

“Why would I wish that, Palaemon?”

“Because you’re always saying that killing Caesar once wasn’t enough.”

I smiled at my Commander. “Nothing gets past you, Palaemon,” I said, knowing full well that he had just been lying to me.

****

When I returned to the palace, I immediately went to the library to confront Demitrius. He wasn’t there, but rather, was sitting with Gabrielle in the palace gardens. After marching up to them, I roughly grabbed him by his tunic and hoisted him to his feet. Gabrielle instantly began crying.

“Get out of here, Gabrielle,” I demanded. She didn’t move and began frantically shaking her head. “I said get out of here!”

“Please, my Lady, please…” she implored. Demitrius interrupted, “Gabrielle, it’s okay, sweetheart. Go.”

Gabrielle still wouldn’t budge. I shoved her. “I said get the fuck out of here!”

She fell to her knees. “Please, my Lady… whatever he did, he didn’t mean it… please…”

I was tearing up inside. It was destroying me to see the woman that I love beyond description crying and begging for the life of a man that she presumed I was going to take. It was also destroying me that she loved him so much that she would risk her own life begging for his. I released Demi and, grabbing her by her arms, lifted her to her feet. Deep down in my soul, I wanted to fall to my knees and beg her to love me, but my hurt and anger were dominating me as I began forcefully backing her up to the entranceway of the gardens, saying over and over in my mind, Don’t you cry, Xena. Don’t you dare let her see you cry.

When we reached the entranceway, I released her arms, but shoved her again. “GO!” I shouted. From behind me, Demi added, “Go ahead, Gabrielle. It’ll be all right.”

Through her tears, Gabrielle gave me a painfully dirty look and stormed out. I backed up a few steps, thoroughly aching from that look, before turning around and approaching Demi.

“You told Palaemon about our little conversation, didn’t you?” I asked as I gripped his neck.

“Yes, Majesty, I did,” came his reply.

“So, my senior librarian blatantly disobeyed my order and my Imperial Guard Commander lied to my face.”

“Before you forfeit my life, my Liege,” Demi said as my grip on his neck tightened, “may I be allowed to explain?”

“No explanation’s going to spare you, old man,” I said.

“I understand,” he stated, “but it would satisfy me for you to know why before I cross over.”

I eased my grip somewhat. “Okay, explain.”

“Palaemon and I have been speaking with one another about you and Gabrielle for some time, Majesty,” Demi started. “It has never been out of any disrespect to you. We both care deeply about the young girl’s well-being and, as you know, Palaemon worships you. I have no excuse for why I shared our conversation with Palaemon, only to say that he is the only other person that I know who has a sincere connection with you.”

I looked away from him as Demi continued. “I can never claim to fully understand the inner workings of a woman’s mind and heart, my Liege,” he said, “but I believe that Gabrielle brings you both great joy and great sorrow at the same time…” There was a pause. “It doesn’t have to be that way, Conqueror.”

I released his neck and, stepping back from him, I unsheathed my sword. I gripped the handle very tightly as I prepared to end Demitrius’ life. As he closed his eyes in preparation for his execution, I thought about Gabrielle. I thought about her dirty look. She hated me, I believed. It tormented me like Tartarus to believe that she hated me so much. And killing Demitrius, a man whom she loved, a man who had become like a father to her, would serve only to seal that hate toward me for eternity. I was already greatly fearing life without her. To spend the rest of our lives together knowing that she despised me more than any other living soul was too great a fear for me to bear. Saying nothing, I lowered my sword, turned and walked toward the entranceway.

When I opened the door and stepped inside the hallway, I observed Gabrielle sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall, her face buried in her kneecaps, crying uncontrollably. “Get up, Gabrielle,” I commanded.

When she looked up at me, her beautiful tear-stained face nearly brought me to tears. I pointed toward the gardens. She immediately jumped up and ran outside. I watched as she ran into Demi’s arms and held him close. He returned the embrace. I listened.

“I’m okay, Gabrielle,” he told her.

“What did you do to anger her, Demi?” she asked as her face was burrowed in his aged chin.

“It’s all right,” he said. “Everything’s fine now.”

“Don’t ever anger her again, please,” she said. “I would be lost without you.”

At that moment, I stormed down the corridor and, locking myself in my bedchamber, I cried for the first time since the night I gave up my son.

When Gabrielle reported to me that night for service, I very seriously considered honoring that wish of hers to caress me. I had denied us both the beauty of her touch since the first night of her servitude to me five years before. Regrettably, I didn’t go through with it, but I made no requirements of her to pleasure me either that night. Instead, without saying a word to her, I pleasured her body. I vigorously touched almost every part of her with my hands or mouth and then I gave her oral pleasure. And when she came down from climax and drifted off to sleep, I remained awake and stared at her, feeling both joy… and sorrow.

* * * *

My birthday was a far cry from those tortured days of unrequited love. Like Gabrielle’s birthday a month before, we spent most of the day in our bedchamber, eating, playing, relaxing and loving each other. For her twenty-sixth birthday, I had pampered her rotten. I bathed her and then gave her a full body massage, applying a rich scented oil all over her. Afterwards, I presented her with a beautiful blue chiton, one of Illiana’s creations, and a sapphire ring and matching necklace. Later in the day, I sang a song for her. I cannot explain why, but I had never actually sung in front of Gabrielle before, although I had hummed her to sleep a few times in recent months. She beamed a brilliant smile as I sang, afterwards commenting, “You have a beautiful voice, Xena. I didn’t know you could sing so well,” to which I replied, “I have many skills.”

For my birthday, Gabrielle gave me a silk scarf and a new scabbard for my sword that she crafted and sewed. It had a unique pattern on it and was quite lovely. “This is one of the patterns that I adopted from the Amazons,” she told me. She also spent quite a bit of time primping my hair. She braided it and then took the braids out and gently brushed it. Then she pinned it up and sprinkled flower petals on it before taking it down and braiding it again. “You having fun, Gabrielle?” I asked. She had taken the braids out a second time and was pinning my hair into a single large bun on the back of my head.

“I certainly am having fun, Xena, my Lady,” she replied.

When evening rolled in, Gabrielle recited a beautiful poem that she had written. I fell into the melody of her voice as she spoke. After her gifts, we enjoyed a parade of food and wine before engulfing ourselves in each other’s passions.

I went to bed with my Gabrielle that evening fully sated, sexually satisfied and profoundly happy. Never entering my mind was the prospect of yet another conflict, let alone that with such a tired nuisance as Shaikheti.

I was relaxing that following morning after my birthday, reflecting on the glory of the previous day when a hand began kneading my breast and lips began sucking the lobe of my left ear.

“What are you doing, Gabrielle?” I asked

“Seducing you.”
PART TWO

II. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY
I woke up the morning after Xena’s birthday and felt an intense longing for her. She was wide-awake and staring at the ceiling, deep in thought no doubt. My emotional bond with Xena is ever growing, but my primal lust for her has also been building and building over the seasons. Now that we are officially consorts, for some strange reason, it has become monumental. I often find myself having the most carnal thoughts as I eye her naked body. There is always something new on it to discover. She has many battle scars, but she also has these sexy moles that are located in some of the most delicious places on her body. It is a personal delight to know so much about her body and to know what parts of it respond more intensely to my touches. Xena’s neck is one such part, and I found myself that morning wanting to dig my teeth into it, to nip and suckle it until Xena’s body shivered in response.

I grabbed her breast and planted my mouth on her ear and neck. She was instantly brought out of whatever thoughts were preoccupying her. When she looked at me, seemingly in amazement, I positioned myself on top of her. Straddling her hips, I continued to suck her neck until that first moan from her sent a strong tingle down to my loins. I planted myself flat on top of her and began aggressively thrusting my sex on hers. She threw her arms around me and responded in earnest.

“By the gods, Xena,” I whispered into her ear. “You are… are… HOT.”

“Hot?”

“Hot.”

“Is that a compliment of some kind, Gabrielle?” she asked, “or shall I open a window to cool myself down?”

I responded by thrusting even harder as I ran all ten fingers through her beautiful black hair. This seemed to greatly excite Xena, because she held me tightly and then rolled us around so that she was now on top of me. Our rhythmic movements never paused during this change of position.

I began sensuously clawing Xena’s back. “Oh yes,” she moaned in response.

I also let out a deep moan. “You bring out the animal in me, Xena,” I confessed.

Xena moaned again. “I’m rather fond of animals,” she said before bringing her soft lips to mine.

This glorious sexual pleasure went on for some moments before there was a hard knock at our bedchamber door.

“Uhhh,” Xena moaned, breaking our kiss. “Dammit!” She looked up and away from me, but didn’t stop her thrusting. I didn’t stop either.

“Conqueror,” a voice spoke, “I have important news to present.”

“Go…away…Palaemon…” she exclaimed between breaths.

“But it’s serious, my Liege,” he stated.

Xena looked at me. “Don’t stop, Xena,” I pleaded as I cupped her ass and pushed her even further onto me. “This feels too good.”

“I have no…intention… of stopping,” she whispered before again pressing those succulent lips to mine and then raising her head again. “It… can… wait, Commander!”

Palaemon didn’t respond, but both of us knew that he was standing outside of that door patiently waiting for us to complete our lovemaking.

A short time later, climax came rather loudly, first to me and then only a moment later to Xena. She relaxed her body on me and gave my lips and face a series of gentle kisses. “You’re blushing, Gabrielle,” she informed me as she ran her fingers through my hair. “Why?”

“I don’t know, Xena,” I responded. “Probably because I know that Palaemon heard us, I mean… our noisy releases.”

“Yeah, your point being?”

“Well, he heard us, Xena,” I lamented. “Doesn’t that bother you?”

Xena chuckled. “Sweetheart, probably half the palace has heard us fucking. The palace Guardsmen walking the corridors, palace security, Mia…”

“We don’t fuck, Xena,” I interrupted angrily. “Not anymore.”

Xena’s face sobered. “I’m sorry, my love,” she said as she ran the backs of her fingers down my cheek. “Being intimate with you is so very special to me. I didn’t mean it to sound as if I was diminishing our lovemaking.”

I took her hand in mine. “Apology accepted,” I said.

Xena raised herself off me. “Unfortunately, I do need to see what new crisis Palaemon has brought to me,” she proclaimed as she climbed out of the bed and began heading for the bedchamber door.

“Put on a robe, Xena,” I demanded. She’s MY consort now, I thought. No more showcasing her body for the masses.

Xena looked at me, but said nothing. Grabbing her robe and covering herself with it, she smiled before continuing her stride to the door. Grabbing the door handle, she looked back at me. “You put on one too, Gabrielle.”

* * * *

When I approached them, Xena and Palaemon were standing over the largest table in our bedchamber looking over a very large map that Palaemon had just unrolled.

“We received word last night from Commander Glaphyra, Conqueror,” Palaemon began, “that a large detachment of troops, possibly the size of an entire legion, was marching westward across the southern Steppes in Thrace. This legion made no hostile advances toward our Thracian Army in the region, but the shear size was of concern to Glaphyra.”

“Where are these soldiers from, Palaemon?” Xena asked.

“According to Glaphyra’s intelligence, their clothing and armor suggests that they’re Persians, my Liege.”

“Persians?” I chimed in. “What would Persians be doing in Thrace, Xena?” Before she could answer, I shrieked. “By the gods, the Amazons! Are they in danger?”

“Funny you should mention them, Gabrielle,” Palaemon continued. “We received correspondence just this morning from the Northern Amazon tribe.” He pulled out a rolled parchment. “It’s addressed to you.”

Palaemon handed me the parchment and I quickly read the correspondence. Xena placed her hand on my shoulder as I read, but never took her eyes off of the map. “What does it say, Gabrielle?” Palaemon asked.

“It’s from Otere, the tribal Queen,” I reported. “She also reports a very large army marching across Thrace. They’re heading west, she writes. She doesn’t believe them to be an army of the Realm, but adds that they have not engaged in any acts of aggression against her tribe or any of the regional villages.”

“Well, there’s not much up there, Gabrielle,” Palaemon stated. “Pastoral nomads and simple farmers mostly. And it’s winter. Not much vegetation to pillage.”

As Palaemon and I spoke with each other, Xena was still staring intently at the map. She was obviously deep in thought, contemplating the movement and ambition of this mysterious army.

“You know who they are, don’t you Xena?” I asked.

“I suspect that it’s the Scythian Shaikheti,” she responded.

“Shaikheti, Conqueror?” Palaemon chimed in. “Surely he must be dead by now.”

“You think?” Xena asked, not so much as a question, but to challenge Palaemon’s notion.

“Conqueror, this guy is no fighter,” he replied. “No one’s ever seen him in combat.”

“Shaikheti doesn’t fight, Palaemon,” Xena said. “But he enjoys leading armies of men to their deaths.”

“Where is he going, my Liege?” Palaemon asked. “What land does he wish to invade?”

“Well, he’s not interested in Greece, Palaemon,” Xena said. “He knows he’ll never win against any of MY armies. So, I suspect that he’s interested in that vast land north of Illyria.”

“Gaul is north of Illyria, my Liege,” Palaemon remarked. “Shaikheti would be insane to challenge our forces in Gaul.”

“No, not Gaul,” Xena responded. “East and north of Gaul. The land of the Lombards, the Vandals, the Burgundians and the Goths.”

“Germania!” I exclaimed.

“The Germans and Scythians have a history, Gabrielle,” Xena said. “They’re centuries-old enemies. I suspect that Shaikheti has been building this army for years, recruiting Scythians in the Steppes, and then Persians, Parthians and Lydians from the desert territories, waiting for his chance to avenge a battle lost a long time ago.”

“But Conqueror,” Palaemon spoke up, “why did Shaikheti attack our forces in Lydia last year?”

“Do you recall just how easy that battle was, Palaemon?” Xena responded with a query.

“Yes, it was too easy, Majesty.”

“I believe Shaikheti started that conflict to both test his men and determine my commitment to protecting my land outside of the Realm.”

“But Lydia is within the Realm, Conqueror.”

“Yes, but it’s not Rome, Palaemon,” Xena admitted. “It’s not Gaul. It’s not even Albion. My main interest in keeping a military presence in Lydia is to prevent enemies of the East from invading the Greek islands that dot the Aegean Sea.”

“So, Shaikheti probably thinks you’re just going to sit idly by and allow him to march into Germania,” Palaemon commented, “because he thinks you don’t give a damn about the area.”

Both Xena and Palaemon laughed hysterically. “He’s pretty pathetic,” she quipped.

I grabbed Xena’s arm. “Does this mean you’re going into battle with this man, Xena?”

“Absolutely,” she answered.

“Why?” I asked. “Germania is outside of the Realm. Nothing is of interest to you there.”

“Any land that borders my Realm is of interest to me, Gabrielle,” she remarked. “Germania borders parts of Gaul, Thrace and Illyria. And to be honest with you, I’m sick of Shaikheti. I think it’s time to end his reign of ineptitude.”

Palaemon was still chuckling. “How many Guardsmen should I summon for travel, my Liege?”

Xena seemed to contemplate for a moment. “One century should be enough,” she answered. “We have plenty of forces in eastern Gaul to make up the numbers.” Xena paused again. “Assemble a training century. I want some of my new recruits to get a taste of combat in the cold.”

“By your will, Conqueror,” Palaemon said before leaving the bedchamber.

Xena had a look in her eyes. It was that familiar look of exultant bloodlust that I hate so much. Her lip curled and she chuckled to herself. “This is going to be thoroughly entertaining,” she mumbled.

I folded my arms. “I’m going with you, Xena,” I said.

“No you’re not,” she replied.

“Yes I am.”

“You’re staying here, Gabrielle,” she said. “I won’t be gone long.”

“Why don’t you want me to go, Xena?” I asked as my tempered flared. “No boat to conceal me on?”

“I said you’re not going,” she shot. “End of discussion.”

“I don’t give a damn what you said!” I was losing it. “I said I AM GOING!”

In a heartbeat, Xena had roughly grabbed my arms and backed me up against a wall. “Is this where you forget that I’m no longer your slave, Conqueror?” I said as tears of anger started to flow. She didn’t respond. She just held me there. We stared deeply into each other’s eyes. Hers were frosty, almost colorless, at first. But then the warm and bright blue sparkle came back.

“What would you do there, Gabrielle?” she finally asked as she released my arms. “I don’t want you going anywhere near the battlefield.”

I thought for only a single moment. “I can help the wounded, Xena,” I said. “I’m sure there will be a makeshift hospice of some kind set up near the war camp.”

Xena stepped back. “And when you come back from battle, I’ll be there to comfort you.” I added.

* * * *

One hundred of Xena’s freshest Imperial Guardsmen accompanied us on our journey north toward Germania. Among the new recruits were our friends Stanislas and Hadiya, the two Parisii women who came back to Greece with us after Xena’s victory in Albion and our stay in Rome, and the Amazon Charicleia, who willingly left the Thessalian Amazon village to be with her lover, Bahri. Xena granted Bahri leave from her post as a Militia Field Sergeant so that she could join the troops, and her lover, in our trek as well. Palaemon commanded the century. As was protocol, his second-in-command, Commander Aerol, took charge of the remaining forces in Corinth.

Traveling to Germania took many days. Most of the troops rode on horseback. Likewise, Xena rode Argo and I rode Chulytis. The remaining troops were grouped rather tightly in large carriages. It was an exhausting trip. The cold of winter was biting and the snow seemed to fall endlessly. In addition, food had to be carefully rationed. To make matters worse, Xena’s and my unwanted monthly companions came along, making me irritable and short-tempered and making Xena downright impossible to be around.

By the time we reached Castra Regina, our cycles had ended, but I was so famished that I was contemplating slipping away to hunt something… anything. During my time with the Amazons, it was required of me to learn the art of the hunt, and during my scout guard training, I had successfully snared two deer, an elk and several hares and pheasants. I never gutted any of the animals that I killed. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It wasn’t the sight of blood that scared me. It was the realization that I had taken the lives of other living creatures, even though these hunted animals were used to feed my tribe and me.

Commander Seumius and three centuries of his troops were in Castra Regina to join Xena’s Imperial Guardsmen. Commander Glaphyra had also journeyed there from Thrace. She had over three centuries with her as well. Xena had all of her military leaders order their respective troops to set up a war camp in a valley about a two day ride north of the city. Hundreds of small tents were erected. These small tents surrounded two larger tents. The larger of the two tents served as the hospice tent. The other somewhat smaller tent was Xena’s command tent. Once the camp was completed, Xena ordered her military leaders into the command tent to begin strategizing. Bahri and I accompanied her.

“You have such troubled expressions on your faces,” Xena said jovially to Glaphyra and Seumius as we walked in.

“Permission to speak, Majesty,” Seumius spoke up.

“Granted,” Xena replied.

“I think that I can speak for everyone, my Liege, when I say that I believe we are greatly outnumbered here.”

Glaphyra stepped up. “With all due respect, Conqueror,” she added, “Had I known you would only bring one century of fighters, I would have brought more from my army.”

Xena folded her arms. “Just how many warriors do you two believe we need for this mission?”

Glaphyra and Seumius looked at each other. It was obvious that both were worried about the situation, but neither wanted to question Xena’s decisions nor her expertise. “Begging your pardon, Empress,” Glaphyra finally spoke. “We believe that there may be an entire legion of Persians out there.”

I looked up at Xena. A legion is made up of sixty centuries or six thousand men. Xena had about seven hundred centurions in the war camp. If Seumius and Glaphyra were correct in their assumptions, Xena’s entire fighting force present was outnumbered almost ten-to-one.

Xena turned her attention to Palaemon and Bahri. “Are you two worried?” she asked them.

“Not at all, my Liege,” Palaemon responded.

“No, ma’am,” Bahri added smiling.

“And why is that?”

“Because I know you have a plan, Conqueror,” Palaemon answered.

Xena directed us to that same map from our bedchamber, which was now covering a pallet on the tent floor. Kneeling down around the pallet, Xena drew our attention to an area on the map.

“We are here,” she pointed to the valley north of Castra Regina where our camp was situated. “Shaikheti’s troops are positioned here.” Xena pointed to an area just east of the Elbe River, about a half-day ride north from where we were. I observed her attentively as she spoke.

“There are several Lombard and Burgundian villages east and along the Elbe River,” she explained. “My guess is that Shaikheti’s army will hit these villages first. It’s actually a smart move. Neither of those Germanic clans will offer any significant strength in resistance.”

“Why not, Xena?” I asked.

Xena looked at me and smiled. For some strange reason, I believed it warmed her to know that I was at least interested in her visceral interpretation of Shaikheti’s battle plans. “The Germans are not unlike the clans of Albion, Gabrielle,” she replied. “They have had centuries of tribal civil wars. Years of fighting have weakened the strength of most of the peoples in this region. On top of that, none of the individual clans would be likely to come to the assistance of a neighboring clan under attack, even if it were by some outside force.”

“So, my Liege, these German clans would rather have some foreigners beat them than ally together and fight the foreigners?” Glaphyra queried.

“The way the other clans see it, if Shaikheti’s men kill off the Lombards and the Burgundians now, they’ve spared these other clans the labor of doing it later.”

“That’s utterly ridiculous of them, Conqueror,” Seumius spoke up. “These Germans must be fools!”

“No, not fools,” Xena said. “Just stubborn.”

“So, what’s the plan, my Liege?” Seumius asked. “Are we to sit back and allow Shaikheti to defeat these two German clans?”

“No,” Xena replied. “The two clans are weak, but they’re not impotent. They’ll put up a fight. What we’re here to do is help them.”

“Why, Majesty?” Seumius asked. “We don’t owe these people anything. They’re not even loyal to the Realm.”

“Because this land is too close to Gaul, too close to my Realm, Commander,” Xena replied. “I’d rather it be inhabited by weakened clans than be threatened by a vastly strengthening Persian army.”

“We’re protecting our borders, Commander Seumius,” Palaemon added.

“Precisely,” Xena agreed.

“Okay, this makes a lot of sense, Conqueror,” Glaphyra said. “But it still doesn’t answer how we are going to fight six thousand men with seven hundred.”

For some puzzling reason, Xena smiled at me again. “Palaemon,” she said, “the contract.”

Palaemon pulled out a small parchment from a pouch tied to his pteryges. He handed the parchment to Xena. “Orocovis of Illyria will be here in the morning with his entire army, about four battalions of fighters.”

Seumius and Glaphyra’s jaws dropped. Palaemon and Bahri folded their arms in smug amusement. Of course I didn’t know what any of this stuff meant.

“Hu… hu… how?” was all that could come out of Glaphyra’s mouth.

“I cut a deal with him,” was all that Xena would reveal.

* * * *

The command tent served a second function. It was also the sleeping tent for Xena and me. After Bahri and the officers were briefed on their first round of movement for the pending battle, they departed and Xena and I prepared to retire for the evening. Although the tent provided adequate shelter from the wind, it could not keep out much of the frost of winter. Bunching up a mound of blankets and animal furs, I created a cozy bedroll for us. The ground inside the tent was partially covered with bear hides, so I obviously positioned our bedroll over one of them. I was hopeful that the combination of the bear fur and blankets under us and the layers of blankets and hides covering us would completely insulate us from the cold as we slept. And although one of the greatest pleasures of my life was sleeping naked in Xena’s embrace, I had no intention of taking off my clothing as long as we were sleeping in that cold tent. The temperature was so frigid that any pail of water not sitting over a fire was frozen solid.

After I was nestled deep within the bedroll, I peeked out to watch Xena. She was sitting on the ground beside it, legs crossed and covered in an animal fur cloak, methodically sharpening her sword.

“Aren’t you cold, Xena?”

“No.”

It was obvious that Xena was already completely focusing on the impending campaign. Her eyes were locked on her sword, but her mind was on a battlefield. I watched her sharpen her weapon for some moments before deciding to satisfy my curiosity.

“So, Xena Warrior Princess,” I spoke up. “Are you going to tell me about this Orocovis person and the deal that you struck with him?”

Xena stopped sharpening and looked down at me. “The year that I proclaimed myself the Conqueror,” she began, “was the year that I conquered Greece, Gabrielle. About a year later, I began my conquests of Crete to the south and Illyria to the north. Crete was easy, because I had allied with the Dorians against Caesar there. Illyria was not. Orocovis was and still is the leader of the Illyrian people. Has been for over twenty years. When I invaded his land, he put up a demon of a fight. He was physically strong like Niall of Calleva, as smart as any of my best tacticians, and he wasn’t afraid to die. Most significantly, Gabrielle, he wasn’t afraid of me.

“But like every other opponent that I have encountered, he too has a weakness,” she continued. “Orocovis is a GOOD man. He loves his land and his people, and back then he refused to sacrifice either in what was becoming an obvious lost cause.”

“Fighting you?”

“Yes, Gabrielle,” she said. “He was strong, but not as strong as the army that I had built by that time. So, he surrendered. He had probably heard that I was lenient to those who surrendered amicably, and he knew of what I was capable with those who went down fighting.”

“Were you ever lenient with anyone in those days, Xena?” I asked.

“Depends,” she responded. “At those times when I believed a king or ruler was of no threat to my goal for ultimate power, he and his people were spared with minimal consequences. But Orocovis was too smart, too strong and too much loved and respected by his people not to be considered a threat.” Xena put down her sword and looked away from me.

“What did you do to him, Xena?”

“I… I did nothing to him physically, Gabrielle,” she said as her eyes became misty. “But I took control of his land and stripped him of his title. I had some of the men of his army imprisoned or slaughtered… and I had the rest of the men, as well as many of the women and adolescent boys, branded and sold into slavery.”

“Oh, Xena.” I sighed as I looked away from her.

“It was to weaken his resolve, his morale, Gabrielle,” Xena said. “So he would never be a threat to my world.” She sighed woefully. “But I underestimated him,” she continued. “My tyranny only served to strengthen his conviction toward his land and people.”

There was a long pause as I sorted out this evil part of Xena’s past. “What’s the deal, Xena?” I asked after a long, bitter silence.

“On our journey here, I went to him one night after you fell asleep,” she said. “He has hated me all of this time and has been quietly rebuilding his army over the last eight or so years. I’ve always been aware of it and have had my operatives in the area keeping an eye on him. I don’t think he ever planned to attack any of my forces. I believe he just wanted to protect his beloved homeland from further harm. Anyway, I told him about Shaikheti. I told him that Shaikheti poses a threat to all of the peoples of this region. I asked him to join us in assisting the Germans in their war against Shaikheti.”

“Is that the truth, Xena?” I asked. “Is Shaikheti a threat to the Illyrians as well?”

“Yes, Gabrielle,” she responded. “I sincerely believe that he is.”

“So, why would Orocovis even consider helping you if he hates you so much?” I inquired, “Why, after all that you’ve done to his people? What’s in it for him if he does?”

Xena looked at me with a sad resolve in her eyes. “I’ve emancipated all of the surviving Illyrians taken into slavery,” she said. “I did it before we left Corinth.”

There was another long, silent pause.

“And I told Orocovis that all of those people are free forever, regardless if he joins me or not.”
PART THREE

III. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG
There have been so many things about my past that I’ve reluctantly had to reveal to Gabrielle. Explaining to her the things that I did to others in my rise to power is particularly unsettling. The expressions that sweep across her face send shivers down my spine. They are often haunting, often perturbed, but usually the expressions reveal marked disgust. I don’t believe she even realizes that her face displays these expressions. It’s just a part of Gabrielle’s nature. She is the incarnation of goodness and this is how she responds to evil.

When I figured out that it was Shaikheti who was leading an army across Thrace to Germania, allying with Orocovis of Illyria was the first thing to cross my mind. It should have been a preposterous thought. Orocovis was once a leader of the same magnitude as Caesar. He had harnessed a great deal of power over the years, but unlike Caesar, his power wasn’t gained by conceit, bloodlust or betrayal. Orocovis’ power came from the love, respect and loyalty of his people, which he earned by displaying competence and perseverance in his leadership. When I fought him eight years ago, I fully expected him to fight to the death as Caesar did. But again, he wasn’t Caesar. A more appropriate leader with whom to compare him would be Queen Melosa of the Thesallian Amazons. But where Queen Melosa staved off a battle with me by brokering an understanding, Orocovis first chose to fight and then to surrender. It allowed me to bear witness to his might, which was for him a much greater mistake than if he had surrendered before fighting or fought to the death. For me, allowing a ruler of such enormity of strength to retain some level of power and authority over his people was a true threat to my master plan. I had to totally disintegrate his power, and I believed at the time that destroying his land and people around him, all the while keeping him alive to bear witness to my carnage, was far more devastating to both him and his people than merely executing him.

It took those eight years for Orocovis’ decimated people to rebuild a fraction of what Illyria once was, and in my role of Empress of the Realm I have done little to make those subsequent years easy. However, I felt a cautious level of confidence that Orocovis would join forces with me against Shaikheti despite our history. In addition to the knowledge that his enslaved people were being freed, I believed that Orocovis would greatly benefit from a challenging battle victory. However, the real reason for my confidence was in the spoken and written words of my love Gabrielle.

When she left me to wander as a traveling bard six months ago, Gabrielle’s soft voice, poetic charm and message of hope left a profound effect on those who listened to her. Word of the beautiful Bard of Poteidaia spread rapidly across Greece, and the impact of those words continued to influence and inspire long after she returned to Corinth. In addition, Gabrielle wrote incessantly. She wrote of our journey to Thrace to rescue the northern Amazons from Velasca, of my battle in Albion and her abduction by Callisto in Rome. And she didn’t just write for her own sake or for mine. Everything she chronicled she copied on at least three additional scrolls and left these scrolls in the hands of historians, storytellers or scholars scattered along our travel routes so that others could learn firsthand about that person whom she labeled, “the REAL Xena the Conqueror.”

It had become Gabrielle’s personal mission to redeem my tarnished reputation and tortured soul.

Somehow it was her spreading word that motivated me to emancipate the enslaved Illyrians, something that I had contemplated doing prior to learning of Shaikheti’s presence in the Steppes. Gabrielle believes, more than anyone else including me, that I have the power of goodness within me. I’m still not convinced, but it warms me so much to know that Gabrielle sees this.

When I told her that I had freed the Illyrian slaves, I saw a glow on her face, which created a glow in my heart. I instantly wanted to hold her closely in my arms. Thus, saying not another word, I put down my sword that I had been sharpening and I began removing my clothing.

“What are you doing, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.

“Preparing for bed, Gabrielle,” I responded. “Why else would I be taking off my clothes?”

“Xena!” she exclaimed. “It’s freezing. I can’t believe you’re going to sleep in the nude as if we were in our warm bedchamber in Corinth.”

“Sorry, but I just cannot sleep in your embrace with clothing on, dear.”

After I was completely undressed, I began to crawl into the thick bedroll that Gabrielle prepared for us. “Hurry up… hurry up… hurry up…” she kept repeating. “You’re letting in all of the cold air!”

Once I was fully cocooned in our bedroll, I reached over to pull her into an embrace and was disheartened to learn that she was more than fully clothed. “Isn’t this a bit much, Gabrielle?” I asked.

“No.”

“Very well,” I disappointedly said as I hugged my little bear.

“Xena,” Gabrielle said through a muffled voice as her head was burrowed between my breasts, “how did you know Orocovis would still ally with you if he knew that he wasn’t under any obligation to do so?”

“Because of you, Gabrielle,” I told her.

She looked up at me. “Me?”

“Yes,” I responded. I told her just how widely her stories and scrolls were traveling throughout the Realm. She seemed somewhat shocked by the revelation, but when she smiled at me, the warmth that she had brought me since I crawled into the bedroll started turning into a wicked fire.

“Gabrielle,” I croaked, “take off these clothes.”

“It’s too cold, Xena,” she protested.

I burrowed down deeper into the bedroll so that our eyes could meet. Then I began kissing her lips. My first kisses were very light, almost chaste, but then they became deeper. Gabrielle eagerly responded to them. Eventually I shifted so that I was lying on top of Gabrielle. We lay there, buried under layers of fur and nestled together, kissing for a very long time. As I kissed her, I would lightly stroke her face and neck with the backs of my fingers. She lightly combed my hair with her fingers while occasionally fondling my ears. These additional gentle sensations sent such profound feelings of love coursing through my body. Gabrielle is the world to me.

She began massaging my shoulders and upper back as the kissing continued. “Mmmm…” I moaned before breaking the kissing. “Are you still cold, Gabrielle?”

“Not exactly,” she replied.

Gabrielle began shedding her clothing. First, the long fur cloak came off, then the long leather peplos, then the soft cloth tunic and finally her britches. Of course, I offered my assistance along the way. Gabrielle refused, however, to remove the thick woolen booties that covered her precious feet. “They tend to get colder faster,” she stated as an excuse.

Once Gabrielle was nude, I pressed my sweaty body against hers. “You smell good,” I said.

“How can you smell me at all under all of this animal hide?” she queried.

“I have many skills,” I answered as I again brought my lips to hers. Soon the kissing, the closeness and the heat of being buried under mounds of fur and blankets began to heighten our desires. Gabrielle seductively brought her knees together and, with them, slowly spread my legs apart. She then ran her lovely hand down my side, to my hip, and then inward toward my sex. Gabrielle entered me, causing a shiver to run up my back to my neck and then up to my head where it tingled. I let out a deep moan.

“You like?” she asked.

“I like.” I answered.

Our lovemaking that first night at the war camp ended as it began, with us buried under layers of animal fur kissing until sleep finally claimed us.

* * * *

I awakened to the sounds of troops moving about outside of our tent. Although I was quite eager to lead my warriors into another glorious battle, I was not looking forward to taking my arms from around my love and climbing out of that cozy bedroll.

“The troops are ready to move out, Commander,” a voice from outside of our tent spoke.

“Excellent,” came the reply from Palaemon. “I’ll alert the Conqueror.”

“I’m alerted,” I said to the shadow outside of my tent as I began slowly pulling myself out from my comfortable shelter.

“Damn!” I cried out as I crawled to and then reached for my battle garments.

“What’s wrong, Xena?” asked a sleepy Gabrielle.

“It’s fucking cold,” I protested.

Gabrielle giggled. “Surprise, surprise, Warrior Princess.”

Moments later I was dressed and ready to prepare the troops for the battle ahead. Gabrielle reluctantly shed herself of our bedroll, but not before completely dressing while still in it.

“I’m sure that wasn’t easy,” I commented about Gabrielle’s dressing method as she crawled over to her boots.

“No,” she replied, “but beats dressing in the cold.”

We walked out of the command tent together to survey our surroundings. The sun was out, but a thin layer of fresh snow covered much of the camp. Groups of soldiers hovering over dozens of small fires dotted the area. Gabrielle and I first decided to check out the status of the hospice tent. Inside, the healers were erecting makeshift bunks. Medicines were displayed. Bandages were being stocked.

“This is where you’ll remain, correct?” I asked almost as a demand.

“Yes, Xena,” Gabrielle answered.

“I’ll make sure that enough of my troops remain behind to guarantee your safety from ambush, Gabrielle.”

“I know that you will, Xena,” she said as she took her hand in mine.

I brought her hand to my lips and gave it a loving kiss. “I need to go and rally the troops,” I told her. “Also, I need to see if Orocovis and his men have arrived yet.”

“I’d like to meet him, Xena,” Gabrielle said.

Orocovis and his army had arrived just after dawn. Gabrielle, Palaemon and I approached them, as they were setting up their camp adjacent to ours. Orocovis’ back was to me as we approached, but when he swung around, his eyes immediately fell upon Gabrielle.

“Welcome, Lord Orocovis,” I said as Gabrielle looked up at me in amazement.

“Good morning, Conqueror,” Orocovis responded. He was attired in his signature black-and-orange colored command uniform.

I looked at Gabrielle. “This is Gabrielle, my consort.”

“And the famed Bard of Poteidaia,” Orocovis added. “You know that her chronicles weave a mighty flattering tapestry of you, Conqueror.”

“Lies, all lies, Lord Orocovis,” I jested. The others laughed as Gabrielle grabbed Orocovis’ arm in a gesture of greeting. “Has Commander Palaemon briefed you on my first plan of attack?” I asked him.

“He has, Conqueror,” Orocovis replied. “However, I’d like to propose a couple of suggestions.”

“Of course,” I said. “I’d be very interested in any input you’d like to offer.” Gabrielle gave me a second startled look. “Palaemon, go and collect our other commanders and have them assemble in my command tent.”

“By your will, Conqueror,” Palaemon replied before departing.

As Gabrielle and I walked away from Orocovis, she grabbed my arm. “Xena,” she stated, “you called him ‘Lord.’”

“It is his appropriate honorific, Gabrielle,” I declared.

“I figured as much,” she said. “I’m just pleased that you did.”

We were silent during the remainder of our walk back to the command hut. Once inside, however, Gabrielle grabbed both of my arms and stared into my eyes.

“Xena,” she began, “confess something to me.”

“What?”

“You purposefully had Palaemon, Glaphyra and Seumius enlist only a small number of fighters for this campaign.”

“Yeah, and?”

“And… and you don’t really need Lord Orocovis.”

“Of course I do,” I affirmed.

“No you don’t,” Gabrielle charged. “You could have easily summoned Seumius to arrive here with one legion… two legions… enough men to wipe this Shaikheti person off the face of the earth.”

“What’s your point, Gabrielle?” I asked.

“You arranged it so that Orocovis’ entire army was brought into this battle for a reason,” she accused. “What’s the reason?”

“You think I want to see him murdered, don’t you?”

I couldn’t tell if Gabrielle could see the hurt in my eyes that I was feeling in my heart, but that glint of disgust on her face was quickly replaced by a sad confusion. “I don’t want to believe that’s the reason, Xena.”

“It’s not,” I shot at her and then immediately regretted my tone of voice.

“What is the reason, Xena?” Gabrielle asked softly as both of her hands ran gently down my arms and then clasped my trembling hands.

“One reason is purely strategic, Gabrielle,” I started. “I plan to flank Shaiketi’s troops from the south. As you saw, Orocovis wears a uniquely colored command uniform. All of his troops wear the same colors. The Germans will recognize Orocovis and his troops and seeing them with my advancing troops, know that my troops are allied with his.”

“And I take it that’s a good thing,” Gabrielle remarked.

“Well, we certainly don’t want the Germans to think we’re allied with Shaikheti,” I said. “The Illyrians have always had a peaceful coexistence with the various Germanic tribes, even as those individual tribes have spent years fighting each other. They’ll instantly know that the Illyrians are on their side.”

“So, Orocovis is needed to prove to the Germans whose side you’re on?”

“Precisely.”

“What’s the other reason, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.

I gripped her hands tighter. “I want to right a wrong done to this honorable man many years ago, Gabrielle,” I said. “I want to give him the opportunity to regain that much deserved glory he once had.”

“That’s why you’re willing to defer to his advice?”

“Only the greatest of leaders is confident enough in herself to know when to seek the counsel of other great leaders. I listen to your advice everyday, Gabrielle, and in case you haven’t noticed, I often take it.”

She chose that moment to smile that GABRIELLE smile that turns my stomach inside out.

* * * *

A short while later, after I rallied the troops for battle, I returned with Gabrielle to our tent. Saying goodbye to her before departing with my fighting force was extremely difficult. After spending several moments in the privacy of our tent hugging and kissing each other, we stood next to Argo and before the troops for several moments embracing each other again.

“Come back to me,” she whispered.

“I will, Gabrielle,” I whispered back before giving her lips a light kiss and then sadly releasing her to climb up on Argo.

“LET’S RIDE!” I shouted to the troops who responded with a collective cheer.

It took us several hours to get to the location of the ongoing battle. Shaikheti’s troops had already attacked four Burgundian villages and were working on the fifth when we approached. As I had suspected, Shaikheti was nowhere to be found, but I was surprised by the number of warriors he sent to do these raids. It had always been Shaikheti’s practice to recruit a very large number of men, but only send them off into battle in small platoons. It was his way of ferreting out the weaker fighters. The surviving warriors of the first few battles, in which Shaikheti’s troops were usually outnumbered, were rewarded with returning to later battles with heavier backup. I always considered the practice really ludicrous. I win battles by either outnumbering or outsmarting the opponent. As for weak fighters, if Shaikheti invested any time and energy in properly training his troops before throwing them into a battle zone, he wouldn’t have to deal with massively weak and incompetent men.

The sheer number of the fighters from Shaikheti’s army that day led me to believe that somewhere along the line, he had discovered that his way was not the way to win wars. I also had to acknowledge to myself my first error of judgment. I assumed that he would never achieve that realization. That was the reason I didn’t bother to enlist more whole centuries of warriors from either the Imperial Guard or my armies from Thrace and Gaul. We were still not facing his entire army, as Shaikheti had sent only a few hundred troops to pillage these towns, but we weren’t necessarily going to outnumber them either.

Although nightfall was upon us, we positioned ourselves out of sight, but in range of the battle, nestled down in a ravine.

“Suggestion, Conqueror,” Orocovis spoke.

“Let’s hear it, Lord Orocovis,” I requested.

“We attack now,” he advised.

“Why?”

“Three reasons, Majesty,” he stated. “One, darkness under these circumstances can be our friend.”

“Okay,” I pondered.

“Two, fighting will keep us warm through the night.”

“U-huh.”

“And three, we cannot set up campfires without drawing attention. If we cannot set up campfires, we’re either going to get very cozy with one another tonight or we’re going to freeze to death.”

I nodded my head. “I wholeheartedly agree, but you forgot the most important reason,” I said.

“What’s that?”

“Element of surprise, my Lord,” I responded before standing and, quietly raising my sword, I pointed it in the direction of the fighting. Immediately, some of the troops began clawing up the inconveniently narrow ravine while others rode around it on horseback.

I jumped on Argo and urged her into a gallop. Lord Orocovis wasn’t far behind. Also close on horseback were Bahri, Charicleia, Hadiya and Stanislas. As we rode down toward the Burgundian village, I began feeling that anticipation that I feel just before a battle. My heart began beating faster, the hairs on my neck raised and I started to sweat. I enjoy a good battle.

As I approached the enemy, I systematically began hacking Shaikheti’s men as I rode Argo. I swiped my sword across faces, throats and chests. With each new kill I felt a fresh burst of energy. Eventually, I jumped down off Argo and began taking on the enemy one by one. Each sword fight was brief and ended with my weapon plunged deep into their chests, necks or stomachs. The sight of their lifeless bodies and the blood on my sword served only to invigorate me even more. This battle lasted well into the night and ended when the combination of my forces, Orocovis’ forces and the Burgundian locals were able to annihilate most of Shaiketi’s soldiers. A few survivors retreated toward Shaikheti’s war camp. If the combination of fatigue, injury and cold of night didn’t kill them, I hoped that they would live to deliver a message to Shaikheti that his ridiculous plan to conquer the Germans was not going to happen. However, I also accepted the reality that this was just the first round of a war that promised to go on for some time.

Our casualties were few. I ordered my troops to gather up the bodies of the dead for a mass pyre as the ground was too frozen to attempt to dig graves. After speaking briefly with the chieftain of the local Burgundian clan, with Orocovis acting as my interpreter, I grabbed Argo’s reins and retreated to one of the village barns offered as lodgings for the troops. Bahri, Charicleia, Hadiya and Stanislas joined me. All four women had fought well. None had any apparent injuries. They piled straw into makeshift bedding and huddled close in the hopes of getting some rest before the next round of fighting. I pulled out a cloth and my sharpening stone and began cleaning and sharpening my weapons. I couldn’t sleep as the adrenaline of the battle was coursing through my veins.

That, and something else.

Gabrielle would have hated to see what I did. She would have hated to see me kill. I refused to notice the men whose lives I took; how young or old they were. I refused to think about the widows and fatherless children I was creating. I refused to think about the mothers who were losing sons. And I tried very hard not to think about Gabrielle when I engaged the enemy that night. I knew that thinking about her, her light, her goodness, would compromise my battle focus, my need to eliminate the enemy, my need to kill. As I wiped the blood off of my sword, I told myself that I wasn’t killing unarmed men. I wasn’t killing innocent men. I wasn’t killing for kicks. This battle was serving a good purpose, to deliver a kind and harmless, albeit sometimes obstinate people from a hostile takeover and to help a revered but beleaguered leader feel the joy of victory. There was goodness to what I was doing, I tried to convince myself. A greater goodness.

After spending considerable time sharpening, I looked over at my companions. Morpheus had claimed all four of them and they looked peaceful in their slumber. I, of course, was greatly missing Gabrielle. A moment later, I heard a quiet knock on the barn door. Not wanting to awaken my comrades, I padded over to the door and cracked it open. It was Palaemon.

“I don’t mean to disturb you, Conqueror,” he whispered, “but I’m requesting permission to relieve the wounded from duty.”

“Permission granted,” I said. “At dawn, have a small band of healthy fighters and the walking wounded take the more seriously injured back to our war camp. They can go on horseback, but the healthy soldiers are to return here once the wounded are delivered to the hospice.”

“What about those too seriously injured to ride, Majesty?” Palaemon queried. “We’ve secured them in one of the village huts. There are nine of them.”

“See to it that the village apothecary makes them as comfortable as possible until they cross over.”

“By your will, Conqueror,” Palaemon said as he bowed and then turned away.

As he began walking toward a group of Imperial Guardsmen awaiting orders, I called out to him. “Commander Palaemon, you fought very well today but be alert,” I cautioned. “Shaikheti has many more men to send to their deaths.”

“We’ll be ready, my Liege!” he called out.

After shutting the barn door, I pressed my forehead against it and looked down at my bloodstained battle garments. “Please understand, Gabrielle,” I whispered to myself as I felt a tear stream down my face.

Many more days of battle awaited us.
PART FOUR

IV. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY
The morning that Xena left to fight, I was determined to keep myself busy. I didn’t want to allow myself the opportunity to stop moving and start worrying about her. I didn’t care that she’s the greatest warrior in the known world. She’s both the love of my life and a mortal. She wasn’t beyond getting killed out there. Thus, as I tended to the various tasks at hand, I would occasionally look up at the sky and watch the clouds move along. I prayed to the gods who moved those clouds, “Keep my Xena safe, please.”

I spent half of that first day helping the healers prepare the hospice tent for the injured. I asked many questions of these experts. Two of the healers from Xena’s Albion mission were among them; Aneurin, the Celtic healer who treated Xena’s stab wound inflicted by Niall of Calleva, and his assistant, Kyros, the Greek healer who successfully treated my seasickness. I wanted to learn from these skilled men so that I too could keep our wounded soldiers alive; so I could be there for Xena if she needed me.

Not all of the Imperial Guard, Seumius’ troops, or Glaphyra’s troops went into battle. Small but well-armed detachments from each army were ordered to remain and guard the camp. Each detachment had a commanding officer. I was initially surprised that Xena didn’t order Bahri to remain behind as my personal bodyguard, until I considered the fact that Bahri was brought in on this mission mainly because of Charicleia. I quickly learned that Xena did arrange for someone to watch over me. Agenta of Philippopolis was one of Glaphyra’s top lieutenants and the commanding officer of her remaining detachment. She was a thin, well-muscled woman of average height, with wildly curly black hair, dark eyes, a lovely face and a deep voice. When I saw her giving orders to the men of Glaphyra’s detachment, I thought to myself how well she would fit in with the Amazons. She had a strong spirit and a confident air about her.

Seumius’ detachment officer, one Lieutenant Obellus, was a large and strong man with, I had been told, a solid military history in Xena’s army. The Imperial Guard detachment officer, Lieutenant Diomedes, was one of Xena’s most competent and loyal Guardsmen. He was also married to a childhood friend of Xena’s, a woman named Flora. Yet, I quickly noticed that first day that both Obellus and Diomedes often deferred to Agenta’s judgment in decision making.

Lieutenant Agenta calmly and with a thorough precision organized the guard details, food supply and hunting parties. I thought it a smart move on Xena’s part to put this woman in charge. If our camp were to be ambushed by either Shaikheti’s men or hostile German barbarians, I imagined that Agenta would do whatever it took to protect us and wouldn’t break a sweat in the process.

As dusk approached, Agenta ordered three small hunting parties to hunt for food. She was leading one of the hunting parties and approached me for the first time before venturing off on the hunting expedition.

“I understand that you’re an Amazon Princess, Lady Gabrielle,” she said by way of introduction.

“I am,” I said. “But my name is Gabrielle, just Gabrielle.”

“You’re the consort of our Majesty, Lady Gabrielle,” Agenta said. “You are also Amazon royalty. I am honoring both the position you hold in the Realm and in the Amazon Nation.”

“Thanks, but Gabrielle’s just fine if you don’t mind.”

“Well, accept my apologies in advance if I slip in a ‘Lady’ here or there,” she quipped.

We both smiled. “I’ll try to contain myself at such times,” I responded in jest.

“Would you like to join my hunting party, Gabrielle?”

“Yes, I would.”

Our hunting expedition didn’t take us very far from camp. When I set off with Agenta, I didn’t know what type of animal we were looking to hunt. She didn’t carry a bow and arrows or any type of spearing weapon with her. She had a sword, which was a useless weapon for hunting… or so I thought.

“What are we looking for?” I decided that the best way to find out was to ask.

Agenta gave me a large sack to carry. “Land varmints, my Lady,” she replied and then quickly remembered. “Oh, I mean Gabrielle.”

“Land varmints?”

Agenta gave me a quick education on maintaining a healthy food supply during a winter war. Before setting out from Castra Regina, Xena ordered several carriages loaded with food. Much of it was grains, rice and dried vegetables. However, fresh pig, cow, goat and lamb meat were loaded as well. The entire war camp indulged in eating large portions of the meat the night before setting out for battle, but there was a significant surplus. To keep the remaining meat fresh for the fighting warriors’ return, Agenta adopted a method of preservation that she had learned from some of the northern Steppe tribes. Taking some large wooden boxes, she and some of her men lined the bottom of the boxes with fresh packed snow. Then, wrapping chunks of the surplus meat into thin sheets of parchment, they neatly placed the chunks into the boxes. They then covered the chunks with another thick layer of fresh snow. Lids were placed on the boxes and they were stored in a designated food supply tent. More snow was shoveled into wheel barrels, which were then wheeled into the tents and unloaded on top of the meat boxes. Armed guards were then posted at the tent.

In the meantime, the rest of us needed to eat as well. “We can’t bring farm animals to a war camp, Gabrielle,” she explained. “Too noisy and dirty. And we can’t exhaust arrows on elk, deer, boar and game birds, so we have to hunt animals that don’t require the use of bows and arrows.”

“Rabbit?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “They’re almost impossible to find in winter, and if you are lucky enough to see them, they’re too fast to catch without weapons. One of the other parties will set traps, however. But we can’t rely wholly on trapped rabbits. The traps take time to work. And besides, rabbits don’t provide much meat.”

“Well, I assume that we’re not going fishing.” I retorted.

“No,” Agenta said smirking. “The surface of the river is frozen now. Even if it wasn’t, only Xena the Conqueror can walk into a body of water and pull out fish in a blink. For the rest of us, it too would be time consuming.”

For the moment, I wasn’t going to concern myself with the fact that Agenta knew that little fact about Xena. “So, what’s left?”

“Critters.”

Agenta ordered the seven men of her hunting party to disperse. They went off in various directions. I stayed with her. Eventually, we came upon a small hole nestled under some snow-covered vines near the river’s edge. Agenta pulled from a pouch some strong smelling crushed walnuts and placed them on the ground next to the hole. We both took a couple of steps back. “The wait won’t be long, Gabrielle,” she said.

We waited in silence for a few moments. Finally, something rustled through the vines to get to the nuts. It was a small but burly brown colored beast with a strange flat tail. Stealthily, she raised her sword and plunged it into the back of the animal. It writhed for a few moments before falling still.

“What is that?” I asked.

“It’s a beaver,” she said.

“We’re going to eat that thing?”

“Absolutely,” she said as she lifted the carcass and placed it in the sack that I had been carrying.

“What does it taste like?” I asked.

“Tastes like chicken,” came Agenta’s reply.

* * * *

I didn’t sleep well that first night in the camp after Xena left. I lay awake half the night thinking about her, worrying about her, missing her. When I rose the next morning, a group of soldiers were riding into the camp. Each horse had two men on it. Some of the men were badly wounded, others less so. The men who were not wounded at all quickly departed after the wounded had been dropped off at the hospice tent. A few of the men from Agenta’s, Obellus’ and Diomedes’ detachments replaced some of the wounded soldiers that were delivered to us.

I quickly went to the hospice tent to aid in treating the wounded. I learned from talking to the injured men that Xena’s troops and Orocovis’ army made a surprise attack on Shaikheti’s army during their raid of a Burgundian village. I was very concerned about Xena, but I was also concerned about my friends out there. I asked about Bahri and her lover, Charicleia, Stanislas, Hadiya and even Palaemon. I was relieved to learn that none of them were injured or killed and that the enemies present in the first battle were easily defeated.

Near the end of the day, more injured were brought back to the camp. I learned from this new batch of soldiers that Xena had advanced the troops to another Burgundian village where they faced a larger number of soldiers from Shaikheti’s army. This second group of injured concurred in their accounts that the second battle was more fierce and bloody than the first.

I didn’t sleep at all that night.

Around noon the following day, our camp had unexpected visitors.

“We’re looking for Princess Gabrielle of the Thessalian Amazons,” said a voice from outside of the hospice tent. “A soldier told us to come to this tent.”

“She’s right inside here,” replied another voice.

The tent’s canvas door opened and three familiar faces appeared before me. “Ouri, Tania, Escritt!” I exclaimed as I ran to hug my Sisters and good friends.

“It’s good to see you, Princess Gabrielle,” Ouri said. “Queen Otere of our tribe sends her greeting.”

“How is she?” I asked. “How are my Sisters of the Northern Amazons?”

“The tribe is flourishing, thanks to you, my Princess,” Ouri responded. “We came here as volunteers to help you in any way that we can.”

Escritt stepped up. “There are ten of us here, my Princess,” she said. “The others are outside. We have amongst us a healer, a shamaness, hunters and fighters. We’re here to personally assist you.”

I sighed at the overjoyed warmth I was feeling. “That’s so great of you, but you know Xena. She has me well protected here.”

Ouri smiled. “We know, but we want to be here with you nonetheless. If for no other reason than as friendly faces to comfort you and keep you company.”

“Thank you, my Sisters,” I said in my delight.

After that first day of battle, fewer and fewer wounded were being returned to camp. These injured soldiers explained to us that most of the more seriously wounded were being treated on site at the villages Xena’s troops were protecting. We learned that fighting had intensified in several Burgundian villages and had eventually spread to two Lombard villages.

In the meantime, I was gaining valuable healing skills. While Aneurin educated me on the Celtic method of healing, my Amazon Sister Ouri, who was also a skilled healer, reacquainted me with the medicinal techniques of the Amazons. I also continued practicing with my staff. Escritt and another Northern Amazon Guard named Darda proved to be excellent training opponents. Keeping busy with work in the hospice and practicing with my staff acted as temporary relief from the constant state of worry I was suffering. Throughout the day, the Amazons were there for me. At night, however, I cowered under my bearskin bedding and wept, missing Xena and wishing that she were there to hold me.

Five days passed before the troops returned to the war camp. As I heard the initial sounds of the soldiers filtering in, I dashed out of the hospice to look for Xena. The sight of a badly injured Seumius stopped me in my tracks.

“Help us, Gabrielle, please,” said a very tired looking Palaemon, who was assisting an equally tired Bahri carry the bleeding and semiconscious Seumius.

I replaced Palaemon, who had been holding up Seumius on his left side while Bahri had Seumius’ right arm around her shoulder. Palaemon grabbed Seumius’ lower legs, which enabled us to lift him and carry him into the hospice tent. We deposited Seumius on a hospice bunk and removed his bloody cuirass.

“What happened out there?” I asked as I took a clean cloth and pressed it against Seumius’ stab wound.

“We were chasing them, Gabrielle,” Palaemon said. “Literally chasing them. We’d secure one village, only to hear that a new batch of barbarians was raiding another one. We’d arrive, we’d fight and then they’d retreat. We finally had them cornered in one of the Lombard villages, but by that time there were too many of them.”

“Did you retreat?” I asked.

Palaemon sat on a stool, overcome by exhaustion. Bahri continued, “Not right away, Gab,” she said. “The Conqueror didn’t want us to just abandon that Lombard village. Like the other villages where we fought before, the village men were fighting with us too, but there were old folks, women and children to consider. We stayed and we fought Shaikheti’s men.”

I grabbed Bahri’s arm. “Xena!” I exclaimed. “I have to go and find her.”

“She’s okay, Gab,” Bahri said. “After we managed to dwindle their numbers down somewhat, they retreated. She then ordered a retreat and came back with the rest of us.”

At that moment, Ouri approached to look over Seumius. “Go and find the Conqueror, Gabrielle,” she said. “I’ll take care of this officer, and these two tired souls as well.”

“Thank you,” I said before running out of the hospice tent. Bahri cried out from behind me, “If you see my Charicleia, tell her I’m here!”

Getting to our tent proved to be an obstacle course. There were tired soldiers everywhere. On my way, I spotted Charicleia. “Have you seen my Bahri?” she asked. “I can’t find her.” She was almost in tears.

“She’s fine, Charicleia,” I said as I gently grabbed her shoulders. “She’s with Commander Palaemon in the hospice tent.”

“Thank you!” she shouted with glee before running off toward the hospice tent.

I continued on to our tent. This camp is chaos, I thought. When I arrived and went inside, Xena was removing her blood-soaked breastplate.

“Xena!” I exclaimed. “You’re hurt!”

“No, it’s not mine,” she said.

I extended my arms and approached to embrace her. “Don’t come near me,” she commanded.

“I will come near you, Xena,” I defiantly stated as I carefully closed in on her. Gently grabbing the sides of her breastplate, I looked into her beautiful blue eyes as I helped her remove it. I tried not to pay any attention to the sight of blood on her.

“Are you curious to know, Gabrielle?” she said in an ominous tone.

“Know what?”

“How many men I killed.”

“Not particularly,” I said, troubled by her entire demeanor.

“Well, it was far more than I had ever fucked,” she hissed.

I immediately told myself that it was the war that was making Xena this way. Fighting and killing brought out the ugliest part of Xena’s dark side. I told myself that somehow, I was going to find the light within her. Placing the breastplate aside, I grabbed a bowl and filled it with water. I brought the bowl over to where Xena had sat down on the ground to remove her boots.

I knelt down next to her. “May I help you with that,” I said in a very gentle voice as I reached for Xena’s bootlace.

Xena grabbed my wrist and jerked my hand away. “Don’t touch me,” she said and then looked away. There was silence for a few tense moments before Xena returned her gaze to mine. “I’m… I’m so sorry,” she said as tears began pouring out of her eyes. I threw my arms around her neck and held her. She threw her arms around my waist and pulled me to her. I began crying too.

“I had hoped to get these clothes off before you found me here, Gabrielle,” Xena confessed. “I didn’t want you to see me this way… covered in blood.”

I released Xena and, taking her face in my palms, looked into her eyes. “I’m a big girl, Xena,” I told her. “I understand that you weren’t quilting blankets out there. You had an important job to do. What I want to know is did you do it? Is this over?”

“Unfortunately, no, it’s not,” she replied as she kissed my cheek and then began washing up. “Shaikheti’s men aren’t as skilled as either my troops or Orocovis’ army, but they have numbers on their side.”

“What are you going to do?” I asked, disappointed in the fact that she was probably going to go back out there and fight again.

“I’m thinking about it, Gabrielle,” she said. “Right now, I need to clean my teeth.”

As I watched Xena, I was reminded about how this great and powerful woman thinks. She often uses the time it takes to conduct mundane tasks to fall into deep contemplation of her next move. At the very moment she finished, Lieutenant Agenta’s voice was heard from outside of our tent.

“May I enter, my Liege?”

Xena spit out the water and cleaning solution from her mouth. “Yes, Lieutenant, come in,” she said.

Agenta entered with my Sister Escritt, causing Xena to shoot me a startled look. “What’s an Amazon doing here?” she asked.

“Some of my Sisters from the Northern tribe arrived a couple of days after you left, Xena,” I explained. “They’ve been helping out around the camp.”

I was frantically trying to figure out why Xena might be angered by the presence of the Northern Amazons while she returned her attention to Agenta. “Report, Lieutenant,” Xena demanded of her.

“Majesty,” Agenta began, “there’s not enough room in the hospice tent to shelter all of the wounded, so I took the liberty of designating a few sleeping tents for that purpose.”

“Good,” said Xena.

“There’s still some meat in the cold tent, and we’ve been hunting, my Liege,” Agenta continued. “These Amazons have been invaluable in that regard. They hunt from the trees, Conqueror. It’s quite remarkable.”

Xena’s eyes widened as Agenta continued her report. “There is plenty of meat to feed the tired and hungry warriors, Conqueror. Plenty of snow to boil for fresh water. I do feel that we need to ration the grain, however.”

Xena returned her attention to me. “How many Amazons are here, Gabrielle?”

“Only ten, Xena,” I responded. “Why? Is there something wrong?”

“I have an idea,” she said before returning her attention once again to Agenta. “Lieutenant, I want you and Escritt to round up the rest of the Amazons and bring them here.”

“Yes, my Liege,” Agenta said.

“Also, go and get Field Sergeant Bahri and her Amazon lover, Charicleia… and the two Parisii Guardsmen, Hadiya and Stanislas.”

“Yes, Majesty.”

“And find Commanders Palaemon and Glaphyra and Lord Orocovis.”

“By you will, Conqueror,” Agenta stated before departing with Escritt.

Xena faced me. Her expression was one I couldn’t quite read. “How did the Steppe Amazons know you’d be here?” she asked.

“I sent word to them, Xena,” I responded. “I didn’t ask them to come. I just wanted to let them know that you were going to address the situation with Shaikheti. They’re here out of respect for me.”

Xena looked up at the ceiling of our tent. “You’re angry with me, aren’t you, Xena?” I remarked.

“No, Gabrielle, I’ve just fallen deeper in love with you,” she said as she returned her gaze to me and then pulled me into an embrace. “I think you may have just won this war for us.”

I looked up at her, but she said nothing further until Agenta returned with the people Xena had asked to see.

* * * *

“Sit, everyone,” Xena requested as everyone took a place on the fur-covered tent ground. Xena remained standing. “As you may or may not know,” she began, “we’re in a precarious situation. Commander Seumius is injured, we’ve lost almost a third of our entire fighting force to injury or death, and although we’ve probably defeated over half of Shaikheti’s army, they still outnumber us two to one.

“We know from the battles that Shaikheti’s men are not as competent as either my force or Lord Orocovis’ army. We also know those of his army who are natives of Persia and the other desert states are having a rougher go at fighting in this weather. But I know Shaikheti enough to know that he’s saving the best for last. Those of his army that we have not yet met in battle are well rested and are more than likely his kinsmen Scythians. Our uninjured troops are tired and hungry. Meeting well-rested Steppe natives will prove to be a heavier challenge for our men and women warriors.

“I could send word ordering that more troops arrive from Gaul,” she continued, “but that would take time… time I don’t believe we have.”

“Yet, you do have a plan, Conqueror,” Lord Orocovis commented as a statement rather than a question.

“Yes I do, Lord Orocovis,” Xena pronounced, as an air of confidence seemed to surround her. “Tomorrow morning, I would like for you and a small detachment of men from our allied forces to go to the head chieftain of the Goths and enlist their services in this war. Would you be willing to do that?”

Lord Orocovis’ eyes widened. “I would, but the Goths won’t ally with us, Conqueror,” he protested. “They’re enemies with the other Germanic clans. My relationship with them is lukewarm at best and, well, they can’t stand you.”

“I’ve never personally fought the Goths, Lord Orocovis,” Xena remarked, “but Shaikheti has. You could remind them of that fact. They’ll help us.”

“I have my serious doubts, Conqueror,” Lord Orocovis stated.

“I don’t,” Xena said as she walked over to Stanislas and Hadiya and sat between them. “Tell me, Stanislas, about the origin of your name.” Stanislas’ eyes grew wide as Xena continued. “Perhaps I can guess. You and Hadiya are about 35 years old. About 25 years ago, you were both abducted by the Romans; she from south of the great desert in Africa and you from the vast forests south of Jutland. You were taken to Albion to be sold into slavery, but the Parisii resisted the Romans, rescued you both and then adopted you as their own. You two grew up together, fell in love with each other and have formed a lifelong bond from the shackles of slavery.”

Stanislas said not a word, but the tears in her eyes spoke volumes. “Will you help us, Stanislas?” Xena asked as she gently placed her hand on Stanislas’ shoulder. “Please.”

Stanislas looked at Xena. “I will help,” she responded.

“Thank you,” Xena whispered before returning her attention to Lord Orocovis. “Stanislas will accompany you tomorrow, Lord Orocovis. She is Gothic and you are respected. Between the two of you, I believe that her kinsmen Goths should be persuaded to assist us.”

Lord Orocovis and Xena both stood. “It’ll take at least two whole days for us to travel there, assemble warriors… if we’re successful in our persuasion… and journey back. What’ll you do in the meantime, Conqueror?”

“You said it yourself, Lord Orocovis,” Xena quipped. “I have a plan.”

“Very well,” Lord Orocovis stated. “In the morning, I’ll gather a diplomatic group of my men and some from your armies.”

“Take as many of my soldiers that you feel you’ll need, Lord Orocovis,” Xena stated as they gripped each other’s forearms. “Thank you.”

Xena looked over at Palaemon and Glaphyra. I could tell that she was deciding which of those two commanders would accompany Lord Orocovis as a representative officer of the Realm. Much to my surprise, she decided on Palaemon. “Go with him tomorrow, Commander,” she said to the equally stunned Palaemon. It was obvious that he was both honored and disappointed, but he knew, as I knew, that there was always more than one explanation for anything Xena decided.

After the two men departed, Xena turned her attention to Commander Glaphyra. “You’re now in charge of my entire fighting force here, Glaphyra,” Xena said. “You and Lieutenant Agenta round up Lieutenants Obellus and Diomedes and have them secure the troops for the night. I want my warriors fed and rested. Got it?”

Glaphyra looked as though she had just been crowned royalty. “Yes, Majesty!” she exclaimed with renewed enthusiasm before exiting the tent with Agenta, who was also apparently smiling with joy over the fact that she was about to finally take part in the battle. The Amazons, Stanislas, Hadiya, Bahri and I remained.

Xena turned her attention to Hadiya. “I’m curious about your native language, Hadiya,” Xena remarked. “About your native heritage… I’m not familiar with it.”

“My people are Bantu, Conqueror,” Hadiya informed Xena before looking at Bahri. “My Greek, Bahri… help me?”

“May I explain, my Liege?” Bahri asked.

“Please do,” Xena replied.

“There are hundreds of tribes of Bantu spread throughout the rainforests and great plains of Africa south of the Sahara, my Liege. The people are not like the Berber and Libyan nomads that the Romans have fought over the years. They aren’t like my Egyptian brethren with our great temples, pyramids and civilizations. They are peaceful farmers and herdsmen who have lived the same simple lifestyle and worshipped the same gods for centuries.”

“Do many of the Egyptians speak the Bantu language, Bahri?” Xena asked.

“No one speaks the various dialects of the language but the Bantu themselves, Conqueror.”

“How is it that you do?” Xena queried.

“I got lucky, Majesty,” Bahri explained. “When I joined the Dorians in Crete, I befriended a Bantu from Samu Dukiya. His name was Sesi. He taught me the language so that we could communicate with each other secretly. He was the only one in those days who knew that I was a woman. Sesi was like a brother to me.”

“What happened to him, Bahri?” I asked.

“The Romans, Gabrielle.”

I placed my hand on Bahri’s shoulder as Xena continued her questions. “So, outside of the various Bantu tribes, the language is almost completely unknown?”

“Yes, my Liege.”

“Perfect,” Xena stated before standing. “I want all of you to eat well and rest tonight. Be back here tomorrow morning for further orders.”

There were confused looks on the faces of our friends, but they all stood and bid us good evening before departing. After the last individual was gone, Xena threw her arms around me and planted a deep but loving kiss on my lips.

“By the gods, I love you!” she exclaimed. “You have been such a good influence on me.”

“Xena, I still don’t get it.”

“You will, my darling, you will.” She couldn’t stop smiling. “In the meantime, I want to get to our bathing tub, I want to eat, and then I want to ravish your sexy body.”

“By your will, Conqueror,” I said with a smile.
PART FIVE

V. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG
When I returned to camp after our last battle with Shaikheti’s army, I had decided that my next move was going to be to set off alone, penetrate his stronghold and assassinate him. I had discovered during the first battle that his army, although more competent than the army I had faced in Lydia, was still a weak and disorganized fighting force. Without their leader, such as Shaikheti was, his remaining men would either surrender or foolishly retaliate once he was taken out. The first prospect was obviously appealing, but the second prospect could further catapult my armies and me into a long and bloody conflict. Yet, it was a chance that I was willing to take.

However, when I saw that some of the Northern Amazons were present in the camp, an even better idea came to me.

I had learned in my dealings with the Amazons in the past that they were highly evolved fighters. They used every natural resource around them to both aid them against an enemy and perfect their hunting. For instance, the desert Amazons have effectively defeated enemies by camouflaging themselves within the rock and sand-covered landscapes of their homelands. The Spartan Amazons have a series of underground catacombs in and around their fortress stronghold that only they can navigate. Lust-filled men who have attempted to penetrate the fortress through those caverns have always found themselves trapped like animals, caught in a labyrinth of death. Both the Amazons of Thessaly and the Northern Amazons have used the trees of their surroundings as an added advantage to their battles. The Northern Amazons, however, are the true masters of the trees. Although both tribes use ropes, vines or hooks to levitate them into the trees, the Amazons of Thessaly require these tools. The tribe of the great Queen Cyane often climbs and leaps from tree to tree without any additional aid or gear.

If I could enlist their assistance, I could map out a plan that was far more complete and beneficial to my troops than my simple murder of Shaikheti. But I was mindful of Gabrielle. Bahri, Stanislas, Hadiya and even the Amazon Charicleia were recruited warriors of the Realm. They had an obligation to go into battle on my command. The ten Amazons who came to our war camp were obligated only to Gabrielle, and because I love her and respect her position in their Nation, I wasn’t about to request their assistance in this battle without her approval. I first needed to explain to her my plan and their proposed involvement in it.

After everyone had left our command tent, I took her hand and we also exited the tent. We went to a small tent at the edge of the war camp. Inside was a large barrel that I had transported specifically as our private bath. When I initially told Gabrielle about it in Castra Regina, she pissed and moaned, claiming that it was patently unfair that the two of us would have access to a hot bath while the rest of our entourage was forced to either wash up in cold-water troughs or go without washing. I reminded her that I was “The Conqueror” and it was generally expected that I would have certain amenities not available to the common populace. She didn’t buy that excuse. “Well, what would you have me do?” I irritably questioned, “Deliver a thousand barrels so that everyone can have a hot bath? Perhaps we can invite Shaikheti to join us in scented saunas between battles.”

“Well, if it’s good enough for us…” she responded.

“Oh, so you’d rather we go without, Gabrielle.”

“I think it’s only fair.”

I chuckled to myself during our stroll to the bath tent when I thought about our argument and how it ended that day. We had spent many long days and nights traveling and our cycles had just ended. Gabrielle was pretty randy smelling by that time but I was downright frightful. All I had to do was remind Gabrielle about just how powerful her sense of smell was, so I stretched out my offensive arms and then, throwing them around her, I pulled her to me and told her to breathe deeply. “Still want to go without, my Bard?”

“No,” she said as she turned her head away from me, gasping for fresh air.

The barrel was barely big enough to fit us both, but I found it rather cozy. It had just been filled with steaming hot water and before getting in, I poured in a vial of scented oil. The water was unbearably hot for only a few short moments before our bodies adjusted to it. Because of the confining space, I was forced to wrap my long legs around Gabrielle’s hips, a task that I found hardly burdensome.

“You are so sexy, Gabrielle,” I began my seduction.

“You are too, Xena,” she responded, “Very sexy, but we’re here to fully appreciate the amenities of your status as ‘The Conqueror’… so bathe.”

“This is just wrong, Gabrielle,” I moaned in protest. She was so beautiful and so desirable. We were so close to each other that my hardened nipples were touching her breasts and I could literally feel the heat emanating from her succulent loins.

I was being utterly tortured in that barrel.

* * * *

After returning to our tent, clean and refreshed, I ordered one of the camp’s cooks to bring us food to eat. Upon settling in for evening meal, I began explaining my plan to Gabrielle.

“I want to attack and penetrate Shaikheti’s stronghold,” I started. “Invade his camp.”

“His troops outnumber you, Xena,” Gabrielle said. “Do you believe the Goths will make up the numbers?”

“They may or they may not, but I’m not concerned either way,” I continued. “According to my spies, Shaikheti’s war camp’s set up is similar to ours. I don’t imagine that he himself has wandered too far from his own command tent, although I’m sure that he has surrounded himself with several armed bodyguards. The best way to assault, when you lack numbers, is to create the illusion that you have the numbers. The best way to do that is by shadow fire.”

“Shadow fire?”

“Yes,” I explained. “Strategically placed warriors firing upon the enemy from discreet locations.”

Gabrielle continued to look at me with a perturbed expression on her face.

“Snipers, Gabrielle,” I said.

“Oh, I get it,” she retorted. “You want the Amazons to fire upon Shaikheti’s army from the trees.”

“Yes,” I affirmed. “They’re to be a distraction. You see, my goal is to create the illusion that Shaikheti’s camp is completely surrounded,” I continued. “I would place some of my troops to the west of the camp and some to the east. I would have both sides attack at approximately the same time. Shaikheti’s men would naturally respond by advancing toward both attacks. If they’re smart, it won’t take them long to notice that they could flank both attacks from the south. When they attempt to create their flanking position, a third group of my troops, as well as the shadow fire, will be there to ambush them.”

“Xena, do you realize that you want to risk the lives of ten young women who are not even a part of this war of yours?”

“I do realize that, Gabrielle,” I said. “That’s why I’m telling you my plan before approaching them to ask for their assistance. I’d like your blessing.”

“But you’ve already put things in motion, Xena,” she said. “Did you expect my approval?”

“I was hoping for it,” I responded.

“I cannot ask of my Amazon Sisters to do anything that I myself have not been allowed to do, Xena.”

“What are you saying, Gabrielle?”

“If my Amazon Sisters fight, I fight,” she declared.

I nearly choked on the piece of bread I was eating. “Are you insane?” I exclaimed.

“I will not allow any of my Sisters to fight in this battle if I’m not allowed to fight as well, Xena.”

I didn’t want to lose my temper with Gabrielle. I could carry out my first plan, but I knew in my heart that the plan involving the Amazons could be more efficient, take less time to effectuate, and prevent greater loss of life to my troops. I understood Gabrielle’s loyalty, but I couldn’t afford to have her get involved in this battle. I would surely succumb to madness if anything happened to her. Thus, I needed to appeal to her sense of logic.

“Look, Gabrielle,” I started, “I understand how you feel, but you have to trust me. These Amazons have unique skills, and although there is a risk, their skills, combined with the height and thickness of the trees, will afford them better protection than any armor and shield could provide. I’ll have enough men on the ground to further insure their safety and I’ll have something that none of Shaikheti’s men could remotely anticipate.”

“What is that, Xena?”

“A secret code, Gabrielle,” I responded. “I want Hadiya to teach Charicleia, the Northern Amazons and me some simple commands in her native language. She, Bahri and I can be their eyes on the ground. We can communicate with each other loud and clear and right in front of the enemy and they won’t know what any of us are saying.”

Gabrielle fell silent for a few moments. I nervously finished my food as I anticipated her response after she had processed this information. “Xena,” she finally spoke, “what if Shaikheti’s men decide to flank from the north instead of the south?”

“They won’t, Gabrielle,” I stated. “The area north of his camp is made up of steep rocky hills. Much easier to go south where the ground is flat.”

She continued eating as another silence fell upon our tent. More moments passed before she spoke again. “Xena,” she asked, “when do you anticipate the Goths will make their appearance?”

“I’m sure they’ll come along as things start to get interesting,” I replied.

“What will you do while all of this is going on?”

“Make Shaikheti sweat,” I responded cryptically.

“I see,” Gabrielle quietly said.

I didn’t know what to make of her strange demeanor. I was almost afraid to again bring up the issue of enlisting the Amazons. “May I approach your Sisters?” I finally inquired.

“You have my blessing, Conqueror,” she said before crawling over to our bedroll and climbing into it.

* * * *

Something was definitely bothering Gabrielle. She resorts to calling me “Conqueror” only when she’s pissed at me. I knew that I was asking a great deal of her. I had spent so much time during this campaign tarnishing Shaikheti’s image for not having the jewels to be a part of the battles that he caused, for not being an effective leader. And yet, here I was expecting Gabrielle, an Amazon Princess, to remain in the safety of my war camp while I ask her young Northern Sisters to endanger their lives in a conflict that was not their own. She knew that my profound and selfish love for her was the only reason and I also knew that she found that to be grossly unfair.

After undressing, I crawled into the bedroll with Gabrielle and attempted to pull her into an embrace. She knocked my arms away and turned her back on me. I couldn’t contain my anger any longer.

“What the fuck do you want me to do, Gabrielle?”

“I want to fight, Xena,” she said.

“That’s too bad, Gabrielle,” I declared, “because it’s not going to happen.”

She rolled around to face me. “Do you think it’s right that Stanislas could live through this but Hadiya may die? What about Bahri and Charicleia?”

“Gabrielle, it’s not…”

“… the same thing?” she interrupted, completing my sentence. “How do you figure? Because none of them are ‘The Conqueror?’”

“No, because none of them are Gabrielle.”

“Oh, so their lives don’t matter?”

“They matter, but not as much as yours does to me,” I acknowledged.

“Like I said,” she hissed, “because you’re THE CONQUEROR.”

“Stop this, Gabrielle,” I warned.

“Stop what?”

I was trying very hard to contain my dark fury. “Look, if you don’t want me to use your Amazons, just say so.”

“You’ve implied that using them will help you win this war and win it faster,” she said.

“Yes, I do believe that’s true, Gabrielle,” I said, hopeful.

“I want this war to end, Xena,” she said. “I don’t want to see this dragged out for weeks or months. I don’t want to see any more young men and women brought back to this camp injured or dying. If using my Sisters will accomplish that, then I want you to enlist them.”

“Yes, Gabrielle, I do…”

“But I fight too,” she again interrupted.

“No!” I shouted, abruptly throwing the mound of blankets and hides off of us both as I sat up.

Gabrielle sat up as well. “I’m not staying here while the woman that I love, my best friends and my Amazon Sisters are out there risking their lives!” she shouted back.

“I SAID NO!”

“I can fight and I will fight, Xena,” she proclaimed as she pointed her finger at me. “You don’t make my decisions for me.”

If I had allowed myself to fall under the spell of my darkest impulses, I would have punched Gabrielle into unconsciousness; bound and gagged her to confine her in our tent, and then utilized her Amazons without her interference. At that moment of our confrontation, I began struggling with those impulses, as the woman that I am, the woman who loves Gabrielle more than anything else, realized the consequences of what those violent acts and betrayal would do to our relationship. I began contemplating what would be the greater risk, the potential loss of her being or the ultimate loss of her love.

As my inner soul trudged through this conflict, Gabrielle gently grabbed my arms. “Xena,” she spoke in a very soft tone, “I know that you’re afraid. I’m afraid too. But the Amazons are here because of me. They’re here for me. And I need to be there for them as well. It’s not just a question of respect. I don’t think my staying here in the safety of this war camp would tarnish their respect for me, but I’m worried about the respect they have for you. You’ve demonstrated to them at the Cimmerian fort and with your Hard Death that you can honor their sense of justice, their sense of fairness. Show them that honor again, Xena. Let me fight.”

I tried very hard to contain my tears. “I don’t want to lose you, Gabrielle,” I confessed.

“I’ll be there right by your side, Xena,” she said. “We’ll protect each other.”

“Are you prepared to kill, Gabrielle?”

“I’ll take my staff, Xena,” she said. “I believe that I can fight effectively without killing anyone. I’ve done it before.”

Gabrielle’s safety wasn’t the only thing that concerned me. “Are you prepared to see me kill?” I asked.

Gabrielle looked down at my trembling hands that rested in my lap. She took them in hers. “This is a war,” she said, her eyes cast down on our clasping hands. “I know what to expect. If killing a few will save the lives of many, I’m willing to bear witness to that.”

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t release my hands from her grasp. Thus we sat there, in a cold tent on a cold night, thinking about each other and the hard days to come.

Exhaustion eventually claimed us both as we nestled down into our bedroll. Gabrielle once again removed her layers of clothing and then wrapped her arms around me. We made love. It was wonderful, profound, intense and, yet, a little sad. In the throes of pleasure, we both cried tears of joy and fear. Gabrielle tenderly wiped away my tears with her thumbs. I kissed her tears.

During the night, we talked about our past. It was obvious to me that Gabrielle was restless. I was certain that the ambiguity of the battle that awaited her was keeping her awake. Of course, I was still contemplating ways to change her mind about accompanying me on this mission, but I was resolute in the fact that once Gabrielle’s heart and mind were settled on something, her colossal stubbornness would prevent any deviation from her decisions.

When I rose the following morning, Gabrielle was already awake and out of the tent. I crawled out of our bedroll and quickly threw on my battle garments. Just as I began lacing my second boot, she came in and knelt down next to me. Her right hand was behind her back.

“Mistletoe,” she said as she revealed what she had been holding and presented the strange but lovely plant to me.

“Thank you, Gabrielle,” I said as I took it.

“I’ve read that the Germans believe that mistletoe has spiritual powers,” she said.

“Yes, and the Illyrians use it as an antidote against certain poisons, Gabrielle,” I advised. “And Celtic men think that it can makes their manhoods stay harder longer.”

“Well, nonetheless, I think it’s beautiful,” she said, sighing at my cynicism. “And I think you’re beautiful.”

I ran my fingers down her face. “And you’re beautiful, Gabrielle,” I said. “Mind, body and spirit.”

Gabrielle stood. “My Amazon Sisters are ready for their orders, Warrior Princess,” she said with a smile.

“I need to finish lacing my boot,” I said. “Go on outside. I’ll be out there in a few moments.”

Gabrielle leaned down and gave my lips a gentle kiss before leaving the tent. After she departed, I looked skyward at the sun filtering through the tent’s canvass ceiling.

Look, I’m not one for praying, and I don’t think any of you give a shit about me anyway. But Gabrielle is a symbol of the gods on earth. She is a gift. So, I’m asking that you keep her safe and not just for me, for us all. She brings joy to everyone who meets her. She has certainly changed my life. Gabrielle is purity and light, but she hasn’t seen a real war before. Keep her safe and please don’t let seeing this war take away her goodness, her light. I think that I fear that more than losing her. If you have any power at all, use it to keep her light shining within her.

* * * *

After explaining my plan to the Amazons, I summoned Hadiya, who was saying goodbye to Stanislas as she prepared for her trip to the Gothic highlands with Lord Orocovis. Before he departed, Orocovis and I went over our plans and came to an understanding. I was putting a great deal of trust in this man and I’m sure that he suspected that I ordered Palaemon to accompany him to insure his loyalty. But I knew, as I’m sure he understood, that there was more for all of us to lose if he were to betray that trust. Despite how he may feel about me, Orocovis is too great of a man to allow a personal need for vengeance to risk the lives of many innocents. For Lord Orocovis, the greater good was never a foreign concept.

When Hadiya approached, I asked all of the Amazons into the command tent. Bahri accompanied us.

“All I need are some simple one-word commands for you to teach the Amazons,” I explained to Bahri and Hadiya.

“Like ‘shoot’ and ‘kill,’ Conqueror?” Bahri asked.

“No, you’ll be doing that anyway,” I responded. “I was thinking of more offensive and defensive commands, such as ‘attack,’ ‘retreat,’ ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘go,’ and perhaps ‘trees.’”

The Amazon Tania stepped forward. “I have a suggestion for the use of the words, Conqueror,” she said. It was obvious that she led this group of Amazons.

“Very well,” I responded.

“You know how we operate, Conqueror,” she began. “We can advance from the ground in two groups. Your two Imperial Guardsmen can accompany each one. When they’re ready for us to take to the trees, they can give the command, ‘trees.’ They’ll need to remain close enough to each one of us so that we can hear their subsequent commands.”

“I plan on keeping Charicleia on the ground as well,” I said. “And I’ll be there.” I looked over at Gabrielle. “And Gabrielle will be there too.” She smiled. “That way you all can spread out more.”

“Will there be other ground troops to back us up?” Tania asked.

“Absolutely,” I responded. “As far as I’m concerned, this is a ground assault. You Amazons will provide the added element of surprise.”

“Will the ground troops need to learn these words, my Liege?” Bahri asked.

“No, not as long as I know them,” I asserted.

“By your will, Conqueror,” Bahri said as she turned to Hadiya.

“The Bantu word for ‘trees’ is ‘jiti,’” Hadiya began.

“Ji-ti,” we repeated in unison.

“Fusa,” she said. “Attack.”

“Fu-sa,” we repeated.

The lesson continued until all the words were spoken and committed to memory. Afterwards, I rallied the troops for the next round of battle. Commander Glaphyra was given command of the larger regiments of troops to attack from the west. Lieutenant Diomedes was placed in charge of the regiments to attack from the east. Both were briefed on the plan before departing.

Welcome additions to our fighting force were several militiamen from the various Burgundian and Lombard villages where we fought. Filtering into our camp, rival clansmen were able to set aside long-existing differences in order to accomplish the greater deed of defeating Shaikheti. Before he left, Lord Orocovis and I had arranged the militiamen into two platoons for this next round of battle. One platoon joined Glaphyra’s troops, the other joined Diomedes.

Lord Orocovis had only taken a single platoon of his army with him to the Gothic highlands, so the rest of his fighting force was split up within the east and west regiments as well. Lieutenant Agenta and a single battalion of warriors were to accompany me. Lieutenant Obellus and one regiment of fighters remained behind to guard the war camp.

Just before departing, I went into the hospice tent and approached the bedridden but slowly improving Seumius. “Take him out, Xena,” he whispered. It was the first time he had spoken my given name since our battle against Cortese, the warlord whose army invaded our home village and killed both of our brothers many years ago.

“This battle is for your brother and my brother and all villagers who have stood up against cowardly warlords,” I said as I clasped his arm. As I tried to release it, he gripped it tighter.

“I’ve… I’ve wanted to say this for a long time, Xena,” he started. “I’m… uh… I’m happy for you. Gabrielle is a wonderful woman.”

“Yeah, I bet you would have never imagined an evil bitch like me falling head over heels with such a sweet and wonderful woman like Gabrielle,” I quipped.

“Honesty, no I wouldn’t have,” Seumius smirked, and then added seriously, “You’re very lucky. You’re both very lucky.”

“Thanks, my friend,” I responded.

“Now, go kick some ass, Conqueror.”

“I plan on it, Commander.”
PART SIX

VI. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY
I lay awake much of the night before the morning I was to join Xena in her war against Shaikheti. Gray clouds had formed before dusk and a wicked wind followed them, causing the canvas of our tent to flutter violently. I was convinced that the stakes pinning it to the frozen ground would give, sending the tent and us into an icy whirlwind. As I lay on the ground, covered in blankets and hides, I listened to that wind and the soft breathing of a deeply sleeping Xena, who held me from behind.

Earlier that evening, she and I had had a terrible argument. She wanted to use my Amazon Sisters as snipers in her war while insisting that I remain coddled in the security of the camp. I maintained that if they were going to fight, I was to fight as well. I’m sure that she considered imprisoning me somehow in a desperate attempt to insure my safety. It’s both flattering and haunting that Xena loves me so. In the end, however, she reluctantly agreed that my involvement in this battle was the most just way to go.

I thought a great deal about Xena that night. We’ve come a long way together. Sometimes it’s still hard for me to believe that this is the same woman who took me as her slave six years ago. She was such a different person back then. For one, she hardly ever spoke to me in the first year or two of my servitude. In fact, I rarely ever saw her except when I was summoned to service her. Of course, I was summoned quite often; once, twice, sometimes several times a day. But outside of sex, we really didn’t interact.

Xena the Conqueror was frightening in those early days. She was often angry with me for reasons I still don’t fully understand. She sometimes displayed her anger during sex, but strangely, other times she was calm, quiet and surprisingly gentle. When she began giving me oral pleasure, I started to relax with her slightly. I began enjoying some of my “service,” but I was never fully comfortable as her body slave. Much of the reason was because she was totally unpredictable. Sometimes the sex we had was so deliciously passionate that I wanted to devour her. A few times it was so violent and painful that I wanted to kill her. I also couldn’t reconcile with myself how I felt about her. I hated her for being the evil monster that she was, but I also hated her for not being the beautiful person that I sensed she could have been.

The Conqueror was unpredictable about other things as well. One day she would lash me as part of my sexual “service,” and then the next day she would have fresh scrolled parchments delivered to my bedchamber. Over the years I often received knocks on my bedchamber door from Mia or one of the Conqueror’s corridor guardsmen delivering jewelry, pottery, dresses or special sweet treats to eat. I would enter my bedchamber and find a beautiful new tapestry hanging on my wall, a limestone statuette on my dresser, a lovely cloth doll sitting in my chair, a brilliant floral arrangement in a vase or a bowl filled with delicious fresh fruit. One time the Conqueror herself came to my bedchamber and gave me the most brilliant gem that I had ever seen. It was a huge emerald resting in a silk-lined carved marble box. As she handed me the box, she simply said, “This is for you.” When I opened the box and saw the brilliance and beauty of her gift, I began crying. This, of course, angered her.

“Why the fuck are you crying, slave!?!” she yelled as she raised her hand to slap me.

“Happy tears, my Lady,” I quietly responded, terrified. “Happy tears.”

The Conqueror lowered her hand and stormed out of the bedchamber. She disappeared for five days after that. Mia told me that she suspected the Conqueror had gone to visit her mother. Until that moment, I didn’t know that the Conqueror had a mother.

The Conqueror sometimes used whips as part of her sick sex games with me. It wasn’t too often, but often enough that I despised her for it. One evening, however, she whipped me so badly that I thought she was trying to kill me. It turned out to be the last time that she struck me, until that night that she punched me after I had returned to the palace from my visit to Poteidaia for Lila’s funeral. I never experience the whips again, however. This horrendous event also seemed to change her somewhat. It was as if she began to realize how much of a monster she had been to me.

For one thing, the Conqueror made it a point to be with me more often. She would come into the library, where I spent much of my time, and sit at a nearby table to observe me reading or writing. She hardly ever spoke to me. She would just sit there and watch me. Sometimes she found me eating in the palace kitchen and would sit across from me and eat as well. In hindsight, I wonder if she was waiting for me to start a conversation, but regrettably that never happened. I was often nervous about her presence. She was so intimidating, yet so beautiful, that I wanted to run away from her and gawk at her at the same time.

I had always been too edgy to merely sit around eating and reading all day. During those years of slavery, I would often lend a hand to the cooks in the kitchen, help the various suppliers load and unload their goods at the palace receiving areas or assist the chambermaids in their various duties. And when I wasn’t telling stories to the children of the palace servants, I often frolicked with them. We would chase each other up and down the corridors and in and around the courtyards and gardens. It was a way for me to stay fit and fast on my feet since I wasn’t allowed to leave the palace grounds.

One day the Conqueror caught me playing a hiding game with the children. It was a very hot day and I had been running around for several hours, thus a sheen of sweat covered much of my body. I was concealing myself behind a stone pillar in the central courtyard when she approached me.

“Why in Tartarus do you insist on behaving like a child, slave?” she asked me in a very daunting tone as she grabbed my sweaty tunic.

Perhaps the heat and my exhaustion could’ve been the problem, for it caused me to temporarily lose sanity as my response came out before I could stop it. “Would you prefer that I sat around and grew fat, my Lady?”

The apologies began unabated as the Conqueror roughly grabbed me by the collar of my tunic and slammed me against that pillar. As I beseeched her with apology after apology, I prayed in my mind to all of the gods that my death be quick and painless. But then our eyes met for what seemed like an eternity. Her eyes are so clear, so blue, so beautiful, I thought as we stared at each other. How could they belong to such an evil being as her? As my mind swirled with a legion of thoughts, her face closed in on me and I felt her lips touch mine. The kiss lasted only for a brief moment and was over before I could really respond to it. In an instant, she released me and briskly walked away.

Another day, about two years ago, the Conqueror found me in the palace kitchen eating midday meal. She approached me with two of my scrolls.

“I read these, slave,” she said as she threw them on the table in front of me. “Are fables all you choose to write?”

I almost lost my bladder. “No…no, my Lady,” I responded, petrified. “I… I write poems, sonnets, p…p…plays.”

“Fiction, all fiction,” she said. “You never write anything that’s real?”

“I haven’t experienced or observed anything worth documenting, my Lady,” I stated truthfully.

“Very well,” she said. “I want you to write a fiction with me as the main character.”

“Yes, my Lady,” I responded.

“And I want something by evening,” she said before storming off.

I barely made it to the chamber pot.

I spent the next several candlemarks working and reworking a good fiction for the Conqueror. It was an exciting tale of how she defeats a barbaric city-state in exotic Galatia. Finally satisfied with my story, I took it to my dear friend Demitrius to critique before presenting it to the Conqueror. “She’s sure to enjoy it,” he told me with a sincere smile.

The Conqueror’s expression remained indefinable as she sat on her chamber throne and read my story. When she completed it, she threw the scroll on the floor. “You’re not anywhere in the story, whore!”

I tried to contain my fear. “I didn’t realize that you wanted me in the story, my Lady,” I confessed.

“Try again,” she demanded. “And put yourself in the story as well. I want it before midnight.”

I returned to the library and frantically rewrote the end of the story to include a victory march back to Corinth and a celebration that included the services of the “worthless slave, Gabrielle.”

After reading my revised story, the Conqueror threw the scroll at me. “NO!” she yelled. “I want a fiction! Write about something that I would NEVER do in real life… and put yourself in the story.” She stood and approached me. “I want it by the noon candlemark tomorrow.”

I retreated to my room and cried. The Conqueror loved to play her sick games, I pondered, but I couldn’t figure out what was motivating this particular one. I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t. Finally, by candlelight, I began writing a story about a lone Woman Warrior who travels to Akanthos from northern Thessaly. She decides to rest by spending one night at an inn located in the tiny village of Methone. I wrote that during her stay, a barbaric warlord invades the village. I wrote that the Woman Warrior single-handedly defeats the warlord and his band of thugs, much to the surprise of the village men. The villagers are very grateful and reward her with a huge festive gathering. I wrote that many of the village men are taken by her beauty, but are too intimidated by her strength to approach her in courtship. However, one man, a handsome carpenter named Albertus, does approach her and is the one who eventually captures her heart.

I did put myself in the story. I was a young village maiden who assists the other village women in preparing the meal for the Woman Warrior’s feast.

After reading my new story, the Conqueror stood up from her throne. I couldn’t read the expression on her face. “We’re never in the same place at the same time, Gabrielle,” she said. “We never speak to each other. I’m not even sure if my character knows that your character exists. Is that the way you wanted it?”
“I didn’t think it would matter, my Lady,” I said.

“Get out of here,” she hissed.

After that incident, I didn’t see the Conqueror at all for over three weeks, although I knew that she hadn’t journeyed anywhere. It was by far the longest time that I was spared servicing her, other than those times that she was away fighting. The Conqueror was deliberately avoiding me. After the first week, I began contemplating that perhaps I was going to be sold soon. For reasons that I couldn’t understand within myself, the prospect frightened me. On one hand, there was the possibility that I would be sold to an older, married nobleman who would not be so demanding of my services. I was both a literate slave and the property of the Conqueror, so logically, I would only be sold to high nobility. I pondered the possibility that I could spend the rest of my life without the threat of being beaten or humiliated. I pondered the possibility that my future owner might eventually award me freedom.

On the other hand, I would never see those beautiful blue eyes again. My mind strangely wandered like a hopeless romantic at times, terrified at the notion that the gorgeous face and soft body to which I had become accustomed would be a foregone memory. But I also felt something else that I couldn’t quite understand; jealousy. After those first few days had passed, I began suspecting that the Conqueror had perhaps taken a lover. I couldn’t understand it, but I often found myself weeping at times over the thought that I wasn’t being summoned because she was off somewhere sharing intimacy with someone else.

On the day that the Conqueror finally reappeared to me, I was reading outside in the palace gardens. She ordered all of the security Guardsmen to leave the grounds and then closed and locked both entryways and all of the shutters. She then approached me carrying a silken blanket.

I stood up, as was usually required of me when I was in the presence of the Conqueror. Without saying a word, she placed the blanket on the ground next to where I was standing and then ordered me to undress and lie down on it. She also disrobed. The soft fabric of the blanket almost matched the softness and warmth of her skin as she laid her lovely body on top of me. She kissed and sucked my neck and then grabbed my wrists that rested above my head. We then stared into each other’s eyes as we had deliciously passionate sex. After climax came to us both, she climbed up off of me, threw on her peplos and quietly left the gardens. I remained on my back, naked, taking in the smells of both the flowers in the gardens and her scent on my body. I also stared up at the sky and smiled, oddly safe in the knowledge that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

* * * *

As my thoughts returned to the present, I shifted so that I could meet Xena’s lips with my own. She awakened upon contact.

“Is it morning yet, my love?” she whispered.

“Not quite, Xena,” I said. “I didn’t mean to wake you. I was just thinking about you and wanted to kiss your lips.”

“I like it that you think about me, Gabrielle,” she stated as she stifled a yawn.

I ran my fingers down her lovely cheek. “Go back to sleep, baby,” I said.

“What were you thinking about?” she asked.

“I was thinking about our lives together before you freed me,” I responded.

Xena sighed. “I try not to think of that time, Gabrielle,” she said. “I was such a bitch to you.”

I sighed as well. “Do you recall the time that you told me to write a story, Xena?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“Why did avoid me for weeks after that?”

In the darkness, I felt a trembling hand take mine. “I was hurting, Gabrielle,” Xena admitted. “I had read several of your stories. You have such a wonderfully creative and vivid imagination and I wanted to see where you would put us in a fictional setting. That’s why I wanted you to write about me in a situation that you’d never known me to be. I was so in love with you, Gabrielle. I had hoped that you would make us friends or lovers in your story. I thought everyday about the notion of being your friend. I guess that I wished, somewhere in your soul, you desired friendship with me as well. But you made me a hero, a do-gooder, and you had me fall for some man. And you didn’t have our two ‘characters’ interact with each other at all. I so wanted you to be that ‘one’ in the story that stole my heart. In my deepest, most desirous dreams, we were friends and lovers and I wanted to see that in your story. What you wrote told me that your deepest desire was to not know me at all.”

I squeezed her hand. “I’m so sorry, Xena.”

“Please don’t apologize, Gabrielle,” she implored. “It was all my fault. I created my image of a monster to you. I was a monster to you. How else could you feel about me?”

“Did you take a lover in that time, Xena?” I needed to confirm a long-held suspicion.

Xena’s grip on my hand tightened. “I made sure that you didn’t see me for 24 days, but I saw you every night, Gabrielle,” she confessed. “I came to your bedchamber after you fell asleep and knelt beside your bed.”

“Why?”

“So that I could be close to you, touch you, whisper to you without seeing the fear and hatred in your eyes,” she whispered. “So, no, I wasn’t off fucking someone else.”

I was shocked at the revelation of her nightly visits. “Oh, Xena,” was all I could say for many moments. “I… I thought that you were planning on selling me,” I finally sputtered.

“No, I wasn’t planning on selling you,” she said. “I was in pain… a pain that I couldn’t fully understand at the time.”

“Was coming to me in the palace gardens your way of healing, Xena?”

“Not exactly,” she said. “I missed you terribly. I wanted to see your beautiful green eyes again and give you pleasure surrounded by the beauty and fragrance of the gardens.” She thought for a moment. “I guess it was a healing, huh?”

I took her in an embrace. “I love the way you heal,” I said.

Exhaustion finally claimed me and I drifted off to sleep shortly after that.

* * * *

When I awoke that morning, the wind had finally died down. Xena was still asleep. Quietly, I crawled out of the bedroll and put on my boots. I scurried out of our tent, went to the edge of camp and picked some mistletoe that I had discovered some days earlier. I saw Bahri heading toward the pot tent to relieve herself and asked that she assemble Charicleia and the Amazons to the command tent. When I returned there with my little bouquet, Xena was awake and almost fully dressed. I gave her the mistletoe and told her that the Amazons were ready for their language lessons. She seemed delighted by my gift to her.

We learned several words from Hadiya and Bahri before setting off toward Shaikheti’s war camp. We left during midmorning, but didn’t arrive at the war camp perimeter until nearly nightfall. Several hundred of Xena’s soldiers accompanied us. When we were in range of the enemy’s camp, Xena quietly ordered her platoon sergeants to disperse the hoplites and other soldiers into several dozen groups after securing the horses. They stretched out in line formations for several lengths, although they were low to the ground and using the surrounding tree trunks and foliage as camouflage. We crouched down on the snow-covered ground as well. “We’re creating a circle around the camp,” Xena informed me in a whisper as she placed her arm around my waist and drew me closer to her.

“But we don’t attack, correct?” I whispered in question.

“Correct, Gabrielle,” she responded as she brought her mouth even closer to my ear. “We wait for them to move into their flanking position.”

“When do you think that’ll happen?”

“Depends on how savvy they are,” Xena whispered. “It might be a long wait.”

Her lips were lightly touching my ear as she spoke, sending waves of arousal through me. “What will we do in the meantime?” I croaked.

“Keep warm.”

Our friends, my Amazon Sisters and the accompanying troops began huddling together. Xena took off her fur cloak and, using it as a makeshift blanket, cocooned us even closer together. “It never dawned on me that we would be sleeping outside,” I said as I closed in on her, seeking the warmth of her body.

“No one sleeps on a battlefield, Gabrielle,” Xena told me. “We may rest, we may snooze, and we may even take short naps. That’s about it.” I pressed my shivering body to hers. “And you wanted to be here, Gabrielle,” she added.

I looked into her eyes. “I’m willing to tolerate anything as long as I’m with you, Xena,” I whispered. “I love you.”

Xena kissed my ear. “I love you Gabrielle,” she whispered, “so much.”

* * * *

Xena’s troops positioned on the east and west sides of Shaikheti’s camp began their assaults after dusk. Because of the calmness of the night, we could hear the sounds of battle in the distance. Swords clanging, people screaming, people dying. I began to shiver more violently, not from the cold, but rather from fear of the unknown. Xena’s grip around my waist tightened as those outlying sounds of battle went on for a very long time.

It was just before dawn when Xena’s keen sight noticed a group of torches in the distance moving toward us. She turned to Lieutenant Agenta, who was on the other side of her. “Advance scouts,” Xena whispered to Agenta.

Agenta appeared to be frantically counting the torches. “I’d say less than one hundred, my Liege,” she whispered back to Xena.

“I agree,” Xena replied in whisper. “Spread the command to the troops to stay low.”

“By your will, Conqueror,” Agenta said before dashing off to give orders.

Xena turned to me. “Stay here, Gabrielle,” she whispered before putting her cloak back on and crawling over to Hadiya, Bahri and the Amazons. “It’s time,” she said.

“Ndiyo, ndiyo,” Hadiya whispered her “yes” command to the Amazons. My Sisters began advancing, five scurrying off to the right with Bahri and Charicleia, the rest to the left with Hadiya.

Xena came back to me. “Don’t leave my side,” she said as she grabbed my arm and helped me to my feet. We began running, crouched low with Hadiya and five of my Sisters. Each Amazon then split off and selected a thick pine tree to climb and wait for her next order. Moments later, Xena and I moved away from Hadiya. Between the watchers on the ground and the ten Amazons by their chosen trees, we had a large area covered.

As the torches continued to advance, I looked at Xena. “Are you ready, Gabrielle?” she asked.

“I’m ready, Xena,” I responded as I gripped my staff tighter.

“Jiti!” Xena yelled out the Bantu word for trees.

“Jiti!” Hadiya yelled, followed by Bahri and Charicleia off in the distance. The Amazons were up their chosen trees in a blink of an eye. In the darkness, I couldn’t make them out at all. It was as if they had instantly blended in with the bark on the trees.

“Amazing, isn’t it, Gabrielle?” Xena held.

“Yes, it is,” I remarked.

The sound of the women’s voices shouting out an unfamiliar word caused Shaikheti’s advancing scouts to pause, but only for a moment. It soon became clear that whatever hesitation the voices may have precipitated was replaced by a marked determination. The scouts began advancing even faster. When they were close enough that we could make out their faces, Xena turned to me.

“Gabrielle,” she started, “I want you to help Hadiya give commands to the Amazons. Listen for my commands to you, okay?”

“I will, Xena.”

“I want you to stay right here,” she continued. “I won’t be far.”

“I understand.”

“Remember everything that the Amazons taught you,” she said. “And everything that I taught you. Focus and stay alive.”

“Yes, Xena.”

“I love you, Gabrielle,” she said before standing and raising her sword. “ATTACK!” she yelled before shouting out her signature battle cry and running toward the advancing scouts.

Coming from behind me were Agenta and her troops running toward the enemy. I remained crouched as I watched the battle ensue. I had only seen Xena fight once, but what I witnessed of her fighting skills that day in the Cimmerian fort so many months ago paled against what I saw as the sun began rising to our right. The Destroyer of Nations killed men with single, precise strikes across their chests or stomachs. Man after man fell to her sword. Not a single one of them remotely matched her fighting skill. She killed some two at a time and others with their own weapons. She slit some throats with her chakram and completely beheaded others with her sword. When she threw her chakram, it would ricochet off of a tree or rock or someone’s shield and then slice across the faces of three or four men before returning to her. The blood of her growing body count was splattering everywhere. I also watched as several times, men tried to attack her from behind. She would either stab them as they held her in a headlock or flip them over and plunge her sword into them as they writhed on the ground. Her leaps, kicks and flips seemed humanly impossible.

Most of the scouts were dead within moments, many of them by Xena’s hand alone, and now she and her troops were facing the main flanking force. I was almost in a trance from the carnage I was witnessing when I heard a voice shout out, “Now, Gabrielle!” It was Xena.

I looked up at one of my Sisters, a young guard named Amarice, positioned in her tree. “Fusa!” I shouted the command for “attack.”

“Fusa!” Hadiya shouted. “Fusa!” the others followed.

Our voices drew attention as several of Shaikheti’s men came toward us. Amarice and the other Amazons began firing upon the advancing enemy, but as one of them came toward me, I stood with my staff and took the ready position that I had practiced over and over again.

This is it, Gabrielle, I thought to myself. Focus and stay alive.
PART SEVEN

VII. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG
Unlike earlier battles, Gabrielle was the only thing on my mind when I began my attack on the enemy. My goal was to take out as many men as possible so as to limit the opportunity for any of them to get to her. It was a preposterous goal, but one I could not ignore. It helped that the Amazons in the trees lived up to every expectation. Their arrow shots upon the enemy were precise and exceptionally helpful to my troops on the ground. Although dawn was on the horizon, they were still hard to spot from their positions in the trees. A few of them moved from tree to tree, advancing as we advanced.

After most of the advance scouts had fallen, I briefly looked back to check on Gabrielle. She stood ready for an opponent, but had a combined expression of fear and shock on her face. For the first time, she saw what I was fully capable of doing on the battlefield. I knew that many questions were awaiting me, but I couldn’t dwell on that at that time. I was on a mission to stop Shaikheti…

… and to keep Gabrielle alive.

The main flanking force approached us in phalanx formations. They protected themselves with shields, but the shields were useless against the Amazons once they were under the trees where the Amazons were positioned. As some of the enemy troops started dropping randomly from the shadow fire, the group’s commander yelled out an order to attack. They began running toward us. Since none of them were armed with bows and arrows, there was nothing they could do against the Amazons firing upon them. Their only hope was to become so entangled with my troops that the Amazons would risk accidentally firing upon us.

What the enemy didn’t know, but what I did, was that the Amazons were keen sharpshooters. Once their chosen target was in sight, virtually nothing stood in their way. I appreciated this skill as I saw an enemy soldier approach Gabrielle from behind. She was doing battle with a fairly large man armed with a broad sword. I felt a strange sense of pride at her fighting ability, but when that other enemy soldier approached her, I quickly gutted the man I was fighting and raised my chakram to throw at his head. Before I could release it, an arrow shot down from one of the trees and hit the man’s chest. As he fell to his death, Gabrielle was distracted by the movement and turned her head slightly. The man she was fighting saw this as an opportunity to run her through. As I saw him lift his sword, I took a leaping dive onto him. Gabrielle stood startled as I knocked the sword out of the man’s hand and then took my boot dagger and plunged it in his throat.

I looked up at Gabrielle. “Are you alright?” I asked.

Her startled expression was quickly replaced by discernible resolve. “I can take care of myself,” she said. “But… but thank you.”

“I know you can,” I responded. But I still worry, I thought.

As more enemies approached, Gabrielle began frantically hitting them at random. It was as if, in an instant, she became a woman possessed. I, of course, continued my killing spree. This went on for quite a while before I was able to assess the full situation. Taking a break from the carnage, I looked around and surveyed the area. The number of enemy troops was dwindling fast. Our losses seemed to be minimal, thanks to the Amazons. I gauged that it would not be long before I would put the next part of my plan into motion. I looked over at Bahri, who had pinned a man to a tree and was grinding her sword into his chest. “Bahri!” I yelled. “Be ready!”

“Aye, Conqueror!” she responded before returning her attention to her latest victim. “Die, you gutless bastard,” I heard her say to the lifeless body.

Gabrielle heard it too. “It’s war, Gabrielle,” was all I could say to her about Bahri’s ruthless glee before it was necessary for me to kill yet more enemy soldiers.

Moments later, I yelled over to Bahri, “Now!”

“Rejea nyuma!” she yelled. It was the Bantu command for “retreat.” As Hadiya, Charicleia and then Gabrielle shouted the same command, the Amazons began their descent from the trees. Once on the ground, they began running back toward the horses. As Lieutenant Agenta and my ground troops continued fighting, I grabbed Gabrielle’s arm.

“Go with the Amazons, Gabrielle,” I told her.

“What about you?”

“Don’t worry about me… just go.”

“No, Xena,” she said. “I want to stay with you.”

“We can’t argue about this now!” I insisted. “Just do as I say and go.”

“Please, Xena!”

I wanted to wrap her in my arms and kiss her so badly that my heart ached, but I couldn’t afford any enemy that might survive this fight to witness my one permanent weakness. “Go with your Sisters, Gabrielle,” I pleaded. “Trust me.”

At that moment, Bahri gently grabbed Gabrielle’s arm. “Come on, Gab.”

Gabrielle grabbed my hand and held it for a single moment before retreating with Bahri.

I ran over to Agenta. “You know what to do,” I simply said to her before taking to task what the great Queen Cyane had taught me as well.

I took to the trees.

Forging ahead many lengths from the battle, I finally stopped at an area where I could clearly make out Shaikheti’s camp from my position in a tall pine tree. His camp was in chaos. The unexpected attacks from both the east and west had apparently caused a panic. I could see from my position that many men were leaving the camp individually. They were deserters and most carried sacks probably filled with warm clothing or food stolen from the supply huts. It was obvious that morale had been vastly deteriorating since our first attack a week ago.

Perfect, I thought as I jumped down from the tree and leapt upon one of those deserters. Snapping his neck, I took the helmet and Scythian cloak from the body and put them on. I then inventoried the dead man’s sack. He had stolen two bags of grain, a cooking pot and spoon, a loaf of bread and some Thracian coins. I pocketed the coins and wolfed down half of the loaf before burying the sack in the snow. I also buried the man’s weapons; a crossbow and sword. I had my own weapons, so I didn’t need them, but I planned to return for them later. In the winter, especially, it’s utter foolishness to waste food or discard weapons. Finally, I made some distinct markers as to my presence in the area. I took thin strips of black colored cloth that I earlier placed in my satchel and tied them to low branches on several trees. My markers covered an area that spanned about sixty paces in a path leading to the enemy camp.

Fully disguised, I proceeded on to Shaikheti’s stronghold.

* * * *

Agenta’s orders, like those of Glaphyra and Diomedes, were to keep fighting until the enemies’ retreat. Once they did, my troops would likewise pull back, but not do a full retreat. They were to continue surrounding the outer perimeter, essentially imprisoning Shaikheti’s troops in their own war camp. Once this occurred, the Amazons were to advance again with Bahri, Hadiya and Charicleia as their eyes on the ground, to that area where I descended from the trees, took my disguise and set my first markers. They were to then either wait for my signal from the camp or my return to them.

I ordered Bahri and Agenta to insist that Gabrielle remain with the fallback troops rather than advance with the Amazons, and I hoped that Gabrielle wouldn’t defy those orders.

I sneaked into Shaikheti’s camp as night fell and coyly maneuvered my way around it. I began making a mental record of the camp’s condition and the status of the soldiers and their supplies. It didn’t take long for me to determine from overhearing the Persian and Scythian soldiers’ various diatribes that food was scarce and weapons were low. Most of the men were thin, too thin, suggesting that food had not been properly rationed since they had embarked on their mission. Some of the men had visible signs of untreated frostbite. Other men had strange rashes on their skin. I looked for some kind of healing tent but only found one where sick soldiers were going to smoke pipes, drink ale or inhale fumes from a low burning fire. I immediately recognized the odor emanating from the tent and suspected that crushed opium was placed in the pipes and in the drinks, as well as in the fire.

Borias had introduced me to opium when we were fighting in Pontes years ago. The plant grew in abundance there, so I would crush its poppy, place it in a pipe and smoke it on occasion. I enjoyed the stuff because it relaxed me and made fucking him much more enjoyable. But soon thereafter, we journeyed to Chin. After befriending Lao Ma there, she told me that if I didn’t stop smoking opium, I’d become dependent on it to simply function. I didn’t believe her, so she challenged me to stop smoking it for a week. I wasn’t even using it on a daily basis and was convinced that she was overreacting. However, I began suffering body chills and nausea after only four days without it. I was then so thoroughly convinced of its danger that I swore never to touch the stuff again.

I continued my survey until I came upon what I believed was Shaikheti’s tent. It was large, ornate and had two healthy looking armed guards protecting the entrance. His men are dying and he’s probably in there, as fat as a hog and sitting on his ass, I thought as I hunkered down next to a barrel and decided what my next move would be. I had several options. I could simply walk up on the two guards, kill them both and enter the tent. That, of course, would generate plenty of attention, something I didn’t want just yet. I could covertly enter the tent from the rear and take out whatever protection Shaikheti had in there with him. Or, I could find a place to rest and deal with Shaikheti in the morning.

I chose to deal with him in the morning.

As I had slipped in, I easily slipped out of the camp. Instead of going back to where Agenta or the Amazons were positioned, however, I headed north. The area was rocky and hilly and climbing it buried under two layers of heavy clothing gave me the necessary temporary heat that I needed. I listened to the sounds of warfare off in the distance. What I heard suggested that Diomedes’ troops had retreated from the east and that Glaphyra, although still engaging the enemy, had likely ordered at least some of her troops to the fallback position. When I was slipping around Shaikheti’s camp, the number of men that I had observed returning to it after their respective retreats further confirmed my suspicions.

I found a ditch in the hill that would be a perfect nesting place for the night. I spent half of the night gathering twigs to make a shelter for myself, the exertion from the work further serving to keep me warm. I then started a small fire. The ditch was deep enough that the smoke from the fire, in the dead of night, would not be seen by the enemy camp below. Once my work was done, I hunkered down under my little shelter and slept.

I dreamt about Gabrielle and me. We were in a strange bed in a very unusual looking bedchamber. The bed was small and the chamber had dozens of lit candles and other strangely illuminated objects throughout it. Strange looking tapestries hung from the walls and somewhere inside of the room, strange music could be heard, although there were no musicians present. It was as if she and I were in a different place and time, but it was definitely Gabrielle with me in that bed. She was lying on top of me and began suckling my nipples before bringing her lips to mine. We began making love. My entire body quivered at the feel of her pulsating sex upon mine. I grabbed the creamy backs of her upper thighs and let out a deeply throaty moan as I felt heat, moisture, passion. As we made love, the bed mysteriously creaked to the rhythmic movement of our bodies. Gabrielle then broke the kiss, ran her luscious tongue across my lips and then looked at me with those sea-green eyes. “I’m coming, Warrior Princess,” she said. “I’m coming.” At that moment, climax hit her in the dream and me in my reality. I was jarred awake by the pleasurable pain of my throbbing center. The little fire that I started the night before had died out, but I was sweating as if I had spent several candlemarks in an Amazon steam yurt.

My sleep had apparently been very sound, because dawn had already arrived and a bright winter sun was shining down upon me. I rose up to check out my surroundings, but not before grabbing myself and taking in the last jolts from that mysteriously incredible dream.

The enemy camp below looked worse than it did the night before. Disheveled, tired and hungry men were wandering aimlessly around the camp. Fights were breaking out. Attempts on the officers’ parts to form up platoons were proving futile. I then looked to the north and saw what I had been waiting for coming down from the hills.

Gathering up my bearings, I pulled out the other half of the loaf of bread that I had taken from the deserter I had killed and ate it before climbing down the hill and sneaking back into the enemy camp. It was time for me to pay Shaikheti that long-awaited visit.

I entered his command tent the way I had entered Gabrielle’s royal yurt last summer. I took my chakram and quietly sliced an opening in the tent’s rear. It would be much easier than trying to go under the tent’s bottom, since much of it had been covered under layers of snow. When I poked my head in, a guard was right there to greet me. I reached my hand in and, grabbing him by his neck, I flung him away. I entered the tent just in time to take on two more guards. I waved my chakram in front of me and slit both of their throats. As they fell, the first guard that I had pushed got up and came at me. I slit his throat as well.

Shaikheti, who was sitting when I arrived, was on his feet and going for his sword. “Guards!” he yelled for the two men standing outside. “Guards!”

They entered and briefly eyed their fallen comrades before coming at me. I kicked one in his throat, sending him to the ground gasping for air. I kicked the sword out of the other one’s hand before unsheathing my sword and running him through. As the one surviving guard gagged on the floor, I walked over to the two naked whores who had been screaming incessantly since my arrival and, pointing my bloodied sword at them, told them in their native Persian tongue to “get out.” Grabbing anything that would remotely serve as garments, the two women were gone as quickly as fleeing rabbits.

I looked up at Shaikheti. He stood there, tightly holding his sword with both hands and shaking like a leaf. I sheathed my sword and confidently removed the helmet that concealed my identity.

“Xe-na…” he whispered.

“You surprised, Shaikheti?”

“How did you…?”

“Oh, I’ve been checking out your camp for a while,” I quipped as I folded my arms. “I’ve noticed that opium seems to be the intoxicant of choice around here.”

He was still holding the sword in attack position. “Put the sword down, Shaikheti,” I said. “You know that you don’t stand a chance against me.”

He completely dropped the sword. “So, are you going to kill me now?” he asked.

“If I was going to do that, you’d be dead already,” I replied. “No, Shaikheti, I have better plans for you.” I walked over to him and, putting my arm around his shoulder, I guided him over to some cushions on the floor that had apparently served as his pleasure center with the whores. “Sit,” I said. He stood there dumbfounded. “I said sit down!”

As Shaikheti sat down on the cushions, I went over to the guard that I had kicked. “Let’s see how he’s doing,” I said as I turned the guard on his back. His eyes were open and his tongue was sticking out, but he was otherwise lifeless. “Ooh, not too good it seems.”

I walked back over to Shaikheti and stood over him and folded my arms again. “Why attack the Germans, Shaikheti?” I asked. “Why now?”

“What answer will spare me my life, Destroyer of Nations?” he replied.

In that instant I wanted to kill him. There was a time when I relished the opportunity of the battle, the challenge of the campaign. But my priorities had changed drastically. I wanted to end his miserable life for forcing me to leave the comfort of my homeland and the loving arms of my Gabrielle, for placing her and hundreds of my best fighters, and yes, many of my closest friends in danger, and for disrupting and threatening the lives of hundreds of innocent Germanic villagers. All of this for probably no other reason than to make a name for himself in the history annals.

I had done what Shaikheti set out to do countless times. I was successful at it. But for the first time in my life, as I recalled the expression of Gabrielle’s face on the battlefield the day before, I realized just how high of a price I’d paid for my power.

“I’m not going to kill you, Shaikheti,” I told him. “I don’t need the glory.”

A smile of relief appeared on that homely face of his. “Don’t celebrate yet,” I added. The growing sounds of panicked soldiers came at precisely the right time.

Just then, a voice from outside of the tent entrance spoke. “Lord Shaikheti,” the voice said, “a pack of wild dogs are coming down from the north hills.”

“Wild dogs?” Shaikheti posed as he looked at me.

“Yes, O Great One,” replied the voice.

I could hardly contain my laughter at the absurd honorific as I grabbed Shaikheti by his ornate robe collar and brought him to his feet. “Let’s go have a look-see,” I said.

We exited the tent and walked to a spot where we could see the northern horizon. Coming down from the rocky hills was a pack of dogs. Some stopped and began howling. Others continued their descent.

I looked at Shaikheti. He reminded me of the cowardly warlord Cortese; clean, well nourished, finely attired, with bodyguards and slave girls, while the men around him were dirty, sullen, beaten. “Those aren’t wild dogs, are they, Shaikheti?” I stated, as both he and I knew the answer.

“They’re shepherd dogs,” he replied. “German shepherds.”

“Scouts,” I said. “Who will be behind them?”

Shaikheti sighed and looked to the sky. “The Goths,” he whispered, probably realizing that he was truly defeated.

Only moments later, hundreds of warriors appeared at the top of the hill. “Look at them,” I said to Shaikheti. “Look at the man who leads them, the one dressed in orange and black. He is the true ‘Great One.’”

“Lord Orocovis,” Shaikheti acknowledged.

I grabbed his collar with both hands, looked him in his eyes and continued, “You have two options here. You can fight Orocovis and the Goths to the death or you can spare the lives of what’s left of your men and surrender. Orocovis and I have allied with all of the German clans in the region. This camp is completely surrounded. For once, be a man and do the right thing.”

I released him. “Their fate is in your hands now,” I finished as I turned to walk away.

From my back, I heard the words, “It’s the Conqueror. KILL HER!”

Wrong option, I thought as I unsheathed my sword and prepared to fight my way out of the war camp, but not before sending my signal to Lord Orocovis, Palaemon, Stanislas and the chieftain of the Goths up on that hill, “Alalalalalalalalalalala!”

Orocovis raised his sword and a huge battle cry of hundreds of Gothic men erupted as they began anxiously climbing down from the hill. From that first battle cry came the shouts of Glaphyra’s troops from the west and Diomedes’ troops from the east. Agenta and her troops, per my orders, stood fast at their retreat position. It was time for me to return to the Amazons.

* * * *

I was able to return to where I had buried the grain. The Amazons had advanced and were there, positioned in the trees. Bahri, Charicleia and Hadiya were relaxing on the ground. Gabrielle was with them. Upon seeing me, the three Guardsmen leapt to their feet. Charicleia dropped the nuts she had been eating. Gabrielle also stood, but she ran to me and threw her arms around my waist.

“My Liege,” Bahri began, “Please let me explain…”

“You don’t have to, Field Sergeant,” I stated as I returned Gabrielle’s wonderfully warm embrace. “I just knew that Gabrielle wasn’t going to follow orders and stay back with Agenta’s troops.”

“You know me all too well, Warrior Princess,” Gabrielle quipped. The sound of those last two words temporarily took me back to that blissful dream.

I walked us both over to a tree and we plopped down next to it. She resumed devouring the nuts she had been eating as well. “You three can sit,” I said to the others.

“Are you alright, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.

“Just a little tired,” I responded. Actually, I was exhausted.

Gabrielle displayed a handful of nuts under my chin. “Have some,” she said. “We have plenty since silly Bahri won’t eat any.”

“I hate nuts,” Bahri exclaimed as she reclaimed her comfortable spot on the ground.

Gabrielle reached for my water skin. “Yours is empty, Xena,” she observed. “Have some water from mine.”

After sipping some water, I looked over at my love. She was obviously making a strong effort not to notice the stains of blood on my woolen cloak and the smeared blood on my hands. I greatly wanted to hold hers, but I hated to touch her when I had blood on me. I felt as if I was defiling her somehow. “You look beautiful, Gabrielle,” I said softly.

“I missed you, Xena,” she replied.

“I missed you too.”

* * * *

We waited there in the calm of the German forest for some time. All of the Amazons were positioned in trees in close proximity to us and were relaxing. I suspected that some had even drifted off to sleep. Hadiya leaned against a tree and started humming a Parisii folk song. Bahri and Charicleia napped in an affectionate huddle while Gabrielle peppered me with questions about what happened after I had left her the day before.

I explained to her the remainder of my full battle plan. I told her about how I penetrated the enemy war camp to see its condition and then returned to confront Shaikheti. I told her that I really didn’t expect him to surrender. Surrendering would have been the smart move to make, especially after I had assured him that I wouldn’t kill him. But Shaikheti wasn’t smart. I knew that he figured that if he had succeeded in having me killed, he could somehow rattle the foundation of Lord Orocovis and my fighting force. He was apparently unrealistic about just how formidable I had become since those days when I was rolling around with Borias.

I also told Gabrielle that Agenta’s troops were to be used to stop any enemy soldiers who might escape the siege on Shaikheti’s war camp by my other troops and the Goths. “How long are we to wait here, Xena?” she asked after I had fully updated her on my plan.

“Once the war camp is completely taken by our troops and allies, Commander Palaemon is to report to me here.”

“He knows to come directly here?”

“He knows to come south of the camp,” I responded. “These markers that you found are the first of many that I left. They’re for him as well. The Amazons will tell me when he is in sight.”

“I thought that they were back up in the trees to stop escapees?”

“That too.”

A few moments later, the Amazon Amarice, in a low voice, spoke from her position in a tree, “There’s someone coming.”

“How many?” I asked.

“Just one, Conqueror,” she replied.

I stood. “Is it an officer from my army?”

“I don’t think so, Conqueror,” she said. “He’s not dressed like any kind of warrior that I’ve ever seen before.”

I leapt into the same tree and positioned myself just under Amarice. “It’s Shaikheti,” I said.

Amarice raised her bow to fire upon him. “No,” I said to her as I looked down at Hadiya, Bahri, Charicleia and Gabrielle, who were all now alert and standing.

“Hapana, hapana!” Gabrielle yelled to her Sisters the “no” command. I smiled to myself at the recognition that my love had rightfully earned from her Nation.

Shaikheti was running as if those shepherd scout dogs were chasing him. When he was practically under us, I spoke. “Shaikheti…” I said down to him in a very casual tone. “Where do you think you’re going?”

He stopped and started looking around until his eyes fell upon the four women. Hadiya and Charicleia drew their swords. Bahri drew her crossbow. Gabrielle held her staff in a ready position.

“Look around you, Shaikheti,” I said. He did and started to see some of the Amazons perched in their respective trees aiming arrows at him.

“Why am I not surprised that I would find you out here, running away from your own army, from your responsibility, like a spineless worm?” I quipped. “I just knew that you wouldn’t stay and have it out with the strong, virile and infinitely smarter Orocovis.”

“Let’s talk about this, Conqueror,” he said as he began moving slowly, specifically toward Gabrielle. His increasing proximity to her was making me more and more uneasy, but the last thing I wanted him to discover was that she was my consort. “I’m not surprised that you would enlist the aid of the Oiorpata, but surely your… ‘warriors’… here on the ground don’t want to spill any more blood,” he added.

In an instant, his arm raised to reveal that he was carrying a short sword. He lunged at Gabrielle. Although she appeared ready for him, I jumped down from the tree to protect her. As my feet hit the ground, however, I looked down to see Shaikheti on the snowy ground, face down with several arrows sticking out of his back. I knelt and turned him on his side. He was amazingly still alive.

“She’s… yours… isn’t… she?” he whispered.

“She’s an Amazon Princess,” I stated.

“I knew… that too,” he said as his eyes looked up at Gabrielle, who knelt next to me. He smiled at her. “I was spared by Xena… because of you,” he said to her.

He looked at me. “Gab…ri…elle… the Conqueror’s… Conqueror.” With those last words spoken, the Scythian warlord Shaikheti died.

I looked over at Gabrielle. “He died because of me,” she said.

I placed my hand on her shoulder. “No, sweetheart,” I assured her. “He died because he didn’t want to face judgment. He sealed his own fate the way he wanted it sealed. It was his way of ending his own life.

A moment later, a group of my warriors led by Palaemon ran up to us. “My Liege,” he announced. “The enemy is neutralized.” Stanislas was with the group and immediately ran over to lovingly hug and kiss her lover, Hadiya.

I got up. “Anyone left standing?”

“Yes, Majesty,” he said. “When HE ran off, they didn’t take long to surrender.”

“Let’s head back to camp,” I said. “Send a couple of these men back to give the order for Commander Glaphyra and Lieutenant Diomedes to fall back to camp. I’ll collect Lieutenant Agenta and her troops on our way back. Lord Orocovis will handle matters at the enemy camp.

“What about him, Conqueror?” Palaemon inquired referring to Shaikheti.

“We’ll take the body back to camp,” I said.

“By your will, Conqueror,” Palaemon stated.

Hadiya, Bahri and Charicleia called up to the Amazons in the trees, “Enda, enda!” It was the command “to go.” Almost in unison they leapt down from the trees. I helped Palaemon, Charicleia and the massive Escritt carry Shaikheti’s body back to our camp.

When we arrived, the victorious Amazons took the body of our enemy and placed it in the central square of the camp. Once all of the troops, Orocovis and his army and the Germans arrived, a massive celebration would ensue. The first thing I wanted to do, however, was check on Seumius. With my Gabrielle by my side, we proceeded to the Hospice tent. When we went inside, my mouth nearly dropped.

“Commander Marius!” I cried out.

“Greetings, Conqueror,” he said. He stood next to Seumius, who was sitting up on his hospice bunk and looked greatly improved.

“What brings you here?”

“A situation in Rome that needs your attention, Majesty.”

“Dammit!” I exclaimed. “We just had our victory here and I still don’t get to go home to Corinth? What is it now? Has this something to do with Proconsul Octavius?”

“No, my Liege,” Marius replied.

“What then?” I asked. “What’s the situation?”

“In general, the gladiators, my Liege,” Marius advised. “Specifically, my wife.”

Gabrielle and I looked at each other and sighed, “Callisto,” we said in tandem.
PART EIGHT

VIII. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY
Perhaps it was my years in slavery, so consequently, unlike Xena, I wasn’t disappointed at the prospect of once again traveling to Rome. Years of confinement in that palace was so suffocating that I could easily spend the rest of my life wandering from place to place, reading, writing, speaking and loving Xena.

Thus, when we entered the hospice tent and learned that Callisto was stirring up trouble in Rome, I was secretly delighted about returning to that great city. I was fully aware that the journey would be long and onerous, but I was looking forward to embarking on that challenge…

… as long as it didn’t involve sailing.

It had been a long last two days. The day before started out with us engaging the enemy in battle. When the first enemy soldier approached me, I felt my heart sink to my stomach. I was terrified, but I also knew that Xena was close by. She would do anything in her power to protect me, and knowing that, I was concerned that her need to protect me might compromise her battle focus. Thus, when that first man approached, I convinced myself to think only of defeating him. I didn’t want to do anything out of fear or ignorance that could endanger Xena.

That first man was much taller than me. The Amazons had taught me how to deal with opponents of various sizes and shapes. Xena had given me a few tips over the last few months as well. “Everyone has a weakness,” she would say. “Discover it and exploit it.”

Killing wasn’t an option for me. I fought with my staff, the weapon that I had selected as my implement of war when I was in Amazon scout guard training. In hindsight, my personal code was a rather useless one on the battlefield. One simply doesn’t win wars by merely knocking out the enemy, but I wasn’t there to win a war. Xena certainly didn’t need me there to accomplish her mission. I do believe that my presence was needed, however. It is difficult to explain, but Xena and I bring something to each other. It is an invisible, intangible something, but we both feel it.

Xena ran off alone toward the enemy camp later that morning. Of course, I worried about her the entire time that she was gone. Retreating with Bahri, Hadiya and the Amazons to a safe zone at the outer edge of the battlefield perimeter, we set up a makeshift camp in the frozen forest and waited for Lieutenant Agenta and her troops to return. Shaikheti’s troops retreated from Agenta’s assault before dusk. When she returned to our fallback position, I immediately approached her and inquired about Xena.

“I believe that the Conqueror is infiltrating the enemy camp, Gabrielle,” she advised.

“By the Gods!” I exclaimed, worried.

“Don’t be too distressed,” she said. “The Conqueror is a master at surveillance. She has ways of slithering around like a snake and without drawing any attention to her presence.”

Agenta didn’t exaggerate. I recalled many times during my years as her body slave that the Conqueror would slip up behind me as I walked down a corridor or ate in the palace kitchen. I never detected her presence until she wrapped her arm around my neck or grabbed me by my shoulders. I also never understood her need to do that other than some sick pleasure she derived in startling me. Having reminded myself of those times, I made a mental reminder to ask Xena upon her return why she engaged in that bizarre behavior.

As everyone hunkered together to endure the cold night, I looked up at the sky and gazed upon the great constellation Cassiopeia. I wondered if wherever Xena was she was gazing at the same stars that captured my attention. I didn’t sleep much. I thought about where my life with Xena had taken me. I was lying prone in a frozen German forest surrounded by hundreds of skilled warriors, but I felt completely alone.

Just before dawn, I was jarred awake by the sounds of rustling. My Amazon Sisters, who had slept along side me around one of the campfires, were gathering up their bows and arrows and preparing to advance again. I rose and grabbed my staff. Agenta also rose and stepped between my Sisters and me.

“You’re to stay here with me, Gabrielle,” she announced.

“Why?”

“By order of the Conqueror,” she replied.

“The Conqueror doesn’t give me orders, Lieutenant,” I snapped.

Just then, Bahri intervened. “Let me handle this, Lieutenant,” she said to Agenta before turning her attention to me. “Look, Gab,” she started. “We were ordered to keep you here. If you go with us, we would be in violation of a direct order of the Conqueror. We violate an order, we die. It’s that simple.”

“You don’t honestly believe that Xena would kill you all now, after all we’ve been through together, do you?”

Bahri looked up at the sky rather dramatically before returning her gaze to me. “Uh, YEAH!”

“Well I don’t,” I said. “So let’s go.”

Agenta frantically grabbed my arm. “But, but…” she stammered before Bahri grabbed her arm to release her grip from mine.

“Forget it, Lieutenant,” she said. “Gabrielle’s right. The Conqueror won’t kill us.”

“What makes you think so, Sergeant?” Agenta asked her.

“Because Princess Gabrielle won’t let her.”

* * * *

Hours later, after Xena returned to us and Shaikheti was killed by my Northern Amazon Sisters, I reflected on the events of that day and the long journey across a Gaelic winter that awaited Xena and me.

“What’s going on with Callisto?” Xena asked the Roman Commander Marius as she and I stood, side by side with hands clasped, in the war camp hospice tent.

“She has been fighting in the Colosseum, as you know, Majesty,” he started.

“And?”

“She was nearly killed twice early on, my Liege,” Marius responded, “but about two months ago, the wealthy Sabine, Claudius Appius Seneca, came into Rome with a group of women gladiators from the Sicilian city of Syracusae. Callisto immediately bonded with the women, learned their language and they have been wrecking havoc in the Colosseum ever since.”

“So, she’s been entertaining, Commander Marius,” Xena remarked. “Why should I care about gladiators doing what they’re supposed to be doing?”

“It’s more than that, my Liege,” he responded. “She’s been making a lot of noise, challenging you to come to Rome and fight her one on one.”

“So the bottom line is that I need to go to Rome and fight this bitch to save face, right?” Xena asked contemptuously.

“Right, Conqueror,” Marius replied.

Xena’s grip on my hand tightened. “Fine,” she said.

I decided to break my silence. “Excuse me, Commander Marius, but what do you know about these women gladiators?

“I was afraid that you would ask, Princess Gabrielle,” he responded as he looked at Xena. She released my hand and, gently grabbing my shoulders, turned me to face her.

Xena took my hands into hers. “Many years ago, my growing army invaded Persia and Mesopotamia, Gabrielle,” she began. “I wasn’t there to conquer those lands. I needed to plunder in order to finance my ultimate goal of conquering Greece and Rome. While there, we invaded several cities, including Ecbatana, Susa and Kangavar. These cities were havens of unbelievable wealth and we were eventually able to steal enough goods, silks, animals and gems to build an army the size of five legions.

“Well, to make a long story short,” Xena let out a deep breath as she continued, “while we were in the area, we passed by the Mesopotamian Amazon village. I had no intention of pillaging there. I had cut my deal with Melosa and her tribe about two years before, so we passed by their land without incident. However, when we reached Babylon, a group of women from the tribe journeyed there as well and took up arms along side the Babylonians in a war against us. We defeated them, although not easily. After my army left the area with what we came to steal, the corrupt Babylonian politician who sided with me had the surviving Amazons of that battle taken in chains and sold into slavery.”

“Queen Melosa had told me about our Sisters from Mesopotamia who fought against you in Babylon, Xena,” I said. “She said that she was told by the leaders of that tribe that all of those women were killed. That is not true?”

“The Mesopotamian tribe was told that the women perished, Gabrielle,” Xena said, “to avoid the rest of the Nation taking up arms to recover the enslaved captives.”

“Were you a part of that, Xena?” I asked angrily.

Xena immediately sensed my fury. “No, Gabrielle, I wasn’t,” she said. “But at the time I was far too preoccupied with building my army than worrying about what was going on in Babylon. I learned about the women’s enslavement in Syracusae sometime later. But by then, I had already conquered Greece and Rome and was fighting in western Gaul. I didn’t care.”

She paused for a moment. “I’m sorry, Gabrielle,” she said.

“What are you prepared to do now, Xena the Conqueror?” I asked.

“Free those Amazons, Gabrielle,” Xena responded with sincerity.

We didn’t say much to each other for the remainder of that evening. Many of the soldiers of Xena’s army and Orocovis’ army, as well as the German clansmen, were celebrating their defeat of Shaikheti, whose body was placed on a pyre in the central area of the camp and burned. As the soldiers and others rallied around Xena and Lord Orocovis, he recounted the events of the last battle that lead to the defeat of Shaikheti’s army. I heard great confidence in that man’s voice as he spoke and felt a sense of comfort in the fact that he was being recognized in his rightful status of leader. As he finished, Xena leaned down and whispered to me, “There’s no need for me to add anything, Gabrielle. This is his moment of glory.” It was probably the first time since the Destroyer of Nations came to power that she didn’t personally relish in her own victory after a battle. She was indeed changing.

Xena and I didn’t really join in on the celebration that followed Orocovis’ speech. We returned to that tiny bathing barrel that Xena had insisted we needed and bathed. Afterwards, we returned to the command tent and, covering ourselves with layers of warm furs and blankets, drifted off to sleep in each other’s arms.

When I woke the next morning, Xena was already up and dressed. “I have food if you’re hungry, my Bard,” she said as she kneeled down next to our bedroll.

“I’m starving,” I proclaimed.

Xena chuckled and handed me bread and cheese. “So, which route will we take for our trip to Rome, Xena?” I asked.

“There is only one route to Rome from here, Gabrielle,” Xena said. “We go south through Cisalpine Gaul. It won’t be as long as our journey from Gesoria, but the weather might not be forgiving.”

“By the Gods, Xena,” I exclaimed. “The Vernal Solstice is on the horizon. It can’t get any colder!”

Xena snickered. “Oh yes it can,” she said as she began lovingly stroking my hair.

“Will there be any sailing, Xena?” I asked.

Xena chuckled again. “No, Gabrielle,” she said. “You won’t need to return to your diet of cherries and cucumbers.”

We both laughed for a moment before I needed to return to the issue that had been simmering in my mind. “What do you know about those enslaved Amazons, Xena?” I asked.

“Honesty, Gabrielle, not much,” she replied. “When I learned of their existence as slaves in Syracusae, I was told that they had briefly worked the wheat and grain fields there before escaping. I heard that they were captured, but I never learned of their immediate fate after capture. Sometime later, about two years after… you… you… you and I met…”

Xena paused, sighing before continuing, “…a small amphitheater was constructed near the city and many of Sicily’s slaves were trained as gladiators. It never dawned on me that those enslaved Mesopotamian Amazons would be trained as well, not that I would have given a damn one way or the other back then anyway.”

“Queen Melosa told me that the leader of that band of Amazons who journeyed to Babylon to fight you was a fierce and dedicated warrior.”

“All of those Amazons that we fought were fierce,” Xena said, “But yes, if my memory serves me correctly, their leader was particularly fearsome.” Xena looked up, reflectively. “She would have been a great asset to my army.”

“Always the tactician, eh, Warrior Princess?” I commented jovially.

“Always,” she replied.

I scrambled out of our bedroll and dressed. Later that morning, Xena and I began gathering up goods and food for our journey. We were loading the items into a wagon, one of three that would be used to transport our goods and us to Rome. Obviously, Commander Marius would be joining us. I wanted our friends and my Northern Amazon Sisters to come as well, if they were willing.

“Xena,” I started, “How do you feel about my Sisters joining us to Rome?”

“That’s a mighty long journey, Gabrielle,” she replied. “Are you sure that they would want to make such a long trip?”

“I’d like to ask them.”

“That’s entirely up to you, Gabrielle,” Xena said as she returned to her task at hand.

I placed our bedroll into the wagon. “Xena,” I said, “How do you feel about Bahri, Charicleia, Hadiya and Stanislas joining us?”

“Why?” she asked.

“Why not?” I replied.

“We’re not going on a holiday, Gabrielle.”

“We’re not?”

Xena plopped down onto the wagon the chest that she had been carrying. “All right, Gabrielle,” she said angrily, “where is this going?”

“Oh, come on, Xena,” I shot back. “Tell me that you’re not looking forward to fighting Callisto in the Colosseum.”

Xena irritably put her hands on her hips. “Okay, yeah, I’m looking forward to making that bitch suffer.”

I turned away from her and resumed placing items into the wagon. “Sounds like a holiday to me,” I mumbled.

“Oh, so what are you saying?” she asked in a tone that used to scare Hades out of me. “Turn my back on the situation and let Callisto spew her shit unabated?”

I returned my gaze to Xena’s incensed one. “No, I’m merely asking if our friends could join us on our journey, that’s all,” I said with a smile.

“You know, I think that you get some sick pleasure out of pissing me off,” she said before turning and storming away.

For some reason, at that very moment, a sinister smile crept upon my face.

* * * *

Xena and I were ready to embark on our journey by late afternoon. She had entrusted Glaphyra, Agenta and the other officers with the task of breaking down the war camp and returning to their respective commands. Commanders Palaemon and Marius would be joining us. Commander Seumius was still recovering from his injury, but his lieutenants assured Xena that he would be safely returned to his command as well. After she gave out all of her orders, she approached Lord Orocovis. I accompanied her.

“Thank you,” she simply said.

They clasped arms and he smiled. “Anytime, Conqueror,” he said as he beamed a bright smile.

Xena then clasped the arm of the Gothic chieftain. She thanked him in his native tongue. He nodded and smiled before turning to Lord Orocovis and speaking to him.

Lord Orocovis translated for the German. “He said that if every woman fought like you, men folk would have to go into hiding.”

Xena smiled her most beautiful smile as she patted the chieftain on his shoulder. “Yes they would,” she said before we both turned and walked away.

Three of the ten Amazons took me up on my offer to travel to Rome. The others were eager to return to their homeland with the good news of Shaikheti’s defeat. I think that the three, Escritt, Darda and Amarice, were looking forward to embarking on an exciting new adventure. In addition, I was able to convince Xena to grant our four friends, Bahri, Charicleia, Stanislas and Hadiya a temporary leave of duty to join us as well. The Conqueror usually travels with a contingent of security guards, thus our friends could easily serve in that capacity as well.

Tethering Argo and Chulytis to our wagon, Xena and I, along with our entourage, left the war camp in capable hands. I sat next to her as she drove the carriage. She was still visibly angry with me. Wrapping both of my arms around her right arm, I kissed her cheek and eyed her beautiful profile. “You’re so cute when you’re angry, Warrior Princess,” I said.

Try as she might, Xena was unable to suppress a smile.

* * * *

Several days into our journey, we came upon a small village by the Po River in Cisalpine Gaul. The weather there was considerably warmer than where our journey had started and there was a huge outdoor festival taking place right on the main roads of the village. People were laughing and dancing in the streets. Many had on costumes. Children crowded around street performers and puppeteers. Food vendors were everywhere. As we entered the village, many of the villagers, upon seeing the regal Conqueror, stopped whatever they were doing and began kneeling or bowing. Xena waved her arm. “Continue in your merriment,” she commanded.

As Xena was arranging for our lodgings with the village magistrate, I approached one of the revelers and inquired about the festivity.

“We are celebrating the Vernal Solstice, my Lady!” the happy reveler announced. “Come, celebrate with us!” Before I could protest, a group of villagers surrounded me and escorted me to the village’s main agora where musicians were playing music and people were dancing to it. “Welcome, Lady Gabrielle,” many of them said. My friends and Amazon Sisters came up behind me.

“Look at this!” Bahri shouted excitedly. “Come on, Charicleia, let’s dance!” Bahri grabbed her lover’s arm and pulled her out into the middle of where folks were dancing.

“Forget dancing!” Amarice announced gleefully. “I’m going for that food over there!”

“Me too!” Escritt shouted.

As my Sisters dashed off to indulge in a sinful array of meats, breads and sweet delights, Hadiya and Stanislas joined Bahri and Charicleia in dance. As I began clapping my hands to the music, a strong arm wrapped around my neck, startling me.

“Damn it, Xena!” I yelled. “You know, I think that you get some sick pleasure out of scaring the shit out of me.”

Xena leaned down and playfully bit my ear. “We’re even,” she whispered seductively. Remembering my earlier thoughts about the Conqueror’s old habit of sneaking up behind me and startling me, I finally knew now the simple answer why she did it. “Sick pleasure,” I whispered, chuckling to myself.

“What’s so funny?”

“Oh, nothing,” I said as I turned and grabbed her arms. “Dance with me, my Warrior.”

Xena surprisingly began trying to dislodge her arms from my grasp. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Why not?”

“Well, I’m not much for dancing, Gabrielle.”

“But you have many skills, Xena!”

“Dancing isn’t one of them.”

“Sure it is. You’ve danced for me,” I reminded her. “And if I recall, it was quite beautiful.”

“That was different.”

“How so?”

“It was for you.”

“It still is for me,” I said as I tugged my very reluctant consort into the crowd of dancers. Having her exactly where I wanted her, I began dancing merrily around her. Grabbing her hands, I spun her around several times. The Conqueror’s tenseness began to melt away as Xena began laughing and clapping to my rhythmic bobs and hops. At one point she threw her arms around my waist and, lifting me up, she twirled me around. I threw my arms around her neck as she did this. We were both quite dizzy, but I needed to answer an inner call to kiss her. After gently lowering me back onto the ground, I brought my lips to hers in a kiss that seemed to last an eternity. All of the revelers around us seemed to disappear.

“I love you so, Gabrielle,” she whispered as we broke the kiss.

“As I do you, through all eternity, Xena,” I responded.

Much later into the night, our group had wandered over to the village tavern. Exhausted from dancing, reveling and eating, we settled down at a table in one of the corner edges of the establishment. Palaemon ordered the tavern keeper to bring over an entire cask of ale. After each one of us dipped our mugs into the cask, Bahri raised hers in salute. “To the Conqueror!” she shouted.

The entire tavern turned their attention to our table. Everyone who had mugs in their hands raised them. “To the Conqueror!” the patrons said collectively.

Everyone drank. I sipped my ale while Xena practically downed hers in one hug gulp. After dipping her mug into the cask for a second, she raised it. “To Gabrielle, the beautiful Bard of Poteidaia!”

“To Gabrielle!” came the happy reply from everyone in the tavern.

Xena downed her second mug and instantly refilled it. “Sit on my lap,” she then said to me.

I rose from my stool next to her and perched my bottom on her lap as she drank her third mug and reached over to fill it yet again.

“Slow down, Xena,” I said.

Xena’s eyes were already beginning to take on a glazed, intoxicated look. “Why?” she asked.

I leaned over to her ear, “Because I want your wits about you for later,” I whispered and then seductively kissed her ear. Xena let out a low moan.

“Tell us a story, Gabrielle,” Bahri asked, breaking my concentration.

“Yes, Princess Gabrielle, we’d love to hear a story,” Escritt added.

I briefly looked at Xena, who was polishing off her fourth mug of ale, before beginning my story. “Once there was a lone Woman Healer who traveled the land offering aid to those in need. She traveled throughout the Greek countryside, mending broken bones, treating ailments, patching wounds. She was excellent at what she did and the people whom she treated were very grateful for her care, but she never seemed to show any love or compassion for her patients. She methodically treated them, received her compensation and moved on.

“One day, the Woman Healer is on her way to Akanthos from northern Thessaly. She needs to repair the broken wrist of the village Quaestor there. She still has many lengths of travel ahead of her and night is falling. So, the Woman Healer decides to rest by spending one night at an inn located in the tiny village of Methone. During her stay that night, a barbaric warlord named Albertus of Athens invades the village. He has with him a small army of thugs and they begin running in and out of the village dwellings, stealing the good villagers’ food and goods, beating the men and terrorizing the women and children.”

Xena lightly pressed her forehead against the side of my neck. Her bangs tickled my shoulders. She then slipped her hands inside of my tunic and began tenderly stroking my belly, arousing me almost to distraction, as I continued.

“Upon hearing the first sounds of chaos, the Woman Healer rises from her bed, quickly dresses and runs out of her inn chamber. She goes down into the street and sees Albertus assaulting a young village Maiden. Although the Maiden is fighting back, the warlord’s strength and size are too great for the young woman to bear. The Woman Healer, witnessing the Maiden’s struggle, calls out the name of the barbaric warlord. ‘Albertus!’ she shouts. The barbarian immediately releases the Maiden and approaches the Woman Healer. Unsheathing her sword that she wears on the side of her healer’s tunic, the Woman Healer begins fighting the warlord. His thugs, seeing the fight, begin to charge her as well. Her situation looks doomed, but single-handedly, the Woman Healer proceeds to defeat the warlord and his entire band of thugs, much to the surprise of the village men. After the fight, Albertus of Athens, reduced to a whimpering fool, runs out of that village as if Bacchae are chasing him.

“The villagers, having been saved from that brutal warlord, are very grateful and reward the Woman Healer, whom they now called the Woman Warrior, with a huge festive gathering the very next day. As the village elders surround her and toast in her honor, her attention is drawn to that village Maiden, who is among the other young village women bringing the feast to The Woman Warrior. Although many of the village men are taken by the Woman Warrior’s great beauty, they are all too intimidated by her strength and courage to approach her in courtship. However, that young village Maiden does approach her. They are both shy at first, but as the day wears on, they talk, they laugh and they become great friends. And in a very short span of time, the Maiden captures the Woman’s heart. And the once uncaring and uncompassionate Healer is transformed into a warm and loving Defender.”

There is a strange silence after my little story. “That was sappy!” Bahri exclaimed. “Cute, but sappy.”

“I liked it, Princess,” Darda spoke up. “An unloving healer who becomes a loving warrior. Interesting twist.”

“I liked it too,” Amarice chimed in, “although I would have loved to have heard more about just how the Woman Warrior dispensed with those barbarians.”

As our friends continued in their critique of my little tale, I turned and looked into the beautiful blue eyes of my love. “Thank you,” she whispered to me.
PART NINE

IX. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG
For a very long time, there has been an intense passion between Gabrielle and me. Even in those days when she feared me, when we were together in bed, I would look into her eyes and sometimes, I believed, I would see something; a deep desire, a raw hunger. I was often alone in the days when Gabrielle was the slave of my reality and the lover of my dreams. I would be off somewhere, by myself, and I would think about her and wonder what she would do with that hunger if she were allowed to explore it. Oftentimes I would dismiss my musings as wishful thinking. How could someone as loving as Gabrielle feel any passion for a being like me? I would ask myself. By the Gods, those days were often so miserable.

Since declaring our love, thankfully, our collective passions have only gotten stronger. I anticipate each opportunity to make love with her as if it was the first time. I enjoy every inch of Gabrielle. I love it when we embrace while standing. I can plant my nose in her honey hair and smell the jasmine water that she uses to wash it. I love it when she wraps her arms around me and massages the muscles of my back. I love to kiss her toes. I love to fondle her ears. I love the sound of her laugh. I love the feel of her hardened nipples as I glide my tongue against them. I love to listen to the soft moans that come from her when I pleasure her and watch as her tongue brushes against her teeth when she is about to climax. I love to lick her fingers after they’ve been inside of me. I love to lick my fingers after they’ve been inside of her. I love it when we’re bathing together and she slithers up behind me, wrapping her legs around my hips as she peppers my back with tender kisses. And I could go on for days about Gabrielle’s lips. Their silky feel, their earnest touch. I have captured many lands and killed many men, and yet this one woman has the power to reduce me to a gushing lovesick girl one moment and a lust-filled lioness the next.

We were on our journey to Rome when we came upon the Gaulish village of Eyde. The village is the most diverse of any in the Po Valley and beyond. Many of the Eydeans are Gauls, of course. But in the years after the Roman Quaestor Sertorius Quintus left the valley to serve as General under the old Republic, many settlers from other lands were attracted to the unique wealth that the village had to offer. It wasn’t a wealth of gems and coins, but a wealth of horses, cattle and fish, of oats, olives and rye and of grapes, apples and cherries that attracted these people. Many Suevi, a German clan from an area north of the Danube River migrated to Eyde, bringing with them their fascinating Runic writings and uniquely brewed ale. A few Sabine and Etruscan families from outer Rome settled there as well, as did some Illyrians and Thracians. Eyde also has a Diaspora, a settlement of dispossessed Judeans from Mesopotamia. With this array of peoples, no one religion or way of thinking dominates because most villagers are willing to embrace the varied ideals of their adopted brethren.

When we entered Eyde, the village was celebrating its yearly Rites of Spring or the welcoming of the Vernal Equinox. Practically everyone in the village, from the most aged elders down to crawling infants, took part in the festivities. It didn’t take Gabrielle long to become absorbed in what surrounded us all, and it didn’t take me long to absorb Gabrielle.

We danced to Celtic and Etruscan music, ate exotic dishes and drank German ale in abundance before retiring for the night. Gabrielle also gave me a beautiful gift that evening. While in the village tavern, she retold the story that I had commanded her to write some years ago when she was my slave. I had wanted her to write a fiction about her and me in another incarnation. The story that the slave Gabrielle wrote was that of a warrior woman who saves a small village from a menacing warlord and then falls for one of the villagers, a man named “Albertus.” Her “role” in the fiction was that of a village maiden who remained in the background of the story. The story hurt me back then because I desperately wanted her to write about us being together as friends or lovers, which was a preposterous notion on my part given our situation at the time.

My consort Gabrielle retold the story that evening, but this time the woman warrior was initially a healer who defeats a warlord that Gabrielle named “Albertus.” After defeating him, the healer is proclaimed a warrior who is then captivated by the maiden. In her revised story, Gabrielle and I do become friends and lovers. She was comfortably perched on my lap as she told her tale to our traveling companions, and when she had completed her story, I wanted at that moment to lift her up, carry her back to our bedchamber and thank her with passionate touches. Apparently, similar thoughts were on her mind.

“Thank you,” I whispered to her after she completed her story.

“You’re welcome,” she responded. “Are you ready to retire for the night, Xena? I am.”

“I am too.”

Gabrielle stood up and grabbing both of my hands, helped lift me to my feet. I believed that she had assumed that I was drunk, since I had had several mugs of ale over the course of the evening and four whole mugs in the tavern alone. I was somewhat inebriated, I admit, but she was more the source of my intoxication than the ale. We bade goodnight to our companions and walked arm and arm back to the village Magistrate’s manor, which served as our lodging for the night.

Entering our bedchamber, Gabrielle began taking off her cloak. “Let me do that,” I said as I came up behind her and began pulling the cloak down off her shoulders. Remaining behind her, I reached around and untied the belt that held her tunic to her body. I gave her neck soft kisses as I did this. I then removed the tunic in the same fashion as the cloak, sliding it slowly down her creamy shoulders. I longed to kiss those shoulders as well, but held my desire at bay as I lifted her up and carried her over to the bed. After removing her shoes and undergarments, I retrieved a small jug from my satchel before returning to her on the bed.

Pulling off the cork to the jug, I began pouring its contents onto Gabrielle’s belly button. She jerked at the initial feel of the cold oozing liquid. “What are you doing, Xena?” she asked.

“Dessert time, Gabrielle,” I simply answered.

Gabrielle dipped her finger into the cold liquid covering part of her belly and brought it to her mouth. “Honey,” she said. “Am I not sweet enough for you?”

“Oh, you’re sweet enough,” I said before dipping my tongue through the honey and into her belly button. I swirled my tongue around, licking her soft but firm belly before taking the jug and pouring more honey on her; a few drops on her right nipple and a few drops on her left. I ran my tongue up to her breasts and sucked the honey off both nipples, slowly, seductively. Gabrielle’s moans were vibrating directly down to my sex. I could feel it saturating my undergarment.

“This isn’t fair,” she said as I lifted my head and poured some honey on my tongue. “You’re still completely dressed.”

“Don’t fret, my dear,” was all I would say before bringing my lips to hers. Her tongue immediately went for the honey and we savored the sweet taste together for many moments. After breaking our wonderfully honeyed kiss, I lifted up and, in one long stroke, removed my clothing. Gabrielle’s hands immediately went for my breasts, but I gently grabbed her wrists before she could claim them. “Not yet, my love,” I said as I again grabbed the jug and scooted down to where her inviting sex was calling for me. Pouring honey on the patch of hair that surrounded her core; I slowly, teasingly ran my tongue around her before going inside. The combination of Gabrielle’s taste and the sweetness of the honey was a delight to my palate. As I pleasured her, I covered her sticky breasts with my hands and began kneading them. Her knees rose as her excitement heightened. I so love the thrill of pleasuring Gabrielle this way. I could remain there, firmly tucked between her succulent legs, licking her all night. Alas, moments later her climax came in several short bursts of pleasure. I lifted my head and immediately returned my lips to hers as she was still quivering from release. Then removing my lips from hers, I touched them to her ear. “You taste so good,” I whispered.

“I want you, Xena,” she responded in a whisper as she took me by my shoulders and forced me back supine on the bed.

“I’m yours,” I said as Gabrielle pressed her soft body on top of mine. Bringing her lips to mine, we shared a deeply intimate kiss. I was becoming more and more excited as she tenderly ran her fingers down my cheeks. I ran my fingers through her hair and then down her back to her sweet ass. I squeezed and massaged it as our lips and tongues continued in their blissful connection.

Gabrielle eventually broke the kiss. “By the gods, you are beautiful,” she whispered as she took the jug and poured a line of honey from my neck to my sex. The liquid was indeed cold, but the heat of my body from my passion for her could have easily ignited that honey as if it was Greek Fire. Gabrielle took her tongue and ran it down my body, lapping up the honey. She wasted no time in positioning herself between my legs. Pouring honey on her tongue, she cupped it and then entered me. I felt a strange sensation of heat and cold inside of me. She swirled her tongue in and out and all around me as her delicate hands massaged my thighs. I lay there experiencing the greatest pleasure of my life, being loved by Gabrielle. I couldn’t control the moans that came from within me. I couldn’t control my hands that gripped the posts of the bed and held on for dear life. The climax that raced through my body felt very much like Gabrielle’s initial penetration with the honey. It was a simultaneous heat and cold, and it was maddeningly wonderful.

As the jolts of release were still coursing through my body, Gabrielle returned her lips to mine. I tasted honey. I tasted her and I tasted me. She seemed to be wild in her excitement. “I could do this with you all night,” she whispered.

“So could I.”

And we did.

* * * *

I woke the next day to the sound of hard knocking on our chamber door. The sound startled Gabrielle as well.

“Who is it!?!” I yelled.

“It’s me, my Liege,” Commander Palaemon replied from the other side of that thick door. “Pardon me, Majesty, but it is past noon. Our entourage has been awake for several candlemarks and are ready to continue the journey.”

I was about to rise, but Gabrielle grabbed me by my shoulders and forced me back again. “No, Xena,” she said. “I’m not ready for you to get up yet.”

I looked into her beautiful jade eyes. “Have the group assemble at the carriages in two hours, Palaemon,” I said. “Until then, relax and enjoy Eyde… and don’t disturb us again!”

“By your will, Conqueror,” came his rather muffled reply.

I looked at Gabrielle. “So, you’re giving me orders now, are you?”

“Yes, I am,” she said. “I want to lie here with you for a while. Is there anything wrong with that?”

“Absolutely not.”

We lay in each other’s embrace for a while. We didn’t speak words, but our lips occasionally met in sweet kisses. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before all of that ale that I drank the night before was summoning me to the chamber pot.

“I need to go…”

Gabrielle sighed. “Go.”

After we both answered the call, we returned to our comfortable embrace in bed for a few moments before Gabrielle leaned up on her arm and began running the backs of her fingers down my cheeks. “Can I ask you something, Xena?”

“Of course.”

“That Shamaness who talked you into killing Queen Cyane,” she began, “was she your lover?”

“Why do you want to know?” I asked.

“Why do I always want to know, Xena,” Gabrielle replied. “I just do.”

“No, she wasn’t.”

“How was she able to seduce you into annihilating the Northern Amazons?”

I leaned up. “Despite what you might think, Gabrielle,” I said, “it was much easier back then to seduce me with the promises of power than to seduce me with the pleasures of sex.”

“Oh,” Gabrielle said as she lay back down.

I lay down as well. “Alti did know somehow,” I whispered under my breath.

“Know what?”
“That I had a… that I… that I preferred women.”

“How do you know that she knew, if you two were never lovers?”

“She used a girl to bait me, Gabrielle,” I confessed. “I was fucking Borias and carrying his child at the time, but she knew somehow that I would drop him like a hot plate for the right sort of girl.”

“Who was this girl, Xena?”

“She was Alti’s apprentice,” I replied. “She was a lot like you. Small, sexy, spirited, and beautiful. Alti knew what I liked. But the girl didn’t have your light, Gabrielle. She was following Alti’s path of evil.”

“What happened?”

“Alti presented her to me as a ‘gift,’” I said, reflectively. “Right there in front of Borias. Of course, he was totally clueless. We were in our command hut, so I told Borias to check on the state of our men while Alti, her apprentice and I talked. After Borias left the tent, Alti conveniently left the tent. The girl grabbed me and ripped open my cloak, exposing my slightly growing belly. Moments later, I was in Borias’ bedroll with her. It still smelled from the stench of his sex, but she didn’t seem to care.”

“Did you love her, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.

“She didn’t live long enough for me to fall in love with her,” I responded, “although I doubt that I ever would have. She was murdered later that night when we raiding Otere’s village.

“Who murdered her?”

“I suspect that Alti did it herself,” I said. “She was just a piece of bait to trap me in Alti’s evil web. Once I was trapped, the girl was no longer needed.”

“What was the girl’s name, Xena?”

“Anokin.”

“So in the end,” Gabrielle remarked, “Alti did seduce you with the pleasure of sex so that she could then seduce you with the promises of power.”

I could do nothing else but smile. “You know me all to well, Gabrielle,” I said as I shifted to my side and scooped her body into an embrace. “Can I ask you something, Gabrielle?”

“Sure,” she said after placing a soft kiss on my bosom.

“Do you prefer women?” I asked.

“I prefer you,” she answered.

* * * *

It was almost difficult leaving energetic Eyde. For some bizarre reason, that village had always been a favorite of mine. During the time that I took to conquer Gaul and Rome, my army and I often passed through the town. The people there were frightened of me. Still are, but their fear was probably based more on a notion that I might disrupt the harmony that existed there. It made no sense, but even in my most evil state, while I should have considered such a village to be a major threat to my overall scheme, I couldn’t bring myself to do any damage to a place where so many different peoples coexisted, and did it so amicably.

Because we got such a late start on our journey that day, we weren’t able to cover a lot of ground. We did make it into outer Rome, but barely. Riding into the city of Bononia, our entourage immediately went to the large manor of the city’s Magistrate, Lucius Sabinus Cocles.

Cocles was a disgusting toad of a man with very hairy arms and a hairy chest that he apparently loved to show off under his loosely worn toga. He had a red mustache, a receding hairline and his forehead always seemed to be covered in beads of sweat. Cocles was Magistrate of Bononia before I came into power. I allowed him to remain in that capacity after he offered me the wealth of the city, personal ownership over all of the city’s vineyards. I would have claimed them as mine anyway, but only after having to defeat his local militia. By offering the wealth rather than forcing me to take it, he saved my army about one afternoon of fighting.

We were taken down a long corridor to a row of guest bedchambers. The three Amazons were to occupy one together, the two couples, Bahri and Charicleia and Stanislas and Hadiya, would occupy one bedchamber for each couple, and the two Commanders, Palaemon and Marius, were each given a personal chamber lodging. For Gabrielle and me, Cocles offered his own bedchamber.

“I’m sure that a Manor this size has additional guest chambers,” I said.

“It would be my greatest honor to have you as a guest in my personal bedchamber, Conqueror,” he replied. “Every amenity is at your disposal and I will dispatch as many slaves as necessary to ensure your comfort.”

Gabrielle looked at me. “Slaves aren’t necessary,” I said. “Besides, you should have received word of my decree to emancipate all slaves of Illyrian heritage.”

“I did, Majesty,” Cocles stated. “I’ve never personally kept Illyrian slaves.”

“Very well, then,” I said. “If it’s so important to have us sleep in your bedchamber, we’ll take you up on the offer.”

“Excellent!” he exclaimed a little too happily. “I will make sure that the softest silks are spread across the bed and that the baths are drawn and warmed. For now, if you will, Conqueror, please join me in evening meal.”

Our entire group ate in the large atrium of Cocles’ manor. He had female musicians perform for us while we dined. Afterwards, we were escorted to a small theater within the manor. “For your evening entertainment,” he announced, “a reading.”

A very attractive young man, dressed in a tight-fitting tunic that seemed to intentionally accentuate his physique, walked up on the tiny stage and began reciting several verses of poetry. All of it was sexually suggestive.

“Like the men
Of Thrace or Phrygia
She could get her wine down
At a go,
Without taking a breath,
While the flute
Played a certain little tune,
And like those foreigners
She permitted herself
To be buggered.”

Gabrielle leaned over to me as the boy finished his recitation. “Is someone trying to tell us something?” she asked.

“You tell me,” I whispered. “Wasn’t Archilochos known for his satire?”

“That, and other things,” she replied.

At that moment, the boy was dismissed and Cocles took the small stage. “That was all the entertainment that I have for the evening, honored guests. Please enjoy your respective retirements.”

We were escorted to our respective guest chambers. Cocles’ chamber was quite decorative. Several beautiful tapestries hung from the walls and a very unique mosaic was painted on the ceiling. Fresh floral arrangements were placed around the room. The bed was round and had several cushions on it. Fine silk sheets were also draped across it. Gabrielle and I removed our clothing and stepped over to the bath. I rested my back against the side of it while she rested her back against me. I wrapped my arms around her waist. “I didn’t like Cocles’ choices of poetry,” she said.

“Neither did I,” I agreed.

“When we’re done bathing, I want to read something to you that I think you’ll like, Xena.”

We relaxed in the bath for quite some time, devoting equal amounts of time to bathing and kissing. Once we were done in the bath, we dried off and climbed into that round bed. Gabrielle leaned over and grabbed a scroll out of her satchel. She began reading:

“Aphrodite dressed in an embroidery of flowers,
Never to die, the daughter of God,
Untangle from longing and perplexities,
O Lady, my heart.

But come down to me, as you came before,
For if ever I cried, and you heard and came,
Come now, of all times, leaving
Your father’s golden house

In a chariot pulled by sparrows reined and bitted,
Swift in their flying, a quick blur aquiver,
Beautiful, high. They drew you across steep air
Down to the black earth.”

She read several lovely pieces before putting the scroll away. “Did you like my selections, Xena?”

“I did, Gabrielle,” I said. “I’ve always been partial to Sappho.”

We both lay back and embraced. It didn’t take long for our kissing to resume. And of course, it didn’t take long for the kissing to become more passionate. Gabrielle began kissing my cheeks and eyelids, which are sensations that I truly love. I sucked her earlobe and the skin under her chin before returning my lips to hers. Temporarily breaking the kiss, I looked into her eyes. “Would you like an encore performance of last night, my love?”

“Will you be using honey again?” Gabrielle asked.

“We could try sweet cream or even wine perhaps,” I responded.

“You can be so creative, Warrior Princess,” she said in jest before grabbing the back of my neck and bringing my lips back to hers. As we kissed, our hands began exploring our bodies. She was massaging my shoulders and running her fingers through my hair. I was rubbing her back, her hips and her ass. Her skin is so soft and I felt as if I was floating on a sea of bliss. I was lying there, touching her vigorously and desiring to enter her when all of a sudden, I felt a sharp chill razor down my spine. I broke the kiss.

“Something is wrong,” I whispered very quietly.

“What?” Gabrielle whispered back.

“Wait here,” I whispered before rising from the bed. I looked back at her and brought my finger to my lips in a plea for her to remain quiet. Throwing on a robe and then grabbing a nearby illuminated candle, I walked over to a table located near one of the tapestries. I was following whatever force was drawing me to it. We were being watched, and I needed to find out where, how and who.

Pretending as if I desired a goblet of wine; I slowly surveyed the darkened room as I poured the liquid. I looked closely at that tapestry. It was an unusually long and wide tapestry, the single largest tapestry in the room. It hung almost from the ceiling and went all the way to the floor. Leaving the candle on the table, I picked up the goblet and walked over to the side of the tapestry. It was flush with the wall, too flush. I stepped over in front of it.

“Nice tapestry,” I said before kicking it. On the other side of it, a door crashed open and a heavy object was heard hitting the floor. I barely noticed Gabrielle run up beside me as I ripped the tapestry down to reveal the concealed, and now broken, door. Pushing aside what fragments were left of the door, I entered the space.

Gabrielle, stepping beside me, gasped at the half-dressed figure on the ground. “By the gods! It’s Cocles!” she yelled.
PART TEN

X. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY
Although Xena has grown and evolved from much of her evilness over the last few months, there is a darkness within her that continues to loom like a cloud; a cloud gathering enough energy to produce the frightening noises of thunder and the dangerous bolts of lightning. That darkness seems to manifest itself mostly when she feels betrayed. For her, betrayal is the worst evil. I suspect that she has felt that way since Caesar’s betrayal many years ago. Xena the Conqueror has a code, and for her, betrayal is the antithesis of that code.

When Xena discovered Magistrate Lucius Cocles concealed behind a hidden door, apparently peering at us through a tiny hole cut through it and the tapestry that covered it, I believed that she interpreted his voyeurism as a deviant form of betrayal. He had betrayed her trust in him by disrespecting our privacy. I really didn’t know this man nor did I have any level of care for him, but I didn’t want Xena to kill him for what I merely perceived as perversion and reckless stupidity. Yet, murder was clearly on her mind as she ripped him from the floor of the darkened chamber that served as his peeping room and threw him across his bedchamber that was serving as our evening accommodation. He slammed into a table before falling to the floor. Before I could grab her to stop her, she instantly sprinted across the chamber and, grabbing him by neck, she balled her fist and punched him with such force that he fell limp. She grabbed him by his hair and punched him a second time before I could grab her by her right arm.

“Stop it, Xena!” I yelled frantically.

She yanked her arm away from my grip and hoisted up Cocles, who was unconscious at this point, and threw him across the room again. Still amazed by her level of strength and speed, I grabbed her arm again, this time with both hands.

“Xena, I said stop it!”

She once again yanked her arm away, but turned to face me. “Why?” Her eyes were colorless. She looked crazed, enraged, evil. “Why shouldn’t I tear him into little pieces?”

I made my voice as calm and reasoning as possible. “Why, Xena?” I asked. “Because he’s a weak and perverted man? Because he’s a voyeur?”

“No, because he looked upon your nude body in desire, Gabrielle!” Xena exclaimed. “No one looks upon your body in desire but me!”

I gently grabbed her forearms. “You’re going to kill this man for seeing me naked?”

Xena released her arms from my grasp. “And for wanting you and betraying me, yeah, I am.”

As she began to back away from me and toward Cocles’ slumped and bruised form, I felt heat rise to my face. “This is insane, Xena!” I shouted. “Why don’t you just kill all of those other nobles who you allowed to watch me service you?”

I didn’t initially know from where that came when I said it. I had allowed myself to bury some of the hateful feelings that I had toward the Conqueror. Xena had sought and received redemption from me time and time again since giving me freedom. But forgiving is not forgetting and I had always been particularly angered by those times as a slave when she displayed me as her personal sex toy to others. I thus took her abuse of Cocles as strangely hypocritical.

My remark stopped Xena in her tracks, but she didn’t respond. She just looked upon me with sheer wickedness in her eyes. I slowly approached her. “Xena, what Cocles did was wrong,” I said softly. “But he doesn’t deserve your violent wrath.”

“He desired you, Gabrielle,” she said.

“He desired you too, Xena,” I responded. “He disrespected us both, and he abused his position in the Realm. But do you know what he ultimately did?”

“What?” she shot.

“He got hard and pleasured himself while watching two women in passion,” I said. “What man in Rome, in Greece, in Gaul, you-name-it, hasn’t been guilty of doing that or wanting to do that?”

Xena folded her arms. “Sodomites,” she said.

“Seriously, Xena.”

“I am being serious,” she retorted. “We’re not just two women. I’m the Conqueror and you’re my consort. Don’t you feel that a level of respect and loyalty goes with that?”

“Of course I do, Xena,” I said. “So punish him for disrespecting the Realm, not for getting a glance at our bodies.”

Xena turned and walked toward Cocles. She stopped to grab a pitcher of water. “Perhaps you could ask him what compelled him to take such a risk for such a simple pleasure before you kill him, Conqueror,” I said as I folded my arms.

Xena threw the water from the pitcher onto Cocles’ slumped form before kneeling down next to him. He was slowly regaining consciousness. “My consort would like to know why you would take such a risk for the pleasure of your hardened manhood locked in your grip?”

I approached and knelt beside Xena.

“I… uh… I…” he slurred.

“Speak up,” Xena said. “We can’t hear you.”

“I… was foolish, Majesty,” he was finally able to say after a series of painful coughs. “I have no excuse.”

“Have you other secret areas in this manor for your perversions?” she asked.

“No, Majesty,” he responded. “This is the only one.”

“I take it that you’ve done this before?” she asked.

“Yes, my Liege,” he said and then quickly added, “but this is the first time with you, Majesty.”

“Of course it’s the first time with me,” Xena remarked. “What opportunity would have presented itself to make it a second time?”

“When you were here before, with Marcus Agrippa.”

I instantly found myself shooting an evil stare at Xena, who had essentially been humbled by Cocles’ disclosure. She stood and walked over to the chamber door. Opening it, she exited the chamber and returned shortly thereafter with Commander Marius and two of Cocles’ own guards. “I suspect that there is some type of holding cell or dungeon in this manor?” she asked one of the guards.

“Yes, my Liege,” the guard answered.

“Take him and have him confined there,” she ordered.

“And have his personal healer look in on him,” I added.

The two guards looked at Xena. “You heard what she said,” she retorted.

“Yes, my Liege,” the two guards said in unison before departing with a badly bruised and limping Cocles.

“Was he stupid enough to spy on you two, Conqueror?” Marius asked.

“You know about his voyeurism, Commander?” Xena angrily responded with a question.

“I’ve heard rumors,” he said, “but I would have never suspected that he’d risk spying on you, my Liege. He must have a death wish.”

“Gabrielle’s the only reason that he’s not already dead, which is to say that I won’t put him to death tomorrow,” she stated. “Go and make sure that his guards aren’t more loyal to him than they are to me, Commander.”

“By your will, Conqueror,” Marius said before departing.

Xena went over to a table with a basin of water and began washing Cocles’ blood off her hands before returning to that adjoining room to inspect it. I removed my robe and returned to bed to await her. There were many moments of careful inspection of both rooms and the corridor before Xena was satisfied that all was secure. As she lay on the bed, I turned on my side to face her.

“So, you shared this bed with Marcus Agrippa, eh, Xena?” I asked.

“By the gods, that was so many years ago,” she responded. “I remember the campaigns much more vividly than my sexual encounters. I don’t even remember specifically being with Marcus here.”

“Well, you were here, according to Cocles,” I said.

“Well, I don’t remember it,” Xena retorted.

We lay side by side in a bitter silence for some moments before Xena rose and threw back on her robe and sandals. “I need to get some air,” she said before storming out.

I waited only a few moments before deciding to go after her. I wasn’t sure what was troubling her; the issue of her former relationship with Marcus or her lingering desire to end Cocles’ life.

I was able to ascertain Xena’s whereabouts by asking various patrolling Manor guards. She had made her way past the Manor’s central foyer to a veranda, which had a beautiful wading pool. Xena was sitting at the pool’s side; her sandals were removed and her feet were relaxed in the pool. I approached and sat next to her, placing my feet in the pool as well. She was looking at her hands.

“Is this about Cocles or about Marcus?” I asked.

“Is what about Cocles or Marcus?” she responded with a question. She was still looking at her hands.

“Your need for air,” I said.

“No, I’m not thinking about them,” she said in a rather strained voice.

“Well, then,” I said. “What are you thinking about?”
“What I’m always thinking about, Gabrielle,” she said as she looked over at me. “You.”

“What about me, Xena?”
“About what you said.”

I thought for a moment. “What you used to make me do with you… servicing in front of others?”

“Yes,” she said in an almost whisper.

“Do you want to talk about that, Xena?”

“Do you, Gabrielle?”

“Yes, I do.”

* * * *

On five occasions, in the first two years of my servitude to the Conqueror, I was ordered to service her in front of an audience. Two of the occasions were out of sheer malevolence, with my parents and that young Guardsman that she later murdered, when she wanted to shame me. The other three occasions were for her amusement, I had long suspected.

The first time was about six months after I had come into the Conqueror’s service. She was hosting in her palace the ruler of the Kushans, Basileus Kanishka. He had traveled all of the way from his kingdom of Sakastan to broker an alliance with the Realm in the hope that the Conqueror would finance his attempt to overthrow the neighboring kingdom of Parthia. I was studying my reading lesson in my bedchamber when I was summoned and wasn’t aware of what awaited me until I was in the Conqueror’s stately reception chamber, standing naked in front of this beast of a man with his thick beard, his leering stare and the combined stench of ale and an unclean body. The Conqueror was repeatedly running her hand down my hair as she spoke to this man in his language. I felt as if she was displaying me as her pet until Kanishka attempted to grab my right breast. She gripped his wrist and flung his arm away, saying something to him that I’m sure was an admonishment. Shortly thereafter, I was ordered to kneel on some silk cushions in the chamber where I then serviced her while this ugly, smelly man watched, smiling with his yellowed teeth showing the entire time.

When I was relieved of duty that night, I retreated to my bedchamber and vomited. The Conqueror sensed my disgust at what I was required to do and, angered by my inability to fully respond to her in front of this man, punished me harshly the following day. I would learn from my friend Demi that Kanishka received his financial backing and did, in fact, defeat the Parthians only to later be invaded and overthrown by the Conqueror’s army.

I know now that Xena was trying very hard at that time to build up in me a hate for her. Unfortunately, at the time she was greatly succeeding.

The second time is a blur to me because I was given something to drink beforehand and was then blindfolded. The drink was laced with something that heavily sedated me. I only recall that that the audience was a nobleman and his wife and we were again in the reception chamber. I wasn’t required to do anything this time but lie motionless on those same cushions while the Conqueror groped me. At some point she planted her body on top of mine. I recalled a strong fragrance of rose oil emanating from her and recalled wondering why she smelled so good. Although I remember feeling a faint sense of sexual pleasure from the experience, I still hated her for putting me on display.

The last time that it happened was about three months after I was shamed in front of my parents. I had become so hateful of the Conqueror that it was difficult for me to respond to her at all during service, which had become outright tedious and burdensome for me. I didn’t realize it then, but she must have sensed my contempt because she often resorted to blindfolding me or turning away from me rather than looking into my repulsed eyes during service.

I was summoned to the Conqueror’s bedchamber this time where she ordered me to lie down and then tied my ankles and wrists to her bed. Two people were then escorted into her chamber. The woman was a High Priestess of one of the islands; Syros, I believe. Her body slave, a young man probably no older than twenty, accompanied her. She was at least fifty.

The Conqueror and the Priestess drank a goblet of wine before wandering over to the foot of the bed where I was on display in my bound state.

“She is quite a beauty, Conqueror,” the Priestess said. “Where did you acquire her?”

“Right here in Corinth,” the Conqueror responded. They could have just as easily been discussing Argo.

“Hmm..” the Priestess responded. “Quite a beauty. Her skin has a lovely tone and I do love the color of her eyes and hair.”

I was looking at the Conqueror, who looked into my eyes for a single moment and then looked down at my left foot. “I wish that I could give her babies,” she said before looking up at the Priestess.

The Priestess’ eyes widened. “By Zeus, my Empress,” she said. “That’s an unusual thought. Why would you want to give her babies?”

“I don’t know, Priestess,” the Conqueror responded. “We fuck enough. It’s a shame that nothing comes of it.”

“How often does she service you?”

“Practically everyday,” the Conqueror boasted. “Oftentimes more than once a day.”

The Priestess drew in a dramatic breath. “By Zeus,” she said. “That sounds ever so exhausting.”

“She’s allowed breaks during our monthlies,” she said, adding, “but luckily for me, our cycles come at the same time and have the same duration.”

The Priestess looked at me and smiled. “I think that plenty comes of your intimacies, my Lady,” she said.

“What are you talking about?” the Conqueror asked.

The Priestess returned her gaze to the Conqueror. “This girl brings your life great joy,” she responded. “I can see it in your eyes and hear it in your voice when you speak of her.”

The Conqueror, who had been attentively looking at the Priestess during their conversation, instantly looked away from the older woman as though she wanted to actually hide her eyes. “She brings your life joy and gives it a purpose, I suspect, Conqueror,” the Priestess continued. “You may not yet realize this, but I can see it. I believe that this sweet young girl will be a part of you for all eternity.”

The Conqueror returned her gaze to the Priestess. “Be very careful, Priestess,” she warned. “Your false prophesizing could be very dangerous to your health.”

“Very well, my Lady,” the Priestess responded before walking over to a couch that was moved closer to the bed. Her young body slave, who was already sitting on the couch, had removed his clothing. She lifted her tunic and, spreading her legs, sat on his thighs, her back to him.

The Conqueror removed her regal chiton and, grabbing a silk scarf, blindfolded me. After doing so, she climbed onto the bed, straddled me and, leaning down, whispered into my ear, “Try to relax, Gabrielle.” I remember thinking at that moment how utterly preposterous it was for her to suggest that, given all of the circumstances at hand. But then she began kissing my neck and firmly kneading my breasts and massaging my shoulders. Then, I felt the weight of her soft body cover mine. Her strong hands then began ardently, but soothingly massaging the backs of my thighs and my rear as she began her sensuous rhythmic thrusts.

Off to my left, I heard the sounds of sex. The boy slave was having intercourse with the Priestess as she sat on his legs. For a few moments, I heard his increasingly excited panting. I heard her moans. But their sex was soon drowned out by our sex. Perhaps it was the Priestess’ words to the Conqueror, for her touches felt wonderful and her heavy breathing and moaning in my right ear excited me. Our sex was connecting in such a wondrous bliss that I allowed myself to forget about my tied limbs, my hate for her and our “audience.” As climax was on the horizon and I lost myself to pure lust, I did something that I had never done before during service. I spoke to the Conqueror.

“Please remove the blindfold, my Lady,” I whispered ever so lightly.

Much to my surprise, she did. We then looked into each other’s eyes. I don’t know what the Conqueror saw in my eyes, but I knew in my mind then that my hatred had been temporarily replaced by a primal longing. In her eyes, I saw what I always saw in those days; evil, beautiful, blue.

After climax, the Conqueror again looked at me briefly before turning her gaze over to the satisfied Priestess and her young slave. “I think that I’m right, Majesty,” the Priestess said.

The Conqueror rose up off me and looked away. “Your services are done, slave,” she said as she untied me. “Leave.”

Grabbing my shift and putting it on, I retreated to my bedchamber and did for the first time what I would often do in the years to come after satisfying sex with the Conqueror. I cried.

I don’t know whatever became of that Priestess. I’ve not since seen or heard anything about her. But that incident was the last time that Xena and I were intimate in front of others, until Cocles.

* * * *

“You want to know why I did it,” Xena answered before I could even ask.

“Yes,” I said.

“With Kanishka, it was strategy,” she said. “His kinsmen have absolutely no regard for women. None of the kingdoms in that region do. Kanishka had to swallow his pride in order to ask for my help, but he knew as I knew that he couldn’t win a war against the Parthians without it. I needed to make him feel as though he was dealing with a male mind trapped in a woman’s body.”

“Why?” I asked. “He came to you for help. Why cater to his insecurities?”

“Because I wanted his loyalty, Gabrielle,” she said. “The regions of outer Persia was very appealing to me, and I saw helping him as a way to extend my power without sacrificing numbers in my own troops. He understood that my help had a price and that price was that his newly expanded kingdom would be protected as a province of the Realm. Thus, I gave him just enough backing to beat the Parthians, but his victory left his army weak as well. When I came to claim my ‘reward’ for my help, he reneged, vowing never to answer to a woman. So we invaded and took the land anyway.”

“What happened to Kanishka?”

“He vowed that he would never answer to a woman,” she said, “so I killed him.”

Although not at all surprised by Xena’s revelation, I still fell silent for a few moments. “So, I meant very little to you at that time,” I said.

“Quite the contrary, I had already fallen in love with you, Gabrielle,” Xena professed, “but I was angry and frightened by my feelings. I spent as much time wanting to look upon you adoringly as I did wanting to torment you for making me feel that way.” She paused and sighed. “I was truly evil.”

Another silence. “Who was that couple, Xena,” I asked, “the second time?”

“Commander Rahl headed my Athenian army, Gabrielle,” she replied. “He was one of my most loyal officers.”

For some reason, I felt a knot in my stomach. “So, what strategy was needed that time?”

Xena sensed my growing fury. She looked down at her hands again. “No reason, Gabrielle,” she said. “I’m an evil bitch, remember?”

“No, Xena!” I found myself shouting. “There’s always a reason with you.”

Xena looked up and then at me. “Rahl and his wife Adiah were very much in love,” she said. “We had been enjoying evening meal when Adiah asked if I was ever going to marry. When I told her no, she practically took pity on me, saying that I was missing out on the most beautiful sensation given to us by the gods.”

“Being in love?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“So I set out to prove her wrong,” she said. “I wanted to show them both that I didn’t need love when my physical needs were being met on demand.”

There was a pause as she looked away for a moment and then back at me. “I’m so sorry, Gabrielle,” she said.

For the first time, Xena’s apology fell upon deaf ears. “Did they enjoy watching me service?” I asked with the heat of anger in my voice.

“No, they didn’t,” Xena replied softly, sensing my anger I suspected. “Rahl had been a dedicated warrior within my ranks for years, but he wanted no part of the Realm or me after that night. He renounced his commission and the two of them left the Peloponnese.”

“Did you kill them too?” I asked.

“No,” she responded in a strained voice. “They had a young daughter that I wasn’t about to make an orphan.”

There was another tense silence.

“And the Priestess, Xena?”

“Priestess Jacinthia of Syros was an old ally,” she responded. “She had provided me valuable intelligence information during the years of my conquests.”

“What prompted your display of me that time?”

Xena didn’t hesitate in her response. “I wanted to show you off to her.”

I had my own confessing to do. “I felt something that night, Xena,” I said, sighing away my angry tension. “Strangely enough, her presence and what she said to you broke down a barrier of hatred in me.”

Xena gently took my hand in hers. “I was so in love with you, but I was careless,” she said. “I should have known that a High Priestess of her maturity and wisdom would easily catch on to my feelings for you. She figured it out right away and said it to me after you were dismissed.”

“Were you not ready to hear it, Xena?”

“No, that wasn’t the problem,” she responded. “For me, my victory, my power has always been about being void of weaknesses. If an enemy discovers your weakness, they can exploit it. They can destroy you. Jacinthia figured out my weakness that night.”

“But she wasn’t an enemy, Xena,” I said.

“In those days, I considered anyone and everyone a potential enemy,” she remarked. “In any event, I couldn’t afford to have Jacinthia reveal my weakness to anyone else, even if it was done as an innocent remark to someone.”

I looked into the eyes that I used to see as evil, beautiful, blue. “You killed her, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I did.”

“And the slave boy?”

“Him too.”

There was a part of me that, at that moment, wanted to tear my hands away from Xena’s grasp and run away. But I quickly reminded myself of the very thought that I had had earlier; the very thought that I had written down in this scroll: Xena has grown and evolved from much of her evilness, but not all of it. The Xena of this night would have killed Cocles had I not stopped her, but this was the same Xena who had the deepest look of shame on her face for revealing to me why she displayed me and what she had done to that innocent woman and boy five years ago.

“Do you feel that the High Priestess deserved to die, Xena?” I asked.

Tears began streaming out of her beautiful eyes. “No,” she said before burying her head on my shoulder. I released her hands and threw my arms around her. She threw her arms around me and drew me closer.

“I killed a good woman for no other reason than knowing that I was greatly in love with you,” she said.

I began stroking her hair. “You’ve come a long way, Xena,” I said. “Back then you would have admitted to killing the Priestess to protect your stronghold.”

Xena pulled back and looked at me. “Have I come a long way?” she asked more as a challenge.

“You tell me,” I responded. “If Cocles dies tomorrow, what will the true reason be?”

Xena didn’t respond, but we remained there at that wading pool for some time before exhaustion demanded that we retreat to our guest bedchamber. Our trip to Rome was creating so many revelations to us. Before drifting off to sleep that night, I wondered what further revelations awaited us for our reunion with Callisto.
PART ELEVEN

XI. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG
The night that I discovered Lucius Cocles eyeing Gabrielle and me on the brink of our passion, I had a most unusual dream. I was wandering through a deep forest. I didn’t know from where I came or where I was going. I was just wandering. After a few moments, Gabrielle appeared out of nowhere. She was dressed very strangely. The blue cloth trousers covering her legs seemed almost painted on and the top that she wore had a tapestry-like painting on it. She looked very sexy. A fairly large dog also accompanied her. “Where are you going?” she asked me. “What are you doing here?” I asked her. “Looking for you,” she said. “Where are we?” I asked. “What do you mean, ‘where are we?’ Why, we’re home, silly. On our estate,” she said. “Now come on back to the house before the roast burns.”

That was all that I remembered.

When I awakened, I turned my head to find Gabrielle lying on her side, her head propped up on her hand, eyeing me. “Xena, how did you know that Cocles was watching us?” she asked.

“I can’t explain it, Gabrielle,” I responded. “I can just sense things like that.”

“But not all of the time,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” she said after a sigh, “you might be surprised to learn that, when I was your slave, Mia often peeked in your bedchamber to check up on me.”

“I knew that,” I confessed.

Gabrielle gasped. “You did?” she asked. “But… but… you never said anything. You never… punished her.”

“Oh, don’t think that I didn’t come close to killing her for that, Gabrielle,” I stated.

“What stopped you?”

I turned my body to face her and ran my fingers down her cheek. “Early on, after one of my evil episodes with you,” I started, “after I dismissed you, I grabbed my boot dagger and entered her quarters from my bedchamber. She wasn’t in the room. So I walked over to her other door, which was open, and found the two of you embracing in the corridor. You must have run to her right after being dismissed. You were crying hysterically and she was comforting you.”

“I would have thought that seeing us together would have angered you even more, Xena?”

“Actually, seeing her comforting you spared her life,” I admitted. “I went back to my own bedchamber and thought about what I had observed. I knew that you cared for Mia a great deal. Despite everything that I was to you then, I loved you and I knew that you needed someone in your life that could be there to nurture you when you needed it. Had I killed her for spying on us, I knew that would have hurt you.”

“You weren’t jealous, Xena?” Gabrielle asked. “Like you were with Seraphin?”

“I didn’t know Seraphin, Gabrielle,” I replied. “I know Mia. I know that her love for you is genuine and sisterly. She likes her men.”

“Yes, she does,” Gabrielle smirked.

I took her free hand into mine. “Your feelings for Demi spared his life as well.”

Gabrielle gasped again. “I remember that, Xena!” she exclaimed. “You approached us in the palace gardens, with murder in your eyes, and ordered me to leave.”

“Yes.”

“I was so relieved that you didn’t kill him,” she said. “I never knew why you were going to. He never told me.”

“Essentially for the same reason that I killed Priestess Jacinthia, Gabrielle.”

“Because he figured out that you were in love with me?”

“Yes.”

“But, Xena,” she questioned, “he was my closest friend and yet, he never once indicated to me that he even suspected. Why do you suppose that he never told me?”

“Because he was waiting for me to tell you,” I answered. “I’m just extremely sorry for waiting so long to do it.” At that moment, Gabrielle narrowed the space between us and took me into a loving embrace.

We repositioned ourselves so that I was lying on my back and she was relaxed on top of me. She brought her lips to mine in a gentle kiss.

“I want to make love to you, Xena,” she said seductively.

Gabrielle never has to demand more than once. “Okay,” I eagerly replied.

* * * *

After our lovemaking and our morning meal, I assembled our entourage in Cocles’ main reception chamber.

“As some of you already know,” I began, “Lucius Sabinus Cocles is large of nerve but deficient in intellect. Last night, I caught him spying on Gabrielle and me as we were attempting to… you know… engage in…”

“An act of consortium,” Gabrielle chimed in.

The women looked at each other. I knew that they, especially the effervescent Bahri, were trying to contain laughter.

“Is he still alive, my Liege?” Palaemon asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Commander Marius took him into custody.”

Palaemon appeared somewhat offended that he was not called out to get involved. “It was rather late, Commander Palaemon,” I said. “Everyone had retired and I didn’t find it necessary to awaken all of my military personnel just to handle one man.”

Palaemon nodded as I patted his shoulder. “Nonetheless, I have to deal with his offenses this morning,” I added as I turned to Marius once again. “Commander, have the manor guards bring Cocles here.”

“By your will, Conqueror,” he said before exiting the reception chamber. He returned some moments later with a rather battered Cocles. Last night, I was so seething for what that man had done that I didn’t really stop to notice the injuries that I had inflicted upon him. He was limping and holding his bandaged arm. A guard assisted him in walking. There was also a bandage around his head and both eyes were blackened. He had a bruise on his cheek and several on his arms and lower legs. As he was wearing a toga, I couldn’t see the state of his midsection. After he was brought to me, I looked over at the women in our entourage. Their earlier urge to chuckle had evaporated. They looked upon this man with actual pity, I believed. Looking away from them, I turned my attention to my Gabrielle. It was her expression that tormented me the most.

“Magistrate Cocles,” I queried, “do you realize your crimes?”

“Yes, Conqueror,” he responded.

“What are they?”

“You want me to…”

“Tell everyone before you here this morning what you are guilty of doing,” I demanded.

His normally sweaty forehead was saturating the cloth that bandaged it. “I… I set up a room adjoining my bedchamber so that I could look at guests engaging in sexual intimacy.”

“What else?” I asked.

“I… I invited our Majesty and her Consort to retire to my bedchamber so that I could look at them engaging in sexual intimacy.”

“What else?” I asked again. Cocles looked at me. “Spill it!”

He looked at his feet. “I… I, uh…”

“No, look at them and say it!” I demanded as I pointed to our group of friends.

Cocles looked at the women. “I pleasured myself as I watched the Conqueror and Lady Gabrielle.”

“Is there anything else that you need to say, Magistrate?” I asked.

He looked at me and then at Gabrielle. “I’m sorry for disrespecting your privacy, Lady Gabrielle.” He turned to me. “I am a disgrace to the Realm, Majesty.”

“Yes, you are,” I said. “Are you ready for your punishment?”

“Yes, Conqueror.”

At that moment, Gabrielle instinctively grabbed my arm. She didn’t know what I was about to do, but what I did do most likely shocked everyone in the room, although it shouldn’t have. Just as I had done almost six months ago with the public judgments in Corinth and again with Niall and Callisto, I turned to my love. “What shall be his sentence, Gabrielle?” I asked.

She looked at me and then at Cocles before approaching him. “How badly are you hurt, Magistrate Cocles?” she asked.

He desperately tried to restrain tears as he answered. “My head aches and my arm is broken,” he responded. “My healer had to reset my left knee. It was not in place.”

“I see that you have two black eyes,” Gabrielle said. “Did you know that?”

“No, my Lady,” he responded. Gabrielle seemed to cringe at the honorific.

“Do you ache anywhere else?”

“My back and sides, my Lady.”

Gabrielle turned to me and then to our friends. “Was watching us worth this, Magistrate?” she asked. “Your injuries? Your confession?”

“No, my Lady.” Cocles was now crying.

“Very well,” Gabrielle said. “For voyeurism and disrespect, your punishment will be the beating that you received from the Conqueror and your humiliating confession to this group of total strangers.”

Six months ago, I would have wanted to choke Gabrielle for imposing such a sentence. But for some reason, for the very first time upon hearing it, the punishment seemed harsher than the crime. “By your will, Conqueror?” she asked.

“By my will, my Lady,” I answered.

* * * *

Our entourage left Cocles’ manor shortly after his judgment. Gabrielle and I didn’t say much to each other for most of our journey through outer Rome that day. I had many thoughts swirling through my mind. I wondered to myself if I had made the right decision in allowing Cocles to remain in his position as Magistrate. Other than his voyeurism, he had performed his duties as Magistrate in an exemplary manner. But what was to stop him from engaging in this behavior again? And then it dawned on me. My Gabrielle had once again chronicled the events of our most recent adventure. The famed Bard of Poteidaia had made fact what was once a rumor. Anyone visiting Magistrate Cocles’ manor in the future would know full well of his actions and his humiliating punishment. That alone would likely deter him from misbehaving again.

By nightfall, we had reached the valley west of the Tiber River and south of the city of Volsinii. One of Rome’s wealthiest men, Claudius Aulus Tacitus, owned a vast estate and vineyard in that valley. Tacitus was a strong ally of the Realm. During my battle against Caesar, he supplied arms and intelligence to my forces. I had believed that his contempt for Caesar, which most Romans of Etruscan heritage shared, was greater than any loyalty that he had for me at that time. But nonetheless, he had prospered under my rule.

Like many of my Etruscan allies, Tacitus was also a man of many eccentricities. His manor was beautiful and ornate, but he rarely spent time in it. He much preferred to stay in a tiny clay and terracotta shack that was adjacent to the larger dwelling. Explaining this and his other various quirks to Gabrielle was going to be thoroughly entertaining.

As we arrived at Tacitus’ estate, Gabrielle gasped at the size and sheer beauty of the grounds. Tacitus’ manor was made of the finest red brick and mortar. His doors were made of bronze and his windows accentuated with iron grilles. The land surrounding the manor was mostly olive groves and vineyards, but was quite majestic in its layout. “What a magnificent manor and landscape, Xena,” she said. “This Tacitus gentleman must truly be a refined individual.”

“Uh-huh,” was all I could say without bursting out in laughter. My accompanying deviant smile was not lost on my love.

“What’s so funny?”

“Oh, nothing, dear,” I said.

As we approached the main gate to the manor, two heavily armed guards emerged to check our credentials. After I spoke with them, the head house servant escorted us to our accommodations for the evening. We walked down a vaulted corridor to a series of guest suites. Our bedchamber was beautiful from ceiling to floor. A brilliantly tiled mosaic swept across the ceiling. The walls were adorned with elaborate tapestries. The furnishings were of the finest material and the floor was made of large tiles of polished marble. A private sudatorium adjoined our guestroom. Thus, it was obvious that our particular bedchamber was also heated by an underground hypocaust. As we entered the room, Gabrielle and I immediately noticed the heat emanating from the floor. We would be warm, comfortable and pampered in our lodging that evening. No expense had been spared in making this manor the perfect home that it was.

Despite all of that, I was almost bursting at the seams in my desire to introduce Gabrielle to the oddball Tacitus.

We decided to experience the sudatorium first. Steam rooms are rare in Greece, so this was going to be a particularly exciting indulgence. Stripping ourselves nude, we padded over to the hot, steam-enveloped room and sat on a polished marble bench.

“You know that the Northern Amazons sometimes relax in a steam yurt, Xena,” Gabrielle said.

“I know, sweetheart,” I responded. “I experienced it myself when Borias and I were negotiating with them many years ago. They are unable to accomplish this level of steam, unfortunately.”

“I’m sure,” she said. “This is wonderful.”

“You know, there’s probably at least one laconicum in this manor as well.”

“Laconicum? You mean a hot dry bath? A sauna?”

“Yup.”

“Oh, Xena,” Gabrielle inquired. “Are we in a hurry to get to Rome? I could really get into this place.”

I laughed. “I bet that you could, Bard of Poteidaia.”

After our steam bath, we washed and dressed to meet our host. Grabbing Gabrielle by her hand, I gathered up our friends and escorted them out of our stately lodging and to that simple little shack.

“Where are we going, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.

“To meet our refined host, Gabrielle,” I responded. She had a perturbed expression on her face during the entire stroll. I was excited about what awaited her.

As we walked up to the shack entrance, the door flew open and Tacitus stepped out to greet us.

“Well, hell-oooo, Xena the Conqueror!” he said ever so enthusiastically as he raised his arms in greeting. Palaemon and Marius began to chuckle. Everyone else’s mouth dropped. A short and fat man of about fifty years of age, Tacitus was dressed in one of his signature dingy togas. His wildly curly black hair flew about in the evening breeze. His long beard, patched with gray, also fluttered. His cheeks were crimson and his smile bright, although he was missing quite a few teeth.

He turned to Gabrielle. “This must be your Macedonian slave-turned-consort, eh?”

Before I could answer, he grabbed Gabrielle by her cheeks and pinched them. “Ouch!” she exclaimed.

“Chunky cheeks this girl has, Conqueror,” he said. “But mighty pretty. Mighty pretty.”

Before I could respond, he had moved on to his next victim. “And who is this?” he asked as he grabbed Bahri by her chin. “An Egyptian, no doubt. She’s cute.”

“Ouch!” Bahri exclaimed as Tacitus again moved on to his next victim. “Amazons, ooh! I like Amazons.” But then his eyes fell upon Hadiya. “By the Gods!” he shouted. “Are you ever black!” At that moment, Hadiya, Stanislas and Bahri drew their swords.

“You got a problem with Africans, man?” Bahri charged.

I stepped in between them. “Sheathe your swords, Guardsmen,” I said. “Tacitus meant no disrespect.”

“Al, Conqueror, call me Al, remember?” he reminded me before returning his attention to the three angry women. “Hujambo!” he gleefully stated the Bantu word for “greetings” to Hadiya. “As a matter of fact, my first wife was a beauty from the great land south of the Sahara. Ajo Twi-Ashanti was her name, and she was a Bantu beauty if I ever saw one. She could cook, and what a lover! By the Gods!”

“First wife?” Bahri asked. “What happened to her?”

“She left me,” Al responded. “She was the first of seven wives.”

“Seven?” Bahri asked. “What happened to them?”

“They all left me,” Al stated before turning back to Hadiya. “So, are you available?”

“No.”

“Oh,” he said before immediately returning his attention to Bahri. “What about you?”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Bahri retorted.

“Al,” I chimed in, “both Bahri and Hadiya are accompanied by their life partners.” I indicated Charicleia and Stanislas.

“Zeus,” he quipped, “do any of you women like men?”

The three remaining women, Escritt, Darda and Amarice, took an immediately never-before seen interest in each other. “Oh, well,” Al said before turning his attention to the very attractive Palaemon.

“Don’t even think about it, buddy,” Palaemon warned.

I could no longer contain myself. I broke out laughing. “Al, why don’t you show your guests your special place here?” I finally suggested after several moments of exhilarating laughter.

“Yes, yes… come in, come in, come in.”

We entered the shack. It was small, cluttered with pottery, rather filthy and very musky smelling. “What is that smell?” Gabrielle asked as she pinched her nose.

“Ah, my mustelidae, Bard of Poteidaia,” Al replied.

“Your what?” she asked.

“His weasels, Gabrielle,” I said. “Al keeps them as pets.”

“They’re night creatures, you know,” Al stepped up. “There are about thirty of them lurking about in and out of here, but they’re very friendly when they’re not spraying their stink on you. They’ll surely come to play with you lovely people when the sun sets.”

Everyone began anxiously looking around the room. I laughed again. “You’re enjoying this, Xena, aren’t you?” Gabrielle irately asked.

“Yes, Gabrielle,” I said, “as a matter of fact, I am.”

* * * *

We remained with Al in his smelly shack for almost a full candlemark. He showed our entourage his assortment of pots and other clay pottery as he went on and on about his seven ex-wives and his menagerie of weasels. Several of them made an appearance, much to the chagrin of most of our group. Only Bahri and Charicleia, two true animal lovers, took a liking to the cute but rather malodorous creatures.

As we left the shack, Gabrielle took in a deep breath to capture the freshness of the outdoor air. “So, Gabrielle,” I said as I placed my arm around her shoulder and guided her back to the comfort of the manor, “can you still get into this place?”

“Very funny, Xena. Ha-ha-ha.”

I kissed her forehead. “We’re going to have to bathe again to get the weasel smell off of us.” I said. “I think that the little bastards sprayed me at least ten times.”

“What can I say,” she said. “You do exude animal magnetism, Xena.” Now it was Gabrielle who was laughing at my expense.

We spent quite a bit of time washing weasel stink off ourselves. To make things interesting, Gabrielle and I decided that we would bathe each other. Gabrielle washed me first. Facing me in the bathing tub, she first created a rich lather in my hair. She sensuously massaged my head as she washed my hair before taking a flagon of scented water and rinsing it. She then began to sponge my body. She gently worked the sponge on my face before rubbing it more vigorously on my shoulders, back, arms, breasts and belly.

“Lean back,” she ordered and when I did, she began to sponge my hips, legs and feet. She then straddled one of my thighs and ran the sponge around my rear and then between my legs.

“Uh, I don’t think that the weasels got that close, Gabrielle,” I advised as a moan escaped me.

“Are you protesting, Warrior Princess?” she asked.

“No, not at all,” I replied. “Just making an observation.”

Gabrielle brought her lips to mine as she continued to stroke me between my legs with the sponge. Not surprisingly, I climaxed at the combination of erotic sensations.

“Your turn,” I said as I took the sponge and began bathing her. I washed her entire body with the sponge and then lathered and washed her hair. When I finished, I leaned her body back flush with the bath water so that I could rinse the lather out of her hair. She then relaxed, resting her head at the edge of the tub. I lifted her thighs and took her sex into my mouth. She tasted so sweet. After her thunderous release, we both exited the bath and dried off using only one towel. I then lifted her and carried her over to the bed. Many more intimate touches followed that evening.

* * * *

Before sunrise the next day, a manor guard pounded on our bedchamber door. “Lord Al has prepared a special morning meal for you, Majesty,” the voice on the other side of the door announced.

Gabrielle and I both groaned at being awakened so early, but we managed to find our way to the stately reception chamber for mealtime. Our equally groggy friends were there too.

“Good morning, guests!” Al greeted as he entered, looking very exuberant in that same dingy toga. “Please, sit, sit, sit, sit, sit.”

We plopped down on our respective stools to await our impending feast. Shortly thereafter, a group of chambermaids brought in several plates and mugs of steaming food. Each one of us received one plate, one mug and a goblet of white wine.

“It looks and smells delicious, Lord Al,” Gabrielle said. “What is it?”

“Punjabi aloo and fennel soup, Lady Gabrielle,” he responded.

“Punjabi aloo?” she asked.

“My fourth wife, Alka Bhargava, was a Hindu princess from the Deccan subcontinent. She introduced me to the rich and exotic foods and spices of that land.”

We began eating. “This is excellent, Lord Al,” Gabrielle said. “What’s in it?”

“Red potatoes, garlic cloves, chopped onions, oil, ginger and garam masala.”

“What’s garam masala?” she asked.

“Powdered curry, Lady,” he responded. “A special Indian spice.”

“There’s no weasel meat in this food, I hope,” Bahri spoke up.

“Eat a mustelidae?” Al said. “That’s blasphemy!”

I almost lost what was in my mouth from an outburst of laughter.

We departed from the comedy that was our visit with Claudius Aulus Tacitus by the noon candlemark. He stood out in front of his entrance, frantically waving at us.

“Good-bye! Safe journey!” he called out, and specifically to Hadiya, the Bantu word for good-bye, “Quoi-hede! If you ever decide that you like men, come back and see me!”

It took Gabrielle awhile, but soon she was laughing along with me at the spectacle. There would be no more stops between Rome and us. As we neared the city, my heart began beating faster. I was anticipating my joust with Callisto in the Colloseum.

That was going to be entertaining as well.
PART TWELVE

XII. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY
On our last day of travel in the carriage, before arriving in Rome, Xena and I had a very interesting conversation.

“Xena,” I started, “about Lao Ma… you said that you were in love with her.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Uh, was she in love with you?”

“She was very kind to me, but no, I don’t think so,” Xena said flatly.

“Why not?” I asked. “I mean, why don’t you think she was in love with you?”

“Probably because I was such an evil bitch,” Xena responded, but then added, “Anyway, she frustrated me.”

“What do you mean, ‘frustrated’?”

“I wanted to fu… to have sex with her, all of the time, and she wouldn’t let me.”

“Did you ask her?”

“Yes, I asked her!” Xena exclaimed rather loudly, much to my surprise.

“Xena, I wasn’t implying that you were trying to force yourself on her.”

Xena looked down at the horses’ reins. “I asked her,” she said quietly. “I practically begged her.”

“I don’t get it,” I said. “You’re a very beautiful woman, despite your evilness then. Unless she was blind, totally repulsed by the idea or just plain stupid, I can’t imagine anyone, man or woman, turning you down.”

“Well, she did.”

“Do you have any ideas as to why?”

“It wasn’t because she was blind, repulsed or stupid, Gabrielle,” Xena stated. “It was just a part of her personal philosophy.”

“What?” I asked. “Not to have sex with dangerously beautiful women?”

“No,” Xena responded. “She was following her ‘way’.”

“Her ‘way’?”

“Yes, Gabrielle,” Xena explained. “According to her, the ‘way’ is only realized through the recognition and acceptance of nothingness. To her, gaining wisdom can only be achieved by understanding that weakness equals strength, that happiness depends on disaster, and that passivity is the greatest accomplishment.”

“I’m sure that that didn’t make any sense to you then, Xena.”

“Oh, it made plenty of sense, once I actually thought about it.”

I reflected on those words for a few moments. “Xena, were you able to eventually achieve Lao Ma’s ‘way’?” I asked.

“Actually, yes,” she answered. “After many weeks with her, I was able to control my anger, my will and my lust for her. She called her ‘way’ Dao, and it allowed for me to appreciate her beyond her beauty, her body and even her mind. Embracing Dao, I was able to relax and let go of my hatred, my anger and my sexual desires. It was while I was in that state of emptiness that she was able to heal my crippled legs. I also acquired the chakram during that time. I didn’t hold onto to her ‘way’ very long. My anger, hatred and desires returned in full force, but for some reason, Dao is still with me when I wield my chakram. I believe that it’s because I connect spiritually with the weapon in some way.”

“Was she beautiful, Xena?” I asked, petrified of the answer.

“Very,” she responded.

I looked down at my slightly trembling hands. Xena took one of those hands into hers. “It was a different kind of beauty, Gabrielle,” she continued. “Eastern, fragile, gentle. But nothing and no one equals the beauty that I see in you.”

I smiled at her as she then began tenderly rubbing my thigh. “Do you regret never having experiencing intimacy with Lao Ma?” I asked her.

“Early on, I tried seducing her. It didn’t work. But when I resorted to begging like a pathetic child, she took pity on me a few times and allowed me to lie with her and hold her.”

“Like what you and I do?”

“Not exactly,” Xena replied. “I am much more at peace with myself now, and with you. Also, Lao Ma and I were fully clothed during those times. No, I would frantically fondle her and shower her with desperate kisses in the hopes that she would cave and let me strip her and have sex with her. She tolerated me for a few moments before shoving me away and ordering me to leave her royal bedchamber.”

“That does sound frustrating,” I quipped. “I can totally relate.”

Xena grasped my hand and kissed it, realizing that I was referring to my frustrating years in her servitude. “I know, my dear,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

Another silence fell upon us for several moments before I turned to Xena again. “This Dao explains how you came to wield your chakram,” I stated, “but it doesn’t explain how Callisto is able to wield it.”

Xena looked up at the bright blue sky. “Well, I don’t believe that Callisto’s ever been to Chin. Perhaps that will remain one of life’s great mysteries.”

“Or, perhaps you can simply ask her while you’re fighting her in the Colloseum.”

* * * *

Before reaching Rome, Xena wanted to take one last side trip. After instructing the others to wait for us at small inn just inside of the city, she and I journeyed to a small villa in a nearby valley. It was to the home of a man known by the locals as Lucius Petronius Coriolanus, an Etruscan winemaker and “official supplier of vintage to the Realm.” However, Coriolanus was actually a Greek, one Maphias of Amphipolis, Xena’s childhood friend and one of her most valuable and cunning spies.

Maphias was at the door to greet us before we could even knock. “Hello, Conqueror,” he said to Xena before turning his attention to me. “And greetings, Lady Gabrielle of Poteidaia.” He was tall and handsome, with dark, silky hair, deep gray eyes and strong, masculine features. Of course, I immediately wondered if he had ever been physically intimate with Xena.

If they had ever been sexually involved, Xena certainly didn’t give any indication of it. She sternly gripped his arm in greeting as she gazed upon him with hardened focus. “I’m here to sample your latest vintage,” she said.

“Certainly, Conqueror,” he responded. “Come in.”

Unlike those of most of Xena’s cronies, Maphias’ home was simply furnished. Nothing elaborate adorned the walls or floors. It was a small dwelling, but seemed to be plenty roomy for him and his friendly dog, Basenji.

Xena and I sat at a table as Maphias joined us with three mugs of hot cider. Basenji took an instant liking to Xena, planting his chin on her lap. It was rather cute watching the Destroyer of Nations awkwardly scratching the dog’s ears. After taking two short sips of her cider, the Conqueror addressed her spy.

“I have a strong feeling that Callisto has had some association with Shaikheti,” she said. “Am I right?”

“You are, Conqueror,” he replied. “After Marius had Callisto released from that asylum, he concealed her at the home of his cousin, Cassius Aeneus Seneca, a carpenter and a Mithraist. It was he who introduced Callisto to Eldad of Persia, a man who eventually became Shaikheti’s second-in-command.”

“Did all of this occur in Castra Regina?” Xena asked, although I suspected that she already knew the answer.

“No, Majesty, ” Maphias revealed. “At some point, Callisto left Marius and went east with Seneca and met this Eldad, probably in Persia.”

“Did you obtain any information as to approximately how long ago that was?” Xena asked.

“I haven’t been able to pinpoint when they went east, but Callisto was probably in Persia when you were there fighting Shaikheti.”

Xena looked at me. “When were you in Persia, Xena?” I asked. Xena had gone on several campaigns during my years as her body servant. Often, I didn’t know where she was, and it wasn’t as if she gave me a full briefing upon her return from her various battles. Rather, what I was usually subjected to was a painful sexual experience from her.

Xena took my hand in hers. “It was that time that I was gone just before… that incident with Demi.”

“Oh,” I replied, reflecting that that one particular campaign had yielded a kindler, gentler Conqueror. “I remember. You were quite nice to me that night.”

Xena and I smiled shyly at each other. Maphias cleared his throat.

Xena returned her attention to her spy. “Do you know the extent of her relationship with Shaikheti?” she asked.

“Not beyond the fact that they knew each other, Conqueror,” Maphias replied. “My sources haven’t been as forthcoming with that information. I do believe that her relationship with Eldad was quite intense.”

Xena ruminated for a few moments. “Who is your source among the gladiators?” she asked.

“A Greek guard of the gladiators, Conqueror,” Maphias answered. “Theocritus is his name.”

Xena downed the rest of her drink and gave Basenji a gentle pat on the head before standing. “As I require additional information, I’ll be summoning you.”

Maphias and I stood. “Very well, Conqueror,” he said.

Xena handed Maphias a satchel filled with gold coins before we departed from his dwelling. During our ride to reunite with our friends, Xena decided to engage me in conversation.

“Gabrielle,” she started, “I’m going to be honest with you about something. I don’t know very much about the culture of the Mesopotamian Amazons. How much do you know about them?”

I took only a moment to reflect upon the pride that sometimes leads Xena to conceal, even to me, things about which she has little or no knowledge. “I learned quite a bit about them during my scout-guard training, Xena,” I replied. “Their heritage is quite different from the rest of the Nation.”

“How so?” she asked.

“For one, theirs is the only tribe in the Nation that has a patriarchal lineage,” I began. “The Nation originated in Greece, but the tribes splintered during the conquests of Alexander the Great some three hundred years ago. The Amazons that allied with Alexander the Great were mostly Macedonian, like him, and they followed him to Persia and established their tribe near the Euphrates River north of Babylon.”

“Hmm…” Xena considered.

“As you know,” I continued, “many of the Amazons in my tribe and the other Greek tribes were born from their Amazon mothers, but numerous others came to the tribe as abandoned and unwanted infants. However, it is my understanding that practically all of the Mesopotamian Amazons are daughters of three patriarchal lines, the oldest being the Macedonian Ptolemy.”

“Cousins to Cleopatra?” Xena asked.

“The very same family,” I replied. “The other two are the Syrian Samyah and the Meccan Zemarian. All of the Mesopotamian Amazons have two names, their birth name given to them by their mothers and their sir name, the name of their patriarchal line.”

“Do the men of these three families have any say in the policies or affairs of the tribe?” she asked.

“No, Xena,” I replied. “Their only place of honor in the tribe is in the fact that their Amazon heiresses bear their bloodlines and sir names… oh, and they get to raise the occasional son that they sire by an Amazon.”

“Thank you, Gabrielle,” she said as she took my hand in hers and gave my temple a tender kiss.

* * * *

Because we were without the security of Commander Palaemon and the others from our entourage, Xena the Conqueror elected to make a very covert entry into Rome. We draped ourselves with hooded cloaks immediately after leaving Maphias’ vineyard, and entered the city appearing as if we were merely travelers passing through. Disguised this way, we didn’t bring unwanted attention to ourselves as we approached the inn where our friends awaited our arrival. That inn immediately reminded me of the North End Tavern in Corinth. It was crowded and musty, but very festive. Our friends were fully engrossed in the ambiance of the establishment, drinking ale and singing tavern songs with the inn maidens. Amarice was sitting on the lap of a Roman soldier. But much to my shock, Escritt had a particularly attractive woman planted on her lap.

Xena was mildly amused at the spectacle. “Are you all having fun yet?” she asked our group of friends as we approached. When she removed the hood that concealed her identity, everyone promptly stood and that unfortunate woman who was sitting on Escritt was had to pick herself up off the floor.

“My Liege,” Palaemon chimed, “we were hoping that you would return soon.”

“Spare me the ass-kissing, Palaemon,” Xena warned. “It’s late and we have business to attend to.”

It was nightfall when we arrived at Octavius’ palace. He and his wife Livia Drusilla greeted us. I thought it rather strange that we hadn’t met her during our last visit to Rome until I was advised that she was away visiting her mother and younger sister in Florencia at the time.

After evening meal, Octavius and Livia arranged for entertainment. We were escorted to the palace central courtyard… the same location where Xena had originally asked to have our union ceremony in Rome… to hear the oration of the poet, Publius Ovidius Naso. As he entered, Xena smirked.

“What’s so humorous?” I leaned in and whispered in question.

“Ovid’s style of poetry isn’t akin to Octavius’ tastes,” she replied. “I’m rather surprised that he would be asked to perform here.”

“I’ve read some of his works, Xena,” I said. “He’s reputedly a ladies’ man and seems to be quite licentious in his prose.”

Xena gave me that Xena stare. “I know what you’re thinking, Gabrielle,” she said. “No, I never slept with him.”

Unable to hide my embarrassment, I merely looked down at my clasped hands. Xena grabbed them and brought several of my fingers to her lips as Ovid began his oration.

Take not away the life you cannot give;
For all things have an equal right to live,
Kill noxious creatures where ’tis sin to save;
This only just prerogative we have;
But nourish life with vegetable food,
And shun the sacriligeous taste of blood.

Forbear, O mortals,
To spoil your bodies with such impious food!
There is corn for you, apples, whose weight bears down
The bending branches; there are grapes that swell
On the vines, and pleasant herbs, and greens
Made mellow and soft with cooking; there is milk
And clover-honey. Earth is generous
With her provision, and her sustenance
Is very kind; she offers, for your tables,
Food that requires no bloodshed and no slaughter.

Although I was exhausted from the day’s travels, I wasn’t quite ready to turn in after Ovid’s recitation. I actually enjoyed his poetry more than those of the three bards that entertained us the last time we were in Rome. I found his philosophy on a meatless diet to be very fascinating.

Stepping out onto the balcony of our guest bedchamber, I stared up at the night sky. Xena joined me.

“What are you thinking, Gabrielle?” she asked.

“I was looking up at those stars and wondering how they get there every night,” I replied. “Do you ever wonder, Xena?”

“Not really,” she said as she put her arm around me. “But I find it very endearing that you do.”

“You know what I think, Xena?” I queried.

“What, my dear?” she asked.

“I think that the gods keep those stars right there even during the day. We just don’t see them because the gods cover them with the blue sky.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Some mornings,” I explained, “if you rise early enough, you can see the moon hiding behind the blue sky. But then it disappears completely into the blue sky, only to return at nightfall. If the moon is still there during the day, the stars must be too. ”

“That’s a good point, Gabrielle,” Xena said.

“The gods also stir the moon and the stars around so that they are not in the same spot every night,” I added.

“Tell me, what do you think is the favored color of the gods?”

“That’s easy,” I said. “It’s blue.”

“Why?”

“Because all of the most beautiful things in the world are blue, Xena,” I said. “The sky, the seas, your eyes.”

Xena kissed my forehead. “I have to respectfully disagree, my love,” she said. “I believe that the favorite color of the gods is green.”

“Green!” I exclaimed. “Why green, for gods’ sake?”

“Green is the color of all that represents beauty and life on Earth,” she explained. “The plants and vegetation that grow and nourish the earth’s beasts and humans alike, the leaves on the trees that shelter us from the harsh sun, the grass that cools our feet, your eyes.”

I turned to face my love. “Ovid isn’t the only poet in this palace tonight, Xena the Bard.” The kiss that followed sent wonderful waves through my body. Xena’s lips never cease to amaze me.

Xena and I didn’t make love that night. In a way, we did something even more intimate. Holding each other in a tight but loving embrace, we talked about our lives; the lessons from our past, the journeys of our present and the hopes for the future that awaits us.

That night, I had a dream of an actual event that occurred during that amazing week when Xena the Conqueror and I had first embraced.

It was the morning after the third night that I had slept in the arms of Xena the Conqueror. I was standing by one of the windows that faced the front of the palace. I was looking out at the beauty of the massive landscape that surrounded its grounds. As I daydreamed, someone approached me from behind. It was the Conqueror.

“What are you doing, Gabrielle?” she asked.

“I’m marveling at the beauty of the grounds, My Lady,” I replied nervously.

The Conqueror gently grabbed my forearm. “Come with me,” she said. “I want to show you something.”

The Conqueror guided me to the location of the highest lookout tower on the palace. When we arrived at the tower, we had to climb a steep ladder to get up to it. The Conqueror assisted me in my ascent. Once we reached the tower, she temporarily dismissed the lookout guardsman. I nearly fainted at the sheer height of the tower. I had never been that high above the ground before.

“Look around,” the Conqueror said. Once my initial fear of being so high subsided, I took in all of the beauty that surrounded me. The view from that tower was magnificent. I felt as though I was watching the vastness of Corinth from the Heavens. After looking out at the horizon for a few moments, I glanced over at the Conqueror. She too was looking out at the expanse. The breeze was causing her midnight hair to billow majestically as the sun beamed down on her sun-tanned skin and made her bright blue eyes sparkle like gems. I sighed. She was absolutely beautiful.

The Conqueror turned her head and our eyes met. She then slowly and rather shyly moved closer to me. My heart began beating faster. The Conqueror continued to move closer to me until she was directly behind me. She then lightly placed her hands on my shoulders. I wanted to hold those hands, but I was too afraid. A few moments later, the Conqueror wrapped her arms around my neck in a tender embrace. I instinctively leaned back into her and placed my hands on her arms as she held me. She pressed her cheek on my head. We were like that for the longest time. She made me feel safe, protected, loved, although she never spoke a word to me during that time.

I immediately awakened after that. Looking over at my sleeping Xena, I looked up and whispered a prayer to the gods. “Tomorrow in the Colloseum, spare her, please,” I simply said.
PART THIRTEEN

XIII. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG
As I had anticipated, Gabrielle was curious about my history with Maphias. She didn’t ask me about him as soon as we left his home just outside of Rome. She waited until the next morning, while we were on our way to meet his contact, the Greek gladiator guard Theocritus.

Maphias was the first boy with whom I had ever had a sexual encounter. We were both 17 and he was as inexperienced as I was at the time. I don’t remember much about that first encounter other than it hurt and I bled. I have much fonder memories of my first sexual encounter with a girl. It was almost a year later and the girl was Maphias’ sister, Hedeia. Maphias and I had ended our “courtship” about six months earlier and I had moved on to Seumius. I remember that the night was cold and I was antsy. Thus, I had persuaded Seumius, my younger brother Lyceus, and three other of my delinquent friends to break into the cellar where Mother kept her best tavern wine, mead and ale. Two candlemarks later, six drunken adolescents were causing a late-night commotion in an otherwise empty tavern. The noise of an inebriated Seumius and I cursing at each other woke Mother, who was not amused by either the spectacle or our act of mayhem. Hedeia, who was Mother’s 21-year-old employed tavern maid at the time, was also awakened and was instructed by Mother to escort Lyceus and me to our bedchambers while she shuttled the other drunken juveniles to their awaiting parents.

Lyceus was passed out under one of the tavern tables. Despite my intoxication, I was lucid enough to help Hedeia move him to a nearby couch. After covering him with blankets, we left my snoring younger brother and Hedeia took my arm in order to assist me to my tiny bedchamber. Once there, she brought me a large mug of water to help me sober up. As I drank the water, my still cloudy mind started causing my mouth to say things that I would have never said to her had I not been drunk. I had fancied Hedeia since I was about 13, so I began babbling about how pretty she was and how much Maphias reminded me of her when he and I were courting. I started complimenting her on her smooth skin and thick, lovely brown hair. She had this strange look on her face that I took to indicate disgust, but when I started apologizing for my confessions, she gently pushed me back on my bed and brought her lips to mine. It wasn’t long before the clothing came off. I was drunk, but I wasn’t that drunk. The most vivid memory that I have of that night, next to my Sapphic bliss, was of worrying that my already angry mother would hear the moans and catch us in the act.

Gabrielle found my tale of youthful indiscretion amusing. “Did you break up with Seumius and start courting Hedeia?” she asked.

“No,” I replied. “Hedeia was betrothed to a friend of my older brother, Toris. Our sexual encounter was a one-time experience. Neither one of us ever told anyone about that night. I’m sure that Maphias still doesn’t know.”

“Am I the first person you’ve told, Xena?”

I was afraid she would ask me that. “Well, uh, not quite,” I said. “I told Lao Ma.”

“Oh.”

“It was only because I wanted her to know that I had had an experience… with a woman… so that she would consider having sex with me. In hindsight, I wasted a perfectly good secret.”

Gabrielle patted my head as if I was a five-year-old. “Glad to hear that you feel that way, Xena,” she said.

* * * *

Upon arriving at the Colosseum, our entourage, which included Commanders Marius and Palaemon, my Imperial Guardsmen and the Amazons, were escorted to where the gladiator guards received their daily assignments. Theocritus was assigned to stand watch over the gladiators’ mess area that day. When we entered the mess area, Gabrielle immediately covered her nose and mouth with both hands.

“What in Tartarus do these gladiators eat that smells so disgusting?” she mumbled through her hands.

A guard captain approached us. “Ave, Conqueror,” he said. “I am Guard Captain Gnaeus Protis Carmelus.”

“Ave, Guard Captain Carmelus,” I responded. “I was told that the Greek guard Theocritus was assigned here today.”

“He is, Majesty.”

“Bring him to me,” I commanded.

Carmelus briefly departed and then returned with a rather short, but burly man with a thick beard and very long, wavy hair. He bowed in formal greeting. “Conqueror Xena,” Theocritus said, “I am at your service.”

I grabbed him by his tunic and slammed him against the wall. “You have disgraced the Realm, you swine!” I shouted before looking over at Carmelus. “Direct me to a room where I can beat the living Tartarus out of this dog.”

Carmelus, fearful for his life, directed us to a holding cell adjacent to the mess area. When Carmelus opened the door, I threw Theocritus inside. Turning to my accompanying entourage, I motioned to Marius and Gabrielle. “You two, come with me,” I said. “The rest of you, stand guard.”

Once the door was closed, I turned to Theocritus, who was picking himself off the floor. “Maphias bragged that you have the strength of ten men, my Liege,” he whispered. “I now believe him.”

“Didn’t hurt you too bad, I hope, Theocritus,” I quietly responded as I took his arm and assisted him to his feet.

“Nothing that a soothing touch from a Roman porne wouldn’t cure,” he replied in jest. “Please, call me Theo, Conqueror.”

“Very well, Theo,” I said before turning to Marius and my Gabrielle. “Okay, you two make it sound good.” They proceeded to mimic the noises of beating the shit out of someone. I silently chuckled at Gabrielle, who seemed to be enjoying the mock thrashing a little too much. After throwing out the first of a series of mock profanities directed at Theo, I turned my real attention to him. “Now, tell me why I’m here,” I quietly said.

“Lady Gabrielle’s abduction by Callisto four months ago was part of a bigger plan, Conqueror,” Theo said.

“I figured that,” I responded. “Let us piece this thing together.”

As Theo and I compared our knowledge of events, we concluded that an alliance between Callisto and Shaikheti had been formed well before my first battle against him in Persia. After Marius had Callisto released from that asylum over five years ago and took her to the safety of his cousin in Castra Regina, her gratitude toward Marius for her freedom was short lived. Within a year, she was in a full-fledged affair with that cousin, Claudius Anaeus Seneca, who convinced her to leave Marius and journey with him to Persia. I learned from Marius that after Callisto left him, he seriously considered coming to me with the admission that he had disobeyed my order to keep her confined. However, since he reached the erroneous conclusion that he would probably never see Callisto again, he decided that what I didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me. I guess that Marius has Gabrielle to thank at that moment of his confession, because I seriously wanted to slit his throat.

Pressing on. While in the east, Callisto met Eldad of Persia. Apparently, it wasn’t long before she and Eldad began their torrid affair. Marius calculated that it must have started about a year after she left him, because his cousin, Seneca, didn’t stick around in Persia after Callisto had dumped him for Eldad. Marius knew of Callisto’s affair with Eldad, but he was unaware at the time that she knew Shaikheti. Callisto must have met him sometime after Seneca left Persia, since Seneca was apparently unaware of that as well. In any event, meet him she did and it wasn’t long before the two began comparing notes about their mutual hatred of the Destroyer of Nations.

Based on our collective intelligence, Theo and I concluded that it was about two years ago that Shaikheti began rebuilding his army. With Eldad’s tactical expertise and Callisto’s manipulative encouragement, Shaikheti put his army to the test by invading Lydia. I fought and defeated him there, three months before freeing Gabrielle. What happened between Eldad, Callisto and Shaikheti after their defeat in Lydia is shaky, but it wasn’t long after that that Callisto was back in Castra Regina begging Marius to take her back.

I turned my attention to Marius, who with Gabrielle’s assistance was torturing a straw-filled mattress. “So, she said nothing to you about what happened between her and Eldad in Persia?” I asked him.

“No, my Liege,” he responded. “Only that Eldad had lied to her and betrayed her. She was never specific.”

“And Shaikheti?” I asked.

“She denied ever meeting him,” Marius replied. “I never believed her. How could she not have ever met her lover’s commander? Absurd.”

Marius said that after her return from Persia, Callisto had become obsessed with knowing every move that I made. She was particularly intrigued during my war against Marcus Antonius. But Marius said that her obsession really began to manifest itself after word started spreading in Rome and Gaul about the Bard of Poteidaia. We concluded that it was around this time, while I was once again in Lydia fighting and Gabrielle was becoming an Amazon, that Callisto made contact with Shaikheti. He was back in Persia at that time, but intelligence sources put him in Castra Regina, without Eldad, around the time that I was recuperating from my Hard Death in the Thessalian Amazon village.

“Once Callisto learned that Gabrielle was traveling with you to Castra Regina, the original plan was probably to abduct her in Gesoria and take her back to Castra Regina,” Theo posited.

“Makes sense,” I agreed. “They probably figured that Gabrielle wouldn’t accompany me on the ship to Albion. When she did, the plan shifted to abducting her sometime before our supposed return to Corinth.”

“Right,” Gabrielle spoke up. “But you changed the plan, Xena, and we ended up here in Rome instead.”

“And here is where you were abducted by Callisto, Gabrielle.” I said. “I suspect that had I not found you in that Mithraeum, Callisto would have taken you back to Castra Regina to lure me there.”

“Yes,” Gabrielle said. “And then when you would have come to rescue me, she would have killed me, getting her revenge for Cirra and accomplishing her goal of driving you as insane as she. With you weak with grief, Shaikheti could have made a more successful move on Germania then.”

“I suspect, however, that Shaikheti left Gaul when he got word that Callisto’s abduction was thwarted,” I stated. “But it didn’t end there, not for him.”

“So, why did he invade Germania, my Liege?” Marius asked.

I turned to Gabrielle. “Why do you think he did it, Gabrielle?” I asked.

Her expression was frank. “Honestly, I don’t think that it had anything to do with Callisto, Xena,” she said. “I think that it was as simple as wanting to defeat the Germans and perhaps avenge Borias’ death with yours.”

“So again, I ask, why am I here?”

Gabrielle eyes took on a reflective wisdom. “It has nothing to do with Shaikheti, Xena,” she said. “You owe her a blood debt for Cirra.”

It was profoundly ironic that despite all of their collaboration over the years, ultimately Shaikheti and Callisto were nothing more than rivals, vying for who would get to kill me first.

I turned to my loyal Greek guard, Theo. “Any other questions, my Liege?” he asked.

“I have one,” Gabrielle spoke up. “What do these gladiators eat?”

“Roman fish sauce, Lady Gabrielle,” Theo replied. “It’s fermented tunny fish. Quite a delicacy and a gladiator favorite.”

“Whatever it is,” Gabrielle replied. “This kitchen smells like shit.”

Gabrielle certainly didn’t help our mock torture of Theo by forcing us to contain our laughter.

* * * *

When we stepped out of that holding cell, I had Theo’s wrists bound behind his back and a sack over his head to hide his unharmed face.

“I’m not done with his punishment,” I lied to Carmelus. “We’ll be taking him back to Governor Octavius’ palace for still more interrogation.”

“By your will, Conqueror,” Carmelus said, apparently relieved that he wasn’t next in line for punishment.

My entourage escorted the “detained” Theo to a prisoner carriage. It was a tight squeeze, but all of us were able to fit inside. I then ordered the carriage driver to remain immobile.

After I untied his wrists, Theo removed the sack. “Whew, hot,” he said, referring to heat of the sack on his face.

“Who of the gladiator guards do you trust the most?” I asked him.

“My closest allies are the Etruscan siblings,” he replied. “Sontius Christophius and his sister, Adrianna Hegedice. They’ve handled Callisto and the Sicilian women very closely for some time now.

My driver will take you to the Governor’s palace,” I began my instruction. “They’ll escort you inside, but then you’ll be released. I want you to go to Maphias’ for a few days. Lay low… at least until the Amazon slaves are freed and I’ve dealt with Callisto.”

Theo’s sweaty face took on a troubled expression. “Excuse me, my Liege, free the Amazon slaves?”

“Yes,” I said. “The women gladiators from Sicily. They’re Mesopotamian Amazons.”

“Permission to advise, Conqueror,” Theo spoke up.

“Permission granted.”

“These women may have once been Amazons, but they’re not Amazons anymore.”

At that point, the Northern Amazons Escritt, Darda and Amarice, as well as Bahri’s Amazon lover, Charicleia, drew their swords on Theo. “Once an Amazon, always an Amazon,” Charicleia said.

“Put away your weapons,” I commanded the women before returning my attention to Theo. “What do you mean by that?” I asked him.

“These women have been fighting the gladiatorial circuit for years. They have grown to crave the bloodletting. They have no alliance with anyone but each other and are extremely dangerous. If you free them, you might as well free Callisto too, because they’re all the same, Conqueror. They’re bloodthirsty murderers with no soul, no heart and no conscience.”

Gabrielle grabbed my arm. “I don’t believe that,” she said to me.

I was conflicted. What Theo said made perfect sense. Fighting, be it in an arena or on a battlefield, robs something from you, your humanity. After years of conquering, I became that bloodthirsty murderer, void of soul, heart and conscience. Had Gabrielle not come into my life, I’d still be fully enjoying the feel of blood on my hands, the taste of fear and suffering, the smell of death. I had a decision to make.

“I respect your opinion, Theo,” I stated. “But before I give up on these women, I need to at least give all of their Sisters here a chance to reach them.” I looked at my Gabrielle.

“I understand, Majesty,” Theo said.

At that point, one by one, my group filtered out of the carriage. I was the last to depart. Turning to Theo, I extended my arm. “Thank you for all of your help,” I said to him.

He grabbed it. “Lady Gabrielle is a wise and wonderful woman,” he said. “But sometimes, I suspect, she thinks with her heart. Now more than ever, Xena the Conqueror, you need to think with your head.”

“I will,” I said to him.

As soon as I exited the carriage, Gabrielle was by my side. “You’re not going to keep my Amazon Sisters enslaved, are you, Xena?”

I thought for a moment. “I promise you, Gabrielle, when the time comes, you and I will make that decision together.”

“I don’t believe that they’re evil, Xena. Before they were gladiators, they were Amazons, loyal to their tribe and to the Nation.”

“Yes, but Velasca was a loyal Amazon at one time too, Gabrielle,” I said. “And so was Alti. Anything’s possible.”

Gabrielle was silenced by my comment. I decided at that point that I needed to approach Charicleia and the young Northern Amazons in our entourage. “I would appreciate your insight during my discussions with these enslaved Amazons,” I said to them.

“That’s why we’re here, Conqueror,” Amarice spoke up.

Christophius, Adrianna and several other guards were overseeing the gladiators performing one of their daily duties before the events; cleaning the Colosseum ground of excess debris from the most recent games. There wasn’t often any blood to clean up since most of it was absorbed into the sandy ground. When it was necessary, the stained sand was dug out and fresh sand was poured into the hole, raked and then smoothed. Our group sat in the shade of the royal viewing vault to observe the gladiators at work below. There were more than twenty of them cleaning. Obviously Callisto was among them. I immediately noticed that she worked very closely with the other women gladiators. I didn’t see Niall of Calleva amongst the men. A few moments into our observation, another guard captain approached us.

“Ave, Conqueror and honored guests,” he greeted. “I am Guard Captain Lucius Domitius Silvius. Can I be of service to you?”

I turned to the guard captain. “Yes, I would like for your two guards, Christophius and Adrianna to escort us to the gladiators’ dormitorium once they’re done with their chores.”

“By your will, Conqueror.”

The gladiator living quarters were directly below the Colosseum floor. It was dark and musty down there, but the gladiators seemed to have made the best of their circumstances. Relieved of any further duties until the bouts scheduled later that day, many of them were in the corridors playing estogyny and dice games. Some were lightheartedly sparring while others sat around in groups, telling tall tales of former lives. Callisto and all of the other women were together in one of the dormitory rooms. Theo’s two trusted friends were about to get the women when I stopped them.

“Before you bring them out, I’d like to know something,” I said to the siblings. “Is there a leader and if so, which one is she?”

Adrianna and Christophius looked at each other. “Yes, my Liege,” Adrianna spoke up. “They have a leader, but it’s not the crazed Greek woman who has your attention.”

“It’s one of the others,” I held.

“Yes,” Christophius confirmed.

“Bring her out,” I ordered. “Alone.” I wanted to study this woman.

“By your will, Conqueror,” Christophius stated before entering the dormitory room.

While he was inside, I looked at his sister. “What became of Niall of Calleva?” I asked.

“You’re about to meet his executioner, Conqueror,” Adrianna replied.

At that moment, a raven-haired woman emerged. She was tall, almost as tall as me, with dark brown eyes, deeply tanned skin and a prominent scar on her chin.

“What’s your name?” I asked the woman. She didn’t respond.

“She doesn’t speak Greek, Majesty,” Christophius stated.

“Of course she speaks Greek,” I responded. “All Amazons speak Greek. It’s the language of their Nation.”

“I’ve never heard any of these women speaking Greek, Majesty,” Adrianna spoke up. “Their Latin is shaky as well. They speak a dialect of Sicily.”

This is bullshit. She’s bullshitting, I thought. “I said, WHAT IS YOUR NAME!?!”

“Va fungule, bizzuoca!” the woman yelled in my face.

I looked at Gabrielle, who looked at the other Amazons. They all had perturbed expressions on their faces. I returned my full attention to the woman. “That’s not a name,” I said to the guards. “What did she just say to me?”

“I don’t know, Conqueror,” Adrianna said. “But Callisto understands their dialect. She can translate.”

“Get her.”

Brief moments later, Callisto was brought before me. As always, I had a strange, sickening sensation from her presence.

“Xena!” she gleefully purred. “I’ve missed you.”

“You never wrote.”

“Still have a sense of humor, I see,” she said. “And Gabrielle, you’re looking lovely today.”

“Dispense with the pleasantries, Callisto,” I said, although I never took my eyes off the Amazon gladiator. “This woman said something to me… fun-goo biz something.”

“Va fungule, bizzuoca?”

“Yeah,” I said. “What does that mean?”

“Go fuck yourself, bitch,” Callisto said with a smile. Her answer was an iron grip on my throat. Incensed, I grabbed the woman’s neck in a chokehold. She responded by grabbing my neck. Her hands were strong and I could quickly feel my throat being deprived of air. Marius, Palaemon and Hadiya grabbed the woman while several arms wrapped around me. We were pulled apart and as I was relieved of the woman’s strong grip, I quickly looked over at Callisto, who was still smiling.

“That was fun!” she announced.

The woman was coughing, as was I. “You’re not afraid of me,” I said to her. “I’m impressed.” I again looked at this woman, but this time I looked deeply into her eyes. There was potency in her eyes, but they were also blank. This was a woman who apparently didn’t care about anything anymore. My eyes were like that once, until Gabrielle. However, despite everything this woman had been through over the years, she still had several of her Sisters with her. Did she not care about them either? And then I realized that her alliance with her Sisters might be the key.

“Are you ready to tell me your name now, Amazon?”

“Si,” the woman said. “Aster Zemarian, virago capa regia.”

I nodded in acknowledgment to Aster before turning back to Callisto. “Capa regia?” I asked.

“She’s the Amazon’s leader, their boss, Xena,” Callisto replied. “It’s a Sicilian thing. What she says goes.”

“Is she your boss too, Callisto?” I asked smugly.

She stepped up to me to where her face nearly touched mine. “Oh, no, my pretty pretty Xena,” she oozed. “I’m their compaesana… their sidekick… if you will. You’re my only ‘boss,’ sweetheart.”

At that moment, Gabrielle stepped up to Callisto and pushed her away from me. “Ooh, bold,” Callisto charged. “I like that in a woman.”

“So, you want to fight me to the death today, Callisto?” I asked.

“I have a splendid idea, my darling,” she said. “Why don’t your girlfriends here, including your precious little Gabrielle, take on me and my girlfriends? Freedom goes to the winners.”

“Enterprising idea, Callisto, except that my friends are already free, I’m planning on freeing your friends, and you won’t live to see the sun set.”

“Free these women?” Callisto charged. “Are you sure about that, Xena?”

No, I’m not, I thought. “If they wish to return to their Mesopotamian Amazon village, reunite with their Sisters and remain there, I’m prepared to emancipate them.” I turned to Aster. “That’s the deal.”

The Amazon smirked. “Come zi belle, Conqueror,” she said. “Nice offer, but I like Callisto’s idea better.”
PART FOURTEEN

XIV. GABRIELLE’S SCROLL ENTRY
I didn’t know what to expect when I saw Callisto for the first time since she was sentenced in the Forum for abducting me, but I hardly anticipated the appearance of the woman standing before me in that smelly slave dungeon that the Romans call the gladiators’ dormitorium. The months in captivity as an enslaved sport killer had produced a woman who was still lean, but who was fit and solid and had acquired a deep tan and a few choice scars about her neck and arms. Her hair was shorn, its once sun blond color almost white. The contrast between her nearly blinding hair and darkened skin made her both striking and menacing looking at the same time. The sinister charm was still present, however.

Callisto had proposed to Xena that she, as well as my Northern Amazon Sisters, our female friends and I fight her and the Mesopotamian Amazon gladiators in the Colosseum. Of course Callisto would do that. However, I was amazed at Xena’s response when the enslaved Amazons’ leader, Aster Zemarian, after being offered freedom by Xena, endorsed Callisto’s suggestion instead. For a single moment, Xena looked at me. I saw so many emotions in her eyes in that moment. Turning back to Aster, Xena simply said, “I’ll think about it.”

“How soon will we have an answer, Babania Conqueror?” Aster asked.

Xena’s eyebrow rose at the strange honorific, if in fact that is what it was. “I’d like to meet your Sister gladiators first.”

Nodding her acquiescence, Aster stepped into their dormitorium chamber and quickly emerged with six Mesopotamian Amazons. It was obvious to me that Xena was studying each of them as they stepped out of the room. “I like the odds,” she finally said to Aster.

Aster chuckled. “Si, Babania,” she said. “Me too.”

“I presume that you blame me for your current predicament, Aster,” Xena said. “Although I wasn’t the one who personally enslaved you, ultimately, the burden falls on my shoulders. I totally understand your desire for vengeance.”

Aster smiled. “Ira furor brevis est et fortes fortuna adjuvat,” she said in Latin. Anger is brief insanity and fortune favors the brave. “No vengeance, Babania. I am very proud of mi borgata, mi familia. This is good, la cosa nostra.”

“La cosa nostra?” Xena asked.

“This thing of ours,” Aster replied.

Xena nodded. “You’ll have my answer in an hour,” she declared before leading us out of the dormitorium.

* * * *

We returned to the royal viewing vault to discuss our options. The vault was a location in the Colosseum where Octavius and his patrician cronies would sit to observe the games. “Well,” Xena started, “there’s eight of them and eight of us. We couldn’t get better odds.”

I didn’t say anything at the time, but made a mental note to mention to Xena later that there were actually nine of us.

“Do you actually assume that we’re going to fight our Amazon Sisters to the death, Conqueror?” Amarice asked angrily.

“There doesn’t appear to be any hesitation on their part to fight you to the death,” Xena responded.

The often-boisterous Amarice lowered her eyes and stood back as Charicleia, the eldest of our Amazon friends, came forward. “We’re talking as if we’ve been presented with an offer that we can’t refuse,” she said. “I heard no such offer, Conqueror.”

“It was more than an offer, Charicleia,” Xena stated. “It was a challenge. So yes, we have to accept it or reject it.”

At that moment, Palaemon stepped up. “Well, we can’t reject it, my Liege,” he proclaimed. “If we do, the entire Realm will come across as weak and cowardly. That’s exactly what Callisto wants, and many of the Romans as well. You know how they think, Majesty. We Greeks fear blood, they say. We’re feeble for not adopting this blood sport on Greek soil.”

Charicleia shot Palaemon a dirty look while Amarice fired back, “Sure, you can say that, Commander. No one’s expecting you to fight to the death.”

“Oh, please,” Palaemon returned condescendingly. “Like I never had to fight for my life before.”

An argument between Palaemon, Marius and the Amazons quickly ensued. Xena grabbed Palaemon and Amarice’s shoulders, effectively silencing them. Xena looked at Stanislas and Hadiya, who, along with Bahri, had been silent up to that point.

“Are you willing to fight?” Xena asked them.

The Parisii couple looked at each other and then at Bahri. “To preserve the honor of the Realm, yes, Conqueror, we’ll fight,” Hadiya announced. “Stanislas and I only ask that we not combat the leader, Aster Zemarian.”

Amarice folded her arms. “Why?” she asked haughtily. “You two scared of her or something?”

Before either woman could answer, Xena was practically in Amarice’s face. “You need to watch your smart-ass tongue, girl,” she warned before looking at the couple. “These women have faced death more times than you can fucking count.”

I stepped between Xena and Amarice. “Aster killed Niall of Calleva, Amarice,” I said. “I suspect that they don’t want to kill the woman who executed their most reviled enemy.” I looked over at the two Parisii women, both of whom acknowledged my comment by nodding.

“So who’s going to fight her, my Liege?” Palaemon asked. “Who’s going to fight Aster Zemarian?”

“I’d love to, but I’m going to be too busy fighting Callisto,” Xena said before looking skyward, pondering. “I could fight them both,” she said to herself.

“No you won’t!” I shot.

“I’m the eldest of the Amazons here,” Charicleia announced. “I’ll fight her.”

“Oh no you won’t!” Bahri shot. The intensity of the moment and the anticipation of what might come were obviously creating a high level of anxiety on our group. Another argument ensued. Frustrated, Xena threw up her arms. “Silence, all of you!” she exclaimed before quickly calming down. “Back to the palace, everyone.”

“And do what?” Palaemon asked.

“Prepare, pray, I don’t care,” Xena responded. “Gabrielle and I need to think this thing through with just each other.”

Palaemon nodded and gently touched Xena’s shoulders before exiting the vault. Marius lowered his eyes and followed Palaemon. I’m sure that he was blaming himself for ultimately being responsible for our current predicament with Callisto. As Xena nodded to her loyal Guardsmen, Stanislas, Hadiya and Bahri, I grabbed each of the hands of my Sisters, one by one, as they left the vault. Escritt’s hand was the last one that I touched. “Whatever you decide, my Princess,” she said, “I’m with you.”

After everyone was gone, my body collapsed into a chair. My heart felt as though it had sunk to my stomach. I was frightened.

“This is a bad situation, Xena,” I said.

Xena sat next to me and took my hand into hers. “Yes, it is,” she said as she turned her body to face me. “What do you think we should do, Gabrielle? What does your heart tell you?”

“What does your head tell you, Xena?”

“You first.”

I looked into her magnificent blue eyes. “My heart tells me to leave Rome, you and I, and go away, far away, and forget all of this insanity.”

Xena looked at our clasping hands. “But that’s not what my head is telling me, Xena,” I continued. “Callisto cannot be freed. She’s too dangerous.”

Xena looked back up at me. “It’s freedom or death, Gabrielle,” she stated. “Are you prepared to accept that reality?”

I didn’t immediately answer. I wasn’t thinking about Callisto’s death. I was thinking about Xena’s. “Xena,” I finally spoke up, “you said that there were eight of them and eight of us.”

“Yes,” she responded.

“Who are you not counting? Me?”

“Yes,” she answered, “but not for the reason you think. Like I said, it’s freedom or death… and you’re not a killer. In the Colosseum, Gabrielle, even if you win, you lose.”

“Don’t you think that I should make that choice?” I asked.

Xena thought for a moment. “Bahri, Hadiya and Stanislas are willing to fight. Who of your four Amazon Sisters, all of whom have killed before, will you ask to sit back and watch as you fight to the death in their place?”

Xena had a point. “So, what do you suggest I do?”

At this point, Xena became unusually enlivened, turned her full body toward me and tightened her grasp on my hands. “I have a plan, Gabrielle,” she said. “I have a plan that could possibly spare some, if not all, of your Sisters… Charicleia, your Steppe Amazon Sisters and the Mesopotamian Amazons.”

“What is it, Xena?”

“As my Consort, you share my level of power,” she started. “Your authority outranks that of my top military commanders, my city magistrates, my provincial governors. You outrank everyone, Gabrielle. Palaemon, Marius, Octavius.”

“But Xena…” was all that I was able to get out before Xena continued.

“From this seat in this royal vault, you have the power of life and death. You have the authority to say when each bout ends.”

“I don’t understand… authority to end a fight?”

“Yes,” Xena explained. “When two gladiators are fighting, and one has gotten the upper hand, but both are still alive, the highest ranking official in the Colosseum can order either the death or mercy of the losing fighter. You do that by a simple gesture with your thumb. Raise your thumb and the winning gladiator must spare the downed gladiator. Point your thumb downward and the winning gladiator is given the order to end the other gladiator’s life.” Xena smiled. “See?”

I pulled my hands out of her grasp and looked away from her. “It’s a nice idea in theory, Xena,” I said. “But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned from watching people fight, it’s that it rarely ever comes down to one person standing over another waiting for someone else to give the order to kill or spare.” I looked back at her. “I have watched you kill ten men in the blink of an eye, Xena. Our friends have killed and the Mesopotamian Amazons are obviously effective killers as well.”

“But Gabrielle…” Xena spoke up before I interrupted her.

“I know that this isn’t a battlefield,” I said, “but nonetheless, women are going to die today, Xena. That is my reality.”

At that point, Xena grabbed my shoulders. “Don’t ever underestimate your power, Gabrielle,” she said. “And I’m not just talking about your ‘label’ as my Consort. Your original goal was to save these women gladiators… to save their lives and their souls. Your power is absolute. Use it. You could reach them. Show them compassion. You could save them… like you saved me.”

She released my shoulders and stood, looking down at the huge arena below. My eyes began to well. “Xena, I don’t want to lose you, not now. Not tonight.”

“Gabrielle, I’m…”

I placed my fingers on her lips, silencing her. “I know, Xena,” I said. “I know how good you are at dispatching death. Just, just be careful, please.”

I lowered my head for a brief moment before Xena placed her fingers under my chin to raise it. We looked into each other’s eyes before closing in for a long and wonderful kiss. Breaking it, we embraced each other tightly. “I love you, Xena,” I said.

“I love you too, Gabrielle,” she responded. “So much.”

* * * *

As the afternoon sun’s glare moved beyond the ground of the Colosseum, the arena filled up fast with patrons. Our friends returned, outfitted as Secutor gladiators. Each Secutor wore a breastplate and a helmet with a fish crest, and each carried a shield and wielded a large sword. Palaemon, Marius and Octavius accompanied them. Xena looked over the women. “Who has decided to fight Aster Zemarian?” she asked.

“I have,” responded a woman’s voice behind a helmet. It was Escritt.

“And why you?” Xena asked.

“Because I’m the strongest.”

“You all look ready for contest,” Xena said, always willing to rally the troops. “This isn’t a typical battle for any of you, but you’ll have a powerful ally watching over you and your opponents as you combat.” She looked over at me. “Gabrielle will oversee the games. If I should perish today, who better than her to take my place as Ruler of the Realm.”

I had never once thought about that.

We still don’t yet know what drives these Amazon,” Xena continued, “so be careful and diligent. Most importantly, honor, super omnia.” Honor, above all.

A brief silence followed. “So, my Liege,” Bahri spoke up, “will you be donning this ridiculous get-up as well?”

“I don’t need a helmet,” Xena replied before turning to me. “So, Lady Gabrielle, how shall we do this?”

Having never observed a gladiatorial combat, I spoke before my mind had a chance to process what I was about to say. “The fights will be one at a time. Xena the Conqueror fights last.”

“Sounds good to me,” Xena responded.

* * * *

The Colosseum was at capacity when Claudius Mauritius Porcius, one of the managers and profiteers of the gladiators, stood to announce the first contest.

“Good citizens and subjects of the Realm of Xena the Conqueror, I bid you greetings,” he started. “Today, a contest for the history annals. Today, our illustrious Ruler, Xena the Conqueror, the great and powerful Warrior Princess, and a carefully chosen group of Amazones and elite Femella Imperial Guard, will fight the greatest ever of women gladiators of our time… The Great Sicilian Seven, Viragones Infernae, and Callisto of Cirra, Femine Graecia Equitis.”

Porcius looked over to where I was sitting in the royal viewing vault. Octavius and his wife, Livia, sat with Palaemon, as well as Marius and me. There was an uncomfortable silence until Palaemon leaned over to me. “He’s waiting for you to give the go-ahead for the first fight,” he whispered.

And how was I supposed to know that? I thought. “What do I do?” I asked.

“Just wave your arm or something,” Palaemon answered.

I conjured up the most “royal” gesture with my hand. Porcius nodded and introduced the first contestants.

“First to fight,” he started, “From Britannia, a proud Indomita of the Parisii Tribe, Imperial Guard Stanislas the Secutor. Her opponent, the Sicilian Gladiator, Berenice Ptolemy the Retiarius.”

Stanislas entered the arena from the west, Berenice from the right. As a Retiarius, Berenice was fitted with just enough garments to cover her breasts and hips. Her weapons were a net and a trident lance. She wore no helmet. I leaned over to Palaemon. “This isn’t fair,” I said. Stanislas is clearly more protected than the Mesopotamian.”

“Sorry, Gabrielle,” he responded. “That’s just the way the Romans have these fights conducted.”

From where I could observe, Stanislas seemed to dislike the arrangement as well, for just as the Amazon Berenice took the attack position, Stanislas motioned to her to stand down before putting down her weapons and removing her helmet and breastplate. She then picked up her weapons and nodded to Berenice, indicating that she was ready to fight. There were gasps from many in the audience.

The two women were an even match. Although slightly shorter than Stanislas, Berenice was slender, firm and graceful as she wielded her net and lance. After many moments of intense fighting, she also succeeded in drawing first blood, poking her lance into the edge of Stanislas’ right thigh. The crowd cheered. The Parisii warrior winced in pain only momentarily before slicing her sword across Berenice’s chest. The crowd cheered louder. As she started to bleed, Berenice attempted to throw her net over Stanislas. When she missed, Stanislas saw it as an opportunity to ground her. Using her shield, Stanislas pushed Berenice until she lost her footing and fell. The crowd was ecstatic. As Berenice lay on the ground, bleeding profusely from her chest, Stanislas threw down her shield and, taking her sword, hoisted it up in the position where she could easily impale Berenice. She then looked at me.

“This is where you get to spare or condemn the Sicilian, Lady Gabrielle,” Governor Octavius advised.

Although the majority of the people in the Colosseum were cheering and frantically pointing their thumbs in the downward condemn indication, I stood and quickly raised my thumb skyward. Stanislas then lowered her sword and helped Berenice to her feet. The crowd was not happy with my decision and began moaning and cackling. I didn’t care. Stanislas survived and an Amazon was spared.

Two gladiator guards carried the injured Berenice to her companions as Stanislas limped back to where Xena and the others awaited their turns. The next two contenders then entered the arena.

Porcius announced the second fight. “Second to fight, from the vast forests of the Carpathian steppes, an Amazon Warrior, Amarice the Secutor. Her opponent, the Sicilian Gladiator, Pella-Onava Ptolemy the Retiarius.”

Amarice had removed her helmet and breastplate prior to entering the Colosseum. A young woman of no more than 18 years, Amarice looked like a mere child in the presence of the older, larger, battle-worn Pella-Onava. My heart started racing.

“Why does this Amazon have three names?” Palaemon asked me as the two women began fighting.

“Mesopotamian Amazons with two given first names were raised by two Amazons,” I responded. “The birth mother and her chosen life companion. The third name is from their paternal line.” Moments later, Pella-Onava impaled Amarice’s arm with her lance. I stood to signal to the Mesopotamian to spare Amarice, but in all of the noise and chaos of the crowd, she didn’t bother to look my way. As Amarice gripped her arm and went down on her knees, Pella-Onava kicked her in her face. At this point, I instantly climbed up and braced myself on the banister. Raising my thumb up, I began yelling, “Pella-Onava, SPARE HER!!” Although my commands were drowned out by the cheering Roman audience, Pella-Onava could clearly see me. After Amarice landed with her back to the ground, the Mesopotamian rather casually threw her net over Amarice, looked up and smiled at me, and then gutted her in the abdomen. I began screaming, “NO!” when I saw another person run out onto the arena. It was Darda.

Darda attempted to strike Pella-Onava with her sword, but the murderous Mesopotamian, using the staff of her lance, was able to knock Darda’s sword out of her hand. Darda stood dumbfounded for a single moment before Pella-Onava punched her with enough force to cause Darda to land on the ground. As she raised her lance to impale her, I decided that I was done standing around watching my young Northern Amazon Sisters die needlessly. Looking at Octavius, I said, “On your feet and get your thumb in the air,” before I barreled out of that vault and headed down to the arena ground.

I ran as fast as I could to where Xena and my friends were. I couldn’t see what was going on down in the arena, nor did I know at the time that Palaemon was following me. It took me several moments to get down there, as I had to maneuver my way around a crowd of maniacal Roman patrons. When I got there, several gladiator guards were removing three bodies from the arena. Two were brought toward me. The other was taken in the direction of Callisto and the Mesopotamians. One woman remained standing in the center of the arena, covered in blood. It was Escritt.

Just as I noticed my young Sister standing alone out there, strong hands grabbed the backs of my shoulders and flung me around.

“What are you doing here, Gabrielle?” It was Xena.

“I came to help my Sisters!” I was angry, overcome, confused.

“There’s nothing you can do down here,” she said.

“There’s nothing I can do up there either, apparently.”

“I need to help these two,” Xena said as she rushed over to Amarice and Darda. Xena’s skills as a healer continued to amaze me as she quickly assessed their state of health and began treating them. I stood there for a moment, fighting back tears, until something inside of me brought my healing instincts to the fore. I joined Xena. “Amarice has lost too much blood, Gabrielle,” she said. “But Escritt got to that Ptolemy before she was able to do irreparable damage to Darda.”

As I began applying pressure to an unconscious Darda’s wound, I looked up and over at Escritt, whom was still standing out in the Colosseum alone listening to the disgusting applause of the crowd. “Is she okay, Xena?”

“Yes,” Xena replied. “That’s the Sicilian’s blood. Escritt ran out there and decapitated her in a rage before the guards could do it.”

At that moment, Escritt turned and ran toward us as Porcius announced the next fight. His announcement was rather muffled from where we were situated, but I heard the names clearly. Bahri was scheduled to fight one Nicaea-Rhada Samyah. Xena and I were still tending to Darda. Escritt knelt next to Amarice and grabbed her hand. Although Charicleia, Stanislas and Hadiya were each tending to Amarice, all three knew that she would be crossing over soon. They were trying to make her as comfortable as possible. As much as I wanted to be with Amarice, I was worried about my dear friend Bahri.

“Xena, I’ll tend to Darda,” I said. “Please keep an eye on Bahri. Don’t let this happen to her.”

Xena kissed my forehead. “Yes, my darling,” she said as she stood and walked over to the passageway entrance to the arena ground. Moments later, I heard the quiet weeping of Escritt and Charicleia. Amarice stopped breathing. I began weeping as well.

Out on the Colosseum ground, Bahri was fighting the Mesopotamian Amazon for what seemed like an eternity. Once I had Darda stable, I motioned for Stanislas to tend to her while I joined Xena in observing Bahri’s fight. Charicleia and Hadiya were watching as well.

“They’re both getting tired,” Xena announced. Nicaea-Rhada was about Bahri’s height and size. She was older, as I suspect that all of the Amazon gladiators were at least in their early thirties. Her short tightly coiled hair was speckled with gray, her skin was a light tanned complexion, and her facial features were a combination of Far East and African origins. She and Bahri looked as though they could be cousins.

Where they both were lacking in physical agility, because of fatigue, they both made up for in verbal dexterity. Both women began taunting each other.

“Come on, you murderous bitch,” Bahri said. “Show me what you got.”

“A fa Tartarus, stunade,” Nicaea-Rhada replied. “Sta ta zi.”

“I have no idea what you’re saying, but you can kiss my Egyptian ass.”

“I say to you, go to Tartarus… rot there, you idiot. You talk too much.”

“You don’t like it?” Bahri taunted.

“No.”

“Come do something about it,” Bahri goaded, continuing in Latin, “Quis aliqui illius volet?” Who wants some of this? At that moment, Bahri began thumbing her nose at the Sicilian. This seemed to enrage the woman, who took the staff of her lance and swung it at Bahri’s head. Bahri ducked, barely missed being struck, and was likewise immediately enraged. “You fucking bitch!” she yelled as she actually threw down her weapons and charged Nicaea-Rhada, tackling her to the ground. The impact of Bahri’s body caused the Sicilian to drop both her net and lance. As she landed hard on her back, Bahri straddled her and began punching her in her face.

“I’m calling this fight,” I said to Xena and began stepping out on the arena ground to raise my thumb when I saw three Mesopotamian Amazons charging toward Bahri. Passing me from behind, Charicleia, Hadiya and Xena.

“Bahri, get Gabrielle to safety!” I heard Xena yell as she began fighting one of the three women. A very tired Bahri stumbled over to me. I took her arm and guided her back to the safety of the passageway where Palaemon awaited us. As I walked toward that entrance, I kept looking back at Xena and the others. This was no longer a contest. These women were at war with each other.

When I reached the entrance, I watched in horror as six women fought as though they were bitter enemies. A seventh emerged as Nicaea-Rhada slowly stood, grabbed her lance and attempted to attack Xena from behind. “XENA, LOOK OUT!” I yelled as Xena quickly turned, knocked the lance out of the Sicilian’s hand and then kicked her. She flew several lengths before landing and rolling over. I couldn’t tell if she was unconscious or dead.

The fighting didn’t last long. Xena and the others either killed or seriously injured their Mesopotamian opponents, who were carried out by the guards. Charicleia suffered two minor stab wounds and Hadiya’s shoulder was dislocated. They gave their swords to Xena before escorting each other back to where we were. Xena remained in the arena, taking in the cathartic cheers of her Roman subjects. The Conqueror was emerging, ready for her next conquest. Placing the two swords at her feet, she pointed her own sword skyward as the crowd chanted “Virago Principessa”… Warrior Princess… over and over again. Smiling that evil smile, the Destroyer of Nations then pointed her sword toward the entranceway where the two remaining gladiators, Aster Zemarian and Callisto awaited. She then looked in our direction. Escritt, sensing that this was her cue, ran out onto the arena ground and stood next to the Conqueror. She turned and looked at me for a single moment before turning away and facing her enemy, Callisto, as she and Aster made their way onto the arena ground.

The Conqueror and Escritt faced Callisto and Aster. “Lose the lances,” she said to the two women as she picked up Charicleia and Hadiya’s swords. “Take these.”

Callisto was smiling ear to ear as she threw down her net and lance and took the sword. Aster looked likewise content. For her part, Escritt threw her shield to the ground.

“You ready to die, Callisto?” Xena said.

“Are you, my darling?” Callisto replied.

“Always and never,” Xena stated as she raised her sword to Callisto. The two women fought like they were on a mission. It was painful to watch, partially because I sensed that both women were actually enjoying what they were doing. It was obvious that months of fighting as a gladiator had created in Callisto a formidable opponent. Her skills seemed to almost match those of Xena. For her part, the Conqueror seemed to welcome the challenge. Xena the Conqueror has a dangerous dark side, but I was quickly learning that that dark side was necessary sometimes. It has saved her life on more than one occasion and, I must admit, it has saved my life as well.

As I was intently watching Xena and Callisto fight, I didn’t immediately notice that Aster had sliced her sword across Escritt’s midsection. As the mighty Northern Amazon went down, Aster swung her sword in an effort to decapitate her. Escritt was able to block the blow with her sword, but she was growing weaker from her injury. She was powerless to deflect Aster’s next assault as the Mesopotamian gladiator took the butt of her sword and struck Escritt in the face. Rendering the Northern Amazon unconscious, Aster turned to Xena, who had her back to Aster. She raised her sword. At that moment, I ran out onto the arena ground, quickly grabbed one of the lances and charged after Aster.

“Xena, look out!” I yelled.

Xena turned to me. “Gabrielle, NO!!!”
PART FIFTEEN

XV. THE CONQUEROR’S LOG
After many years of conquering great lands and defeating great leaders, the curse of fear had become an alien concept to me. I had literally overcome fear… until Gabrielle came into my life. At first, it was the fear of loving her. I spent about the first two years of her servitude trying desperately not to love her. Once I had acknowledged to myself that my attempts were futile, my fear began to shift. The fear of loving her was instantly replaced by the fear of losing her.

After burning the whips that I had used in a rage against her, I had vowed to myself that I would never allow anything to compromise her being with me. I was in her presence more, she slept with me more often after service, and when I was required to venture off to some battle or engagement somewhere, I always acquired some token of my victory or visit, be it an article of clothing, a piece of jewelry, an exotic fruit or nut, or something interesting to read to bring back to her. There were still many times when I was a disgusting bitch to her, but I do believe that, as time passed on, those instances when I was that bitch were outnumbered by the times that I wasn’t one.

In my determination not to lose her, I gave to her an unlimited access to knowledge. Knowledge is power, and the more you know, the more you can face unforeseen challenges successfully. While she was still my slave, I gave Gabrielle scrolls and bound volumes of the works and wisdoms of all of the legendary Greek philosophers. There was no doubt that she was the only slave in all of the Realm, and in a great minority of those who were free and literate, that was able to learn the teachings of Socrates and Plato, of Aristotle and Epicuros. She was also given the works of the greatest of artists, mathematicians and orators: Homer, Aeschylus, Eratosthenes and Cato. Just before she was freed, she was provided the teachings of the mysterious Eastern philosophers, including Siddhartha Gautama, Confucius and Huang Di. The slave Gabrielle eagerly absorbed this vast information like a plant absorbing rainwater.

However, when we began our travels as equals, as lovers, my desire to teach her grew. Gabrielle was an almost overflowing vessel of philosophic, artistic and religious knowledge, but she knew no more of warfare than what was taught to her by her Amazon Sisters. And although I fully respect the Amazons’ ability to fight defensively in conflict, they are not among the great wagers of war. I wanted Gabrielle to learn about the great kings, conquerors and generals before me. I wanted her to understand both the keys to their victories and the causes behind their great undoing. In my early days, when I was traveling with Borias, I would study the rulers of centuries past: Kings Kleomenes, Bimbisara and Josiah, General Epaminondas and the great Cyrus II. I passed on what I knew of these men to Gabrielle, filling her ears with treatises of dominations and defeats.

I didn’t teach these things to Gabrielle because I wanted to turn her into a great warrior. Queen Melosa’s Amazons had done a fine enough job, judging from Gabrielle’s conduct against the Steppe Amazons in Northern Thrace and against Shaikheti’s troops in Germania. No, I wanted her to understand them better so that if she were ever in a position of serious decision-making, she’d be more fully able to grasp the situation at hand and deal with it intelligently.

That all changed the day that I was to fight Callisto in the Colosseum.

When Callisto proposed a contest between her Mesopotamian Amazon friends and my Gabrielle’s Amazon Sisters, I was forced to deal with something that I had hoped and prayed I would never have to face. Gabrielle knew how to fight, but she needed to learn The Art of War. Thus, that afternoon before I was to fight Callisto, I sat down next to Gabrielle in the Colosseum’s royal viewing vault, took her hands in mine and told her one of the greatest lessons I had learned when I was in Chin with Lao Ma.

“Gabrielle,” I started, “toward the end of my stay with Lao Ma, she had made me a most incredible offer.”

“What was that, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.

“She offered to appoint me commander of her royal army,” I replied. “I was to be her ‘Warrior Princess.’”

“Is that where your title came from?”
“Yes,” I replied. “It really wasn’t deserved since it never came to fruition.”

“So why did you adopt the title, Xena?”

“Because before I was to become her Warrior Princess, I needed to know how to be a true warrior, and I did accomplish that.”

“I thought that you were already a great warrior by then, Xena.” Gabrielle said.

“I knew how to fight and how to kill, but I was basically just a thug with a large body count then,” I said. “To become a true warrior, I was required to study The Art of War.”

“The Art of War?” Gabrielle queried.

“Yes,” I said. “After reaching Dao and obtaining inner peace, Lao Ma awarded me the chakram and gave me the teachings of the great Chin General Sun Tzu.”

“Why are you telling me this, Xena?”

“Because I want to teach you what I learned.”

“Why?”

“Just in case.”

Slightly tightening the grip on her hands, I began, “According to Sun Tzu, warfare is a great matter to a nation, Gabrielle. It is the way of survival and of destruction, and must be examined. First there must be a chain of command, the Way, that causes people to have the same thinking as their superiors.”

Gabrielle removed her hands from my grasp and began caressed my left thigh as I spoke. I first told her about the factors and logistics of war, and then I spoke of its philosophy. “Gabrielle, I won wars by following Sun Tzu’s basic rules. I gave commands that were carried out without question. I created well-trained, strong armies and I made my rewards and punishments clear to my troops. But it was Sun Tzu’s philosophic wisdom of war that served as my greatest ally. He said that force is the control and balance of power, but that it’s also the Way of Deception. Thus, if you are able, appear unable; if you’re active, appear inactive; if you’re near, appear far; if your enemy has an advantage, entice them; if they are confused, take them; if they’re strong, avoid them; if they’re angry, disturb them; and if they’re united, separate them. Attack where they are not prepared and go to where they don’t expect. When doing battle, Gabrielle, seek a quick victory.”

* * * *

The Sicilian Seven presented an intimidating bunch. As I was introduced to each woman, I studied her intensely as I engaged her in short conversation. I had already had my physical and verbal interaction with Aster Zemarian. She didn’t reveal much, but I was hopeful that in those brief dialogues with the others, I would learn enough about them to gauge their loyalties, strengths and weaknesses.

The first thing that I noticed was that these women didn’t seem to follow an age-based hierarchy. Aster wasn’t the leader because she was the Elder of the seven. It was obvious that at least three of the other women, Penthesilia Samyah and the two Ptolemies, Pella-Onava and Berenice, were older than Aster. She was their leader now because she was obviously their best warrior when they fought against my army in Babylon, as I do have faint memories of her fighting ability then. I also didn’t think that any of the women were younger than me, which suggested that they were all prime warriors when they were defeated and sold into slavery those many years ago.

Their deference to Aster seemed to be absolute. Her every command was obeyed and her every gesture was absorbed by the others. There also didn’t appear to be any physical intimacy or romantic love between any two of the women. They were comrades, pure and simple. Most interesting was the fact that, although each woman seemed to consider Callisto an ally, she was clearly the outsider. I regarded this as a clear advantage.

I was introduced to the Ptolemies first, then to Calliope-Bithynis Zemarian, then to the Samyahs, Penthesilia and Nicaea-Rhada. As I approached the last gladiator, Niconoe Zemarian, Aster moved over and stood behind the woman.

“Is she your sister?” I asked.

“They’re all my Sisters,” Aster responded.

“Yeah, I know,” I said, “but is she your SISTER?”

“They are all my SISTERS,” Aster repeated.

“Okay, whatever,” I said as I returned my attention to Niconoe. “Do you and Aster here have the same mother?”

Niconoe briefly looked back at Aster before returning her attention to answering me. “No, Conqueror,” she simply said.

* * * *

It was during the first two gladiator bouts that their primary weakness came to the fore. Aster had lied to me. These women didn’t fight solely out of any sense of honor or family. They didn’t kill just for the sake of killing either. These women were exacting revenge on their captors, the Amazon Nation that abandoned them, and me. The first fight ended in Stanislas defeating the Ptolemy, Berenice, to the point where the woman was incapacitated. Berenice was spared on Gabrielle’s order, but I was quick to realize that Gabrielle had not done the women gladiators any favors. That was one of the factors, I suspected, that drove the other Ptolemy, Pella-Onava, both to kill the young Amazon Amarice in cold blood and to almost succeed in killing Darda. That one-time allegiance of Amazon Sisterhood meant nothing to these gladiator women now. They didn’t possess an evil akin to Alti, whose wickedness was borne out of a passion for ultimate spiritual power. These women, probably never knowing the full circumstances of their capture and the true reason why their Sisters never sought their release, survived on the desire to bring vengeance upon the Nation that they believed discarded them. The fact that Aster would endorse a contest to the death against her supposed Amazon Nation Sisters was that first red flag to me.

As Pella-Onava was preparing to run Darda through, the giant Northern Amazon Escritt hurled herself at Pella-Onava, knocking the woman to her knees before beheading her. Escritt’s own actions stunned her, and she stood thunderstruck for a few moments as the guards collected the body and head of the downed Ptolemy. Gabrielle had made her way to the gladiator pit where we were stationed and immediately began assisting in Darda’s care.

It was during the next bout between Bahri and the gladiator Nicaea-Rhada that I turned to Gabrielle to gauge her thoughts on what she was observing.

“What are you thinking, Gabrielle?”

“I still don’t believe that they’re evil, Xena,” she replied, “but it’s obvious that they’re very angry…” There was a hesitation.

“And?” I asked.

“…and damaged.”

“Gabrielle,” I started, “when it’s Escritt’s turn to fight, focus on Aster. Focus on her hard and remember Sun Tzu.”

“I plan to,” Gabrielle said just as we both notice the angry field sergeant lunging at the equally angered gladiator.

As Bahri was beating the shit out of Nicaea-Rhada, Gabrielle announced, “I’m calling this fight,” as she began stepping out on the arena ground. But just as she raised her thumb, Calliope-Bithynis, Penthesilia and Niconoe began charging toward Bahri. It was obvious to me that they were acting on Aster’s orders rather than impulsively responding to Nicaea-Rhada’s predicament. Before I could say anything to Charicleia or Hadiya about Bahri’s predicament, they began charging toward the gladiators. Of course, I joined them.

“Bahri, get Gabrielle to safety!” I yelled as chose my target, Niconoe, deliberately.

The Zemarian was an excellent fighter, but I was able to determine her weakness almost immediately. Having fought so long against an opponent who wore a helmet, Niconoe was prone to lunging her lance low, below the chest, to parts of the body that were exposed and more vulnerable. Because of that, I was easily able to anticipate each strike. Finally, as she went for my groin, I parried and elbowed her head. She was stunned and fell back, losing her grip on the lance in the process. As she turned to retrieve it, I kicked her in her side, sending her to the ground. At that moment, I heard a voice scream, “XENA, LOOK OUT!” It was Gabrielle, warning me about Nicaea-Rhada, who had emerged from Bahri’s beating and was coming after me. As she lunged with her lance, I knocked it away and kicked her. I then quickly returned my attention to Niconoe, who was writhing on the ground, gripping her injured side. “Get up!” I commanded. “I didn’t hurt you that badly.”

Niconoe looked up at me, the hatred in her eyes almost piercing my chest. “I said GET UP! What kind of fucking warrior are you!?! You’re weak. You’re pathetic. You’re Aster’s stooge, her slave, her gavone puttana.” That last remark sent Niconoe into the rage that I had wanted it to do. Still in great pain, she grabbed her lance and swung it at me. I gripped it, pulled it out of her grasp and impaled her with it. As she lay dying, I looked over at Aster, who had remained motionless with Callisto at their entranceway, and smiled. At that moment, I hoped that Gabrielle was looking at Aster as well.

Before killing Calliope-Bithynis, Hadiya suffered a dislocated shoulder during their fight. Charicleia was also injured, but she likewise defeated her opponent, Penthesilia. As the gladiator guards carried off the two dead bodies and the injured Nicaea-Rhada and Penthesilia, my two allies approached me and handed me their swords. As Hadiya gave me hers, she smiled. “I have learned some Latin in my travels with you, Conqueror,” she said. “Durate ad finem, Princepessa.” Endure to the end, Princess.

Moments later, as the spectators chanted “Virago Principessa” in response to my *victory*, I motioned for Aster and Callisto to approach. I then motioned for Escritt to approach. As she did, I looked over at Gabrielle and nodded. She acknowledged me before I returned my attention to my opponent, Callisto.

As the two women stood facing Escritt and me, I briefly looked down at the two swords that Hadiya and Charicleia had presented to me. Moments before, I had placed both swords at my feet and was now contemplating the role of these two weapons. “Lose the lances,” I told Callisto and Aster as I returned my attention to the enemies that faced me. Picking up the swords, I simply ordered, “Take these.”

Callisto smirked as she took possession of the sword. “I am so looking forward to this, sweetheart.”

“Oh really?” I asked. “So, are you ready to die, Callisto?”

“Are you, my darling?” Callisto replied.

“Always and never,” I responded as our swords connected for the first of many times. This woman that I fought was not the crazed adolescent that I had fucked and manipulated all those years ago. She was a warrior with a warrior’s skill, conviction and focus. There was a part of me that actually enjoyed battling someone that I now considered a worthy opponent. For her part, Callisto was probably getting some sick sexual pleasure out of fighting me. She cooingly flashed this smile that resonated arousal each time our swords connected. It was as if she was fighting me and penetrating me at the same time. At any given moment, I was expecting to hear her moan from climax.

Unfortunately for me as well, she didn’t know when to shut up.

“I’ve been dreaming of this moment for a long time, my dear,” she said as we fought.

“Is that right,” I responded.

“Oh, yeah.”

“You should be wary of what you dream, Callisto,” I warned.

“Oh, no, Xena,” she replied. “Dum somnium mei vivo, somnium horum circum me servio.” As I live my own dream, I serve the dream of those around me.

“Whose?” I asked. “Aster? Her Sisters?”

“Maybe,” Callisto said. “Maybe not. Perhaps the guards or the Roman nobles who watch these silly fights. Perhaps it’s you, my darling.”

“Hmm..” I responded. “Non captus est.” Don’t get caught.

“I’ll try not to,” she said. “In any event, I’m looking forward to our deaths when we’ll be able to spend eternity in Tartarus together.”

“Always the optimist,” I was able to state just before Callisto balled her left fist and backhanded me. I punched her as well. After about the third or fourth strike, I began to notice that she was actually welcoming my stinging blows. Among other things, becoming a gladiator had made her resistant to pain.

“I see that you’re able to take a lot of shit these days, Callisto,” I said at one point, taunting.

“Oh, my pretty,” she hissed, “Semper in excremento sum, solum profunditas mutat.” I’m always in shit, only the depth varies.

We fought so long and so hard that I was beginning to imagine that it would never end when I felt a presence approach me from behind. Just then a voice yelled, “Xena, look out!”

I turned and saw Gabrielle charging after Aster. “Gabrielle, NO!!!” I shouted as I lifted my sword above my head to block Aster’s blow from behind me. I then quickly faced her and attempted to run my sword across her midsection, but she blocked my strike as well. I lifted my sword above my head again, this time to block Callisto’s blow as she was now behind me.

If they’re united, separate them.

As I turned to face Callisto, I saw as Gabrielle, wielding a lance like a staff, took the butt of it to strike Aster across her back. Aster went down on her knees. “Can’t fight me and save your precious little Gabrielle at the same time, hmmm?” Callisto said with a smile. All that mattered to me at that moment was seeing what was going on behind me. Thus, feeling the surge of a white-hot fury, bellowing my battle cry, I jumped and flipped over Callisto, positioning myself so that I was at least facing Gabrielle and forcing Callisto to turn around and face me.

“Duc, sequi, aut fuge!” I yelled at Callisto. Lead, follow or get out of the way!

“I’m not going anywhere, Xena,” Callisto responded. “So you’re gonna have to just move me.”

“So be it,” I said as I promptly kicked the sword from her hand, lifted her up and threw her. She landed hard, rendering her unconscious.

Finally, I was able to observe and defend Gabrielle.

After striking Aster, Gabrielle instinctively ran over to see about Escritt, who had been gravely injured by Aster. Aster was still on her knees, but not for long. Tightening the grip of the sword in her hand, she rose, but I instantly drew her attention away from my love.

If they’re angry, disturb them.

“You don’t want to fight her, Aster,” I said, referring to Gabrielle. “I’m the one who killed your sister.”

“Your large cugine killed one of my Sisters as well, Babania,” Aster said, referring to my “soldier,” Escritt, as she drew her sword on me.

“Yeah, but I killed your blood sister, Niconoe,” I said. “You and she have the same sire, correct?”

At that moment, Aster thrust her sword at me. We fought fiercely for several moments. I was so focused on Aster that I didn’t immediately notice that Callisto had regained consciousness and was coming at me. Gabrielle noticed, however, and came after Callisto with the lance.

If your enemy has an advantage, entice them.

“Surely, you jest, little girl,” Callisto spewed as she first kicked the lance out of Gabrielle’s grip before kicking her face. My Gabrielle fell back, seemingly unconscious.

If you are able, appear unable.

I saw RED. Callisto charged me and I fought both of my enemies like a woman possessed for many moments until the combination of exhaustion, rage and my concern for my Gabrielle began to overpower me. Sensing my weakness, I suspected, Aster was able to slice my lower abdomen. As I went down on my knees from pain and fatigue, Aster smiled wickedly at me as Callisto raised her sword to eviscerate me.

“Vengeance for my family, Xena!” Callisto charged. “Vengeance for Cirra!”

As I raised my sword to block both her blow and the glare of the sun that was blinding me, I heard first Callisto’s infamous war scream and then a shouted “NO!” and then I heard Callisto shriek.

Attack where they are not prepared and go to where they don’t expect.

Callisto went down on her knees, gripping her side where blood oozed through her fingers. At that moment, we were both facing each other. Smiling, Callisto reached over, caressed my face and looked deeply into my eyes before falling to the ground. Standing over her at her side was Gabrielle, holding a bloody boot dagger. “Va fungule, bizzuoca,” she whispered to Callisto, although surprisingly, she was not looking at her. Her focus was still on Aster, who was probably as dumbfounded as I was at what we were witnessing.

Gabrielle was clearly traumatized by what she had just done, but she also looked every bit as enraged at my predicament as I had been moments ago at hers. She pointed the dagger, trembling in her grip, at Aster as a challenge.

If they are confused, take them.

As Aster lunged at Gabrielle, I summoned all of the strength that I had left in me, stood and sliced my sword across her chest. After Aster went down, I collapsed.

When doing battle, seek a quick victory.

Gabrielle ran to me and, ripping off part of her tunic, placed it over my bleeding wound. She was crying.

“Are you okay, Xena?” she asked hysterically. “Please, please tell me that you’ll be okay.”

“I’ll live, my love,” I said. “She just broke skin.” I looked first at the welt on Gabrielle’s forehead and then Callisto’s blood on her hands. “Are you okay?”

“I think so,” she answered.

At that moment, a voice whispered, “Babania Gabrielle.” It was Aster.

Gabrielle crawled over to the fallen gladiator. “It didn’t have to end this way, Aster.”

“Yes, I think that it did,” Aster responded.

“You are still of the Nation, my Sister,” Gabrielle said. “You need to know that, had our Sisters in Mesopotamia known that you had survived the battle against Xena’s army in Babylon… had they known that you were taken into slavery… they would have come for you then. That’s why I’m here now.”

“Nicaea-Rhada and Penthesilia are alive, Babania,” Aster said. “Berenice may survive.”

“We’ll see to it that they’re returned home to Mesopotamia, my Sister,” Gabrielle said. “I promise.”

Aster gripped Gabrielle’s wrist as I crawled over to them. “No, please, Babania,” she implored, her breathing becoming more labored. “My cugines… allow them safe passage back to Sicily. We have our own omerta… our own code… Sicily is our homeland now.”

“As you wish,” Gabrielle said.

Aster then smiled at me. “Clever calling my sister my ‘gavone puttana,’” she whispered. “My good-for-nothing whore… knowing full well that she was neither. How did you learn our dialect so quickly, Babania?”

“I have many skills,” I replied. “I didn’t learn it all, however. What exactly does ‘babania’ mean?”

Aster chucked and looked at Gabrielle. “Heroine,” she said to Gabrielle before closing her eyes for the last time.

* * * *

It was some moments before Gabrielle and I remembered that we were the main attraction in Rome and the focus of thunderous applause. Rising to my feet, my Gabrielle and I didn’t bother to acknowledge our audience as we walked arm-in-arm toward our gladiatorial entranceway, where our friends awaited us.

Octavius declared the games concluded for the evening and escorted us back to his palace. All of the casualties, including Amarice and Callisto were taken by the guards and prepared for a mass funeral pyre. Gabrielle insisted that we attend. It was painfully obvious to me that Gabrielle needed to be a part of Callisto’s funeral in particular.

Darda and Escritt, the two most seriously injured of our group, were taken to the palace infirmary to receive further care. After visiting them both and receiving our own needed care, Gabrielle and I returned to our guest bedchamber, where Gabrielle insisted that I lie down and rest.

As she straddled my midsection and began massaging my shoulders, breasts and forearms, I reached up and ran my fingers down her cheek. “Were you afraid, Gabrielle?”

“Every moment that I was out there,” she responded. “Afraid for Escritt, afraid for you, even afraid for Aster.”

“When Callisto kicked you,” I said, “I was sure that she had hurt you badly. I was crazed with anger.”

“Naw,” Gabrielle replied. “I was just doing that Way of Deception thing that you taught me.”

I chuckled. “You make a fine warrior, Gabrielle,” I said.

“Thanks, Xena,” she replied, “but I think that I make a much better bard.”

I hesitated. “About Callisto, Gabrielle…”

“My heart aches for her, Xena, but I’ll have to deal with it,” she said. “She would have killed you. I just couldn’t let that happen. I was more afraid of losing you out there than anything…”

A sigh. “…I hurt inside,” Gabrielle whispered.

“I know, darling,” I said. “I love you so much.”

Tears streamed down her beautiful face. “I love you too, Xena,” Gabrielle spoke and then pondered, “Were you afraid today?”

“Gabrielle, my love,” I answered, “Thanks to you, I can honestly say that I’ve overcome the curse of fear once again.”

Gabrielle shook her head and smiled that GABRIELLE smile. We embraced.

 

THE END
Click here to read Gabrielle’s Option ( A Vingnette)

Or read January Thaw – An unfinished, uber-type continuation of the Conqueror series in 24 parts.

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