The entourage assembled before dawn and departed the Palace grounds as the first faint rays of light cracked the morning sky. They were a force of more than two dozen strong and at the head of the two columns rode a pair of women. The tall dark haired one was dressed in black leather and armour and mounted on a white warhorse. Her smaller blond companion was dressed in an ordinary green bilge top and a short rust coloured skirt; and only loosely held the reigns to the large dark gelding of which she was in charge.
Gabrielle felt a whole mixture of feelings that morning as they prepared to leave the place and city she had come to regard as home. Their most recent tenure at the Palace had been shorter than either woman had desired but both had pressing matters to attend. For Xena it was to search for a son she had long ago given up but had never stopped caring about and for herself it was a journey to share in her sister Lila's marriage celebration.
Her stomach grumbled in protest at something and caused her to shift uneasily in her saddle. She had been nauseous that morning and unable to keep her breakfast down. She had mentioned nothing to her stoic companion assuming it was merely a reaction to the nervousness she felt at returning to her families home. Besides she knew how much her lover would worry and she didn't want to burden the Empress with any more problems.
She chanced a glance over her shoulder and smiled. In spite of her still injured leg, Eponin had insisted on accompanying them and she had brought with her a dozen Amazon's. Next to her was Zenon, the Captain of the Royal Palace Guard, a man who followed the Conqueror wherever she went. Behind him rode eleven of his best soldiers, each warrior dressed in their finest garments. In all they were a rather impressive sight.
She turned her attention once more to the road ahead as they wound their way through the wide streets of the Capital. Corinth was a long way from the small backwards village in which she had grown up but it was a place where she realized that she would have always ended up.
Gabrielle now scanned the shops and homes that lined the streets. It was still early in the morning yet already the shopkeepers were opening their doors to trade. Merchants from all over the world had set up shop in Corinth, trading wares brought in from all over the known world. It was colourful and fragrant and so different then the small town in which she had been raised.
She glanced at the people, seeing the mix of colour and race that made the city so cosmopolitan. In spite of the relaxed restrictions that Xena had put into place, the common people still viewed the Empress with some trepidation. Most now paused in their daily tasks to watch as the entourage of soldiers and Amazons snaked their way down the street towards the main city gates.
The years of living under the terror of the Conqueror's reign had schooled people to behave in a certain way and not to show their emotions, and even though changes had been made in government policy many looked at the reforms with hesitation and distrust; uncertain whether to believe that the change was permanent or real. That belief was exhibited in the blank stares on their faces as they viewed the procession and it caused some pain in her heart.
She searched the faces of those very few who were brave enough to meet her gaze. Some smiled hesitantly while others allowed their feelings of contempt to show and the bard was reminded again that the Conqueror still had many enemies in the land. It didn't matter that the realm had been quiet. There were always those who coveted the position of her tall dark haired companion and she knew in her heart that there were still those who were plotting to dethrone her lover.
A peel of laughter interrupted her morose thoughts and she spied a group of small children playing in a square at the corner of the street. The children paused in their game to watch the colourful procession and the bard smiled at the fascination and innocence on their faces. It made her heart sing with joy when her cheer was returned with genuine smiles and eager waves. It was in the children that she found a curiosity and openness that was absent from their elders. She knew that Xena's legacy of terror would take a long time to erase from the memory of the people and she was determined to do everything in her power to help improve her companion's image so that these children growing up would never know the evil warrior her lover had once been.
With that thought in mind she reached into a pouch that was attached to her saddle and withdrew a handful of individually wrapped sweets that the cooks had prepared especially for the journey, they knowing of her weakness for such treats. Without a second thought she tossed the sweets towards the children who pounced with glee on the unexpected gift.
Gabrielle laughed at the action and then fugitively cast her stoic companion a look, wondering if Xena would be upset but the Conqueror was staring forward and by the intense look on her dark features her thoughts were elsewhere. She knew that the Empress thought her to generous but after that one incident in the market so many seasons earlier the older woman said nothing, choosing instead to ignore the charity.
She looked back at the children and saw the happy smiles on their faces as they stuffed the sweets into their mouths. An unexpected feeling of loss and sadness suddenly engulfed her at the realization that she would never experience the joy of being a mother.
She had told Xena that the only thing that mattered was that they were together and that she would willingly give everything else up for that. It was true and she had meant every word but that still did not prevent her from feeling pangs of sadness over the fact that she would never bring another life into this world.
She shook her head unwilling to give into those morose thoughts, trying to remain focused on the matters at hand. She had learned a long time ago that it was useless to dwell on things that couldn't be. Besides there was no reason that once they found Solan, the Conqueror's son, that he couldn't come to live with them in the Palace. The idea of helping his mother raise the lad was appealing and an opportunity she greatly looked forward too. Already she had a million different ideas how she could bring the warrior and the boy together as a family.
Xena glanced slyly at her small partner. She was not as totally indifferent to her surroundings as the blonde bard assumed. She had seen the children and had half expected the Amazon Queen to do what she had done, and in reality she would have been more than a little disappointed if Gabrielle had rode past the children without tossing them some treat. It was a part of her companion's nature that she had come to love and appreciate.
She turned her attention back to the road. The gates of the city were looming ahead and as on every day of the week, the portal was busy with trade as people came and went. The economy of her realm was thriving and the removal of the travel restrictions had only increased the welfare of the people. There was less to grumble about but there were still some who refused to forget the past and see what was emerging in front of them.
Intense blue eyes scanned the crowds as they rode through the streets. She knew that there were people still out there plotting her demise and she could never be certain when the next attack would come and in all honesty it did not concern her. The only thing that mattered was that her partner and companion was kept safe, for the last thing she wanted was for Gabrielle to be hurt by someone trying to seek vengeance.
Today the land looked peaceful and according to Archius the realm was quiet and all seditious movements derailed by the most recent reforms that she had introduced, but she was not fooled. In spite of the peaceful scenes that greeted her sight, she could sense the undercurrent of tension that still existed. Her enemies were out there, bidding their time, waiting for the moment she would be most vulnerable. In her mind she had already begun to wonder if the plot had not already begun and that Solan's disappearance was not a part of a whole greater scheme.
She knew that Kalipus, the Centaur leader, would not betray her, but she was not certain she could trust the younger generation of Centaur's in the same way. In spite of the protection her army gave them, the half man, half equine creatures had no love for her and she would not trust one of them to reveal the truth about her son to one of her enemies. If that were the case she was not certain how she would react or whether she would be able to keep her word to the Centaur leader.
The thickness of human traffic increased as they neared the city gates as traders and visitors from beyond its borders began to filter into the city for a long day of business. There were merchants on horses and wagons, and common folks walking in sandals carrying small bags with meagre possessions. They were a diverse group of people all coming to the city for a variety of reasons, the colourful and ordinary all joining together to make up the character of the city she had chosen as the Capital of her Empire.
"Miss, miss," a crippled old woman broke from a group of people huddled at the entrance to the gates and stepped up beside the bard's horse, reaching out to touch the young woman's leg. Gabrielle immediately brought her mount to a halt and glanced down at the bent over crone seeing the tattered black dress and the moth eaten black shawl that covered a grey crown of hair. For a moment green and dark eyes met and the bard felt a shiver race down her neck
"Miss for you, to help you on your journey," the old woman held up a cloth bag. The bard was reluctant to accept the offering thinking that whatever this woman was giving her was probably more than she could afford, but not to accept would be an insult.
"Thank you," the small blonde woman took the offering with a smile and opened the bag to see that it contained a mixture of local fruit. "May the God's bless you for your kindness."
The bard said and looked down again only to see the old woman melting back into the crowds that had collected at the gates. She watched in puzzlement for a moment and then shrugged, tying the bag next to her pouch on her saddle.
"What is it?" Xena asked curiously. She had stopped alongside the bard and was looking at the smaller woman.
"The strangest thing," Gabrielle recounted the occurrence. "An old woman just gave me a bag of fruit and then disappeared before I could thank her."
"What did she look like?' the Conqueror asked, ever vigilant in her protection of the smaller woman.
"Over there," the bard pointed as she spotted the elderly woman who was slowly pushing her way through the crowds.
The Conqueror stared at the woman but saw nothing more than a old crone. It was not unusual for her companion to be offered gifts from strangers, for the bard was becoming as well known for her generosity as the Empress was known for her evil. She suspected it was just another such citizen rewarding her companion for some kindness that the bard had done and then forgotten. She said as much.
"You probably did her some favour that you have forgotten about," she dismissed the old woman intent on getting them under way. She was anxious for them to get out of the city and onto the open road. The sooner she got Gabrielle to Potedaia for her sister Lila's wedding, the sooner she could begin to coordinate the search for her son Solan. Gabrielle nodded and clicked her heels prodding the horse forward.
It was not uncommon for them to travel straight through the day as Xena was notorious for pushing relentlessly forward forgetting about the necessities of life and though Gabrielle was usually the one to remind the woman to stop, this day she resisted. She knew that her stoic companion's mind was on her son.
Therefore the bard was especially grateful later for the kind offering of the old woman as she extracted an apple from the bag and munched on it as they rode through the countryside. She offered a piece of fruit to her companion but the warrior merely shook her head.
It was dusk when the Conqueror finally called a halt to the procession, choosing a grove of trees by a small creek not far off the road as their resting stop. The further they had gone from the Capital the emptier the road had gotten, so now the Empress deemed it was safe enough for them to camp near the main track.
Before long the camp was set and as the sun fell beyond the earth, fires were lit to cook the food that had been captured and gathered by an industrious pair of Amazon's who had been hunting game alongside the road as they travelled.
"Are you thinking about Solan?" Gabrielle said when her dour companion settled onto the ground next to the fire by which she was sitting. Xena had been quiet throughout the day, speaking only when directly addressed and the bard longed now to hear the lilting tones of her lover.
"Yes," the tall dark haired woman admitted with a sigh. Intense blue eyes scanned their immediate surroundings. There had been three fires lit with the Amazon's and soldiers sharing two and leaving them alone with the third. She was glad for she longed for the opportunity to spend some time alone with her lover.
"I'm sure he's all right," the bard said and then handed her companion a plate of meat that had been cooked. She had tried to wait while the Conqueror had gone with Zenon to set up the perimeter but her stomach had rumbled and she had been unable to prevent herself from eating her share of the meal.
"I suppose so," the Conqueror agreed snapping a piece of meat from the plate and popping it into her mouth even though she was not hungry. She knew that if she didn't eat the bard would get on her case and she had no desire to argue with the smaller woman.
If she were honest she had no idea about the boy and what he could or could not do. The regular reports that Kalipus had sent informed her that the lad was a competent hunter and able to survive on the land. She was grateful to the Centaur for giving the boy those skills.
"What does he look like?" the bard asked finally giving into her natural curiosity. She had wanted to know everything about the boy since the Empress had admitted to having the child many days earlier but she had been respective of her companions feelings, waiting until the older woman confided in her. But Xena was not one to reveal her thoughts and so now, after days of holding her tongue she could not remain silent any longer.
"I don't know," the Conqueror sighed reluctantly revealing a truth that she was embarrassed to admit.
She popped another piece of meat into her mouth. "I have never met him."
"But surely in one of the letters that Kalipus sent you he must have described him," the small blonde persisted hoping to get her companion to open up about her feelings. She knew that her stoic companion was more emotional than she allowed anyone to see.
Xena sighed. If there was one thing about the small woman, it was that she was tenacious. Most of the time she admired that quality in the blonde but today she wished that the girl would not be so focused.
"Mostly he just said that the boy was growing and was a strong lad," the Empress admitted reluctantly, "but there was one time when he mentioned that the boy had corn coloured hair and blue eyes."
"I'll bet he looks like you," Gabrielle said thoughtfully.
"I hope not," came the sincere response.
"Why?" was the startled response.
"Because it wouldn't be good for him," the Empress admitted honestly and then fell silent and the bard knew not to press the woman. She could sense that the Empress was getting uneasy talking about her son and so she let the subject drop, which came as a relief to the tall dark haired woman who kept her blue eyes pinned to the fire in front of them.
Gabrielle's stomach moved uneasily and she suspected now that something she had eaten wasn't settling well. On top of that she was unusually tired, her energy drained by the many miles they had covered that day. She glanced about their surroundings.
The Amazon's had been willing to pitch a tent for their Queen but Gabrielle had opted to sleep out in the open under the stars. She enjoyed the luxurious bed they shared back at the Palace yet there was something decidedly romantic about sharing a bedroll under the night sky with her tall lover. She had many fond memories of the previous nights they had spent on the road. She lifted her arms and stretched, not having to fake a yawn.
"I'm exhausted, I think I will turn in," the bard said moving over to where their bedding had been laid out.
"Gabrielle are you okay?" Xena was immediately alert. Her blue eyes turned from the fire to the small blonde woman who was now settling beneath the furs.
"Yeah, just tired," the blonde woman cast her partner a weary smile. "All that luxury of the palace has made me lazy."
Xena frowned not certain she believed the smaller woman. Blue eyes searched the other woman's face and noted the tired lines that were etched on the paler than usual face. Silently she chided herself for not paying more attention to her lover, for it was obvious that she had pushed her companion to hard that day.
"I'm sorry Gabrielle," the Conqueror immediately apologized. "I shouldn't have pushed us so hard. I forget sometimes that not everyone has the same constitution as myself."
"That's all right," the bard smiled as she settled into the furs. "I just need a few days to get back into the groove. It's amazing how soft I get after only a few weeks of palace living."
Xena stared at her lover allowing her heart to shine through her eyes. There were so many things that she wanted to give the bard. She wanted to pamper the small woman, to lavish her with gifts and all the comforts that she could afford. But it seemed that every time they settled back into the Palace and some semblance of a routine, something happened to call them away. Gabrielle deserved so much more than a few blankets on the hard ground.
The Empress set down the unfinished plate of food and crawled across the ground to where the bard was laying, slipping under the blankets next to the small woman. Innocent green eyes softened considerably as the tall woman settled beside her drawing her into a warm embrace.
"I love you Gabrielle," the Conqueror said with undisguised affection and the bard smiled.
"What brought this on?"
"Guilt," the Empress admitted honestly as she reached over with one hand and gently brushed her palm across an exposed cheek. She allowed her fingers to comb blond strands of hair back from the girl's brow.
"Why what have you done?" Gabrielle was concerned. She could think of nothing to bring on such an emotion in her companion.
"I get so caught up in my own concerns that I forget about everything else," the tall woman said continuing to stroke the smaller woman's cheek.
"You are definitely focused," the blonde woman's smiled and then allowed it to fade. "But that's one of the things that I admire most about you. I know that you are concerned about Solan, even if he hasn't been a part of your life. I know inside here," a small hand lifted up and rested on the Conqueror's breast, "you care very much for him."
"No buts," the bard put a finger to the other woman's lips silencing her. "I know you love me Xena, and I don't need you to tell me that all the time."
There was silence as blue eyes stared into green orbs. A tender look passed between them and the Empress leaned down and placed a gentle kiss upon the smaller woman's lips. Though both women would have liked to extend the passion they were only to aware that they were not alone.
"Thank you," the Conqueror whispered and then lay down next to her lover, drawing the smaller woman tightly up against her body. She knew that she would never find anyone as kind hearted or understanding as the woman she now held in her arms, and she had no intention of ever giving the woman a reason to question her love.
She glanced down at the bard who snuggled up against her tall rangy body. The green eyes were closed and the other woman's breathing was even and steady signalling the small woman was already sound asleep. A smile came to her lips as she leaned forward and placed another kiss on the other woman's brow.
She thought about the instructions she had left with Archius. By the time they returned to the Palace all but a few of the details would be arranged. She had promised to marry the bard and she would do just that when they returned from this journey. Pushing all other thoughts aside the tall, dark haired woman closed her blue eyes and dreamt of the day when she could truly call Gabrielle her own.
Another pair of blue eyes watched the couple from a distance. The owner of these orbs stared for a long moment before turning to glance at the others who had yet to turn in for the night. She had volunteered to stand the first watch and from her post near the road she could still hear the muted voices and laughter of her fellow Amazon's.
She turned her head and through the darkness she could detect the outline of the soldier with whom she had been paired. He was a rather simple minded individual and she knew that she could dispatch him with very little effort. It would be so easy for her to wait until everyone was asleep and then kill the other guard before creeping over towards the Conqueror and slitting her throat.
She was certain she could carry it off but she had made a pact with Ares, the God of War, and she was intent on keeping her end of the bargain. She had watched the old woman at the gates and then smiled when Gabrielle had dug into the offering of fruit. It would not be long before the young woman became ill and then it would be time to act.
She did not know why Ares wanted the Conqueror to go to Amphipolis. There was no significant reason but even though she did not understand she would follow his plan. He had promised her ambrosia and she was willing to sacrifice her own desires until she gained her reward. Then she would be on a playing field all her own. She was a skilled warrior and there was no reason, that once she became a God, that she would not be able to challenge Ares himself.
A cruel smile touched the corners of the blonde Amazon's lips as she imagined her life as a Goddess. There would be no stopping her and she would use her power to exact revenge on everyone who had ever caused her grief. She stifled the evil laugh that gurgled in her throat as she dwelled on all the possibilities. She only hoped she was patient enough to wait.
Xena woke before the dawn and lay for a long moment enjoying the warmth of her companion who was nestled within the circle of her arms. She sighed contentedly and wondered if there would ever be a time when they would just be able to enjoy the simple things of life without some urgent matter demanding their time and attention. She wished that just for one day she would be about to lie in bed with her companion and forget about everything but the two of them.
But there were many responsibilities attached to her position, responsibilities that she was unable to ignore. With that thought she carefully extracted herself from her sleeping companion, gently placing a kiss upon her brow before rolling away. It was still to early for the camp to start stirring but the prefect time for her to take a run and sort through her thoughts.
She stretched her lanky body and breathed deeply, inhaling several a lungful of the chilly morning air before moving off with long smooth strides that carried her away from the camp and along the dirt road.
"Urgh," Gabrielle woke with a start aware immediately that she was alone. But the thought was with her for only a few brief seconds before the turmoil in her stomach began to announce it's revolt. In the next instant she was scrambling out from under the blankets and racing towards the small cluster of bushes at the edge of the camp. She barely managed to make it before the contents of her stomach came up her throat.
She knelt for a long time coughing and gasping as the remnants of the previous evenings meal emptied from her body. Finally when there was nothing left she sat back on her heels and closed her eyes feeling completely drained. She normally had a resilient constitution and was rarely ill but when the sickness hit her it generally made her very weak. Once again she hoped it was only nervousness and not some sickness that she had contacted. The last thing she wanted now was to be sick for her sisters wedding.
She wiped her mouth and stood up, walking back across the camp to where the bedding lay, more than a little relieved that no one seemed to notice her incapacitation. Briefly she wondered where Xena had gotten too but the question was quickly answered when the Conqueror suddenly appeared, a bead of sweat decorating her brow.
"Good morning," the Empress flashed the woman a swift smile as she came to a halt next to the smaller woman. She had not been gone long and was somewhat surprised to see the bard awake. The sky was just beginning to brighten and a quick glance around the camp told her that most of their escort were still asleep. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, good morning," Gabrielle answered with a corresponding smile, hastily taking a gulp of water from their waterskin and rinsing her mouth before spitting it out. Only then did she move across the distance that separated them to place a tender kiss on her tall lover's cheek.
Xena accepted the embrace aware of the unusual paleness of her companions skin. Her blue eyes narrowed perceptively as she watched the small woman move back towards their bedding, bending down to start rolling the furs into a bundle. She opened her mouth to speak but before the words came out she heard herself being summoned. A glance over her shoulder indicated that Zenon was headed in her direction.
By the time she was finished speaking with the Captain of the Royal Guard, Gabrielle's colour had returned and the bard seemed her usual cheerful self. The Conqueror dismissed the earlier paleness as a result of the bard's unusually early waking. By the time they got under way that morning, Gabrielle was feeling much better with only a slight twinge of nausea.
The next two days were uneventful as they travelled the well used path that cut through the rugged terrain of the countryside. Up at dawn they journeyed through the day bypassing most of the villages along the way uncertain of their reception as they travelled steadily towards their destination.
"Was it Ulyess'?" Gabrielle asked thoughtfully breaking the silence of the group, her slender body rolling with the gentle sway of the horse as they moved along the trail.
"Nope," Xena answered almost methodically with a single word, briefly distracted from her thoughts.
"Hades," the bard swore under her breathe at a loss for what the answer to her question could be.
Anxious to alleviate the boredom of travel and to forget about the queasiness that persisted in her stomach, Gabrielle attempted to engage her rather stoic partner in a word game. But she was being met with a varying degree of success for she knew that her dour companion had other more serious thoughts on her mind. Besides concern over her missing son, the Conqueror was also worried about their safety and because of that they were taking the most direct route towards their destination.
The bard fell silent and the Empress turned her attention and eyes towards the sky. It was the fall season and the time of year when the weather was the most unpredictable but they had been fortunate and for the most part the weather had cooperated, remaining clear and sunny with only brief afternoon rain squalls to add a renewed freshness to the day.
She knew if they proceeded on this route they would reach Potedaia in another three days. Once there she would ensure that Gabrielle was settled before taking her leave to return to the Regional Army camp where she could coordinate a search for her son. She was happy that everything was going smoothly but as usual she needed to be certain.
She brought the column to a halt at a fork in the road. If they proceeded on the route that went directly north they would be in Potedaia in three days. To take the east route would add an extra two days to their journey but it was less dangerous and they did not have to cross the river at Norath. In spite of the good weather the river was sometimes swollen at this time of the year and if that were the case, they would waste a least another two days in travel.
She glanced at her companion and saw that Gabrielle was fanning the air around her face. It was just after midday and though the day was pleasantly warm, the bard seemed unusually flushed. She looked past her companion to Zenon.
"The weather has been good but the river at Norath is fed from the mountains and is normally high at this time of the year. I want two scouts to go forward and check that the crossing is safe," she instructed the Captain of the Royal Guard who immediately glanced back at their escort, calling out for two volunteers.
"I will go," Callisto hastily moved forward seeing this opportunity to advance her own interests.
"And I," a smaller dark haired soldier also volunteered and the blonde Amazon smiled inwardly. It had become apparent over the course of their journey that this member of the Royal Guard had developed an affection for her. Now his innocent lust would work in her favour.
Xena did not know the Amazon that stepped forward but had seen her around the Army camp and the Palace grounds. She was a quiet warrior who went about her duties without question. The soldier had been with her Royal Guard for several seasons and had proven himself a capable and brave soldier as well as a skilled horseman.
The Empress nodded and motioned to a small cluster of trees not far in the distance. She was glad that this route ran parallel to a small creek. They had travelled hard for several days and knew that it was time to give both the horses and riders a much needed break.
"We will camp here tonight and await your return on the morrow" she instructed.
The two scouts nodded, digging their heels into the flanks of their mounts and took off down the road while the rest of the party dismounted and walked towards the trees. In short order camp was set up and several Amazon's were dispatched on a hunting expedition.
"Gabrielle, would you like to go for a walk?" the Conqueror asked her small companion.
"Yes certainly," the bard responded with more enthusiasm than she felt. A form of listlessness and lethargy had taken hold of her senses over the past few days and though the idea of a walk left her exhausted she would not turn down any opportunity to be alone with her lover. There had been to few minutes over the course of the last week when they had a chance to be alone.
While Xena briefly spoke to Zenon, Gabrielle snatched up her pouch of fruit and a waterskin. They set off along the creek, carefully picking their way along the bank until they came to a shady spot where the stream widened into a small placid pond before a narrow ledge where it tumbled down several feet before carrying on it's way.
"Are you interested in taking a swim?" the Conqueror asked with a sly smile and without bothering to answer the smaller woman began to peal off her clothes. Within minutes they were splashing and playing in the chest high water. It was a long time before they returned to the bank where they sprawled out side by side.
"I needed that," Gabrielle sighed with contentment as she lay on the soft cushion of thick grass and closed her green eyes.
"Yeah," the Empress agreed rolling onto her side and allowing her blue eyes to slowly wander over her companions naked body. She could feel the gentle caress of the light breeze that was blowing and she watched in fascination as that same touch caused small goosebumps to rise upon the smooth skin of the younger woman, making the small pink nipples harden. She felt her own body stir.
"You know what I need," the older woman whispered quietly in a thick voice. A pair of green eyes popped open and a blond head turned to meet an intense blue gaze. She could see the lust and the love in those familiar orbs. It had been more than a week since they had last been intimate and she knew that was a long time for her companion.
She rolled over and reached out, running her hand up and down the curves of her companions still wet body. She loved the feel of the silky skin against her palm and the way her own body could be aroused merely by a look or a single touch.
Without another word the Conqueror leaned forward and brushed her lips against those of her lover, savouring the sweet taste. The kiss was returned and before long the passion of their exchanges grew. Like so many times before the intensity of their love stoked the fires of their arousal and tender caresses merely preceded more urgent strokes.
Xena rolled forward pushing her companion back onto the ground as she covered the smaller woman with her own body gentling driving one of her thighs between the other woman's legs and pressing it against the heat that had built there.
Gabrielle groaned as she felt the exquisite pressure against her throbbing clit. The taller woman had the ability to manipulate her body to the point where she was sometimes no longer conscious of anything but the pleasure that she was receiving. It was like that on this day and she forgot about everything but the feel of the older woman's lips on her skin and the way the tall body slid against her own.
Xena gazed down at her lover, seeing warm green orbs filled with unfulfilled lust. A tender smile tipped her lips as she gazed into the sweet face of the woman she loved. It gave her joy to pleasure the woman and she did all she could to satisfy the young woman. Before Gabrielle she only sought pleasure, but now with the bard she only sought to give pleasure.
"Oh by the Gods Xena please I want to feel you in me," Gabrielle begged as she began to feel her body begin to shudder and shake with the first spasms of her orgasm take control of her body.
"I love you Gabrielle," the Conqueror whispered before obliging her companion plunging her fingers deep into the woman and pressing down on her clit as the small body beneath her crested.
It was a long time later before the women were lying exhausted in each other arms. After a brief rest the bard had been determined to pleasure her companion and the Empress had not denied the smaller woman her request, giving up control of her body to the only person she trusted with her entire being.
Gabrielle glanced across at her tall companion, unable to disguise the love she felt as she stared at the classical profile of the woman who had come to mean everything to her. Xena was her life and if her family never excepted her back she would still be happy. She closed her eyes and allowed her senses to drift as her mind gave in to the call of Morpheus.
It was near sundown when the two scouts arrived at the bridge that crossed over the Norath River. As the Amazon had feared the crossing was securely intact and the water levels no danger. She knew that she would have to develop a plausible explanation to divert the Conqueror from this path and towards Amphipolis. She glanced sideways at her companion and saw the unbidden look of lust in his eyes and smiled. An idea formed in her head.
"I think we should take a break before heading back," she suggested slipping out of her saddle and leading her mount to the waters edge so that it could quench its thirst.
"The Conqueror will be expecting us back as soon as possible," the soldier disagreed, his brown eyes never leaving the form of the slender woman. He had admired her from the moment he had first set eyes upon her many days earlier at the Palace.
"She could hardly complain if we took a bath and rested before beginning the journey back," the blonde woman smiled sweetly and then stretched her arms over her head, giving the soldier a full view of her luscious body.
After that it was easy to persuade her companion to take a break before heading back with their information and once he was off the horse it was even simpler to entice him to take a swim. She merely stepped to the edge of the river and started to slip out of her leather costume. The man eagerly joined in stripping off his own armour and leathers and jumping into the water next to where she was bathing.
The blonde seductress cavorted with the man, flirting outrageously so that he would be caught completely off guard by her action. She acted playfully, waiting until she was able to position herself behind him, then when he least expected it, she jumped on his back and dunked him under the water, holding him there.
He fought valiantly as water started to invade his lungs but the force holding him down was too strong. He thrashed violently hoping to dislodge the Amazon from his back and shoulders but it was useless and his life came to a swirling end at the bottom of the river.
Callisto held the man down, holding his head under water for several extra long moments to ensure that she had achieved her objective in killing him. When she finally released her hold the lifeless body popped to the surface and then drifted lazily along with the current of the stream. She watched for a moment before swimming to the bank.
It didn't take more that a candlemark to dispose of any further evidence of the soldier as she tossed his clothing and gear into the river. After stripping the horse of its tack, which she also disposed of in the stream, she lead the animal across the bridge and then turned it loose, smacking its hind quarters and sending it off in the opposite direction from which they had come. Once that was done she sat down and lit a fire, an evil grin on her face as she stared into the dancing flames.
Xena was up early the next morning. She left Gabrielle sleeping while she went for a short run, ending her circuit by Eponin who was on watch at the perimeter of their makeshift camp. In spite of her injury the Amazon Weapon's Master refused to be treated like an invalid, insisting on taking her turn on watch along with the others. The woman's tenacious nature and stubbornness made her a favourite with the Empress.
"How goes it?" the Conqueror greeted the feather clad warrior.
"Quiet," Eponin replied straightening up and trying not to grimace when she twisted her still healing limb the wrong way. Xena stared at the look of pain that flashed over the other woman's face and though she was tempted to say something she held her tongue, turning to glance over the still sleeping camp.
"What time did the scouts return?" she inquired instead and the question brought another unexpected grimace to the Amazon's features.
"They haven't returned yet," Eponin hated to be the one to impart the news and instantly she saw the pensive frown that decorated the Empress' face. She had been forewarned to expect the scouts return during the night but when they hadn't arrived she began to worry.
Xena was silent as she mentally calculated the possibilities. From past experience she knew how long the trip took and reckoned that the pair of riders had probably reached the river around sunset. Giving ample time for a brief respite and break to water the horses and refresh themselves they should have been back candlemarks earlier. Briefly she wondered if they had run into trouble.
"Would you like me to arrange a search party?" the Amazon warrior offered.
"No," the Empress shook her head turning her eyes to scan the distant horizon. "We will wait until after breakfast. Perhaps they were delayed."
Gabrielle woke with a groan and like the previous morning she was up and out of her bedroll in a hurry reaching the nearest bush as she once again relieved her heaving stomach of its contents. She continued to retch until there was nothing more and then sat back on her heels and wondered what was wrong. She cast a glance over her shoulder seeing her tall dark haired lover by the road conversing with the Amazon on watch. She stood up slowly, her legs shaking like jelly.
"My Queen are you all right?" a soft voice inquired and Gabrielle spun around to see Solari standing not far away. She grimaced at the idea that the Amazon had witnessed her moment of weakness.
"Yes," Gabrielle flashed a weak smile. "I think something I ate last night didn't agree with me. Didn't Eponin do the cooking?"
"Yes my Queen," Solari chuckled. It was common knowledge amongst the Amazon tribe that while Eponin was an able and fierce warrior in battle, she was completely hopeless in the area of preparing food.
"Let's see that she doesn't get a hold of the food again okay," the small blonde woman continued with a smile and the other Amazon nodded. "I think I need something to settle my stomach now."
"I could fetch you some fresh berries," the warrior offered but Gabrielle shook her head.
"Thank you but I still have some fruit left in my pouch, I better eat that before it goes bad."
The Amazon nodded and then watched as the small woman strolled back to her bedroll. It was not the first time she had witnessed the bard in distress but she had hesitated to mention anything. She reminded herself to keep an eye on the Queen.
Gabrielle was relieved that she had been able to convince Solari that nothing serious was wrong. She didn't want anyone to worry about her but more than that she didn't want Xena to know. It was important that she was not perceived as being weak in the eyes of her stoic companion. She took a swig from the waterskin and rinsed her mouth before selecting an apple from the remaining fruit. She felt dizzy and put it down to the fact that she had not yet had anything to eat. She took a large bite and munched noisy as she strolled across the camp towards where her companion stood staring into the distance.
"What's up?" she said as she stepped up beside the tall warrior, squinting her eyes towards the horizon where her companion was staring.
The Empress was about to answer when her eyes caught the slightest of movement on the horizon.
She saw the cloud of dust in the distance following the form and before long the distinctive outline of the Amazon she had sent ahead to scout the route was recognizable. She searched for the soldier who had accompanied the woman but he was nowhere in sight.
"What news have you brought?" Xena greeted the Amazon stepping up to grasp the horses halter as the blonde warrior drew up to the camp.
"The bridge at Norath has been washed away," Callisto reported her lie.
"And your colleague where is he?" the Empress demanded sensing an untold story.
"We rode for a distance in both directions along the river until we found what we thought was a safe crossing," Callisto hastily related the story that she had formulated in her head on the trip back to the entourage. "He went first and was about halfway across when a log slammed into him, knocking him off the horse. I tried in vain to rescue him but both of them were carried quickly down steam. I couldn't do anything but watch them go under. I searched for several candlemarks but I could not find the body."
The Conqueror was silent as she listened to the Amazon's tale. Her first reaction to the news of the soldiers demise was a little incredulous. She glanced up at the sky and then towards the mountains in the distance. She knew the rains they had encountered would not be enough to swell the river.
The Empress remained silent as she considered the Amazon's words. She was tempted to disregard the evidence and continue the planned journey certain that she would be able to locate an appropriate crossing but then her eyes fell upon Gabrielle. While she would be willing to take a chance she would not risk the life of her lover. They would take the longer route, the one that took them by Amphipolis.
"We will follow this road until Magra and then head north towards Amphipolis. There is another crossing near the town, it will add an extra two days to our journey but hopefully that bridge will not have been washed out," she decided, not certain why she was bothered by the Amazon's account of what happened. She had no reason to disbelieve the tale for it was plausible enough. She had witnessed many good horsemen losing their lives by taking risks for which they were unprepared to handle. She turned to Eponin with instruction.
"I want to break camp immediately and get on the road," she decided.
"Yes, My Empress," the Weapon's Master nodded and hurried to do the tall woman's bidding.
"Do you wish me to scout ahead?" the blonde Amazon asked of the Conqueror.
"No," Xena decided abruptly unhappy with the unexpected delay, though realistically she decided that perhaps it was to their advantage. Anyone who sought to do them harm would certainly know of her penitent to take the most direct route to her destination. She turned to her small companion. "Come Gabrielle let's get our horses."
Within a short while they were once again on their way and Gabrielle immediately attempted to engage her stoic companion in a word game. But the Conqueror was not in the mood and after several unsuccessful tries the bard fell silent giving into the Empress' pensive mood.
Xena glanced briefly at her mute companion and sighed. Normally she didn't mind playing the games that the bard invented to entertain them, but today she had too many things on her mind. She could not dismiss the nagging doubt that penetrated her thoughts. She was tempted to send a party of soldiers to investigate but she realized that it would probably be a wasted effort.
She glanced over her shoulder and spotted the blonde Amazon bringing up the end of the column. It occurred to her that she had seldom seen the woman in the company of any of the other Amazons. Mentally she reminded herself to keep an eye on the woman. There was no reason to doubt the story she had been told, but then she had never been one to trust anything anyone said.
She turned her gaze to her solemn companion and saw that her brow was puckered into a thoughtful frown. She was not in fear for her own life but that of the bard's. Gabrielle had become more precious to her than all the riches that she possessed and she had no intention of ever allowing anything to happen to the woman. She couldn't begin to imagine life without the woman and her companionship. Besides she would need the woman's help in the coming days
Her face darkened at the thought of her son Solan. She had not been entirely honest with the bard. She had seen the child on several occasions over the years when she had passed by the Centaur lands. She had snuck close to the village and watched from a distance as the child had played with his centaur friends.
She had limited such visits though, consciously reminding herself that the reason was out of fear that the boys existence would be discovered by her enemies. But there was a deeper reason. In truth the pain of the separation was too much and the longing to take the child into her arms and hold him was too strong to bear. So she had simply pushed him from her mind and stayed as far away as possible. But now she knew it would not be possible to do that again. She knew that no matter what became of their search, Gabrielle would make sure that the boy was never forgotten.
Gabrielle glanced across at her lover and saw the intense expression on her face and knew that the Empress was deep in thought. She sighed, not entirely pleased with this new turn of events. Not only was she anxious to reach there destination, but her stomach was beginning to feel worse with each passing candlemark in spite of the fruit that she had been nibbling on constantly since they had broken camp that morning. As if on cue her stomach rumbled uneasily.
She had tried to ignore the upset but with each passing day the ache inside her belly had been growing and nothing she did seemed to alleviate the problem. She reached back into her saddle bag and withdrew another apple from the small bundle that she had been given by the kindly old woman.
She unconsciously shivered as she remembered the brief instant she had taken to look into the elderly woman's eyes. They were dark, blacker than any she had seen and though the smile on the crones face had seemed genuine there was something about the woman that had caused the hair on her head to stand on end. It had only been a brief feeling and then gone and the bard had been left thinking that her imagination was over reacting.
She brought the apple up and polished it briefly on her shirt before taking a big juicy bite out of the fruit. It was more delicious than any she had eaten and any reservations she had about the gift were quickly forgotten. Like before she savoured the sweet juices and hoped that the fruit would help settle the queasiness in her stomach.
Xena kept her gaze on the road. They were nearing the Regional Army camp and though they could divert there path and sleep in the comfort of cots that night she kept them on a steady path along the road to Amphipolis.
She rather enjoyed camping out under the night sky and having her small companion snuggle tightly against her in an attempt to ward off the chill of the evening. It reminded her of an earlier time, a time before she had all the demands of her victories placed on her shoulders. She liked being the ruler of the nation but she also missed the simpler times when she had been merely a warlord with a small army. Many nights she had stared up the at the sky and dreamed of the future.
Well those dreams been fulfilled and now she had other visions that she wanted to realize. Visions which now included her young companion. She thought of the instructions she had left with Archius and briefly she allowed herself to imagine another more wonderful dream.
Gabrielle was content to munch on her fruit, allowing her thoughts to dwell on the problem at hand, yet the uneasy feeling in her stomach only seemed to get worse with food now in her belly. On top of that she began to feel unusually warm.
"Xena?" she called after her companion who was slightly ahead of her. The Conqueror immediately pulled her horse up, turning in her saddle to look at the smaller woman who had lagged a short ways behind.
"Do you think we could take a break?"
"Why?" the older woman asked curiously glancing at the other woman.
"I'm feeling a little warm," the smaller woman asked waving a hand in front of her face.
"Certainly," the older woman nodded her head, capably masking her concern. It was warm with the sun beating down but it was the fall season and so the day was not uncomfortable. A quick glance at her companion though and she noticed a slight flush in the younger woman's cheeks. "Do you think you can manage for a bit, if I remember correctly there is a creek not far from here."
"Yeah," the blonde woman nodded her head and then continued to follow her companion. But she was worse off than she suspected and not more than a few hundred yards had passed before she could take no more.
She felt her stomach roil and the contents of her breakfast rise up in her throat. Suddenly she felt dizzy and her vision became blurry. She barely had time to pull up and slide off her mount and unto her knees before emptying the contents of her stomach onto the side of the trail. Her head pounded and it felt like all of Tartartus was in her gut.
Xena saw her companions' distress and in one swift motion was off her horse and kneeling by the smaller woman's side, holding her around the waist with one strong arm while the other hand held blond hair from the younger woman's face. A frown marred her stoic features as she hung onto the woman.
"Gabrielle, are you okay?" she asked as the younger woman finally sat back on her heels. The bard merely nodded her head, her throat burning and her stomach continuing to heave. As if by magic the older woman produced a waterskin and gratefully the girl took a long swig of the surprisingly cool contents.
"I must have caught a sickness," Gabrielle finally spoke aware that her head was still spinning. She could tell by the expression on the Conqueror's face that her lover was worried and she hastened to reassure her companion, even though her stomach continued its protest. "I'm sure I'll be okay in a few days."
"I'm not going to wait that long," the Empress announced decisively. She would not risk the blond woman's health. "Amphipolis is the nearest village. We will head straight there. They have a healer."
"Xena I don't need a healer," the bard protested but it was a feeble admission and the frown on the Conqueror's face deepened. She placed a hand on the brow of her small companion and was shocked by the hot skin under her touch.
"You're burning up Gabrielle," the Empress echoed her thoughts in a disturbed voice.
"I'm just a little warm," the smaller woman disagreed not liking the fact that she was feeling ill. "I'll be okay."
As if to prove her point she attempted to stand but her legs were to weak and if it hadn't been for the strong arm wrapped securely around her waist, she would have tumbled face first onto the road. Xena caught the bard the instant the girl's legs began to buckle and lifted her in one smooth motion into her arms and carried her over to where Argo was patiently awaiting her master. She could feel that the smaller woman's body was flushed with fever and burning up, the normally soft skin was now sweaty and hot to the touch.
"Is the Queen all right?" Eponin asked with concern as she rode up from the back of the column to where the Empress was now mounting her horse with the blonde woman laying limply in her arms.
"She has a fever," the Conqueror muttered unable to mask the anger she felt surging through her body. "I have to try and bring it down. There is a cold stream not far away, I am going to take her there."
Without another word the Conqueror clicked her heels against the flanks of her warhorse and headed off in a quick gallop towards a stream she remembered from her youth. Behind her followed their entourage an uneasy worry settling over the group with the exception of one. Callisto lagged behind, unable to wipe the smile that came to her face.
The small stream was where the Empress remembered and she brought the horse to its very edge before dismounting. She waded into the clear water, feeling it's cold embrace chill the bareness of skin not covered by her leathers. Gabrielle had seemingly fallen asleep but the green eyes fluttered open as the cold water engulfed her fevered skin.
"Xena what are you doing?" she asked with a clarity that she did not feel and the Empress looked down into the precious pools of green.
"You said you were warm and so was I," Xena thought there was no reason to alarm her companion though she wasn't certain the younger woman fully understood what was going on. "I thought a cold swim would do us both good."
"Yeah," the small blond woman sighed as her feverish body began to embrace the refreshing water that swirled over her. She closed her eyes feeling incredibly tired yet also reassured because she was being held by her lover and she knew that Xena would never let anything happen to her.
"I love you," Gabrielle murmured for no reason.
"I love you too Gabrielle," the Conqueror repeated the sentiment.
Even though the water was cold, the Empress remained within it's depths, sacrificing her own comfort for the sake of her lover. She was immune to everything but the flushed cheeks of her companions face, not realizing that the others having since caught up to her were now carefully watching the proceedings. It was a while before the Conqueror felt the first shudder come from her companion.
"What love?" the Empress asked carefully clinging to her lover.
"I'm cold," the bard murmured through parched lips and as if to emphasis her plight another shudder went through the girl.
Xena reacted immediately, turning and wading back unto shore where the Amazon's had thoughtfully laid out a blanket on the ground under a nearby tree. The Conqueror set the smaller woman down dismissing the wordless offer of a cloth to wipe the dripping water off her own body. Her first and only concern was the bard and to that end she reached out and touched the girl's brow. It was still warm but without the heat that had been radiating from her before.
"Empress," Solari said stepping forward. Intense blue eyes glanced up and pinned the Amazon where she stood.
"I don't know if this means anything but this morning I found the Queen throwing up," the Amazon revealed hesitantly. "I don't think it was the first time."
"Why didn't you mention anything to me?" Xena barked irrationally and the Amazon flushed under the scrutiny.
"She seemed okay," the Amazon stammered not knowing what else to say.
"Does she look okay?" the Conqueror couldn't help snarling and the slight woman automatically backed up.
Xena immediately forgot her frustration towards the Amazon when the bard shuddered violently on the blanket. In the next instant she made a decision, picking up the corners and wrapping the smaller woman into its bulky warm folds before lifting her up once more in her arms
"She needs a healer," she announced even as intense blue eyes searched for her mount. She whistled and the horse, which was grazing only a few feet away, quickly trotted to her side. "I am taking her to Amphipolis."
"Is there anything you would like us to do?" Zenon wanted to know.
"Just follow," Xena advised the Captain of the Guard as she settled once more into the saddle the small ailing woman in her arms.
"Will the Queen be all right?" he dared to asked aware of the concerned expression in the Empress' face.
Xena took a look at the face of the Amazon who was sleeping in her embrace, seeing the paleness of the skin and the beads of sweat that were beginning to form again across her brow before turning to the other anxious people all waiting for her verdict. She knew by the looks on their faces that they were as concerned about Gabrielle as she was.
"I hope so," the Conqueror hissed through clenched teeth and then clicked her heels against the flanks of the horse, urging it forward.
She glanced at the young woman in her arms, seeing the delicate golden lashes that now covered those beautiful green eyes that she had grown to love. She dared not think about what her life would be like without the woman.
Xena took another deep breath, before slowly expelling the air in her lungs in an attempt to settle her own fears. She didn't dare allow herself the thought that the girl's illness might be serious. She didn't want to contemplate the idea that she might lose the younger woman. She couldn't imagine herself going back to the empty life she had led before meeting the bard.
"You have got to be okay, Gabrielle," she whispered fiercely as unshed tears moistened her eyes.
Ares looked down from his seat on Mt. Olympus extremely pleased by the events that were unfolding. He had been uncertain that he could trust the blonde Amazon to carry out his wishes but was delighted that she had, his earlier doubts replaced by admiration for the way she had carried out her assignment. Perhaps she was someone that he needed to invest more time and attention on. Pushing thoughts of the blonde woman aside he focused again on the scene that was occurring down on the mortal realm.
There were changes happening in the Immortal world of the God's and the Deities had to align themselves with the one whom they predicted would win the upcoming battle. He knew that the birth of a new and stronger Deity was on the horizon. A Deity who would be able to defeat his father Zeus and all other God's that reigned on Olympus. A Deity so strong that there would be no one powerful enough to oppose Him.
He had secretly chosen to side against his family and join the side of this new God, assured by the deal he had made with the one who was currently confined to an existence beneath the Underworld. He had made the deal in order to survive the purge that would happen once the new God took control.
A scowl formed on his dark handsome features. Dahok would have stayed in the dark morass of his environment if not for the unwarranted intervention of his sisters. If they had not interfered with his Chosen, then none of this would be happening now. They were the ones who were to be blamed for what was about to happen and therefore he felt no remorse at making his deal with their enemy.
It was a traitorous world amongst the God's and change was apart of the unending revolution of existence. A revolution he was determined to survive. He would not end up a memory, entombed in stone like the Titans, Giants who had ruled the Earth before their defeat by the God's who now ruled Olympus.
He would survive and learn from his new Master and then when the time was right he would bring his own army to fruition and defeat his new ally to take control of the mortal world. An evil laugh echoed through the dark cavernous halls of the temple in which he sat.
It was nightfall before they finally reached the outskirts of the village of Amphipolis; the quiet part of the evening when most of the townspeople were in there homes eating dinner. Though the streets were virtually empty, Xena knew that with thee arrival of their small entourage, it wouldn't be long before the square was filled with curious villagers. She dismissed those thoughts and headed straight for the healers hut.
Paulus had just sat down for his evening meal when there was a knock on the door. He was not surprised by the summons for it seemed that people were always waiting until the supper hour before coming to seek his assistance. It was a reality he had accepted along with the challenge of his profession. One he had been in for a very long time having brought many of the village citizens into the world.
He opened the door and felt his jaw drop in shock at the sight of the imposing figure standing on the threshold. Before he had a chance to speak, the Conqueror pushed passed him into the room, her intense blue eyes searching the humble dwelling for the nearest available cot. She spotted it near the fire pit and in two swift strides was across the room.
The healer watched wordlessly as the tall dark woman carefully lowered the small bundle in her arms onto the pallet and then turned to face him. For the first time he was aware that he had not moved from the door.
"You are the healer, aren't you?" The man nodded in affirmation too dumbstruck to speak. "Then start healing, my friend here is sick."
The man's first thought was to refuse this evil woman's request for his services, but seeing the girl lying motionless on the cot he changed his mind. He could not turn them away, even though he hated the Empress and held her responsible for the death of his only son. He was a healer and had sworn to use his skills to help everyone, even his enemies.
He moved swiftly across the room to bend over the still form, recognizing the blond woman immediately. It was Gabrielle the Bard, the young woman who had often come to Amphipolis to entertain the villagers. His eyes narrowed as he scanned her pale features, searching for some mark that might implicate the Conqueror as the cause of the girl's condition. But there was none. If the rumours he heard were true then the girl was the Empress' slave. He glanced contemptuously at the tall imposing woman having no fear.
"No!" Xena had no intention of leaving her companion's side. The man straightened his bent frame and for a moment weary grey eyes met ice blue orbs.
"If you want me to treat your friend you will have to leave," he said with steely resolve. "I will do nothing if you remain."
The Conqueror's eyes narrowed into dangerous pale slits. For a moment she was about to refuse, as the panther inside slowly woke from it's slumber. How dare this common man challenge me, it growled. I am Xena Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations, Empress of all of Greece. I am the Conqueror.
But even as those words flitted through her mind, her eyes fell to the bard who had started moving restlessly on the bed. In what seemed like another lifetime she would have killed the healer for his insolence but now with Gabrielle's life at stake it was something else. She would not allow her pride to risk the girl's life.
"All right but if you do anything to bring her harm and I will kill your whole family and then you," with that the Conqueror turned on her heel and strolled out of the small cabin.
The man watched the woman leave not quite believing he had achieved victory. It was a small triumph and for the first time he noticed another woman standing in the shadows by the doorway. His anger welled up again for this one was dressed as a warrior with colourful feathers adorning the small string of leather clothing her body. He would have ordered her out except that he noticed the splint upon her leg and the wooden cane on which she was leaning.
"Who are you?" he demanded icily, certain that the woman was a spy for the Conqueror.
"My name is Eponin and I am Weapon's Master for my Amazon tribe," the brown haired woman said in a quiet yet proud voice that carried across the silent room. "I am not here for the Conqueror. It is my sworn duty to protect my Queen, Gabrielle."
"You think I might harm her?" He could not keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
"I am sworn to protect her from anyone who might bring harm to her," the warrior woman answered. "Queen Gabrielle is in danger by her mere association with the Conqueror. There are many people who would use her to get at the Empress."
The healer knew that statement to be the truth. In the flickering light of the fire, the man saw the loyalty in the grey eyes that were staring at him. The woman was crippled by her injury yet there was something in her countenance that made him realize she would defend the Queen to the death. She might even challenge the Conqueror, he mused to himself.
"You may stay but keep out of the way," he said briskly dismissing the woman before turning his attention back on his patient. "What are her symptoms?"
"Nausea, vomiting, fever," Eponin explained.
The healer nodded intently, his first guess was that the smaller woman had caught a fever. His second guess that she was being poisoned for the symptoms were very similar. It did not surprise him to find it was the latter.
"Who prepares her meals?" he asked and the warrior frowned.
"We all share in the preparation," the Amazon stated. "She eats the same food as the rest of us."
"The same food as the Conqueror?" the man wanted to know, turning his head slightly so that he could see the expression on his companion's face.
"They often feed each other," the woman replied stoically not liking what the man was implying. "I can assure you that the Empress is not trying to poison the Queen."
The man nodded, aware that the woman truly believed what she said. He turned his attention back to his patient to continue the examination. So intent was he in his thoughts, that he jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned his head and gazed into a pair of serious grey eyes that were only inches from his face. He had not heard her approach which surprised him because of the cumbersome splint on her leg.
"You must understand how important Queen Gabrielle is to the Conqueror and how important it is that she not die," the Amazon said in a solemn voice.
The healer looked at the woman for a long moment. He could see that she was serious yet he was not impressed. He doubted the Conqueror cared about any one or thing.
"I had but one son," the healer replied in a even voice. "He died while serving the Conqueror's Army, so I do not fear being killed."
"It is not for you I worry but for all of Greece," Eponin said softly her eyes falling briefly to the still woman on the cot. "If Gabrielle dies there will be no one to save any of us from the Conqueror's black heart."
The man was silent as he contemplated the woman's words. He had heard rumours that the Conqueror had changed and that those changes had come as a result of the young woman now entrusted in his care. A woman who it seemed was more than a mere slave to the Empress.
"Have a seat," he motioned towards a wooden bench along one wall. "I will see to you when I am done here."
Eponin would have protested but her leg ached. They had ridden hard and fast that day and her limb hurt, the injury worsened by her own fatigue. She nodded and limped over to the bench, pleased to be able to finally rest her weary body, content with the knowledge that she could still watch over her Queen.
Xena exited the hut, expelling a huge breath that was like a puff of smoke in the chilly evening air. It was late fall and the night had brought with it colder temperatures, but she noticed none of it, her thoughts solely on the woman she had left behind in the hut.
She began to pace restlessly, unable to mask the worry she felt. She chided herself for leaving the bard alone and was about to storm into the hut when a familiar figure emerged from the surrounding shadows.
"My Conqueror," Zenon spoke, interrupting her thoughts.
"What?" the Empress barked pausing for a moment to look at the intruder. The soldier took a deep breath. He knew how worried the Conqueror was. They were all worried.
"I just wished to advise you that I have left instructions to set up camp just outside the village gates," the Captain of the Guard reported. "I have instructed the perimeter guards to be extra attentive and be aware that there may be persons willing to tempt fate and try to attack you."
"Good," Xena nodded her approval. She was aware of her unpopularity in the country. But the hatred was not greater then in her own home village. It would not surprise her if someone did not try an attempt on her life. But she could handle that. She glanced at the closed door of the healers hut.
"I want there to be a guard with the Queen at every moment of the day and night until she is well," she turned her intense blue orbs back on the soldier. "Too many people here know of her association with me."
"The Amazon's have already volunteered their services," Zenon advised, glad that Solari and her small party of warriors had arrived at the Palace prior to their departure on this journey. He had been pleased when the Amazon's had insisted on escorting them, knowing that they could use the extra help.
"How is the Queen?"
"I don't know," Xena admitted reluctantly her eyes honing in on the door to the healers hut feeling a rising fear in her gut.
Toris was sitting at a table in the corner of the tavern, pouring over the ledgers of the Inn when the door unexpectedly burst open. Like the rest of the patrons who had chosen to eat at the Inn that evening, he glanced up, a smile automatically coming to his lips at the sight of his friend Saiderus.
"Saiderus..." Toris began but his words were cut-off by the other man.
"The Conqueror...," the younger man barely managed to sputter as he hurried across the room.
"What about the Conqueror?" the older man was immediately alert, his blue eyes narrowing.
"She's here," Saiderus continued, struggling to catch his breath. He had run from his home at the entrance to the town. "She and her entire entourage rode into the village just moments ago."
"What is she doing here?" Toris wanted to know, automatically rolling up the scroll that he had been working on. His whole body tensed.
"I don't know but she was headed towards the healers hut," the man explained. "I saw her enter just as I arrived here. She was carrying something."
"One of her pet hounds no doubt," the older man snorted sarcastically. "I wonder why she is here, she knows that she is not welcome." It had been several seasons since the woman had last been in Amphipolis, and then she had only come in search of the bard Gabrielle. His blue eyes narrowed. "Did you see Gabrielle, the bard anywhere?"
"No," the messenger shook his head. "There was another woman with the Conqueror but she was dressed as a warrior."
Toris' attention was momentarily distracted by the appearance of his mother who came out of the kitchen. He watched as she strolled over to a couple in the middle of the room and set two steaming plates of stew down in front of them. He knew how she would feel knowing that the Empress was here. But he had no intention of telling her, deciding in that moment to go to his sister and demand she leave. He stood up, looking at his friend.
"Say nothing to anyone until I find out the purpose of her visit here."
"What about the others?" the other man asked looking up at his friend. Toris knew that already his associates would be gathering.
"Keep them here until I return," the man said and his friend nodded, watching as the tall man walked out of the Inn. He did not fear for the man, knowing that the Conqueror would do nothing to harm her brother.
Toris strolled purposefully through the darkened streets of the village, aware that news of the Conqueror's arrival had already filtered through the town. People were standing in small clusters near their houses whispering to their neighbours, all wondering what had brought the feared warrior back to her home town.
The man glanced briefly at his friends, an angry frown etching it's way across his brow. None of them wanted her here and he knew it was his duty as a member of her blood family to send her away.
He turned the corner and headed through the shadows towards the healers hut at the end of the dusty lane, his footfalls landing softly against the ground. He peered through the darkness, his blue eyes honing in on the tall figure that was pacing restlessly in front of the cabin. His back stiffened, for though he could not distinguish the features of the individual, he knew that it was his sister, the most feared person in the Empire.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded in an angry voice as he stepped out of the darkness.
Xena tensed. She had heard the approach and had been alert. Slowly she turned on her heel to face the man who matched her in height, but who was much less formidable even though he was physically larger.
"I am in no mood for your games Toris," she advised in a quiet voice that warned most people that it was ill advised to bother her.
"Games," the man snorted coming to a halt a few feet from his younger sibling. "You call what we do games, what do you call what you do?"
"Toris," the name was ground out behind clenched teeth. "I am not in the mood to argue with you or be bothered by your petty grievances. I caution you that I may not be able to control my actions at this moment so you better scurry back to where you came from before I end up hurting you."
"What right have you got...," the rest of his words were cut off as the sharp edge of a knife was suddenly pressed against his throat drawing a slight trickle of blood. The Empress had been so swift that he had not been able to react.
"I have every right to do whatever I want," the Conqueror warned in a chilling tone. "And you are pushing your fate right now. I am in no mood for your childish tantrums so leave before I show no conscience and slit your throat."
The man was abruptly released and his hand automatically went to this throat. He stared at his sister and saw that the threat was real. There was a blackness in her eyes that truly made him afraid. He swallowed compulsively and unconsciously backed up, aware that whether he lived or died depended on his next actions. Before he had known that he could push her as far as he wanted and still not have to worry about retribution, but tonight something was different.
He watched as she dismissed him by turning her back. He took a decisive step forward but felt a firm hand on his shoulder. He turned his head angrily towards this person and saw a heavily armoured soldier standing there.
"You would be wise to heed the Empress' words," Zenon uttered the advice in a quiet, solemn voice.
"For there is no one here who would make the attempt to save you."
Toris hesitated. Normally, he would have paid no attention to such a caution but there was something in the other man's expression that made a thread of fear race up his spine. He turned his blue eyes back to the Conqueror who had paced up to the cabin and was staring at the closed door intently.
"Gabrielle is very ill," the soldier explained in the same hushed tone, aware that the Empress would not appreciate him discussing the matter.
Toris glanced sharply at his companion oblivious to the fact that the hand had been removed from his shoulder.
"And that is a reason I should worry?"
"It is a reason for us all to fear," Zenon said, his own hazel eyes casting a discreet glance at the Conqueror before turning his attention back to the villager. "There is no telling what will happen if the Queen dies."
"I have no fear of what the Conqueror can do," Toris retorted angrily.
"Then you are a fool," Zenon retorted aware of the severity of the situation. He was as worried about the bard as was the Conqueror and the Amazon's.
"You don't know who I am," Toris scoffed.
"You are the Conqueror's brother," the soldier said without care. "But today that means nothing."
Toris was momentarily confused. If he accepted what this man was saying then he would have to accept the fact that his sister cared deeply for the small bard he had befriended so long ago. But it was a hard concept to accept. Xena had not really cared for anyone or thing since Lyceus' death. It was a novel idea and one he had never considered.
"Go back to your home and advise your fellow townsfolk's to do the same," the soldier said. "It would be suicide to try anything against the Conqueror now for she would show no mercy, not even to those who are of her own flesh and blood."
Toris glanced once more at his sister before backing away and the Captain of the Guard was relieved that the man had not been stupid. He had no desire to fight these villagers. He had experienced enough bloodshed to last him for a while. Besides he had served many years with the Empress and knew when the animal inside her was awake and he could see by the stance of her body that the creature was clawing at the latch to the cage in which she kept it. He had no doubt that it would be released if the bard were to die.
Xena forgot her brother the moment she turned her back. She had no time to deal with him and the hatred he felt towards her. She paced restlessly around in a circle her eyes glued to the doorway of the hut, anxious for news of her young lover, uncertain how long she could contain her impatience.
She slumped down onto the top step of the hut, feeling completely helpless for the first time in her life. She feared the worst yet begged that it not be so. She remembered that night so long ago in the meadow where the Goddess' Artemis and Aphrodite had promised to grant her deepest desire. She had told them she had none, yet now she wished they would offer that wish again.
Paulus did all he could, mixing the various herbs into the tea which he then spoon fed to the restless woman. But it was a thankless task for the bard would move just as he went to feed her and the contents would spill upon the blanket. He sighed in frustration.
"The Conqueror would be more than willing to help," a voice from the far corner of the room offered the suggestion. The healer turned his head to look at the Amazon, not masking the irritation he felt.
"I am quite capable of administering to this woman myself," he growled. "However if you think otherwise you could offer your services."
"It wouldn't help," Eponin shook her head gravely. She had seen many things in her tenure at the Queen's side and there were certain things that she knew. "Call the Conqueror, Gabrielle will calm down with Xena at her side."
Paulus snorted in disbelief but when after several more tries he was still unable to get any of the medicine down the small woman's throat he was willing to try anything. He turned and glared at the Amazon.
"Where would I go to find her?" He was not certain he would know where to look. There was no place in the village where the Conqueror would be welcome.
"You need only to go to your door," Eponin replied confidently. "She will be waiting outside."
The healer doubted the claim but he reluctantly did as the woman suggested. He had hoped to prove her wrong, suspecting that the Conqueror had better things to do then wait outside for the girl in his care to heal. He was barely able to hide his surprise when he opened the door and the thin shaft of light from within fell upon the Empress who was sitting on the top step just outside his door. Xena immediately jumped to her feet and stared at the healer.
"What's wrong?" she demanded her nostrils flaring, fear lacing through her body.
"I believe the young bard has been poisoned," Paulus did not lie.
Xena was stunned and angry. A blinding rage suddenly filled her being. Gabrielle was the kindest person she knew and she could think of no one who would want to harm the woman. No one but an enemy of the Conqueror. Someone who knew of the bard's importance and wanted revenge.
"You have medicines to heal her," the Empress stated angrily as she continued to absorb the information.
"Yes," a slight flush crept up the man's neck as the intense blue orbs continued to stare at him. For the first time in his life he felt an indescribable fear as he witnessed the animal in the woman's soul.
"However, I have been unable to administer them to her. She has been to restless to feed."
Without waiting for the man to finish Xena brushed passed him into the hut. She strolled purposefully across the room kneeling by the cot where her lover lay. She looked down at the girl, gently combing the damp blond bangs off her forehead. The healer watched in amazement as the unconscious woman seemed to sense the touch and grow calm.
"Where is the medicine?" the Conqueror asked without looking up and the healer immediately grabbed the bowl of tea and herbs he had mixed.
Xena carefully manoeuvred herself around on the cot so that the smaller woman's head was tilted up on her lap. Only then did she reach for the bowl of herbs.
"Gabrielle, it's Xena," she said softly, brushing the side of the smaller woman's face with one hand as she brought the bowl towards the dry pink lips of her lover. "I need you to drink this. It will make you feel better."
The healer watched smugly as the blonde woman continued to lie still and unmoving.
"Gabrielle, you must drink this, please, if you don't I will lose you and you must know I can no longer live without you," the Warrior Princess repeated in a soft and coaxing voice. "There are so many things that I have yet to show you, so many things we have yet to share. Once I find Solan I will need you more than ever."
There was silence as the Empress' voice fell quiet. The healer was shocked by the words that he had heard coming from the Conqueror's lips. Perhaps more shocked then the knowledge that they seemed to have their desired affect as there was a slight gurgling sound before the small blond woman opened her lips.
For the next candlemark he watched mesmerised as the tall dark haired woman patiently fed the brew to the sickly woman who lay calmly, somehow soothed by the Empress' touch and the soft words the older woman spoke. Paulus had never thought that the Destroyer of Nations, a woman who killed so easily, could be this gentle and tender.
Even once the tea and herbs was gone the Empress refused to move from her position and the healer knew that it would be unwise to ask the tall woman to do so. He knew then that the Empress had nothing to do with the smaller woman's sickness. He turned and left the two women alone, returning to his regular chores.
Toris walked slowly back to the tavern uncertain what he would do. He knew that his associates would be awaiting his return. It would be his decision as to what they would do next. He paused outside the Inn and stared for a moment in the direction of the healers hut, remembering the look in his sisters' eyes.
He had only watched her in battle once. It had been a terrifying and memorable experience and the reason that he had decided to fight against her. He had seen the essence of evil in her that day and she had glorified in that power. Tonight he had seen the barest reflection of that cruel nature. He mounted the steps and walked into the tavern knowing what he must do.
"What can we do?" Saiderus stood up and rushed eagerly to their leader's side as the tall dark haired man entered the room. They had all gathered with the thought of challenging the Conqueror.
"Go home," Toris wisely advised, knowing that he was making the right decision. "There is nothing we can do."
"But this is the perfect opportunity," another young man proclaimed jumping up from his seat near the wall. "Robinus and I scouted out the party. There are no more than two dozen escort and half of which are Amazons. We can raise at least double that number within a candlemark."
"It would be suicide," the man shook his head. "Now is not the time."
"Why not?" another man demanded challenging the tall dark haired man. "Now that the time has come have you grown fearful and unable to fight the Empress. Perhaps it is more important to you that she is your sister."
"No," the blue eyed man disputed the charge, aware that none of them had seen the animal that lived inside his sister. "I hate Xena and everything she is but we are all in much more danger than we believe. I beg you to go home and wait quietly. Do nothing and when the time is right we will act."
There was a moment of grumbling but finally the men departed the Inn leaving Toris with the feeling that somehow he had lost control of the group. He knew they were unhappy with his decision but there was nothing more he could do and he didn't know how else he could tell them about his unnatural fear. He turned from the door to see his mother staring at him from a position by the kitchen.
"Is it true, is Xena here?" Cyrene wanted to know, feeling a mixture of emotions at the news.
"Yes," the man sighed. "It seems that Gabrielle is sick."
The older woman was silent. She had always been fond of the small blond storyteller. The girl had a warmth and friendliness that had reached out to everyone with whom she came into contact. She felt a genuine sadness at the knowledge that Gabrielle was ill.
"Do you know what's wrong?"
"No," Toris shook his head, watching as a mirage of emotions flitted across his mother's face.
"I did not get a change to speak with the healer. Xena and her men have the place well guarded."
Cyrene looked at her son. He was so similar to his younger sibling that sometimes it was hard to look at him without remembering the daughter that she had borne. For a long time she had felt hatred towards her only female child, yet the passing of time and the seeming appearance of the bard into both their lives had done much to change her feelings.
"And Xena, your sister, how is she?" the older woman dared to ask of her son.
"I did not think to ask," Toris replied through gritted teeth. He could see the cautious anxiety in his mothers eyes. He knew that she still cared for the Conqueror in spite of everything that had happened. She had blamed Xena for Lyceus death yet perhaps time had mellowed her feelings.
Without another word he gathered up the scrolls he had been working on and walked stiffly out of the tavern. Cyrene stared at the receding back of her only surviving son. He had been such a good boy, remaining by her side while the rest of her children had gone off to seek fortune and power. She loved him dearly but she could not help feeling a mother's devotion to her other children in spite of their faults. With a tired sigh she turned and retreated back to the kitchen.
Xena remained by the bard's side, devoting her entire attention to the small woman, not knowing when night turned to day. Her only focus was on the woman who held her life.
The healer felt strange at the tenderness he witnessed in the Conqueror. It reminded him of the child he had brought into the world so many years before. The girl who had selflessly helped her mother at the tavern and who had run through the meadows with the other village children playing games with wooden swords.
No one had ever suspected that she would grow up to be the cruel despot that now ruled the Empire and until the previous day he had believed like the rest of the village that she was ruthless and without emotion. Yet after watching her care for the bard he wondered if there was not something of the young girl still left in the Empress. Perhaps like so many things the once caring child had been buried under a hard shell. A crust which she had needed to survive the death of her brother Lyceus and the pain and harshness she had suffered since.
Under the Conqueror's watchful eye he continued to monitor the small woman's progress. The fever seemed to have diminished with the use of the herbs yet there was still something puzzling about the bard's condition. He wondered if there was something he had over looked in his examination. He was careful though to ensure that his thoughts were not transferred to the Empress.
"How is she?" Xena asked quietly, her voice made raw by the long sleepless hours she had spent at the bard's side.
"The fever has stabilized," the healer sighed, feeling his own sense of weariness.
"Should it not have broken by now?" the Empress asked and Paulus knew that he was not dealing with an amateur. It was obvious that the Conqueror was aware of the medicines and there healing powers.
"Yes," the man admitted nodding his head glumly. "If there is no change by tomorrow morning, I will try a new recipe of herbs."
Xena nodded aware that her own knowledge of herbs and medicines was rudimentary. Even though the idea frightened her, she knew that she had to rely on the doctors knowledge and understanding. She hated the helpless feeling that encompassed her.
"She must live," the Conqueror breathed and then stared intently at the bard, lowering her lips to the ear closest to her face. "You have to live Gabrielle. My life is nothing without you."
The healer heard the softly spoken words and felt like he was intruding. Dutifully he left the stifling heat of the hut and stepped out into the freshness of the morning. His eyes fastened on the young woman who was strolling towards his cottage.
"I am sorry to be late," Seraphim apologized and then hurried to explain that she had been held up by the sermons of the leader of the group that she had joined.
"It is all right," Paulus dismissed the excuse as he slumped down onto the top step of the porch. "I have no need for your services today."
The young blonde nodded her head. Her brown eyes studied the aged healer, seeing the lines of fatigue that were etched into the corners of his eyes and lips. She had seen the tent encampment at the edges of the village and now noted the two scantily clad warriors, whom she assumed were Amazons, standing on guard on each side of the door leading into the healers hut.
"Did I miss some excitement?" the girl naively asked and the healer couldn't help but laugh.
"If you call a visit by the Conqueror excitement, then yes my dear you have," Paulus said ironically.
"The Conqueror!" the girl's eyes grew large and round. "Is she sick?"
"No, I don't think any ordinary disease would ever dare attack the Empress," the healer said with a hint of ill humour. "It is her companion, a bard named Gabrielle who has come down with a sickness."
"The bard Gabrielle!" the girl echoed with widen eyes. "I was raised in Potedaia with Gabrielle."
The healer eyed his assistant thoughtfully, privately wondering if she had been raised in Potedaia, how she had come to be associated with the people with whom she travelled. It then occurred to him that the children of Potedaia seemed to have a habit of hooking up with an odd crowd.
"Come back tomorrow," Paulus said having grown tired of the conversation.
"Are you sure there isn't anything I can do?" Seraphim asked aware that she was being dismissed. The healer paused thoughtfully. It had been many hours since he had last eaten and he was certain that his unexpected guest could also use some food.
"Run over to the tavern and get a small pot of soup. Tell Cyrene it is for her daughter."
"Okay," the girl nodded and then hurried off to do his bidding, aware that she would have some gossip to share with her group when she returned to their camp in the hills.
There was no change in the bard's condition that day and the soup that Seraphim had delivered from the tavern went uneaten. Day turned to night and when Paulus retired to his bed the Conqueror was still sitting quietly at the small woman's bedside, alternately whispering encouragement and stroking the bard's brow, and at other times cradling the smaller woman's head on her lap and administered the much needed herbs.
It was dawn of the next morning when the fever finally broke and only a few candlemarks later before a pair of glassy green orbs fluttered open. The Empress could have wept with joy but she remained stoic not daring to reveal the true depth of her feelings for the other woman. She did however allow herself to lean down and kiss the smaller woman.
"Gabrielle," Xena anxiously found herself saying the other woman's name.
"Xena," the bard gave her companion a weak smile.
"How are you feeling?" the Conqueror reached out and gently combed an errand strand of damp blond hair from the girl's face.
"Like a herd of centaurs just rode all over me," Gabrielle barely managed to croak our the complaint. "What's wrong with me?
"Nothing serious," the Conqueror lied, not willing to confront the smaller woman with the truth until she was better healed. The tall woman cracked a small smile, her heart pounding violently in her chest. "The healer says that you will be all right and that you just need rest."
"Ok," the bard nodded, closing her eyes as sleep settled more comfortably over her weary body.
Xena sat for a long while at her lover's bedside and only moved when her knees began to grow numb. She stood up and looked around the room, catching the sight of the healer watching her from a bench at the far end of the room. She walked towards the door.
"You have done well and will be rewarded accordingly," she said opening the portal. The healer was unexpectedly angered by her brusque words.
"If you truly wished for her health you would leave her here and continue on your way," the man bravely suggested bringing the Conqueror to a standstill. For a long moment blue and grey eyes met in a silent exchange.
"I cannot leave her," the tall dark woman said softly. "She is like the air that I need to breath and I can no longer live without her."
Without another word the Conqueror stepped through the door, closing it quietly behind her. The healer stared at the door for a moment longer before glancing across the room to the small woman sleeping on the cot. He wondered if she would feel the same when she knew the complete truth.
Xena glanced only briefly at the two Amazon guards that had been posted at the door of the healers hut. She was only half way across the town square headed to the village gates, when Zenon stepped out of the blacksmith shop and hurried to join her.
"Who has been preparing our meals on this journey?" she asked as they continued to walk towards the makeshift camp.
"Everyone has been taking turns," the soldier dutifully replied. "Why?"
"It seems that someone has been poisoning Gabrielle," the Empress advised the man. "I want you to find the source and those responsible."
"Yes, My Conqueror," the man replied aware of the responsibility with which he had just been entrusted. He liked Gabrielle and didn't know of one person who wished her harm. "We set up a tent for you in the middle of the camp."
Though he knew that the Empress needed some sleep he was loaf to make the suggestion that she take some rest. He knew that until the perpetuator was caught none of them would find peace. He actually pitied the poor person who had attempted hurt the bard.
"Thank you," Xena nodded seeing the tent and feeling a measure of relief. She longed for the privacy that it offered and stepped inside while Zenon hurried off to begin his investigation.
She felt more exhausted then she had ever felt in her life and that included the times that she had spent days fighting in battle. There was nothing so tough as the emotional and mental strain that fear exacted on a person and she gratefully slumped onto the cot that had been set up, not bothering to remove her leathers.
She threw her arm across her head and closed her eyes but she would not find any sleep. Peace would not come until she found out who was responsible for attempting to kill her lover. The panther inside her soul was to enraged to be settled until some revenge had been exacted.
The Conqueror spent only a short while wallowing in her own guilt. She was used to doing something and in spite of the fact that she had assigned to Zenon the task of uncovering the culprit, she was too restless to find any measure of relaxation, her thoughts turning to the perplexing question of who and how her young lover had been poisoned.
She dwelt on the various scenarios and came up with no clear idea as to who might be responsible or how the bard had been administered the lethal serum for it was obvious that her lover had somehow ingested the fatal potion. Suddenly she sat up on the cot, her mind a mixture of confusing emotion as a thought occurred to her. Not more than a candlemark later she stepped out of the tent dressed in a fresh set of leathers.
Intense blue eyes scanned the surrounding area. She saw a mirage of Amazon and soldiers searching through the small load of baggage that they had brought along with them. She doubted their search would reveal any find.
"Solari, Zenon," she called to the Amazon leader and the Captain of the Royal Guard. Both immediately hurried to her side.
"Yes, My Conqueror," they said in unison.
"Has anyone else reported feeling ill?" Xena wanted to know. She could not remember anyone else being sick but she was not often privy to such matters. The two leaders looked at each other, thinking of the people under their charge.
"No one," Zenon shook his head.
"Edisa, a young Amazon was ill a few days ago," Solari reported remembering the unpleasant symptoms that had hobbled the younger Amazon a few days into their journey. "But it was only brief and she is recovered."
"She is here?" the Empress wanted to know and Solari nodded, turning to call over to a small redhead Amazon who was standing not far away. The girl immediately ran up to her leader, unable to keep her shy green eyes off the imposing Conqueror, who was much more intimating then the Queen whom she had befriended.
"Edisa?" Xena asked and the girl bobbed her head wondering if she had done anything to offend the Empress. "You were sick a few days ago, do you have any idea what might have brought on your illness, anything you may have eaten?"
The young girl was quiet as she considered the question. She glanced fugitively at the Amazon leader before focusing her attention once more on the Conqueror.
"I ate only what the others did, some rabbit and some edible root," the Amazon replied shuffling nervously on her feet. "Oh, and Queen Gabrielle gave me an hand full of dates. But they were quite bitter tasting and so I tossed most of them away."
The confession came with an embarrassed flush and the girl wondered if she would be punished for discarding a gift from the Queen. But she need not have worried because the Conqueror was already on the move, striding quickly across the ground to the Command tent. Solari and Zenon followed closely on her heels aware that something was happening.
It did not take long for Xena to find the bard's pouch among their possessions. She ripped open the small cloth bag that had contented the fruit that the old crone had given Gabrielle upon their departure from the Capital. The bag was almost empty with the exception of a few small pieces of fruit which had begun to rot.
The Conqueror took a bite out of one piece and then automatically spit it out at the odd, yet sweet taste. Her normally stoic features were an angry mask as she realized that the innocent gift had been the source of the bard's woes.
"Damn it to all Hades," she cursed violently, flinging the bag across the tent in anger. She railed at the God's and her own inability to sense danger. She should have been more alert. She should have inspected the fruit before allowing the bard the chance to eat it.
"It was in the fruit," Solari voiced the words that no one had yet dared to speak aloud. She glanced up at the Conqueror in astonishment.
"The fruit she got as a gift from a strange old crone as we were departing the capital," Xena finished with an ugly twist to her mouth.
"But what grievance could she have had against the Queen?" Zenon was equally surprised by this discovery.
"Probably none," the Empress spat out bitterly. "The old woman was either trying to hurt me or doing someone else a favour."
"I will immediately send a message back to the capital for my men to begin searching for her," the Captain said but the Conqueror shook her head.
"No, I doubt we will be able to find her," Xena had a vague idea who might be the instigator of this plot. She had sampled this type of poison only once before and that time it had been administered by herself to an enemy. The potion had been a gift from Ares.
"What do you wish us to do?" the Amazon asked quietly unnerved by the lengthening silence and the growing anger that seemed to be radiating from the Conqueror.
"Nothing," the tall woman snarled. "Fetch my horse."
Zenon hurried to do his master's bidding, having served with her long enough not to question her actions. If she wanted them to help she would tell them, until then he knew it was best to stay silent and out of the way. He could see the animal that was stirring inside her soul.
"I will be back," the Conqueror informed her escort when she mounted Argo. "Until then ensure that Gabrielle is kept safe."
"Yes, My Conqueror," the two leaders agreed and then stood in silence as the stoic warrior clicked her heels into the horses flanks and took off down the road in a cloud of dust.
There was only one thought that filled the Conqueror's head as she pushed her horse down the road towards the small clearing and pond that she used to visit as a child. It was far enough away from the village not to be disturbed and secluded enough so that no one would be hurt if a confrontation ensued. Upon reaching the edge of the placid pool of water she slipped out of her saddle and strolled to the center of the narrow meadow.
"Ares, you son of a bachccae, get down here right now!" Xena yelled at the top of her lungs. A small cloud of birds were scared from their nearby perches and took flight at the harsh disturbance to their realm. When they were gone nothing remained but silence.
"Ares, you coward," the Conqueror continued to taunt the Deity aware of how to get the God of War to respond.
"Xena, Xena, Xena," the handsome man suddenly appeared behind her and the Empress swung around to face him, the sword already in her hand ready to strike.
"So you had the guts to show up yourself," the Empress snarled. "I am almost surprised you didn't send another old crone to do your work."
"I can't imagine what you are talking about," the God of War acted completely innocent.
"You know what I am talking about," Xena hissed moving swiftly forward until her sword was pressed up against his Adam's apple. "You tried to poison Gabrielle."
"Ahhh," the Deity continued to pretend ignorance. "Your little blond tart is sick and you find the need to blame someone."
"Gabrielle was poisoned," the Empress ground out the smaller woman's name and pressed her sword a little more against the man's neck. "What favour did you grant to the old crone who gave Gabrielle that lethal fruit or was that you really in disguise?"
"Please," the God screwed up his face in distaste at the idea of changing his appearance to look like an old woman. Didn't these mortals know that he had retainers for such work? "I have no need to disguise myself."
"No, there are plenty of willing servants to do your dirty work right?" the tall woman intoned bitterly.
"Well, what can I say?" the Deity spread his arms. He was inwardly pleased that His Chosen had been intelligent enough to deduce his deception even though that meant that the bard had not been harmed. Nonetheless, his part of the bargain had been fulfilled.
"You can say that you will leave her alone," the Conqueror snarled. "Don't mess with her Ares because you will regret it."
The Empress turned away from the God and whistled for her horse. She had gotten the answer she had wanted and had issued her own threat. There was nothing more for her to do here. She jumped onto the warhorse but was unable to leave as the Deity had moved and taken hold of the creatures bridle.
"Xena, I think you have forgotten who made you," the God of War said in a soft voice.
"No Ares," Xena spat out. "That is something I will never forget. But know, in spite of that you don't own me, or have you forgotten that."
Without another word the Conqueror clicked her heels and set the horse once more in motion, forgetting about the God of War, her mind already focused on the village and her lover.
Gabrielle gingerly lifted her head off the pillow to survey her surroundings, aware of the pounding in her brain. She was lying on a cot not far from a blazing fireplace in what appeared to be a small cottage. There were few furnishings save for a table and chairs at the far end of the room and a bench on which a folded blanket lay. The only other thing she noticed were the shelves carefully built into the walls. They were fully burdened with a multitude of jars. She noticed a man standing in the shadows.
"Are you the healer?" she asked in a hoarse voice.
"Yes I am," the man's kindly demeanour asserted itself in spite of his best intentions. There was something about his patient, a sweet innocence and a charm that was captivating. He pulled up a stool next to the pallet and sat down. "My name is Paulus."
"Nice to meet you Paulus," the bard smiled weakly and would have extended her hand in greeting but felt to drained to move. She asked the next question not because she was fearful for herself but for her companion whom she knew would be worried. "Am I terribly sick?"
"You were fortunate," the healer said quietly pulling back the bed-sheets to examine the woman carefully. "With time and plenty of rest you should be fine."
There were several matters that he needed to broach yet he was cautious about doing so. In spite of
what he had seen, he did not know the circumstances of the relationship between this young woman and the Empress. Though he had been surprised by the Conqueror's attitude towards the bard, he still knew of her capacity for violence and worried that when the dangerous Warrior learned the truth there would be no one who could protect the girl. He had lived too many years under her oppression to easily dismiss her true nature.
Hesitantly he glanced at the empty bench where the Amazon warrior had spent the last two nights. Only once she was reassured that the bard was going to be okay, was he able to persuade the woman to join the rest of her companions at the small encampment on the outskirts of the village. In spite of the woman's assertion he wondered if her people would really be able to protect this girl from the Destroyer of Nations.
"What was it? What made me so ill?" Gabrielle saw the man's indecision and swallowed, almost afraid to hear what he had to say.
"How well do you trust the Empress?"
"With my life," came the unwavering reply and the man could see the girl was sincere. He sighed, realizing this would be more difficult then he imagined.
"What is wrong with me?" Gabrielle repeated her earlier question.
"It appears that someone has been poisoning you," he was blunt, seeing no other way to break the news.
"No!" the bard was startled by the revelation. "But how can that be, we all share the same food and no one else has gotten ill."
"The traces are very minuet but concentrated," the healer continued. "You probably wouldn't have survived if it hadn't been for your condition, though it will be some time before you will be able to tell if there are any lasting side effects."
"Condition? Side effects?" Gabrielle was confused. She lightly shook her head having a hard time digesting the information. The healer looked at her pensively, not realizing that she didn't know.
"Surely you must have sensed that something was wrong," the man said knowing of no way to soften the blow. A thoughtful frown appeared on his brow. "Of course, you could have assumed the vomiting was a result of your illness."
"Then why was I throwing up?"
"You are pregnant."
"Pregnant!" the bard's green eyes grew large and round. "That's impossible."
"I am afraid not my child," Paulus felt sympathetic. "You are almost a full season with child."
"But you don't understand, I have never been with a man," Gabrielle protested with a hint of fear and anxiety. Her embarrassment forgotten as the seriousness of her situation took hold of her senses. She thought of everything that had recently happened and her outings with Jason. She knew that Xena would never believe that nothing had happened. Unconsciously she spoke her last thoughts out loud.
"Well, unless I am mistaken, or the Conqueror does some magic tricks that our science has not yet learned, you are definitely with child," the man replied skeptical of the woman's claim. He studied her features pensively.
"Are you in fear for your life?" he asked with genuine concern. "We can give you refuge if needed. I have friends that can help you escape from the Conqueror."
"No!" In spite of her trepidation Gabrielle was not one to run away. Besides she had done
nothing wrong, though she couldn't figure out how she had gotten pregnant. She had never been with a man and though she was not an expert on such matters, she knew that being with one was a prerequisite. She turned pleading green eyes towards the healer.
"Please, I beg of you to say nothing of this to anyone," she needed time to figure out a way to break the news to her lover, but the man once again misunderstood her request.
"Your secret is safe with me," he sighed and gently picked up her hand. "But there are people who are no friends of the Empress who would gladly help you if you fear for your life."
"I appreciate your offer," Gabrielle replied her thoughts distracted by this unforseen situation.
It was almost too much to think about right now and her head started pounding so hard that it was difficult for her to hear her own thoughts. She felt a wave of nausea threaten and sensing her distress the healer quickly stood up and retreated to the table, returning immediately with a steaming bowl of herbs.
"Drink this," he instructed passing her a full mug of tea and herbs.
The Queen nodded and accepted the offering. She sat up and slowly sipped the warm liquid, feeling it burn down her throat and settle into the pit of her stomach. It had it's desired affected, immediately going too work to settle the uneasy churning inside.
"What do you wish to do?" the healer asked looking down at the small woman.
"I don't know," the bard replied honestly. "I need time to think."
"Well, I will be here if you need anything," the older man nodded his head in quiet understanding.
There must have been some sleeping potion mixed into the concoction for no sooner had she finished the medication when her eye lids began to feel heavy. She settled back down onto the pallet and was soon asleep with all thoughts of her problems momentarily forgotten.
The healer watched the small woman for a long moment, not certain what the future would bring for the bard or for himself for that matter. He did not envy the blonde woman's position. He had been witness to the Empress' wrath and feared for anyone who dared to incur it. He turned away and went back to mixing his herbs in anticipation of the next crisis.
Xena was tempted to head straight over to the healers hut once she returned to the village but her emotions were still roiling inside her body. Rather than pass the chore on to one of her soldiers she decided to tend to Argo herself, knowing that the exercise would give her the necessary time to settle her anger before she went to see the bard.
A candlemark later, her rage was once more under control. She spent a few minutes washing up and walking around the makeshift camp before taking the lonely stroll through the village gates and across the square towards the healers hut.
The Conqueror paused at the summons. She turned and watched as a woman stepped out of the lengthening shadows of a nearby building. There was a pensive expression on the face which was lined with the signs of the many years of hard work.
"How are you Xena?" the older woman asked breaking the silence that enveloped them in the empty courtyard.
"Fine," the younger woman replied, shifting uncomfortably on her feet. She was the Empress but she would always feel like a small child in the presence of her mother. "I was just on my way to see Gabrielle. She is sick." The Conqueror added unnecessarily, aware that the reason they were in the village was probably common knowledge.
"Yes I heard," Cyrene nodded, hesitantly lifting the bowl in her hands. "I was on my way to the healers. I prepared some of my soup. It always used to help you when you were ill. Maybe you can bring it to her."
"Thank you," Xena nodded accepting the gift. "I am sure Gabrielle will appreciate it." There was a slight pause as the Conqueror briefly looked down at her feet before glancing back at her mother. "I am certain she would appreciate a visit from you if you have the time. She often talks of her visits here."
"We miss her stories," the older woman said wistfully and then dared to ask the question that had gone unanswered in all the rumours she had heard. "What is wrong with her?"
Xena was silent for a long moment uncertain she wanted anyone to know the truth, feeling a wave of guilt. She looked down at her feet again, seeing the dust upon the toes of her boots. Cyrene had just about given up on getting an answer when the tall woman glanced up again.
"She was poisoned," the Conqueror admitted in a low voice.
"Who would do such a thing to that sweet woman?" The Innkeeper asked in astonishment, forgetting briefly with whom she was speaking. She heard a hiss of breath and glanced up at her daughter, realizing only then what she had said.
"Anyone who wants to get back at me," the Empress said in a hard voice. Without another word she turned away and continued on her path towards the healers hut.
Cyrene felt her heart ache. For just a brief instant she had seen the pain and hurt in her daughters eyes. She knew without a doubt what she had only suspected before, and it was something no one believed was possible for the woman who had conquered all of Greece. Xena cared. More specifically she cared for Gabrielle the bard. Slowly the Innkeeper turned and retreated to the tavern.
Xena stepped into the healers hut, not bothering to knock before entering. She paused on the threshold her eyes honing in on the small woman who was sleeping on the pallet. The sounds of her light snoring was a blessing to the tall woman.
"Come in," Paulus said with a hint of sarcasm and the Empress turned her head to look at the man who was seated in a far corner of the hut reading from a scroll on his lap.
"How is she?" the Conqueror ignored the barb noticing that the wooden bench where Eponin had slept the last two nights was empty.
"Better," the healer replied simply. "She woke earlier and was quite lucid. I gave her some more herbs and they put her back to sleep. It will be a few candlemarks before she wakes again."
"I will wait," Xena decided, glancing briefly around the room before setting the bowl of soup her mother had given her on the table. "Cyrene sent over some soup."
"Thanks," the man nodded his head before turning his attention back to the scroll he was reading.
Xena ignored the man and walked across the room to settle onto the stool that was next to the bards cot. She looked down at the sleeping woman, not able to stop herself from reaching out and combing thin strands of blonde hair from the girl's face. Gabrielle always looked so innocent in sleep, but today there was a frown upon the normally serene face. The Conqueror wondered what was worrying her friend.
"I am sorry Gabrielle," the Empress apologized quietly to her lover. "Please forgive me, I should have been more careful. I promise you that I will never allow something like this to happen again."
As if to seal her promise, the dark haired woman leaned forward and brushed her lips against the still warm brow before settling back to wait for the bard to wake. It was many candlemarks later and well into the afternoon when green eyes fluttered open once again.
"Hi sweetheart," the Conqueror whispered to the smaller woman. "How are you feeling?"
"Miserable," Gabrielle replied with a weak smile aware that her throat was dry and ached. Her eyes searched the stoic face that was bent over her. A hand automatically reached up and gently stroked strands of dark hair away from the lovely face that was etched with lines of worry. "Xena you look terrible, when was the last time you slept?"
The tall warrior smiled wearily, knowing by the small woman's comment that she was going to be all right. It would take a few more days before she was completely recovered and before they could continue their journey but the bard was going to be okay and that was all she was concerned about. Silently she sent a prayer of thanks to the Goddess' to which she had prayed. She grasp the younger woman's hand.
"I can't remember," the Empress replied not daring to lie knowing that the other woman would immediately see through the falsehood.
"You should get some sleep," Gabrielle scolded. "You look ready to drop."
"I've been up longer," the Warrior countered. There were many times in her quest to conquer Greece that she had not slept for days, but then her body had been fuelled by blood lust, such was not the case on this day.
"Xena?" the bard looked at her and the Empress hung her head waiting to be admonished.
"I was worried about you," the tall woman mumbled and a gentle smile came to the bard's lips.
"I appreciate that," Gabrielle said hoarsely, touched by the sincerity in her lover's voice. "I am better now so promise me that you will go get some sleep."
"Okay, I will leave in a little while but I would like to talk to you first," the Warrior promised.
"Okay," the bard nodded to weary to argue with her companion. She ran her tongue over her dry lips. "The healer said I was poisoned."
"Yes," the Conqueror nodded solemnly. "The fruit that the old crone handed you as we were leaving Corinth was poisoned. Did you not taste anything odd?"
"Yes," the bard admitted with an embarrassed blush, remembering that the fruit had tasted unusually sweet and bitter. "But I was hungry. I know you can go without eating for long hours and days," Gabrielle defended herself unable to meet her lovers eyes. "And I've really tried to mimic you Xena but I just need food."
"Oh sweetheart, I'm not chastising you," the Empress smiled indulgently aware of her companions voracious appetite and knowing that it only seemed to grow worse in recent weeks. She reached out and gently patted the blanket where the younger woman's abdomen lay. "I know this is an insatiable monster."
The bard blushed again, but was relieved that her lover was not angry. She knew that she should have mentioned something to the older woman aware of the constant threat against them both. She had momentarily dropped her guard and been hurt because of it.
"I promise to be more vigilant," Gabrielle promised, vaguely remembering the odd feeling she had gotten when looking into the old woman's eyes. "But the woman seemed harmless, I should have followed my instincts."
"I should have paid more attention but I was too preoccupied with my own concerns," the Conqueror sighed. "Can you forgive me for that?"
"Oh Xena, this wasn't your fault," the bard hastened to reassure the woman. "I know that people are out to get you and I know that I have to be careful. I can't expect you to look out for me all the time."
"But you were only hurt because of me."
"You don't know that," the smaller woman disagreed. The Conqueror was unable to meet the other woman's gaze, thinking back to her earlier confrontation with Ares. She realized then that she had not bothered to ask him why, assuming that she already knew the answer.
"Xena?" the soft voice cut through the stoic woman's reserve and solemn blue eyes looked up into green orbs. "Please stop blaming yourself. We both got careless. I am going to be all right and next time someone, anyone, gives me anything I will be more careful. Ok?"
"Ok," the Conqueror mumbled still not happy with herself. "You look tired, why don't you go back to sleep."
"Promise me first that you will get some sleep too."
"I will go as soon as you fall asleep," the Empress promised. Gabrielle nodded her head and because she was still exhausted she closed her eyes and quickly fell back asleep. Only then did Xena bend forward to place a tender kiss on the small woman's lips before she rose and slowly made her way to the door of the hut. She glanced at the healer who was still sitting mutely in the corner, a witness to the scene.
"If her condition changes I want to be summoned immediately."
Paulus nodded mutely and watched as the woman stepped out of the hut. He glanced at the small woman who was once again sleeping calmly on the cot, marvelling again at what he had witnessed. He turned and went about his business.
The bard woke the next dawn, feeling better yet still very weak from her experience. Paulus conducted another thorough examination of the woman assuring her that she would fully recover from her ordeal.
"And the baby?" The Queen asked quietly.
"I am afraid you won't know that until the child is born," the aged healer sighed moving across the room to the fireplace where he had a pot of porridge cooking over the fire. "I have never before had a case such as your own."
Gabrielle was not comforted by his words but had little time to dwell on her thoughts as he returned to her bedside with a bowl of steaming gruel. The bard unconsciously screwed her nose up in distaste at the sight of the unpleasant soupy meal.
"It may look disgusting," the man snorted with a hint of amusement correctly guessing her thoughts. "But I can assure you it tastes better than it looks. Besides I am not certain your stomach would be able to handle anything more substantial."
The Queen nodded and hesitantly stared at the foul looking meal. She swallowed once, summoning her courage before bringing the thick broth to her lips and swallowing a small sip of the lumpy liquid. She gasp and looked up at the healer who was now looking at her with a broad smile on his face.
"This tastes terrible," she remarked with an honesty that was a large part of her character.
"Yes," the man dismissed her complaints with a wave of his wrinkled hand. "But it is good for you."
Any further discussion on the matter was interrupted by the arrival of the Conqueror who walked in through the door and straight over to the bard to plant a kiss on the still warm brow, before glancing down at the foul smelling concoction her lover was holding.
"What is that?" she asked pointing with disgust at the bowl.
"A really good soup that Paulus has invented," the bard replied impishly. "You must have a taste, I think it could be all the rage in Corinth."
"No way," the Empress lifted her hands in self defense backing away from the bard who openly laughed at her companions disdain.
"How are you feeling this morning?"
"Much better though I am still very tired," the Queen answered and managed to take another sip of the medicinal soup that the healer had brewed. It was surprising how comforting the fluid felt in her stomach.
"How long before it will be safe for her to travel?" the Conqueror asked directing her question this time to the healer who was retreating to the far corner of the hut.
"It is my advice that she rest for several days more and then take it easy for another week," the man replied, thinking that the extra time would give the younger woman a chance to decide what she wanted to do about her situation.
"Then I will tell the others that we will be here for at least another week," Xena decided without discussion, her first concern the woman at her side.
"But what about Lila's wedding or Solan?" the bard looked at the older woman, swallowing the lump
in her throat knowing that each passing day was another day in which the Conqueror's son was lost.
"There will still be plenty of time to make it to Potedaia for Lila's wedding," the tall woman assured her lover.
"And Solan?" Gabrielle implored, knowing that the situation must be eating away at the Empress.
Xena looked down at the wooden floor, noticing the deep grooves marked into the wood. She could not look at the smaller woman for a long moment, realizing that she had not thought of the boy at all in the last few days, feeling a measure of guilt about that. You are growing soft, her thoughts decided, before nothing would have made you feel guilty.
"There is still plenty of time to find Solan," she finally answered in a quiet voice. "I am sure that he is all right. Kalipus told me he is a strong and capable lad."
The bard felt a wave of sympathy for her companion and reached out to clutch the other woman's hand.
Xena stayed for several candlemarks, leaving only once the bard showed signs of tiring. She kissed the smaller woman before retreating to the encampment outside the town walls, wondering what she would do to occupy herself for the next week. She was not known for her patience.
Not long after the Empress departed, Paulus was summoned to an emergency out of the town on a local farm where a woman was about to give birth. He left his assistant Seraphim in charge sending her off to the tavern to collect a tray of food for their patient before leaving with the distraught farmer.
Gabrielle woke and lay for a long moment savouring the silence of the room. A sweeping glance told her that she was alone and with a sigh she closed her eyes again. But this time sleep did not come as thoughts of her predicament rolled through her head.
What will Xena think? Will she believe me now when I say nothing happened between Jason and myself? Will she think I lied to protect her feelings? How did this happen? These were all the questions that rolled around inside her brain, but the one that gave her most fear was the one she did not want to contemplate. Will she believe I have betrayed her like everyone else?
Tears filled green eyes and would have fallen but for the commotion that interrupted her thoughts. Hastily she wiped the dew from her face as the door opened. She watched as a young woman with short blonde hair entered bearing a tray. The Queen looked briefly at the girl an automatic smile breaking across her face as she recognized her visitor.
"Seraphim, is that you?"
The girl glanced up and the solemn expression on her young face was immediately replaced by a smile. The two women had grown up together in Potedaia but they had not seen each other since Gabrielle had gone to Corinth in search of the Conqueror.
"Gabrielle, I heard that you were ill."
"Yes, but what are you doing here?" the bard asked happy to see someone from her home town, someone with whom she had shared a childhood. If only briefly she was given a reprieve from the torment of her worries.
"I am the healer's assistant," the girl replied cheerfully as she set the tray down next to the cot and then sat down to help the other woman eat. Paulus had not said whether their patient had the strength to feed herself and she was prepared to help if necessary.
"When did you leave Potedaia?" Gabrielle allowed her natural curiosity full reign. She accepted the bowl of broth that the other woman held out and sitting up she rested the bowl in her lap.
"Soon after the Conqueror lifted the travel restrictions," Seraphim smiled watching closely as the other woman gingerly brought the spoon to her lips and sucked in the warm liquid. "I realized you had the right idea. I didn't want to get married and I knew I would have too if I stayed in Potedaia. After my parents died of the sickness I hitched a ride with the first travelling merchant caravan that came through town."
"I'm sorry to hear about your parents," the bard was sincere remembering the kindly couple that had been friends with her family. She took a spoonful of the soup. She was hungry but she wasn't certain that her stomach could handle too much right now. "Is that how you came to be here in Amphipolis?"
"Indirectly," the other woman smiled. "I travelled with the merchants for awhile doing odds and ends to pay for my keep and then left them when we got to Britannia. They were going further north and then to the land of the Norse Gods so I joined with a band of refugees that were heading back this way. When they settled not far from here I got work as the assistant to the healer. I want to learn the trade so that I might help these new friends."
"It sounds like you have been leading an exciting life."
"Not as exciting as you," the other girl exclaimed. "By the God's Gabrielle you are living with the Conqueror."
"I know," the bard tried not to smile but was unable to prevent her lips from twitching into that joyous expression.
"Aren't you afraid?"
"I suppose in the beginning I should have been," the Queen admitted thinking back over her life with the Empress. She shook her head. "I have heard all these awful things about her but I've never seen her in the way other people have described her.
"She is a fierce warrior but with me she has always only ever been the most gentle person I know," Gabrielle said. "Even when she's angry with me, she never really gets upset. There hasn't been one time since I have been with her that I have been afraid."
"You are so brave," Seraphim mused in wonderment. "But then you always were."
"So tell me more about these people that you are travelling with now," Gabrielle prodded taking another mouthful of the broth.
"They are the most wonderful people," the girl extolled. "They don't believe in the Olympian Gods. They believe in only the One God and He is a kind and gentle. One day he will enter the world and cleanse it of all evil."
The bard listened quietly. She was always fascinated by what others had learned and experienced during their travels and it seemed that her friend from Potedaia had an interesting story to tell. She knew of the One God that the Israelites worshipped and wondered if this was the same one. She was curious to learn more and said as much when her friend finally stopped speaking.
"When you are better I will take you to meet our Leader and Priest," Seraphim enthused. "His name is Khrafstar and he is the kindest and most intelligent man you can ever meet."
Gabrielle hid the smile that came unbidden to her lips. It was obvious by her friend's enthusiastic description that she had a small crush on the Priest. The bard wondered if the affection was reciprocal or if the man had to remain celibate as was the custom and practice of some Priest's in Eastern religions.
They continued to speak while the Queen of the Amazon's worked on eating the broth. By the time the bowl was finally empty she was exhausted not only from the effort that it took to eat but also from the affects of talking to her friend. Seraphim saw the other woman stifle a yawn and was immediately apologetic.
"I have exhausted you with all this talk," the girl said taking the bowl and standing up. She knew that the healer would be disappointed in her but she feared more the wrath of the Conqueror.
"Yes," Gabrielle did not disagree as she slipped down underneath the blankets again. "But please come back and visit, there is still so much that I would like to know."
"I will," Seraphim promised and hurried out of the hut. She glanced briefly at the two Amazon's who were standing guard at the front door to the hut and then hurried along to the tavern. She met the healer halfway there surprised by his quick return.
"It was a false alarm," the man snorted at the girl's question. By the time they had reached the farm both men had been surprised to see the woman out tending the garden. After a thorough examination the healer had determined it would be many days yet before the baby arrived and a somewhat harried farmer had driven him back to the village.
"So she managed to eat the whole bowl," he mused thoughtfully as he glanced at the empty dish.
"She seemed much better," the girl replied. "We talked for a while as we come from the same village of Potedaia and grew up together but she has gone back to sleep now."
The man nodded a frown burrowing its way across his aged features.
"Is there a problem Paulus?"
The healer looked at the girl. Seraphim had been helping him now for almost a full season. She had been one of the first of the group of foreigners to enter the village and interact with the townsfolk. They had all been surprised to find that she was a fellow Greek and though they were not entirely certain as to how she had come to be with these strange refugees she had worked hard and provided a bridge between them.
For some reason the man needed to talk to someone and the fact that his assistant had grown up with his patient somehow seemed to make it easier. He possessed a burden which he was uncertain how he could handle.
"Did she say how her relationship with the Conqueror was?" he asked the young woman
"She said that the Empress was the most gentle person she knew and that she was not afraid," the girl replied truthfully and the man nodded. "Is there something wrong?"
"I am afraid there might be," he mused and then said no more before walking towards his home leaving the young girl to watch for a moment longer before taking the tray back to Cyrene and the tavern kitchen.
Xena whiled away the candlemarks by joining the Amazon's in the various competitions they had set up to hone their skills and occupy their time. It was no surprise when she defeated everyone else from her entourage in the archery test they had composed or the mock sword fight they had scripted. It was a good work out for the Conqueror and for that brief time she was able to think of something other then the bard's illness and a son that was still missing.
"What are you doing with yourself?" Gabrielle asked that evening when the Empress came to visit. The older woman was obviously restless for she shifted uncomfortably on the stool and the bard knew how difficult it was to keep the woman entertained.
"I have been playing games of skills with the Amazon's," the older woman replied.
"Ouch," the blond woman winced, just imagining what the Conqueror meant. "You didn't hurt
anyone to badly did you?"
"Of course not," the Empress said indignantly but had the temerity to blush as she remembered the painful bruises that she had inflicted on the more aggressive warriors. At least she hadn't killed or seriously injured anyone.
"Xena you didn't," the Queen moaned aware that the Empress had probably inflicted more damage than just to their egos.
"I had to defend myself," the tall woman protested indignantly and the smaller woman laughed. She was aware that her Amazon's were more than unusually aggressive when duelling with the Conqueror. She didn't doubt that there wasn't one Amazon who didn't fantasize about besting the Empress in some form of competition.
The smile from the younger woman's face disappeared as she looked into the intense blue eyes of her lover. She worried about Xena, aware what enforced inactivity did to her companion. But there was something else that she worried about. They were in Amphipolis, the place of her lovers birth.
"How are you doing up here?" The blond woman lifted her hand and gently tapped it against the dark haired woman's chest. "Is it terribly hard for you being back here?"
"It brings back memories," the other woman confessed. She thought of the candlemarks she had spent visiting places that she used to haunt as a child. She had even gone to Lyceus' tomb, to remember a brother she had lost so long ago.
"Have you seen your mother?" the bard asked quietly aware that her companion was unable to meet her gaze.
"Briefly," the Empress admitted. "I ran into her in the town square a few days past."
"Was she still angry with you?"
"No," the Conqueror shook her head. She realized that her mother's attitude had been different since that day many seasons ago when she had come to Amphipolis looking for the bard. "She was quite pleasant and expressed concern for your health."
"I appreciate that," Gabrielle smiled wistfully remembering the many evenings she had spent in the older woman's company when travelling the countryside storytelling. "I miss her. She was always so much more accepting than my parents."
The Empress nodded, remembering as a child how the Innkeeper had never chided her for the things she had done. She had spent more time playing warriors with the boys from the village than she did playing dolls with the girls, but Cyrene had never tried to curb her interests or desires. More then once she remembered the Innkeeper had defended her unladylike behaviour to the other women of the town. She briefly wondered now if her mother regretted those times; regretted the discipline that she did not enforce on her wild female child. Perhaps things would have turned out differently.
"It sounds like to me if she has started to forgive you," the bard suggested quietly and the Empress nodded.
"She certainly didn't threaten to kill me like she did when Lyceus died," Xena snorted ruefully, remembering the angry words that Cyrene had vented that day she had walked into the tavern with a dead Lyceus in her arms.
She felt a twist of pain in her heart at the memory. She had blocked it out until now, the hateful words her mother had hurled at her, blaming her for her beloved brothers death. She had silently borne the rage before turning and running out of the Inn with tears steaming down her face. She had not returned until the day she had come in search of the young storyteller who had captured her heart.
"Maybe it's time to heal old wounds," Gabrielle said softly and blue orbs glanced at her intently.
"You don't know what you are asking," the taller woman whispered, thinking of how it would hurt if her mother rejected any advances for a treaty. Before she hadn't cared but since Gabrielle had been in her life, things had taken on a different feel. All the emotions she had buried with Lyceus so long ago were there, bubbling to the surface, threatening to make her feel more than she could handle.
"Perhaps not," the bard conceded thinking of her own relationship with her parents. She picked up the Conquerors hand and squeezed it gently. "But it sounds like she is ready to talk. I think she probably misses you as much as you miss her."
I don't miss her, the Conqueror wanted to protest but deep inside she knew that it was a lie. She had missed her mother's calming influence and harsh honesty. In that way Gabrielle was much like Cyrene and perhaps that was the reason she had been so ready to let the bard into her life.
She thought about the bard's words later as she headed back across the town square after leaving the healers hut. It was dark but as she passed through the village she could see the light and hear the laughter radiating from the tavern that her mother kept. She paused for a long moment staring through the darkness towards the light that spilled out of the windows.
She had never felt fear before meeting Gabrielle. Yet now everything seemed to make her heart ache with worry. She swallowed and redirected her path strolling calmly towards the tavern. I am the Conqueror and I can go wherever I want, she told herself defiantly, and if I chose to have a meal at a tavern rather then with my escort then that is my right.
It was no surprise that the boisterous room fell silent the moment she stepped through the door. Blue eyes scanned the interior of the Inn briefly seeing all the eyes of the patrons turned in her direction. She spotted an empty table near the bar and calmly strolled through the room, ignoring the whispered comments that followed in her wake.
Cyrene was standing behind the bar with Toris when the tall dark haired warrior entered. She held her breath and watched as the woman strolled through the room and took a seat. She wondered what the Empress wanted.
"I will go see what she wants," Toris spoke her thoughts out loud and she watched mutely as the boy walked out from behind the bar and approached the Empress. "What do you want Xena?"
The Conqueror glanced up at her brother who was now towering over her. To someone else his large presence would have been forbidding but the Empress was not intimidated.
"This is an Inn, is it not?" she growled holding his gaze steadily. "I wish for a meal."
"We don't serve your kind in here," the man responded unable to mask his anger.
"My kind?" A dark eye brow rose in speculation, an intense gaze pinning the man. "What is my kind?"
"Brutal and cruel barbarians," Toris breathed venting his simmering rage. "You don't belong in a place that caters to respectable folk."
Xena felt her irritation rise. She had never gotten along with her older brother, realizing from an early age that it was a result of jealousy. A jealousy borne of the knowledge that though she was a female and younger than himself, she was also stronger, and more capable of protecting the family after their father had died. Even after all this time she could remember the humiliation he had felt the first time she had bested him in a race. The fact that their younger brother Lyceus had applauded her victory and admired her for it, had only deepened his resentment and anger towards her.
The Empress slowly rose to her feet. She had only been intent on savouring the taste of a good cooked meal and perhaps some quiet time in her mother's presence. She had not come here to endure a confrontation. Before she could reply their mother interrupted the battle of wills.
"It's all right Toris," Cyrene said. She had followed the young man aware of the trouble that could erupt between the two stubborn siblings. She glanced at the tall woman. "What would you like?"
"What is the house special?"
"A lamb stew with fresh bread and baked tomatoes," the older woman answered.
"Sounds good, I will have a plate," the Conqueror decided, her eyes still on her brother. Toris was not known for his intelligence and she worried that he would do something stupid.
"It will be right out," the older woman said with a half smile hoping to break the tension between the siblings. Toris spun around to look at his mother.
"How could you?" he demanded an explanation from his parent and Cyrene sighed.
"She is and always will be my daughter and your sister," the older woman said quietly revealing more than she intended in that simple statement.
"I no longer consider her my sister," Toris scowled and spun around on his heel, retreating back behind the bar where he could keep an eye on the Conqueror.
"Thank you," Xena said softly swallowing the lump of emotion that caught in her throat. Cyrene looked at her with an sad smile.
"The food will be right out."
Without another word the woman turned and retreated to the kitchen. True to her word she returned moments later with a steaming bowl of stew and a warm plate with the tomatoes and bread. She set it down in front of the warrior along with a mug of ale.
"Please, if you have the time, can you join me for awhile?" the Conqueror asked when the older woman turned to go.
An uncertain expression crossed the woman's face as she glanced around the Inn. She saw the eyes that were watching her and knew that her actions would be ridiculed and she might be shunned by the other townsfolk for her actions, but at that moment she didn't care. In spite of the hate she felt for her daughter, she still cared deeply for the young woman she had given birth to so many seasons ago. She sat down on a bench across from the warrior.
Xena felt a measure of happiness flow through her body. Her mother had never been one to be governed by convention, a trait that she had inherited. It pleased her that the woman was willing to sit with her though it also worried her how the villagers might react.
"How have you been?" The Empress opened the conversation, idling playing with the food on her plate. She wasn't really hungry and had used the meal as more of an excuse then anything. The little bit of hunger she had felt had since completely disappeared.
"Good," Cyrene said sharing the awkwardness that her daughter felt. "How is Gabrielle recovering?"
"A few more days of bed rest and she will be back to her normal self," the Conqueror shared unable to stop the hint of smile that curved her lips at the thoughts of the bard.
"She is a very strong personality," the tavernkeeper said and her analysis brought a humorous snort from the other woman.
"That she is." The Empress agreed and an awkward silence fell over the two women.
Cyrene's dull grey eyes studied the younger woman sitting across the table from her. Her daughter had grown into a beautiful young woman, with exotic features that reminded her so much of the man that had fathered the child. Xena had always been a special child and regardless of what had happened in the past, she still kept a piece of her heart open to the girl.
She watched the famed Empress idly play with the food sitting in front of her, instinctively knowing that the woman's appearance here tonight was the girl reaching out to a family that she had been thrown out of so long ago. The anger that she had seen in the girl even months ago was noticeably absent and she silently credited the bard, certain that the blond woman was responsible for the taming of the animal inside her daughter.
"Xena," Cyrene paused until she had captured her daughters full attention, knowing it was time for her to speak openly. She swallowed wondering if she had the courage to say the words that she needed to speak, the words that might bring her daughter back to her family. "I want to apologize for what I said to you that day you brought Lyceus back to me."
The Empress remained silent stunned by her mother's unexpected apology. A weary smile slipped unconsciously onto the older woman's face as she idly played with the ends of the apron tied around her waist. It had taken a lot of thought for the innkeeper to realize how she had helped to set her daughter on her murderous path. It had been a harsh realization and she had spent many a night crying and thinking how things may have been different if she had reacted differently.
"I know that you would have changed places with Lyceus if you could have and that your motives for raising an army and defending Amphipolis had been honest," Cyrene tried to explain unable to meet her daughter's intense gaze. "I know how much you loved Lyceus and in my grief I forgot that. I was hurt and I needed to blame someone, to inflict the pain I was feeling on someone else. I am sorry that I chose you."
"It is forgotten and in the past," Xena mumbled unable to meet the older woman's gaze.
"Perhaps," Cyrene sighed. "but I can't help but blame myself for what you became."
"No," this time the Conqueror lifted her head and stared directly at the woman. "I had a choice and I chose my life. You had no part in that decision."
"If I had not blamed you for Lyceus' death..."
"If I had not raised an army Lyceus would not have died," the Empress was succinct, sweeping her hand to include everyone in the room. "It was at my insistence that we fought Cortez and it is because of me that so many of the towns people lost fathers, sons and brothers."
There was silence as the Innkeeper stared at her daughter.
"You did what you thought was right," Cyrene said quietly.
"I was a child," Xena countered bluntly, "what did I know."
"You saved the village," was the gentle reminder.
"But at what cost?" The Empress asked pointedly. "When does the price become to high?"
"I don't know," the older woman was at a loss to answer the question and she looked down at her hands which were folded together on her lap.
"After Lyceus died I thought there was nothing that was of value any more," Xena spoke so softly and Cyrene looked up to see that her daughter was staring at the plate of untouched food.
"For too many years the only thing I coveted and valued was the power and riches I could attain with that power." There was a slight pause and Xena glanced up to meet her mothers gaze. "That changed the day I met Gabrielle and I realized that sometimes the price of victory or power was to high, that life is a precious thing and too valuable to waste."
There was another pause as the dark haired woman cast a glance back towards the bar where Toris was standing and eyeing them with animosity.
"A tiger does not change its strips," the Conqueror continued. "I am what I am and nothing will change that. When faced with danger or in order to protect those I hold dear, I will not hesitate to kill. There will always be a part of me that will feel the bloodlust that has made me the Conqueror."
Cyrene understood what her daughter was saying. Regardless of the forgiveness that was extended, Xena would always carry around inside the ruthless person that had risen to conquer the nation. If any reconciliation was to be made between them it was to be understood that Xena was two people, the woman who could give her heart to a blond bard with an infectious smile and a cruel warlord who could kill someone on a whim.
The older woman nodded her head and slowly rose to her feet, knowing that she needed to absorb this information. She could not pretend that her child was any different then the person she was and in order for them to resume a relationship that realization had to be accepted.
"Mother," Xena said a word she had not spoken in almost twenty years. The Innkeeper turned to look once more at her daughter. "Even now as we sit here preparations are taking place for my marriage to Gabrielle. I know that she valued your friendship and therefore I hope for her sake you would consider travelling to the Capital to attend the celebrations and ceremony."
"I will consider the invitation," Cyrene said and then walked across the room and into the kitchen without casting even a slight glance in the direction of her son who continued to scowl in his siblings direction. Without touching her food, Xena retrieved some coins from her pouch and dropped them on the table before strolling out of the tavern.
Continued in Part 2