~ Conquering Heroine ~
by CN Winters and Amy



Disclaimers (and legal stuff): No, this isn't about someone overcoming a drug habit. 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


Conquering Heroine





Chapter 1

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.

No answer.

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."

"Meaning?"

"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 blasť 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.

Chapter 2

"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.

"She seems?unbalanced."

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."

Chapter 3

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."

"Hmm, pity."

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.

Chapter 4

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.

XXXXX

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.

Chapter 5

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.

"Yes, please."

"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.

"Yes."

"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.

"Yes?"
"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."

"Goodnight Xena."

Continued in Chapter 6



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