Subtext Reports
Those crazy posts about the episodes originally posted to the nutforum and saved here for posterity in their error riddled entirety (since they were written 'on the fly'). 
Homecoming Series
A series of five (not so short) stories about Xena and Gabrielle building their life together as a couple. 
Magic Series
Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas find love as they uncover more writings of Gabrielle about her warrior princess. 
Conversations by Campfire Series
Set during Season Four, parts of the episodes are worked into chats between Xena and Gab, particularly the subject of Najara and the bard. 
Changes of Heart Series
My take on what happened after Gabby got Chakram'ed upside the head by Xena in the Season Five ender. 
Bonding of Souls Series
This series picks up where 'Changes of Heart' ends with Xena and Gabby back together. Each 'episode' is an expansion of the episodes of Season Six.
Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace
How DID Ares get stuck in that tomb from the Xena Scrolls? This story answers that question. 
The Play
Xena and Gabrielle have to play the leads in a performance for a ruthless king to save Salmoneus' neck. Unexpected consequences and confessions are the result. 
The Queen, the Regent, the Warrior
Xena leaves Gabrielle in the care of the amazons, only to have Ephiny and Gabby fall in love. Xena does return and chaos and secret confessions follow.
The Contest
Ares and Aphrodite battle over Xena's spirit. 
Loss of Virginity
Romantic musings from one of our gals. 
Moment of Truth
Gabrielle does anything it takes to keep Xena out of a battle that's foretold to take the warrior princess' life. 
Thank the Gods For Henbane
At an Amazon festival Gabrielle has one too many henbane brownies, which results in a funny and sexy night for Xena. 
As It Should Be
The Queen gets taken by the Warrior Princess at the Amazon Village.
Family Ties
Xena takes Gabrielle back to home to spend a little time with the 'in-laws'. 
Dueling Cousins
Xena's look-alike cousin, Sappho, has always been competitive, but now the Tenth Muse wants the ultimate prize - Gabrielle. 
The End
Alternate 'demise' of Xena and Gabrielle based on the Season Four crucifixion. 
Truth or Dare
Sexy romp between Callisto and Gabrielle set during 'A Necessary Evil' 
November 29th, 1942
A little romance fic between Janice and Mel. 
Inside Outside
Set after the events of 'A Family Affair', it's a scene told through the eyes of four people - Gabrielle's Father, Mother, Gabrielle herself and Xena.
Something To Talk About
Xena and Gabrielle's friends are all surprised that the pair aren't lovers so they consider why not.
Henbane, Horsenappings and Other Obstacles
A 'murphy's law' comedy where everything that can go wrong for Xena and Gabby, but, of course, they still end up saving the day.
All That Matters
During Gabrielle's birthday party in' Takes One To Know One', Xena reflects on her love for the bard.  
Warlord
What if Gabrielle was actually the one behind all the folks who influenced Xena's journey toward good? 
Have Yourself a Merry Little Solstice
A little Winter Solstice tale that's available in general (not lovers) and alternative (lovers). .
Little Moments: A Day in the Desert
A tale told through the eyes of Janice and then Mel while on a dig.  
Candy or Chaos
'Classic Xena' general Halloween story with Xena and Gabby return for the Potiedaia Harvest Festival.
Conquering Heroine
Gabrielle is the Conqueror in this piece. How exactly? Give it a read and find out. 
Watching and Waiting
Set after FIN II, Xena watches from afar as Gabrielle moves on with her life. 
1971
Police Office Carol and Protestor Erin clash, but find they're fighting for the same things. A short story based on my novel, 'One Belief Away'. 
March 26, 1943
Sequel to November 29, 1942. This time it's Janice's birthday and Mel has some sexy plans for her lover. 
The 10th Muse
In this traditional subtext story that's part French farce; part musical, Gabrielle has a Doppelganger, the Poetess Sappho. It's up to Gabby, Xena and Sappho's friend Aphrodite to guard Sappho during the 10th Muse Competition...Of course they must also try to repair Sappho's damaged relationship with her lover (a woman, and bandmate, who's the spitting image of Xena).

TitleConquering Heroine - Part 4 of 5

Author: CN Winters and Amy

Fandom: Xena Fanfiction, Xena fanfic, Xena fan fiction, Xena and Gabrielle fanfiction, Xena fiction

Rating: NC-17

Disclaimers: No, this isn't about someone overcoming a drug habit. <G> Although I wish I could say Xena and Gabby are ours, they are not. They belong to MCA/Universal last we heard. This story however is ours and ours alone. There's a lot of violence, but not too graphic. Alt sex, you bet! If you are too young, read no further. If you live some place where this may not be kosher, read no further. However, if you are open-minded, old enough and live in a progressive neighborhood . . .enjoy! Nothing poetic is ourís, belongs to unknown author.

Author Note: Thanks to Kamouraskan, Jlynn, Mary and the Bardic Circle for the beta.

Synopsis: Ares creates a conqueror world where Gabrielle is the ruthless dictator, Najara is her consort and Ephiny as her second in command. It's up to Xena to find a way to break the spell and get her Gabby 'home'. 

Feedback: Email the author's at CNWinters71@yahoo.com or MurphyCG881@aol.com

Conquering Heroine - Part 4 of 5

Chapter 9

I heard Callisto screeching to my right, slicing through any Roman in reach. Her eyes were deadly, only looking forward towards Gabrielle. My own lack of focus got me on the receiving end of a slash on my left arm and one pissed off Conqueror. I watched as Gabrielle eased her blade out of the soldier who had been about to take me out.

"Get your mind in the battle, Xena!" she said through clenched teeth, kicking the dead man off his horse and moving to her next target.

Ephiny caught up to us as we flanked Gabrielle, galloping full out with arrows and catapults flying above. It was complete and utter chaos and I felt like my heart was going to beat out of my chest.

I glanced toward the top of the hill where Caesar was sneering. He waved his hand and half the hilltop was filled with his archers.

'Son of a Bacchae!' I said to myself. Weíre all sitting ducks. "Archers!" I screamed out loud.

That got Gabrielle's attention. She just glanced up and laughed and took down the Roman she was engaging.

I watched as she puts two fingers in her mouth and let out an ear-ringing whistle that cut through the catapults projectiles flying over our heads.

Dropping down from the trees came a group of Amazon Warriors, making quick disposal of Caesar's archers. I turned toward Caesar. He had a look I've never seen before. I imagined the same expression shown on his face at his assassination. He completely lost all composure.

"Conqueror!!!!!!!!!" he screamed and started to run toward Gabrielle, leaving his men to fend off the amazons themselves.

Time seemed to be moving eerily, slowly. My head turned to Gabrielle and I watched as she jumped off of her horse, taking a soldierís head off in the process. She was covered in blood with an ice-cold grin on her face. A look of hatred...

Ephiny was engaging Brutus on the ground. The air was thick with the smells of smoke and blood and each catapult strike made my nerves jump. I turned my attention as Pompey decided to jump off his mount, tackling me to the ground.

'This is madness, this is madness.' Went over and over in my head, my demons taunting me. Pompey had me down his blade pressing into my neck, but I was fighting my thoughts more than him. 'Why should I fight this? This world is better for Gabrielle.' My demons reasoned.

'She's succeeding where you failed. She will win against Caesar when you were too weak to.' Flashing before my eyes were the visions of seeing Gabrielle enjoying kill after kill, and after each one the light in her eyes was dimming with each lost life. Then I saw my Gabrielle, full of wonder and life. The young woman who would ask me how the stars got into the sky. The woman who tried to find the good in any person. The woman who believed it me and never once, even in the darkest time ever gave up on me. Now that person was full of hatred. A second later I there was another flash.

It begins very small,
Seems like nothing much at all.
Just a germ, just a speck, just a grain.
But the seed has been sewn,
And before you know it's grown,
It has spread through your life like a stain.

And its power will strangle your love and your joy.
And its hunger consumes-- for it lives to destroy!

"Hatred, Gabrielle, that's what we're fighting -- hatred."

 

'No, I'll never quit. I'll never give up.' I told my demons and I felt that beast inside me awaken. I looked Pompey right into his eyes while forcing the blade with ease from my throat.

"NOOOO!" I screamed and threw him off and flipped up. I blocked a blow to my right, then left, then a overhead strike. We locked blades and he pulled a dagger from his belt. Grabbing his wrist I pinned him in a stare, squeezing and twisting. He screamed as his wrist gave, dropping the dagger. I brought a knee up between his legs. He let another scream loose, lowering his sword enough for me to knock it down while I plunged mine into his chest.

Then I knelt down, ducking a head shot from behind, twisting enough to stick Pompey's dagger in the Roman stomach. By the time I was done, there were six dead men laid at my feet.

I looked towards Gabrielle and my chin nearly dropped. She was engaging Caesar. He might have had more power, but Gabrielle was almost as strong. To her advantage she was quicker, with more skill. She blocked a swipe at her left, kicked out and took his right knee. He backed up enough so she could drive in her blade up the hilt in his shocked body.

'By The Gods. She killed him. Gabrielle conquered Caesar.

She slowly pulled her blade out and he crumpled at her feet. She let out a great battle cry, raising her blade over head. The troops rallied with her, but then I noticed the only Roman who seemed to be alive still was Brutus. Ephiny finished hogtying him, then joined in the cheer.

I stood there in a sea of dead Romans like a statue.

"Good battle Xena." Ephiny slapped me on the back and smiled. We both looked up to the hilltop where Gabrielle was still cheering. Right then my world slowed to a halt once more as Ephiny and I both saw the flash of blonde charging from behind Gabrielle and heard a scream that would break a ear drum.

"GABRIELLEEEEEE!!!!!!" I screamed.

She stopped her cry and looked calmly at me, but didn't even flinch as she turned around to face Callisto. Ephiny and I were running full out, but there was no way we could stop it. What was more frightening was that Gabrielle refused to take a defensive stance. I watched as Joxer kept his promise. He jumped out trying to protect his Conqueror and Callisto sliced right through him like he wasn't there. Gabrielle still didn't move.

"Why isnít she moving?" Ephiny asked breathlessly as we raced side by side.

"Guilt?" I whispered. Feeling guilty is probably one of the worst emotions I've felt in my life. It can make you do foolish things because you think it's for the best, that it will end any pain. In reality it causes different sets of guilt and pain and it's usually the person you love the most that pays for that mistake.

"Letting justice be served," I said aloud.

Callisto reached her target, and raised the sword that would split Gabrielle in half. Gabrielle finally drew her sword, deflecting the blow. She stood her ground as Callisto circled her until Ephiny and I arrived.

"Stand your ground, warriors." Gabrielle said calmly, holding her sword to her side.

Callisto laughed. "Oh, the good Conqueror. What happened to you? One day you just decided to be a kind ruler?" She continued to circle.

"Something like that." Gabrielle let her shoulders drop.

"And all the shattered people your soldiers left behind are now supposed to cheer you, is that it?" I remembered this conversation, one of many dealing with Callisto. A time I almost lost Gabrielle to darkness.

"From here on out all I want on my hands is Callistoís blood, Xena."

"Gabrielle, leave Callisto to me. You need time to mourn." Truth was, I was scared, she had that look I did was Lyceus was killed.

"I have the rest of my life to mourn. I want to see her dead, Xena!" The look she gave made me shudder.

" I wonít help you destroy all the ideals that you live by."

"My ideals were a lie. I thought love was the strongest power on Earth. What a fool. Love is helpless in the face of cruelty, Xena."

"Gabrielle, if youíre taken over by hatred, Callisto wins."

"Xena, wake up and look around you! The little innocent Gabrielle is dead, and thereís no getting her back. Just teach me how to use a sword, so, at least I stand a fighting chance. Please."

I could never say no to her.

"OK. Again. Again. Again! Iím gonna kill her. Again! Teach me. Teach me! Teach me. Again. Again! Teach me how to kill her, Xena. Iím gonna cut her open and watch her bleed. Iím gonna kill her, Xena! Teach me how to kill her!."

I felt at that moment like something was squeezing my heart, and it was the first time in my life I prayed to any God.

"If anyoneís listening you know, Iím not much for praying. But I donít know what else to do. I was ready to give up once, and.. and Gabrielle came into my life. Please donít let that light that shines out of her face go out. I couldnít stand the darkness that would follow."

I was brought out of my memory by Gabrielleís voice speaking to Callisto.

"What happened to you was terrible. It was my fault and I'm sorry-."

She didn't let Gabrielle finish her sentence.

"Oh... well! That makes all the difference. And now, we can be the best of friends." She spits at Gabrielle's feet. "Thatís what I think of your apology." She attacked, but as Gabrielle blocked each blow, Callisto becomes more frustrated. "Fight me Conqueror! Iím not afraid to die, if thatís what youíre worried about. What about you, Conqueror? How would you feel to see your creation die by your hands, hmm?"

I could feel Gabrielleís will cracking, so I spoke. "Donít listen to her, Gabrielle. You canít torture yourself forever for what sheís become."

Callisto gave me a sickening smile. "No, of course not. No, itís not her fault that I dream every night of my motherís screams coming from my burning home! You tell me Conqueror, do you sleep well at night?!"

Listening to Callisto recite her conversations with me to Gabrielle suddenly became too much. I felt my entire body shake and beads of sweat form on my brow. My voice was lost.

"No, I donít." Gabrielleís voice was low and soft.

"It wasn't the Conquerorís fault, you bitch." Ephiny charged, but I didn't have time to stop her. Gabrielle turned to look at her friend.

"I said stand your ground!"

Callisto took advantage and swung down, slicing Gabrielle's back.

"No!" Ephiny and I both moved to go to her.

"Stand your ground or you'll both be fighting me instead!" she managed through clenched teeth. We both stopped in our tracks, as Gabrielle straightened up to face Callisto again. By this time a group of soldiers began to circle us, watching the display.

"They may have been your men, but the blood is on your hands!" Callisto's attacked again.

Each word Callisto spoke, cut more into Gabrielle then her sword ever could. I winced each time at those very same words when they were spoken to me. Gabrielle deflected another blow and spoke.

"You're right, it was my fault. I was drunk half the time and ignored the signs of the uprising in my forces. By the time I sobered up and caught on, the damage was done." Gabrielle's eyes held unshed tears.

"I donít want reasons Conqueror. I want your head!" Callisto countered as she swung. Almost on instinct Gabrielle deflected the blow. The strike wasnít powerful. There was no advance within it, simply deflection. The group listened closely as Gabrielleís voice got very small.

"We rode for days," she began as the two women continued to circle each other. "I spent hours trying to catch up to those bastards, each and every town they touched..." She choked a bit, but kept her eyes on Callisto. "Each town was worse then the last one we tried to salvage. I might have a reputation of being cold hearted, but never could I allow the torture of innocents. A time long ago my family was subjected to this type of torture, and I swore, I would not allow that to happen to anyone else." All of us there were at a loss for words.

Gabrielle threw her sword down and held her arms out to the side. "If my death brings you peace, then so be it."

I eyed Callisto. "If she takes a step near you Gabrielle, I'll strike her down myself," I said.

Gabrielle didnít pay attention to my words. She only spoke to Callisto. "A very wise friend by the name of Lao Ma once told me the only way to stop violence was through love and forgiveness. Iím willing to forgive you for this sin and allow you to leave with your life. But if you step foot in my kingdom again... Youíre a dead woman."

"But she doesnít understand love and forgiveness. She wonít stop until-" My words were interrupted.

"Enough of this sickening display of valor." Callisto was looking at me as her chin trembled. I was stunned. This was the first display of any emotion other than anger I'd seen her give. Gabrielleís words had weakened her for a moment. We all stood there waiting to see what would happen. I thought for sure she would regroup and attack.

"I refuse to make you a martyr, Conqueror." Much to our surprise, she threw her sword on the ground as well. "See? You made a monster with integrity. And Iím touched you find yourself so noble, but I do know the truth. Youíre a beast! But I wonít make you a hero by taking your life." She flipped onto a nearby horse and took off, tears staining her face.

We all just watched her leave, but my hearing picked up Gabrielle saying in less then a whisper. "Sometimes I really hate playing Conqueror."

Gabrielle gave a deep sigh and picked up her sword. She broke the tension by shouting orders to us. "Ephiny? Have the men get this battlefield cleaned up. Have my healers tend our wounded and bring Caesar to the dungeon and Brutus to my tent."

Ephiny and I looked at each other, confused. "Caesar?" Ephiny asked.

"I didnít kill him," Gabrielle answered. "I have plans for him. If he lives through the night that is," she says in afterthought. "Send messengers to find out how the Centaurs and Lao Ma are."

Ephiny nodded with a salute before leaving.

"Gabrielle, let me look at the wound on your back."

She raised an eyebrow at me. "You a healer too, Xena?"

I nodded.

"My, my. We have many skills."

I almost tripped when she said that. We got to her tent and she started to take her armor off. I found myself rushing over to help her. It was a reverse case of deja vu. How many times did Gabrielle do the same for me all these years?

"It's not bad," she added. "Just nicked my shoulder. Armor took the worst of it." She sounded very tired. When I removed the armor and the shirt underneath the sight before me stopped my efforts for a moment. Gabrielle was scarred badly by a whip. I realize it must have been from the attack on her village. I wanted to reach out and touch them, tell her I was sorry for all her pain, but I quickly pulled myself together.

"Still going to need a few stitches," I said trying to stay focused on the current wound.

I looked around for a kit.

"Enjoy the battle, Xena? Told you Caesar wasn't much to worry about." I stayed quiet and tended to her wound. Part of me was still in shock that she won against him, and another part was in awe. Most of me was worried about how quickly Gabrielle gave into guilt.

"My town was attacked by your men also." I felt her stiffen. "But I know it wasn't your fault and you helped whoever you could. You even brought those men to justice."

"My justice, Xena." She turned her head to glance at me. "I killed every last one of them."

"I don't blame you, Gabrielle. Callisto is so blinded by her hate that it tainted her judgment." I reasoned.

"I was in her shoes at one time and I sought justice. Why should she not have that right?" she countered.

"You went after the people who hurt you, Callisto is not-."

"I was responsible for those men, Xena. They were my men!" One thing hadnít changed; she was still very stubborn in this world.

"Conqueror?" Gabrielle put her shirt back on when Ephiny walked in with a tied Brutus.

"What's the word, Regent?"

"Tyldus reports things went well. No deaths, a few injured. Melosa reports we lost three sisters. Lao Maís advance party reports all is quiet and she should be here for the celebration tonight."

"Very good." Gabrielle nodded. "Our sisters fought nobly, so letís make sure that the after life knows it. Make sure they have royal pyres and see that a healer tends to Tyldus' men." Ephiny bows, leaving Brutus standing there.

"Now I have to decide what to do with you, Brutus." I stood there like a good royal guard and watched Gabrielle work. She was making the poor man squirm.

"Conqueror? Maybe we can come up with some type of arrangement?" He was very nervous. Gabrielle just raised an eyebrow and looked deeply into his eyes.

"What would you have to offer? Rome?" She looked rather amused.

"An alliance." He stuck his chest out, but sucked it back in at Gabrielleís laughter.

"Alliance, you say? HmmÖ since you are on my land and the only Roman left standing, I find that offer rather... intriguing."

"There are still Roman forces under Anthony's control. I could go back and plead your side, discourage anymore Roman invasions."

Brutus was always a rather weak man.

"All right Brutus, but under one condition." He took a sigh of relief and I looked at her like she lost her mind. "You sign your name to this scroll, stating what you just said." His eyes widened. "Let's just say I had a feeling this would be your offer and took liberty in having two decree drawn up - one for Greece and one for Rome. Sign this right now, then stamp your ringís seal at the bottom."

Then her eyes made me shudder.

She set the scrolls down and held a quill out. He wasted no time in signing and dipping his ring into the wax to show his Roman seal. Gabrielle smiled while rolling up the scrolls. "Well done, and now for my part. Ephiny?" A blonde head peeked in.

With a mighty swing of Gabrielleís sword Brutusí head came clear off his body. My gasp caught in my throat as the blood covered the tent walls and the Conqueror. I sat stunned for a moment, but I soon noticed that Ephiny seemed unaffected. She didnít even flinch. Walking inside, she took a position next to Brutusí slain body. "See that our new Ďfriendí makes it safely to Rome would you?" Gabrielle added. She swung again. This time separating Brutus hand from his body.

"What in Tartarus are you doing?" I implored.

"Dividing and Conquering, Xena." She paused and faced me with a flash of mischievous green eyes. "Literally," she chuckled looking at Brutus decapitated body. She handed me the scroll as Ephiny began to pull his corpse from the tent.

"I assume he fell for it?" The Regent smiled.

"Hook, line, and sinker."

I unrolled one of the scroll and read, then I looked up at them both. I must have looked like an idiot with my mouth hanging open. The scroll said that he had sided with Greece and turned his back on Rome to escape persecution. In other words, Gabrielle managed to label Brutus as a traitor to Rome. I was speechless.

"Is Mark Anthony still with Cleopatra?" Gabrielle inquired.

"Yep, and she's showing him a grand time on the Nile like you asked."

I watched the two of them interact. Gabrielle tossed Ephiny Brutusí hand. Ephiny too seemed the least bit phased. I, however, felt the need to vomit.

"Good. Send a messenger to Egypt with one of the scrolls along with his ring finger. Send the other scroll to Rome with his head. As for the rest of him... do what ever you want, but get it out of here. " Gabrielle turned at me now, but my mind was still reeling from what I witnessed moments before. She murdered Brutus. Not in the heat of battle, but in cold blood as a way of betrayal. I forced my eyes to meet hers. "Something the matter?" she asked, sensing my discomfort.

"No, my Conqueror," I answered quickly.

"Youíre lying."

Should I confess or try to continue with the charade? My Gabrielle was always smart, but this one was intuitive beyond belief. "Iím sorry, but I just didnít expect you to do that."

"And what should I have done, Xena?"

"Kept your word."

I regretted the sentence as soon as it left my lips. She would probably take my head off next.

"Certainly." She grinned. She began to stroll through the tent as she continued. "I let him go. Then he returns to Rome. He double crosses me and returns with even more men for the next battle. As a result, more of my men die and I risk the chance of Rome overtaking Greece."

"I hadnít considered that," I confessed.

"Was it heartless? Yes. Was it underhanded? Absolutely. Will it protect this empire? Without a doubt." Gabrielle leans on the desk across from me folder her arms under her chest. "I will do what I need to ensure Greeceís survival. This is war. What did you expect? Glamour? There are no good choices here, Xena. Only lesser degrees of evil."

I was so blinded by my lust for battle and survival against the horde I said the same words to her. But I also realized in an instant that I lost a part of myself that weekend. And it was Gabrielle that pulled me back from a decent into darkness. Would I have the power to do the same for her? She might have won the battle, but I could see that Gabrielle was lost.

"Look Xena. Hereís the plan. Only Anthony remains now. The Senate will turn on each other and Roman against Roman is much better than Greek against Roman. We just sit back and watch Rome destroy itself from inner conflict and lack of leadership. The best won battles are the ones you never have to fight yourself."

There truly is a method to her madness and more now than ever I was confused. This Gabrielle had her demons, but she was an effective leader. She was doing her best to provide for her people. Should I take her away from all this? Was Ares right? Is this Gabrielle better than the other? Our enemies are slain. Her daughter is alive. Many of our friends are alive. My mother is here too. But whatís the trade off? Thereís no Lila or Sara. Thereís no Virgil. Joxerís life in this world is now gone. As for Najara, sheís Gabrielleís consort. Then thereís Evie. She doesnít exist in this world. Neither does Ďmy bardí. And although she was an effective leader, Gabrielleís soul was tortured far worse than the scars that my Gabrielle had endured. I was wondering what action I should take when I heard Gabrielle speak to again, pulling me from my thoughts.

"Now that the field is being cleared and the wounded and dead tended, we might as well check a few last things and head back for the celebration."

Ephiny and I followed her back out.

"Soldiers of Greece!" Everyone there froze at the sound of her voice and listened. "You fought well today, you fought for freedom and won. Now our generations shall reap this benefit. You all should be proud." Roars of cheers went up. "And nowÖ we shall go home to a huge feast!" More cheers as we continued to follow Gabrielle.

She went to each and every face that was there and gave them a pat of thanks for their hard work. I watched as she showed compassion to the wounded and held a dying Amazon. Then she went and studied each and every soldier she lost to make sure she never forgot their faces.

The last body she uncovered was Joxerís. There is where a bit of her mask fell and a tear slipped down her face.

"Ephiny? Make sure his pyre has honors and that his family is taken care of. Anything they want, they can have." She sniffled, and put a dinar in his hand. "Make sure Charron gives you a smooth ride, my friend."

As Gabrielle walked away I found myself unable to move. I looked at Joxerís expressionless face. I felt an inadequacy. I was unable to save him in this life as I was in the other. And I felt myself mourning all over again. As I did, I wondered how much more mourning would I do before all of this ended one way or another. I turned around to see Gabrielle getting ready to lead Argo away and I proceeded up the hill double time to join her.

It was early evening by the time we reached home and the scouts must have sounded our arrival. Torches lit the path to the very happy citizens who decorated our return with rose petals. No one said a word other then nodding occasionally at the crowd. The aroma coming from the castle made my own stomach grumble. The cooks were getting ready for the big feast. I smiled when I remembered that my mother was one of them. Joxer was now gone in this life, but my mother still remained. We got our horses stabled, and I realized I was quite tired, my adrenaline wearing down.

"Conqueror?" Ephiny approached. "I think before the feast we should deal with the soldiers." She smirked.

"Ahh yes, have them relieve themselves and meet tonight for the feast. Make sure they know to bathe too." Ephiny gave the orders, much to the menís pleasure.

"Good battle, Xena." Ephiny nodded to me. I bowed my head in respect.

"Conqueror?"

The voice was a foreign one to our circle, but I recognized it just the same.

"Yes, my consort?" Gabrielle sighed as she turned to face Najara.

As I also turned, the nutís eyes were on me and not Gabrielle. But I refused to look away. Realizing that she couldnít win the staring contest, she turned back to Gabrielle.

"I have a bath drawn and waiting for you, love."

She walked over, giving Gabrielle a kiss that was supposed to be on the lips, but Gabrielle turned her head and the kiss hit her cheek instead. Najara wasn't happy and her stare landed back on me. Gabrielle cleared her throat. "See you tonight, ladies."

It made me sick seeing Gabrielle led off by her.

"She's a real head case, isn't she?" Ephiny asked, whispering up to me.

"Other than the fact she has little voice telling her what to do? No."

Ephiny chuckled at my equation, but Iím still unable to pull my eyes away from the leaving pair.

"Will you be enjoying the bordello, Xena?"

My surprise forced me to turn and face her. "You have a bordello here?"

"Absolutely. You know how Gabrielle feels about rape, and after battle the men all go through battle lust, so this is sort of a solution. Youíre welcome to partake if you like." Oh Gods, what if Gabrielle has my battle lust? The thought of her with that... Well, that put any fire in my loins out.

"No, I'm rather tired and I just want to wash up."

She patted me on my back. "Then I'll see you tonight. It'll be a grand affair."

I watched her retreating form.

It felt good to have some quiet time. My nerves were shot and my soul was shaking, I was a mess inside. Right now more then anything, what was bothering me was the idea of Gabrielle with Najara. I felt more and more like I was losing this battle for my bard. I sat in my bath water and cried, crying more out of frustration then anything else. I donít know how long I sat there, but the water had become cold. I ducked my head back, wetting my hair, when a knock at my door brought me out of my misery. It was one of Gabrielle's servants.

"Yes?"

"The Conqueror wishes your presence, maíam?" she squeaked.

"I'll be right there." I dried quickly and dressed, my heart beating fast again. I stood outside her chamber door for what seemed like an eternity.

"You going to stand out there forever, Xena, or come in?" I heard her chuckle through the door. I cracked her door open, not knowing what to expect.

"You wanted to see me?" My mind was thinking she would be raging with lust.

'Gods, what if she wants me to watch her and thatÖ!?!'

But what I found was completely the opposite. She was standing by the window with a glass of wine looking into the evening sky, just starting to fill with stars and the setting sun. I noticed that on her table she had a mixture of scrolls scattered all around.

"Something wrong Xena?" She smiled.

"No, no. I just..." I was a babbling fool.

 

"You thought I would be fucking my wife senseless?"

No words. I just nodded with a guilty smirk.

"I noticed you didnít go to the bordello," she countered.

"Thereís nothing there I want," I answered honestly.

"After a battle the last thing I want is sex, strange as it might sound. To me, sex is a beautiful act and should not be tainted by battle."

"No disrespect, your Majesty, but Iím not sure if it was a beautiful act that took place between us in the woods the other night."

She smiled and motioned her glass to me in a toast. "As they say in Gaul, touchť."

"If you agree with me, Conqueror, what would you call it?"

"You mean the other nightÖin the woods?"

I simply nodded.

"Lust at its finest, Xena. Not sex. Not love. Just carnal ĎI want you. You want me. Letís get it oní lust. Be honest Xena. You felt it."

"It wasnít what I hoped for."

"Are you saying you didnít enjoy it?" Gabrielle chuckled.

I gave a bashful grin. "Iím not saying that."

She handed me some wine and I gulped it down. "Well, after a battle I try to find peace, some type of comfort. So I usually read some of Sappho's works or look at the stars and dream." She blushed. "I know. It's sillyÖ especially since I'm expected to have the raging limbo with cravings for bondage, but..." I interrupted her.

"Far from it, in fact, I think it's wonderful, Gabrielle." The eyes I was looking into were my bardís.

"So how do you handle the battle lust, Xena?" She sounded very small.

"Sex usually, but today I wasn't in the mood." I just wanted this subject to drop. "So what do you need of me? Not that I'm complaining."

She looked out the window. "I just wanted to see you."

You know that feeling in your heart the first time the person you love says the words? That giddy thumping? I swear if she didnít think I was totally gone, I would have back flipped through the room. She wanted to be with me and not the nutball! I set my glass down and walked to her.

"I'm glad."

She looked at me, leaning in and kissed me softly before looking back at the night sky. "You see that, Xena?" I looked up to where she was pointing. "It looks like a big dipper."

"A dipper?" I smiled at the memory, in reverse, but still sweet.

"Yeah, you know like one of those cups that you draw water out of a bucket?" We both looked back up.

"It looks, it looks like a bear to me." My voice was on the husky side.

"A bear?" She looked at me like I lost my mind.

 

"Yeah." I countered.

"How do you get a bear?" I was really amusing her.

I moved behind her and began to point as whispered in her ear Ė my breath tickling her lobe. "Look at it. Look, thereís the body. See? The little ears, and tailÖ" She laughed softly at me.

"If you say so, Xena." We both chuckled now before a quiet settled over us and our stargazing. If I was going to teach Gabrielle the way she taught me, now had to be the time.

"You know one of the wonderful things about life Gabrielle?"

"Hmm?"

"Times like right now where two people can see the same thing, but find something totally different in it. But in the end, both can be just as beautiful. Life is always our perceptions more than the actual incidents that happen."

"Is that so?"

"Absolutely."

"Explain," she says with a smile as she turned to face me.

"Well I could kiss you right now. I could make another declaration," I begin as my fingertips run her jaw line. "It would be a wonderful event. But in the end how you perceive my actions are what matter most. I could even raise another point too if I dare."

"Letís hear it."

"Well from my perspective I find it quite interesting and flattering that you're standing at your balcony sharing this beautiful sky with me instead of your consort. Iím honored and Iím hopeful. So although you deny that thereís nothing more than ĎLetís get it oní lust here, I have to assume itís something more, something deeper. So tell me Gabrielle, conqueror of my heart, whatís your perception of me?"

She fell silent and turned to look out the window. I took time just to look at her. She was in her Royal gown and when the wind caught her hair just right, my breath was taken from me. This Gabrielle looked older and regal, but with more lines around her eyes. Regardless, she was still beautiful.

"At times I think youíre a crazy woman with a death wish." She grinned playfully. "At other times, someone who doesnít know what sheís asking herself to get into. You saw what Iím capable of today. So I wonder why youíre still here?"

"Iím yours. I follow your orders and I was summonsed here."

"I thought thatís what you would say." She turned back toward the window and I knew I had to recover.

"However," I continued. "When I got my orders to join you, I rushed here as quickly as I could. I wanted to see you again despite any orders."

A long silence passed between us.

"I'm sorry if my actions with Brutus disappointed you, Xena." The confession surprised me.

"I won't lie, Gabrielle, you did shock me today." Though it was more like she scared me half to death.

"Xena, I didn't get to be the Conqueror of the known world by being kind."

"I know that. I-."

"Do you?" she interrupted me. "I have to be ruthless. Kill first, before my enemy can kill me. Too many lives depend on me, Xena." She walked from the window to the desk, pouring herself more wine.

"What about your soul?"

She stopped in mid drink. "A part of that dies each timeÖ to where I doubt I have one any longer. But this is the life I chose." She finished that glass and started on another. "I chose to let hatred and revenge take my life and now I pay the piper with my soul."

"Gods, Gabrielle" I hung my head, trying to control my emotion.

"Save your tears or pity, Xena. A lot of times I enjoy the ruthlessness." She gulped down another glass and moved to the door. "Now we have a party to go to." She exited and I began to follow when I got that familiar sick feeling that stopped me cold.

Chapter 10

"I was wondering when you would pay me a visit next."

"I'm here for the celebration."

I turned towards a very happy War God, but said nothing. "Oh Xena, more tears? If I didnít know better, I would swear youíre turning into the bard, the lowly sidekick. Even sounding like her. Tsk, Tsk, such a show of utter weakness is so unbecoming of the great Warrior Princess." He circled me and sat on the desk; I still hadnít said a word.

"Come on now, Xena, I think you know deep down Gabrielle is better off in this universe. She has such power to change the world, make it better. After all isnít that what youíve both been fighting for all along?" He snapped his finger acting like he was hunting for the right word. "The greater good?" he laughed, standing behind me now.

"Sheís a great ruler, just and true." He was so close to me, I could feel his breath in my ear. "Sheís managed to take out any threat towards mankind. Caesarís the latest conquest." He wrapped his arms around my waist. "You have any idea what sheís having done to him right this moment? Hmm, Xena?" I shuddered at his voice dropped. "Torture is a too kind word for it. She sure can make my blood pump." He let loose an animalistic sound and swiveled to face me.

"For the grand finale, heíll be the main attraction at the party. I think youíll enjoy what she has planned for him." I just raised my eyebrow. He crossed his arms in front of himself and looked me over. He sighed, sort of frustrated at me for not giving into his torment. "Iíve got a deal for you, Xena. Letís just say even now I have a small soft spot for ya."

I smirked at that. "And what would that be, Ares?"

"Since youíll never win Gabrielle, I thought youíd be a better choice as her partner then Najara. Frankly between you and me, her and her one too many voices are freaky even for me." He smiled, waiting for my reply, but it was my turn to smirk and circle him. "I thought she was a better choice for Gabrielle? Since she did kick my ass that one time."

I tapped my chin. "Since Iíve been in this Gods forsaken world you created, Iíve been doing nothing more then thinking and youíre right about one thing so far."

He raised an eyebrow at me.

"Here I do sound like Gabrielle, because in the other world she was my voice of reason. Breaking through each and every torturous demon I had. She never gave up on me even though I gave her many reasons too. And I bet, in fact I knowÖshe wept for my soul many times. I caught her doing it when she thought I wasnít around." I turned my back to him and looked out the window.

"At first I hated this feeling. I did feel weak. Being in Gabrielleís shoes now, I know she probably felt the same way." I fell silent and thought about it. How many times did my bard hear she was my weakness? I turned towards him. "You know what Iíve come to realize Ares? Me being able to comfort, or yes, even cry for Gabrielleís soul, means Iíve changed. I no longer believe Iím this unfeeling monster you helped created years ago." My hearing picked up him grinding his teeth.

"So I have to thank you for that, Ares. Which also means if I can learn a lesson in this world, so can Gabrielle. Isnít that why you made me this offer?" I gave him a huge grin.

"Gabrielle still has her soul and she just needs to have someone believe in her just like I did back then. And that thought is making you quake in your leathers, isnít it?" My stare went icy as well as my voice. This time he shuddered as I practically stalked up to him like a wild cat giving him a peck on the cheek.

"Thanks, but no thanks, Ares." I walked out the door, but not before hearing cursing and lighting bolts crashing in the room.

ĎGods, that felt good.í I whispered, making my way to the gala. I froze in my tracks as I saw Gabrielle talking with Lao Ma. Memories flooded my mind.

"Fill yourself with desire and see only illusion. Empty yourself of desire and

understand the great mystery of things, Xena."

I was so blind back then; the ignorance of youth. One of a very few times in my life someone cared and I was too filled with hatred to see.

"Why would you help me?" I spat and she just smiles at me.

"I have been blessed or cursed with the ability to see into the souls of others. You don't know it yet, Xena, but you're a remarkable woman capable of greatness."

I didn't know what to feel.

That was the moment. I could've done it right there. I could've just let go and buried all my hatred forever. That was my chance and I blew it, but if I didnít follow the path I did, I would never have met Gabrielle.

"Xena?"

"OhÖ wha?" I stumbled out of my musing to an amused Conqueror and a puzzled Lao Ma.

"Are you feeling well, Warrior?"

Sigh. This was like the tenth time sheíd caught me when my guard was down. "No Conqueror, you just caught me in heavy thought."

She chuckled. "Apparently so. I would like you to meet the great Lao Ma from Chin."

Seeing Lao Ma again after all these moons, I didnít know if I should laugh or cry. Itís difficult seeing your first love after all those years. Itís even more difficult when she has no memory of you. As usual, she said nothing at first. I knew she was looking into my soul as she looked into my eyes. I found myself giving a bow of respect, which she returned.

"Lao Ma, this is Xena," Gabrielle continued. "One of my newest guards. Sheís quite the warrior. She showed incredible courage and spirit today."

Lao Ma paused a moment. "Itís wonderful to meet of woman of such nobility as yourself Xena. Youíve had some difficult journeys I feel."

"Yes I have," I told her honestly.

"But you are finding your peace slowly. That is very commendable." I watched Lao Ma turn to Gabrielle. "Now if only her Highness could be as fortunate."

"Iím as settled as Iíll ever be." Gabrielle grinned.

"I think a journey east would do you well, Conqueror. Perhaps a vacation of the body would help the mind."

"Iíve been east, Lao Ma. You know that."

"Ah yes, but you havenít been to all the places you could reach."

Gabrielle and I both knew that Lao Ma wasnít talking about geography. Those places are deep within Gabrielle and I speculated that Lao Ma tried to show Gabrielle and failed as she did with me. However, Gabrielle was smart enough not to make the mistake I did when I left Lao Maís side. Gabrielle was not an enemy of Lao Ma. I would have enjoyed engaging Lao Ma in conversation a bit longer. At least until the blonde psycho appeared at Gabrielleís shoulder.

"Lao Ma," Najara began. "Itís wonderful to see you. Itís been quite some time."

"Yes, it has." Lao Ma replied.

Thereís something odd about Lao Maís appearance. Itís almost as if her airy demeanor stiffened when Najara arrived. Lao Ma always did have the sight. I wondered what Lao Maís interpretation of Najara could be. I was sure by the look of her body language at this moment it wasnít too favorable, but she was masking it well.

I spotted Ephiny entering the hall with Solari on her arm. Good. The perfect escape.

"If youíll excuse me your majesty I would like to have a word with your Regent about the battle today," I announced.

"By all means," Gabrielle nodded.

I took Lao Maís hand and offered a gentle kiss. "Pleasure to meet you," I said respectfully.

"Likewise, Xena," she answered politely.

I left them to their conversation and approached Ephiny. She wore a smile as she saw me draw near. Solari also had a grin for me. My two old friends. Alive. I had to admit that this life certainly had its advantages.

"May I have a word with you in private, my Regent? It wonít be, but a minute."

I hope I hadnít offended Solari, but this conversation was best left to only Ephinyís ears at the moment.

"Certainly," Solari offered. "Iíll see to our drinks." Ephiny gave Solari a light peck on the cheek before she left.

"So whatís on your mind, Xena?"

"The Consort, actually," I began.

"The Consort?" The surprise in her voice showed on her face as well. I found myself grinning as her smile became very sly.

"Nothing sexual, my Regent. I assure you."

"What about the Consort?"

"Before the battle I mentioned something about Callisto?"

"Which proved to be right. You fear the Consort is a threat to the Conqueror too?" Ephiny asked.

"I have no physical proof, but I believe that Callisto was working with Najara."

"But why would the Consort harm the Warrior Queen?"

I shrugged. "Maybe the voices in her head are telling her to do it."

"We all have voices in our head, Xena," Ephiny countered.

"Yes, but they donít go around telling us Ďthe futureí and we donít Ďprayí to those voices. We use them as a guide between right and wrong. Thereís a bit of a difference between our conscience and Najaraís Djinn." Ephiny didnít reply. "Tell me Iím wrong," I prodded her.

A grin slowly worked its way to Ephinyís face. "I know what you mean. It is odd. Iíll give you that. But Najara has been very faithful to the Conqueror. There was much anger in Gabrielle when she first came to the Amazons. When her campaign moved east and she found Najara... She changed."

I was intrigued. "What do you mean she changed?"

"Gabrielle was no longer looking for a cause to fight. She was fighting for a cause. Najara began to balance her a bit. She showed her a different way."

The way. Why did that damn phrase always come back to haunt me? "And what way would that be?"

"The way of a true warrior. One thatís deadly in battle, but not sadistic as Gabrielle had become. Najara changed that. And donít let the royal attire fool you. She could best anyone in this room in battle with the exception of Gabrielle... Even you, Xena. But I have to agree that lately . . ."

"What?" I couldnít hide the urgency of my voice.

"Both of them are changing. Not just Najara, but Gabrielle too." The inquisitive look I gave Ephiny made her continue. "Najara seems edgy and Ďparanoidí. Gabrielle seems more introspective."

"Introspective?"

"Yes, she seems like she spends more time in thought lately and I highly doubt that itís the affairs of state that sheís concerned with. I know that sheís taken you as a lover. Iíve said nothing to Najara nor would I. But since that time Gabrielle seems more like her old self, but blended with the new woman she has become."

I find myself getting more confused. It showed on my face and Ephiny continued.

"She was always quick to anger, but lately her outbursts are more frequent again, especially since your arrival. But on the same coin, I see that she smiles more now than... well, ever. Itís as if sheís always going to extremes with no happy medium." Iím not sure what to say when Ephiny adds, "youíve had an effect on her, Xena. I donít know how and Iím not sure why, but youíve got a power that even the great Caesar himself could never have over her."

"And that power would be?"

"Fear. Not a fear of you, but a fear of herself, it seems."

I watched as Solari finished up her conversation with Gabrielle and Lao Ma and headed towards us again. "Well, what of the Consort? What can we do?"

"I canít separate them, but let me have a word with Gabrielle tonight before sheís had too much wine. Iíll see if thereís any problems."

"I would appreciate that." I nodded respectfully.

Ephiny cocked her head and examined me carefully. "I must admit, Xena. You sound more like a Consort than a guard."

I grin. "Maybe in another life I was. Thank you, Regent Ephiny."

"My pleasure, Xena," she said, offering her forearm. "Youíve fought well today and proved yourself in my eyes. Iíll see what I can do."

With another nod to Ephiny and one to Solari, I made my way over to the banquet. As I grabbed a plate, I began to look at the huge spread before us. Pig, fowl, vegetables from the far reaches of the known world filled the long rectangle table. As I put some food on my plate, I looked up to see my mother bringing out more loafs of bread for the guests. She gave me a warm smile that drew me over. I remembered that I had yet to disclose how I managed to be Ďherí Xena. With everyone at the party, it seemed like a good time to get into the details and I made my way over.

Before joining her in the kitchen area, I turned around to see Ephiny leading Gabrielle from her circle, which included Lao Ma and Najara. It appeared that true to her word Ephiny was going to speak with Gabrielle regarding our conversation. Feeling a bit of relief, I gave a sigh and followed my mother into the kitchen.

As I walked inside, I looked around to see if anyone else was present. The cooks were quite busy with their preparations, so I took my mother by the elbow and led her to a quiet area away from the bustle.

"I owe you an explanation. Itís going to be difficult to believe, but this world, this Ďrealityí, isnít real at all," I began.

She had a confused look on her face, but I continued.

"Ares, the God of War, created this world. In the real world, you stopped father from killing me. I went on a rampage as a teenager and spent the next ten years of my life living in anger over a warlord who destroyed our family. I met Hercules, who showed me that I could be a noble person and then a short time later I met Gabrielle. She was a farmerís daughter who wanted to travel on adventures. Years later, she and I became lovers. When I decided to do the Ďright thingí in life, Ares spent years trying to woo me back to him, but I resisted. When he realized he would never have a shot at me he aimed for Gabrielle who was becoming a fine warrior in her own right. He didnít succeed with her either. So as a result, he created this place where Gabrielle rules as his queen. He gave Gabrielle Ďmyí life and raised her as his Conqueror."

Still my mother made no movement, but her face creased in concern.

"Itís difficult to believe, I know. And I wouldnít be surprised if you thought I was crazy. Some days it feels like Iím losing my mind here, but Iím being honest."

My mother then reached into her pocket and scribbled a note. I read it as she handed it back. It only had three words. ĎI believe you.í

I felt as if I might cry again upon reading the words. It felt like a weight had been lifted since I was able to share my secret with someone. Not only that though. Someone believed me. I reached out to hug my mother when we both turned to the crashing of the kitchen door.

Gabrielle stormed over with Ephiny following behind her. She pulled a dagger from her waist and backed me against the wall with it. The blade felt cold under my chin.

"My Lord, please," Ephiny begged.

"Enough!" she shouted to her Regent. Her cold eyes turned to me. "Now I realize that you have a grand attraction to me, but I have to wonder what your true intentions are by undermining my bond-mate."

This is not what I expected. I watched as Najara and Lao Ma took a place inside the kitchen door. I knew I only had one chance to get out of this alive and her name was Lao Ma.

Chapter 11

My eyes fixed on Lao Maís and almost as if they were magnets, she walked over to stand next to Gabrielle.

"Please, my Conqueror," Lao Ma began. "Put the weapon down. Xena means you no harm."

"Everyone out of here now!" Gabrielle shouted. The kitchen cleared with the exception of my mother, Ephiny, Najara and Lao Ma. She turned around to look at her bond-mate. "I said now!"

Najaraís eyes flashed, but she did as she was told. Ephiny, however didn't move and she conveyed a look of apology to me. Praise Aphrodite that Lao Ma held her ground. Now I was concerned for my mother as Gabrielleís wrath focused on her. Without warning my mother reached out slowly and took the dagger from Gabrielleís hand. She managed to form a single word Ė muffled, but the intent clearly heard.

"No."

Gabrielleís eyes held a fury that I had yet to see in all her raging. I watched as Lao Ma reached out and gently touched Gabrielleís shoulder.

"This woman has served you greatly, Gabrielle. Do her no harm."

Gabrielle expelled a deep breath and hung her head down. "Please go," she told my mother. Immediately my mother looked to me, and I nodded letting her know I would be okay. Only then did she hand the dagger to Lao Ma before walking out to join the others.

It seemed like forever as the three of us stood in a silent circle with Ephiny observing from the outside. Gabrielleís eyes never left mine. Without a word, she walked past me and out the door.

"Iím sorry Xena. Iíll talk with her," Ephiny said before following her Lady. I leaned on a nearby table hanging my head wondering how things could go so wrong so quickly.

"What we sow in this life, we reap in our future lives. This is what some call our 'karma'."

I looked towards Lao Ma.

"What?" I asked.

"You donít belong here do you?" Her voice was always very calming to me.

"No," was all I could manage as she pinned my eyes with her stare.

"You and Gabrielle... You both walk a path together, your souls are intertwined." She seemed rather intrigued.

"HowÖ?" My voice shook; she smiled and patted my arm.

"It is the beauty of the universe, Xena. Each being has its place. Each has a meaning, each drawing on the other to complete its totality. When Gabrielle introduced us earlier, I could see her soul is complete when she is with you. As is yours with hers."

"Sheís my soul mate." As soon as I was able to gather my wits together, I explained everything to her. I concluded and took a weary seat on a nearby stool at the counter. Lao Ma who always moved with such grace, seemed to breeze by me and take a seat across from me.

"I see, no wonder sheís been on edge since my arrival. I thought for certain her Consort was to blame - that she felt they no longer had a place together, but I see it is much deeper Ö" She looked at me and then stopped briefly. "You are making her feel again and that is scaring her worse then anything in her life. She hates that feeling of losing control, Xena."

"The more time goes on while Iím here, the more I feel I should have left things as they were. She was happy here until I showed up and all Iíve ever wanted for her is to be happy." It was feeling like being torn to pieces inside.

"You donít believe that, do you?"

I shrugged. I wasn't sure what I believed at the moment. The woman I loved more than life itself, just had a knife to my throat and I was explaining this to my greatest mentor who was long since dead. What could I believe right now?

"No one is guaranteed happiness." Lao Ma smiled with a mischievous grin I knew quite well from years ago. "Life just gives us the time and space. It is up to us to fill it with joy and meaning. Gabrielle hasn't felt these emotions since she was a child, but I do believe with my very being... Youíre the one to give her that joyÖEven if she herself doesn't realize it."

We both fell silent and I could feel Lao Ma continuing to examine me.

"When I first met Gabrielle, the Conqueror... she was so lost, so full of mistrust and hatred. She was too blind to see anything clearly. After a moon had passed, I managed to see that the light in her heart was still there, aching to be set free." She rose and began to stroll along, clasping her hands behind her back in reflection. She peered out the window.

"I knew she had the heart of a poet, a storyteller, and asked her one day to express it in a scroll. She jotted something down rather quickly, then she got very angry with me for asking her to do so. What she wrote was beautiful. She is Greek, you know? If she were a man, I would say she would be more popular than many of the playwrights in this day and age, but only if she used that talent... The request stirred something within her. Something that frightened her... She left Chin soon after and I didnít hear anything from her for years." Lao Ma inhaled then spoke some of Gabrielle's writings aloud. "My face is a mask I command to say nothing, shrouding the fragile feelings, hiding in my tortured soul." Lao Ma cleared her throat and turned to me. "Even to this moment I remember her wordsÖ.For a glimpse in time there, lying before me, was the person without the title of Conqueror. And it frightened her until that fear turned to anger."

"Just like now?" I sounded more like a child then a woman.

"As it is now," she agreed.

"I donít know if I can do this! Be Gabrielle in this time and find the right words to express? I donít know if Iím that strong a person."

Lao Ma gave me a gentle smile. "Come now, Xena, we both know you are strong, and not just physically." I couldn't help, but grin at her response. She was correct and I was starting to sell myself short. I said it often, but how much did I believe it: I have many skills. My strength was one of them.

Lao Ma continued. "Besides was it always words that your Gabrielle used in her quest to get closer to you? Think very hard now, warrior, and remember this: Anyone can proclaim to love you, but it takes someone very exceptional to show it through action."

"She was a true friend who understood my past," I answered softly. "Even if she hadn't lived it herself. And she believed in my future and accepted me, just the way I am." The fear coming from my voice shocked me.

"You donít think you can be that kind of friend to her? Accept her? Believe in her? A very wise friend once said that no one can truly believe in herself unless someone else believes in her first. Be that person that believes in Gabrielle and it will set you both free."

And if I do that you'll be dead, I thought silently. And mother. And Ephiny and Solari. She glided gracefully from the kitchen and left me there to think.

"She's right, you know?" I heard a soft voice call from behind me. "She's a very wise woman for a mortal."

I turned around to see Aphrodite. "I'm not sure what I can do. I don't know where to begin."

"I heard Aresí little offer." She grinned. "He's running scared. You're closer to Gabrielle's heart than you think."

"This coming from the Goddess of Love? Can I take that as a 'given'? I mean sure I might have Gabrielle's heart, but that's if she doesn't slit my throat before then."

Aphrodite put her hands on her hips. "Sometimes you can be a real drama queen, you know that? So you thought she was gonna kill you Ė big deal."

"That knife at my throat was not an illusion, Aphrodite."

"No, but the reason it was there was."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning, sweet pea didn't want to kill you." The love goddess chuckled. "She wanted to scare you, to test you, to see if you would 'buckle' under the accusation that Ephiny said you madeÖI'm proud you didn't, because it brought you one step closer to her heart."

I rubbed my temple. It had been a long day and I had to admit I couldn't decide which was more tiring Ė the battle with the Romans earlier or the racking my brain was experiencing trying to figure out Gabrielle.

"You'll find the way, Xena. Think about what Lao Ma said," she instructed as she started to vanish, "Think hard."

And think I did... for a long time. Iím not sure how I made it back to my barrack, not sure when I fell into a fitful slumber. Visions, so many visions.

"So this is Cirra. Itís beautiful." Gabrielle smiled.

"To me, itís the ugliest place on Earth." Such guilt ravaged me then.

"I donít think you should keep punishing yourself for what happened." She always looked out for me.

"I didnít come here to punish myself. I wanna understand why."

"Why what?" She sounded confused.

"Why it happened. Why I was who I was. And how I can ever atone." Or will I ever?

"Youíve changed, Xena. Like this valley. Once it was a place full of death and violence. But now itís full of beauty and life. The same kind of change has happened to you."

"I wish that I could see it that way."

I tossed and turned on the pallet, but the vision never let up.

"When the living think of the dead, the dead can hear their thoughts. Listen." MíLila said and then I heard Gabrielleís voice.

"Xena? I know you can hear me, wherever you are. I know you always told me to be strong. I canít be, not now. You canít leave me. I know itís not your time. I can feel it in my heart. I feel this emptiness that Iíve never known before, and it scares me. Xena, above all just remember your destiny. Remember it and fight. Just, fight to come back. This world needs you. I need you."

The one person who believed in me, loved me and I took the easy way out; hurting that very same person. I felt very selfish, unworthy and wanting something that I hadnít wanted in a long time. I wanted to live.

I had a memory of one conversation I had with Tara. She was a lost kid and reminded myself of me at that age.

"My father said I couldnít change, one big lost cause." I felt so badly for her.

"That is not true, you are what you do. You can re-create yourself every second of your life." I think that was the first time I noticed Gabrielle was rubbing off on me.

Then the visions take me away to the murder of Thelassa. I gave up then as well, and Gabrielle paid for that mistake along with so many others over time. Even though it turned out I didnít murder her, I still feel so much guilt for taking her innocence away.

"Xena, if you're looking for redemption, you're not gonna find it there." Right then I felt Shark Island wasnít enough punishment for me, but it gave me an odd sense of peace.

"I'm not looking for redemption any more. Gabrielle, we're always talking about your spiritual quest. You say that you need something to make you feel complete. Well, so do I."

I slowly found consciousness and Lao Ma's words came back to me. It wasn't what Gabrielle had said during all my 'battles' and private hells, it was what she had done. Anyone else might have turned away, but she stood strong beside me on that Cirra hillside. Anyone else might have left me for dead, but Gabrielle battled a power hungry Amazon with her friends to bring me back. Anyone else would have let me serve my life sentence for my crimes, but Gabrielle disguised herself and came to the island to try to heal my soul. It wasn't really her words at all. It was the action she put behind them all. And didn't I tell her once that I was more a woman of action?

But I didn't have much time to reflect on this new knowledge. I bolted upright as sounds of Gabrielle screaming and things breaking brought me to my feet. Without worrying about the consequences, I burst into Gabrielle's bedchamber. Najara was on the floor as Gabrielle raised her sword above her head about to strike. I reacted on instinct to save Gabrielle Ė not her body, but her soul. I ran over and threw myself on top of Najara.

Chapter 12

Najara looked as stunned as Gabrielle, and I had to admit, at the moment I was more stunned than both of them. I wouldn't say that out loud. I realized that I did have a purpose and it had little to do with saving Najara's life. By the sway of Gabrielle's body above us I could tell she'd done even more drinking after leaving the kitchen.

"Get out of the way, Xena!" she warned.

"Don't, Gabrielle," I pleaded. "If you kill your bond-mate in a drunken rage, your soul would be lost... and there would be no going forward from there."

Gabrielle looked like she was going to cry, the sword shaking in her grasp. Slowly I moved away, bringing Najara to her feet with me. "Thank you," Najara whispered.

"Don't mention it," I replied, but in my mind adding, Ďyou nutcaseí. "Why don't we all get some sleep? If you would, my Conqueror, I'd like to escort you back to my barracks for the rest of the evening. Najara, please stay here. You can both discuss things tomorrow when clearer heads prevail." I paused and added the word, "Please?" Hades, it always worked on me when Gabrielle did it.

Gabrielle lowered the sword and stormed from the room. Najara and I both released a sigh. Without looking in her direction I started toward the door. "I'll bring her back in the morning, Najara. Get some rest."

"Xena," she called out. Reluctantly I stopped and turned to face her. "Thank you."

I'm not sure what possessed me, but I found myself walking back to stand inches from her.

"Let me spell something out for you, Najara. I don't trust you. I don't like you. I don't think you're fit to shine Gabrielle's boots. And if I thought her killing you would play little part on her mental state, I would have let her drive through you as quick as she could. But I know better. I didn't save you tonight, so don't thank me. I came to save Gabrielle."

I started to make my way again when I heard Najara's voice call out, a bitter edge to it. "You realize, as Consort, I could challenge you in the Arena, if I so wish."

"I wouldn't put it past you and your 'Djinn' to do that. But until that day comes," I added, "Stay the hell away from me and I'll stay away from you. Deal?"

"Being a royal guard won't that be a bit difficult?" she taunted.

"I don't think your stay in this kingdom will last much longer," I answered with a cocky grin. I began to shut the door behind me, "Sleep well, Consort."

Upon closing the door, I heard Najara's frustrated wail and the sound of something else crashing behind the door. Okay, it was terrible of me, but I couldn't help, but smile. Besides, playing passive for Gabrielle's affections wasn't getting me anywhere. I might as well be upfront and perhaps spur Najara into an inappropriate action that would be her undoing. Najara was just bad news and always would be in my eyes. ĎShe also kicked your assí, I reminded myself. But I realized that during our first encounter I underestimated her ability. I turned my back on her, which as a warrior was a critical mistake. I wouldn't be turning my back on her this time. One way or another I'd keep my eyes and ears on her as much as I could.


Now I had one huge pressing matter waiting for me in my barracks. It didnít go unnoticed by me that Gabrielle took off with her sword still in hand. Being as drunk and angry as she was, I knew Iíd be in some trouble. I stopped outside my door and was shocked at the fact my hands were shaking. When I opened the door, I was more than startled to find her sitting in a chair with a glass of wine and her sword leaning on her right knee facing the door.

"Tell me, Xena." She gulped her wine then threw her glass into the wall. "Why would you care if I gut my bond-mate or not?" She stood with sword in hand and moved towards me. "It would seem more to your advantage her being out of the way." Her voice was very harsh.

"Why would you want to kill her?"

"That is none of your concern, Xena. Now I ask you again. It would seem more to your advantage her being out of the way. Am I right?" Her voice was like ice.

"And watch more of you die inside? No thanks."

She smirked at me, then took the hilt of her sword in hand, ramming it into my stomach. I didnít spend much time crumpled over, since she raised me back up with the tip of her blade at my throat.

"Iím not really sure what game you are playing with me, Xena, but Iím growing tired of you questioning me all the time. I should kill you right here." She emphasized that by making me more aware of what was sticking at my throat.

"If that brings you peace, Gabrielle, then do it." I tilted my head back more, exposing my neck. She huffed, dropping her blade down and moved back towards the table with wine.

"I love you, Gabrielle."

She sat with her wine, glaring at me. "I donít love you, Xena. Nor will I ever."

It might have been more merciful if sheíd run me through with her sword.

"You see, I know nothing of love and doubt I ever will." She gulped her wine down. "So youíre wasting your time."

The last sentence sounded like it came from a fragile child and not the Conqueror. She went for another glass of wine, but I moved across the room and took the goblet and flask from her. "Please, Gabrielle. No more tonight."

I expected a fight Ė a backhand, some angry words Ė, but nothing came. She simply sat back down in the chair, looking defeated. She looked broken, battered Ė the woman who just destroyed the Roman Empire.

"There was a time in my life, I felt the very same way you do. I can't take your guilt away, maybe cause there's nothing I can say that can take away that feeling you have. You wanna know that what you did in life was for all the right reasons, but with that pain in your gut and the weight on your shoulders, the best you can come up with is that it was a good day of fighting. Not just in the battlefields, but also in life. But as hard as itís been you've gotta know that it's for a reason. All this is for a reason. Otherwise, what's the point, right? I was asking myself that same question not too long ago. What I do know is that is makes a big difference if someone believes in you, gives you courage and strength. It can even teach the hardest of souls to love." I stared her right into the eyes. "I love you with all my being and I believe in you with all my heart, Gabrielle. And I can't sit back and watch you slowly destroy yourself any longer."

She was quiet for a moment, bent over slightly, staring at her boots. She inhaled deeply. I could tell she was trying to control her emotion. She lifted up her head and looked at the ceiling, fighting back her tears. I wanted nothing more than to pull her in my arms and give her comfort. I hoped I had chosen the right words, the words that Gabrielle would have used to comfort me. I wanted to add more, but instead she began to speak.

"There was a great battle we had here a couple moonís ago, against the Persians."

I sat on the floor in front of her to listen.

"The blood bath raged on for days. They were relentless and I was growing tired of it all. Tired of the cold, the deathÖ just so tired." She sniffled and took another breath.

"One night they got the element of surprise on us. I lost many good peopleÖ I remember I slipped on some lose earth, winding myself, and right in front of me was a Persian ready to sever my head from my body. As time stood still, my mind thought how easy it would have been just to let him do it. Some sorta redemption for all those Iíd conquered. But the warrior part of me held strong."

"It had nothing to do with the warrior in you. That wouldnít have been redemption, Gabrielle. It would have been the easy way out of things. You never took the easy way out in your life, thatís why you fought."

"You donít think my demise would make many happy? The price of my life, to pay for anyone I wronged, Xena?"

"I bet there would be certain people that would take pleasure in your death, mine too. What Iím saying is all the good things you do outweigh the bad. You can do a lot more alive to change things for the better, than being dead. Itís a hard, slow and at times torturous, but in the long run, itís worth it. You will find our redemption." I knew she wasnít buying any of this.

"Tell me why you have people that serve you with such loyalty? Donít tell me itís fear either. You have many people who would fight and die by your side because they believe in your cause. Think of that soldier, Joxer, who died. He charged in to save your life Ė not out of fear, but out of respect." I put my hands on her knees, but she still wouldn't meet my eyes.

"Gabrielle, you were a child when evil came and took your innocence away. You conquered the world not out of anger or greed. You conquered to make sure other innocents donít have to go through what you did. Gods woman, why would my mothÖ Cyrene treat you like her own daughter?" I was hoping I covered that slip, butÖ

"Your what?"

Before I could answer, there were crashing sounds and bone chilling screams. One of those screams was all too familiar. Gabrielle and I took off towards the noises. As we got closer, I noticed it was coming from the kitchen area. When we got there it was sacked, the huge pot in the fire was overturned and mess in every direction.

"Gods! Cyrene? Hope?" Gabrielle sounded panicked. We got to their sleeping chamber and froze. The room was torn apart, and there was blood everywhere. Sitting in the corner was my mother holding a bloodied Callisto.

Chapter 13

"Mother, what happened? What did she do?" I asked while looking the two of them over. She was so distraught, with no way to communicate. Quickly, I looked around for a quill and scroll. Gabrielle began to search too, but a way to communicate with my mother wasn't what she needed at that moment.

"Hope!" Gabrielle yelled looking around the room. "Hope, answer me!"

My mother snapped her fingers to get our attention and pointed to a larger chest near the door. We both watched as Gabrielle fearfully made her way with cautious footsteps, afraid of what she would find. Once there, she lifted the lid and we heard small whimpers.

"Donít hurt me," the little voice cried. Gabrielle dropped down, scooped the child up and held her close. Upon realizing it was Gabrielle, Hope tightened her grip around Gabrielle's neck.

"Did she do this?" I moved my eyes from Gabrielle back to my mother and Callisto. My mother shook her head fiercely. I couldn't understand what happened.

"Some men came in," Hope said, her tiny voice shaking. "The blonde woman fought them."

"What men?"

"I couldn't see them," Hope answered. "Grandma hid me in the trunk. I-I-It was real loud and then real quiet. Then you shouted my name."

Callisto didnít move and appeared to be dead or close to it. Her chest hardly moved. I moved closer down to examine her. She'd taken one Tartarus of a beating.

"Xena?" Callisto barely got her eyes open.

"Yes?"

Callisto coughed up some blood. She was bleeding from the inside and I knew there wasn't anything that I could do to stop that kind of injury.

"Had to come back." She grinned.

"Why? You were banished," I asked.

"Conqueror saved me," she said struggling with the words. "Had to come back... Najara wants Hope Ė the daughter dead. No heir... Save them, Xena. . .No more dead children or mothers . . ." She began to cough slightly before she slumped in my motherís arms, her eyes glazed over. Hopeís cries got louder; my mother's tears were falling and I found I was crying as wellÖbecause in this world, Callisto found peace. And once more Gabrielle had succeeded where I had failed Ė she managed to save Callisto's soul. Running my hand over Callisto's face I closed her eyes. I turned to find Gabrielle still clutching onto Hope, her eyes closed tight in relief. When the child began to calm down a bit, Gabrielle spoke to her.

"Are you alright?"

Hope pulled back and looked at Gabrielle, totally ignoring the question.

"Are you my mama?" her tiny voice asked in disbelief. Gabrielle swallowed a few times and softly answered.

"Yes, but you can't tell anyone, sweetheart."

"But why can't I-?"

"I'll explain later." She didn't add more. Instead she turned to my mother on the floor holding Callisto. "Are you injured, Cyrene?" she asked.

My mother shook her head no. Gabrielle just gave her a nod, tightening her hold on Hope. I watched as Gabrielle carried Hope away from the slaughter. That would have to be dealt with later. Now that Najara was in her full-blown nut mode, and on the loose, things had gotten more dangerous. It might have been two men that arrived, but I knew in my very bones Najara was behind it. My poor mother was still holding Callisto, so I carefully picked the fallen woman up and made my way outside. Two guards suddenly appeared and immediately I became suspicious. Where were they when the fighting was going on, and what took them so long to get there? I rested Callisto's body gently on the floor as they came over.

"What happened?" they asked in harmony.

"You tell me," I replied.

"What do you mean?" the first guard asked.

"Why were these women and a child attacked here by two men, without your knowledge?"

They looked guiltily at each other as Gabrielle returned alone. "Well," the second guard began. "We were at our post, but then HoriatiusÖwanted to beÖaloneÖso weÖ"

He faltered while trying to describe his lovers tryst with the other guard. Apparently, Gabrielle had heard enough. She pulled her knife from her boot and spun him around. Before I realized what was happening, she stabbed him directly in the heart, killing him instantly. The blade was removed quickly and she used it to slit the other stunned man's throat. I watched as he clutched his neck, gurgling as he tumbled to the ground atop the other. Two men lay dead in the kitchen with Gabrielle breathing hard, her rage bubbling over.

I was shocked Ė completely shocked - at what had transpired. I also realized that if they were the ones to blame, we couldn't get any information out of them now. Gabrielle's anger had totally blinded her to that fact apparently.

"Now what do we do?" I asked her.

"What do you mean?"

"They might have been involved, and if not, you just killed two innocent men."

Gabrielle grabbed my collar, bringing us nose to nose. "If they were guilty, they're dead now. And if they weren't off fucking, this wouldn't have happened. Either way they're useless to me."

She began to make her way into my mother's quarters and I followed. "Pretty tough way to prove a point, wouldn't you say?"

She spun around on her heels and faced me. "Understand this, Xena. I don't tolerate failure. No matter how you look at it, these two 'guards' were dead men the minute they let someone lay hands on my cook and my daughter. Maybe it was their hands, maybe it wasn't - in the end it doesn't matter. They failed and they paid the price. Now be useful and fetch me a quill and scroll, so Cyrene can tell us what happened."

I found my voice muted and my feet rooted as she finished her journey into my mother's chamber. When I was able to make it in, Gabrielle and mother were picking up some of the mess so we all could sit.

"Hand her the scroll and quill, Xena." I did what I was told, then went to sit in the chair near my mother.

"Cyrene, in all the years we have known each other, you have never lied to me. Tell me how Xena is your child and why you never told me."

I wasnít ready for this. My mother looked between Gabrielle and I; then wrote. I had no idea what she was going to say and she knew she couldnít tell the truth. Gabrielle kept her eyes on my mother while ignoring my stare as the minutes passed. She finished and handed the scroll to Gabrielle, taking my hand for support.

"We just figured out the truth the other night, Lord Conqueror. You know I thought years ago Atrius killed my child, but the bastard sold her." Gabrielle read aloud, and then looked me in the eyes before continuing. "Other than her having the name I gave my daughter, the more we spent time together and talked, things started to make sense." My mother patted my hand and started to cry mouthing, Ďmy childí to Gabrielle.

"Ok Cyrene, enough on this topic for now." Inside I was sighing with relief, but I knew this was far from over with. I felt awful that my mother had to lie for me. Would Gabrielle believe this? Did Mother tell her everything, including carrying my young body to the family tomb?

"Tell us what happened today, who attacked you?" She handed the scroll back. This time Gabrielle was looking at me while Mother wrote, I could tell her mind was turning. Again we waited, with the sound of the quill scratching being all that was heard. When she finally handed the scroll back, Gabrielle read it out loud once more.

"I was getting some things ready for morning while Hope was telling me a story. Outside the kitchen area, I heard two men talking, maybe they thought of me as deaf instead of mute. One kept mentioning about the Conquerorís daughter. Right then my hackles rose, so I hid Hope quickly in the trunk in our room. Just got the lid closed when the door was smashed in. Two tall men with black hoods asked me where Hope was. When I couldnít answer, and they wouldnít let me near my scroll. They began to sack the place. The last place they went after was the trunk. I began to struggle. One knocked me down and was ready to run me through when I heard this scream. Thatís when the blonde woman showed up, wounding the one who was attacking me. I guess she wasnít aware of the other man in the room. When she turned, he shoved his sword in her gut. She just smiled at the man. Another scream, twirled her sword, which scared both those men to death, because they ran like Hades himself was after them. She then turned to me and I saw how bad the wound was. She fell into my arms muttering Ďno child should have to suffer.í Thatís when you and Xena came in."

"Mother, did you recognize the voices of those men?" She just shook her head.

"Cyrene, I want you to stay in Xenaís room until we get to the bottom of this." My mother reached for her scroll and wrote quickly then handed it back.

"Where is Hope? Iíll sleep in my own bed, thank you. Also, I have to prepare the meals of the day. No one is going to scare me out of my daily life, Sprout."

Gabrielle face flushed a bit. "You havenít called me ĎSproutí in ages, CyreneÖ Hope is being guarded by Ephiny and Solari in their chambers... Gods woman, youíre so damn stubborn."

My mother stood with a grin, giving her a peck on the cheek. We stayed a candle-mark helping her clean the mess until she pushed us out the door so she could work in peace. I didnít think any of us would get sleep as dawn was approaching and a new day about to start. The entire time, Gabrielle was quiet and in heavy thought.

"Dinar for you thoughts?" She looked at her chamber door like a freightened child.

"I hate feeling scared, Xena."

I knew it was a big acknowledgment for her.

"You fear not knowing who ordered the attack?" I asked, deciding to remain factual for the moment, avoiding any emotional upheaval a heavy debate might cause her.

"I have an idea who ordered it, but I need to be sure. No, what Iím fearing right at this moment is that tiny person laying in my Regent's bed."

"Why? She seems to be a child with a good head on her shoulders. Sheíll understand." But after I spoke, my heart fluttered, remembering Solan.

"You donít understand, Xena. How will a tiny child understand I had to leave her to protect her from those who might hurt me?" Right then, my armor cracked.

"I do understand, more then you know." My voice shook and I was losing any signs of composure.

"More secrets youíve kept from me, Xena?"

I swallowed hard, considering a starting place. "Between you trying to kill me every turn and the battle, I just havenít had the time to think about it," I shot back. This was still a sore spot for me and it was hard for me not to show anger. "I had a child when I was much younger, a son. I had to give him up when he was only a few hours old... To protect him from those who would hurt me by hurting him... It was the hardest decision Iíve ever had to make."

"Did you ever see him? Did he know of you?" My anger faded when I looked into her eyes. No matter how much Gabrielle was in pain, if someone else was in more, they were more important to her. This Gabrielle was no different, and her face showed such compassion.

"I saw him a couple times as he grew, but he never knew that I was his mother."

"Sometime I wish I would of done as you did. I should have sent Hope away to be safe. I was selfish wanting to at least see my baby grow."

This conversation was rather difficult, if not odd. Here I was talking with the very same person whose child killed mine. In this world Hope was as she should have been; in every aspect she had the soul of Gabrielle. It took us so long a time to work through all the pain we caused one another. I still have visions and guilt. It was easier to blame Gabrielle for everything, when some it, if not most, in hindsight was mine.

"Donít say that, Gabrielle. You did the right thing and there isnít a day that goes by that I hadnít wished Iíd found a way to keep Solan close." My chin was trembling. "He died never knowing his mother, or that she loved him." I broke down and she pulled me into her arms and rocked me in her smaller frame.

"Iím so sorry, Xena." She whispered words of comfort until all my tears were shed. We heard someone clear their throat. Solari was standing at the door.

"Someone is calling for you, Conqueror."

Gabrielle caressed my face then on her tiptoes gave me a peck on the lips. Gods I love this person so.

"Weíll talk more, Xena. Right now, come with me. I need all the support I can get."

Itís funny how a little person can make a Conqueror weak in the knees.

We walked into the room, greeting Ephiny. In the bed we spotted a tiny body with wide-awake green eyes.

"We'll be at the empty barracks should you need us, Your Highness," Ephiny said with a bow. Gabrielle nodded to them and I watched as they left. Gabrielle's sigh was deep as she made her way over to the bed.

"How's the prettiest girl in Athens doin'? You calmed down a little?" Gabrielle asked.

"Now I know why you always call me that," Hope replied coldly. Seemed Cyrene and Gabrielle weren't the only gals in this kingdom who could be stubborn. Hope came by it honestly.

Gabrielle took a seat on the side of the bed, close to where Hope was wrapped up tight. "Well, it's true, you know?" Gabrielle grins. "You are the prettiest girl, and not just because you're my daughter."

"You never told me. Don't you love me?"

I watched as Gabrielle closed her eyes, trying to keep it together for Hope's sake, maybe even her own. "Yes, I love you, Hope. That's why you never knew. If people found out who you were they would have tried to hurt you or steal you long before tonight. You have to know that is the ONLY reason why I never said anything. You've always been my 'hope' Ė the reason that I go on."

"I just don't understand. Why would people hurt me?"

"How do I explain this?" Gabrielle asked herself before facing Hope again. "I'm not as nice to other people as I am to you and your Grandma Cyrene. People who I've hurt would try to get even by hurting you. And I didn't want that to happen. So if I keep the secret that you're my daughter then... it helps keep you safe."

"So, I can't tell anyone?"

"No, sweetheart, you can't. It's too dangerous."

"But if no one knows, then why did those men come after me?"

"Because I do have people, people that are close to me, who know you're my daughter. I think they tried to harm you."

"Did Xena know?" She looked at me and I nodded.

"Yes she did, but she didn't send those mean men."

"Then who? Najara?"

This I wanted to hear.

"Honey, you don't have to worry about who it might be. Just stay close to Cyrene, Xena and Ephiny. I trust them. They'll all look out for you. And I'll find out who it is. I promise you."

"Why should I believe you? You haven't told the truth since I've known you."

It was spoken with a child's innocence and I prayed that Gabrielle 'the Conqueror' wouldn't see it as an act of defiance and become enraged. The alcohol was wearing off at this point, but I also knew that regardless, Gabrielle had an ugly temper. I held my breath. I only released it when I heard Gabrielle give a light chuckle.

"You're my daughter, alright." She grinned. "You make a good point, but consider this Hope: Haven't I always been good to you?"

Hope nodded.

"Haven't I always made sure that you had enough food, clothing and academic studies?"

Hope nodded again.

"So why wouldn't I find out who tried to hurt you and Grandma?"

Hope gave a nod once more. "That's true."

Gabrielle rose up and kissed Hope on the forehead. "So this is our secret, okay?"

"Okay, Mother." Hope grinned mischievously as Gabrielle flashed her a disapproving glare. "I never called anyone mother. I just wanted to say it once." Not only was Hope stubborn, she had her mom's sense of humor and timing too.

Gabrielle's scowl slowly turned into a grin and I watched as she tousled the hair on Hope's crown. "I'm going to leave now, sweetie, but I'll see that Regent Ephiny and Solari return here to stay the night with you, okay? Xena will keep watch over you until I get back alright?"

By her excited nod, it seemed to make Hope quite happy that she'd be in my company. "I like Xena a lot."

Gabrielle looked over to me and smiled. "Yeah, she's growing on me too, I have to admit. You do as she says, okay?"

"Yes, my Conqueror," Hope replied.

Without haste, Gabrielle left the room and I made my way over to take Gabrielle's spot on the bed.

"You know that your mom is only doing this because she cares, right, Hope?"

"Yeah I think so. I mean... I've heard talk. Some people have said the things she's done, but I never thought it could be true. I mean, she's always so good to me and Grandma."

"Well, 'the Conqueror'," I winked conspiratorially which raised a grin form Hope. "She doesn't trust many people and she's had a difficult life. Much more difficult than ours. She's got walls."

"Yeah, the castle is huge," Hope remarked.

I tried not to chuckle at the fact that Hope missed what I meant. "Well yeah, it is a big place, but I mean in here," I said, tapping my chest. "She doesn't let many people into her heart. You and your Grandma are lucky because you both have a special place there so don't forget it."

"I think you have a special place too, Xena."

"I don't know about that." I tried my best to grin.

"It's true," Hope insisted. "She gets puppy dog eyes sometimes when she watches you. That's what Grandma calls it anyway."

"Really? I hadn't noticed."

"Oh, she never does it when you're looking at her. Only when you're not... Are you going to be the new consort someday?"

"She has a consort," I replied as diplomatically as possible.

"Well, yeah, but you're more fun."

I couldnít hold back this time. I laughed out loud and I found myself leaning over to kiss her on the cheek. "You're somethin' else, Hope... Why am I more fun?"

She gave a shrug. "You like me. I don't think Najara does. Did you notice how when I mentioned Najara, Mom didn't answer me?"

Add observant to Hope's list of many similarities.

"Yeah, I noticed," I answered honestly.

"Do you think it's her?"

Oh boy, now what do I say? "I think you should take your mom's advice. Stick close to the people she trusts for the time being until we get things figured out, alright?"

Hope grinned. "Xena?"

"Yes?"

"You didn't answer me either."

"Maybe that is your answer, Hope." I grinned back.

"I should avoid Najara?"

At all costs, I thought. But I didn't want to frighten the poor child either. "I think you should and make sure you're always with your Grandma, no matter what."

I heard the door open and I darted up, my sword at the ready. I lowered my stance as I watched Gabrielle walking back in with Ephiny and Solari.

"Glad that's not an itchy trigger finger attached to a cross bow." Gabrielle grinned.

I smiled as I re-sheathed my sword. "Just wanted to be ready for anything," I told her.

"Which is why you're a royal guard." she nodded. She walked over to the bed again, giving Hope a kiss on the head. "Ephiny and Solari will stay here with you tonight. So try to get some sleep."

"What about Grandma?"

"She's in her quarters. I asked that she move elsewhere for the night, but she refused."

"Grandma is very stubborn, just like me." She giggled and we all smiled at her.

"I'll be staying in Xena's quarters."

Hope started to pout. "Why can't you stay with me?"

Ephiny looked to me and I could feel every heart in the room break at the request.

"If you stay with me it might cause people to think I have more of an interest in you than I should," Gabrielle answered. "We can't take that chance, Hope. Not with you being so young and defenseless. When you're a bit older and I have a chance to train you, then things will be different. I promise."

"Can you start now?"

"Start what?"

"Training me?"

"We'll see," Gabrielle replied. "But for now, you go to sleep and get some rest. Ephiny will bring you to me in the morning and I'll see that you get to your grandmother okay. Goodnight Hope," Gabrielle told the young girl, and gave her another kiss on the head.

"Goodnight."

As Gabrielle started to leave, I followed. She paused a moment at Ephiny's side. "Lock the door tonight and let no one in, but me. Understood?"

"Yes, Your Highness." Ephiny nodded.

"You get some rest too. We'll have a busy day tomorrow."

Without comment, Ephiny nodded as we walked out. As soon as the door was closed, true to her instructions, we heard the door lock. Slowly and wordlessly, we made our way to my barracks.

As I opened my door, Gabrielle rested her hand on my arm. "Thank you for everything tonight, Xena. After the way I've treated you lately-."

"Please, no apology needed. I'm just glad everyone is safe. We'll get to the bottom of it Gabrielle."

"I hope so... for all our sakes."

XXXXX

Gabrielle and I were awakened by the shouting of someone in the hallway. They were crying and incoherent, their words coming out as jumbled sobs. We both dashed to the door and flagged down the hysterical man.

"Slow down! Slow down! What's wrong?" Gabrielle asked the man, grabbing him by the forearms, giving a light shake.

He took an unsteady breath. "The cook!"

"The cook? What about the cook?"

"She's dead."

I felt my face go as white as Gabrielle's.

Continued

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