Hannibal finished tying the bandage around the wounded man's arm before giving him an encouraging smile. There was nothing more that he could do, like many of the other wounded, this soldier would have to endure the pain of the injury until it healed. He stood up and stretched his aching muscles. He was getting to old for the strenuous demands of being head healer for the Conqueror's army.
He turned his head and glanced around the tent, realizing that every square inch of space was in use. The casualties had stopped coming several candlemarks earlier, allowing them a chance to catch up, but even though all the men had been attended to, there was still much too do. There were wounds to be drained, bandages to be changed and herbs to be dispensed. He was no fan of war, he had seen too much of what it did to people and knew that the cost of lives was to high for any victory achieved.
His eyes continued around the room until they settled on the blond woman who was kneeling next to the cot of a severely wounded soldier. He saw the gentle way she held the ailing man's hand and the compassionate expression on her young face.
Gabrielle, the bard from Potedaia, Amazon Queen, and consort to the Empress of Greece, had been an endless source of help and inspiration over the past many moons. She had worked tirelessly amongst the sick, helping not only the healers but the wounded as well. Not once had he heard a word of complaint coming from her mouth, and there had always been a ready smile on her face.
But perhaps the biggest gift she had given to the injured warriors were her stories. Each night she would stay late into the evening, filling the encroaching darkness with the soft cadence of her voice and soothing the soldiers worries with tales that seemed to calm their fears of Hades coming for them in their sleep. She had won over many hearts with her selfless attitude and the affection the troops displayed for her was genuine.
He moved across the room picking a path between the cots to where the girl was sitting. With the battle over the army would be returning from the field, and the Conqueror would be amongst them. He knew the bard would want to be there when the Empress arrived back in camp. He put a gentle hand on her shoulder to get her attention and felt an ache in his aged heart as weary eyes looked up.
"It's time for a break, Gabrielle," the healer said quietly. "The battle is over. There won't be any more casualties."
The blond woman stared up into the wrinkled face of the chief healer. She could see the weariness that crinkled the corners of his eyes. He looked as tired as she felt. They had worked side by side for the last few moons and it had been an exhausting task. Her green eyes surveyed the room.
"There is still much to do," she shook her head. She felt a sense of responsibility for these unfortunate souls, knowing that she would feel guilty if she left while there was still work to be done.
"Yes, but the worst is over. We will be able to handle it from here," Hannibal was insistent. "Besides I am certain the Conqueror will want to see you the instant she returns from the battlefield and even though she may deny it, I suspect she will need attention."
Gabrielle would have argued the point but she knew the man was right. She thought of her lover and knew that she wanted to be there for Xena when she returned to camp. Reluctantly she released the soldiers hand and stood up, feeling the stiffness in her sore muscles.
"Thank you Hannibal," she gave him a tired smile which he returned.
She took one last glance about the room before strolling slowly passed the litters and out of the tent into the evening. She paused to take a deep breath, filling her lungs with the fresh air. She closed her eyes and savoured the feel of the gentle breeze as it caressed her exposed flesh. It seemed like it had been such a long time since she had been able to enjoy the simple things that the day offered.
She glanced about the camp. It was still quiet but in the distance she could see the first of the troops beginning their return. If she knew anything about her lover she knew that Xena would be the last one off the battlefield. She turned and made her way back to the command tent, mentally aware that she had enough time for a bath before the Empress returned.
Xena marched her golden horse around the battlefield, watching without expression as the camp followers began collecting the dead and stacking them in piles to be burned. Others were retrieving weapons that had been lost during the battle. She glanced around the open field that was littered with those who Hades had chosen to take that day. Once again He had passed her by.
The fight had been a long, bloody struggle, a seemingly endless series of skirmishes that resulted in many lives lost. She looked down over her body. Any injuries she had sustained in battle were covered by the sweat and grime that had formed a thin crust over her skin. There were nicks and cuts from tips of blades that had gotten through her defenses. More then once the sharp edge of a sword had come almost to close for comfort.
She tugged on the reins and brought the large horse to a halt next to a small stack of bodies. A horde of flies were buzzing around the blood drenched corpses. Overhead a loud chorus of buzzards circled waiting for the chance to swoop down and begin the feast. She felt the bile rise up in her throat and she leaned over and gagged.
She gasped for breath, struggling to regain her sense of composure. She had never experienced this strange reaction to battle and its aftermath. She had always lived for the fire and intensity that it took to be victorious. She had defeated Caesar's disciplined Legionaries, driving them back while securing another large portion of territory for her own Empire, and though she had always accepted that sacrifices had to be made she wondered today if it was really worth the price.
She glanced up across the plain towards the low mountains in the west to which Caesar's army had fled. In the past she would have pushed her army forward until the enemy was completely annihilated but today she was reluctant to follow. Her forces had been brutally bloodied and she did not have the heart to push them further.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes in an attempt to release the last of the tension that remained in her body. She wanted the panther inside her to be completely at rest before she returned to camp where she knew Gabrielle would be waiting. A flood of warm emotion cascaded over her senses as thoughts of the younger woman filled her head.
It had been a long weary road they had travelled together and as difficult as it had been, it had been more rewarding then she had ever imagined. Surrender, Artemis had said and she had done just that and there wasn't one moment that she had regretted that decision.
She sighed. She had never known how good it felt to have someone there waiting. In the past she had taken an assortment of lovers, rarely sharing her bed with someone more than once, but on this campaign there had only been Gabrielle and she had experienced a joy that she had never before felt. She had never known how good it was to have someone love her so completely. Someone who waited anxiously for her return, someone who fussed over every scratch or bruise. It had been a novel experience and one that she knew she could no longer live without.
She opened her eyes and glanced one last time over the battlefield. It was over and she would not pursue the foe. She would gather her forces and return to the Capital. It was time for things to change and perhaps it had been inevitable from the first moment she had met Gabrielle. She no longer lusted after more power. She wanted to enjoy what she had in case it was suddenly taken away.
She had never been afraid of death. She had laughed at the idea that some day Hades would come for her. So often she had reckless tempted the Fates, sneering at Death but now she no longer carried that same fearlessness or contempt. Now it was startling clear that she wanted to live. She had a reason to think of the future. A future that stretched before her with so many possibilities. She wanted to give Gabrielle the promise of tomorrow and she couldn't do that if she were dead.
She took a deep breath, feeling the evening wind caress her heated flesh. She was glad that they would be returning to Corinth. They both needed the rest. It had been a long difficult season and the situation had only been made bearable by the constant companionship and support of her lover. It was for the bard that her weary limbs now ached. With the battle fever gone, she longed only for the soft comfort of her friends embrace.
She dug her heels into the flanks of the horse and it moved quickly forward trotting over the uneven earth, moving steadily in the direction of the camp where her army was now assembling. Once clear of the obstacles that littered the ground she pressed her knees together, urging the horse into a gallop, desperate to feel the arms of her lover wrapped around her body.
Gabrielle stood on the perimeter of the camp and watched as the surviving remnants of the Conqueror's army returned from battle. She shifted restlessly from one foot to the other, her eyes straining to see down the column of soldiers that were trudging passed. She saw the fatigue etched into the grimy lines on their faces and knew that Xena too would be exhausted.
She waited anxiously for a glimpse of the Empress, who had been in the very heart of the action. She knew that the Conqueror was okay but she would not be content until she saw the woman for herself. She hugged her waist against the evening wind which was beginning to grow chilly and continued her vigil, her heart aching for the fate of the one she loved so dearly.
Finally, at the very end of the column, sitting proudly a top Argo, she saw the possessor of her heart. The first one on the battlefield, the Conqueror was also the last one to leave. Unable to help herself, Gabrielle started walking towards her lover, only taking a few steps before breaking into a run, her heart aching with happiness and love.
Xena spotted the girl coming towards her down the road and her heart leapt at the sight. She reined in Argo and then slid from his back, opening her arms as the girl flew into her embrace. They clung to each other tightly. No words were needed to communicate the intensity of the emotions that passed between them. They were oblivious to everything except each other.
"I'm dirty," the Conqueror said at last, gently easing away from the smaller woman's warmth.
"I don't care," Gabrielle smiled, filled with a sense of wholeness now that they were together again. "Besides we could always share a bath together."
Xena closed her eyes for a moment, thinking how wonderful that idea sounded. But there wasn't any time or place for such luxuries in a battlefield camp. She looked down at the girl, smiling indulgently as she threaded her fingers through long blond locks of hair.
"As appealing as that sounds, I think we both will have to settle for a dip in the cold stream like the rest of the men."
"We'll see," the bard said with an impish grin. "Are we going to walk or are you going to give me a ride?"
The Conqueror looked at the young woman, ruffling her hair affectionately before grasping her about the waist and lifting her in one smooth motion onto the horse. With a chuckle she swung up behind the girl, wrapping her arms tightly around the young woman who leaned back against her solid body.
They rode slowly towards the camp, savouring the little time they were alone together. There were too few moments like this and Xena knew she wanted more of what she had with this woman.
"Are you going after Pompeii?" Gabrielle asked even though she thought she already knew the answer. They had pursued the Roman General for the last full moon and she knew Xena's army was ready to completely vanquish the enemy.
"No," came the startling reply as the Conqueror brushed her lips over the back of the girl's head, breathing in the honey scent of her hair. "We are returning to Corinth."
"But Caesar's army is retreating, if you follow them you will be able to destroy them," the bard was astonished and she wriggled around in her seat so that she could see her lovers face.
"Yes, but I am tired of fighting," the Conqueror replied and then smiled wearily as the girl stared at her with concern.
"Where's the Conqueror and what have you done with her?"
"Nothing," Xena replied but it was a lie. The old Conqueror, the Destroyer of Nations was gone, replaced by someone new, someone whose personality was still emerging. It was a startling realization but the desire to defeat and subjugate all others was dissipating. Now she only wanted an opportunity for peace and rest.
"Xena, are you all right?" the bard was genuinely concerned, a worried frown burrowing its way across her brow.
"Yes," the taller warrior nodded. She was not ready to confide the truth in anyone, so instead she gave a reasonable explanation that her companion would accept. "The troops are exhausted and I've lost many good soldiers. We all need a break to regroup and refresh ourselves."
"But Caesar will get away," Gabrielle was finding it difficult to understand.
"Yes, but I always know where to find him," the Empress said brushing her lips across her young lovers brow. "Besides I'm not certain he isn't waiting for me to follow. Too get to the next valley we will have to travel through a narrow passage in the mountains. It's a perfect place for an ambush and I've not yet seen any of the Legions from Rome in battle."
"You think he was holding them in reserve?" the bard asked thoughtfully.
"It would be the smart move," Xena replied. "He could be saving them, waiting until we are almost completely exhausted before throwing them into battle."
"But he just lost," the blond couldn't understand. "Why didn't he use them sooner?"
"Because I have the feeling that he expects me to follow his retreating army. It was something the old Conqueror would have done."
Gabrielle was not remiss in noticing the terminology that her companion used to describe herself yet she wisely reminded mute. The Conqueror was changing and for that she was pleased but she still needed to understand.
"Then you think they are waiting for you in the pass?"
"What better way to defeat a weary army," came the stoic reply. "We would have no chance against fresh troops if we were caught in the pass."
It made sense and Gabrielle knew that the Conqueror's first concern was for her army. She shook her head not really caring why the Empress halted the attack. The thought of returning to the peace and quiet of Corinth after being away so long filled her with anticipation.
General Loris was standing by his tent conferring with his Lieutenants when he caught sight of the Conqueror. He watched as the tall dark haired warrior rode towards the Command tent. His eyes narrowed at the sight of the blond woman tucked in her embrace and his thoughts harkened back to another General's words before another battle.
Titus had been right, the Conqueror was allowing her emotions to guide her actions. Yet strangely it was not a bad thing. The girl had given the Empress a compassion that she had not before held. He dismissed his men and strolled over to where the pair were dismounting from the horse. He motioned for a nearby soldier to take the golden mare.
"It was a good day," he greeted them heartily, buoyed by the victory they had achieved.
"Yes," the Empress nodded a hand resting on the bard's shoulder. "I am very pleased with everyone's performance."
"You will be even more pleased to learn that the Amazon's captured a Roman General and his escort on the battlefield," Loris motioned for someone and Eponin and several Amazon's appeared leading an armour-clad soldier whose hands had been bound with cuffs and chains. There was a leash around his neck.
The Conqueror stepped up to the group of prisoners, her pale blue eyes scanning their individual faces before finally coming to rest on the man clad in the silver armour of command. She looked at him intently.
"What do they call you?" she asked, not recognizing the General.
"General Artutus," the man replied straightening his shoulders. The Conqueror glanced over the soldier again, a look of amusement on her face as she looked over his shoulder at the captured escort. Finally she turned to the Amazon's and nodded. "Good work."
Eponin squared her shoulders, filled with pride at the praise over their accomplishment. In the seasons that she had served their Queen in the Conqueror's Army, she had come to understand and appreciate the strength and power of the Empress. Xena was a brilliant Commander who inspired her troops to achieve momentous victories in spite of any disadvantages they faced. She was proud to be a part of such a military force.
"Artutus, your Army started all this so I am of a mind to have you staked out and then quartered," the Conqueror said mildly, weighting her options. "However, it was your good fortune to be captured by my allies, the Amazon's, so I will leave it up to their Queen to decide your fate."
Gabrielle was as startled as everyone else by this unexpected announcement and all eyes turned in her direction. She was momentarily flustered and looked to the Conqueror for help, but there was nothing in the other woman's expression. She could not guess as to what the Empress was up too.
"I will need time to think of a suitable punishment," she said finally, glancing uncertainly at the others. "In the meantime lock him up."
"My Conqueror?" Loris looked questioningly at the Empress.
"Do as she says!" Xena barked and the sound of her voice told them that her actions were not to be questioned any further. Eponin nodded and led the prisoners away. Gabrielle was curious to know what was going on but she waited to voice her questions, aware not to do so in front of the others.
"Was there something else Loris?" the Conqueror asked when the General remained.
"No," he shook his head glancing down at his booted feet, feeling dually chastised. "I will advise the Lieutenants to have the troops ready to move out again at the dawn."
"No," came the response and the General looked up in startled surprise. "We will halt here. I want you to post a defensive perimeter along the ridge overlooking the valley and then break open enough port so that the troops may celebrate our victory. Later you will move your headquarters into the Region."
"But the Roman's are retreating?" he gasped. For the first time since joining her army he questioned her decision.
"Yes, and we will let them run back to Rome," Xena replied coolly her back stiffening. She was unused to his doubt.
"But we would be foolish not to humiliate them," Loris argued passionately, thinking that they were throwing away a great opportunity to finish off their enemies.
"And we would be foolish to think that Caesar did not have some other plan," the Conqueror said in a cold voice. "We have not seen any of his Legions from Rome."
"They might have been sent overseas," the General offered but the Empress was already shaking her head.
"Caesar does not use his finest troop overseas, for that he uses mercenaries," she paused and turned her eyes towards the mountains. "It would not surprise me if they were not waiting for us in the mountains."
"How do you know that?" the General was curious.
"Think about it Loris. For the last full moon we have been fighting Caesar's armies in small battles. We have been pushing them back across the region and towards the mountains, but does it not strike you as unusual how quickly they retreat," she paused and looked at the man. "It wouldn't surprise me if his finest soldiers weren't there waiting for us and I will not take my men into an ambush."
"No, my Conqueror," the General agreed solemnly bowing his head subserviently. She had an uncanny sense of these things but there was a hesitation in his voice that she heard.
"Do you not trust me?" she asked softly and the man swallowed compulsively.
"I just fear we may be losing a brilliant opportunity to make our victory complete," Loris replied honestly, finding a measure of protection in the bard's presence.
"I will not risk the lives of my men," she replied and then did something totally unexpected. She offered him the chance to prove her wrong. "However to satisfy your curiosity you may send several squads of your own personal guard through the pass. If they secure it without resistance then we will proceed."
Loris looked at the woman. Her decision was without precedence. He glanced nervously at Gabrielle who had remained silent through the exchange. He could see nothing in the bard's gaze through he saw a small pensive frown at the corner of her mouth.
"All right," the General agreed and bowed before turning away.
"Loris," the Conqueror's brusque voice halted his departure and he turned to look at her. The expression on her face was feral. "This was your decision and the results of this action will be on your head."
The soldier swallowed, aware of the responsibility that she was placing on his shoulders. He had never had to live with the consequences of his actions, hiding behind the guise that everything he did was because the Conqueror had requested it. Now he would not be able to hide behind that claim. He nodded and then hurried away.
Gabrielle's eyes followed the departing man and then turned to look at her lover. Something was going on. Xena was not acting like herself. She watched through narrowed eyes as the tall warrior ducked into their tent. She followed closely behind.
Xena stepped into the canvas shelter, her fingers going to the clasps of her armour, anxious to rid herself of the soiled leathers she was wearing. She came to an abrupt halt as her eyes settled on the large barrel set in the center of the enclosed space. Unexpectedly she felt gentle fingers slap her hands away as the bard started to undo her armour.
"What is this?" the Conqueror asked gruffly, trying to hide the emotions that assaulted her senses.
"A hot bath for a weary warrior," the bard replied simply.
"Gabriellllle," the woman began to complain but the girl interrupted.
"No," the bard slapped her hands away. "I know you like to share the same tribulations as your troops, but sometimes the leader of the Army needs to be pampered."
Xena was silent. She was not used to being treated so kindly. On all her past battle campaigns she had lived as roughly as the troops and she had determined that it was only right. But now she couldn't help feeling elated at the thoughtfulness of the young woman. She turned to the girl with hope in her eyes.
"You will join me?"
"No," the bard shook her head with a sweet smile. "This is only for you."
Xena reached out and cupped the girl's face.
"You are too good for me," she said softly before leaning forward and planting a gentle kiss on the woman's soft warm mouth.
"Time enough for that later," Gabrielle said determinedly, breaking off the embrace before they both lost control. She grabbed the warrior and spun her around. "Get undressed and get into the bath before the water gets cold."
"Yes, mom," the Empress grinned and dutifully did as she was ordered, discarding her leathers and armour before climbing into the barrel.
She sighed with contentment as the heat of the water began to soak into her weary limbs. She leaned back and closed her eyes, marvelling at the joy that such a simple pleasure could instill. Already she was beginning to feel the weariness fade from her mind and body.
"Relax love," Gabrielle said in a soothing voice.
"Hmm," the Conqueror murmured as small hands lathered with scented soap began their assault on her body. She allowed the bard complete control, revelling in the gentle massage of the hands that were soaping her body and washing her hair. All to soon the wonderful pleasure was over.
"Rinse," the bard commanded and the Empress instantly obeyed. She ducked her whole body under the water. When she surfaced the girl was standing in front of her, a long fresh linen cloth in her hands.
"You know what I'd like," Xena said stepping out of the barrel and reaching out for the girl.
"I know what you'd like," the bard smiled, deftly stepping out of her grasp and wrapping the linen around the tall wet body in one smooth motion. "But before we do anything I need to make sure you are okay."
"Gabrielle, I'm fine," the taller woman huffed with a touch of exasperation.
"That's for me to decide," the smaller woman said firmly. "If you will just stand still we can finish with this and then move onto something more important."
Xena thought to make a reply but knew by the set expression on her lover's face that she would lose any further argument so she decided merely to do as the bard suggested. She stood there patiently allowing the younger woman access to her body.
Gabrielle scrutinized every inch of her lover's skin. She spotted several cuts and meticulously examined each of them to ensure that they were only scratches. It was some time later before she was completely satisfied that her companion needed nothing more then a meal and a good nights sleep. She grabbed a clean shift from their sleeping pallet and held it out.
"I thought you said..." the Conqueror reminded, her eyes narrowing.
"I know what I said," the bard said blithely, "but I am expecting the cook at any minute with your dinner."
"Gabrielllllle," the Conqueror groaned, though she did not fight the girl's attempts to put the shift over her body, enjoying the feel of the fresh cloth as it was rubbed against her tingling skin.
"Don't Gabrielllle, me," the bard replied. "We take care of the important things first."
"I thought that was one of the important things," the tall woman retorted dryly.
"Well, yeah," the girl fused with colour as she took a step back from her dangerous lover. "But in this case it will have to come second. I haven't eaten since this morning and I'm starved."
"Oh, then we better feed you quickly," the Empress teased. "I appreciate the sacrifice you made waiting until I had a bath."
"Xennnna," Gabrielle hissed playfully slapping her companion on the arm. The knock on the tent pole brought a halt to any further banter between the pair.
"Enter," the Empress barked moving to the far end of the tent.
The cook stuck her head in and Gabrielle rushed over to help her with the heavy tray she was carrying, setting it down on the table near the bed. Only once the cook had departed and the barrel of water been taken out did they finally sit down to eat.
Xena watched with amusement as the bard dug into her plate of hot stew. It never ceased to amaze her how much food the younger woman consumed. The girl was always snacking on something.
She took a spoonful from her own plate and though she had not eaten all day, she found that she had no appetite. She only nibbled at the food, dutifully taking a mouthful whenever the bard cast a glance in her direction. She knew that if she didn't finish her meal she would have to suffer through a lecture from the bard.
They had just finished eating and were lingering over a mug of port when a knock came on the pole outside their tent. The Empress was not surprised when Loris slipped into the tent at her bidding. She noticed that he had taken the time to wash and change his own armour.
"You have something to report?" she asked when he didn't immediately speak. She could not know that he was taken aback by how intimate and casual they looked.
It was a cozy scene the two women represented sitting around the table dressed in soft linen shifts and an unusual sight amid a battle camp. For the first time he realized that he had never seen the Empress in anything but her fighting leathers or ceremonial robes. It was amazing how different the beautiful woman appeared. She seemed younger and almost vulnerable. He shook his head and reminded himself of how dangerous she really was.
"Yes," the General nodded, remembering the purpose for his visit. "I wanted to inform you that I sent out two patrols of ten men each."
"You staggered their departure times?" the Conqueror asked.
"Yes," the soldier nodded. "The first patrol left half a candlemark before the second one."
"Good," the Empress nodded.
"And as requested the barrels of port were opened for the rest of the men," he continued.
"Good," she nodded again. "Allow them to have a good time, they deserve it."
"Is there anything else?"
"No, you can go," the Empress dismissed the man.
"Yes, Empress," he bowed and turned to go but Gabrielle could not allow the man to leave. She had seen the wistful look in his eyes and knew what it was like to be alone.
"General, why don't you join us?" she offered impulsively jumping to her feet and moving over to where the mugs and liquor were stored.
The General glanced hesitantly at the young woman and then over at the Conqueror. There was no expression on the Empress' face and nothing to tell him whether she was annoyed by the invitation, but then he suspected that she generally accepted anything the bard wanted.
"I don't want to disturb you," he spoke uncertainly.
"Come on," the girl smiled encouragingly, grasping his elbow and guiding him across the room to where the Empress was seated. "You're not disturbing us, besides I expect to be hearing from the Amazon's any minute now."
As if to confirm her words there was another knock on the tent pole and as she had predicted it was Eponin with her daily report for their Queen. There was a contingent of almost a hundred Amazon warriors who had joined the Conqueror's army for this campaign. They were being lead into battle by the Weapon's Master who took her orders, as requested by their Queen, directly from the Empress.
"How did we fair today?" Gabrielle asked of the Amazon, motioning for her to sit down while placing a mug of port in her hands.
"We lost five warrior's," the female warrior reported. "And ten more are being treated in the healers tent, but none were injured serious enough to keep them from going into battle again at the dawn."
"I'm sorry to hear about the dead," the Queen was sincere. It was painful for her to learn that someone had died, more so when they were Amazon's. She felt responsible for these women, aware that they were only here because she was their Queen. That was why her news brightened her spirits. "But you can tell the others that there will be no more fighting. The Conqueror has decided that we will be returning to the Capital."
The Weapon's Master glanced with startled surprise first at her Queen and then over at the Conqueror who was sitting quietly, nursing her mug of port. There was no expression on the dour face.
"But with Caesar's army in retreat..." she started to say and then remembered whose authority she was questioning.
"Yes, but the Empress isn't entirely certain that it isn't an elaborate trap," Gabrielle explained. "General Loris has sent several patrols forward to scout out the mountain pass."
Eponin nodded. She had seen the General gathering troops. She had watched their departure and wondered about their mission. She had been tempted to speak to her Queen about the matter but had decided instead to wait. Now she was glad. In the few full moons that she had served in the Conqueror's army she had come to respect the woman's military genius. It was as if the Empress had a gift for guessing her opponents intentions.
"What if it's not a trap?" the Amazon dared to ask.
"Then we will still return to Corinth," the Conqueror spoke for the first time. She had not forgotten her promise to Loris but she didn't care. She was the Empress and right now she was tired and longed to be alone with the bard. "An early snowfall is predicted and I don't want to be caught in the mountains when winter comes. The troops are tired, it has been a tough campaign, besides if it were to continue much longer I'm not certain how many more Amazon's we would have to send home because they were pregnant. Certainly if I was capable your Queen would be in the same condition."
Eponin flushed at the Conqueror's implication and buried her head in the mug of port. Gabrielle grimaced in embarrassment and General Loris took a intent interest in a piece of armour that was leaning up against the side of the tent. They all knew that the treaty agreement was working better then any of them imagined and that come next spring there would be a healthy rise in the population back at the Amazon village.
"Well, I guess I better get back to my Sister's," the Weapon's Master said hastily and she was joined in her exit by the General.
"Yes," Loris stood up suddenly feeling uncomfortable. "I should check the defensive perimeter."
"Yes, do that," Xena said with a smirk and watched as the two hurried out of the tent.
"Xena, you shouldn't do that," Gabrielle protested though it was only half hearted. She could see that her warrior was tired and she was almost as exhausted.
"Why not?" the Conqueror asked raising her eyebrows questioningly.
"Because it's not nice," the bard protested. "What will they think?"
"Nothing more then they already do," the Empress replied with a shrug, before downing the last of her port. She set the mug down and stood up, stepping around the table to where the girl was sitting. She reached down and drew the younger woman up into her arms. For a long moment their eyes met and for the first time the Conqueror saw her companion's fatigue.
"When was the last time you slept?" she asked in a firm voice and the girl blushed unable to continue the gaze.
"When?" the voice became stern.
"The same time you did," the bard finally admitted and the Empress grew angry. "They needed help in the healers hut. There was so much to do, I couldn't just leave because I was tired. The others were just as exhausted but the work still needed to be done."
The Conqueror shook her head deciding not to argue. There was no way she could admonish the girl for her selfless behaviour. Instead she bent her head and pressed her lips against the bard's soft skin revelling in the taste that assaulted her senses.
"Bedtime," she mumbled and spun the girl around by the shoulders, pointing her in the direction of the pallet where their bedrolls were spread out.
"Only if you join me," the girl pouted and the Conqueror smiled.
"Caesar's army wouldn't be able to stop me," the Empress said with a wicked grin which told the bard exactly what the Conqueror had in mind.
"Xena?' Gabrielle decided it was time to ask the question that had been troubling her for the last few candlemarks.
"What?" the Conqueror asked softly.
"Why?" the bard wanted to know and the Empress raised her eyebrows curiously. "Why did you tell everyone that it was my decision about what we do with those Roman prisoners?"
Xena didn't want to discuss this matter now, she had other things on her mind, but one look at the smaller woman's earnest expression and she knew that she wouldn't be able to avoid it.
"The Amazon's did capture them and you are their Queen. I thought it was time you start learning some of the responsibilities that go along with the Mask," the Conqueror said and watched as the bard nodded thoughtfully. "But right now there are other things to think about."
"Like what?" the bard asked innocently and the Empress raised her eyebrows.
"I think you know my bard," she smiled seductively. "It's time for us to perform the requirements of our treaty."
"Do you think you're up to the job?" Gabrielle asked impishly, enjoying the banter.
"Always," the Empress smiled seductively.
She pushed the girl gently back onto the pallet and then climbed into bed beside her, content just for a moment to stare at the young woman. She reached up and stroked the bard's face needing to feel the girl's soft skin under the palm of her hand. She leaned forward and captured the woman's lips with her own, drawing deeply on the sweet taste of her mouth. From there it was only a matter of time before their clothes were discarded and restless hands stroked and caressed bare skin.
"Gods, you're beautiful," Xena whispered reverently, rising herself up so that she could lean over the bard, allowing her eyes to feast on the slender form that was curled up next to her. She reached out and touched the soft velvety skin, delicately tracing the tip of her finger along the scar that was the only reminder of Rufus' ill fated attack. "You are perfection itself."
With that she leaned forward and laid a tender kiss on the woman's smooth abdomen, before leaning back to gaze once more at the girl's naked body. For the first time she noticed a bruise on the smaller woman's left breast and a frown puckered her brow as she gingerly reached out to trace its ugly pattern.
"What happened here?" she asked in a rough voice.
"Nothing," Gabrielle said thickly unable to meet the other woman's questioning gaze. The expression on the Empress' face darkened.
"You're lying," Xena hissed softly, gasping her chin and forcing the girl to look at her, horrible thoughts going through her head. "Did someone do this to you?"
Gabrielle swallowed. She didn't want to tell the truth but she couldn't think of a reasonable excuse that her lover would accept. She knew how protective the Conqueror was, yet she also knew how remorseful she would be. She jerked her head away but the hand was back forcing her to look back at her companion.
"Did someone do this to you?" the Empress repeated her question, knowing that if anyone had touched the bard they would die.
"It happened the last time we were together," the bard confessed reluctantly and witnessed the shock and horror that crossed the taller woman's face.
"Gods, I'm sorry Gabrielle," the Conqueror was mortified. She moved quickly away from the bed, thinking of the last time they had made love. It had been three nights earlier after a battle. She had waited until she thought the battle lust was gone before coming to the woman but obviously it had still been there. She had not been as careful as she thought.
"Xena," Gabrielle called after her lover, watching as the warrior grabbed a clean set of leathers and started to get dressed. She knew that the other woman would go away and the last thing she wanted was to be left alone. She jumped out of bed and hurried across the tent, grabbing the Conqueror's arm.
"Gabrielle," the Conqueror barked through clenched teeth. "Let me go."
"No," the bard shook her head insistently. "I don't want you to leave."
The Conqueror didn't want to leave either, but she didn't want to risk hurting the girl again. She knew that after a battle it was hard for her to keep the panther down, to keep her passion in control. There was a struggle in her soul.
"I don't want to hurt you Gabrielle," she said at last, and the blond woman could see the sadness in her lovers eyes.
"I know you don't," Gabrielle said softly turning the Empress around so that they were facing each other. She reached up and grasped the taller woman's chin forcing their eyes to meet. "You are a gentle and sweet lover, and what happened was an accident."
"No it wasn't," the Conqueror disputed the claim, shrugging out of the girl's grasp. She moved away but she did not continue dressing and Gabrielle knew then that she had achieved victory. The Conqueror ran a hand through her long thick hair. "When I return from a fight, the battle lust is so strong."
"I know," Gabrielle said softly. "I've seen it in your eyes and in your body and I know what you have been doing." She paused and swallowed her throat suddenly dry. "I know you have been waiting for it to subside before coming to me, but I'm not a clay pot Xena. I won't break if you touch me a little roughly. I can suffer a bruise or two. I guess what I am saying is that I don't want you to wait."
"Gabrielle you don't know what you are asking," the Conqueror said looking at her with a pained expression in her blue eyes. It was a look that went straight to the young girl's heart.
"Yes I do," the bard disagreed. "I also know you wouldn't do anything intentionally to hurt me. I want to know you Xena, all of you, the good and the bad, the gentle as well as the not so gentle."
"You don't know what you are asking," Xena repeated, shaking her head even as she reached out and stroked the girl's cheek, feeling the younger woman's love draw her in.
"Yes, I do," the younger woman disputed and grasped the woman's hand. "I've missed you Xena and I want you. All of you."
To prove her point she lead the taller woman back to the pallet. She paused next to a trunk and lifted the lid, reaching in and withdrawing a bright red scarf. She held it up as the older woman looked at her questioningly.
"What are you doing?" the Empress asked with a dry throat as the girl placed the scarf over her green eyes and began to tie it behind her head.
"Showing you how much I trust you," the bard replied in an even voice.
"You trust me?" it was a question and a sweet smile creased the younger woman's features.
"With all my heart," came the solemn reply.
The Conqueror knew then that she was completely defeated and she gave into this smaller woman and the desire to which she was no longer in control. She went to the bard, wrapping the girl in an embrace before lowering her onto the bed and fulfilling both their desires.
Artemis strolled into the garden outside of the Great Palace on Mount Olympus. She found her sister Aphrodite sitting next to the reflecting pool working on her nails. An affectionate smile came to her lips. Despite her idiosyncrasies she adored her somewhat flaky sibling.
"Aphrodite," the Goddess of the Hunt announced her presence by sliding on to the bench next to the Goddess of Love.
"What sis?" the blond looked up with a perky smile.
"I have not thanked you for helping my people."
"No problem," the Goddess of Love smiled. "I was just doing my job."
"But now Ares hates you."
"So what," Aphrodite shrugged carelessly. "He needs to lighten up."
"Yes," Artemis agreed and then glanced into the reflecting pool. "How is our couple doing?"
"Splendidly," the blond haired Goddess smile grew wider and then casually waved her hand. "See for yourself."
Artemis looked down on the mortal world and a smile came to her lips as she spied the pair of lovers asleep in each others arms. The evidence of their love for one another, written across the contented expressions of their faces as they slept. The situation pleased her greatly. This alliance had strengthened the Amazon Nation as a people and she had hope now that they would survive.
"I would like to do something for the Empress," the Goddess of the Hunt said and her sister looked at her thoughtfully.
"What have you in mind?"
"I would like to give her something," Artemis said as a smile slowly etched it's way across her lips. "Something that they both wish for, something that would be apart of them both but for that I will need your help."
"Ohh, I like the sound of this, tell me more," Aphrodite smiled and then bent her head towards the other Goddess to listen to the plan.
The Goddesses thought they were alone, both oblivious to the various pair of ears that belonged to the eavesdroppers who were hidden from view by the marble statutes in the courtyard. They couldn't know their little plan was being pondered by others who had aspirations of their own. Others who once hearing their plan moved quickly to enact their own little plots. There was one in particular who saw this as an opportunity to elevate their own standing on Mt. Olympus. With a snap of her fingers she retreated to the mortal plane.
"Whose there?" Ares barked not entirely pleased about being disturbed. He had retreated to one of his temples to sulk.
"Just me," the small dark haired demi-god replied emerging from the shadows.
"What do you want?" the God of War demanded not hiding his displeasure.
"Oh, nothing much," Discord smiled coyly. "I just thought you might want to know what Artemis and Aphrodite are up to back on Mt. Olympus."
"What do I care what they are doing?" the dark man scoffed, uninterested in his sisters. He was still angry at them for the way they interfered with his Chosen.
"Oh, I think you will be, once you know what they are plotting," the demi-god said sweetly strolling from the dark recesses of the temple and up the steps to the throne on which the God of War was sprawled.
The God stared at the woman, uncertain he should believe what she told him. He knew that Discord had her own agenda and her allegiance was to anyone who would further her interests. He wasn't certain that she hadn't been sent by someone on Olympus to spy on him. He trusted no one, not even his father Zeus.
"Why don't you tell me what it is they plan and then I will decide for myself?" he suggested arrogantly.
"What will I get in return?" the demi-god wanted to know.
"If what you say is true then I will reward you well," the God of War decided, flexing his muscled biceps. "If not, I will ensure that you will never bother me again."
Discord was silent as she considered his proposal, aware of the threat that hung in the air. But she was confident that her secret would be well rewarded so she told him what she had heard in the courtyard on Mt. Olympus.
The God of War listened intently. He knew what Discord revealed was the truth. It was something his Sisters would do and he knew how he would respond. An evil grin appeared on his face. Despite the Goddess' warnings, he had no intention of leaving the pair of lovers alone. He would have vengeance and then he would welcome the Conqueror back to his bosom. Perhaps he would even take her back to his bed, but first, he would make her beg.
"What are you going to do?" the minor goddess inquired curiously, seeing the smile that crossed the dark face.
"Wait and see," the God retorted as his mind focused on an individual who had caught his attention. An individual who was filled with her own hatred for the Empress. An individual who would do his bidding. A woman who could alleviate his boredom, if only until the Conqueror returned to his side.
A depraved laugh roared through the emptiness of the temple startling the priests who tended the house of worship. By the evil that permeated through the air they knew they had been blessed by a visit from their Deity.
It was early in the morning when the Conqueror stirred. She glanced down at the woman who lay nestled in her embrace, an indulgent smile tugging at her lips as she stared at the slumbering girl who was draped possessively over her body. There had once been a time when she had disliked having someone there when she woke but now she couldn't imagine being alone.
She sighed, tenderly brushing the hair away from the girl's face. So much had changed, so much was still changing and she had become powerless to stop any of it. Not that she wanted too. With Gabrielle at her side, she was somehow stronger, somehow more invincible.
Regretfully reality intruded on her musings. There was much to do and she knew that in spite of her desire, she could not stay in this warm cocoon that enfolded her. There was work to be done and despite the late night celebrations she could hear the camp beginning to stir. Reluctantly she eased her body out of bed, taking care not to wake her sleeping companion. She dressed quietly, bending and brushing her lips over the girl's brow before turning and departing.
The day was chilly. The sky grey and overcast. An unexpected shiver raced through her body as she stepped out of the tent's warmth. She paused and took a deep breath, savouring the taste of the fresh air in her lungs, happy to be alive to greet another day. Blue eyes surveyed the camp, spotting General Loris, who at that moment was entering the mess tent across the compound.
She moved forward, carefully picking her way past the sleeping bodies that littered the ground, bemused by the sight of more then one sleeping Amazon nestled in a soldiers embrace. Idly, she wondered how many more Amazon's would be heading home pregnant.
"Good morning," Loris greeted the Empress as she stepped into the mess tent and slipped into a seat opposite him. Almost immediately a member of the kitchen staff appeared baring a specially prepared tray of food. It was a heaping plate of warm cereal, bread and fruit. Xena looked at the assortment with amusement, knowing that somehow this was the bard's doing.
"Have you a list of casualties?" she asked digging into the fare, feeling unusually famished.
"Yes," the General nodded grimly and made his detailed report. The Conqueror listened with interest, mentally calculating the losses and determining her needs.
"We will have to send out our recruiters and see what we can round up," she said when he was done.
"What about signing on that group of Gauls that we encountered two moons past?" Loris asked reminding the Empress of the tribe of foreigners they had found camped in one of the valleys on the Northern reaches of the Empire. The strange tribe had volunteered their services in marching against Caesar, a sworn enemy of their people, but the Conqueror had rejected their gracious offer.
"I hate to employ mercenaries," Xena said thoughtfully, thinking of the small band of men and women to which her Commander referred. They had encountered several such groups of displaced person's on their trek. "They are not only expensive but untrustworthy. I can never be certain that their loyalty won't be swayed by someone with a few more dinars."
The General nodded, understanding the Empress' reluctance. She had once hired mercenaries to booster her forces, but they had betrayed her by going over to the enemy in the midst of battle. She had not forgotten and once the victory had been secured, she had hunted each one of them down, killing most with her own sword.
"I will issue the orders immediately," the man agreed.
"Good," the Conqueror said taking a bite out of the piece of fruit that she had selected from the plate. She glanced across at the man with a look of mild interest. "Have you heard anything from those patrols you sent out yesterday?"
"No," the General shook his head hoping that it was a good sign but worrying that it might mean the exact opposite.
"I want to be informed the moment they return," the Empress said and the man nodded, watching her for a moment.
"Have you decided what you are going to do with Artutus?"
"That's up to Gabrielle," Xena replied nonchalantly. "However, I suspect that she will decide to ransom him back to Caesar."
"Would it not be better to kill him?" Loris asked not happy that the decision was being left with the young woman. Even though he liked the girl, he was not as confident in her judgement as the Conqueror. "If we return him, he will only lead another army against us."
"I would rather it be him then someone else," the Conqueror confessed. "This man is obviously not a competent leader. Caesar will punish him for his defeat and for his capture. He will be lucky if he gets back to Rome without being killed by his own soldiers."
What the Conqueror said made sense but the General was still not convinced. He glanced at the Empress seeing someone he didn't know existed. The woman had changed and the bard's influence was showing.
"Are you certain that you don't want to pursue Caesar's Legionaries?" he asked knowing that the old Conqueror would have followed her enemy relentlessly.
"We have lost many good soldiers on this campaign," she shook her head. "We cannot continue to keep losing men at this rate and hope to defend the territory we possess. I'm not certain that this is not Caesar's intention."
Loris was silent as he considered again this strategy. They had lost many soldiers and Caesar's army had been unwilling to stand and fight in one monumental battle, preferring instead to engage in small yet bloody fights. Yet still he was a soldier, a warrior who smelled victory.
"Do not worry Loris I have not gone completely soft," she chided quietly, reading his thoughts. "Old age is merely making me more cautious. We have won a great victory this season. We have defeated the Horde and Caesar's invading forces. We have increased the size of the Empire. Now, we all need some rest before we go back into battle."
The man was silent but the woman could see by his expression that he did not entirely agree with her.
"Do not be so impatient to die. Charion's boat will come for us soon enough," the Conqueror said softly. "Enjoy the peace we have."
"It is not so simple," the General retorted.
"But it is," the Conqueror disagreed in a low voice. "All you have to do is open your heart and soon it will be filled with things more important than defeating the next army, or vanquishing another foe."
Loris stared at the woman aware that her words signified just how much she had changed. The Conqueror of old had sought death, embracing it as one would a lover. That was why she was so feared. But that trace of pure evil was missing.
He caught sight of the young woman who was responsible for this remarkable change. He watched as Gabrielle entered the mess tent and then sauntered confidently over towards them, a cheerful smile on her innocent looking face.
Curiously he watched as the girl put a gentle hand upon the Conqueror's shoulder, who glanced up at her companion and flashed the woman a look that made his heart ache. The look was returned as the bard sat down next to the Empress.
There would have been a time when such an intimate action would have sent the dark haired woman into a rage. He had seen more than one person impaled for touching the Conqueror without permission. It was still that way with the exception of the bard.
He looked across the table at the cheerful smile. He had heard from other soldiers of her selflessness in tending the sick. The bard had pitched in to help when many others would have sat back and enjoyed the luxuries that her position as the Empress' companion afforded. She was different and that was what made her so popular with not only the troops but also the people they encountered. She had the ability to charm and disarm even the harshest of the Conqueror's critics.
"Good morning," Gabrielle greeted them brightly. She wanted to kiss her partner but knew such an intimacy was out of the question, aware that in spite of the openness of their relationship, she still needed to be careful how she treated the Conqueror in public. Instead she had to content herself with resting her hand on her companions bare thigh and rubbing it gently.
"Good morning," the man smiled.
Many in the army and the Empire did not agree with this union between the two women but no one dared to speak their thoughts out loud. Personally he was of two minds, happy to see that the wild animal inside the Empress was finally being tamed yet nervous about the changes that were happening, uncertain how to react. He worried that this display of gentleness on the part of the Conqueror would only lead too trouble. He feared that there would be more people like Titus and Rufus, waiting to take advantage of the situation.
"Loris was wondering what you were going to do with Artutus," Xena commented once the girl had been served. She hid the smile that naturally came to her lips at the sight of the heaping plate of food that had been placed in front of the bard. The cooks had recognized her companions voracious appetite and though it had astounded them, they had adjusted her serving portion in accordance.
"I'm not sure. I haven't had a chance to think about it," Gabrielle admitted nibbling on a piece of bread. She looked at her lover. "I don't have to kill him do I?"
"No," Xena replied patiently. "You can do whatever you want with him, however, if I might make a suggestion, it wouldn't be good policy to simply just let him go."
The bard flushed aware that her dark haired companion knew her too well. It would be in her generous nature to just release the prisoners but she was learning that in times of war and politics, it wasn't always good to be too generous.
"What do you suggest?" she was at a loss for ideas, aware that the Empress would probably consider them all too lenient.
"Caesar has a treasury full of riches," the Conqueror shrugged. "There is no reason why he would not pay you a fortune to have one of his General's returned."
"You mean ransom him?" Gabrielle asked mildly surprised, she had expected a different sort of response from her lover.
"That or you could just lock him up in a prison," Xena shrugged. "In which case it would cost money to guard and feed him."
"But if he is ransomed won't he turn around and lead another army against you?" the bard was curious.
"Perhaps, but you must remember there may come a day when you are at his mercy," the Conqueror said wisely. "A little compassion now might be returned later."
Loris almost choked on his food. He stared at the Conqueror with complete astonishment, not believing that he had heard those words being uttered from her mouth. He had never before heard her express temperance in dealing with the enemy. In the past it was more usual for the Empress to execute all prisoners and deal with the consequences of her actions at a later date. She was not known for her benevolence. His reaction did not go unnoticed by Xena who remained silent, her attention on her young companion.
"You wouldn't be upset if we ransomed him back to Caesar?" the Amazon Queen asked looking at the Warrior's stoic face.
"I am more then just a killer Gabrielle," the Empress said casually. "I have done my share of ransoming. My treasury wasn't merely filled by the spoils of victory."
Gabrielle nodded, aware that there was still so much for her to learn about governing a people. She turned her attention back to her plate of food and remained silent while her lover and the General continued to discuss other military matters.
Ares reacted violently to the exchange he witnessed, slamming his fist down on the small table beside his throne and breaking it into a dozen pieces, his disgust evident by the scowl on his dark face. In the old days when he had been in control of the Conqueror, before the appearance of the bard, death would have been the only option to this predicament. The Conqueror, herself, would have taken the sword to kill the General and experienced pleasure in the act. Then she would have sent the body back to Caesar as a clear message of her power and disdain.
"You are growing soft, my sweetheart," he said to himself. "I cannot let that happen."
"Why not, you don't need her," a soft voice echoed through the dim light of the temple and Ares turned his head, his dark eyes narrowing as he spied the intruder. He did not know from where this person had appeared or how he had managed to enter his inner sanctum without his knowledge.
"Who are you?"
"My name is of no importance," the robed man said with a casual wave of his hand. "What is of importance is that I can help you with your predicament."
"What predicament?" the God of War growled not liking this man who appeared to be ignorant of who he was or the power that he possessed.
"You are losing power within your own circle," the man relied succinctly. "You are the God of War, the one who should be mightier than all others, yet you have been cowed by your own Godly Sister's and your father has not raised a hand to help you against them."
Ares snarled at the mention of his father. When he had gone before Zeus to plead his case the God had chided him for his childish behaviour and banished him to the mortal world for interfering with his Sister's Chosen in the beginning. The term of punishment had ended several season's earlier but his pride had not yet allowed him to return to Mt. Olympus
"What can you do?" the God of War asked his dark eyes narrowing sceptically.
"I can offer the services of my Lord and Master," the man bowed reverently, "a Deity such as yourself who is seeking assistance Himself. One who can make you more powerful then all those who oppose you. One who can make you more powerful than Zeus himself. Then you will no longer need such mortals as the Empress of Greece to do your bidding."
Ares was silent. He was still skeptical of this strangers claim but he was also curious. There were many Gods but few who shared the same strength and power as those who resided on Mt. Olympus. He felt his blood stir. It was both an exciting and terrifying feeling, one like he had ever experienced. He was anxious to know more and told this messenger as much.
The stranger smiled and bowed his head once more before telling the God of War about his Master. He could see that the Deity was interested. The God of War was ambitious and desired to sit upon the throne which Zeus now occupied. He promised that this would happen.
By the time that the stranger departed Ares had made a deal. He had entered into an agreement that would make him all powerful. Then once he defeated Zeus, he would make his sisters pay for their interference in his world.
But Ares was no fool. He knew the dangers of the plot into which he had entered. This foreign Deity was seeking entry into the world and he knew that would pose a risk to his own rule on Mt. Olympus once he inherited the throne. He had every intention of ruling over Mt. Olympus but no desire to allow anyone else the opportunity to usurp his power.
"One thing that you my new friend do not realized is that we will always need people like Xena," he said out loud and then let out a blood curdling laugh as his mind fashioned a new plan.
No one paid attention to the man who watched them through the bars of the prison cage that was positioned in the center of the army camp. His eyes narrowed as he watched the interaction going on in the mess tent, his mind working furiously. The scene was all that was needed to tell him the truth. Marc Anthony had not been lying when he had reported the bard's influence over the Conqueror.
Caesar had arrogantly dismissed the suggestion but now he saw first hand that the Senator had been right. Quietly he filed the information away in the back of his mind, his attention momentarily diverted by the appearance of a Amazon bearing breakfast. It was a simple bowl of cereal.
He stood up and waited till the very last to step up to the bars to accept the food offering. There was an odd look in the woman's blue eyes. A wild expression, like a caged animal, that was frightening in there intensity. When he reached for his bowl the blonde woman pulled it back out of his reach, a sweet smile coming to her pouting red lips.
"Be carefully what you eat," the woman cautioned in a quiet voice. "Death comes in many forms."
The man looked intently at the face. The woman was beautiful and young with sweet, innocent features, but he suspected that it was a mask for an entirely different personality. He accepted the bowl she extended towards him and then hastily returned to his corner of the cage.
He sat down on the ground, allowing his eyes to drift to the others, waiting until they were all occupied with their meals before digging his spoon into the sticky gruel, suspicious of what he had been served. He knew the Conqueror and it would not be beyond her dark humour to poison the food, therefore it was with some surprise that he felt a hard lump amongst the cereal.
Gingerly he lifted the utensil, bringing with it the blade of a dagger. It was a small crude instrument but deadly if used properly. His eyes automatically went in search of the strange woman who had presented him this offering. She was standing off to one side watching him intently with the pouting smile still upon her lips. Their eyes met for a long moment before she turned and slipped away.
He hastily shoved the unexpected gift in amongst the folds of his battle dress. He wanted to ask the woman why she was showing him this favour but there was no chance and he had to accept that this was an offering from the Gods. Now all he had to do was await the right moment to use the weapon and redeem himself for the humiliation of his capture.
Xena ran into Eponin as they were leaving the mess tent. The Amazon Warrior looked strangely like she had indulged in a little to much port the night before. The Conqueror chuckled to herself, wondering where and with whom the Weapon's Master had ended up the previous evening. However now was not the time to ask. She waited until Gabrielle and Loris had moved ahead before pulling the Amazon aside.
"I need you to do something for me," she said and the woman warrior abruptly came to attention. "I want you to gather a small squad of Amazon's and go in search of the patrol's that General Loris dispatched yesterday. I have a great fear that they have met with ill fortune."
The Conqueror watched as the Amazon nodded her head and then trotted off to collect her warriors. She could trust the woman for Eponin had shown loyalty and courage in the seasons since the Amazon's had joined the Army.
Xena waited until the woman had disappeared before turning her mind to other matters. She retreated to her command tent with General Loris to discuss her plans for the occupation of the Region while Gabrielle went to help in the healers tent. It was near dusk when the Amazon Weapon's Master and her party returned with a prisoner.
"We captured him coming down from the mountains," Eponin explained once the Conqueror was summoned from her tent. The Warrior Princess intently glanced over the soldier who had been blindfolded by his captors. "He claims to be a messenger from Brutus, General to Caesar's army."
"What is your message?" the Empress demanded instinctively knowing what was about to come. She motioned for the Amazon's to remove the blindfold, which they did immediately, revealing a soldier who was little more than a boy.
"General Brutus requests a meeting," the messenger said, swallowing nervously as he held out a scroll which he had been carrying.
"Why?" the Conqueror's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"He has some prisoners which he wishes to exchange for those Roman soldiers you have captured," the soldier reported and everyone knew then the fate of the patrols that Loris had been sent out. There was silence as the Empress scanned the contents of the script she had been handed, a scowl forming on her face.
"Could this be a bluff?" the Conqueror turned her attention to the Amazon Weapon's Master.
"No," Eponin shook her head. "After capturing this man, several of us snuck up through the mountain pass. We saw the captured patrols tied to stakes in a camp of at least several phalanx of Roman soldiers."
"Any advantage we have now is gone," the Empress said turning to glare at General Loris for a moment before turning her attention back to the messenger. "Where does Brutus wish to meet?"
"In the valley separating our two armies," the young soldier replied. "He will be waiting for you tomorrow at dawn."
"Tell Brutus that we will meet him for an exchange," the Conqueror announced and then motioned to the Amazon's. "Escort him back to where you found him."
The female warriors nodded, returning the blindfold to his eyes before escorting him back out of the camp. The Conqueror waited until they were gone before turning to look at the General. Without a word she walked passed him, returning to the command tent. The soldier waited a moment before following.
Xena looked up when the General meekly entered the tent. She could see by his tentative movements that he was nervous, anxiously awaiting his fate, aware that she held him responsible for this situation.
"I hope you have learned something from this," was all she said in a voice so cold that he felt a chill surge through his body.
"Yes," the man agreed quietly. He expected to be relieved of his command. He had seen how other General's had been rewarded for the mistakes they had made. He did not expect anything less, hoping at least to come away with his life.
"I want you to divide up the remnants of the Army," the Conqueror motioned the soldier over to the table upon which a map of the Region lay. The man hesitated, uncertain how to react. He had not expected to remain in command. The Empress noticed his hesitation. "Is something wrong?"
"It's just that..." Loris stammered and the tall woman had immediate understanding.
"You expect me to punish you for what's happened to the patrols?" the Conqueror asked cocking an eyebrow.
"Yes," the man nodded unable to meet her gaze. For a long moment the Empress was silent. It wasn't until the General looked up again that she spoke. Hazel eyes gazed fugitively at intense pale blue orbs.
"You are a good General and an excellent Commander, and in the past that wouldn't have mattered, but I now recognize the importance of the leadership qualities you possess," the tall woman paused, her eyes narrowing. "I know you think I have grown soft, but don't be fooled. Gabrielle has made me see the value of compassion, but the beast that brought me to rule all of the Empire I possess still exists and do not doubt for a moment that I won't kill you if you ever try to cross me."
The man nodded, hoping that his trembling limbs weren't visible. He knew that he had been given a reprieve. He would not waste this second chance that he had been given. Unlike others he did not covet her Kingdom, aware of his own limitations.
"I will remain loyal to you until the end," the man promised fervently and then hesitated.
"You have something else to say?" she demanded in the same unforgiving tone of voice and the soldier swallowed summoning the last of his courage to express his thoughts.
"What you said to Queen Gabrielle in the mess tent," he paused, uncertain how to form his question. He nervously met her gaze. "Did you really mean that?"
"About showing compassion to the enemy?" the Conqueror asked and the man nodded. "Yes."
The Empress turned away and peered at the map for a long moment and the commander thought the subject was closed and so was therefore surprised by the words that came out of her mouth when she spoke again.
"Gabrielle is of a good heart," Xena said in a strange voice. "She is the Queen of the Amazon Nation and it is important that she learns a just way of ruling her people. I don't want her to think that the only way to deal with an enemy is to kill them. I don't want the leadership of her people to be tainted by the violence of my own. I want her enemies to see her as the fair and just person that she is."
Loris was startled by the woman's words, continually surprised by the emotion that filled the Conqueror's voice when she spoke of the young Queen. Even when she had been with Borias, a man who had professed to love her with all his heart, she had never been as passionate. She looked up and their eyes met again.
"Do you have any further questions?"
The man shook his head vigorously.
"Good," the Destroyer of Nations nodded her head and then turned her attention back to the matter at hand, pointing to various positions on the map. "I want you to position a small force here and here with the main body of the army to remain behind us on the hill. Everyone who can stand are to be lined up on the ridge to make it appear that our force is larger then it really is. I am not entirely certain this is not a ploy by Brutus to distract my attention while his armies attack but I want to give him a chance to see what he might face if he decides on such a course of action."
The General nodded. The thought that this prisoner exchange was a trick had also entered his mind.
"Now go start preparing the army to move out. Once we have our men back I wish to begin our return to the Capital," the Conqueror barked.
"But My Conqueror what will prevent Brutus from attacking once the main army leaves this Region?" Loris bravely asked. "If we are to believe the Amazon's then he still has a sizeable army under his control."
"Leave that to me. I will ensure that such a situation does not happen," was the harsh dismissal and the Conqueror watched through pale slits as the man hurried out of the tent. She turned in disgust and slumped down into a chair staring morosely at the empty wall.
Gabrielle entered the command tent slowly, uncertain as to what mood she would find her lover. Zenon had sought her out in the healers tent and had proceeded to fill her in with all the details of what had transpired. She knew the possible repercussions and had immediately gone in search of General Loris, not uncertain as to what condition she would find him. She had been relieved to discover that the man was all right. Only once reassured, did she then seek out her partner.
"Xena?" she spoke tentatively.
"What?" the Conqueror barked without turning around.
"It's all right," she said, not certain how to approach the other woman at this moment. She folded her hands together nervously. "The ransom isn't important. What's important is that we get the men back."
The Conqueror turned slowly to face the smaller woman. She could always trust Gabrielle to put a positive spin on any situation, that was what she respected about the woman. She was a light amongst all the darkness.
"It's not all right Gabrielle," the Empress sighed, unable to retain her anger in this woman's presence. The bard had a way of calming her angry soul, of soothing her in the most dark times. She stood up and paced restlessly around the small enclosure. "I told Loris I didn't want any further action yet I allowed him to persuade me to let two patrols go out. Two patrols of soldiers who are now being used against me."
"So you made a mistake," the young bard couldn't understand what was causing her companion to be so upset.
"That's just it Gabrielle, I made a mistake and in my position I can't afford to let that happen," the Conqueror replied tersely and suddenly the bard understood. She knew what was causing her lover so much apprehension. She moved quickly across the room, circling her arms around the other woman bringing her endless pacing to a halt.
"It's all right to make mistakes Xena, you're only human, you can't be perfect all the time," the bard cajoled the grumpy warrior and for a long moment blue eyes looked down in deep pools of green. The Empress reached out and gently ran the back of her long fingers across the smooth contours of her companions soft cheek.
"I have to be Gabrielle," the Conqueror said in a soft voice, willing the younger woman to understand. "If I'm not, then nothing, not you nor I, the Empire or anything will survive."
"No," the smaller woman shook her blond head, an intense look on her features. She reached up and cupped the taller woman's face between her hands. "You can make as many mistakes as you want Xena and you may lose your army, all your riches and even your Empire but never, and I repeat never, will we not survive."
The bard had a way of taking everything and making it nothing. Xena looked down at the smaller woman and wondered which God had blessed her by allowing her to have this woman in her life. She had done nothing to deserve this light.
"I can only do that if you promise me one thing," the Conqueror said solemnly.
"Promise me that you will never leave me," Xena said with a seriousness that could not be dismissed. She reached out and combed silky strands of blond hair behind the bard's ear. "Promise me that no matter how much darkness threatens to overtake us, you will continue to stand by my side. Make me the promise of tomorrow."
"I promise you tomorrow and every day beyond that. I will always stand beside you," Gabrielle's reassurance was heart felt, her green eyes intent. "I will never leave you, not even in death."
Xena's heart swelled with emotion, filling her entire being with peace and love. She leaned her head down and planted a tender kiss upon soft lips before enveloping the bard in a tight embrace, wrapping her arms around the smaller woman's waist and holding her as if her life depended upon it. And she knew that it did.
"What if this is just a trick to get you out into the open?" Gabrielle asked as a frightening thought chased itself across her brain.
"I have already thought of that my love," the Conqueror smiled indulgently. The bard was beginning to think like a leader and that pleased the Empress. "I will be sending contingents of soldiers out to our flanks to ensure that we will not be caught in a trap."
"Is there anything you want me to do?" the girl asked in all sincerity. There was a slight hesitation from the Warrior Princess.
"I want you to remain here with the injured. It might be necessary to evacuate the camp in a hurry and the healers will need help."
"No," the young Amazon Queen was very adamant. "I will not stay behind with the wounded. I am the Amazon Queen and it was my people who captured General Artutus and it's only right that I be there to oversee the exchange."
"Gabrielle, it could be dangerous and we may have to fight," the Empress protested but it fell on deaf ears.
"No," was the gentle but firm disagreement. "You are always saying that I need to learn how to govern my people. How can I do that if I don't learn how to negotiate with the enemy? You are always keeping me back behind the lines where it is safe, but I am the leader of a Nation of Warriors, how would I ever be able to lead them into battle if I have never even witnessed a fight?"
The Conqueror was silent, aware that the bard was right. She had been trying to teach the girl to rule yet had been denying her the opportunity to see the direct consequences of some of those decisions. But then she knew why she was keeping it away from the woman.
Gabrielle was of a good heart. She was warm and innocent, untouched by the harshness of the world in which they lived and she wanted to protect that innocence just as fiercely as she wanted to protect the girl's physical being. She reached out and ran her palm gently over the bard's smooth cheek.
"Not all leaders need rule by force," Xena said softly. "You have a strength that does not need a sword to enforce it or have you forgotten that you have conquered the mightiest warrior in the land, lain siege to the fiercest heart in the Empire with merely your presence and your words. That is a force which no sword could ever defeat."
"Your tongue can be so smooth and your words like a sliver of moonlight when you want," the bard pouted which drew a smile from her dark haired companion. "I wonder why you do not try persuasion more often."
"Ahh that is the million dinar question," the Conqueror chuckled and then the smile disappeared. "Words work on those with intelligent minds, but I am afraid that the world we live in is not yet ready merely for words. The sword is still needed to tame those who refuse to listen."
"Exactly," Gabrielle jabbed her index finger into the taller woman's chest. "Which is why I need to know how to deal with those who still wield the sword."
The Conqueror shook her head trying not to smile as she realized the bard had once again talked her around in a circle until she had said the words that the blond girl wanted to hear. She sighed and threw her hands up in defeat and a wide grin appeared on the smaller woman's face in acknowledgment of her victory.
"But I want you to stick close by my side," the Conqueror wagged a finger at her young companion a stern expression on her face. "And if trouble does erupt I want you to head back to camp as quickly as you can. No heroics, promise?"
"No heroics," the smaller woman promised with a yawn, suddenly feeling exhausted by the events of the long day. She reached for the grumpy warrior, grabbing a large hand. "Come on, it's not late, but if I know you, tomorrow will be a very early start."
The Empress allowing herself to be led towards the bed, an seductive grin appearing on her face. The bard may have won that argument but there would be a price exacted for that victory. It was early but it would be much later before the smaller woman got a chance to sleep as the Conqueror used her own persuasive talents to show the Amazon Queen that she was still in charge of certain things.
"Too defeat the Conqueror you must destroy the only thing that she now holds important," a soft voice came out of the still darkness of the night.
The man in the corner of the cage jumped at the sound and turned his head, seeing the slight outline of a woman. A warrior dressed like an Amazon. It was the woman who had served him his deadly meal.
"And what would that be?" he queried quietly unwilling to be overheard even by his own men.
"The bard Gabrielle," came the soft reply and the man could see the woman's smile through the darkness. In spite of her seeming assistance he was still suspicious.
"Why are you helping me?" he asked the question that had been upper most in his mind and watched as the smile disappeared. The sweet face he remembered from earlier was now dark, and the blue eyes hard.
"Caesar is not the only one who hates the Conqueror," came the terse reply. "The Empress has made many enemies in her own homeland. She has committed many crimes for which she has yet to pay. I only want to help you serve justice."
The man would have liked to know more but there was a noise and he turned to see a guard moving in their direction. He turned to look at the woman but there was now only empty black space where she had been. He sat back on the cold ground and crossed his arms thoughtfully.
He had watched the small blond Amazon Queen throughout the day, following her every movement. He had seen the way she moved so easily among the weary troops in camp. The soldiers were respectful which was not ordinary under the circumstances for in his own camp a woman would be treated much differently.
He had watched the two women together and sensed the bard's importance in the Conqueror's life. The strange Amazon had been right and that was why he decided that when he acted, he would move on the smaller woman. She was the key to destroying the Empress and with her out of the way there was no telling what would happen.
An evil smile crossed his handsome face. He had overheard the guards talking. The exchange was to be made tomorrow at dawn. Brutus was in charge and that was his only concern. Lately the Roman General had been questioning Caesar's tactics, showing an independence of mind that was unfamiliar.
Brutus had at one time had been unerringly loyal to Caesar, but over the course of the last few season's a rift had developed between the two powerful men. Caesar himself was not one to be trusted and the new Senate in Rome was filled with more intrigue then it had ever been.
The realization that he, himself, had been sent away from the Capital to fight in this campaign gave him cause to be bitter. But he understood Caesar's concern. He was not without his own support and there were plenty of soldiers loyal to his command, which made him a threat to the Emperor. Well, tomorrow he would take revenge upon the Conqueror and when he was returned to the Roman camp he would proclaim himself once again commander of the army.
The smile on his face grew. He was not without his own ambitions and if he guessed correct, he could persuade Brutus to join him. His eyes went back to the command tent. First, he would take care of the Conqueror and then he would move on Rome himself.
It was several candlemarks before the dawn when the Conqueror carefully extracted herself from her lovers embrace and rolled out off the sleeping pallet. She stared down at the sleeping bard for a long moment before turning away to dress. She was anxious to finish this business so that they could be on their way home.
It was strange the way she was being called back to the Capital. It was as if an invisible voice were commanding her to return to the seat of her government. It was an anxious whisper demanding her presence and she was listening to its call. She glanced back at the bard, her heart filling with love at the sight of her slumbering partner. She sighed and turned to leave unaware of the green eyes that blinked opened in time to see her depart.
"You can't ever sleep in, can you?" the bleary eyed bard muttered grumpily at her absent lover as she pushed herself to get out of bed. She was determined not to let Xena go without her to the prisoner exchange. She rose up out of the warm cocoon of blankets and went in search of her clothes.
The Conqueror made the rounds of the perimeter, her pale eyes sweeping the darkness that bordered the encampment. The fires that had been lit to warm the troops were burnt down to embers and were now just small glowing mounts scattered around on the ground. She paused and took a deep breath filling her lungs with the crisp air. She turned her head up towards the stars and gazed at the last of the night lights as they began to fade back into the sky.
"It is a beautiful night," the voice came out of the darkness and the Conqueror slowly turned her head to watch as Loris approached out of the night. The General was uncertain that his interruption of her solitude would be welcome.
"Yes," came the solemn reply and there was silence as they stood quietly.
"Everyone is in place as you wished and I have taken the liberty of selecting a small company of men to escort us today," he said again breaking the silence, as he shifted from one foot to the next. "I have them getting the horses ready as we speak."
"Good," the Conqueror nodded not looking at the man. "Make certain that the prisoners are securely bound. I don't want any further incidents."
The soldier knew to what she was referring and was grateful that the darkness hid the blush that crept up across his skin. He glanced down at the ground and shuffled his feet nervously.
"I'm sorry," he apologized and this time the Conqueror turned to look at him. "If I had not insisted on a different course then we wouldn't be going through this now."
"It's not your fault that I listened to you," she countered in a dry cool voice. "A mistake was made, what we must do now is find out what advantage we can make of it. Find Eponin the Amazon Weapon's Master and send her to me, I need to speak with her before we depart."
The General nodded and then retreated into the night. A short while later the Amazon Warrior appeared. The Conqueror nodded a brief greeting. She had come to trust this warrior more than anyone who served in her army.
"I need you to accompany us today and I need you to do me a favour," the Empress said and then issued several instructions which the Amazon readily agreed to follow.
"Your wish is my command," the Amazon bowed her head.
"Gabrielle insists that she accompany me this morning and I will not deny her wish," the Conqueror said in a cool voice. "However, I am not certain how events might unfold, and I may be too occupied to ensure that she is safe. If fighting breaks out or if something happens to me, I want you to make sure that she is taken out of harms way and to a safe place. Your first and only concern is to make certain that Gabrielle is kept alive. Can you do that for me?"
"Yes," the Weapon's Master nodded filled with pride at what the Conqueror was entrusting to her, aware of how important the bard was to the Empress. But the request was not necessary and she said as much. "Gabrielle is my Queen and I will do whatever is necessary to protect her. You need not worry she will be safe."
"Good," the Empress was satisfied, knowing that this woman would honour her words. "Come it is time for us to depart."
The Amazon nodded and followed her commander back across the encampment where the horses, now saddled, were waiting. A smile tipped the corners of the Conqueror's lips as she noticed a rather sleepy looking bard leaning against Argo. She saw that the young woman was dressed in her Amazon costume.
"There is no need for you to come with us," the Empress said quietly as she stepped up to the smaller woman. Gabrielle smiled wearily.
"Have you forgotten our agreement?" the blond woman asked arching her eyebrows.
"No," the Empress shook her head wishing that she could think of some way to keep her lover here in camp. She had a bad feeling about this day but she would not argue the point again. "Make sure you stick close to me. I want you near me just in case something happens."
Gabrielle nodded and then allowed herself to be boosted up onto the mount that had been prepared for her use. Xena patted the younger woman's bare thigh affectionately before moving around to her own mount. She vaulted onto Argo's back and then pressed her heels into the horses flanks turning the creature to where the prisoners had been gathered. She paused in front of the General though her pale blue eyes scanned the whole group pausing briefly on one man with blond hair before settling back on the man wearing the armour of command.
"You better hope my men are in as good condition as you or your army will be made to pay," she said and then without waiting for a response the Conqueror wheeled her horse around and led the procession out of the camp.
It was nearing dawn when their party arrived at the middle of the valley where the Roman General was already waiting with a small contingent of soldiers. Further back was a larger group and her sharp eyes could detect the uniforms of her captured soldiers. She raised a hand to halt her caravan motioning her horse forward to meet her enemy. Gabrielle followed her partner.
"Brutus," the Conqueror greeted the man with a brief nod as their horses came to a halt in front of each other.
"Xena," the Roman General nodded his head in respect, his brown eyes turning in the direction of her companion. "I thought we were to meet alone."
"This is Gabrielle of Potedaia, Queen of the Amazon's and my ally," the Conqueror made the introductions and the man bowed his head.
"We had heard that the Amazon's were now your ally just as we had heard that a new Queen had taken control. We had not heard that she was so beautiful. I am charmed to meet such a lovely woman," the General said politely hiding his surprise.
He had heard the tales that Marc Anthony had told upon his last trip to see the Conqueror. Like Caesar he had not believed half of them but it appeared that it was true. The woman fit the Senators description perfectly though Marc Anthony had failed to mention that the bard was the Amazon Queen. Perhaps the Senator had not been wrong, perhaps the Conqueror did have a glaring weakness.
"Thank you," Gabrielle blushed under the compliment and she cast an embarrassed glance at her lover wondering what Xena was thinking. Of course she could read nothing in her companions stoic features.
"So Brutus what is it you want?" the Conqueror was anxious to get this meeting over with. The General smiled benignly.
"I wish the return of my soldiers and their commander," the man replied his eyes moving passed the Conqueror to the group of prisoners held hostage. "I had actually been preparing to send an emissary to ransom their return when my troops captured your forward patrols. I was surprised how easily they were taken prisoner. Could it be you are slipping Xena?"
"I hardly think so Brutus," the Empress cast the man a feral grin. "Those patrols were merely sent to confirm my suspicions. It is Caesar who has grown predictable. I knew that he would have you withdraw purposefully into the mountains in an attempt to draw my army into a trap. I suspected all along that you had held Rome's finest legions back from battle."
Brutus stiffened in his seat and for a moment their eyes met across the distance. He shook his head aware that the rumours that the Conqueror was growing weak were certainly not true. He had witnessed it in battle yet he returned her smile.
"What makes you think I won't yet throw them into battle?" the Roman General replied. "Your patrols were exhausted as no doubt are the rest of your troops after all did you not so recently battle the Horde. You would be easy pickings for Rome's finest."
"You could try," the Conqueror agreed idly leaning casually forward in her saddle, "but let me give you a small tip Brutus and only because I like you. I have not grown stupid. You think I would engage my whole army knowing that you had held your finest in reserve. In any of the battles have you seen anything of my Third Army?"
Brutus silently acknowledging the woman's words. They had fought but the army they had confronted carried the standard of the 5th Army. Every General in the Roman army knew that the Conqueror had her finest troops assigned to the 3rd Army. He bowed his head graciously.
"Then perhaps I shall concede defeat and settle for an exchange of prisoners," Brutus said aware that he had truly met his match. "May I suggest an even up trade, soldier for soldier."
"Now that would be fair but I do have someone more valuable in my possession," the Conqueror turned and motioned Zenon to bring forward the captured General. Brutus stared intently at the chained man who bowed his head briefly. The action did not go unnoticed by the Empress who allowed a smile to tickle the corners of her lips.
"All right," the General conceded. "I will pay you one hundred gold coins."
"Is he worth so little to Caesar?" the Conqueror asked with amusement.
"He will be once he returns to Rome," Brutus said dryly and the Empress laughed.
"It will have to be Queen Gabrielle's decision, for it was her troops who captured the General," the Conqueror turned to the young bard. "Well, My Queen, what do you have to say on this matter?"
Brutus watched the interaction between the two women closely, his sharp ears not immune to the endearment that the Empress had spoken. He could feel the vibrations between the two. He watched as the younger woman looked to the Conqueror for a long moment before turning her attention back to him.
"The Amazon's will accept nothing less then two hundred and fifty gold coins and only than because I suspect if we request any more you will not take him back," Gabrielle said finally and privately Xena smiled.
"You are as preceptive and wise as you are beautiful," Brutus smiled and bowed his head. "Caesar will reward you two hundred and fifty gold coins for the return of his General."
"Good," the Empress nodded and then motioned her escort forward. "We will trade one for one until all have been exchanged. We will release one at the same time you do and then wait until they join their respective camps before releasing the next man. Is that acceptable?"
Brutus nodded and the exchange began it's long tedious process with the leaders of both armies watching mutely as the soldiers traipsed passed. At last there was but one prisoner to be returned and as he stepped forward the Conqueror casually unsheathed her sword and moved her horse over to prevent the man from going any further. There was silence as all eyes, including those of the blond haired prisoner turned to the Empress. Carefully she lifted the sword to a position under his neck and turned a feral grin towards Brutus.
"For this one you will have to open Caesar's treasury," the Conqueror said idly and then glanced down at the man who was looking up at her. "That was an ingenues idea to dress your aide up as a General, but did you really think I wouldn't remember you Pompeii?"
The man smiled and shrugged. "It was worth a try Xena."
The Conqueror snorted and turned her attention back to Brutus.
"You probably thought you were going to get a bargain at two hundred and fifty gold coins," the Empress looked at the Roman General in charge.
"As Pompeii said it was worth a try," the man conceded and the Empress saw that he was not happy at the way the situation was turning against him.
"What would you say that Pompeii, Caesar's most favourite General, is worth?"
With their attention momentarily diverted Pompeii choose to take matters into his own hands. Slowly he inched his way close to the Amazon Queen a plan forming in his head. The chains around his wrists had been removed and he slipped them now into the folds of his clothing, one hand wrapping around the dagger.
He waited until the Conqueror looked away, moving in one swift motion towards the blond woman, dragging her from the horse and wrapping his arm around her shoulders with the sharp edge of the blade pressed dangerously against her neck.
"I think you will now pay money to me," Pompeii laughed as he backed away from the Empress towards his own army.
In one smooth motion the Conqueror slipped from the saddle and moved towards the man. Her eyes were intent on Gabrielle and her heart contracted painfully at the sight of the bard's large green eyes now filled with undisguised fear. The panther rose out of its cage and the Empress was aware that in this matter she had no control over the creature.
"You harm one hair on her head and not only will you die but every one in the Roman Empire will live to regret that you had ever been born," she responded tersely.
Brutus watched mutely. One look at the Conqueror and he knew that she would make good on her threat. Their instructions had been to defeat the Empress in Greece. Caesar would certainly have both their heads if they did anything that made the Conqueror march her own troops into the Roman territory.
Their scheme had not worked. The Conqueror had seen through their plans to trap her armies in the mountain pass. She had correctly guessed their battle strategy. He remembered what the Empress had said.
They had battled only one of the Conqueror's marginal armies and lost. His troops were weary from the long battle and he had no desire to risk another defeat. If Rome's finest Legions were beaten by the Conqueror's Third Army which he suspected she had also held in reserve, then the whole of the Roman Empire would be at risk to fall.
He turned in the saddle and motioned one of his soldiers forward hoping his conciliatory offer would diffuse the situation. He kept one eye on Pompeii and the other on the Conqueror as his soldier brought forward a treasure chest of valuables which he put down on the ground and opened for the Empress to see.
"I want no further bloodshed. Here is payment for Pompeii," he shouted the offer in an attempt to resolve the situation aware that the Conqueror would do anything to avenge the woman's death. It was there in the blackness of her eyes and on her face. He had no desired to die that morning.
"We will not give this whore of Greece anything," Pompeii snorted scornfully disputing his colleagues claim.
"It is me you hate, so I offer myself in exchange for my friend," Xena said tossing her sword onto the ground. "Are you man enough to accept my challenge?"
Pompeii was indecisive. He knew that his defeat and capture would be reported to Caesar in Rome. He had nothing to lose and if he managed to kill the Conqueror he would be hailed the hero and would be the toast of Rome. He knew a victory here, over the Empress, would result in him gaining much favour from those Senators who despised Caesar. Abruptly he released the Queen pushing her onto the ground. Xena moved swiftly catching her beloved bard before she hit the ground, careful to keep her blue eyes on the man.
"Are you okay?" she asked, glancing hastily over her lover and Gabrielle nodded her head, her hand automatically reaching for her neck. Gently the Conqueror pushed the bard behind her as she stepped forward to meet the challenge of the Roman General.
"I will kill you Xena," Pompeii boasted waving the dagger in front of her ignoring the pale slits of blue that were turned in his direction. A saner man would have realized his mistake but the General knew that he had nothing to lose in this challenge.
"You will only try," came the cold response as the Roman lunged towards the woman.
Xena deftly stepped sideways grabbing the extended arm and twisting it roughly behind his back before flipping him onto the ground. She stepped aside allowing her opponent the opportunity to get back on his feet. She watched silently as the Roman dusted off his tunic.
"You are pretty good," Pompeii conceded and then brought his hands forward revealing the sword he had picked up off the ground. "Isn't it ironic Xena that you will die by your own sword?"
"Don't be so arrogant Pompeii. I am not dead yet," came the cold taunting reply and there was a loud scream as the Roman rushed towards her.
Once again the Conqueror's quick reflexes kicked into action as she ducked under the swords sharp blade and kicked out her foot knocking the Roman off balance. In another smooth motion she was back on her feet, her hands wrapped around his sword arm, twisting it in the opposite direction. The Roman released his hold on the blade and stumbled back onto the ground while the Conqueror grabbed the falling weapon and twirled it effortlessly in her hand before bringing it down towards the downed soldier.
"Xena, please, no more killing." Gabrielle woke from her stupor and raced from her spot to grab the Conqueror's hand.
Xena looked down at the small hands that the bard had placed over her own and then looked into her lovers eyes. There was an appeal in the green orbs. Slowly she nodded her head and returned the sword to the sheath on her back. The Conqueror turned to her escort and motioned for them to collect the chest of gems and coins.
"Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon claims this for saving your life, now go home to Caesar you lap dogs," she looked towards Brutus for any dissent but the General only bowed his head in confirmation. Xena turned away but saw something in her lovers eyes.
She moved on instinct drawing her sword from her sheath in one smooth motion as she spun around on her heel, driving the weapon forward into the attacking General. Pompeii gasped as the sharp edge of the blade pierced his skin. He looked at her with wide eyes as he slumped to his knees. Slowly the Conqueror removed the sword from the Roman and watched as he fell face first on to the ground. She looked up at the remaining Roman General aware that he had made no attempt to intervene.
"Take this garbage back to Caesar. Take your whole army back to Rome and tell Caesar that if he tries anything like this again I will turn my ambitions on Rome and I won't stop until I see him fighting lions in the colosseum," she barked at the General who nodded, motioning his soldiers to retrieve Pompeii's body before turning his horse back towards the mountains where the remainder of his army awaited his return.
The Conqueror watched tensely, waiting until the rest of the Roman soldiers had retreated before she turned and scooped Gabrielle into her arms, lifting her onto Argo's back before vaulting up behind her, wrapping the bard in a tight embrace, aware that she had come close to losing the woman for a second time.
"It is time for us to go home," she whispered softly leaning over to place a gentle kiss on the girls brow. Gabrielle silently nodded in agreement only to happy to be heading home.
"Xena?" the bard asked suddenly as something occurred to her.
"What?" the Conqueror asked nuzzling the blonde's hair with her lips.
"I didn't know you had another army," Gabrielle said and heard the soft chuckle come from her dark companion.
"I don't," was the reply.
"But you told Brutus..." the bard paused and twisted around in her seat so that she could see her lovers face. "You were bluffing weren't you?"
Xena merely smiled seductively and leaned forward to kiss her companions lips. "It never hurts to let them think what they want."
Gabrielle shook her head and snuggled deeper into her lovers embrace.
The group sat in a silent circle at the entrance of the temple, waiting patiently for the appearance of their leader, the Priest who had entered the great edifice they had built. He had gone to speak with their God. The One God who was Mightier than all the other Deities that reigned over the Known World.
Khafstar had been gone for many candlemarks now. The moon had risen and set since he had entered the temple to pray. The sky had grown cloudy with wicked looking clouds swirling overhead. But the storm had quickly passed as they continued to wait. They knew that sometimes it took many days for their Lord and Master to answer their prayers.
The sun was high in the sky of the second day of their vigil when once more the day turned black. A mass of swirling black clouds suddenly appeared and hovered ominously over the temple. Like the previous day's storm, frightening bolts of charged energy radiated from the sky. It was a frightening display yet the group remained in spite of their fear, aware that they were protected by their Master.
As quickly as the clouds had appeared they were gone, leaving the earth bathed once more in the brilliant summer sunshine under a clear blue sky. And still they waited for their leader to appear.
Finally the doors to the temple opened and they rose in unison, their eyes now focused on the tall man who stepped out to greet them. He was adorned in the same red robes as the rest of the followers wore. He paused at the top of the stone steps and silently surveyed those gathered. They were the only true believers.
"Our Lord, the One God has spoken," the Priest Khafstar finally spoke, breaking the eery silence that had descended over the group. His brown eyes seemed to glow. "He has told me that we will find no relief against the foreign armies that are invading our shores. He has found us instead a home to the South in a land that is peaceful."
"But what about the Chosen?" someone from the gathering asked.
"He has told me that it is there, in this new land that we will find the one. The Chosen who is to bear a child of the Gods. A form which will be the house for his spirit and allow his rebirth into the world," the Priest repeated the instructions that he had received.
"How will we know who that woman is?" another voice asked rising above the murmurs that filled the air.
"A messenger will be sent," the Leader said assuring the anxious followers. "Our Lord and Master will send us a sign."
"But what of our homes?" a woman in the small crowd wanted to know.
"We will find new places to live," the Priest smiled gently. "We will not suffer in this new land as we have been suffering under the dark hand of the foreign oppressors from Rome who have invaded our shores. My Lord assures me that we will find peace. Now we must prepare for the journey for it is a long trip and there is no time to waste."
The Priest remained rooted to his spot as the others scattered in various directions, heading to their individual homes to prepare for the long trek. They would be leaving this land for a place foreign and unfamiliar but their God would make sure that it would be a safe place for them to worship and live.
Though messengers were immediately dispatched advising Archius and the rest of the Palace staff of the Conqueror's imminent return, it was several more days before the preparations for departure were complete. There were all sorts of logistics to consider and Gabrielle marvelled at the ability of her lover to remember even the slightest of details.
While the bard helped Hannibal with the injured, Xena worked with General Loris to deploy the troops remaining in the Region into strategic positions to guard the new territory. Though her scouts and spies had reported that the Roman Army was retreating, the Conqueror wasn't entirely certain they wouldn't yet try something.
Only when she was completely satisfied that the area was secure did the Conqueror announce it was time to leave. Once all the tents were packed and the injured loaded into the available wagons did the Army begin the long march towards home.
After the busy days of fighting the bard looked forward to the relatively quiet days of travelling ahead of them, though she was aware that there was always much too do. She turned her head and glanced about the scenery, seeing what they had missed on the hurried march towards the battle with the Roman's.
In spite of the cooling weather of the approaching fall season, the grass was still green and the sky was a deep blue with the sun shining brightly, warming their bare skin. They were travelling out of the mountainous region along a trail that ran through the middle of the country. It was a tough march over rough terrain but it was the shortest route back to the Capital.
They travelled until late in the day, stopping for the evening only when the sun was low in the sky. While Xena helped in organizing the camp, the bard went in search of the healer, offering her assistance in caring for the wounded. It wasn't until much later, well after night fall, that the two women finally had a chance to be together again.
"How are you doing?" the Conqueror asked noticing the weary expression on the smaller woman's face as the girl sat down on the log near where the command tent had been pitched.
"Tired," the bard admitted flashing the older woman a brief smile as she settled beside her lover in front of the fire that had been built. "I never realized how much work everything was."
"Very few people do," Xena agreed in a quiet voice as she reached out and gently stroked the smaller woman's hair. "However, we will soon be back at the Capital and there will be others to take care of things."
"I'm not complaining," Gabrielle protested afraid her companion had misinterpreted her thoughts.
"I know you're not," the warrior smiled in reassurance. She knew the bard well enough to know where the mood was coming from. "Have you had something to eat?"
"I had something with Hannibal when I was helping him settle the wounded for the night," the girl replied. Actually, it had only been a stale biscuit that she had found at the bottom of her pouch.
"Then I guess you don't want this apple," the Empress said casually producing a big red fruit from a pouch on the ground next to her feet. She stifled the chuckle that came to her lips as her companion gazed at it with hungry eyes.
"I didn't say I couldn't use a dessert," Gabrielle snapped playfully snatching the juicy morsel from the older woman's hand. The Conqueror couldn't hide her smile. She delighted in making the younger woman happy, even if it meant giving up the only bit of food she had scrounged from the mess wagon earlier. Suddenly the bard stopped chewing and stared at her through narrow eyes.
"Xena, have you had something to eat?" Gabrielle knew of her lover's habit of skipping meals and she had often wondered how the woman could survive and function on the meagre rations she did consume.
"I wasn't hungry," the Conqueror didn't lie. She had no appetite.
"Xena," the girl groaned feeling guilty now that she was probably eating the only food the Empress had obtained all day. "You should have eaten this."
"I'm not hungry Gabrielle," Xena said pointedly. The girl stared at her lover for a long time and then sighed. She didn't understand.
"I don't know how you do it, how can you go all day without eating?"
"You have to train yourself to ignore the hunger," came the honest reply as blue orbs focused on the flickering orange flames of the fire in front of them. "There is no time to stop in the middle of a battle to eat, so you learn to do without."
The bard realized she had the answer. She could see the exhausted lines under the taller woman's eyes. She held out the apple and gave the older woman one of her appealing smiles.
"Why don't we share this?"
The Conqueror could have refused but she knew it would make her lover happy so she leaned sideways and took a bite out of the offering. Gabrielle smiled before resting her head contentedly against the warriors padded shoulder as they shared the meagre feast.
"I think you will be happy to get back to the Palace," Xena said breaking the peaceful silence that had enveloped them.
"Yes," the bard sighed, not denying the truth.
"You miss the shopping don't you, my love?"
"Yes," the girl smiled sheepishly, "but I miss so much more. I miss Archius."
"So do I," the Conqueror admitted.
"What sweetheart?" Words, endearment's that once seemed so foreign to the stoic Warrior now seemed to naturally fall from her lips.
"When we get back to Corinth, can we spend some time alone together?"
That was perhaps the one thing that the bard missed the most. At the Palace there were others to take care of the smaller matters of life, leaving them time to be alone. During this long campaign they had precious little time together, their every waking moment occupied with the army and the injured.
"Yes," the Empress promised placing an arm across her companion's slender shoulders. "I promise you, once I have dispensed with all the important matters of state, we will have plenty of time alone together."
"Good," the bard was immensely pleased. "I missed having you all to myself."
"You don't like sharing, do you?"
"No... most of the time I'm okay with that," Gabrielle confessed with a smile, "but I would like to have you alone once and awhile without having to worry that we will be interrupted."
Xena felt an incredible wave of love flood over her weary senses. It was a feeling she had never thought she would ever experience. But she did and it was all because of the woman who sat by her side. She could give this woman anything she wanted but all Gabrielle ever asked for was the simplest of things. The bard did not seek to own material possessions as others did, often sacrificing her own needs for the sakes of others.
The Empress drew in a sharp painful breath. She was the most powerful woman in the known world and had infinite wealth but the one thing she knew the woman wanted the most she was unable to give and that left a pain in her heart. She opened her mouth to speak but before she had a chance to respond their moment of solitude was interrupted by the arrival of Zenon.
"Empress," the soldier bowed and the woman nodded in acknowledgment, not removing her arm from around the smaller woman.
"What have you to report?"
"The scouts you dispatched earlier have returned with news that all is quiet in the surrounding countryside," the Head of the Royal Escort informed the Empress. "I have deployed guards at regular distances throughout the perimeter."
"Good," Xena was pleased, assured that the commander had done an adequate job. The man nodded and backed away only to have Eponin approach with her own report to their Queen. The Amazon's Weapon's Master was followed by Hannibal the healer.
"Come on," the Conqueror implored jumping to her feet and dragging the smaller woman with her. "Let's get out of here before the cook comes requesting directions for tomorrows menu."
The bard giggled, and was about to argue that she was to tired for a walk, but the smile was quickly wiped from her lips at the sight of the rotunda cook heading in their general direction. She kept her mouth shut and followed without complaint, feeling her hand securely tucked in the larger one.
They strolled swiftly across the camp and out passed the perimeter guards into the surrounding darkness. There was silence except for the chirp of the crickets and the steady swish of the tall grass as they walked through the meadow out into the open countryside, leaving behind the camp and it's organized chaos.
They both savoured the peace that surrounded them, coming to a halt only once they reached a narrow stream that wound it's way through the open field. They lay down on the grassy slope by the lone tree that inhabited its bank, both content to listen to the gentle ripple of the water as it streamed over the rocks in its bed.
Xena stared up at the night, her eyes mesmerised by the brilliant display of flickering lights in the Northern sky. Like banners of celebration, ribbons of light fluttered across the blackness. It was a beautiful sight and it reminded her of the many nights when, as a child, she had snuck out of Amphipolis to go lay in the open fields and stare up at the heavens.
It was odd. For so many years she had lusted after power, seeing it as her destiny to rule the World. Yet lately that desire and the overwhelming need to subjugate others, was beginning to subside, leaving something else in it's place. More and more in her dreams she began to long for the simple things life had to offer.
She heard a wistful sigh and turned her head, glancing sideways at her young companion. The bard was lying on her back with her head pillowed by her hands. There was a dreamy, almost rapturous expression on her young face.
"Gabrielle?" the Conqueror asked knowing her partner would understand the unspoken question.
"I'm fine," the bard turned to give her lover a smile. "I was just thinking about all the time I spent travelling on the road. There were so many nights like this."
"Do you miss it?" the Warrior asked. She had never questioned the girl if she had ever missed her old life. She had never thought to ask.
"Sometimes," the girl was honest. "Don't get me wrong, I love being with you and life in the Palace but sometimes I miss this. Sleeping under the stars with no worries or pressing business pushing us to the next destination."
The Empress was momentarily silent as she too vaguely remembered a time when her own life had been different. She had been a carefree young girl then, living in a small village, and spending her time traipsing around the countryside, fishing and hunting. But all that freedom had ended with Cortez and her brother Lyceus' death.
In one tragic moment she had grown from an innocent girl to a warrior and everything she had enjoyed had been lost with the death of that innocence. But now with the bard's help she was finding it again, and she marvelled at the experience.
She turned her eyes back to the sky, content to enjoy the light show the God's were surely putting on for their entertainment, and savouring the knowledge that she was surrounded by the love of her companion. For awhile she could forget about the responsibilities that weighted so heavily on her shoulders.
Most of the camp would have long since retired. The long march that day having exhausted even the most experienced soldier who was used to such hardship. Tomorrow, they would leave behind the main body of their force and speed towards their ultimate destination. Already she was forming numerous plans about what they would do when they got back to Corinth.
Just as she was having those thoughts she heard a rustle, like when the wind moves through the trees. But there was no wind and the leaves on the solitary tree at their resting stop remained still. The Conqueror was on her feet in one swift catlike motion with her sword clutched tightly in her hands, her blue orbs peering into the blackness that surrounded them.
"Xena?" the bard sat up, startled by her companion's sudden movement.
"Shh," the Empress hissed, her head turning slowly, her ears cocked to any sound.
"There is no reason to be afraid," a voice came out of the darkness. The Conqueror whirled on her heel to face the intruder as Gabrielle jumped to her feet, her staff clutched tightly in her hands.
"Oww, they are so tense," a second voice giggled.
There in the darkness were two shimmering forms. One was a russet haired woman in brown animal hides with a bow, and beside her was a angel like looking woman with long blond curly hair, dressed in silky white robes.
"What are you doing here?" the Conqueror asked her hand on the sword hilt tightening as the Goddess' moved closer.
"We are here with a gift for you, Empress," Artemis said and suddenly a bowl of fruit was in the blond Goddess' hands. "You have treated my most favoured well and now it is my turn to reward you."
"I don't want any reward," Xena said tightly, suspicious of anything that came from the Gods.
"You were right, she is rather uptight," the blonde Goddess giggled and then turned a brilliant smile on the dour warrior. "Loosen up warrior babe."
The term only brought a snarl to the Conqueror's lips. Gabrielle watched with fascination the exchange. Unlike the Empress she had no suspicions about the God's. The only one she feared was the nasty looking God of War.
"Hi, my name is Gabrielle," she stepped out from behind the Conqueror and extended her hand in introduction.
"We know who you are my Queen," the russet haired woman smiled favourably upon the smaller woman whom she had grown to like immeasurably. At first she had doubts about the young woman but the girl had proven herself on more then one occasion. "You know who I am but I don't know if you have met my sister Aphrodite."
"The Goddess of Love," the bard finished, her eyes widening in surprise. The blonde Goddess was even more beautiful then she had imagined.
"You got that right bardy poo," the slender God smiled.
"What do you want?" the Conqueror repeated an earlier question and Artemis turned her attention back to the stoic warrior.
"We are giving you a gift," the Goddess of the Hunt said. "Fruit from Mt. Olympus, the nectar of the Gods and with it comes the fulfillment of your greatest wishes and dreams."
"I have no wishes or dreams," the Empress scoffed.
"Nonsense, everyone does," Aphrodite disputed with a gleeful wave of her hand. "We see it even if you don't."
The blonde Goddess moved forward and gently reached out to touch both women. Out of instinct the bard automatically grabbed the Warrior's free hand. A jolt of energy passed between them sending a wave of incredible feeling through the two mortal bodies. It was so strong that it knocked them back a step. It took a long moment for the women to recover and by then the Goddess of Love had stepped back to stand once more beside her sister.
"Eat of the fruit," Artemis motioned to the bowl resting on the ground at their feet. "And fear nothing for we are here to help and guide you."
There was a flash of light and the two mortal women were alone once again in the darkness. There was silence for a moment before the bard bent and picked up the basket, her green eyes intently studying its contents.
"It would be a shame to waste such good looking fruit," the girl commented quietly as the Conqueror glanced down at her. It was odd but Xena felt an incredible hunger. She reached for a large apple and turned it over in her hand for a moment studying it intently aware that her companion had already selected another odd looking fruit.
"Ohh, this is good," Gabrielle murmured taking a good sized bite out of the fruit. The Conqueror saw the juice leave a trail down the smaller woman's chin and automatically she leaned over and lapped up the liquid with her tongue, savouring the salty taste of her companions skin mixed with the sweet juice as it mingled in her mouth. It tasted unlike anything she had ever experienced.
"Come on Xena try it," the bard encouraged and reluctantly the Conqueror obliged her smaller companion. She was still suspicious but the fruit was good and unexpectedly the hunger in her belly rumbled.
They sat down on the bank and ate in silence until all the contents of the wicker bowl was gone. The two women looked at each other in surprise and then laughed with amusement.
"Must have been hungrier then I realized," the Empress admitted with some embarrassment and the bard laughed again. It was a rich sound that echoed in the silence that surrounded them. It was an intoxicating sound and the Empress immediately felt her senses begin to roil. She felt more alive then she had ever been, every one of her nerves on high alert and sensitive to everything around them. In particular the bard.
She could smell the woman, feel her aura and a sudden desire to feel and taste the girl welled up inside her being. It was a feeling that was returned for she could see the look of desire in the green eyes that were turned in her direction.
"Xena, do you think Aphrodite put something in that fruit?" the girl asked as the warrior moved over and then gently pushed her to the ground.
"Probably," the Conqueror conceded but at this moment she didn't care. She was intent only on one thing and that was making love to the woman who was lying there beneath her. Xena sensed that they were not alone but she felt no immediate danger and so focused all her attention on her young lover.
The sounds of passion drifted across the meadow as a pair of blue eyes watched intently from a safe distance. The expression on the innocent looking face was anything but sweet. It was a mixture of evil amusement.
The leather and armour clad woman had followed the pair of lover's from camp. She had witnessed the visit of the God's and watched now as the two women expressed their love for one another. She watched them as a hawk watched it's prey all the while thinking and plotting her revenge.
She had witnessed Pompeii's sorry attempt to defeat the Conqueror. She had told him to go after the bard and he would have won if he had only listened to her, but he had allowed his own weak mind to dictate his actions. As a result he had died. Well, she wouldn't be so emotional. She had a plan of revenge against the Conqueror and she would not be swayed from her objective. She would bide her time and then act.
She watched for a moment longer and then heard voices in the distance. A turn of her head and she saw that a small party of Amazon's were heading in her general direction. She knew that she could not be found to be spying on the Empress or the Amazon Queen, for there would be too many questions for her to answer. Quietly, she slipped further into the darkness slinking back towards the camp, aware that her secret was still safe. A low and evil laugh echoed through the night.
General Barcaus glanced at the motley group of civilians who were lined up outside his command tent waiting for the opportunity to sign on to the Conqueror's army. Most of the men were strong and healthy, however some were too young and others had no place in the military, but the scroll he had received from the Empress was clear. Recruits were needed and it was his duty to supply an appropriate number from his region.
He watched as the Drill Master paced slowly along the column of men and boys, his mind mentally calculating the worthiness of each individual. They could all be useful, he decided, if not as soldiers then in some other capacity in his camp. He saw the aged soldier pause in front of one particularly odd looking individual who was dressed in an unmatching collection of worn leathers with a peculiar pointed hat on his head.
"What do they call you?" the Drill Master barked in a commanding voice and the gawky man straightened his shoulders.
"Joxer the Mighty," came the sincere reply and the battle hardened soldier lifted an amused brow.
"Mighty at what?" the Drill Master asked scornfully.
"I am a great warrior," the man boasted proudly drawing a chorus of amused laughter from the others in the square including the Drill Master.
"You look like a piece of Centaur's turd. Where did you come from?"
"Corinth," the skinny man replied some of his earlier confidence fading.
"You have come a long way to join the Conqueror's army," came the acid comment.
"I tried to join in the Capital but all the positions were filled," the man nodded his head firmly, making him look like an awkward bird.
For a moment the General Barcaus reconsidered his decision to accept this man's enlistment. The Conqueror's army was accepting all recruits but it was obvious that the man was not soldier material. However, he needed to fill his quota and this man would help that cause. They would train him and if he died in his first battle that would be Hades decision. He watched as the Drill Master moved on to the next one in line.
Here was a lanky youth with blond hair that hung to his shoulders. He was young in years, perhaps not more then thirteen summers, but he had a strong build and the Drill Master looked eagerly towards the opportunity of training the lad. If nourished right, the boy could grow into a fine soldier.
"What is your name?" he bade the youth.
"Solan," came the pert reply.
"And where do you come from?" the trainer asked aware that for some reason his features seemed familiar.
"I am an orphan," the boy replied. "My parents were both killed so I decided to join the army to fight the enemies of this great Empire."
Solan lapsed into silence. He could not say that he wanted to be a soldier so that he might some day get close to the Empress in order to avenge the family that she had destroyed. Because of the Conqueror, he had never known his mother or his father.
"Good," the Drill Master nodded, pleased with the response. "Be diligent and train hard and you will have the chance to serve the Empress."
With that he continued down the line of recruits stopping at each one to access their potential, circling back to the front only once he was finished. He glanced momentarily at the General Barcaus before focusing his attention once more on the group.
"You are now the property of the Empress," the Drill Master stated in a loud voice. "You will do as she asks whenever and whatever she asks of you. For the next several full moons, you will train and work hard to prove that you belong. If you do not we will send you home and your failure will be recorded for all to see. Now follow the guardsmen, he will show you to your new quarters."
With that the new recruits picked up their meagre belongings and followed a tall heavy set man through the army camp. General Barcaus watched them leave, aware that the Drill Master had his work cut out for him. When he had been gifted this position upon General Rufus' demise he had been nervous, worried about his performance and unwilling to end up like his predecessor. In the ensuing months he had grown more confident. Now he wanted to prove to the Empress that she had made the right choice in selecting him and he would do that by turning these civilians into a decent militia.
Gabrielle woke slowly, savouring the feeling of the strong arms wrapped around her waist and the warm body that was curled up against her back. She lay contentedly within her lover's embrace enjoying the solemn few moments of peace and privacy after the long hard days of travel that had brought them back to the Capital.
She heard the soft song of a bird perched just outside the open window and listened for a moment to it's tuneful melody. It was a beautiful sound in the still of the morning and a welcome fanfare after the months of waking up in a camp to the noise of an army in motion.
Carefully, she rolled over to face her companion, surprised that her action didn't awaken her lover. She stared at the face that had become so familiar, taking the opportunity to study the complex woman and noticing the small lines etched into the corners of the sleeping woman's face. They were the only tattletale signs of the tremendous amount of stress her lover carried every day.
Until their trip north Gabrielle had only seen glimpses of the enormous amount of responsibility that her lover held as the Empress, yet it wasn't until now, with time to reflect, that she was able to grasp the complete magnitude of the task. It was almost overwhelming and her admiration for her companion grew.
But she was smart enough to know that the responsibility weighted heavily on the Conqueror and if it was possible she understood the necessity to be cruel. She recognized the reason the Empress was harsh and in that she had a greater understanding of the woman to whom she had fallen so hopelessly in love with.
Her heart began to pound in her chest. She loved this woman like she would love no one else and she would follow Xena to the end of life, however the Gods saw fit to end it. She was on her path and it was a journey that she felt would last for all eternity. A trip on which she had willingly embarked and one for which she would never have any regrets about whatever the future brought.
A tender smile tipped the corners of her lips as a plan formed in her head. The Empress had given her so much and she wanted to give some of it back. Carefully, she slipped from the taller woman's grasp and out of bed, quietly scrambling around the room collecting the small articles that she would need. The smile on her face growing as she tried to imagine what her companions reaction would be.
Xena woke slowly to the delicious tickling sensation of a feather gently caressing the bare skin of her exposed breasts. A blue eye popped open and fastened on the bard who was propped up with one elbow. There was a twitch of a grin on the young face and a sparkle of mischief in the emerald eyes. The offending feather was being twirled innocently in a free hand.
"You're up early," the Conqueror said dryly, aware of her partners penchant for sleeping late.
"I went to bed early," the girl reminded impishly once again running the feather over an exposed breast. The Conqueror felt her body react. The nipple hardened as a shiver raced down her spine.
They had gotten back to the Palace late the previous evening but the bard had already been asleep for several candlemarks. Her slender body nestled comfortably in the arms of the Empress. Xena smiled at the recollection. Though her muscles had cramped supporting the younger woman she had never experienced a more enjoyable ride in all her life.
"Are you feeling frisky my sweet?" the Conqueror asked raising an eyebrow as the girl continued to trace the feather over the other breast.
"A little," the bard admitted shyly and the Empress laughed reaching out and drawing the smaller woman on top of her. Their naked bodies rubbed together in the most delicious manner. Though they had been together for almost a full calender of season's the girl was still embarrassed by her sexual desires. Xena hoped her lover never lost that innocence.
"Then let me love you," the Empress said in a husky voice as she reached up to cup her lovers face, tenderly brushing golden strands of hair behind small ears.
"Xena.." Gabrielle said in a hesitant voice.
"What love?" the Conqueror prodded with a gentle kiss.
"Do you think we could try something different?" the girl asked averting her eyes. The dark haired woman smiled at the blush that flooded the other woman's features.
"We can try anything you want," the Conqueror promised reaching up and planting another kiss on the girl's lips. "What did you have in mind?"
What Gabrielle wanted came as a pleasant surprise to the warrior and though the girl had never been timid with their lovemaking she had seemed reluctant to experiment. That was not the case this morning and the Empress experienced for the first time the complete extent of the younger woman's desires. The whole experience left her more satisfied then she had ever believed possible.
"Where on earth did you learn that?" Xena wanted to know when they had finally settled exhausted into each others arms. The bard glanced up lazily and the Conqueror could see the girl was fighting off the weariness that their passion had brought.
"I borrowed some scrolls from the Amazons," Gabrielle confessed sheepishly. "I hadn't the courage until now to try any of it."
"Well, I'm certainly glad you did," Xena drawled affectionately giving the small woman a tight squeeze. "Anytime you want to try something new just go right ahead."
"Thank you," the girl mumbled her lids falling over her eyes as she drifted off to sleep.
Xena lay quietly watching her lover sleep. The last thing she wanted to do was to leave this warm bed but there was business to take care of. She had been away from the Capital for a long time and needed now to catch up on what had happened in her absence. Reluctantly she extracted herself from the limbs that had wound themselves around her and with a tender kiss she left the bard sleeping.
Before long she was strolling through the Palace halls invigorated by the lovemaking they had shared. She was in a good mood. A smile played its way across her lips as she thought about the younger woman. Gabrielle had been more playful then usual and the Empress was certain it was due to the fact that the bard was happy to be home. Though the girl never complained she knew the bard enjoyed her luxuries.
"Good morning Archius," she called to the man upon entering the throne room.
"Good morning Empress," the small man returned the greeting taking note that the Conqueror looked in a particularly good spirits. "It's nice to have you back."
"It's nice to be back," she replied and allowed a grin to touch her lips. "Gabrielle is particularly pleased. She hasn't had much chance to do any shopping these past few seasons so I think the first thing on her agenda this morning is to go too the market."
"The merchants will be pleased," the man replied with a smile. "I believe they truly missed her presence and not only for the coin that she puts in their pockets."
"Yes," the Empress was unusually pleased at the respect that her young lover got from the common people. The smile disappeared as she walked around the table and sat down on the throne. "Now Archius, tell me what had been going on in my absence?"
For the next several candlemarks the two went over the business of the Empire and Xena issued instructions on how to deal with matters that had been left until her return. She glanced with interest over the parchments the man handed her reading thoroughly the accounts that her Generals had given of the activities in their individual Regions.
"I sent instructions for recruiters to be dispatched into every region, has that been done?"
"Yes, My Conqueror," Archius nodded.
"And what success have we had?" the Conqueror was curious to know the results. She knew the contempt the people of the land held for her yet there were those who willing served in her army, eager for a full stomach and coin in their pocket.
"Better then expected," the man was blunt. "Every region has reported an increase in volunteers. Your success against the Horde and the Roman's has filled your countrymen with pride."
"Let's hope it continues," the Empress sighed and leaned back in her chair. She glanced across at the man. "Are there any other matters of which we have not yet spoken?"
"No, My Empress," Archius shook his head. "The Realm is quiet and for now everyone seems content. Your plan for the troops to help in the fields is working better then expected and every region is reporting increased productivity. The Regional Commanders also report that the local population has begun to look at them more favourable and there have even been several marriages."
"Good," Xena nodded pleased with the news. She had not expected these things to work so well. A grin came to her lips. "Our treaty with the Amazon's appears to be working quite well."
"Yes," Archius agreed unable to prevent the smile that came to his lips. "A contingent of miners is beginning work in the mountains and the Regent Ephiny has reported three Amazon's are almost ready to give birth."
"Good," Xena said pleased with the news. "Now let's start clearing away this business."
While the Conqueror was busy getting back to work on government affairs the bard was only just beginning to stir from her extended nap. She stretched lazily feeling quite happy about the way things had turned out that morning. She hadn't known how the Conqueror would respond to her request and had been more then pleased when the older woman had eagerly embraced her ideas.
She slowly rolled over and out of bed, padding quietly across the huge room into the adjoining bath. She pulled the rope and watched as the warm water poured into the large washing tub. She spilled some scented oil into the bath before climbing into the water leaning back and savouring the first real soak she had in the last several seasons.
She closed her eyes and mentally planned out her afternoon. She knew that Xena would be busy for the rest of the day catching up on business and so did not expect to see the Empress until nightfall. Rather then wait for her lover she decided to take a trip out to the market. There were things that they needed, personal supplies that they had run out of during their long absence from the Capital.
It was only as she was preparing to dress that she noticed the note and small bag of coins that Xena had left that morning on a table by the bed. She smiled as she read the short message and realized that the other woman really did know her.
I will be busy all day with affairs of state. I know you are dying to find out how your friends in the market are doing so I left you some coins and hope that you have a good day. I will see you tonight at dinner.
PS Remember to take Jason with you and don't forget your staff.
Gabrielle would have loved to go out on her own but she knew better then to defy her lover. Xena was tolerant in many things but her protection was one thing that the Conqueror took seriously all the time. Though the Empire appeared peaceful there was no guarantee that there wasn't someone out there seeking revenge.
She folded the note and tucked it into the bodice of her top, sending a message to Jason only once she was ready to leave the Palace. The soldier smiled at the sight of the young woman standing at the foot of the steps leading up into the Palace. He could see by the expression on her face that she was anxious to be on her way.
"Good morning Jason," she called out the friendly greeting, her eyes glancing at the two foot soldiers that accompanied him.
"Good morning, Miss Gabrielle," the soldier smiled and then bowed. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes," the bard's smile grew wider if that was possible. "It was nice to be back in a real bed again."
"Yes, everyone was grateful to be home again," the man agreed. "I am sorry to have kept you waiting."
"There is no rush," the girl said and then glanced at his companions the smile on her face wavering slightly. "Do you think it necessary for us to have so much company?"
"But surely you are capable of protecting me," the bard worried about bringing to much attention too herself.
"They are not here for reasons of protection Miss," the soldier said solemnly.
"Oh?" the girl raised her eyebrows in a manner that mimicked her lover and the soldier continued in the same solemn voice.
"Yes, I feared to go alone, uncertain that I would be able to carry all your purchases," the soldier bowed unable to hide the smile on his lips. Gabrielle laughed and then playfully slapped him on the shoulder.
"You are a card," she chuckled. "Come on let's shop."
With that they strolled across the Palace courtyard and out the gate into the city unaware that the whole exchange had been observed by the Conqueror who was standing on the balcony overhead.
Xena didn't know why she had felt the sudden urge to go out onto the balcony and only realized when she had noticed the bard standing on the Palace steps what had called her outside. She had been about too call to her young lover when the soldier had appeared and instead she had closed her mouth and listened to the conversation. She had smiled at the bard's playful attitude yet something had also made her sad. She returned to the throne room and slumped into a chair, a frown burrowing it's way across her forehead.
She loved Gabrielle. There was no question of that in her mind just as she had no doubt of the bard's affection for herself yet she wondered if given the chance the girl might be interested in exploring other relationships. She knew that the young woman had never been with a man and for a moment she felt a pang of guilt about that situation.
While the bard was with her no man would dare approach and in her mind Xena knew that the girl would never voice her opinions on the matter. She instinctively knew that the girl must be curious, for she was an inquisitive sort by nature. Suddenly the happiness she felt since the morning was gone replaced by a cold empty feeling.
Gabrielle was a beautiful woman, a kind and compassionate individual who deserved every happiness. She deserved to experience everything that life had to offer and yet by her association to the Conqueror it would be impossible for the woman to do that.
Briefly her thoughts returned to that night in the meadow when they had been visited by Artemis and Aphrodite. She had told them she had no dreams, yet there was one wish that had been running around inside her head. She had not been joking when she had told Loris and Eponin that she had a desire to make Gabrielle pregnant. It was an idea that she was certain the bard would favour, yet it was a difficult subject to approach.
She mulled over the possibilities, an idea forming in her head. Perhaps there was a way for the bard to experience everything life had to offer. Xena returned to work, puzzling over how she could fix matters so that her lover would miss nothing.
Gabrielle was surprised by the greetings she received from the merchants and common folk as she walked through the market. Many called out or waved their welcome and she returned the gestures most often pausing to exchange pleasantries and asking after the families of those sellers she knew by person. She had just finished speaking to one particular woman when an all to familiar voice called out to her.
"It has been a long time since you have graced our presence," a man said and Gabrielle turned around a wide smile beaming across her face.
"Salmoneous," the bard was happy to see the merchant and surprised the man by embracing him. "Affairs of state and Caesar's meddling have kept us away far to long, but now we are back."
"That is good news," the merchant replied gleefully, genuinely pleased by the news. "The merchants of the marketplace have missed you."
"Now you flatter me," Gabrielle blushed.
"It is not flattery but the truth," the man shook his head. "Come I must show you some of the new scents I have gathered on my recent travels."
Gabrielle nodded and fell into step beside the man while her escort lagged close behind their arms already burdened with the purchases she had made. She greeted Ariela warmly and chatted a few moments with the girl while the man collected together the scents he had told her about.
The bard sniffed each vial finding some more pleasant then the others. There was one in particular that she found pleasing and wondered if her tall, dark and dangerous companion would like it as well. She decided there was only one way to find out.
"I'll take this one," she passed the vial of scent back to the man, "and some of the Conqueror's usual scent just in case."
"That is a good choice," Salmoneous smiled broadly collecting together the purchases to be wrapped. Suddenly he stopped a gleam coming to his eyes. "I almost forgot. I was in Egypt recently and found the most unique and extraordinary trinket. I thought of you immediately. I will just fetch it from the back room of my shop. I did not put it on display because I wanted you to be the first to see it."
Gabrielle was pleased that the man had thought of her and she paid the girl while the merchant hurried from the market stall to his shop a few streets over. It was while she was chatting to the girl that she noticed another familiar face. She turned her head to see that the man was staring intently at her. She recognized him as the seller to which her sister Lila was sweet.
"I'll be right back," she told Ariela and then moved across the street. "I'm sorry but I have forgotten your name."
"Linus," the man replied shyly unable to met her gaze.
"Linus.. yes, now I remember," Gabrielle nodded her head. "You are friends with my sister Lila."
"Yes," the man nodded having the courage now to meet the smaller woman's eyes.
"Have you been to Potedaia lately?" she asked curious to know how her family was faring. Though they had parted on bad terms she could not stop caring for her family.
"I just came from there."
"And did you have a chance to see my sister?" Gabrielle asked and the man nodded his head.
"She is well. Your mother was sick awhile past and though she has recovered she is still weak," the man paused and then reached over to a saddlebag at the back of his stall. Gabrielle watched as he withdrew a scroll and held it out to her. "Your sister asked if I might deliver this to you."
"Thank you," the bard gave the man a trembling smile as she accepted the parchment. Unable to wait she broke the seal and hastily scanned the contents, laughing out loud at her sisters descriptions of what had been going on since her departure from the village. She even noted a short description about the Conqueror's visit and their fathers reaction.
But that was old news and she hurried on through the parchment determined to read the scroll again when she had more time. Her sister had saved the best news for last and the bard smiled broadly and looked up at the man who was standing watching her, nervously moving from one foot to the other.
"Congratulations," she held out her hand and the man smiled for the first time, accepting her best wishes. "When do you plan to marry?"
"Before the next full moon," the merchant replied with a blush. "Your father wanted us to wait until next years harvest is done but Lila would have none of it. I fancy she wants to be settled as soon as possible."
"And what will you be doing then?" the bard was curious, thinking how good it would be for her younger sibling to travel about the countryside with her new husband.
"I will be settling in Potedaia," the man confessed quietly and Gabrielle could sense a sadness in his voice
"You will open a merchants shop there?"
"No," the man shook his head. "Your father insisted that I tend the fields with him if I want to marry Lila. He has no sons so it is only expected that I take over the land in preparation for later."
Gabrielle knew what the man was saying and her heart wept. She guessed that the man did not want to be a farmer. He was a merchant, accustomed to travelling about the countryside, meeting new people and selling his wares. The change would be difficult and she only hoped that the love Lila and he shared was strong enough to compensate.
"I'm sorry," she consoled him. "Perhaps when he sees that you are no farmer he will change his mind."
"No, I do not mind," Linus shook his head. "I would do anything to have Lila. It is a small sacrifice to make."
Gabrielle smiled pleased to see that the man was genuinely in love with her sister. She knew that Lila was in good hands with this man and she would have envied her sister if she didn't already have the same type of relationship with the Conqueror. It was thoughts of the Empress that brought her back to the present.
"I shall be pleased to call you brother-in-law," she said and the man smiled gratefully. "When do you leave again?"
"In ten days," the man replied.
"Good, I will have a scroll for you to take back to my sister."
The man nodded and Gabrielle turned and retreated back to the stall where Salmoneous waited. He had seen her talking to the younger merchant and now saw the frown that was on her face. He didn't like to see anything but a smile upon the young woman's features.
"Has Linus said something to distress you?" the older rotund trader asked in a fatherly voice that caused the bard to smile.
"No, his news was nothing but good," she sighed the smile fading again. "He is to marry my sister at the next full moon."
"Then that is excellent news," the man exalted.
"For my sister but I fear they will have a hard life," Gabrielle voiced her thoughts. "My father insists that he become a farmer."
"Then that is even better news," Salmoneous continued clapping his hands in glee and the small woman looked at him with a puzzled expression. He smiled. "Linus is a good merchant trader. I shall be happy to see him gone for it can only improve my business."
Gabrielle shook her head with disgust but she could not remain angry with the man. She gave him a hard stare trying to imitate her lover but failed miserably. The man chuckled and she threw her hands up in defeat.
"What was it you wanted to show me?" she finally asked and the man produced a lovely little ornament carved from an exquisite piece of jade. It had been polished and oiled until the colours had shone a brilliant shade. "It's beautiful."
"Yes," the trader smiled broadly watching as she turned the object over in her hands, her fingers caressing the stone tenderly. Briefly he envied the Conqueror knowing that this woman caressed her in the same loving fashion.
"It was said to be created for a Prince of Egypt," the man related the history behind the object. "An unfortunate fellow who fell out of favour with one of the Pharohs. As a punishment he was forced to get rid of his most treasured possessions."
The bard eyed the trader critically wondering if he was trying to make her part with more of the Conqueror's treasury. Salmoneous was looking at her with an innocent expression and she had to smile.
"How much is this small treasure to cost me?" she asked and the man named his price to which he received a raised eyebrow. She carefully set the ornament down, dearly wanting the object as a gift for the Empress. She named her own price and added as an afterthought. "And I will pay no more."
"I cannot let it go for that," Salmoneous shook his head regretfully and the bard smiled.
"Then I will not be able to buy it," she sighed sadly, genuinely remorseful. "But it was nice to see you again Ariela and Salmoneous. We will see each other again soon."
With that she turned and started to walk away signalling for Jason and the other soldiers to follow. She had not taken more then two steps before the merchant called her name. Salmoneous had purchased this treasure for the bard and he was determined that only she was to have the object. He normally did not like losing on a business deal but figured that he had more then made up for it by her refusal to bargain with Ariela.
"All right, all right," he sighed throwing his hands up in defeat. He named a more reasonable price but the bard shook her head aware that it was still far too expensive. "I can not do any better."
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle shook her head. She loved the little piece of jade with its intricately carved design but she would feel guilty spending so much money on herself especially when there were so many more unfortunate people. She thought of one of them now and instinctively turned her head searching for the familiar face.
"Are you looking for something?" the merchant asked upset that he had not be able to persuade the woman to buy the trinket. He tucked it away for the future.
"Yes, there used to be a little boy who hung out in the marketplace, I think his name was Arron," Gabrielle said looking at the trader who nodded his head solemnly.
"Yes, he now works for Vargas on the docks, helping to unload his merchant vessels," Salmoneous replied not meeting the girls eyes.
"But he is so small," the bard protested thinking of the tiny child and the hard work it was that he would be asked to perform.
"Vargas accused him of stealing food from one of his stalls. Rather than send him to prison he offered to put him to work. The local magistrate agreed."
Gabrielle said nothing. She knew that Vargas was a powerful trader in the city and he had close ties to the Empress. The merchant had often been a guest at the Palace for dinner. She had never liked the man and she was certain that Xena didn't either. She sighed her day suddenly not as bright and after stopping to purchase some ink and scrolls she returned to the Palace.
"Did the Conqueror leave a message as to when dinner would be served tonight?" she asked of the Belaus upon returning to her suite.
"The Empress asked me to inform you that dinner would be served in your quarters tonight," the woman smiled warmly. "She requested that you dress for the occasion."
"Thank you," Gabrielle smiled understanding what that meant. It had been such a long time since the two of them had been alone together and she quite liked the idea that Xena wanted to have dinner alone with her tonight.
She hurriedly unpacked her purchases setting aside those gifts that she had bought for her lover and then went about getting ready for the evening which was nearly upon them. While she was in the bath, the servants came in and set up a table in the sitting room of their quarters with pillows and scented candles in front of the lit fireplace.
Gabrielle chose the gown from Chin that Xena had given to her as a gift. It was made of pure silk and was light blue with gold embroidery trim on the high collar and sleeves. She braided her hair into a thick French braid that fell down the center of her back. She left her feet bare.
She sat down on her knees in front of the fireplace on one of the pillows that had been laid out next to the table and stared at the crackling flames. She felt the warmth of the fire and delighted in the way it caressed her skin. She was so engrossed in her thoughts that she failed to notice the arrival of her lover.
Xena quietly entered the room, her eyes drawn immediately to the bard sitting in front of the hearth. Her heart ached at the sight of the younger woman sitting so peacefully enjoying the beauty of the fire. She glanced about the room and saw that the servants had followed her instructions to the letter which pleased her immensely, though she suspected it was more out of respect for the bard then for her own wishes.
She crept silently across the room and tenderly placed a kiss at the top of her companions head before kneeling behind the smaller woman and circling her body with her arms while laying her head on the younger woman's shoulder.
"I love you," she whispered softly brushing the girl's ear with her lips. Gabrielle trembled closing her eyes and feeling every part of her body go limp with desire. She leaned back against the taller woman savouring the closeness they shared. Xena kissed her once more and then moved around to sit beside her lover so that her back was to the fire and their faces turned to each other.
"I didn't hear you come in," Gabrielle breathed intoxicated with the scent of her lover, her eyes filled with the love she felt towards this woman.
"I wanted to surprise you," the Empress said reaching up to brush the back of her fingers against the girl's soft cheek. "You look beautiful."
"So do you," the bard replied resting her hand on the other woman's thigh and massaging it gently. Xena was dressed in a costume similar to her own only it was of a darker blue. Her long dark hair hung loose and Gabrielle had a hard time breathing when she looked at the other woman. "I didn't see you come in to change."
"I dressed in another room," the Empress explained softly, a gentle smile on her lips, her fingers continuing to caress the girl's cheek. "It was all part of the surprise."
"I'm glad," the girl smiled and then leaned forward to capture her lovers lips in a simple but passionate embrace. Desire welled up between the two and the Conqueror knew that if she didn't slow things down they wouldn't get to eat the dinner that the cooks had prepared especially for them that night.
"Let's eat first," Xena whispered tenderly reaching passed the girl and selecting a tiny morsel of food from the plates that had been left and fed it to her friend. Gabrielle accepted the bite sucking on the woman's fingers after snapping up the food, remembering the first time that the Conqueror had fed her this way.
"Did you have a good day?" Xena asked her companion as she poured them a cup of wine from which they each took a sip.
"Yes," Gabrielle nodded and then proceeded to explain in detail the shopping expedition. For the moment she decided not to mention the jade carving that Salmoneous had tried to sell her. "I ran into Linus a travelling merchant. He had just recently returned from Potedaia and he had a scroll from Lila."
"And is she well?" Xena asked politely.
"Yes," the bard nodded. "Linus and Lila are to marry at the next full moon and she wants me to be there."
"You should be there," the Empress confirmed. "She is your family."
"I won't go without you," Gabrielle sensed a slight withdrawal from her companion and regretted bringing up the subject.
"Gabrielle, I am not welcome in your father's home," the Conqueror said patiently.
"Neither am I," the girl reminded quietly.
"Maybe not, but I think that you will be more welcome if you went alone."
"No," the bard shook her head. "I want to see Lila marry but if you don't accompany me then I won't go."
The Conqueror saw the determined look on her companion's face. She knew the bard and could tell that the girl was not bluffing, but she also knew of the smaller woman's affectation for her only sister. She did not want to deny the woman the opportunity to see her family again.
"We will see," was the non-committal response. "Now tell me more about your afternoon?"
Xena smiled indulgently and listened to her companion as she detailed more events of her day. In between she managed to feed the girl small portions of the food that had been prepared. After a while the bard's voice grew sad and then fell silent. She looked at her young lover and saw that her chin had dropped. Gently she reached out and lifted the bard's chin with her fingers.
"What is it now?" she asked patiently. She could see that something was bothering her love.
"Do you remember that day you unexpectedly showed up in the market and we had lunch together?"
"Yeesss," the Conqueror said slowly, thinking back to that day which was almost a year ago. "Why?"
"Do you remember that little boy, the one I gave the left over food too?"
"Yes," Xena nodded, though her memory was vague. She combed a errant strand of blond hair behind her lovers ear. "I got upset at you for giving it to him."
The bard nodded. "I found out today that Vargas accused him of stealing and rather then send him to prison put him to work on the docks unloading ships."
"According to the laws, he is allowed to do that," the Conqueror said gently running the back of her fingers over the girl's cheek.
"I know, but I still think it's cruel," Gabrielle sighed. "He was so small and even when he begged he was so polite. I wouldn't put it past Vargas to have made up the whole thing."
Xena wouldn't have disagreed with her lover for she was aware of Vargas' treachery. In spite of her feelings she said nothing. She listened as the bard sorted through her thoughts. She had wanted to protect the young woman from the harsh realities of life but it seemed that she would be unable to.
She leaned over and threw more logs onto the fire and then stood up, walking over to the windows and throwing them open before turning back to her companion. Gabrielle looked up at the dark woman mesmerised by the way the light from the fire flickered across her features. She looked alternatively dangerous and alluring and her heart hammered hard against her chest. She didn't think it possible to love someone as much as she loved the Empress.
"Come, let's dance," the Conqueror held out her hand.
"Xena there's no music," Gabrielle laughed but it was a token protest as she allowed the other woman to help her onto her feet.
"What do you mean there's no music?" the Empress quirked her eyebrows and as if by magic the room was suddenly filled with the soft, soothing sounds of flutes and drums.
"How did you do that?" the bard laughed, her heart brimming with emotion.
"I have many skills," Xena smiled seductively and then drew the smaller woman into her arms.
Gabrielle surrendered to her partner, basking in the warmth of her companions arms as they wrapped themselves around her body. She snuggled against the taller woman resting her head on the gentle slopes of her breasts. She thought that life couldn't get better than this.
Xena revelled in the comfort she felt as her companion leaned into her. She bent her head and buried her face in the soft strands of blond hair, savouring the scent of honey and lilacs that was so much her companion. She reached down and lifted the smaller woman's head and then lowered her mouth to capture the sweetness of her lips.
The kiss was followed by a second one and before Gabrielle realized where they were, she was lying on the bed naked with the Conqueror leaning over her body. For a moment their eyes met and no words were needed to express the way they felt about each other. The love and passion they shared was all there in that one look.
Gabrielle reached up and cupped her lovers face, caressing her cheeks briefly with the pads of her thumbs before pulling the dark head down to where their lips could meet. The kiss was the first of many similar embraces as the Conqueror slid her body over the smaller woman and devoted her entire self to pleasing the girl. The bard revelled in the undivided attention savouring each caress and basking in the tenderness that her lover displayed.
It was late into the night when the two women finally settled, exhausted in each others arms. Xena cradled her precious gift, revelling in the warmth of the woman nestled against her body. She was happier then she ever remembered being.
"Mmm," the bard mumbled, her head nestling in the crook of her companions shoulder.
"I thought it would be nice if we went on a picnic tomorrow," the Conqueror said thoughtfully stroking her lovers hair.
"Really?" one green eye popped open.
"Yeah, I thought we could go up to our favourite place and spend some time alone," the Empress said in a gruff voice that caused a smile to tickle the bards lips.
"Don't you have important business to take care of?"
"Nothing is more important then you," was the quiet reply and the tears welled up in the green eyes.
"I love you Xena," came the heart felt reply.
"I know," the Conqueror whispered giving her companion a tight squeeze.
Continued in Chapter 4