Disclaimers and all that jazz. Characters not mine. No profit intended. Don’t read if illegal, underage or bothersome. Yes, alternate relationship depicted, but not explict. However, mature audience only, please. There is some violence, and lots of angst and turmoil. The kitchen sink stays with the house, and the Beaver killed JFK. He was a disturbed child.

Other notes: Thanks to all who gave this an advance read. This is based on the Conqueror story line, which means that it’s an alternate universe, with lions, tigers and bears, oh my, but we’re not in Greece anymore, Argo. Comments can be sent to Pallas3@yahoo.com

 

Unconquered

by Pallas
Pallas3@yahoo.com

--- I ---

"Where was she captured?" The sultry voice was tired and strained.

"Not two days west of here, Majesty."

"And how many were killed in the attack?"

A strawberry blonde pushed herself closer, her compact body tight with unhidden anger.

"No one was killed," the travel worn woman emphasized, ignoring the growing noise from the crowded council room.

"Unbelievable." The queen’s dark head shook slowly. "She let a run down outpost capture her, and she didn’t kill a single soul?" The room grew louder, and the queen’s dark eyes traveled across the crowd, stopping briefly on the green-eyed woman near the front, before refocusing on the messenger in front of her. "So, tell me how it happened?"

"She just surrendered, Majesty," the messenger said. "Walked right up to our gates, and threw down her sword."

"You’re lying," a curly head advisor cried, stepping forward before the queen could speak again.

"I do not, Ephiny. The Conqueror came to the outpost and surrendered. No army. No fight, and no spirit either."

"Then it’s not the Conqueror," Ephiny said. "Xena wouldn’t do that. Why would she? She’d fight to the death, and probably ..."

The messenger held up her hand. "All I know is that I was sent here with this message. Xena, the Conqueror is in our jail .. and awaiting your decision, Majesty."

"Astra," the queen said with a measured voice. "Ephiny does has a point. Xena isn’t one to just give up ... though gods I wish it were true." She looked closely at the messenger. "So, how do you really know the woman you hold is the Conqueror?"

"I fought with you against her, Terreis," the messenger replied. "I saw her. Watched her hack through our friends like they weren’t there. Believe me ... I know this is Xena."

"Fine," Terreis conceded.

"It’s a trick," Ephiny said, leaning over the table and staring hard at the messenger. "It has to be, Terreis. She’s up to something. Why else would ... "

"Maybe," the queen said, cutting her advisor off. "But if that’s the case, then what’s she really up to?"

"It doesn’t matter. If we’ve got her ... and her cursed army isn’t around, then let’s press that advantage. End her control. End her murder and rampage. Kill her, Terreis. Now!" Ephiny stressed the last word with authority, and several of the women in the room applauded and cheered.

Terreis held up her hand to quiet both her advisor and the room. "Enough! If this is a trick then it’s one she’s never used before. Why put herself into our hands?" Her eyes focused on the messenger. "I trust you’ve searched for any signs of her army?"

The woman dipped her head in acknowledgment. "You know us better than that, my Queen."

"Tell me ... What has she said?" Ephiny demanded.

"She hardly speaks," the woman answered. "Just sits in her cell and ignores us all. She only asked when she’d be brought back here for trial."

"That’s it!" Ephiny said, slamming her fist on the table. "She knows we’ll bring her back here, and then she’ll be inside our camp." She slammed the table again. "Damn her, that’s good!"

"And the point of being here ... alone ... would be what, Ephiny?" the queen asked, turning her tired eyes towards the advisor.

"C’mon, Terreis ... this isn’t the time to start questioning the innate goodness in people. I think Xena’s proven that theory is bad."

"And what’s your take on this, if I may ask," Terreis said, her voice taking on a tone that teetered between annoyance and hurt.

"Look around you," Ephiny said, her eyes touching everyone in the room. "Xena has almost gained control of every region known to man. Her reach is far, and her power strong ... stronger than anything we can stand up against. But we have. We’ve continued to make a stand against her persecution."

"And almost destroyed ourselves in the attempt," Terreis pointed out.

"Exactly! But it’s stuck in Xena’s craw. She doesn’t like to lose."

"So, surrendering to us is her way of winning?"

"Terreis ... she wants to wipe us out of existence. She hasn’t been able to do that, but if she got in here ... our home base ... our sanctuary ... what could she do then?"

"I’m assuming you’ll tell us," Terreis said, her tone biting.

"Don’t underestimate her, is all I’m saying," Ephiny said, standing back.

"I think you’re jumping to conclusions," the queen said, pulling herself taller with what appeared to be great effort. "I’ll call a full council meeting in one hour, and we will decide how to best handle the situation. We’ll adjourn for now ..."

"Queen Terreis?" The strawberry blonde pushed past the messenger, and stood tall in front of the queen. "I demand to be allowed to voice my rights, Majesty. I need to know what you intend to do with her now ... not later."

"Gabrielle! ... Quiet," Ephiny said, her voice soft, but decisive. The queen held up her hand to again silence her advisor, and her dark eyes shifted to take in the young woman before her.

"Gabrielle ... We’ve tolerated these breaches because you’re new to the nation ... but you cannot question the decisions of your ruling council or your Queen."

"I’m sorry, but I disagree. I may be new, but my whole reason for being here is that woman!" Gabrielle said, taking a confident step forward. "And as an Amazon, I demand the rite of blood vengeance upon her."

"We are all aware of your loss," the queen replied. "Your demand would be honored ... in normal circumstances ... but Xena is not normal."

"No, she’s worse than any scourge known! She’s a demon. A monster! She deserves no justice, and I demand vengeance!!" Gabrielle’s green eyes challenged her queen.

Terreis shifted visibly under the relentless gaze, and it was obvious that Gabrielle had no intention of releasing the queen until her demand had been granted. Thus, the younger woman didn’t see Ephiny shake her head as she moved off the platform, but she broke her stare when a hand clamped around her arm.

"C’mon," Ephiny whispered. "Time to go before you find yourself on punishment detail ... again."

Resistance against Ephiny’s iron grip was useless, and Gabrielle relunctantly allowed herself to be lead from the council hut. Once outside, she felt the grip weaken, and she tore her arm away.

"What’re you doing, Gab?"

"Leave me alone, Ephiny. I don’t need another lecture on Amazon etiquette."

"Until you learn it, you do. How far do you think you’re going to get with that type of attitude?"

"It’s my right!" the distraught woman cried. "I have to avenge them. That’s why I came here in the first place!"

"Gabrielle," Ephiny said, putting her hand on the other woman’s shoulder. "I know you miss your family ---"

"You know nothing! You don’t know how I fall asleep hearing their screams, or see them running from the house burning, Ephiny. The whole village is burning. I smell it. I see it. I see them. I watch ... I’m forced to watch."

"Gabrielle ..."

"I can’t do anything to help them. I can’t reach them ... I can’t because she is ... she is ... Because she is holding me! Making me watch. That’s what I live with, Ephiny! Her hands holding me while I watch my husband and sister burn before my eyes!"

"Gabrielle ..." Ephiny said again, her voice measured but weak.

"Don’t tell me that you know I miss my family. Don’t ever say that. You have no idea."

"You’ve suffered ... yes. But ..."

Gabrielle turned to her, and grabbed Ephiny’s hand. "You can do it, Eph." Her voice sounded desperate. "You’re close to the queen. She’ll send a party to bring Xena back. Convince her to let me lead the party. Do that for me. Please."

"Oh, that’s good, Gabrielle. You’ll have her right where you’ve wanted her, and by the gods she won’t make it here alive ... will she?"

Gabrielle nodded quickly, her reddish blond hair glinting in the sunlight.

"How can you ask me to do that? I’d be betraying the trust Terreis puts in me ..."

"You didn’t seem to mind arguing with her in there," Gabrielle said, pointing at the hut.

"That’s different and you know it. Do you know what you’re asking of me?"

"I promised myself that I’d never remind you of this, Ephiny, but this means too much to me."

Ephiny closed her eyes. "I know," she whispered. "You saved my life."

"Yes."

"And can’t I say I did the same for you?"

"What do you mean?"

"It was a fluke that you were on that road ... on that day ..."

"You didn’t think it was a fluke when I pushed you out of the way of that runaway cart."

"No, I didn’t. But the point is that after that ... the Amazons saved you. You were wandering, Gabrielle. Aimlessly ... without purpose."

"I never lacked a purpose, Ephiny," Gabrielle stressed. "Xena’s death is my purpose in life. Nothing else matters, and if you or the Amazons want gratitude for all of this," her hand swept across the village. "The you can have it ... forever ... once Xena is dead."

"And what about all the others who’ve lost loved ones to Xena?" Ephiny lifted Gabrielle’s chin until she was forced to look into her friend’s hazel eyes. "Don’t they deserve to share in her death? Don’t they deserve the same right?"

"That’s not my problem," Gabrielle said, her green eyes burning with commitment. "Are you going to help me or not?"

Ephiny closed her eyes. "I’m making no promises ... I’ll talk to Terreis. She won’t go for it, but I’ll try. It’s all I can do."

"Thank you."

"Don’t thank me. If you kill Xena while she’s being transported for trial, then under Amazon law, you’ll be tried for murder. You could receive death, Gabrielle. You really want that?"

"If my husband and sister can rest in peace ... Yes, I want that." She looked at her friend. "I want the screams to stop. I let them down, and ..." Gabrielle looked away. "I miss them, Eph. So much."

Ephiny reached out and pushed a lock of hair off Gabrielle’s face. "I know. That’s the only reason I’m doing this. I hope it’ll give you the peace you seek."

--- II ---

It took two greuling days to make the journey through the mountains to the isolated outpost which held the mighty Xena captive. A small contingent of Amazons had been dispatched by the queen to guard their prized prisoner on the trip home. Ephiny lead the delegation, and Gabrielle was reluctantly allowed to join the group as an advisor and witness.

The two women rode nimble horses, while a small group of heavily armed Amazons brought up the rear. Silence between the two friends characterized the monotonous journey, and Gabrielle could find nothing to say which would quiet her troubled heart.

By Amazon law the leader of any mission carried the burden of ultimate responsibility, and Gabrielle knew that if something happened to the Conqueror on the journey home then Ephiny would be expected to pay for her failure with her life. Even her position as the queen’s heir and closest advisor wouldn’t save Ephiny from that punishment.

Gabrielle knew she had to kill the Conqueror, but the question that plagued her was whether to condemn her friend to death in her pursuit of her own vengeance. Were the lives of her dead husband and sister worth the life of one of her closest friends? As the village drew closer, she knew that no matter what, Xena must die at her hand, and all she had to do was figure out some way to do it and save Ephiny.

As the small group caught sight of the outpost nestled in the hills below them, everyone except Gabrielle felt relieved to end their journey. It had been drizzling since morning, and the whole party was anxious to shed their wet leathers, and find comfort by a warm fire. Ephiny gave Gabrielle a meaningful look as they made their way down the well worn road, and somehow she knew her friend perceived her thoughts and resolutions. With a sinking heart she knew that was going to make it harder for her.

A great commotion greeted them as they passed through the gates, and Ephiny was surrounded by an excited group of Amazons. Gabrielle let herself blend into the background, but her anxious green eyes watched as her friend was swept from one welcome to the next. It wasn’t often that one of their royal family came to visit, and the heir apparent was almost as good as receiving the queen herself. Ephiny accepted the greetings with gracious charm, and Gabrielle couldn’t help but smile each time her friend caught her eye and grimaced at the overdone pomp of the village leaders.

When the brief welcome ceremony was over, Ephiny sought her out near the back of the crowd.

"You looked good up there," Gabrielle said with a wicked grin, her body pacing back and forth.

"Better watch it, or I’ll give you the rite of caste and then you can go through all of that, too."

"Promises, promises."

"How you holding up?" Ephiny asked, and Gabrielle realized her friend’s eyes were following her edgy movements.

"I want to see her," Gabrielle announced, forcing herself to stand still.

Her friend’s curly head shook. "Not a good idea. You’re tired and you need to rest."

"Quit telling me what I need. I need to see her. Need to look into her murdering eyes and know she has no soul!"

Ephiny took a breath, her hazel eyes hardening. "I can’t let you kill her. You know that."

"I know what it will mean, but I figure if I do it tonight ... before she’s in your control ... you can’t be blamed, and I’m prepared to take full responsibility. I’m not afraid to die."

"Gabrielle ... there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you ... you know that. But she must stand trial. Terreis made that quite clear."

Gabrielle looked around frantically searching for some advantage. Her face lifted. "What if she escaped? If she escaped ... she’d be a danger. We’d have to kill her. Self defense and all."

Ephiny’s brow furrowed. "Well, I dunno ..." She looked away. "I’ll have to think about it."

"I still want to see her. Now."

"That’s not a good idea. Trust me, it’ll just confuse you."

"Quit treating me like I’m five or something. I know what I’m doing!"

The princess ran her hand through her hair, her teeth chewing on her lower lip. Gabrielle waited, trying hard to keep the anxiety which coursed through her from appearing on her face. Finally Ephiny’s eyes focused on her, and Gabrielle felt them travel down her body, settling at her waist.

"Give me your dagger," Ephiny said, holding her hand out, and raising her eyebrow when Gabrielle opened her mouth to object. "It’s not that I don’t trust you, ... but it’s best if you don’t have the ... um ... temptation."

The younger woman tilted her head, but she bit back a series of retorts that would only threaten the progress she’d made. With a small smile, she pulled the knife from her belt and passed it to her friend. "Take it, if that’s how you feel."

Ephiny nodded seriously, and then raised a hand to call a young Amazon over to them, and giving Gabrielle a last questioning look, she turned her attention to the guard. "Take her to the prisoner," she ordered. "Give her five minutes, and then use whatever force necessary to drag her sorry butt out of there. Got it?"

The young Amazon nodded, her eyes darting between her princess and the red-blonde stranger. She pointed in a direction, and started off, Gabrielle in tow.

"Five minutes, Gabrielle. Don’t give me any reason to put you in irons, too." Ephiny’s voice had a touch of humor to it, but Gabrielle didn’t find it amusing.

"Cute, Eph," she called over her shoulder. "Real cute," she muttered to herself, her eyes locked on the sharp knife hanging from her guide’s belt.

--- III ---

The Amazons kept their prized prisoner in a sorry excuse for a jail. Even Gabrielle’s inexperienced eye could see the flaws and weaknesses in the structure long before the door was held open. The inside was dark and stank of rotten straw and horse manure. Gabrielle chuckled to herself realizing they were actually in an old stable, and looking overhead she saw the gaping holes in the thatched roof, and the loose boards all around. In some remote part of her heart she pitied the greatest warrior ever known for being subjected to this type of humiliating confinement.

Where is she?" Gabrielle asked her guide.

"Back door, there." The woman pointed to a sturdy looking door with an iron bolt, and to Gabrielle’s surprise there were no guards.

"Is she eating?" She didn’t know why she cared.

The woman shrugged. "Plate comes back empty. Don’t know what she does with it."

"Is she chained?"

"Didn’t seem no point. She never makes no trouble, ... and she did surrender and all."

Gabrielle turned and stared at the young Amazon. "Let me have your knife," she said, holding her hand out. "For protection."

"The princess said nothing about that."

"It’s alright. Ephiny doesn’t have to know, and really for your sake, she’d be more upset if I were hurt ... or worse. She’s mine, you know."

The young Amazon’s eyes ran over her form, sizing her up. "I dunno. Maybe I should go check with the princess." Her hand motioned toward the door, and Gabrielle quickly reached out and grabbed her before she could move.

"C’mon," she said. "It’s only five minutes. Don’t make me go in there without some protection. That woman could kill me before you could reach the door." Her green eyes pleaded.

The Amazon shook her head, and pulled her dagger from its sheath, passing it her. Gabrielle’s hand closed around the knife, a surge of power running through her like a raging river. She looked up and smiled at the Amazon. "Thank you," she whispered, turning towards the Conqueror’s cell. Her revenge was at hand.

"You got five minutes," the Amazon called after her.

With each step she took, she could hear the screams of her family. Her sister’s beautiful voice raised to animalistic intensity ... Her husband writhing in pain, his body engulfed in flames ... While her arms ... Xena’s arms ... were so tight around her. She could feel her hot breath against her neck as the warlord forced her to watch. She could feel her body, hard as iron, pressed against her ... All her pitiful escape attempts defeated ... and the arms only pulled tighter ... At that moment they were as close as one.

When it was over, and Xena was supporting her entire weight, Gabrielle remembered something whispered in her ear. She couldn’t recall the words, but she remember the feeling of lips brushing against her cheek before the warlord dropped her, leaving her broken and buried in grief.

Gabrielle remembered it all as she took those long steps down the hallway. She was within feet of coming face to face with her nightmare and pain.

Her body trembled as she contemplated the door. Her hands felt slick, and with a quick jerk she wiped her palm against her skirt, deciding to sheath the dagger before she dropped it. It was now or never, she realized, lifting a shaking hand to the door. The iron bolt squeaked loudly as she pulled it back, and taking a deep breath she opened the door. Relief lay on the other side.

The cell was very small. Barely large enough for an adult to stretch out comfortably, and with sick pleasure Gabrielle knew that the Conqueror hadn’t been sleeping comfortably. As she stepped into the cell, a strange filter of light caught her eye, and she stood transfixed, watching the golden light play through the thinly thatched roof. It was as if the heavenly rays were trying to combat the evil and darkness that dwelt within the cell.

"You here for a reason or just interested in light?" The voice came from the corner, and Gabrielle searched to find the shape, which almost blended into the wall.

"I ..." Her voice failed her.

In her mind it had been so easy. She’d step up to Xena, holding a knife to her neck, and tell her that her death would avenge the murders of her husband and sister. Then she’d draw the blade across her perfect white throat. Reality wasn’t cooperating, and she stood frozen and confused.

"You must be part of that group come to take me away, huh?"

Gabrielle nodded her head, her eyes straining to see the woman’s face.

"Why the big production? Can’t you just kill me here?"

"Why do you want to die?" She surprised herself with the question.

"Sick of living."

"That’s a dumb reason."

"Who asked you?"

"You just did. I think it’s a stupid reason. If you wanted to die, there’d be plenty of people anxious to take that burden from you. Why put yourself through all of this?"

"Go away. I don’t feel like talking, and you talk too much."

For some reason Gabrielle couldn’t make herself turn to leave. The emotions coursing through her were too much, and for the first time in nearly a year she couldn’t hear the screaming. She lowered herself to the ground by the door.

"I take it you’re not going."

"I want to talk ... talk to you."

"No one wants to talk to me. You know who I am?"

"Yes, I do."

"Yes, you know who I am, or yes, you want to talk to me?"

"Both. Tell me why you came to the Amazons?"

Two booted feet slinked out into the sunlight, crossing effortlessly at the ankles. "Dunno. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but looking at the way they’re treating me, I should’ve gone somewhere else."

"Why was it a good idea?"

"I said I don’t know. Leave it at that."

"Fine. How did you leave your empire?"

The Conqueror gave a wry laugh. "I’m really not that important anymore."

"That bothers you?"

"What? Are you some head doctor or something?"

"Just trying to figure out why the world’s most powerful warlord just ups and walks away from all she’s killed and destroyed for."

"You hate me for that?"

"Among other things, yes."

"I know you, don’t I?" the Conqueror whispered, the resigned haughtiness gone.

Suddenly Gabrielle couldn’t find her own voice, so she just stared. A dark head leaned forward, and two ice blue eyes peered at her from the gloom. "You look almost identical to a woman I dream about." The eyes blinked, and disappeared into the darkness again. "But she wasn’t an Amazon. Just a simple village girl, or something like that."

"What ..." her voice failed, so she took a deep breath and tried again. "What is she to you?"

"You don’t want to know."

"Tell me," she begged. "Why do you dream about her?"

"It’s bad. A nightmare, and I can’t get rid of it. I never will. She’ll haunt me ..."

A knock at the door stopped the warlord’s story. "Time’s up! You know what the princess said."

Gabrielle slowly climbed to her feet, half of her desperate to flee and the other wanting to stay. The Conqueror’s eyes appeared again, and Gabrielle felt caught in her gaze. Without her control she took a step towards the warlord, her heart craving an answer to a question she wasn’t sure she could ask.

"If I was this woman you dream about, what would I do?"

"You’d kill me, and I couldn’t blame you."

"Is she the reason you gave up?"

"Why do you care?" The blue eyes narrowed as they tried to figure her out.

"Because I’m tha .. because I do, that’s why." She turned quickly and fled.

--- IV ---

Gabrielle stood at the entrance while the Amazon shut the cell door. Without a word she removed the forgotten dagger and handed back to the young woman. Her hands were trembling, and her insides felt sick at the knowledge she’d hadn’t taken her revenge. What was worse was she didn’t know why.

Ephiny was waiting for her when she exited the make-shift jail, but Gabrielle kept walking. The Amazon waved her young escort off, and fell in step with her friend.

"So," she asked.

"Um, I don’t want to talk about it, okay?"

"You look shaken. Not quite as easy facing her in real life, is it?"

"Leave me alone. I’m fine."

"Why don’t you just admit it, Gabrielle, you can’t kill. You can’t kill her or anyone."

The younger woman spun with a vengeance. "I can, and I will. She doesn’t deserve my pity, and I don’t care what she makes me feel when I’m near her. I will do it!"

Her friend fell silent as the two walked across the village. Finally, Ephiny turned and stopped her with a hand. "What does she make you feel?"

Gabrielle shrugged, and looked over at the dense woods that surrounded the small outpost. She let her eyes wander back to her friend. "I dunno, Ephiny. It’s weird, when I went in there I wanted to hate her. I did hate her. But when I was there ... it was kinda like something ... I mean, I could feel something that I can’t explain. It got me right here," she put a hand over her stomach, and shook her head. "I don’t know. It was weird."

A hand settled on her shoulder, and her friend’s hazel eyes locked with her. "Listen to me, Gabrielle. You’ve never been through this before, so take my advice. Xena is the enemy to you. What you’re feeling towards her ... it’s intense emotions that can easily become mixed up. You have to stay focused."

Gabrielle tried to pass it off with a weak laugh. "What are you saying? That I’m in love with her? That I hate her?"

"Something like that. You’re battling yourself more than her, so take my advice and stay away from her until the trial is over." Ephiny’s eyes became very serious, and her hand tightened on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "Don’t lose yourself to this, Gabrielle. I couldn’t stand to see that happen. You’re very dear to me, so stay away from her."

"You don’t understand what I’m going through," she said, dismissing her friend’s warning. "So, quit trying!" She began walking again, desperate to get away from Ephiny’s barrage.

"Your heart is what makes you special," Ephiny continued, catching up to her in one stride. "I don’t want to see you kill what’s good in you out of an obligation that doesn’t really exist. Your family would rather you be the good person you are than be nothing but a shadowy reflection of Xena."

Gabrielle stopped at the door of a hut, and turned to her friend. "Are we done? I’m tired," she asked pointing at the door. "This my room?"

Ephiny shook her head, not speaking for a second. "Next one," she replied in a dejected tone. Gabrielle began to move, but Ephiny grabbed her arm, holding the confiscated dagger out to her. "Here," she said. "Stay away from her, Gab. Don’t make it an issue between us."

Gabrielle took the dagger and nodded curtly, feeling Ephiny’s eyes on her back as she walked away.

The room she’d been given was sparse, but not that different from her room in the main village. The small bed called to her, and Gabrielle curled in the center of the lumpy mattress, pulling her legs tightly to her chest. The afternoon shadows lengthened across the room, and a slight chill took hold of her body. Her head was spinning after her meeting with the Conqueror, and all she could see were two stunning blue eyes staring at her with ... with ... with ...

"With what?" she asked out loud.

Whatever, it wasn’t the same look that she remembered in the Conqueror’s eyes. The strange twisting in her stomach when she was near Xena didn’t make her feel any better, either. The feeling was unfamiliar, but she knew it, and yet she couldn’t explain it.

"It isn’t right!" she cried, sitting up and staring into the darkening room. "It shouldn’t be this way."

A strange restlessness infused her body, and jumping off the bed, she began pacing the floor in random angry patterns. She couldn’t shake the blue eyes from her head, and it felt almost as if they were calling to her. Placing her hands on the side of her head, she pressed with all her strength, hoping she could force Xena’s eyes from her throbbing head. With an angry sneer she grabbed her knife, and ran for the door, throwing it open and storming out into the yard.

With the exception of a few torches, the village was dark, and mostly deserted. Gabrielle wasn’t sure how to get back to the jail, but for some reason her body did, and she soon found herself standing outside the old stable, her heart pounding and the blue eyes calling her inside.

"It ends tonight!" she declared, pulling open the door and entering.

She expected to see guards, but the path to the Conqueror’s cell was open and beckoning. In an almost dream-like state she stumbled her way down the hall. Something was pulling her beyond her control to this place, and Gabrielle’s hand tightened on her dagger.

In her head she kept forcing images of her family, desperate to beat out the haunting eyes of the Conqueror. She hardened her pounding heart to any pity, and concentrated on how it would feel to thrust the knife into Xena, knowing the evil inside them both would ebb away with the Conqueror’s life.

She stopped just outside the door, and took a deep breath. She’d never killed anyone before, but tonight she would. Tonight would forever change who she was, and Gabrielle welcomed that change if it would give her peace.

Grabbing a torch, she entered the cell.

"Xena, the Conqueror!" she called, holding the dagger over her aching heart. "I am that woman, and I will kill you!" It became hard to breathe as stinging pain attacked her. She closed her eyes, her voice cracking. "You will die for the murder of my husband and sister." It was too much! She sank to her knees, a relentless pressure building in her chest. Her eyes blurred as she sought her target beyond the halo of light. "You will die, Xena, for making me watch. You will die for ..." Her voice failed. The anguish she’d held at bay consumed her, and all her strength fled. She began to collapse, the straw covered floor her only comfort. "You will die, Xena," she whispered, her body falling.

A hand came up, seizing both her wrist and the torch, and Gabrielle’s eyes lifted. The other hand closed around her waist, pulling her body close and preventing her collapse. Her face was a mere breath away from the Conqueror’s, and green eyes merged with blue.

Xena looked down, and Gabrielle followed the motion. The Conqueror’s hand brushed against hers as the dagger was slowly removed from her weak grip. At that second Gabrielle knew her failure was complete, and her heart broke. In the flickering torch light she began to weep as she and Xena stared wordlessly at each other.

A soft touch caressed her face, and she realized the Conqueror was wiping at her tears. The touch was like nothing she’d ever felt before, and despite everything Gabrielle liked the feeling. Her eyes closed, as the touch moved to her other cheek.

"You are her," Xena breathed, her face pained. "I wanted you to be."

Gabrielle forced herself to sit back, the rough wood wall scratching against her back. "If you mean the woman you made watch her family burn," she said, wiping at her face. "Then yes, I guess I am. Unless there are more of us out there?"

"No," Xena whispered. "You were the only one."

"I’d ask you why, but I wouldn’t expect a truthful answer."

"What’s your name?"

"Why?"

"So I know what face haunts me in my nightmares."

"Don’t try and make me pity you! It won’t work."

"What’s your name, please?"

The young woman sighed. "Gabrielle."

"Gabrielle," Xena repeated. "It suits you, Gabrielle."

She didn’t know why a tremble passed through her when Xena spoke her name, but Gabrielle couldn’t mistake it. What was wrong with her? Why was she sitting here, talking to this animal? Why should she care what she had to say? Why did being near her make her feel alive like she’d never felt before.

"Why?" she whispered, her eyes searching.

"I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, and I know it’s not much, but I’m sorry, Gabrielle."

The words were spoken with a quiet sincerity, and the younger woman didn’t know how to respond, so a silence settled between them. Gabrielle stared intently at the dark haired woman across from her, every feature striking an unknown but familiar cord in her. A trembling was beginning to seize her body, so she pulled her knees to her chest, and wrapped her arms around her body ... But her eyes never left Xena.

"Why?" she asked again.

The warlord tilted her head, and stared at her. "You wouldn’t believe me if I told you."

"I deserve to know," she demanded. "What did I do that made you want to hurt me so badly?"

Xena’s fingers pulled at the straw, her eyes down and intent on her task. Gabrielle recognized the obvious stall, so she kicked her foot out, hitting the warlord’s boot. "Tell me!"

The warlord looked up, and shook her head.

"Damn it, Xena! I have to know why you needed to make me suffer. I was nothing to you, and you took pleasure in hurting me. Why me? What did I do?"

"I didn’t want to," Xena finally whispered. "I can’t explain why I did it, Gabrielle, but know that my life has been worth nothing since that day. I can’t do anything without thinking about you, and what I did ... or why I did it."

"Then why?" Gabrielle asked, squeezing her fist, unnerved that she was beginning to feel pity for this woman, to care about her feelings, and terribly afraid it would change everything. "Xena ... tell me ..."

"Because I hated you," Xena said, her voice devoid of all emotion.

"You didn’t even know me!"

"I hated you because I couldn’t be like you. I hated you for having so much to live for, and I hated you for not being afraid of me. You saw me for what I was, and you didn’t turn away like the others. You stood there, your hair blowing around your face, and you dared me. Not with words, but you defied me," Xena said, her face hardening in the torch light, and her eyes consuming Gabrielle until she could only shake her head.

"I don’t understand. I didn’t ..."

"I remember it all, Gabrielle. I haven’t been able to forget it. No matter how much I try, that day lives in my heart like a dark shadow," Xena said, shaking her dark head. "I remember you standing there in that insignificant little town ..." Xena looked up, and gave her a half grin. "Do you know I had no intention of doing anything but taking provisions? But no, I saw you. That changed everything. All around me there was chaos. Women pulling their children to safety, men afraid to fight back but hatred burning in their eyes, and then there was you."

"I wanted to be afraid ... to run," Gabrielle whispered. "But suddenly I couldn’t move."

"I remember our eyes meeting ... so much was said in that look, Gabrielle. I knew your whole life just by looking at you, and I knew in that instant that I would never have you ... I mean it. I would never have your life." Xena leaned forward and put her hand on Gabrielle’s foot. "Do you remember that moment? You knew me, too, I think. In that second you saw me for all that I’d never be, and ... Do you remember, Gabrielle?" Xena’s voice raised a note, and Gabrielle closed her eyes, trying to force the words to remain unspoken, but failing.

"I remember," she croaked, frightened by a strange and unbidden memory rising in her. "But why ... why destroy ... why murder?"

"You saw the real me, and that terrified me. It made you a threat, and I ... did what I thought I needed."

"I did nothing!" Gabrielle cried, the image of Xena striding towards her that day springing to her mind. "I did nothing to you ... How could I have?"

"I don’t make mistakes ... and leaving you there ... knowing what you could do to me ... I had to make you understand."

"Understand what?"

Xena shook her head, the dark hair falling over her shoulder. "No more, Gabrielle. Accept my apology and leave. Don’t force it ..."

"This is my time now, Conqueror!" she yelled, anger rising in her unchecked. "Forcing it .. Did you enjoy it?" she demanded, suddenly aware that she needed to know. "Did holding me against you, the fire everywhere ... my family ... did you enjoy it?"

Xena leaned back against the wall. "No," she uttered in a low syllable. "I didn’t. As soon as I started I knew it was wrong. I knew that what I was would never be worthy ..." Her voice trailed off.

Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Worthy of what? Cause I can’t see you being worthy of anything!"

"Go away, Gabrielle. I don’t want to talk anymore."

"I’m not leaving until this is settled, Conqueror!" she yelled. "Answer!"

Xena closed her eyes, her head slumping against her chest, and her arms tight across her stomach. Gabrielle realized that she needed to see those eyes. For some reason Xena’s eyes meant something to her, and she didn’t know it consciously, but those eyes had been a part of her for so long now, that they’d become symbolic of who she was. Except she didn’t know who she way anymore. Nothing made sense, and she was weary of carrying around her pain and hatred. Was this woman opposite her worth it? Was any of it worth it anymore?

"I’m tired, Xena," she whispered, suddenly unable to hold herself up. She lay down, the stale hay pungent under her, and looked up, rewarded by seeing the blue eyes watching her. There was something in that look that Gabrielle couldn’t understand, but it comforted her ... and it angered her. "I want to hate you," she said, looking at the hay under her hand.

"You should."

"I’m tired of trying. I’m tired of carrying around my grief. Tired of missing my family. Tired of being consumed by that moment. I want to know more."

In the narrow cell, Xena reached out, and brought her hand down Gabrielle’s hair. It was such a gentle touch that the younger woman closed her eyes with the peaceful feeling that infused her. "You didn’t think you’d be worthy of what?" she whispered, suddenly aware that the answer was important.

"It’s nothing. Doesn’t matter anymore. I did what I did, and now I have to pay for it."

Gabrielle looked up. "It does matter," she said. "You meant what you said, and I want ... or need to know."

"I ... I wouldn’t be worthy of you," Xena whispered, her eyes locked on the other side of the cell.

Gabrielle didn’t answer for a long second, the full meaning reaching her. "Why would you want to be?" she finally asked.

"Am I?" came the hoarse reply.

Gabrielle looked up briefly before lowering her eyes.

"See," Xena said in a defeated voice.

"Why me? I was nothing to you ... and you were ..." Gabrielle stopped, not sure why she was talking about this.

Xena ran a shaky hand through her tangled hair, and shrugged. "I dunno, leave it at that."

"No. I want to hear this, Conqueror," she said, aware that the biting tone had returned. Xena heard it too, and she felt the woman tense up. With a shaking hand, Gabrielle touched the warlord’s arm. "Tell me," she whispered, her eyes downcast.

"You made me feel something that I hadn’t felt before. It scared me."

The younger woman sat up quickly, something in the warlord’s tone startling her. "I scared you? How pathetic! How could I possible scare someone like you?" she asked, aware that something buried deep was beginning to surface.

"Don’t force this, Gabrielle. Leave now, and you’ll never have to know. I’ll never have to say it."

"Believe me ... there is nothing you could say that would surprise me, so say it!"

Xena closed her eyes. "I knew you that day. When I looked into your eyes, I knew that there was someone greater than me. You. And I knew I could never beat you."

"That’s ... just ... sick."

"Then tell me why you didn’t look away?"

"I don’t have to tell you anything. You no more knew me than I know you ..."

"I had your town burned, and made you watch your family die because I knew that you were a threat to me. Somehow I knew that you could change me. I hated that. I hated who I’d allowed myself to become ... and I hated who you were ... I did what I did to show you that I was better. I did it to win." Her head slumped against her chest. "I did it because I was afraid."

"That’s ..." Gabrielle’s chest was heaving, and her hands closed into fists. "I can’t ..." She clenched her jaw and tried to swallow the building rage. "I ... Xena ... Damn you!"

Gabrielle couldn’t control herself, and with a fury she’d only imagined, she launched herself at the warlord, her fists flying and a deep, pained yell echoing from her soul. The momentum of her attack threw them back against the ground, and Gabrielle delighted in Xena lying helpless against her onslaught.

Xena didn’t try to fight back, and Gabrielle hit her again and again, her fists connecting with the warlord’s cheek, jaw, stomach and anywhere else she could reach. Tormented yells escaped from her with every punch, but Xena never cried out. Eventually all of her anger fled, and she collapsed crying against Xena.

The warlord didn’t move, and without thinking, Gabrielle reached out, encircling Xena’s neck with her arms and holding on tight. With deep racking sobs she finally cried for her family in a way that she’d never been able to before. Each chest ripping cry released a little of her pain and her hatred, and each tear that fell on the Conqueror’s shoulder bathed her in a spiritual forgiveness that only Gabrielle could deliver. In that moment each knew the other completely.

After what seemed like forever, Gabrielle found herself unable to cry anymore. Instead she just felt empty, and lifting her head she wiped at her burning eyes. With a sniffle she looked down, seeing that Xena’s eyes were clouded by her own tears. Gabrielle opened her mouth to say something, but realizing what she’d just done she closed it in silence. Xena didn’t say anything either, but looking at her Gabrielle knew she didn’t need to hear words.

Shaking her head she began to roll off the warlord, feeling so stupid for what she’d done, and how she’d broken down. How could she have let the world’s most feared woman see her so weak? She needed to get out of there, needed to find a place to hide her shame.

She started to sit up, but the further she moved from the warlord, the more alone she felt. In total helplessness she collapsed next to Xena. She heard Xena’s head turn in the straw, and she could feel the eyes on her. Gabrielle had no idea what Xena was thinking, but after what they’d just shared, the young woman hadn’t felt closer to anyone in a long time.

"Hold me," she whispered, afraid of her own voice, and completely terrified of what she’d just said, but in the briefest of seconds, strong arms closed around her, and she was pulled close. Together they shared the silence, and the grief. She knew Xena shared her grief, and that touched her in a place she couldn’t identify, but it was poignant and real, and it became all she could feel, or wanted to feel.

"Gabrielle!!" an angry voice yelled from outside. "You’d better not be in there, and I swear if you’ve killed her, then you’ll pay!"

"Ephiny!" Gabrielle said, sitting up. "Oh, gods, what am I going to tell her?"

Xena sat, and quickly pulled back into the corner, the halo of torch light unable to reach her. "Don’t tell her anything, if you don’t want. What happened will remain between us, Gabrielle."

"But ---"

"What I did to you ... I deserve to die. I’m sorry."

She just stared at the dark form. Nothing was right anymore, and she felt so confused.

"Gabrielle! I know you’re in there." A hand banged against the door. "Gabrielle!"

"Go," Xena said. "Leave me, please."

The door swung open, and Gabrielle scrambled to her feet as Ephiny stalked into the room. "Gods be damned, Gabrielle. What in the sacred name of Artemis are you doing here? You ..."

"I only wanted to talk, Eph."

"Don’t try and pull that with me ..."

"She only wanted to talk," Xena said, her voice dark and menacing from the corner.

The Amazon looked at the dark shape, and then back at Gabrielle. "Get out of here, Gabrielle, and don’t come back. Don’t force me to ..."

"Leave her alone, Princess," Xena said, a palatable threat in her tone.

Ephiny turned. "How dare you talk to me like that, you worthless piece of murdering trash. Do you have any idea what you’ve done? Does that register at all in your evil, twisted mind?"

Gabrielle placed a shaking hand on her friend’s arm. "Ephiny, stop. I’ll go."

Ephiny spun and left the cell, turning and waiting for Gabrielle. The younger woman walked to the door, and stopped. Something made her turn, and stare back into the darkened cell. Xena leaned forward out of the shadow, and Gabrielle could still see the trail of tears which marked the warlord’s face. Without thinking Gabrielle raised her hand to her heart and nodded.

--- V---

"What’s going on, Gab?" Ephiny asked, taking her shoulder and pulling her away from the rest of the Amazons.

Gabrielle shrugged, and Ephiny shook her head.

"I’m worried about you."

"Ephiny," the younger woman began, looking intently at the Amazon. "What if I told you that nothing is the same anymore."

"I’d say I need a better explanation."

"You were right, I can’t kill her, and the funny thing is I don’t want to anymore."

Ephiny’s curly head nodded solemnly. "It’s better that way. Let someone else do it."

Gabrielle gave her a wry smile. "Sure. Keep my hands clean, right? Well, what if they’re already bloody?"

"You’re upset," Ephiny said, taking her arm and leading her back toward the huts. "You need some rest ... and all this will look better tomorrow."

"I don’t think so," Gabrielle whispered, allowing herself to be lead like a child.

"You still want her to die, don’t you?" Ephiny asked, and Gabrielle felt her heart clench at the words.

"Yes," she replied, shaking her head. "I mean, no. I mean ... I don’t know. Something in me has changed, and I don’t know how to take that."

Ephiny stopped their progress, and turned to face Gabrielle, her face dancing in the shadows of a nearby torch. "What happened in there?"

"We just talked. I cried."

"Did she hurt you?" Ephiny looked up. "I mean, did she touch you?"

"Yes," Gabrielle replied. "But not in the way you think." She looked at her cabin. "It’s late, and ... I need to think about all of this." She started to walk off, but Ephiny fell quickly in step with her.

"Maybe you need to talk."

Gabrielle stopped, and pulled her friend into an embrace. "Thank you, but no. I need to be alone. But thanks."

Ephiny nodded as Gabrielle crossed the distance to her hut. Once inside she collapsed against the bed, listening to the Amazon guard Ephiny posted outside her door take up their positions. A wry chuckle escaped, and despite the impudence of the gesture, she knew her friend was only watching out for her. But it meant she had no chance of returning to Xena that night.

She shook her head for even considering it. Why was she being called by that woman? What power did she have over her? It wasn’t fair. It was so much easier to hate her ... but now ...

Gabrielle closed her eyes and fought to remember her husband’s face ... but she couldn’t. She tried to remember his touch upon her skin ... but she couldn’t. His smile, his eyes, the color of his hair in the sunlight ... it was all gone. Placing a hand over her heart she felt grieved because for the first time she realized he wasn’t with her anymore. It hurt. She’d carried him for so long, and she now felt so lost and alone.

She ran a hand down her cheek where Xena had touched her, and it tingled. A ripple of anger coursed through her, and she hated the fact that she would remember that touch with a feeling of pleasure, but be unable to remember the touch of a man to whom she’d pledged her life.

She sat up, embittered. "Killed them because I was a threat to her!?! That I knew her!?" she said out loud. "What crap! That she had to beat me!"

Collapsing back against the bed, she pulled a pillow over her head. Somehow she knew that no matter what, Xena did really think those things. She didn’t understand it, but ... Why did they ever have to meet? How differently her life would’ve been at that moment if Xena had never seen her ... and she realized if she’d never seen Xena.

She hugged the pillow against her chest, and let the images of Xena wash over her. They ran at her with increasing intensity until all she could see were her eyes. Over and over again the eyes assaulted her until she acknowledged that they were all she’d been able to see since that fateful day.

"That she wasn’t worthy," she whispered, staring at the dark ceiling. "That she wasn’t good enough for me," she repeated, closing her eyes and allowing the night to envelope her in its silent embrace.

--- VI ---

She lay there without moving as the gray dawn slowly lightened the room. Her sleep had been fitful, with her heart fighting to come to terms with feelings she wasn’t sure she wanted or needed. Her first thoughts were of Xena, and despite her inability to move, she felt restless and anxious to see her again. There was something she needed to know, and in her heart she knew only Xena could give her the answer.

Determined to face both her fears and her feelings, she dressed quickly, and took a deep breath before opening the door. Outside two sleepy Amazons stood wearily at her movement. Gabrielle assessed the situation, her eyes searching beyond them to the old jail she could see across the yard.

"Morning," she chirped, hoping to disarm them. "Beautiful day, isn’t it?" With a quick look at the dark, ominous sky, she bit her lip, and looked away. "I mean ..." She smiled, and shrugged.

"You’re to wait here for the princess to collect you," one of the Amazons said, stepping in front of her.

Gabrielle glanced at the jail, and then back at her blocker, and she smiled broadly, patting the woman’s shoulder. "C’mon. I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that. I was just going to get some breakfast. Wanna come?" She tried to push the woman aside. "We could get some tea."

"We were ordered to stay here until Princess Ephiny came back."

"To stay and watch me, right? We’ll I’m going to the mess hall, and Ephiny can find me there."

"Quit trying to talk your way out of this one, Gabrielle." Ephiny walked up and leaned against the porch railing. "They’re staying with you until we leave today. So, you can turn off the charm."

"You don’t have to go to all that trouble. Really. I’ll be good. Promise."

Ephiny smiled. "Sure you will. Now, did I hear you say you wanted breakfast?"

Gabrielle knew when she was beaten, so with a quick glance at the jail, she shrugged and fell into step with Ephiny.

"Did you sleep well?" Ephiny asked.

"I’ll be glad to get home and back to my bed," she replied, pulling her arms tight across her chest. "That room made me feel strange and restless."

Her friend stared at her, and Gabrielle could see that she’d said something wrong.

"So, we’re leaving today?" Gabrielle asked, trying to change the subject quickly. "With Xena?" Her voice dropped a notch when saying her name, and Gabrielle closed her eyes for a second.

"Hopefully in the next two hours, if she doesn’t give us trouble," Ephiny said, her eyes assessing the weather. "Looks like we’re in for rain, so it’ll be a cold, wet ride. Sorry," she added, and Gabrielle half hoped she was apologizing for Xena, and not the weather.

"I don’t think she’ll be a problem," she whispered.

Ephiny’s hand on her arm stopped their walk. "I’ve thought it over, Gab, and I’m bringing her back to the village to stand trial ... alive. Killing her now would be dishonorable to us both. I hope you understand."

Gabrielle looked at the ground. "It wouldn’t be right ... I know ... And I ... don’t want her killed, either." She looked up into the hazel eyes of her friend. "But what if she escaped ... for real? What then?"

"Then getting her back becomes our top priority," Ephiny said, climbing the steps to the mess hall.

"But ..." Her voice trailed off.

"But what?" Ephiny said, holding the door open.

Gabrielle stopped at the threshold. "Ephiny, she walked in her on her own. Couldn’t we just let her go, too?"

Ephiny moved past her into the room in a quick angry move. "Sweet Artemis, she’s gotten to you, hasn’t she? You let those emotions I was talking about get hold of you. You’re not sure if you love her or hate her, are you?"

"I’ve made my peace, Ephiny. I want to let her go. What she did to me ... I can’t keep hating and hurting forever."

Ephiny stood there and glared at her, and Gabrielle forced herself to turn away and pick up a wooden cereal bowl. She started to move down the line when she was pulled roughly back by her friend.

"Listen to me, Gabrielle! I always knew your heart would get in the way someday." She ran a hand through her hair. "Well, that day has come, and you’ve done a complete back flip on me. Yesterday you were going to slice her throat, and today you want to give her flowers and let her go. How unfriggin believable."

"I can’t hurt her," Gabrielle said, unable to meet her friends eyes.

"Wizen up, little girl! Xena hurt you on purpose. With her black heart that’s all she has done is hurt people. She’s almost wiped out the Amazons ... and I’ve lost good friends to fighting her." Ephiny released her arm. "So, you’re not alone in your loss. Get over it. Xena has carved her name into history with blood ... and on my oath, she’ll pay for that!"

"Don’t lecture me!" Gabrielle said, taking a much needed step back. "I know what she is, but I think she can change."

Ephiny raised a fist, but lowered it. "Change? Xena can change? Gods, Gabrielle, I’m this close to leaving you in this village until you can prove you’re on the same path as the rest of us." She pushed at a loose piece of her unruly blonde hair. "If you’ve quit hating her for killing your family ... Great. I’m truly glad for you, but don’t give her absolution for all her crimes." Ephiny grabbed her own bowl, and moved past Gabrielle. "Because you don’t have that power or privilege," she said over her shoulder.

"You’re not my friend," Gabrielle accused. "You don’t understand what I’m feeling ... and you don’t care."

Ephiny stopped her progress down the line, and turned back. "I am your friend," she said, holding her hand out for a second. "And I do understand what you’re going through. But, I’m sorry, Gabrielle ... This can’t be swept away because you’ve forgiven her."

"I haven’t forgiven her," Gabrielle said, staring at the ground. "It’s just that when I’m near her, I can’t remember why I hate her."

"Then stay away from her, and focus on remembering." Ephiny shook her head, and it took all of Gabrielle strength to stand there and wait for the next words. "Xena will be found guilty ... and she will die. It’s what we all want, and if you concentrate, you’ll know it’s what you want too."

Gabrielle stood there and watched as her friend moved off down the food line. She shot her a quick look before finding a table near the wall and sitting. Gabrielle was moving to put her bowl back when she saw Ephiny motion her over, pointing to the seat opposite her. Despite the fact that she no longer had an appetite, Gabrielle was forced to fill her own cereal bowl and join her friend in a tense and silent breakfast. On the surface Gabrielle knew that what Ephiny said was right, but it didn’t change the fact that for some reason she believed that Xena had changed.

--- VI ---

She’d already mounted her horse when Xena was led from the jail. Her heart cringed, and she clenched her jaw when she saw how the Amazons were treating their prisoner. Xena’s hands were bound by thick, rough rope, and even from her distance Gabrielle could see the ropes were very tight. Another rope had been tied around Xena’s waist, and then secured to both ankles to prevent running, and a third, slightly thinner rope was looped around the Conqueror’s neck, and held by a tall, muscular Amazon. Once outside the Amazon gave the rope a tug, snapping Xena’s head back sharply. Gabrielle could see the fire in Xena’s eyes, but the warlord did nothing, and Gabrielle had to force her eyes away before she went and did something stupid like defend the Conqueror to the Amazons.

Ephiny finished saying good-bye to the outpost’s leaders, and she mounted her own horse. Gabrielle looked at her, finding it difficult to give even a small smile to her friend when all she wanted to do was escape from this living torture. Nothing made sense, and she couldn’t figure out why she found herself caring what happened to that woman.

"You’re to stay up here with me," Ephiny said, moving her horse closer. "Don’t talk to her or do anything that will make me regret taking you. Promise me?"

Her green eyes flashed at the effrontery, but she forced herself to smile. "Sure, Eph. Let’s just get this thing over with."

Ephiny swung her horse around to face her prisoner. Gabrielle labored to keep herself from looking at Xena, yet she could feel her stomach twisting just being this close. She put a hand over her exposed midriff, and looked straight ahead as Ephiny addressed her charge.

"You’re not so bold today, are you Conqueror?" Ephiny quipped, obviously remembering her defense of Gabrielle the night before.

"Don’t call me that," Xena replied, her blue eyes drilling into Ephiny. "I’m only Xena now."

"You’re what I say you are ... so don’t forget that," Ephiny said, nodding at the Amazon holding Xena’s neck rope to give it a tug. "That’s to let you know I mean business. Give me any trouble, and it will be a very long, very uncomfortable trip to the main village. Got that?"

Xena leveled her gaze again, her eyes dark and unreadable.

"It’s no secret that I don’t like you, but I’m sworn to my duty and deliver you for trial," Ephiny said, moving her horse closer to Xena. "But disobey even my slightest command, and I have no problem delivering a beaten and bloody prisoner."

Gabrielle’s head snapped around at the words, and she opened her mouth to protest. Before she could speak she felt the pull of Xena’s eyes, and without her will she found herself lost in the Conqueror’s intense gaze. Xena shook her head slightly, and Gabrielle somehow understood that the warlord didn’t want her protection. She shut her mouth, her words of anger forgotten in the timelessness that touched her while visually joined with Xena. She only lost contact when Ephiny moved next to her, and slapped her horse into motion, beginning the journey home.

Ephiny set a fast pace, and shamefully Gabrielle realized that she did it only to make Xena suffer. It was a rough road, made worse by the constant rain, and Gabrielle cringed each time she saw Xena or one of the Amazons slip in the slick mud. Xena kept her eyes on her footing, and Gabrielle forced herself to keep her eyes off Xena, and instead she found herself glaring at her friend.

The Princess had adopted a proud pose on her horse, and tried to pretend that the freezing cold wind and rain didn’t bother her. Well, it mattered to Gabrielle, who with a shaking hand and chattering teeth pushed back her wet bangs for the fifth time in as many minutes. Her whole body shook with a deep chill, and each time the cold wind kissed her frozen skin she scowled harder at Ephiny. But it didn’t matter how hard she stared, the somber line of women moved on with a relentless drive, and Gabrielle knew that each step was forcing her closer to a choice she wasn’t sure she could make.

They were nearing the highest part of the mountains, and Ephiny quietly lead them to a small cave near the bottom of the pass. Trying to cross the mountain in the constant downpour wasn’t wise, and even Ephiny’s stubborn streak had to give into rationality occasionally.

The cave wasn’t much, and to her surprise she actually felt colder out of the rain. The ever competent leader, Ephiny quickly directed the other Amazons to break open their packs and use their wood rations to start a fire. Gabrielle was the first to huddle around the fledgling flames, her hands shaking as they thawed. She’d never felt so cold in her whole life, and she pointedly kept herself from looking across the fire at Ephiny, knowing it would only lead to an argument.

She heard a noise behind her, and turning her head she saw Xena sitting alone near the back of the cave. The warlord’s hands were trying to warm her upper arms, but the rope restraints were making it hard. Xena’s knees were tight against her chest, and large water droplets fell from her wet hair. She looked so cold and alone that without thinking Gabrielle found herself digging in her pack, and pulling out an old wool jacket.

She held the garment to her cheek for a brief second, trying to see her husband’s face when she’d given it to him on their first and last anniversary. It had been the first thing she’d ever knitted, and one arm was longer than the other, but he’d loved it anyway. She’d been carrying it to the river to wash that day that ... and after she’d been unable to part with it. The garment became her last physical connection with her husband.

But today, she couldn’t see her husband when she touched it, and in her heart she knew at that moment it needed to go to someone else. Standing, her knees shaking slightly, she moved towards Xena, aware that everyone’s eyes were on her. Standing over the warlord, and trying so hard to keep her voice level and her eyes averted, she held out the jacket.

"Here," she said. "This should fit, and it’s mostly dry."

Blue eyes looked up, and green eyes looked down, and slowly the jacket was taken from her hand. A small, sad smile touched the warlord’s face as her fingers caressed the rough wool. She looked up again and nodded, and Gabrielle realized that Xena knew the garment had been her husband’s. Swallowing hard, Gabrielle forced herself to walk away. As she crouched down by the fire she felt eyes watching her, and looking up she found Ephiny’s gaze jumping between her and Xena. Gabrielle forced her eyes onto the dancing fire, hoping to hide the guilt and excitement she felt creep across her face.

A tense silence descended on the cave, and Gabrielle sat lost in her thoughts, only slightly aware that the beat of the rain was growing louder. Looking up she saw Ephiny pacing angrily back and forth at the mouth of the cave.

"Great! Just great!" Ephiny yelled at the rain. "We can’t travel in this!" She turned around and stared hard at everyone. "Any suggestions?"

Most of the Amazons put their eyes in their laps, but Gabrielle met her friend’s demanding gaze. "It’s okay, Eph. Calm down." She raised an eyebrow when Ephiny crossed her arms over her chest and glared back. "Hey, we weren’t going to reach the village tonight anyhow, so let’s just count our blessings and stick it out here. It’s dry, and we’ve got a fire going."

Ephiny’s curly head dipped for a second, and then raised up. She nodded and shrugged. "It’s all we can do, cause I’m not traveling in that." She waved her hand towards the mouth of the cave, which from the intensity of the rain made it look like they were concealed behind a raging waterfall. "So, everyone find a comfortable spot, and dig in for the night."

"You’re gonna need more wood if you want to stay warm."

Ephiny spun around, and pointed at the warlord. "Who asked you?"

Xena shrugged. "Hey, not my problem if you all want to freeze, but you’ve only got enough wood for a couple of hours. That won’t get you through sunset, and then it gets real cold."

"And where are we supposed to find dry wood in the rain?"

Xena shrugged again, and looked at the ceiling. "It’s around, if you know where to look."

"Sure it is," Ephiny snipped.

Xena lifted her arms and dropped them. "Hey, I’m the one whose conquered half the known world. Think I might have picked up a few tricks doing that, huh?"

"Like where to find dry wood in a rain storm?"

"Like I said ... doesn’t matter to me if you freeze, but if you want the wood, give me a call. And remember to ask nicely."

"Why you ---"

"Hey!" Gabrielle cut Ephiny off, and climbed to her feet. "Let’s quit bickering, and work on the problem. Ephiny, Xena is right. We need more wood." She turned to the warlord. "Xena, do you really know where we can find dry, burnable wood?"

Xena nodded slowly, her blue eyes shining in the gloom of the cave.

Gabrielle nodded back, a strange understanding passing between them. "Okay, then will you tell us where to find it?" She looked pointedly at Ephiny. "We’ll share it with you, if you do."

"No," Xena replied curtly.

"You animal," Ephiny replied.

Xena’s eyes flashed to the Amazon and then back to Gabrielle. "It’s too hard to explain. I’ll have to show you."

"Out of the question! You’re staying where I can keep an eye on you."

"Afraid I’ll run away, Princess?" Xena asked, her eyes dancing.

The Amazon nodded warily.

"If I wanted to escape, you’d hardly be able to stop me."

"Don’t make me laugh, Conqueror. You’re mine now."

"That so?"

"That’s enough! Both of you. Stop!" Gabrielle stood between the two combatants, her arms outstretched, but her sympathies laying with the warlord.

"I won’t escape," Xena said quietly. "Let me show you where the wood is. It’s the only way. Trust me."

Even Gabrielle’s mouth dropped open at those last words, and she couldn’t blame Ephiny for laughing.

"Trust you? I should trust, Xena, the Conqueror? Xena, the Destroyer? Xena, the Scourge? Xena, who murdered my friends and sisters? Xena who butchered Gabrielle’s family? Xena, who knows nothing but blood and death? I should trust all that?"

"Fine! Freeze then! I don’t care." Xena pulled her arms tight over her chest and tucked her chin down low.

Both Gabrielle and Ephiny stared at her for a long second, and the slowly Xena raised her head. A different look had settled on the warlord’s face. A hardness etched was etched into the skin, and a coldness touched the eyes. It was a face of control and cruelty, and in that instant Gabrielle recognized the face of the woman who’d destroyed her life. This was Xena, the Conqueror.

"You really think you’re holding me, Amazon?" the Conqueror cried, climbing to her feet, the ropes around her ankles taught with tension. "You could no more hold me than you could capture a titan!" With one strong jerk of her legs she snapped the sturdy rope, and holding up her arms she strained only momentarily before snapping those restraints as well. With a quick jerk she removed the noose from around her neck, and dropped it to the ground. With a sick smile she reached under the sweater, pulling Gabrielle’s forgotten dagger from under her tunic, and she just held it tightly in her hand.

Gabrielle took a step forward and stopped. She could feel Ephiny’s eyes on her back, and she knew her friend believed she’d given Xena the knife. Around her the other Amazons were tensing up, and she knew it was only a second before Ephiny gave a command to attack. She slowly shook her head. "Xena, wait!"

The blue eyes softened as they looked at her, and Xena’s arm lowered the dagger. In what was almost a painstakingly long second, the knife fell from her hand, and hit the floor with a rattle.

Continued..Part 2 (Conclusion)

 


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