DISCLAIMERS

Standard: Xena and Gabrielle and a few other characters were loosely created from those belonging to Universal/Renaissance and whoever else has an interest in Xena:Warrior Princess. No copyright infringement is intended. The others I created and are copyrighted to me.

Violence Warning: This story depicts the usual amount of violence associated with Xena:Warrior Princess.

Subtext: This is a story about two women who are in love. Although it is not graphic, subtext is maintext. If that offends you there are plenty of other stories you might want to read. If you are under 18 or it is illegal where you live, please stop and read no further.

Thanks: I would like to thank Lunacy for beta reading and providing feedback and Felidae for helping with the title even though she hadn't seen the story ;-)

Comments: Questions and comments are welcome.

February 20, 1999

 

BREACHING BARRIERS

C Paradee

CParadee@prodigy.net

The thick, low clouds enveloped the countryside allowing no guiding light from the moon or stars. The stillness of the night was suddenly broken by the sound of metal rubbing against stone. Awakened by the noise, Yehor found himself sitting at the base of the arch. Standing quickly, he realized the noise had been his armor rubbing against the pillar.

Yehor shrugged his shoulders attempting to resettle his armor more comfortably and began pacing back and forth. He had spent the time before his shift at the local inn drinking with his friend Aegis. Forgetting the time, he was almost late for duty. Cursing his stupidity for bypassing sleep, he continued to walk back and forth until attaining a semblance of wakefulness.

The guard was well aware of the penalty for falling asleep on duty. The Conqueror was known to sneak up on unsuspecting sentries in the middle of the night. Many of his comrades had fallen victim to her punishment for sleeping while on duty - death.

Over time, a system had been developed. Acheron was stationed nightly outside her sleeping chamber. If she decided to go prowling, he would light a candle that was visible from outside through the window and Eustis, the Captain of the Guard would alert the sentries.

Yehor jerked awake partially stunned as his head hit the pillar he was leaning against. "What... " he mumbled before understanding dawned on him. He found himself facing a very angry Eustis.

"Are you crazy? Don't you value your life?" Eustis asked.

Momentarily at a loss for words, Yehor struggled to clear the fogginess from his brain. "Yes. But you know she hasn't made rounds in a couple of moons."

"Are you willing to stake your life on the fact that she won't? Since when has she ever been predictable? You are restricted to your quarters for a week. Let this be a warning to you."

"What! You're supposed to let us know if she is about. That is unreasonable . . . "

"You fool! I warn you because I can't afford to lose any more guards. If I catch you sleeping on duty again, I'll turn you over to the Conqueror myself!"

Yehor chose to remain silent. The gutless bastard. He dares to threaten me with the Conqueror. He is afraid to challenge me one on one.

When Eustis left Yehor resumed his comfortable position. He had no intentions of staying in his quarters for a week. But he'd worry about that later. Right now, he was just too tired to think about it.

Eustis continued his rounds checking the guards at the other posts. He knew it would be his head if the Conqueror ever caught any of them asleep. Yehor had been nothing but a problem. It was getting harder and harder to find good warriors to guard the Conqueror. Her brutal reputation was largely the reason for that.

Walking along, Eustis allowed himself to entertain a dream of his. Maybe one day he would be part of the Royal Guard. The money happened to be better and they commanded respect. The pittance he was paid now was barely enough to survive on. Eustis began walking along the farthest edges of the courtyard. It was so dark that if he had not known the location of each of the guards he would never have found them.

Eustis was responsible for the security of the large courtyard that circled the Conqueror's palace. A three-foot stone hedge encased the entire area. The purpose of the stone hedge was not for protection, but rather to further delineate the palace and it's occupants from the peasants. The courtyard was beautiful. It was a grassy area featuring many trees and wild flowers. The landscape was broken only by walkways from the palace to the stables and barracks.

Eustis finished checking the perimeter and the other sentries. All the other warriors had been fully alert and were doing their jobs. I hope that fool Yehor stays awake. I better go check on him again.

Xena stretched, working the kinks out of her muscles after a short nap. The blackness outside was complete. This was just the opportunity she had been waiting for. It was time for a little surprise visit.

A smirk worked its way across Xena's face. It greatly amused her that Acheron and the guards thought they had a fool proof plan to prevent her from making rounds unannounced. She had gone along with the ruse because it served her purposes at the time. The number of guards had decreased dramatically and she would have been a fool to continue killing them at the cost of her own protection.

Now, however, the forces had been built back up. Looking at the high window in her chambers, her grin turned feral. None of the guard force would expect the Conqueror to depart through a window. It was time to have some fun.

Picking up the leather shift that she all too infrequently got to wear anymore, Xena pulled it down over her body. She loved the feel and smell of the leather. It reminded her of the exciting Warlord days. The battle lust and thrill of victory. Always living on the edge . . . the real life.

Xena hated her boring mundane existence now. Sure, she had conquered all of Greece, but at what price? So she could render judgement on the citizens for their boring little crimes. The only prisoners that interested her were the ones who tried to incite the people against her regime. Those she had no patience for and punishment was swift and merciless. But there had not been any traitors to punish for moons. The people were just a bunch of sheep with no backbone. Her spies kept reporting no threat from the populace.

Xena sighed. There was no challenge in her life anymore. So tonight, she would go hunting. If no one would report any violations to her, she would go find them herself.

Picking up her armor, she tied it together. She pulled on soft leather boots, and completed her ensemble with leg armor and arm bracers. Picking up the armor and tying a long piece of hemp to the bundle, she made her way to the window easily dodging fixtures invisible in the total darkness.

Quietly opening the window, Xena grabbed the ledge and pulled herself up. She lowered the armor to the ground. It was a tight fit for her broad shoulders, but by twisting and turning she was able to squeeze through the small opening. Letting go of the edge she dropped to the grass. Untying the armor, she put it on buckling the straps and jumping lightly on the balls of her feet to settle it.

Xena had not allowed herself to become soft. She honed her skills on a daily basis. Everything from sword drills and chakram throws to silence and stealth were diligently practiced. Using those skills, she disappeared into the darkness.

Eustis began walking toward Yehor's guard post. When he arrived, Yehor was asleep against the arch. Eustis quickly covered the distance to the wayward guard. Backhanding him hard against the face, he said, "You fool! How many times do you have to be warned?"

Yehor's eyes popped open. Still somewhat under the effects of the ale he had consumed, he shook his head and challenged Eustis, "You Bastard. You won't get away with that. Only a coward attacks a man while he sleeps." Drawing his sword, he taunted Eustis. "Come on. You're so tough. Fight me like a man. Or maybe you're going to threaten to report me to the Conqueror again."

"Oh I don't think he'll need to," an eerie voice floated out of the darkness.

Eustis whirled around oblivious to the sword held by Yehor. He watched the Conqueror literally materialize in front of him. She moves in the darkness like a ghost. I never heard a sound. How long has she been there? Where is the Royal Guard? She always makes rounds with them. The random thoughts running through his mind, he struggled for his voice and said, "Conqueror," bowing his head in acknowledgment of her position. "I was just making rounds. Once I take care of this miscreant may I escort you?"

Yehor knew he was a dead man. Neither Xena nor Eustis was paying any attention to him. With nothing to lose, he pulled his sword back to drive it into the Captain of the Guard.

The only warning Eustis had before Xena roughly shoved him aside, was the slight narrowing of her eyes. Drawing her sword in one smooth motion, she met Yehor's sword with her own. The loud clanging of metal striking metal filled the courtyard. The sound of haunting laughter echoing between the clash of the swords sent shivers of fear through all that heard it.

Xena toyed with Yehor letting him think he was actually holding his own. She tired of the exchange very quickly. Yehor was no challenge for her far superior skills. Knocking the sword from his hand, she walked toward him, a mocking smile on her face.

Placing the tip of her sword under his chin forcing it up, she asked in a deadly, quiet voice, "What do you have to say for yourself? No warrior would stab his superior in the back. What justification do you offer?"

A small trickle of blood began seeping down Yehor's neck. Trembling, he thought of all the excuses he might use but discarded each. "He was going to kill me as I slept. I sought only to protect myself."

Xena was surprised at the obvious lie. Yehor was obviously a coward. Smelling the ale on his breath, she said, "You attempted to stab a superior in the back. No warrior would do that. You will not be afforded a warrior's death. You will die like the traitor you are."

Members of the Royal Guard had arrived during the exchange drawn by the sound of clashing swords. Xena sheathed her sword and said, "Put him in the dungeon. Punishment will be passed tomorrow."

Turning abruptly, she walked away from the guards and disappeared into the night. Several members of the guard force attempted to follow her, but were soon discouraged by the inky blackness.

Cadmon, Captain of the Royal Guard gathered up his frustrated guards halting the search. "She can disappear in daylight. We will never find her in the dark unless she chooses to be found. Apparently she does not."

Xena smiled when she heard Cadmon address the members of the Royal Guard. That was why he was Captain. He knew his limitations. When they moved away, Xena descended further into the darkness.


Trumpets heralded the arrival of the Conqueror. Surrounded by the Royal Guard, Xena walked the familiar path to her public throne her robe trailing the ground behind her. It was from this chair that she tried and sentenced all those who broke the laws she had set down.

Gracefully lowering her tall body into the throne, Xena arranged the bright silk robe around her long legs. The robe was her favorite colors red accented with gold trim. A golden crown adorned her head. Xena's personal aide, Phineas, stood at her side.

The Conqueror's beauty was statuesque. Long raven colored hair highlighted a golden complexion. Her face featured high cheekbones, a full sensuous mouth and eyes the color of sapphires. Even if she were not the feared leader of all of Greece, heads would have turned in her direction when she passed.

Xena's voice rang out loud and clear, "You are gathered here today to witness the trial and sentencing of those who would break the laws set forth for the greater good of all of Greece."

The crowd was quiet wondering what poor victims the Conqueror would send to their death today. Almost to a person, they attended these public trials because absence from a royal summons was considered disrespect. Disrespect to the Conqueror resulted in death.

In the early days of the Conqueror's reign, many people had tried to stand up against her tyranny and cruelty. They were all dead. With the passing of time, fewer and fewer stood against her. For several moons now, her spies living among the citizens could find no one who would oppose her. No one knew who the spies were. It was not safe to trust anyone. So the people chose to live rather than be killed for their efforts.

"Bring forth the first prisoner," Xena commanded.

Two of the Royal Guard came forward, a prisoner with bound arms between them. He was thrust roughly into the cleared area in front of Xena's throne. Stumbling, he stood trembling in fear, unable to meet the Conqueror's eyes.

"What is his crime?"

Phineas read loudly from the scroll he was holding, "He was caught stealing herbs from the apothecary, Conqueror."

Xena narrowed her eyes and leaned forward in the throne. This was a very serious crime. "Is this true? What do you have to say for yourself?"

The prisoner looked at the ground and began to haltingly speak. "Conqueror, my wife is sick. I took her to the healer. He said he did not have the herbs needed to cure her. I only sought to save her life. I ask that you spare my life so that I may tend her. Surely she is dying now."

Xena thought quickly. She had not become Conqueror because of bad decisions. She knew she was despised by the citizens, and didn't care. But maybe it wouldn't hurt to spare this man's life. It would confuse the populace and they were easier to control when they didn't know what to expect.

"You have broken one of the most sacred laws. The medicinal herbs are in short supply in this city. You chose to take matters into your own hands. Under guard, you may stay with your wife until she either begins healing or dies. You will go to the prison farming province and be personally responsible for sowing and harvesting herbs. If your wife survives, she will help you."

The prisoner dropped to his knees, tears falling from his eyes, "Conqueror, thank you. Thank you for your mercy."

Xena responded, "Get that blubbering fool out of here."

Disgusted, she said, "Bring forth the next prisoner."

Three more prisoners were brought before Xena. Phineas read the crimes of each and Xena decreed the sentence was death.

The last prisoner was Yehor. The Royal Guard shoved him to his knees in front of Xena and moved to the side. Xena stood, walking down the steps in front of her throne the silk robe billowing around her legs. Standing in front of Yehor, she said, "On your feet." Yehor struggled to his feet glaring at the Conqueror.

Xena voice rang out, "This prisoner is a traitor to the realm. He was a trusted guard, yet he attempted to kill his superior when caught sleeping."

Xena paused, wanting the full impact of her words to reach the masses. "This man then sought to engage me with his sword." Xena smiled to herself when she heard the gasps of the crowd. Changing the focus of her attention from the crowd to Yehor, she asked him, "You have heard the crimes you are charged with. What do you have to say in your defense?"

Yehor knew his sentence had been predetermined by his actions the night before. Seeking to get revenge against the cruel ruler in any way he could, he said, "You are a pitiful leader despised by all of Greece. As I stand here, there are those who are planning your demise. You may kill me, but I'll have the satisfaction of knowing your death will soon follow mine." Concluding Yehor spit in Xena's face.

Yehor knew of no plans against the Conqueror, but he had heard she tended to be paranoid and sought to get her to spare his life for knowledge of a fabricated rebellion.

Xena narrowed her eyes, and wiped the spittle from her face. She was concerned about Yehor's revelation, but she would check the truth of that later. Showing no mercy, she said, "You are sentenced to death by crucifixion. You will not be granted the kindness of having your legs broken."

Looking at the Royal Guard, she commanded, "Take him away." Returning to her throne, she sat and began to speak. "From this day forth there will be a curfew of sunset." If there was any truth to the Yehor's allegations this should put a damper on them.

At the sound of unhappy rumblings from the crowd, Xena fixed them with a cold piercing look. Quiet immediately ensued. Xena stood to depart. She was surrounded by the Royal Guard and made her way back to the palace.

Entering the large chamber where she conducted her daily operations Xena picked up a piece of parchment and quill. Writing briefly, she handed the note to Phineas. "Give this to Darphus."

Phineas hurried from the room to find Xena's second in command. Once he knew he was out of sight of any of the Royal Guard he opening the note and read, "Gather up the spies. I want them here by sunset." Phineas silently cursed the last prisoner. Many innocents died when Xena chose to become paranoid. He was quite sure there was no plot against her. However, he knew he could not voice his opinion unless it was asked for. It was probably just as well. If he was wrong, he would be joining the guard on a cross.

Phineas found Darphus and delivered the note. He did not like Darphus. Phineas had witnessed first hand some of the heinous crimes the fiendish warrior had committed. He did not understand why Xena kept him around. The warrior was much more of a threat to the Conqueror than the citizens.

Darphus read the note and smiled cruelly. The Conqueror was worried. Good. That meant action for the army. It had been a long time since they had been able to practice their craft. No matter that it was against civilians. Darphus called his subordinate leaders together and sent them off to find the spies.

In appearance Darphus had changed little since he first joined Xena when she was a warlord. He stood slightly taller than Xena. He allowed only stubble on his face instead of a full beard. This emphasized the battle scars on his face. A stud adorned his right ear and a good luck stone dangled from his left. Most warriors were superstitious and Darphus was no exception. The people of Greece would have been surprised to know that the cruelty inflicted by Darphus far surpassed any of the atrocities Xena committed.

Phineas returned from his errand. Entering the chamber he said, "Your message has been delivered, Conqueror."

Xena raised her eyes to meet those of her aide. "What do you think Phineas? Do you think the people plan a rebellion?"

Phineas took a deep breath, and plunged ahead, knowing he must answer with absolute honesty. The warrior princess had an uncanny ability to see through lies. "No Conqueror. I have heard nothing. My parents live in the city. If they had heard of a planned insurrection, I would've been notified. They are always concerned for my safety. I think Yehor was trying to trick you into saving his unworthy life. If he could convince you of a planned attack, you might spare him to find out the details."

Xena listened to her trusted aide. He was small and slight, undesirable traits for a warrior. But he had a quick mind and was honest. Phineas had never lied to her during the years he'd served her. What he said made sense. But it never hurt to be careful. Perhaps she just wanted it to be true. The boring tasks of ruling were no challenge. The paperwork and duties were endless. Trade agreements, proclamations, new laws, entertaining dignitaries from other lands, it was an unending list. There was no thrill, no joy, just the passing of days and months. She'd gotten her wish. She was now the feared Conqueror. People wouldn't even look at her for fear of losing their life. Even the traitors shook when they stood before her for judgement. None had any fire or spark. Once confronted with their crimes, they did nothing but grovel and beg for mercy.

Xena handed Phineas the scroll with the new curfew law she had signed. "File this in the law library after you have made copies for posting in the city." Phineas left to do as bidden. It would take many candle marks with quill in hand to make the copies. He looked forward to the distribution though. Phineas rarely got to see his friends. The Conqueror required him to be on call at all times. The warrior princess had always treated him fairly. He could ask for no more than that.

Just before sundown, a knock sounded at the door, and Darphus entered. He had long ago dispensed with the formality of waiting for Xena to answer. He had been with her since she was nothing but another warlord. In his mind he didn't owe the Conqueror the same subservience others did.

"Xena . . . "

"Must you always come barging in here? You might try showing a little respect." Xena growled, glaring at her second in command.

Darphus waved a hand and said, "What the matter Xena . . . worried?" He smiled at her his two gold teeth showing prominently.

"No. But it doesn't hurt to check out all threats against the realm. To do otherwise would be gross neglect. Are the spies here?" Xena didn't particularly like Darphus. She kept him around only because the fear he evoked was second only to her own. She might have to reconsider her decision. He was taking more and more liberties lately. She was the Conqueror, yet he showed no respect. Xena decided to make a decision soon. Darphus were just getting too tiresome.

"Yes. Want me to send them in?" Darphus remained smiling. He loved to taunt Xena. She needed him. She was getting soft.

"Yes. One at a time." Xena looked at Darphus and then added, "Oh, and Darphus . . . "

"Yeah."

"I want to interview them alone." Xena smiled inwardly when she saw the Darphus try to hide his anger at being left out of the interrogation process.

Xena finished questioning all the spies. There had been no surprises. All of them, to a person, had denied knowledge of any planned rebellion. Xena believed them. They didn't appear to be hiding anything. She sent them back out with a warning to keep their ears open. If they were wrong and a plot was unearthed, they would be the first to die.

Xena mulled around an idea she had been entertaining since the night before. Maybe it was time she did some spying of her own. There didn't appear to be any threat in the city, but what about all the provinces. The one sure way to know all was well was to check on it yourself. Besides, it would be good to sleep under the stars again and practice her skills against real targets. She would only take six of her most trusted Royal Guard and Phineas of course. They would travel incognito. She would personally ascertain the feelings of the people within her kingdom.

Darphus entered. "Well? Is there any danger to the realm?"

Xena returned from her musing and looked at her second in command. Smiling she said, "No Darphus. Everything is well within the kingdom. I am going to visit some of the outlying provinces. I haven't checked on Amphipolis lately. I want to check the status of the crops in the farming provinces. I will leave at first light and be gone about a week. You will be in charge."

She had no intention of telling Darphus the real reasons for the impromptu trip. He would not question it. Darphus loved the power of ruling the realm in her absence.

Darphus smiled back and her and answered, "As you wish," before departing.

Xena entered her sleeping chamber. Walking over to the bed she sat down. Looking around the room she wondered why she didn't get the thrill from the splendor anymore. The room was brightly decorated in red and gold. Black was used sparingly to contrast the colors. The bedcovers were made out of the finest materials in the known world. Gold trim adorned the edges. The furniture was all hand carved and designed to fit her form perfectly. There was even a modern water chamber. She had everything she'd ever wanted. Xena sighed. So what's missing? Xena was startled with the realization that she was lonely. Shaking off the thought, she mused, a ruler could have no friends. Those who had pretended to be had only wanted something. Why am I thinking about this now? I must be getting soft.

The Conqueror sat in the colorful coach in regal splendor. The coach was small; designed only to hold the ruler comfortably along with anything she chose to take with her on trips to visit leaders of other lands. It had been designed with maneuverability through rough terrain in mind. The procession departed the city, the Royal Guard surrounding the Conqueror. Phineas brought up the rear leading Xena's personal mount, Argo, a gorgeous palomino horse. They traveled until darkness descended, many candle marks from the city. Xena called a halt. "Unload the coach and change into the other armor."

The Royal Guard did her bidding and once finished, the warrior princess instructed them, "Take the coach half a candle mark down the road. You will see a wide path to the left. Follow it until you come to a large boulder. If you go to the rear of the boulder there is a hidden path. Continue following it until you come to a tree scared by lightening. Go to the right. There is a large cave just beyond the trees. The opening is not visible until you are upon it. Put the coach in there and ensure the opening is blocked to prevent accidental discovery."

Phineas set up camp during the absence of the Royal Guard. The only food eaten tonight would be trail rations. Building up the campfire, he glanced over at Xena and was surprised to see a look of peace on her face. He quickly glanced away feeling like he had somehow intruded on a private moment.

Laying on the bedroll, Xena looked up at the stars. Contentment washed over her. It was good to be away from the responsibilities of her position. Xena wryly acknowledge to herself, even though she tried to deny it, the palpable feelings of hate directed at her from the citizens did take a toll. The next morning she would travel as the warrior princess. From a distance, no once would know her identity.

***

The bright sunlight filtering through the window did not permeate the shadows near the bed in the Healer's dwelling. Hecuba sat on one side of the dying man, Gabrielle on the other. With his last breaths the herder was struggling to finish telling a story as if the revealing of it would somehow cleanse his soul.

Gabrielle's attention was riveted on the story. She held one of the man's hands between her own. The story was intense, about heroism and tragedy. This was one tale she would carry with her always and repeat for the many nameless travelers who stopped in the local inn.

Finishing, the herder lay gasping. Gabrielle placed her hand on his forehead. "Just take it easy and rest now."

The man looked up at her, his eyes clear at the moment before his death. "It was..." pausing and gathering his breath one last time, "Xena." His voice was no more than a whisper and with that declaration he died.

Gabrielle lifted her head up stunned. "How can that be?" She looked at her mother for confirmation that she had heard correctly. "She is a cruel greedy woman who cares nothing about anyone but herself. How could anyone change that much?"

"Don't you go believing that story. He was delirious. He didn't know what he was talking about. There is no truth to it," an equally stunned, but more worldly, Hecuba answered.

"But mother, no man would tell such a story on his deathbed if it were not true. He had no fever. He was the most clear headed he has been since he arrived . . . "

"Gabrielle! Stop and listen to me. That was just the rambling of an old man. You always want to find some good in everyone. But in the Conqueror there is no good. When is the last time we've had enough food? Our fields are fertile, but do we reap the benefits of our labors? No. We pay high taxes and what isn't taxed her henchman helps himself to. Have you totally lost your senses? You know this."

Hecuba paused and softened her voice, "Perhaps the story is true. But it is not about Xena. It's about some other poor soul. Remember when you used to tell your stories just for others' to enjoy? Now you must tell them for us to survive. Don't try to immortalize her. She has done nothing to contribute to our welfare. Everyone has suffered since she took power."

What her mother said was true. Telling her stories had never been a chore. She loved to entertain the locals with them. But now, they prayed for the road weary travelers who might drop a dinar in her hand. It was a matter of survival. Before the Conqueror's reign everything had been so much simpler. They had to deal with the warlords, but you could usually offer them something of value to get them to leave you alone. Not so with the Conqueror. She had stopped at nothing until all of Greece belonged to her.

"Maybe you're right. Maybe it wasn't about Xena," Gabrielle acknowledged. The old herder's death was a direct result of the high taxes imposed by Xena. He had shown up in their village three days before starving and sick. His body had no reserves left to fight off the illness.

"There is no doubt in my mind child." Her mother stood, indicating the conversation was over. "Go get Keleos. He built the funeral pyre this morning."


Gabrielle tended the herbs in the small plot of land, hidden in the forest near Poteidaia. It was important Xena's soldiers did not find the herbs. She and her mother were the only healers for three days travel in any direction. With no herbs, there could be no healing. The Conqueror had issued a special proclamation six moons ago. Due to a grave shortage of herbs within the cities, all herbs produced must be surrendered to the army for redistribution. Before the new law was passed, the tax had been half of all that was produced. Gabrielle sighed. She knew the penalty for disobeying a special law was death. She'd just have to take that chance since it was apparent Poteidaia was not included in the redistribution. She and her mother were the only ones who knew about the hidden herb garden. It was just too dangerous for anyone else to know.

Gabrielle's thoughts again turned to the story the dying herder had told. In the days since his death, it had refused to leave her mind. She'd already prepared her presentation of the story for the next group of travelers that stopped in the village. She just wouldn't mention that one of the heroes was supposed to be Xena. Could it have been Xena? If so, what had made her turn into such a cruel, heartless ruler? It was this imponderable thought that refused to be banished from the young woman's mind.

Standing, Gabrielle brushed her hands together knocking the loose dirt from them. It was time to go help her father with the crops. Leaving the forest and walking toward the plot of land they tended, she wondered how long the people could go on under such tyranny before throwing caution to the wind and rebelling. Old people were dying of malnutrition. They could no longer tend the fields and no one had any extra food to give them. Since the Conqueror had taken over it was survival of the fittest in the small villages. Gabrielle sighed wishing there were something she could do to help the old people. She already gave up a portion of her rations to the infirm. If she gave up any more, she would be unable to tend the fields and heal the sick. Shaking her head, she knew it was pointless to dwell on the harshness of their life. I wonder if the Conqueror knows she is starving the people. Maybe I should request an audience. Smiling grimly, Gabrielle thought, yeah right. Like she'd listen to a peasant from a small village. I'd just be killed for my efforts.

Arriving at the field, Gabrielle approached her father, "Hi. Mother has made some soup. Let me take over here."

Herodotus looked at his lean daughter. "Did you eat?"

"No Father. I'm not hungry. I'll eat later."

"Gabrielle, you must eat more. You give away half your rations now. What will happen if you become sick?"

"I'm fine, really," Gabrielle smiled at her worried father. "I'll eat later."

Taking the planting tool from her father, she began to prepare the land for the late harvest. Little was left of the recent harvest after the taxes had been paid. Gabrielle smiled reassuringly at her father. "I'll eat when you return."

Herodotus turned toward the village and sighed. Walking up the dusty road, he began thinking about his two daughters and how different they were. The joining ceremony for his youngest daughter, Lila, had taken place four seasons ago. Lila and her husband had their own plot of land to farm. Lineus had taken on all the heavy work the last few moons because Lila was with child.

His oldest daughter was different. She had been betrothed to Perdicus before he was killed in a raid by marauders in the last days before Xena took power. Herodotus shook his head. He knew he should be looking for a husband for Gabrielle. But he needed her help with the large plot of land he farmed. Shaking his head, disgusted with himself for being so selfish, he decided to talk to Hecuba and see if Keleos might be a good choice.

Herodotus sat down at the table with Hecuba. "It is time to find someone for Gabrielle. What do you think of Keleos?"

Hecuba looked up surprised. This was a topic her husband had avoided for the last many seasons. "I don't think Gabrielle is interested in him in that way. They are friends, nothing more. Perhaps you should let Gabrielle make her own decisions in this matter. I think she would resent any arrangement. When she meets someone she is interested in, I think we'll know."

"She is not getting any younger. If Gabrielle waits too long, she may never find a suitable husband. She needs to find a kind man. She is so naive sometimes. I have never seen anyone with the ability to see good in even the vilest of people."

Hecuba smiled at Herodotus. "I really don't think we have to worry about that. Do not confuse Gabrielle's goodness with weakness. She is stronger than most in this village. Her ability to see the good in people isn't a bad thing. Would you rather she lost the spark that guides her? Besides, Gabrielle is in great demand every time there are festivities. She is respected and well liked. I think we should just leave her be."

As an afterthought, Hecuba added, "Besides, Apollo smiles on her. He will look out for her welfare."

"Don't start that again. The gods ignore us. Just because her healing powers have surpassed your own doesn't mean that Apollo or even Asklepios favors her. No god would let their chosen live like this."

Hecuba disagreed, but chose to let the subject close. "At the festival honoring Demeter tomorrow watch your oldest daughter. I think you will find your fears unfounded."

The villagers embarked on their tasks with a sense of enjoyment. Today there would be no working in the fields. Nuts and wild berries were gathered. The welcome sound of children laughing drifted through the air. Mothers smiled at the sweet yet unfamiliar sound. Even the children toiled in the fields on most days.

Lila checked on the mead. Gabrielle and Keleos had ventured into the forest a few weeks previously and bought back a large cache of honey. Lila had prepared it for mead. Tasting it, she decided it was perfect. Just the right amount of fermenting. She was looking forward to the festival. It would be a good opportunity to spend some time with her sister. All Gabrielle did was work and then go to the inn and tell her stories. Lila didn't understand how Gabrielle could remain so optimistic. Lila's thoughts turned to her unborn child. Would she be able to provide for it? Everything was in such short supply. Lila sighed and left her thoughts behind. Today was a rare day of celebration and she was not going to ruin it with depressing thoughts.

Keleos and his companions returned to the village after checking the snares. The gods had smiled upon them. Traps that were often found empty had yielded enough rabbit and quail for all the villagers.

After foraging in the meadows and forest since first light, Gabrielle and some of the other women had finally found enough wild vegetables to make a hearty soup. Arriving back in the village they cleaned and prepared the wild cabbage, carrots, onions and celery.

Gabrielle left the group to check and see how the nut bread her mother was preparing was coming. Her mouth watered when she opened the door and the odor of nut bread filled the air around her. "Smells really good." Hecuba cut a slice from the one loaf that was done and handed it to her daughter. "Here. Make sure it tastes ok." Gabrielle grinned at her, "Thanks."

Large pots of water were placed over low fires. The game was prepared for cooking and added to the water. In a few hours the festival would begin. It was quite apparent to the villagers that Demeter had blessed them. Today the food would be plentiful.

The melodious sounds of the home made lyres and lutes filled the air interspersed with the unique tones of various sized pan flutes. The sleepy children sat in a circle around Gabrielle. Finishing the story, she told them, "That's the last one. It's late now."

"Just one more..." the children began chanting. Gabrielle smiled at them. "That won't work again. I've already told you three more. We have to save some for tomorrow."

Leaving the children with their mothers, Gabrielle walked over to join Keleos. "Having fun?" she asked him.

"Yep." Keleos looked at his friend. "How do you come up with all the different stories? You always seem to have a new one. Where do you get them?"

"I never really thought about it." Gabrielle smiled at Keleos. "Some I hear from our patients and others from the occasional trader that stops. Sometimes visitors at the inn have interesting stories to tell. I guess I just get them from where ever I can."

Tarone walked up to Gabrielle. "Would you like to dance?" Gabrielle accepted and the couple joined the others already dancing.

Keleos smiled at the couple and walked over to Sofia. He planned to ask her to share his life tonight. Gabrielle had already given him her blessing. She was his best friend and her approval meant a lot to him.

Herodotus and Hecuba watched their oldest daughter while debating the attributes of each of the young men she danced with. Of all of the potential suitors, they liked Tarone the best. He was the oldest of the three sons of Etor. He was already a good farmer. He would be a good provider for Gabrielle. Hecuba decided to broach the subject of joining with her daughter in the near future. Gabrielle's happiness was very important to her and she had served their needs for too long now.

Late that night the last of the weary but happy villagers left the site of the festival and returned to their homes. For all of them the harsh realities of their daily life would return much too soon.

The sowing of the seeds was hard work but relatively mindless allowing Gabrielle's thoughts to turn to the conversation she'd had with Lila the day before. Wiping the sweat from her forehead, she wished she could do something to ease her sister's concerns about the welfare of the baby. Gabrielle had pointed out to Lila that the children were doing just fine. All the villagers contributed to their welfare. Extra plots of land had been sown with seed to help allay the shortage of food. Everyone would have to work harder but the benefits would be well worth it. She had finally got Lila to laugh and enjoy the festival. But secretly, Gabrielle was worried. There were not enough people to tend all the fields. Would the crops survive if the soil were not worked enough? Sighing, Gabrielle felt the weight of the world settle on her shoulders. She just didn't have any answers.


Deciding to stop at one more village before returning to the city, the Conqueror and her entourage stopped a candlemark outside of Poteidaia. Xena had been disguising herself and venturing in to the villages at night. She would mingle with the peasants, usually in the local tavern, and listen for any traitorous talk. So far there had been none.

The cool night made it easier for Xena to enter the village unobtrusively. She donned a wool cloak and chose a head covering to wear. Swinging herself up onto Argo, she turned the horse in the direction of Poteidaia. She knew it was a small farming community and didn't expect to encounter any rebellious talk. Urging the horse into a gallop, she rode away with instructions for the others to wait at the camp for her return.

Nearing the village, Xena dismounted and led Argo through the nearby forest. Securing the horse, she made her way on foot into town. It would only cause suspicion if she rode in, especially on a horse like Argo.

A group of travelers were making their way toward the local tavern. Xena joined the group. Once inside she secured a seat in the rear of the inn.

Gabrielle finished the children's story and looked at the crowd. The reluctant children were gathered up by their respective mothers and ushered out of the inn. Gabrielle smiled at her good fortune. A group of nine travelers had arrived in the village at sundown. Many of them were planning on staying in the tavern and had listened to the tale she told the children. Perhaps it was time to try her new story out.

Xena sat in the back of the tavern amidst the shadows, her back resting against the wall and her long legs crossed at the ankles under the table. Her cloak was still in place and a cup of ale sat on the table in front of her. Xena's hair was braided and hidden under a linen head covering. Drinking ale and relaxing while listening to the young bard tell the children stories, Xena surprised herself by trying to guess how each story ended. The last story had been quite entertaining.

The young woman was very talented. The lilting tone of her voice when she spoke and the animated movement of her hands made each story take on a life of it's own. Smiling to herself, Xena acknowledged the bard was also very attractive. She had blonde hair and sparkling green eyes. When she smiled her whole face lit up. Xena looked at her clothes with disdain. Those could certainly be improved on. A sudden realization washed over Xena. It didn't matter what she was wearing. Even peasant clothes couldn't distract from the bard's looks. Shaking her head, Xena was amused at the idea that she found a mere peasant so beguiling. Maybe she had been without a companion for a little too long.

Clearing her throat, Gabrielle began, "I sing of song of two heroes. They were just simple villagers like us. They have no identity, but could have been any one of you here. This is a story of the bravery of the common people when faced with overwhelming odds.

Xena narrowed her eyes. Somehow she didn't think this was a story that would be favorable to her regime. Picking up her ale and taking a sip, she focused her errant thoughts on the story.

Gabrielle's words painted a picture for all those who chose to listen. She told a tale of a young man with hair the color of helios and a smile on his face every day. His constant companion was a young woman who was as dark as he was fair. Not only were they siblings, but also the best of friends. Gabrielle continued to weave the story of two children who dreamed of becoming warriors, wanting only to be able to protect their village against warlords. She told of how they became more skilled than any of the other villagers in the use of weapons so focused were they on their duty.

Pausing, her throat dry, she took a sip of water. Even though Gabrielle couldn't see the patrons in the shadows, she knew the story was a success because of the silence while they waited for her to continue.

Xena shifted on the bench. Shaking off the uneasiness caused by the tale the Bard was relating she took a large swallow of ale. It's impossible. It can't be. I'm imagining things. I've just had too much to drink.

The Bard continued the story by relaying an attack on the village by Cortese. She told of the death of the young man and conveyed the heart wrenching anguish of the young woman. She finished the story by telling of the young woman's capture by Cortese because of her refusal to leave her dead brother's side. Pausing for impact before concluding, she finished, "This tale is not just about these two young people. It is about all the unsung heroes whose stories will never be told. It speaks of the bravery in each and every one of us."

The tension radiating off the tall woman in the back of the tavern was palpable had anyone been close enough to notice. A rush of air escaped her mouth and Xena realized she'd been holding her breath. One word was running rampant through her mind Lyceus. She hadn't thought about Lyceus for years. He had been carefully buried deep in her mind in the place where love and happiness, sorrow and regret existed. She didn't even honor his death each year like she used to. Shaking her head, trying to repress the emerging memories, her only thought was escape. She didn't want to think about Lyceus. Rising, a fleeting expression of pain crossing her face, Xena quickly made her way to the door and exited into the darkness. Standing in the shadows, she watched the bard enter a dwelling across from the inn.

***
After spending a restless night, Xena was up before first light. Speaking quietly to the guard on duty, she mounted Argo and rode toward the forest near Poteidaia. Riding Argo, her thoughts alternated between Lyceus and the bard she had heard was called Gabrielle. Walking the mare through the forest, she came across a small stream and dismounted. Sitting on the bank of the stream, she idly picked up a strand of grass rolling it between her thumb and finger and thought about the story the bard had told the night before. Xena wondered once again where the young woman had heard it. The story had been uncannily accurate. Only someone who had been a part of her life at that time could have known the story. Yet, here in a small farming community, a young woman whom had to be ten seasons younger than she had related the story as if she had been there.

Xena sighed. She didn't allowed thoughts of Lyceus because they hurt. On that fateful day, she felt she had made the right decision to stand against Cortese. Lyceus had agreed with her, but then he always did. But her decision had cost her brother his life. She could have convinced him to head for the hills along with Toris and some of the other villagers. Maybe it was time to pay Lyceus a visit. Snorting softly, she thought, sure...my mother can't stand the sight of me. She avoids me anytime I venture near Amphipolis. The last time Xena had been to Amphipolis her mother had told her she was no better than the Warlord Cortese had been. But the most hurtful thing she had said was, ‘Lyceus would never believe what you've become.' That was three years ago and Xena had not been back since.

Xena jerked her head up surprised. The sound of laughter in the forest? Curious, she silently began moving toward the sound.


Gabrielle entered the forest at the far end of the village. Smiling, she listened to the birds chirping and the rustling of the leaves as the unseen forest creatures moved out of her way. Quietly laughing at the antics of two squirrels, Gabrielle continued on her way.

Her thoughts turned to the night before. The new story had been very well received. The five dinars were the most she had been offered in moons. Usually she was lucky to get one dinar. Two dinars were cause for celebration. But five dinars...well that was almost unheard of.

Gabrielle had struggled for days to find a common link between the story and the Conqueror. But the story bore no resemblance to the ruler. What could have happened to change an innocent young woman into a murdering cruel leader? Gabrielle had finally reconciled in her mind that the hero couldn't have been Xena. She knew the old man had told the story the way that he remembered it. But he was old and his memory may not have been perfect.

Entering the grove of trees, Gabrielle walked over and knelt down next to the small herb garden. Good, the raspberry and echinacea were ready for harvest. Carefully, she broke off the tops of herbs placing them in the pouch she carried with her. Working carefully, she planted more of the seeds she had saved from previous harvests into the newly vacant spaces.

A shadow covered the sun. Puzzled, Gabrielle looked up. There had been no clouds in the sky. Her eyes were met by a pair of cold blue ones. Gabrielle raised a hand to her mouth and gasped she was so startled. She quickly regained her composure and felt fear race through her. It was the Conqueror.

"Well what do we have here?" Xena asked coldly. "I hope you have a good excuse for hiding valuable herbs. Obviously you don't care enough about your fellow citizens to turn them in so that all may benefit from their healing powers."

Gabrielle's eyes began flashing and she forgot her fear at the insinuation she was hurting others. "That is not true Conqueror. We have turned in the last two harvests and each time waited patiently for our portion to be given back to us. It never was. We must have herbs to heal the sick."

"What are you talking about? Every village got a share of all the herbs collected." Xena quickly retorted, looking at the lean slip of a woman who dared stand up to her.

"No Conqueror. You are misinformed. We have received nothing."

Xena watched the bard closely. The fear she had shown at first was gone. "You make serious accusations. Perhaps you are only trying to save your own life."

Gabrielle looked at Xena. She doesn't believe me. Trying to put a rein on her temper and failing, she spoke the thoughts running through her mind, "You have no idea what goes on in the villages. Why should it concern you? You are not starving."

Surprised by the ferocity of the young woman's words, Xena's eyes widened. "You are taxed the same as the rest of Greece."

"Then why do your soldiers take half of all our harvest? Your last proclamation said one third of all harvested foods would be the taxed."

Xena looked at the woman standing in front of her. She had to give her credit. This one certainly had backbone and courage. What she said was interesting. It would not surprise her if her soldiers were commandeering some of the harvest for themselves. Warriors did tend to be greedy. And this little nothing farm town...yeah, it would be easy to leave it off any distribution list.

"Why didn't you register a complaint to the leader the last time the harvest was collected?" Xena parleyed. She was starting to enjoy the exchange even though it was obvious the woman must have a death wish.

"I would have most likely been killed for my trouble. It is impossible for me to know who would report our complaint and who would ignore them. I would rather continue helping people than be killed for suggesting someone in your army is not honest."

"What makes you think I won't kill you for what you've just suggested? Lets see...I take a short cut through the forest. I find someone hiding important medicinal herbs from the general populace. Why shouldn't you be sentence to die? Do you think you should be allowed to take matters into your own hands and defy the proclamation I have set forth?"

Gabrielle plunged on, knowing she would probably be killed for her efforts. It was too late to worry about that now. "I only do what I have to do. I must have herbs to cure sickness. My mother and I are the only healers for three days ride in any direction." Thinking back on the many lives she and her mother had saved, she continued, "I do not regret hiding the herbs from your men. At least I will die knowing I saved many lives." Gabrielle lowered her voice until it was almost inaudible and added, "not taken them like you."

Xena face became an expressionless mask. Her keen ears had picked up the whispered comment. But the thought of killing this woman right now bothered her. Besides, she still hadn't found out what she wanted to know. Pretending she hadn't heard the last remark, Xena waved her hand around the grove and said, "What do you think I should do about this?"

"Why do you have to do anything. Can't you just leave us alone? We have done nothing to you. We plant and harvest and still we starve. Do you get pleasure out of people starving to death..."

"Enough," Xena growled. "I will check on your accusations. If I find you are exaggerating to save yourself, you will suffer a very painful death."

Xena turned and abruptly departed. Within seconds there was no sign she had ever been in the grove. Gabrielle shuddered. What had possessed her to speak like that to the Conqueror? I have just signed my own death warrant. She will never allow me to live after the way I talked to her. Maybe she should leave. No it wouldn't do any good. She had heard stories of what the soldiers did to fugitives and their families. Deep in thought, Gabrielle picked up her herb pouch and slowly walked back to the village.

Xena arrived back in the clearing she had left Argo. Untying the mare, she began talking to the one friend she had always been able to count on. Petting the horse's nose, she said, "We've got some work to do. One of my lieutenants has been accused of stealing." Swinging herself up on to Argo, she began thinking about the exchange with the healer.

The thought popped into Xena mind, I hope she's telling the truth. Shaking her head, to clear the thought, Xena realized she didn't want to hurt the young woman. She was puzzled at her reaction to the bard. Anyone else would have been dead for their total lack of respect. She was the Conqueror. Everyone knew the penalty for disrespect. She acknowledged that she liked the feistiness and guts displayed by the attractive young woman. It had been a long time since anyone had dared to stand up to her. But it was more than that. She was interesting...

Reluctantly turning her thoughts from the healer, Xena began focusing on the task ahead. It was time to pay Niklaus a visit. Arriving back at the camp, she instructed two of the Royal Guard and Phineas to accompany her to the Lieutenant's living quarters. She figured it would take them almost a candlemark to get there.


Why had she been so confrontational? The Conqueror was infamous for her temper. Gabrielle was still amazed that she was alive. She had been granted her wish to talk to the Conqueror. But at what cost? I did what I had to do. If it takes giving my life to make things better for the people of Poteidaia, then it would be worth it.

Gabrielle mused, she is not what I expected. She was a very beautiful woman. I wonder what she'd look like if she smiled. A mirthless laugh escaped her. Here I am, most likely enjoying the last candlemarks of my life, and I am wondering what the Conqueror would look like if she smiled. The thought that refused to leave Gabrielle's mind returned, Why didn't she kill me immediately? A slight ray of hope flared in her mind. If the story about the two heroes were true, maybe she had a chance. But first she had to live long enough to find out.

Gabrielle arrived back in town and walked toward her home. She needed to prepare her parents. It was only a matter of time before Xena returned and Gabrielle held little hope that her word would be taken over that of one of the Conqueror's trusted henchmen.

"Mother?"

"I'm in here," her mother answered.

Gabrielle walked to the entrance of her parent's sleeping room. One of the villager children had taken ill and her mother was treating the child. Hecuba got up, saying, "He's sleeping now."

"How are the herbs doing..." Hecuba stopped talking when she saw the serious look on Gabrielle's face. "What's wrong?"

"I just talked to the Conqueror." Gabrielle watched her mother's expression change from concern to one of shock. "I was tending the herbs and all of a sudden there she was. I never even heard her approach."

"Gods," was the only word that escaped Hecuba's mouth.

"She accused me of holding out on the other citizen's of Greece." Gabrielle finished relating the exchange to her mother.

Hecuba hugged her daughter saying, "Oh Gabrielle. Why did you stand up to her? You must leave immediately." Releasing her, Hecuba hurried into Gabrielle's room and began packing her only change of clothes in to a leather bag. She picked up Gabrielle's herb pouch and packed it along with the clothes.

Gabrielle followed her mother and said, "Mother, no. I'm not leaving."

"You must. Not only did she see the herb garden but you also challenged her. Xena is not known to show mercy." Shoving the bag at her daughter, and grabbing her arm, she pulled her toward the door. "Come on. You must leave now. You can say good bye to your father on the way out of town. I'll tell Lila what happened."

Gabrielle pulled her arm out of her mother's hold and said, "I'm not leaving."

Seeing the determined look on her daughter's face, Hecuba sighed. She knew her only hope was to appeal to her daughter's nature. "Listen to me Gabrielle. You can do no one any good if you are dead. You are a wonderful healer. You have saved many lives. Think of the people who need you if you won't think of yourself."

Gabrielle smiled wanly at her mother. "I am. If I am not here when Xena returns there is no telling what she may do. I can't take the chance that my leaving could cause harm to the ones I love. My life is not worth any more than anyone in this town." With a bravado she didn't feel, Gabrielle continued, "She could have killed me already and chose not to. It'll be ok, you'll see."

Hecuba knew this was one argument she would not win. Perhaps Herodotus could help. "Walk with me while I fetch your father. He needs to be told what happened."

Etor was helping Herodotus move a large rock from his plot of land when the two women arrived. Hecuba briefly related the early morning events. Herodotus thanked Etor and left his work to return home with his wife and daughter. The day passed slowly with Gabrielle attempting to comfort her parents while they alternately pleaded and demanded that she leave.

Gabrielle hated to see the pain in her parents' faces but there was nothing she could do to alleviate it. Standing, knowing her sister would support her decision, she said, "I am going to talk to Lila."

Lila listened to the story her sister related silently. Sadly, she looked at Gabrielle when she finished. "If you're lucky maybe you'll just go to one of the prison farms for a while. I think it's hopeful that she hasn't come back yet. The light of the day is almost gone. Maybe she decided our little town isn't worth her concern."

Gabrielle smiled at Lila. "She'll be back. But don't worry. Things will work out. But what I really need for you to do is come with me and help convince mother and father that I must stay."

"I agree with you. If you leave, our lives are in peril. I wish I could do something to help."

"You can. If I am forced to leave, be there for our parents. That would make me feel a lot better."

Lila walked over and hugged Gabrielle. Together they walked back to their parents' home.


It was fully dark when the thundering sound of hooves pounding on the dry dirt road could be heard throughout the village. Word of Gabrielle's predicament had spread quickly throughout the day and the villagers stayed in their houses watching through windows and doors that were slightly open.

Upon hearing the horses, Herodotus went and stood outside with his arms crossed over his chest. The two members of the Royal Guard pulled their horses to a halt in front of him. Dismounting, one the guards told Herodotus, "The Conqueror has sent us for the bard called Gabrielle. Please stand aside."

Inside, Gabrielle was trying to comfort her mother. "Please don't cry. It's better this way. You'll all be safe now." Pulling out of her mother's embrace, she turned to Lila. Leading her across the room, she quietly said, "Lila, if I don't make it back, take care of them." Another thought occurred to her and placing her hand lightly on Lila's swollen belly, she added, "Maybe when the child is old enough you might mention me?"

Gabrielle quickly turned away, her resolve to be strong weakening. Feeling her eyes fill with tears she moved quickly to the door. Her mother pressed the leather bag into her arms. Gabrielle managed a wan smile.

Walking outside, she said, "Stop. Don't hurt him. Here I am."

Herodotus had been blocking the door and the guards were about to physically remove him. One of the warriors looked at Gabrielle and said, "The Conqueror wishes to see you. Now."

"Ok. I am ready." Gabrielle turned to look at her family for what might be the last time, and then walked toward the guard.

"What's that?" The guard asked pointing to the leather bag.

Gabrielle never had a chance to answer. Her mother had come outside and pleaded, "Please let her take it. It's all she has."

The two guards looked at each other. The leader shrugged his shoulders and said, "Ok. We must hurry. You will ride behind me," he instructed Gabrielle.

"Um...I've never ridden a horse before."

Helping her onto the horse, the guard said, "Just hold on." He then mounted in front of her. The two guards urged their horses into a canter and Gabrielle found herself holding on for dear life.


Darphus smiled smugly. Things were going very well indeed. Settling himself comfortably in Xena's throne, he began passing judgement on all the citizens who had disobeyed the laws of the realm. He had sent part of the army in to the city with instructions to arrest anyone who even looked like they might be traitorous.

Darphus addressed the gathered crowd, "The Conqueror wants you know she is sorry she can't be present today. She advised me to send the army in to the city to arrest all those who might be traitors. You will have no trial. Her instructions are that each of you should be flogged and then hanged from a cross until death."

The crowd collectively gasped at the cruelty of the sentence.

Now that he had their full attention, Darphus continued, "I can only follow the orders the Conqueror lays down. I am only the second in command. If I were your leader, I would give all a fair trial."

When the punishment was inflicted, the screams of the sentenced rang hauntingly through the air. There were angry murmurs from the usually silent crowd. When the people dispersed sometime later their mood was dark.

Back in the palace, Darphus was enjoying a full feast. The crowd had played right into his hands. Stupid peasants. Looking at his three trusted lieutenants, he said, "How are the collections going?"

"Excellent. We now have enough weapons to proceed..."

Interrupting, Darphus said, "I am the one who decides when we have enough weapons and when the plan will be set in motion. Do you understand?"

Bowing his head in deference, the lieutenant said, "I'm sorry. I only meant to inform you how well everything was progressing."

"Just keep in mind that I am in charge here. The people will fall into line. They already hate Xena. The little display today was only to remind them of that."

"What are you going to do if Xena finds out?"

"How is she going to find out? All the lieutenants still loyal to her were on a mission today. Surely you are not stupid enough to think the citizens are going to tell her. There is nothing to worry about."

Darphus looked around the room. "Are there any more comments? Cadmon is due back with his group in about a candlemark. Remember to do nothing to call attention to yourselves. It could jeopardize our plans. It will all be over soon anyway. Return to your duty areas."

Darphus smiled in anticipation. Soon it would be payback time.

***
Niklaus watched the riders draw near. One of his guards had informed him of the approaching travelers. Curious, he stood waiting to see who might be paying him a visit. Unannounced visitors were rare.

Recognizing the Conqueror, his whole demeanor changed from lazy insolence to a proper subservient attitude. "Conqueror," he said when Xena dismounted. "It is good to see you. I am very pleased to be honored by your presence."

"I wanted to thank you personally for all your hard work and dedication." Xena said and thought, and to find out if you are stealing from the realm.

Niklaus, Xena, and Alexi walked toward the dwelling. Entering, Xena looked around. The quarters were filled with lavish furnishings and expensive decor. There was definitely something that was not right here. No lieutenant should be this well off. Her expression inscrutable, she said, "You seem to be living very well."

"Yes Conqueror. The wealth of the land abounds since you have taken over."

"Really..." Xena drawled with a raised eyebrow.

Trying to divert her attention, he continued, "I would consider it a great honor if you would stay and dine with me. My cook is a very good one."

Xena had no desire to eat with Niklaus, but it would give Oresto and Phineas time to look around and talk with the servants. Prior to their arrival Xena had already instructed her aide and the guard to search the compound. Alexi would remain with her. "Fine. We have business to discuss."

Niklaus hid his concern by smiling and bowing his head deferentially. "As you wish, Conqueror. Would you like some wine? I have a very good vintage from a trader just back from Rome."

Now that was interesting. A trader from Rome. Why would Nicklaus have dealings with anyone from Rome? "It seems a little out of the way here for a trader from Rome."

Niklaus thought quickly, "He has family in the area. He usually stops when he visits them."

Xena sipped the wine Niklaus gave her. Savoring the slightly sweet taste of the red wine, she said, "This is excellent wine. It must have been very expensive."

"The trader pays homage to you by providing a servant of the realm with a token of his appreciation."

Barely able to keep from rolling her eyes, Xena said, "From the looks of your quarters, it would seem that many pay homage to me through you."

"Yes, Conqueror..."

Xena interrupted and said, "How about telling me how you really acquired all these expensive things."

Niklaus adopted his best wounded look. "It is as you say. You are held in high esteem. The traders that come through seek your favor."

Xena looked at Niklaus trying to decide what would be more fun. Running her sword through him or cutting the head off the man who thought she was foolish enough to believe such dribble. This idiot would be replaced whether she found evidence of skimming or not. Deciding to change the subject until Phineas reported back she said, "How has the tax collecting been coming?"

"Very well, Conqueror," Nicklaus said, relieved at the new subject. "Just a few days ago we turned in the harvest to the collection point. The crops are more plentiful than ever before."

"And the herbs?" Xena prodded.

"All the herbs were collected and then half of all collected was redistributed back to each of the villages in this province."

"I'd like to see the distribution list." It was apparent that Niklaus certainly knew the law. Xena doubted the distribution list would shed any light on her query. Paperwork could be altered to reflect anything you wanted it to.

Niklaus departed and returned a short time later with the document. Xena took it and quickly read it. The bookkeeping had been quite thorough. It listed each village, the amount of crops and herbs collected and the amount of herbs returned.

Xena thoughts turned to the Bard from Poteidaia. Could she have been lying? Finding herself unwilling to entertain that possibility, Xena said, "It appears you have done a very good job Niklaus."

Relieved, Niklaus said, "Thank you, Conqueror. I wish only to serve you well."

Niklaus was disgusted with himself. He was a competent warrior, yet he was required to snivel in the presence of the Conqueror. Right now he wasn't sure who he hated more. Xena, or Darphus for not warning him the Conqueror was in the area. At least he would have been prepared and the obvious signs of wealth could have been removed.

Phineas reported back to Xena shortly before the meal was to be served. Xena accompanied him outside. "There is a storage area beneath the stables. One of the servants was most accommodating. Niklaus killed her husband for pilfering food for their child. The storage area is full of a recent harvest. Off to one side there is a large cache of herbs that have been spread out to dry."

Xena felt some of the tension drain out of her body. She had to stop the smile that threatened to overtake her face. The Bard had spoken the truth. Not understanding why the young woman's life was so important to her, she refocused on the matter at hand.

"See the cook for your meal." Returning inside, she joined Niklaus as the feast was served. At an unspoken command, Alexi waited for her to be seated and then tasted each of the entrees.

"Conqueror! Surely you do not think your trusted lieutenant would poison you." Niklaus said, highly insulted by the guard's actions.

Xena looked pointedly at Niklaus. "I haven't lived this long by taking chances."

Once Xena ascertained that the food was safe to eat, she told Alexi to join the others in the servant's quarters. Xena thoroughly enjoyed the feast. After traveling for a week, and cooking over a campfire, it was a welcome change.

Finishing, she stood and said, "I'd like a tour of the compound."

Niklaus rose with her and said, "Of course." When they walked outside, the two Royal Guards and Phineas joined them. Niklaus sought to pass the stables with a cursory, "That is just the stables. It would be of no interest to you."

"I decide what is of interest and what isn't," Xena replied and walked into the stables. Phineas walked over to the door hidden beneath the straw of the stable. Xena watched Niklaus closely. He was trying hard to maintain a nonchalant attitude, but his eyes were darting in every direction but the direction of the hidden door.

Xena walked over and moved the straw, uncovering the door. "What's this Niklaus?" she asked, her voice deadly.

Deciding his only chance lay in escape, Niklaus turned to bolt. His departure was abruptly halted by the two royal guards. His shoulders sank in defeat. He had gambled and he had lost. Mentally cursing Darphus he turned back to face the Conqueror.

The look on her face chilled his soul and he pleaded for a deal. "Spare me and I will tell you everything I know."

"You'll tell me everything you know anyway Niklaus," Xena countered. Ignoring the lieutenant, Xena checked out the hidden room. Returning to the stable, she asked, "Where did all these crops come from? Have you been holding out on the realm?"

"No. The required amount of crops has been turned in. This is just a little extra contribution from the villages. They had plenty."

"What are you going to do with the *extra* crops?"

Niklaus began sweating. Bargaining for his life, he said, "If you spare me, I will reveal those who are disloyal to you."

Unsheathing her sword, Xena approached Niklaus. "I don't make bargains."

Niklaus hated Xena and there was no way he was going to tell her anything if she was going to kill him anyway. "Then I will tell you nothing..."

Xena narrowed her eyes, and growled, "Yes you will."

Turning abruptly, she ordered the guards to bring him outside. There has been a post in the compound, probably used for exactly what she had in mind right now. Phineas followed her out.

Hearing a commotion, Xena ran back to the stable door. Niklaus was on the floor with a gaping wound in his chest pumping his life blood on to the ground.

Furious, Xena asked, "What happened?"

Oresto looked at the ground. "I am sorry Conqueror. My sword was unsheathed so that he would not try to run away again. He impaled himself on it."

Xena looked at Alexi. "It is as he says Conqueror."

There was nothing further she could do here with Niklaus dead. Making a quick decision, she said, "Alexi, you are in charge here. Gather up the guards and have equal amounts of the harvest delivered back to each of the villages on the distribution list. Do the same with the herbs. If any of the guards are disloyal, kill them."

On the ride back to their camp, Xena's thoughts were on Niklaus' words. Apparently there were problems within the realm. But it was not with the citizens. It went much higher than that. She would return to the city at first light.

One of the guards who had remained behind hurried to greet Xena. "Conqueror, come quickly. Deon is dying."

Xena hurried over to the prone warrior. "What happened?"

"He was hunting and stepped on a hive hidden in the ground."

Xena's experience in healing was mostly limited to battlefield injuries. She began issuing orders. "Mix a mud poultice and bring it here. You two go into town and get the bard called Gabrielle. She lives across from the inn."

Working quickly she removed the warrior's armor and began applying mud to the multiple stings the angry hornets had inflicted. Xena missed the questioning look of the two Royal Guard members. They had no idea why she wanted a bard. Not wanting to be recipients of the Conqueror's wrath, they left to do as bidden.

Xena looked up when she heard the pounding of hooves. She had done all she could for the guard. Perhaps the young woman could help. Xena hurried over to the arriving guards. She waited for Esteron to help Gabrielle off the horse and then said, "Come quickly."

Gabrielle was just thankful to feel the ground under her feet again. Her introduction to riding had not been the most pleasant experience. Toting her leather bag, and following the taller woman, she looked around the camp. There were eight bedrolls strewn around a campfire. On one of them lay a man who was almost covered in mud.

Xena stopped next to the man and said, "He was attacked by wasps. There is too much poison in his system. I've removed the stingers but he has not improved. Can you help him?"

Gabrielle bent down next to the warrior. Checking his pulse, she noted it was fast and irregular. Opening the leather bag and pulling out herbs, she forgot who she was addressing and said, "I need hot water. Hurry, there's not much time."

Momentarily shocked at being ordered around like a common servant, Xena chose to ignore the slight. She would address the issue of respect later. Gabrielle mixed an elixir using foxglove to steady the beating of his heart. Holding the warrior's head up she began dribbling the mixture down his throat.

Finishing, she asked, "How long has the mud poultice been on?"

"Over a candlemark."

Mixing some herbs together, she added some of the water Xena had given her into a bowl and made a thick poultice. "The mud has done all the good it is going to. Help me wash it off. The poultice I mixed should draw more of the poison out of his body."

Xena ordered Phineas and the guards to bring more water and side by side, she and Gabrielle cleaned the sites of the stings and applied the new poultice. Working for over a candlemark, they finished.

Xena had unobtrusively watched the healer while she worked. It was apparent Gabrielle knew what she was doing. Xena also acknowledged that while the healer worked quickly and efficiently, she did so with an amazing tenderness. Xena was not willing to admit that she had enjoyed the nearness of the young woman.

Gabrielle checked the man's heart rate and was pleased to find it had settled into a more normal beat. His color had improved and he seemed to be nearing consciousness. Standing, she looked at Xena. "He should be ok but this poultice will need to be applied twice a day for the next few days."

"Where did you learn the art of healing?" Xena asked, curious about the young healer.

"My mother is an accomplished healer. I learned healing from her." Gabrielle watched the Conqueror carefully. Now that the emergency was over, she finally realized that she had not been summoned to her execution. At least not yet.

Sensing no animosity, Gabrielle said, "I have done all that I can. May I return home?"

Xena had not decided what to do about Gabrielle yet. "You don't like my company?"" Xena answered smirking. Her demeanor hid it well, but she was actually very intrigued with the Poteidaian. Her query was only meant to keep the bard off balance until she made a decision.

Gabrielle swallowed hard realizing she may had made a costly mistake. "Yes Conqueror. Of course I am honored to be in your presence. I thought you might be glad to be rid of a poor peasant."

"I am the one who decides when I am tired of company. Have you forgotten that you have broken the laws of Greece?"

Gabrielle looked at the tall woman. She had to try to reach her. "I only sought to help the people. I spoke only the truth. I too work for the good of the realm, only in a different way. If the people can't farm, there will be no crops. When people are starving and dying of illness, the crop production is less and everyone suffers."

Xena looked at the beautiful young woman. The campfire gave her hair the appearance of woven gold and her sparkling green eyes had a life of their own, emphasized by the flickering fire. Xena was impressed with Gabrielle. She also wryly acknowledged that she was more than a little attracted to her.

Mulling over an answer to the intelligent argument, she watched Gabrielle's expression change from one of hope to resignation. Yet as the silence lengthened, there was still no fear. Xena had no way of knowing that Gabrielle had spent the day preparing for the worst and fear just didn't enter into it anymore.

Xena said, "You make a good argument. I'll advise you of my decision about your future at first light."

Somewhat reluctantly, she turned her attention from Gabrielle and addressed the guards. "Make a litter for Deon. We will depart tomorrow."

Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand on Xena's forearm. "No. He can not travel yet. His body has had a terrible shock. You must wait for at least one more day."

Phineas held his breath. He kind of liked the young healer and knew that she had gone too far. Mentally he begged Xena not to harm her.

Xena tensed and only with great effort stopped the sarcastic comment that flew to her mouth. Concern and kindness were emanating from the young woman. Somehow she knew no disrespect was intended. Xena found her attention focusing on the warmth of the hand on her arm and was startled at the emotions it evoked. She tried to ignore her reaction, but made no move to end the contact. Looking into Gabrielle's eyes, her senses were assaulted by the attractive healer.

Seconds later, in control once again, she said, "Fine. You can stay here and when he's ready to travel you will accompany him to the city."

Xena was secretly pleased with her decision. She felt more alive than she had in longer than she cared to remember. And the reason was the small woman standing in front of her. Not only was she attractive, but she was intelligent too. Xena did not want to lose contact with her.

Gabrielle knew she made a mistake when she felt the tall woman tense at her touch. For the few seconds their eyes met, Gabrielle saw, however briefly, the flickering emotion that lay within the deep blue eyes before Xena's demeanor changed back into Conqueror mode. Not wanting to press her luck, she removed her hand and said, "Thank you."

The exchange surprised and intrigued Gabrielle. She actually felt drawn to the warrior. For some reason, it was more important than ever that she reach the woman buried underneath the hard exterior.

Gabrielle checked on the afflicted warrior. He was conscious and showed marked improvement. After feeding him some broth, she looked around the camp. The Royal Guard members and Phineas sat around the campfire, quietly talking. She wondered where she should sleep. Looking across the fire she watched Xena sharpening her sword.

Xena sat off by herself, the sound of metal rubbing against stone filling the air. Xena knew she should be thinking about the threat to her realm. Instead she found herself watching Gabrielle tend Deon. Looking up, she met the bard's eyes.

Gabrielle quickly looked elsewhere. She did not want to anger Xena.

"Gabrielle..." Xena liked the sound of the young woman's name rolling off her tongue.

"Yes, Conqueror," answered Gabrielle with some trepidation. Gods, why was I staring at her.

"Come over here," Xena ordered.

Gabrielle rose and walked over to where the warrior was seated. Xena patted the ground next to her and said, "Sit down."

Gabrielle sat down, curiosity overcoming her uneasiness. Watching her closely, Xena said, "Tell me the story of the two heroes you told in the tavern last night."

Shock covered the young bard's face. Completely blind-sided by the question, Gabrielle was momentarily speechless. She finally said, "You...you....heard that?"

"Yes. I was in the tavern. You are a very talented story teller."

Gabrielle was too stunned at the revelation that she had told that particular story in the presence of the Conqueror for the compliment to register.

The comment was not wasted on Phineas or the Royal Guard members though. They had become silent when Xena had summoned Gabrielle wondering what the Conqueror had in mind. Curious they remained silent waiting for the bard to begin the story.

Xena watched the myriad of expressions pass over Gabrielle's face. The reaction to the simple request was interesting. It almost seemed like she knew the story was about her. Was that possible?

"Where did you hear the story?"

Gabrielle, glad for the brief reprieve, told Xena of the old herder who had wandered into their village. Finishing, she said, "I just related the story he told me." She did not add that he had also told her the story was about Xena.

Xena had no idea who the old herder might have been. It could have been almost any of the herders from Amphipolis. Turning her attention back to Gabrielle, she arched an eyebrow.

Gabrielle understood the request and began the story nervously. Her natural story telling ability asserted itself and she finished the story to a captive audience.

Phineas was shocked at the accuracy of the story. He had been there on that fateful day and the horror of it was forever burned into his mind. Once he knew what the story was about, he began watching Xena. By the expressions on her face, she seemed to live the day again through the bard's words. But by the end of the story, there was a calm acceptance on her face.

Xena looked at Gabrielle. "Do you know who the story is about?"

Oh gods. Why does she want to know that? Meeting Xena's eyes, she said, "The old herder said it was about you and your brother." Gabrielle's curiosity overcame her good sense and she asked, "Is it?"

Phineas fought to hold back a gasp at the audacity of the bard. What was wrong with her? Didn't she know how volatile the Conqueror was? The woman was going to be lucky to see the light of day. Phineas was even more astounded to hear Xena's reply, "Yes."

Standing abruptly Xena pointed to her bedroll and told Gabrielle, "You will sleep here." Walking over to her saddlebags, she removed another blanket and lay it down on the ground. Sitting on it, she looked at Gabrielle who had not moved from her seat on the ground. "I would advise you to get some rest," she said in a tone that brooked no argument.

Gabrielle hastily moved to the indicated bedroll. Laying down and pulling the blanket over her, she closed her eyes and wondered what was in store for her. The bedroll emitted a faint odor of leather that was strange to Gabrielle, yet also comforting. She soon fell into an exhausted sleep.

Xena took first watch trying to make some sense of her reeling emotions. She felt rather protective of the young healer and was confused by this idea. In the short time since she had first seen Gabrielle in the tavern, the woman had broken almost every law written and unwritten she came into contact with. Yet instead of killing her, I want to protect her. It just doesn't make any sense. I really am getting soft.

Oresto was glad he only had a quarter candlemark of guard duty left. He was tired and looking forward to returning to the city. Suddenly, he heard the sound of a twig breaking off to his left. Moving silently, he circled around toward the noise, coming up behind a dark figure who was staring intently at the camp. Once he was close enough, he grabbed the man around the neck with one arm while bending his other arm up behind his back, rendering him immobile.

"Let go of me. I can't breath," the intruder gasped.

"I don't think you need to worry about breathing once the Conqueror finds out you were sneaking up on her camp," Oresto retorted.

Xena heard voices and was instantly awake. Rising, she picked up her sword and turned toward the sound of rustling leaves. An instant later Oresto appeared with a man firmly held in his grasp.

"It appears we have a visitor Conqueror."

"Let me go! I have done nothing."

The commotion quickly woke everyone in the camp. Gabrielle sat up, rubbing her eyes, wondering what the ruckus was about.

Xena approached the intruder with her sword drawn. She had every intention of driving her sword through this warrior wannabe who was foolish enough to approach her camp. "You better have a good reason for sneaking up on my camp. Otherwise you are a dead man," Xena growled.

Gabrielle had fully awakened and her mind registered the scene in horror. Rising quickly, she closed the distance to Xena and grabbed her sword arm, saying, "No. Don't kill him."

Xena shoved the bard away from her and turning cold angry eyes on her said, "Do you want to die in his place?"

If Gabrielle had any doubt in her mind about the ruthlessness of the Conqueror, it was gone now. Looking at the angry warrior, she felt fear race through her. She knew she had gone too far this time. "I'm sorry Conqueror. But he is my friend."

The fear on Gabrielle's face stopped Xena in her tracks. She was very angry with the bard for challenging her in front of her men. But she didn't want her to be afraid of her either. The young woman had shown no fear until now. It distressed her deeply that she was the cause of it now. The tension draining out of her body, she said, "I'll deal with you later."

Turning back to the intruder, whom the guards had been watching, Xena said, "Why are you here?"

Keleos replied, "Gabrielle is my friend. I did not intend to enter your camp. I only wanted to know if she was all right."

"You will address me as Conqueror." Xena said harshly.

"Yes, Conqueror." Keleos was very frightened. It had never occurred to him that he might be caught. He had waited until the moon was high in the sky before starting his journey. Following the hoof marks, Keleos had expected everyone to be asleep when he arrived. Perhaps Tarone had been right after all. He had refused to accompany him. Tarone had told him it was bad enough the Conqueror had one of their own, he didn't want to add to the toll. Keleos called him a coward and had embarked on his journey alone. He wondered what Sofia would think. He hadn't told her what he was planning on doing.

Xena looked at the young man. It was obvious he was telling the truth. He didn't even have a weapon. What was she going to do with him? Glancing over at Gabrielle, she saw a silent entreaty written across her face. Gods...everything was so simple before I stopped in the little farming village. Thinking quickly, she came up with a solution that would allow her to keep face, and at the same time would keep Gabrielle from hating her. Xena was angry with herself for what she perceived as a weakness toward the bard.

"I am going to spare your life so that you may deliver a message to the other villagers. If anyone comes near my camp again, they will be killed immediately. Now go, before I change my mind."

"Conqueror?" The soft voice of Gabrielle floated out over the camp.

"Yes..." Xena turned toward Gabrielle.

"May I give him a message for my parents and sister before he leaves?"

Exasperated, Xena said, "Make it fast," before turning and leaving the camp. She needed some time to herself.

Gabrielle walked over to Keleos. "Gods, Keleos. You shouldn't have come. You almost got killed."

"I just had to know if you were all right. I was so worried when the guards took you. You are my best friend. I had to come."

"You are a good friend. But your death would have weighed heavily on me. Please don't ever do anything so foolish again."

"What is going to happen to you?"

"I don't know. I am to accompany a sick warrior to the city when he can travel. Then...I just don't know. But please tell my parents and Lila that I am ok and not to worry."

"They will worry anyway..."

"I know. But it will help if they know I am ok." Gabrielle quickly hugged Keleos. "Go now, while you still can."

Oresto accompanied Keleos until he was far away from the camp.

Gabrielle returned to Xena's bedroll and sat down. Phineas came over and squatted in front of the bard. "Gabrielle, you are a good person. But you have provoked the Conqueror more than anyone has ever done that still lives. Do you know how close you just came to losing your life?"

"I didn't mean to make her angry. But Keleos is my friend. I couldn't stand by and watch her kill him." Gabrielle paused, then continued, "I would do it again if I had to."

Phineas looked at the young woman. He was very puzzled by Xena's reaction to her. The Conqueror had killed people just because she didn't like the way they looked at her. Yet here was someone who seemed oblivious to the danger she was in and even more confusing was the fact that Xena let her live. She seemed to be able to reach the Conqueror like no one else ever had

"Just think before you act, ok?"

Gabrielle smiled at the concerned man. "I'll do my best," she assured him.

***

The trip back had been uneventful. The last stop was to pick up the carriage and change back into their identifying attire. Xena looked around at the familiar scene as they made their way up the street to the Palace. The last few days her thoughts had alternated between the mysterious happenings within the realm and the young woman from Poteidaia.

Riding through the city, the hostility of the citizens seemed even more intense than she remembered. Sighing, Xena decided the time spent away had just dulled her perceptions. It was impacting more on her today because she had spent a week without the hatred directed toward her. Well, who cared what the citizens thought anyway. Her laws were in their best interests even if they didn't realize it.

Shaking off the hostile feelings, Xena turned her attention to the most pressing problem. She began systematically listing each lieutenant in her army and what benefit they might glean by selling the crops. It was obvious that this was being done to generate funds. But what was being done with the proceeds of the extra harvest and who were the crops being sold to? What about the herbs? They were a valuable commodity. Were they going to the wealthy of Greece or being exported? Xena was determined to find out the answers to these questions.

Xena quickly walked through the palace to her personal chamber. The most pressing thing right now was a bath. Phineas trailed behind, taking note of the rapid-fire orders she issued. "Send in Cilla to prepare my bath. Tell Darphus I want to see him in a candlemark. I want to see Cadmon after him. Get cleaned up and then report back. I want you present during these meetings."

"Yes Conqueror." Hurrying to find Cilla, Phineas realized Xena was back in full Conqueror mode.

Xena lowered herself into the bath, the soothing water moving in gentle waves against her tired body. Soaking in the comforting warmth, she relaxed and was suddenly confronted with the image of a beautiful blond haired woman with sparkling greens eyes. An unbidden smile appeared on Xena's face. Gabrielle...she was a ray of light in an otherwise dim world. Someone who did not preach rebellion, but rather had the nerve to appeal directly to her with well thought out arguments and courage that bordered on foolish. What was so special about her? Why was she able to get through the myriad of defense so carefully erected over the years? Thinking about the short time she had known the healer, Xena admitted to herself she could hardly wait for the healer to arrive...but then what?

The cooling water pulled Xena from her thoughts. Finishing, she donned a long silk robe of multiple blue shades offset with gold stitching and a gold belt. She had specifically chosen this robe because the colors intensified her deep blue eyes. It was very hard for anyone to look away from her eyes when she wore it. And tonight, she had to carefully gauge any potential opposition and it was the eyes that would give the guilty party away.

Darphus knocked and walked into the Xena's meeting chamber in his usual rude manner. Xena decided to ignore his impertinence. She had more important things to address.

"How did things go while I was gone?"

"We were very busy. The army found out there were rebellious factions within the city. We gathered them up and executed them," Darphus said watching Xena closely. He'd decided to mention that there were executions just in case Xena found out.

"Who gave you the authority to execute anyone," Xena growled. "I decide who is a threat and who isn't. I am the only one who orders executions. You had better have a good reason...."

"Oh relax all ready," Darphus interrupted. "You left me in charge. I acted on your laws. I have done nothing wrong. As a matter of fact, I have eliminated a threat to the realm. I should think you would be thanking me."

Xena was furious. Darphus knew he had overstepped his authority, but chose to do it anyway and then was going to stand there and tell her she should thank him. Xena made a decision. Darphus was out, but not until she found out more about the real threat to the realm.

"Darphus, let me reiterate something for you. When you are in charge your authority only extends to protect Greece from an immediate threat. Do you understand that."

"Of course. That is what I did. I protected us from what could have become a major rebellion of the citizens."

"How many executions did you order?"

"About 50," Darphus smirked at the irate woman.

Xena almost lost it. The power hungry bastard. No wonder the venomous looks surreptitiously directed toward her when she had arrived in the city had been so intense. "How could there have been 50 traitors when just last week our spies told us there were none?"

"Guess they were wrong," Darphus said shrugging his shoulders.

Xena had to forcibly turn her thoughts from entertaining ways to kill her second in command. "Anything else I should know about?"

"Nope. It's now quiet. The people have been put back in their place."

Abruptly changing the subject, Xena asked, "How did the last collections go."

Darphus narrowed his eyes. He did not like this line of questioning. Xena never inquired about the collections. They were his responsibility. "Good. The farms are producing well. The food is plentiful in all the provinces. We are beginning to build up a small reserve of herbs. Why do you ask?"

"Perhaps you've forgotten that I am in charge," Xena snapped. "I want to see the books." She had not missed Darphus' subtle reaction to her questions.

"Fine. I'm sure you'll find them in order." Darphus wasn't worried about the "official" books. He had another set that actually defined the extent of his operation. That set of books was not on the palace grounds.

"You're dismissed." Xena said summarily.

Darphus left, his thoughts on the plan. He was not ready to implement it yet. Not enough of the army had been turned. He had expected to make his move in a moon. Now he was going to have to step up the timetable. The bitch was suspicious about something. What had she found out on her trip? Before he could proceed much further, Cadmon was going to have to have an accident. There were just too many warriors who were loyal to him, and subsequently to Xena. No problem...accidents could be arranged. Darphus decided he also needed to rile the citizens a little more. When the power play began, it would help to have the citizens on his side. He just had to figure out a way to do it.

Phineas had sat quietly in the rear of the chamber. He was more suspicious than ever that Darphus was up to something. There was no doubt in his mind he was behind the "extra" collections. But how could it be proved?

Xena's meetings with Cadmon and some of her other lieutenants proved fruitless. She was infuriated that he had been sent out on a mission for three of the days that she was gone. With no information forthcoming, Xena asked Phineas to use his methods to find out anything he could.

**

Gabrielle rubbed a hand across her face. The trip to the city had been slow and dusty. The first two days she had walked along side of the liter talking to Deon. After that Deon had insisted that he could ride. Gabrielle had ridden behind Medus. Fortunately, the pace was slow because Deon was still weak and they stopped frequently. It had been five days since they had begun their journey. Gabrielle ruefully acknowledged that riding a horse was not something she wished to do again. She was sore and only wanted to get off the horse and take a bath.

Medus had told Gabrielle they would arrive in the city at midday. As the sun rose higher in the sky, she began noticing more and more people. The people seemed friendly, often smiling at the travelers. Turning down a wide road, Gabrielle saw a palace in the distance. Knowing it must be Xena's headquarters, she began paying more attention to her surroundings. There were fewer people on this street and they all moved very quickly. The smiles and waves disappeared and now the looks directed at them were suspicious and unfriendly. One pedestrian glared at them with such malevolence that Gabrielle actually shuddered at the intensity of it.

Medus said, "It's ok. They will not harm you."

"Why do they look at us with such loathing?" Gabrielle asked, still upset to be the object of such hate.

"This is the Conqueror's road. Even though Deon and I are not wearing our royal armor, it is obvious that we are guards. Since you are traveling with us and not a prisoner, they probably think you are a spy. The people you see coming up the road have probably gone to visit loved ones in the dungeon. The Conqueror allows visiting for one hour a day."

Gabrielle had many more questions, but the guards stopped at the gate to the compound and the conversation was over. Once they were cleared to enter, they proceeded into the yard. Medus led them to the infirmary where he and Deon dismounted. Helping Gabrielle down, he said, "Wait here. The healers will want to check over Deon."

Word spread quickly through the compound of the arrival of a golden haired woman with the two royal guards who had not returned with the Conqueror. Gabrielle noticed the looks cast her way by the warriors. Feeling uncomfortable, she ignored them and looked at the palace.

Phineas appeared and made his way toward her. "Hi. How was your trip?"

"Ok, but I don't want to ride a horse anytime soon."

Phineas smiled at Gabrielle. "The Conqueror wants to see you now. Just follow me."

Gabrielle was suddenly filled with trepidation. What would happen to her now? Would Xena let her return to Poteidaia? But, as had happened on the long days of travel, these thoughts were diminished by the desire to just see Xena again. Gabrielle pondered the contrasting thoughts. This woman held her fate in her hands, yet she looked forward to seeing her.

Gabrielle followed Phineas into the palace. He walked quickly and she was unable to study her surroundings. They walked down a hall and stopped outside a thick door. Knocking, Phineas waited for an answer. Hearing the Conqueror call out, "Enter." He opened the door and beckoned for Gabrielle to enter. Closing the door behind her, he remained in the hall.

Gabrielle had expected the Conqueror to have the palace lavishly decorated, but she had never pictured the richness displayed in this chamber. There were large woven floor coverings with colorful intricate hand made designs against a black background. The wooden chairs had hand carved designs on the backrests and their seats were covered with thick black pads of the finest cloth. There were paintings hanging on each of the walls. One in particular stood out. It was a picture of the conqueror, her dark hair caught by the wind and flowing back away from her face. She sat on her golden horse, holding up her sword in victory. Gabrielle was captivated by the painting. Looking at it you expected the Conqueror to come alive and ride into the room. The picture truly caught the essence of the warrior.

"Uh..mm..." Xena cleared her throat.

At the sound, Gabrielle's felt her face flush and quickly turned her eyes away from the picture meeting the deep blues ones looking at her.

"You find the picture more interesting than I am?" Xena asked, coolly. Her face was expressionless, but she was very interested in the young woman's answer. The bard tended to speak her thoughts. And she wryly acknowledged she was kind of disappointed the young woman didn't seem more interested in her than a picture on the wall. Actually she was very disappointed.

"No. It is only a picture," Gabrielle said, and then continued, "But it is a very good likeness."

"I'm glad you approve of it."

Gabrielle was once again embarrassed. "I'm sorry..."

Xena waved her hand dismissing the apology. "Until further notice you will instruct the army healers in your methods." Watching Gabrielle closely, Xena continued, "You will have full access to all the common areas of the palace and yards. You are not to leave the compound. If you need anything see Phineas. He will show you to your quarters. You are to start tomorrow."

Xena continued, "Do you have any questions?"

"No..."

"You may go now," Xena said ending the meeting.


Continued..Part 2 (Conclusion)


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