Disclaimers

The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess™ and all others associated with the television series of the same name are owned by Renaissance Pictures and Studios USA. This is a work of fan fiction and no copyright infringement is intended.

Sexual Content: Oh yeah. It’s in there <G>. We’ve got graphic heterosexual as well as lesbian couplings. Okay, it’s probably okay to say ‘sex’ in the sexual disclaimer. We won’t be nearly so modest later. So cover up your eyes, kiddies and grannies. Actually, if you’re under 18, move on. But grannies are welcome to pull up a chair and enjoy. This story is intended for an adult audience only.

Violence: Yes, this is a Conqueror story so there is violence. Some of it is graphic. Callisto is also not very nice to a little boy in this story. She doesn’t hurt him physically, but she says some pretty mean things to him.

Videotape: We just slipped this one in to see if you were paying attention. But hey, don’t we wish<G>?

Language: Lots of foul language in this one folks. Be warned.

Drugs/Alcohol: And we’re not talking about all the beer TN and Advocate consumed while writing this tale. Heck, we’re not even talking about all the beer TN and Advocate drank while reading each other’s work on this story. To be clear, there is alcohol consumption in the story.

Acknowledgements: To Zoinks, who gave TN the original idea – a big thank you. To our beta readers, Barbara Davies and Chris – your assistance was invaluable! And, of course, we had a blast working together. But we won’t bore you with our mutual admiration.

Comments/Feedback to: TN and Advocate

 

Soul Searching

By T.Novan & Advocate

With Zoinks

 

Chapter One: A Date With Destiny

 

She pulled the hood of the cloak over her head and mounted the snorting horse, her well-oiled saddle creaking slightly as she settled into the seat and adjusted her swords. Muscled thighs gripped the beast’s sides, and a swift kick sent him into an all out gallop as she rode away from the stronghold in total darkness.

Riding all night, she made it to a small village just as the sun began peeking over the horizon. Merchants were preparing to open shops and the realm’s soldiers were in the middle of their sunrise shift change. Not a single soul paid her any mind as she rode towards what she assumed was this insignificant town’s only inn. Actually, it looked like more of a tavern than an inn. But small village taverns usually rented a few rooms, serving double duty as the town’s inn.

The tall woman dismounted from the gelding with a muffled groan, dropping a copper coin into the hand of a small boy who offered to cool and stable the lathered beast. He smiled at her as she untied her saddlebags and draped them over a broad shoulder.

It had been a long time since she had seen a child smile, and she reached down and patted the boy’s shoulder before silently turning towards the inn.

Stepping inside, the cloaked woman was struck by the silence. The chairs were still stacked on the tables and the place seemed empty. "Hello?" she called into the darkened room, the lingering scent of mead invading her senses.

A round, dark-skinned woman stepped out from the back room. Working her way around the bar, she wiped her hands on a damp dishcloth. "Can I help you?"

"I need a room."

"Two…"

The stranger didn’t even give the woman time to finish; she simply tossed a gold coin on the countertop. It landed heads up and she winced a bit under her hood, realizing for the first time in ten autumns what a mistake these coins were. They made the concealment of her identity almost impossible. Nothing I can do about it now. Drawing her eyes from the shiny coin, she refocused on the innkeeper. "With a bath and a meal. That should cover it for at least a week. When it runs out, let me know."

The plump woman took the coin and after discreetly examining it, tucked it in the worn leather pouch at her side. "Last room on the left down the hall. Best room in the house. Do you want that bath now?"

"Thank you. Yes." Pulling her hood more tightly around her face, she brushed by the innkeeper in search of her room.

The room was comfortable. Not by any means what she was accustomed to, but comfortable nonetheless. A clean, quilt-covered bed dominated the small space. Next to the stone fireplace stood a neatly dusted table and two chairs. And nestled in the corner was the large wooden tub. Xena tossed her saddlebags to the bed, then removed the double sword rig from her hips and threw it down as well. She lowered the hood, spilling out raven tresses that were damp from her hard night’s ride. The cloak found its way to the bed, too.

Xena moved to the window and watched interestedly as the little village officially came to life. Merchants, soldiers, and townsfolk milled around quietly in the crisp morning air as they went about their business. Pale blue eyes carefully took in the Conqueror’s soldiers, who stood on nearly every corner. For the most part, the men left the villagers to their business. Occasionally, however, a soldier would stop a merchant and root through their goods. Some took items; others let the merchants go unmolested, leaving their wares in their carts and baskets.

A soft knocking at the door returned her attention to her room. Xena put the cloak back on and settled the hood over her head. "Come."

The door opened, and a petite, blonde woman carrying two large buckets of steaming water entered the room. She took a moment to regard the hooded figure that stood in the early morning shadows. "Water for your bath," she said simply as the figure nodded. The blonde put one bucket down and poured the other into the tub. Then she lifted the second bucket. "This will take some time to prepare properly," she said softly. "Could I bring you some tea when I return?"

"Yes," Xena answered quietly, never emerging from the shadows.

The blonde woman started at the sound of the stranger’s voice. It was her first indication that the figure was female. Her gaze drifted to the swords on the bed. For some reason they made her think ‘male’. It wasn’t often that a female warrior came through the village. "What’s your name?"

"I don’t want to wait for that bath." Xena looked at the water, deliberately not answering the question. "It’s already growing cold."

The inn worker nodded, allowing the warrior her privacy. She smiled at the cloaked figure and left the room.

Xena decided to leave the cloak on until her bath was filled, but took the time to remove her belt, which held multiple pouches containing money and personal items. Taking a seat, she laid the belt on the table and began sorting through the pouches. Even in her haste to escape the confines of the stronghold, she was sure she had everything she needed. Plenty of money and the few personal items that she wanted to keep near. Satisfied with the contents of the pouches, she closed them and waited.

She didn’t have long to wait. The blonde returned with the boy who had taken her horse when she had arrived. The woman carried more water; the boy had his small hands wrapped around a mug of hot tea that smelled faintly of cloves. The lad set it down on the table and smiled at Xena again.

Xena crouched down in front of the freckled child. "What’s your name, boy?"

"Jarrod," he responded with a grin, his green eyes twinkling as they caught the morning sunlight.

"How old are you, Jarrod?"

"Eight." His nose wrinkled with his grin and Xena found herself hard pressed not to answer with a grin of her own

"Well, Jarrod, how would you like to earn a gold piece?"

His eyes went as round as twin full moons and he turned to the woman filling the tub. "Mama?"

The woman stopped all movement, and resigned eyes fixed themselves on the wall for several long seconds. A nearly soundless sigh escaped pink lips. Turning to the hooded figure, the boy’s mother drew in a deep breath. She would do what was necessary to survive. She always had. But she would not allow Jarrod to be harmed. "What do you want him to do?"

"Just tend to my horse while I’m here. Make sure he’s fed and brushed everyday, maybe take him for a walk in the morning and afternoon. Nothing a big boy like him can’t handle." She brushed his tangled bangs back from his forehead.

"All right," the woman said, pouring the second bucket into the tub. "Jarrod, make sure you do the job properly. If you disappoint our guest, there won’t be any money at all for you. Understand?"

"Yes, Mama. I promise." He smiled again and excitedly ran out of the room, visions of what he would buy with an entire gold piece already dancing in his head.

"Two more buckets should do it. I’ll be right back."

As she turned to go, Xena stood up, and took one of the empty buckets from the woman’s grasp. "Let me give you a hand."

"That’s not really…"

"I know. I want to," the warrior insisted quietly.

She followed the young inn worker to the boiler room, where they drew the hot water from a large tank that resembled an oak wine cask. Grabbing the second bucket, Xena filled them, making rather short work of the arduous process.

Xena picked up both buckets and gestured toward the door with her chin. "Shall we?"

A surprised nod and small smile was her answer.

"What’s your name?" Xena reentered her room, hoping the shorter woman wouldn’t remember her own avoidance of that same question posed only moments before.

"Gabrielle."

"And Jarrod is your son?" she asked conversationally. The boy had already made that fact abundantly clear. Strong arms dumped the buckets into the tub, sending billowing clouds of steam high into the air.

"Yes."

"And his father?"

Gabrielle hesitated for only a second. Perhaps if the warrior got to know her... just a bit before ... she would be kinder to her and Jarrod. Gabrielle couldn’t see any reason to withhold the truth. "Dead. Killed even before Jarrod was born." She picked up the empty buckets and dropped one inside the other.

"Was he a resistance fighter?" Xena dipped her fingers into the steaming water, testing its temperature.

"No. He was a soldier in Our Lord Conqueror’s army. He died taking Rome. I was told that his throat was cut by Caesar himself, before the Conqueror killed Caesar."

"I’m sorry," Xena said, not looking up from the water.

"So am I. Perdicus – that was my husband’s name – was a good man. It’s a shame Jarrod will never know his father."

Xena stood and dried her hand on her cloak.

Falling into a role she knew quite well, Gabrielle moved forward to turn back Xena’s hood and reveal the face that lay beneath it.

Xena was amazed at this small woman’s forwardness, but, inexplicably, she didn’t move as sure hands first slid back her hood, then removed the cloak completely, tossing it onto the bed.

"You’re very young to have a child Jarrod’s age," Xena commented in a strained voice, attempting what she hoped was a normal conversation as Gabrielle knelt and began unlacing her boots. Why was the woman doing this? And more importantly, why was she allowing it? "You couldn’t have been married long."

A small smile touched Gabrielle’s face, her hands working by rote. "I’m not quite as young as I look. And I was only married a week. Then he left to serve. He was killed six moons later. Jarrod came along about three moons after that." The shorter woman yanked free a stubborn knot that was caked with dirt. "My mother says Jarrod was a gift to me from the Fates. Something to remember his father by."

"Did you love him?" Xena knew the words were falling from her own lips, and yet, they seemed to be coming from someone else entirely. Still, she mentally sighed, she was curious to hear the answer. Xena dropped to the edge of the tub as Gabrielle wrestled with the other snug boot.

The blonde shrugged, correctly assuming the warrior’s question was about Perdicus and not Jarrod. "It was an arranged marriage. He was a good man. I... I could have learned to love him." I’m just glad I didn’t have to. With a final tug, she removed the boot and tossed it into the corner alongside its mate. Next she removed Xena’s woolen foot coverings and started a pile of clothes.

Gabrielle stood and pulled the tall woman to her feet, undoing the hook at the waist of Xena’s trousers. She pulled her tunic free of a wide leather belt and began unfastening the hooks of the tunic. Just another soldier. No matter that it’s a woman. Do what you must and be done with it!

"Your hands are very adept at removing a soldier’s clothing, Gabrielle." Xena allowed her body to respond to its growing desire, as Gabrielle’s hands continued their motion.

Gabrielle undid another hook, speaking without looking up. "I do what I must to survive and take care of my son."

"Why?" Xena captured Gabrielle’s hands, stroking soft skin and rough calluses with the tips of her thumbs. Letting go of one, she gently grasped Gabrielle’s chin and tilted her head, forcing eye contact as she asked again, "Why?"

Their eyes locked, and Gabrielle fought back the tears that suddenly threatened to spill. Awkwardly, she cleared her throat. No one had ever made her say the words before and they felt foreign and bitter in her mouth, increasing her shame, though she refused to drop her gaze.

"Because, like the Conqueror, her soldiers are cruel and most of the time heartless," she lashed out, noticing Xena’s nearly imperceptible flinch. "Sometimes I find one who seems kind, and if I make myself available to him, the others leave me alone. No beatings. No forcing themselves on me. I do what I must. Sometimes, I find one who will protect us while he’s stationed here." She was finding it harder to continue to meet the serious blue eyes boring into hers. But she did. "A little peace, no matter how it’s gained and even if only for a few days, is better than none at all. When you offered Jarrod a gold piece for taking care of your horse, I knew what you wanted."

The warrior felt a pang deep in her chest that was part sympathy, part rage. "I’m not here to rape or buy you, Gabrielle," she ground out. "I wanted the boy to take care of my horse. Nothing more."

"A gold piece for taking care of your horse?" Gabrielle laughed without a trace of humor. "Surely you expected me to…"

"No. No, I didn’t and I still don’t. I’m going to pay the boy for taking care of my horse. I didn’t offer to pay him so his mother would share my bed."

"But I thought…"

"You thought wrong, Gabrielle!" Xena blurted, the words coming far more harshly than she intended. She took an uncertain breath, not knowing how to breach the uneasy silence that suddenly filled the room. "Now go, so I can have my bath and get some sleep," she grumbled. "I traveled all night, and I’m tired."

Gabrielle’s heart began to pound in her chest and she took a small step backwards. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you."

"I’m not offended. You were doing what, apparently, you thought you had to do. But you don’t. Not this time." Not with me. Xena’s jaw clenched.

Gabrielle nodded her understanding and picked up the buckets. She started for the door, then paused and looked over her shoulder. "Thank you."

"You’re welcome," Xena answered, undoing the last buttons of her tunic. "Gabrielle?"

"Yes?"

"Will you and Jarrod share an evening meal with me?"

Gabrielle cocked her head to the side, red-blonde hair falling over one shoulder. "We’d like that. Thank you." She left the room quietly, closing the heavy wooden door behind her.

Xena finished undressing and sank into the tub. She closed her eyes as the hot water began to relax her muscles. Gabrielle’s words continued to ring in her ears, ‘Sometimes I find one who seems kind, and if I make myself available to him, the others leave me alone. No beatings. No forcing themselves on me. I do what I must. Sometimes, I find one who will protect us while he’s stationed here.’ Picking up a washcloth, she considered the woman who had tried to seduce her in return for her protection from the Conqueror’s soldiers. Feeling slightly ill, Xena pushed the unpleasant thoughts away.

Finally clean, she pushed her swords and saddlebags to the floor and gracelessly fell into bed, nuzzling the sweet smelling quilt. It had been many seasons since she had traveled all night without rest. Her weary body tumbled easily into a deep, dreamless sleep.

*****

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN SHE’S GONE?!" Callisto screamed at the Captain of the Guard. "The Conqueror of the Known World does not just disappear without a trace!"

"I…I…I…" the middle-aged man stammered, as he tried to figure out what had happened to his ruler. "General Callisto, my best men are looking for her at this very moment…" He gulped as he finished his sentence. Hades’ own wrath couldn’t match that of the livid woman before him.

Impossibly, dead, brown eyes turned even colder. "Too bad for you, you won’t be here to know whether they’re successful or not." She turned to the second guard. "Congratulations, you’ve just been promoted. Kill him," she ordered in a bored tone.

Callisto stormed out of the Conqueror’s empty bedchamber and down to the parade ground. An entire legion of soldiers was double-timing it to the practice field early this morning, the thudding of their boots echoing throughout the entire stronghold.

Whispers that something important had taken place during last night were exchanged in the barracks, after the men were rousted from their slumber by their General’s shrill cackle.

But not a single soldier suspected just how big it really was.

*****

Xena stretched. She awoke, one pale eye opening and peering at the unfamiliar surroundings. She was wrapped tightly in the quilt and the fireplace was alive with a small, crackling blaze. The table was set for a meal, but she was alone in the room. She sat up quickly, running her hands through disheveled, dark hair. DAMN! How could I be so careless? By the Gods, that was stupid! To go to sleep in an unsecured room! Stalking across the room, she noticed a pale green, homespun robe had been draped over a chair.

Throwing the robe on, she furiously knotted its belt and made her way to the window. She closed her eyes and drew a calming breath. Her weapons were in a pile next to the bed, exactly, where she’d left them. Relax, Xena, relax. No one knows you’re here. You’re just another faceless traveler.

A knock at the door caused her to grab her sword. Her nerves were rattled, and she cursed herself for being so easily shaken. Warily, she pulled the door open and was surprised to find Jarrod holding a tray laden with a bottle of wine and two mugs of spiced cider.

"Mama said I should bring these up." He grinned at her.

Xena exhaled slowly and hid her sword behind her back, stepping aside to make sure the boy had enough room to enter.

Carefully balancing the tray, Jarrod brought it into the room and set it on the table. "I took your horse out for a walk today, and I made sure he had a good brushing after."

"I’m sure you did a fine job with him, Jarrod. He loves to be spoiled." Xena perched on the bed and asked with forced casualness, "Can you tell me who has been in my room today?"

"Just Mama." The boy snuck a drink of cider while Xena looked on indulgently. "She came back to see if you needed more hot water, but she said you had already gone to bed. Since then, she’s just come in one time, to make a fire for you and to set the table for the evening meal. She told me to tell you that she made sure the door was locked from the outside."

"Where is your mother?" she asked, moving to the door to examine it and make certain it could, indeed, be locked from the outside.

"She’s getting our meal together. She said she would be up in half a candlemark."

"Okay. Listen, Tiger," Xena intoned affectionately. "I need to get dressed for our meal. So you go give your Mama a hand, and let her know that I’m awake and VERY hungry."

"Yes, ma’am."

With a slight smile, she shooed the curious boy out of her room and began dressing. It was an unusual feeling, not being surrounded by people. She was the Conqueror of the Known World, and her life normally consisted of guards and servants, soldiers and slaves. These were men and women whose very lives were dedicated to pleasing her. But they couldn’t care less about her true happiness– except as it related to them retaining their skins.

It was a world of her own making. And she didn’t like it.

Even though there were still many seasons before she would reach her fortieth winter, the battles that shaped her world had all been fought long ago. With deadly skill, the Conqueror had conquered everything in her path. There was simply nothing left. She no longer even held Ares’ interest, except in matters that were decidedly unmilitary. Xena sneered in disgust. She had fulfilled her destiny, and now she was utterly and completely bored.

Her generals handled everything now, allowing her to relax and bask in the glory that was her realm. Glory. She had more glory than she could stomach. Somehow she had thought it would be different. Ares had made her believe the thrill would never end and the seductive quality of his promises chased a shiver down her spine as she remembered them.

Well, it had ended. A very long time ago. And she found that doing the conquering was a lot more fun than being the Conqueror.

The once proud and mighty warrior was now reduced to passing judgment on pathetic fools who dared to challenge her power. She always wondered what possessed them to be so stupid. With an almost frightening ease, she had crushed the world’s finest armies under the heel of her boot. What made a few insignificant peasants think they could challenge her?

And then there was the loneliness that flooded her soul, even amidst an almost constant crowd. All the spoils of the world didn’t seem enough to fill the hollow void that seemed to deepen with each passing season. At times it threatened to engulf her completely.

Shaking the morose thoughts from her head, Xena found her clothes at the foot of her bed. They had been cleaned and folded and placed on the trunk. She picked up her tunic and ran her hand over the slightly rough fabric, inhaling its fresh scent, and wondering idly why Gabrielle continued to be so kind to her, even after she had made it clear that she didn’t expect the young woman to offer herself sexually.

Years of rule had made one thing abundantly clear to the Conqueror. No one did something for nothing. There was always a price.

The warrior frowned. She wasn’t wondering so much what the price would be... but rather, would she be able to stop herself from paying it. Dressing quickly, she put her weapons away before Gabrielle and her son returned to the room.

*****

Callisto paced back and forth in the Conqueror’s war chamber. She was not a happy woman. A complete search of the area had only identified two things missing: the Conqueror’s horse and the Conqueror herself. "Send out search parties!" she had ordered her captains, as they shuffled back and forth, trying their level best not to further upset the enraged woman. "I want her found!"

The men bowed to their general and backed out of the room, glad to have escaped with their lives. Fuming, Callisto poured a cup of wine and drained it in one long swallow. "Damn you, Xena! Where in the name of Tartarus have you gone?" You can’t hide from me, my sweet! No matter what you might think.

*****

Xena reclined back in her chair, dropping her napkin in her lap. She sipped her wine and watched Gabrielle with her son. How long had it been since she had seen a picture like this? A mother caring for a child. She smiled as she set her cup on the table. "The meal was very good, Gabrielle. You’re an excellent cook."

"Thank you." Gabrielle pulled her son from his chair onto her lap. "Jarrod, I want you to go get ready for bed. I’ll be down shortly." She stroked his hair, kissing him on the temple as she held him close to her.

The boy pulled away, slightly embarrassed by the motherly display. He wasn’t a baby! "Do I…?"

"Yes, you have to."

After a slight huff, the boy smiled good-naturedly and allowed Gabrielle to hug him and place a soft kiss on his cheek. "Yes, Mama." He turned to the tall woman. "Good night."

"Good night, Jarrod. Sleep well."

Jarrod left the room, closing the door gently behind him. Gabrielle smiled as she put own her napkin on the table and sipped her wine.

"You find something amusing?" the tall woman asked, still reclining back in her chair.

"Umm-hmm." The blonde nodded, gathering her courage.

"What?"

"You."

"Me?"

"You."

"And what have I done to deserve such a sweet smile?" Xena leaned on the table, holding her wine cup between her hands.

Please let this be the right thing to do. Or Jarrod will find himself without either parent. "You don’t seem to be the monster that everyone makes you out to be."

Xena’s heart rate picked up. "You know?"

"Of course, I know. I’m a peasant. I’m not stupid," Gabrielle snapped, forgetting the caution she had reminded herself about only seconds before.

The Conqueror arched a slender eyebrow, settling back in her seat. "No… no you’re not stupid. When did you know?"

"The moment I pushed back the hood on your cloak." The moment I had the chance to change Jarrod and my lives for good.

"So that’s why you’ve been so kind?" It was an accusation. Gabrielle was still seeking favor and protection from her Lord Conqueror.

"No, it’s not. I’ve been kind to you because you haven’t done anything to me to deserve less." Gabrielle felt a surprising truth in those words though she had intended them as mere flattery.

The Conqueror cocked her head to the side. "You’re not afraid of me, are you?"

"No," she lied. "Why should I be?"

"Oh, I don’t know, maybe because I am the ruler of the Known World and I take great pleasure in crushing peasants like you just to prove a point." Xena sipped her wine and studied Gabrielle over the rim of her cup. The young woman was lying to her face.

"No, you don’t." At least I hope you don’t. Not tonight.

"Don’t what? Rule the world or enjoy crushing peasants?"

"Enjoy crushing peasants. If you did, you would be at your palace doing just that. Not here, hiding in a village full of them."

Xena snorted at the woman’s impudence, but found herself wanting to continue the banter. "What makes you think I’m hiding?"

"Oh, I don’t know." Gabrielle lifted the wine bottle and poured more into the Conqueror’s cup, then refilled her own. "You came into the village all alone, with a cloak drawn over your head. Some might say that looks an awful lot like hiding."

Xena chuckled and stood up, crossing to the window. She stared at the stars as she drew a deep breath. "What if I am hiding, Gabrielle?" she said, her voice a bare whisper.

Gabrielle rose and joined the woman at the window. "Then the question would be why?"

Xena closed her eyes briefly, before her gaze shifted to meet Gabrielle’s. "Because I’m so tired."

*****

Callisto led the patrol that had headed north in search of the Conqueror. She had an odd feeling that was where she would find Xena. The General had a splitting headache, and the pain was accentuating her natural propensity towards homicide. On the spot, she decided the very next imbecile to speak to her would forfeit his miserable life.

A soldier rode up alongside her. "General…"

The dagger entered his chest so quickly he didn’t actually have time to feel it. With wide eyes, he looked down at the reddening stain on his tunic and back at the laughing woman. His mouth moved but no words came out.

Callisto kicked her horse into motion, not turning back to see him slide to the ground in a lifeless heap.

"Somebody move that off the road." She tossed her blade over her shoulder. "And clean my knife!"

*****

"What should I call you?" Gabrielle asked, gathering the dishes from the evening meal. "Highness? Lord? Conqueror?"

Xena moved to the table and stilled the woman’s hands by taking them in her own.

Gabrielle looked up into a dark, angular face, whose planes were accented by the orange glow of the firelight. Sky-blue eyes could just barely be seen.

"Xena," the Conqueror whispered. "Could you call me Xena? It’s been a long time since anyone has called me that." At least to my face.

"Xena." Gabrielle smiled as the name tumbled from her lips. The evening was going better than she had dare hope.

"Beautiful," the darker woman replied, running her fingertips down the smaller woman’s cheek.

Gabrielle nodded. "Yes, you have a very beautiful name. It suits you more than Highness or Lord."

"Not my name." Xena paused. "You."

Green eyes dropped as a flush rose over Gabrielle’s cheeks. Xena tilted her head back up with gentle fingers. "You are a very beautiful woman, Gabrielle."

"Thank you."

The tall woman drew a deep breath, smiling engagingly as she stepped back. "Umm…so tell me, Gabrielle, is there anywhere around here to go fishing?"

"Fishing?" She laughed at the unexpected question. "You want to go fishing?"

"Yeah. I thought it might be nice. Maybe you and Jarrod would like to join me? We could take a picnic and…" She paused as she sat on the bed. "If there’s any place around here, that is."

"Actually, there’s a nice pond not too far from here." Utterly charmed despite herself, Gabrielle agreed readily. "We’d like that very much." She continued stacking the dishes on the tray as her pale brows creased in thought. "But you can’t go out like that."

Xena looked down and examined her body, sweeping her hand down its length. "Like what? It’s not like I have a lot of choice."

"Well, if you go out like that, your identity won’t be secret for much longer." And I need time. Gabrielle raised an eyebrow of her own. "After all, your face is on every coin in circulation."

"Hmm…yeah, I know," Xena groaned, knowing the sudden heat she felt in her cheeks meant she was blushing. "Would you believe me if I said that wasn’t my idea?"

"It really doesn’t matter now, does it?"

"No." Xena shook her head. "I guess it really doesn’t."

An idea took shape in Gabrielle’s mind. "Hang on; I’ll be right back."

Gabrielle gathered up the dishes and quickly exited the room, leaving Xena on the bed, staring at her hands. The Conqueror stood and crossed to the window again; even with the chilly evening breeze she was continuously drawn to the fresh air and open view. She watched as a soldier made a grab for a young girl as she walked by. The girl screamed and struggled as the soldier pulled her into a fierce hug, roughly pawing at her.

"Leave her alone!" Xena shouted from the window, stepping out on the balcony.

The soldier squinted in the darkness. "And just who is going to make me?" he taunted, yanking the girl’s head back and biting her hard on the neck, drawing blood.

Xena placed her hands on the rails of the balcony and vaulted over the side, grunting as her feet hit the ground with startling force and kicked up a cloud of fine dust. She crossed the street purposefully, making a tight fist as she did. This pig would dare question her? "I said let her go!"

The man shoved the girl away and drew his sword. "As I said before…"

Xena moved forward and drew back her fist, punching hard, her arm recoiling at after the solid connection with his jaw. The grizzled soldier staggered backwards, but remained on his feet. He twirled his sword as his tongue snaked out to taste the metallic tang of blood. "That was a mistake, bitch!" He spat into his hand, staring at the crimson substance pooled there.

"Somehow, I doubt it," Xena growled, ducking his sword and grabbing him by the throat with one hand. With her other hand, she grabbed his wrist and slammed it on her knee, causing his blade to clatter to the dirt. With a mighty jerk, she drew him close to her face; out of the corner of her eye she saw the soldier’s young victim disappear into the darkness. "Do you know me?"

His eyes widened as he fought for the breath she was slowly crushing from his body. "Yes… yes, Lord…"

"Since when do my soldiers rape, and, even more foolishly, disobey me?" she asked calmly, her hand tightening around the soldier’s sweat-slicked throat.

"Lord…" he gasped, his eyes rolling back in his head as the life began to drain from his body.

"DON’T!"

Xena turned to see Gabrielle running from the tavern.

"Don’t," she pleaded softly as she approached, laying a gentle hand on Xena’s arm. "Please, Xena, don’t." Gabrielle leveled an icy stare at the soldier. "Though the Gods know he deserves it, there’s been enough death here." Moonlight reflected off mossy green eyes, showing the Conqueror something she had never seen before.

Fury and mercy. Together.

Xena’s hand loosened its grip on the man’s throat, and he crumpled to the ground. Not quite finished, she bent over, lifting him up by the shirt, and drawing him close once more. "Leave the girls alone, and don’t mention to anyone that you’ve seen me. Do you understand?"

The soldier gave a weak nod before the Conqueror roughly let him loose. She turned back to the younger woman. "Let’s go." As they headed back to the tavern, Xena took Gabrielle’s hand and wrapped it around her own arm. "That was a very dangerous thing to do, Gabrielle."

"I didn’t think so."

"I could have hurt you."

"You’d never hurt me."

Xena stopped dead in her tracks. Gently grabbing Gabrielle’s shoulders, she turned the younger woman towards her. "What makes you say that?"

Gabrielle shrugged helplessly. She didn’t have a reason that made sense. "Call it intuition."

"Gabrielle," Xena warned seriously, "I have killed people for far less than what you just did out there." Whatever game this girl was playing was a very dangerous one.

"Then why didn’t you kill me?" Gabrielle continued towards the tavern, leaving a stunned Xena behind her.

Still rooted to the ground, the Conqueror smiled as she shook her head. "I don’t know. I should have, you know," she laughed weakly as she called after Gabrielle who was almost inside.

"I’ll keep that in mind, " Gabrielle replied, as the most feared woman in the world followed her through the door.

*****

Callisto paced back and forth in front of the campfire. Her soldiers sat some distance away, watching the raging woman. They were mostly silent, only a few of them daring to murmur a word or two when it was needed.

Abruptly, Callisto turned and moved away from the fire. She approached her troops, walking slowly and looking them over one by one. She stopped in front of a sturdy young guard. He was a good-looking man, whose only defect was a scar that ran along the left side of his face. "What’s your name, soldier?" Not that it matters.

The man jumped to his feet, coming to attention as he did. "Palaemon, General Callisto."

"Palaemon?" Dark eyes hungrily swept over him in frank evaluation. He was stocky but not overweight with a thick neck and sturdy limbs. His complexion was fair and his eyes appeared light, though she couldn’t determine their exact color was in the faint light. He’ll do. "Come with me, Palaemon," she purred. "Your General requires your services."

She took the man by the hand and led him away. His colleagues snickered as they disappeared into the tent, knowing exactly what kind of services the General required. They also wondered if Palaemon would fare better than the last three soldiers who had ‘served’ the General.

*****

Gabrielle held the tunic up to Xena’s shoulders. "Hmm… A bit broad there, aren’t you?"

"Gabrielle, this is insane." She shuffled back and forth while the young woman tossed the shirt over her arm, then held up a pair of trousers to the Conqueror’s waist.

"Would you hold still, please? How am I supposed to make this work if you keep fidgeting about?"

"Okay, let’s assume for a moment, just to humor you, that this is going to work. What about this?" She pulled a lock of her long dark hair from her shoulders and held it out for contemplation. "Hmm?" She quirked a dark brow.

"Oh, well, we’ll tie that back. A lot of men wear their hair tied back. I find it rather attractive."

Xena raised an eyebrow.

"Surely you must have some in your army…"

"No. All the men in my army are required to keep their hair cropped short and their facial hair neatly trimmed."

"Prude."

Xena pointed a long finger toward her own chest. "Me?" She laughed at the idea. "Oh, you have no idea." Her chuckles continued as she reached to the table for a cup of mead. As she sipped, she considered the late hour. "Gods, Gabrielle, aren’t you tired? You must have been up at dawn."

"Just before, actually." The smaller woman tried to stifle a yawn. Now that someone mentioned it, she was feeling a little tired.

Xena took the clothes, placing them on the table. "It can wait until later. Go now and get some rest."

"I’m fine…"

Xena turned Gabrielle away from the clothes, holding her by the waist. "I said it could wait. Go to bed."

Gabrielle sighed heavily, allowing her shoulders to slump. "Okay," she agreed softly. "I could use the rest."

"Yes, I’m sure you could." Xena leaned in and gave her a soft kiss on the forehead. "Now go."

Gabrielle headed for the door. As she laid her hand on the knob, she turned back to the Conqueror, still not quite believing it was the Ruler of the Known World who was sending her to bed like a sleepy child. "Good night, Xena."

"Good night, Gabrielle. See you tomorrow."

Xena watched the young woman go as she drained her cup. A pressure seemed to lift from her chest. Somehow, she didn’t feel quite so alone any more.

*****

The well-trained army broke camp quickly and quietly. Callisto sat atop her horse, watching as her troops’ gear was packed and the solidiers prepared to move. She actually smiled when she saw him. He had indeed served her well the night before, several times, in fact. And in several ways. "Palaemon! Come here."

The beefy man looked up from his job of rolling up a tent, and ran over to his general. "Yes, General Callisto?"

"Mount up and ride with me today."

"Yes, General." Running for his horse, he mounted the beast by jumping onto it from its hindquarters. His compatriots graced him with low whistles and appreciative looks. Palaemon had served his General well enough to not only survive the night, but to gain her favor.

The young solider wiped the smile from his face as he pulled up next to his General. Mindful of his position, he kept his own horse two paces back.

"Tell me, Palaemon, where is it you think our Lord Conqueror has gone?"

Palaemon swallowed hard. He drew a deep breath, wondering if it would be his last. It was quite deadly to disappoint Callisto. "I wouldn’t pretend to know, General."

"The soldiers don’t have any speculations you would care to share with me?"

"No, General. The men would never try to guess what Our Lord Conqueror might be thinking."

Callisto let out a hearty laugh as she continued down the road with Palaemon at her side.

*****

Xena lay on her bed wide-awake, thoughts whirling through her head. Most of them centered on a certain blonde with the greenest eyes she’d ever seen. It had been a long time, too long, since she had a friend. Someone who wasn’t intimidated by her, who would say what they truly felt. But could Gabrielle truly be trusted? Xena’s heart cried out to her, ‘Yes’. But her gut hissed, ‘No’.

Dark brows drew together. Hearts lie and deceive, leaving you for a fool. It was always wisest to trust your gut. Wasn’t it?

Getting up out of bed, Xena walked to the window, wishing she were outside, closer to the stars. As had become her habit, she peered down on this sleepy little village, deeply inhaling the scent of woodsmoke and wet leaves. A light rain had fallen while she slept. But the clouds had disappeared quickly and now she gazing up into a clear, twinkling sky. She couldn’t help but hope she had finally found someone with whom she could share her thoughts and feelings. Her heart was almost certain. Now if the rest of her would only agree.

*****

Looking in the mirror, she had to admit that she didn’t look like Xena the Conqueror, but Xenan the fisherman. With her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail and the clothes Gabrielle had provided, the young blonde’s plan seemed to have a chance of success.

Gabrielle finished applying a light mask of ash to Xena’s face, which made her look as if she needed a shave. It also made Xena sneeze, spraying Gabrielle with a fine mist.

"Sorry." Xena grinned at Gabrielle, who dusted the ash from her hands.

"No problem. I’m a mother." She studied her handy work. "Well, what do you think?"

"I think we’re going fishing." Xena knelt down in front of the boy who sat wide-eyed on a chair at the table. "Jarrod, you do understand why your Mother and I are doing this, right? Hiding my face like this?"

"Yes, Ma’am. Mama says you need some rest and this is the only way you’re gonna get it."

"That’s right, Tiger." Xena glanced back at Gabrielle who smiled at her. "I need to rest and I can’t think of a better way to do it than to spend the day fishing with you. Jarrod, have you ever been fishing without any poles, spears or nets?"

Two green eyes looked at her in amazement. "No, Ma’am! Everybody knows ya have to have those." He laughed and jumped out of his seat. "I have my dad’s fishing stuff downstairs. We can get worms down at the pond."

Standing up, Xena put her hand on Jarrod’s shoulders and steered him toward the door. "Let’s go!" Gods, she was nearly as excited as the boy.

As they left the inn, Jarrod ran ahead of them, looking back every so often to make sure they weren’t too far behind. Xena reached out for Gabrielle’s hand, and was pleasantly surprised when the young woman didn’t pull away but instead gave a slight squeeze. Xena couldn’t suppress her smile.

"May I ask you something?" Gabrielle felt Xena stiffen, but kept a hold of the larger hand.

"Sure. But I may choose not to answer."

Gabrielle nodded. "That’s fair." They walked a few more paces, before Gabrielle stopped and looked up at her companion. "Why are you hiding? You’re the Conqueror. Couldn’t you simply ride away in broad daylight?"

Xena thought for a moment. "A simple question, a difficult answer. I choose not to answer."

"Okay. Then why our village? You can go anywhere, stay anywhere. Why here?"

"Because it’s the first place my horse wanted to stop," Xena answered with a smirk.

Gabrielle’s gaze dropped to her boots and she swallowed. "I’m glad you did."

"What? Run away or stop here?"

"Both." Even with her head tilted downward, Xena caught a glimpse of the most charming smile she had ever seen. "Come on, Conqueror, let’s go fishing."

*****

Xena couldn’t decide what was more inviting, the sight in front of her (the pond), or the sight beside her (Gabrielle).

The water was the most incredible shade of blue. The sun sparkled off the surface like the stars that twinkle at night. Not even the jewels in her treasury glittered like this pond.

And the countryside! It was truly breathtaking. To the left of the pond, sloped gentle, rolling hills covered in brightly colored autumn flowers and leaves. To the right sat a small grove of fruit trees. Apple trees, if she wasn’t mistaken.

But even amidst Gaia’s beauty, Xena’s tactical nature won out. The trees would provide a perfect site for an ambush. And those rolling hills... An army could ride over the ridge and you wouldn’t see them until too late. After Caesar, she had learned to expect the unexpected.

The Conqueror frowned, wondering what it would be like to see only trees and hills.

Jarrod called to his mother, breaking Xena out of her melancholy memories. "C’mon! Hurry up, you two!"

Gabrielle let go of Xena’s hand, and ran to catch up with her son. Xena could see her whispering something to the lad. Nodding, Jarrod broke into a run to the pond’s edge.

When Xena met up with Gabrielle, she lifted an eyebrow and gave the shorter woman a ‘What was that all about?’ look.

Gabrielle just smiled. Retaking Xena’s hand, both women continued their stroll.

*****

It wasn’t even noon yet, and the sun was already making Callisto aggravated. Damn her to Tartarus. "Where are you? Are you injured? Why did you just run off?" Pulling her horse to a stop, she wiped the thin sheen of sweat from her brow. She was cranky. She was hot. And she was a bitch to begin with. This was not a good combination.

"Is everything okay, General?" Palaemon asked as he pulled his horse even with Callisto’s.

"No. No, everything is not all right," she said in an almost sing song voice that grew in volume with each word. "No, everything is NOT all right! And unless I get some answers," she shrieked, "heads are going to roll!"

Even in the saddle, Palaemon could feel his legs go weak. His face paled.

Callisto looked back at her army. "Palaemon dear, be a good boy and make camp for lunch. I want three of my best scouts to report to me. Now!"

Before she could dismount, three of Callisto’s best scouts were kneeling in front of her and trying not to tremble. They awaited her command.

"I want each of you to ride ahead. You!" she pointed to a young man no more than seventeen seasons old, "Follow this road. You," she pointed to a tall redheaded man easily twenty years her senior, "go north. And you," she pointed to her favorite scout, "go east. You have until the moon is high to report back to me. Find Xena! Don’t go near her, don’t do anything. Just find her! If you fail to come back when the moon is high, you die! If you come back with no information, you die! If you don’t come back at all, I’ll find you and rip your heart out of your chest and eat it for lunch! Understand?"

Three sweating scouts nodded.

"THEN WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE?!"

*****

Gabrielle couldn’t believe her eyes. But it was true. The Conqueror was thigh deep in pond water, next to young Jarrod, giving the boy a fishing lesson. Xena crouched down low, as if listening to some unheard voice. Then, in a lightning fast movement, she caught a fish with her bare hands. Gabrielle’s son’s laughter seemed to echo all around. If only she could make Xena grow to truly care for her and Jarrod.

Her contemplation was rudely interrupted when a flying fish hit her squarely in the face, then fell into her lap, flopping against her thighs and soaking her skirt.

"Sorry," Xena called out. "Is that enough fish?"

Wiping fish scales off her face and hiding the fish behind her back, Gabrielle rose and walked to the edge of the pond. "Yeah, I think ten fish are enough for two adults and a child."

Jarrod completely missed the sarcasm. Xena did not.

"I can get us more," the Conqueror replied with a wide grin. "I tend to eat a lot."

"So do I," Gabrielle laughed, throwing her hidden fish at Xena. The fish hit Xena in the chest and fell to the water while Xena just looked at Gabrielle in amazement.

For a second, Gabrielle’s heart was in her throat. Gods, what had she done? Then Jarrod began laughing hysterically, and his mother was unable to keep from following suit.

"Oh, you find that funny?" Xena trudged out of the water and grabbed Gabrielle before she could even respond. "Maybe you would like to join us and your little fishy friend?" With that, Xena threw Gabrielle into the pond.

Jarrod was still laughing when Xena returned to the water, picked him up and threw him into the center of the pond as well.

The Conqueror couldn’t help but laugh as two sets of identically confused, and totally unamused, green eyes stared back at her. "Still think it’s funny?"

Everyone broke out laughing.

Xena helped them out of the pond, and three very wet and hungry bodies made for the picnic basket.

After a lunch of cheese, bread, fruit and several grilled fish that Gabrielle expertly prepared, the Conqueror stretched out on the soft, fragrant grass and did something she had never done in public, unprotected. She closed her eyes. Xena felt at peace here, like she was a young girl again. Soft footsteps too sturdy to be Jarrod’s told her Gabrielle was walking towards her, but trying to be quiet. A tiny flash of panic rose in Xena’s chest, but she held it at bay, forcing herself not to open her eyes. It was foolish and dangerous. And she did it anyway.

Gabrielle stopped alongside Xena and then made her decision. There was no going back now. Not if there was the slightest chance…. "Here, Xena, lift up your head." Gabrielle said softly as she sat down, hoping she wouldn’t startle the Conqueror. She guided the dark head towards her lap.

Not finding it in herself to resist, the warrior smiled. "Thank you, Gabrielle. All this is just so perfect. This place, the fishing... you," she admitted, her words beginning to trail off.

Gabrielle smiled wistfully and stroked Xena’s thick hair. It was softer than she expected, falling between her fingers like strands of silk. She could see that Xena was close to falling into a deep sleep. The blonde continued to stroke long hair, starting to hum a simple song her mother sang to her when she was a child. A few moments more and Xena relaxed in her arms, her body going limp.

Jarrod approached noisily and Gabrielle silently gestured towards the apple grove with her free hand. Nodding, the boy went off to play.

*****

Cyrus could smell the orchard long before he saw it. He could cut through the grove, guiding his mare around the trees, the horsing hooves squashing ripe, fallen fruit. He could be in the next town in a half a candlemark. And if the Gods were smiling on him, he would at least hear a rumor about Xena. If not, he would make one up. He liked his heart in his chest, where it belonged. Callisto could learn to eat lamb like everyone else!

Pushing oily, curly hair off of his forward, he pulled back on the reins and took in the scene before him. Near the edge of a pond was a pair of lovers, a tall large man with his head on a fair-haired woman’s lap. The man sat up and seemed to be scanning the tree line.

Spinning his horse around, Cyrus ducked back farther into the trees. He didn’t move or breathe for what seemed like a very long time. Then it hit him. That was no man. By all the Gods on Olympus, that was the Conqueror! Callisto would sing his praises this day! "Xena," he said quietly. He squinted, focusing hard. "Yes, it’s you!" He waited a few breaths longer until he saw the Conqueror lay back down. Quietly, he guided the horse out of the orchard, then kicked it into a gallop.

He never saw the young boy that was hiding in the trees.

*****

Xena sat straight up. Something wasn’t right. She could feel it.

Gabrielle jumped. She had assumed Xena was asleep. "What’s wrong?" she asked concerned.

"Thought I heard something in the trees. I must be getting jumpy." Xena laughed softly and shook her head.

Gabrielle pulled Xena back to her lap. "I’m sure it’s just nerves. Jarrod is off playing, he’s probably climbing in those trees." She leaned over, placing a gentle kiss on Xena’s forehead. "You’re safe here." Gabrielle brushed Xena’s hair back and traced a small scar above her left eyebrow.

Xena eyes fluttered closed in pure reflex, and a soft sigh escaped her lips.

Gabrielle continued to stroke Xena’s hair and face. A tentative finger traced Xena’s cheekbone then went on to lush lips. Gabrielle was surprised when white teeth captured her finger. She let out a soft whimper when crimson lips kissed the curious finger then gave it a teasing lick.

Jarrod, yelling for his mother and running full speed at the women, interrupted the moment. Both Xena and Gabrielle were on their feet in an instant. The boy ran flew right into his mother’s arms. He was out of breath and nearly hysterical.

"Mother! A man in the grove!" He turned to his newfound friend. "Saw you... he… he… saw you, Xena!"

Xena crouched down and took the boy’s chin in her hand. "Jarrod, what man? Slow down, Tiger. Tell me what you saw."

Gabrielle gazed into the grove and laid a comforting hand on her son’s shoulder. Jarrod began to cry. "He was in your army. I heard him say your name." Panic filled eyes turned to his mother, then to Xena, then back again. "She’s going to leave us, mother! I know it!" he cried into his mother’s blouse.

Gabrielle opened her mouth to comfort the boy, but when she saw the way Xena was looking at him, she stopped. Jarrod cared about Xena. Maybe the warrior needed to know that.

Xena glanced at Gabrielle. And what she saw in Gabrielle’s eyes broke her heart. Xena lowered her gaze and spoke softly. "Gabrielle, let’s get back to town."

"NO!" Jarrod yelled, throwing himself into Xena’s arms.

The Conqueror blinked.

"You can’t leave us! Please, Xena, don’t go!" No one ever stayed. Why did the grownups he liked always leave so quickly?

"Shh, Tiger. It’s okay." Xena rubbed his back until his sobs lessened. "We’ll figure something out."

"Promise?"

"Yeah, I promise. Come on, help me and your mother gather up our stuff."

Xena looked out across the pond at its peaceful shimmering water. Maybe someday. With their supplies gathered, the Conqueror scooped Jarrod into her arms and carried the boy all the way back to town. Gabrielle followed quietly behind, lost in thought.

By the time they had arrived at the inn, Jarrod had fallen asleep in Xena’s arms. She followed Gabrielle into his room, laying him gently on his bed. Reaching down, she removed his boots and tucked him under the covers. Pensively, she stared down at the boy for a long moment before dropping a soft kiss on his forehead. "Sleep well, Tiger." Straightening, she turned to find Gabrielle leaning against the doorframe, watching her with serious eyes. "I should go."

"Why?" Gabrielle asked quietly.

"Because I’m guessing that my general, Callisto, is looking for me. I should go meet up with her before she rides into this village and destroys it."

Gabrielle’s face grew cold. This wasn’t how things were supposed to turn out! "Is the Conqueror conquered by her own troops? Doesn’t Callisto serve you?"

Xena scowled as she ushered Gabrielle out of Jarrod’s room, closing the door softly behind her. "Gabrielle, I need to go back and regain control of Callisto and my army. If I stay here, she will destroy anything and everything looking for me. And," she paused as she ran a gentle finger down the blonde’s cheek, "that includes anyone who she thinks is keeping me from her."

"You’re lovers?" Gabrielle asked hesitantly, not at all sure that she really wanted to know the answer.

Xena snorted, "Only in her mind. She does seem to think that she has some right to me. It’s my own damn fault, really." Gabrielle wasn’t the only one who had made difficult choices over the years.

Gabrielle waited as Xena struggled with how much to tell her.

"I’m well aware of her attraction to me, and I’ve exploited it whenever it suited my purposes. She’s an insane bitch. But a highly effective, insane bitch. And I knew that when I put her in a position of power and trust."

The smaller woman nodded her understanding. Callisto and Xena were lovers… when it suited Xena needs. Gabrielle had an intimate, and unhappy, understanding of those sorts ‘business relationships’. "What if I gave you a reason to stay?"

"Gabrielle…"

Before Xena could say another word, the smaller woman leaned forward, and pressed her soft lips against the Conqueror’s.

Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and deepened the kiss. They explored each other with hot tongues; bodies burning as passions rose. Gabrielle’s hands wandered over the tall woman’s strong body hungrily, as Xena’s embrace tightened and the kiss grew more fevered. When Xena heard Gabrielle moan she broke the kiss. Breathless, she leaned against the wall, holding onto Gabrielle. "By the Gods… I… I"

"Stay," she coaxed, depositing soft kisses on Xena’s neck. "Please stay. There is something between us, and you know it. We both felt it here," Gabrielle laid Xena’s palm against her chest as her own hand came to rest on Xena’s, "the moment that hood came down."

Xena’s eyes closed in confusion. "I didn’t know if I was imagining things," she whispered. "I’ve been alone for so long."

"You don’t need to be alone anymore, Xena. I can offer you companionship. A family."

"I don’t deserve a family, Gabrielle."

"Why, because you rule the world?" The incredulity in Gabrielle’s voice was unmistakable. "If that’s your excuse, I’m not buying it. If it wasn’t you, it would have been someone else."

"I’ve done horrible things…"

"So have I. I’ve done things that keep me awake at night, all in the name of making my life easier. In the name of protecting my son."

"Yes," Xena leaned back and looked deeply into Gabrielle’s eyes, "and you had to do those things because of me."

"No. It was because of your soldiers. You weren’t here. You can’t control what you don’t even know about!"

"I know about it now."

"Yes, and you can do something about it now, if you stay here. Running back to your palace and hiding isn’t the answer, Xena! Besides, you promised Jarrod. Do you really want to break that promise?" Gabrielle was growing desperate. It wasn’t wrong to want a better life! A life that Xena could provide. And Jarrod genuinely cared for the woman.

"No." A dark head shook. "I don’t." Xena straightened and took a deep breath. "All right. Callisto won’t be here until morning. That gives us a little time."

"How much time?"

The warrior smiled reassuringly. "Enough. I’ll have to go out and take command of the troops stationed here."

"That shouldn’t take long, should it?"

"Nol." Xena raised a questioning brow. "What are you thinking, Gabrielle?"

"Come with me." The blonde took Xena by the hand and led her toward her own bedchamber.

"Gabrielle, I don’t think…" Xena tried to protest as Gabrielle pulled her into the room and closed the door.

"That’s right. Don’t think. Feel," she purred, pulling Xena’s tunic free from her trousers. "Open up to me, Xena."

"I... I…" Xena gave up when she felt small but sure hands travel under her tunic, caressing her back. She pulled the blonde into her arms and kissed her again. "Gabrielle, if this happens, there is no going back for either one us," she whispered against moist, parted lips. "You become mine." Do you understand I won’t give you up, Gabrielle? No matter what your motives.

"I beg to differ with you, oh mighty Conqueror. When this happens... and it will happen," she paused as she unfastened the hooks on the tunic. "You become mine."

Dark brows shot skyward, and Xena couldn’t keep the sexy grin from her face. "Is that so? You want to conquer the Conqueror, Gabrielle?"

*****

The army had just made camp and the men were milling about, beginning their evening preparations. The lookout man yelled to Callisto, "Rider approaching, General! Looks like one of the scouts!"

Callisto’s lips curled into an emotionless smile. "Ready or not, Xena. Here I come."

Cyrus rode his horse hard and fast into camp. When he spotted Callisto he jumped from his mare, running to his General and dropping down on one knee.

"Speak to me," Callisto almost purred, pressing her fingers together happily.

"Yes, General," he panted. "I found..."

His words were still hanging in the air when she grabbed him by the throat. "Where?!" In a softer, seductive tone she whispered into his ear, "Tell me where the Conqueror is, Cyrus."

Terrified eyes looked everywhere but directly into hers. "General Callisto, she is less than half a day’s ride from here. Near a town called Poteidaia. I saw her and a young woman by a..."

"WHAT?!" the psychotic blonde screeched. "With a woman?! Who was she?" The veins in Callisto’s neck bulged and Cyrus could see her pulse quicken. Her grip tightened around his throat.

"Just ... some... some village woman," the man tried to choke out. He was getting light headed. "I asked about her in town... And... she’s a widow who works at the inn. She has a son."

"So," Callisto intoned in her sing song voice, "Xena has found herself a little whore for the night." She tightened her grip on Cyrus’ neck even more.

"Please... General... can’t breath." Cyrus’ face was beyond red. It was violet.

Callisto released her hold from Cyrus’ throat. For one brief instant, the scout thought he might live to see tomorrow. He thought wrong. Callisto grabbed him by the head with both hands, then snapped his neck as if it were a twig. The man jerked once then fell lifeless to the ground.

Callisto stepped over the dead body. "I just hate bad news," she said to no one in particular.

"Palaemon! Palaemon, darling, I want to break camp at first light. Now, go tell the troops and then come back to my tent. I feel like playing tonight." She brought the tip of her finger to her lips. "I have some… excess energy to burn."

Palaemon nodded once and left to find the company commander.

Callisto laughed and headed back toward her tent. Tonight she would have fun.

Tomorrow she would have the Conqueror.

*****

Xena watched as Gabrielle lay back on the bed. In the soft candlelight the young woman’s body was practically glowing. "By the Gods, you are so beautiful." Xena found herself mesmerized as she moved to sit on the edge of the bed.

"C’mere. Let me love you, Xena. I can give you comfort." She drew herself up to the tall woman and placed her hands on Xena’s shoulders pulling her down to lie on the bed. "Let me give you what you need. What you want."

The most powerful woman in the world found herself captured, heart, soul, and finally body, when Gabrielle drew her into a kiss unlike any other she had ever experienced. This kiss was filled with tenderness and a sweet longing.

"Gabrielle… I…"

"Shhh… Come to bed." She pulled Xena closer, slowly running her small hands over the muscular back. Her lips found a spot on a tanned neck, which earned her a deep moan.

"Gods…" Xena groaned, giving herself to the smaller woman next to her.

"The Gods have nothing to do with this," Gabrielle whispered as she drew a sensitive earlobe into her mouth. "This," she continued, "is just us. Let’s try to love, Xena."

"I… I don’t know how to love." Tears filled the Conqueror’s eyes as she made the admission. She wanted to give this lovely young woman the chance to stop.

"Yes, you do. I can feel it." She took one of Xena’s hands and placed it above her breast, over her heart. "I feel it here, Xena. You can and you do. Just let yourself feel it too."

Xena lowered her head and captured Gabrielle in a soft sweet kiss. She rolled the blonde onto her back. Her hands traveled tentatively over the body beneath her. She marveled at how right it felt to be loving, not just taking.

They made love. Slow. Tender. Sweet love. Bodies became one as souls searched for and found each other. Passions rose and crested. And cries rang out from pinnacles reached, over and over again, through the night.

*****

Xena smiled as her eyes blinked open and she felt Gabrielle still with her, lying half on the bed and half on her. She ran her fingers through soft blonde hair, kissing a brow. "Gabrielle, wake up."

The response was a shaking of the head against her shoulder and a grumble. Xena’s smile broadened, although her heart ached. Ached with a feeling that had to be love for this young woman and her son. If Gabrielle would stay with her, then her life really might be worth living again. And for that… she would do anything.

"Well, my sweet." She placed another kiss on the forehead at her lips. "I have to get up."

"Why?" Gabrielle’s grip on Xena tightened.

"Callisto. She’ll be here soon. I need to be up and ready to meet her when she arrives."

"Ah, I get it... work," Gabrielle teased half-heartedly, kissing her shoulder pillow and feeling a sickening surge of guilt settle in her belly.

What had started as a simple plan to gain the Conqueror’s affection, and thus a better life for herself and Jarrod, had ended with her feeling that she had prostituted far more than her body. With the soldiers in her past, it had been merely sex and never at her own instigation. With Xena, the seduction had gone beyond sexual. She had made a bid for the Conqueror’s heart with her own. And though she couldn’t fathom how or why, she knew deep in her soul she had been successful.

"Go back to sleep, Gabrielle." Xena kissed her again. "I’ll be back soon."

*****

Callisto awoke well before dawn. She had business to attend to. Dark eyes watched as Palaemon slept peacefully by her side. Idiot! Does he think I care at all for him? I should just kill him now before he gets any foolish notions. But he’s still useful to me.

Getting up slowly from her bed, Callisto put on her armor and ventured outside. The full moon was still hanging high in the night sky. It bathed the camp in a blue shadows, and she could see the few soldiers who were on night watch clearly. She went to her horse, stroked its velvety nose and gave it a gentle scratch behind the ears. "Want to go for a ride with Mommy? Hmm?"

She mounted the animal and rode off towards a small village called Poteidaia.

It was still before dawn when Callisto arrived at the outskirts of the village. Sliding off her horse, she tethered it to a nearby shrub. "Mommy won’t be long," she assured, patting the panting beast. "We’ll have company on our way back." Grabbing her cloak, she covered herself up and made the rest of her journey on foot.

Her first stop was the stables. Just as she thought – the missing horse. Oh, Xena. What made you think you could ever hide from me? How wrong you are!

With a spring in her step, Callisto went in search of her bait.

A half-candle mark later, she was leaving the tavern with a medium-sized, wiggling bundle. She wove through the shadows, easily evading the sleeping town guards, on the way back to her mount. She slung her bundle onto her horse’s back then leapt on to her horse. With a swift kick to its side, Callisto sent the animal galloping back to the camp.

*****

They stared at each other for a long moment and then he turned away, looking up at the stars. "It has to be done."

"I’m not disagreeing with you. I’m just not ready yet," she chuckled coldy. "There are still things to be settled before we can proceed.

He shook his head. "Xena’s has gotten too powerful. This needs to end, and the power of this land needs to be returned to those of us who deserve it."

"I assure you, it will. Xena will meet her untimely demise. We just have to proceed carefully. A direct attack won’t work." She cocked her head to the side. "And I would know."

"Well, it’s not like we haven’t done this sort of thing before." He sighed, his gaze tracking a shooting star. "Let’s just get it over with. I trust that you’re planning on making it look like an accident?"

"Most definitely. I don’t want to deal with the opposition of her loyal troops. An accident will simply end it all."

"If you fail..."

"I won’t!" Her anger began to spill out and she bit her tongue to stop from saying more. " I’ll see to it that it’s done properly, myself."

He smiled. "Good."

*****

Still in the hazy state between sleep and wakefulness, Gabrielle smiled, enjoying the slightly rough feeling of tangled sheets against her naked body, and the warmth of the sunlight streaming through the bedroom window. She could still smell the Conqueror on her bedding and skin. Her smile broadened as she deeply inhaled the musky/sweet scent. But as her body nudged its way toward full alertness, the smile slid from her face. Gods, she was playing with fire by seducing the Destroyer of Nations! Although, truth be told, she herself felt utterly seduced. One look, one touch from Xena left her breathless.

Rubbing her eyes, she slowly got up and began to dress, considering what was to come this day. Tightness in her chest made it difficult to breathe, and she realized it was fear. She was afraid of being left behind, afraid of not being able to provide for her son. Gabrielle was just tired of being afraid.

She knew that if she could convince Xena to be a part of her life, she and Jarrod would never be taken care of. She had thought it would be a small sacrifice on her part to spend the rest of her life with the Conqueror in exchange for peace and protection. Now she wasn’t so sure. Penetrating eyes had bored into her very soul last night as they made love. Calling to her. Needing her. Asking more than she was ready to give, and still she responded.

Gabrielle bit her lip. Under her parent’s pressure, she had married Perdicus without loving him first. Hoping that would grow in time. Was this really so different? There was no reason she couldn’t learn to love Xena. And even if she didn’t, the woman already felt at least some affection for her son. That much was clear. The rest might come with time.

An uneasy feeling told Gabrielle to check on the boy, who would almost certainly still be sleeping. Like his mother, Jarrod wasn’t easy to rouse in the mornings. With each step closer to the boy’s room, the feeling that something was wrong intensified, tying Gabrielle’s already nervous stomach into knots. By the time she was standing outside his door, she was in a full-fledged panic. She flung the door open, wild eyes searched the room.

Jarrod’s bed was in complete disarray. His window hung wide open. And his boots were still on the chair where Xena had left them.

A yellowed piece of parchment was lying on the room’s small table. Tears stung her eyes as she reached for the note with shaking fingers. She wiped them away with an angry hand.

Xena, my love,

How convenient of you to be so careless. If you want to see the boy again, stop all this foolishness and come back with me. If you decide to stay too long...Well, accidents do happen. Hope your stay here in Poteidaia was a pleasant one.

Callisto

"Oh, Gods, no! Please. No." It was a dream. It had to be. Gabrielle didn’t even realize she was screaming before darkness claimed her.

*****

Xena had just reached the bottom step of the inn when she heard the scream; she knew it was Gabrielle’s. The Conqueror ran up the steps two at a time. She checked the bedroom. Gabrielle wasn’t there.

Running to Jarrod’s room, Xena knelt down and picked Gabrielle up. She gently placed the smaller woman on the bed, then reached for a pitcher of water on the nightstand. Out of the corner of her eyes, she caught a piece of parchment on the floor. She scooped it up and began to read.

"Hades!" Damn Callisto to Tartarus. If she has hurt that boy, I swear I’ll kill her myself!

Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered open to see Xena staring intently at her.

"Gabrielle? Are you okay?"

"She has my son, Xena." Gabrielle’s tears began again. "Callisto kidnapped my son!" she cried miserably.

"I know, I know. I read the note. I’m going back right now. You’ll have Jarrod back very, very soon." Xena tried to smile, but couldn’t. She had to blink several times to keep her own tears in check.

Gabrielle sat up and stared hard at the wall. She let out a defeated sigh and wiped away her tears with the back of her hands. "So, either way I lose. I either lose my son or you." The blonde stood and ran a shaky hand through her hair, her tears still dotting the wooden floor at her feet. "Of course, I’ll lose," she laughed harshly. "I always do. I shouldn’t have, for even one foolish moment, dared to hope that you would really stay here with us. I mean, you’re Xena, Destroyer of Na..."

Xena grabbed Gabrielle by the arm, forcing her to look at her. "Gabrielle, I have no choice! Don’t you see that? Callisto will kill him."

Gabrielle jerked her arm away. She was mad, and hurt and confusion was ruling her actions. "Get out!" she screamed, lashing out like a wounded animal. "Go! Crawl back like a whipped dog to Callisto, O great and mighty Conqueror." She was sobbing now and could barely get the words out. "Ju… just leave m… me alone!"

Xena could feel her temper start to rise. Her hands shook with the urge to strike back, but they remained frozen at her sides. Gabrielle was right. Why was she so willing to go back? Was she a coward? Was this the easy out? What had she become? Xena made her decision right then, calling on something in her very core that had been lying quiet… waiting… but by no means dead.

The transformation was immediate.

"Gabrielle?"

"What?!" Gabrielle spat the word out. Then she stopped. The look on Xena’s face was one she’d only read about in stories. It was commanding and feral. And the young woman felt a wave of fear crash over her. Gods. Gabrielle thought she had seen her this week, but she was wrong. This was the Xena of legends.

The Conqueror.

Xena stood up straight and held her head high. Her lip curled just a bit, as fire raced through her veins. Oh yes. This was the feeling she’d been missing. Her nostrils flared as her nerve endings came to life. Her entire body tingled. It had been so long.

"Gabrielle." Xena voice was a low, dangerous growl. Blue eyes flashed. "You’re right. I am the Conqueror! I have defeated whole nations. I bow before no one!"

Gabrielle’s heart began to pound and she raised her hands, though she knew it wouldn’t do any good if Xena decided to strike her. She had pushed the Conqueror too far and now she would pay. She began backing away, looking for a way to escape.

With a hard smile, Xena’s gaze dropped from Gabrielle and focused out the window. "I will get Jarrod back." And I WILL have my freedom! "When this day is over, my General will be back on her leash or dead at my feet." Turning back to Gabrielle, Xena drew a deep calming breath, and her eyes softened as if by magic, allowing Gabrielle a quick glance behind the rage and fire. "And I will have you at my side. You and Jarrod will return to the palace with me."

Gabrielle’s mouth dropped open as she stared at Xena. She tried to respond but couldn’t. Another sob welled up in chest and she threw herself into Xena’s strong arms, releasing her frustration and fear in total safety.

*****

Jarrod sat tied and gagged to a post in the middle of a tent. The tent was about as big as his room and filled with supplies. He was terrified, but was doing his best to be brave, like all the stories he had heard about his father.

Callisto pushed open the tent flap, marched right up to the lad, and crouched down.

"Hello, little boy. Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you. Yet." She smiled a most wicked smile and grabbed his chin. "Don’t be stupid! Do as I say and you’ll be fine. The rest depends on Our Lord Conqueror." Laughing, Callisto rose and headed for the tent flap. Looking behind her one last time, she stared hard at the boy. She noticed that he didn’t look away. He met her gaze and never wavered. She liked that.

Too bad she’d have to kill him.

*****

Xena mounted her horse. The gelding danced excitedly, sensing the dark energy bleeding from his mistress. Xena was dressed for battle, wearing the clothes she hadn’t donned since the night she arrived in Poteidaia. This time she was riding without the obscurity of the cloak that had hidden her features. She looked down at Gabrielle. "I promise. You will get Jarrod back." Or the earth will run red.

Gabrielle nodded. Xena’s demeanor was all strength and raw power. And despite a fear so intense it threatened to send her to the bushes heaving, Xena made her believe. She simply had no choice. "And you? Will you be coming back?"

"Most definitely. I will be back for you." Xena leaned over, kissing the blonde lightly on the lips.

A member of the Conqueror’s army who had been sent ahead to scout for Callisto approached his leader cautiously. Dropping his gaze to his boots, he patiently waited for the Lord Conqueror to complete her business with the woman from the tavern.

Xena caressed Gabrielle’s face, then straightened in the saddle. Her officer gave her a brisk salute. "Report!"

"General Callisto is riding this way, Lord Conqueror. She has a full complement of troops. And a small boy."

"Jarrod." Gabrielle’s hand gripped Xena’s pant leg.

Xena nodded. "I’ll go meet her. You," she looked to her officer, "stay here and make sure nothing happens to Gabrielle or this village. If anything happens, you won’t live long enough to regret your failure."

He nodded his understanding. "As you wish, Lord Conqueror."

Xena turned in the saddle, reaching down to pat Gabrielle’s hand. "It’ll be all right. Go gather your personal things, Gabrielle. I’ll be back soon." With that, she spurred her mount, starting down the road to meet Callisto and her own troops.

*****

Callisto held the boy in front of her. His hands were tied to the horn of her saddle. She had considered gagging him as well, but decided against it when she realized that he hadn’t uttered a word since she had taken him.

"So, little man…" she whispered in his ear as they rode on, "are you mute? Maybe you’re just scared speechless. I have that effect on people. It’s one of the many reasons Xena keeps me around."

The boy continued to stare straight ahead.

"Is your Mommy the whore that our Lord Conqueror is using for her pleasure?" She laughed, feeling his small body stiffen at her question. "I’ll take that as a ‘yes’." She lowered her head again. "You know, Xena doesn’t know how to love anyone. So if your little mind is full of foolish thoughts about how she cares for you or your slut mother, you may as well put them out of your head right now." She gave the body part in question a sharp smack to drive her point home. Her smile widened when she heard a tiny whimper. "Oh, please don’t tell me that you thought someone like Our Lord Conqueror could possibly care for a peasant woman and her worthless, sniveling son."

A jerk from the small form in front of her.

"She merely used your mother’s body. She took her to her bed, and fucked the whore."

Jarrod let the tears flow down his cheeks and bit his lip to keep from saying anything. He knew the meaning of the words. He had grown up around soldiers. And had heard them many times before. He also knew that his mother had spent time with some of them, but he never heard any of the soldiers call his Mama a whore. Xena certainly didn’t think of his mother that way! If she had, she would never have played with him. And they wouldn’t have gone on a picnic like a family. Why, Xena had even taught him to fish without a pole! People didn’t do that for whore’s sons.

Callisto pulled back on the reins. She grinned when she saw the Conqueror riding toward her. "Ah, and there she is, little man. Returning to the fold just as I knew she would. See that? She doesn’t have your mama with her. Left her behind for the next soldier to bed."

Jarrod let loose with his only word since he had been taken captive. "Xena!"

*****

Xena perked up immediately when she heard Jarrod’s strangled cry. She heeled the gelding faster, until she was less than an arm’s length from Callisto. "Let the boy go," she commanded, holding out her hand for Jarrod.

"My Lord, welcome home."

Steel blue eyes turned to ice. "Callisto, perhaps you didn’t hear what I commanded. Let the boy go."

"My Lord," Callisto looked at Jarrod, "what does he matter to the Conqueror of the Known World?"

"I gave you an order." Xena pressed her thighs into her mount’s sides. Keeping him steady. "Obey it or die."

A blade was at the boy’s throat in a heartbeat. "My Lord?"

Waves of anger rolled off Xena like water, crashing into her general. Callisto felt a trickle of sweat slid down her chest. Staring into frighteningly cold eyes, realization began to dawn. She had misjudged Xena. Badly.

"Callisto, let me assure you that if you harm a single hair on his head," Xena’s calm voice belied the banked fires of rage ablaze within her, "your body will hit the ground before his does. So for the very…" she took a deep breath, "very last time. LET. HIM. GO!"

The blonde flinched at the sudden change of volume, but miraculously kept from slicing Jarrod’s tender throat. She knew down to the soles of her boots that Xena was not bluffing and that her attempt to force things with the Conqueror had backfired terribly. Removing her knife from Jarrod’s neck, she cut the bonds that held the boy to her saddle.

Xena reached out again. Jarrod lurched for her and she pulled him into the safety of her arms, feeling the chill on his skin. She gave him a kiss on the forehead, holding his sobbing, trembling body close to hers and pressing her face into dark-blonde hair that smelled like his mother’s. "Shhh…I’ve got you. Everything is okay now." She ran her fingers down the boy, looking for injuries.

Xena stared at her general, debating her next course of action. Had anyone else taken Jarrod, their life would already be forfeit. But to kill Callisto would be a tremendous loss to her military. The general was universally feared and unequaled in her viciousness. Unfortunately, that was true on and off the battlefield. "I am going back to return him to his mother." Xena stuck her finger right in Callisto’s face. "You will make camp here and wait for me to return. I swear to you that if you do anything other than that, I’ll kill you myself. Without a second’s hesitation. Don’t squander this extraordinary chance, Callisto. Do you understand?"

Callisto nodded, barely resisting the urge to lean forward and bite off Xena’s finger. "Yes, My Lord." You weak, pussy-whipped bitch!

"And have my tent set up for me by the time I return."

"When will that be, My Lord?" When your little whore is finished ‘thanking’ you for the return of her miserable brat?

"Do not question me! Just have the tent ready."

White teeth ground together as Callisto subserviently said, "Yes, My Lord."

Xena took a deep breath, resting her lips on top of the boy’s head. She consciously softened her voice. Jarrod had already been frightened enough. "You ready to go home, Tiger?"

She felt him nod against her chest as he tried to get his body closer to hers. He forced himself to stop crying. "I tried to be brave," he whimpered, somehow tightening his grip.

"You were very brave." She hugged him close. "A brave soldier, just like your father was with me in Rome."

He looked up at her, immediately interested. "Do you remember him?"

"Oh, yes. I do. He was a very brave man and a good soldier"

"Will you tell me about him?"

"Of course, Jarrod." Xena had wondered about her own father many times, and was glad she could provide the lad with some notion of his heritage. Besides, perhaps it would take his mind off of what had just happened. "What would you want to know?"

*****

Gabrielle paced back and forth. By the Gods, how long does it…? The thought was still spinning in her mind when the door opened and Xena walked in with Jarrod wrapped around her, holding onto her for dear life. Gabrielle moved slowly at first, then rushed them, wrapping herself up in Xena’s strong embrace with her son.

"Thank you!" Gabrielle sobbed, kissing Xena soundly and checking the boy over for injuries.

"I told you I would bring him back. I’ve never lied to you, Gabrielle. And I never will. Are you ready?"

Gabrielle pulled Jarrod from Xena’s arms and lowered him to the ground. The guilt that she had felt that morning came rushing back. If the Conqueror was going to strike out at her, she didn’t want Jarrod to see it. "Honey, go to your room and rest. I know you must be tired. I’ll be right there."

Jarrod looked to Xena, who smiled softly and nodded. "Do as your mother says, lad. I’ll be in to see you soon."

"Okay." Jarrod bounded out of the room with an exuberance that only a child could possess after the day’s events.

Gabrielle tracked the boy’s movements up the stairs. She waited until she heard the closing of his bedroom door before she began to speak. "Xena," she whispered, her glistening eyes conveying true regret. "I can’t go with you."

Xena’s heart stopped, but she remained calm. "Why not?" She cocked her head a bit. "I told you if last night happened, you would be mine."

"Xena…"

"Apparently, you didn’t understand, Gabrielle. The moment you shared your bed with me, you became mine." Just as I am yours. I will never willingly let you go. It’s too soon to feel this way about you. It doesn’t make any sense. But I don’t care! "Now collect your personal things and come with me." Xena’s voice was deep and even.

"Xena, I don’t love you." I am so sorry.

The tall woman forced a smile. "I know that," she said flatly. "I am the Conqueror. A monster…"

Gabrielle laid her hand on a Xena’s forearm. "Gods, Xena, it’s not like that. I do care…"

"Gather your things, Gabrielle. Jarrod already knows to pack."

The younger woman swallowed. This was no request. It was an order. Part of Gabrielle instantly wanted to rebel, while another part was eager to try and make a life with this woman. Regardless, all of her understood it was folly to deny the Conqueror. At least about this.

For Gabrielle, the wheels of fate had already begun to turn. And despite herself, it appeared that she would continue on the path of her own making. "Yes, My Lord."

*****

Gabrielle was lost deep in thought as she packed a small bag. She could do this. She could be with this woman. She and Jarrod would be safe and well taken care of. Gabrielle didn’t believe for a moment that Xena would hurt the boy, no matter what might come to pass between them.

"Mama?" His voice was small behind her.

"Yes, son." She tried to brighten her face before turning to face him. "What is it?"

"Xena loves you."

Her head dropped a bit; she drew a deep breath, holding her hand out to her son. "Jarrod, Xena hasn’t known me long enough to really love me."

"She told me she loves you." He took her hand, watching her curiously as she absorbed his words.

She sat down next to her son on the bed. "What did she say about you? Did she say she loved you, too?"

"Yeah." He nodded happily.

Gabrielle smiled at the boy’s barely contained joy. "Then that’s more than enough for me. What else did she say?"

"I told him…" Xena pushed off the doorframe, entering the room then kneeling down next to them. She cupped Gabrielle’s face in her hand. "I told him that I would always keep you safe and do my best to make you happy." She took Jarrod’s hand, giving it a little tug. "Hey, Tiger, can you give your Mama and me a moment alone?"

He rolled his eyes. "Sure, Xena. I have more some things in my room I need to get."

Xena chuckled as she watched him charge out. She turned back to Gabrielle. Reaching out, she brushed away the few tears that were tracking their way down Gabrielle’s cheeks. "I know you don’t love me, Gabrielle. But you might learn to if you give yourself the chance. You said you were willing to learn to love your husband. Can you do the same for me?"

Gabrielle nodded, feeling a definite pull toward this powerful woman. Things seemed so much clearer when she was in Xena’s presence. And while her lingering doubts didn’t completely disappear, they eased considerably.

"Good. And even if you never truly love me. I do believe we are well on our way to being friends." Xena grinned wistfully. "And the Gods know, I need at least one."

"What will you have me do, Xena? When we get back to the palace, what will I do?"

"What do you want to do?"

"Want to do?" Pale brows furrowed. "I… I… I’ve never thought about that," she admitted. "No one has ever asked me before." Perdicus certainly didn’t.

"Well, now they have." The Conqueror stood, offering a strong hand and heartfelt smile to Gabrielle. "C’mon."

*****

Callisto ran her fingers down her face, scratching her neck. Her nervous twitch was becoming more apparent with each passing moment. Like two bitches in a stand off, Xena had simply stared her down. And now she was forced to endure seeing the Conqueror with the brat and her whore.

The General watched from across the camp as Xena took the woman and the boy into her tent. Callisto waited, and paced, and waited some more. Finally, Xena emerged and began walking toward her. She pulled herself together, standing up to face the Conqueror. "My Lord," she offered quietly. Tired of the little slut and her whelp already?

"Understand this right now, Callisto. I don’t know what kind of sick and demented little fantasies you might have about us. And I don’t want to know. But that woman and her son are coming back to the palace with me, and they have my full protection. If you do anything to hurt either one of them, directly or indirectly I will personally be the one to drive the stakes through your flesh when I put you on a cross."

"Yes, My Lord." Bite me!

"Her name is Gabrielle and the boy’s name is Jarrod. If and when you have any dealings with them, that is how you will address them." Xena started to leave, turning away. Then she stopped and turned back to Callisto with an evil little smirk. "Actually, you will refer to Jarrod as ‘Your Highness’."

"My Lord?" What?! She was horrified at the suggestion. Not more than four marks ago she was holding the little urchin captive. I should have slit his throat and taken my chances with Xena then and there.

"Who knows. If things go well between his mother and I, I may make him my heir. That would make him a prince. You will address him as Your Highness."

She drew a deep, disgusted breath. "Yes, My Lord."

*****

Xena returned to her tent. Ducking beneath the flaps, she squinted as her eyes adjusted to the dim candlelight. Gabrielle was tucking Jarrod into a bed of soft furs she had created for him in the corner. It has been a long and frustrating day, and the lad was truly exhausted. Gabrielle’s smooth, alto voice was spinning out a bedtime story for the tired boy when Xena’s entrance stopped her. Pushing herself up off her knees, Gabrielle stood, looking at the Conqueror.

Xena’s mouth shaped into a crooked grin. "Finish his story, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle glanced down at Jarrod, who was whispering something. She bent closer then shook her head and smiled. "He’s asking for you."

Tossing her cloak down on a chair, Xena made her way over to the corner and settled down onto the black bear skins with Jarrod. "What’s up, Tiger?"

"Are we really going to live with you in the palace?"

A dark head nodded and a smile twitched at her lips. The boy’s eyes radiated excitement and wonder and she instantly saw a flash of his mother. "You sure are."

"Do I still have to go to school?"

Xena laughed. Gods, he was simply precious. "Yes. You will still have to attend lessons."

"I was afraid of that," Jarrod said petulantly, an enormous yawn interrupting his speech.

"But right now, you need to get to sleep. We have a long day of traveling ahead of us tomorrow and we’ll be leaving at first light."

"Yes, Xena. Good night." To her surprise, Jarrod popped up from his bed to wrap his arms around her neck and plant a wet kiss on her cheek. "I’m glad you came to our village," he whispered in her ear.

"So am I," she whispered back, feeling Gabrielle’s fingers tenderly wipe the spot on her cheek that still wet from his kiss. "Now go to sleep."

"Yes, Ma’am." Xena tucked him back down into the furs to the sound of Gabrielle’s muffled chuckles, knowing she must not appear very Conquerorish at the moment.

"Do you want to finish his story, Gabrielle?" Xena found herself hoping the answer would be ‘yes’. The sound of Gabrielle’s voice was calming and smooth. It slid down deep inside her, warming her from within like a sweet, mulled wine.

"No, he’s had enough story for tonight." Gabrielle kissed a round, rosy cheek. "I love you, Jarrod."

"I love you too, Mama."

After leaving Jarrod tucked safely into the furs, Xena spun in a circle, considering the tent. She found a length of rope and strung it from one side to the other. Then she proceeded to drape several blankets over the cord, dividing the tent in half. With a slight tilt of her head, she silently motioned Gabrielle to ‘their’ side of the tent. "It’s not what you think, Gabrielle." Well, mostly. "I merely prefer my privacy."

"Of course." And how do I fit into your ‘privacy’? She nodded. "Are you hungry? I can prepare you something."

"I’m starved, but you don’t need to cook." Xena stepped to the flaps of the tent and pulled them back.

A young man instantly appeared. Quickly looking in, he bowed his head. "Yes, My Lord?"

"Bring two meals and a skin of wine. Sweet wine."

"Yes, My Lord." The sound of footsteps grew more and more faint and Xena let the flaps fall back into place. She began tugging at the buckles of her armor.

"Let me help," Gabrielle offered, taking the buckle in her hands before Xena could answer.

"You don’t have to. You’re not a slave, Gabrielle."

One question answered. "I want to," she insisted. The metal felt cool on the outside, but was warm wherever it touched Xena’s skin. Gabrielle’s hands stopped for a moment when she realized her fingertips had begin to wander beyond the buckles. With a slight shake of the head, she proceeded to undo all the buckles and keep her hands in check.

Xena smiled as she shrugged out of her armor, taking care to lower it quietly to the cloth covered floor. "Can’t wait to get home and get a good hot bath," the warrior offered conversationally, well aware of the animal attraction flowing between her and Gabrielle.

"Can’t you get one here?"

"Not the way I like them." Xena dropped down to the pallet, beginning to work the laces of her boots. "I like it hot." She grinned at the instant blush that extended to very tips of Gabrielle’s ears. "And the water always cools too much by the time I get to it."

Gabrielle knelt down, taking the boot laces into her own hands. "Xena?"

"Hmm?"

"Could I be a teacher?" The first knot came loose and Gabrielle continued onto the next.

"What?"

"When we get to the palace. Could I be a teacher?"

Xena reclined back on the pallet. She placed her hands behind her head, crossing her long legs at the ankles and wiggling her freed toes. She seemed to be considering the question. "Is that what you want to do?"

"It makes sense." Gabrielle shrugged a bit. She looked down at Xena laying on the bed, and wondered if she was supposed to join her there or go sleep with Jarrod.

Xena gave her the answer with a slight pat to the bed. "It certainly does. But we’ll worry about it when we get home. Come to bed."

Home? "What about the food?"

"It’s my tent, Gabrielle. We’re allowed to eat in bed."

Gabrielle laughed softly and began removing her own clothes. She felt no shame in her nakedness as she moved to her bag, taking out a sleeping shift.

"Oh no, now we can’t have that." Xena got up quickly and moved to a chest that sat in the corner. She opened the lid, pulling out a sleeping gown of shimmering, black silk. "Here, wear this. It’s mine, and will be a little big, but it’ll do until we get home and I can have some made for you." Appreciative eyes swept over Gabrielle when she let go of the rough spun shift, allowing it to fall to the floor.

Gabrielle held her arms up and Xena stepped forward to slide the smooth fabric over her head, tugging free thick red-gold tresses from the nightgown’s collar. Long fingers settled the fabric on Gabrielle’s shoulders, then gently traced their way to her waist. The material that fell thigh high on Xena, dropped just below Gabrielle’s knees.

Gabrielle sucked in a breath at the unexpected, intimate touch. Swallowing hard, she willed her racing pulse to slow and asked, "Xena, how is it that you have all these things here? Callisto couldn’t have known when or where she’d find you."

"My troops are required to carry equipment and supplies for my comfort at all times. Whether I’m with them or not. You never know when I might show up." She grinned and wiggled her brows.

"This is true." Gabrielle nodded. "You do show up in the most unexpected places."

The Conqueror wrapped the small woman in her arms. "Yes, I do. And I’m very glad of that." She looked for permission in soft green eyes and found it. Lowering her head, she began a series of small, soft, tender kisses. She felt Gabrielle’s arms go around her neck and small hands tangle in her hair, crushing their lips together as the kiss deepened and hot, seeking tongues slid together.

Gabrielle pulled away, breathing heavily and licking her lips. Her face creased into a genuine smile. "We," she swallowed hard. "We should stop, before we can’t stop."

"Huh?"

Gabrielle tilted her head toward the divider that separated them from Jarrod. "Please, Xena," she said on an uneven breath. "Not while he’s with us."

"Ah, right." Xena nodded, barely able to hear Gabrielle’s words over the pounding of her pulse.

Gabrielle took in a several deep lungfuls of air, resting her forehead against Xena’s shoulder. "Thank you." She closed her eyes.

"For?" Xena’s own eyes own fluttered closed in contentment.

"Loving him." I can feel that you really do. My son is a very lucky little boy.

Xena shrugged one shoulder. "He’s easy to love."

Gabrielle gave a small grunt of agreement, her motion shifting the smooth fabric on Xena’s shoulder.

"But, Gabrielle, I love you both." You don’t believe me yet. But soon you will.

"How?" she asked quietly. Why?

"I don’t know. Can’t explain it. Don’t want to. I just know that I do."

There was a certainty in Xena’s voice that robbed Gabrielle of speech for long moments. "Still, thank you," she finally said, confused and comforted all at once.

"I don’t know what kind of a replacement I’ll be for his father. But there will be a lot of good, strong male role models for him at the palace." I will personally see to that.

Gabrielle was about to respond when there was a low whistle outside the tent.

"Ah, our food has arrived." Xena anxiously moved to the door, pulling the flaps back. She needed something to nibble on besides Gabrielle. Otherwise, there would be no stopping her. Two slaves brought in a table and two cleverly designed chairs that folded open and closed. Two more slaves carried in steaming plates of food and the wine that had been requested.

To his horror, a slave bumped into Gabrielle. He lowered his head immediately and took a large step back. "I’m sorry, My Lady."

Gabrielle glanced at Xena whose brow quirked. The Conqueror was waiting to see how she would handle this. "It’s all right. Accidents happen." Gabrielle waited a beat before adding what she knew was expected. "Please take care that it doesn’t happen again."

"Yes, My Lady. Thank you." The slave bowed all the way out of the tent.

Xena let the flaps fall back into place. "Well done, Gabrielle." She smiled at the use of the word ‘please’ that had so naturally slipped out along with Gabrielle’s gentle command. "I wouldn’t have expected less from you." Xena gestured at the table; the bed was far too tempting a place to take Gabrielle at this moment. "Let’s eat."

*****

Xena reclined back in her chair, sipping wine and staring at Gabrielle as she continued to eat. "Should I have more brought in?" She hid her grin behind her cup.

The blonde shook her head. "No, Xena, I’m fine, thank you. It’s just nice to eat something I didn’t cook myself. And this food was excellent!" Gabrielle took a deep swallow of the sweet wine, finding it completely delicious. She had never tasted anything quite like it before. "This," she lifted her heavy pewter cup, "is also very good."

"Only the best for the Conqueror." Xena winked suggestively.

Gabrielle blushed a bit when the meaning of the statement hit home. "Thank you. But I’m not sure I’m the best…"

"I am."

Gabrielle met Xena’s deep blue gaze. "Well, then that’s all that matters."

"Very true." The Conqueror nodded, refilling both cups. "Gabrielle, when we get back to the palace, things will be different." She took a deep breath holding it for just a second. "More," she paused again, searching for the right term, "difficult."

The tall woman watched the information sink into Gabrielle, who weighed her words before speaking. "Jarrod and I will be in the palace of The Destroyer of Nations. I wouldn’t expect things to be easy." Or simple.

Xena chuckled. "Good." She didn’t much care for this next part. But it was necessary. "In public, you will address me as ‘My Lord’. Make sure Jarrod understands that, as well."

Gabrielle nodded.

"The rest you will be taught by one of my advisors. I’ll assign one each to you and Jarrod. They will instruct you how to function properly in my court."

"We’ll both work very hard to make you happy."

"You won’t have to." Xena reached out and grasped Gabrielle’s hand. "You already make me happy. I… I… I’d just rather I not have to discipline you in front of my people." Would I really do that? She knew that she would, and the thought made her slightly nauseous. She pushed aside her wine, letting go of the slender hand. Suddenly, it didn’t feel right to touch Gabrielle.

"I think I would prefer that as well." Gabrielle curled her empty fingers into a fist, immediately missing her companion’s warm touch. "I’ve heard stories about your methods of discipline," she broached warily, looking into her cup.

"They’re all true, Gabrielle. I am a fair but firm ruler. In one area, especially, I show no mercy. I will not hesitate to put down any signs of insurrection. Even when it seems harsh or cruel."

"How do you think people will react to you bringing Jarrod and me back?"

"I don’t care! It’s not their place to question me. No one has that right," she growled. "Anyone who does…"

"…is punished."

Xena’s shoulder’s dropped just a bit. "Yes." Gods if she isn’t frightened of me, she soon will be. And who could blame her? "They don’t question me. I am Ares’ chosen. I didn’t conqueror the world by accident. I conquered it by fighting for it. I keep it by never letting anyone get in my way. I do whatever I must."

"I understand. Jarrod and I won’t give you any problems. I promise."

A hint of desperation in Gabrielle’s voice made Xena realize she was, indeed, scaring the young woman. She didn’t correct the situation right away. A little fear was healthy and Xena hoped it would spare her from having to make difficult choices in the future. But even so, she couldn’t find it within herself to allow the feeling to linger in the air too long. She smiled what she hoped was a reassuring smile. Everything will be fine, love. You’ll see. She offered her hand back to Gabrielle, who, to her surprise, took it without hesitation. "Bedtime for us too, don’t you think?"

"Absolutely. Let me look in on Jarrod." When she moved towards her son’s bed, Gabrielle wasn’t surprised to feel the Conqueror’s warm, unmistakable presence at her back.

Xena took the time to put another blanket on the sleeping child and press a gentle kiss to his forehead. The Conqueror’s concern for Jarrod came from somewhere deep inside the tall woman. And each tender gesture, although seemingly natural on Xena’s part, was still a bit disconcerting for Gabrielle to watch. A bond between the two had grown at a startling rate. And it wasn’t just Xena. Jarrod was completely taken with the powerful woman. And I’m not too far behind him, Gabrielle admitted wryly. Soon, she told herself. Soon she would unravel the enigma that was Xena. Even if only a little bit everyday.

Gabrielle was first in bed. She lay there in the large pallet, watching Xena get ready. She couldn’t help the small smile that crossed her lips at the sight of the dark-haired beauty getting dressed for bed. She, most certainly, had a magnificent body. The kind of body Gabrielle could come to crave. Green eyes darkened slightly as Xena moved toward the bed and climbed in alongside her.

When Xena pulled Gabrielle into a warm embrace, the younger woman felt an indescribable surge of desire, affection, and peace all rolled into one. For a few panicky seconds, she allowed confusion to control her, her body growing stiff. But finally, after several moments where Xena’s deep, even breaths gently brushed the top of her head, and long powerful arms held her securely, she decided it was foolish to fight a feeling that came as naturally as her own heartbeat. With an inaudible sigh of relief, Gabrielle snuggled closer and her eyes slid closed.

*****

Gabrielle was up before sunrise. Xena continued to sleep, snoring softly. The Conqueror was tucked down in the blankets, her dark hair falling over her face. Gabrielle was quick to get up and put on an extra robe to ward off the morning chill. She lit a small lamp, then padded over to check Jarrod, who was still sleeping quite peacefully.

The blonde shook her head as she began stoking the fire that she knew would warm the tent before Xena and Jarrod awoke. She had been amazed when Xena had gotten out of bed in the middle of the night to light the stove. The Conqueror had made some comment about it being too cold for Jarrod, then proceeded to get up and start the fire. When she returned to bed, there had indeed been a chill on her skin.

Gabrielle had been more than happy to warm the larger body with her own. She stroked the cool, muscular flesh until it was all they both could do to behave, and not make love in the middle of the night. With great care, they had made sure to readjust sleeping gowns that had been opened and pushed up in an effort to be warm and get closer. Some part of Gabrielle, a big part, was attracted to Xena in a way so primal it almost frightened her. She found herself anxious to get her companion alone, within the privacy of the palace walls.

Knowing that Xena would no doubt be rising soon, she wanted to have at least hot tea, if not the morning meal, prepared for her. She found the Conqueror’s cloak and draped it over her shoulders. Taking a deep breath, she stepped out into the camp. Men and women were starting to rise and were quietly milling about. It didn’t take the Gabrielle long to find the cook tent. Hanging sides of deer and other manner of small game and birds clearly told her she had found the right area. Stepping inside the tent, Gabrielle found the cook and a few slaves beginning the preparation of the morning meal.

"Good morning, My Lady." The cook gave the blonde a wide berth and a weak smile. "What can I do for you this morning?"

"I came for some tea and for something to prepare for Our Lord Conqueror’s early meal."

He lifted his brow at her. "Are you cooking for Our Lord Conqueror now?"

"No. I simply wanted to offer her something warm when she wakes. It’s rather chilly in her," she paused taking a deep breath, "our," she corrected with a lifted brow of her own, "tent."

The cook nodded, then began gathering a few items and placing them in a cloth sack. "As you wish, My Lady."

"Why does everyone keep calling me that? I’m just a woman from…"

"You share Our Lord Conqueror’s tent." He appraised her from head to toe before continuing, "And I’m sure her bed."

Gabrielle bristled at the implication that she was nothing more than Xena’s bed warmer. But she remained silent on the issue. What could she really say? It was the Conqueror’s bed that she had slept in last night. Gabrielle smirked to herself. And she had done her best to warm her.

"Our Lord favors you and we must show her, and therefore you, the proper respect. If we don’t, the punishment will be harsh." He handed her the sack. "And well deserved."

"Thank you. What’s your name?"

"Clorick, My Lady."

"Thank you, Clorick." Gabrielle smiled sweetly. "I’ll mention your kindness to Our Lord."

This time the smile he gave her was genuine. "Thank you, My Lady. Enjoy your breakfast."

As Gabrielle made her way back across camp, Callisto watched her every movement through the misty, early morning shadows. She was hoping Xena would tire quickly of her little diversion. But something was telling her that wasn’t going to happen. She sighed. It appeared as though she would simply have to force the issue.

Just as Gabrielle entered the tent, Xena rolled over with a groan, rubbing her eyes. "Someone who actually gets up before I do?" She chuckled, pushing herself up on her elbows.

"Most of the time." Gabrielle nodded, placing a kettle on the stove. "Some mornings I’ve been known to oversleep, but working at the inn conditioned me, albeit mostly against my will, to rise early." She laughed at herself.

"An excellent habit for the woman who shares my life."

Not my ‘bed’. My ‘life’. Gabrielle gazed at the Conqueror affectionately.

Xena swung her legs over the edge of the bed, pulling a blanket over her shoulders. "Why is it so damn cold in here?"

"Probably because it’s cold outside," she teased, preparing the tealeaves for brewing.

"Oh, aren’t you just a laugh a moment," Xena chuckled, getting up and pulling the small woman into her arms. She wrapped them both in the blanket, then began an earnest exploration of Gabrielle’s neck with her lips.

"Oh, Xena…" Gods. "Be good."

"I’m very good," she mumbled against a warm neck.

"Your nose is cold." Gabrielle laughed but didn’t pull away.

"It means I’m healthy," Xena offered with a nip and quiet little bark.

Unable to stop herself, the smaller woman ran her hands over the strong body in front of her and began kissing her in earnest. "You certainly are."

"Mama?"

They stopped, turning their heads to find Jarrod standing, rubbing sleepy eyes. Xena released Gabrielle and took a seat at the table. She opened the blanket invitingly. Jarrod looked at his mother, who nodded. He trotted across the room then climbed into the warmth and protection of the Conqueror’s arms and blanket. She wrapped him up, holding him close while Gabrielle continued preparing the tea.

Gabrielle glanced occasionally to see Xena and the boy talking quietly. Jarrod was giggling and nodding in agreement to whatever Xena had said.

She handed a mug of tea to Xena, then brushed her fingers through Jarrod’s hair. "Do you want tea and oatmeal this morning?"

"Yes, please." He nodded from his position with his head resting on Xena’s shoulder.

"Well then, while I prepare it, why don’t you go get dressed and allow Xena to drink her tea before it gets cold."

Jarrod was reluctant to give up his spot in the Conqueror’s arms, but he knew it was not a request on his mother’s part. It was an order. "Yes, Mama." He climbed down, moving back to his makeshift bed.

Gabrielle took her own tea and a seat at the table next to Xena. "So what were you two giggling about?"

"Your son was giggling. I do not giggle."

Gabrielle took a sip of her tea, trying not to smile. "I’ll remember that. So what was my son giggling about?"

"Well, I told him we would go find him his own soldier in a little bit."

"His own soldier?" This got the Conqueror a raised brow.

"Bodyguard," Xena whispered.

"Oh." Gabrielle’s heart rose into her throat. She had made her son a target. Gods, she’d known Xena for less than a week and he’d already been kidnapped. This was supposed to be safe.

Xena reached out and took her hand. "He will be protected, Gabrielle. I promise you. I won’t let anything happen to him." Never again, love. I swear it.

"I know. I believe you." I’ll try to believe you. She took a swallow of the sweet beverage then ventured a glance up at the eyes that never seemed to leave her for long. "Xena, why Jarrod and me? I mean you most certainly…"

"He reminds me of someone," she said quietly, suddenly finding the contents of her mug exceptionally interesting.

Gabrielle cocked her head in question, hoping that the tall woman would continue.

"My son," Xena whispered, her voice losing volume with every word. "Solan."

"I didn’t know you had a son."

"I don’t anymore. He was killed during the Centaur uprising."

Gabrielle’s eyes closed. "Gods, Xena."

Xena nodded. "So, Jarrod… Well, let’s just say that he fills a spot in my heart that has been cold and empty for a long time." Just the way you do. "The palace could use a child’s laughter, Gabrielle" And yours.

*****

Xena took Jarrod by the hand as they stepped out into the camp. Her soldiers were breaking camp and packing for travel. They all stopped as she approached them, stiffening into a salute and making way for her.

"Tell me if you see someone who you want to talk to," she told the boy as they moved among the men.

Jarrod’s eyes darted wildly from man to man, taking in their armor and horses and swords. He was captivated as he watched the camp disappear before his eyes. "Is this what my father did?"

"These were some of the things, yes. He was a good fighter though, and he traveled at the front of my army."

A muscular young man with a scar on his face caught Jarrod’s eye. He pointed. "Him, My Lord?"

Xena was pleased that he remembered to use her title. Good, lad. She looked over to the soldier and smiled. "Excellent choice, Jarrod. Palaemon!"

The man saw the Conqueror and sprinted over. "My Lord." He saluted, then bowed his head.

"At ease. Palaemon, this is Jarrod."

The man extended his arm to the boy. "Jarrod, it is a pleasure to meet you."

The boy smiled as he took the thick arm in a warrior handshake.

Xena shook her head approvingly, knowing what the gesture would mean to a boy of his age. Well done, soldier. "Palaemon, Jarrod and his mother will be joining us in the capital. They will be moving back to the palace with me. The boy requires," Xena searched a moment for the right words, "a friend and a teacher. A mentor, if you will. Would you like the job?"

"It would be my pleasure to serve you in any way possible, My Lord," he answered immediately. It wasn’t exactly the assignment he had hoped for, but certainly being put in such a position of trust, by the Conqueror herself, was good for his career.

"You will also be responsible for his safety," Xena informed him, all traces of her former good humor gone. "Do you understand?"

Palaemon nodded. "Oh, yes, My Lord," he intoned gravely. "I most certainly do."

"Good. Good." Xena relaxed a bit, although her demeanor remained unchanged. "It would be a very bad thing if anything happens to him, Palaemon. I am very fond of him and his mother. Because of your position, you may call him Jarrod or ‘Highness’. Everyone else is to refer to him as ‘Your Highness’."

Palaemon was surprised, but didn’t show it. "I understand completely, My Lord."

"Excellent." Xena finally allowed her lips to curve into a small smile. "I’ll leave you two to get acquainted. He will ride back with you." She motioned toward Jarrod. "You’ll ride with me. When you see General Callisto, tell her I won’t be ready to move out for about three candle marks. In the meantime, she should continue to break camp. When that’s done, she is to do drills with the men in the next valley. I want quiet here for the next couple of marks." She cocked a brow and tilted her head in the direction of her tent. "I have business to attend to and I don’t want to be disturbed."

"As you wish, My Lord." Palaemon almost reached down to take the boy’s hand. Then he remembered how he had felt at that age, and clasped the boy’s shoulder instead. "Would you like a tour of the camp, Jarrod?"

Xena nodded her approval.

*****

Wasting no time, the warrior returned to her tent. When the flaps fell into place she took the time to use the ties to close them together. Xena turned to Gabrielle with a lecherous grin.

"Where’s Jarrod?"

"He’s with his new friend. One of my soldiers. A fine young man named Palaemon."

"Is he safe?" That was a stupid question. "I’m sorry, I…"

"It’s all right." Damn you, Callisto. "He is very safe. You can trust me, Gabrielle."

"I know." Do you realize how hard that is?

Xena slowly approached the blonde, allowing her cloak to drop to the floor. "You know, since I got up last night to start the fire and came back to bed, there have been two fires burning in this tent."

"Is that a fact?" Gabrielle grinned as the Conqueror slowly moved toward her, circling her as though she was hungry and Gabrielle was prey.

"It is. And you did such a fine job of dealing with the one in the stove this morning, I thought you might like to try this one." Xena spread her arms, offering her body for inspection.

"One of my new jobs. To stoke fires?"

"Yes. Or better yet, just to keep it burning." She swooped down on Gabrielle, pulling the smiling woman into her arms. "I’ve shared my bed with many people, Gabrielle. Both men and women, but none of them have ever made me feel the way you do. None of them have ever been invited back. You are the only one I desire, Gabrielle. I want no one else in my bed."

"Another job?"

Xena hesitated for a moment, swallowing hard. There was a serious edge to the teasing question. "I’d rather it not be like that," she said quietly.

"Do I have the right to tell you no, if for some reason I don’t want to or can’t?"

"Of course!" she snapped. "I told you before I didn’t want to rape you. I’m not a complete beast!" Xena moved to pull away, but Gabrielle held her firm.

"I had to ask."

Xena’s jaw clenched but she grudgingly nodded. It was a fair question. Taking a deep breath, she did her best to be honest. "Gabrielle, there may be times when it is best not to be around me. After a battle I…"

"It’s all right." Though she knew she should, Gabrielle didn’t fear the Conqueror’s battle lust. She smiled, caressing the Conqueror’s cheek. "I can live with this arrangement, Xena." I was prepared to live with far worse. "I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t the Conqueror’s whore."

Xena snorted. "Whores I can have at the snap of my fingers. I need a companion. Someone I trust."

"You can trust me."

"I know," Xena whispered, mimicking Gabrielle’s words from only moments before. She ducked her head and capturing the soft lips. The kiss was passionate and continued even as she scooped up the smaller woman and carried her to the bed.

Xena gently lowered her precious bundle. Strong hands slowly began removing Gabrielle’s clothes while a warm mouth danced lightly over her skin, setting it on fire. Gabrielle moaned as she felt Xena’s body come to rest over her. She tangled her hands in long dark hair, her body reacting fiercely to the knowing touch. "Gods…" she groaned.

Xena shook her head. "Just us. Remember?" she murmured, sliding down, offering a lick and a nip to a perfect pink nipple, and causing it to tighten against her tongue.

"Ohhh yeah," Gabrielle agreed, her hands beginning work on Xena’s leathers.

Very soon they were giving and taking. Touching and caressing, writhing and moaning in unison. No one had ever touched the Conqueror like this before. Before this woman, sex was merely a method of release. A simple way to rid herself of pent up frustrations, energy, and stress.

Now, it was for the purpose of finding peace and contentment, for allowing her to feel real love and the firestorm of desire. While she knew Gabrielle didn’t love her back yet, it was obvious that she at least cared for her. It was a step in the right direction. And if the Gods were willing, love would soon follow.

Xena felt her body respond to the loving caresses. It amazed her that she could still feel these things, passion and desire. She allowed herself to revel in the wonderful sensations, holding nothing back. Gabrielle’s lips teased her neck and shoulders as her hands mapped and explored the body above her. She moaned loudly when Gabrielle’s tongue found a particularly sensitive spot.

Xena was a bit shocked when she found herself so weak that the blonde managed to push her onto her back then climb on top of her. She simply closed her eyes, the urge to take control almost melting away under Gabrielle’s relentless touch. Almost. Her hands gripped the bed sheets when Gabrielle began a slow, torturous kissing marathon down her body. "Gods, Gabrielle," she ground out through gritted teeth. "Get on with it!"

Gabrielle chuckled a bit, but did as she was asked. Her hands traveled down, caressing and stroking. The body under her rose to meet her, its breathing ragged and harsh. Groans became primal grunts when stroking became thrusting. Gabrielle felt hands grasp her shoulders, massaging, fighting the urge to push her lower. She sensed Xena’s strong desire and the throbbing at her center intensified, moving her lower of her own accord.

Xena’s back tightened and arched. She drew in a quick but deep breath that she couldn’t even begin to exhale as a powerful orgasm ripped through her body. Lights of all colors burst behind tightly clamped eyelids. Finally, her sweat soaked body collapsed onto the bed with a languid moan. She fumbled until she found what she wanted and pulled Gabrielle into her arms. She held her to her heaving chest, kissing her deeply and tasting herself on those warm moist lips and inside that hot, wet mouth.

When she could speak again she whispered simply, "Thank you."

Gabrielle remained silent but burrowed deeper into the Conqueror’s embrace.

Xena grinned to herself, feeling the heart pressed to hers fluttering wildly and the soft lips against her chest curling into a smile. It was enough.

For now.

Continued - Part 2


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