The Curse of the Conqueror

Part 3

Chapter 14 - Enlightenment


As they ate lunch, Queen Melosa and Cyrene chatted as Valeska coldly eyed Xena and Gabrielle.

Gabrielle wasn't eating, electing to push the sticky gray mush around her plate with her fork.

"Now I know you're hungry. Would it help if I got rid of your audience?" Xena suggested quietly, glancing at Valeska, then smiling a little too eagerly at the bard. "I bet it would."

Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Your concern about my appetite is touching. I think I'll just stick to things that don't stick to me," she said, releasing her fork in the center of the gray mound of mush, which held it firmly at attention.

"I wish I had brought my chefs," Xena responded, reaching for an apple in the fruit basket on the table and handing it to the bard.

"Thank you," Gabrielle said with a shy smile as she caressed the shiny offering. When she heartily bit into the fruit, its juice dribbled over her chin. "Oops." She said sheepishly.

As the bard dabbed a napkin around her chin and full . . . red . . . lips, Xena's eyes drifted over the delicate neck to the bard's chest, then widened as they quickly averted to the interesting, the interesting. . . .

Oh for GODS' sake! There's gotta be something. . . .

"Queen Melosa," Valeska said loudly, gaining everyone's attention.

"Yes, Princess Valeska?"

"Perhaps the Conqueror would honor us with her presence at the Amazon games." Xena's eyes narrowed suspiciously at the Princess.

"That sounds like fun. What are the Amazon games?" Gabrielle asked with excitement. Valeska smiled and the Queen explained.

"A way for our young warriors to demonstrate what they have accomplished in their training and compete against each other. They begin in two days. Princess Valeska's idea is an excellent one," Melosa said, smiling proudly at her daughter. "Would you do us the honor of presiding over the games, Empress?"

"Oh yes, please! " Gabrielle gushed, not realizing she had just made it impossible for Xena to refuse her. "But you'd have to stay longer than you probably planned," she quickly added with concern. She knew she couldn't expect Xena to stay at her side, though her heart felt otherwise.

"I would be honored, Queen Melosa, Princess Gabrielle . . . Valeska," Xena said with a smile, eyeing the fuming Amazon, who caught the intentional slight. "Perhaps, Cyrene could be persuaded to stay as well," Xena said glancing at her mother.

"No need for persuasion, Empress," Melosa said with a grin. "Cyrene has agreed to stay . . . indefinitely."

"What?!?" Xena, Gabrielle, and Valeska blurted as Cyrene smiled uneasily.


"And just where did you stay last night??" Xena barked at Cyrene as she paced in Gabrielle's hut.

"Xena, why are you so upset?" Gabrielle asked curiously.

"Xena . . . " Cyrene said uneasily.

"Never mind, Mother. Even I can figure it out. But you want to stay after just one day? What happened to the tavern? Huh?!? What happened to that career you said you loved more than anything? You TOLD me . . ." Xena said in an annoyed whisper, glancing at the door, knowing there were Amazon ears close by. She was surprised to find the bard leaving.

"Gabrielle, where are you going?"

"I thought you two would want your privacy," Gabrielle said evenly, eyeing the two women and finally noticing how much they looked alike. The eyes. She should have noticed the eyes.

"That's not neces . . . "

"Yes. It is," Gabrielle said curtly and added "It's a family discussion" before she left.

Xena growled with frustration, looking between the door and her mother.

"Go apologize to her, Xena. We'll discuss this later," Cyrene said.

"Apologize for WHAT?!?"


Xena left the hut to go after the bard, but stopped, spotting her leaving camp with Ephiny, the Amazon who always seemed to be hovering around Gabrielle. Xena's eyes narrowed.

"Empress?" Solari said.

"WHAT!" Xena snapped.

"Uh . . . I can show you to your hut, when you are . . . available." Solari said nervously, bowing slightly.

Xena hesitated, glancing back at Gabrielle's hut then at the expectant Solari, who added. "Unless you and the Princess are . . . uh, have other arrangements."

"Lead the way," the Conqueror said with a resigned sigh. With mild curiosity, she asked "Is there some reason you're not wearing any clothes?"


"Princess Gabrielle?" Ephiny looked at the upset bard, sitting next to her at the water's edge.

The bard sighed as she stared out over the lake. "I'm just Gabrielle, Ephiny."

"Are you ok?" Ephiny asked softly.

Gabrielle chuckled sadly. "Sure. Why wouldn't I be ok? I'm a fake and I don't know who my friends are anymore."

Ephiny frowned. "You are an amazing woman who I'd always be proud to call friend."

Gabrielle sighed then glanced at the earnest look on Ephiny's face. With a small smile, the bard reached up and tenderly brushed Ephiny's hair off her brow. "Thank you . . . friend. You know what would really cheer me up?"

Ephiny quickly shook her head no, hoping it involved the bard's beautiful lips and . . . .

"A good story. Where are all those great Amazon tales I've heard so much about?"


"Princess Valeska! Are you ill?" The young healer jumped up from her medicine inventory with concern and greeted the tall warrior who entered the healer's hut.

"I hope not, Ashea," she smiled warmly and sat down. "But I have had some trouble sleeping lately," she sighed wearily. "With Terreis' death and Princess Gabrielle being Melosa's favorite, I'm afraid I'm letting it all get to me. Some Princess I make, huh?" She said then looked up with concern. "You'll keep this between us right?" she quickly asked.

"Of course! Discussions between a healer and her patient are held in the strictest confidence," the young woman responded firmly, making Valeska smile. "You know, Princess, it is a sign of great strength to admit your weaknesses."

Did that just sound incredibly stupid, or what? "Thank you." Valeska smiled thinly as the healer went to her collection of medicines.

"Let's see, perhaps some Chamomile tea?" The healer turned, holding up a bottle of the herb.

"I've tried that already," she said with a heavy sigh. "Perhaps you have something stronger?" Valeska asked, standing up and joining the healer, glancing over the interesting assortment of bottles and containers.

"What about this?" The Princess picked up a bottle and looked at it curiously.

"Oh no," Ashea giggled. "That's for hemorrhoids."

Well, she is a royal pain in the ass.

"Oh," Valeska said flatly as she placed the vial back down. "What does that do?" She pointed to a dark blue vial.

"That's for knocking out patients going under the knife. It's very powerful and only used as a last resort."

"Why?" She said as she picked up the interesting blue vial and started to open it.

"Be careful!!" The healer blurted nervously, covering Valeska's hands to prevent the top from being removed.

"Sorry," Valeska said flatly, releasing the vial to the healer, who carefully placed it back on the table.

"I'm sorry for snapping, Princess, but if ingested in its pure form, a person would fall into a deep sleep."

"Well, that sounds like exactly what I need," Valeska said brightly.

"You don't need that kind of sleep."

"And what kind is that?"

"The kind you don't wake up from."

"Oh," Valeska said, eyeing the vial with great interest. "Thanks for the warning."


Gabrielle spent the day in the scroll hut absorbing the bounty of Amazon stories under the amused eye of Ephiny.

"Oh, that was . . . amazing," Gabrielle sighed with satisfaction putting another scroll down and shaking her head. "Have you read this one?" She asked Ephiny, who smiled and nodded.

"So, Cyane was a common name for Amazon Queens, huh?"

"Yep. Until recently. . . ."

Gabrielle got up from the chair and went to another shelf of scrolls she hadn't touched yet. Ephiny's eyes widened.

"Uh, Gabrielle, you might not want to read those scrolls," Ephiny said unable to stop the bard.

"Scrolls that I wouldn't want to read? You must be joking," Gabrielle smirked, unrolling the parchment. "Oh look! Pictures." She smiled broadly at what she found. She liked good picture scrolls. But she had never seen any that had pictures of two women. . . . "OH!"

Ephiny winced. "Youmightwanttoreadthemalone, I'llbeatthelakeifyouneedme, I mean, uh. . ." Ephiny blurted uncomfortably as she retreated to the hut door, but Gabrielle didn't seem to notice. Her Princess just sat down, her eyes riveted to the scroll.

"I'll be at the lake," Ephiny said louder, prompting Gabrielle to absently nod as she turned the scroll and critically inspected the picture at a different angle. "Hmm," Gabrielle thought with intrigue as the Amazon left. Oh come on, that isn't physically possible, is it?

She finished studying the picture scroll and pulled out another one entitled "Advanced Amazon Oral Skills." Gabrielle laughed. The other was basic??

She shook her head as she read the detailed descriptions of various techniques and looked at the associated pictures. She smirked at a few of the more physically demanding skills, wondering what Xena might think about . . . It suddenly hit her like a ton of stones.

Rereading the title, she didn't know whether to be extremely offended or deeply hurt. But her heart chose for her.

Chapter 15 - Challenges


"I'm surprised," Xena said, startling the Amazon who jumped at the Conqueror's sudden appearance. "You're not with her."

Ephiny wondered with irritation how she could possibly sneak up on her without any sound.

"Lose another princess, did we?" Xena added with an innocent smile, successfully annoying the Amazon, who would have pulled her sword and demanded a fight had it not been the Conqueror. She was aware her satisfaction would be short-lived.

"She is back at the scroll hut . . . Empress," Ephiny gritted out. Her anger grew into concern when the blue gaze bore into her. "What?" The Amazon finally asked.

"You like Gabrielle," Xena stated evenly as her eyes narrowed slightly.

"She's a very likable. . . ."

"I mean, you LIKE Gabrielle."

Ephiny swallowed hard, seeing the gaze turn even colder.

"Yes," Ephiny admitted with a crack in her voice, then quickly countered. "And what about you, Empress?"

"Care to spar, Amazon?" Xena smiled.


Ephiny stood before the Empress on the practice grounds. Perhaps I should have said no. I should have said no to Melosa about guarding Terreis, too. But do I ever get any choices? Noooo.

"Choose your weapon, Amazon."

Ephiny's eyebrows furrowed. Great! I get to choose how I die. With a sigh, Ephiny moved to the display of weapons by the weapons hut. Why can't I choose when?

She eyed the sword. It was her best weapon. But it could too easily incapacitate her, or rather, decapitate, she thought, rubbing her neck uneasily. Nope, too sharp. Looking at the mace, she winced. Nope. Too pointy. Backwards acne. Looking at Melosa's favorites, the chobos, her eyebrows furrowed. What the hell are those things, anyway?

Determined to at least look good while she was getting her ass kicked, Ephiny selected a weapon.

"Staff," Ephiny announced firmly as she grabbed one from the cradle. Xena nodded and eyed the remaining three staves before selecting one. Testing the balance of the weapon, Xena smiled with appreciation as she executed a routine with a flourish that made Ephiny's stomach drop.

Xena nodded approvingly and entered the ring, waiting for her opponent to join her. Ephiny sighed. Delaying her impending doom a few moments, the Amazon walked over to the water bucket on the bench at the edge of the ring. Lifting the ladle to her lips, taking what was perhaps her last sip of water, she glanced at the Empress, who was grinning with amusement. Ephiny sighed. This so totally sucks.

A crowd gathered, which quickly grew in size when they realized the Empress would be sparing with Ephiny.

"What did she do?" Eponin asked Solari, who shrugged, grateful it wasn't her. "Aren't you worried about sunburn?"


"Gabrielle! Xena and I were worried . . . ," Cyrene said as the dejected bard finally returned to her hut with a scroll in hand.

"Have you resolved things with your daughter?" She asked, clenching the scroll tightly.

"Not exactly," Cyrene said uncomfortably.

Gabrielle looked at the woman as if she was about to say something but elected not to. Instead, the bard nodded and sat down with a heavy sigh.

"I suppose you wonder why I never told you about Xena," Cyrene said with a forced laugh that quickly died.

"Let me guess. If people knew she was your daughter, your business would suffer."

"Y. . yes!" Cyrene said with surprise and a relieved smile that faded as Gabrielle shook her head and looked at her with pity.

"I used to think my parents were mean for never supporting me. But they've never pretended they weren't my parents."

"Gabrielle, you have to understand . . . ," Cyrene said uneasily then stopped with a heavy sigh, unable to understand herself anymore.

An Amazon guard burst in, out of breath. "Princess Gabrielle! The Conqueror and Ephiny are fighting!"


Ephiny knew she was losing. She was drenched in sweat and breathing as if she had just run to Tartarus and back, twice, while the Conqueror hadn't even broken a sweat. But the Amazon had gotten in a few good hits, which at least gave her some satisfaction that her death would not be a total embarrassment.

Staves swiftly clashed in the violent ballet.

Xena smiled. It had been ages since she had a worthy opponent. Block, hit, parry. And this Amazon was really good.

When Gabrielle and Cyrene got to the practice field, Cyrene noticed Queen Melosa and Princess Valeska arriving, drawn to the commotion like the rest of the village.

Gabrielle's eyes were immediately fixed on the Empress, whose grace was displayed with each skillful movement. Never had the bard seen such beauty in motion. Not even the famous dancers from that troupe in Athens. And never had the bard seen such power, certain there was much more not yet unleashed, hidden from her unsuspecting opponent.

Having difficulty tearing her eyes away from the mesmerizing smile on the Conqueror's face, the bard watched the Empress' muscles flex and relax as she blocked her worthy opponent's swift and multiple strikes.

With a delighted laugh at the Amazons' energetic and almost successful attempts, Xena spun around and swept Ephiny's legs from beneath her.

When her friend's back hit the ground, hard, Gabrielle's eyebrow's furrowed. "What is going on here!!" She finally demanded and marched into the ring.

"Sparring," Xena simply answered, as Ephiny moaned and attempted to get up. To her surprise, she found the Empress' hand extended, offering help. Hesitantly, Ephiny accepted and found herself quickly hoisted to her feet.

"This Amazon is very good," Xena said with an appreciative smile that managed to make the mere bard feel even more inferior.

Gabrielle nodded silently as Melosa grinned with approval at the tired Amazon, who was hunched over and leaning on her staff, breathing heavily.

"Conqueror, I would be honored if you sparred with me tomorrow." Valeska smiled, though it didn't reach her eyes.

Xena grinned at the gift and looked at Gabrielle, who focused on Ephiny. The Conqueror's grin faded. "How about now?"

"I wouldn't want your loss to be blamed on fatigue," Valeska added boldly, the feeble taunt amusing the Conqueror.

Melosa and Cyrene glanced at each other uncomfortably.

"Tomorrow then," Xena said, with an easy smile. She glanced at her mother then Gabrielle. Her smiled disappeared as she watched the bard quietly help Ephiny from the sparring circle.


"We should go to the healer's hut," Gabrielle said with concern at Ephiny's pronounced limp.

"That would be admitting I was hurt!" Ephiny argued, continuing to lean heavily on the staff and bard as they approached the huts.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the stubborn warrior. "Fine. My hut's right here. Come on, before you collapse and prove how unhurt you really are."

As they entered the Princess' hut, Gabrielle pointed to her bed. "Sit."

Ephiny stared at the bed, never having been invited to sit on a Princess' bed before.

"Uh . . . "

"SIT." Gabrielle snapped and the Amazon sat. "I don't suppose common sense is something they teach Amazons these days, is it?" She asked with annoyance.

"I. . . ."

"Whatever possessed you to spar with Xena?"

"Uh. . . ."

"And I can't believe you are too stubborn to admit your ribs are broken," Gabrielle said, gently touching the Amazons ribs.


"See! Now, when I get the healer to come here, I am not going to tolerate ANY arguments about her treating you. Is that clear?"

"You won't tell anyone why, will you?" Ephiny asked with concern.

"Ephiny. . . "

"Please Gabrielle, I have a reputation . . . "

"I'll bet."


"Ok. I promise I'll be . . . discreet. But if you argue with her treatment, the deal's off. Understand?" Gabrielle said, glaring at the Amazon.


With a nod of satisfaction, Gabrielle left on a mission. Ephiny shook her head and sighed heavily, which made her grimace from the pain. Her whole body ached but she was alive, she considered. Even with all the stories, she couldn't believe how good the Empress was. But what was really surprising was how good a sport she was. She never heard any stories about that.

She looked around the Princess' hut and spotted a scroll on the table. Curiosity overcoming her better judgment, she got up. Shaking off the pain, she picked up the scroll, and opened it. Ephiny's eyes widened. It was one of those scrolls.

Glancing at the bed, her eyebrow rose curiously. The bard did suggest they go to her hut and then ordered her to sit on her bed. And Solari did say Gabrielle really, really liked her. Oh man!

After a knock at the door, Ephiny grinned. "All clear," Ephiny said with amusement. Her amusement fled, quickly replaced by fear when the door opened and she found the Conqueror glaring at her.

"Where's Gabrielle?" Xena asked coldly, noticing Ephiny looking guilty with an uneasy smile as she quickly attempted to roll up the scroll, which Xena quickly snatched from the Amazon's hands. Glancing over the scroll, the Conqueror's eyes widened.

"She's out," Ephiny said with panic, seeing Xena curiously inspect an apparently interesting picture at a different angle, before leveling a very cold glare at her.

The door swung open, drawing the Conqueror's gaze away from the Amazon. Gabrielle entered, gasped, and quickly slammed the door.

"Xena! What a surprise," Gabrielle said, leaning against the door.

The healer outside rubbed her sore nose and sighed. Foolish warriors.

"Yes," Xena said, rolling up the scroll. "What a surprise," she said evenly, handing it to the bard.

"Is there a reason you're here, Xena?" Gabrielle asked briskly as she took the scroll without flinching from embarrassment. The mere bard was far too hurt and angry at the Conqueror.

"Yes. But I wouldn't want to interrupt."

"How thoughtful," Gabrielle said, opening the door, briefly looking out to see if the Healer was still there. She wasn't, the bard noted with relief.

"I can see you have . . . company." Xena said with irritation, glaring at Ephiny, who swallowed hard.

"Yes. Miracles of miracles, I do!" Gabrielle said grandly then firmly motioned for the Conqueror to leave.

"Good for you," Xena said tersely.

"Thank you."

"Don't mention it."



Xena and Gabrielle stood a moment staring at each other, clearly annoyed. Finally, Xena growled and left the hut.

"Who does she think she is," Gabrielle grumbled as she shut the door and turned back to Ephiny.

"The Empress of the Known World?"

Gabrielle shook her head with a heavy sigh. "Ephiny, I need a favor."

"Uh, will it involve me getting killed?" The Amazon glanced at the door with worry.

"I guess it depends on how good I become." Gabrielle smirked, but noted the unsettled look still on the Amazon's face. "Look, Ephiny, if I'm going to be a Princess around here, I really need to learn a few Amazon skills."

Ephiny swallowed hard, glancing at the scroll in her Princess' hand, and remembered the Conqueror's glare. Death. A painful death. The Amazon looked up into the pleading green eyes. Oh, but what a way to go.

Ephiny kissed the bard soundly.

Chapter 16 - Helping Hands


Xena returned to her hut to find her mother waiting for her. "So, Melosa was busy tonight?"

"Xena, don't be that way."

"I am what I am, mother." Xena grunted, irritation radiating from the tall woman.

"What's wrong?"

"What could be wrong? I command the largest army in the Known World. I'm the greatest warrior living, perhaps of all time, and I'm wealthy beyond reason. I'm the most powerful woman on Earth. What could possibly be wrong?!?"

"Did you speak with Gabrielle?" Cyrene softly asked, causing her daughter to flinch.

"No. She's busy. With that . . . that . . . Amazon," Xena hissed.

"Xena, you need to talk with her and clear the air. She's probably still upset we didn't tell her we were family."

"Well, I can't now. She's . . . she's with that . . . that . . . Amazon," Xena growled as she paced.


"Yeah. You know. . . ."

"Know what?"

"You know!"

"Ohhhh. How can you be so . . . ?"

"She had a scroll! She practically threw me out of her hut so she could try it out on that . . . that . . . Amazon," Xena growled. "I'll have to kill the Amazon now. It's a shame. She's a really good fighter."

"What scroll?"

"One with lots of explicit pictures of . . . you know."

"OH! Was it basic or advanced?"

Xena's eyebrows furrowed.

"Well, they were all very helpful," Cyrene offered. "The descriptive ones were OK. But I'd have to say a good picture is worth a thousand words. And a good tutor, well," Cyrene said, then snickered. "A thousand . . . "

"Mother!!" Xena stared at Cyrene in amazement.

"It was a good thing for me the Amazons were dedicated to the hands-on approach to education," Cyrene continued, chuckling fondly. "Or should I say . . . "

"NO!! Don't," Xena quickly interjected with a cringe. "Mom, you really don't you seem to understand the problem here!"

"Actually, I think I do, dear. You should study those scrolls yourself. I can tell you, it was a turning point for . . . "

"UGH! Mom, Gabrielle is with a dedicated Amazon right NOW!!"

"Well, what are you complaining to me for? If you got a problem with that, don't you think should tell Gabrielle? Before that Amazon shows her a little too much dedication?" Cyrene smiled as the hut door slammed shut behind her daughter.


Like a fierce storm, Xena roared into the Princess' hut.

"Gabrielle, we need to. . . ."

The hut was empty.

". . . talk."


Sitting at the edge of the lake, Gabrielle sighed heavily and wiped the tears that kept falling.

Why did Ephiny have to go and kiss me? I just wanted to learn the staff. It was just so sudden! It wasn't like it was horrible. I should be happy someone thinks of me that way. Well, besides Perdicus. But she didn't even give me any warning! Gods, she must hate me.

Now I've lost a friend.

The bard's tear-filled eyes looked up into the sky. The vast sky she used to get lost in with her dreams. Dreams of being important. Dreams of being respected. Dreams of being loved. More tears fell as her head sunk back down to the earth.

Just dreams . . . .

"I think there are millions," Xena said softly as she looked up into the star-filled sky, suddenly standing near Gabrielle. The startled bard turned towards her but avoided eye contact as she quickly wiped her tears away.

Seeing the tears, Xena cringed, wondering how she, a woman who could see men's heads splattered across a bloody field without batting an eyelash, could become so uncomfortable by simple moisture falling from the bard's beautiful eyes. All she was sure of was that she had to stop them.

"Of course, that's only a rough estimate. Every time I start making some real headway on the exact number, it becomes day," Xena explained, feigning irritation as she sat down next to the bard.

The begrudgingly amused bard sniffed and curiously glanced at the Empress, who continued to look up at the sky.

"I talked with Ephiny," Xena said, receiving a concerned look. "She's sorry for assuming you wanted to . . . you know." Xena said as she struggled not to smirk, recalling that very amusing look of terror when Ephiny bumped into her, sporting a bright red hand-print on her very pale face.

Gabrielle cringed guiltily and looked back to the lake.

"She said she would like to teach you the staff, if you still want her to," Xena informed the silent bard. "You know, I could teach you too . . . if you want," she added softly with a shrug, causing the troubled bard to struggle with her jumbled emotions. Gabrielle wanted that more than anything but she wouldn't accept the Empress' pity.

Silence, which Xena was normally comfortable with, stretched on too long. The Conqueror sighed. "Gabrielle, I know you're mad at me and I'm sorry," Xena said uncomfortably, getting a surprised look from the bard.

"It's not your fault," Gabrielle said weakly, her heart heavy.

Xena's eyebrows furrowed curiously. She didn't expect an apology to go so easily, but then, she really didn't have a lot of experience in apologizing.

"Well actually, it is," Gabrielle corrected herself, making the Conqueror roll her eyes and steel herself for what was coming next. But it shouldn't be too bad, Xena thought. Cyrene had known Gabrielle longer, so the bard should really be madder at her mother.

"No one should be treated like that, Xena," she said with irritation. "But it doesn't matter now. I shouldn't let it upset me," Gabrielle said.

"Of course not," Xena readily agreed then offered "It wasn't personal. And you weren't the only one."

The bard winced at the disclosure which did not help to boost her self-esteem one bit. But a disclosure which explained so much, the bard thought.

"Xena," Gabrielle responded with concern, pushing her own heartache aside. "I really think that's a problem."

"What's a problem?"

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "You didn't even know her name, did you?" Gabrielle asked.

"Whose name??"

"What's-her-face, at the castle!" Gabrielle said with irritation.

"What does that have to do with anything?!?"

"It needs to be personal, Xena. Don't you see??"

"But I just said it wasn't personal!"

Gabrielle groaned with frustration. "Which is why it is a problem!"

"Why are you so upset?!? I was just respecting my mother's wishes. It doesn't mean I didn't trust you, Gabrielle. I do. I just couldn't tell you."

Gabrielle stared at her a moment then snapped, "What are you talking about?!?"

"What are you talking about?"

Gabrielle blinked. When the pieces fell in place, she blurted uncomfortably "Uh . . . never mind."

"Gabrielle, talk to me. Tell me what has you so mad at me," Xena said with such need, it surprised Gabrielle.

The bard winced, feeling foolish. It was foolish, she finally admitted to herself. She was upset because the Empress didn't need her or think of her "that" way. Her heart had played a cruel trick on her, ignoring the obvious facts. She was just a bard and the Empress was the most beautiful, incredible, accomplished . . . .


Gabrielle looked into those mesmerizing blue eyes, aware she could not refuse the Empress anything. Good thing she didn't just ask me to jump off a bridge or I'd be getting . . . oh GODS.

The bard blinked then tore her eyes away from the dangerous sea of blue.

"Uh . . . I . . . Well, uh, when I read the Amazon scrolls on . . . uh, you know," Gabrielle said, biting her lip as the Conqueror shifted uncomfortably. "I remembered you asking me if my skills were better than other bards, before you did that pinchy thing. I finally put two and two together. I got really mad! Then, I guess . . . hurt . . . " the bard finished softly. She's going to laugh at me, Gabrielle thought with a cringe.

Xena winced, injecting emphatically "Gabrielle, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you. Your friendship means the world to me."

Gabrielle was amazed. The Conqueror seemed to truly value their friendship. But why does my heart still ache so?

"I just didn't. . . ." Xena continued guiltily.

"Don't!" The bard snapped startling the Empress, not really wanting to hear the list of reasons that Xena didn't want her. "Please," the bard added softly. "Let's just say things turn out they way they do for a reason, and leave it at that, OK?" Gabrielle offered with a forced smile, then glanced down and combed her fingers through the grass.

Xena eyed her, then sighed heavily. Her eyes dropped to the bard's fingers which danced through the blades. With an attempted smirk, she asked "Things turn out like they do for a reason, huh? Like you becoming a princess?"

Gabrielle shook her head with a weary chuckle. "I think that's just punishment for something bad I've done."

"I don't think you could ever do anything bad," Xena offered softly.

"I'm a princess because I lied, Xena," Gabrielle said flatly.

"You were trying to help, Gabrielle. And you are still a good choice, regardless of the circumstances."

"I'm an Amazon princess who can't fight," Gabrielle muttered, shaking her head.

"Anyone can learn how to fight. But you have a good head and a good heart. You just need to work on self-confidence a bit more," Xena relayed confidently.

"Easy for you, Empress of the Known World," the bard responded with a heavy sigh.

"Do you play poker?" Xena suddenly asked.


"Yeah. Poker."

"Have we ever had a discussion where I knew what you were talking about?"

Xena grinned. "Poker is a card game where. . . ."

"I know what poker is!"

"Do you play?"

"I don't gamble."

"Now Gabrielle, I know that's not true," Xena scolded her silkily, amused at the bard's face.

"I don't!" Gabrielle repeated indignantly.

"Tell me, my bard, what do you do every night when you go up on stage and tell one of your stories?"

Gabrielle paused at the insightful comment, then noted the satisfied smirk on the Conqueror's face. "I don't see what that has to do with anything," she muttered with irritation.

The Conqueror's smirk grew with amusement. "Come on," Xena said and got up, reached down, and pulled the bard to her feet.

Chapter 17 - Raising The Ante


In the Princess' hut, the Conqueror pulled out a chair for the incredibly curious bard. When she sat down, Xena smiled and produced a deck of cards from what appeared to be thin air.

"How did you . . . ?" Gabrielle asked, only getting a satisfied smile from Xena as she sat down on the other side of the table from the bard and started to shuffle.

After watching skillful hands manipulate the cards for a few moments, the incredibly curious bard grew incredibly impatient. "All right, Xena. Why are we playing poker?"

The Conqueror smiled happily as she continued to shuffle the cards. "Because I want to."

"Oh." Gabrielle sighed, watching the amazing hands shuffle. Finally, the Dealer of the Known World swiftly distributed the cards between them, put the deck down, and picked up her hand with enthusiasm.

Reluctantly, the bard picked up her hand and glanced at it with a sigh.

"What are we betting?" Gabrielle asked as she glanced up from her cards.

Xena looked up over her hand, her piercing eyes locked on the bard's. When a dark eyebrow rose in challenge, Gabrielle's heart skipped. "Points," Xena responded flatly and her eyes dropped back to her cards.

"Oh." Gabrielle exhaled with disappointment and glanced at her hand.

"I fold." Xena suddenly said, tossing her cards onto the table.

"But you just got your cards!"

"They weren't any good."

Gabrielle stared at the Conqueror a moment. "Not that I've ever really played poker, mind you, but I get the impression that you are trying to tell me something."

"Every leader needs to know how to play poker, Princess Gabrielle."

"Ahhh," the bard responded knowingly. "It's the "knowing-when-to-bluff-even-when-I-have-nothing-in-my-hand" idea, right?" Gabrielle said with a smirk.

Xena shook her head, causing the bard to frown.

"Oh," Gabrielle said, then guessed "Is it the "play-the-cards-dealt-me" idea?"


"Uh huh," Gabrielle said with a heavy sigh, waiting for an explanation that didn't come. Finally, Gabrielle's eyes rolled with frustration. "Would you care to share with me why every leader needs to know how to play poker?"

"I just like to play poker so much, I made it a law," Xena said with the perfect poker face.

Gabrielle's hearty laugh brought a pleased smile to the Conqueror's face as she collected the cards.

The bard shook her head. "I didn't think I'd ever find anything funny again."

"Gee, thanks," Xena said flatly, making Gabrielle chuckle and place her hand over Xena's.

"Thank you," Gabrielle said warmly. "I don't know what I would do if you weren't here." Suddenly self-conscious, Gabrielle started to remove her hand but Xena captured it and held on firmly. Xena gazed at their hands for what seemed to the bard to be an eon. Finally, she looked up into the bard's questioning eyes.

"Gabrielle," Xena said hesitantly, wanting to say so much. But after a painfully long pause, Xena released her hand as if it were too hot to hold. ". . . it's getting late," the Conqueror said uneasily and stood.

"It's not that late," the bard quickly protested with furrowed eyebrows as she followed Xena to the door.

"Valeska wanted me to make sure I'm not too tired for our match. I wouldn't want to disappoint her," Xena said with a fire in her eyes.

"You're not going to kill her are you?" Gabrielle asked with concern.

"Never say never."


"Not unless she does something to deserve it." Xena smiled with hope.

"Xena. . . ."




Gabrielle sighed with frustration. "Well, at least you know my name."



Xena smiled.

Gabrielle looked at her a moment. "You're bluffing."

Xena's eyebrow rose. Gabrielle's eyes narrowed skeptically. Xena sighed, rolled her eyes, and started to leave.

"You're not bluffing?" Gabrielle asked, reaching out for the Conqueror's forearm. Xena smirked with amusement.

"Yeah, you are bluffing." Gabrielle said with conviction as Xena sighed again and started to leave.

"Xena, as your friend, I'm only trying to tell you that if you want a satisfying, intimate relationship, you really should begin by knowing the person's na. . . . " Gabrielle's lecture was silenced when the Conqueror gently cupped her cheek with a well-placed thumb pressing against her lips.

Eyes locked, like many times that evening, drawn together by a force which they had little control over. The storm of emotions they each had struggled to understand began to overwhelm them.

"You didn't know my name at first," Xena argued, then softly added "Gabrielle."

The Empress' voice whispering her name resonated within the bard, provoking a weak whimper that rocked the Conqueror to her core.

Driven to coax yet another, stirring whimper, Xena instinctively began to caress the soft flesh beneath her fingers. The tender touch easily obtained the desired response. Never before had the Conqueror felt so powerful or so frighteningly vulnerable. Offering her heart would make her completely defenseless to its acceptance or destruction. The power this small bard held over her startled the Empress of the Known World.

Daumas had warned her about letting anyone get close. It would ruin all that she had worked for. It would ruin her Empire. But she didn't care anymore. Her goal of being the best and most powerful warrior had been achieved years ago. And what good did that do? She brought some order to the troubled land. But the people were not happy. And they feared her, which was a useful tool for a Conqueror, but she was tired of being feared. And she was so very tired of being alone.

Xena couldn't even share her successes with her family. Instead of a life of incredible wealth and comfort, the only thing her mother ever asked for was that she smiled more. Xena had everything and yet, she had nothing. Until now, the Conqueror realized, gazing into the curious green eyes of the woman who made her smile.

Seeing the turbulent emotions in Xena's stormy eyes, Gabrielle feared to breathe for the spell might be broken and the tender touch taken away.

As long as Gabrielle was with her, she would have everything, even if she had nothing, Xena concluded with amazing clarity. But she would have to proceed carefully in this campaign of the heart, the Conqueror shrewdly considered. Declarations of forever right now would just scare her away. She would just indulge in a simple goodnight kiss, then go back to her hut to plan out the next important move, the Conqueror decided, satisfied with her plan.

Long fingers slipped through the strawberry blond hair as the Conqueror slowly leaned down. After what the bard would officially classify as an eternity, Conqueror's lips brushed against hers.

The jolt of arousal that accompanied the kiss startled both women.

"Again," Gabrielle whispered, surprising the Conqueror, who stared at those slightly parted lips with the same thought. But Xena knew she would still have to proceed carefully and limited herself to just one more goodnight kiss before she would go back to her hut to plan out the next important move in the most important campaign of her life. The Conqueror smiled slightly, satisfied with her plan.

Once again, their mouths met. But this time, formerly chaste lips parted, allowing tongues to tentatively touch in a shy dance that grew bolder as each fed upon the contact which only made them hunger for more. The bard's suddenly possessive hands pulled their bodies into each other, provoking deep moans from each woman.

Startled by her body's intense arousal, Xena pulled away, well aware her strategy to go back to her hut and plan her next important move was not going well at all. When fingers slipped around the back of her neck, urging her back into a kiss, a very disturbing thought entered the Conqueror's insecure mind, enabling her to resist the tempting bard, barely.

Gabrielle's eyes opened. With ragged breaths, the two women looked at each other with a mix of amazement and confusion. When Gabrielle attempted to pull the Conqueror back, she was met with disturbing resistance.

"Don't you want this?" Gabrielle whispered with hurt. The look of devastation on the bard's face made the Conqueror cringe.

"Oh Gods, more than anything," Xena exhaled heavily and blurted "wait," when the bard attempted to pull them together again.

"What's wrong?" Gabrielle asked with confusion.

"Gabrielle . . . " she said.

"What?" the bard asked as she kissed Xena's chest and neck, provoking a groan.



"Y. . .You, You're not married are you?" Xena finally croaked and intently searched the bard's face.

Gabrielle's eyebrows furrowed with confusion, then irritation. How could Xena possibly think I could be married and be with her like this? How could she possibly think I was that type of . . . !!

"Oh Gods."

"Xena?" Gabrielle said, startled at how ill Xena suddenly looked.

"I knew this was too good to be true," the tall woman blurted, trying to back away.

"Xena! I'm not married," Gabrielle said firmly, preventing the Conqueror's retreat.

Xena looked at her uncertainly. "You're not?"

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Of course not! I can't believe you! How could you think I was! When I pledge my heart, Oh Empress of the Known World, that's it. Call me old fashioned, but I will not tolerate any "you know," or to be perfectly clear, SEX, outside our marriage. And no wife swapping or multiple partners, either. It's going to be just the two of us. Period. You and me. Forever! Do you understand?"

Xena stared at the fiery bard. So much for my plan.

"Uh," Gabrielle blurted with incredible embarrassment. Tell me I just didn't say the "F" word. Oh Gods . . . .

"Just the two of us? Forever?" Xena asked.

"Yes?" Gabrielle said with a mix of hope and fear. Hope, because Xena was still standing there instead of running out of her hut. Fear, because the dazed woman looked like she had just been run over by a turnip cart. No one wants to hear about "forever" the first time they kiss, you idiot! That's like telling the ending of an epic story in the first chapter!! UGH!!! Stupid stupid stupid!

Xena blinked. Her eyes dropped to the ground.

Oh Gods, she's thinking now. Thinking how to let me down. With a sinking feeling, the bard convinced herself she had ruined everything.

"You don't want kids?" Xena asked.

Gabrielle stared at her with surprise, not sure if Xena was serious or teasing. If she was teasing, the bard was certain she would die.

"I, uh . . . well, I want, uh . . . a few, I think," the bard answered, attempting to sound confident but failing miserably.

A broad smile filled Xena's face before she kissed the bard and joyfully swept the woman up in her arms.

"Ahhh!" Gabrielle blurted and found herself gently deposited on the bed, looking up at the most beautiful smile she had ever seen. "I gather none of this frightens you?"

"It scares the Tartarus out of me," Xena admitted, causing the bard to cringe. Kneeling before the concerned bard, Xena took her hands and tried to explain. "I've never been in a relationship before, Gabrielle. I don't want to fail you," Xena said earnestly, filling Gabrielle with joy.

"I won't let you."

"I kind of figured," Xena said with a smile as she stood, starting to remove her armor.

Gabrielle got up, slapping her hands away.

"But I thought I . . . you . . . we," Xena started to complain as Gabrielle deftly reached around and quickly unfastened the armor, which dropped to the ground with loud clanks.

"Oh," Xena said, then smiled as the diligent bard quickly removed her bracers and flung them across the room. The crashing sound drew Xena's eyes away, but for only a moment. Her chin was firmly redirected back to the bard, who kissed her soundly.

Their kisses continued and Xena's hands finally claimed the leather-clad body that her eyes had coveted. She explored the back of her thigh, her firm rear, the small of her back. Soon tired of the leather beneath them, her fingers hovered at the edge of the bard's top for a few frustrating moments before she felt the bard pull away.

Gabrielle started to untie her top. But this time, Xena stopped her. Gently grasping the smaller hands, Xena kissed them.

"Fair is fair," Xena said softly as she did the honors.

When the top dropped to the floor, Xena gazed at the exposed breasts, amazed at how strongly her body responded to the sight of the bard's flesh. It wasn't as if she hadn't seen someone naked before. She had, many times. But none had provoked such desire.

Gabrielle whispered "touch me."

The soft command startled the Conqueror, who looked up a moment, then nodded and gently trailed her fingertips over the bard's chest. Gabrielle sucked in a breath when fingertips brushed over her hardened nipple. Encouraged by the response, Xena pinched and pulled the nub, getting a loud moan. Instinctively, Xena took the sensitive flesh in her mouth, continuing the teasing which sent a surprising jolt of need between her own legs.

"GODS!!" The bard gasped.

"What?!?" Xena popped up with concern, only to have her head firmly pushed back down to the bard's breast. Taking the less-than-subtle hint, Xena smiled and returned her attentions to the flesh.

Between the many kisses, caresses, and moans shared by each woman, the remaining clothes were awkwardly discarded. Finally naked and of similar minds, they paused to drink in the sight of each other. "Beautiful" each whispered and small smiles emerged.

Leaning down for a kiss, Xena was startled when Gabrielle pulled back. With anticipation in her eyes, Gabrielle made room on the bed and extended a hand in silent invitation. The focused warrior gazed into the bard's eyes as she took the offered hand and slowly crawled onto the bed to join her. The bard suddenly pulled the warrior into a searing kiss. Xena lost her balance and plopped on top of the bard.

"You ok?" The concerned Conqueror asked, looking for any hints of injury.

"Yep," Gabrielle said with a grin, slightly shifting beneath the Empress, enjoying her weight on her. "Very ok."

"Good," Xena said with a relieved smile, enjoying the feel of the bard beneath her.

Tucking a strand of the Empress' hair behind her ear, Gabrielle made a point of kissing her very carefully. Xena chuckled. "I don't think I'll fall again," Xena informed her confidently, kissing the bard back more firmly.

"Well, just make sure you don't get too close to the edge," Gabrielle warned, as they looked at each other then the edge of the bed. Xena nodded thoughtfully before chuckling with the bard.

When their eyes returned to each other, their amusement faded. The bard's hand traveled through the raven hair and guided the Empress into a long, slow kiss that they savored as their bodies shifted and limbs entangled, allowing more intimate contact.

'Oh Gods' repeated through Xena's mind as her body caught fire like never before. Her heart pounded as if she had just fought an army. The scent of the bard, which mixed with her own and grew noticeably stronger as they continued their intimate dance towards release, was intoxicating. Xena's skin was never more sensitive or responsive, tingling with each of the bard's touches. Though amazingly, when the bard's teeth sank into her shoulder, it didn't hurt, but inflamed her desire more.

Nothing compared to what Xena was feeling with this beautiful woman writhing in pleasure beneath her, not even the excitement of a good fight. It was a gift she wanted to savor. It was a feeling Xena wanted to last.

Pulling back from a deep kiss, Gabrielle looked into Xena's eyes and whispered "take me."

Xena's brow furrowed. The bard grabbed the Conqueror's hand and guided it between her legs and into her slick entrance.

"Yessss..." the bard hissed as Xena began to thrust and stroke. The Conqueror marveled at how the bard's beautiful body arched and responded to each intimate touch. Each moan was an aphrodisiac that compelled Xena to take the nearest erect nipple in her mouth and coax another.

The bard's head flung back onto the pillow, hard. "Ugggh!"

Needing to see the bard's face, Xena kissed and nibbled her way up to the bard's neck as she continued her intimate strokes.

"Harder," was the coarse request and was the immediate response. Digging her nails into Xena's back as she called her lover's name during release, Gabrielle almost brought the moaning Conqueror with her.

Xena felt the bard's grip slowly loosen as her breathing started to return to normal. The Conqueror smiled with joy for bringing pleasure to the young bard and looked into the green eyes that focused on her. Xena's smile faded when her body responded to the primal and blatant gaze of want.

Well aware 'almost' wasn't nearly good enough, Gabrielle suddenly rolled the Conqueror on her back. A slight grin crossed her face as she noticed Xena's eyes widen slightly with surprise.

"Fair is fair," Gabrielle said in a husky voice as her hand slowly traveled down the long body.

"I want you," she said as her hand reached the dark curls and Xena softly moaned.

"To feel me," the bard said and gently kissed the Conqueror's lips as her fingers focused on the hypersensitive flesh between long trembling legs.

"Loving you," Gabrielle added as she plunged into the moaning Empress.

"Gods," Xena gasped as her hips desperately countered each thrust.

"Body . . . and soul," the bard vowed as her lover finally cried out in release.

Many silent moments passed as their ragged breaths and pounding hearts calmed. Xena blinked, trying to fight the tears that welled up from the flood of emotions that had been unleashed. When the bard's arms tightened protectively around her, the tears spilled forth. After their raw emotions calmed, the bard slowly pulled back and propped herself up on her elbow to gaze at her lover. The emotionally spent and embarrassed warrior avoided looking at the bard as she awkwardly tried to wipe the evidence of her tears with a trembling hand.

"Hey," the bard said softly and lovingly caressed the warrior's tear-stained face.

Feeling a tear splash against her face, Xena curiously looked at the bard. "You too?" she whispered with surprise and joy, reaching out to reverently touch the bard's wet cheek.

"Big time," Gabrielle answered honestly and tenderly kissed the Empress' palm before pressing it against her cheek with a warm smile.

The Conqueror looked at the young bard with amazement. "That was. . . ." Xena offered, then was at a loss.


Xena nodded.

Chapter 18 - Rise and Shine


As she slowly woke, Gabrielle smiled, feeling the strong arm wrapped around her.

"Good Morning," Xena whispered softly and kissed the bard's temple.

"MmmHmmm" Gabrielle agreed and turned onto her back to find her lover with her head propped up on her hand, watching her. Xena had been like that since dawn.

The two looked into each other's eyes and small smiles were exchanged.

Gabrielle reached up and pulled Xena down for a morning kiss.


"Do you think they'll at least make it to lunch?" Solari asked, glancing back in the direction of the princess' hut as they stood in the lunch line. "You can't live on love alone."

Ephiny leveled her with a glare. "What the hell is with you and being naked all the time?!?"

"Look, my clothes-burdened friend. You can either choose to be a grump or you can be happy for her. She is obviously happy with Xena. And Xena is happy with her."

"Obviously. They were happy all night. Happy all morning. I'd say they are disgustingly happy," Ephiny snarled, prompting Valeska to chuckle as she walked up.

"It won't last," Valeska offered.

"Why do you say that, Princess?" Solari asked.

Valeska smiled. "For one thing, the hotter the flame, the more quickly it burns itself out. They'll tire of each other."

"Something tells me you are not a romantic," Solari responded.

"Or I might accidentally kill her during our match," Valeska added with amusement, ignoring Solari.

"You can't beat her, Valeska. She's . . . " Ephiny said with concern.

"Just because she bested you, Ephiny, does not mean she'll best me," Valeska said evenly, controlling her anger at the insult.

"If she knows you are going for blood, you'll die," Ephiny said with conviction.

Valeska laughed. "You are way too serious, Ephiny. I only want to have some fun out there." The princess winked and walked to the front of the line.

The two Amazons looked at each other with concern, then stared at Valeska, who sat down at the royal table with Melosa and her very good friend, Cyrene.

"You know, it might not be such a bad thing if Xena does. . . ." Solari said quietly, then jumped when she felt someone suddenly behind her.

"If Xena does what?" The Empress asked with an amused smile.

"Uh . . . "

"Good morning," Ephiny muttered, glancing over the tall woman, who sported her leather battle dress but not her armor.

"Yes. It is, isn't it?" Xena said with a big smile as she glanced around the camp and took a deep breath of fresh air. It was a beautiful day too, she considered. "Now, what is it that might not be such a bad thing?"

"Uh . . . I was just saying that if you should happen to kill Valeska, it wouldn't be such a bad thing," Solari said in a hushed tone.

"Even thinking about the death of an Amazon princess would be treason and punishable by death," Ephiny reminded Solari, who rolled her eyes.

Xena smirked. "Don't worry. I've already promised Gabrielle I'm not going to kill her," Xena said with a dismissive wave of a hand. "Excuse me, I've got a hungry bard to feed."

Ephiny and Solari silently looked at each other then the Empress, who happily gathered food on a large tray and headed back to the hut.

"Why doesn't that give me a warm and fuzzy?" Solari said, noticing Valeska's cold eyes following the Empress.


"I don't want to make you late for your match," Gabrielle said as her arms wrapped around the tall woman and she kissed Xena's neck. They had almost made it out of the hut before the bard decided they should share a private kiss, or twelve, before they were seen in public.

"You know, that's really odd. Your actions seem to be telling me something entirely different," Xena said thoughtfully as the bard kissed her chin.


"Uh huh. You know, Gabrielle, the sooner I get this over with, the sooner we can come back and . . . you know."

Gabrielle pulled back and eyed her lover. "Xena, I think you can say SEX now."

"I didn't mean SEX."

"Don't tell me you wanted to play poker."

Xena laughed. "You still need to learn, but no. I meant to say, make love."

Gabrielle responded with a big smile as Xena leaned down to kiss her.

A knocking at the hut door interrupted the Empress, who growled.


"Xena, you're scaring her," Gabrielle scolded softly as they walked behind their nervous escort, Solari, who had been told by Princess Valeska to remind the Empress of their match.

"I don't like being interrupted," Xena growled, continuing to coldly stare at the Amazon. An eyebrow suddenly rose. Interesting birthmark.

"She was only following orders, Xena," Gabrielle said, gently touching the Empress' forearm. "And you were making us late."

"Me?!?" Xena blurted as they arrived at the practice field, which was full of Amazons.

"Wow. Amazing how everyone in the village needs to practice at exactly the same time, isn't it?" Gabrielle remarked dryly.

"Do you always change the subject like that?" Xena asked.

"Only when I'm finished discussing something," Gabrielle informed her and looked for Valeska. She found her at the side of the sparring ring, sitting on a bench next to the water bucket.

"And if I'm . . . ?" Xena said with a raised eyebrow.

"Empress, so nice of you to make it," Princess Valeska said with a smile and put down the ladle in the bucket of water.

As much as Xena disliked interruptions to her time with Gabrielle, she really looked forward to kicking her. . . .

"Finally," the Princess added flatly. Gracefully, she stood and walked proudly to her opponent.

With irritation, Gabrielle noticed Valeska didn't acknowledge her. As much as the bard hated interruptions to her time with Xena, she really looked forward to her partner kicking Valeska's . . . .

"Valeska," Xena greeted her tiredly, managing to wipe the smile from the princess' face. "Why don't you choose the weapon."

"What is your best weapon, Empress?" Valeska asked, surprising the Conqueror.

"I'm not really sure," Xena answered honestly, being an expert at so many. "But the chakram is a favorite."

"Yes, well, as I don't have one, yet, why not swords?" Valeska said, gaining a nod from the Empress.

Silently, Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other a moment before Gabrielle glanced at Valeska and joined a very tense Melosa and Cyrene. As Gabrielle sat down, she smiled at Xena.

For me. Xena grinned, feeling incredibly happy.

"Well?" Valeska said flatly, standing in the center of the ring.

Returning her focus to the irritation at hand, Xena unsheathed her weapon. Now why did I promise not to kill her??


The opponents faced each other and the crowd grew quiet. Valeska whirled her sword in an impressive flourish.

Xena feigned boredom as she briefly looked at her nails, amused at the annoyed look it brought to the Princess' face. The Empress waited for the Princess' attack, which didn't take long. With a flurry of motion, Valeska's sword furiously sliced through the air . . . not once contacting her intended target. Xena had gracefully avoided the Amazon's sword.

Xena smiled at the Princess, who sneered back.


"Gabrielle?" Cyrene softly spoke to the bard, whose eyes were riveted on the tall woman in the ring.


"I hope someday, you'll find it in your heart to forgive me and we can be friends again." Cyrene said softly, getting Gabrielle's attention.


Valeska attacked again and like before, Xena swiftly dodged the attempted strikes and left the Princess tired and her sword swooshing the air.

After another vicious attack of the air, Valeska taunted between breaths "Hard to believe you are afraid of my sword, Empress."

"Hard to be afraid of something so slow, Val," Xena responded with a smile, irritating Valeska more.


"Cyrene, I'd like to think we never stopped being friends," Gabrielle said warmly. "And now that your daughter and I are . . . " the bard paused, thinking of the appropriate term. "Involved" was entirely too inadequate. What they shared was far deeper. It was truly profound, the bard considered and smiled. They were . . . .

"Sex partners?" Cyrene offered helpfully.


Xena smiled and waited for another attack which came quickly.

"You're dropping your guard on your left," Xena pointed out helpfully as she slapped the Amazon on her left side with the flat of her sword, getting amused chuckles from the crowd.

"Oh, look, now it's your right," Xena said, slapping the infuriated Amazon on her right.


"I want you to know, even though she is my daughter, I think of you as one too," Cyrene said warmly.

Gabrielle smiled, knowing if she had a mother that cared half as much as Cyrene did, she would have had a much happier childhood.

"You two make such a perfect couple," Cyrene continued, pleasing the bard, who wholeheartedly agreed.

"And, you know, it's fortunate for you that I am your lover's mother. Because if you have any questions about her, you can just ask," Cyrene said with a conspiratorial smile and wink, getting a furrowed brow from the bard, who nodded weakly, hoping the older woman was finished.

"And if you have any problems or concerns about sex . . . . " Cyrene discreetly informed her, briefly smiling at Melosa, who patted her hand.

"UH . . . thanks," Gabrielle quickly interrupted with a cringe. "But we're fine."


Enraged at the insults and the humiliation in front of her people, Valeska growled and charged the Empress, who finally parried the sloppy blows with her sword.

"You anger too quickly, Val. Have you tried to count to ten? I'm told it helps."


"Oh, sweetie, just fine?!?" Cyrene said with great concern, getting a startled look from the bard. "I thought from the sounds of things last night, then all this morning, it was much better than fine. But then, even I've been known to fake a few or. . . "

"Cyrene!" Gabrielle said in a shocked whisper, looking around to see if anyone had overheard the unwanted conversation.

"Gods know, I had to when Xena's father was still alive."

"But . . . "

"Don't worry, it happens sometimes, honey."

"But . . . "

"And I'm sure Xena has no idea. She really isn't as worldly as people might think. Well, you probably already know that," Cyrene said sympathetically, shaking her head.

"There's nothing wrong!"

"Of course not, Gabrielle. Just be patient with her, she never did care much for reading. But you'll find she's a quick study," Cyrene relayed helpfully and offered "and don't worry, I won't tell a soul," she quietly vowed, motioning locking her mouth shut and throwing away the key.

"Cyrene, there's nothing to tell!"

"Tell what?" Cyrene said innocently with a conspiratorial wink. "And sweetie, don't you think it's about time you called me Mom?"


Taking the Empress' advice, the Amazon waited to attack and found her strikes more effective. Though even with her anger under better control, Valeska was clearly no match for the Empress. When the Princess attempted to sweep the Empress off her feet, she found her legs swept out from beneath her and her back hitting the ground.

She jumped to her feet and angrily thrust her sword as she flung the dirt into the Empress' eyes.

"HEY!" Gabrielle jumped up onto her feet angrily, seeing Xena cringe at the painful sting in her eyes as she deflected the Princess' blows.

"Do not interfere, Gabrielle," Melosa said evenly.

"She's not fighting fair!!"

"Honey, Xena will be fine," Cyrene said uneasily.

"Ugh!! And Valeska considers herself worthy to be QUEEN?!?" Gabrielle snapped.

Melosa silently looked at the angry bard, then her adopted daughter. The same question had plagued her for years.


The Amazon crowd murmured uneasily, concerned the Empress might punish them for Valeska's actions.

"Sorry about that," Valeska said insincerely. "Let's take a break. You need to take care of your eyes."

Xena blinked at her, gripping her sword, ready to fight blind if the Amazon made one move. Even now, she knew she could beat the Amazon.

"I mean it. You were right about my anger being a problem. That was uncalled for and I apologize." Valeska motioned to the water bucket on the bench. "I'll be here when you get back."

Prompted by the pain in her eyes, Xena carefully moved to the side of the sparring ring. Exhaling with irritation, she scooped up a handful of cold water and splashed it into her face to remove the stinging dirt. She glanced over to the Amazon waiting in the center of the ring with annoyance then splashed another handful of water into her watering eyes.

"Are you ok?" Gabrielle asked with concern as she jogged up to her lover's side.

"I've had far more challenging fights, Gabrielle," Xena snapped with frustration, rubbing water over her face again. She should have anticipated dirty tricks from the Amazon. And she was still up to something, Xena considered, glaring at her opponent.

"Oh," Gabrielle said in a small, hurt voice.

Xena's attention quickly returned to the bard. "I . . . I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I'm not used to anyone caring," she said with guilty cringe.

"Well, I do care, Xena. And you're just going to have to get used to it," Gabrielle said firmly.

"Thank you," the Empress said softly with a smile.

"Yes, well, you should hurry up so we can . . . " Gabrielle said and glanced back toward the hut.

"Play poker?" Offered Xena, who sipped a handful of water.

"If that's what you really want," Gabrielle said with a weary sigh, causing a smirk from the Empress.

"Well, we could play for something a little more interesting than points," the Empress suggested.

"Oh? Well, carry on," Gabrielle said with a smile and motioned her lover to continue with sparring. "Quickly."


Xena returned to the center of the ring, stifling a yawn as Gabrielle sat back down with Melosa and Cyrene.

"Am I boring you, Empress?"

"Boring isn't the word I'd use."


Xena rolled her eyes and stifled another yawn. "Go ahead."

With new confidence, Valeska grinned and whirled her sword in a flashy display before she attacked. Xena blinked, feeling oddly sluggish. Her eyelids also felt incredibly heavy.

Shaking her head, she continued to spar with the cocky Amazon who seemed to put up a better fight now. In a swift attack, Xena blinked trying to keep her opponent in focus. Something was wrong.

Valeska grew more bold in her attacks and nicked the Warrior Princess' arm, drawing a trickle of blood.

"Do Amazons usually go for blood when they spar!" Gabrielle stood and snapped at Melosa, whose attention was on the match.

"Melosa, something's wrong," Cyrene said, concerned the Queen was doing nothing except quietly watch the fight.

Valeska swept the feet from beneath the Empress, who quickly got back on her feet, surprising the Amazon.

The Amazon knocked the sword from Xena's tired grip and delivered a round-house kick to her head. The Empress's head snapped back as she collapsed to the ground. Sensing her need to move, Xena summoned her strength and rolled away from a blow meant to kill.

"Stop this!" Gabrielle yelled to Melosa. "Valeska is trying to kill her!" Seeing no action from the Queen, Gabrielle bolted from the older women to the sparring ring.

Feeling her sword by her hand, Xena instinctively grabbed it. Rolling on her back, she thrust up and felt a heavy jolt. Blinking her opponent into focus, Xena saw wide eyes of surprise as Valeska looked down at the blade sticking into her gut.

"Pleasant . . . dreams," Valeska snarled before collapsing to the ground, dead.

"Xena!" Gabrielle rushed through the crowd to the Empress' side.

Xena fought to remain conscious and looked up into the bard's face with great concern. "I broke my promise," Xena whispered, blinking to keep the angelic face in focus.

"I don't care! Xena, Xena what's wrong?" Gabrielle said, trying to remain calm.

"Water . . . must have been . . . drugged," Xena said, fighting to stay awake.

"Get the Healer!!" Gabrielle urgently commanded to the crowd hovering around them, and returned her attention to Xena. "The healer will be here soon, you'll be ok." She said nervously. "Do you hear me? You'll be ok!"

"Gabrielle?" Xena said weakly as her eyelids shut.

"What is it, Xena? Xena?!?"

Chapter 19 - The Awakening


The bard's kiss consumed her. The Empress pulled her closer, relishing the contact that she hungered for and could never get enough of. Their bodies melded together perfectly as they once again reached the edge of release.

"Xena." A faint voice called out. The startled Empress broke away from her lover's kiss and looked around the darkened bedchamber, unnerved by the familiar voice. She shivered as a cold breeze blew across her skin.

The warm bard pulled her back into a heated kiss, which made the Empress wonder if she had imagined it.

"I need you," the voice said more loudly as a chill swept over Xena.

"Who's there!" The Empress jumped out of bed and demanded as she pulled a robe around herself.

"Xena, come back to bed, I need you," the bard said reaching out for the confused Empress, who looked at the dark corner of the room with concern.

"I don't know what to do," the familiar voice admitted despondently.

"Don't you hear that?" Xena asked, quickly glancing back to her lover with irritation. The cold made her shiver and tie her robe around her.

"Hear what? Xena, I'm getting cold. Come back to bed."

"I need you, Xena," the voice called out, drawing the Empress deeper into a dark, cold, corner of the room.

"Gabrielle??" Xena asked in confusion, squinting into the blackness, finally recognizing the needful voice.

"Xena, come back and help me warm up," her lover said with a smile, moving the covers down, in invitation for the Empress to return. Xena glanced back at the bed, where a beautiful, naked bard was waiting for her.

The great temptation to return to bed was countered by the disturbing voice, pleading in the darkness. "I need you."

The confused Empress' heart started to pound, knowing there was a problem. A huge problem. One that involved Gabrielle.

"Please come back to bed, Xena. I need you."

Xena looked back at the bard in her bed in helpless confusion as Gabrielle's voice called to her again from the darkness. "I need you more than ever. . . ."

The cacophony of pleas swirled through her throbbing head, tearing Xena from her warm cocoon and into the cold, frightening darkness.

"UGH!!!" She growled as she sat up and clenched her head. A thin veil of material fell from her face and torso. Angrily, she ripped the material from her body, tossing it to the floor as she blinked and tried to focus on her surroundings. But she was in complete darkness. She shivered, the chill in the air going straight to the bone.

"Gabrielle?" Her voice cracked as she called out and awkwardly got up from her pallet. As her voice echoed, her sluggish body stumbled over something and into a rocky wall. Her body had never ached so much.

She tried to remember what happened and how she got to this cave. She remembered killing that Amazon . . . Valeska . . . then . . . nothing. She shook her head, trying to clear the cobwebs clouding her mind. It didn't help. Still shivering from the cold, she groaned with irritation.

Recalling she just tripped on something, she slowly knelt down. Her hands searched the ground and knocked over a few containers. She felt a few scrolls and continued searching until she found something that she really needed right now, a torch. She smiled with relief when she also found what felt like a flint stone near by.

After a few unsuccessful sparks that were quickly swallowed by the blackness, her unsteady hands finally ignited the torch, causing her to cringe at the sudden light. She continued to shiver as she wedged the torch in a crack in the cave wall. Holding her hands near the flame, she slowly started to warm up.

Inspecting her surroundings, she spotted a deep, narrow crevice. The exit, she hoped, though she couldn't see any light at its end.

Her stomach growled, prompting her to examine the containers, correctly guessing that whoever thought enough to supply a torch, would also supply some food. Gabrielle, she thought with a smile. Her smile disappeared when she noticed mold covering the food in one cracked container. Tossing it aside, she looked for more food in the vessels and found dried fruit. After ensuring it didn't have fur on it, she sniffed it. Concluding it was OK, she popped a piece in her mouth.

As she chewed, she sighed heavily and rubbed her temples, still feeling very groggy. Now needing water, her eyes lifted to a large barrel against one wall of the cave. She smiled. After drinking her fill of water, she curiously looked around, still wondering why she was there. Her eyes dropped to the scrolls. There were a number of them. Her eyebrow rose with interest.

The first scroll she unrolled contained a sketch . . . of her. She laughed. "Wanted: Xena's head - five thousand dinars," she read with amusement. "Hey! What about the rest of me??" She said with mock irritation, shaking her head as she read on. "For crimes against Cirra."

Her amusement died as she recalled how that horrible fire consumed that village and its people. A fire she caused, she thought guiltily.

Daumas had handled that problem for her, just like the others. It was better for people to think she deliberately destroyed the village, he said, reminding her they were behind on their taxes. He told her that her ability to rule would be severely damaged and the people would laugh at her if they ever found out the fire was a result of a disastrous roll in the hay with that farmer's daughter.

Those candles seemed like a good idea at the time. Who knew it was going to be such a dry season?? Xena shook her head with regret, wishing those people had thought enough to run away from the fire. That only made the tragedy that much worse. Not only did she kill a bunch of people that day, she killed a bunch of dim-witted people. Oh the shame, the warrior thought with great guilt.

But those kinds of horrible experiences were a thing of the past, she thought with a sense of hope. And no longer would she be obsessively looking for a good lay. She didn't have to. For she found so much more when she stumbled upon that passionate bard, who happened to be her soulmate, the Conqueror thought, shaking her head with amazement. Glancing around the cave, she wondered where her soulmate was, feeling uneasy at her absence.

She picked up another scroll and unrolled it. More beautiful than the handwriting was the greeting, Xena noted with a smile.

My Dearest Xena,

I knew one day you would wake to read this letter. I wish I was at your side, holding you and telling you everything that has happened. But I can not be with you and still ensure your protection from the many bounty hunters that now roam the land. Would you believe they only want your head? What fools.

Xena chuckled, recalling Gabrielle's unabashed appreciation of her body. Her smirk faded as she read on.

You have been in a deep sleep. Valeska drugged you in an attempt to kill you during a sparring match. She did not count on how stubborn you are. Even drugged, you were able to kill her. Please do not feel guilty. I was naive to ask you to make a promise not to kill her. Her death was justified and much more merciful than the punishment I would have demanded had she lived, for she stole something very precious that can never be returned. Our time together.

Xena's eyebrows furrowed. Gabrielle, who wouldn't harm a soul, wanting a punishment worse than death for the Amazon? How much time are we talking here, Xena wondered.

The healer said you would not wake, but I knew she was wrong. So, I sat with you, read to you, talked to you, and tried everything I could think of to rouse you. But you didn't wake. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into horrible months.

Months? Oh Gabrielle, Xena thought with a heavy heart, amazed anyone would have been so devoted or cared that much for her.

It only took a few months before greedy and power-hungry people took advantage of your mysterious absence. Battles were fought. Lands were lost and gained. Many innocent and not so innocent people died. The Amazons fought nobly, attempting to restore peace where we could. But we were foolish to think we could defeat the new Empress, Callisto, in a head-to-head conflict. She has an amazingly devious mind which we all underestimated, not to mention many spies and a very large army. I only wish the cost of that lesson had not been Queen Melosa's life.

Xena worried how her mother was handling Melosa's death and quickly read on.

Cyrene is strong, as I knew she would be. I eventually convinced her to return to the tavern. She'll be much safer there than roaming the country-side with us. She agreed only after I promised to call her 'Mom.' I hope you don't mind. She was rather persistent and it somehow made the brief time we had together more real.

We will continue to fight Callisto however we can, until the day she is defeated. She must be defeated. She is insane, killing the innocent, even children, who pose absolutely no threat, just because it amuses her. Oh Xena, I wish they were just bards' tall tales, but I have seen these heinous acts and I will have nightmares for a very long time. I wish I could have done something, anything, to stop it.

A sinking feeling in Xena's stomach grew. Gabrielle was living through this horrible time . . . alone. The Conqueror silently vowed her soulmate would not be alone for long.

Callisto has no honor, promising to discuss peace, then slaughtering those who dare seek it. We all had great hope that our friend, Najara, who I found to be a kindred spirit, would help us conquer this evil.

Xena's eyebrow rose. Najara?

Amazingly, with her army, we broke Callisto's hold on the Eastern kingdom. That, and Najara's enlightened way, instilled many with hope - a precious thing we were beginning to lose, including me. When Najara spoke of opening hospices across the country for the poor, I actually started to think of the future again, instead of the horrible present. The country will need rebuilding and it will be a great challenge. It will need farmers, carpenters, teachers, and healers of both the flesh and the soul. But sadly, as I had reminded Najara, until Callisto is defeated, we must continue to face reality - the country needs warriors, today and for the foreseeable future.

Against my pleas for caution, Najara met with Callisto on supposedly neutral land, confident she could bring peace once and for all and start on our future.

This Najara must have been nuts, Xena thought. Our future?? Hey . . . .

When she didn't return to camp, I went to find her. I discovered Najara had been burned at the stake.

Stupid is as stupid does, Xena considered.

I was told by a man who saw the whole thing, that at the very end Najara kept begging for gin. I can only imagine how horrible the pain must have been. Najara never drank alcohol.

I lost a good friend that day . . . and many other days, because of Callisto. But we will fight on. We must. And even though the once-proud Amazon nation has been reduced to a small band of warriors, we have still managed to be a thorn in Callisto's side.

Xena smirked with a bit of pride for her bard's accomplishment.

In fact, Callisto has placed a bounty on our heads too.

Xena's smirk faded, not thrilled at the result of her beloved's accomplishment.

As far as Amazons go, my head fetches the most, four thousand dinars.

Well at least Callisto realizes the Conqueror's head is more valuable, Xena thought, reminding herself to point that important fact out to Gabrielle when she saw her next.

But I would like to note that your head only brings more money because it is so much larger than mine.

The Conqueror laughed.

You might be interested in knowing that even though people feared you and blamed you for their troubles in the past, I hear many of those same people now say they wish you would return. That is my wish every night.

As much as it hurts, I can no longer visit you. I put you at risk every time I give into my weakness. I wasn't thinking and two bounty hunters followed me this time. They are no longer a threat to either of us, but I was lucky. I know one day, there will be someone better when I make another mistake. I can't risk them finding you too.

Great sorrow washed over the Conqueror, who couldn't imagine what Gabrielle must be going through.

When you leave this cave, be very careful, my love. Everything has changed. Except my love for you. My heart aches every moment we are not together. Hurry up and come home to me. I need you.

Queen Gabrielle

Xena stared at the writing, trying to digest the incredible news. A horrible, sinking feeling grew as the plea for help that roused her from the deep sleep haunted her.


As the sun set, the Amazon Queen sat alone on a hill, overlooking the camp of Amazons as they prepared for one of the few peaceful evenings they had left. Soon, they would be joining with the Centaurs for a real chance of defeating Callisto. But with that chance, would come the death of many, regardless of the outcome. The young Queen's heart weighed heavy for what she had to do.

"Xena." Tears fell from her eyes as she softly spoke to her long-missing lover. "I don't know how much more of this I can take."


Taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, Xena slowly rolled up the scroll and placed it on the pallet. Her fingers and eyes lingered over the parchment a moment before she sought her weapons.

Spotting her sword and chakram, she went to them with purpose in her stride. She was going to return to Gabrielle and rid the land of this monster Callisto! As she knelt, she found in the midst of the weapons, a deck of cards with a note wrapped around them. Opening the note, she read its contents.

I learned more about that "fascinating" game called poker. Did you know you could use clothing instead of points?

She laughed softly, picturing Gabrielle asking her that. Taking a deep breath, she stood with determination.

"I'm coming, Gabrielle."


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