Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, and the rest of the known names belong to Pac Ren and everyone else who lays claim to them. Im not doing this to make money.
Subtext: I believe that Xena and Gabrielle are lovers. There is erotica here.
Genre: As suggested by the title, this is a Xena the Conqueror piece. It is, however, a different Xena the Conqueror piece than most out there. What I have attempted to do is to write a Conqueror story as if it were written for X:WP instead of HTLJ. In addition, theres a bit of Remember Nothing in here, only this time, its Gabrielle who has the memories while Xena does not. Confusing? Read on. J
Violence: Well, its the Conqueror. Are you gonna tell her not to fight?
Dedication: As always, Id like to thank Mike for being such a great and supportive friend and beta reader. I love you, man! Thanks also go to Candace for once again beta reading fifty characters at a time, Elizabeth, and the rest of the Atlanta Xena crew. You guys ROCK! And a big thank you to list readers who put up with this being on their list every day.
Special thanks: Go out to a certain Lunatic whose question "Where are all the good Conqueror stories?" lifted my Muse to the challenge. And to Mary D, for her encouragement and requests for more! And, of course, every reader who has taken the time to drop me a line telling me how much you enjoy my attempts at story-telling. This story goes out to every one of you with heartfelt appreciation. You guys are the absolute best! Since my life has, for the moment, calmed back down, I will attempt to return each and every letter to everyone who took the time to send one to me. If you wish, you can reach me atSwordnQuil@aol.com.
Final P.S. With the completion of this story, I will begin writing Desert Storm once again, and then, when final rewrites to Redemption are completed, I will be starting on that sequel as well. Thanks to everyone for hanging in there. I hope you wont be disappointed.
Last important bit: This story is completed. I am posting in sections to allow those who like it that way to have what they desire, but it is completed and will be going out a section a day until it is all up.
From her spot just to the right of the huge crowd, Callisto watched, grinning maliciously, as Gabrielle screamed. "So, the annoying little brat recognizes the death of a kindred spirit, does she?" Cocking her head, she watched with interest as Tao Feng gathered the distraught woman close to him, looking concernedly down at her. "And she seems to have found a little friend. How sweet."
The gears in her mind spun and, in response, her face lit up in a brilliant smile that reached all the way to her eyes. "Oh, my dear little Gabrielle! For the first time in your annoying little life, you just may be of some use to me after all!"
Then, like a specter, she was gone.
Tao Feng gathered the sobbing young healer to his body briefly before holding her out to the length of his arms and peering down at her in concern. "What is it, Gabrielle?"
"It could have been me," the bard murmured, half incoherent through her tears. "It could have been me up there. It could have been me!"
"I am afraid I do not understand you, Gabrielle. Who could have been you?"
Tao Feng looked up quickly, then back down at the weeping blonde woman. "The one on the cross?"
Gabrielle nodded, her hand over her eyes.
"She is an insurrectionist, Gabrielle. She spoke against the Realm."
Taking her hand quickly away from her face, the bard lifted her head, fury sparking in her eyes. "She spoke for the people!"
Again, the elderly healer looked up, his seamed face paling as his almond eyes darted toward the marble platform. He couldnt quite hold in a breath of relief when he saw the Conquerors gaze firmly upon the cross that was being planted into the ground beside the dais.
Tao Feng risked a quick glance at the crowd around them, gratified to see that they, too, were staring at the spectacle taking place near the Conquerors throne.
Then he looked back to Gabrielle, who was still staring at him with blazing eyes. "It is an . . .unfortunate . . .thing that is done here, Gabrielle. But a lesson was learned. Not so much on the girls part, of course. But the Conquerors laws are to be respected. The people must be made to understand that."
"Tell that to her," the bard snarled, throwing the hand he had resting on her shoulder away with brute force.
The healer looked around again, his heart thudding crazily in his chest. Speaking against the Realm was suicide even in the darkest of caverns. In broad daylight, surrounded by a massive army, with the Conqueror of Greece sitting mere yards away from them . . . .
He reached out again, only to have his arm deflected.
"Dont touch me, Tao Feng. Not right now."
The crowds low murmuring caused the healer to look up sharply. He sighed in relief as he watched Xena, in her palanquin, being borne up onto the strong shoulders of her attendants.
Murmuring turned to cheering as the Conquerors parade left the platform and started back toward the massive palace.
Once Xena and her followers were out of sight, the crowd began to break up, talking quietly among themselves, some shooting glances toward the mercifully unconscious woman hanging from the cross and guarded over by a half-dozen armed men.
Gabrielle finally looked up, toward the hanging woman, her eyes stony. She examined the men standing around the cross, studying their expressions and wishing shed thought to bring her staff with her.
"We need to leave, Gabrielle," Tao Feng said softly, taking care to keep his body well away from hers, as requested.
"Not without her."
The healers eyes widened. "Impossible!"
Gabrielle rounded on the older man. "Im tired of hearing you say that, Tao Feng! Its getting old! Im going to rescue that poor woman up there. Are you going to help me, or not?"
As Tao Feng continued to stare silently down at her, Gabrielles expression twisted into one of distaste and disappointment. "Fine. Ill do it myself, then."
Her determined step away broke the healers paralysis, and he reached out an arm. "Wait. Please."
"Not this time, Tao Feng. Im not going to be too late again. Not this time." From where she was standing, still some distance away, Gabrielle could see the womans struggling efforts to breathe.
"No. I will help you. But going in and fighting those guards, assuming they can even be defeated by the likes of us, and stealing that womans body will ultimately end in our own executions." He smiled. "There is a better way."
Gabrielle turned back, arms crossed over her chest. "Im listening."
Pulling back on the reins, Tao Feng brought the horses to a smooth stop several feet from the guarded cross. Tucked inside the back of the wagon, Gabrielle put the finishing touches on her costume, pulling the black hood up over her head to hide her features. The healer turned back to her and nodded before standing up and stepping out of the wagon, his face set.
Returning the nod, Gabrielle carefully eased herself out of the back of the wagon and took up a deferential stance behind the horses, trying her best to portray a meek attitude.
Tao Feng, undisguised, stepped up to the guards, who looked down at him with contempt.
"What do you want, old man."
"I have come to remove the body."
"Not a chance. The Conqueror wants this bitchs corpse hangin high for everyone to see."
The healer took an exaggerated look around the empty square, then turned back to the soldiers. "But . . .there is no one here. The crowds have all left." He took a step closer to the group. "Please allow me to do my job. There are men in the main camp who must be attended to."
"Then go back and tend em, ya old goat, and leave us be. The bitch comes down when the Conqueror says she comes down."
Tao Feng sighed, and then bowed deeply. "Very well. I shall leave. But if the Conqueror should complain of the corpses stench ruining her noon meal, I can only hope that you will be kind enough to tell her that it was you who sent me away when I tried to perform my duties." He slowly looked up into the blazing noon-day sun, shading his eyes with one hand. "It promises to be quite hot today. The decomposition should begin very soon." He bowed again. "Good day to you all."
The guards looked at one another.
Then up into the sky.
Then over their shoulders toward the nearby castle.
Then back at Tao Feng, who was waiting patiently.
"Oh alright," the lead guard finally said, gesturing with his spear. "But be quick about it, old man. Ive got a meal waiting for me too."
Tao Feng bowed again. "Rest assured, I shall move as fast as is humanly possible."
Turning, he gestured to Gabrielle, who walked slowly, gracefully over to the group.
"And whos this? Yer bodyguard?"
The men laughed as the head guard used the tip of his spear to slide the hood from Gabrielles head. The bard stiffened, but kept her head bowed, hoping that the black wig she was wearing had the fortitude to stand up to the soldiers examination.
"She is my associate, Hee La. She has come over with the soldiers from Chin. She is a most capable assistant."
"Looks a little scrawny to me," the guard replied, peering at the robed woman who was staring meekly at the ground beneath her feet.
"Yeah. I bet I know just how she assists ya, too," another contributed, complete with lewd gestures to punctuate his feeble attempt at wit.
The group laughed again.
Tao Feng smiled enigmatically. "She is much stronger than she looks."
"Whatever. Just get that carcass down from the cross now, old man."
"As you wish."
Tao Feng once again pulled the horses to a stop, this time just behind the large healing tent within the Greek encampment. Hopping quickly from the seat, he strode over to the rear of the wagon and peered inside. "Is she alive?"
Gabrielle looked up, cradling the broken young woman against her body. "Barely," she whispered, stroking the wavy golden hair tenderly. "Thank you, Tao Feng. You risked your life to save a stranger. I appreciate that." The bard smiled slightly. "Im sure she does, too."
Though it wasnt in the mans nature to blush, Tao Feng could feel, to his extreme embarrassment, the heat travelling from his neck to his cheeks and ears. He cleared his throat gruffly, gripping the splintered wood of the wagons short lip. "We cannot keep her here, you know. She is most unsafe in the middle of the Conquerors main war camp."
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes. I know. I have a friend who I think can help. Ill take her there."
Tao Feng nodded. "We must not waste time, then. Tell me where to go."
"No. I . . .need to do this alone, Tao Feng. My friend is . . .very secretive."
"Absolutely not. This territory is much too dangerous for a woman travelling alone. Even a woman as skilled as you."
The bard smiled softly. "If you recall, Tao Feng, I traveled alone before I met you."
"And look at the trouble youve gotten yourself into since then!"
Gabrielle laughed out loud. "Speak for yourself, my friend." Her expression became somber. "Trust me, Tao Feng. I can take care of myself." Reaching out, she softly touched his arm with her free hand. "Youre needed here. Like you said to those guards, the wounded need tending to. Ill be okay."
"But . . . ."
Whatever strength he might have had broke to pieces in the face of the beautiful womans soft plea. Tao Feng sighed, then nodded.
Gabrielle smiled brightly, squeezing the healers thin arm. "Thank you."
Tao Feng cleared his throat again, adopting his coolest expression. "Yes. Well. Just endeavor to return safely. And quickly. The men have need of you as well, healer."
"Ill be as quick as I can. Take care of yourself, Tao Feng. And thanks again."
The healer bowed deeply, respectfully, then turned and, without looking back, slipped around the healing tent, leaving Gabrielle to her task.
Though it took nearly a day to walk the path, it took a fraction of that with two strong and spirited horses adding their assistance. Gabrielle gently pulled the wagon to a halt outside a cave that appeared at first glance to be deserted. Gingerly stepping out of the cart, she walked up to the cave opening. "Um . . .hello? Is anybody home?"
"Damn. Manus, you have to be home. Theres no where else I can turn right now."
Sighing at the continued silence, Gabrielle walked back to the bed of the wagon and looked inside. The young woman was still alive, though her breathing was very shallow and her skin remained blue-tinged. "Im sorry," she whispered to the girl, reaching out to stroke her cheek gently and shivering at the waxen chill of the young womans flesh. "Im so sorry this happened to you."
The hairs on the back of her neck stood up, and the bard whirled around, pushing against the back of the wagon to protect the precious burden residing within. She relaxed a split-second later as her eyes beheld the very welcome sight of Manus, the Priest of the Fates, his aged face creased with worry.
"Gabrielle, whats wrong? Are you alright? What is the problem? Are you alone? What do you need?"
Smiling slightly, the bard held up her hands. "Im fine, Manus. Honest. I came here because I need help, and, well, youre the only one I can think of to give it to me."
Manus face creased further. "I cannot interfere in this, Gabrielle."
"Im not asking you to interfere, Manus. Im asking for your help." Stepping away from the wagon, she gestured toward it.
The priest stepped forward, peering into the wagons straw-lined bed. Wide-eyed, he turned back to Gabrielle. "Who is she?"
The bard shook her head sadly. "I dont know. She got caught, somehow, speaking against the Realm, giving voice to the people." Her face set in anger once again. "Xena crucified her."
Manus looked back at the woman. "But . . .shes still alive!"
"Yes, I know. And I need to make sure she stays that way. Thats why Im here." She looked down at the small man. "Shes not safe in Xenas camp. Shes not really safe anywhere." She laid a hand on Manus shoulder. "Can you help?"
Manus looked down at the unconscious woman again. "Her injuries are very severe."
"I cant promise anything."
"I know that, too."
After a long moment, the priest nodded. "Then I shall do the best I can do. Help me bring her into the cave and close by the fire."
After unburdening the horses, brushing them down, and leaving them to wander the small corral outside of the healing tent, Gabrielle slipped inside the enclosure, her mind on nothing save for the comfortable cot awaiting her there.
Despite her exhaustion, both mental and physical, her step was much lighter, having left the grievously injured woman in safe hands. She only wished she knew the womans name. Did she have any family to mourn her? Anyone who would cry joyously when she walked back into their lives once again?
Or was she truly alone, like Gabrielle herself was alone? A single human being for whom the weight of the entire world rested on her shoulders?
Enough of that. Any more of those kind of thoughts and Ill never get to sleep.
Blinking in the low lighting, she could see that Tao Feng had done his job well. Where she had left a full tent of injured soldiers, only two remained at her return, both resting comfortably.
From a spot in one shadowed corner, the healer finished washing his hands and turned, a slight smile on his somber face. "Welcome back. Were you successful?"
Gabrielle returned the smile. "Yes. Shes in good hands." She looked around the nearly empty tent again. "Looks like you were pretty successful yourself."
"All part of my plan to ensure that we would both be able to sleep soundly tonight."
The bard yawned and stretched her body, stiff from hours of riding in the uncomfortable wagon. "Sounds good to me. It feels like years since Ive had a decent nights sleep."
Tao Fengs smile deepened. "Then my plan was a success." He gestured to the freshly made cot at his side. "Your bed awaits. Get in and dream of only pleasant things."
Doing as she was bade, Gabrielle groaned as she slipped in between the soft furs of the bed made up for her. She yawned again, rubbing at eyes filled with road dust. "You too, Tao Feng. Sleep well, my friend."
The night was dark and heavy with the scents of the earth reveling in the just-passed rain. The fire hissed as the damp branches protested the giving of their precious moisture to the heat of the flames.
Gabrielle lay on her back, luxuriating in the feel of the dry, soft furs dancing against her heated, sweating body. Her gaze was captured in the smoldering glance of eyes gone white-silver with erotic passion.
Raven hair, fragrant with crushed herbs, tickled her shoulders and breasts as the moonlight-gilded body of her sweat-sheened lover rocked sensually against her, stimulating her senses beyond belief.
Her fists planted firmly against the damp ground, Xena thrust against the willing body of her lover, her heavy breasts skimming sweetly over Gabrielles moist skin. She growled deep in her chest as her lovers body opened itself more fully to her, feeling the wet heat as it seared a path along her lower abdomen and back with each thrust of her hips.
Panting heavily with passions exertion, Gabrielle turned her head and bit down into the plump, corded muscle of the forearm planted beside her. The action caused Xena to groan and thrust more forcefully against her, her lips parting as her flashing silvered eyes narrowed down to slits.
The heady scents, sights and sounds seemed to coalesce within the body of the bard and she felt that curious drawing up that preceded a breathtakingly powerful release.
Teeth still embedded in salty flesh, Gabrielle reached up with the last of her strength, latched onto her lovers swaying breasts and drew forth the explosion waiting within her.
Green eyes snapped open in the tents night-blackness as breath rushed forth from labored lungs. Gabrielle sat up quickly, senses already tingling danger even through the passion haze of her fading dream.
Her heightened senses caused her to duck and roll, neatly avoiding a rudely grasping hand. The furs tangled around her legs softened her fall to the dirt-packed floor, but she shed the blankets quickly, jumping up and lashing out with one well-muscled leg.
A crash followed a grunting wheeze as the bards attacker collapsed onto a nearby cot, his heavy weight shattering the frame and dumping the man to the ground.
More hands grabbed at her, pinning her arms to her sides and encircling her waist. She whipped her head back at the one behind her, catching his trachea and forcing him to let go.
She then twisted, freeing first her right arm, then her left and lashed out with hands and feet, blindly keeping her attackers at bay.
"Back off!" she snarled as an errant hand found its way past her defenses and grabbed at her breast in an attempt to secure a handhold. She kicked back, and high, and got a breathless whimper that told her shed been on target with the groin shot.
The man crumpled forward against her and she pushed back with all her might, sending him sprawling over several more of the empty cots.
The group closed in again and she fought them off as best she could, getting strong punches and kicks in to sensitive body parts every chance she was able.
After what seemed an eternity, the tent flap opened and a man entered, shadowed by the large bonfire blazing outside. "Stop now, or he dies."
Gabrielle froze as the man stepped slightly to the right, revealing the knife he held to Tao Fengs long, thin neck. In that instant, the bard knew exactly what it felt like to be Xena during the first couple years of their travels together.
She found she didnt like it one bit.
Raising her hands, she allowed the men to close in around her once more. She gritted her teeth against the almost overwhelming instinct to lash out against their coarse hands as they dug into her flesh.
The man smiled, the scars on his face giving it a lopsided, evil look. "Thats right, little girl. Play nice and the old man here stays alive."
"What do you want with me," Gabrielle ground out, trying to keep her breathing steady.
"We dont want you, little girl. The Conqueror does."
Lewd chuckles filled the tent.
"In the middle of the night?"
The man shrugged, then grinned again. "They say thats when she does her best work."
Laughter rang out again.
"Ill be sure and tell her you said so," Gabrielle said, smiling insincerely.
The smile disappeared from his face. "Say one word, bitch, and your friend here sees what its like to breathe through the hole Ill put in his neck."
"Fine. Take me to her then."
Xena lounged back into the deep well of her throne, garbed in a blue silk robe whose sheerness and cut drove her interior door-guard into periodic fits of apoplexy every time his eyes rose to gaze upon her.
Callisto stalked the huge room like a caged beast, her boot heels ringing on the stone flooring, only to be muffled as she stepped onto the lush carpeting which laid a crimson path to the throne. Her expression was decidedly gleeful as she paced, twirling locks of her long, blonde hair with every step she took.
Hearing the commotion before anyone else, the Conqueror gestured for the door to be opened, which it was, to admit Gabrielle surrounded by her retinue of guards. Walking the young woman to the throne, the guards bowed and the largest of them brought a knee to Gabrielles back as an enticement to kneel.
Stepping forward, Gabrielle ignored the blunt summons. Then, locking eyes with Callisto, she slowly, deliberately lowered herself to her knees before the throne, her back straight, her head unbowed.
Looking up at her guards, the Conqueror hid her amused smirk at their dishevelment. One was sporting an already blackening eye, another was rubbing at his throat, and another was holding himself ramrod straight, sweat beading between his bushy brows. Xena well imagined what had been done to him to cause that type of expression. With a flick of her hand, she dismissed the guards, who bowed and exited the room with alacrity.
Anger flashed in Callistos dark eyes, but she tempered it with a smirk. "So, the little Amazon knows something about protocol after all, does she? What a plus!"
Ignoring the taunt, Gabrielle turned her eyes to Xenas, ignoring the temptation to let her gaze wander lower to take in the generous and supple curves so barely hidden by the sheer fabric. "I believe you sent for me?"
The corner of Xenas mouth curved upwards fractionally in appreciation of Gabrielles bold move.
Callisto stepped forward, intentionally towering over the kneeling woman, her eyes alight with absolute knowledge and insane glee. "I believe we havent been properly introduced. My name is Callisto. And I am the Conquerors . . .partner."
Gabrielle turned her eyes back to her tormentor, well aware of Callistos tactics and refusing to rise to the bait being dangled. Instead, she smiled sweetly. "How wonderful for you."
Taken off guard, Callistos response was automatic. She drew her hand back swiftly, fully intending to wipe the grin from the bards face.
"Callisto . . . ."
The low-voiced rumble of the warning was ominous and Callisto quickly dropped her hand. Instead, she smiled. "It will be so delightful to hear how that pretty tongue of yours speaks when its being ripped out of your head like the Roman spies you sent into the camp last night, dear."
Now it was Gabrielles turn to be taken off-guard. She had thought that her enforced visit had sprung directly from the young woman shed rescued from the cross. During her short journey into the castle, shed thought up many arguments to explain her actions. Now she was being accused of something else altogether. "Im afraid I dont know what youre talking about," she replied honestly.
Callisto laughed. "Oh come now, my dear. Even those fat lumps of goat dung you brought in here thought up more inventive excuses than that! And you call yourself a bard."
The tall blonde froze as she realized her mistake. Gabrielle, however, grinned and pounced. "I believe you have me confused with someone else, Callisto. Im a healer. Not a bard."
Gabrielle turned her head in time to catch Xena looking at Callisto, a speculative expression on her face. Feeling the gaze, Callisto looked back, smiling innocently. "I heard the soldiers talk about her skill at telling stories."
Gabrielle groaned inwardly, forgetting that she had, indeed, attempted to cheer up the injured men by telling them stories. Still, it was good to know that there were chinks in Callistos armor. That gave her hope. "I wont deny that I told the men stories. If that makes me a bard in your eyes, so be it."
"Well I, for one, would just love to hear the little tale youve concocted to explain just how you managed to show up here on the very day our men were attacked and the Roman spies were found trying to run away."
Callisto threw back her head and laughed. "Coincidence? Surely you can do better than that, cant you?"
"Its the truth, and you know it, Callisto."
Grinning wildly, Callisto looked down at Gabrielle, fingering the hollow of her neck. "Oh I do, do I?" Her smile became a snarl. "The only thing I know, you annoying little brat, is that Persian soldiers dressed as Egyptians attacked the Conquerors men in an obvious attempt to allow three Roman spies to escape with some sort of information which cost them their tongues and hands."
Callisto smirked at Gabrielles pained wince.
"And all the while, a strange woman bearing the staff of an Amazon Queen coincidentally happens to find herself in the middle of the mayhem." She turned to the watching Conqueror. "Are you buying this load of dung?"
When Xena didnt answer, Callisto turned back to Gabrielle, who spoke first. "I was fighting those men, Callisto, same as you were."
"Ohhhhh, you were fighting them. With what? Your little stick? Bet you didnt kill any though, did you."
Gabrielle gritted her teeth. "I. Dont. Kill."
Callisto smiled sweetly. "Of course you dont, dear. How fortunate for the enemy youre fighting against."
Clenching her fists, the bard managed to keep a hold on a temper that was growing more heated by the second.
"But then again, you always were too much of a goody-goody to relish a good kill, werent you."
The moment the words were out of her mouth, Callisto paled, frozen to the spot. Forcing her muscles to move, she slowly turned her head, only to be captured by a pair of glittering blue eyes. "That . . .didnt quite come out the way I meant it to."
"Im sure it didnt," Xena replied, leaning slowly forward in her chair, her smile dark and hungry.
"I could explain . . . ."
"But . . . ."
Making her first truly wise decision of the evening, the Conquerors second in command spun on her heel and, after shooting a deadly glare toward the still kneeling Gabrielle, strode from the room as quickly as her legs could carry her.
After the door closed, Xena rose gracefully to her feet and closed the distance between herself and Gabrielle. "Get up." Her voice was deathly soft.
The bard stood quickly, ignoring the swimming sensation in her head, a sensation caused as much from the abrupt change in position as from the sudden and menacing presence of Xena just inches away. Still, she managed to meet the Conquerors eyes without fear.
"How do you know Callisto."
Gabrielles mind whirled with a thousand thoughts as the words suddenly dried up in her throat.
Reaching out, Xena tilted the younger womans chin upward, her grip biting. "Answer me quickly, Amazon, or the fate of those Roman spies will be the Elysian Fields compared to what Ill do to you."
Swallowing hard, Gabrielle decided to go with what she knew.
Or as much of it as she could reveal, given the circumstances.
"She killed my husband," she said softly.
Xena felt a brief moment of shock, that being the last answer she would have suspected, but refrained from letting it show. She continued to stare silently at the smaller woman, waiting.
"We had only been married a day, and we were both unarmed, but she killed him anyway in cold blood."
"So your being here was a ruse to get you close enough to take your revenge on her."
Gabrielles eyes flashed. "No. When I said I didnt kill, I was telling you the truth." She took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "I wanted to kill her at the time. I wanted to rip her heart out and feed it to her." She dropped her eyes, remembering. "But I didnt."
Xena was intrigued. "And why was that."
"Because a friend convinced me that losing my blood innocence over someone like Callisto just wasnt worth it. And she was right."
"And where is that friend now?"
Gabrielle looked back up, staring deep into Xenas penetrating eyes and speaking a truth in her heart. "Shes dead."
"Then theres really nothing stopping you from going after Callisto, is there."
Green eyes blazed with determination. "Yes, there is. My friend may be gone, but her message, and her love, lives on in my heart. And no one can take that away from me. Not Callisto. Not even you."
Dropping her hand away from Gabrielles face, Xena turned and walked back to her throne, lowering herself into the seat with fluid grace. She smiled slightly; the first expression of true emotion Gabrielle had seen from her. "You intrigue me, Amazon. At first I thought you a simple spy, perhaps in collusion with Callisto. But you have depths to you which reach far beyond that."
Gabrielle looked up, stunned. "Would . . .you mind . . .backing up a little? In collusion with Callisto? What does that mean, exactly?"
The bards heart twisted slightly as the familiar and beloved gesture of Xenas characteristic eyebrow-raise was directed at her. "Perhaps I should reassess my opinion of your intelligence."
"Are you trying to tell me you know that Callistos out to get you?" Gabrielle asked, wide-eyed.
The Conqueror gestured toward the room around her. "One doesnt attain this type of position without being well aware of whats going on around oneself." Her eyes, though, spoke other messages, ones of betrayal and trusts brutally broken, of lessons learned the hard way, and of the absolute determination never to let it happen again.
Confused, Gabrielle scratched at the back of her neck. "Forgive me for saying this then, but why in the world do you keep her around?"
Xenas smile became dark. "Keep your friends close; your enemies closer."
"But you said you dont have any friends."
"And am I your enemy?"
"As I said, I have no friends."
Gabrielles gaze shone with compassion. "Thats a very lonely way to live a life."
Xenas eyebrow went up again. "That depends on whos living it."
"I disagree," Gabrielle replied, warming to her subject. "To live without love is something none of us should be forced to experience."
The Conqueror snorted. "Love is a myth told to beggars by bards to let them forget the hunger in their bellies. It is a weakness to anyone who thinks they possess it."
"Youre wrong," Gabrielle said, forgetting, in her passion, just who she was talking to. "Love does exist. Its not a weakness. Its a strength."
"Spoken like a true zealot." Looking over the bards left shoulder, Xena gestured with one hand, causing Gabrielle to look in that direction and watch as two gorgeous women walked gracefully forward from the shadows. The smaller of the two, a beautiful Asian, bore a large bowl in her hands, while the taller woman held a gem-encrusted decanter and matching goblet. When they reached the throne, Niamey and Ling Li knelt down and held up their offerings to the Conqueror.
Gabrielle fought down the tiny seed of jealousy that threatened to raise its head over the display.
At Xenas nod, Niamey poured the liquid from the decanter into the goblet, then handed it to her Ruler.
Drinking deep of the sweet wine, the Conqueror used her other hand to reach into the bowl of oiled olives, her long, slim fingers plucking one from the rest and casually popping it into her mouth. As she separated the meat from the pit, Xena looked down at the young blonde, watching the healer watch her lips. "Tell me, Amazon," she said, almost casually, "when my men put that young woman on the cross, did you feel her pain?"
Gabrielles eyes narrowed. "Yes. She didnt deserve to be executed for giving the people hope."
Fishing another olive from the bowl, the Conqueror nodded, expecting the answer she received. "How is she, by the way?" she asked, eyeing the ripe olive as if it were a rare and precious jewel.
Gabrielle just managed to keep her jaw from dropping open at the casually uttered question. She swallowed hard as her heart sped its rate in her chest. "Shes . . .safe."
The bard willed Xena to meet her gaze, but the Conqueror continued to roll the olive between her fingers, watching as the light from the torches played off its shining skin.
"Its just as well. The girl meant very little to me in any case." It was then that Xena looked up, her gaze intense with knowledge. "The message was received, as intended." She smiled slightly. "And I should thank you for your act. You managed to prevent me further troubles down the road."
"I dont understand."
"You mean you didnt see my little display?"
Xena rose gracefully to her feet and stepped between her two attendants. "Come," she said to Gabrielle, who followed her to the window.
Upon looking out, the bard gasped.
Where one empty cross had stood just hours before, six now stood, each bearing the body of a slowly dying soldier.
"If it hadnt been for your rescue of the girl, I might not have known until too late that members of my Royal Guard could be so easily duped by a parlor trick." Xena bowed slightly, mockingly. "So, thank you for that. You saved me a great deal of trouble."
Gritting her teeth in angry frustration, Gabrielle whirled away from the window and strode once again into the center of the room, breathing heavily to keep from giving vent to her anger and horror.
Turning from the window, Xena leaned back against the cool stone, crossing her arms and smirking at the angry young healer. "So you see, Amazon, what you call love is a weakness. For every person you save in its name, six more die because of it. Not a very profitable venture."
"Profit?!? Were talking about human lives here and youre worried about profit?" Gabrielles eyes blazed with righteous indignation. "What kind of a monster are you??"
The Conqueror sneered. "A very powerful one."
Threading her hands through her own hair, Gabrielle pulled at it, shaking her head. "No. No, Im not going to let you pull me down to your level. I wont." Releasing her head, the bard looked up at the Conqueror, who was still smirking at her from beside the casement. "Xena, I know that beneath those trappings of godhood and feigned indifference, theres a woman in there capable of compassion and love. I know it."
Pushing herself away from the wall, Xena walked over to Gabrielle, stopping just inches away. "Dont delude yourself, Amazon. Others before you held the same convictions." The corner of her mouth curled. "They dont feel that way anymore."
"No?" Gabrielle turned her head and looked over at Niamey and Ling Li, who were watching the proceedings avidly, if obliquely. "What about them?" She turned her gaze back to the woman towering over her. "I saw the looks in their eyes when they served you, Xena. And that look was love. If they can love you, there must be something inside you worthy of that emotion."
Xena looked at the two women still kneeling by her throne. As one, they blushed deeply, then looked down, heads bowed in unison. She turned back to Gabrielle, one hand reaching out to cup the young womans chin. "Ill show you what they love about me."
Lowering her head slowly, the Conqueror captured her healers lips in a kiss filled with animal passion. At first, Gabrielle sunk into it, the feelings the familiar action engendered too strong to resist. Her hands moved of their own accord, reaching up to tangle in Xenas thick, fragrant hair and pull the taller woman more closely against her.
After a moment, though, her mind caught up to her hormones and she pulled away, trying to steady her rapid breathing and fluttering pulse. "That was lust, Xena. Dont confuse it with love."
Xena smiled. "In the darkness of the night, the line between the two often becomes blurred." She pulled the smaller woman in close once more, pressing her lips against Gabrielles, before grasping her wrist in an iron grip and whirling around. "Niamey, draw a bath. Now."
"Dont do this, Xena," Gabrielle said, struggling fruitlessly to disengage from the Conquerors vice grip.
"Monsters can do anything they wish, Amazon. And youre about to find out exactly what this monster wishes to do to you."
"Xena . . . ." Continuing her struggle, Gabrielle looked desperately over to the two silent servants, seeking help. Niamey had already arisen at her Rulers order, and Ling Li lowered her eyes in shame as the bards gaze touched hers.
Ignoring the healers attempts at escape, Xena strode forward toward her bathing chamber, giving Gabrielle little recourse but to stumble along behind the dark Empress or risk having her arm torn from its socket. Though she had firsthand knowledge of Xenas legendary strength, that knowing didnt stop her attempts to free herself in the slightest.
It also didnt give her any success in the venture.
Upon entering the bathing chamber, Gabrielle was tossed into the arms of a surprised Niamey, who just managed to keep them both from toppling backwards into the rapidly filling tub. The tall African wrapped both arms around the smaller woman and steadied them both before releasing Gabrielle and looking over her head toward the sneering Conqueror, eyebrows raised in silent question.
"See to it that shes cleaned and bring her to my rooms."
Xena turned away, then looked back slightly over one broad shoulder. "I wouldnt think of escaping if I were you. If you succeed, theyll pay."
Gabrielle didnt even bother to look up, having long since figured that Xena would seek to teach yet another lesson by using the bards compassion against her. Instead, she began to calmly undo the blouse so painstakingly re-sewn by Tao Fengs talented hands, a part of her even managing to look forward to the first hot bath shed enjoy in long weeks.
Freshly bathed and proudly naked, Gabrielle walked into the Conquerors private sleeping quarters, flanked on either side by Niamey and Ling Li.
Xenas gaze was hot upon her as she walked forward, stopping only when she came close enough to feel the heat emanating from her avid watchers body. The Conqueror still wore her sheer robe, though it was unbelted and open enough to show the innermost curves of her breasts and the tiniest hint of the silken skin of her taut abdomen.
Looking down into the searing gaze, Gabrielle smiled; an open, sunny expression without a trace of fear or lust she knew the Conqueror would expect.
Xenas eyes narrowed.
The bards smile broadened..
"What game are you playing, Amazon?"
"My name. Gabrielle. It occurs to me that youve never used it." She cocked her head slightly. "Why is that?"
Xenas gaze sharpened and her lips parted in a soundless snarl, yet she made no move to capture the alluring body standing to tauntingly close to her own.
"Could it be that my name makes me a person, like you? Is that why you wont use it?"
Growling, the Conqueror lashed out and captured Gabrielles wrist, pulling her down onto the bed and onto her back, covering the smaller woman with her larger body.
Gabrielle forced herself to lie still and pliant under the Conquerors ravishing lips, neither spurning nor encouraging the primal advances.
After a moment, Xena pulled away, looking down at her.
"I wont fight you, Xena. If thats what youre looking for, Im afraid youre going to be disappointed."
The Conqueror smiled. "Oh," she purred, "I dont think I will. . . ."
Again, the bard forced herself not to react. It was a difficult task, with half of her body wanting nothing more than to respond to the familiar fires Xena was stoking in her body, and the other half screaming all-out rebellion against the Conquerors actions. With effort, she drew upon the meditative techniques the warrior herself had taught her to remain as still and relaxed as possible as Xenas hands followed her lips on a trek over Gabrielles sleek body.
After several more moments, Xena again pulled back. "Am I keeping you awake?"
Opening her eyes, Gabrielle stared up into the sardonic blues above her. "You wanted my body, Xena. You have it. My soul isnt yours to take."
Grinning with malicious intent, Xena palmed one of Gabrielles breasts, squeezing slightly. "Oh? And who is the proud owner of such a prize?"
Taking in a deep breath, Gabrielle forced herself to remember that the cruel and calculating woman above her was the same person, down to the last molecule, as the woman who did own what the Conqueror couldnt take. That, but for the simple intervention of one brave man, her Xena and this Xena would be one in the same.
Letting go the breath, she put all the boundless love she held for her soulmate into the strength of her gaze, staring directly into the stormy eyes of the Ruler of Greece.
Caught in the untold power of the gaze, Xena pulled sharply away as if burned, her own eyes wide and blinking, yet not having the strength to look away.
Gabrielle smiled, a soft and gentle expression, and tenderly lifted her palm to place flat against Xenas cheek. "Love is the answer, Xena," she whispered.
For the briefest of seconds, Xena leaned her cheek into the warm palm of her healer, something in her drawn to the almost maternal comfort offered.
Then, as if coming fully into herself once again, she jerked her face away, then removed her hand from Gabrielles breast and flung the young woman from her bed to sprawl in an untidy heap on the cold stone floor. She looked up, eyes blazing. "Ling Li, call a guard."
Bowing hurriedly, the Chinese woman gathered up the folds of her colorful robe and dashed away on bare feet.
Rolling out of the bed, Xena grabbed Gabrielle by her already bruised and swollen wrist and pulled her to her feet, her eyes blazing. "Whatever sorcery youre conjuring wont work with me, Amazon. Youre very close to having your life ended simply because it would please me to do so." She grabbed the bard more tightly and shook her. "Dont press your luck."
Before Gabrielle could think to replyhad one even been formulating in her headLing Li returned, a strapping guard in tow.
Xena pushed the healer away and into the professional hands of the older guard. "Confine her to one of the rooms in this hall and guard her well. If she isnt in my throne room at dawn, youll be joining your fellows on the crosses outside. Am I understood?"
"Leave me. All of you."
The castle servants had cleaned quite well and, lacking anything new or priceless to break, Callisto sat on her bed, thrusting her knife through the feather mattress and silk sheets, her face a twisted mask of anger.
When the half-expected light began to coalesce in her room, the warrior threw her knife, not at all surprised to find Ares, fully formed, tossing it in his hand and grinning. "Now, is that any way to great an old friend?"
"Im sorry. Did someone make us friends when I wasnt looking?"
Laughing heartily, Ares flipped the knife back at Callisto, who caught it easily and slipped it into the sheath at her waist. "What do you want,." she asked, scowling.
The war-god shrugged. "I was in the neighborhood. Figured Id pop in and see how things were going."
"You know damn well how things are going, Ares. That annoying little bitch is going to ruin everything!"
"And which annoying little bitch would that be again?" At Callistos murderous glare, Ares grinned. "Oh. That annoying little bitch." He shrugged again, the leather going tight against his shoulders and chest. "Its not as if I didnt warn you."
Callisto laughed mirthlessly. "Fat lot of good that did, Ares. Xena and the little brat are probably in her room right now going at it like rabbits!"
"Unfortunately, no." Ares sighed in affected disappointment. "I was hoping for a hot and heavy session of girl/girl action, but no dice, Im afraid. Seems the little do-gooder pissed Xena off and spoiled the mood." He sighed again.
"Im terribly sorry for the waste of a perfectly good hard-on, Ares, but that information, fascinating as it is, really doesnt help me with my little problem, now does it."
"Who said I was trying to help? Youre the one who cant keep her stories straight, not me."
Callistos dark eyes narrowed. "And you were enjoying every second of it, werent you."
Ares grinned. "Call me a sucker for a good tap-dance."
When Callisto didnt rise to the bait, Ares contented himself with looking around the nearly denuded room. His gaze fell upon a heavy wooden table that had somehow managed to withstand the blondes insane rage. "Hello, what do we have here?"
Lacking anything better to do, Callisto rose to her feet and walked over to the table, looking down at the inlaid object that Ares was rubbing his index finger against. Then she looked up at the dark god. "Its called a rock. Pry it out, why dont you? Im sure itll make a perfect match to the ones already in your head."
"Play nice, Callisto, or Ill start to wonder why you dont recognize the importance of this stone and give it to my sister instead. We all know how much she likes her little baubles." Ares stuck a finger in his mouth in a faux gag.
"Oh please fill me in, Ares. Wont you?"
The god of war smirked. "Well, since you asked so nicely . . . ." Using his powers, Ares easily levitated the stone into his palm, then tossed it lightly into the air, grinning. "Are you sure you dont recognize it?"
Snarling, Callisto made a grab for the stone and missed, badly.
"Ah, ah, ah. You didnt say the magic word."
"Bite me," the blonde growled.
"Close enough." As Ares bent forward, teeth bared, Callisto slipped away, grabbing the stone at the same time and peering closely at it. She then looked up at Ares, eyebrows raised.
"That, my dear, just happens to be the Ixion Stone."
Callisto looked back to the stone in her hand, disbelief stamped clearly across her features. "This is the Ixion Stone?"
Ares cocked his head. "I think that hearing problem of yours is getting worse. Id see a healer about it pretty soon if I were you." He grinned. "Gabrielled be perfect for the job."
Callisto pointedly ignored Ares taunt as she stared at the stone in her hand. "So this is why that incompetent little piece of goat dung follows Xena around like a drowned puppy."
Ares folded his arms across his massive chest. "And which piece of goat dung would we be talking about now?"
Looking up, Callisto bared her teeth in an evil grin. "Dagnine, of course. This stone is the only goal in his miserable little life. Xena must be holding it over his head to insure that he does her bidding." Her eyelids fluttered closed. "Shes soooo good."
"That she is, my dear. That she most definitely is."
"Wont he be surprised when he finds out who has this little trinket now?" Throwing her head back, she laughed, rattling the stone in her hand. Her eyes snapped open as a delicious idea popped into her head. "Thats it! Ill use him to get the annoying brat out of the way, then use Xena to get him out of the way! Its perfect!"
The war god pointed an enthusiastic finger at Callisto. "You have a really evil mind. I like that in a woman."
Ares smoothed his beard and smiled. "Too bad Dagnine isnt a storyteller like Gabrielle," he said after a moment.
"And why is that?"
"Because then, you could kill two bards with one stone! Get it?" Laughing uproariously, Ares sparkled out of existence, leaving a groaning Callisto behind.
Continued - Part 5
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