The Conqueror paced restlessly around the perimeter of the camp, her eyes trained across the open field towards the trees that marked the start of Amazon territory. It was late and the only ones awake, were the guards posted on watch. She couldn't sleep, her body filled with such pent up energy that she could barely remain still for more than a few moments.
She had tried everything she could to exhaust herself. She had sparred late into the evening with the Royal Palace guards and then taken a long solitary run through the forest, but still the blood roiled through her veins. Finally she stopped fighting the inevitable and turned her thoughts to the bard.
Since allowing the Amazon's to take Gabrielle back to their village she had been plagued with doubts over the decision. The young woman had needed attention, more attention then she had been able to give with a rebellious army on her hands. Yet when everything had finally been settled, and the instigators punished, she had been left with nothing but time to worry and fear. Worry about whether the girl was okay and fear that the Amazon's might now use her lover as a pawn.
She halted her pacing as an indescribable pain clutched at her heart. In retrospect her actions may have served only to put the girl in more danger, and if that happened she would never be able to forgive herself.
"Hades," she cursed, feeling the anger begin to rise up inside her body and wishing for some lasting release.
"I can help you," Ares said appearing in the darkness. The Conqueror turned to look at the God. "I can make you forget about everything. I can make you sleep like a baby."
Xena knew what he was offering and she could feel the unappeased desire roil through her body. She examined the God of War. He was as attractive as any man she had seen and the last time they had been together she had been completely sated. Her entire physical being cried out for the same satisfaction, but instead of accepting his invitation she stepped back.
"I'm not interested," she said, her nostrils flaring. The God laughed.
"Xena, you're always interested," Ares was not impressed by her rejection but he kept the smile on his face. "The only thing that ever interests you more is a good sword fight and....," he paused glancing at their surroundings. "I don't see anyone waiting here to attack you."
"Forget it Ares, I said I wasn't interested," she snarled.
"Of course you are, I can see that you're almost ready to jump out of your skin," he sniffed, reaching out to stroke the side of her face with his long fingers. This time she did not step away. He smiled feeling the pulse of her blood as it surged through her veins. "Come on Xena, how long has it been since you've really been satisfied?"
The Conqueror stood motionless, caught under his seductive spell. His fingers left a trail of fire on her skin, sending a warm flush through her body which was craving to be touched.
"No," she said in a harsh voice, stepping back, her eyes narrowing. "I will not let you seduce me Ares."
"Why not?" he asked through clenched teeth. "Are you afraid that you will see what you are missing?"
"No, I won't hurt Gabrielle," the Conqueror snarled and the God of War's eyes narrowed.
"You think being with me will hurt the bard," Ares laughed. "Gods Xena, when did you become so noble? You've had plenty of lovers before and never worried about taking a little action on the side."
"This is different," she said suddenly feeling incredibly weary. She was tired of fighting.
"How?" he wanted to know. "How is she different then the others?"
"She means more to me than any of them," Xena finally admitted the truth. Ares looked at her with a mixture of amusement and pity.
"Xena, Xena, Xena," his voice was sweet and patronizing. "Are you trying to tell me you are in love? Surely you can't be so blind. Have you forgotten Caesar, or Lao Ma or M'lila? You were in love with them but they all ended up turning you away. Once the little bard sees the real you, she will run away too. You must know that."
Xena didn't, but she expected it, wasn't that why she had left the girl behind when she had gone to fight the Horde. She hadn't wanted Gabrielle to see the dark side of her personality. The dark side that had made her Empress and Ruler of Greece. The God of War allowed his hand to drop so that it lightly rested on her breast. He could feel her response and it made him smile.
"In your heart you know the truth Xena. I'm the only one whose stuck by you," Ares said gently rubbing his thumb over the hardened nipple that pebbled her leathers. "I'm the only one who will accept all of you."
"No," she sneered. She knew how the Gods enjoyed manipulating mortals. She reached up and swept his hand away ignoring the blood pounding in her ears. Her pale eyes narrowed. "Gabrielle isn't like them."
"Tsk, tsk," the God of War sniffed. He enjoyed this verbal game that had developed between them. "Oh Xena, can't you see what's real. Artemis had Aphrodite put a spell on you. They are just using you to get back at me. So you see, this little infatuation you have with that little blond, isn't real."
The Conqueror felt the animal inside her stir. The thought of the Gods using her for fun gave rise to her anger, yet she kept her feelings in check, reigning in the panther and staying in control.
"Ares, you will say anything to get your way," she gave him a feral smile. "I know you would not allow the other Gods to toy with me. I know you don't like sharing me with anyone."
"Oh Xena, you think you know everything," Ares said arrogantly. Her resistance made him angry but he only continued to smile, shrugging indifferently. "Suit yourself but just don't call me when the little girl betrays you, because I won't come."
With a flash of light he was gone leaving her standing alone in the darkness. She took a deep breath and released some of the tension that filled her body. Everything he said had merit yet she wanted to ignore it. She didn't want to believe that the wonderful way the bard made her feel wasn't real. She enjoyed and needed it too much. But yet so much now made sense.
She turned and fixed her eyes on Amazonia for a long moment, giving in to her doubts. She had spoken to Argus before the Amazon's had taken him away. The story he told about the rebels and their leaders had confirmed something she had been trying to ignore. Gabrielle had not been one of their leaders but the bard had been close enough to the group to be included in their plans.
She took a deep breath. She didn't want to think about what that meant, it hurt to much. To acknowledge the truth would be to accept that Ares was right. She didn't want to think that Gabrielle would betray her, but the God of War had never lied to her.
"Don't let his words make you doubt," a voice said and the Conqueror swung around unsheathing her sword in one smooth motion.
Her pale blue eyes zeroed in on a woman, standing only a few feet away. She was tall with long, thick rust coloured hair. Her slender body was dressed in brown leathers that were decorated with feathers. In one hand was a hunters bow though it was without an arrow. Still the warrior did not let her guard down.
"What did you say?"
"I said don't let him make you doubt. Gabrielle would never knowingly betray you," the woman replied patiently. She never enjoyed dealing with mortals, for only a few of them were clever enough to truly understand the Gods. "Her heart is to pure for such deception."
"Who are you?" the Conqueror asked and the woman smiled serenely.
"They call me Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt," the entity said radiating an unearthly light that confirmed her Immortal status.
"What do you want with me?" Xena wanted to know. She had no use for the Gods, not even Ares who had gifted her with some of his strength.
"I want nothing from you. You are Ares' Chosen," Artemis said. "However, you are involved with someone whom I have come to favour."
"Gabrielle," the Conqueror hissed with sudden perception.
"Yes," the Goddess acknowledged nodding her head and causing the air around her to shimmer. "She really wasn't in my plans but she showed herself to be a friend to my people and now I find myself rather attached to her."
"Tell me about it," the Empress muttered in agreement and the Goddess smiled briefly before growing serious once more.
"I don't want to see anything happen to her."
"If you have been watching, you will have seen Gabrielle has a pendant for getting into trouble all on her own," Xena sniffed and then eyed the Goddess through pale slits. When she spoke again there was an edge to her voice. "But that's not what concerns you is it. You think I might harm her?"
"Behind that stoic mask you wear, you are a deeply emotional woman who has killed more than one person during a rage," Artemis was blunt. "You are all powerful and physically you could destroy anyone."
"I would never raise a hand to her," the Conqueror said in a cold voice.
"I am talking about more than physical pain," the Goddess sighed. "Injuries to the body heal. I am more concerned about what you could do to her heart."
The Conqueror was silent and unconsciously her guard relaxed, her sword hand dropping to her side.
"I would never do anything to hurt Gabrielle."
"Perhaps not intentionally. I have watched you and seen that you have been honourable and that will be rewarded, but you must know that she looks for your approval in everything she does. If she were to know your thoughts she would be irrevocably hurt."
"But the evidence..."
"The evidence can be twisted by those who wish to lessen their own guilt," Artemis said. "Do not look to the past, think of the present and the future. Since you have been together has she done anything to suggest that she was lying to you?"
The Conqueror was quiet as she digested those thoughts. It was true. Gabrielle had been honest since the very first moment they met. The girl had never tried to hide anything.
"Gabrielle is in love with you," the Goddess reminded.
"I know," Xena nodded. "But it is only a spell."
"There is no spell," Artemis shook her head. "What you feel, what Gabrielle feels, is real. The only thing Aphrodite did was contrive for you to meet. The rest you have done yourself."
"Then why are you concerned?" the Conqueror asked.
"Because I can see the doubt that Ares has planted in your mind," Artemis said. "Your love takes you further away from him. It makes you more compassionate and stronger because you are no longer alone."
"You still haven't told me why you care?"
"Because in Gabrielle I see so much of what can be," the Goddess replied. "Since she has been with you, she had changed. She is becoming stronger, more confident. She is learning so much from you. These are all things that will help the Amazon Nation remain strong."
"What do you want me to do?" the dark warrior was curious.
"I want you to pledge yourself to her," Artemis replied. "Claim what is already yours. Forget about what has been and treat her as an equal."
"And if I don't?" Xena asked leery of anything the Gods wanted.
"Then you will still have her but you will not experience the complete joy that comes only with surrender."
"I surrender to no one," the Conqueror said heatedly.
"Then you will experience more sadness than joy," Artemis sighed sadly. "Do not be so hasty in rejecting my solution. Look to whom you are surrendering. Gabrielle is not Ares, nor is she Caesar, or Lao Ma or even M'lila. She is more then all of them. Her heart is pure, her intentions above reproach.
"How many people would defend someone they didn't know just because she believed in their goodness?" the Goddess asked, slowly starting to fade away. "Remember she believed in you long before she knew you."
Xena watched impassively as the Goddess disappeared, her words still echoing through the air around her. Slowly her turned, re-sheathing her sword and staring once more towards Amazonia.
Surrender! she snorted. She had heard the word often in battle when an enemy had finally admitted defeat. She had never spoken that pledge, not since she had first taken up the sword to defend her village against Cortese. It was a word she had banished from her vocabulary as victory after victory was conceded to her army. She had not conquered all of Greece just to surrender to a bard. A young woman barely out of her childhood.
She felt a surge of anger at the thought but almost as quickly it died, as the truth pierced her heart with the sharpness of a sword. As much as she wanted to deny it, to fight the inevitable, the fact was that she had already capitulated to the girl. She had conceded defeat to an enemy she had never faced. She had been conquered without a battle.
She sighed. Funny, it didn't seem so bad. She certainly didn't feel any different. There was no iron weight holding her down, in fact the truth almost made her feel lighter, as if a burden had been lifted from her shoulders. Perhaps this surrendering thing wasn't so bad. She smiled and turned her head up to the sky, closing her eyes to the darkness and letting the light of the truth shine through. But something tickled her brain and reality stirred once more.
As long as Gabrielle remained by her side, the bard would always be a target for those who most wanted to hurt her. That had been proven by Rufus who had done his best to try and destroy the girl, knowing how much that would destroy her.
Yet at the same time she knew she would never give up the woman, not without a fight. She would do anything for the girl, even make peace with the Amazon's, a nation she had once sworn to destroy. It was ironic how things worked in the cycle of life. Friends became foes and foes became friends.
She opened her eyes and saw that night was slowly giving way to the day. In the pre-dawn light she could see the Amazon border guards watching her camp from their perches in the trees. Despite the fact that a peace treaty was to be signed between them, both sides were nervous, not completely certain they could trust each other. The Conqueror snorted. She wasn't certain it would work, but for the bard's sake she would try.
Joshua approached the Empress with caution, making enough noise so that she would not be surprised. He knew she had not taken any rest that night. She had dealt with the mess General Rufus had created and then exiled herself to a lonely vigil at the edge of the camp. He had caught her glancing towards the Amazon territory and he knew she was thinking of the bard. Though she wore the same dour mask, he knew the separation was hurting her. He cleared his throat.
"Empress," he said breaking the silence. "I have brought you a hot cup of tea. It's chilly out this morning and I thought you might like something warm."
"Yes," Xena nodded abruptly, appreciating the gesture. She took the mug he held out. The hot liquid felt good on her throat and she realized she was more weary then she thought. She turned her eyes back to the plain.
"I'm sure she is all right," the soldier dared to say, no longer as frightened of this woman as he once had been. Gabrielle had made the Conqueror seem more accessible, more human. "I've heard their healers are quite good and with her being their Queen I'm certain they will take extra special care of her."
"They better or they will have me to deal with," Xena muttered and then glanced at her companion.
With one brief look she could see what the young man was trying to hide. He was in love with Gabrielle and the Empress wondered how many more there were like him. Certainly in the brief time she had been at the Palace the girl had gathered a loyal following amongst the servants.
Normally that realization would have stoked the fires of jealousy inside her. Xena had never wanted her lovers to be more popular then herself, yet for the first time she didn't mind. On the contrary she took pleasure in the fact that people cared so much for her companion.
"Thank you Joshua, you have been a good friend to Gabrielle," the Conqueror said surprising the young man who was so flustered by the praise that he was momentarily rendered speechless. He was saved from making any response by the thundering sound of horses approaching.
They turned to see a party of six horsemen, bearing the Empress' standard, heading towards them. The Conqueror spotted Archius amongst the group of soldiers. She shoved the mug back at her companion and strolled purposefully across the camp to greet them.
"I had not expected you to arrive so quickly," she said as the man dismounted from his horse and straightened his cloak and tunic.
"Your message said it was a most urgent matter," Archius replied bowing formally.
"Yes," the Conqueror nodded. "Did you bring everything I requested?"
"All the scrolls relating to this matter are here," the small man turned and retrieved a pouch from his horse.
"Good," the Empress accepted the offering. "Escort me to my tent."
Archius nodded and hurried after the woman. The message he had received had been vague in detail yet some of his questions had been answered by the sight that greeted them as they neared the camp.
More than a dozen crosses had been erected along the side of the roadway with a man tied to each. Most were already dead from the beatings they had received but there were a few who stubbornly clung to life. He had heard their feeble whimpers in passing.
He glanced around the camp. He could feel the tension and the fear. He noticed the fugitive and frightened glances the soldiers cast in the Conqueror's direction. His shrewd eyes took in the absence of General Rufus and it didn't take him long to fit all the pieces together. He looked up at the Empress seeing the tension in her features.
"Is everything all right?" he inquired casually.
"We've had a few minor problems, but they have been taken care of," the Conqueror answered his question in a cool voice. "I will be appointing a new General to lead the Regional Army."
Archius needed to hear no more. Her words confirmed his suspicions. He was not surprised by the news, and though he was curious to learn more he would not dare ask the Conqueror. He would get the details from Zenon.
"How is everything in my Empire?" the Empress asked needing to distance herself from the subject for awhile.
"Good," Archius replied, struggling to keep up with her long smooth strides. "However, just prior to my departure. I received disturbing news from General Loris. It seems they captured a Roman patrol inside our borders."
"Oh?" both eyebrows raised curiously.
"Yes, apparently they got lost when they accidentally became separated from their main army."
"Does Loris believe that?" the Conqueror was thoughtful.
"Their explanation is plausible, considering that Caesar has been moving his armies North along the borders," the smaller man replied. "Our sources tell us that he has grand plans of conquering both Gaul and Britannia. General Loris believes he is trying to gloat you into action."
"Why? I have no fondness for either the Gauls or the Celts," the Empress shrugged indifferently, though her analytical mind was working out all the possibilities.
"I think his plan is to draw you out of Greece. He may be of the mind that you would follow him and try to prevent his plans for extending the Roman Empire."
"Perhaps," the Conqueror conceded the possibility and then gave her companion a feral grin. "If I did not know Caesar so well I might consider the idea, but I am not stupid. I know the moment my armies leave port for Britannia, he will attempt to turn his remaining forces on Greece. Besides he can have the north, I have no interest in those barren lands."
Archius smiled. He could almost tell what the Conqueror was thinking. While Caesar occupied himself in the north, she would concentrate on getting a firmer foothold in the lands around the Mediterranean, which were richer and more productive.
"The General wishes to know what you would like done with the prisoners?"
"Send a message that he should continue to hold them while I consider the matter. Let's see what kind of response Caesar comes up with," she paused. "Where is the Third Army?'
"They are still in the Northern region," the man replied.
"Good keep them there, but have them change their standard to mark them as the 5th Army and then have them return to Loris' Command," the Empress said looking at the small man. "In the meantime there is a problem with the Amazon's that needs to be dealt with. Though a general agreement towards peace has already been reached, there are still several matters to be negotiated."
"Peace!" Archius was so startled he almost tripped over his own feet. "But I thought you intended suppressing them with your armies."
"Circumstances have changed," the Empress spoke of the matter as if it was of little consequence. "The Amazons now possess something I have no wish to destroy."
"But surely you could just go in and take it," Archius said, confused by this sudden change in policy.
"I could but its not so simple," the Conqueror sighed, thinking of how when the bard become involved in anything it always became complicated. "The situation is much to delicate for that, which is why I will be handling the negotiations myself. I'm sorry for making you come all the way out here for nothing."
"It's all right, your Highness," the man was taken aback by the apology. He peered up at the woman. She was different somehow, less aloof. He took a deep breath and then asked a question that had been weighing heavily on his mind. "The bard, Miss Gabrielle, have you found her?"
"Yes, she is with the Amazon's," the Conqueror replied in a voice that was filled with a sweet kind of sadness.
"Then what General Rufus said was true?" the man didn't want to believe it possible.
"No," Xena assuaged his fear, a weary smile on her lips. "It seems that through a series of circumstances she has been made their Queen. It's a long story and one I'm sure she will delight in telling you some day."
"Then she is coming back?" the man dared to ask and the tall woman fixed him with a steady gaze.
"I will not return to Corinth until she is able to come with me," the answer was firm and left him in no doubt towards how she felt. "Now make sure you take some food and rest. I want to read these scrolls and when I am done I will send for you."
"Yes, my Empress," the man bowed and watched as the woman ducked into the tent.
He waited only a moment before turning and hurrying off in search of Zenon, with the hopes that the soldier might provide some insight into what had happened. The Conqueror's revelation had been a shock yet he understood now why the Empress was signing a treaty that she would never before have considered. The situation had certainly become more interesting.
Ephiny stared at the girl lying on the pallet next to her. Long reddish blond hair was pulled back to reveal a soft, almost childlike face. The woman was younger then she first thought with a look of innocence that only age would be able to erase. But the Amazon knew physical age meant nothing. This girl had shown courage and wisdom beyond her years. Even the healers were enamoured with the woman, whispering that Queen Melosa's decision had been inspired by the Gods.
She had been amused by the gossip but the more time she had to think about the matter the less strange it seemed. The Gods sometimes acted beyond the Realm of mortal understanding.
Gabrielle groaned, summoned from her fitful slumber by an invisible force. She grudgingly opened one eye, closing it quickly when a stream of bright light pierced her visual senses. Her head ached and her entire body felt like a lead weight. There was a stinging pain in her shoulder and a fire burning across her belly. She moaned, wishing the pain would go away.
"Are you all right?" Ephiny asked with concern. "Do you want me to call the healers? I'm sure they can give you something for the pain."
"No!" a pair of green eyes popped open as the face scrunched up into a disgusted frown. "That stuff they gave me tasted like fur off a centaurs butt."
"It worked didn't it?" the Amazon reminded pointedly.
"Yeah, but I'm certain I'll be tasting it for the next month. It's almost as bad as that cereal you eat," Gabrielle shuddered melodramatically and Ephiny struggled not to smile. The bard cautiously turned her head to find a lovely pair of grey eyes, topped by a mop of curly blond hair, staring at her. "How long have I been out?"
"Three days," another voice supplied the answer and Gabrielle glanced towards the foot of her cot where an older woman stood. There was a gentle smile on the healers face as she moved around the bed and sat down on a nearby stool. "Your wound wasn't as serious as we first feared but it was bad enough that we worried you would become fevered and rip out the stitches. We gave you a potion to make you sleep."
"Three days!" Gabrielle was astounded by the truth. Her thoughts flew to Xena. "The Conqueror has she been here?"
"No," Kastra shook her head watching as a dejected look crossed the young girl's face. Without knowing why she hastened to defend the Empress' absence, remembering a little of what Eponin had said the last time she had visited the village. "She has been busy dealing with her army but she left word that if your condition were to become critical we were to send for her. I am certain she will be here in the next day or two to begin negotiations on the peace treaty."
"Oh," the bard said but she could not hide the sadness she felt.
"She was very worried about you, her only concern was that you receive the best care as soon as possible," the healer realized that the girl needed reassurance.
Kastra had seen the look of utter devotion that the Conqueror had bestowed on the girl prior to turning her over to the Amazon's. She had seen the pain it had caused the Empress and knew without a doubt the depth of feeling the Ruler of Greece had towards this young woman. It had been a revelation to learn that their most feared enemy was as human as the rest of them.
"Thank you, the medicine you're giving me for my injuries must be making me a little crazy," Gabrielle smiled weakly trying to hide her insecurities, remembering that she was only one person in a whole nation that Xena had to govern. She had to accept that her beloved could not drop everything to sit at her bedside.
"Speaking of your injuries, how are you feeling?"
"Sore," the girl sighed. "I feel like the whole nation of centaurs rode over me."
"That's normal," the healer smiled. "I checked your wounds earlier this morning and they are healing fine though it will still be a few days before it will be safe for you to get out of bed."
"A few days," Gabrielle lamented.
"Unfortunately it will take that long to ensure that the stitches are setting, I realize it is difficult to stay put that long," Kastra cast a perturbed glance at the woman lying on the next cot before turning back to the bard. "But it is a necessity. Your saddlebags and personal items are at the foot of the cot. If you want anything you need only ask."
"Actually, I would like something to read," Gabrielle said thoughtfully, aware that she could put this forced confinement to good use. "You don't happen to have any available scrolls on Amazon laws and traditions, do you?"
"Certainly," the healer was delighted by this request. She stood up. "I'll have one of my assistants go right now and fetch them for you."
"Thank you," the bard barely managed to say before the older woman hurried off.
"You know Amazon laws and traditions aren't a very interesting read," the warrior in the next cot commented when they were alone and Gabrielle turned her attention back to the woman who had been silently watching the exchange.
"It's better then nothing," the bard sighed. "Besides I can't just lay here for three more days, it will make me nuts."
"I know this whole forced rest thing sucks," the Amazon agreed marvelling at the pretty green eyes that were staring at her. "The names Ephiny."
"It's nice to finally meet you Ephiny," the bard smiled and the green eyes flashed. "I'm Gabrielle."
"Hi, Gabrielle," the Amazon smiled and then grew sombre. "I haven't had a chance yet to thank you for saving my life. If you hadn't come along I would be dead."
"I wish I could have done more to help your friends," the girl brushed aside the appreciation, embarrassed by the gratitude.
"You did more then most," Ephiny disagreed and eyed her curiously. "Why'd you do it?"
A wistful smile crossed the bards lips as she remembered a day not so very long ago. "Someone saved me once and it changed my life forever. I wanted to repay the favour and it just so happened that you were there."
"I'm sorry it's brought you so much trouble," the other woman was sincere.
"Don't worry about it," Gabrielle said cheerfully. "I've learned that every action brings some kind of consequence and its up to each of us to determine whether its good or bad. No one plans for these things to happen they just do, but if you have enough faith they will all work out in the end."
Ephiny marvelled at the girl's optimism. It was a pleasing change from the usual pessimism that hung over the village. Curiously she found herself liking the girl. She had a charm that shone out like a beacon. She was beginning to understand why everyone was impressed.
"Everyone has been saying that you are a bard," the Amazon said cautiously wandering if it were true.
"Yes," Gabrielle nodded.
"Then perhaps this will make a good story," Ephiny suggested.
"Hopefully, something good has to come out of this mess," the bard smiled and looked at the other woman. "Would you like to hear a story?"
All it took was for the woman to nod her head and Gabrielle was off, launching into a tale of a hapless village girl and her soldier lover. It seemed like such a long time since she had used her talent and it felt good, not just to be telling stories again, but to have her mind diverted from the pains that consumed her body and her heart.
Lesta was pleased by Kastra's report that the girl was finally awake. The whole council breathed a collective sigh of relief. They had all been living with the same fear, worried about what the Conqueror would do if the young woman succumbed to her wounds. Now that the girl was awake and recovering without complications they could turn their thoughts to the matter of the peace treaty.
The Elders debated long into the night before coming to a consensus. They had negotiated treaties before but none of them were this important. They knew that they were in no position to make any demands yet they had to make it clear to the Conqueror that they were to be treated as allies and not as a conquered nation. Thus the lengthy discussion.
It had been Lesta's idea to consult with the bard Gabrielle and that had brought about considerable opposition from those who were still adverse to the concept of the young woman being their new Queen. She knew that some of the more militant Elders sided with Velaska. They had been reared in the strictest of Amazon tradition and were offended by the realization that Melosa had bestowed her Right of Caste on an outsider. A woman barely out of childhood with no or little experience. A woman whose loyalties were tied to the Conqueror.
Nonetheless she had persisted, reminding them that the girl had thus far acted with more common sense then devotion. Finally, late into the night they had all agreed. She would speak with the woman in the hopes of gaining some insight into how far they could push the Conqueror. To that end she made her way across the compound towards the healers hut.
She glanced about the village noticing that all the Amazon's were walking around with some type of weapon on their person. Eponin had put the tribe on a state of warlike readiness before heading back to the border that morning. The Weapon's Master had often been accused of being overly cautious but on this occasion no one seemed to mind.
She sighed. The whole situation was almost to heavy a burden to bear. She had looked forward to her golden years as peaceful ones, where she would sit on the Elders council and dispense wisdom to the ruling Queen. She had never imagined that she would be chosen to act as Regent.
She arrived at the healers hut and slipped in unannounced, pausing at the door for a moment to scan the dim interior. The place was empty with the exception of the two patients who were lying next to each other on the far side of the hut. She noticed the friendly way they were talking and it gave her pleasure. She motioned to Kastra who understood the silent communication.
"Come Ephiny," the healer moved over to the Amazon's bed and helped her to her feet. "I think it's time you and I took a walk."
The unexpected action took both the Amazon and the bard by surprise and Ephiny was about to protest when she noticed Lesta standing by the doorway. She understood immediately why she was being given a brief moment of freedom.
Gabrielle was not as clear and was disappointed that her only source of distraction was being led away. The healer had promised to get her some scrolls to read but until now nothing had been delivered. She stared morosely at her surroundings realizing only then that she was not alone.
"Good morning my Queen," Lesta greeted the woman pleasantly, moving across the hut to sit down on the stool by the bard's bed.
"Good morning, and please call me Gabrielle," the young woman replied. She was embarrassed about being called Queen.
"That would be bad protocol," the Elder responded. She knew how the girl disliked the fact that she was their leader. "Kastra says that your wounds are healing nicely."
"Yes, though she says it will be a few days before she will let me up," the blond woman replied and the older woman could hear a note of hesitation in the girl's voice.
"You sound a little scared my Queen. Are you afraid of me?" Lesta asked even as the revelation came to her.
"It's nothing personal but every time you come around it's with news I don't want to hear," Gabrielle was honest and the other woman laughed.
"Yes, I suppose that's true enough," the smile faded as the older woman looked intently down at the girl. "Fortunately this time I am here for a different reason. This situation with the impending peace treaty has put us in an awkward position and we were hoping you could help us out."
"How could I help you?" the girl wondered. She was more then a little suspicious.
"You have a knowledge of the Conqueror that could help us..."
"I will not betray her," the bard interrupted. "I know I am your Queen but she is my friend and I will tell you nothing that could hurt her."
"We have no intention of hurting her," Lesta assured the girl, startled by the fierce defence of the Empress. "What we need from you is an idea of what we should be asking from the Conqueror in regards to this treaty. We want to make this process as simple as possible. Treaty negotiations can go on for a very long period and my Sister's and I worry that we might extend the Conqueror's patience."
"Oh!" this revelation momentarily stunned the bard. She had not considered that they would come to her for advice. She remembered the Conqueror's impatience with the Roman's. "Yeah, Xena gets a little pissed off when things go to slowly."
"Exactly, and it's our intention to keep her in the best possible mood. We found that we have our greatest success when those on the opposite side of the bargaining table are in a good mood." Lesta confided. "Anyway, there are certain concessions we would like to demand."
"You can't demand anything," Gabrielle stated very clearly. "You have to remember she is in control."
"But we can't just surrender, the whole Nation would not stand for it," the Elder shook her head.
"Then you have to offer something that is appealing to her," the bard said with a ghost of a smile as she remembered the negotiating exercise Archius and her had performed the day before she had left the Capital. "For one thing you could offer to supply warriors for her army. Every Commander likes the idea of more troops."
"I'm not sure how many Amazon's would be willing to serve under the Conqueror's standard," Lesta was not encouraging.
"Perhaps not, but they have to remember this is for the good of the whole Nation," the girl reminded. "You are going to have to give concession to get anything, besides the Empress is a Hades of a Commander. They might like being on a winning side for a change."
"Okay," Lesta ignored the last comment because she knew that the Amazon's had been losing to many battles lately. "What else?"
"You could open up your borders to her army. Allow it passage through Amazon territory whenever it heads East," Gabrielle suggested remembering something else that Archius had mentioned. "Right now it takes five days to go around your territory, with the short cut it would only take three days."
"Impossible," the Elder objected doubting that the bard knew what she was saying. "It is forbidden for any men to enter Amazon territory. My Sisters would not tolerate such a concession."
"At first glance it might seem terrible but think of the side benefits for the Nation," Gabrielle said.
"What side benefits?" the older woman wondered suspiciously.
"You could trade with the soldiers," the girl continued. "You know leathers and crafts, things like that. Then of course there is the other benefits to having men around."
"What other benefits?" the older woman asked and Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
"Aren't you are always looking to increase your population. Just imagine the possibilities of having an army of available soldiers," the bard left the rest unsaid and for a moment the Elder was to shocked to say anything. She had presumed that this young woman was naive but it was obvious that the girl was more worldly then she appeared.
"Well, that is always a possibility," Lesta agreed once she recovered her composure. She could only imagine what the reaction would be from the other Elders when she mentioned this little bit of information. Though she wasn't to certain the rest of the Amazon Nation wouldn't consider it a good trade off.
"Then there is the situation with the Centaurs," Gabrielle continued when the woman said nothing more. "I don't know why but I do know that she isn't pleased about the constant conflict that exists between the Amazon's and the Centaurs. I think she might appreciate a truce between your two Nations."
Lesta looked at the girl, not knowing what to say. The Amazon's and Centaurs had been at war with each other for as long as she could remember. So long in fact that she doubted if anyone could remember what had started it. She eyed the girl critically.
"You really think that would make her happy?"
"I don't know if that would make her happy, but I know that it might be something to consider," the bard shrugged and then winced, having momentarily forgotten about the wound in her shoulder.
Lesta was thoughtful for a moment. She looked at the girl. "All we have talked about is concessions. The Amazon's need something in return."
"What do you want?"
"We have always coveted the grazing land to the South. It is an empty tract of land with a deep forest that stretches to the Sea. We are always in need of more hunting lands."
"That doesn't sound to unreasonable," the bard conceded. "What about the mountains? I think I heard some place that they are rich in minerals."
"Indeed they are but the Amazons don't have the resources to mine them," the Elder replied.
"Then make a deal whereby the Conqueror gets access to mine the minerals and you share the wealth."
Lesta nodded thoughtfully. That was an idea worth considering. It would benefit not only the Conqueror, which would appeal to the woman, but also the Amazon's who could use the extra cash that it would bring into their meagre coffers.
"Is there any other little pieces of information that we could use?" the Elder asked aware that the girl had already given her a wealth of useful tidbit's.
"Well, I know the Conqueror is always in need of a consistent supply of good quality weapons, and leather armour, while the Amazon's are always in need of grain for the cereal you love to eat," Gabrielle said thoughtfully. "Why don't you make a deal to supply the Conqueror's army with weapon's, and supplies and ask for the grain in return?"
"That is a very good suggestion," the Elder was impressed. She eyed the girl thoughtfully. "I would almost think this had been all planned out before hand."
Gabrielle blushed. "Aah no, I was just using my common sense. The only negotiating I do is with the merchants in the marketplace," she said hastily.
"I pity them," the Elder commented dryly, almost glad that she wasn't negotiating against this woman. "Is there anything we might watch out for?"
"No, just don't piss her off. She may be doing this treaty for me, but she will feel pressured. You push her to hard and it won't matter what I think. She has the power and the capabilities to storm in here and take whatever she wants."
Lesta knew that the girl's words were meant as a warning. It was a warning that she would take seriously. She left the healers hut with a lot to think about. The Council of Elders was not scheduled to meet until later that afternoon which gave her time to prepare her arguments.
It was evening before the Conqueror was finished pouring over the scrolls that Archius had brought from the Capital. When she was done she sent one of her personal guards to fetch the man, spending the time until he arrived by pacing restlessly around her tent.
"You summoned my Conqueror," Archius said ducking into the command tent after being told to enter.
"Have a seat," the Empress motioned to a chair by the table. "Would you like some port?"
"No thank you," the aide declined the invitation aware that whenever the Conqueror offered a refreshment it meant that they had a long night of discussion ahead of them. He watched intently as she poured herself a cup and took a swallow. Wisely he waited for her to speak.
"I have been thinking about this treaty with the Amazon's," Xena said after wetting her throat.
"Yes, Empress," the man prompted when the woman fell silent. The Conqueror glanced up and then nodded.
"What do they have that we could use the most?"
Archius smiled as an earlier negotiations with another woman came to mind.
"How about access to the mountains in the western part of their region?" he suggested aware the Empress was waiting for him to speak. "It has long been rumoured to contain valuable mineral resources. They do not have the capabilities to mine the raw material on their own, that's why it has been left untouched."
"Yes, and with the wealth that those mines could bring in I could raise an even larger army, though I don't particularly enjoy employing mercenaries," Xena nodded and looked at the man with a bemused smile. "Caesar wouldn't dare think of challenging me then. What else can we get from these people?"
Archius replied with a corresponding smile. If there was one thing that he enjoyed more then anything it was the negotiating of a treaty and though he was disappointed that the Empress would be handling this matter on her own, he was pleased that she had turned to him for advice.
It was well after dark before the Conqueror was satisfied that she would be able to go to the Amazons and come back with enough to keep her happy. She knew that she could force the Amazon's to submit to all her demands but for the first time she didn't want to do that. Perhaps she could gain everything she wanted without raising a sword. It was a novel idea.
"Thank you Archius," she said escorting him out of the tent and realizing only then how late it was. "I don't expect I will see you again until this matter is completely resolved. I will be leaving for the Amazon village early in the morning so have a safe trip back to the Capital and I hope to see you there soon."
"Yes, my Conqueror," the man nodded and strolled off leaving the woman alone.
Xena glanced about the quiet camp. There were only a few fires burning and the troops that had remained at her command were now sleeping. She glanced up at the night sky and smiled, realizing that tomorrow she would be seeing the bard again. It was a pleasant thought that kept her company for the remainder of the night.
Solari stared anxiously across the plain. They had been watching the small army camp with a mixture of fear and trepidation. There was a lot of activity with men and horses coming and going. They had even spotted the Conqueror on several occasions. She looked at her fellow warrior's all of whom wore the same anxious expression.
She shifted uneasily, turning her attention once more across the field. Eponin had stationed warriors all along the border but it was a small force in comparison to one that the Conqueror could muster. They watched and waited with the knowledge that if the Empress decided to attack, there would be little they could do to stop her.
She sighed. Like many of the others she was hesitant to believe that the Empress would so easily consider a treaty, especially with the contentious history that existed between them. She worried that it could be an elaborate trap.
A familiar bird call echoed through the forest. She returned it and then watched as the Weapon's Master swung through the trees and up onto a nearby perch. Eponin glided with practiced ease onto a sturdy branch next to her friend.
"Did you have a good sleep?" Solari bade her friend in greeting. The older Amazon had arrived at the border late the previous evening and after checking the guards she had been convinced to take a rest. It had been the first real night's sleep the woman had gotten in the last few days.
"Slept like a baby," the Amazon nodded. "How is everything?"
"Quiet," Solari made her report and Eponin's face puckered into a contemplative frown. Nothing was making sense, yet it was all real. "There have been small parties of riders entering and leaving the camp but other then that everything has been calm."
"And the Conqueror?"
"Two nights previous the watch reported that she was on the perimeter all night pacing, but at the dawn she retreated to her tent and was only seen once after that," the dark haired Amazon replied. "Do you think this is a trap?"
"My warrior instincts tell me to be careful," the woman replied with a sigh. "There is no logical reason for the Conqueror to make peace with us."
"Then you don't believe she needs our help against the Mongols in the East?" the Scout asked her mentor, a woman who had seen so much more in her lifetime.
"A Commander always welcomes more warriors to protect her borders," was the honest response. "But I can't help thinking there is another motive behind her actions."
"Then you think she really is doing this for our new Queen?" Solari asked observing the pained expression that crossed the other woman's face.
"Have you forgotten who we're talking about here?" the Weapon's Master looked at her incredulously.
"Well, maybe its not so dumb," Solari defended herself. "Look at the way she carried the Queen from the battlefield. There were some who said they could see a real passion in her eyes."
"Their imagination's were working overtime," Eponin sniffed. "Hades when did you become such a romantic? Just the idea that the Conqueror could care about someone else is ludicrous."
"I don't know," the scout shook her head with a teasing smile. "There were many who thought the same thing about you, until Melani came along."
"That was a long time ago," the older woman grumbled as a deep blush coloured her face. She didn't like being reminded of the younger woman who had for a time turned her world upset down. She looked away and the Head Scout chuckled, thinking that it felt good to laugh. They had done too little of that recently.
"It's all right," Solari said laying a gentle hand on her friends arm. "You know anything is possible. The guards who were stationed outside her hut say our new Queen is an awfully sweet woman. I'm sure if she decides to stay with us she will have a whole host of suitors."
Of which I would be one, Eponin thought to herself keeping her steady gaze away from her friend. She didn't need to let the other Amazon know how she felt. The young bard had a way of getting behind a person's defenses without them knowing it. Her thoughts came to a complete standstill. Perhaps that was the way it had happened with the Conqueror. Suddenly the idea didn't seem so ridiculous.
"Are you all right?" Solari asked seeing the strange expression on her friends face.
"Yeah, why?" Eponin asked in a casual voice trying not to be embarrassed by her thoughts.
"You looked kinda strange there for a moment," the Scout leader replied.
"Just thinking," the Weapon's Master mumbled and then stood up, relieved to have a diversion from this conversation. She pointed out across the plain in the direction of the Empress' encampment. There were six riders heading towards them. "Send the signal down the line to be ready. Let's go see what our new friend wants."
Xena's hawk like eyes took in everything with one sweeping glance as they rode into the heart of Amazon territory. The huts of the village were built in a circular pattern with the Royal residence, the common dining and bathing huts positioned at the center. It was a defensive set up and she admired the strategy behind the planning.
Her eyes narrowed at the appearance of the armed warriors stationed at various points of the village. It appeared that the Amazon's weren't entirely convinced of her sincerity. She allowed a smile to toy with her lips. She realized that they might just get along after all.
"Halt," Eponin raised her hand to stop the procession before turning to look at the Conqueror who was leaning casually in her saddle. The woman appeared relaxed but there was something about her manner that suggested she was anything but sedate. "Our warriors will take care of your horses."
"No," the Empress shook her head a feral smile coming to her lips as she gracefully swung a leg over Argo's neck and dismounted. "One of my own men will watch the horses. Just show him where the stables are."
Eponin hesitated. Men normally weren't allowed in Amazon territory and certainly not in the village. She glanced across at Lesta who had emerged from the Council hut just in time to hear the exchange. The Elder stared at their tall visitor for a moment before turning her attention back to the Weapon's Master.
"The trust has to begin some place," the woman said. "Allow her people to tend to their own mounts."
"All right, go with Carmela," Eponin motioned to a young slender dark haired Amazon who was in charge of the stables. "You will each be assigned an Amazon to escort you around the village. Do not try to get away from them because if you are caught on your own, we cannot guarantee your safety."
"Of course," the Empress inclined her head accepting the terms of their visit before handing Joshua the reins to her horse. They stood silently as the soldiers moved off with the horses.
"If you would just follow me," Eponin said motioning towards the Council hut.
"If it's all right with you, I would first like to see how my friend is doing," the Conqueror said. The sentence was phrased as a question but everyone knew it was no request. There was little doubt that the Conqueror would go see the bard whether the Amazon's wanted her too or not.
Eponin hesitated again. She had assigned herself to watch the Empress and was certain she could put up a worthy challenge if the Conqueror decided to try something. But she wasn't happy with the idea of the woman wandering around the village, even with an escort. Once again she looked to Lesta for advice.
"Of course," the Elder nodded in quiet understanding. "You must be worried about your friend. Eponin will escort you to the healers hut. When you are ready we can start the negotiations."
The Conqueror nodded and turned pale blue eyes on the Amazon in front of her. Eponin swallowed. She could feel the tension and power radiate off the dark haired Empress. It was both seductive and frightening.
"Come this way," she said in a barely audible voice.
They walked through the compound towards the healers hut and Xena felt as if every eye in the village was watching her, which it probably was. She kept her senses alert not uncertain that they wouldn't take advantage of the situation. For a moment her eyes fastened on those of a tall, red headed warrior.
Velaska. She remembered the Amazon's name. The hair on the back of her neck rose and she knew this woman would be trouble. She narrowed her eyes until they were pale slits, allowing the animal inside her to show. The Amazon was the first to look away and the Conqueror smiled with feral satisfaction. She reigned the panther back inside its cage.
Ephiny was so engrossed in the story the girl was telling that she didn't hear the door to the healers hut open. But she saw the bard's eyes grow large and round as a brilliant smile spread across her whole face. The girl's features seemed to light up with such adoration that the Amazon had to turn to see what was the inspiration for such devotion. She almost fell off her cot when she saw the Conqueror standing only a few feet away.
Her eyes flew frantically to Eponin who was standing just behind the famed Empress, but the warrior seemed fascinated by the interaction between the two strangers to their village. She looked at the tall raven haired Conqueror, astonished at the brief look of tenderness she saw in the woman's eyes as she knelt at the bard's bedside.
"Xena!" Gabrielle shrieked. She had never felt so happy to see someone.
"How are you feeling?" the Conqueror asked gruffly, having a hard time keeping a goofy smile of her face. She could not believe the joy that filled her heart at the sight of the bard. It took all her self control not to gather the girl up into her arms in a fierce embrace.
"Okay," the bard said with a crooked grin and the Conqueror's eyebrows rose inquisitively.
"All right, if you want the truth I feel like Hades," the girl confessed with a blush and that drew the tiniest of smiles from the Empress. Xena reached out and tenderly stroked the bard's forehead, relieved to find that it was only slightly warm.
"Let me see what they've done," she said lifting up the thin cotton blanket and reaching for the linen bandages that covered her torso.
"Xena!" the bard squeaked with embarrassment aware that the healers had stripped her naked. Ignoring the pain in her shoulder she brushed her lover's hands away. The Conqueror paused to eye her critically.
"I'm okay, you don't have to fuss," Gabrielle silently revelled in this attention but she was aware they weren't alone and she was shy about showing her body off.
"I like fussing," the Empress said quietly flashing the bard a look of love that made her breath catch in her throat. "Indulge me."
The request came as a low rumble out of the Conqueror's chest and Gabrielle was helpless against the emotions it aroused. She glanced fugitively at their companions and then turned back to her lover, aware they were the main focus of attention.
"I'm naked," she whispered with embarrassment.
"I've seen you naked before," the Conqueror replied with a touch of amusement.
"Yes, but they haven't," she rolled her eyes and immediately Xena understood her lover's reluctance. She turned her head and cast an intimidating glance at the women who had been intently watching them.
"Could we get some privacy here," she said in a commanding voice that sent a wave of colour through the eavesdropping Amazons.
"Aah yes, certainly," Kastra was slightly flustered, she looked at the other Amazon's in the hut. "Eponin why don't we take Ephiny out for a walk."
"I can't leave her alone," the Amazon warrior protested and the Empress cast her a wry glance.
"I can assure you I won't do anything with Gabrielle," the Conqueror said dryly sending a wave of colour to the other woman's face.
"I'm sure you won't," Kastra hastily agreed before helping Ephiny to her feet. But the other Amazon refused to move which caused the Conqueror to grow slightly irritated. Sensing the beginning of trouble the healer gave the Amazon warrior a hardy push out the door.
"I'll be right outside, so don't try anything," Eponin growled before the door was slammed shut. The Conqueror nodded with approval and then turned back to the bard.
"Satisfied?" she asked with a wink.
"No," the girl was honest. "You scared the centaur's poop out of them."
"Good," Xena smiled. "Now let me see."
Gabrielle removed her hand allowing her lover access. Xena gently removed the linen bandages that were loosely wrapped around the wounds. There was only a small amount of blood seepage and nothing to indicate any type of infection. The healers had made the stitches small so as to eliminate any major scarring. She carefully redressed the wounds.
"Are you satisfied?" the bard asked.
"For now," the Conqueror said growled. Assured now that her sweet love was going to be all right the Empress became her stern self. "I only showed you how to use the staff for protection. I never meant for you to be a warrior. What in Hades were you thinking running into the midst of the battle?"
"I don't know," Gabrielle stammered her heart feeling heavy. She was startled by this sudden turn in her lover. "I was just trying to help. Everybody was fighting."
"Yes, I know you were, but you almost got yourself killed," Xena allowed some of her pent up frustration to show. She wasn't really angry at the girl, but the last few days had been more stressful then usual. "You just have to control that kind heart of yours."
Gabrielle looked away, her eyes filling with tears. "I'm sorry."
"Oh Hades," the Empress cursed as a single tear rolled down the bard's cheek. Tenderly she reached out and wiped it away, continuing to stroke the girl's soft skin with her long fingers.
"Please don't be angry with me," the bard begged in a tired voice that gripped the warriors heart and squeezed it tightly.
"I could never be angry with you Gabrielle," Xena sighed deeply, her own eyes darkening with emotion. "I just don't want anything to happen to you. Promise me, next time you'll stay back where it's safe."
"Xena..." the bard started to protest but the Conqueror gently put a finger over her lips to silence her words.
"No," the Empress was quite firm. "Now that they know who you are, they will come after you and as much as I enjoy rescuing bards, there will come a day when I won't be there. I don't want someone making a reputation over you."
Gabrielle nodded. She understood what the Conqueror was saying. She could still clearly see the look on Rufus' face as he had attacked. Even now it sent chills down her spine, besides she was in no mood to argue anymore. All she wanted to do was bask in the happiness of being in Xena's presence again. She savoured the feel of the warriors hand on her cheek as she continued to stroke her skin.
She reached over and laced her fingers through the ones on the Empress' free hand.
"Are you here for the negotiations?" she asked.
"Yes," Xena nodded feeling the urge to sweep this woman into her arms yet denying herself that pleasure, uncertain whether she would be able to release the girl without doing something foolish.
"You won't be to tough on them will you?" Gabrielle wondered, her green eyes glued to the face of the dark haired woman who was bent over her.
"I have to look after my interests," the Conqueror reminded the bard.
"They can be a good ally to you," came the typical response and the Empress had to fight the smile that was threatening to overtake her features. When she spoke her tone was grave.
"There is some bad blood between us," the Conqueror was honest. "I'm not certain it can be forgotten or forgiven."
"If it hasn't then why would they agree to negotiate?" it was a relevant question.
"They might be doing it more out of fear then anything Gabrielle," Xena admitted truthfully. "They know that I could bring my army in and destroy them."
"They can help you Xena," Gabrielle insisted. "They're not bad, maybe just a little cranky sometimes.
I think it probably has to do with all those hormones cycling at once."
The Conqueror almost laughed out loud at the observation but she only allowed a small smile to tickle the corners of her lips. She took a deep breath and stood up finding it more difficult then she imagined to leave. She held the bard's hand, stroking it affectionately, but she had wasted enough time. There were matters that needed to be taken care of.
"Get some sleep, I will stop back later," she said glancing at the doorway to the hut, seeing the outline of an impatient warrior waiting for her.
"Don't forget," Gabrielle whispered.
"I won't," Xena promised and then bent to place a passionate kiss on the bard's lips before turning and strolling out of the hut to where the Amazon was waiting. She gave the woman a glowering look. "Take me to your leaders."
Eponin bobbed her head mutely before escorting the Conqueror back across the courtyard to the Council hut where the Elders were waiting. She marvelled at the startling change in the Empress' personality and began to wonder if what she had witnessed in the healers hut had really actually happened.
She had been outside but the two women had not lowered their voices and she had been able to hear everything. It had been enlightening and she thought again about the bard's ability to reach out to people.
"I hope you were satisfied by your friends progress?" Lesta said rising from her chair when the Conqueror stepped through the door into the Council hut.
"Yes, thank you for tending to her wounds," Xena nodded briskly and glanced about the room. It was dim and stuffy and she suddenly had the urge to be any place else but here. Rather then stifling the restlessness she felt, the visit with the bard had only served to increase her discontent. She knew then that she would not be all right until they were together and alone.
"She is our Queen," the Elder reminded the Conqueror in a regal voice. "We could do nothing less."
The Empress didn't like being reminded of the fact that Gabrielle was now the Queen of this Amazon tribe. It made her feel angry and helpless all at the same time. Reigning in her emotions she stalked across the room to an empty chair near the center of the table and sat down. She glanced at the Elders as she folded her arms arrogantly across her chest.
"What kind of terms do you propose, so that I don't bring in my army and destroy you?" she asked and settled back in her chair.
Lesta was momentarily taken aback by this direct approach and then realized that the Conqueror was not one to play silly political games. She glanced at her colleagues and then sat down glancing briefly at the scroll in front of her. It was a parchment filled with their ideas on what the treaty should contain. Most of them had been derived from her talk with the bard.
"We have taken the liberty of drawing up an informal agreement," the Elder said quietly glancing anxiously at the stern face that was staring unblinkingly at her. "It outlines some things that the Amazon Nation would like."
The Conqueror watched unemotionally as the Elder passed a sheet of parchment across the table. She picked it up and scanned its contents indifferently. She was almost surprised for the Amazon's appeared to have looked at the situation in a realistic manner. The conditions and demands were not unreasonable but the Empress knew that she was in control.
A curious thought nibbled at her brain as she thought about her discussion with Archius the previous evening. One glance at this parchment and it was like the Amazon's had been listening in on their conversation. She set the paper down, unwilling to make the situation appear to simple least they think her weak.
"These terms look reasonable," she conceded out loud, then gave them a dour look. "But why should I accept them?"
The Conqueror leaned further back in her chair, content to listen while these women outlined their position. She already knew what she would give them, but it was always good to let them think they had won their concessions. As the day dragged on she found her thoughts drifting to the bard.
She had found it difficult to control the urge to reach out and scoop the girl into her arms. It wasn't the passion that she was looking for any more. It was merely the physical contact, the need to have her close. It was a novel experience, one that she had never had with any of her lovers. It was strange. She had never wanted any one to touch her unless it was during sex, but with Gabrielle she wanted to feel her always, even if it was just the touch of her hand on her arm. She took a deep breath.
Her relationship with the girl had made her stronger, but yet at the same time more vulnerable. She knew that if anything happened to Gabrielle, she would be pitched into a blackness she had never seen. It would be a darkness from which there would be no return. The anger she had felt at Lyceus death would be nothing in comparison and she was more determined then ever to make sure nothing happened.
It was late in the afternoon when the negotiations were finally completed. Xena had conceded nothing more then she had planned and she could see that the Amazon's were happy with the results. In the end she had gained the most. Now she had a whole army of Amazon's under her command. An army who were fully trained and who would patrol her Eastern borders without costing her a penny.
"There is one question I have in regards to this small clause attached to this term," the Conqueror motioned at the item they had discussed at greater length then the rest. "In return for allowing my army a more direct route to the Eastern border, I shall allow the Amazon's a special benefit as requested. What is this special benefit?"
Lesta was silent for a long moment. She glanced at the other Elders. She had almost been surprised when her Sister's had thought the bard's idea a necessity to include in the treaty. She looked at the
Conqueror now, feeling slightly embarrassed despite her years and experience.
"As you know the Amazon's generally don't allow any men in our territory," the Amazon tried to explain as delicately as possible. "That's proves to be a huge problem considering we like to build our population."
"You want my army to service your women?" Xena couldn't believe what she was hearing. She laughed harshly and the Elder flushed.
"Queen Gabrielle thought it would be a good idea," Lesta defended the clause and the expression on the Conqueror's face became amused.
"Well, then if your Queen thinks it's a good idea then it must be a good idea," she said with a nod of her head and then had another uncanny thought that perhaps there was a collusion going on with these negotiations. She stood up ending any further discussion. "There is one subject that has not yet been broached which is of utmost importance to the both of us."
The Elders looked up at their visitor and then at each other.
"What would that be?" Lesta dared to ask. She desperately searched her mind to think of anything they had forgotten.
"The question of Gabrielle," the Conqueror said slowly, "your Queen."
"That is an Amazon problem," the Elder spoke without thinking and watched as the expression on their guest's face tightened.
"On the contrary," the Conqueror reminded them in a terse voice. "Gabrielle is part of my household and she will be returning to the Capital with me when I leave."
"That's impossible," Lesta exclaimed. "She is our Queen. She needs to remain with us so that she can learn the ways of the Amazon's and lead us."
"I won't leave her here," Xena said bluntly.
"Then we do have a problem," Lesta agreed solemnly and the Conqueror nodded.
"One that I suggest you put your greatest efforts into solving," Xena replied in a cool voice. "As I said, I have no intention of leaving Gabrielle behind and if that means killing anyone who tries to stand in my way I will do it."
"We understand," the Elder nodded and then escorted the tall visitor to the door. "It will take our scribes a few days to write out the agreement. You are welcome to enjoy the Amazon hospitality in the meantime. We usually celebrate any treaty signing with an official ceremony and feast. I hope you will join us."
"I will consider your invitation," the Conqueror bowed her head respectfully. "In the meantime I suggest you think hard on the situation. If you cannot resolve it I will take matters into my own hands."
Lesta nodded, unconsciously shivering at the icy tone of the other woman's voice. The Elder had little doubt that the Conqueror would follow through with her threat. She looked over the tall raven haired woman. She was a formidable creature in her black leathers and armour and there was a definite menace that surrounded her.
"Will you stay and join us for evening meal?" Lesta invited when the Conqueror made to leave.
"No, I have matters to attend back at my camp," Xena politely declined. In spite of the formal agreement they had just reached, she still did not trust the Amazon's and wanted to be back in her camp before darkness fell.
"I would like to see my friend again before I leave," she said and the Elder nodded.
Xena was intent on saying goodbye to the bard, but the girl was sleeping so peacefully she hadn't the heart to wake her. Instead she just sat for a few minutes, staring at the girl, allowing her pale blue eyes to trace and memorize every detail. A brief smile coming to her lips at the sight of the stack of scrolls that were scattered on the cot.
Gently she reached out and brushed her fingers lightly across the girl's smooth cheek, giving in to her desire to touch the bard. Her whole body craved the contact that had been missing from her life for too long. It was a desire that only Gabrielle could satisfy. She bent her head and lightly brushed her lips over the bard's and a pair of green eyes, soft with sleep, popped open.
"Xena, you're here. It was such a long time that I thought you had left without stopping to see me," Gabrielle sighed with contentment as her eyes fluttered closed and then open again, not afraid to voice her insecurities..
"I promised you I'd visit before leaving," the Conqueror said with a tenderness reserved solely for the girl. "I will never break my promises to you Gabrielle. I am just now on my way back to camp."
"Take me with," the bard begged quietly, tears filling her eyes. She didn't want to be left behind again. "Don't leave me."
"I won't leave you," Xena promised, somehow knowing this would be the only one she ever kept. "But you are still to ill to travel. You need a few more days of rest and healing."
"I'll heal faster if I'm with you," the girl insisted with a stubborn pout.
"No my bard," the Empress smiled indulgently. "If you came with me, we'd probably end up doing something that would tear out some of your stitches. Then it would just take all that much longer for you to heal."
"Oh, Xena, why do you have to be so practical all the time," Gabrielle moaned.
"Because everything would fall apart if I wasn't," the Empress replied gently stroking the girl's cheek.
"I missed you," the girl said not concealing her emotions and green eyes met blue. "Every day you were gone I prayed to the Gods that you were safe and every night I lay in bed longing to feel you beside me. I missed the way you held me, the way you touched me, just the way you looked at me."
The Conqueror was silent. The bard was never reluctant to express her thoughts or feelings and that was one of her most endearing qualities. She lacked those same qualities. She wanted to say the words but couldn't. In her mind it would be giving the bard far to much power. She bent her head until her lips were right next to the bard's ear.
"Hurry up and get better and then we can make up for lost time and I'll show you what you've really been missing," the Conqueror whispered, her warm breath caressing the bard's skin.
Gabrielle wasn't able to control the blush that crept up her neck and over her face. The Empress gave a throaty laugh and then uncaring who witnessed the scene, kissed the younger woman in a way that claimed the girl as her own. The bard was still reeling with emotion long after the Conqueror had left.
Ephiny had pretended to be sleeping aware the exchange between the two women had been highly personal. She had been shocked by the intensity of emotion in both women's voices. She hadn't believed it possible that a woman so cold and heartless as the Conqueror could sound so sincere and tender.
Her thoughts dwelt for a moment on the tall dark haired warrior. A flood of desire washed over her body at the images that filled her senses. The Conqueror, in spite of her cold veneer, was beautiful. It was a beauty that radiated off the woman. It was a seductive beauty that spoke of strength, power and a passion that would last all night.
The Amazon rolled over and stared at the girl. Gabrielle's eyes were closed but the expression on her face was anything but peaceful. The Empress' reputation and sexual prowess were legendary and she wondered how this innocent looking girl was able to handle that faucet of the Conqueror's life. If any of the stories were true then certainly it would take more than this child to satisfy the powerful woman's appetite.
Ephiny would have been surprised to know their thoughts were running along the same lines for Gabrielle was dwelling on Xena's last words. The idea that the Empress wanted to be with her in the physical sense was thrilling yet, solemnly she acknowledged the truth. It was a realization she had come to accept, regardless of the pain it brought.
From the beginning she had accepted the fact that she would never be the only one in the Empress' life. She knew of the Conqueror's reputation. Everyone said Xena had an appreciation for beauty and took what she wanted, when she wanted it. The Empress satisfied her desires for sex the same way she satisfied her craving for food.
Gabrielle was no fool. The Conqueror would take other lovers. Xena was a dynamic woman with an Empire of temptation. As it had been with Marc Anthony, they would offer themselves to her for pleasure. Her only hope was that none of those lovers would replace her in the Empress' affection.
Despite that brave thought, the bard was filled with an intense pain at the idea of the Conqueror sharing her bed with anyone else. In her heart she wanted to be the only one who sought and gave pleasure to the Empress. Not only did she want to be first in the Conqueror's heart and bed, she wanted to be the only one.
"You're in love with her," Ephiny broke the silence. It was a statement yet also a question, born of watching the twitching expressions crossing the bard's features.
"Yes," Gabrielle admitted without embarrassment, confirming a truth that had suddenly become to heavy to bear on her own.
"Why?" was the next question and the bard glanced at her with a raised eyebrow and the Amazon flushed thinking about how it sounded. "Sorry I...that wasn't a very tactful question."
"No," Gabrielle laughed and then sobered. "It's something that a lot of people wonder about."
"So what's the answer?" Ephiny prodded after a hesitant moment.
"There are so many reasons," the girl sighed. "It's something I can't really explain. There was this connection from the first moment we met. You could call it love at first sight but it was more then that. It was like I found a missing piece of myself. She makes me feel whole."
"Does she love you?" the Amazon dared to ask feeling a strange kinship with this woman.
"She would never allow herself to care that much," Gabrielle sadly shook her head, acknowledging the truth. "But that's not the point of loving someone, it's only a benefit. When you give love you shouldn't expect anything in return."
"How do you live with that?" Ephiny wasn't certain what to think of this young woman.
"I remind myself why we are together," the girl choose her words carefully not quite able to dismiss giving in to her insecurities. "She likes that I am honest and not afraid of her. I entertain and amuse her. I think I challenge her in a way nobody else dares too. I make her happy, and right now that is enough for me."
The Amazon didn't know what to say. She had thought this girl was blind but obviously her vision was clear. She lived in a dream world but she was definitely grounded by reality.
"Aren't you afraid of her?" the wounded warrior was curious.
"No," the girl shook her head. "Perhaps I should be, everyone else is, but I have this feeling that she will never hurt me. Maybe its a false confidence, but there have been times already when I have tested her patience and she hasn't done anything. Maybe I just haven't done anything big enough to upset her."
Ephiny watched as the girl shrugged. She didn't have an answer, for she didn't know the Conqueror. Privately she marvelled at this simple yet complex girl woman. She thought about their most prominent problem. One that was preoccupying the thoughts of all her Sisters.
"As Queen it's your duty to rule the Amazon Nation," the older woman said quietly wondering if the girl had given the situation any thought.
"I can't, not if it means I have to be separated from Xena," the voice was very decisive. "Nothing is worth having, if you have to give up being with those you love. Besides I'm no Amazon and I know nothing about ruling a nation."
"We would teach you," Ephiny replied.
"It would be a waste to teach someone who doesn't want to learn," the girl sighed. "Velaska wants to challenge for the mask, perhaps I should just conceded defeat."
"No!" the word exploded from the Amazon's throat. There was a stricken look on the warriors face. "You can't do that. Velaska just wants to go to war. She would only end up destroying the Nation."
Gabrielle studied the Amazon for a long moment. "Then we will have to figure something out. I won't stay here, not once Xena leaves."
The Conqueror returned to the camp and was surprised to find that Archius had not yet departed for the Capital. The man had been brave enough to come out and greet her arrival and she wondered if she should discipline him for failing to follow her instructions.
"I had not expected to see you still here," she said with an edge to her voice. "Is there a good reason why you have disobeyed me?"
Archius knew he was taking a chance by disobeying her orders, yet he believed that once he had explained, the Conqueror would understand. The soldiers nearby glanced away nervously, fearful of what punishment this man's insubordination would bring.
"I was preparing to leave and then I realized there was one situation that we hadn't sorted out," the small man said taking a deep breath. "I thought perhaps that you might need some help in figuring out how to bring the bard home."
"You think I need help?" the Conqueror asked without expression.
"No," the man replied diplomatically, "but the Amazon's are sometimes difficult to deal with."
"Oh?" the Empress asked raising her eyebrows, clearly amused by his response. "What do you know about the Amazon's?"
To her knowledge the small man did not entertain women. He had other tastes and more then once she had protected him from the troops of her army. Perhaps that was why he had remained so loyal to her.
"My sister was an Amazon," the man said quietly, unable to met her gaze.
Xena was silent as she pondered the situation. Normally she had confidence that she would be able to find a solution to any problem, however on this occasion her insecurities were filling her with doubts. It seemed whenever Gabrielle was involved she questioned her judgement. Though she would never ask for it, she welcomed any assistance.
"You are lucky I am in a generous mood," she said, sliding off her horse and handing the reins to a soldier waiting nearby.
"Yes," he nodded bowing his head. He knew luck had nothing to do with her decision. The Conqueror was in love, whether she admitted to it or not, and she wanted to be absolutely certain about everything she did where the girl was concerned. "The bard, Gabrielle, is she well?"
"Yes, she is better then I expected. Fortunately her wounds were not to deep and thankfully there is no infection," the Empress said, her face growing tense. "Rufus nearly killed her."
"Then it is fortunate that you were there," the man said solemnly, realizing that the Conqueror's timely intervention had not only saved the bard but probably many more lives. He had little doubt that if the General had succeeded in killing the girl then the Empress would have gone mad with rage.
"Have you heard any more from General Loris?" the Conqueror asked abruptly changing the subject. She did not want to dwell on what could have been, the images it invoked in her head were to disturbing.
"No," the man shook his head.
"That is a good thing," the woman nodded and then turned to enter her tent. "Keep me posted if anything comes in."
"Yes," Archius agreed and then hastily continued before the Conqueror disappeared inside the tent.
"The negotiations, how did they go?"
The tall woman paused, letting the flap drop back into place. She turned and looked down at the small man, and after a moment he shifted uncomfortably under the intense scrutiny. There was an odd expression on her face. One he could not interpret.
"Surprisingly well," she said quietly. "It was almost as if the whole thing had already been worked out."
"That's good news," the man bowed his head so as to hide the pleased smile that tugged at his lips.
"It is," she agreed. "Now do you want to tell me why I think Gabrielle and you had something to do with that?"
"I am sorry my Empress, if this displeases you," the small man quickly lost his amusement, afraid that the Conqueror would see no humour in the situation. "Just prior to her departure from the Palace the bard and myself engaged in a mock treaty negotiations. By some fate Miss Gabrielle chose for the exercise a treaty between the Amazon's and yourself. Neither of us for a moment believed it would ever happen."
"So you already knew what the Amazon's would ask for?" the Empress said quietly.
"I knew what you would want and Gabrielle only guessed at what they might want," the man replied and there was silence. When there was no response forthcoming the man chanced a look at the Conqueror's face and was surprised by the amused look on her features.
"Then I must thank you both for saving me allot of trouble," she was honest. "I had wondered how the Amazon's would know what I would concede to them. It is obvious that they had a chat with Gabrielle before they negotiated."
"Please do not fault her, if any one is to blame it is I," Archius said hastily in case the Empress was upset.
"I am not angry Archius," Xena actually smiled then. "I am most appreciative. Now I must watch out for the both of you otherwise I am certain you will bargain my power away from me."
"That is one thing you need not fear," the man allowed himself a smile. "Miss Gabrielle is very protective of your interests."
"Perhaps," the Conqueror was noncommittal on that point, though the idea made a flood of warmth flow through her body. She turned a critical eye on her aide. "I can not let your disobedience go unpunished. Perhaps, I shall get you to service the first batch of Amazon's they send us."
"I do not understand," the small man said with a perplexed expression.
"That was obviously one term that Gabrielle and you didn't discuss. I'll let her explain it to you later," the Conqueror said with a wicked smile. "It's been a long day and we're both tired, we will meet tomorrow after breakfast."
With that the Empress turned and disappeared inside her tent and Archius allowed himself a moment to feel relieved before he turned and walked back to his own temporary quarters. He dwelt on the woman's last comment and instinctively knew it was something he wouldn't like.
Contrary to what she said the Conqueror did not try to rest. Until this matter was resolved she would not find any sleep. Instead she once again immersed herself in the scrolls that Archius had brought from Corinth.
She didn't know much about Amazon law or tradition. She hadn't needed to know much. Yet now it was important that she was familiar with every faucet of their existence. She ignored everything including the food that was brought to her tent, focusing her entire attention on the documents in her hands.
It was late into the night before she finally put the scrolls down and lay back on her bedroll. The material she had read gave her an idea yet she was uncertain is she was capable of following it through. She rolled over onto her side and felt an uncomfortable lump in the pocket of her leathers. She reached down and dug out the offending object staring at it for a long time. She was ashamed to acknowledge that she had forgotten about it until now.
She clutched the small vial of oil in her hand. It was such a small thing. A simple gift, yet even surrounded by turmoil and filled with pain the bard had remembered to give it to her. In spite of everything that had been going on, the girl had thought of her.
Surrender, Artemis had said, and feel more joy than you have ever imagined. She felt it and it was wonderful, yet Xena was not stupid. She knew that with this joy there would come pain. A pain so intense she doubted if she would ever heal.
She rolled over onto her back and stared up at the canvas ceiling, her fist clenching tightly around the small vial of scent. The girl had become everything to her. Artemis had said surrender and that's what she had done and now there were so many possibilities.
If she allowed it to happen, Gabrielle could be the path for her to go home again. Her brief visit to Amphipolis had shown her that there was still a chance to recapture some of what she had thought lost. She had returned to a world she had thought was impossible to re-enter. A world that was now beckoning to her.
She closed her eyes and the images of the girl that were firmly planted in her brain floated across her mind. Her heart contracted painfully and for the first time she wondered if she wasn't being selfish. She loved the woman, more than she imagined she could ever love anyone, yet she wondered if that was fair. Their being together put Gabrielle in danger and as she had told the girl, she wouldn't always be there to protect her.
She sighed. The Amazon's could be the solution to her predicament. It would be so simple for her to just turn away and ride back to Corinth. Simple but not easy and she wondered if she was strong enough to let the girl go. Yet there was the possibility that she would have no other choice. It was while she was still mulling over this thought that a knock came on the pole outside her tent.
"Enter," she called in a strained voice as she swung her legs over the edge of the cot and sat up. She watched as Archius slipped into the shelter. "Is there a problem?"
"No, your Majesty, you requested that we meet after breakfast," the man replied and saw the mild look of surprise and consternation on the Empress' face.
Xena had been so deep in thought that she had not realized when night had passed back into day. She suddenly felt very lost and alone. She looked across at the aide knowing she needed something she did not have. She needed a friend.
"You have been up all night," Archius said astutely, his sharp mind putting the pieces together. A swift glance had shown him the unravelled scrolls and the unused bedroll. There was even an untouched plate of food from the previous evening meal sitting on a nearby table.
"Yes," the Conqueror did not try to hide the truth. She stood up and began to pace restlessly around the cramped shelter, running a nervous hand through her thick dark hair. "This situation is beyond me. Perhaps I should just settle the matter by going in and conquering them."
"Then why don't you?" the man wanted to know.
"For the same Godsbedamned reason that I am signing a peace treaty," the Empress said with a scowl. She paused and stared intently at her companion. Her blue eyes dark. "Be honest with me Archius, am I being a fool?"
"A person who seeks peace is no fool," he responded diplomatically.
"But I am seeking this for reason of the heart and not of the mind. That can not be a smart course of action," she replied.
"Perhaps it may not seem that way to you now," the man said softly. "But you are not blind, your reasons may be of the heart but sentiment has not clouded your judgement. You still see everything very clearly."
"Before it was so easy, I never used to second guess my decisions."
"That is because you did not care," the small man spoke the truth. "The best decisions are not always the easiest, just like the things most worthy are sometimes those hardest earned. Your reign as Empress of Greece, does it not give you more pleasure because of all the hardships that you faced to gain that glory?"
Xena was silent. The man was making sense but she wasn't sure she wanted to listen to it let alone accept what he was saying. She turned away and stared for a moment at the scrolls scattered across the camp table.
"Amazon law allows for a Regent to be named to handle the affairs of the tribe in the Queen's absence," she said relating what she had learned in her long evening of study. "If Gabrielle so chooses, and with the permission of the Council of Elders, she can elect someone to replace her as Ruler of the tribe."
"It has been done," Archius nodded. "In my Sisters tribe the Queen would often be away on trade missions and in her absence she named a Regent to reign. It is the perfect solution."
"Provided that all parties agree," Xena sniffed glancing at her companion.
"You think the Amazon's will not agree?" the man asked.
"It is not the Amazon's that I am thinking of," came the blunt answer.
"You think Miss Gabrielle would want to stay and rule the Amazon's?" the suggestion caught Archius by surprise.
"It would be a temptation hard to resist," came the solemn response. "Most people would find it hard to turn down a life where they are waited on hand and foot."
"Not Miss Gabrielle," the aide shook his head vigorously. "She will not stay."
"Perhaps it might not be her first choice, but I think we both know the bard well enough to know that she would sacrifice her own desires to help others," the Conqueror said with a hint of cynicism. "It has been obvious to me that the death of their Queen has divided the tribe. It is in need of a strong unifying leader."
"You think Miss Gabrielle is that?" Archius was startled to hear the Conqueror speak in this way.
"She could be," Xena sighed, remembering what Artemis had said that night not long ago. A weary smile tipped the corners of her lips. "She is a formidable force. Without even trying she has conquered us all. Think of it Archius, she has managed to defeat the most feared warrior in the land without even raising a hand, let alone a sword. To me that speaks volumes."
Archius considered her words and silently he had to agree. Without even trying the girl had ingratiated herself into everyone's life so that they were dedicated to her without exception. He glanced across at the Empress, realizing that if it had been any one else the Conqueror would not have been so gracious.
"All that you say is true, however, I think you have forgotten the most important fact," he paused, choosing his words carefully and the Conqueror looked at him with raised eyebrows. "Gabrielle does not lust after power the way most of us do."
"No, but she has a kind heart," the Empress reminded him. "The Amazon's are clever. They may just appeal to her sense of service. If she believes they need her then she will feel duty bound to remain."
"You think they will try to convince her?" Archius asked frowning.
"I would if I was them," came the quiet reply.
"Then you must do what you have to, to make sure that it doesn't," the man said quietly and tall woman nodded her head.
Indeed back at the Amazon village the campaign was already under way. After much discussion it was decided that Lesta approach the bard. The Elder stopped by the healers hut, standing for a long moment in the doorway watching their guest who had not yet noticed her presence. The older woman stared at the girl who was avidly pouring over some scrolls that the healers had provided. It pleased her to see that they were about Amazon government.
She silently studied the girl, realizing for the first time that she was really little more than a child. But physical age meant nothing and she was ready to admit that Queen Melosa had seen in a few moments what it had taken them almost a full moon to discover. This young woman had a courage and wisdom beyond her years. She had an appetite for knowledge and a love of life and optimism that inspired them all. Even under the stress of what had happened in the last few days she had retained her dignity and humour.
"Good morning Queen Gabrielle," she finally broke the silence as she stepped up to the cot on which the girl lay and sat down on a nearby bench.
"Hi," the bard returned the greeting cheerfully.
"Kastra tells me you are healing very quickly," Lesta said glancing at the bandages on the girl's shoulder. "They tell me only a day or two more in bed and you will be able to get up."
"It won't come quick enough," Gabrielle smiled not hiding her desire to be up and about.
"What are you reading?" the Elder motioned to the script in her hands.
"A scroll on Amazon laws," the bard replied honestly. "I thought that I better know some of this stuff now that I am your Queen."
"There is no hurry," Lesta smiled gently, pleased by her enthusiasm. "We do not expect you to know everything right away. I expect most of us don't learn half of it in our lifetimes."
"Maybe," Gabrielle conceded. "But I think this is a different circumstance. I should know more than most."
Lesta was silent as she contemplated what the girl said. It was nice to see that the bard was taking her responsibilities seriously.
"Does this mean that you are entertaining the idea of staying and ruling the tribe?" she posed the question and Gabrielle turned her eyes away.
"No," she could not lie though she had been tempted to lead this woman on. "I have always believed that each person's life has some purpose and it's their responsibility to fulfil that purpose."
"What do you believe your purpose is?" Lesta asked hesitantly seeing the green eyes turn intent.
"To stand at the side of the Conqueror," Gabrielle said without hesitation. "I know it might be hard for you or anyone else to understand but in the last few full moons I have come to realize that my mission is to be apart of the Conqueror's life."
"Could you not be mistaken?" Lesta wondered sceptically. "Perhaps your journey with the Conqueror was only to lead you here."
"The Amazons are only one part of a much larger nation," came the sober response. "My allegiance is to the people of Greece and I can serve them best by helping the Conqueror."
"You really think you can make a difference?" the Elder was leery of this girl's claim.
"Yes," Gabrielle said without hesitation. "It may sound arrogant but I strongly believe it was the will of the Gods that allowed us to meet. We share a connection that I feel every time we are together. I will not give that up even though it sounds selfish."
Lesta was momentarily silent. She could see the resolve in the girl's eyes. She knew there would be no dissuading this woman. The confident tone of her voice told the woman that the girl firmly believed in what she said.
"You are so passionate in your belief yet your intense interest in our culture would suggest something else," she said finally and Gabrielle smiled sheepishly.
"My interest is for purely selfish reasons," the bard admitted with a flush. "We are in an odd situation and I want to figure out a solution. I'm certain Xena has come up with something but I would prefer something peaceful."
"You are referring to the challenge by Velaska," Lesta guessed wisely.
"No, I wasn't," Gabrielle shook her head sadly. "I haven't even been thinking about that. But now that you mention it I must warn you that if the Conqueror knew about the challenge she would really be upset. She would not allow me to fight."
"You are certain of that," the Elder remarked with a hint of amusement.
"I am," the bard nodded seriously. "She would take this challenge personally, as if it were meant for her, so I don't want her to know about it."
Lesta said nothing, not certain this girl's decision was wise. There were other options but she was not of the mind to share them just yet. She wasn't even certain that she wanted the bard to know they were available. The thought of getting the Conqueror involved even scared her. She stood up choosing that moment to take her leave.
"Well, I just stopped by to see how you were doing," she smiled. "As for the rest I am sure we will figure something out."
Gabrielle stared at the woman's retreating back, her brow shaping into a frown. The Amazon's departure had been almost to hasty. It was as if their discussion had suddenly become uncomfortable. She thought about that for a moment and then shrugged her shoulders dismissing the idea. With a smile she turned her attention back to the scrolls on her lap aware that she was beginning to get as suspicious as her lover.
Lesta stepped out of the healers hut and glanced about the compound, a frown marring her features. Her eyes came to rest on Ephiny who was sitting in the sunshine on a bench outside a nearby hut. She knew she had no hope in changing the bard's mind but that didn't mean someone else wouldn't fare better. Their forced confinement had allowed the Amazon warrior and the bard to establish a tentative relationship. The warrior would be their best chance of getting a positive response.
Ephiny took a deep breath, savouring the crisp morning air and basking in the heat of the sun as it caressed her skin. Kastra had released her from the healers hut the previous day but only on the condition that she take it easy for the next few days. She had made the promise but even now she considered breaking it. She could see the forest just beyond the village and like a silent lover it called out to her.
With a sigh she turned her attention to the goings on in the village. Her eyes roamed around the compound coming to rest on the tall lithe frame of the Chief Elder. It took a moment for her brain to register the fact that the woman was walking in her direction. She straightened in her seat. By the expression on the older woman's face she had an instinctive feeling that she wasn't going to like what was coming.
"It's nice to see that you are almost completely healed," Lesta said in greeting, sitting down on the bench beside the younger woman.
"Yes, in a few days I plan on taking off into the forest for a hunting trip," Ephiny admitted her intentions.
"I hope you will wait until after the treaty is signed," the Elder said.
"If that is your wish," the warrior nodded feeling strangely about the idea.
"I think it would please the Queen if you were there. She has developed a fondness for you," Lesta said conversationally.
"It is mutual," the warrior replied in an even voice wondering what the Elder was getting at.
"Perhaps, you could even invite our new Queen to join you," the older woman suggested, receiving an intent gaze from her companion.
"Perhaps," the younger woman was noncommittal. There was a lengthy and slightly awkward silence before the Elder spoke again.
"Have you had a chance to look at the Treaty?"
"No, but Eponin told me what was in the contents," Ephiny said. "It sounds like a pretty good deal."
"Yes, we got more then we thought possible and Gabrielle was responsible for that," the Elder agreed. "She told us what the Conqueror was looking for and what she would be willing to give up. The truth is, Gabrielle would be a great asset to our Nation."
"She doesn't want to stay," the Amazon warrior said bluntly understanding what Lesta was trying to do.
"How do you know?"
"I have already talked to her," the younger woman was honest. "She is completely devoted to the
Empress and when it's time for the Conqueror to leave she will leave with her. I don't think any of us will be able to stop her."
"But we must, she is our Queen," Lesta shook her head not wanting to accept the truth. "Her close relationship with the Empress could only continue to benefit us."
"How long do you think that relationship will last if they are separated?" Ephiny posed an obvious question. "Do you honestly think it will remain the same? Do you think the Conqueror will look favourably on us if she knows that we are the cause for that separation?"
Lesta was silent knowing that what the warrior said was true. They were under no illusions. The Conqueror had signed the peace treaty only because of the bard. Ephiny looked at the Elder aware there was one solution that no one had yet mentioned.
"She could name a Regent."
"I have heard it being done in other tribes but I am not certain our Sisters would agree," the older woman acknowledged that she had thought of the option.
"No, it would be the ideal solution," the warrior disagreed. "It would be a response to the traditionalists who do not like the situation. She would be our Queen but a true Amazon would be the daily Ruler."
"Yes, but I'm not sure that it will really matter what she decides," Lesta sighed wearily.
"Why?' Ephiny asked suspiciously and watched as a pained expression crossed the older woman's face.
"Velaska has issued a challenge for the Queen's mask," the Elder admitted reluctantly. "Gabrielle accepted the challenge on the condition that it be postponed until after the treaty has been signed."
"That's suicide," the warrior uttered in panic. "If the bard is killed then the Conqueror will destroy us all."
"I presumed the same notion but the girl thinks otherwise," Lesta shook her head. "Whatever the case she does not want the Conqueror to know."
"I would think not," the younger woman snorted, shaking her own head in disbelief. She did not think any situation could get more complicated.
"We must come up with some solution."
"I will declare myself the Queen's champion," Ephiny decided. "She saved my life and now it's my turn to repay the favour."
"You would never be able to defeat Velaska," the Elder was horrified by the other woman's decision to sacrifice herself, yet also a little relieved. She could see the value in not letting the bard do the actual fighting. Certainly it would protect the Amazon's from the Conqueror's wrath.
"Neither will the bard," the young warrior reminded pointedly. "At least I will have a better chance."
"Yes, but I have a feeling that Gabrielle will not allow you to stand for her," Lesta shook her head. "No, there has to be another solution, we have to figure out something."
Ephiny could see the worry burrowed on the other woman's face. The same fear plagued her. She had come to like the girl and feared now for her future. She thought briefly of the Conqueror and feared for them all if this challenge were to go forward.
Ares glanced down into the reflecting pool, his handsome face marred by the scowl that seemed to be permanently embedded on his features. His pride had been bruised at the Conqueror's refusal to join once more with him. He looked at the two women now, physically separated yet joined as one like two halves of a whole.
He waved his hand over the pool and another scene came into view. It was the face of another woman, someone not as strong or intelligent as his Chosen but someone He could use, certain that she would follow his wishes. It was time for him to utilise her resources.
Velaska watched from her perch outside the meal hut as Lesta stood up and walked away from the other warrior. She felt a surge of anger course through her body. She was not happy with the situation and was finding it difficult to tolerate. The only thing that kept her rational was the knowledge that each day the new Queen was growing stronger, which meant that each day she was getting closer to securing the Mask for herself.
She laughed quietly. Once she had obtained the Mask she would be able to rule with impunity. There would be few who would issue a challenge and those who did, would do so out of old loyalties. She was the best warrior in the village and knew that she was capable of defeating everyone else.
She ran the sharpening stone along the edge of the blade of her sword, feeling a thrill at the sound of metal on steel. It was almost as great a thrill as driving her weapon into the flesh of an enemy and for a moment she indulged her fantasies of thrusting the sword into the belly of the bard and then the Conqueror.
Artemis and Aphrodite viewed the situation with trepidation. Neither of them were happy with the way things were turning out, though it was for different reasons. Both were together on the matter that they had to make certain that Ares did not interfere any further.
"What can we do?" Artemis asked turning to look at her Godly sister who was thoughtfully tapping a slender finger to her lips.
"We have to bring them together," the Goddess of Love said. "We have to get the Conqueror to be with Gabrielle in the village. They have been apart to long."
"How?" the Goddess of the Hunt asked, wondering how they would get the Empress to put herself in such a vulnerable position.
"Leave it to me," Aphrodite said with a smile and a giggle as she looked into the reflecting pool, seeing the Conqueror. She waved her hand and waited for the results of her intervention.
Xena was driven by the uneasy feeling in her gut and in spite her best intentions, she could not stay away. She needed to speak with the bard, to ensure herself of the woman's well being. Even while she convinced herself that was the reason, she knew it was really because she was afraid that the Amazon's would somehow convince her lover to remain with them. Knowing the girl's kind heart, it was not an unrealistic fear. Once she made her decision she summoned Archius.
"I am going to the Amazon village tomorrow," she informed him. "I want to make sure Gabrielle is all right."
The small man knew that was not the real reason but it was not up to him to question the Conqueror.
She had been increasingly restless since their last conversation and he knew that she had some plan in mind.
"When can I expect you back?" the small man asked.
"I don't know," she was honest. "The treaty signing is scheduled for two days from tomorrow but I won't leave until I have Gabrielle with me. I would like you to return to the Capital. I have written out some instructions I want you to follow," she paused. "This time I will not tolerate disobedience."
The man heard the subtle threat in her voice and nodded, accepting the small pouch of scrolls that she held out. He looked at the tall woman seeing a energy radiating from her that he had never witnessed before.
"Do you know what you are going to do?"
"Yes," Xena nodded not revealing her plan which was simple enough. She would give Gabrielle every reason not to stay. She cast him a weak smile. "If necessary and all else fails I will forcibly take her out," she paused. "If any important messages arrive in my absence have them sent to me."
"I will, my Empress," the man bowed respectfully. "Good luck."
It was dawn the next morning when she set off for the Amazon village. She knew that she wasn't expected and so needed some excuse. The idea for a picnic had come to mind. It was an unlikely reason but she was grabbing at what she could. She had the camp cook throw together a basket of foods and delicacies that the bard enjoyed, along with several wine skins.
Solari intercepted the Conqueror at the border. She was surprised by the other woman's appearance and personally escorted her back to the village. Xena waited in her saddle while the Chief Elder was summoned. Lesta grew worried when informed of the Conqueror's arrival. They had not expected the Empress for two days.
"This is an unexpected privilege," the Elder said hesitantly as the tall dark haired woman swung herself down from the horse.
"I found myself free for the day and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to visit Gabrielle," the Conqueror said and then added as an afterthought. "That is if no one objects?"
"Certainly not," Lesta smiled, hiding her nervousness. She motioned to Eponin who trotted up to them. The warrior had been working out on the practice fields when one of the younger Amazon's had alerted her to the Empress' presence. "Eponin can escort you."
"I think I can find my own way," Xena said and the Amazon's nodded their heads.
"Certainly, your horse will be in the stables when you are ready to leave," Lesta said, motioning for one of her warrior's to tend to the warhorse. She watched as the Empress turned on her heel and strolled nonchalantly towards the healers hut.
"Something is wrong," Eponin spoke her thoughts out loud.
"Yes," the Elder nodded her head in silent communication, her brown eyes following the tall woman's progress. "I am as suspicious of her appearance as you are. I suggest you keep everyone on alert. I don't want to be caught off guard. The Conqueror is up to something, I just don't know what it is though."
The Weapon's Master nodded and then trotted off after her quarry.
Gabrielle was reading through a scroll when the door to the healers hut opened. Out of curiosity she glanced up expecting to see another Amazon but she dropped the scroll in her hands when she recognized the Conqueror.
"Xena, what are you doing here?" she could not hide her shock and pleasure.
"I couldn't stay away," came the wry reply as the tall woman glanced over her and then at the healer who was staring at her in surprise. "Besides I had nothing better to do and I thought you might be bored."
"Really?" Gabrielle couldn't believe the truth. She wanted to believe that Xena had come for her but the insecure part of herself couldn't accept that it might be true.
"Yes, really," Xena smiled gently and sat down on the bench next to the girl's cot. She idly picked up one of the scrolls lying on the bed and glanced at its contents. She raised her eyebrows questioningly. "Amazon laws and traditions?"
"I am their Queen, I figure I better know something about them," Gabrielle was honest.
"Are you learning anything interesting?"
"No," the bard smiled and then glancing about lowered her voice to a whisper. "I thought it would be interesting but most of it's rather boring. It's given me a headache mostly. They have rules and laws for the silliest things. It kind of gives me a better appreciation for your cut and dry no nonsense type of government."
Xena laughed aware that the sound drew the attention of the others in the hut. She didn't care. "It's nice to know that I am appreciated for something." She glanced at the healer and then at her lover.
"Would you like to get out of here for awhile?"
"Really?" Gabrielle's eyes grew round.
"Yeah, I thought we could go for a picnic," the Conqueror shrugged nonchalantly. "There must be a quiet glade around here some place."
"I don't know if the healers will let me out," the bard sighed.
"Leave everything to me," Xena winked and then stood up walking over to where the chief healer was working.
Eponin sat down on the bench next to her friend Ephiny. Though she was supposed to follow the Empress, she had the strong suspicion that the Conqueror would be awhile in the healers hut. Besides from her position she had an unobstructed view of the hut. She cast a brief glance at her companion.
"I wonder what she's up too," the Weapon's Master commented casually and her friend eyed her with amusement.
"I should think it's pretty obvious," Ephiny replied.
"What is?" Eponin looked at her companion with a baffled expression.
"She is probably concerned that Gabrielle is thinking of staying with us," came the nonchalant reply.
"Impossible," the older warrior snorted in disbelief.
"Why?" was the logical question and for a moment the Weapon's Master struggled for a reasonable answer. When she could find nothing she responded the only way she could.
"Because it's a ridiculous notion that the Conqueror would care about anyone so much."
"I don't know," Ephiny shrugged her shoulders. "None of us really knows the Conqueror. Who knows what goes on in her head or her heart for that matter. It wouldn't surprise me at all if she wasn't worried that we would try and persuade the girl to stay."
Eponin was silent as she tried to give this thought a serious consideration. She shook her head after awhile unable to believe it possible. She glanced at the healers hut trying to ignore the fact that the
Conqueror had shown undue concern over the bard. She looked at the smaller woman beside her.
"Do you really think so?"
"It's not an unimaginable possibility," Ephiny said. "The truth is Lesta asked me to speak with the girl to see if I could persuade her to stay."
"What did you tell her?" the older Amazon was surprised by this truth.
"I said no," the blond warrior was honest. "Putting pressure on the girl would only make matters worse. Gabrielle doesn't want to stay and I don't think we should try and persuade her. What kind of Queen would she be if her thoughts were always elsewhere?"
"She really is in love with the Empress then?"
Ephiny raised her eyebrows in amusement. "You make it sound so incredible."
"Well it is," the Weapon's Master defended herself.
"Yes, I guess it is," the blond Amazon sighed. "Don't ask me why I can't figure it out and I don't think she completely understands it herself but she believes her place is with the Conqueror and I don't think it's our position to try and dissuade her."
"I still don't get it," Eponin shook her head confused.
"I know you don't," Ephiny smiled indulgently at her friend. "But someday you will."
The Weapon's Master was about to make a comment when she spotted the Conqueror emerge from the healers hut, their Queen nestled in her arms. She jumped to her feet, her hand automatically going to the dagger that was fastened to her waist as she trotted full speed towards the pair.
"Where do you think you're going?" she barked when she caught up to the couple. Xena paused and turned a critical eye upon the Amazon.
"I am going to get my horse and then I am going to take Gabrielle out for a picnic," came the low growl.
"No," the Amazon shook her head and then watched mutely as the Conqueror's whole body stiffened. She could feel the tension radiate off the taller woman.
"Noooooo," the Empress repeated the word slowly. "Why would I not be allowed to do that?"
"Because Gabrielle is not fit enough to leave the healers hut," the Weapon's Master said the first thing that came into her head. She planted her feet firmly in front of the Conqueror, crossing her arms defiantly.
"The healer thought it would be a good idea," Xena replied, her eyes staring intently at the other woman, aware that if she hadn't had Gabrielle in her arms she would have challenged this Amazon to a fight.
"Now guys we can settle this peacefully," Gabrielle said feeling the tension radiating between the two warriors as Xena lowered her to her feet.
Ephiny could see the confrontation coming and hurried to the Council hut were she knew the Elders were meeting. She rushed into the room receiving a host of censored looks from the women who were disturbed.
"Lesta, you must come quickly, there is a problem with the Conqueror," the blond Amazon sputtered out of breath.
The Elder immediately jumped to her feet and hurried out the door. She had half expected there to be trouble but she had not thought it would happen this quickly. She rushed across the village square to where the Weapon's Master and the Empress were standing face to face, with the poor bard sandwiched in between.
"What's going on here?" Lesta demanded as she strolled up to the group, aware that the scene had caught the curiosity of every Amazon in sight.
"The Conqueror is attempting to run off with our Queen," Eponin claimed and the Conqueror gave her a benign look.
"I was merely attempting to cheer up my friend," Xena said glancing at the Elder. "Gabrielle enjoys picnics and the healer had no problem with releasing her for the afternoon."
"Really, it's all right she wasn't trying to kidnap me or anything," Gabrielle confirmed appealing to the Elders common sense. "I do enjoy picnic's and the healer did say it was okay."
Lesta glanced at the Conqueror and knew without a doubt that Kastra would not have had the courage to deny the Empress any request. She looked now at the tall, dark haired Ruler seeing something in the pale blue eyes that were so guarded.
"Such a fuss over something so trivial," the Elder said with a smile. "I am certain you will be careful with our Queen."
"What?" Eponin could not believe what she was hearing. She glanced at the Elder and then at the Conqueror who raised her eyebrows smugly before scooping the young blond woman back into her arms.
"We will be back in the afternoon," Xena said glancing at the Elder. "I would appreciate if we were given our privacy."
Gabrielle could see the uncertainty in the Elders expression and hastened to intervene. She didn't want the situation to erupt again, fairly certain that her lover's patience had been over extended by this brief confrontation. She could feel the warrior's tension radiating from her body.
"You don't have to worry about my safety, Xena will protect me with her life," she said diplomatically defusing the situation with her carefully chosen words. "I give you my promise that we will be back before evening meal."
Lesta looked at the bard who was securely held in the Conqueror's arms. It was a picture that she had never thought to see and she glimpsed briefly at what it was that existed between these two women. She glanced over the crowd that had gathered to watch.
"Certainly, have a good day," the Elder nodded. She trusted the girl's promise. Eponin's jaw dropped in disbelief yet she waited until the couple had stepped into the stables before voicing her protest.
"What do you think you're doing?" the Weapon's Master shrieked. "Aren't you afraid that she will steal the Queen?"
"No," Lesta shook her head suddenly understanding something that she had not seen before. She turned to look at the warrior. "Gabrielle would not allow herself to be taken away, besides who are we to point fingers. Who brought the girl here against her will in the first place? She may be the Queen but she is also a woman."
"Well, I am not as trusting as you. I am going to follow them just to make certain," Eponin announced, making the decision vocal.
"No," the Elder said firmly. "You and all the other Amazon's will leave them alone."
"Do you actually trust the Conqueror?" the Weapon's Master asked in angry disbelief.
"No, but I trust Gabrielle and I have no wish for blood to be spilled over this matter," she eyed the warrior critically. "I do not want to be disobeyed."
The warrior nodded her head glumly and satisfied the Elder turned and retreated back to the Council Hut aware that she had made the only decision possible. She did not care that most of the tribe would not agree with her. Until they had a new Ruling Queen it was her decision to make.
Eponin glared at the Elder's receding back for a moment before slinking away, grumbling under her breath. Ephiny followed more slowly knowing that her friend would need someone to vent her frustration against. None of them saw the smirking red headed Amazon warrior who had stood back from the curious crowd that had gathered.
Velaska smiled to herself. She had no qualms about disregarding the Elders orders. She would soon be the Queen and the one to make the rules. Then she would be the one to determine who did what. She glanced at her friends and with a slight motion of her head they moved off towards the edge of the forest and out of the village.
As Xena predicted they were able to locate a quiet spot along side the river not far from the Amazon village. It was a secluded glade with long, sweet smelling grass and a wide array of colourful wild flowers.
She laid out a blanket under a tree near the edge of the stream and then carried the bard over and gently set her down. She knelt in front of the woman, trapped by those innocent green eyes, and unable to prevent herself, she reached out and cupped the girl's face. She leaned forward and kissed the bard passionately, extending the embrace for a long time before finally pulling away.
"You know we probably aren't alone," Gabrielle said breathlessly and the Conqueror smiled gently stroking the younger woman's cheek.
"Probably not," Xena said. She had expected that the Amazon's to send a few scouts after them regardless of what she had requested. "I want them to know you belong to me."
"You are so bad," the bard flushed but was privately thrilled. "However, as much as I enjoy kissing you, I'm starved and you did promise me a picnic."
"Always thinking of the important stuff," the Conqueror laughed and jumping to her feet strolled back to where Argo was grazing. She retrieved the basket from the saddle and then loped back to where the bard was sitting, flopping down beside her on the blanket.
"What did you bring me?" Gabrielle asked eagerly digging into the basket and pulling out a variety of foodstuffs. There was everything from figs and dates to cheese and nutbread.
"Take it easy girl," the Conqueror laughed at her companion's zealous attention to the goodies. She eyed the smaller woman curiously. "Haven't they been feeding you?"
Gabrielle stopped munching for a moment. Her hands full of food. She cast the Empress a disdainful glance. "Have you ever tasted any of their food?"
"Is it bad?" the Conqueror asked innocently.
"It's absolutely horrible, it has no taste and the grain cereal they serve for breakfast tastes like paste."
"Oh, and I suppose you could do a better job cooking?"
"Actually, I could," Gabrielle nodded arrogantly, stuffing a fig into her mouth and chewing loudly. "Of course you wouldn't know that but once we get back to the Palace I will cook you up a feast like you've never before tasted."
"That sounds a little scary," the Conqueror said dryly and the bard scrunched her nose and made a face. In response Xena snatched a grape from her companion's fist and popped it into her mouth. "Where did you learn to cook?"
"At home," Gabrielle replied. "My mom was quite adamant about teaching my sister and me. She thought it was a necessary skill to capture a husband. Little did she know."
The Conqueror leaned back on one elbow and stretched her legs out, watching as the girl bit into another fig. She plucked another grape from its vine, staring at it for a long moment before popping it into her mouth.
"I take it you're parents weren't terribly impressed when they learned of your association with me," Xena said after moment.
Gabrielle stopped eating and turned her head to stare at her lover. Xena's head was turned away and she couldn't see the expression on the older woman's face. She chewed on the fruit in her mouth and swallowed.
"How do you know that?" she asked softly.
"When I didn't find you back at the Palace, I came looking for you. Naturally the first place I stopped was Potedaia."
"Were they awfully rude?" Gabrielle wondered anxiously trying not to imagine what it must have been like.
"It's nothing worse then I expected," Xena shrugged and then looked at the girl and smiled. "At least now I know who you inherited your arrogance from."
"Ouch," the bard grimaced, thinking of her father and the way he always tried to bully everyone. "You didn't hurt him to badly did you?"
"No, Gabrielle, he is your father and regardless of how much I might dislike him I would never harm him," the Conqueror paused, giving the girl a wicked grin. "That doesn't mean though that I didn't put a little scare into him. I don't expect to get an invitation to dinner anytime soon."
Gabrielle looked at her lover and then lightly punched her in the arm. The Conqueror mimicked a grimace but then grinned. The smile on her own face died.
"Is that why you don't let anyone harm Toris or Cyrene, because they are your family?"
The Empress took a deep breath looking at the smaller woman intently. "How did you know?"
"I guessed," came the solemn reply. "Actually its not hard to tell if you really look. Toris looks a lot like you only with different parts."
"Oh and where did you get to see those parts?" the Conqueror asked with amused curiosity, her eyebrows raising inquiringly.
Gabrielle blushed at the implication of her lovers words. "I didn't. I mean... you know what I mean."
"Yes, sweetheart, I do," Xena conceded softly leaning forward to brush her lips against the blond woman's. "Hmm, that tastes good."
The bard blushed again aware of the way her body was beginning to grow warm. She decided that the only way to keep her thoughts away from those forbidden zones was to remain serious.
"When I told you about them why didn't you say they were your family?" she asked quietly trying to gauge what was going on in her lover's mind.
Xena shrugged absently. "I guess I didn't think it was important, besides it's not like we are family any more. I think my mother hates me even more then your father does."
"I don't believe that," Gabrielle disagreed. "I don't think a mother ever stops caring for their children."
"No, perhaps not but I doubt she could ever forgive me," Xena shook her head. "She blames me for my brothers death and the one thing that a parent can't forget are the children they've lost or the people who killed them."
"You didn't kill Lyceus," Gabrielle disputed the claim, her heart aching for this woman.
"I led him to his death and to my mother there is no difference then if I had stabbed him with my own sword," the tall woman sighed. "She doesn't understand that if I could change places with him I would in a minute."
"No," the bard shook her head, grabbing her lovers hand and squeezing it tightly. "I'm glad you're not dead. I'm glad you are here and the person I know."
Xena looked up at the woman her heart churning inside her chest. She reached up and stroked the girl's face. The bard's skin felt like velvet under the palm of her hand. Their eyes locked in an intense embrace.
"Gods, where were you ten years ago?" she wanted to know, a wistful note to her voice.
"I was out of nappies but still playing in the dirt," the girl remarked with a gentle smile wanting to ease the intensity of her lover's expression.
Xena laughed feeling a wave of relief roll through her body. She could not believe the way this girl could make her feel. She reached up wrapping her hand around the girl's neck and drawing her head down so that their lips could touch. She kissed the bard passionately hoping to translate her emotions in that intimate touch. Both women were breathing hard when the embrace finally broke.
"Did you really meet my dad?" Gabrielle asked when they began to eat again.
"Yep, and your mother and your sister," Xena nodded taking a bit out of the apple she had selected from the basket. "Lila has a bit of spunk in her."
"Oh?" the bard could not hide her surprise thinking of her shy sister. "What did she do?"
"When I asked the townsfolk why I shouldn't destroy the village because of the rebels, she stepped forward and told me that you had been the one to turn the men in."
"Oh!" Gabrielle was suddenly shy and uncomfortable. She stared at the fruit in her hand as the Conqueror continued. "Then this boy stepped out and told me which direction you went. I think he has a crush on you."
"Who was it?" the bard mumbled in a solemn voice relieved that they had not dwelled on the last subject for very long.
"A kid with curly blond hair," the Empress shrugged. "Do you know him?"
"That's right, Perdicus."
"He asked me to marry him."
"Oh?" this time it was Xena who raised her eyebrows and the bard blushed.
"He has been sweet on me since we were kids. He finally got up the nerve to propose. He was waiting until he thought he could afford me."
"Well, you are an expensive woman to keep," the Conqueror drawled in a teasing voice, glancing at the food basket. "Why it costs me a fortune just to keep you fed, the poor man doesn't know how lucky he is."
"Xennaaa," Gabrielle moaned punching her companion lightly in the arm and then watched as the smile on the dark haired woman disappeared.
"What did you tell him?"
"What do you think!" the bard was perturbed by the question.
"Maybe you should have considered it," the Empress replied in a serious voice. "Your life would probably be a whole lot less complicated being with him."
"But it would also probably be a whole lot more boring," the girl shook her head. She did not have any doubts. "I'm not in love with him and I wouldn't be happy."
"You sound very certain about that."
"I am," the girl confirmed. "We only live once Xena and I don't want to spend my days thinking what if. We have such a short time before Hades or some other God takes us to the next life. I don't want to spend it being unhappy."
Xena was touched by the simple speech and finding no words to say she gently picked up the younger woman's hand and brushed her lips against the knuckles.
"Are you happy Gabrielle?"
"My whole life feels complete when I am with you."
"Even knowing that your family disapproves and that because of our association you will always be in danger. Is it really what you want? Is it really worth it to you?"
"Yes," the blond said without hesitation. "That's what love is all about. It doesn't mean your world is going to be perfect, it just means you will have something to carry you through the rough times. It makes everything seem so much easier."
Xena was about to disagree but she kept her mouth closed and dwelt for a moment on the girl's words. Since Gabrielle had come into her life it had gotten much more complicated but strangely she didn't mind. Moments like now, made all the trouble seem worthwhile. Like so many others it was a strange and novel experience for the former warlord.
She reached over and combed the girl's bangs off her brow, finding it hard to keep her hands away from the woman. She stared at the bard, thinking of everything that she wanted to know but knew that she would never ask. She would listen to the Goddess of the Hunt, and forget about the past and strive for a new future.
"So, Queen Gabrielle, how do you propose we solve this matter with the Amazon's?"
"I could name a Regent," Gabrielle said remembering what she had seen in one of the scrolls. "I was reading that I can name someone to replace me while I am absent from the tribe. Generally the absences aren't for a lengthy duration but I'm sure we could change that."
"Doesn't the Amazon Council have to agree?" the Conqueror asked.
"I don't think that will be a problem," the bard said with a shrug.
"You sound mighty confident about that?"
"I am," the girl said smugly. "Either they let me name a Regent or they have no Queen."
Xena was quiet as she considered the girls words. "Do you have any idea who you would want to be Regent?"
"I think Ephiny, the Amazon I saved. If I hadn't been there and if the Queen had known that she was still alive she would have been given the Right of Caste," Gabrielle said.
"If you hadn't been there she would be dead," the Conqueror corrected bluntly, cradling her lovers hand. She stared at the slender fingers, studying them intently and comparing them to her own. "You know Gabrielle you don't have to give it up."
"What are you saying?" the girl was startled by the suggestion and a little anxious. Her hand tensed in spite of the gentle stroking it was receiving.
"I mean you could stay and be Queen," Xena said. "Don't sell yourself short Gabrielle, you are intelligent, you would be a good leader."
"Do you want me to stay?" Gabrielle asked feeling her world begin to crumble. The Conqueror looked up and saw the fear and anxiety in the green orbs that were staring at her. The bard was unable to hide her feelings.
"No," Xena shook her head, a pained expression etching her features as she looked up at her lover. "But this isn't about what I want. This is about what you want."
"I want to be with you," the girl said in a trembling voice. "I thought you knew that."
"I do but I never want you to feel like I've kept you from achieving anything," the Empress replied reaching up and brushing the girl's cheeks with her long fingers, savouring the feel of her skin. "Its been my greatest pleasure to know you. All that I want is for you to be happy."
"I am Xena," the girl insisted earnestly. "When we are apart I feel like I am only half a person. When we are together I feel complete. I am strong only because I feel the power of your support and I don't mean the physical kind, I mean the emotional kind."
Xena stared at the bard thinking how eloquent the girl was. She leaned forward, drawing the woman down onto the blanket and cradling her tenderly in her arms as their lips met in a series of passionate embraces.
"I know we shouldn't but do you think we could.....you know?"
The Conqueror raised her eyebrows which disappeared under the dark bangs that covered her forehead. "We are being watched."
"Maybe, they'll turn away," the bard suggested hopefully, her body craving to be touched in places that only the Conqueror knew about.
"Sweetheart, they would take one look at your naked body and the last thing they would do is turn away," Xena replied with a drawl, a seductive smile teasing the corners of her lips.
"Oh!" the girl blushed a deep red and Xena laughed heartily, jumping to her feet and reaching down to help the girl up.
"As much as I'd like to take you up on that offer, I'm afraid it's not healthy for you," Xena said in a sexy voice. "When I take you again my bard I want you to be whole because it is going to be a long, long night."
"Oh!" the girl's blush deepened and the Conqueror laughed again feeling incredibly happy. She didn't think she had ever felt this good before. She leaned forward drawing the girl into her arms and kissing her passionately once again, even though she knew it would only end up frustrating both of them.
"I think it's time to cool off," Xena said when they broke apart. She scooped the girl into her arms and carried her to the stream, placing her on a rock near the waters edge. She sat down beside the bard and together they slipped off their boots and dangled their feet in the cool water.
Gabrielle sighed with relief, feeling some of her own tension begin to dissipate. She looped an arm around her lover's waist and leaned her head contentedly against the taller woman's shoulder. She was never really happy unless she was in the Empress' company.
"Those were some pretty interesting suggestions you gave the Amazon's for the treaty negotiations," Xena broke the silence after a long while. She enjoyed the peaceful quiet as much as the younger woman did.
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked shyly glancing up at her companion, not certain to what the other woman was referring.
"Archius told me about your little exercise back in the Palace," the Conqueror said hiding the smile that came to her lips.
"You're not angry are you?" the bard was suddenly worried.
"No," the Empress confessed "In fact I would like to thank you for saving me a lot of trouble. I'm not certain how patient I could have been with these women."
"Archius did mention that you weren't a big fan of them," the girl said quietly. She hadn't been advised of what the outcome of the negotiations had been and was curious. "What all did you agree on?"
"Pretty much everything you and Archius discussed," Xena replied and then outlined the basic terms of the treaty. "They even agreed to send a delegation to the centaur's with a letter from me requesting a peace treaty."
"Oh!" the bard was surprised that they had taken all her suggestions to heart. She glanced at her companion. "I could figure out why the other things were important to you, but why do you care if there is peace between the Amazon's and the centaur's?"
"Didn't Archius tell you?" the Conqueror asked in a quiet and distant voice and Gabrielle glanced at her friend seeing the far off look in her eyes.
"He didn't know or at least that's what he told me," she confessed.
"No, he doesn't know," the taller woman sighed and looked down at the girl with a faint smile that did not reach her eyes. She reached out with her free hand and stroked the girl's cheek, her heart filled with love for this young woman. "Some day I will tell you but now is not the time."
Gabrielle accepted that answer aware that it would do no good to prod her companion. She had learned that no amount of badgering would make the Empress admit the truth. The woman would tell her when she was ready.
"Were the terms really okay?"
"Yes," the Empress nodded and then smiled teasingly. "I particularly liked the concession I had to give in return for being able to take my armies through Amazon territory. I wonder though, who in my Army gets to service the Amazon Queen."
Gabrielle blushed. She hadn't realized that the Amazon's would take her suggestion seriously. She was unable to meet the Conqueror's eyes feeling embarrassed.
"You haven't answered my question," Xena prodded her companion aware of the flush of colour on the girl's face. "That was one term that hadn't been worked out."
"Well, the Amazon Queen is an important person," the bard said forgetting her embarrassment and getting into the spirit of things. "It would have to be a very important member of the Army."
"A General?" the Conqueror asked with a smirk.
"No, it would have to be someone much more important then that," the girl shook her head. "I think it would only be fair if the Empress herself looked after the Queen." The bard glanced up at her companion. "What do you think?"
"I think I like that idea very much," Xena smiled and as if to prove her point she bent her head and kissed the bard soundly on the lips.
Though she had promised herself that she would do nothing that might affect the bard's recovery, she found it impossible to control all her actions. She slipped off the rock and stood up to her knees in the water in front of the girl. She cupped the small face in between her hands, her pale blue eyes staring intently into her lovers young features for a long moment before capturing her lips with her own.
Gabrielle responded instinctively, wrapping her legs around the tall women's waist and drawing her up against her warmth. She winced at the pain the action caused and though she tried to hide it, the Conqueror was sensitive to everything.
"No," Xena shook her head, her breathing ragged with passion. She rested her hand on the girl's heaving chest feeling the steady and strong beat of the heart.
"Nooo," the bard groaned in response her whole body raging with desire and frustration. It had been so long and she wanted this so badly. She leaned her head forward and rested it on her lovers chest.
They stood like that for a long while, contenting themselves with the feel of each other in their arms.
"Come, I think it's time I got you back to the village before they send out a search party," the Conqueror said in a low rumbling voice as she lifted the girl into her arms and carried her to the bank before setting her back down on her feet.
Gabrielle watched as the Empress collected the picnic supplies and blanket, packing them back on Argo's saddle. It had been such a wonderful afternoon and she hated the idea of spoiling it but there was something that she had to tell her lover. Something that she felt was still between them.
Something she wanted out in the open so that nothing could hide behind it.
"Xena," she said hesitantly.
"What?" the Conqueror asked walking over to where the girl was sitting.
"If you knew I was the one that betrayed the rebels why didn't you say anything?" the bard asked
"It didn't seem important," the Empress said simply in a tight voice uncertain where this conversation was going.
"But you must have realized that I was a part of the group."
Xena sighed. She hadn't wanted to talk about this. Artemis had said to forget the past and that was what she had intended on doing, but she hadn't counted on the bard bringing up the subject and wanting to discuss it.
"That was in the past. It's over and done with. We don't have to talk about this."
"No, but I do," the girl said in a soft voice and the Conqueror glanced down at her. There was an earnest expression on the girl's face. "It's important to me that you know and understand the truth."
"Okay," the Empress sighed in defeat and leaned back against a nearby rock, folding her arms across her chest and waiting patiently for the girl to speak. "What do you want to tell me Gabrielle?'
"I want you to know how much I love you and that I would never betray you," the bard paused, her voice heavy with emotion. She turned her eyes away from the other woman afraid to see something she might not like in that intense blue gaze. "Everything I did was before I knew you. Everything I thought, changed when I met you. Like everyone else I was living under the same misconception as to what kind of person you were."
"I am that monster Gabrielle," Xena shook her head quietly. "Not more than a full moon ago my army massacred a whole Nation of Horde tribesmen."
"But you are so much more then that," Gabrielle shook her head in disagreement. "I can see a goodness in you that people don't think exists. I see a goodness that even you don't want to acknowledge out of fear that it will bring you pain or make you weak. You can be a good person, whether you believe that or not. Someone who makes such passionate love as you do is not all a monster."
Xena eyed her companion silently for a long moment, unable to ignore the trembling that stirred her heart. With a handful of mere words this girl could bring her to her knees and she did so time and time again. But the defeat was so sweet and wonderful that she did not mind.
"So, what exactly did you do for the rebels?" the Conqueror asked with a hoarse voice, struggling to maintain control of her emotions.
"I used my relationship with General Rufus to spy on the army camp. He never suspected anything and with the permit he gave me I was able to carry secret messages between various villages," the bard replied unable to look at her lover.
"He was a fool," Xena snorted, thinking of the man who had tried to kill this small woman.
"He was fooled," the girl corrected sadly for the first time understanding the reason for the man's hatred. "I think my betrayal must of hurt him, perhaps that's why he tried to kill me."
"No," the Empress objected. "His ego was bruised, as any General's would be if they were out foxed by a young woman barely more than a child. He tried to kill you because he knew that would hurt me."
Gabrielle was silent. It was true. She had shamed Rufus by her actions but his anger and frustration was directed at the Conqueror. She had only been a way for him to strike back at someone who he knew he could not defeat.
"Were you carrying any messages that day we met?" Xena broke the silence gently prodding the bard out of her morose thoughts.
"Yes," she nodded, shaking her head to dispel the thoughts that were clouding her mind. "I had one for your brother."
"Weren't you afraid of being caught?" the Conqueror mused, feeling admiration for her courageous young friend.
"I didn't know who you were," the girl reminded.
"I was still a stranger," the taller woman pointed out.
"A beautiful one."
"Some of the most beautiful creatures are also the most deadly," the Conqueror said softly.
"Yes," the smaller woman conceded, "but I just knew that I could trust you."
"I don't know what I am going to do with you," Xena sighed. With a shake of her head she straightened, moving across the space that separated them.
"Does that mean you forgive me?" the bard asked hesitantly with wide eyes as the tall woman gathered her into her arms and combed long strands of blond hair behind her ears.
"There is nothing to forgive. What you did is a part of the past. I don't want us to discuss this matter again. For me it never happened."
"Can you forgive me that easily?" the bard was uncertain and the Conqueror smiled tenderly.
"You are the only one I could forgive," was the honest reply as the tall woman lowered her head and captured the girl's lips.
Gabrielle had no time to think about those words before she got caught up in the kiss. She had just about lost complete conscious sense when she was abruptly shoved to one side. She opened her eyes to see Xena standing in front of her holding an arrow in each hand.
"Stay here," the Conqueror hissed angrily, cursing the Amazon's as she took off in the direction from where the arrows had come.
Gabrielle followed her lover to the edge of the tree line staring into the forest where Xena had disappeared. Suddenly something dropped out of the trees and grabbed her arm, swinging her around, and she found herself staring into the face of a red headed Amazon.
"You put on a pretty nice show, My Queen," Velaska said with a smirk. Gabrielle flushed with embarrassment realizing that this woman had watched her with the Conqueror. She wrapped her arms around her waist to prevent herself from shivering. "I am thinking that at the Challenge I won't kill you. I might just make you my bitch. That might be nice."
"I would kill myself rather then be with you," the bard said and the woman laughed hysterically.
Xena could see her attackers in front of her and felt the panther begin to stir but abruptly she stopped running, her senses on full alert. Suddenly, she wasn't certain that she had been the intended victim of this attack. She had sensed an undercurrent of tension in the village. It was the type of undercurrent that was found in a place that had inner turmoil. She thought of Gabrielle alone in the glade and turning on her heel raced back to her lover.
"I wonder, is the Conqueror really so good?" the Amazon snarled reaching out to put a hand suggestively on the bard's bare forearm. "Maybe if you spent time with me you might forget about her."
"Get your hands off her," Xena growled suddenly appearing out of the forest. There was a deadly look in her eyes that even frightened Gabrielle. The Amazon warrior unconsciously stepped back giving in briefly to her own fear of the animal that was stalking towards them.
"Maybe you'd like me to touch you instead," Velaska said with a smirk and reached towards the Empress who had stepped in between them.
Her hand was snatched out of the air and held in a vice like grip around the wrist making her wince as she slumped to her knees. The Amazon cried in pain as the Conqueror tightened her hold, twisting the arm in the most horrible way so that Gabrielle was afraid it would snap.
"Xena," the bard stepped forward and placed a hand on her lover's arm. For a moment the Conqueror glanced down at the blond woman. Gabrielle could see the fire in the blue eyes and she was truly frightened for this Amazon. "Xena, please."
The soft pleading voice went straight to the center of the Conqueror's heart and she scowled pushing down the raging animal that was threatening to break free of it's cage. She turned a steely gaze at the woman on the ground, ignoring her natural instincts to kill this woman. Instead she would heed her companion's quiet plea.
"Understand one thing, no one touches me and no one touches Gabrielle unless she asks them too," the Conqueror said in a cold voice, her eyes narrowing into pale slits. "Now get out of here before I forget that I just signed a treaty with your people."
She released the warrior and watched with catlike eyes as the woman scrambled to her feet and slinked back into the trees. Ignoring the pain Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her lover and hugged her tightly. Xena turned in the embrace, returning the hug, as she stroked and kissed the top of the bard's blond head.
The attack left Xena more shaken then she would admit. She cradled the bard in her arms as they rode back towards the village, her pale eyes scanning the surroundings, alert for any other attacks that might be brought. For her lovers sake she kept her anger in check but she knew that the incident would not go unreported.
She returned Gabrielle to the healers hut staying until the bard was comfortably settled before going in search of the Amazon Elders. Lesta knew something was wrong the moment she caught a glimpse of the Conqueror's dour face as she stalked unannounced into the Council hut.
"You have a problem with some of your Amazon's," Xena said in a cold voice, tossing the arrows she had caught onto the ground in front of the Elder. "They attacked while I was out with your Queen. Tell me now why I shouldn't forget about signing this treaty?"
Lesta swallowed, aware that she had never faced anyone so frightening and she had to summon all her courage to stand in front of this tall furious woman without allowing her limbs to shake.
"Whatever was done, was without our knowledge," Lesta said, instinctively knowing who was behind this attack.. "I will ensure you that we get to the bottom of this matter."
"Under the circumstances I would not feel comfortable leaving my friend here alone," the Conqueror said in a tense voice. "Earlier you invited me to stay. Perhaps I was to hasty in turning down that offer. I would like to reconsider your invitation now."
Lesta looked intently at the taller woman, not certain that she could trust this woman. Instinct told her to be cautious but having issued the invitation it was impossible for her to rescind it. She glanced at the warriors who had gathered around them. She saw that they were waiting for her to speak. She bowed her head graciously.
"Of course, we welcome you to the village," she said and then looked for Eponin who was standing not far away. "You are already familiar with our Weapon's Master. I will assign her to escort you." She turned to another one of the Amazon's. "Prepare one of the guest huts and see that all the Empress' needs are met."
The Amazon bowed respectfully and then hurried to do her bidding.
"I want Gabrielle moved in with me," the Empress said in a cool voice.
"She is well protected in the healers hut, but if you are still worried about her safety I will assign several guards to watch over her," the Elder tried to assure the angry woman.
"That thought does not comfort me," the Conqueror shook her head. "I prefer to have her with me."
The Elder felt the pressure of what the Conqueror wanted. In her mind she had an idea who was behind this attack and wasn't entirely uncertain that the intended victim wasn't their Queen. She sighed mutely nodding her head, acceding to the woman's demand.
"Good," the Conqueror said and then stalked away. Eponin was about to hurry after her but Lesta grabbed her arm, forestalling her departure.
"Send someone else to watch over her," the Elder instructed. "I want you to find out what happened and then I want you to find out who was responsible for putting the Queen and the whole Amazon Nation in jeopardy."
"I think I can start by speaking with Velaska," Eponin nodded and then motioned to Solari who had remained in the village after escorting the Conqueror there morning.