Conquering Heroine - Part One
By CN Winters and Amy
Disclaimers (and legal stuff): No, this isn't about someone overcoming a drug habit. <G> Although I wish I could say Xena and Gabby are ours, they are not. They belong to MCA/Universal last we heard. This story however is ours and ours alone. There's a lot of violence but not too graphic. Alt sex, you bet! If you are too young, read no further. If you live some place where this may not be kosher, read no further. However, if you are open-minded, old enough and live in a progressive neighborhood . . .enjoy! Nothing poetic is our’s, belongs to unknown author. Thanks to Kamouraskan, Jlynn, Mary and the Bardic Circle for the beta. Email the author's at CNWinters@hotmail.com or MurphyCG881@aol.com
I rolled on my side to bring my bard into my arms, but I came up empty. Since I'm the one who usually rises first, I wondered out loud where she could be.
"Gabrielle?" I called.
Tossing my bedroll aside, I wandered to the water's edge, still not seeing her.
"Gabrielle?" I called again, the irritation rising to my voice.
Where in Tartarus is she? I wondered. A flash of blue light burst behind me, reflecting off the water. It had Ares stench all over it and I doubled back to where I saw it. But when I arrived, I came up empty for the second time that day.
"Ares!" I shouted. "I know you’re out here somewhere. Show yourself!"
He appeared with that smirk of his that always brought bile to my throat. I knew he was up to something.
"You rang?" he asked, his arms folded across his chest.
"Where’s Gabrielle?" I asked, taking three strides to come nose to nose with him.
"Why, whatever are you talking about?" he answered with a cocky tone.
"You know damn well what I’m talking about. What are you up to this time?"
Ares paused a moment, as if wondering if he should confess. It didn’t matter to me at this point; I could see behind his dark eyes. He was never good at keeping his mouth shut when he came up with another scam - his ego and his pride were always his downfall in such matters. I knew it was just a matter of time before he’d spill it.
"You’re always so quick to blame me Xena," he grinned.
"You’re always so quick to cause me grief," I pointed out. "So what’s the newest plan? Gonna make me play a game of hide and seek the bard? Or perhaps you decided to test out Gabrielle’s warrior skills again?" I prodded. He wasn’t going to get off the hook that easy.
"That’s what I always loved about you Xena. So keenly observant and focused."
"Answer the question, Ares!" I snapped. I was growing tired of this game.
"Okay, okay," he relented. He realized he'd pushed me far enough. "She’s not here. Let’s just say I gave her a ‘new life’. Or, more to the point, ‘your life’."
"What are you saying, Ares?" I asked. I imagined where he was going with this and I feared the response, but I had to know.
"She’s one heck of a little fighter, that bard of yours. As I’ve said before, perhaps I was wasting my energy on the wrong warrior."
Cryptic. He was talking cryptically. Now I realized why Gabrielle hates it so much when I do it. "What does that mean Ares? What have you done with Gabrielle?!"
"My, my, did you get up on the wrong side of the bedroll today?" I reared back to hit him but he held up his hands, relenting. "Okay, look. She’s okay. She’s safe. She’s in another reality however. I could send you there but you have to realize something . . . she’s not the bard you know."
"She didn’t leave the family farm to follow the Warrior Princess. In fact she’s never heard of the Warrior Princess. In her new world, no one has. She left home after a warlord torched her village - murdered her family, raped and killed her sister. She’s not the same woman Xena."
"You bastard!!" I spat.
"She’s not the same woman Xena…She’s better. She’s stronger - more lethal, more focused. Right now she controls all of Greece and she’s taking on the Romans - and winning. She’s about to engage in her last major battle against Caesar. If she wins, Rome will fall next. Just as Egypt did. Just as Gaul. Just as Britannia and even the Norse country. She’s got the world, Xena . . . She’s my warrior queen."
My right hook left before Ares saw it coming, the force of it snapping his head back. "You son of a bitch!"
I had to do something. If there was a way Ares created this world there also had to be a way to undo it I was sure. But I knew I couldn’t do it from this reality. "Send me to her," I told him.
Ares chuckled. "Why? She doesn’t know you. She’d just as soon kill you as to look at you if you walked into her life. Just what do you think you’re going to do?"
"I’ll figure it out when I get there. Just send me," I ordered him. "After all, don’t you think it will make life more interesting? Your Warrior Princess battling your Warrior Queen?"
Ares chewed on the inside of his cheek in thought. "It does hold some fascination, I must admit. But realize if she kills you in that world you die in both. Don’t say I didn’t warn you," he teased.
"I’ll take my chances," I drawled. With a wave of Ares hand I felt myself being transformed, sucked through to another dimension.
I appeared, and with a painful thud, landed on the ground near what looked like Athens. This was not the normal hustle and bustle area I was used to. Gabrielle loved to drag me here so she could shop and see all the bards perform. I started on my way towards the city and I could feel the darkness seeping from this place chilling me to the bone. I remembered Iolaus telling me about his time with me as the Conqueror and I shuddered.
Athens used to be a place where a traveler could come and go freely, but now there was a wall surrounding it with a huge guarded gate. I waited in line behind a variety of folks, from fellow warriors all the way to what looked like farmers.
"Halt!" I looked at the hand that was on my shoulder then to the guard whose hand was soon to be broken.
"Where's your papers, warrior?" I raised one eyebrow and gave my chin a scratch.
"Papers?" No need to knock his lights out just yet.
"Are you deaf or dumb, warrior?" he asked gruffly. I just grinned. "The papers for the Conqueror's competition." He answered when I didn’t reply. Interesting, I considered.
"Warriors are only allowed into the city by the invitation of Lord Conqueror." This might be a way to get close to Gabrielle.
"I don’t need papers." I smiled broadly. "Allow me to demonstrate." Still grinning I knocked the guard beside him out and pressure pointed this one. "I've just cut the flow of blood off to your brain you have thirty seconds to live." I glared at him. "What are the competitions for?" I watched as the blood flowed from his nose.
"She holds competitions to find the best warriors for her royal guard," he gasped out. "She is going against Rome and demands nothing but the best." Two quick jabs and he fell back, pulling in as much air as he could.
"Tell the Conqueror to look no further." I unsheathed my sword and did some drill moves to impress him with my speed. I twirled my blade so quickly I was sure the guard was getting nauseous just watching. "I am the best." I said with full confidence and grinned when I noticed the guard had his mouth hanging open in awe.
"Why don't you tell her yourself, warrior?" A voice behind me asked. I turned to see my bard but what I saw made me freeze in place. Gabrielle was in armor and leathers with a very impressive looking, sword strapped to her back. What made my heart pound loudly were the scars I could see on many places on her body, her face was very statuesque with an icy stare to match. Did I look like that not so long ago, I wondered? Next thing I knew was the pain in my face before everything went dark.
I woke up with the cold feeling of water splashing my face. "Wakey, wakey Xena." The voice was one that I was not in the mood to hear. I raised my head up to see Ares smirking at me. My head was pounding and I was chained to a wall.
"Xena, Xena." He paced in front of me shaking his head. "What do you think of my Conqueror?" He seemed very proud of himself. "The look when you saw Gabrielle was priceless." He let a long, menacing laugh out. "You haven't seen anything yet." With that he disappeared.
I couldn't afford to let anything slip to Ares until its time. He was right though. I had to give him that. When I turned and looked into Gabrielle's eyes it made my heart stop. Dull, almost empty, her eyes so harsh that it took me by surprise. Gabrielle, even in the darkest of times, had a glimmer of some kind of hope.
I had to get it into my head that this was the Conqueror. I wondered how much of my life Ares had given her. The idea of Gabrielle going through anything I had, made me sick and my head hung down in shame.
"I see you're awake." That made my head snap up. I didn't hear her come in. She walked towards me with cat-like grace. Almost like stalking a prey, which unfortunately was me.
Time to get my bard back. I considered formulating a starting place. I looked over towards the Conqueror who resembled my bond-mate yet in the same breath, looked nothing like the woman I knew.
"Yes Lord Conqueror, I..." I couldn't say my next word with her fist in my face. She hit me so hard it snapped my head back into the wall where it stung and I bet left an impression on my face.
"Silence!" She gave me an icy stare and I cleared the cobwebs from my brain. Then she grabbed my throat, her grip tight enough to cut off my air."I don't remember telling you to talk yet, warrior." I just shook my head, ready to breathe as soon as she let me. "Who are you? And please know if you lie you'll be dead before suppertime." I shook my head again and she released my throat.
It took me a moment to get my breath back.
"My name is Xena," I told her as I continue to gasp for air. She raised an eyebrow at me. "I was born in the village called Amphipolis," I added.
I watched her scrunch her eyes in examination of me - trying to figure me out, just like always. This time however I felt it's for a much darker purpose than when the bard I knew did it.
"So you're here for revenge I assume?" she began. When I simply shake my head no, she continued of her own accord. "My men sacked that village years ago." She grinned, as if wanting to get a reaction out of me. I just stayed calm looking at her, trying not to picture her attacking my hometown - besides MY Gabrielle wouldn’t do that to anyone’s hometown. I had to stay focused and calm if I was ever to get MY Gabrielle back.
"My cook was a tavern keeper there." The tavern keeper? She had enslaved my own mother? Now that made me glare at her and she loved it. I understood exactly what Gabrielle was feeling. The power of having the upper hand over someone, the power to twist the knife deeper and knowing there was nothing to stop you from continuing the assault. "Who did you say your family was?" she asked.
I needed to think quickly.
"You didn't let me finish, my Lord." I was trying hard not to show my anger that was slowly rising. "I was born in Amphipolis but my parents were killed when I was a babe." I watched as the Conqueror seemed to think on that. "My mother’s sister took me in and moved me to the land of Chin." She looked me in the eyes again after that was said. I wonder if Ares gave her my memories of Lao Ma?
"Is that where you learned the pressure point technique?" She started to pace back and forth.
"Yes, my Lord." I was losing feeling in my shoulders, this was a much quicker answer then to try and explain M'lila.
"So what makes you think you are the best warrior?" She raised her eyebrow at me again.
"I don't think so, I know so." I said meeting her eyes.
She let out a deep chuckle at my brazen style, "Is that so ... Xema, was it?"
"Xena, my lord," I corrected her as politely as possible. "Allow me to prove it." I met her eye to eye as I spoke. "It has been a dream of mine to serve you and I have trained long and hard for that purpose, my Lord." I bowed my head to her.
"I'm sure you could serve me," she said while eyeing my whole body. I knew there were lecherous thoughts that ran behind the sultry look I was getting. "You'd better be right, warrior," she added with a sigh.
"Guards!!" she suddenly shouted, making me jump slightly. Two huge men came racing in. "Escort this warrior to the competition barracks." She eyed me once more. "We've got a new contestant." With that she quickly walked away.
It felt good to be freed from those damn chains. "Move!" The guard gave me a little push and I glared at him. He so kindly backed away from me. We walked through a long stretch of hallway to a door. The guard opened it and it led me to the arena where I guessed all the warriors fought. I could see the throne where the Conqueror would sit and plenty of benches around for all the spectators. What I didn't expect to see was that guard I put the pinch on crucified in the center of the arena. The Conqueror must have considered him a weakness and got rid of him. I know I would have.
The guards opened the door and there were several entrances on both sides on the hallway. When the door slammed behind me in my room, which was nothing more than a bed with a pot, I finally allowed myself to crumble on the floor. I was so happy to see my bond-mate, but deeply troubled and saddened by the look on her face. She was so cold. So harsh. So much like I was before she came into my life. But I could breathe a small sigh of relief. At least I was close enough now to where maybe, I could get in touch with the real Gabrielle. I could find someway to turn her life in a different direction, just as she had done with mine.
I pulled myself together when I quickly realized I was no longer a prisoner. I pushed the door to my chamber to have it open freely. Perhaps I could do a little snooping here and there. Any insight I could gain would be useful to destroying the new world Ares had created. If it could be done then it could be undone too. Finding the key would be difficult at best. I walked to the end of the hallway to the sound of a commotion on the other side of a large wooden door that sat there. I pushed inside to see what looked like a large banquet. All noise and eating ceased as soon as I stepped inside. And every eye in the grand room turned to me.
A large, burly man stood up from a table to address me, clearing his throat.
"You must be the fresh meat," he chuckled. Soon his comrades all joined in. I gave my best feral grin and strutted over.
"Name’s Xena," I said offering my hand. "And you?"
"Tibereus of Thrace," he said, replied. "Pretty warriors like you shouldn’t compete, you know?"
As he said the words my grip tightened and I could feel his fingers on the verge of snapping at the pressure. He hid his wince from his cronies - surely he could let a ‘mere pretty lady’ make him tear up. His pride would keep him in check.
"I hadn’t heard," I told him as I released my grip. "But I’ll take that under advisement. Mind if I join you?"
"By all means," he said with a grin and a nod of his hand. It was obvious that he was the ‘leader’ of this group. If I earned his respect, it could be a wonderful means to my end. He and I locked eyes, nether of us refusing to yield to the other.
I can take him, I thought. And I think he knows it. As soon as the thought entered my mind he relented and pretended to be distracted by the plate in front of him. "So where you from, Xena?" he asked, digging into his potatoes.
"Amphipolis," I told him. Once more the forks stopped rising to mouths and chatter came to a halt.
Tibereus shakes his head. "And you’re competing in the tournament to serve the Conqueror, after what she did there five years ago? Damn," he chuckled. "You must be one cold, ruthless warrior."
Inside I wondered just what had Gabrielle done and my first reaction was fear. She had mentioned the attack in my cell, but she didn’t provide much detail. But I knew I couldn’t let my surprise show. I had to play along.
"I admire strength," I told him. "The Conqueror has that. And let’s just say I want to be a part of it. After all, isn’t that why you’re here too?"
He lets out a hearty chuckle. "I do believe you are right, Xena. Here, have a mead," he said sliding a cup down as a peace offering. "A toast - to the warriors of Greece. May the best and bravest win."
"I’ll drink to that," I replied and without wasting anymore time I drained the mug. "Think I’m gonna mingle, Tibereus," I said as I rose and started to case the room, sizing up the competition. I saw two women warriors in the corner talking. Although they were dressed in full leathers and armor there was something very ‘amazonish’ about them. Perhaps it was the way they held their shoulders - upright and broad - as they conversed. Otherwise the room appeared to be filled with men. My eyes scanned the room until a sight in the corner stopped me in my tracks. Seemed there was another woman in the room and I had to wipe my eyes to make sure I was seeing things clearly.
With light steps I approached the woman who sat sharpening her sword with short careful strokes. She looked up at me as I neared, but she put on the air that she was not impressed by my presence and returned to sharpening her sword with a sigh.
"Not a lot of female warriors in this thing," I started off conversationally.
"No," she replied. "And none of them enjoy chit-chat," she added coldly.
I wasn't sure how to continue this conversation, but I knew I had to. I had to find out what Ares did with her fate. I decided to try the old faithful approach and I stuck out my hand.
"Xena," I told her.
She paused a moment to examine it before deciding to grasp it with a firm shake. "Callisto," she answered.
I had an uneasy feeling about this, one of many I had to admit. "So you’re here to serve the Conqueror?" What else was I going to say?
"No sweetie." She gave me that wicked smirk of hers. "I think I'm here for the same reasons you are. I’m from a town called Cirra before it was burned by the dear Conqueror." Her face twitched and in my mind I whispered, it was me. "Overheard you were from Amphipolis. My my, how do you sleep at night?" We were face to face. "I mean the massacre of Amphipolis is legendary." I knew she was enjoying this. "Oh well, gotta run, it was so nice to meet you, Xena." No hand shaking this time, she just turned and walked away. Bet a dinar she had a huge grin on her face.
My mind was reeling. It was like watching parts of my life being acted out right in front of me with an added twist to make me suffer more. One word kept going over and over in my head: massacre. I had to know what happened and I knew the place to look.
I made my way back through the banquet towards the kitchen area. I hesitated before going in, not knowing what to expect. I entered, almost plowing into a slave bringing out more mead for the wild bunch at the banquet. There was a figure by the fire stirring the huge pot of stew I would know anywhere; my mother. She looked thinner, almost frail. I couldn't stop my lip from quivering and I could not move. I just stood there staring at her.
I watched as she handed platters of food to the servant slaves and did a lot of one arm waving, but did not say one word. They just seemed to know what to do by her simple hand movements. Gathering courage I walked over to her, excusing myself so I didn't startle her.
"Hello." She turned quickly towards me and just looked. "I don't mean to interrupt you." She just shrugged her shoulders and looked at me like, what? Still no words.
"I have no idea how to start." I shook my head and she raised an eyebrow at me and turned to continue her work. "My name’s Xena. I'm from Amphipolis." I jumped back as the glass she had in her hand dropped and she turned to look at me with a look I had not seen since Lyceus was killed. Still no words, what was wrong with her?
"She can't talk." I spun around to see a small girl standing there in fear. I looked back at my mother then bent down to the child. "Why?" I didn't want to hear this. My heart was beating so loud it was almost deafening.
"Her tongue was cut out years ago."
I clamped my mouth shut and I could feel my darkness rising. I stood up quickly just shaking hard.
"The conqueror should die for this!"
I couldn't believe I said that. I gripped the counter next to me and tried to control myself. I felt a smack to my arm and I looked at my mother, her eyes blazing. She motioned for me to sit and I did.
I was so upset - I felt I could jump out of my skin. She sat down with a writing tablet and started to write. She handed me the tablet.
"What do you want from me?" she wrote.
I looked her right in the eyes and said with all my heart. "I want nothing from you, I just want to know what happened to my homeland." She seemed to think about that then started to write. She wrote as fast as she could and handed me the tablet again. It said:
"Five years ago the Conqueror’s army attacked us. They came upon us like Hades himself, they left nothing alive. What women that were left were raped and beaten, I was one of them. I guess I protested one too many times and one of the men cut my tongue out. Everything went dark then. I woke up with a healer and I could vaguely see a woman standing behind him. He told me a part of the Conqueror’s army went out on raids without her knowledge. She got wind of what happened after Cirra and went out to deal with these men. In fact the few women who survived are all still here serving her."
I stared at the page for the longest time. As much as I tried to control it, my tears flowed down my cheek and I felt a warm hand wiping them away. I looked up to see my mother's eyes and put my arms around her and wept. I couldn’t begin to imagine the pain she’d gone through and the fact that I could do nothing to prevent it. I pulled back and recovered and she went to write more.
"Who was your family?"
I explained to her the same thing I told the Conqueror. What could I say? You’re my mother? She’d think I was a mad woman and have me locked up. She gave a nod without questioning my story and motioned back to the cooking pot. I knew she had to get back to work, but she promised we could ‘talk’ again and gave a gentle smile I knew so well, holding tight to the parchment she wrote on.
I barely made it back to my room before throwing up. I sat on my bed absorbing all I was told today. What my mother went through, what happened to my homeland. What upset me the most was how fast I turned to my dark side and was ready to kill Gabrielle. Words I promised myself I would never say again.
Maybe this is a plot by Ares? To make me kill Gabrielle, or she me? Or maybe he is true to his word this time. He didn't give Gabrielle all of my life, just bits and pieces and altered them so she wouldn't wind up like I did. She saved my mother. Is part of Gabrielle still alive in there? One thing Ares didn't count on is that his Queen would have compassion. Another thing he may not have considered was Callisto. Ares did become a bit short sighted in all his plans. Perhaps as usual there were facets he overlooked.
If Callisto was going to kill Gabrielle, I had to warn her. I had to put her on guard. I put my bracers on and walked from my chamber to find the Conqueror. I didn’t have to look for very long. The long corridor, which was heavily guarded, was my first clue. A pair of crossed spears met me as I approached.
"I need to see the Conqueror," I told them. "Take me to her."
"No one sees the Conqueror. She’s very busy and will see only those that SHE requests an audience from."
My desire to bloody a few noses was strong but I kept myself in check. This was Gabrielle’s world and I had to play by Gabrielle’s rules…for now.
"Well then would you tell the conqueror that Xena has important information that her life may be in danger? I’ll wait quietly here for your return."
Wouldn’t hurt to ask, I supposed? It was new for me but it always seemed to work for Gabrielle. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the guard motion to someone near the door of the Conqueror's chamber. He whispered something and I watched the guard leave.
A few moments passed and the guard reemerged. "You may enter," he nodded. The spears opened and I walked down the long stretch of stone before coming to the door. "You have five minutes."
The door opened and my first sight was Gabrielle. She sat at a huge desk writing a scroll and looking back and forth between two others. Something told me that this wasn’t a recreation activity as it was in our travels. She was ‘working’. As I approached, it surprised me how much older she appeared in this life. Her youthful glow was gone - replaced by the onset of crow’s feet and worry lines.
The room was filled with different items I recognized from areas of the world where she and I once traveled. However, I know she collected these on her trips alone. Greek marble lined the floor. Chin silk drapes hung from the walls. Some weapons from Britannia adorned the wall as decorations. I took it all in as I approached until her voice interrupted my examination.
"They say you have news about an assassination attempt," she said without looking up. "I’m shocked that someone would want me dead," she chuckled sarcastically. She put down the quill and turned to face me. "So who is it this time? The Romans? The Persians? Perhaps someone from Greece looking to make a name for themselves by offing the warrior queen?"
I couldn’t believe how blasé she was about it. Just a day in the life for her. For the first time the reality of Gabrielle’s life hit me. She had the most difficult of starts like I did. But worse than me she achieved her goal for power and success. But in truth it wasn’t success at all. She didn’t look happy or fulfilled. In fact she had to spend her life looking over her shoulder, always being on guard. She probably couldn’t associate with the people of kingdom she now controlled. She probably couldn’t even go out for the simple pleasure of haggling in the marketplace. She was a captive to her fame. Ares had his warrior queen all right, but at what price to Gabrielle?
"A woman - she’s competing in the morning," I answered.
"I see," Gabrielle got up and strolled around me, taking in all my features - my appearance, my demeanor, everything. "How do I know that YOU’RE not the woman I should be scared of huh?" I heard her pull a dagger from her boot behind me. "How do I know that this isn’t just a roust and you’re working with her to ‘throw me off’?"
"You don’t." I told her. "You just have to trust me."
Her hearty laugh actually made me jump.
"Trust is one of the few luxuries I can’t afford," she told me. "But I must confess there is something about you. You’re not the average warrior that’s for sure, and you’re certainly not bad on the eyes."
Was she flirting with me? My gods she is . . . perhaps I have some hope here after all. If I can’t appeal to Gabrielle’s good senses perhaps I could appeal to her libido. I grinned wickedly at her.
"I could say the same but I wouldn’t want to offend you," I said, making sure to tread lightly here, but tread just the same. I had to keep moving to find out what made Gabrielle tick. Callisto saw Gabrielle as a demon. My mother saw her as a savior. What was the real story? Perhaps much like myself the truth would lie somewhere in between.
Gabrielle doesn’t reply to my comments, she just gracefully takes her seat again. "Who is this woman you speak of?"
"Her name is Callisto. Her goal is to win and earn your confidence in order to get close to you . . . She’s from Cirra."
For the first time since meeting Gabrielle I saw her become uncomfortable. She shifted slightly in her seat but quickly pushed any emotion down.
"I see," she said. "That’s if she survives the competition of the first round tomorrow."
"I have no doubt she’ll survive," I told the conqueror. She may not have known just what Callisto was capable of at this point. But I certainly did.
I would have continued but another woman entered the room from a side entrance. She saw me speaking with Gabrielle and automatically turned to my bard.
"I’m sorry I didn’t think you were still in meetings," she said.
I watched as Gabrielle gave her a lecherous grin and waved her over. Quickly the woman shuffled over and even more quickly Gabrielle snagged her by the waist and pulled her into her lap.
"That’s okay, Najara. I was just finishing up."
As I watched as my bard nuzzled into her neck, nipping her earlobe. I felt my blood boil, my stomach tied in knots and my sword hand shook at the prospect of gutting her. Perhaps even both of them. I knew I had to get out of there quickly before I did something drastic.
"Well, I just wanted you to be advised," I said briskly as I turned around. I tried to hide my disgust at their display and to make my way out quietly.
"I didn’t dismiss you," I heard Gabrielle call out in an authoritative voice.
Damn it! I halted my movements and turned around again to watch the two of them together. "I meant no disrespect. I just wanted to give you some privacy, my lady," I told her.
I watched Gabrielle whisper something in Najara’s ear, sending her off with a kiss and a playful swat to the backside. Najara said nothing to me. Didn’t even look my way. It’s as if I meant nothing. And in this world I realized I didn’t. I was just another nameless warrior, not a rival for the bard’s affections.
Gabrielle rose and walked over to me. "That’s good," she told me. "Because if my relationship with Najara makes you uncomfortable, I would honestly have to consider eliminating you from the competition myself. Is that understood?"
I gave a nod, unable to trust my voice.
"Good," she nodded in turn, escorting me to the door before opening it. "I look forward to watching you compete tomorrow."
"Yes my lady," I replied.
Without further words I walked out and I heard the door close. I didn’t even notice the guards that lined the walls as I made my way back to my room. All I could think about is the fact that Gabrielle was alone, in her room, with that woman. I didn’t have long to dwell on it because I felt the hairs on my neck stand on edge and I heard a devilish chuckle I knew all to well.
"Told you she wasn’t YOUR bard anymore, Xena."
Without taking a moment to look behind me, I spun around and punched Ares square in the face.
"Gee Xena, did I touch on a sore subject there?" Ares stopped rubbing his nose to smile.
"You really are one sick son of a bitch."
That just made his smile go wider. "Now that wasn't nice Xena." He was enjoying this way too much. "After all, you're the one who wanted to come." He sat back in a chair looking pleased with himself.
"Why her?" I just felt sick at the thought of Gabrielle touching that nut. "Of all the people, why that psycho?" As hard as I tried, I couldn't hide my pain.
"Hmm, why her?" he said sarcastically, while scratching his beard. "Let's see, she's smart, a very good warrior, crazy, but in a brilliant way...." He started walking around me with his hands behind his back.
"At first I thought about making Callisto her bedmate, but let's face it, she's not the sharpest sword on the rack." He chuckled as I sneered. "How many times was she stopped by a rockslide? Pitiful." Then he stopped and snapped his fingers. "Then it came to me - Najara. And one of the few warriors who can claim they kicked your ass." I had my hand clenched so tight I could feel my nails cutting into my skin.
"She came very close to ending your life, if it wasn't for that fast talking bard of yours...." He went back to the chair and threw his leg over one arm. "I would say she is the only one who really can throw you completely off." He sat there grinning. "Relax and enjoy the ride Xena, the surprises are far from over." He disappeared, laughing wickedly.
My mind was going on overload. I tried to relax and do some breathing exercises I learned in Chin, but nothing helped. Ares did think of Callisto, but did he want her to show up this way? That was one worry. Najara was another. Having those two running around made my skin crawl. Thinking of my wife making love to that loon...
Get it together Xena, I told myself. You can't fall apart now. You'll make it through like every other time. Ares was very right about Najara. She's one person who can make me very uneasy. She is also one person who out right challenged me for my bard's affection and almost won. I needed to work out some of my aggressions, so I grabbed my sword and headed towards the door, swinging it open to find my mother standing there.
"Hello, this is a pleasant surprise." I said as my mother smiled and handed me a plate of food. What I really needed to do right then was go somewhere and scream, but my mother came first. I had to be cordial.
I motioned for her to come in while I set the plate on the table. She sat in the chair and I was across from her on the bed. She started to write then handed me the tablet.
"Is this a bad time?" she asked. I should have said, "This is a bad nightmare, mom, make it better," like I did when I was small. I just shook my head and handed her back the tablet.
She wrote, " I was told you didn't eat at the banquet so I brought you something to eat." I gave her a grin and thanked her.
She then wrote, "We really didn't get a chance to finish our talk, I have some time now."
I didn't know if I could bear to hear it. I just hung my head for a minute. I had so many things to ask her. Like what happened to my brothers, my father? Since I wasn't born she didn't have to kill him, so why didn't he protect them from the raid?
"May I call you Cyrene?" She didn't tell me her name, but didn't seem shocked when I spoke it. She just shrugged her shoulders as if to say, if you want.
"Cyrene, did you have a family?" I saw the pain in her eyes, but I had to know what happened. She closed her eyes tight, before opening them and starting to write.
"I had two sons. They were both killed." I had to give Ares credit. That is possibly one of the most painful things I have ever had to go through.
"I'm so sorry." I stopped to clear my throat. "What of your husband, he couldn't protect you?" I saw my mother's eyes turn icy.
"He's dead also," she wrote quickly. She was looking around the room trying to find the right words. With an exasperated look, as if she gave up she wrote, "I killed him." She handed me the tablet not looking at me. I couldn't believe it, why? I wasn't around now, why would she do that?
"Why?" I barely got out. She took the tablet from my hands.
"He killed our child." She looked right at me when she handed the tablet back. Which child, I thought. Surely he would kill one of his sons. I couldn't speak and my mother took the tablet back and wrote.
"I had a daughter and before I knew what happened, he killed her in the name of Ares, The God of War." She gave a strangled gasp and fought back the tears. I just let mine fall, crying for my mother's pain. She struggled to write more. "I named her Xena, she was eight summers old." I had to read this a few times to really let it sink in. That's how Ares got rid of me. I told her how sorry I was again and she wrote on.
"When you first came to me today, I thought you were playing a cruel joke." I shook my head really hard and told her, no. She placed her finger to my lips to quiet me and smiled. "I can feel something about you child, my thought now is maybe this is a gift."
I lost it then and there after reading it and grabbed on to her and held her tight. As much as I wanted to hold onto her forever, I needed to fix this all so we could get back to normal. When I get my bard back the first thing we will do is go home so I can hug my real mother.
"Tell me about the Conqueror." She was uneasy with that request. "It's just not normal to hear of her compassion, from what I heard, she has no soul." That earned me one irritated look and she wrote quickly with anger.
"Everyone has a soul, you just have to open your eyes and look." Now I was a scorned child and that was perfectly all right with me. She was writing once more. I couldn’t help but wonder why my mother would feel so strongly for a woman who turned her into a slave?
"If it wasn't for the Conqueror, I wouldn't be here." I felt my temper flare a bit.
"You got that right." I blared back. "If there was no Conqueror your homeland and family would still be here." We glared at one another. No matter how much my mother tried to sugar coat it, the Conqueror was nothing but a murderer. That stopped me in my tracks. Who in Tartarus was I to judge, after all, this is the life I was supposed to have? That made me sicker to my stomach. I felt her tap my arm and read her next thought.
"You're wrong about her, child." The look in my mother's eyes showed that she cared deeply for her. I continued to read. "Lord Conqueror gave me my life back." I just gave her an odd look. "I have free will here and I use my will to serve her." All I keep thinking is, why? I know she sensed my confusion and wrote more, then handed it over.
"Her men were going to overthrow her back then." Mine did the same thing. I was changing and they didn't like it one bit. I read on. "They thought if they went on raids in her name it would make them more feared and the Conqueror more hated but an old farmer’s wife who’s here now told me her tale. Would you like to read it?"
Quickly I nodded my head. The anticipation smothered me as I waited for her to stop and return the tablet to me.
"When she was a child she was full of wonder like all children are. Loved the stars, full of adventures and mischief, dreaming of becoming a bard one day. That was until Cortese came into her life, destroyed her village of Poteidaia. She was a mouthy little cuss and the Warlord didn't appreciate it. He beat that child until he thought she was dead. She had to sit and watch as the men beat and raped her little sister Lila. At night sometimes, I can hear her scream for her sister, just this helpless cry of pain. Her uncle found them, from that day on the beast within her was unleashed. Her whole family was murdered and the child could do nothing more then watch. She was sixteen summers old. When she was healed enough, the Warrior Princess was born and nothing, not even Hades himself would get in her way... One thing the Conqueror despises is rape…"
For the first time since this all happened, some things were starting to make sense. Like the reason she showed compassion to my mother and the other women who were attacked. And why she seems so old for a person so young. I know. I've been there. Scary how when something terrible happens, a person can turn off all feelings other then the ones they need to survive. Mother grabbed the tablet from my hands, but I couldn't bring my head up to look at her. I just wanted to hold my wife so badly it ached in my chest. She finally pulled me out of my heavy thoughts with a tap to my arm. She handed me the tablet again.
"This is enough for now, you need to eat and sleep. You'll need plenty of rest for tomorrow's competitions." I gave her a small grin. We both heard a knock at my door followed by a small voice.
"Grandma?" I went to the door and let the child in. It was the same little girl who had been in the kitchen earlier. Did she say, Grandma? Did Toris or Lyceus have a child? She ran right past me and into my mother's waiting arms. This time around I could see her a little better. She was a cute little strawberry blonde with the prettiest green eyes. I wasn't sure but there was something very familiar about her. I bent down a bit and asked her what her name was.
"Hope." She smiled just like Gabrielle. Oh Gods! How can that be?!
"You have a grandchild?" I asked my mother.
My mother wrote a note to the girl and she scampered off with a nod. Then she turned to me and began to write… "Not by blood, but by love," she said.
I was willing to bet anything that child was Gabrielle’s but I was sure my mother wouldn’t confess. The child looked just like my bard - all the way down to the crinkle in her nose when she smiled. But how? Who? Still another mystery I'd have to unravel I was sure. If Gabrielle was as good a leader and as astute, realizing she was a target, of course she’d hide her child. Who better to hide her with than a woman who felt in debt to her and a sense of loyalty? And what better place to hide her than with the ‘commoners’ of the castle?
My mother rose and gave me a warm grin before leaving. So much had happened in the last day. I’d learned so much of this new world. If I wanted to learn more I knew I needed some rest in order to survive the competition tomorrow. I laid down on my pallet and closed my eyes. Somehow I'd figure a way out of Ares' new world order and things would be as they should be.
The forum was huge. It was as big as Rome’s Coliseum, if not bigger. The sun beat down unmercifully. There were about fifty of us in total, and only ten would become members of the new royal guard. Many of the folks I saw around me had been warlords I’d known - none of them ‘good people’ one might say. I was sure ‘eliminating’ the competition meant death. Knowing the things most of these people were capable of helped relieve any guilt I might have felt toward the task that lay ahead.
However, I had no idea how the ‘festivities’ would go about being held. I heard a great cheer go up through the crowd and I turned to see Gabrielle walking to her balcony with Najara on her arm. My stomach tightened instantly at the sight of them. From behind the curtain a familiar face appeared that I hadn’t seen for a long time, but knew quite well. I took a few paces forward to get a closer look. The squared shoulders, the long curly blonde hair - without a doubt it was Ephiny. How she came to be in Gabrielle’s service was a new mystery but I didn’t have long to dwell on it.
"Competitors," Gabrielle’s Amazon Regent began, "You’ve come before the Forum today to test your skills; to risk your lives to serve our Conqueror." As Ephiny paused I watched Najara pick up Gabrielle’s hand and plant a delicate kiss. Nausea didn’t begin to describe my disgust. "You will all battle until twenty of you are left standing. At that point you will be broken down into two groups of ten. You will compete one on one based on the conqueror’s preference. The ten that survive that match will battle the Conqueror herself. If you survive five minutes in the ring with her . . . You will be welcomed into Royal Guard. With that said, ready your weapons. When you see the royal banners thrown down, you may begin."
Ephiny stepped back and took a seat on the opposite side of Gabrielle and the two had a small conversation. Moments later, the banners unfurled and I heard screams and war crys around me. It was total madness. Swords, knives, maces moving all around with no real accuracy to it all. I, however, had a goal. I had to get to Callisto and take her out of the competition. I could not let her win this round. I looked through the crowd quickly and saw she was making good time through the leagues of battling competitors - taking them down with ease. I began my journey but every few feet someone got brave enough to take me on.
I don’t have time for this, I thought as I shoved them away. I could dispose of them, I was sure, but that would also take more time. Let them find a new competitor to battle. I had my target. Now I had to see to hitting it.
Callisto was busy toying with Tibereus. His male overzealous pride was what got him killed. Quickly she grew tired of playing with what she called the 'little piggy,' kicked him in his groin, and then took his head off in one clean stroke. She stood admiring her bloody blade then smirked at me. We stood glaring at one another when she did that ear-piercing scream while charging at me. I felt my blood pumping through me, part of me missed this adrenaline rush of battle.
We were a blur of clashing blades, when she backhanded me and I returned the favor. I flipped and kicked her and she did a roundhouse to my jaw. We crossed blades pulled into one another and grabbed our free hands.
"My, my, Xena. If I didn't know better I would think you are trying to kill me." She sneered at me. We were both trying to break each other’s hold.
"You got that right!" I said giving her a head butt, kicking her in the stomach, then to the face. She fell sideways and I knocked her sword out of her hand. I was ready to finish my job when I heard an angry "Halt!!"
The Conqueror stood, calling the match to an end and two guards stepped in front of Callisto and I. "Round one is over, warriors. Save it for the next." I watched as Gabrielle took a seat and Ephiny addressed the crowd.
"The next round will begin at noon tomorrow." The crowd applauded. Then Ephiny addressed us. "Rest up warriors, this next bout won't be as easy." The crowd clapped again while the Conqueror took her leave.
The warriors started to leave the coliseum, but their faces were voids to me except for Callisto's. She and I were still standing, just eyeing each other. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. Keeping my eyes on Callisto, I covered that hand with mine and squeezed, until I heard the bones cracking.
"I'm so tired of people touching me." I said, turning to look down at the guard who was red faced with gritted teeth. I released the much thinner hand and pushed it away. "You can speak to me without touching me." I took a few deep breaths and tried to calm myself.
"Conqueror said to save it for the next round," he said through clenched teeth. I heard Callisto laugh and walk away. My keen sense of hearing picked up, ‘until the next round, Xena’. She had that right. I glared one more time at the guard and followed him back to the barracks, into the banquet area.
All of the warriors were there, taking care of their weapons for the next battle. I wondered just how or what the Conqueror was planning with second phase. Who against who? I found a chair and sat with my back against the wall. I took my sword out and began to clean my blade, keeping focus on my goal.
I had to take Callisto out before she hurt Gabrielle.
"Xena?" I looked up to see Gabrielle in a smaller form. "Would you like some water?" Hope asked with the smile I loved so much. I smiled back.
"Thank you." I said, taking the ladle from her. She said "welcome" with her mother’s bounce and went to the next warrior with the water. I felt my heart aching. Could this have been Hope in my world, if only I given her a chance? No time for this now, I told myself, stay focused. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to find my center, blocking all that was around me except the sound of my heartbeat. Even in this state I could sense any type of danger and go into action if need be. Before I knew it, the guard came in announcing the second round was beginning.
We were led back out to the coliseum and the bright sun. We stood to hear what instruction the Conqueror would give, and for some reason the hairs on my neck were standing on end. The Conqueror whispered something to Ephiny and then sat while the Amazon began to speak.
"Warriors, when I call out your names you are to stand across from one another." She let the words sink into us while she read from the scroll.
"Carus/Devitocles, Gagnon/ Sadus, Tegason/Virgilius, Draco/Cycnus, Kryhus/Darius, Sphaerus/Tynus." The one line we had, turned into two, as the warriors filed in one by one. "Gothos/Xena, Mesmer/Memos, Dagnine/Callisto, Antonius/Benitar."
Dagnine vs. Callisto. Well at least some good would come out of this fight one way or another. Dagnine was a good fighter - perhaps not as good as Callisto but he was never one to ‘fight fair’. He would do everything and anything to win and if he could take Callisto out of the picture all the better for me. And if Callisto did become the victor then I’m sure it would be just desserts for the likes of Dagnine, backstabbing fool that he was.
I looked over and saw my opponent Gothos trying to stare menacingly towards me. I rolled my eyes at him. He'd have been a good opponent I’m sure, but he couldn't match my skill - especially when it came to defending Gabrielle. I had to succeed in order to get her back in my world. And I knew some two dinar punk warlord wasn’t going to stand in my way. I would take him out of the competition and move on to the final round, no doubt about it.
"You have your matches for tomorrow. Be ready come noon," Ephiny told us before she briskly walked off. I didn’t give much consideration to Gothos as I moved away. I even turned my back to him when he tried to impress me with his sword drills. I knew he was offended and to be honest, I don’t care. Come tomorrow he’d be just another dead warlord in my eyes. However I knew until that time I had many hours to fill. So I went ‘home’ to the kitchen again.
I saw a young girl playing. Hope. Out of all the names that Gabrielle could have chosen she still went back to that one - her hope. I saw my mother preparing the Conqueror’s afternoon meal as Hope lent a hand.
"Need any help?" I asked.
My mother smiled warmly and handed Hope some potatoes with a nod in my direction. "Here ya go," the young girl said, setting them down in front of me to peel. I watched her practically skip back to my mother as she departed. She must have been 10 summers old I’d guess. Not quite a small girl but not a young lady yet either. Given her age I can only assume she was the result of Cortese’s attack. The time frame would be right. I considered for a moment the option of asking my mother the girl’s identity. Would she tell me? She might have felt a connection with me but that didn’t mean that she’d divulge that big a secret either.
What the Tartarus? I figured. When the girl went out to fetch more water I walked over to my mother.
"That girl," I began, "She’s the Conqueror’s daughter." It wasn’t a question and I waited for my mother’s reaction. She was never very good at hiding her heart when it came to children - be it hers or others. A look of panic seemed to wash over her but she pushed it away and gave a smile instead, shaking her head no. I could tell she was lying.
"It’s okay," I told her. "I’m not going to hurt her or her mother. I’m here to help actually." I confessed. "I have reason to believe the Conqueror’s life may be in danger and if there’s anything out there that might ‘get to her’ I’d like to know."
My mother didn’t stop from her task until I touched her shoulder.
"Please I have to know - for both of their sakes. Is Hope Gabrielle’s daughter?"
My mother looked undecided as she glanced back to the girl who was outside at the well. Sadly my mother nodded.
"One of Cortese’s men?"
I didn’t have to give any more information. My mother knew I was asking about Hope’s paternity.
Again, another sad nod.
"Does Hope know who her true mother is?" I asked, hoping my mother would continue.
Firmly, she shook her head.
"Well don’t worry. I won’t say anything to her. Actually that’s for the better. I think it best if the girl doesn’t know. She would be a weakness to Gabri-the Conqueror."
When I use the bard’s first name my mother gave me a peculiar look and rushed over to the pad of paper and started to scribble.
"Few know her Majesty’s first name," she wrote.
I grinned back at my mother. "As I said, I’m a friend. I’m here to help, honestly. She doesn’t even realize it yet but I’ll be her salvation. So please…trust me. Hope’s secret is safe with me I assure you."
A look of relief washed over my mother’s face. And I felt the need to tell her just what I know.
"In case I don’t make it for some reason you have to be warned of a blonde warrior by the name of Callisto. She’s out to do the Conqueror harm and if she finds out about Hope…I’m sure she’ll kill the child so please make sure Callisto is far from her - do you understand?"
My mother was unsure I could tell but she gave me a nod just the same. I nodded back my approval and started to walk away when she grabbed me by the arm, making me stop.
"I have to tell you something," she wrote.
I nodded and wait as she continued writing.
"I don’t trust the Consort."
"Najara? Why not?" I asked.
No shit, I thought to myself. "What makes you say that?" I asked.
"I see her pray often. She prays to the Djinn. They helped in many campaigns that she and the conqueror went on but lately she seems…" My mother seemed stuck on what word to use to describe it.
"Crazy?" I offered.
My mother shook her head and picked up the quill again.
"Paranoid," she wrote with a shrug of her shoulders. I can tell that word didn’t quite describe what she was trying to tell me. But in my eyes she'd told me enough. Najara could be another possible threat and that’s all I needed to hear.
"Can you get me close?" I asked her. "I know it’s a large request. I’ve seen the Conqueror once but I doubt I’ll be able to get in again. I’d like to see if Najara could really spell trouble."
My mother gave me a grin. "I think you have a kind soul," she wrote. I felt my eyes tear up at the compliment.
"What can I say? I was raised by a strong, compassionate woman," I told her.
"She did a good job," she wrote back.
"Yes, she did."
My mother handed me a serving tray and motioned for me to start putting food on it. She pointed upward above us and I put it together. She was going to get me inside as a servant. I’ll be able to go anywhere in the Conqueror’s chambers. I grinned inwardly. Ares might have thought of everything but he never considered the wild card in this equation - my mother.
As Hope returned, I watched my mother write another note that saying I'd be helping them take the afternoon meal to the Conqueror today. Hope seemed happy at the news. And within a few moments I was loading the items on a cart to take to the Conqueror.
When we reached the grand room, Gabrielle was inside speaking to some of her advisors.
"But Rome is willing to sign the agreement," he urged her.
"Look," she told him forcefully. "Either they surrender or they fight to the last man. This ‘treaty’ isn’t worth the parchment it’s written on. What’s to say that Rome can’t extend their borders as they see fit? Caesar could take his troops all the way to the edge of Greece with us being none the wiser. So no, if he wants to surrender it will be unconditional. We will put the Greeks in place at the specific points we’ve mentioned. If not, let him know he’s in for a long battle and if need be I’ll be on the front line to find him and I’ll crucify that bastard myself!"
She turned and saw that lunch was being served.
"Thank you gentlemen, but you have my answer. Have the new treaty drawn up. I’ll sign it this afternoon and you can have Caesar’s advisors take it back to him tonight. Understood?"
They all nodded, knowing that she was done speaking to them. As they left, she turned to us, particularly Hope. Her harsh demeanor of moments before washed away in an instant.
"So how’s the prettiest gal in Athens today?" she asked the girl. I was amazed at how fast Gabrielle could change one moment to the next and from one extreme to the other.
The young girl’s face seemed to light up at the compliment from Gabrielle. "Great! Xena’s giving us a hand today," she told the bard.
"I see this. A warrior and a cook - looks like she has many skills," Gabrielle responded, looking over to me. She was smiling, but I could see it was for show. Gabrielle didn’t trust me and she was suspicious of my presence. She looked at the food and then to me.
"Cyrene," my bond-mate called out. My mother looked up. "I assume you made this yourself?" she said motioning to the food. My mother nodded. Gabrielle picked up her spoon and scooped up some potatoes. She sniffed it. "Smells wonderful," she complimented my mother who responded with a smile and a nod. But she lost her grin in an instant when she faced me. Quickly, she pushed the spoon in my face and ordered, "Eat it!"
I tried not to smile. My bard was good. Very good. She thought I might have tried to poison her and she was going to see if I took the bait. I captured her wrist and I used my tongue and my lips to lick the contents from the spoon. I could feel her pulse quicken under my fingertips at the gesture.
"It tastes wonderful, your majesty," I assured her with a warm grin after I finished.
Gabrielle looked unsteady. Almost as if she was going to cry, if I didn’t know better. But I did know better. This Gabrielle didn't cry. She probably hadn’t cried in years. Not that she wouldn't want to. I’m sure she probably did with all she’d seen and done. But like trust, tears were another luxury she couldn’t afford.
Hope was oblivious to what was transpiring between us. "Do they really taste good, Xena - because I made them myself?" she asked me. Before I could answer Hope turned to Gabrielle. "I made them just the way you like, my Lady. I put in the right amount of red spice according to Grandma."
I could tell Gabrielle didn’t trust herself to answer at that moment. She was about to break on the inside. Instead of replying to the girl she dipped the spoon in and tasted for herself. "They’re perfect," she grinned to the girl. Gabrielle placed the spoon on the plate and knelt down to come eye to eye with Hope. "Why don’t you and your Grandma head back to the kitchen now. You two should make sure you eat too… before it gets cold, okay?"
Hope gave a nod and Cyrene took the cue. Hope stopped at the door and faced Gabrielle. "But my Lady, what about Xena? Should we send her up some food too if she’s staying?"
Gabrielle looked at me with a devilish grin. "Don’t worry honey," she told Hope. "Me and Xena will ‘share’. Right Xena?"
Now I’m the official food taster, I considered silently. "Absolutely, my Lady," I replied confidently.
That answer seemed to satisfy Hope and she and my mother left quietly. The room grew still as Gabrielle watched me.
"Found a way back in did you?" Gabrielle began. "Should I disregard this lunch altogether? I have to admit that you look more like the kind of assassin that would do the job ‘hands on’ rather than a poisoning."
"My lady," I began with a sigh. I felt my frustration creeping in and I tried to keep my temper in check. "I’m not here to kill you. I’m here to help you. Please believe me. I’m just a warrior who has nothing to gain through your death. But I have everything to gain by keeping you alive."
She sat down at the table with the tray and handed me a piece of her fish. I realized I'd have to eat all the portions of her meal. After I took the piece and chewed, she did the same. She seemed to relax for the first time since she looked up and saw me. I wondered just what a life like that would feel like twenty-four hours a day, Seven days a week. It had to be hell to always be on your guard, trusting no one. To think I had once dreamed of a life exactly like it.
"And just how would keeping me alive be a gain to you?" she questioned.
"Honestly?" I asked.
"No, lie to me," she smirked. "Seriously, what draws you here?"
I cleared my throat and I looked straight into her eyes, not backing down in the slightest. "My heart…because I was made to love you. I was made to serve you and I will do so in every life we share together. Be it this one or countless others. I knew the first day I saw you - you were my destiny."
At first she looked intrigued but then she began to laugh. "So you’ve come in on a mighty steed to whisk the Queen away to happily ever after land? Oh please. What’s your motive?"
"I have no motive but to love you," I told her. "From the moment I saw you in full armor upon your mare…I felt ‘connected’ to you. And I know that you felt it too. I saw it in your eyes when you looked at me that first day. I see it now, in fact. It’s not just lust, which is there I assure you…It goes much deeper," I added boldly. I prayed I hadn’t overstepped my bounds because I’d be on that same cross I saw the day of my arrival.
Instead of looking angry she looked….scared? She darted from her seat and started to pace at the window. "I have a bond-mate," she told me. There was a quiver in her voice and I realized I had a chance. If I couldn’t figure out Ares’ plan, then perhaps I could win ‘this’ Gabrielle’s affections, and I could open her heart the way she opened mine...
"It doesn’t matter," I told her, stepping closer. "You may have a bond-mate. But I’m your soul-mate. I’m what’s been missing your whole life, Gabrielle. The void you feel…it’s me. I know this to be true. Look out there," I said coming up behind her. "You have the world at your feet. But it’s not enough is it? Something still needs to be done, doesn’t it?…That something you’re missing is ME."
"I should have you killed for speaking to me in this manner," she said sternly.
"You could," I agreed. "But then you’d spend the rest of your life wondering if I spoke the truth today. You’ll keep looking years from now for that special something that makes you feel whole. And I think you’ll realize that maybe I was right. Maybe I am what you so desperately seek .. But by then it would be too late. I’d be dead and you’d still be lonely although you ‘have it all’."
Gabrielle started to shake her head. Her hands began to twist in a motion I know so well. The one that said she was getting flustered and trying to concentrate so she could pick the right words. "This is crazy talk," she said, and moved away.
She was off-balance and I knew I had to make my move. My time was limited. Without further thought, I pulled her into an embrace, capturing her arms. My lips found hers and she pulled back in resistance but I stayed with her, unwilling to let her go. A few moments later, I felt her body relax and she allowed me to loosen my grip. I let my hands slip to her waist and in that moment I felt her lips returning my kiss with a hint of uncertainty. Instead of letting her have the chance to pull away, I deepened the kiss and ran my fingers through her short hair. At all times I paid attention to my hands because I was sure she was doing the same. She was too smart to get ‘caught up in the moment’ and forget where my hands might be. She would be ready for any attack to come if one of my hands ‘slipped away’ so I kept them rooted where she could feel them.
The kiss wasn’t a passionate surrender - far from it. Both of us were very aware of what was going on. I knew my heart but I understood that it would raise many questions for Gabrielle. Questions that if they scared her enough could cost me my life. She might have killed me for fear that I was still a threat or that my love might be her downfall. As we pulled away both of us were breathing hard. Gently, I took my hands away and held them out for her to see.
"Look your Highness," I told her. "I mean you no harm. As I said, my only wish is to love you if you’ll let me. I truly believe you are my destiny."
She didn't reply. For once my chatty bard was tongue-tied. I give her a nod of respect and I took my leave. When I closed the door, I lingered outside for a moment. I heard her let out a howl of either anger or frustration and I heard the tray of food slam against the door. I figured I should make my way back to my room to await my fate. Either she would come to me intrigued to learn more or she'd come for my head. Either way would work. I'd have her in my life or I’d be dead. It was better than living a life without her.
I realized as I was walking, considering my fate, that I hadn’t paid attention to what direction I was going and I was now lost. In a castle that size it wasn’t too hard. Only a momentary setback, I was sure. A patrol would be by anytime to lead my in the right direction. As long as it wasn’t the chopping block, that would be okay.
As I approached down a long corridor I heard two voices talking. One of them I was sure was Callisto but the other one was so quiet at first I couldn't tell. I crept up to the corner and looked around carefully. It was Callisto all right and the person she was talking to was Najara. I pulled back again so they couldn't see me as I listened.
"I’m not sure about this," Najara said.
"Have your voices lied to you before? Haven’t they always told you what was right? Listen to them now Najara. The Conqueror is far too powerful. The kingdom should be in your hands. With your leadership and skills…You would forever be named a hero in all the scrolls through the ages."
"But we have a problem. If Gabrielle dies I won’t be the one to take control."
"She has an heir?" Callisto asked. "Who?"
"It’s a guarded secret - a scroll contains the information. Even I don’t know the location of the scroll. And very few know who the heir is - myself being only one of maybe two or three people."
"Who are the others that know this secret?" Callisto prodded.
"The regent knows I believe. As does one of the staff supervisors. And I’m sure neither will betray the Conqueror’s confidence."
"Well then, guess we’ll have more folks to eliminate from the picture won’t we?"
"Listen to me!" Najara told her. "These are good people. All of them. They don’t deserve to die because the Djinn are telling me that Gabrielle’s rule will change. Gabrielle is my concern - my only concern. She is the only one who needs to be taken out of the equation. I love my bond-mate but I love my country more. And if Gabrielle will be changing her style of ruling it needs to be dealt with now and not later."
"That’s what you have me for," Callisto remarked. "I’ll take her out and you can rule the country as you please. The heir she has is just an ‘added bonus’ to the job. I’ll consider it a ‘freebie’. How’s that? Now tell me, who’s the heir?"
I had to make a decision. Would I let Najara tell her or walk around the corner and interrupt them? I heard Najara’s hesitation and I made my choice.
"Oh sorry, your Highness," I said in a confused manner as I turned the corner. "I seem to have lost my way around here. Could you be kind enough to lead me to warrior’s quarters?"
Najara was obviously startled but I thought she was sure I’d heard nothing. Callisto, on the other hand, eyed me with a curiosity that said I knew more than I was letting on. I didn’t let it show. The lives of many people I love hung in the balance.
"I should just cut you down here Xena to save Gothos the trouble tomorrow," Callisto remarked. "You wouldn’t say anything, would you, my lady?" she asked Najara.
I started to put my own curious look in my eye. "I make a wrong turn and you want me dead? If I didn’t know any better I’d think the two of you might be plotting something. However, the bond-mate’s respect and admiration of the Conqueror is well noted so I’m sure that’s not the case." I pulled my sword from my scabbard. "So I’ll take this challenge to be just that - a challenge - which I’ll be happy to oblige you. But I will warn you…you won’t get out alive."
Najara walked up between us. "Please put your swords away. You’ll both have plenty of time to show your skill in the arena tomorrow... Xena, was it?" she asked me.
I kept my eye on Callisto a few seconds longer before I faced Najara. "Yes, your Highness. I’m Xena."
"Come with me," she said, taking me by the arm. "I’ll show you the way."
I followed but not before Callisto and I exchanged an icy stare.
We took a few steps when Najara had one of her Djinn moments.
"You've suffered much, Xena but you've retained your good heart. And you have chosen to fight the darkness within you. What courage that takes." I tried hard not to roll my eyes and went right into my part of this play.
"Who told you that?" I had to pretend to be interested.
"The Djinn told me." New outfit, new world but same old wacko underneath.
"The Djinn?" My mind chose to be brutal at this point and gave me a vision of this nut's hands all over my wife. If she had hurt Gabrielle, I would change her in ways she'd never fathom.
"Yes, they're my guides through life. They're my Djinn." I smiled with her while thinking. 'And I'm the queen of Egypt.' One thing I remembered about this nut was that she didn't have a path. She followed whatever path her voices told her to. But if you tested her, said no to her, she'd blow up in your face.
"You're here on a mission?" That threw me a bit.
"Yes, I am." Think Xena. "I'm here to prove who's the best warrior and protect and serve the Conqueror, my lady." That last part was hard to get out.
"My wife is quiet incredible isn't she?" The tone in her voice was on the possessive side.
"That she is." And I didn't try to hide the affection in my voice.
"You have any family, ummm...?" she paused as if she couldn't remember my name.
The hallway seemed to have gotten a lot longer for some strange reason. "Xena." I filled in.
"Ah yes, Xena." Sigh.
"No. No family."
I was praying that it would all end soon when she said, "Here's the hallway back to the barracks, I'm sure you can find your way now."
"Yes, thank you so much, my lady." We exchanged polite smiles and I made my way to my room. The Najara of this world didn't know of my keen sense of hearing because I heard her whisper. "And watch your back."
The idea of Callisto working with Najara made me skin crawl, or...
"Show yourself, Ares." I called.
This was all I needed.
"I really hate when you do that, Xena." The stench of his arrival filled the room.
"And I really hate you Ares."
He acted like an arrow hit his heart. "Ohhh, ouch. Score one for the unknown, or is it former Warrior Princess?" He flopped on my bed and gave me a smirk.
I really didn't have the time for it. "What do you want now?"
He chuckled. "Always straight to the point, huh Xena?" I hated that cocky smile. "Sooo, what do you think of the new and very much improved little bard?"
"When this is all over Ares, you'll know how I feel." I sat in the chair and cleaned my sword, acting bored. Maybe he'd leave sooner and go torture something else.
"Oh, I'm so scared, but really, isn't she incredible?" He leaned on his elbows and crossed his legs at the ankle. "I mean, do you see the control she has? It's outstanding, and she thinks before she reacts."
I have to admit I was very impressed by her, but I would rather kiss a centaur's butt then tell him that. "I've got a match coming up Ares, is there a point to all this?"
"My point is Xena, she saw right through your little sex ploy. I did so many things differently with her then I did with you." I just gave him an eyebrow raise. "For instance, I let her keep the child close, but hide it so it wouldn't interfere with her duties." The more I ignored him the angrier he got, but for some reason the hair on my neck stood to attention. "Unlike with you. You know, persuading you to give your boy up."
I could hear my heart beating in my ears. He smiled again, knowing that got my attention.
"You bastard!" He laughed and disappeared. I dropped my sword to the floor and paced. I remembered right before Solon was born. Borias almost had me believing we could get away and be a family, I wanted that, then.....
'By the Gods!!' Ares put it in my mind to give him up, my lust for power overcame my urge to love my child. By the time Solon was born I did so many more things. I'd betrayed the Amazons, the Centaurs, most the people of Chin and Borias. There was no way I could keep him, and that's how Ares wanted it. I wonder how my life would have turned out if I kept him and fled with Borias.
'Come on Xena, think.' I muttered aloud. Ares was upset because I got to Gabrielle today so he did this now just to get at me. That has to be the reason, I had found a weakness and it made him sweat. Today I'd had a small glimmer of the real Gabrielle; she was still there. The down side to it all was, I had to worry about Hope now on top of everything else.
Gabrielle's scream brought me out of my musing, I grabbed my sword and flew out my door towards her chamber. I was just about there when my mother stepped into my path to halt me.
"Cyrene, wh... I have to get to the Conqueror, she's in danger." She wouldn't budge and motioned for me to follow her. Again we heard another agonizing scream and the sound of things being broken.
My heart told me to go protect my love, but my mother kept shaking her head and pulled me into a room. We went inside what must have been her own chamber and she pushed me into a seat. She finished writing something and handed it to me.
"You don't want to interrupt the Conqueror when she's dealing with past demons, child."
"Explain." I said and handed her back the tablet. I felt myself grow impatient as she wrote, wanting the story immediately.
"She's in an odd mood and had too much ale today. She does this at times, when her memories haunt her. Things in her past such as her sister, family, the attack, take her into a dark place where even the Conqueror's consort steers clear until this blows over." I knew exactly what she meant. I've been there many times in my life. The mind can be very cruel at times, usually the wrong times. Whenever I closed my eyes I had to relive my brother’s death, my mother’s cries...
"You never finished telling me about the Conqueror, you left off right around when her uncle found her." She nodded, and dipped the quill in fresh ink and began to write. With my hearing I could still pick up low moaning, a sort of a crying sound. It was so hard for me to not rush right in there and take her in my arms and just hold her tight to me. Mother handed me back the tablet and I noticed she had tears in her eyes.
"Her uncle Morose nursed Gabrielle back to health the best he could, but the child didn't speak a word to anyone. He thought for sure it was a hit to the head that made her mute. One day he went to check on her and she was gone."
"She went for revenge?" She nodded as I handed her back the tablet. This was very hard for my mother to write about and I wasn't sure I was ready to hear it.
"That little girl was far from healed and nowhere near a warrior, but filled with utter hate. That hate and with her father's sword took her to Cortese's camp, at least one of them. She found a small patch of raiders camping and charged them. She, if I remember right, took three down before the fourth one hit her from behind. What they did to her was beyond brutal and it lasted for days." I had to stop reading for a minute to gather back some of my composure. I took a deep breath and continued to read.
"What the men didn't know is they were camped on Amazon land. I needn't tell you what they did to those men when they were found?" No, she didn't, just being on their land is a crime and penalty is death. If one or two were lucky, they might be used for breeding before dying, but seeing them torturing a woman assured a slow painful death. I started to read again.
"Melosa, the queen, took Gabrielle in and trained her. She found a sisterhood and family, but no matter what Melosa or the others did, they couldn't take the vengeance from Gabrielle's heart. They also found out Gabrielle was pregnant, but even that didn't stop her bloodlust. While building a nation and destroying everything in their path, Ephiny helped Gabrielle deliver the child in silence. No one knew. A moon after the child's birth she discovered that some of her men were trying to overthrow her and that's when I came into her life. I agreed to look after Hope as if she were my own, to keep her safe. I owe Gabrielle at least that much for saving me. Ephiny who was and still is her best friend received a blessing from Melosa, so both went on to conquer. To this very day the Amazon's and even the Centaurs are allies to the Conqueror's nation."
I had no words, I handed her back the tablet and just... With the Centaurs and the Amazon nations allied with the Conqueror's, Gabrielle achieved all I wanted to do when I was younger and then some. Ares did create the perfect Warrior Queen. I was torn is a sick way, part of me felt jealous that she accomplished what I couldn't. Or was it awe? The other half of me was a cross between fearing for her soul and just feeling badly for her and all she went through to get it.
I felt the tablet slide back into my hands and I stared at the words.
"Are you alright, Xena?" I could almost hear my mother's voice ask that.
"Yeah, that was just hard to read." She patted my arm and wrote again.
"You'd better get some rest, little one, you've got a busy day tomorrow." Little one? She hadn't called me that since I was five.
"I'd better get some rest, thank you." I gave her a hug and wished her a goodnight, and as I closed her door I had to stop and look at the hallway leading to the Conqueror's chamber. It was quiet then; she must have cried herself out.
"I promise I'll get us out of this mess, Gabrielle." I whispered as I made my way back to my room.
The sun shone bright in the arena - blindingly bright, in fact. It was difficult to watch match after match, waiting my turn. Callisto was the second to the last to compete today and like myself, she watched each match go by, occasionally looking my way. I didn’t see her staring directly at me but I could feel her eyes upon me, examining me.
My eyes never rested. All afternoon I watched competitor after competitor fall. When I wasn’t watching the matches, waiting for my place in line, my eyes weighed heavy on the Conqueror at her throne. Ephiny sat to her right, Najara to her left. It was as if, even in this life, Gabrielle could still sense me.
Whenever I looked at my bard, only a few seconds would pass before she would lock eyes with me. At one point I licked my lips in remembrance of our kiss and I watched a slight blush come over Gabrielle - her eyes quickly darting from mine. I noticed the reaction but I wasn’t the only one. So did Najara. I knew she could see me smiling at her wife but I didn’t care. The fact I didn’t let her steely gaze make me flinch even once seemed to send her into a quiet rage. From across the courtyard I could see how red the fair skinned woman’s face grew.
I watched as Najara tapped Gabrielle’s arm and then pointed at me. Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. The discussion that transpired became heated and I watched as Gabrielle threw her hands up in the air as Najara stomped away behind the royal curtains. Ephiny then leaned over and whispered something after Najara’s departure that earned her a smile and a nod. They looked so much like the pair I remembered from my world - conspiring sisters who could gossip and giggle into the early morning around an Amazon campfire.
But I realized these were not the same women and somehow, some way I had to unweave the tapestry that the war god had created. The more I thought the more I realized the opposite of war was love. And if Ares could create this world then perhaps . . .
"Now that’s usin’ your noggin."
The voice startled me at first and I turned to face Aphrodite.
"You can fix this?" I asked her.
"Love can fix this," she answered. "Everything here is Ares’ illusion. When I went to look for sweet pea and came up empty I knew Ares must have been up to something."
"And he just volunteered this information to you?" I asked skeptically.
"Oh no," Dite giggled. "But I threatened to put a spell on every animal over three feet tall that would make them ‘love him deeply’ if you catch my drift. He was much more forthcoming at that point."
"You can be wicked," I grinned conspiratorially.
"Love hurts," she replied with a mischievous crinkle of her nose.
I had to chuckle. My faith in the gods was minimal at best but I had to admit - when it came to Aphrodite, she was different. Self-centered and totally absorbed most of the time, certainly. But she adored my bard almost as much as I did. She went against all of Olympus to see that Gabrielle was safe when they came down to strike out against my family. She begged for Gabrielle’s well-being as the rest of them plotted. Yes, Aphrodite was different. And although I would never admit it openly to her, I felt forever indebted to her. One of which I didn’t mind paying.
"So how do I get ‘sweet pea’ as you call her, back to our world?" I asked.
"Love," Dite answered giving a solid nod. "You’ve won her lust - big time," Dite smirked. "But love . . . love isn’t going to be easy and that’s what it will take to see that this world dissolves and everything goes back to ‘normal’ . . . But consider this Xena - in this world you’d never have to want for anything. The world would be yours as well. No one knows of the ‘dreaded Warrior Princess’ in this life."
Perhaps it would be perfect but I knew that nothing is ever quite as it seems.
"That’s true," she agreed, reading my thoughts again.
"But Gabrielle screams at night. She’s tortured by her past - my past. Grant it, it’s made her stronger that I ever imagined but it’s also left her haunted . . . She’s not your ‘sweet pea’ in this life."
Dite gave a firm nod. "Point taken," she replied. "So for you the cons outweigh the pros, huh?"
"Yes," I replied. "She doesn’t deserve my life. And it’s fine to say that no one knows the Warrior Princess here. But it’s not necessarily true because I still do. I have my demons. I know what I’m capable of doing - even if no one else does in this world. It’s not worth the trade off, Aphrodite."
"Then win her heart," the goddess told me confidently. "Win her over . . . and bring her back home to us. All the answers are within you Warrior Babe. "
Without another word, the goddess vanished. I turned back to the throne to see a sight that stopped her heart. Gabrielle was still there, Ephiny to her right. It was the sight to her left that knocked the wind out of me. It was Ares. His greasy smile sickened me as he chatted up my bard like they were old academy buddies. I watched him lean over and give her a light kiss on the cheek, which made my stomach turn. I closed my eyes and knew my time was running out. If Ares could win her over I wasn’t sure if I could succeed.
The latest match had come to an opening and a close without my knowledge. Between my conversation with Aphrodite and watching Ares consort with Gabrielle I hadn’t taken the time to notice that Callisto was gone. When I looked into the arena I watched her give a wicked smile to me as she stood over the dead body of Dagnine. Some things never changed in this other world and with that thought I had a new hope. If that really was the case then this Gabrielle could grow to love me as much as the one from my world.
"You’re next," I heard one of the guards say as he pulled me to my feet and pushed me into the arena. The sound of the crowd was deafening but I wouldn’t let it distract me. I had just one more battle to complete and then I could move on. I could get closer to Gabrielle and perhaps take Callisto out of the picture for good.
I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths to clear my mind, focus on my goal to gain Gabrielle back. I heard nothing until it was too late, I felt the sting of the dart grabbing my neck to find the blood.
'Son of a Bacchae!' I muttered while pulling the dart out then sniffing it. Benzodiazepine root, great just what I needed. The stuff would make my wits slower, maybe put me to sleep, but it wasn’t not fatal. Unless I get stuck by a sword because of its effects.
Gothos wasted no time with his attack, now my main problem was; which one of the three I was seeing is attacking me? The middle one was able to slice my left shoulder. What is it with thugs and cutting that shoulder? I should know by now to protect that better.
I was doing my best to block each sword strike, but the kick to my stomach doubled me over. As I coiled up the beast within came out, my survival instincts kicked in.
"Don't worry lass, I'll make it quick." My body could sense the death blow and my sword arm on its own accord blocked it. I released my battle cry, pushing him out of my way.
"Fiesty one you are. I like that." Men like him have such arrogance, and I sneered as he started his attack once more. I caught him with a backhand to his face then kicked him in the stomach. I needed to finish this quickly; my vision was growing darker.
I turned my back to him trying to focus on where Gabrielle was, as my world became more dizzy. I let out a yell, twirling my sword while dropping to one knee, thrusting my blade behind me into Gothos's gut. After that everything went dark, the root taking its effect on me.
I awoke in a room, but it wasn't mine. A huge bed, fancy silk sheets with beautiful tapestry all around. It didn't take me long to understand I was in part of the Conqueror's chambers.
"I see you're awake." I looked to my right trying to focus, and met concerned green eyes.
"Water, please." The Conqueror poured some in a cup and supported me while I drink.
"How long was I out?" The cup was jerked from my lips and now the concerned eyes grew angry. I realized I was talking to Conqueror like she was my Gabrielle.
"Are you going to tell me who poisoned you, or shall we continue to play this game?" She asked, turning to set the cup on the table and pulling a chair to the bed.
"What game? I-." I tried to continue but I was halted again by her anger.
"Explain to me why you were calling out my name! No one, other then the few who are close to me, know my name, Warrior. You had better tell me the truth or I'll gut you where you lay."
Her eyes were so cold. I couldn’t find my voice.
"My healer found the dart wound on your neck, but no dart nearby. Najara looked for one." I inwardly rolled my eyes while hers grew colder. Najara didn’t find it. That’s a shock.
"To answer your first question, I'm not sure who poisoned me but I have an idea." The same person who wants you dead, Lord Conqueror, I wanted to say but I held back. "Secondly, I heard your name spoken in error by Najara who quickly corrected herself afterward. As for why I spoke it while under the poison’s effects is because you have invaded my dreams ever since I arrived here."
My last statement seemed to have thrown her off, but not for long.
"If you're going to repeat your love speech for me you can save it." I closed my eyes unable to hold back how much that hurt. I opened my eyes to see the face of...'regret'? The Conqueror seemed off-balanced then ever.
"Rest now warrior, you'll need your strength since you now serve me in my royal guard." She turned for the door.
I'm not sure if it was the drug still in my system or I just gave up by throwing caution into the wind.
"I love you, Gabrielle." The words were out before I knew I’d said them, but I meant them with all my heart. She paused and I closed my eyes once more making peace while preparing to meet Hades.
Nothing happened. The door closed and she didn't make a sound. I laid back against the bed in relief and exhaustion. Soon I fell into a deep fitful sleep. A knock brought me out of my slumber.
'What now?' I whispered. "Come in!"
Ephiny popped her head in, much to my surprise.
"How do you feel, Xena?" I stared at my now unfamilar friend of many years.
"I have my wits back, but the shoulder’s a bit sore." She smiled and motioned for someone to come in. Cyrene appeared and smiled at me holding a beautiful red gown.
Ephiny spoke "If you're up to it, the Conqueror requests your presence at tonight’s celebration." I would have bet dinars that Ephiny could feel the power between Gabrielle and I.
"I'm up for it, thank you."
Cyrene laid the gown across the chair and came over giving me a peck on the cheek before leaving.
"Dinner starts in a couple candle marks, I'll have a bath brought for you." Ephiny gave me a knowing smile and exited herself.
For the first time since this all had been going on, I felt a glimmer of hope.
The servants under Cyrene's supervision brought me a much needed bath with nice smelling soaps and oils. I slid my aching body into the hot water.
'Gods, this feels so good.' I moaned grabbing a bar of soap and started to scrub.
I stopped scrubbing, my hearing picked up the sounds of two women yelling. It was the Conqueror and Najara's voices.
"Why is that warrior in our chamber?" Gee, I guess her Djinn doesn’t help her with jealousy.
"She's in MY chamber because she is part of my royal guard and someone has tried to poison her." I could imagine the look on Najara's face.
"There was no proof of that, Gabrielle."
"End of discussion, Najara!" There was a loud slamming of the door. I started to scrub once more, looking at my dress. Tonight just might be interesting, I chuckled. Time to seduce my wife.
As I entered the room in the red gown, my hair piled on my head with a few wisps hanging down, everything came to a momentary stop. All eyes seemed to turn to me in admiration. Even Callisto appeared to take an interest. But I knew there was only one set of eyes I was looking for in this room of strangers and ‘not so strangers’.
Gabrielle was in the far corner chatting with Ephiny. Their conversation seemed to slip away and I watched Gabrielle clinch her goblet a little tighter so it didn’t slip away as well. It looked like it might be very interesting indeed.
Quickly I scanned the room and I saw Najara with a not so pleased look on her face. I’d deal with her soon enough. But for the moment I made my way over to the Conqueror. To pay my respects, of course.
As I started to walk, the conversations in the room picked back up and people went on about their business. Except for Gabrielle and Ephiny; they were talking softly as I approached and I thanked the Gods for my sensitive hearing as I picked up bits of the conversation.
"God I miss Amazonia," Ephiny sighed to her leader.
"I don’t think anything looked that good in Amazonia, Ephiny. No offense."
I felt myself smile as a result of Gabrielle’s words, and I closed the distance even more quickly. Once before them I gave a respectful nod to both of them - Gabrielle first and then Ephiny.
"Conqueror, Regent," I said politely before giving my full attention to Gabrielle.
"I wanted to thank you personally, Milady, for seeing to my bath and this beautiful gown."
"The gown looks like it’s a perfect fit," Gabrielle answered. "I had to guess your size. Few women have your stature in my court. Actually I can only think of one before you."
"Oh yes," Ephiny nodded. "Alti. Pity she was so power hungry."
"We reap what we sow," Gabrielle grinned.
With the mention of that name I wondered if I had yet another stumbling block Ares tossed in my way. "Who’s Alti?" I asked politely.
"Was Alti," Ephiny corrected with a grin just as wicked as the conqueror.
"She’s in Thebes now," Gabrielle replied.
"And Chin," Ephiny added.
"And a few parts in Britannia if I’m not mistaken."
The two shared a laugh and I give an uneasy smile. "I take it Alti wasn’t a friend to the republic?"
"At one point she was my most trusted advisor," Gabrielle answered. "But her obsessive desire to rule my kingdom overpowered her good sense. Even her gift of prophecy couldn’t foresee what I had in store for her."
"Destiny is a hard thing to fight," I added.
"If you believe in destiny perhaps," Gabrielle offered.
"So you didn’t have plans of controlling the known world, my conqueror?"
"No, that was the God of War’s idea," she answered honestly.
I begin to wonder if perhaps Gabrielle was a tad intoxicated. It was the lowest I had seen her guard since we had met. Perhaps it was Ephiny, too. It was obvious the two of them had a close relationship and Gabrielle seemed quite at ease in her company.
Judging by the way Ephiny looked at Gabrielle I knew if I had any allies in this world - she would be one. She was an excellent choice as a right hand - loyal, giving, dependable. I felt mildly surprised that they weren’t ruling together as bondmates.
Ephiny cleared her throat. "Well I should be heading to the gates. I want to be sure to greet Solari on her arrival this evening."
"I know you two have a lot of . . . catching up to do . . . but you’re invited back here of course," Gabrielle offered her Regent.
Ephiny chuckled. "Yes Milady. We will be returning here before retiring for the night. It would be impolite not to. However I can’t say that it will last for more than a quick hello."
Gabrielle chuckled. She actually chuckled? Oh yes, it must be the wine.
"Take care, my friend," she told Ephiny. "I’ll see you later."
Ephiny gave me a polite nod, which I returned in kind as she slipped away.
I wanted to press her for information about Ares, but decided against it. Causal conversation was best. "I assume her lover lives away," I began.
"Yes. Amazonia. She’s a guard in Queen Melosa’s court," Gabrielle answered.
Now that was a name I hadn’t heard in years. I wonder . . . "Have you heard of an Amazon named Velaska?"
"Yes, another power hungry female. How do you know of her?"
"I knew a few Amazons in my time," I answered vaguely. "I heard she could be a real troublemaker."
"She doesn’t cause trouble any longer. She’s deceased. My Regent took care of that matter years ago," her matter of fact statement left more questions in my head. "Care for some wine? You’re not officially on duty yet," she grinned.
"That would be wonderful, my Conqueror," I answered respectfully.
"Garcon," she called out. A young man came over with a tray of goblets. She took one and handed it to me. Carefully I took the glass, making sure to let my fingers lingered against hers for a moment.
"Thank you, Milady," I nodded before taking a sip.
"You’re very welcome," she replied before looking around the room.
I realized what she was doing - she was on edge, making sure everything was in its proper place with nothing suspicious going on. I remember what that felt like, to always be on guard. It could be maddening.
"May I ask you a question, Milady?"
"Certainly - I can’t guarantee an answer but you may ask."
"Are you happy with your life?"
The question seemed to throw her off, as if it was something she hadn’t considered for a very long time. She took a nervous drink and looked at her sandals. It was such a showing statement. The mighty conqueror feeling small with just a simple question. She raised her hand high as she addressed me.
"Well, our people are fed for the most part. The majority can read and write from statesmen to simple farmers-."
"No disrespect, Milady. Those are all wonderful things. You’ve accomplished quite a bit. But what about you? Are you happy?"
Gabrielle looked into her goblet. "Is this about your declaration earlier in my bed chamber? Realize your answer could cost you your life."
"If you had it in your heart to kill me, you could. But I don’t believe you do."
Gabrielle raised her head giving me a feral grin. "You don’t know me."
"Again with respect, Milady, I think there are places deep inside yourself that you don’t know. You’ve had many chances to kill me already and haven’t taken them."
"Are you pushing for yet another?" Her words were firm but I kept my cool and I found myself smiling against her frown.
"No milady," I answered honestly. "I’m just trying to figure out why a woman who feels it’s important that her people be fed and educated has to put up such walls against those that would love her endlessly."
"As I’ve said, I have a bond-mate."
"And as I’ve said, I love you more." The words made Gabrielle take another nervous drink. "Someday I’m sure I’ll be tested in regard to my depths of love. And I will pass."
"Who are you?"
"I know you don’t believe in the concept . . . but I’m your destiny. Our souls are joined and I traveled a great distance to be here."
"You speak the foolish words of poets and playwrights," she replied sarcastically.
"You speak the words of a woman who’s never truly been in love," I challenged.
The blaze in her eyes became an inferno. I know if she’d had a sword on her back at that moment it would be taking residence in my gut at any moment. Before she could speak however, Najara slid up to her elbow, startling both of us.
"You look tense my dear," Najara said, pushing Gabrielle’s hair behind her ear. The urge to reach out and slap Najara’s hand away was strong.
"It’s been a long day," Gabrielle answered with a grin for her bondmate. I could see through it. It was a grin strictly for show.
"Well, I’ll give you two your privacy," I told them, nodding to both. "Thank you again, my Conqueror, for your generosity today. It’s much appreciated."
Gabrielle gave me a nod and I slowly turned my back to face the room. In the other far corner I saw Callisto sitting at a small table, watching the room. I slow walked up to the table putting my palms flat on it. I leaned down to her, making sure I had her complete attention.
"Word to the wise. Don’t try it tonight," I informed her. "Too many witnesses. And suggestion number two . . . when you try to kill me again. Make sure it works."
With that I struck out so quickly, she didn’t see the jab coming to her nose. The blood started to gush even before her back slammed into the chair. Chatter in the room stopped again and just as before I quietly make my way through the room. Once I left the hall I could hear the party pick back up. If nothing else, I still knew how to make an entrance and an exit.
The images of Najara were strong in my mind as the hallway I walked down closed in. The air just seemed rather thin and I was about ready to jump out of my skin.
"What's wrong Xena? Looks like you swallowed your Chakram the wrong way."
"What now Ares? I'm just not in the mood for your crap." I turned and found him leaning against the wall.
"Tsk, Tsk, you thought you would be dressed like this and Gabrielle would hop right on you huh?" He sauntered closer to me with his hands behind his back, poking his bottom lip out. "Even though you're tempting eye candy, right now she's in her chamber giving her bedmate the ride of her life."
I heard Najara calling out Gabrielle's name. I growled and threw a punch at him but this time he caught it.
"Not this time Xena." He smiled, ready to pop out of there.
"You've never beaten me yet Ares, remember that."
"There's always the first time Xena." He blew me a kiss and vanished, laughing.
I hate his laugh.
I slammed my fist into the wall trying hard to tame the fire that was raging in my soul. Ares’ words helped my mind play tricks on me, with visions of my wife and the nutcase.
"Xena?" A small voice brought me out of my torment. I looked into those pretty green eyes that were all too familiar. "Are you alright?" Hope poked her lip out, just like her mother.
"I'm fine." I stroked her precious head. What if I had given Hope half a chance in the beginning? She was half Gabrielle's...
My guilt was too much and I pick her up holding her close to me.
"You look pretty tonight."
"Thank you Hope." I gave her one more squeeze and set her down. "Why is a young one like yourself up so late?"
She gave me a cute dimpled smile. "Grandma lets me stay up on days when I have no schooling."
"Where's your grandmother now?"
"In the kitchen, like always." I followed the skipping youngster towards the kitchen. For some reason I just felt the need for my mother even though she had no idea who I really was.
She was bending over a pot stirring it, adding any spice that was in reach. In the background I could still hear the party in full swing.
"Grandma? Xena's here to see you." Mother set the spoon aside and smiled at us both. After drying her hands she grabbed her tablet and wrote something, handing it to Hope. The child got a pout and bowed her head.
"Yes, ma’am," she said obediently, placing a kiss on my mother’s cheek.
"Night Xena, I have to wash and go to bed." I had to chuckle at the seriousness of her tone.
"Night Hope." I waved as she skipped towards the sleeping area. Mother motioned for me to sit and started to write.
"I noticed you left the party early and the manner you left it in. Is everything alright?" I read her words.
"Yes, everything’s fine." I assured her. "I feel a bit closed in with crowds."
She wrote some more.
"Who was that blonde you flattened?" I had to grin at the smirk she gave me.
I hung my head in thought. "That's Callisto. The one I told you about. We just had a misunderstanding I had to settle." She looked at me and I knew my mother. She wasn't buying it.
She wrote. "You know Xena, ever since you arrived here, I just have this feeling that there's something more. Call it sixth sense or mother's intuition."
The last part made my chin hit the floor. I quickly recovered but I realized the time for games was over. "I can’t explain it but . . . I’m Xena. Your Xena." She grabbed the tablet back, her fingers shaking.
"By the Gods! I felt it in my heart. But how? I placed your body in the tomb myself. Why would the Gods grace me with such a gift?" Her hands were trembling and I was not sure what to say.
"We can't have this conversation right now with a party going right outside the door." All I needed was for someone to overhear. Her eyes began to water and I felt myself slipping.
"I.... Listen, Cyrene." My voice was cut off by her hugging me tightly to her, crying, making gasping sounds. I broke down. All of this. Gabrielle. My mother weeping in my arms, it was too much.
I held her close to me and whispered what was going on. Between Callisto, the Conqueror, and the nutcase, the walls were sure to have ears.
"Do you understand?" I pulled back a bit to see her face, she nodded and I wiped the tears from her face.
She stood pulling a cloth out of her apron to clear her nose. For the first time in longer then I care to remember, my mother had a glimmer in her eye when she looked at me.
"I better get back to the barracks. It'll be a busy day for us Royal Guards." She cupped my face and brought it down for a quick peck to the cheek.
Before I headed off I turned and looked at her once more. Again she was stirring the pot shaking her head in disbelief. I just prayed I didn't put her in harm’s way by telling her. One more problem to worry about.
Being in the barracks meant being close to the Conqueror's chambers. Having being born with sharp hearing, I picked up angry voice streaming from the Conqueror's main bed chamber. I had to smile, and I guessed all was not well with Narjara and Gabrielle this evening. I sneaked closer to listen.
"I told you Najara, I'm not in the mood!!" Gabrielle's voice boomed out.
"Well, it can't be because of your drinking, you’ve preformed well before in spite of it." Najara bantered back. "Could it be that warrior slut you were eyeing tonight?"
"Get off my back." I could hear the tension in Gabrielle's voice.
"Bad enough she had to be in our guest bed...That’s it isn't it? You want to bed that whore?" I heard a loud crashing sound and I could picture Gabrielle's face in rage.
"Get out of here before I break you in two." Her voice was low and cold. Next thing I heard was a door slamming.
This could either have been a blessing or a hindrance for me. Najara would be aiming for me with full force, and also put Gabrielle in harm’s way even more.
I slipped more into the shadows as Najara stormed past me. She had no look of pain or sorrow, just utter anger. I followed her and to make my nightmare worse, she ended up right outside Callisto's barrack door.
'This is bad, this is really bad.' I muttered turning back, again hearing Gabrielle's voice and I drew near.
"I'm so sorry Lila." Oh Gods. The mead and fighting with the nut brought out her demons again tonight.
I stood there for a half of candle mark listening to her anguish. It tore at my heart. Once again I found myself in tears for causing my love pain.
'I'm the one who should be sorry, my bard. All I seem to do is cause you agony.'
As much as I fought it and saw my mother’s words plain as day, I found myself closing in on her room. This would mean my death for sure. I stood frozen outside her chamber door trying to calm my pounding heart before making an entrance. Next thing I know the door opened and there was a sword at my throat with fiery green eyes burning through me.
"My Lord." I barely got out as she pushed the sword a bit more into me.
"My patience is wearing thin with you warrior," she hissed.
"I was on my way to my room and I heard you cry out."
She eased the sword a bit.
"Isn't it my duty to watch out for your safety?" She knew I was full of it, and I'm not sure if it was the mead or what, but she let the sword drop and walked back inside her chamber.
"You want a drink, warrior?" Why not? I considered as I felt my throat to be sure it was still intact.
"Close the door and have a seat, Xena." Making my way inside, I sat in the closest chair by the door and watched her pour us some wine.
"That was some display at the party." She handed me my glass and stayed standing in front of me. "Nice punch," she smirked. "Let me guess. She's the one who hit you with the dart?"
I swallowed the wine in one gulp. "I believe so."
She waved me over to get more wine. While I did, she took my seat. "Is this the same person you swear wants my head on a platter?" I stopped in mid pour and glanced at her.
"Seems to me she’d much rather have your death then mine." In another reality truer words were never spoken. Hades in this reality truer words were never spoken.
"She’s just feeling I'm a hurdle in her quest." I gulped another glass and poured more. "Would you like more wine?"
"Hurdle you say?" she laughed and held out her glass as I poured.
"Yes but I'm not aware that she knows of my love for you, Gabrielle. However she does know I'd rip her heart out if she laid a finger on you." I raised my glass and gulped down that one too.
I could see that made her nervous because she got up and went to peer out the balcony window. I retook my seat.
"Xena?" I snapped my head up fast. She sounded just like my Gabrielle, if only for a moment - the one who started out those introspective conversations by calling out my name with a subtle softness.
"You ever wish your life to be different?" She sounded so small.
"More then you know."
She looked at me briefly. She was silent for much too long and it was making the hairs on my neck stand. "Do you really believe in soul mates?"
She gave me an odd look then turned back to peer at the stars. My heart was breaking by her silence and I hung my head. Then she went on.
"Once, a long, long time ago, all people had four legs and two heads. Then the gods threw down thunderbolts and split everyone into two. Each half then had two legs, two arms and one head. But the separation left both sides with a desperate yearning to be reunited, because they each shared the same soul. Ever since then, all people have spent their lives searching for the other half of their soul."
I dropped the glass from my hand. The bard was inside the conqueror. She turned back to me at the sound of the fallen goblet.
"Close your mouth Xena. I might be the conquering bitch but an educated one at that." She walked over for another drink, but all I could do was watch. "At one time I wanted to be a bard, but that was torn away and this life was handed me instead." She sounded disgusted, drinking more.
"You are my soul, Gabrielle." I found my voice.
"Save it." She was beyond drunk and stumbled to the bed losing what drink she had left. She sprawled, almost falling over. "They killed her, you know?" I wasn’t sure who Gabrielle was talking about but she continued without prompting. "Lila was so young. I was older; should've been me, not her. There wasn't anything I could do to stop it. So how can you love that couldn’t save her family?" she spat.
My first thought was of Lyceus. I couldn't stop my little brother’s death. My whole village hated me and my own mother scorned that day I was born. More then anything, I hated myself. Like this Gabrielle I had many skills but I wasn’t worth spit.
But this was not the time; I had to think of her. I clenched my jaw shut and walked to her on the bed. I could see that she was drunk, but she still could strike me if she felt threatened. So I knelt in front of her slowly.
"You like to play with death, don't you?" She looked me in the eyes.
I took her hand and placed in on my heart.
"Feel this? This is yours." I pushed her hand harder to my chest. "I am yours, heart, body and soul." My eyes never left hers. "I love you so much." I leaned in to kiss her. She didn’t resist so I proceeded to her lips. It was a very tender kiss to let her know how fragile I thought she truly was but I didn’t return it for a second.
Instead, I began to pull away. At least I tried to. Gabrielle snaked her arm out and her hand cupped the back of my head pulling me closer again. She kissed me with a great degree of passion. Much like my Gabrielle did after a battle.
It’s a wonderful feeling - knowing you’re alive and sharing that life with someone. But I knew now is not the time or the place. If I had allowed her to continue she’d have me undressed and by morning it could mean my death sentence, especially if Najara happened into the room at the inopportune moment.
She issued a mumbled protest as I pulled back to stand beside the bed.
"I thought you loved me," she said in a drunken slur.
"I do," I told her. "And that’s why I’m leaving. You’ll have little memory of tonight, if any, with as much as wine you’ve consumed. I want you to know the love we make together - not just bits and pieces."
"I order you back to this bed now!"
I had to make a decision. I knew I only had one in the end. "I’m sorry my Conqueror. My job is to protect you. And you’re not ready for me in your bed. It could be very dangerous for you and many people in your kingdom. I will not take that risk."
I knew I had to leave that instant. If I stayed any longer she would talk me into it. She always did. Against my better judgment, my Gabrielle had managed to seduce me in the most inappropriate of places - from the small kisses we’d shared I knew this one was no different.
"Xena?" The voice was small again and it made me stop. "Tell me the truth - why are you really here?"
I grinned. "That’s simple. I’m gonna help you become the bard you always knew you should be. And I’ll take away your pain. Goodnight my Con- Gabrielle."
I sat in the banquet hall a few feet from the Conqueror’s table occupied by her consort and her Regent. The morning meal was brought in to us and I could see the Amazons whispering conspiratorially just as they always did with small chuckles here and there.
Solari sat next to Ephiny and both women looked extremely happy, feeding each other from time to time. Najara for her part looked cold. Not a word between she and Gabrielle was exchanged. I listened close to try to hear the conversation between ruler and Regent, especially after Najara excused herself. Even more so when I saw Gabrielle and Ephiny both look in my direction.
"She’s okay," I heard Ephiny remark.
"Okay? Just okay?" Gabrielle replied.
"Well as far as I’m concerned I already have the most beautiful woman in the known world on my arm." Solari smiled and slipped a grape into Ephiny’s mouth, letting her finger linger. "Are you considering trading Consorts my queen?"
"No, I . . . I love Najara," Gabrielle answered.
"Najara is a beautiful woman - no doubt. But she doesn’t have those killer blue eyes of the new protector. Najara never looked that damn good in the dress we saw last night either."
"Are you saying it’s lust? What if I were in love with both of them?"
"What do you want me to say?"
"You’re my Regent - advise me."
"You’re the ruler of the world, Gabrielle. I think it’s your call. Behead Najara or just shack up with the new warrior. It’s your choice."
Ephiny chuckled. "Ahh... now as your friend, I’d tell you to keep the bondmate but fool around on the side with tall, dark and deadly."
Gabrielle chuckled. And that answer got a playful slap from Solari who joined the conversation. "Should I be worried while I’ve been away?"
Gabrielle immediately answered starting to rise. "Oh no Solari. Trust me. There’s not a more pussy whipped woman in this kingdom than Ephiny."
"Heyyy," Ephiny whinnied in protest as her bond-mate laughed.
"Just telling it like it is Eph’."
Gabrielle locked eyes with me and I quickly went back to eating my goose eggs. I tried at least until I felt her at my side. Quickly I stood up and bowed respectfully to her.
"My Conqueror," I nodded. "How may I be of service?"
"I need to spar. After your meal make sure to join me on the practice field."
"Yes, my Conqueror." I nodded again. As she left, I wondered silently if she’d take Ephiny’s advice.
As I made my way to the practice field, the eggs I had eaten seemed like boulders in my quivering stomach. I had to wonder if the Conqueror would be impressed if I lost my breakfast on her boots.
"Hello Xena." I jumped slightly at the voice, too distracted to notice I was being followed. I turned to see Callisto leaning against the stone wall.
"Nice bruise," I taunted.
She had a great shiner on her face where my fist met it last night. I had to smile.
"Yes it is. I'll return the favor soon." She smirked "I've been watching you lately and you know what I've seen?"
I just raised an eyebrow.
"You drooling over the conqueror. How pathetic you are, or so I thought." She walked closer to me and tapped her finger to her chin. "I was wracking my brains wondering why a person from Amphipolis would go out of their way to kiss that bitch’s ass, especially when she torched their whole village." She looked at me closer.
"Then is occurred to me, the reason why you want so badly in her britches is because she'll be more vulnerable to kill." She squealed and clapped. "Bravo, hitting the Conqueror right in the libido."
I got right in her face. "Let me tell you something. The Conqueror's men were responsible for razing both of our villages and the Conqueror handled those men. And if you think for an instant I'll let any harm come to her, you'll have a short life span. Got me?" I towered over the crazed blonde.
"Do you believe after the Conqueror’s history, she really had no idea? If you do, you're a fool."
We were close to trading blows.
"Is there a problem here?" We jumped at her voice. We both looked and saw very cold, green eyes.
She was dressed in a white shirt with black pants. Two swords strapped to her hips. She was very impressive, though it was obvious she was not happy with either Callisto or myself.
"Do I have to make you two children stand in separate corners?" She circled us both. My eyes focused back on Callisto. You could tell by the way she was twitching she wanted to strike Gabrielle.
"No, my Lord." We said in unison.
"Good. Now isn't there some place you need to be Callisto?"
The glare Callisto gave Gabrielle was deadly. "Yes, I do Lord Conqueror," she said through clenched teeth, looking at me once more.
"Then I suggest you go." Gabrielle got in her face. I was ready for anything, but Callisto wisely bowed and turned to leave. I could still pick up her saying, "Your time is coming to an end."
I wonder if she meant mine or Gabrielle's? As I considered it, I was sure she was convinced to destroy both of us.
"Ready to spar warrior?"
I nodded letting her lead the way.
The field was set up for sparring. There were staves, chobos, and a variety of swords to choose from. I watched as she began to stretch and do a few defensive moves.
"Choose your weapon, Xena." I completed a couple stretches of my own walking towards the weapons. I grabbed a staff, throwing one towards her, and she snatched it smirking at me.
Then my chin nearly hit the dirt as she started a few staff drills. She was moving so fast, I couldn't see the damn wood. It was a blur. I was even more aware that this wasn't my Gabrielle; this was a lethal warrior.
We stood opposite from each other, until she bowed her head in signal for me to start. And start I did, not holding back in the least. She blocked each blow and kick I had to offer, then it was her turn to attack.
I was tiring, struggling to hold onto the piece of wood that was stung each time she struck it. My advantage was my height and power, she had speed with perfect center of gravity.
In a sick strange way, I found this arousing. Our movements were like a warrior's poetry, a perfect dance.
I was able to get a roundhouse kick to the side of her face and that pissed her off. When I looked into her eyes. I froze. The look she had made me shudder.
'Is this what I look like when the beast is free?' I had to wonder as she struck her staff into mine, shattering it. That threw me off balance and left my middle open to her kick. As I doubled over she brought her knee up to my face. I landed in a painful thud on my back.
She landed on top of me, snarling. I found my heart pounding, I was...scared but extremely turned on. I closed my eyes waiting for her next move, but nothing happened.
I opened them slightly, she was breathing hard. She then leaned over and gave me a kiss that melted me down to the bottom of my boots.
"If you love me as you say, warrior," she paused to catch her breath, "meet me by the southern gates tonight. I have a place to show you." She gave me one more kiss then got off of me.
As she walked away she turned. "Thanks for the best sparring I've had in ages." Then she was gone while I was still flat on my back.
'By the Gods, I'll never survive this.' My mind told me. I laid there, letting my brain catch up with my now aching body, when I heard chuckling.
Making their way towards me was Ephiny and her mate. "Sparred with staffs, huh?"
I sat up cracking my neck into place. "Yeah, how did you know." I groaned as I got up and the both laughed at me more.
"Because we all land like that after she kicks our asses with the staff." She and Solari laughed harder.
"Next time warn me, will ya?" I growled at them as me and my damaged warrior's pride limped off the field.
I recognized it as Ephiny’s voice and turned around to face her. She and Solari close the distance between us. "I gotta say . . . You’ve lasted longer than anyone yet. I respect that. I think the conqueror might have met her match."
"Hopefully in more ways than one," I tell her with a slight grin before beginning my departure again.
My ‘wounds’ from earlier in the day were healed as I stood at the south gate with an over inquisitive guard. He was beginning to annoy me and I wondered how much longer I could manage to wait for Gabrielle’s arrival.
"So where will you be going?" he asked.
"I don’t know, and even if I did, being part of the royal guard, I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you."
He began to chuckle. I didn’t. And soon that chuckle became a nervous cough.
He knew I was very serious. I would kill him in a heartbeat to protect Gabrielle. When he finally shut up for a moment, my mind went back to the kiss of earlier in that day, as well as the ass kicking I had gotten. I had to admit; it was quite stimulating to see Gabrielle in action like that. I can only imagine what the battle lust would feel like if we ever had to engage anyone side by side in combat. I’m sure I’d spontaneously combust from the magnitude of it.
At that moment, Gabrielle approached on horseback and reached out for me as the gates opened.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"No questions," was the short retort.
I did as I was commanded and climbed behind her.
We left the safety of the city and traveled for what seemed like candle marks out of the kingdom’s light, where the only thing we saw were the shadows of a few trees and the star light in the full moon’s sky.
Soon we were by a river. One I knew very well. My Gabrielle always loved to stop here and make camp when we were in the area. I was a bit surprised to see that things hadn’t changed.
"It’s lovely here," I told her.
She seems to avoid the comment and threw her leg over the horse’s head and hopped down. "Grab the saddlebags."
I paused a moment. The sharpness of her words reminded me yet again that this was not my Gabrielle. Not wanting her to get out of sorts, I didn’t dwell on it long. I pulled the saddlebags off as requested once I hopped down. She was sitting by the shore looking out at the water as I made my way over. She reached out and I handed her the bags as she moved to her feet.
I watched her reach inside and pull out a set of shackles. Those quick reflexes of hers returned and she fastened one on my hand while tossing the other one through the tree. On pure instinct I reached out and grabbed her by the throat to stop her but she used the opportunity to shackle my other wrist.
Son of a bitch.
She caught me.
And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
She pulled away with a devilish laugh. She reached between her cleavage and pulled out a breast dagger, running it down my cheek and to my throat. I didn’t move. I didn’t even breathe.
"You said you loved me," she began. "And at the first opportunity you tried to strangle me?"
Oh shit. This is gonna take some explaining.
"It was a reaction. I thought you were going to try to kill me, my Conqueror."
"Although that wasn’t my intention in bringing you out here . . . I just might."
"Honestly, Gabrielle." I felt the point of the knife press deeper into my throat at the use of her given name and quickly made up for it. "My Conqueror. Honest. I thought you brought me here to kill me."
"Then why come at all?"
"It wasn’t until you shackled me, my Conqueror."
"Then why did you originally agree to come here?"
"That’s it? I asked so you came?" She paused and put the knife back in her cleavage and I gave a sigh of relief but tried not to make it sound too loud. "Did you think I offered you the chance to steal away from the castle so we could spar some more?"
I saw where she was going. She wanted me to tell her why. She knew why already. I desired her beyond words. But she wanted to hear me say it.
"No, my Conqueror."
"Then tell me why."
"Because you are the sexist thing the gods ever put on this earth and I’d forfeit my life for one night with you."
"You wouldn’t be the first," she said casually, taking the sword off her back and letting it fall to the ground.
"But I hope to be the last."
Gabrielle gave a chuckle. "Yes well . . . Najara hoped to be the last. Turns out she was wrong."
Her lips seized mine and she pushed me against the rough tree bark. Her tongue broke through my lips and when I tried to return the gesture she pulled back and slapped me so hard my face stung.
"I kiss you. You don’t kiss me. Understand?"
I would have rubbed my cheek to ease the pain if I could have, but I couldn’t reach it. My hands were suspended too high above me. I could only give a nod, which she accepted. With that she stepped back and I watched as her armor and battledress fell to the ground. She’s scarred in places I didn’t recognize and I silently wondered what story each scar tells. I would have like to reach out and touch each one, memorizing the feel of her body. But despite the battle riddled body, there was a hunger there. Perhaps more now than ever and she could sense it.
"What you expected?"
The question almost went unanswered in my admiration of Gabrielle.
"No, my Conqueror - far more tantalizing. If you release me-."
"You might kill me. And I want to enjoy one evening with you before I die."
She returned and in a few minutes my armor was stripped away and britches pulled to my ankles. She stayed on her knees and pulled up my skirt. She studied me closely and licked her lips and I could feel myself grow wetter in response. My legs seemed to unconsciously part.
"I wouldn’t kill you."
"This from a woman who just tried to choke me to death," she chuckled as she rubbed her hands up my legs, tantalizing me even further.
"Oh gods please," I found myself whispering and pulling on the shackles.
Gabrielle chuckled again at my reaction. "Be honest. You don’t really want me to let you go. You love this." I watched her rise to her full height, her fingers immediately finding my soaked center. "Oh, you really love this. Not many people have bested you Xena, and you love the feel of it don’t you? I know you do because we’re very much alike. No one has lasted that long on the practice field against me. And I must admit it excited me to no end. Almost as much as your excitement now."
That’s it. I’m gonna die. Strung up in a tree and dripping wet. Her fingers toyed with me, brushing past the nub that desperately needed attention. I groaned my frustration.
"Are we having fun yet, Xena?"
"I want to taste you."
The words just spilled naturally from my mouth and she chuckled again. "Where’s the warrior focus I’ve seen you display so often, um?"
"All I can focus on is your hand, my Conqueror."
"You want the Conqueror to take you, do you?"
"Gods yes, please, Gabrielle."
I was so aroused at that point I didn’t care what she might think or do. I grabbed the chains of the shackles and pulled myself up. My legs snaked out and grabbed her around the waist. I tried desperately to grind my sex into her hip. At first I saw anger in her eyes but I didn’t care. I wanted her. I wanted her so badly I could taste it. A moment later however, she realized I was not a threat. I made no attempt to escape from her. In fact, I wanted her closer and I watched as desire glazed over in her own eyes.
She didn’t remove me. Instead her hand came up and I felt three fingers plunge inside while her thumb found the nub aching for release.
"You like it hard and fast, huh warrior?"
All I could do was grunt out my approval. She was so warm and I was sure by the look in her eye she was totally wet too.
"Come on," she whispered as she got quicker. I watched her pause for a moment to pull her drenched finger out to suck on.
"Oh gods, please, Gabrielle."
"Conqueror! YOU are my guard. I OWN you. Body and soul."
"You own me. You own me. Do what you want with me."
She pulled out the breast dagger and held it to my throat again as her fingers went back to their earlier task.
"What if I wanted to kill you, huh?"
"Kill me, but let me come first."
I meant ever word. It didn’t matter if I died in the end, as long as she took me over the top. I heard her chuckle.
"I believe you want it that bad."
"I want it. Please I’m begging. Don’t . . . deny . . . me."
My passion overrode my ability to form words.
"Alright warrior. I'll give you what you want. I’ll give it to you. Hard and fast. Hard and fast."
Gabrielle voice echoed over and over. Her breathing was strained as well, and I felt myself slipping over the edge as my release gripped me. My hips shook and I howled out in my passion. Spent, she let my legs fall to the ground and I could barely stand. My arms were sore and my hands seemed to be locked around the chains. It was difficult to move my fingers, but I managed to let go.
She pulled away, licking her fingers and my arousal was renewed. I was not nearly as spent as I first thought. Suddenly, I couldn’t help myself and the words slipped past my lips.
"Gods, I love you, Gabrielle."
She looked at me with bit of indifference. "You’re a decent lay."
Carelessly, she turned her back to me. My head dropped. This wasn’t want I wanted. I wanted to make love to her. In truth, I wanted her to love me. I realized in that instant. All we did was fuck and I felt shallow and hollow inside. She turned back to face me. My emotions must have been written on my face. Or maybe this Gabrielle, like the old one, could tell my moods.
Casually she walked up and unlocked the shackles. "Should I lie?" I didn’t answer her and she continued. "I could appease you. I could tell you I love you too. That you’re everything to me. I could, if that’s what you’d like, Xena."
"I don’t want you to appease me, my Conqueror. I realize my place."
Maybe if I turned the tables. Maybe I could get a reaction that way.
"And what place is that?"
"I’m nothing more than a royal guard. Here to serve you in anyway you see fit. As you said, you own me body and soul . . . I realize my place."
She looked . . . saddened? It was a new emotion - one I hadn’t seen from this new Gabrielle. The desire to retract my words was strong but perhaps this was the push she needed. I said nothing. But neither did she and I knew one of us should speak.
"Speaking as your guard, we should return you soon. I’m sure your consort will be wondering where you are."
I handed her the shackles before I went to retrieve her clothing and her armor. I helped dress her in silence. I then handed her the sword, which she returned to her back. Only then did I reach for my own armor. She moved to help, but I respectfully declined.
"With all due respect, my Conqueror. You should not be doing a menial task like helping your guard with their armor. Thank you for the offer, but you are above such duties."
She was speechless. Wordless, she walked away and climbed upon the horse. Once I was set, I joined her, taking my place behind her. I realized I was spreading it on a bit thick and she might not return to me, so I gave her the option.
"Remember, my Conqueror - I am always available to serve you . . . day or night."
"I’ll remember Xena . . . and so should you."
"As you wish."
There was no need for further words . . . We traveled in silence for about a league when she brought her mare to a stop. We both heard it.
"Yes, two men talking back in the woods," I whispered. "They sound-"
"Roman," she answered. "Let’s check it out."
The idea of being around Romans made my skin crawl as we got closer to the voices.
Pompey and Brutus, I knew those voices all too well.
"Hello boys," the Conqueror greeted the surprised men. A ring of ten of them stood up as Gabrielle and I dismounted. I had my sword hand ready at my side, as did Gabrielle. Both men turned and gave a Roman salute to her.
"Drop your arms, fellas. No need to hail Caesar in these woods. Besides, I’m not Roman - and I never will be."
Pompey acted as if he was going to say something but stopped himself. Finally he did manage the courage to speak. "Conqueror, what brings you out on a night like this? We were camping for the night, planning to pay you a visit at first light." Pompey said with that smug grin I despised.
Gabrielle laughed heartily making all the Romans jump at the sound. "You were going to pay me a visit where you? How sweet." The smiling expression fell in an instant. "State your business, Pompous." He lost his smile and I bit my lip. "Romans do not belong on this soil, especially uninvited ones," she growled and I could see her jaw clinch.
Pompey put a hand under his chest armor and reflexively I put my hand on my chakram prepared for anything. Even after he pulled out a scroll with a Roman seal on it, my hand continued to stay in place.
Gabrielle leaned over to grab it. "Let me guess?" She put the scroll to her head. "Caesar either wants to meet with me or no.... He has drawn out a treaty showing Rome’s good intentions?"
That time I let a small snicker out.
"Whatever it is Pompous, I'm not interested. Unless this guarantees his head mounted on my main gate." She threw the scroll at Pompey's feet.
I swear you could see the veins sticking out of his neck. He was ready to implode in his anger. I had to smile.
Gabrielle mounted the horse so we could leave and I followed suit. "Give old 'divide and conquer' a message from me." She looked at Brutus. "He steps one sandal on Greece soil and I will send my legions to mop the area with Rome’s blood." Her voice was so deep and deadly, it made us all swallow the lumps in our throats. Inside she was still the poetic bard but with a much different agenda.
"Yaw!!" She kneed the horse into a gallop. "Hope you're ready for a great battle, Xena," she yelled over her shoulder. I held onto her tighter.
We both stayed quiet for the rest of the ride back to the palace, heavy in thought.
My mind kept going back to when I first had a run in with Caesar. I was so naive and he used that against me. Gabrielle had handled that much better then the old Xena would have. I would've read that scroll, and probably fallen into whatever trap he had made like I did when I was young.
I found myself rubbing one of my legs in remembrance.
"Ahh..no, no. Just thinking." Her eyes moved forward once more.
"Care to share?"
Was she actually asking my opinion? Was she actually beginning a conversation?
"You’re not going to trust Caesar, are you?" Gabrielle began to laugh so hard I had to steady her on the horse. I too began to chuckle. "I’ll take that as a no."
Gabrielle gave a sigh. "Oh Xena. I must admit you do amuse me at times, whether intentional or not."
From what happened earlier in the woods. That was obvious. But I didn’t speak the words out loud.
"For the record, no. I don’t trust Caesar. There’s only one reason those men are that close. They’re casing us . . . But what I’d like to know is HOW did they get so close?" Gabrielle pauses a moment. "I can assure you - heads will roll and not just Roman heads."
"I hope your Regent isn’t one of them."
"Why do you say that?"
"I like her." Gabrielle turned back to look at me and I could have sworn I saw a touch of jealousy in her eyes. I felt the need to explain further. "I mean I admire her as a warrior and a person. After you left from our sparing session we spoke briefly. She seems like a good person."
Gabrielle was quiet for a long moment. "She’s the only one I truly trust." It came out just above a whisper and I had to admit I was relieved to learn the ax wouldn’t fall on her. But I was also speechless by the fact that Gabrielle had confessed something to me. If she trusted Ephiny and I could win Ephiny’s trust then . . .
All too quickly we were approaching the southern gate to find Ephiny waiting for us.
"Conqueror, there are reports of Romans close by."
We trotted up and dismounted. "I know. We had a run in with two of Caesar lackeys and a few of their cronies. They were even nice enough to send me a scroll I didn’t bother to read." Gabrielle chuckled and tapped me lightly in the stomach. "You know us poor women, we’re so easy to fool with empty promises." Gabrielle and her Regent laughed, as I mustered a smile.
The stable man took our horse and we all made our way into the palace. I could see Gabrielle's mind working. "Ready my legions for battle and send word to Queen Melosa. With Romans walking about, you know they will try to round up slaves. I want our sisters safe."
"Word has already been sent. Solari personally saw to it."
Gabrielle stopped and a look of true compassion crossed her face as she turned to Ephiny. "I’m sorry your visit was cut short."
"It needed to be done," Ephiny nodded. "No sorrows."
"Well, after this is over I’ll have Melosa release her for a months holiday, if that’s alright with you."
Ephiny looked about as shocked as I did. Gabrielle reached out and tipped up Ephiny’s chin. "Be careful, Regent, or you might start catching flies."
Ephiny gave me a look of disbelief and I just shrugged. Gabrielle began to walk again and quickly Ephiny and I race to catch up.
"Send another team out to Amazonia. Be sure the Amazons inform the Centaurs in case we need them as back up. Also be certain that a message is sent to Chin to alert them. I want Lao Ma to bring a portion of her troops here as a precaution to the east. Understood?"
The mention of Lao Ma sent a shiver up my spine. If she comes, she might blow my cover. But then again perhaps I never existed in her eyes either. But I know she has the 'sight' – an ability to see things others can't. Would I be one of those people she reads? And if so would it upset the balance I'm trying so hard to maintain?
Ephiny nodded formerly. "It will be done. Word is, she was arriving this week personally to see you anyway."
"With luck perhaps she’s brought black powder with her." Gabrielle then turned her attention to me. "Next we move into phase two of battle, Caesar has his troops on their way here. I’m sure of it. So make sure the outposts on all side are alert and battle ready. I want shifts to be every four candle marks to keep the men fresh."
I listened to the plans Gabrielle had given. She seemed to know how Caesar worked all too well. To my surprise, I felt jealousy brew in my soul. Borias’ voice rang in my head.
"I understand your anger with her, Cyane. But Xena’s not like you and me. She thinks with her will-- not her reason. You must have warriors in your camp with the same weakness."
That was the one great downfall of my youth; I leapt, and then looked. Ares was right, she did think and never underestimated a task. Gabrielle was the person I dreamed of being, back in those cold dark days.
"Are you listening, Xena?" I was brought out of my musing and stared into angry green eyes and a missing Regent.
"Yes, Gabrielle." Her eyes turned icier, but I didn't care. Right now all I was feeling was defeat.
"Alert the troops then get some rest warrior, we have a busy day tomorrow. And night. " She kissed me, but I just couldn’t kiss her back. I couldn't be her toy.
For a spilt second as she pulled away, I saw regret in her eyes. Then her mask went back into place. She left me without another word.
I stood there and felt as though I had no air to left breathe. I slammed my fist into the wall feeling like a trapped animal once more. A flash appeared from behind me. 'Great, just great, this is all I need.'
"Speak fast, Ares." I turned to see his smirking face.
"She's a good fuck, eh?"
I lost it and kicked him in the face this time, and the bastard couldn't stop me. He fell backwards and I landed on him.
"Face the facts, Xena You can't win her back. Your ploy to get into her breeches blew up in your face." I loosened my grip and found our positions quickly reversed. "Come on, Xena! Even you can see she's a superior warrior. She’s far better then you ever were - she thinks things through. She had those shackles in mind and what to do the second she invited you to her haunt." He smiled. "What were you thinking? Hmm? Something about making love?" He got off me, and stood up. "Can you honestly tell me her dark side didn't turn you on? Just sparring against her had you all wet. And I must admit I can relate. When she and I spar - SWEET MOTHER OF ZEUS! Face it Xena – you've lost." He laughed as he disappeared, leaving me in my numb state on the floor.
I finally made it back to my barrack, unsure of how I had even gotten there. I was too lost in my thoughts. I collapsed in my bed and wept; no longer able to hide my emotions. My mind took me back to times with my Gabrielle.
"It's over-- or is it? Xena? Do you ever? Do you get the feeling that sometimes-- nothing is really over? You know, it just-- keeps coming back around, but it's-- it's wearing a different face. It's-- it's the same underneath. Do you know what I mean?"
"Sure. I was trapped in a cycle of violence and hatred. And no matter how I tried to break free, something always pulled me back-- until you."
"No, it's true. You talk about trying to find your way, but to me, you are my way."
"How can I be your way, when I-- I'm lost, myself?"
"I'm searching for answers, too. But how we look for them doesn't matter-- as long as we look for them together-- you and me."
I just got her back after watching her fall into that forsaken pit. Then I remembered the last time Ares tried to win Gabrielle from me.
"You have to like her style-- the focus-- the intensity-- the ability to learn and adapt. She is just-- incredible. I can't believe I took her for granted for so long."
"You're just using Mavican to get to me, Ares. It won't work. Why don't you give up on me?"
"Xena-- I have given up on you. And what makes you think I was talkin' about Mavican?"
"This is about Gabrielle. You're not testing Mavican. You're after Gabrielle."
"You're not jealous? I mean, despite what Mavican thought, I have been thinking about your heir. And who better-- than one you trained?"
"You leave her out of this."
"Arrogance! There's the fire-- there's the anger you lost Xena."
"She'll never follow you."
"Well, she hasn't heard my offer yet. And, anyway-- how well do you really know her, anymore? Well, I guess we'll find out-- when she kills Mavican."
Gods, this time Ares found the perfect way to get her. I should have known he would never stop until he had her. I turned on my side and clutched my head. I saw another flash in my room, but I was too tired to bother to look.
"Ah, you poor warrior babe." Dite sat by me and put a hand on my head.
I still said nothing. A moment passed and she spoke again.
"Listen, Xena. Ares is only out to throw you off the track. He hasn’t won. As long as you stay alive he knows there’s always the chance you can win Gabrielle’s heart. He knows that." I took a deep breath and looked at her. Sometimes Aphrodite can be the smartest God in the lot.
"We both know what you and the mean bard did tonight wasn’t love. It was lust - plan and simple. Be honest. Didn’t you want that to happen? To be taken by the Conqueror? She was only giving you what she thought you wanted." I closed my eyes.
"I’ll admit, thinking of her battle lust was arousing to me."
"You need to show Gabby you want her heart, and not some bondage fuck. Don't get me wrong. At times a little 'yes mistress' it can be fun. But how can Gabrielle love, when she's never known it Xena?"
"I’m not sure if I’m capable of teaching love."
"Don’t sell yourself short, warrior. There’s a lot of love in there," she said, tapping my breastplate. "What would you give for her? What would you sacrifice? Would you risk all like she’s done in times past?"
Dite smiled at me. "She's scared of you. You're making her feel things she has never felt before. That’s making her more defensive. So take your time and use your heart. Show her the love that you have for her…Love's the key, toots - always is and always will be." She bubbled up and I couldn’t help it, I smiled at this. She stood to leave and I grabbed her hand.
"Thank you." I felt better now, sorta. Something in my soul told me there was more to it then just love. Ares is not that foolish to make it that easy…but then again.
"I know Ares really bummed you out but like I said . . . He’s the same old loser. He just wants to convince you that you can’t win." She looked up for a second. "For the record, Gabby is pacing her room right now, but it’s not the Romans that have her nerves on edge." She winked conspiratorially. "Get some rest, tall dark and deadly, and don't let big bro get you down." She gave me a peck on the cheek and flashed out. As a result I felt sleep claim me with thoughts of Gabrielle.
'I love you, my bard.'
I’m not sure how much time had passed after I woke back up. But the sound of knocking on the chamber doors pulled me from my bed. I opened the door to find Ephiny rapping on the guard’s doors, making each of us rise. My sword was on my back before she came to my room.
"What’s going on?"
"We’re moving out," Ephiny explained. "We’ve got reports that Caesar has massed more troops in the North and the Conqueror doesn’t want to take any chances. We attack this morning."
Ephiny turned to leave and I watched as Callisto smiled and waved at me from the end of the hallway. If every there was a chance to kill Gabrielle and get away with it, this was her chance. I gently pulled Ephiny by the arm. I didn’t know if I’d won her confidence enough yet but I didn’t have time to question it further.
"Don’t look," I began, "but at the hallway’s end —one of the other royal guards —Callisto, the blonde- I don’t trust her, Ephiny. Will Gabrielle be going into the battle too?"
"Her Highness is at every major battle, Xena."
I swallowed hard. "I’m assuming she’s well protected."
"That’s why she has her royal guard."
"And what if some in her guard wanted to kill her?"
"As her second in command, I never leave her side – never – unless ordered by the queen herself. I would die before someone took her life."
"You’re that devoted to her?"
The old Ephiny wouldn’t have to ask the question. But this Ephiny was as fiercely loyal as the one I knew, even if she had no memory of me.
"I am without a doubt, but as I said, I believe others in our company are NOT to be trusted."
"Callisto, umm?" Casually, Ephiny glanced down the hall to get a better look. I simply nodded and made an approving sound. "I’ll keep my eyes open."
I could have gotten into my thoughts on Najara but at this time she wasn’t an obvious threat. Stopping Callisto was my main goal aside from winning Gabrielle’s love. But I realized too that I couldn’t win the love of a dead woman. So I had to play things carefully.
"Thank you my Regent," I told her respectfully.
Ephiny only gave me a nod and went back to her task of assembling the guard. When we got outside I saw Gabrielle already waiting on her steed in full battle gear. I must admit she looked magnificent . . . commanding. She hopped from the horse as someone was led over to her. It was a cloaked figure and when they approached each other I could see Gabrielle’s grin grow wider. Upon seeing that grin I watched the hood drop. Immediately my jaw follows.
Autolycus stopped before Gabrielle, giving her a respectful bow before taking her hand and kissing it in a very gentlemanly fashion. I was too far away to hear the exchange between them but it looked as though he’d been in Gabrielle’s ‘circle’ for quite sometime. I could see by the way she held herself in his presence. She seemed much more ‘casual’. I wanted to know this story but I didn’t want to break from the growing regiment without a reason. I decided perhaps a bit of truth might do the trick.
I took several long strides over and I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be as I made my way to the pair. Gabrielle looked first in my direction and when her smile didn’t fade at my approach I felt a bit more comfortable. When she waved me over I felt much more at ease.
"Xena, come meet Autolycus," she announced. "Autolycus, this is the newest member of my royal guard."
"Good choice," he nodded. "I’m sure she could take down her fair share of Romans and then some." He held out his hand. "Pleased to meet you."
I took the offered appendage. "Likewise, but I think we’ve met before. That’s why I came over. You looked like someone I met years ago in Thrace."
"Perhaps," he grinned politely before turning to Gabrielle as he finished his statement. "I do get around."
"Oh that he certainly does," Gabrielle chuckled. "Autolycus is one of my most trusted spies, not to mention one of the best."
"One of the best? Forgive me for correcting you your Majesty, but I AM the best."
Oh yeah. The more things change the more they stay the same, I considered with a grin. He had that cocky grin that I realized I had missed. Instead of turning brutal for the ‘disobedience’, to my surprise Gabrielle chuckled.
"The only thing bigger than Autolycus’ ego is his . . ."
Autolycus gave a slight ahem in response to Gabrielle for letting her sentence hang. With a coy grin she finished by adding, "appetite for nut bread."
"Well, that too," he conceded, stroking his chin.
I was curious now. "So how did he come into your service, Milady?"
"He was a thief," she said bluntly, her grin still in place. "I was on a campaign in the east and every other night items kept coming up missing. A few weapons, a few sets of body armor. But when he took my nut bread that was the final straw."
Autolycus chuckled too. "But since I’m so witty and engaging, she decided to keep me around after she FINALLY managed to catch up to me."
"I will admit," the conqueror smiled. "I did find him entertaining. The men wanted to gut him but it was a waste of potential. So I made him a deal."
"That’s right. I work for her Majesty. Stay loyal and she would see I wouldn’t want for anything. She’s kept her side of the bargain and I’ve kept mine. It’s been what? Five years now?"
Gabrielle looked upward as if she was totaling the years. "I believe so," she nodded. "I have to admit that when I hadn’t heard from you this month I was worried."
"About what? Getting caught?" He smiled. "Only one person was quick and smart enough to catch me."
Gabrielle turned to me. "Autolycus is very smooth. He’s knows all the right things to say and when to say them. Speaking of which, what news do you have for me from Rome?"
"Oh, the same old, same old. Caesar thinks he’s a God. He’s promising people things he’ll never deliver. Athens is going to fall. So on and so forth."
"The usual, huh?"
"You got it," he grinned. "But I did learn something of interest. I’m not sure what it could spell in the future."
"Caesars’ right hand man - Brutus - he’s running for Senate and gaining quite a bit of support. It seems to have driven a wedge between the daring duo. I’m not sure if that would be important but I do know that Brutus oversees many of Caesars’ troops in the Northern battles and his last orders were to head west."
"But scouts have seen troops to the north . . . Divide and conquer," Gabrielle muttered. "This is quite interesting."
"I have a feeling that this little riff could work to the Greek advantage. Because if-."
"Caesar is counting on Brutus to stay put and wait for our troops, Brutus might get itchy to steal Caesars’ thunder and rush ahead."
"Exactly." Autolycus grinned.
"Then that means that there would be no back up of Roman support," I offer. "The Romans will all mass in one area."
Gabrielle grinned as Autolycus waved his finger. "She is good," he chuckled. "Where did you find her?"
"She came to me actually," Gabrielle replied. I could tell there was something deeper behind the words as she spoke them, but she didn’t elaborate.
"Well if you don’t mind me saying," Autolycus addressed both of us. "With looks and brains like those she could visit my bed chamber any time she likes - day or night."
"She’s off limits."
Gabrielle’s voice was firm and all joking left her face. For the first time since the friendly exchange I saw Autolycus' mood shift. He wore the look I saw in others when they had contact with Gabrielle's bad side - fear mixed with respect. He could joke with her. Laugh with her. But some things were not up for discussion. Apparently I was one of those things and everyone in the circle knew it. He gave a respectful bow without making a single noise.
"Xena, would you please get the Regent immediately? I have a new idea for this battle."
With a respectful bow I made my leave to look for Ephiny. I wasn’t sure what she had planned but I did know that even Caesar wouldn’t see it coming.
I found Ephiny in the stables making sure all the horses had the right armor and rations for battle.
"Regent?" Ephiny turned to look at me.
"The Conqueror requests your presence." She nodded towards me, then said something to the blacksmith, briefly before walking back my way.
"Xena, make sure that the smithy re-shoes that horse before we head off. Argo has a tendency to be bitchy when her shoes are bothering her." The Regent walked out and I was left there catching flies with my open mouth.
I walked over to the last stall with a growing grin. There she was. 'My’ Argo.
"Hey, girl." She whinnied as if even in this world, she knew me. I buried my face in her mane and thought of home.
"I see you have good taste in horses as well, Warrior." I jumped slightly.
"I thought you had to talk with Ephiny, My Lord?"
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at me as she examined my affection for her mare.
"I said what I needed to, and now I came to check on my battle horse." Argo whinnied and gave Gabrielle a little nudge. "How's my girl?" Argo nudged her again and the Conqueror chuckled, bringing out an apple she had hidden in her armor. "Never could hide anything from you." She chuckled once more and turned her attention to me.
"She’s smart. How long have you had her?"
Gabrielle thought. "Around ten moons now, I only use her now for battle. She’s well trained and I trust her with my life. Rest of the time she’s free to roam. She's such a free spirit. But she always comes home in the end." We both gave her a pat.
After a brief silence she asked, "You ready to deal with Rome, Xena?"
My mouth went dry and I'm pretty sure I had a nice sneer on my face.
"I see you have the same love for Caesar as I do."
"I know he's an egotistically lying, crafty bastard."
She laughed loud at this and I worried. "Gabrielle, you must be really careful with him."
She eyed me. "One thing that I've learned over the years, Xena, is never take anything for granted or underestimate anyone." She sighed. "Caesar thinks my greatest flaws are my emotions. I feel things - be it anger or joy. To him, he thinks he can use this. But feelings aren’t the worst thing a warrior can experience."
"What’s the worst then?"
"Indifference. Because if you don’t care then you have nothing to fight for."
"So how will you handle this battle?"
"Caesar wants that one great battle that will make him a part of history. But we’re not the ones who will give it to him. Brutus will."
I was obviously confused and it showed on my face. Gabrielle gave a slight chuckle before continuing.
"First, we have to get his entire army here. The key to destroying Caesar is his belief in his destiny. That and Brutus’ impetuous nature, trying to upstage Caesar. Brutus also believes he has a destiny. So when fates collide it can be a dreadful thing…for Rome that is."
She has an interesting take on Caesar. One I had never truly considered. I remained quiet as she went on.
"I know Caesar, and right now he's probably thinking I'm drawing him into a trap where he can flank our troops. Brutus will be the good field general and await his order. But that won’t happen."
I looked at her at a loss. Would he fall for that?
"Shh Warrior. You see in past battle my troops have impersonated his. You keep your friends close, Xena, but your enemies closer. I have a fair hand in Rome although Caesar doesn’t know it. When he sees troops in the valley in Roman attire . . ."
"He'll make the mistake of thinking they are his troops."
"Exactly. He’ll charge in thinking Brutus is trying to upstage him again. When Brutus sees him going in full force he’ll think he’s being shut out of the glorious victory. That wouldn’t help poor Brutus’ standing in the Roman Senate."
"And he’ll rush in too." I grinned.
"At which point we turn the tables. I get my men pulled back and I let the mortars do their job. Less of my men will die because we won’t have to do as much hand to hand combat in this battle. And even though Caesar sees MY emotion as my downfall . . . in truth it will be his arrogance and Brutus’ thirst for power that will do them in."
I considered a plan forming in my own mind. "What we have to do is make sure both Roman armies are led into the middle while making sure ours are on the outer parts to attack all."
"That'll be a hard task, but not impossible." Gabrielle agreed, but my nerves were still on overload.
"Conqueror?" Ephiny stood at the door.
We both walked to greet her, when a man carrying way too much for one person, nearly knocked us over. I was ready to take his head off when Gabrielle stopped me.
"Joxer?" The man froze, dropping his load of saddle packs and turned, falling to his knees.
She motioned for him to stand. "You ready for battle?"
He stuck his chest out proudly. "Aye, Conqueror. And a grand battle it will be." I looked him over and he seemed to be a bit more rugged looking than I was used to.
"Back to work with you then." She clasped his arm in parting.
"He's a tad slow wit wise, but he’s dependable in battle." We continued walking over to Ephiny and all I could help thinking was, ‘Joxer?? How is that possible?’
"Scouts say that Caesar’s Army is still heading full force from the West and Brutus’ forces are candle-marks ahead of his coming from the North."
"Good, good. Caesar will be in the middle first to deal with a clueless Brutus. Are our Sisters ready? What of the Centaurs?" Gabrielle was clearly in strategic mode
"Melosa sent word that the sisters are behind Caesar's forces and Tyldus is keeping an eye on Brutus', waiting for your signal. Catapults are in place with the Centaurs. The Amazons will stop them from retreating. They are in the forest, located in the trees."
"Advanced troops will perhaps be here in time. But she’s a good 5 candle-marks behind with the majority of her soldiers with her."
"Very well then." She acknowledged the Regent and I. "Shall we go teach Caesar a lesson he won’t live long enough to enjoy?" She smiled at us both. Ephiny and Gabrielle walked outside and I stood in the doorway.
"Coming, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
"I'll be right there, I want to make sure Argo's shod properly." She gave me a smirk and walked off with the Regent. I knew in my soul that Gabrielle’s knowledge of battle should have made me sick to my stomach, but I found myself in awe. I watched as she yelled orders to some of the solders.
"Conqueror? Conqueror?" A small voice called out to her. Gabrielle found the voice quickly with a smile. An adoring smile that only a mother would have for her child. Hope ran to her with a small package, Gabrielle scooped her up and kissed her while taking it.
"Put your mask back on, Gabrielle." I muttered to what I thought was to myself. This was one of many reasons I’d sent Solon away. What if I slipped like Gabrielle just did? Right then the hairs on the back of my neck tingled.
"My, my what a beautiful child." I stiffened as Callisto continued. "If I didn't know better I would say she looks an awful lot like...hmmm." She tapped her chin with her finger. "Well, you know, dear." She gave me that wild smile of hers.
"Before this battle's over, you'll be at the end of my sword," I promised.
"Oh, Xena, I swear every time you threaten me it just makes me all gooey inside." She laughed, going to her horse and leading her steed out. "Make sure you stay safe out there." She blew me a kiss and rode towards the other guards. My temper was slipping. Now Callisto knew about Hope, which meant that Najara must have told Callisto at some point. Son of a Baccache, I thought. Sure, Callisto would be with me, but Najara would be with Hope.
I had a flashback to when I felt Gabrielle had betrayed me, and Solon died. Ares knew how to play on my darkness and I did the unspeakable.
"Nice vocal! But you sure can't dance to it. Look, I feel your pain OK -- but how much longer before you start doing something about it?" Ares said.
"My son is dead, ya soul-less bastard! What can I do about that?"
"Just goes to prove what I've been telling you all along-- no good deed goes unpunished-- saving people, defending the weak, trusting someone who betrayed you." He puts a hand on my shoulder.
"This whole atonement kick you've been on lately -- it's not you. You're full of fire -- bending the world to your will -- full of rage. And revenge. Accept it; embrace it. You know what to do -- who to kill." Gods, he knew what buttons to push.
I saw myself hold her battered body above the cliff as I screamed.
I paced the stable shaking, 'think Xena think.'
I looked back out as Gabrielle gave Hope one more squeeze before shoeing her off. Was Ares going to try to pull the darkness out of Gabrielle? Could he do it and would she be able to come back?
"Hope?" I called for the little girl; she saw me and smiled. I knew Gabrielle was watching, but I had no other choice.
"Yes, Xena?" Her face was just like her mother's and I felt an ache in my chest.
"I need you to give your Grandmother a note from me please, as fast as you can. Don't let anyone see this note other then her. Please, it's important." She nodded yes and I walked to my horse and grabbed a scroll and quill from it quickly.
I sent her off with the promise again not to show anyone and to get it to Cyrene fast. I had to warn Mother someway, but I couldn't stay because I had to watch Callisto with Gabrielle. Gods, I felt like I was trapped between crossbows.
"Is the Conqueror’s horse ready?" I yelled making the smithy jump.
"Yes-s, ma’am," she stuttered and walked quickly off.
I grabbed the reins to Argo and led her toward Gabrielle, who had a cold look on her face as I got closer. I tried to give her Argo's reins, but her arm came out quickly and her hand was around my throat.
"What is your fascination with the child?" Her voice was low.
"I've grown close to her Grandmother Cyrene, and wanted Hope to give her a note just in case I don't return?" I barely got the words out. Her grip dropped and she let out a battle cry and leapt on Argo's back.
"Don't worry, Xena. After all, you are the best." Her face was still like ice. "Saddle up!!" she yelled, and took the lead.
I mounted my horse and Ephiny pulled up by me. "The Conqueror wants you up front with us."
We trotted off in silence, catching up with Gabrielle and Autolycus in front.
"Remember, whoever runs into Brutus, you may beat him senseless, but don't kill him. I have plans for him. As for Caesar . . . he’s mine." The person breaking the silence was not Gabrielle, but truly the Conqueror looking forward to battle. I found this rather arousing and I mentally slapped myself for that thought.
"Yeah, well, you remember to come back safe and sound. You’ve still got a contract of ours to fulfill," Autolycus gave her a wink, bringing his horse to a stop just shy of the gated entrance.
I expected him to join us for some reason, but I realized quickly he would not. If Autolycus were to keep his livelihood, it wouldn’t do much good for the Romans to spot him chatting up the Conqueror.
I turned in my saddle to look at our forces. Behind us were my fellow Royal Guards on horseback. Callisto and I locked eyes briefly. Behind them were the wagons with the catapults, then rows of horsemen with bows; her archers - half dressed as Romans; the other as Greeks. Then behind all of this there were the foot solders and I spotted Joxer on the far right. This wasn't even the full army, but very impressive indeed. In my old days I would hate to run into this kind of force. With the Amazons and Centaurs ready on two sides, by the Gods…
We continued to work our way to the battle in silence and I sent a prayer to whoever would listen that we’d all make it safely. Well except for Callisto, I considered in afterthought. It seemed like only seconds, but long moments later we had our positions. Gabrielle gave Ephiny the order to have the ‘Romans’ attack. From the bushes she watched the hill above. First a few scouts appeared at the top, but then a man I knew quite well made his appearance too. Caesar was dressed in his golden armor with a telescope watching the engagement below. For her part, Gabrielle had her telescope fixed on Caesar. I watched the two of them, but the growing smile on Gabrielle’s face held my fascination.
"He’s falling for it." There was something feral about the grin she had, as if she was a spider watching a fly heading toward her web.
I looked back to the hill to see Caesar pointing and pushing a few of his men around. He was falling for it indeed and he didn’t look very happy that Brutus was going to ‘steal’ his battle with Athens. I took a deep breath. It wouldn’t be long now. As soon as Caesars’ troops began their charge down the hill, Gabrielle’s attention left him. I’m sure she had faith in Ephiny to lead that battle. Instead of focusing on him, she shifted her eyes over to the far ridge where she expected Brutus’ troops to be sitting. Sure enough within a matter of moments Brutus’ behavior began to mimic Caesars’ from moments before.
As Brutus’ men lined up at the top of the hill, I watched Gabrielle raise her hand to her own troops behind her. Once the enemy began their charge downhill into the valley I watched her signal the flaming arrows. Then the arrows went up, all of her Romans and Greeks charged up the hill toward us. Leaving a mix of Caesar and Brutus’ troops below. With another wave of her hand, the catapults began to fire into the valley. The darkened sky lit up like daytime and I could hear the screams from the burning men below. War was hell without a doubt. I knew that the Roman advancement had to be stopped for the good of Greece, but as I looked over the smile that appeared on Gabrielle’s face, it chilled me.
She wasn’t smiling because the battle was going her way. She was enjoying watching those men die. I knew that smile. I wore it many times in my youth. Sometimes it still haunted me in my dreams, but here it played on Gabrielle’s face naturally. Too naturally. And it scared me. I couldn’t look anymore at her, and I went back to watching the battle unfold. I witnessed as her troops tried to escape the fireballs wrecking havoc below. One soldier caught my eyes as he tripped trying to come up the hill.
Gabrielle gave her next order to charge and I knew that the man would be trapped below. It was Joxer. As the troops marched double time in formation to the battle below, I raced ahead as fast as I could to where he had fallen. I brought my horse to a halt and somersaulted from the saddle to land near his feet. His laces had somehow become tangled in a dead, rotted tree root. Quickly, I pulled my sword and swung watching him wince below me. The blade sliced through the laces and he pulled his foot out with ease. With only seconds to spare, I pulled him up to my horse as I jumped back. Together we raced down the hill into the battle.
"You saved my life," he yelled. "I must repay you."
"Look after the Conqueror," I ordered him. "If you see that blonde woman guard get within ten feet of her, make sure you kill her."
"I don’t understand," he replied.
"You don’t have to understand. Just do it."
"You have my word." He nodded, although he didn’t know why.
The more eyes one had on Callisto the better.
As we made our way down the hill, I watched as Ephiny, true to her word, raced through the mess, taking down Romans left and right in her attempt to get back to Gabrielle’s side. Something else in my favor, I was sure. As long as Ephiny was nearby, that meant that Callisto had three of us that she had to get through. As I looked back towards where the Royal Guards fought, I could see that she wasn’t focused on the battle. She was focused on Gabrielle. And she knew, just as I did, that if there was any chance in her killing the Conqueror and getting away with it, the time was now.
Continued - Part 2 (Conclusion)
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