Archius glanced across the table at the blond haired woman. Her brow was furrowed in thought as she contemplated what he had just said. He smiled to himself, almost seeing the wheels turning around inside her head. She was beautiful, with an inner light that shone outwards and touched all those with whom she came into contact. She had all the qualities that any man or woman could want in a companion and he understood why the Conqueror was so enthralled. It was the same reason they all had taken her into their hearts.
In the month that they had been working together he had grown to consider her with a deep affection. She was energetic and enthusiastic and her thirst for knowledge about the inner workings of the Conqueror's government was almost overwhelming. Every evening she retired to her room with a stack of scrolls to read and every morning she would appear with an equally large stack of questions for him to answer.
"So what you're saying, is that for any treaty to work, both parties have to be absolutely satisfied that their needs are being met," she puzzled over this.
"Or at least made to think they are being met," he corrected.
"Okay, to make sure I have this right let's try an example," Gabrielle said wanting to get this straight. "If the Empress was to make a treaty with say the Amazon's that live near Amphipolis how would she do that?"
"That will never happen, but okay let's use that as a model," Archius nodded. "She would begin by laying out her terms."
"What would she ask for?"
The small man was silent as he pondered that question. "She might demand something like passage through the Amazon territory for her army. It's a more direct route to the Eastern border. The trip around the territory takes five days, going through would cut two days off that travelling time."
"And in return?"
"The Amazon's might ask for access to the hunting grounds south of their territory."
"Okay, now I get it," a light clicked on in the bard's head as she realized it wasn't much different then the bartering she did in the marketplace. "What else might the Conqueror want?"
"Let's see," the man tapped his finger against his chin and then smiled. "The mountains in the Northern part of Amazon territory are mineral rich. She would want access to mine those minerals."
"Okay, Xena can have access but she must split all the earnings and cover all costs of mining the minerals. The Amazon's want half."
"Never," Archius exclaimed incredulously. "The cost of harvesting the minerals is very expensive, at half share it would not be worth her effort."
"Then sixty-forty and the Amazon's will supply a small labour force," she conceded.
"Seventy five-twenty five and they supply a labour force," came the rejoinder.
"Seventy-thirty, and no labour force," Gabrielle said and the man smiled.
"Agreed," the aide said suddenly liking this game they were playing.
"Okay what else would she want?" the bard asked, equally enjoying this exercise.
"Well, the Amazon's would have to supply troops for her Army," Archius said.
"All right, but we will only serve in armies around the territory and no foreign service."
"Foreign service and they will provide troops to protect the Eastern border."
"We supply troops to the Eastern front and foreign service is on a voluntary basis only."
"Accepted," the man agreed. "There I think that would just about wrap it up."
"Not quite," Gabrielle interjected with a sweet smile. "There are a few things the Amazon's want for themselves."
Archius smiled and bowed his head while patiently waiting for the bard to continued. Gabrielle took a brief pause to think. She wasn't familiar with the Amazon's so she wasn't certain what would be in their best interests. She tried to think of what any normal person would want.
"The Amazon's want a cheaper price on the grain they buy from the government," she said finally.
Archius pressed his lips together thoughtfully, trying not to smile. This young woman had a definite talent for this business and with a little experience she could become a skilled negotiator. She had a sharp tongue and a quick mind.
"How much cheaper?"
"Twenty-five per cent."
"Impossible," the man snorted. "Ten per cent at most."
"Twenty per cent and we will buy in a guaranteed volume."
"How do you expect to pay for this?"
"In dry goods," Gabrielle replied trying to remember everything she had read about the Amazon's.
"What kind of goods?" Archius was sceptical.
"Leather goods, pottery and weapons," she listed off a variety of products that the Amazon Nation was known to produce.
"Fifteen per cent, and half in coin and half in dry goods."
"Done," the bard smiled pleased with herself. "How was that?"
"You have a definite talent for this sort of thing," the man admitted graciously. "I will be sure to tell the Conqueror that it is a good thing you are on our side."
"I think she already knows," the woman laughed as she started to shuffle together the parchments that were spread out on the table. "Is there anything else I should know?"
"Yes, but it would take to long to discuss," the man sighed, eyeing her critically. "Are you certain I can't persuade you to reconsider your decision to leave in the morning?"
"No," the girl shook her head. "It's been awhile since I last saw my family. They will be wondering what I have been up too, and I just don't feel right being here without Xena."
The man nodded in understanding. There was an air of loneliness that hung about the young woman. It was hidden under the ready smile that she displayed but it was there just below the surface. He wanted to see her happy yet he hated the idea of her venturing off into the countryside. The whole notion troubled him on more then one level. Not even the knowledge that Joshua, a member of the Royal Guard, would be escorting her, eased his mind.
"A piece of advice from an old man," he said knowing that once this woman made up her mind there would be no changing it. "Don't tell them the truth."
"I won't," she promised remembering Xena's words of caution.
"I shall miss these sessions," the man admitted with a sigh. "Dealing with government business has never been so delightful."
"Thank you," the bard was embarrassed by the praise. "I appreciate everything you have done. I think I understand a little more what the Conqueror goes through. I'm not certain I would have the patience to deal with it on a regular basis."
"Some days she doesn't either," the man laughed. "That's why she has me."
"She is very fortunate," Gabrielle was honest and for a brief moment she peered at the man. "Why do you stay with her?"
"Because we are very different but also very alike," Archius confided without hesitation. "She is an anomaly of nature as I am. We were both outsiders and as often happens we found a safe haven in each other. She trusts me to take care of her Empire and I trust her to keep me safe."
"I feel that way some times," the girl confessed unable to look at the man. "Only I feel like I am taking without giving anything back."
"No," the man shook his head. "You have given her friendship and love. That is more than anyone else has ever been willing to give."
Gabrielle said nothing, water misting in her green eyes as her thoughts focused for a long moment on the absent woman. She missed Xena more than she believed possible and every day the emptiness in her heart grew. Hastily, she ran a hand across her eyes, embarrassed by the tears.
"I'll miss you Archius," she said at last.
"Then do not stay away to long," the man smiled softly.
"I won't," Gabrielle replied with a smile of her own noticing that Belaus had entered the room, which signaled that the evening meal was ready. She stood up and looked across the table at the man. "I intend to be back here the instant I know Xena is on her way. Nothing, not even Caesar's army could keep me away."
"Then have a good rest tonight and a safe journey my friend," the aide said.
"It's never a good night without the Empress," she replied and then briefly her face burrowed into a pensive frown. "Why did you say earlier that Xena would never sign a peace treaty with the Amazon's?'
"She despises them for making war on the Centaurs," Archius said simply, knowing that it would be to complicated to explain without going into a lot of detail about the Conqueror's past. A past that he did not felt his right to reveal.
"I wasn't aware that the Centaurs were her allies," the bard mused with some amazement.
"They aren't," the aide sighed and the girl looked at him curiously. He shrugged his slight shoulders in response. "I don't know why but she is fiercely protective of them." He saw the look of surprise on the bard's face and then smiled indulgently. "I know many of her secrets but not them all."
Gabrielle thought about the man's words later that night as she lay alone in bed. In the past month she had learned so much about her lover yet the one thing she had learned above all else was how little she really knew about the woman. She sighed and rolled over onto her side clutching a goose feather pillow tightly in her arms and wondering where her lover was and what she was doing.
General Titus knocked on the tent pole before stepping through the flaps into the command post. He paused, his eyes narrowing as they swept the dim interior. It was empty except for the lone man who was leaning over a map that had been spread out on the table in the center of the room. A scowl formed on his face. He still hadn't forgiven the Empress for dragging him out into this gods forsaken wilderness.
"Where's she got to now?" he growled angry that the Conqueror wasn't there to answer his questions.
The tall blonde man at the table looked up, straightening his lean body.
"She took a party out just before dawn," the man shrugged. "She mentioned something about doing a little reconnaissance. Is there a problem?"
"No," Titus scowled. "Reconnaissance! Hades, Loris, she is the leader of this godsdamn army and she's out slinking around the countryside like a common soldier."
There was a long moment of silence as the blonde man studied his colleague. Loris had served with the Conqueror since the beginning when they had joined forces to battle Cortese. He was one of the few people who remained from those days and he had watched her rise from a simple village girl to warrior to warlord. He had risen in her army as her territory had increased until now where he commanded the largest of her armies in the most vulnerable and strategic part of her Empire. He probably knew her better then anyone.
"Have you ever stopped to think how it was that she came to command one of the largest armies on the continent?" he finally asked in a terse voice. He did not always agree with the Conqueror but he remained loyal. "She didn't't do it by sitting behind a desk in a command tent leagues away from the battle field. She learned it by going out there and finding out for herself what was going on."
Titus snorted. "She only does that because she doesn't trust anyone else."
"And why is that?" Loris asked sharply casting a cool glance at his colleague answering when the other man didn't speak. "Because she has been betrayed time and again by those in whom she puts faith. If it were me I'm not sure I wouldn't be the same way."
"Humpf," the other General snorted. "You are blind. She does this because she enjoys it. She is like an animal who lives for the hunt. These reconnaissance missions are merely an excuse for her to go out and slit a few more throats. Admit the truth Loris, she is a demon, possessed by Ares."
"And what if she is?" Loris countered raising his voice angrily. "Is it not better to be on the side of a demon then to be opposed to it?" There was silence as he allowed his words to sink in a moment before continuing. When he spoke again it was without the earlier display of temper. "You are her Second-in-Command, but you are still very new to this army. I have served with her from the beginning and one of the things I learned was that she will do anything to ensure that her armies are victorious and if that means she goes out and slaughters some of our enemy before the battle then I will not be one to dissuade her. The less enemy I have to oppose on the battlefield the happier I am."
Titus was silent. He knew that there was no purpose in furthering the discussion. Loris was one of the Conqueror's favourite Generals. After the death of Draco he had been given his pick of commands and had requested the Mountain Brigade and the Seventh Army.
"You serve with blind faith Loris," Titus could not contain his contempt for the man. He laughed without amusement. "You have been away from the Capital to long to know what is truly going on. Did you know that back in the Corinth she allows a young bard to lead her around like a love sick puppy?
"The girl can do anything and the Conqueror looks the other way." the General paused seeing that he had the other man's complete attention. "She is growing weak, allowing fools to convince her of what is right for the Empire. Did you know that it was the stupid little bard's idea to send the soldiers out into the fields to help the villagers? Right now Archius is busy showing the whore how the Empire runs so that she might help the Empress when she returns. If this keeps up we will end up being nothing more then a joke to our enemies."
"I had not heard any of this," Loris replied quietly his eyes narrowing.
"No, because she keeps you out here away from the Capital where you could spread much influence," Titus paused and there was a earnest look on his face. "She will not reign forever. One day she will turn her back on the wrong person and the one who is closest to her will be able to step in to fill her shoes. You are a good leader Loris, a soldiers soldier, you must understand what this stupid proclamation will do to our army."
Loris was silent as he contemplated the other man's words. Titus had spoken with a passion that he had rarely heard coming from the other man. He glanced down at the map for a moment his thoughts sorting through what had been said.
He had viewed the directive in the same manner as this General until further introspection had given him a better insight into the reasoning behind the proclamation. Now he tended to believe that the Conqueror had made a very wise decision. He glanced up and studied his colleague for a moment, aware that Titus would never understand the greater scope of things.
"I don't think you understand.."
"No it is you who doesn't understand. There will come a time to choose sides Loris," Titus said softly. "When that day comes your actions will be judged not by the people of this land but by the men you command. Think hard before pledging your blind allegiance to the Conqueror."
There was another silence and Titus turned to leave, his disgust evident on his face, but the other General's words halted him at the door.
"I am not a fool," Loris said, his voice deceptively casual as his grey eyes stared at his colleague. "I have seen many things in my lifetime. There is a reason I have survived in this army as long as I have and it is not because of some sentimental affectation on the Conqueror's part. I have realized my limitations and perform my duties accordingly. I don't question her or her decisions. If you or anyone are thinking of revolting I beg you to reconsider. The Empress is not a weak woman and she will be alive long after we have filled our own graves."
"I should have know you would remain faithful," Titus scowled. "Do not say I did not try to warn you but know the end is near." With that he turned on his heel and stormed out of the tent.
General Loris watched as the angry man left. He had no illusions about what was going on. He had heard the quietly whispered rumours of discontent and he knew that if he had heard them then it was certain that the Conqueror had also heard. He shook his head at the folly of the man and turned his attention back to the map of the battlefield.
Xena sat patiently waiting, perched in the tree, her body hidden by the heavy foliage that weighted down its branches. From her vantage point she could clearly see the trail below as it snaked through the forest. A trail which her enemy used regularly to resupply there main camp with equipment and men.
She allowed her eyes to survey the scene. She was positioned at the edge of a small clearing with a narrow stream. Further down the trail she had placed a small squad of soldiers in strategic locations in the event that anyone survived the initial ambush. If her instincts were right, and they usually were, a patrol would be along very shortly. It was as if the Gods had been listening to her thoughts.
She sensed them long before she saw them emerge from the far side of the glade. A feral smile came to her lips as she allowed the animal inside herself to come out in all its glory. Silently she unsheathed her sword, watching with narrowed eyes as a column of men and women dressed in leathers and furs converged on the clearing. She knew from instinct that they would stop here to take a short rest before continuing their journey.
She could barely contain her excitement as she counted the numbers. There were at least thirty five warriors, their skin painted with blue and white pigment. They were hauling large bundles of supplies on their backs and as she had hoped they eased their burdens onto the ground before stooping to dip handfuls of water out of the nearby stream. They chatted and laughed amongst themselves oblivious to the spectra of death that hovered over them.
She moved silently, slipping down from her ambush into the shadows of the trees, watching her prey like a panther, moving swiftly and silently in her deadly hunt. She slithered through the long grass circling her victims, allowing the animal inside her to take full control so that her victims never knew what happened. They had no chance to act before she was on them cutting a deadly swath through their numbers like an avenging angel.
Half were dead before they realized what was happening. A feral grin was plastered on her face and a cruel laugh bubbled out of her throat as she took the rest on in hand to hand combat. Despite their superior numbers they never stood a chance and almost before it began, it was over, the last one falling into the pool of blood created by the others.
She whistled and only then did her escort emerge from their hiding places. Zenon advanced slowly aware of the danger in approaching the Conqueror while the blood lust still raced through her veins. He saw the carnage and the smile that decorated her face. He saw the blood on her hands and the icy pale blue of her eyes.
"Put their heads on stakes and then position them at even intervals along the trail," she instructed in a voice so cold it made the man shiver. "Then gather up these supplies and set fire to them. I want them to know what we have done." The soldier mutely nodded and motioned his men to get to work.
It was dark before the Conqueror and her war party emerged from the plain. General Loris had been silently pacing the perimeter for several candlemarks, anxiously awaiting her return. He paused, staring at the woman that materialized from the inky blackness that surrounded them. Her eyes were white and her dark leathers covered in blood and gore. His throat went dry as their eyes met. An unearthly chill raced up his spine, causing him to shiver. The hair at the back of his neck stood up on end.
"Was it a good day?" he asked hoarsely.
"Yes," the Conqueror smiled but it was without amusement. "I have learned a few new things about our enemy which I wish to share with you. I want to see all my commanders in my tent in a candlemark."
"Yes," the General instinctively bowed his head and followed her with his eyes as she strolled casually back through the camp to her tent. He turned to look at the armed men who had been her escort and saw the haunted expressions that filled their eyes.
"How was it?" It was a question that he dared not ask of the Conqueror.
"Horrible," Zenon said in a quiet voice that trembled with emotion at what he had witnessed. "At first we snuck up to the main camp, taking out several sentries as we went. She said she wanted to take note of the size of their army, but once we got there she crept inside their perimeter. She left us behind but when she came back there was blood on her hands. I do not fear death, but this day I will admit to being afraid." The man paused as if to compose himself and Loris noticed that the soldiers' limbs were shaking.
"She was not content and insisted that we set up an ambush behind their lines," the soldier shook his head. "There was an armed party of perhaps three dozen warriors. She took them out all by herself and then had us put their heads on stakes along the trail before setting fire to the supplies they carried. Then we waited for a party of their warriors to come to investigate and ambushed them. There must have been almost three score and she single handedly killed most of them. I have never seen anything like it. It was like she was possessed by a demon."
General Loris silently listened. He had followed her a long time and when it came to battle she had an uncanny sense of what would happen before it actually did. Some whispered that she was Ares Chosen, he had no doubt about that, he had seen her perform in battle enough to know that she possessed an unearthly strength and fighting power. There were even some who said that she was more then a mere mortal, a demi-god like Hercules, only anointed with evil instead of goodness. Whatever the case he never wanted to be on the opposite side of her in battle.
"You did a good job," he said awkwardly, clapping the man on the shoulder as he glanced at the others, seeing the weary expressions on their faces. "Go fetch some food and have a rest. Tomorrow will come soon enough."
The soldier nodded silently and then motioned for his troops to follow, leaving the General to stand alone on the perimeter. Loris turned to take one last glance out over the battlefield that was awash in the pale glow of the full moons light. He took a deep breath and then turned aware that the Conqueror would be expecting him.
By the time he arrived at the Command tent the Conqueror had washed and changed into a fresh set of black leathers. The expression on her face was calm but he could see the coldness in her eyes. It was as if he were looking at a person without a soul. He took up a position to the left of the table, a place where he could view the whole room without being to conspicuous.
"This is what I want," the Conqueror announced once everyone was assembled. There was silence as she outlined her plan of assault, pointing to various positions on the map and assigning a certain commander a particular field of battle which best suited their abilities. She was in control of the battle but victory would depend on each of them doing their jobs. When she was done she glanced up, her pale blue eyes going around the room examining each one of her commanders for a brief moment before moving on to the next one.
"Are there any questions?" she asked inviting discussion. Silence reigned throughout the room and she straightened up, her eyes narrowing perceptively. Her voice came out as a growl. "Good then I will take that to mean you all know your assignments. That being the case I expect nothing but complete victory tomorrow," she said in a cold voice that sent shivers down the spines of all who heard her words. She was aware that all eyes were on her and she felt a surge of power at the control she exercised over this mute group. "I don't want any prisoners taken. I want their entire army destroyed and when that is done I want you to go in and destroy their camp."
"My Conqueror is that necessary?" General Titus dared to speak aware of what kind of slaughter she was asking them to perform.
"They are barbarians," she replied in an icy voice. "I want a clear message to go out to all my enemies about exactly who the Empress of Greece is. I want them to understand what will happen to them if they try to oppose me. I want to sent a message to Caesar in Rome.
"The Horde have been a thorn in my side for a very long time. I should have annihilated them the first time we met but instead I showed compassion and they turned around and gathered another army. I won't show such weakness again," she paused, her narrow eyes staring intensely at her Second-in-Command. "I expect this order to be carried out."
"Yes, my Conqueror," the man bowed and with a casual wave of her hand she dismissed them. Without another word the group filed out of the command tent leaving her alone.
She bent her head and took another long look over the map that detailed the plain where the opposing armies would meet at dawn. She had gone over her strategy numerous times plotting an action for every reaction the enemy might have. She wanted to leave nothing to chance. Her mission that day had garnered her much information about the army she would meet on the morrow but still she did not allow herself to become over confident.
The Horde were not inventive in their battlefield tactics. Most often they made an all out frontal assault, relying on their fierce nature to overwhelm and terrify their opponents. She had seen it happen more then once. It was a simple but effective strategy that made many a battle hardened soldier turn and run. She had instructed her commanders on this tactic and warned them that it was their main task to see that the troops under their command did not flee from the battle.
In that way her reconnaissance that day had served a dual purpose. Not only had she wanted to gauge the strength and sharpness of her enemy but she had wanted to show them that she was capable of being as cruel and barbaric as them. She had hoped to instil in them the same fear they instilled in their opponents.
She sighed. It had been a long day and tomorrow would be even longer. She was confident that they would emerge victorious but what she didn't know was what kind of price her army would have to pay for that victory. Unlike most leaders, she considered every soldier under her command important. Every man who died opened another spot that would need to be filled. She could not afford to lose to many men on the field of battle, certain that Caesar would take immediate advantage of the situation. She would not be surprised if the Emperor of Rome did not already have some plan to attack her. In that way this action was more an annoyance then anything but she would use it to show the rest of the world that she was a force not to be taken lightly.
She stepped out of the tent into the night. The sentries at the door snapped to attention but she ignored their presence and allowed her eyes to stray over the camp. It was quiet and fires burned low warming the soldiers that huddled around them.
Darkness had fallen over the land, settling like a thick blanket across the earth. It was unusually quiet as if Mother Nature had warned all her creatures of the impending battle and in response they had fled to some place safe. The moon, a full round ball, cast an eerie pale shadow across the land painting everything in a ghostly light.
She took a deep breath and a feral smile played at the corners of her lips. The air was crisp and filled with the scent of burning wood and sweaty bodies, but there was an even more prevailing fragrance that waffled along with the gentle evening wind. It was the smell of fear and with each passing hour the scent would grow thicker until every soldier would be able to taste it. It was the kind of smell that seeped into her pores and flooded her senses giving her an unearthly power and strength.
She moved quietly through the camp, passing the huddled groups of soldiers who awaited the dawn. Some were sleeping soundly taking advantage of the respite before duty called. Others whispered in hushed and muted voices, expressing thoughts that might not otherwise get spoken, aware that Hades could be anxiously waiting in his chariot to take them.
She walked steadily, absorbing the atmosphere and not pausing until she came to the perimeter. The guard on duty glanced briefly at her and even in the darkness she could see and smell his fear. He was young and she guessed that this would be his first real action. The expression on his face was that of a young boy looking for someone to comfort him, to tell him he would be all right.
Other leaders might have done just that but not the Conqueror. She fixed him with a steely glare and immediately the expression was wiped off his face and his shoulders straightened. She was not there to coddle her soldiers. They had joined her army to fight and she would demand that they did their duty. Without a word, she turned and strolled passed him, stepping out onto the plain that tomorrow would be littered with broken and bloodied bodies.
She turned to look up and studied the clear sky. It was sprinkled with a million twinkling stars and she was reminded of the last time she had taken the time to study the heavenly dome. She felt an unexpected twinge in her heart.
In the last two months she had not allowed herself the luxury of thinking of Gabrielle, aware that it hurt to much to do so. Yet the girl had the uncommon ability of snuggling into her thoughts at the oddest of moments. She missed the bard, more then she had thought possible, yet she did not regret leaving her behind. The girl did not belong beside her on the battlefield where she showed the true nature of her soul. Here she belonged solely to Ares and she did not want her lover to ever see that side of her.
She sighed, briefly wondering what the bard was doing. Gabrielle had said that she was going home to visit her parents. She hoped that the girl was having a good time just as she hoped the bard had used her common sense and kept their relationship a secret. The last thing she wanted was to return to find that harm had come to the girl.
A smile softened the features of her face as for just a brief moment she gave into those feelings that the bard stirred inside her. She allowed them to caress her senses and soothe her soul as her thoughts replayed the memories of the moments they had shared. She felt her body grow warm and her heart trembled inside her chest. An unearthly cough snapped her out of her thoughts and she snapped her head around but she was alone. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves.
Thinking about of the girl did strange things to her mind. It made her unfocused at a time when she needed total concentration. Reluctantly she pushed all thoughts of the Gabrielle aside, locking them away for another time when she could afford to dwell on them.
She didn't know how long she stood there, frozen in place, her eyes staring blankly across the plain, but when she glanced up again she saw that the stars had begun to fade. It was early, just before the dawn and time to prepare for battle. Already the sounds of the camp beginning to stir drifted in the clear air. She squared her shoulders and marched back to her tent. Her body tense and alert despite the lack of sleep, the energy already pulsing like a wild fire through her veins.
She was in the command tent adjusting her leathers when Commander Loris came to advise her that the troops were ready. She sheathed her cleaned and well oiled sword and stood up, the panther inside already prowling restlessly. When she stepped outside the tent she found that Argo was saddled and waiting.
Wordlessly she mounted and her General's followed suit. They were now looking for her to lead and lead them she would. She clicked her heels and motioned the warhorse forward, her back straight and tall in the saddle as she rode through the lines of soldiers that had formed up, not pausing until she came to the front of the columns.
She glanced at the sky. It was the time of the dawn, just before the sun peeked over the horizon. The sky was clear without a cloud and the air was pleasant but not warm. She paused and turned her horse to stare out across the distance. On the other side of the plain her enemy was beginning to assemble and she could feel the blood in her veins start to roil in anticipation of the impending battle. It had been to long since she had felt this wonderful feeling.
On Mt. Olympus a happy Ares looked down and clapped his hands together in glee. He was proud to see that his Chosen was so excited at the prospect of battle. He had become a little worried about her, afraid that his Godly sister's interference had changed her forever.
The Conqueror turned her head and glanced once more over the faces of her men as they waited in their ordered columns. Those who had served during her campaign to conquer Greece knew what to expect but the others, new members of her army, stood nervously, impatient to begin their baptism of fire. She saw their eagerness to get under way and a feral smile creased the corners of her lips. Today would be a good day, she could feel it in her blood.
Just as she was about to turn away she saw him again. It was the young soldier who had stood guard on the perimeter last night. He was at the front of one column and the same fearful expression decorated his face. She glanced over him now realizing that he was hardly more then a boy. The sword in his hand seemed almost to heavy for him to hold.
For a brief moment she considered sending him back to the end of the line but then he turned his head slightly and noticed that she was staring at him. Instinctively his shoulders straightened and his expression turned hard. She could see his hand tighten on the hilt of his sword. Dismissing her earlier thoughts she turned her eyes away.
She clicked her heels putting her horse once more in motion, her senses picking up on all the details of the day. She could smell the scent of sweet grass mixed with the nervous sweat of her soldiers. She could hear the silence of nature. She could feel the tension and her confidence grew with each passing moment.
She was no longer Xena of Amphipolis or the Empress of Greece. She was the Conqueror, the feared Destroyer of Nations and the men of her army could see the change. It was in the expression on her face and the tension in her muscles. She rode a little straighter in her saddle instilling confidence in all who saw her.
She came to a halt at the center of the troops where her Generals waited. She looked into their faces and saw the lines of age and experience. They would need all of that in the battle this day.
"It looks like a good day to fight," General Loris said as he glanced at the Conqueror and then up at the clear sky.
"Every day is a good day to fight," she responded in a cool voice, her blue eyes staring intently in his direction. "The question is it a good day to die?"
"No," the man shook his head and received a feral smile for his efforts.
"Good, then I will see you after the battle and we will share a glass of port," she said turning her horse to face the enemy.
Unlike other rulers such as Caesar, it was her tradition to ride out into battle, leading her army against their foe and perhaps that why they followed her with such faith. They knew that she would never take them where she herself would not go.
The Conqueror closed her eyes in a moment of reflection, thinking of all the things that were important but only one image came to mind. She tried to dismiss all thoughts of the bard, but it didn't work, not until she acknowledged that if she were to die today, she would regret not having spent more time with the young woman.
"Are you ready?" she asked drawing her sword from its sheath and holding it in the air. There was an expectant silence as thousands of eyes stared in anticipation, intently waiting for her signal to advance. She savoured the moment, feeling its power and a surge of immortal strength coursed through her body. It was a last minute gift. A gift from Ares whom she knew would be watching.
"No, prisoners," she screamed and letting out her warriors cry, dug her heels into the flanks of her horse who immediately responded. A great cry arose from behind her as the soldiers took up her battle cry and charged. From across the plain a corresponding cheer arose as the enemy surged forward to meet them.
Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably on her feet, feeling an unusual restlessness. She had been in a bad temper since waking up that morning. Normally she liked to sleep late but on this day she had stirred well before dawn, rousted from her slumber by something nibbling at her conscience. As she did every morning, she lay in bed thinking of Xena and the moments they had shared.
Those memories were usually enough to put her in a good mood for the rest of the day but today strangely they had left her uneasy. This morning, stirred by the images she remembered, she had run a hand over the places her lover had so tenderly caressed when they were together. The action had only served to make her miss the Empress even more. Quietly she wondered if Xena was okay and hastily whispered a silent prayer to the Gods to keep her lover safe.
She sighed and glanced across the yard towards the corral where Joshua and her father were grooming the horses. They were chatting amicably as they worked and at various times she could hear the deep timbre of her father's voice. The conversation was occasionally punctuated by laughter as the two men shared a joke. The sound caused a pang in her heart.
She knew Herodatus liked the younger man, though of course he didn't know that Joshua was a member of the Royal Guard. All he cared about was that she had arrived home with a nice young man at her side. After years of being different he finally began to think that she was beginning to behave normally. Neither he nor anyone in the family knew of the lie she was living and each day it was becoming harder to hide the truth.
"Joshua is such a fine young man," Hercuba said stepping out onto the porch next to her first born. The older woman was pleased by the idea that this man might be courting her daughter.
Gabrielle glanced at the older woman. She knew what her mother was thinking. It was the same thing they all had been thinking since she had returned home. In the month they had been there, Joshua had become a good friend but nothing more. Her affections were otherwise engaged.
"Yes, he is," she agreed, "but he's not my young man. He's just a friend."
Hercuba said nothing though she wondered why Gabrielle was so insistent on stressing that point. She couldn't understand why her daughter was so against marriage. She didn't know until too late that she had spoke her thoughts out loud.
"I'm not against marriage," the bard protested with a frown. "I don't want to settle for just anyone. I want my partner to be someone whom I love with all my heart."
Gabrielle would have liked to tell her mother the truth. She hated being dishonest but she knew telling her parents about the person she loved was out of the question. They would never accept that she cared for the most hated person in the Known World. Yet it was becoming impossible to hide the way she felt, as the mere thought of the Empress made her expression go wistful. Instinctively she turned her gaze out towards the village, her mind drifting far beyond the nearby mountains to her lover.
She knew little of what was going on outside the region. The few travellers she had questioned were generally reluctant to discuss anything regarding the Conqueror. The little information she did manage to glean was usually accompanied by angry criticism of the Empress. She began to understand what Xena had meant when cautioning her about making their association known.
So often, she had been tempted to interrupt the hostile tirades of the locals when they chose to vent their rage against their monarch. But she had just clenched her fists and remained silent, quietly reminding herself that none of them knew Xena the way she did.
Sometimes though she could not hold her tongue, and had loudly reminded everyone of the good that had been done in the last few months. But they had all looked at her like she didn't know what she was talking about and had just carried on with their complaints. Frustrated at their narrow views she had strolled away muttering curses under her breath.
She sighed, her heart pounding with a dull ache. Logically she knew this separation shouldn't be so painful but then the situation wasn't logical. They had been together only a short time yet the Conqueror had come to mean everything to her. Never before had she been so utterly and completely in love with anyone as she was with Xena, and it mattered nothing that the other woman didn't feel the same. She would still do anything for the Empress.
Hercuba watched quietly as the expressions on her daughters face changed. She was curious to know what the girl was thinking but realized she probably would never find out. Gabrielle rarely confided in her and she would never dare pry into her daughter's thoughts.
She loved her first born but they had never been close. Gabrielle had always been filled with fanciful dreams and no amount of reasoning could change her mind. In the end they had given up trying to understand the girl and had allowed her to go in search of her dreams. At the time it had seemed the right thing to do, but now they weren't so sure. Their daughter had changed so much it was at times almost as if she were a stranger.
Hercuba sighed, turning to look at her husband. In spite of the changes, some of her little girl remained. Gabrielle hadn't yet learned that finding true love was a fantasy made up by storytellers. Reality was much different. Nowadays a girl was considered lucky if she was able to marry a man who had property. Love meant nothing if it was compared to a someone who could provide a steady income, a home and food for his family. No, true love was just a dream.
She glanced back at her daughter. With her reddish blond hair and sparkling green eyes, she had always been the loveliest girl in the village. Her warmth and innocence had been an attraction and torment for all the local lads who had come seeking her attention. Yet she had rejected every offer. Hercuba was afraid that her daughter would grow old alone and that thought made her sad.
The older woman sighed, aware that it was useless to try and talk to the girl. Gabrielle was stubborn. It was a trait she had inherited from her father Herodatus. It was a trait that inevitably caused a rift between the two.
"Do you think you will be staying for the festival?" the woman asked instead, deciding to change the topic of discussion. Gabrielle didn't spend much time in Potedaia any more. Her visits usually consisted of short stopovers on the way to some place else.
"I don't know," the younger woman was honest. She was bored and restless but she didn't want to be on the road, where a message from Xena might take weeks to catch up to them. Weeks of loneliness that could be avoided.
"It would be nice if you could," Hercuba said pleasantly with a smile. "Lila and I are having a booth with baked goodies and I know anything you put on for sale would be bought immediately by the local lads."
"I'll see, I'm not sure," Gabrielle wasn't certain. She knew that the moment she received word of Xena's return she would be gone.
"Okay, just let me know," the older woman said. "Will you be home for supper tonight?"
"No," Gabrielle shook her head. "They asked me to tell a few stories over at the Inn tonight. A merchant train will be in later today and I think the Innkeeper is hoping to get a few dinars out of them."
"Well, be careful," Hercuba was aware of how the townsfolk enjoyed listening to her daughter. She turned to go back into the house and Gabrielle glanced at her mother feeling a sudden pang of guilt.
"I've just finished a new story that I'd like to try out," the bard said quietly and the woman turned to look at her. "It would be nice if you and dad could come."
The older woman smiled. "We'll see."
Gabrielle knew that was the closest thing to a promise she would be able to get out of her mother. Her parents had never liked the idea of her telling stories to strangers for money. Herodatus had called it demeaning but she had never thought of it that way. She never asked for anything from her listeners and had been pleasantly surprised the first time coins had been tossed onto the stage. She had been tempted to turn the reward down but had changed her mind realizing she needed to support herself somehow.
"Bri, Bri," she turned and watched as her sister came running up the path from the village. Herodatus and Joshua had finished with their chores and were now walking towards the house.
"What is it?" she asked as the younger girl came to a halt by the porch.
"The merchant train arrived early and they have begun to set up their stalls. They have ever such nice things, come let's go look," Lila panted casting her older sister an eager look. Gabrielle smiled and nodded hopping off the porch.
"Where are you two headed?" Herodatus called out causing the girl's to stop.
"The merchant train has arrived," Lila said by way of explanation. "Bri and I were just going down to have a look."
"Just a look," the man called grumpily. "Until the harvest is brought in we have no dinars to spare for extra frills."
"Yes, father," the younger girl nodded demurely, her enthusiasm only slightly dampened. She grabbed the bard's arm and started to haul her away, afraid the man would change his mind.
"No spending any money," Herodatus called again at the girl's receding back as if afraid they had not heard him the first time. They just waved and kept going.
"Why don't I go with them," Joshua suggested. "Just to ensure that they don't do anything foolish."
"Good idea," the older man smiled at the lad, clapping him on the shoulder before watching him take off after his daughters.
The merchant train was larger then the usual caravan that stopped in the village and Gabrielle wandered idly at her sisters side laughing at the younger girl's enthusiasm as she stopped to look at everything that caught her eye. The traders had brought a wide array of wares but the selection of merchandise was small in comparison to the markets she had visited in Corinth. She glanced back at Joshua who was following discreetly behind them giving them privacy.
"Does he always follow you?" Lila asked with a giggle as she followed her older sisters gaze.
"No," Gabrielle lied. Joshua took his mission to protect her very seriously and she knew the soldier had no intention of facing an angry Conqueror if some misfortune were to befall her because of his inattention.
"Liar," Lila giggled again. "I think he must be very in love with you. He follows you around like a puppy."
Gabrielle snorted and would have made some caustic remark but the other girl had already wandered over to a merchant stall, her attention distracted by something the trader offered. She smiled to herself, it was so like her sister, who rarely spent any length of time on any one subject. She followed the younger girl over to the booth and listened.
"These oils come from distant lands where they are specially mixed to bring out the finest of scents," the merchant was saying with a gleam in his eye. He glanced briefly from Lila to her sister and started in recognition. His brown eyes growing wide and round.
"How much are they?" Lila asked and the man returned his attention back to the brown haired girl.
"Five dinars a piece," he said in a charming voice.
"That's frightful expensive," Lila grimaced and then held the jar out to her sister to have a sniff. It was a scent the bard recognized. It was the fragrance that Xena wore and a whole library of memories assailed her.
"Yes," she nodded thoughtfully not aware of the way the merchant was eyeing her.
"That is because this is the scent that all the famous rulers use," the merchant continued with his sales pitch. "This is a favourite of our great Empress."
"Oh," Lila said in surprise and hastily put the jar down as if suddenly realizing she had been holding something nasty.
"What's a matter?" Gabrielle asked seeing her sister's expression.
"Well the Conqueror uses it," the girl said as if that were explanation enough.
"So, does that make it a bad thing?" the bard asked feeling the beginnings of a temper. She folded her arms across her chest and stared at the younger girl.
"No," Lila stammered uncertain why her sister was getting upset.
"Good," Gabrielle said firmly and then as if to prove her point she dug several dinars out of her pouch and held them out to the merchant. "I will give you three dinars for the oil."
The man considered her offer and was about to argue but the set expression on the young woman's face said that she would pay no more. He shook his head and adopted a grave expression of his own.
"It cost me more, but for you, friend of the Empress, I will accept three dinars," the man took the money and passed across the jar of scent. Gabrielle frowned and wondered why the man had made such a comment. She looked at him intently. He seemed familiar but many of the merchants looked the same. She had an uneasy feeling in her gut and hurriedly grabbed her sister's elbow and steered her to the next booth.
"What did he mean when he called you friend of the Empress?" Lila wanted to know. There was a puzzled expression on her face.
"I don't know, I guess it was because I was willing to buy the oil knowing that it was the scent that the Empress wears," Gabrielle shrugged in an attempt to dismiss the subject. She pointed to a food stall. "Come on I'm hungry, let me treat you to a meat pastry."
Lila allowed the matter to drop, the idea of purchasing a treat occupying her thoughts. Gabrielle was relieved that she was so easily able to divert the girl's attention. She didn't want to explain to Lila what she had been able to avoid explaining to her parents.
"You know Gabrielle," Lila said later when they were on their way home. "I know it's your money but you don't wear that scent so wasn't it an awfully expensive point to make by buying it?"
"Perhaps," Gabrielle smiled, nursing a private thought. "Maybe I will give it to a friend."
She would give it to someone else. She would give it to Xena when they met again. The Conqueror liked the scent but never took the time to go out and purchase it when her jar was empty. In their short time together Gabrielle had taken it upon herself to see that the Empress' supply never ran out.
The tavern was packed that night as the Innkeeper's wishes were rewarded. The merchants hearing that a gifted bard was to perform spent some of their hard earned dinars for a meal. Gabrielle glanced around the crowded room as she mounted the small platform at the front. She recognized the faces of her family sitting primly in one corner of the tavern. She smiled and then launched into her newest tale.
She had worked hard on preparing this story. It was one that had become dear to her heart and was the tale of a young girl who had been rescued from slavers by a valiant warrior who had seemingly appeared as if by magic out of the forest. It was the story of her own rescue by the Conqueror but she cleverly disguised their identities. She was immensely pleased by the enthusiastic response when she finished. The rest of the evening went by smoothly and in the end she was rewarded by a handful of coins that were tossed onto the stage when she was done.
She went to the bar to collect a mug of cider before heading over to sit with her parents but she was waylaid by the familiar face of an old and dear friend. She smiled, happy to see him again after so much time.
"Perdicus," she smiled genuinely pleased. She placed her mug on a nearby table and embraced him tightly. "Your family said you were over in the next village. I didn't think I would have a chance to see you."
"My uncle was ill and they needed me to tend their livestock until he was well," the young man said shyly. "I'm glad he got better before you left. I should have hated to miss you."
"And I you," Gabrielle smiled and watched as the young man shifted nervously.
"Can we go outside and talk?" he asked and she immediately nodded. They had been friends since they were small children and he was good company. They left the Inn and walked over towards the stables, sitting down on a bench by the community well.
"What's up Perdicus?" she asked after awhile. He was fidgeting with his fingers and unable to sit still while they made idle chatter. The man took a deep breath.
"You and I have known each other for a long time," he began choosing his words carefully. "I don't think it's much of a secret as to the way I feel about you."
"Perdicus," Gabrielle suddenly knew what was coming and wanted to stop her friend but he held up his hand, intent on finishing his speech. He had waited a long time to approach her.
"No, Gabrielle please listen to me," he interrupted. "Let me get this all out before you say anything." He paused and she remained silent, so, he took another breath and continued. "I think since we were children I knew that I wanted to marry you but it wasn't until recently that I had the means in which I could properly support you as a husband should.
"My father has gifted me a parcel of land not far from the village and it is good for growing and has a small house on it. I know you have been traveling allot but you have been home for awhile now so I was thinking that perhaps you were going to stay. If that is the case then I was wondering if you would do me the honour of marrying me?"
Gabrielle was silent, her heart weeping. She liked Perdicus. She always had. But her feelings had never gone beyond what she felt for all her friends. If she had been a different person and didn't know what real love was, she could have become his wife. But that would have been a different time and place.
"I'm sorry Perdicus, but I can't marry you," she said softly not wanting to hurt this man.
"Why?" he needed to know.
"I don't love you and you deserve someone who does," came her sombre reply and there was silence for a moment as he considered her rejection. It hurt to see his heart breaking. "I'm not home because I'm ready to settle down. I'm home because I needed a place to stay for awhile. I'm sorry."
"It's all right," he brushed aside her refusal with dignity. "I almost expected to be turned down but I needed to ask anyway. You know what they say about lost opportunities. You never know for sure until you ask. I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn't."
"I really am sorry," Gabrielle's contrition was sincere and silence reigned over them for an awkward moment as neither of them knew what to say.
"That was a very good story you told tonight," he said finally, breaking the uncomfortable silence. "I liked the part where the girl and the warrior fell in love."
"It's a true story," Gabrielle said without thinking and her eyes strayed to where Joshua was standing on the porch of the tavern. She had seen him emerge earlier. The young man followed her gaze and misinterpreted what it meant.
"Is he the reason you turned down my proposal?" he asked and Gabrielle glanced with a startled expression at the man. "Lila told me you had brought a man home. Are you in love with him?"
Gabrielle knew she could have lied and made things seem easier for him but she needed to be honest. She had always valued his friendship.
"No," she said softly. "I am in love with a warrior but it's not Joshua. He is just a good friend who has promised my beloved to look out for me while we are apart."
Perdicus was thoughtful. "I don't understand. If your warrior loves you as you say, why are you not together? If I were him I would never allow us to be parted."
Gabrielle smiled gently, warmed by thoughts of her love. "Warriors can not take their hearts into battle. My love would not want me to be where there is danger."
"He is not only a lucky man but also wise," Perdicus seemed to understand this and sighed, rising to his feet, offering a hand to help her up. He gazed at her for a moment in the moonlight feeling the regrets of his hesitation.
"I think I must have waited to long," he said quietly. Gabrielle could have denied his assertion but she was uncertain of how she would have responded to his proposal if he had asked for her hand earlier. She had to believe that her response would have been the same. She pondered those thoughts as they walked back to the tavern.
"If you don't mind I think I will just go home," Perdicus said once they reached the steps and
Gabrielle knew that he would be unable to meet the expectant gazes of those who had watched them leave. She had seen his family and her own smile at the sight of them together.
She nodded and impulsively kissed him on the cheek. As she went to move away he grabbed her shoulders and pressed his lips firmly against hers and she realized the kiss for what it was. A desperate attempt to get her to reconsider her decision. Gently she managed to disengage herself aware that Joshua had gone very still. She knew that it wouldn't be much longer before the soldier intervened.
"I'm sorry," Perdicus was immediately apologetic and he shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and stared down at his feet, too embarrassed to look at her.
"That's all right," she managed a weak smile. "Good night Perdicus."
"Good night," he mumbled before shuffling off down the street. She watched as his bent form was swallowed up by the darkness. A lump caught in her throat. She sighed, and unable to go back into the tavern she slumped onto on a nearby bench.
"Are you all right Miss Gabrielle?" Joshua asked admiring the courage of the other man for acting on his feelings.
"Yes," the bard nodded. "I'd like to be alone if you don't mind."
"Of course," he bowed respectfully. "I will be just inside the door. If you need assistance call."
She nodded and watched as he retreated back into the tavern. She sat quietly listening to the chatter and laugher that filtered out of the Inn from the open window nearby. She closed her eyes and rested her head against the back of the bench. She was surrounded by family and friends but she felt utterly alone.
"It's a sad sight, a man with a broken heart," a voice broke through her silent meditation.
"What did you say?" she jerked to attention, straightening up and turning her head in the direction of the sound. She saw a man standing in the shadows not far from the corner of the tavern.
"I said it's a sad sight, a man with a broken heart," the man repeated solemnly and she watched as he emerged from the darkness.
Her instincts immediately went on alert as she recognized the merchant from whom she had bought the jar of scent that afternoon. She watched as he strolled into the torch light and sat down on the end of the bench. He was a rather portly gentleman with a round face and a small beard and moustache. Even in the dim torchlight that lit the porch she could see that he had brown eyes with a permanent twinkle in their depths.
"You sound like you know what that feels like," she said with an edge to her voice. Though his tone was friendly she was leery.
"I've had my heart broken more then once myself."
"He'll get over it," she replied confidently thinking of her friend. "There are lots of young women in the village who would jump at the chance to be his wife. I'm sure it won't be long before he finds someone else."
"But what about you?" the merchant asked and she glanced at him sharply.
"I don't know what you mean?" her eyes narrowed.
"What will you do when your heart is broken?" he asked simply. "You must know that your life with the Conqueror is only temporary."
Gabrielle swallowed her throat suddenly becoming very dry. She stared at the man trying to discover how he knew so much about her. His features were familiar but she could not place him. He could see her consternation and laughed. It was not a cruel sound but one of amusement.
"Do not be afraid, I will not tell anyone of your secret," he said in a friendly voice.
"My secret?" she said slowly, pretending to be dumb. "What secret would that be?"
"That you are the Conquerors current flame," the man answered bluntly and she caught her breath.
"What do you want?" Gabrielle asked suspiciously, her whole body tensing in anticipation.
"Nothing," the man was sincere. "Why would I wish harm on someone who is perhaps my best customer?" He saw the confusion on her face and his smile widened. "I see you don't remember me, but I cannot forget such a lovely creature as yourself who comes regularly to my stall in Corinth to purchase only the finest scent for the Empress."
"But I buy my scents from a girl," she stammered slowly still confused.
"Ariela, is my niece," the man obliged her with an explanation. "She is a good one to handle bargainers and so she tends the stall for me while I am away on merchant trips but there have been times when I have been there in the back of the stall watching you. You are very kind to her and I think if it had been her this afternoon, you would have paid five dinars for the scent."
"I feel like I am cheating her when I bargain," Gabrielle admitted reluctantly thinking of the frail girl with the limp that tended the booth in Corinth.
"As do most people," the man replied gleefully and Gabrielle saw the truth behind his scheme and in spite of herself smiled.
"Now you know who I am, but who are you?" she asked feeling less threatened. Despite his knowledge she was not frightened of this man. There was something about his manner that told her he would not betray her secret.
"My name is Salmoneus," the man said holding out his hand which Gabrielle accepted. "I am truly honoured to meet a woman as brave as yourself."
"Me brave?" Gabrielle squeaked not understanding.
"Yes, anyone brave enough to stay with the Conqueror of her own free will, has my deepest respect," the man answered.
"Some have called me stupid," she responded and he laughed.
"Perhaps a little naive but not stupid," he countered and Gabrielle looked at him intently.
"You are a brave person yourself," she said and his eyebrows raised slightly over his forehead and she smiled. "You have a secret which could do me harm. I am a friend of the Conqueror. I could have you killed."
"No," the man replied smoothly. "You do not have the heart of a killer."
"Oh!" she mimicked his expression and he laughed again.
"I have watched you," he confessed. "All the merchants in the market of Corinth have and though most of them are weary, they all think the same as I. We see you as a kind hearted woman, one who likes to bargain but one who would never take advantage of anyone. All of us watch you with that boy. To most people he is but a little beggar, dirty and unkempt but you looked beyond that and you had the courage to do that in the presence of the Conqueror."
"He is just a hungry child," she replied remembering that day not so long ago when Xena had surprised her by showing up unexpectedly in the marketplace. She could not keep a smile off her face as she was reminded of how the rest of the afternoon had unfolded. She brought her thoughts back to the present. "I am myself regardless of who is around. Besides the Conqueror is not such a bad person, not when you get to know her."
"Perhaps," the merchant agreed. "But she did not look to happy that day. I assume she wasn't entirely pleased by what you did."
"She thinks I have too soft a heart," Gabrielle sighed. "She is afraid that my natural generosity will invite people to take advantage of me."
"She has reason to worry," the man nodded his head solemnly. "There are people who will take advantage of you, especially now that they know you are in the good graces of the Empress. They will try to get to her through you. I think she only wants to protect you from getting hurt."
"I know," the girl smiled. "But sometimes it gets a little much."
"Perhaps," Salmoneus was sympathetic. "But you are no longer just a simple bard. You are the Conqueror's companion. Your life has changed regardless of how much you want it to stay the same."
"I suppose," Gabrielle sighed. "I didn't exactly go into this relationship looking at all the pro's and con's."
The merchant was silent for a moment as he studied the girl's profile. She was quite pretty and the glow of the pale moon illuminated her blond features giving her a mythical appearance. It was as if the moonlight not only shone on her but also out from her.
"If you don't mind an old man prying, how was it that you met the Conqueror?" he dared to ask feeling comfortable that this woman would not be angry at the question. It was a something that all the merchants in Corinth had puzzled over for months.
Gabrielle was unable to keep the smile off her face or the twinkle out of her eye as she looked at the man. "You were in the Inn tonight, were you not listening to my story about the warrior rescuing the girl from the slavers?"
The man was momentarily stunned. "It was true? That was you?" His respect for her growing immensely.
The bard didn't immediately answer as at that moment the door to the tavern opened and a group of people spilled out into the night. They watched quietly as the party disappeared into the darkness. Gabrielle knew it would not be long before her own family appeared. She glanced at the merchant the smile still fixed on her face.
"Yes, it was the most amazing thing," she said the smile slowly fading from her face. "No one knows the truth and it's not something I wish to have spread around."
"You do not have to worry, your secret is safe with me," the man promised solemnly.
"Why should I trust you?" she spoke her thoughts out loud and he laughed. It was a jovial sound with no trace of menace.
"Because I am a businessman and smart enough to know what is wise."
"But you must want something," she said in a voice that did not hold any reproach. "Everyone generally wants something in return for holding a secret?"
"I want nothing," the man replied sincerely rising to his feet. He looked down at her and smiled. "I just wish for you to know that you have a friend. If you ever have need of assistance you can call on me and my family."
"Thank you," Gabrielle stuttered not certain what to say to this stranger. It wasn't an expected offer. No one ever offered friendship to someone who knew the Conqueror. The man nodded and the door to the tavern opened to admit another group of people and he choose that moment to slip off into the darkness. She watched him go not noticing that her family had emerged from the Inn.
"There you are," Hercuba said with some relief as she spotted her daughter sitting on the bench outside the Inn. "We had been wondering where you got to."
"It was such a beautiful evening and so stuffy inside the tavern I thought to sit for a few moment under the moonlight."
"Aaah," the older woman said glancing at her husband who remained silently at her side. She glanced around the porch. "We saw you leave with Perdicus," she said in what was supposed to be a casual voice and with a sigh Gabrielle hauled herself to her feet deciding to put an end to the speculation though she had the desire to keep her family in suspense.
"Yes, I left with him," she replied patiently, "and yes he asked me to marry him but I said no." Not waiting for their reactions she strolled off the porch and started walking towards home.
"Foolish girl," Herodatus sputtered and hurried to catch up to his oldest daughter. He grabbed her elbow and spun her around. "Do you know what you did? Perdicus has inherited a good tract of land from his father and will receive more in a few years time. How could you refuse his offer?"
"I don't love him," Gabrielle stated matter of factly.
"Love!" the man spat the word as if it was a profanity. "You have such high ideals of love but will love feed you when your belly is hungry? Will love give you a warm home when you finally quit travelling around the countryside? Will love shelter you when you are old?"
"I don't know," the bard was honest, twisting her arm out of his grasp. "But I do know I won't become someone's wife just for food on the table and a roof over my head. I have learned that there is more to life then that and I am sorry that you have never understood that."
"I can not understand you, Gabrielle. I thought I had raised you differently," her father said in an exasperated voice. He fixed her with a hard look. "Just don't expect me to shelter you when you finally learn your dreams won't ever come true."
With that he turned and stormed away leaving her standing alone in the middle of the street. Hercuba looked at her daughter briefly, shaking her head sadly before hurrying after her husband. Gabrielle turned to Lila who was staring at her with obvious puzzlement.
"Bri, what are you thinking, Perdicus is a good man," Lila said quietly.
"Yes, and he will make someone a good husband but I am not in love with him," was the testy reply. She was tired of defending her decision. "Besides there is someone else in my life."
"Joshua," the younger girl said quietly with a knowing nod of her head.
"No, not Joshua," Gabrielle shook her own head and took a deep breath wishing she could blurt out the truth. "I am in love with someone else and until that person doesn't want me, there will never be anyone else for me."
Without waiting for her sister to respond, she turned on her heel and walked away, thinking not for the first time that returning to Potedaia to wait out the Conqueror's absence may not have been the best idea she had ever had. She sighed and squared her shoulders determined to be strong yet wondering if it wasn't time for her to head back to the Capital.
She didn't belong in this town any more. She had grown past her life as a simple village girl. She had seen to much of what was out in the world. Yet her decision to stick it out and remain until Xena's return, was soon tested again.
Gabrielle accompanied Lila to the market the next morning. She didn't need anything but she would use any excuse to get away from the house. Her father was brooding and her mother was silently disapproving of her decision not to accept Perdicus' offer. Lila had been the only one who seemed to accept the decision.
They searched through the stalls, looking for something their mother wanted, when Lila bumped into a merchant whom she knew. Gabrielle stood waiting patiently while they talked and by the expression on her sisters face she knew that the girl was attracted to the young seller. She smiled, understanding why it was so desperate for Lila to come to the market and she discreetly wandered away leaving the couple to their privacy. Joshua was with the smith getting one of their horses shod, so for the first time in a long time she was alone.
She turned at the sound of her name and glanced at the man who was leaning casually against the wall of a nearby building. It was a familiar face and glancing over to the smith to ensure that Joshua was fully occupied she sauntered over to the man.
"Calipus," she returned the greeting.
"It's been a long time," the man's eyes nervously went around the market, his attention focusing on a pair of soldiers who had ridden into town earlier in the day, before settling back on the girl. "You haven't been around much lately."
"I have been spending time up in the Capital," Gabrielle choose her words carefully not willing to reveal to much.
"So your father was telling me," the man said. "We missed you."
"Thank you," Gabrielle smiled, but she knew what the man meant.
"We were wondering when you would be back," he continued in a quiet voice. "I was out in a nearby village and didn't get back until two days ago. I was surprised to hear you had been here for almost one full moon."
"I haven't seen my family in a while," she parried, knowing what this man wanted. It was the same thing he had wanted before. The only problem was that she didn't want to be apart of his group any more. She had changed and though she had not shifted focus on their common goal, she had a different perspective on things now.
"Aye," the man nodded. "I thought that perhaps you would have been up to the army camp to tell your stories. But I hear you haven't left the village since coming back."
"No," she said slowly feeling uncomfortable in this man's presence. She had known him all her life but like other things she saw him in a different way.
"Then perhaps it's time you paid the General a visit," the man said craftily. "I heard that some of his men were sent to the North with the Conqueror to do battle with the Horde."
"I wouldn't know about that," she said and glanced around hoping to see some excuse for leaving. Lila was still giggling and fawning over the young merchant and Joshua was still engrossed over at the smith's.
"It would be nice to know how many were sent," the man said his eyes narrowing as he stared at her. He saw her shift uncomfortably from one foot to the other.
"I don't do that any more," she finally said fixing the man with a determined look. "With the travel restrictions lifted I didn't think you needed my help."
"We will always need your help," the man shook his head. "You are the only one with free access to the camp. We need for you to go in and get us this information. We are planning an attack on the garrison. With the previous information you gave us we know where their defenses are the weakest. Now all we need to know is their current strength."
"You can't," Gabrielle said before she could stop herself.
"Why not?" the man asked suspiciously.
"Because it's suicide," she argued. "Even if the armies numbers are depleted they will slaughter you."
"Not if we are smart," the man countered. "That's why we need this information. We intend to attack with enough people to ensure that the whole garrison is slaughtered."
"Then you will become just like the Conqueror," she disagreed as visions of another battle filled her head.
"No one could ever become as bad as the Conqueror," came the cool reply.
"The whole idea is foolish and I don't want any part in it," she said in a quiet but firm voice. "Even if you succeed you will lose and so will everyone that lives anywhere near the army camp. Do you think Xena will allow such civil disobedience to go unpunished?"
"That is the joy of the plan," the man said in a voice that had suddenly become passionate. "She is away in the North. By the time she gets back it will be to late for her to do anything."
"No," Gabrielle disagreed. "She would never let you get away with it. She may be in the North but she would come after you when she gets back and she will make everyone suffer. She will destroy everything standing in her way and a lot of innocent people will pay for that. Can you justify your actions knowing the consequences?"
The man was silent as he eyed her thoughtfully. The girl was different, no longer the idealistic young thing that he had been able to talk into almost anything. She had willing agreed to help them before and he wondered what had happened to make that change.
"So you won't be helping us then?"
"No," Gabrielle was certain. "I couldn't live with my conscience and I hope you will rethink your plans."
"If that's your decision then there is nothing more to be said," the man straightened and glanced over her shoulder. "I trust you to keep this information private."
Gabrielle nodded, worried that she was betraying Xena's trust, but she was more troubled by what would happen if these men attacked. The Conqueror would not tolerate civil disobedience in her Realm and it worried her that innocent people would suffer for these rebels actions. It was a fear that was justified and one she could not dismiss.
Argo moved slowly, carefully picking her way through the mounds of decaying human flesh that littered the battlefield. A top him rode the stoic Warrior, her face a cold mask, her body still mired in the carnage wrought from the recent battle.
It had been a fierce skirmish, pitting two formidable armies against each other and both sides had been badly bloodied but at the end of the day it had been her uncanny tactical skill that had allowed her to out manoeuvre a numerically superior foe and achieve complete victory.
The slaughter had been wholesale. Even now, candlemarks after the enemy had fled the battlefield her blood still pumped heatedly through her veins. It would be many more candlemarks or even days before the darkness of the animal inside her retreated back into the cage where it lived. Though still covered in blood and gore from the battle, she searched for a outlet for the fever that consumed her.
She pulled gently on the reins and Argo came to a complete stop. She turned her head to the north and listened as the sporadic and distant cries of pain and death filtered back across the battleground. She was tempted to follow those calls but reigned in that desire, aware of the victory celebration that awaited her return to the army camp.
She had been merciful once before, but not today. When the enemy had finally broken and run she had sent her army after them with instructions to destroy everything. Her soldiers had carried out that mission chasing down the defeated, destroying them and their camp so that nothing of their existence remained. She would not allow the Horde or their allies the opportunity to defy her authority again.
She glanced with a cold stare one last time at the battlefield seeing some thing that had earlier escaped her attention. She motioned her horse forward pausing as she came alongside the body of a single soldier. She peered down at the face that was already beginning to bloat. His tunic and leathers were soaked in blood where his stomach had been sliced open. It was the young soldier who had stood watch the night before.
She stared at his frozen face for a moment and then clicked her heels, and the great warhorse moved onward, following an invisible path to where the majority of her army were now resting and celebrating their victory. She rode quietly towards the camp feeling invigorated by the electricity that filled the evening air.
A sentry spotted her silhouetted figure in the fading light and called out a lone chant of victory. His solo voice was quickly joined by a loud, raucous chorus of "Hails" as the army saluted her leadership. An indescribable surge of feeling swelled up through her body as she rode slowly through the throng of cheering soldiers that gathered around her. Every one of her pores absorbed and basked in the exhalation. She was the Empress, Xena of Amphipolis, Warrior Princess, Conqueror, the Destroyer of Nations. She was all powerful and at this moment she was elevated to the same Realm as the Gods on Mt. Olumpus. Ares looked down and smiled, filling her with the joy that radiated from him.
She rode her horse through the mass of cheering men. The surge of adrenalin pouring through her body heightening every one of her senses. She felt the lust of battle caress her like an intimate lover seeking a physical release. She glanced at the upraised faces. At this moment she could have any one of these adoring men. It would be so easy to reach down and lift one of them onto her horse and satisfy this desire and lust. But she rode on, stopping only once she reached the command tent.
"Hail mighty Conqueror," General Titus exalted stepping out of the mob that crowded in a circle around her. He took hold of Argo's bridle and watched as the Empress slowly dismounted. His face was flushed not only from battle but from the liberal amount of port he had already consumed in celebration. He was drunk. "We have captured some prisoners. Perhaps there is one whom can give you some entertainment."
The Conqueror saw the smirk on his face and then glanced indifferently at the prisoners that were thrust towards her, their hands and feet bound by heavy chains. There were several strong and beautiful men and women in the group and she felt the lust in her body grow stronger, the temptation was almost to great.
"Perhaps this one will satisfy your needs," Titus laughed and pulled a girl out from the group.
She was small with reddish blonde hair and hazel eyes that for a brief instant looked green. The Empress staggered backwards at the similarity this prisoner had to a certain bard she knew. In that instant she knew she would take no one to her bed this night.
Her eyes glazed over at the thought of the younger woman she had left behind. Once again she would be alone and struggle with her physical demons as she had done every night since leaving Gabrielle two months earlier. There had been too many nights alone, too many nights when she had longed for the comfort of a warm body pressed up against her own. But she needed something more then just an anonymous body to satisfy her needs. She needed the bard's special comfort.
She felt a deep anger at her inability to indulge her lust. Every time she thought of expending her physical urges, an innocent face with green eyes would float across her mind and she would be unable to continue with any rendezvous. Now she could not even allow her men an opportunity to satisfy their lust. Her eyes focused on the small group of prisoners and in particularly the girl with the blonde hair.
"She looks like a wild one," Titus momentarily forgot who he was speaking too as he tweaked the girl's right breast causing her to curse and spit angrily in his direction. "A little hell cat. I'll bet she can give you a better ride then that little piece you keep back at the Palace."
"Probably," the Conqueror agreed with a tight smile as she looked at the General who was beyond seeing the dangerous glitter in her pale blue eyes. "I'll bet you'd like a turn at her."
"If you don't want her I will certainly take her," the General snorted lewdly, pawing the girl again.
"You'd probably like to have a turn at my bard too, wouldn't you?" the Conqueror continued in the same voice and the General's smile widened as if by some misguided notion he believed the Empress might actually be offering the girl to him. He did not comprehend the dangerous ground on which he was treading. He believed she was as consumed by battle lust as he was. "Maybe one night once we get back to the Capital we can have a real party and take turns."
"The things I would do to her," the man smiled his eyes lighting up at the idea and he looked at the Conqueror seeing for the first time the truth. He took a step back suddenly afraid of what he had said. He was unable to take his eyes off the woman in front of him.
Xena let her anger loose. With a deep, loud guttural scream that came from deep within her soul she unsheathed her sword and swung its deadly blade along the length of chain. Blood spurted from her victims dousing the soldiers nearby in crimson as the prisoners slumped to the ground. She turned on the General aware of how the other soldiers hastily backed away.
"I told you I didn't want any prisoners," she snarled whipping her sword at the man. He had only a short time to respond, narrowly deflecting her blow, but stumbling backwards as she advanced. Even though he was the larger opponent, he had no chance against her fury and very quickly she overpowered him, swinging her blade with stunning effect. With one lunge the man's own sword went flying and with the next thrust she plunged it into his belly, burying it deep inside him.
She withdrew the blade slowly as the man slumped to his knees, clutching his stomach, as he tried to prevent his intestines from spilling out onto the ground. He looked up at her in shock and disbelief. She met his gaze.
"You think I am a fool. Didn't you think I would find out that you had disregarded my orders? Didn't you think I would find out about your little plot," she hissed through her teeth. "I am not stupid. I know what is going on in my Empire. Besides no one dares insult my friend." She turned to the others who were standing in shocked silence.
"General Titus disobeyed my orders," she shouted loudly so that everyone would hear. She looked at those who were standing in shocked silence. "I will not tolerate anyone who questions me or who tries to undermine my authority." She turned away, pausing only long enough to wipe her sword on the dying General's tunic before putting it back in it's sheath and stepping into the privacy of her tent.
Suddenly it became desperately important for her to get back to the Capital. She needed to feel the younger woman in her arms. She needed the girl to give her back the sense of balance she seemed to have lost. More desperate was this need then anything else. The knock on the pole outside her tent momentarily dragged her from her thoughts.
"Enter," she rasped in a ragged voice.
General Loris stepped through the flap and paused allowing his eyes to grow accustomed to the dimness of the room. He watched for a moment as the Conqueror continued to peel away the blood caked armour that had shielded her in battle. He looked at the raven haired beauty standing before him, aware that she was a powerful and dangerous woman.
They had grown up together in a world very different from the one they now occupied. He had been a witness to the display outside and now he realized that he no longer knew the woman he had stood by for so many years. He saw something he had never seen before.
"What do you want Loris?" Xena was growing annoyed with his silent presence.
"I came to see if you were all right," he said delaying briefly the real purpose of his visit.
The Conqueror glanced at her blood crusted body, examining it for a moment and finding only a few minor cuts and gashes where the tips and edges of blades had gotten through her defences. She dismissed them as irrelative.
"I am fine," she shrugged and then cast a sharp glance his way. "What do you really want?"
"Why?" he asked. "Why did you kill them?"
"I told you I wanted no prisoners taken," she growled.
"They would have died at the hands of the men," he countered and for a brief instant he saw an odd expression cross her face. He would have said that it was a look of pity or sympathy but he knew she would never admit the truth if it was. Certainly he knew that turning the prisoners over to the men would have resulted in a long, tortuous and painful death. For an instant he thought he had once again seen that village girl he had once known.
"There weren't enough for every one," she shrugged indifferently. "I couldn't afford for them to fight over the spoils."
The General was momentarily startled, realizing that it had been sympathy that he had seen. For the first time he began to believe the stories he had heard from the other General. Perhaps the Conqueror was beginning to soften.
"It was a good victory today," he said aware that she would not welcome any questions of a personal nature. He had long ago learned to avoid anything that dealt with her private life.
"Yes, perhaps it will give the Roman's something to think about," she replied tossing her armour aside. "I believe Caesar has some misguided notion that our armies are growing weak. You have been keeping an eye on him?"
"Yes, I will make certain no Roman sets foot on Greek soil, unless they are invited," General Loris promised. "They have been moving armies North but so far they are going around our territory."
"Good, I would stop and tour your defences but I wish to return to the Capital as quickly as possible. I trust you have them well in hand."
"Yes," he bowed and then decided to be brave. "Was it necessary to kill Titus?"
Xena was silent for a moment and she turned to look at the man with the curly blonde hair. There were times when the General reminded her of her dead brother Lyceus. He was a deadly warrior but he still retained his humanity.
"He insulted me," she said in a cold voice as her eyes bore into him.
"He insulted the woman who warms your bed," Loris corrected softly. "There is a difference."
"No there is not," she replied in a deadly voice.
"Then perhaps it is true what they say."
"What do they say?" she wanted to know.
"That this woman has taken control of you," he responded aware that he was treading on some dangerous ground.
"Oh?" Xena raised an eyebrow as her body tensed. "What else are they saying?"
"That she is doing a lot more then just warming your bed at night," Loris choose his words carefully. The Conqueror had never hidden her affairs but she had always been loathe to discuss the details. "They say she is influencing your policy and making you soft."
"And that worries you?"
"It concerns us all," he replied evenly. He wanted her to know what the other's were saying. They all wanted assurances that she was still in complete control. "It's all right to reduce taxes and I see the logic in keeping the soldiers busy, but if the Roman's perceive you to be weak....."
He did not finish his sentence for in one swift motion the Conqueror was across the room. Loris caught his breath as he was violently shoved against a support pole. He felt the cold steel of her dagger press up against his throat biting into his skin. There was a feral expression in her pale blue eyes and for the first time he knew what it must be like to look death in the face.
"We just massacred over three thousand soldiers of a Horde army," she snarled, her lips curling ferociously. "More then a hundred died by my own hand. I just killed one of my best General's because he insulted me. Does it look like I have grown soft?"
"No," the man stammered.
"Then who is it that perceived I have grown weak?" she asked with a growl.
"It was General Titus," he managed to gasp and felt her hand press tighter around his neck for a moment before it dropped away. He watched as she took a step backwards, returning to the far end of the tent.
"Well if I hadn't killed him before, I certainly would have killed him now," she snorted and fixed him with another cold gaze. "I won't tolerate anyone questioning my strength as a leader. I won't accept anyone questioning my decisions." Loris remained silent.
"I want you to put Lieutenant Bestor in charge of the Third Army. He is a good leader and soldier and the men will follow him. I will be promoting General Rufus to take over Titus' position."
"He will be honoured," Loris bowed his head.
"I want an messenger dispatched immediately to advise the Palace of my imminent return and then I want an escort of twelve riders besides my Royal Guard selected to accompany me on my journey home. I wish to leave at the earliest possible moment. Now go."
"Yes, my Empress," he nodded and turned to leave but her voice called him back.
"You might want to let the others know I will not tolerate anyone showing disrespect to the bard Gabrielle," she said and one look at her face and he knew her words were deadly serious. He nodded and without another word stepped out of the tent.
He paused just outside the door and stood for a moment staring at the camp that was shrouded now in darkness. The good mood of the soldiers revibrated over the plain. As he looked out over the assembly he suddenly realized something that had not occurred to any of them, especially not Titus.
He glanced down at the General's body. It still lay where it had fallen. No one had dared to remove it until the Conqueror had ordered it taken away. A pool of blood stained the dark earth. Titus had been contemptuous of the Conqueror and her affectation, no love, for the young girl she kept but he had not seen the truth. Instead of being made weaker, that love had made the Conqueror stronger because now she had something she cared about. He knew how she had reacted upon her brother Lyceus' death and knew without a doubt that she would do whatever it took to protect this girl who had stolen her affection.
He turned his eyes and glanced up at the sky. Night had fallen like a curtain and behind it was hidden the savageness the day had brought. Tomorrow they would scour the battlefield. They would collect the discarded weapons and burn the dead and then they would move on to wait for the next battle. It was the life he had chosen and he had no regrets. He glanced down at the dead General and shook his head sadly before moving on.
Xena took only enough time to clean the blood and gore from her body and armour before joining the escort who were patiently waiting for her. It was still dark when they set out for the Capital. She knew that if they rode hard and took their meals in the saddle they would be back in Corinth by the next full moon. The thought of seeing the young bard again spurred her on as she anticipated the reunion that would follow. A smile played at the ends of her lips as she imaged the many different things she would do to her little bard.
"Damn you, look what you've done," Ares cursed his sister as he watched his Chosen mount her
steed and head back to the Capital. He was disappointed by the way this woman was behaving.
"She's acting like a lovesick puppy."
"I think it's cute," Aphrodite laughed marveling at the way her magic worked. "We don't often get to see a warlord in love."
"There is a reason for that," the God of War snarled. He was angry at her interference but he was more angry at his inability to control completely the one he called his own. She was stubborn and wilful and defied him at every turn yet he could not turn his back on her. The qualities that so infuriated him were also the ones that he admired. She challenged him like no other mortal.
"You know Arie babe, you brought this on yourself," Aphrodite said sweetly. "You should have left the Amazon's alone. You know how uptight Artie gets when you play with her toys."
"Humpf, but did you have to do this," Ares moaned in disgust but the Goddess of Love only laughed and disappeared in a flash of light. The God of War stared down into the pool, absently stroking his bearded chin.
"We'll see just how much havoc I can play with those little Amazon's," he snorted when she was gone and then with a snap of his fingers he too disappeared.
Gabrielle did not make her decision easily. It only came after a long debate with herself. She had pondered all sides of the argument and in the end it had come down to only one thing. She had looked up from where she had been sitting by the stables trying to write in her scrolls and she had seen Lila and her mother emerge from the house. She had watched them as they had walked over to the family garden where her father was already labouring. It had suddenly become so clear.
It wasn't just for her family that she was doing this. She knew everyone who lived in Potedaia. She had grown up with them and knew they were honest hard working people. She could not afford to risk losing them even though some would see her as a traitor.
"Joshua," she summoned her trusted companion and to his astonishment announced. "We need to make a trip to see General Rufus."
The soldier did not question her decision but merely nodded his head and then left to fetch the horses. She gave her family no explanation as to the reason for her hasty departure and allowed them to assume what they would.
"We'll only be gone for a few days," she told them. "I want to go to Amphipolis to visit my friends."
It was a three day ride to the camp. General Rufus was surprised when the bard's presence was announced. He greeted her appearance with some speculation. He had not seen the girl in many months and his spies had reported seeing her in Corinth with the Conqueror. Relying on his instincts he gave her an audience.
"Gabrielle, it's lovely to see you again," he smiled pleasantly. He took her hands and brought them to his lips, laying a gentle kiss on each wrist. "I had begun to wonder if we would ever see you again."
"I have been busy," she replied vaguely and he nodded strolling back around his desk and sitting down.
"Have you returned to entertain us?" he asked politely aware of the man who had accompanied her into the camp and who now stood watching from the doorway. He recognized the soldier from a past visit to the Palace as belonging to the Royal Guard, even though he was not in uniform..
"I'm afraid my visit here is the result of much more serious matters," the bard began slowly choosing her words carefully. "I have learned that there is a plot to attack your army garrison."
"That is a serious matter indeed," he nodded gravely his eyes narrowing thoughtfully. "If you don't mind me asking how were you able to know of this plan?"
"I overheard a man talking about it while I was in the market one day," she explained aware that she could not confess the truth. "He said that his group knew the exact layout of your camp and that it was now understaffed because a large portion of your troops had been sent up north to fight."
"Yes, indeed," he nodded his eyes remaining intently on her face. "Did they say when this attack would occur?"
"No," she shook her head. "But I fear that it will probably be before the next full moon."
There was silence as the General contemplated how he would react. He looked at the girl, not doubting her story but finding it odd that she knew so much. He doubted that someone planning to attack a garrison of the Conqueror's army would speak so publicly about the mission. He had a idea that there was more that the girl was not saying.
"Of course we will have to do something about this," he said thoughtfully gazing across at her. "You wouldn't perhaps know who these men were do you?"
Gabrielle had asked herself this question numerous times and she had agonized over her decision. She had know Calipus for most of her life and didn't want to see any harm come to him but then she thought of her family and knew that she cared more for them. She would do anything to protect them, even betray an old friend.
"I only know of one," she answered in such a quiet voice that the General had to strain to hear her words. "His name is Calipus of Potedaia. He spends most of his time moving around to the various villages in the region. The last I heard he was on his way to Antinemus."
"That is a start," the General said nodding to Lieutenant Argus who stood in a dark corner of the room. Rufus stood up and walked around his desk to stand in front of the bard. Gently he reached for her hands and gave them a gentle squeeze.
"I know this is a hard thing you have done, but know it was the right thing," he said quietly. "Now,
can I persuade you to stay and entertain the troops tonight."
"No," Gabrielle shook her head suddenly feeling very dirty even though she was convinced her decision was the right one. "I have to get back home. No one must find out I was here."
"Certainly," Rufus pretended to understand. He lifted her hands and kissed each one gently giving them another squeeze before releasing them. "You have done a great thing today and I know the Conqueror will be pleased."
Gabrielle only nodded and without another word she turned and left. Rufus followed her to the door and watched as the pair mounted their horses and rode swiftly out of the camp. He stared after them for a long time.
"What do you wish me to do?" Argus asked sidling up to his commander. Rufus smiled.
"I want you to take a party of soldiers and round up this Calipus. I'm certain with a little persuasion he will tell us who else is involved in this plot."
"You believe her then?" Argus said and Rufus turned an amused glance at his colleague.
"Of course I believe her," the General smiled almost with delight, a plan already forming in his head. "She said that these rebels knew the exact layout of the camp, so now tell me Argus how could they have known that? I have allowed no one in here but the bard. Don't you think it curious that she happened to hear this plot?"
"But if she is involved with them why would she turn traitor?" the Lieutenant was confused.
"I don't know," Rufus admitted honestly, "but perhaps this Calipus will tell us. Now go before the bard has a change of heart and warns the man."
The Lieutenant nodded and rushed out of the room. Rufus watched him for a moment but already his mind was busy at work analyzing all the possibilities. A feral smile curved the corners of his lips. If his guess proved correct then he had something on the bard, and that made him a happy man.
Gabrielle wasn't up to returning straight to Potedaia. She felt to guilty and didn't think she would be able to face her family and friends without the truth coming out. Instead they journeyed to Amphipolis where Cyrene welcomed her with open arms.
"It has been to long," the older woman said with a smile as she embraced the girl. "Where have you been?"
"Here and there," Gabrielle was vague. "I have been in Potedaia for the last month and before that I was in the Capital."
Cyrene glanced over the bard's shoulder to her son Toris who was standing behind the girl. They shared a private look. They had heard rumours from the merchants who had recently passed through the village about a bard who had been seen in the Conqueror's company. A young girl from the
Thrace region. Neither of them believed it was their friend.
"What were you doing there?" the Innkeeper asked in a deceptively casual voice.
"Visiting old friends and telling stories," the bard replied hiding the truth.
Cyrene was smart enough to recognize what Gabrielle was not saying. She eyed the girl closely and saw a weariness that did not come only from days spent on the road. There was something going on with the young woman but now was not the time to ask. She glanced briefly at the young man who had ridden into town with the bard and wondered who he was.
"How long will you be staying?" the older woman asked turning her attention back to the girl.
"A day or two if you have the room," Gabrielle replied quietly.
"We always have room for you," the Innkeeper said hooking her arm through the bard's and leading her towards the stairs that lead to the second floor. "The room at the end of the hallway is empty. There is still plenty of time for you to have a nap and if you like I'll have the girl's heat up a bath."
"That would be wonderful," the girl smiled feeling her spirits already begin to lighten. "I've brought a friend."
"Don't worry dear, I'll get Toris to look after him," Cyrene assured her. "Now go have a nap and when you're ready just come down."
Gabrielle did as the woman suggested. It wasn't until the dinner hour when she finally made an appearance and the older woman hastily motioned her over to a table in the corner of the room. The tavern was still relatively empty though the patrons were slowly beginning to trickle in. A sad smile tickled her lips as she realized word of her arrival seemed to have been passed through the village.
Cyrene tended to several customers before returning to the bard with a mug of warm cider and a plate of lamb stew. She settled down in a chair across from the girl and fixed her with an intent look.
"You look a little troubled dear," Cyrene said cautiously. "Are you having problems at home?"
"No," Gabrielle shook her head aware that it wasn't the entire truth.
She glanced around the room, her eyes catching sight of Joshua who was sitting at a table with Toris and several other men. They appeared to be engaged in a friendly game of cards. She turned her attention back to her companion. She wanted to confide in someone but she was nervous. Other then Joshua she didn't think she had any friends left.
"I really don't want to talk about it," she sighed. "I had to do something that I'm not very proud of. I know I did the right thing but I know people aren't going to understand that. They will only think the worst."
"People generally like to find fault," the older woman agreed sadly, wondering what the girl had done but respecting her privacy she did not ask. "You know if anything happens you will always have a place here. Toris and I enjoy your company."
"Thank you," Gabrielle was genuinely appreciative but she wondered if the woman would feel the same way if she knew the truth.
Cyrene was soon called away to attend to some problem in the kitchen. But Gabrielle wasn't alone long, for Toris soon filled the chair that his mother vacated. She was glad for she needed to speak with him away from his mother's presence.
"Your friend is quite the card player," the dark haired man smiled, motioning to Joshua. "He's taken most of us for three dinars already."
"I've lost a few dinars to him myself," she smiled, glancing briefly at the man before turning her attention back to her companion. She focused her eyes on the half eaten plate of stew, as the smile on her face faded. "Toris I think you should go away for awhile."
Though she had only been in contact with Calipus she had often carried messages for her friend here and she was worried that he was one of the leaders of the rebel band. She looked up to see the man staring at her curiously.
"I have heard rumours that General Rufus has uncovered a plot against the army. He may come looking for those involved," she said hesitantly not wanting to reveal how she had this information.
She was surprised when her companion only laughed. It was a harsh and unpleasant sound.
"I appreciate the warning but I don't have to worry," Toris said in an arrogant voice. "General Rufus will never arrest me."
"Why?" Gabrielle was clearly puzzled and she stared intently at the man.
For a moment the man considered telling her the truth but then changed his mind. He was not proud of the fact that he shared the same lineage as the Conqueror. He was not proud that he had helped start her on the path that ultimately led her to rule all of Greece. He was ashamed of the association.
"Let's just say the Conqueror wouldn't allow it," he said with a bitter twist to his voice. Gabrielle would have liked to ask more questions but she sensed the man was unhappy discussing the situation.
"Well, be careful, I wouldn't want anything to happen to you," she said quietly and the man looked at her. He thought of all the rumours they had heard. They had dismissed them, believing that Gabrielle would never allow herself to be involved with someone like the Conqueror though now he wasn't so certain. Perhaps they had been to hasty in dismissing the truth.
"How did you come to hear these rumours?" he asked his eyes narrowing intently. It was a logical question and one that Gabrielle had prepared an answer.
"I have friends close to the army," she said casually. There was no time to further the conversation as one of the servers appeared at the table with the news that several of the patrons were requesting a story. Eagerly she accepted, jumping to her feet and rushing to the stage at the front of the tavern aware that Toris was watching her closely.
Gabrielle left two days later. Though she didn't feel any better, she was convinced that she had done everything she could to help this man, someone she considered a friend.
General Rufus took several dozen soldiers with him into Amphipolis. Though the village was normally off limits to the army, his spies had reported that the rebel leader Calipus was visiting the town. They rode into the main square and fanned out, his soldiers searching every house and business for the man they had come to arrest.
It didn't take long before then found him, hiding with another man under a hay stack in the stables. Both men were dragged into the center of the square where the other villagers had been herded.
Rufus could not contain his disgust when he looked at the two men who were hauled up before him. He slid of his horse and strolled arrogantly over to where they had been thrown onto the ground. He felt nothing but contempt.
"Take him away," he pointed to the rebel leader and his soldiers immediately jumped to do his biding, ignoring the screams and curses of the man as he was roughly dragged away. Instead he focused his attention on the one who remained. Toris stood up, squaring his shoulders, unafraid of the General.
"It would only be justice, if I hung you now, right here, while all your friends and family watched. You would be a fine example. It would show that no one is above the law," Rufus said harshly.
"You wouldn't dare," Toris sneered as if baiting the General to carry out his threat. Rufus took a menacing step forward, until their faces were only inches apart. He hated that he couldn't whip this man into submission. Every muscle in his body ached to beat this arrogant villager.
"I don't understand why she doesn't allow us to punish you," he snarled through clenched teeth. "She knows you hate her, yet she still insists on protecting you. Well my friend, those days will soon be over and you will be one of the first people that we come looking for, and your dear sister won't be able to help you."
Toris said nothing, standing mutely in front of the General. He hated to be reminded that the Conqueror had guaranteed his protection. He resented the fact, as much as he resented the woman herself.
"Take this as a warning," Rufus said contemptuously and then swung both fists, slamming them into the man's face and stomach. Toris dropped to the ground and received a kick in the ribs before the General straightened his tunic and strolled back to his horse. The townsfolk watched passively as the soldiers rode away. Only then did Cyrene run to her son who was still kneeling on the ground.
Gabrielle had only been back in Potedaia for two days when she heard that Calipus had been arrested. She was relieved to learn that though Toris had been caught with the man he had been released without punishment. It was ironic that the news came from her own father.
"I just spoke to Michelus at the smithy's," Herodatus announced that evening at the supper table. He had just returned from working in the fields. "I stopped in there on the way home and he told me that a squad of soldiers had arrested Calipus and accused him of sedition."
Gabrielle remained silent. She thought about the young family the man had left behind and felt a touch of regret knowing that they would now be destitute. But glancing around the table as her family sat down for their evening meal, she once again reminded herself that her actions had probably saved many more lives.
"I heard say that it was someone Calipus trusted who turned them in, so I don't imagine it will be long before more are arrested," Herodatus said bitterly and the rest of the meal was strangely silent.
Gabrielle excused herself as soon as she was finished eating. She felt sick, aware that she had once again sentenced someone to die. She found a quiet place near the shed and sat down, releasing the tears that filled her eyes.
"You did the right thing," Joshua said when he finally caught up to her. He lowered himself onto the ground beside her.
"Funny, I keep telling myself that but somehow it becomes less convincing the more I think about it," Gabrielle shook her head, wiping away the tears. "I wonder though if my actions weren't just selfish."
"Gabrielle, you are the least selfish person I know," the soldier disagreed. "What you did was incredibly brave."
"Maybe you think so, but the truth is that I will forever be responsible for his death."
"No," the man shook his head. "He knew what the risks were when he formed the rebels. He knew that he would be executed if he were ever caught. You may have turned him in but he choose his own sentence a long time ago."
Gabrielle was silent. She knew what Joshua was saying was true, yet the good person she was, knew that she would always blame herself for what happened.
"I think from now on you should be more prudent. There is a good chance that he probably told others that he had spoken to you," Joshua cautioned, breaking the silence that had begun to grow. "It would be best if you didn't leave the house without me or your staff."
She nodded sadly aware that her actions had consequences. She looked at the man. The young girl inside still needed reassurance. "I did do the right thing didn't I Joshua?"
"Yes," the soldier nodded solemnly understanding the pain she was suffering. "We both know how the Conqueror would have reacted if the garrison had been attacked. Know in your heart that you did what was best, not for the Conqueror, but for your people."
"Thank you Joshua," she flashed his a weak smile. "I don't know how I would have gotten through this whole mess without you. You have been a good friend."
"I am honoured to be considered as such," he replied sincerely.
Gabrielle hated to think that someone might be after her. Xena had warned her to be careful but that had been for other reasons. No one had ever tried to hurt her on purpose and it was an odd feeling to know that someone might dislike her enough to try and do her harm. Suddenly she understood what it might be like to be in her lovers shoes and she felt a greater compassion for the woman.
It was not two days later when the attack came. They were in the market place shopping with her whole family when a man jumped out from behind a merchant stall, swinging a sword wildly in her direction. Gabrielle was prepared, as she had been since hearing of Calipus' arrest. Most of the rebel group had been rounded up but she knew there were others who had escaped. Her attacker was one of them.
She reacted instinctively, deftly turning aside the blow with her staff. She remembered everything Xena had taught, bending her knees and elbows to absorb the shock of his strikes. The man was acting on emotion and she waited for the moment when his feelings would make him careless. In the meantime, she concentrated on deflecting the sword blows as the man swung ruthlessly. The merchants and villagers in the square fled in horror.
"You betrayed us all," the man snarled thrusting with his sword at her head. "You betrayed Calipus, a friend."
"I did it to protect your family, my family and all the other innocent people who would have died," she responded to his argument, never losing focus on the deadly blade that was being thrust towards her.
"You have sentenced us all to die," the man growled using all his strength to swing the blade. The wooden stave vibrated in her hands as it deflected the deadly assault. "None of us wanted to believe it but it's true, you are her lover and that makes you worse then her."
Gabrielle said nothing concentrating instead on the force and direction of his lunges. Finally the man made a mistake and she was quick to take advantage. She moved swiftly, swinging her staff with all her strength towards the opening. There was a loud thud as wood connected with the flesh around his waist. As the man's body slumped in pain, she followed up with another blow that landed across his head. The attacker dropped to the ground in an unconscious heap.
She stepped back, her chest rising and falling heavily from the exertion. Joshua was there immediately, taking charge of the situation. He tied up the assailant before sending one of the merchants to summon the local authorities.
"Are you okay?" he was anxious, aware that he had failed in his duty to protect her.
"Yes," she nodded hazarding a glance at the stunned faces of her family who had witnessed the entire scene.
"I will summon Rufus and he can come by and collect him," the soldier said once he was assured of her state of health. He hurried off to the tavern where he could find the local mayor.
"Do you want to tell me what that was all about?" Herodatus asked of his first born still shocked by what he had seen.
"He was part of the group that planned on attacking General Rufus' army camp," Gabrielle saw no reason to lie. "I think he was one of their leaders."
"Why would he want to kill you?" the man did not understand and the bard saw no way of explaining without telling the truth.
"Because I was the one who warned the General," she confessed and watched as the man's jaw dropped in astonishment.
"Why on earth would you do that?" Hercuba fretted, afraid that they were now mixed up in something that involved the Conqueror, a person whom she feared more then death itself.
"I heard about the plan and I knew that if it was successful it would only result in the Conqueror turning her attention here. I know that Xena would not let such an action go unpunished and because of that I feared that innocent people would die."
"So you betrayed your own people," Herodatus was aghast, not understanding how his daughter could get involved. He shook his head in disgust. "You have brought disgrace to your whole family."
Without another word he turned and stormed away with Hercuba following quickly behind. Gabrielle stared after them feeling an incredible pain in her heart that they hadn't understood. Surely they could see that it was better for only a few to die rather then many. She glanced around and saw the merchants and townsfolk staring at her with thinly veiled disgust and animosity.
A shiver raced down her spine as she looked at these people. People she had known all her life. They turned away unable to met her gaze and she knew what they were thinking. She watched with a heavy heart as the town mayor strolled towards her. She looked up at the grey haired man.
"Every one in the market heard his accusations," Kildus the town reeve said sadly. He had always liked the girl but had acknowledged like the others that her desire to be different would some day lead to trouble. "I daresay it would be best for every one if you stayed away. I know this is your home and as it's citizen we can not make you leave but know that it will be a long time before the people here forget what they saw and heard today."
"But I did it to save them all," she moaned wishing someone would understand.
"Perhaps your intentions were honourable, but people will believe you had other motives," the mayor was blunt. "There are rumours of your alliance to the Empress and regardless of the truth they will only see that part."
Gabrielle nodded mutely and turned away walking slowly towards the path that lead through the village to their house on the outskirts of the town. She kept her head down unwilling to see the looks that were thrown her away. She was barely aware of her sister walking next to her.
"Are you a spy Gabrielle?" Lila dared to ask the question that no one else would.
"What?" Gabrielle was stunned by the accusation. She turned to stare open mouthed at her sister.
The suggestion hurt. "Do you think I am a spy?"
"I don't know," the girl shook her head. "I do know that you were visiting the army camp when the Conqueror was in the region."
"How did you hear about that?" the bard's entire body tensed and she wondered if Salmoneus had lied to her.
"The same way the reeve heard the rumours. We may be out in the middle of nowhere but news still travels," the younger woman said with a hint of sarcasm. "A travelling merchant was in Amphipolis when a escort from the camp came to get you."
"Rufus was entertaining the Conqueror. He wanted me to perform for her," Gabrielle shrugged disappointed that her sister would believe otherwise. "I am a bard."
"Was it your bardly duties that took you to Corinth a full moon later?"
Gabrielle was silent. She looked at her sister intently, quietly contemplating whether she should tell the truth. Lila and her had always been close and they had shared each others secrets. She was tempted now to tell her secret but hesitated uncertain of the reaction she would receive.
"I've been to Corinth and Athens on numerous occasions," she replied hoping that would end the discussion but Lila proved to be more persistent than her usual self.
"Really," the younger girl pondered thoughtfully. "Then why were you being escorted by the Royal Palace Guard?"
Gabrielle was silent, her eyes narrowing thoughtfully as she sifted through several responses. She settled on a question of her own. "How do you know so much?"
"The same merchant that saw you in Amphipolis saw you again in Corinth," Lila revealed her source of information. "He has been sweet on me for awhile and he mentioned it when I told him you were my sister. Are you in trouble Bri?"
"No," the bard sighed and slumped onto a nearby rock. Her sister slipped onto a seat next to her. "If I tell you something can you promise to say nothing to mom or dad?"
The younger girl saw the imploring appeal in her sisters green eyes and nodded her head. She took her sisters hand and held it, wisely deciding to remain silent. She couldn't imagine what her older sibling had to say and feared the worst.
"I'm part of the Royal household," Gabrielle finally said after mulling over several explanations and rejecting them all. She worried about how Lila would accept the truth. "The Empress heard my stories and liked them. So, now I entertain her and her guests at the Palace."
"Oh, Bri, you're a slave," Lila immediately assumed the worst. "How terrible for you...but then how is it that you are here at home?...Oh, I understand, the Conqueror is away at war....but then that means Joshua must be a soldier sent to keep an eye on you."
Gabrielle winced as her sister put the jumbled pieces together. The younger girl was immediately sympathetic to her plight and the bard could have left it at that but her guilty conscious got the better of her. Finally unable to take any more she snatched her hand away and jumped to her feet taking several paces before turning to face the younger girl. The sudden action was effective in silencing her sisters chatter.
"No," the older girl shook her head, no longer able to lie. "Joshua is a soldier, he belongs to the Royal Guard and the Conqueror is away fighting a war but I am not a slave. I am living at the Palace of my own free will."
"What are you saying?" Lila was shocked by the confession. The colour drained from her face and Gabrielle rushed across the space separating them, grasping her sisters hands between her own. She wanted the younger girl to understand.
"We're friends," the bard said realizing that Lila would have a hard time accepting the truth. "You know that story I told the other night at the Inn, well that was the story about Xena and me. I was on my way to Amphipolis when I was accosted by six bandits. The Conqueror suddenly appeared and most certainly saved my life. Later Rufus invited me to entertain her at his army camp and I did. For almost one full moon I told her stories and in return she gave me staff lessons so I could protect myself. Then when she returned to Corinth I followed her."
"You followed her!" Lila could not hide her shock and her eyes grew wide with astonishment.
"Yes," Gabrielle held tightly onto her sisters wrists feeling the other girl begin to pull away. She didn't want Lila to leave until she heard the whole story. "She's not like everyone says. She's warm and funny and she really cares but can't show that because she's too busy trying to protect herself from all those trying to kill her."
"You know why that is?" Lila succeeded in pulling her hands away and she stood up taking several steps backwards as if horrified by what she was hearing. "Bri, she's killed thousands of people, innocent women and children. Think about what happened at Cirra. How could you befriend such a monster?"
"I don't know," the bard sighed admitting the truth. "I think I hated her as much as everyone else, but then I got to know her and I don't hate her any more. I don't know how to explain it except to say that she's not the monster everyone thinks, at least not with me she isn't."
"Maybe you haven't done anything to upset her yet," the younger girl suggested with a hint of anger and the bard knew her sister thought she had betrayed them all.
"No," Gabrielle shook her head. "I've done things that I know would get other people executed but she hasn't laid a hand on me that I didn't want."
There was silence as the other girl absorbed this information and then her eyes grew large with the realization of what her sister had meant. "Oh Bri!"
The bard grimaced at the despairing sound in her siblings voice. She said nothing aware it would take awhile for Lila to accept. Sadly she had to acknowledge that it was possible that her sister never would.
"How could you?" the expression on the younger girl's face tore at the bard's heart. "How can you be with a creature like that?"
"It's easy," Gabrielle replied deciding to hold nothing back. She looked up and met her sister's gaze. "I love her."
Lila just shook her head in disbelief. "You're not my sister. I don't know who you are." With that the younger woman ran off. Gabrielle was tempted to run after her but decided to wait, to give her time to adjust. She sat back down with her head bowed so that she didn't see Joshua approach.
"Is everything okay?" he asked gently having witnessed the scene between the sisters' from his position further back on the path.
At first he had been annoyed that he had been chosen for this assignment. Like the other soldiers he had wanted to follow the Empress into battle, but he had realized very quickly the importance of his assignment and the honour that had been bestowed upon him. Every one at the Palace had assumed the bard was merely a temporary diversion for a bored warrior but those closest to the pair had quickly come to realize the truth. Gabrielle was more important to Xena, Destroyer of Nations, then anyone had ever been. With that realization came the weight of responsibility which he took very seriously.
Besides that, he really liked the bard. She was warm, funny and totally selfless. He could understand what attracted the Conqueror to the girl but he couldn't understand how she could like someone like the Conqueror.
"I told her the truth," Gabrielle finally answered his question without looking up at him. Her eyes were staring down the path where Lila had disappeared. "She was pretty upset, I think I better go talk to her."
"No," Joshua gently laid his hand on her arm, a smile on his lips. "Let me go."
Gabrielle didn't know why she agreed to his request. Perhaps it was because she was already emotionally drained or perhaps it was her reluctance to engage in another argument. Maybe it was because she could trust the soldier to be gentle. Either way she watched as he sauntered off after her sister, suddenly feeling incredibly fatigued.
Joshua wasn't certain why he had made the offer. He hadn't said more than a few words to the younger girl, who seemed to be extraordinarily shy. Of course he was comparing her to her brash older sister, who he had come to admire, which was the reason he decided to try and help. Though he could tell no one his secret, it was something he cherished in himself.
He was in love with Gabrielle. If things had been different he would have made his feelings known but he had only to see the young woman look at the Empress to know that he stood no chance. Therefore, he decided if he was unable to be her lover then he would be the best friend possible. He found the younger woman by a stream.
Lila glanced up to see the soldier. Like a startled doe she jumped to her feet and glanced about her surroundings as if searching for some place to run and hide. The soldier sensed the girl was frightened of him.
"I don't mean you any harm," he held his hands up in peace. "I just want to talk to you."
"About what?" Lila did not let her guard down.
"Gabrielle," he replied and saw some of the tension leave the girl's body. Casually he sat down and gingerly Lila followed suit though she was careful to maintain a safe distance between them.
"Your sister is a very remarkable woman, did you know that," the young soldier opened the dialogue when there was nothing forthcoming from the girl. "She's smart and courageous and one heck of a storyteller."
"None of that matters," Lila said with a hint of disdain. "She's living in the Conqueror's Palace, doing all sorts of disgusting things."
"Some people might agree with you," he nodded, deciding to be honest. "I thought the same thing. I thought she must be some kind of fool but I learned differently. Did you know that she has stood up to the Conqueror on more then one occasion, telling the Empress exactly what she thinks? I don't know anyone else who is even half as brave."
Lila remained silent, curious to know more about her sister's relationship with the Empress. Joshua smiled as he glanced covertly at the girl out the corner of his eye. She wasn't half bad to look at, he decided absently, her long brown hair looked soft to touch and those wide brown eyes reminded him of a doe. Mentally he shook his head and brought his thoughts back to the topic at hand.
"Did you know that Gabrielle was responsible for getting the Conqueror to abolish the use of travel permits and lower the taxes? Most people don't know that, just like they don't know that she was the one to suggest using the soldiers in the fields during harvest."
Lila was interested now, though she wasn't certain she could believe this man, who was after all sworn to be loyal to the Empress. She studied his face closely. He was not unhandsome with soft features and curly brown hair. He seemed like a nice enough fellow.
"How do I know you're not just making this up?" she asked cautiously.
"You don't," he agreed with a sigh. "There is no reason for you to trust me, I am a loyal servant of the Empress and now, of your sister." He paused shaping the words in his head to convey what he needed to say. "The truth is that since Gabrielle has come to stay at the Palace the Conqueror has changed. Before she wouldn't give anyone a second chance but your sister has shown her that sometimes it's okay to use some compassion.
"Most people think that Gabrielle is just a new toy for the Conqueror to play with until something else comes along to capture her fancy but that isn't the truth. The truth is that Gabrielle is different then anyone the Empress has ever been with. She is special and just how special can be seen in the fact that I had been specifically assigned to watch and protect her. In the past the Conqueror hasn't cared enough about anyone to do that."
The man paused not certain the girl was understanding what he was saying . Slowly he stood up staring down at her for a long moment. "I know you probably won't believe this but Gabrielle and her relationship with the Conqueror is the best thing to happen to Greece in a very long time. There is hope now where once there was none."
Without another word the soldier retreated back down the path. Lila stared after him, her mind a turmoil of emotion. She was suspicious but she knew her sister. Gabrielle had always been her hero, standing up to their father when they had disagreed. The bard had never backed down from a challenge and the Conqueror was definitely a challenge. She found her older sibling sitting on the porch in front of the house. She didn't know that Gabrielle hadn't been able to summon the courage to go inside and face their parents.
"Are you really in love with her?" Lila asked quietly still uncertain of how she should feel. She loved her sister and wanted to be happy for her. Gabrielle nodded and smiled so brilliantly that no words were needed to express the truth.
"Yes, very much."
"And she loves you?"
For a moment a cloud darkened the bard's features. "I don't know," Gabrielle was honest. She didn't know if the Conqueror felt anything more than kindness towards her. "But it doesn't matter. I'll take what she is willing to give me."
"Is that enough?" Lila wanted to know. "What happens when she gets tired of you?"
"I try not to think of that," she sighed. "I guess I will just have to deal with that when it happens."
Lila was silent yet her heart was heavy. She loved her older sister and didn't want to see her get hurt.
"I won't say anything to Mom and Dad."
"Thank you," Gabrielle was grateful, though her heart was still heavy. She turned to stare out towards the mountains, a wistful longing filling her heart. It had been two full moons since Xena had led her army from Corinth. Two full moons of loneliness and constant longing for a companion she loved.
She savoured that love. For a long time she had wondered if she were capable of ever being able to feel that passion. She had thought herself incapable of giving that emotion to just one person, yet she had found the most unlikely candidate and given it all and it did not matter that the one she loved did not return those feelings. She turned and glanced at her sister. Lila only wanted her happiness and for that she was grateful. No one could replace the love of her family.