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THE CONQUEROR’S STONE

By Djwp

 

All we are, and all we seem,
is but a dream ...
A dream within a dream

- Edgar Allen Poe

 

CHAPTER 1

"Stop him!" Xena commanded.

Instantly, Darfus moved into action.

The blond-haired intruder was too fast. He bolted past the royal guards clutching the precious jewel stolen from the Conqueror’s staff, took a running leap from the steps, and then simply disappeared into thin air.

Darfus froze, dumbfounded, hand still on the hilt of his sword which he had yet to draw.

The Conqueror was furious beyond words. Before Darfus could react, Xena was standing directly behind him. Both of them were staring at the empty yet slightly shimmering spot from which the intruder had vanished. And then recognition washed the anger from Xena’s eyes.

"That was him!" Xena’s voice caused Darfus to whirl around in surprise.

"Who?" the Royal Commander began to ask before the look in the Conqueror’s eyes made him stop.

Xena snarled and pointed the now bare end of her favorite scepter at the empty space. "That was him! The one who came to me in Cirra!"

"Cirra!" Darfus protested. "Xena, that was years ago!"

"You fool!" the Conqueror yelled and she pushed what was now only a stick unexpectedly into the arms of Darfus, throwing him completely off balance. "I want that jewel, and that man, found! I want him, Darfus!"

The Royal Commander shifted the staff nervously in his hands. "As you wish, Conqueror."

"Just do it!" Xena lifted the bottom of her ornate gown and turned abruptly, stomping away.

"Great," Darfus thought to himself as he watched the ruler of the known world’s angry departure. "Now where do I begin to look for a man who just disappeared into thin air?"

 

 

Xena stormed into the imperial bedchamber and slammed the door behind her so hard, the tall posts on the royal bed shook all the way down to the mattress.

Satrina paused in her task of folding the sheets and cringed.

"I can’t believe it!" Xena fumed as she stomped into the room.

The slave composed her features, put down the linen and turned to face her mistress. "What’s happened, Conqueror?"

"Quiet!" Xena glared at the girl. Satrina turned her eyes downward and stood very still, breathing a small sigh of relief when the Conqueror continued her pacing.

"He could have been an assassin! He could have stabbed me in the chest and then gotten away, just like that." The warlord snapped her fingers and Satrina looked up with concern. Had there been an attempt on Xena’s life?

"I guess I’m lucky all he took was that odd jewel." Xena almost laughed at the absurdity. The man could have ended her reign by taking her life, but all he took was a green stone. Her smile turned to a frown. "He took my favorite green stone and then he just vanished right into thin air!"

Satrina watched with fascination as Xena worked out the details. She loved watching the beautiful woman think through problems, the ideas seemed to wash across her blue eyes like shadows on glass.

"And it was him, I’m sure of it!" Xena bit her nail as her eyes seemed to stare through a window to the past. "The one they brought to me in Cirra. The one who knew about ..." She paused and looked at her slave. The woman was watching her intently while she had almost said her son’s name. "What are you looking at? Don’t you have work to do?"

Satrina averted her eyes. "Yes, Conqueror."

"Then get to it!"

"Yes, Conqueror."

The slave turned back to her task, bending down to fumble for the sheets, until the unmistakable presence of her mistress filled the air behind her. Halting as she drew the pile of linen into her arms, she risked a glance and caught site of the tale end of a leather whip as it snaked along the floor at her feet.

"Drop the sheets," Xena’s low voice purred in her ear.

"Yes, Conqueror." Satrina smiled and did as she was told. She stood slowly and turned to find her tall, dark master staring at her with lust-filled eyes.

Xena grinned seductively and took a step closer to Satrina; close enough to hear the slight tremble of the slave’s breath at the sight of the whip. Suddenly, all thoughts of the theft of her jewel were gone. Instead of the blond-haired man from Cirra, Xena found herself thinking about the blond-haired woman she had sentenced to the cross just prior the incident.

The one who had stood tall and proud and unafraid before Xena, Destroyer of Nations, Conqueror of the World and had spoken her mind. Xena had surprised herself, and everyone else there, by rising from her throne and walking down the stairs of the podium to stand before the dissident. The beautiful woman had not flinched, did not look away. Instead, she stared right into the eyes of the Conqueror, and Xena had felt the uncontrollable urge to touch her.

She remembered grabbing the prisoner’s chin and running her thumb along soft, warm lips. The connection had sent a shiver right down to her very toes.

Just thinking about it was bringing back the most delicious sensations.

Xena grabbed Satrina’s chin and ran a thumb along her lips in exactly the same manner. "Are you guilty?" she asked, mentally replacing the face of the dark-haired slave with the glowing image of the beautiful blond.

But when the slave’s lips moved to answer, Xena shushed them to silence. "No, no, no. No need to answer. Of course you’re guilty," Xena crooned, smoothing the dark curls of the slave’s hair, wishing they were straight and golden. "We all are."

Then the whip snapped and Xena’s eyes turned cold.

 

 

Soft morning light found its way into the royal bedchamber, slipping over the windowsill and lighting the quiet room in a golden haze. It was the shift in temperature that woke the sleeping warrior; the change from cool to warm caused blue eyes to blink open a few times, only to close quickly, pained by the insult of bright light.

Xena groaned and threw an arm over her eyes. Her body had already registered that she had slept passed dawn -- a rare occurrence and one that Gabrielle would no doubt not let her forget. Well, she might as well take advantage of the situation. Xena rolled over and wrapped her arm around the warm body lying next to her. The ground felt incredibly comfortable this morning. She pulled the bard to her and wiggled as close as she could, wanting to make contact with as much skin as possible. Her hand sought for, and found, a soft, warm breast. Xena took a deep breath and sighed happily.

The happy sigh halted abruptly. Gabrielle’s scent was different. Xena sniffed a few more times just to be sure. Definitely, the bard’s scent was somehow ... wrong.

Xena shifted her hand. The breast she was holding was the wrong shape completely.

The warrior’s eyes popped open in alarm. She found herself staring at a mass of black curls, and she was holding someone who was most definitely not Gabrielle ... not even close.

Xena yelped in surprise and attempted a quick roll out of the bedskins, only to find herself falling out of a bed and landing with a solid thump upon the floor. After a momentary jumble of long arms and legs, she managed to scramble to her feet simultaneously looking for her sword, chakram, knives and bard.

All she found was a terrified stranger staring back at her, eyes round with fear.

"Conqueror! What’s wrong?" the stranger said, bringing the sheets up to cover her naked body.

Xena backed away from the bed, instinct preparing her for an attack from all sides. Her eyes darted everywhere at once, trying to take in as much of the situation as possible, until the woman’s words worked their way to her brain and made themselves understood.

Xena froze and stared at the stranger. "What did you call me?"

The woman wrapped her naked body up in the sheets quickly and removed herself from the bed. She knelt on her knees, bowing in supplication before the confused ruler.

"Conqueror, please," the dark-haired woman said, bringing her forehead to the ground. "I’ve displeased you."

"Wha ... what?"

"I’ve made you angry. Tell me what you wish me to call you, if not Conqueror."

Xena had no idea whatsoever what was going on. She stared at the woman bowed before her in disbelief. "Did you call me ‘Conqueror’?"

The woman lifted her head. "Yes, Conqueror. Is that wrong?"

The warrior was too busy trying to get her mind around being called Conqueror to answer the question. That name was something she had dreamed up for herself in a time when all her dreams were centered around one day ruling the world. And then the question was all but forgotten, when Xena recognized the face staring up at her.

"Satrina?" she asked incredulously.

"Yes," the woman answered bluntly.

"What are you doing here?"

"I’m sorry, Conqueror," the woman bowed her head again. "I thought you wanted me to stay the night."

Xena knew for certain that she was missing out on a big part of this conversation.

"All right," the warrior said, bringing her hands up in surrender. "Let’s start from the beginning. First thing’s first." Xena pursed her lips and took some steps toward the window, careful not to take her eyes from the prone woman. "Exactly where am I?"

Satrina stayed quiet for a few moments, watching the Conqueror move to the window and thinking surely this must be a trick question.

"You’re in your bedchamber?" The slave attempted to answer.

Xena paused, the answer registering for the first time the fact that she was indeed standing in a bedchamber . Was that a trick answer? Xena continued to move cautiously to the window.

"And where is the bedchamber?" the warrior asked, taking a leaning glance outside.

Satrina thought carefully again before answering. "In your castle?"

Xena froze. "My castle?"

Satrina didn’t reply immediately. Was that a question? Hadn’t she just said that? "Your palace?" she tried as an alternative.

Xena stared at the woman in disbelief. My palace? She hesitantly took her eyes away to stare out of the window at the city stretched out before her. "Corinth? This is Corinth?"

Satrina knotted her brow in concern. "Yes, this is Corinth." She suddenly found the courage to rise. "You are in your bedchamber, in your palace, in your city, Corinth." When the expression of surprise and confusion on Xena’s face did not change, Satrina moved forward with worry. "Conqueror, are you all right?"

Xena was staring at the woman in unabashed amazement. She was in a bedchamber, that much was true. And it appeared to be in a castle which was definitely located in Corinth. She looked down at herself and noticed for the first time that she was completely naked.

"Where are my clothes!" she shouted. And then an even worse thought filled her mind. "Where is Gabrielle?" All other concerns suddenly became secondary.

"Where is Gabrielle, Satrina?" Xena asked, her voice suddenly turning menacing as she advanced on the slave. "What have you done with Gabrielle?"

Satrina’s worry turned to instant fear and she backed away quickly. "Conqueror, I have no idea who you are talking about."

"Stop calling me that!" Xena grabbed the woman by the shoulders, hard. "What have you done with Gabrielle?"

"I don’t know, Conque ..." Satrina swallowed the word when Xena growled. "Please ..." she searched her mind desperately for another title. "Please ... master ... I don’t know," she pleaded wincing as the iron grip on her shoulders became painful. She averted her eyes, finding the cold, hard stare of the Conqueror impossible to take.

The use of the term ‘master’ brought Xena to an abrupt halt. She released the pressure of her grip from the woman’s shoulders and took a step away, trying to compose herself. She had to stop reacting and think. She looked quickly around the room for her leathers and weapons, not surprised when they were nowhere to be seen.

There was something most definitely wrong. She needed to take stock in her situation and figure a few things out before she got herself, and possibly Gabrielle, into even bigger trouble.

"Would you find me something to wear?" she asked the obviously terrified woman.

The question jerked Satrina into action. "Of course," the slave answered, exceedingly happy to have something to do. "Right away." She purposely left off any titles, determined not to bring her master’s anger out again.

Xena watched her ex-slave, Satrina, as she walked directly to a wardrobe and quickly chose a robe for the warrior to wear. It seemed that Satrina knew exactly where to go and what robe to pick as though she had done it a million times. The slave was as efficient now in taking care of her master in this palace as she had been in a battlefield tent all those years ago. Just as though her role as slave to the Destroyer of Nations had never ended.

Satrina handed the robe over to Xena with a smile and a bow. It was made of the finest silk from Ch’in Xena noted as she allowed the slave to help her put it on. A knock at the door surprised them both. Xena quickly tied a sash around her waist, motioning with her head for the woman to answer the door.

Satrina swung two huge ornate doors inward and Darfus marched into the room.

If it had been possible, Xena would have had to bend down to pick up her jaw from the floor. If she had suspected something was amiss before, now she was sure of it. The warrior closed her mouth and decided not to say a word.

The man who Xena and Hercules had together once sent to Hades bowed to Xena and smiled nervously.

"Good morning, Conqueror. It’s late. Did you forget about the meeting?"

Xena said nothing. She didn’t know what to say. The last thing she wanted to do was appear vulnerable before Darfus and she had already revealed too much of her confusion to another enemy ... Satrina. The warrior decided she needed to go with the flow as much as possible until she could figure out what was going on.

Darfus waited quietly for her reply.

"You’re not still angry about that ugly jewel, are you?" Darfus smiled, revealing a mouth full of rotten teeth.

Feeling silence was the best policy at this point, Xena sat on the bed and folded her hands.

Darfus lost his smile.

"Xena, we looked everywhere for him, but you saw it! The man disappeared into thin air! How could you expect us to find him." Darfus sauntered confidently to the bed. "It’s obvious that the gods were involved," he whispered in Xena’s ear.

Xena’s eyes grew wide at the mention of the gods. She should have known. Xena stood so abruptly, Darfus almost tripped backward. "What makes you think the gods were involved?"

The commander snorted. "You were there. You saw what happened."

"Humor me, Darfus," Xena sneered, falling easily into the role of a warlord. "Tell me what happened. Every detail. Leave nothing out. I want to see how observant you are."

Darfus squared his shoulders accepting the challenge and grinned. "We were watching two gladiators battle it out. It was a good fight, too. Darius is good with the sword, but Marcus is better with the lance, don’t you think?"

"Cut to the chase, Darfus. What happened with the jewel?"

"Yeah, well, we were so wrapped up in the fight, we didn’t see the short, blond guy jump out from the side of the stage. He grabbed that ugly, green jewel off of the top of your scepter and before anyone could spit, he disappeared in a flash of green light."

Xena’s eyes were wide. Things were beginning to come very terrifyingly clear.

"Short, blond man you say?"

"Yeah, you seemed to know him from somewhere ..."

"Short, muscular ... fast and agile ... blond, curly hair about down to here?" Xena said, indicating hair at chin length with her hand.

Darfus nodded.

"And he grabbed a green jewel and then disappeared?"

Darfus nodded again.

There was only one man who fit that description, Xena thought quickly, her mind working overtime. Iolaus.

"Darfus," Xena smiled and moved very close to her ex-Lieutenant. "Tell me EXACTLY what this green stone looked like."

Darfus appeared to be loosing his patience with the Conqueror this morning. "Xena, you KNOW what it looked like. It was your favorite jewel!"

"I know I know, but I want to see if YOU know, Darfus. Tell me what it looked like!"

The Lieutenant growled in impatience. "It looked like a green piece of shit piled on top of a hunk of gold! Xena this is a waste of time. Forget about the jewel. Go pick out another from the vault. We have a meeting to get to and you are already late."

What Darfus had just done was given Xena a perfect description of the Chronos stone. That stone and the presence of Iolaus could only mean one thing ... TROUBLE.

Xena was still processing the possibilities in her mind when Darfus grabbed her arm.

"Xena, did you hear a word I said? Brutus is waiting. He’s BEEN waiting for an hour. You can’t keep the governor of Rome waiting all morning."

"What?" Xena asked, the name of Brutus grabbing her attention. "Did you say Brutus?"

"Yes, Brutus. You had a meeting with him. Remember? He’s very grateful to you for taking the time to see him. And you want to see him while he’s still grateful. You don’t want to lose the advantage of that, by making him wait. He’ll get angry."

"What do I care if Brutus is angry?" Xena snapped. Now, that was a statement that would be true no matter what was going on. The last thing Xena wanted to do was talk to Brutus of Rome. And then something Darfus said registered with the warrior. "What did you call him?"

Darfus sighed. "Governor of Rome. Come on, Xena. You made him governor after he assassinated Caesar. How could you have forgotten that?"

"I didn’t forget," Xena stated, thinking furiously. "I just wanted to remind you. He is the governor and I am ... who?"

Darfus nodded in resignation. "You are Xena, the Conqueror. Ruler of the world. I get what you’re saying."

Xena paused at the title, taking all the facts in as they settled into place.

"I have a headache. Tell Brutus the meeting is off. I won’t be seeing anyone today. Got that?"

"But Xena ..."

"Get out of here, Darfus. I leave you to take care of Brutus."

Darfus sighed, resigning himself to the Conqueror’s will and left the room. Satrina closed the door quietly behind him and waited for Xena’s command. Normally, the slave would know exactly what to do to serve the Conqueror in the morning. Today, however, was anything but a normal morning.

Xena sat quietly on the bed and examined the beautiful silken robe which had obviously been fashioned in the land of Ch’in.

Satrina watched as Xena fondled the robe as though she had never seen it before. "Your favorite robe, Conqueror," the slave explained. "A gift from Lao Ma."

Xena looked up, her expression betraying nothing. "And how is Lao Ma?"

"She’s fine," Satrina answered, frowning. "Why? Have you received bad news from Ch’in?"

"No, I just wondered if you had heard any gossip," Xena responded softly, thinking quickly to cover up her reason for the question.

Satrina smiled at that. Xena always knew where to find the most accurate information. "No gossip ... accept that the Roman toga you gave her is her favorite as well. She wears it all the time." The comment got no reaction from the Conqueror. Satrina had expected at least a grin. She must miss Lao Ma. Understandable.

"Satrina," Xena said, patting the place on the bed beside her. The slave walked over and sat down. "Did you see what happened yesterday ... with the jewel?"

"No, Conqueror."

"Have you ever seen or talked to the man Darfus described?"

"No, Conqueror."

Xena forced her mind to think quickly. If Satrina was still her slave and Darfus was still alive, then maybe the Chronos stone was used to send her back to her past and trap her here. Perhaps Iolaus, with the help of some god, traveled back to the past to steal the stone in an attempt to help her escape.

But this doesn’t fit, because Caesar is dead and Brutus is governor ... not emperor ... and she ... Xena ... is Conqueror of the world.

Lao Ma is still alive. Gabrielle is nowhere to be seen.

Xena stood up abruptly from the bed. By the gods, this isn’t the past and it isn’t the future, either.

She was in the present, but it was a different present, an alternative present to the one she was living just yesterday.

Someone ... or some god ... has changed the course of events and altered her destiny. She has become exactly what she desired to be when she was a warlord, before she was turned to the path of good ... by Hercules. The presence of Iolaus could only mean one thing: something terrible has happened to the demi-God; something so traumatic that it altered the shape of the present. Iolaus must have stolen the Chronos stone in an attempt to change things back.

But something must have gone wrong, because things have not changed back ... at least, not all the way.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 Xena quickly reviewed the situation in her mind. Last night, she went to sleep next to a warm campfire with Gabrielle wrapped in her arms. This morning, she woke up in a strange bed, next to her ex-slave Satrina and she was Conqueror of the World.

All right, she could handle this. First things, first -- she needed to determine what had become of Gabrielle in this new reality. If Iolaus was in the vicinity trying to change things, then her Gabrielle couldn’t be far behind. She needed to find them and then find a way to help them.

"Satrina, have you seen a woman with long, golden-blond hair?" Xena asked the slave, but Satrina stared back at her with a blank expression. "She stands about this tall, green eyes, very beautiful ... talks a lot?"

A flicker of recognition lit up Satrina eyes, "Do you mean the dissident you sentenced yesterday? The one Darfus arrested who was speaking out against you at the Palladium?"

Xena’s heart fell to the pit of her stomach. "Was her name Gabrielle?"

Satrina shrugged, "I don’t know her name, but she was involved with the Resistance. At least that’s what Darfus said."

Of course, Xena thought, that would make perfect sense. Gabrielle would have been the first one to rally against her had she indeed conquered the world. Xena was afraid to ask the next question.

"Did I find her guilty?"

"Well, of course," Satrina replied defensively. "You always find them guilty. I heard she spoke out against you even as you were standing right next to her. Can you imagine the nerve?"

Xena couldn’t suppress a small smile despite the sinking feeling. "And what was her sentence?"

Satrina looked at the Conqueror like she was out of her mind. "Conqueror, are you sure you’re all right? Do you need to see a healer? Shall I call Alti?"

Xena blanched at the name. The last person in the world she wanted to see right now was Alti. Xena was beginning to believe this present was really just the who’s who of her worst nightmares. "What was this dissident’s sentence?" she repeated the question harshly.

Satrina shook her head in disbelief. This had to be some kind of test. The slave decided it was best not to question her master’s motives.

"You had her nailed to the cross and then broke her legs."

A swirl of shadows passed before the warrior’s eyes as she barely fought off a loss of consciousness. She stood up from the bed, hand at her chest, gasping for air and control. The room twirled.

"Conqueror! Conqueror!" Satrina jumped up after her and helped Xena to stay standing. "I’m going to get Alti!"

"No ... NO!" Xena yelled, grabbing the slave’s arms and holding her still. "I’m all right. It’s just this ... headache. I need to get some air."

Xena took a moment to collect herself. She mapped out a plan even as she was taking deep, even breaths to get her pounding heart under control. She turned to face her slave, suddenly appearing every bit the Conqueror.

"Satrina, get my leathers and horse ready. I want to be taken to the prisoner right away."

The slave looked at her master, the doubt and confusion plain on her face.

Xena thought quickly. "I have a suspicion that the blond man who stole my stone and that dissident were working together."

The simple logic of the Conqueror’s reasoning washed all doubt from Satrina’s mind. Her master was simply brilliant, she thought, always one step ahead of the game. She smiled proudly and nodded in agreement.

Xena strode over to the window and looked out. Even without knowing what was real in this strange new reality, the warrior princess surmised that outside of the city walls lay a field of horrors. Though she had no view beyond, she knew stretched out as far as the eye could see would be row upon row of the crucified bodies of her enemies. It was another one of those dreams she used to envision along with the title of Conqueror. Xena had no doubt that she had planted the very first cross with her own blood-soaked hands

"Get Darfus. I want to go to the Field. I’m going to question her myself," Xena said, squinting into the sunlight, " ... if she’s still alive."

Satrina turned and departed quickly to do her master’s bidding, the Conqueror having successfully disguised the fact that she had almost choked on those last few words.

 

 

CHAPTER 3

The field was everything she had dreamed it would be. A macabre harvest of human bodies landscaping the hillsides in all directions, filling the horizon with horror.

"From Corinth to the Aegaen Sea," Xena whispered to herself, her words lost in the silence and whisked away by the breeze. Argo shifted nervously beneath her, disturbed by the smell of death.

Darfus coughed in a deliberate attempt to disrupt the Conqueror’s reverie. Gods, she was acting strangely today.

"Tell me again why we are out in the heat of the day in this smelly field?" the royal commander asked, waving his hand in front of his nose to emphasize the point.

"Because I wish it," Xena answered flatly, not bothering to look his way. "Which way?"

"I have no idea," Darfus replied. He smiled wickedly when the blasť remark finally earned him Xena’s glare. "We have to wait for Theodorus and his patrol. They’ll know where they put her." Darfus sat back in his saddle and grinned. "What’s left of her anyway."

Xena turned away to hide a grimace, choosing instead to stare at the faces of a few of the unfortunates who hovered above her, hanging crucified closest to the city’s gates. They had died a hard death, Xena knew. It had all been a part of her plan to instill fear into all who would oppose her. She had, after all, first hand experience in the pain of the cross and the undeniable message it delivered. At one time, her only wish was to pay the world in kind. Apparently, Xena thought as she studied the pain racked faces that floated in endless rows into the distance, she had gotten what she wished for.

Xena couldn’t afford to let her thoughts go in that dark direction. If it was only yesterday that Gabrielle had been crucified, then she would still be alive today -- she had to be. Xena planned to order her removed and taken to the castle. She would have every healer at her disposal tend to her. If they failed, they would all end up in the Field themselves. There were, indeed, some advantages to being Conqueror of the World.

Xena guided Argo around to face the direction of the on-coming patrol. They were galloping at top speed, rushing to meet their unexpected visitors as quickly as possible.

Theodorus reared his horse to a dramatic stop, bringing the rest of the patrol to an equally dramatic halt. "Conqueror, your presence is an honor to my patrol," he said breathlessly. "How may I help you?"

Xena sat relaxed in her saddle, an air of command and confidence gracing her features. "Take me to the pretty, young blond I crucified yesterday," Xena ordered with an appropriate sneer.

"The ... the blond?" Theodorus asked as though he had never seen one in his life.

"You haven’t cut her hair off and sold it yet, have you?" Xena leaned forward in her saddle. "She’s still alive, isn’t she?"

"No ... I mean, yes ... I mean ... I don’t know," Theodorus stammered in reply.

Xena lost her sneer. "What do you mean?"

Theodorus gulped, certain his life was about to end. "Her body was stolen last night."

"What!" Darfus drew his sword in anger. "I’ll take his head myself!"

"No! Wait!" Xena held out her arm to stop Darfus and nailed Theodorus with an icy stare.

"You’ll take me to that cross and tell me everything. And you’ll tell me the truth or Darfus WILL have your head. I am making myself clear, aren’t I?"

Theodorus could only nod.

Xena pulled on her reigns and motioned for the guard to take the lead.

"Let’s go! And for your sake, we better not get lost." Xena kicked her heels and Argo spurred forward. How easy it was to slip into the role of Conqueror, Xena mused as they rode off. She didn’t even have to think about it.

 

 

She looked up at the empty wooden cross, studying the way it appeared to drift along a backdrop of billowy white clouds and blue sky. The crucifix was the only barren one in a virtual sea of bodies.

"Where is she?" Xena asked softly, turning her head to stare at the clearly frightened patrol guard, Theodorus.

"I ... I don’t know."

Xena gave Argo a gentle nudge and moved the mare a bit closer to the patrol.

"You think she climbed down and walked away on her own?" the Conqueror asked in a silky, dangerous voice. Darfus snorted in amusement. Theodorus remained silent.

"Look at the ground," Xena said, gesturing with her hand to the dirt below. "Tell me what you see?"

"Mud?"

Darfus grabbed for his sword. "Let me kill him, Xena!"

She raised her hand and halted the Commander’s actions. "No, I want him to climb down from his mount and take a closer look."

Theodorus scrambled off his horse to do what he was told.

Xena folded her hands across her saddle horn and smiled. "Tell me what you see, Theodorus."

"I see hoof prints."

"Very good. Are they ours?"

Theodorus gulped. "No."

"How can you tell?"

"The shoe prints. They aren’t our design."

"Very good. Maybe you’ll live." Xena smirked at the disappointed look on Darfus’s face. "I said, maybe. How many horses, can you tell?"

Theodorus scooted around on his hands and knees, studying the earth and all the hoof marks he could find very carefully.

"I see two horses and ... wait! There are two sets of boot prints as well. Two people on mounts and two on foot," Theodorus announced proudly and straightened up to smile at the Conqueror.

"Very good. Now ... can you tell who they were?" Xena leaned forward in her saddle. Theodorus swallowed hard and shook his head.

"No. I can’t."

"Yes, you can. Give it a shot."

Theodorus looked with despair at the ground, shaking his head. "No, I can’t. I’m not that good at tracking. I have no idea."

"Sure you can. I can tell from up here. Surely you can see it from down there." Xena drew her sword slowly and pointed it to the ground. "Take a closer look. G’wan."

Theodorus watched the deadly blade make a small circle in front of his eyes and he swallowed hard. Falling to his knees, he bent his face as close to the mud as he could to inspect the evidence. He tried hard to ignore Darfus’s chuckling, but the evil snicker was making him sweat more than the Conqueror’s sword leveled at his back.

Suddenly, the shape and size of one of the boots and a distinctive design in a horse’s hoof - print made the candle light over his head.

"Amazons!" he yelled in relief. "They were Amazons!"

"Verrry good," Xena said, but she didn’t re-sheath her sword. "Now tell me how they got in and out of here without being seen?"

Theodorus stood and wiped off the dirt from his hands. "That’s what I can’t understand. We patrol this field regularly. How they got by us, I don’t know."

"You patrol these fields a little too regularly, I would imagine," Xena surmised, resheathing her sword. "They probably studied your schedule and waited until you were on the opposite end of the field. At any rate, it doesn’t matter."

"It doesn’t matter?" Both Darfus and Theodorus asked incredulously.

"You don’t have to worry about patrolling the fields any longer. I want all these bodies taken down. Burn them and the crosses."

"WHAT?" Darfus cried out.

"All the bodies?" Theodorus asked in disbelief.

"All of them. There will be no more crucifixions. Xena pulled on Argo’s reigns and turned the horse around.

"No more crucifixions? Xena, have you gone mad?" Darfus asked in complete bewilderment.

"I want this field cleared by tomorrow sunset," Xena ordered.

"But Xena ..." Darfus began until the look in The Conqueror’s eyes took his voice away.

"Just do it!" Xena kicked her golden mare into a gallop and thundered away, leaving a dumbfounded Darfus and a frantic Theodorus in her wake.

"Darfus! How in Hades am I supposed to get all these bodies down by tomorrow! It can’t possibly be done! I need more men!" Theodorus stared at the seemingly endless vista of hanging corpses. "I need a lot more men!"

"Use however many you need!" Darfus snarled, effectively shutting Theodorus up. "Just do it!"

He kicked his own stallion into a gallop and rode after his Supreme Commander - a Conqueror who hasn’t been herself since she woke up this morning and Darfus was damn sure going to find out why.

 

 

CHAPTER 4

 Xena stormed through the doors of her bedchamber and pulled the long, black cape from her shoulders throwing it on the bed.

"Annoying thing," she mumbled. She walked quickly to a basin of water on a table and washed her face in an attempt to remove the lingering smell of decaying flesh.

The thought of Gabrielle hanging in that field, amongst all those rotting corpses was enough to make her puke. She scrubbed her hands and face one more time in an effort to get rid of the smell.

Wiping her face with a nearby towel, she glanced around the room, relieved that the slave, Satrina was not present. At least she would have a few moments to herself to think. She paced over to the window and looked out over the city.

In a way, she was relieved. If the Amazons had taken Gabrielle from the cross, then she must have still been alive. At least the bard was in safe hands. This, however, did not help her in her own predicament. She could think of no one else to turn to, except Gabrielle. Certainly there was not a single person within the palace walls that she could trust with the knowledge that things were not the way they were supposed to be. There was not a person who would willingly help her return this strange present to its correct course.

In fact, now that she thought of it, the only people who would probably be more willing to help would be the members of what Satrina called "The Resistance." No doubt, they would be more than happy to see present time changed to a reality that had no Conqueror in it at all.

The Amazons might be useful allies as well. Xena fingered the edge of her chakram as it hung on her hip and thought about the Chronos Stone. She knew so little about it, preferring to leave the details of legends and mysticism to the bard, who knew all about such things. In her past, she would have consulted Alti about it, but doing so now would be quite impossible, if not downright dangerous. There would be no way Alti would be willing to help her alter the current timeline.

The Amazons, however, would have their own shamans to consult. And if events had gone the way Xena once dreamed, the Amazons would be numbered amongst her conquered. They would, no doubt, be very willing participants in a conspiracy to do away with the Conqueror, no matter how fanciful the plan might be.

"I wonder how they would react to joining in a conspiracy against the Conqueror, headed by the Conqueror herself?" Xena asked the afternoon sun.

 

 

The sound of the door opening brought Xena’s attention away from the window. It was Satrina, returning to the room with a concerned look on her face.

"I’m going on a trip," Xena announced, before the slave could say a word. "Have Argo readied for overnight travel."

Satrina paused, but knew better than to ask. "You’ll need an escort," she said instead.

Xena was about to answer that she didn’t, but decided that it would be too strange for the Conqueror to travel anywhere unescorted ... and very dangerous.

"Yes," the warrior confirmed and swept passed the slave to exit the door. "Have Darfus assemble them."

Satrina had expected an explanation. All she got was another order. She hurried after Xena with her mouth hanging open.

"But Conqueror ..." she stammered, trying to delay her, " ... your cape."

"Burn it," Xena snarled and disappeared through the door.

 

 

Darfus pushed back the curtain of hanging bones and stepped into the dark room, cringing at the distasteful smell of strange incense that assaulted his nose.

It smells like the Field, he thought to himself. He squinted through the smoky darkness looking for the woman he dreaded to see, but needed to find.

"What do you want, Darfus?" A gravely, deep voice drifted out of the shadows.

"We have a problem," the royal commander stated simply.

"Oh, do we now?" the shadow’s raspy chuckle sent a shiver down Darfus’s spine. "And what might that be?"

Alti emerged from the gloom, stepping into the dim light of a flickering candle. The darkness remained around her, shadowing her face like a shroud.

"It’s Xena," Darfus informed the shamaness.

"You mean, The Conqueror, don’t you?" Alti said, her harsh voice disputing the informality.

"Yes, the Conqueror. She’s not been herself."

"What do you mean, Darfus?" Alti stepped closer to the soldier, making him even more nervous. He could see the blood dripping down her forehead from beneath her deerskin hood.

"She's acting strangely today."

"How so?"

"She was late to meet with Brutus ..."

Alti’s wicked cackle reverberated though the darkness. "So? You find that strange? I’m surprised Xena agreed to meet with him at all."

"When I went to get her, she seemed confused. Not herself. She said she had a headache and refused to see him. Told me to handle it."

Alti’s brows knitted together. "A headache, you say? I’ve never known Xena to complain of illness. Go on. Is there more?"

Darfus nodded. "Yes, she seems obsessed with that stone that was stolen yesterday. And now she thinks that blond woman she sentenced to the cross is involved. She had us go out into the field to look for her. And when she found out that the body of this girl had been stolen by Amazons, she ordered the field burned and now Satrina tells me she wants me to prepare Argo for overnight travel and to get an escort together so she can leave the castle and ...."

"STOP!" Alti’s command halted Darfus’s words immediately. The shamaness’s eyes were wide and furious. Darfus felt like running from the room.

"What did you say?" Alti’s voice growled as though from the pits of Tartarus.

"She ... she ... wants to leave the castle ..."

"Not that, you blithering fool! Did you say she ordered the Field burned?"

Alti was so close now, Darfus could smell blood on her breath. He nodded quickly. "She ordered the bodies taken down and then burned, along with the crosses."

Alti stepped back and turned away from the soldier to disguise the fury in her eyes.

"How dare she," she said to the shadows. "That is MY field."

"Well, its gonna be gone come tomorrow sunset."

Alti whirled around and stepped up to face Darfus. "You say Xena is leaving the castle? Going somewhere? Where?"

"I don’t know yet."

"Well, go do your Conqueror’s bidding. Get her escort together and then get back to me with her destination."

Darfus nodded and started to leave. Alti reached out and stopped him with a withered hand. He stared at the hand on his arm in horror; her touch was as cold as ice.

"Send Satrina to me," Alti ordered, smiling wickedly and letting her palm rest against the soldier’s skin just a little longer so he would remember the touch. "Tell no one that you spoke to me."

"Yes, Alti," Darfus replied.

Alti slowly removed her hand and smiled at the obvious look of relief that passed across the soldier’s face.

Darfus turned and ran, more to get away from the dark shamaness than to do her bidding. He could hear Alti’s laugh following him all the way down the hall.

 

 

"Where are you going, Xena?" Darfus asked, looking up at the Conqueror as she settled herself into Argo’s saddle.

"We’re going to the Amazons," Xena answered and motioned for Darfus’s stallion to be brought forward.

"The Amazons? Why in Hades do you want to do that? You scattered the tribes to the seven winds! How do you think you’re going to find them - what’s left of them ... did you say we?"

"Get on your horse, Darfus," Xena ordered.

"Did you say we?"

"You’re coming with me."

"But ..."

"Get on your horse, Darfus." Xena’s expression booked no argument.

"I can’t just leave, Xena. I have things to do ... things to settle before I leave the castle. Let me go back and take care ..."

"Darfus," Xena’s purr let the commander know that she was one step from beheading him, "don’t make me tell you again to get on your horse."

Darfus hoisted himself into his saddle wordlessly. He met Xena’s stare, trying to hide his fear at being unable to report back to Alti.

"Xena, this is a waste of time. There are no Amazons left. Themiscyra was burned to the ground."

"Oh, there are Amazons all right," Xena said, pulling her mare around to face the main gate to the compound. "You just have to know where to look." She clicked a few times and urged Argo forward. Darfus and a small patrol-sized escort followed in formation.

"And what are we going to do once we find them?" Darfus asked as he followed his leader through the castle’s main gate.

"Nothing," Xena answered flatly.

And now Darfus knew for sure that Xena had lost her mind.

 

 

"Tell me, Satrina, has Xena been acting strangely today?"

Alti fiddled with some flasks on a table, pouring one putrid looking liquid into another. Satrina winced at the odd smell, but tried not to show it. This was the first time Alti had ever spoken to her. A major step in the right direction, as far as the slave was concerned. Perhaps she could benefit from Xena’s strange behavior after all.

"She complained of a headache," Satrina reported evenly.

Alti turned around. Her dark eyes bored into the slave’s. "She’s sick? Why wasn’t I summoned?"

"She didn’t ask for you."

Alti rose from her chair and sauntered over to the indentured woman.

"In the future," she said, her voice grating against Satrina’s nerves, "I want you to inform me immediately of any ... abnormalities ... in the Conqueror’s health."

"Yes, Alti."

"The Conqueror’s health is of utmost importance to the Empire."

"Yes, Alti."

"Any information of similar disturbances will be rewarded."

Satrina smiled. "Yes, Alti."

"Now tell me, Satrina, where is the Conqueror now?"

"She’s not here."

Alti sidled up very close to the slave, looking deeply into her eyes. Satrina squirmed under the close inspection.

"Let me tell you something, slave. I can see into your very soul. You have great ambition for someone who is only a slave. Did you think just because you get to enjoy Xena’s whip, that you could one day have it for yourself?"

Satrina stared at the ground and Alti laughed.

"Don’t think you can hide anything from me. You’d help your cause more if you would understand that although Xena rules the world ... I rule Xena. Am I making myself clear?"

Satrina nodded.

"Good," Alti said as she stroked the dark curls, letting her craggy fingers run down the length of hair and over a pert breast. "You’ll find my whip just as pleasurable as the Conqueror’s ... and a lot more supportive of your own ambitions."

Alti gave her nipple a hard squeeze and cackled at the slave’s sudden gasp. "Now ... tell me ... who did Xena need to see that was so important she had to leave Corinth?"

"I don’t know. She didn’t tell me."

Alti lost her smile and dropped her hand. "You don’t know?"

Satrina shook her head.

"What about Darfus?"

"He left with her not too long ago."

"Damn!" Alti turned away from the slave and cursed in three languages. "You’re a sly one, Xena," she whispered hoarsely to herself, "but I’ll find out what you are up to ... one way or another."

She turned back around to face her new accomplice and smiled.

"Tell me everything you know, Satrina, and leave nothing out."

 

 

CHAPTER 5

Darfus watched from behind a bush as Xena disappeared into the forest beyond. Damn if she hadn’t led them right to a small Amazon stronghold hidden deep within the forest near Themiscyra. She could track like no one he had ever seen, he thought to himself with pride as he watched her dark head disappear from view.

Though he had no idea yet why they had come, and Xena had volunteered no further information, he felt a little better about the mission. The Conqueror was obviously on her way to a clandestine meeting, no doubt with some traitor to the Amazon nation who would reveal the whereabouts of their army in exchange for her favor. That would mean very soon, he and his forces would be riding into battle once again. The idea of this thrilled him to no end.

"Remind me," he said to the officer crouched next to him, "never to doubt the Conqueror’s intentions again."

The man snorted. "You ask me to remind you of that every time, Darfus. Haven’t you learned by now to try not to second guess her? Besides, how could you ever doubt someone who looks SO good in Amazon leathers." The soldier’s mouth turned upward into a hungry leer.

Darfus knocked him on his rump with the back of his hand. "Don’t you ever talk like that about the Conqueror. Not around me."

Darfus ignored the officer’s grunt as the man rubbed his face. He looked off into the trees silently agreeing that Xena looked damn good, but he couldn’t help wonder why in the known-world the Conqueror had insisted on dressing like an Amazon.

 

 

Ephiny smiled down at the reclining form of her golden-haired friend, her eyes knotting a bit in worry.

"How are you feeling?"

Gabrielle shifted to relieve some small discomfort, wincing at a stab of pain coming from her heavily splinted legs. She smiled up at the Amazon leader from the healer’s pallet despite the ache.

"I’m fine, Ephiny. Really. Getting better every day. I’ll be back on my feet in no time."

Ephiny grunted and handed the bard a mug of tea. "Just don’t rush it. And drink the tea. Yakut's orders."

Gabrielle sniffed the steeping contents and made a face. "Why do these teas always have to taste so bad?" She tried to hand it back to Ephiny. "I think I’ll pass tonight. I don’t need it anymore."

Ephiny scowled and refused to accept the mug. "Drink it, Gabrielle. It’ll help you sleep."

"I don’t need it. My legs don’t hurt ... much. I’m sure I’ll sleep fine without it." The bard raised the mug higher, insisting.

"Gabrielle," Ephiny said in warning, backing away, "drink the tea."

"No, I don’t like it."

"Yakut wants you to drink it. She says it’ll help you heal. Drink the tea."

"It makes me gag."

"Drink it."

"I don’t need it."

"Gabrielle ..."

"Drink the tea," a dark voice said from the shadows at the back of the hut.

Gabrielle nearly dropped the mug in surprise. Ephiny whirled around, taking a defensive position between the intruder and her friend.

Xena emerged, as though appearing out of thin air from a blanket of darkness at the back of the room. The beads and feathers of her amazon garb clacked loudly in the stunned silence that greeted her as she stepped forward.

"Who are you?" Ephiny demanded, standing tall to face the intruder.

Gabrielle, however, couldn’t surppress a gasp of alarm as she quickly recognized the intense blue eyes and astoundingly beautiful features of The Conqueror.

"By the Gods!" she exclaimed and promptly dropped the mug. It fell, crashing to the ground, spilling its contents and breaking into pieces all over the floor.

"There’s no need for alarm," Xena said, her voice calm.

"Who are you and what are you doing in here?" Ephiny repeated strongly.

Xena ignored her, keeping her eyes locked with Gabrielle’s as she walked slowly forward.

Gabrielle’s surprise turned to anger. "What are you doing here," the bard asked tightly. "Have you come to finish the job?"

Ephiny’s eyes widened with sudden recognition and her arm moved to draw the sword from her back.

"Don’t," Xena said, raising her hand and shifting her eyes to hold the Amazon with a steady gaze. "If I came here to kill you, you’d be dead already."

Ephiny halted the movement and slowly lowered her arm. She regarded the Conqueror warily, noticing that she was completely unarmed - at least, as far as she could tell. The amazon’s eyes wandered over the dark woman’s Amazon costume in a search for hidden weapons, appreciating the attention to detail.

"How did you get past our guards?" Ephiny asked evenly, trying to keep her voice from quaking.

"I promise to tell you how I got past your defenses, if you promise to listen to what I have to say first." Xena relaxed her stance, hoping to relieve the tension in the air. Her eyes wandered over to Gabrielle and to her wood-bound legs.

Gabrielle watched with bewilderment as sorrow and regret filled the Conqueror’s eyes.

"Are you all right?" Xena asked, her voice filled with worry.

"Is she all right?" Ephiny repeated incredulously. "Is she all right? You had her crucified and her legs broken and you hung her up in a field to be food for the vultures, and you come in here asking if she’s all right?"

Xena’s eyes did not leave the bard’s.

"Why are you here?" Gabrielle asked softly. She would never forget looking directly into the cold, cruel eyes of the Conqueror, would always remember the soft, seductive touch of her thumb upon her lips, and would have nightmares about the pain of that encounter for the rest of her life. Despite this, she knew without a doubt that the eyes of the woman she was looking into now, was not the same person.

Xena took another step forward, heartened by the expression she saw on Gabrielle’s face. "I came to see if you’re all right." When Ephiny moved to speak in outrage again, Xena held up her hand. "I know you don’t understand, so let me explain why."

"Why should we let you explain anything?" Ephiny asked angrily. "What makes you think we should listen to you? What’s to stop me from just calling the guards and finishing you off once and for all?"

Xena smiled sadly. "And the world would be better off for it, but I wouldn’t recommend that. We’d only end up with a bunch of dead Amazons and you would not have had a chance to hear a much better ... and safer ... way for ridding the world of Xena, the Conqueror."

Both Ephiny and Gabrielle were stunned to silence by the words. Finally, Ephiny moved earning her Xena’s wary attention. The Amazon warrior backed carefully to a chair and sat down.

"This I gotta hear." Ephiny said as she leaned against the back of the seat and crossed her arms.

Xena nodded once and turned her gaze to Gabrielle. The bard was watching her intently, propped up in the bed on her elbows.

"Why don’t you relax," Xena suggested, noting the uncomfortable position and smiling warmly. "Do you mind if I check your legs?"

"Don’t let her touch you," Ephiny warned.

"It’s all right," Gabrielle said and then nodded at the dark warrior. "Go ahead."

Xena walked to the end of the pallet and carefully examined the bruising and the position of the splints. Her touch was so gentle, Gabrielle laid her head down, relaxing under the soothing inspection.

"Your legs are broken ..."

Ephiny snorted. "No kidding."

Xena winced, but chose to ignore the comment. "They’ll heal nicely as long as you stay off them and rest ... and drink your tea," the warrior pronounced with a grin. She straightened up and smiled fully at the reclining bard, who was watching her every move with suspicious green eyes.

Finally, Gabrielle returned the smile and Xena breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever her own destiny, Gabrielle’s would always be the same. Even here, the bard was gentle and forgiving and willing to give, even the Conqueror, a second chance.

"You have a good healer," Xena commented turning to face Ephiny. "She’s done a good job. Gabrielle will be fine."

"Despite your best efforts," the Amazon leader stated bluntly.

Xena nodded in acquiescence. She stood tall at the end of the pallet and faced Gabrielle.

"There’s no amount of apologizing that could ever make up for what I’ve done to you ..."

"or to thousand of others ..." Ephiny added.

" ... or to thousands of others. Many people have died at my hands. I won’t ask your forgiveness. I don’t deserve it."

"You can say that again."

"Ephiny, be quiet," Gabrielle demanded softly, her eyes returning to regard the dark woman with speculation.

Xena took a deep breath and continued. "I know this is going to be very hard to believe, but this is NOT the way things are supposed to be."

"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked, leaning up again on her elbows. "That you hadn’t meant to crucify me, break my legs?"

"No, Gabrielle. I mean that all of this ... me ... the Conqueror ... conquering the world, Corinth ... none of it is the way it’s supposed to be."

Ephiny was flabbergasted. "I don’t understand."

"Will you listen to what I have to say? It may be hard to believe, I know - but it's the truth, I swear it."

Ephiny opened her mouth to say something, but the bard stopped her.

"Go ahead, Xena. We’re listening. Um, it’s all right if I call you Xena, right?"

Xena’s smile lit up the dark hut. "Of course."

She glanced at Ephiny who was sitting in the chair, arms crossed and a sardonic smile on her lips. "Go on ... Xena."

This was going to be even harder than she imagined, the warrior thought and she took a deep breath to begin. "On the day of your sentencing ..."

"you mean the day you had her crucified ..."

"Ephiny," Gabrielle chided. The Amazon became silent.

"After I sentenced you to crucifixion and had your legs broken," Xena continued, the pain evident in her eyes, "a man rushed past my guards, and stole a jewel from the tip of my scepter."

"This is about a jewel?" Ephiny said, laughing.

"Ephiny," Gabrielle chided again.

"You think WE stole your jewel?"

"Ephiny, please be quiet. Let her finish." Gabrielle implored. Ephiny stared back sternly.

"Please?" Gabrielle pleaded sweetly.

"Can I finish now?" Xena asked the amazon warrior.

Ephiny waved her hand. "Go ahead."

"A man stole the jewel right off my scepter and once it was in his hands, he disappeared into thin air. I can’t tell you what happened after that because I don’t know. In fact, I really have no memory of sentencing you either. The only reason why I know about the theft and you is because my Lieutenant told me what happened. All I know is, this morning, I woke up in a strange bed, with a slave I haven’t seen in years ..."

Ephiny rolled her eyes and shot a quick look at Gabrielle.

"Suddenly, I was the Conqueror of the World, but the last thing I remember was going to sleep in my bedroll beside a warm campfire ... with you."

"What?" Ephiny exclaimed and snorted loudly.

Gabrielle shook her head. "Xena, you are not making sense."

"Gabrielle," Xena took a step closer, "the man who stole the stone was named Iolaus."

"Iolaus?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes lighting with recognition.

"You know him?" Xena asked excitedly. She hadn’t expected Gabrielle to have met him in this timeline.

"Yes. Just before I was captured by your soldiers. He cornered me in the square. He told me this incredible story about ... " Gabrielle looked up at the Conqueror in wonder. "Are you telling me that what he told me was true?"

Xena nodded, relief lighting up her features. Thank the gods for Iolaus. "If he told you what I think he told you, yes ... it was ... all true. That stone he stole was the Chronos stone. He took it from the Conqueror and disappeared with it ... "

"To another point in time ..." Gabrielle added, catching on.

"Yes, but wherever he went, he didn’t get the job done, because all that happened is I’m changed to what I should be, but the timeline isn’t."

Gabrielle’s eyes widened in understanding. She thought back to the handsome blond man and the incredible story he had tried to tell her, hoping he could obtain her help. He had informed the bard, to her utter astonishment that she and Xena were really supposed to be the best of friends, and that the Conqueror of the known world was really supposed to be its hero instead of its destroyer. She remembered laughing at him, but listening to his tale, fascinated by the depth of his conviction in its truth. In the end, she had agreed to help him get the stone, but only because, if it was indeed the Chronos stone, she wanted it out of the Conqueror’s hands.

She arranged for him to meet with members of the Resistance when they gathered in the square, but then she had been captured and had not thought of him since.

"So," Gabrielle said attempting to fit the pieces of the puzzle together in her mind, "you are the Xena that Iolaus was talking about. A Xena who fights for the greater good, on the side of justice. A Xena who never became the Conqueror because you were changed to the path of good by a man called Hercules."

"Yes," Xena said nodding, "Hercules made me see something inside myself that I didn’t know was there. He got me started on the path, but there is someone much more important in my life ... someone who keeps me in the light and helps me stay there every step of the way. And I sure do need her help now," Xena finished. She was standing over Gabrielle and looking down into questioning eyes.

"Who is that?" Gabrielle asked in a small voice.

"You. It’s you, Gabrielle. I need you ... I need your help."

"My help to do what?"

"I need your help ... and the Amazons’ help," Xena said turning to face a completely silent Ephiny, "to find another Chronos Stone. I have to find some way to aid Iolaus and put things right. This is not the way it’s supposed to be."

Gabrielle’s eyes locked with Xena’s, and the bard knew, without a doubt, that every word the dark warrior was saying was true.

"You have got to be kidding me." Ephiny’s words broke the connection. "That is the biggest crock of cyclops shit I have ever heard."

"Ephiny," Gabrielle pleaded.

The Amazon warrior stood up angrily. "Come on, Gabrielle. Please tell me you don’t believe a word of this Chronos stone mumbo, jumbo."

"Ephiny, there is such a thing as the Chronos Stone," Gabrielle said in support of the story.

"Oh, I know that! I have no doubt that there is a Chronos stone and that Xena had it once and wants it back. That man ... what was his name ... Iolaus? ... stole it and now you want us to find it ... and him ... for you! Oh, your insidious manipulations are brilliant, Xena. But this! This one takes the cake!"

"If I simply wanted the Chronos Stone back, believe me, Ephiny, I wouldn’t need the help of you and your sorry bunch of Amazons to get it back," Xena said, narrowing her eyes angrily.

"Oh, Methuselah shows her true, ugly face finally. Xena, do you really expect us to believe that you want our help in finding something that will effectively end your reign as Conqueror of the World forever?"

"That’s exactly what I’m asking you."

"Why not just let us assassinate you? It’ll be quicker and a whole lot less trouble."

Gabrielle raised herself up in alarm. "Ephiny."

Xena held up her hand to stop Gabrielle. "It’s all right, Gabrielle. She’s right ... in a way." She took a step closer to the Amazon. "I’ll make you a deal. You help me to find another Chronos Stone or something like it. If we can’t, or it doesn’t work, you can assassinate me."

"Xena!"

"You’ll let us assassinate you?" Ephiny repeated in disbelief.

"I’ll take my own life, if that’s what you want. In any case, the reign of Xena the Conqueror will be over."

"How can I possibly believe you?"

"I swear on the blood of Ares," Xena said, whipping out a concealed knife and, to their extreme surprise, she sliced across the palm of her hand, making a rent in her skin that quickly dripped a stream of blood.

"I swear on the blood of Ares and my own, if we cannot find a way to change things back, I will take my own life ..."

"Or I will take it for you," Ephiny finished, pulling out a knife and cutting her palm. She quickly grabbed Xena’s hand, letting the red fluid mix together in a solid, binding oath.

"Til death do us part," Ephiny said with a wry grin.

They parted hands, both palms sticky with blood.

"So," Ephiny said with a nod, "how will we do this?"

"Gabrielle needs time to heal. I’ll return to Corinth and find out what I can from my sources there. You have my permission to regroup your Amazons ..."

"Gee, thanks," Ephiny grunted.

Xena arched a brow, but chose to ignore the comment. "Consult all of the shamans from all of the tribes. When Gabrielle is healed, come to Corinth."

"You want us to come to Corinth?"

"Make it appear as though you are coming to discuss terms or a treaty. We have to be very careful about this. We don’t want Alti to suspect anything. If she gets wind of what we are attempting to do, you can bet she’s going to fight us with all the powers at her disposal. Bring your best shamanesses. We’ll need their help."

"And what will you be doing, while I’m healing?" Gabrielle asked, studying the Conqueror carefully.

"I'll try to find a way to use Alti to solve the problem, without her knowing I'm using her. It won't be an easy task. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to undo some of the wrongs I’ve done. If I have to pretend to be the Conqueror, I might as well put my powers to good use."

"You could try the rest of your life, and you wouldn’t be able to undo all the wrongs," Ephiny said in all seriousness, staring directly at the dark woman.

Xena held her gaze and nodded. There was more truth in the amazon’s biting words than she would ever know.

Ephiny’s noted the heavy weight of guilt slump the dark woman's shoulders. Her expression softened a bit, despite her own misgivings. "Gabrielle will take a while to heal," she commented, stating a fact.

"That’s all right. Take as long as she needs. Don’t you dare travel to Corinth until you’re completely healed, you got that Gabrielle? It doesn’t really matter how long it takes -- once we find a Chronos Stone, we’ll have all the time in the world at our disposal," Xena said and she smiled warmly at her friend.

Xena was graced with an adorable smile from her bard in return.

"There’s just one more thing," Ephiny butted in. She didn’t care for the way Xena was looking at her friend. Not one bit.

"What is it?" Xena asked, tearing her eyes away from the precious face and very annoyed at the distraction.

"You said you’d tell me how you got in here, past our guards?"

"Oh that," Xena answered with a smirk. "Watch and learn, Ephiny."

Xena placed her hand lightly on Ephiny’s shoulder and moved her out of the way. The Amazon watched as the Conqueror walked nonchalantly through the room, to the door and out of the hut.

"Where is she going?" Gabrielle asked in alarm. She shifted in frustration at not being able to get out of the bed.

Ephiny followed quickly after the amazon-clad Conqueror. Xena left the hut and walked as calmly as you please, right through the center of the small Amazon village. Ephiny stood at the door to the healer’s hut and stared as Xena passed several strolling warriors, actually nodding at them as she walked by. The Conqueror strode up to the commissary, took a plate and filled it with food. Then, to Ephiny’s complete amazement, she sat down at a table, and ate a very satisfying breakfast.

Several Amazons passed her, giving her the once over, but not because they suspected who she was. Xena was quite fetching in her Amazon garb, and not a few paused to leer in keen appreciation. Xena pretended not to notice, but she lifted an eyebrow in Ephiny’s direction and grinned seductively.

After a quick bowl of cereal, Xena downed some fresh juice and smacked her lips. She stood, smiled at a neighbor and left the table.

The Conqueror grinned as she walked back in the direction of the healer’s hut, passing a hurried Solari, who was obviously rushing to perform some duty or other as guardsmaster. The guard commander actually nodded in greeting at the Destroyer of Nations as she passed by.

It took a few seconds, but eventually Solari stopped dead in her tracks and whirled around, the utter disbelief of recognition dropping her jaw toward the ground.

Ephiny almost had to laugh. She crossed her arms watching as Xena approached looking like the cat who just ate the canary.

The Conqueror of the Known World leaned to whisper sage words of advice into Ephiny’s ear.

"Know your enemy."

Xena turned on her heels and sauntered by the still gaping Solari. The guardsmaster stared in disbelief as the Conqueror passed her and headed down the path that led out of the village. She strolled through two flanking outposts without causing nary a look and disappeared into the forest.

Solari stumbled over to Ephiny in complete denial.

"Ephiny! That was ... wasn’t that? ... I could swear that woman looked just like ..."

"It was," Ephiny said simply, patted her commander on the shoulder and walked back into the healer’s hut.

 

 

CHAPTER 6

Peeking in from the corner of the archway, Satrina watched as the Conqueror lifted a soapy sponge out of the steaming waters of the bath and slid it down the length of a long, elegant arm in a sudsy caress.

She is so beautiful, the slave thought to herself following the path of the sponge with her eyes. I want to be with her - I want to BE her.

Her mistress had been gone for over a week. Satrina had expected to be ordered into the tub to perform her usual duties. Instead, Xena had just asked for the bath to be drawn and then ordered her away. Biting the bottom of her lip, the slave watched with growing jealousy as the soapy sponge slid over two perfect breasts then disappeared below the water.

Xena leaned back against the cool marble of the tub and sighed. She closed her eyes and made lazy circles with a sponge over and around her breasts. After a week of hard riding, reclining in the hot, steamy waters of a large marble bathtub felt like Elysia. It sure beat the cold lakes and mountain streams she and Gabrielle were used to. A small smile graced her lips. One could get used to this.

The warrior tilted her head and washed her neck, letting the soft sponge do its work against a week’s worth of grime. Though she could feel the slave watching her from the doorway, she ignored her. The woman obviously expected to be ordered to join her mistress in the bath. Xena could only imagine what duties the Conqueror of this time might have forced the slave to perform, knowing herself as well as did. And as nice as some of those services might be right at this moment, the only person she could imagine sharing the steamy waters with was the bard. She squeezed the sponge against the side of her neck, sighing as warm water dribbled across her shoulder and down her back.

It would sure be nice to have her back scrubbed, though.

She was about to call the slave over, when she felt a dark presence. Her skin began to tingle and it wasn’t from the hot water. No, she recognized this particular sense of danger - it had an allure like no other.

"Alti," Xena said as she dipped the sponge into the water and washed the other side of her neck. "To what do I owe the honor of this visit?"

The voice was as grating as nails against slate. "You’ve been away, Xena. I’ve missed you."

"Really? I’m touched."

"Did you enjoy your trip?"

"Hmm. Very much. It was nice to get away," Xena answered with a small grin, her eyes still closed.

"It would have been nice if you had told me you were leaving."

"Sorry about that. It was very unexpected." Xena lifted a shoulder and reached around to wash it with the sponge.

"Would you like me to wash your back for you?" Alti asked, her low, raspy voice moving closer to the tub.

Xena opened her eyes and smiled at the shamaness. "No, thanks."

She sat up in the water and took care of her back by herself. "What do you want, Alti?"

The dark shamaness tossed away the veil of politeness. "I want to know what’s going on, Xena."

"What do you mean?" Xena replied, unconcerned.

Alti took an angry step forward. "Don’t play games with me, Conqueror. You left the palace without a word of explanation."

"I had a reason. Why are you so angry?"

"Because, that’s a dangerous thing to do."

Xena pursed her lips in an exaggerated pout. "Oh, you were worried about me? How sweet. Come on, Alti, I know why you’re angry. Why don’t you just say what’s on your mind and be done with it."

Alti let her full fury show in her eyes, though she remained very still. "The view from my room has changed since you left, Xena."

Xena had expected this. She willed her heart and breathing to stay calm, though she could feel the danger of Alti’s power filling the room.

"Oh? Has it?"

"You’re trying my patience, Xena. You had my field destroyed. Ordered the bodies and crosses burned!"

A deadly closeness squeezed the air in the room. Xena could feel it pressing against her from all sides. She had to be very careful here. Alti could smell a lie as easily as she could blood and Xena needed to take her off the scent.

She stood suddenly, lifting herself out of the water and turned on the shamaness, letting the water cascade down her shoulders, over her breasts, and along her skin, drawing attention to her nakedness.

Alti’s eyes were irresistibly drawn to the sight. A smile played upon the witch’s lips in spite of herself.

Xena lifted her leg and stepped over the wall of the tub, leaving the bath and taking slow, commanding steps toward the shamaness.

"Consider yourself lucky that’s all I did," Xena said, letting her voice drop to a low purr. She stood before the powerful shamaness and narrowed her eyes.

Even though she knew better, Alti allowed the sight of Xena’s naked body to distract her. Before she knew what was happening, the Conqueror had her up against the wall and a hand around her throat.

"I should have ordered you killed!" Xena growled out, giving the neck one hard squeeze for good measure before letting the woman drop to the ground.

The display was enough to shake the shamaness’s confidence. Alti rubbed her neck and shot an angry look at her prodigy, but the heavy squeeze of angry power had dissipated from the room.

"What do you think you are doing, Xena?" Alti’s rough voice sounded even more chafe.

Xena turned away to retrieve a towel, leaving a bewildered Alti leaning against the wall. She found one and wrapped it around her naked body, then grabbed another and started drying her hair.

"You remember that stone that I use to have adorning my scepter, Alti? The one that was stolen from right under my nose at the public audience last week?"

"This is about that stupid bauble?" The shamaness dropped her hand from her neck and pushed angrily away from the wall.

Xena paused and leveled Alti a steely gaze. "That stupid bauble, Alti, was the Chronos Stone." Xena let the effect of that revelation sink in.

"The Chronos Stone?" Alti repeated with less confidence.

"That’s right. The Chronos Stone. You’ve heard of it, haven’t you?" Xena asked sarcastically. Then she threw the towel she was using to dry her hair to the floor. "Alti, how many times have I had to listen to you prattle on about the Exion stone? How long did we spend looking for it? You’ve been promising me its powers for years!"

"Could I help it that Borias got to it first? Besides, you’re the Conqueror of the World, Xena - Destroyer of Nations - with or without the Exion stone - thanks to my help!"

"Yes, but the power, Alti ... the POWER! You and I both want that power," Xena sauntered up to the shamaness and looked her straight in the eyes. "We spent all that time looking for the Exion stone. Precious resources squandered, soldiers’s lives, money ... all to own the power of the Exion. And all that time, I had in my possession a stone ten times more powerful ... no ... TWENTY times more powerful."

Xena let the full fury of her wrath wash over the witch. "By the gods, Alti, I walked around with it on the end of my scepter for years! What kind of shamaness doesn’t know the Chronos Stone?"

Alti’s resolve broke under the glare of the Conqueror. Her eyes fell to the floor as her voice became small. "You didn’t know either."

"I shouldn’t HAVE to know those things. That’s what I have YOU for!"

Xena gave Alti a dangerous smile as she pressed the witch back against the wall. "Give me one good reason why I don’t kill you on the spot." Xena held her breath. Alti could destroy her with a thought, but she didn’t want the shamaness remembering that particular fact. She gave Alti a hard push. "C’mon, one good reason."

Alti's eyes looked everywhere but at the Conqueror. Then it dawned on her. She stared at Xena expectantly. "You need me to find it for you?"

"Verry good," Xena purred and relaxed her hold. She fixed the front of the woman’s cloak with a grin. "I know you can do it."

Xena walked away from the powerful woman to sit on a marble bench. She picked up another towel, crossed her legs and started drying off a foot.

"How do you know it was the Chronos Stone?" Alti asked, wheezing the question through the pain in her chest.

"I knew the stone had to be something special when that thief disappeared into thin air along with it. Since there was no way that bastard could have gotten close to me without help ... "

"The Resistance .."

"Yes," Xena confirmed, nodding her head. "The bitch I had just crucified was Resistance, so I went to question her. When I found she had been rescued by the Amazons, I decided to go and pay my female warrior friends a visit."

"Amazons? There are more Amazons?" Alti asked excitedly, her eyes shining at the prospect.

Xena grinned knowingly. "Yes, Alti, I found more of your favorite food group. They’ll be coming here in a few months. They think they are coming to sign a treaty." Xena’s laugh made Alti smile and relax. "You have that long to find the Chronos Stone and return it to me. Do it ... and you can have them."

Alti leered like a hungry wolf.

"But, there’ll be no field until you do. I want that stone, Alti." Xena’s voice booked no argument.

"I need my sacrifices, Xena ... those Amazons ... my power ..." Alti raked a dry tongue across cracked lips. "I need that field."

"Then I suggest you get to work."

Alti nodded and adjusted the deer skin hood on her head. Giving Xena a brief nod and a smile that looked more like a grimace, she fled the room.

Xena waited until the dark sensation of Alti’s presence dissipated completely. She sighed and dropped her towel, letting her body relax and the tension leave her spine.

She was walking a very thin line here, a dangerously thin line.

 

 

Satrina stepped out from her hiding place in a dark corner by the side of the arch. Waiting until Alti’s presence was completely gone, she crossed the floor quickly and exited the bedroom, closing the large door to the chamber quietly behind her.

She turned to run, but found herself bumping into the armor-clad body of a soldier.

"Where do you think you’re going?" the man’s deep voice growled at her.

"Darfus, I was just coming to find you."

"Really?" Darfus’s rotting teeth flashed in a smile.

"I have some very interesting news. And if you act on it quickly, you and I can become the rulers of the world."

 

 

CHAPTER 7

It was not befitting the military leader of the Amazon Nation to be hiding behind a rock, peeking at the Amazons’ domestic leader soaking in a hot spring. Ephiny had to laugh at herself as she quietly pushed aside the leaves of a bush to clear the way for an unobstructed view of the bath. This is where her Amazon training really came in handy.

She was rewarded with the site of a naked Gabrielle lowering herself into the heated waters of the natural spring. The curly blond squinted through the leaves, watching as the princess first gasped at the temperature of the water and then sighed, allowing her body to slide into the soothing warmth of the pool. Ephiny smiled at the way the strain on her friend’s arms caused her triceps to flex and stand out in etched relief beneath golden tan skin. Tiny droplets of water only aided in the definition. Even the steam seemed to be enjoying itself as it caressed its way up and around the taunt, attractive body.

By the gods, Gabrielle was getting more beautiful every day, Ephiny pondered in wonder. So different from when they first rescued her from the clutches of slavery. Who would have guessed that the young girl who had once been the property of Draco, one of the Conqueror’s most blood-thirsty lieutenants, would grow to become such a beautiful woman ... and such a valuable member of the Amazon community.

Suddenly, Ephiny felt a little guilty spying on her friend in such a way. She had hidden herself from view, not to leer, but to give Gabrielle a little more time to get into the bath. Despite spending the last few years living amongst a nation of women who would just as soon go naked, Gabrielle had steadfastly held onto her modesty. Her friend still, to this day, preferred to take her baths alone.

Ephiny’s smile widened as she watched Gabrielle lean back against the rock wall. The bard was lazily washing her neck and grinning, almost seductively, at some private thought.

I think she’s had that bath to herself long enough, Ephiny decided and let go of the branch.

The rustle of the leaves caught the bard’s attention and she jumped out the sound.

"Ephiny!" Gabrielle squawked, her eyes growing round at the sight of her best friend emerging from the bushes completely naked. "What are you doing?"

"Need a soak," Ephiny answered as she lowered herself into the hot water. "Aaah, this feels good ... good and sexy."

"Yeah, it does," the bard grinned and then gasped, realizing her breasts were completely visible above the water. She covered them quickly with crossed arms. "I mean ... Ephiny ... really ... must you soak now?"

Ephiny reached blindly behind her, searching for and finding the rock ledge in the bath. She sat and the water rose up to her shoulders, the ends of her curls growing heavy and wet as they bounced in and out of the steam. She leaned her head back and sighed.

"Why not now?" Ephiny replied, closing her eyes in bliss. "I won’t bite." She grinned wickedly. "Unless you want me to."

Gabrielle almost dropped her arms in surprise at the comment.

"What? Ephiny, what’s gotten into you?"

The blond amazon laughed and slapped the water, sending a splash in the bard’s direction. "Lighten up, Gabrielle!" Then she he looked at her friend, noticing the deep blush of her cheeks. "Look at you blushing! What’s gotten into me? What’s gotten into you?" She took a closer look at the bard. "Who were you thinking about in here?"

Gabrielle averted her eyes and turned away. "Nobody."

Ephiny bobbed around in the bath until she was in front of her friend. "You’re lying." She chuckled at the deepening red climbing up Gabrielle’s neck. "C’mon, Gabrielle, this is me you’re talking to. You were thinking about someone while you were soaking in here, weren’t you?"

"Ephiny!"

"C’mon, Gabrielle! You’re attracted to somebody. Finally! C’mon, c’mon, Gabrielle. Tell me! Who is it? Is it, Solari?" Ephiny was delighted to see Gabrielle squirm under her gaze. "C’mon, Gabrielle ... it’s Solari, isn’t it?"

"Don’t be ridiculous."

"Eponin, then. I knew it."

"Ephiny!"

Gabrielle turned away, only to be pursued by the insistent Amazon.

"Gabrielle ... Gabrielle." She caught the bard by the shoulders and gently turned her around, studying the seriousness in her eyes. Ephiny lost her smile as she felt the humor in the matter disappearing.

"It’s not Eponin, is it?" She suddenly became very nervous. "Gabrielle, it’s not me ... is it?" Ephiny watched the light in Gabrielle’s eyes change and suddenly felt her heart rising in her throat at the possibility.

Gabrielle grinned at her friend’s strange expression. "Don’t worry, Ephiny. It’s not you." She ducked her head in the water, completely missing the brief look of disappointment that passed over the amazon’s face.

"Oh," Ephiny said with a swallow. "Well, that’s good. You had me worried there for a moment." She took a step back and wiped wet hair from her face. "So, who is it, then?"

"It wasn’t anybody. I wasn’t thinking about anybody," Gabrielle replied as she continued to wash her skin in the hot spring water.

Ephiny narrowed her eyes and her heart took a sudden plunge into the pit of her stomach. "It’s her, isn’t it?"

Gabrielle hit the water with her hand. "Would you get off it, Ephiny! I wasn’t thinking about anybody."

"It’s Xena. You were thinking about Xena, weren’t you? The Conqueror."

"I was not."

"You were. You were thinking about Xena."

"So what if I was?"

"So what if you were? Gabrielle, that’s the Conqueror you were just daydreaming about. The woman who nearly destroyed the entire Amazon nation." Ephiny took angry steps toward her friend and grabbed her by the shoulders, this time not so gently. ‘The same woman who sentenced you to crucifixion and had your legs broken, remember?"

Gabrielle shrugged away from the grip and turned her back. "I can’t forget it, Ephiny. And I never will."

"You better not," Ephiny stated bluntly, and waded over to the opposite end of the bath. "I can understand fantasizing about the woman. I mean, afterall, she is very beautiful."

Gabrielle smiled briefly and then turned to face Ephiny. She slid down onto a rock, pretending to wash an arm. "I can’t help but think about her," Gabrielle said, glancing at Ephiny and noting the scowl on her face, "about her story, I mean. The Chronos Stone and all."

"That hogwash," Ephiny exclaimed, rolling her eyes, "you believe that story and I have some marshland in Mesophetamia for ya ..."

"So, we aren’t planning to go to Corinth then?"

"Oh, we’re going to Corinth, all right. Just as soon as Yakut is ready."

Gabrielle sat up in the water. "She knows something about the Chronos Stone?"

"Not the Chronos Stone, but another stone with a legend similar to it. There are as many legends as there are countries when it comes to time and destiny, I’ve discovered. This one is about a blue stone, the world’s largest diamond apparently."

"A blue diamond?"

Ephiny shook her head, wet, blond curls bounced in ringlets. "I don’t know, something like that. You’ll have to ask Yakut about it if you want to know more. All I know is that it’s stuck in the head of a statue of a Hindu god somewhere in a city in India -- Golconda, I think. It’s supposed to be very powerful and has something to do with kharma."

"Kharma?"

"Yeah, you know ... kharma ... destiny ... fate ... one of those spiritual, shamanistic ritual kind of things. Just what Xena was looking for."

"A way to travel through time? Change the course of events?"

Ephiny held up her hand. "Don’t jump to conclusions, Gabrielle. To me, it’s just all a bunch of mumbo jumbo. But it doesn’t really matter whether I believe it or not. Just so long as the Conqueror believes it."

Gabrielle knotted her brows. "What do you mean?"

"It will be our ticket in. It just has to be believable enough to sound convincing."

"Convincing enough for what?"

The corner of Ephiny’s mouth twisted into a satisfied grin. "Convincing enough for her to trust us so we can get close to her."

Gabrielle stood up in the water. "You’re not going to try to help her at all ... you’re planning to assassinate her."

Ephiny shrugged. "Of course."

"Ephiny, that’s despicable!"

"Despicable! Gabrielle, how can you say that?"

Gabrielle threw her hands into the air with an angry gesture and paced back and forth as fast as the water would allow.

"It’s ... it’s ... it’s ... unbefitting of an Amazon!"

"Oh, really? How so?"

"What are you going to do? Stab her in the back?"

"That’s what she did to Caesar!"

"Caesar was a monster!"

"So is she."

Gabrielle froze and glared at her friend. "Ephiny, didn’t you see her when she was here?"

"I saw her, all right. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but I saw her."

"Whether you believe the Chronos Stone story or not, something has happened to her."

"Maybe she got knocked in the head once too often," Ephiny hypothesized, scratching her nose.

"Ephiny," Gabrielle sighed. "Why are you so thick headed when it comes to this ... when it comes to her?"

Ephiny stood angrily in the water. "Because I’m looking at you and seeing something in your eyes when you talk about her that I don’t like ... I don’t like one bit."

"What you’re seeing," Gabrielle answered back calmly, "is compassion."

"She sure as centaur shit didn’t show you any."

"Look ... Ephiny. You are not the one who stood before her in judgment. I did. On the day I was crucified, I looked into a pair of the coldest, cruelest eyes I thought I had ever seen in my entire life. There was no heart behind those eyes ... no heart whatsoever. I felt such ... despair ... after looking into her eyes that day. Despair for the world because I knew, under her rule, there would be no hope. No hope at all."

The bard, now Amazon Queen, took a few wading steps through the hot water to her friend. "But when she came to us that night, I swear by all the gods, Ephiny -- I swear by Artemis ..."

"Don’t ..."

"I swear by our goddess, Artemis, that was NOT the same woman. Whether the story of the Chronos stone is true or even if we can’t change the destiny of this world as it stands today, I’m not so sure assassinating her would be a good idea."

"Gabrielle, what are you saying?"

"I’m saying, Ephiny," Gabrielle said, placing her hands on her friend’s shoulders, "I saw hope for the world in her eyes that day. A great hope. The same hope I see in your eyes for the Amazon nation, the same hope that Melosa had before she died. I saw it there, Ephiny ... didn’t you?"

Ephiny shrugged away. "Like I said, maybe she’s been knocked in the head a few too many times."

"She’s changed."

"Yeah. Maybe she has. If so ... so what?"

"She deserves a chance."

"Are you crazy? How can you say that, with all that she’s done?"

"She’s a great leader."

"Now I think YOU’VE been knocked a few times in the head!"

The corner of Gabrielle’s mouth curved upward in a slight grin. "You used to say so yourself. What did you call her? A great woman, leading the greatest army ..."

"... the world has ever known ... yeah, I remember. That was after the Horde and before she slaughtered all those people in the Peloponnesos."

"Look at what she’s done in the last four months. Those villages along the Strimon River were given aid ... food and military support to rebuild after that flooding. I read a scout report of hospices being started, she’s sent out groups of healers and their apprentices to start them."

"Yeah, I read that. But how many people has she sentenced to life imprisonment in these same four months?"

"Life imprisonment. It used to be crucifixion, remember?" Gabrielle said with her hands on her hips.

"Being sentenced to a work farm for the rest of your life is not much better."

"It’s not as bad as crucifixion. Trust me ... I should know."

"Yeah, you should know," Ephiny commented. "How’s your legs, Gabrielle?"

"My legs are fine," Gabrielle replied, ignoring the implication. "Look, Ephiny. There has to be some kind of punishment against crime. What did you do to Velesca and her group after Melosa was killed?"

"I challenged Velesca and killed her. Then I banished her supporters, all according to Amazon law. It was a fair punishment."

"Is banishment from Amazon land any worse than a work camp?"

"At least they’re free to live as they choose!"

"Except the choice to be what they were born to be ... Amazons," Gabrielle stated sadly. "They can never come home, Ephiny. Never. How would that make you feel?"

"A lot better than if I had my legs broken."

"Ephiny."

The amazon leader sighed. "So, you’re saying we should have work camps instead?"

"No. Work camps are not part of our justice system. But they are a solution in many other parts of the world. There has to be some kind of punishment for criminals and Xena can’t use banishment. She has no place to banish anyone to ... she rules everywhere. At least the work farms are planting fields of food, instead of fields of crucified bodies. Ephiny, all I’m trying to say is that Xena has already made changes to the way she used to do things before. Positive changes all pointing in a good direction. Instead of planning to assassinate her, maybe we should think about supporting her efforts to change ... we should be helping her change things for the better, instead of plotting and planning something that will only bring about more bloodshed."

Ephiny shook her head in wonder at her friend. "Gabrielle, I swear you could find good in anyone ... even a five headed hydra."

"Hey, a five head hydra makes for a great story."

"See, I told you."

"I’ll make you a deal, Ephiny. You give me a chance to work with Xena. Just give me some time, that’s all I ask."

"That’s all you and Xena talk about lately ... time." Ephiny sighed again, pausing a moment to stare into her closest friend’s beautiful green eyes. "Maybe. We’ll see." She lifted a hand out of the water and pointed a wet finger at the bard. "I promise you this, Gabrielle. One small step in the wrong direction and I’ll make sure that Xena gets her precious stone ... right through the heart ... if she has one."

"Oh, she has one, Ephiny. She has one."

"Well, I know one thing for sure, you have one, my friend. You have a big heart. Just don’t go giving such a wonderful gift to the likes of Xena."

Gabrielle turned her back on her friend and ran her fingers lightly along the place near her lips where Xena had touched. "Come on, Eph, I’m turning into a prune. Let’s get dressed and get out of here."

"All right," Ephiny said smiling, "you first."

Gabrielle covered her breasts with her hands. "No way. You first and go back behind that rock."

"What rock?" Ephiny asked, smiling innocently.

"The one you were hiding behind when you were doing your peeping-Tominius thing."

Ephiny pulled herself up out of the water and took her sweet time getting to her clothes. "You’re too modest for an Amazon, Gabrielle."

"And you’re a pervert, has anyone ever told you that?"

"Constantly," Ephiny answered sauntering away from the bathing area with all of her clothes draped over a shoulder.

"... and an exhibitionist!" Gabrielle yelled after her friend.

The bard made damn sure she was completely alone before getting out of the water. She scooted over to where she left her garments --

-- only to find all of her clothes were gone.

 

 

CHAPTER 8

 "I said SHUT UP!" Darfus yelled to the crowded room. Instantly, the din subsided. All argument ceased as eyes stared with anticipation to the center of the assembly room, to the imposing figure that sat relaxed upon an old wooden throne, silently watching everything going on around her.

Darfus adjusted his sword belt and straightened his back. "That’s better," he said and turned his gaze expectantly to the Conqueror.

Xena raised an eyebrow and shifted in her seat. The fingers of her right hand tapped upon the ornately carved wooden armrest of the throne as she stared out across the room.

The giant hall was packed to the rafters. Warlords, statesmen, politicians, merchants, officers, regents, ambassadors, landowners, farmers and some with titles she couldn’t even imagine crowded into the great chamber today, all with their own agenda to present to the Conqueror.

The room reeked of sweat and subterfuge. There wasn’t a person here who wouldn’t enjoy putting a knife in her back, Xena mused as she looked over the crowd. Purposely aiming an intensely intimidating blue stare at as many challenging eyes as she could, the corner of the Conqueror’s mouth lifted as each and every pair of eyes she captured shifted away to stare at the ground.

Spineless, plotting cowards all, Xena thought with a small smile. It was exactly as she had imagined it would be, years ago when all her dreams were of one day ruling the world. Now, here she sat in the center of her wildest imaginings and the old wooden throne fit very well indeed.

Armor and leather creaked as the silence in the large hall became overbearing. One warlord dared to cough, quickly swallowing the sound when the Conqueror’s steely gaze turned his way.

Gods, but she loved this, Xena’s inner voice chuckled as she turned her attention back to the issue at hand -to Lucretius, Regent of Thessalonka, Fastidius, a wealthy land-owner, and his only daughter, Bolemia -- the cause of the current controversy.

Xena’s long, elegant fingers ceased their tapping. She lifted her hands and folded them gracefully in her lap.

"Lucretius," Xena said slowly, her low voice managing to fill the hall, "what are you saying here?"

Lucretius was a gruff man who was once a general in Xena’s conquering army. Apparently, she had awarded him with the regency of Thessalonka for services rendered which included the defeat and death of General Marmax and his forces. Lucretius had knelt before the Conqueror on bended knee swearing fealty to her and the realm for the honor, and now here he was threatening to sever that allegiance if he didn’t get his way. Thessalonka was a considerable territory in Greece and Lucretius’ regency was an important one. That he would even think of succeeding from the realm over such a ridiculously inconsequential matter was inconceivable. The fact that he had just voiced this position aloud was reason enough for Xena to order him nailed to the cross.

And she would have done just that, if she still did that sort of thing. Maybe now was a good time to reinstate the practice.

"You wanna say that again?" Xena asked her ex-general, keeping her voice unnervingly calm.

"I said, either you support me on this, or my troops will ride on Fastidius’s castle and I’ll take want I want whether you approve of it or not, Xena." Lucretius puffed up his chest and grabbed onto the hilt of his sword threateningly. The posture caused Darfus to begin to draw his own weapon, until a wave of the Conqueror’s hand halted the action.

But, it wasn’t the threat that had gotten her hackles up. Xena sat forward in the throne. "What did you call me?"

Lucretius gulped, realizing his mistake. "Er ... I mean, Conqueror." But it was too late; the impropriety had already been spoken.

Xena stood and the rising commotion throughout the hall dropped to utter stillness. Deep within the crowd, two robed figures pushed their way closer to the front for a better view. From under the shadow of one of those hoods, a pair of green eyes watched the situation intently.

Xena smoothed out the wrinkles in her silk robe and glided from the throne to stand before the Regent.

"It’s as I told you, Conqueror," the father’s voice said, drawing Xena’s attention. "The law means nothing to the man. The power you gave him has gone to his head. He wants my daughter, and will stop at nothing to get her. He has pursued her relentlessly, forcing himself upon her at every opportunity. He nearly raped her at a recent affair of state, had I not stumbled upon them and intervened."

Lucretius leered at his opponent. "The woman wanted it!"

"I did not!" the daughter cried out.

"She asked for it!" Lucretius shouted, pointing his finger accusingly. "Her dress was provocative and she practically threw herself at me."

"I did not!" Bolemia implored to the Conqueror, tears beginning to fall.

"The man has no honor!" the father exclaimed.

Lucretius bristled. "I gave you the courtesy of asking for her hand in good faith."

"He marched onto my lands and demanded they be wed."

"You should be grateful I didn’t burn your house down! I offered you a dowry!"

"Two cows."

A burst of laughter broke out in the room. One look from the Conqueror and it ended.

"Lucretius," Xena said softly, moving closer to her Regent as though to speak in confidence, "the woman does not want you."

"That’s not the point," Lucretius shrugged, "I want her."

"And just how much do you want her?"

"I offered a dowry ..."

"Two cows?" Xena responded, raising an eyebrow, "that’s not a dowry, that’s milk for breakfast."

"It was a gesture ... a token of my good faith. I didn’t have to offer anything. I could have just taken her and made her mine."

"And what makes you think you could have done that?" Xena asked, folding her arms across her chest.

"I am the Regent of Thessalonka! Everything in that territory belongs to me! Including him, his house, his lands, his cattle and ... her!"

The father was appalled. "That’s preposterous!"

"It is the law," Lucretius smugly replied. "I am Regent, named by the Conqueror herself. Thessalonka ... everything and everyone in it ... belongs to me!"

"You’re wrong, Lucretius," Xena stated sharply.

"See, I told you," Fastidius commented proudly.

"Everything in Thessalonka," Xena announced, raising her voice so the entire hall could hear, "your house, your lands, your cattle, your daughter and you," she looked squarely at Lucretius and then Fastidius, "both of you ... belong to me."

The chamber erupted in cheers and shouts of agreement. Peering out from a curtain up on one of the balconies, Alti sneered and gurgled a rough chuckle. Finally, Xena was acting more like herself instead of the sentimental fool. The witch had been growing tired of the tedious and boring proclamations of late: hospices and aid, food and clothing. What would be next? Freedom for slaves?

Xena circled around the now silent debaters.

"I should crucify you both for wasting my time."

Alti’s dark eyes glowed. Maybe she would get her field back sooner than she thought.

"It is NOT a waste of time," the father argued, "I have a grievance with one of your appointed Regents. Where was I to go for help, if not to you? Unless, of course, he is above reproach."

Ephiny adjusted her hood and gave Gabrielle a dubious look. The bard flashed her friend a ‘give her a chance’ expression, then pulled on her arm to move them forward through the crowd.

Xena raised an eyebrow at the accusation. "And what would you have me do?"

The father placed a protective arm around his daughter and pulled her close. "Tell him to leave my daughter alone!"

Lucretius turned red in the face. "I will have her Xena. I must have her. If you don’t give her to me, then I will take her."

"You’re not thinking with your head," Xena commented as she walked a circle around Fastidius and his daughter, checking the attributes of the very beautiful woman out for herself. The blatant inspection by the Conqueror caused the girl to blush.

Xena finished the inspection and paused. A little thin for her taste, the Conqueror mused, but appetizing. She leered at Lucretius. "And what if I take her for myself?"

The father blanched. The daughter smiled.

Up on the balcony, Alti laughed while, in the audience, Ephiny leveled an icy stare at Gabrielle.

"Then you will find yourself facing my army!" Lucretius exclaimed, sputtering in disbelief.

Oh yeah, we’re having fun now, Xena thought to herself and licked her lips. "Willing to fight for her then, are ya?"

"I will have her, Xena ... by the gods, I will fight for her!"

Xena’s laugh surprised even Darfus and before the commander knew what was happening, Xena had grabbed his sword from his own sheath and had drawn it. She twirled it in her hand, the sword sparkling in a single beam of fading sunlight that cut through the dim of the hall.

"Then fight you shall, Lucretius," Xena announced. She plunged the sword into the wooden floor causing everyone in the room to jump at the resulting thud. She left it quivering upright and, with a quick pull, ripped apart her robe and tossed it to the side.

Lucretius’ eyes grew wide as he stared at the sword, still vibrating from the impact. His eyes lifted slowly to find the Conqueror tossing away her fine silken threads and standing before him clad in a pair of Turkish black trousers and a criss-crossed piece of black silk cloth that supported her breasts, but left nothing to the imagination.

Xena yanked the sword out of the floor and pointed it at her Regent’s nose.

"You want her," Xena stated, her eyes going wide, "you’ll fight me for her."

Alti clapped her hands in glee and stepped out from behind the curtain onto the balcony. She wasn’t about to miss this for all the tea in Ch’in.

"Con ... Con ... Conqueror ... this isn’t necessary," Fastidius stammered out.

"You came here because you wanted your problem solved for you, didn’t ya?"

Fastidius gulped and nodded.

"Well, I’m a problem solver and this is how we’re gonna do it." She pointed her sword at Lucretius. "He wins, he gets the girl. He loses ... the girl is mine. Agreed?"

When the father didn’t answer, Xena shifted the sword to him. "If not ... he gets the girl and YOU get the sword. So ... whadda ya say, you want me to solve your problem?"

"This is ridic .. ," the father began to yell angrily, but the daughter covered his mouth with her hand.

"Shut up, father," the daughter said and smiled demurely. "I agree."

Xena grinned at the girl and then turned her sneer to Lucretius. "What about you, Lucretius? You got the jewels for this? You must, seeing as they’ve been giving you so much trouble in this matter."

A few laughs echoed in the hallway.

"You want me to fight you?" Lucretius asked backing away from the point of the blade.

"What’s wrong, Lucretius? Losing your nerve? You were willing to ride your army against me. Why not just fight me outright? It would save a lot of time ... and lives. Then again, you could just kneel and let me chop your head off ... that would really save us a lot of time."

An increase in laughter caused Lucretius to blush in anger.

"I’m not afraid to fight you, Xena."

"Good, then draw your blade."

"You leave me no other choice," Lucretius stated as he pulled slowly on his sword, "you’ll be sorry you started this."

"Oh, I didn’t start this. But, I’m sure gonna finish it," Xena growled through clenched teeth as she swung her sword in a downward arc. Lucretius barely had time to lift his blade up to block the powerful blow. The impact sent him stumbling backward and falling to the floor.

The room howled in approval. Xena grinned wickedly, waiting patiently as Lucretius scrambled to his feet.

Gabrielle grimaced at the reverberating ring of the first strike of blades. This was not what she had expected to find when they came to Corinth. Could her intuition about Xena be wrong?

Lucretius growled and hurled himself at Xena, striking a series of blows which the Conqueror blocked easily. The sound of clashing metal sang out above the shouts of the crowd as the swords met. The Regent attempted a horizontal slash which Xena deflected, sending him spinning around from the force of his own swing. She kicked him in the ass when his back was turned and sent him sliding along the floor into the crowd.

Once again, laughter brought out the anger in Lucretius. Shouting incoherently, he shoved away Gabrielle’s helpful hands and pushed himself to his feet.

Xena was leaning on her sword in the center of the room in a relaxed manner.

"Lucretius, you were once a general in my army. Now, I know you must be able to fight better than this. Or has being a Regent made you soft? Then again, if you’ve gone soft ... what are we fighting for?" Xena cackled with glee as her opponent’s face flushed a deep red and his eyes bulged in anger. He rushed at her, sword raised, foam at the mouth.

His wild swing met with empty air. Xena had launched herself upward, spinning her body in a half twist before landing solidly on the floor directly behind him. Lucretius turned and found himself eating a nice helping of the Conqueror’s fist.

Xena punched him so hard, the man’s head snapped back with an audible crack. The crowd roared. Ephiny and Gabrielle cringed.

Somehow, Lucretius remained conscious and, to Xena’s surprise, countered with a roundhouse swing of the fist holding his sword. It swept into Xena’s field of vision, whacking her on the left cheek with enough force to snap her head to the side.

Time came to a standstill as Xena touched the bruise and narrowed her eyes. The audience held their breath. Even Alti’s dark eyes grew wide.

Lucretius barely had time to gloat before a foot was kicking him in the side of the head, first in one direction and then the other. Xena’s amusement had turned to rage and now she was pummeling him mercilessly. The Regent stumbled across the floor, propelled by a series of staggering blows to the head and body. A solid side kick landed squarely in his stomach, and he doubled over in pain. Xena sprang into the air and caught his head in a vice-like grip between her legs, then fell to the ground, pulling Lucretius along with her. She flipped him over, slamming him to the floor onto his back.

With a swift kick from her legs and a push of her hands and the Conqueror was on her feet, advancing on her target, sword in hand.

Lucretius scrambled to his feet and attempted to take a defensive stance.

Xena swung her blade in a sideward arc, allowing Lucretius to block it easily. But before the Regent knew what was happening, Xena had twirled his sword up and out of his hand. It clattered to the floor, a useless distance away. The next swipe of the Conqueror’s blade came at his midsection, and Lucretius thought his life finished, for surely he was about to be disemboweled.

But the edge of the sword only sliced through his belt. It, too, clattered to the floor, followed quickly by his pants.

Lucretius’ jewels lay bare before the Conqueror and all the audience to see.

The regent gulped and used his hands to cover his wares.

With one quick and low sweep of her leg, Xena took his legs out of under him. Lucretius landed on his rump with a fleshy thud and then felt the ice cold point of a sharp sword against the base of his penis.

"You’ll never force yourself on anyone again," Xena’s voice was as low and dangerous as Alti had ever heard it. The sorceress smiled, already planning what she would do with the spare appendage.

"Kiss it good-bye," Xena said as she pressed the point of her sword against the tender skin of the scrotum.

Lucretius’ skin paled. Xena sneered wickedly.

Then a movement behind her opponent, at the edge of the audience, caught the Conqueror’s attention. Xena lifted her eyes away from the alluringly fear-filled stare of her victim and found herself looking in to a pair of very disapproving emerald green eyes.

The sword faltered and Xena took a step back.

What is this? Alti nearly screamed out. The witch strained over the railing to see what had distracted the Conqueror from her delicious task.

Xena took a deep breath and let the sword fall to her side. She looked at Gabrielle again, but the bard’s expression was carefully neutral. The sword suddenly felt very heavy in her hand.

Lucretius was beginning to turn blue from lack of oxygen.

"Breathe, Lucretius," Xena said, taking another step back. "Today is your lucky day. You get to keep your jewels, but you lose your crown."

The ex-Regent gasped the first breath of air he had taken in minutes and then fainted dead away.

"Looks like I have an opening for Regent of Thessalonka." Xena flung the sword away. It clattered on the ground at Darfus’ feet. The commander bent down and picked it up, putting it back in the sheath at his side.

"Take him away," the Conqueror ordered with a wave of her hand. She strode back to her throne and sat wearily down.

"Clear the hall," she said to Darfus, leaning over so only he would hear, "except for the two in the front -- the ones with the hoods. They stay."

Darfus nodded once and then motioned to his soldiers to start clearing things out. The room began to empty as Xena massaged her temples.

"Not you," Darfus said, blocking the doorway just as Ephiny and Gabrielle were about to exit. "The Conqueror wants you to stay."

"Well, maybe we don’t want to stay," Ephiny stated threateningly.

Darfus edged up to her -- nose to nose, "You don’t have a choice."

Ephiny drew in a deep breath, about to retort, when she was halted by the soft hand of Gabrielle on her arm.

"Ephiny, don’t," Gabrielle said and smiled apologetically at the commander. "It’s what we came here to do, after all."

Ephiny and Darfus continued their staring contest for a few more seconds before the Amazon leader smiled. "Sure, why not?"

"Have a seat," Darfus offered with a wave of his hand, "make yourselves comfortable." And he turned and marched away.

Ephiny sighed and sat down in the nearest seat.

"Who’s idea was this, anyway?"

 

 

CHAPTER 9

Ephiny and Gabrielle walked together to the front of the chamber, toward the quiet figure of the Conqueror. Xena was sitting on her large throne with her eyes closed, rubbing against the temples of her head with the fingers of both hands. She listened as the footsteps against the wooden floor echoed throughout the now empty chamber, growing louder as her unexpected visitors approached.

For long, lonely months she had awaited the bard's arrival and now, here she was. Knowing Gabrielle, however, Xena was certain that her bard was not going to be happy with what she had seen. The Conqueror continued to rub her temples against the throbbing headache that had been plaguing her for weeks now.

The walk across the large hall seemed to last forever. For so long, the bard had waited to heal, waited patiently for the moment when the healers would pronounce her safe to travel. She finally convinced her over-protective friend Ephiny that it would be all right for them to make good on their promise to the Conqueror. And now she was here. Though Gabrielle's heart was thudding in her chest with excitement to see Xena again, her brain was warning her that coming here to the palace of the Conqueror might have been a mistake.

Gabrielle took a few moments to look around the chamber, noting briefly that someone appeared to be watching them from behind a curtain on a balcony above. She could see the curtain sway as the spy tried to hide from her probing stare. For some odd reason, a shiver worked its way down her spine. The bard shook it off and looked across to the other side of the room. There was a similar observer on a balcony there as well, but this person made no attempt to hide herself. A young and attractive dark-haired servant was watching their every move, her attention riveted on the Amazon Queen herself.

When at last they stood before the Empress, Xena stopped rubbing her head and opened her eyes to look at her guests.

Both Gabrielle and Ephiny removed their hoods and waited patiently for whatever was going to happen. Unaware of the audience above, Ephiny was only interested in the fact that the Conqueror's gaze was steadfast on the beautiful woman at her side. She took a sideways glance at her friend; Gabrielle's eyes were similarly locked with the Conqueror's.

"Darfus, leave us," Xena ordered with a wave of her hand, her gaze steady and warm at the welcomed site of her bard.

The Royal Commander hesitated a moment. He looked up at the far balcony and noticed Satrina emerging from behind a curtain, trying to get a better look at the golden-haired woman who had so captured the Conqueror's attention.

Darfus jerked his head at the slave. Satrina caught the disapproving glare of the Commander and withdrew from the balcony, back behind the curtain. But that wasn't about to stop her from still peeking out.

"Darfus, go," Xena repeated the order, annoyance coloring her voice. Darfus looked one more time to make sure Satrina was concealed behind the curtain and then departed.

Xena waited until her Commander was well out of the room before she spoke.

"How are you?" the Conqueror inquired in a quiet voice, her eyes never leaving Gabrielle.

"We're fine, thank you," Ephiny answered curtly.

Ephiny earned a quick look and a small smile from Xena before her attention returned to the bard.

"Your legs, Gabrielle. How are your legs?"

"They're good," the bard answered, instinctively leaning down to give her shin a rub. "They ache a little when it rains and sometimes when it's cold, but other than that, I'm fine I guess."

Xena nodded her head. "Good," she said as she leaned back in her throne. "It's been a long time ..."

"Four months," Ephiny inserted.

Xena nodded again, "Four months, 2 weeks, 3 days -- I was getting worried."

"What's the matter? Afraid we wouldn't come to help you find your pretty jewel?" Ephiny asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

"Ephiny," the bard protested.

"No," Xena replied staring directly at the curly-haired Amazon. "I was afraid Gabrielle was having trouble healing."

"Two broken legs take a long time to heal."

"You're not gonna give me an inch, are you?" Xena asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Nope."

"Ephiny," Gabrielle protested again.

"No, it's all right," Xena said and lifted her hand. "It's all right. She doesn't trust me, and she shouldn't."

"Damn right, I don't trust you. Not after what I saw here today," Ephiny stated as she crossed her arms over her chest.

"I'm sorry you had to see that," Xena commented and she cast her eyes to the ground. "I got a little carried away. I lost my temper."

Ephiny smirked. "Looked like you were having tons of fun to me."

Xena sighed. That was exactly what she had been doing. She lifted her eyes to find the Amazon leader staring at her intently. She's got me pegged, Xena thought and rose from her seat.

"I lost my temper. A good leader doesn't lose her temper."

"A good leader just chops off her Regent's testicles with cold indifference," Ephiny said, raising her own eyebrow and giving Gabrielle a glance to make sure her sardonic comment had made its point. To Gabrielle's annoyance, it had.

Xena took a deep breath. It had been a long day and she was beginning to get annoyed ... again. "A good leader resolves a sensitive problem the best way she can. My intention was to win the fight and then dismiss Lucretius from his Regency."

"And then claim the girl?" Ephiny asked with a cynical grin.

"Ephiny, that's enough." The bard's voice was firm.

Xena stood before the Amazon leader and scowled. "Of course not. I never wanted the girl."

"Then exactly who do you want?" Ephiny asked silkily as she took a step closer to the Conqueror.

From their hiding places, on opposite sides of the hall, two separate eavesdroppers strained to hear the Conqueror's reply. Satrina was more than a little concerned with her master's answer to that question. The slave was developing an intense dislike for the attractive woman whom the Conqueror kept gracing with looks of affection.

And Alti couldn't believe that Xena was allowing this insolent Amazon to speak to her in such a manner.
She spread the curtain a little more so she could get a closer look at the brazen woman. The sorceress chuckled as she watched Xena's expression turn dark.

"And what do you care who I want?" Xena closed the distance between herself and Ephiny, allowing her height to add weight to the displeasure in her voice.

"Depends on what you are really after ... Conqueror. Just what is it you really want from us?" Ephiny lifted her chin to stare Xena directly in the eye, not at all intimidated by the Empress's towering presence.

Oh, Xena, Alti cackled to herself as she rubbed her scaly hands together, this one is a fine catch ... a fine, fine catch! The evil shamaness silently hoped that there was more where this one came from.

Xena's upper lip began to quiver into a sneer, and then suddenly her entire demeanor changed. The warrior felt the heavy weight of this unwanted destiny baring down upon her shoulders. With a heavy sigh, Xena took a few steps back, breaking away from the confrontation.

"I just want the stone, Ephiny. That's all I want is the stone."

"So you keep saying," the Amazon leader stated skeptically. "Well, we found one for you."

Xena's eyebrows lifted and disappeared into the bangs of her hair.

"Come," Xena said and she motioned to a rear door, "let me take you on tour of the castle grounds."

"A tour?" Ephiny asked incredulously, "Right now? You want to give us a tour?"

"Ephiny," Gabrielle said softly. She took a step beside her friend and placed a gentle hand on her arm. "The walls have ears," the bard whispered as her eyes shifted to the balcony above them, "and eyes."

Ephiny looked up to see a curtain swaying as though someone had hastily tried to hide, but not before the Amazon leader caught a glimpse of the darkest, most evil eyes she had ever seen staring out at her.

"A tour sounds nice ... real nice. I'd love a tour."

 

 

Satrina ran down the steps as fast as her legs could carry her. She rounded the corner of the hall and was about to head down the corridor after Xena and her visitors, when a cold hand grabbed her arm and pulled her into a doorway.

"And just where do you think you're going?" Alti's grating voice sent a chill down the slave's spine.

"I'm ... I'm ... going to get some food ready in case the Conqueror wants to ..." Satrina stammered trying to avoid looking in the witch's dark eyes.

"Just make sure you listen closely and remember every word. I want to know exactly what they talk about ... everything, even if it's the weather." Alti squeezed Satrina's arm, letting her nails bite into skin until the woman squirmed. "Report back to me as soon as you can. Every word, my dear or I'll be having slave on a wooden cross for dinner, do you understand me?"

Satrina nodded mutely.

"And try not to let Xena know you're spying on them, though I doubt that's possible."

Satrina nodded again and Alti allowed her to pull her arm free from the painful grip. The shamaness chortled as the slave ran down the hall -- she wasn't sure if Satrina was running to catch up with Xena or running to get away from her.

Alti licked the tiny bit of blood from her nails that had scratched into Satrina's skin.

The slave was tasty indeed, but the sorceress enjoyed Amazon so much more.

 

 

"It was dangerous to come here alone," Xena commented as she led her visitors into the large garden area in the center of the Conqueror's castle. It was a peristyle in the manner of Pompeii; an open-aired atrium landscaped with manicured plants and flowers from all over the world. They paused beside a marble fountain, the ever trickling water helping to mask their words from prying ears.

"You shouldn't have entered the city unescorted," Xena continued.

Gabrielle took in the beauty of the garden, while Ephiny inspected their surroundings, looking for unwanted visitors. When she was satisfied that they were alone, the Amazon responded to the Conqueror's comment.

"Do you think I would come to Corinth alone? Bring myself and our domestic leader into the clutches of the Conqueror? Xena, you all but destroyed the Amazon nation. There's only a handful of us left. And as military leader, I'm sworn to protect what's left of us, especially from you. I'm not about to march into Corinth, the capital of your empire -- not without checking it out first."

Xena smoothed out the rear of her silken robe so she could sit down upon the fountain's edge. "So, if you thought it was a trap, then why did you bring your domestic Queen with you?"

"Have you ever tried to stop Gabrielle from doing something she wanted to do once she has her mind made up?" Ephiny asked, the corner of her mouth lifting into a grin.

Xena answered with a smirk of her own. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I have."

The Amazon leader was about to protest with a question as to exactly when, but then she remembered why they were here. "Right ... the Chronos Stone story. I almost forgot." Ephiny scratched her chin. "So, were you successful? In changing her mind?"

Xena chuckled softly. "Nope."

"Me neither," Ephiny said, smiling for the first time. "It's safer to walk in a garden with the Conqueror, then get in an argument with Gabrielle."

"I'd rather fight Centaurs," Xena agreed with a nod.

"Ya know," Gabrielle interjected, "it's impolite to talk about somebody as though she isn't here."

The amusement in Xena's eyes turned to serious concern. "And it wasn't very smart for the only two living leaders of the Amazon nation to enter the capital of an enemy unescorted and unprotected.

Ephiny smiled fully, her teeth shining in the darkness of the garden. "Oh, we're not alone. Not exactly."

With a soft whistle from the blond warrior that sounded more like a bird, several fully-armed Amazon warriors swung down from the trees in the atrium and onto the grassy floor of the garden.

Ephiny crossed her arms proudly as the Amazon soldiers flanked her on either side.

"Very good," Xena said, remaining calm and still, though her mind was busy thinking of a suitable punishment for the unfortunate guards who had been on duty tonight. She looked at Gabrielle, who was watching her reaction intently. Xena couldn't help but notice the way the bard's green eyes sparkled in the moonlight. All thoughts of punishing anyone disappeared from her mind. "So, are you here to kill me or are you here to help me?"

"That depends on you," Ephiny answered. "Are you still standing by that Chronos Stone story? Are you no longer the Destroyer of Nations?"

"What do you think?" Xena asked, speaking directly to Gabrielle.

"I think there have been a lot of changes ... a lot of good changes ... in the way you are running things. You're turning into a good leader, Xena. The world could do a lot worse than have you as its conqueror now."

"What are you saying?" Xena asked as she studied the bard's face. "That you would want me to remain Xena, the Conqueror?"

"No," Gabrielle answered, taking a step closer so that she could see Xena's face a little better in the darkness. "I'm wondering why someone who has all the riches of the world, who lives in the most gorgeous castle I have ever seen, someone who has tens of thousands of troops at her command -- a woman who has conquered and now rules the world -- why would she want to change this? Why would she prefer a reality where she roams the world with hardly a penny to her name ... to all this." Gabrielle waved her arm around indicating the beautiful peristyle, the surrounding magnificent castle, out to the city of Corinth and the entire world beyond.

Xena smiled and looked at the woman who she felt closer to the any other person in the world -- a woman who might as well be a million miles away right now, it seemed that she would never be able to bridge the distance between them.

"Because here, I've lost something far more important to me than all of this," Xena answered sadly and turned her eyes to the ground so that this stranger who was really not her bard at all could not see the loneliness there.

But Gabrielle saw it, and though she was not sure what it was that Xena was missing in this reality, she felt touched by the same sadness nonetheless.

She sat down next to the Conqueror, tempted to lay her hand across Xena's own, but she did not.

"Then we're here to help you," Gabrielle said with a small smile. "At least, I think we can." She looked at Ephiny and nodded her head.

Xena studied the expression on Gabrielle's face for a moment, hoping she would see some recognition of what they had been to one another, but there was nothing. Only the bard's innate desire to help. She looked with disappointment to the military leader of the Amazons and waited.

"Our shamaness, Yakut, says there is another stone, similar to the Chronos Stone."

"Go on," Xena prompted as she stood, suddenly very interested in what Ephiny had to say.

"The Third Eye of Lakshmi. It sits in the head of a statue of a Hindu avatar god," Ephiny explained, pointing to the middle of her head. "There's one problem."

"And what's the problem?"

"The statue is in a holy shrine in the center of a very religious city ... a very well-protected, religious city."

"And this is a problem, how?" Xena asked, raising a brow.

"The city is Golconda ... Golconda, India."

Xena snorted. "Indian statues are usually located in cities in India."

"India is very far away."

"Then we better get started," Xena said simply.

Ephiny was surprised. "We're leaving -- just like that?"

"The quicker the better."

Xena's haste made Ephiny instantly suspicious. "You believe what we're telling you?"

The Conqueror shrugged. "Why shouldn't I?"

"We could be luring you into a trap."

Xena looked at Gabrielle. "Is it a trap, Gabrielle? Would you knowingly lead me into a trap that would take my life?"

For a moment, the bard did not respond, then the answer came in a small nod 'no'.

Xena smiled. "I didn't think so. Go back to your camp. I'll meet you there at dawn."

Ephiny was not convinced. "Just you?"

"Just me," Xena confirmed.

"You'll just pack up and leave Corinth to go with us all the way to India? What about your empire? Aren't you worried someone will take your throne in your absence?"

Another shrug from the Warrior Princess. "Does it matter?" At the suspicious looks from her companions, Xena grinned. "If we succeed in our mission, everything will change anyway."

"And if we don't?"

"Then you'll assassinate me, remember?"

Ephiny's expression turned thoughtful. "Right." She looked at Gabrielle, but the bard was staring at the Conqueror intently.

Time to get out of here, Ephiny mused. "Let's do it then. As you said, one way or another ..."

"... it is the end of the reign of Xena, the Conqueror," Xena finished the vow with a smile. "Til death do us part."

"Rrrigght," Ephiny drawled out, studying Xena speculatively. She gave a tug on Gabrielle's arm to get the bard's attention. "Let's get out of here."

Xena watched as the two Amazon leaders and their escorts disappeared into the branches of the lush garden's trees. They became shadows in the darkness of the atrium, climbing over the castle's walls with ease before disappearing into the night.

So many stars, Xena mused as her eyes wandered upward to the infinite sky. So many possibilities to change one's path with every single step. Who's to say that the destiny she walked now wasn't the right one after all? Had she made the right choice to change things back to how she remembered them? Or was it just her selfish desire to be with Gabrielle again influencing her decisions?

Could the greater good be better served if she ruled the world?

These questions were impossible to answer without her partner, who was her moral compass, by her side. Xena turned her eyes back to the garden and the rich darkness of the soil at her feet. Better to put her steps back on the path she knew, then to walk a strange road alone.

She turned around and headed back into the castle, pointedly ignoring the hunched figure behind the fountain. It was far preferable that Satrina had been eavesdropping than Alti herself. The sorceress would have been able to ascertain so much more from the conversation than the slave.

The Conqueror left the garden, knowing full well what Satrina would probably do with the information. Considering what her own plans were, she should care less what Darfus and the slave did with Corinth and her empire after she abandoned the city.

But the truth of the matter was, she cared very much.

 

 

Satrina waited until the dark shadow of the Conqueror disappeared from the garden before she left her hiding place behind the bush. Though the running water of the fountain made listening difficult, she had heard enough to believe that the Conqueror was planning to leave Corinth and join the Amazons in search of a stone in India.

This information almost made the slave jump for joy. With the Conqueror gone, she would have an easy time convincing Darfus to lay claim to the leadership of Corinth in her absence. Darfus would command the capital and the immense army that came with it, and she would control Darfus. By the time Xena returned to Corinth, the Conqueror's army would be theirs. One simple assassination later, and the Empire ... and the stone ... would be hers forever.

Satrina ran as quickly and quietly as she could through the groomed bushes, heading into the castle in search of Darfus.

 

"Alti," Xena's low voice called out as she pushed through the hanging curtain of beads and bones. The Conqueror's warm, seductive tone brought a smile to the shamaness's cracked lips.

"Xena," Alti answered as she put down a bowl and turned to greet her visitor, "what a pleasant surprise. What brings you to my humble chambers? Finished visiting with your two little friends?"

Xena smiled and entered the dark, foul smelling room. "Oh, so you saw them, did you? Guess that ruins my surprise. I came here to tell you that your dessert has finally been served." The Conqueror pulled up a chair and eased herself down. "But then you already know that. How disappointing."

Alti grinned gratuitously. "There isn't much that goes on around here that I don't find out about, Xena. You know that."

"Oh, really? Then tell me, Alti, have you found a Chronos Stone for me yet? How long has it been since you promised to find it for me? Two months? Three?"

Alti shrugged and turned back to mixing a powder in her bowl. "These things take time, Xena. All good things come to those who wait."

"Good. Then you won't mind waiting for your field of Amazon sacrifices."

Alti whirled around to face the Conqueror, her eyes flashing with anger. "You promised me that field AND those Amazons, Xena!"

Xena pursed her lips. "Yes, I did. But AFTER you found me the Chronos Stone."

"I need sacrifices to find what you seek, Xena! My power depends upon it and I can't find you another Chronos Stone without my power."

The Conqueror stood and brushed off the dust of crushed bones from her silken robe. "Funny, the Amazons didn't seem to having any trouble finding me one."

The feigned expression of surprise on Alti's face made Xena chuckle. "So, you heard about that, too?"

The shamaness gave Xena a nonchalant shrug. "I figured you would find a way to put both the Amazons and me to use in conjuring up another Chronos stone for you."

"Of course, I did. Twice the chance for success," Xena commented. "I should fire you from your position and take on their shamaness, she did such a good job."

Alti smiled contemptuously as she stirred the contents in her bowl. "Use their shamaness all you want, Xena. Just so long as I get the rest. I need those Amazons."

"And you shall have them," Xena stated, smiling indulgently at her dark mentor as she traced a finger along the shoulder of the witch's human skin cloak, "but there is something that I need you to do for me first."

Alti raised her eyes to meet the Conqueror's, a dark light causing them to twinkle. "Tell me, what do you need, Xena?"

"The stone that I seek is in India. The Amazons have volunteered to lead me to it."

Alti raised her eyebrows. "Have they, now? And how did you get them to do that -- they're your sworn enemy?"

Xena chuckled, letting her tongue slowly caress a sneering upper lip. "Let's just say, I made them an offer they couldn't refuse. I'm going with them to India to retrieve the stone. I should be gone just over a month, no more than two."

"The stone will be easy to get?" Alti asked as she studied Xena's face closely for signs of deceit. The Conqueror looked as happy as she always did when one of her devious plans were playing out to perfection.

"As easy as taking candy from a baby," the Conqueror replied with a satisfied twinkle in her eye.

The expression seemed to put the sorceress completely at ease. "So what is it you need me to do? Shall I come with you?"

"No, no. I need you to stay behind." As Alti was about to protest, Xena pulled up the chair and sat down very close to the shamaness to whisper. "You see, my little slave, Satrina was eavesdropping just a little bit in the garden just now."

Alti tried to look innocent. "Oh, really?"

Xena nodded, trying very hard not to laugh. "Really. She and Darfus think they are going to start a coup here in Corinth once I leave with the Amazons. Now, we don't want that to happen, do we?"

"Absolutely, not."

Xena rose. "Good, I knew I could count on you."

Alti looked up to the towering and beautiful warrior standing over her. "So, you want me to stay behind and foil their efforts at a takeover."

Xena grinned. "Not too quickly. Let them have their little fun. Just make sure that both of them are dead and hanging from a cross by the time I get back."

Alti stood and grinned evilly at the Conqueror. Finally, things were getting back to normal. "It'll be my pleasure."

"I thought it would be."

"And what happens after you get back?"

At this question, the Conqueror let a full smile fill the darkness of the dusty, rank chamber.

"I'll have the stone ... and you ... you can have the Amazons."

The shamaness threw back her head and cackled with glee.

 

 

Alti rushed along the corridor, footsteps echoing against the cold, marble floor. Her steps were urgent, her eyes angry as she passed a Corinthian column in search of her prey.

She found them, entwined in a narrow alcove. The Royal Commander's pants were to his knees and he was thoroughly enjoying the slave pressed hard against the wall of the dark corner.

Satrina froze at the presence of the witch and cursed.

"What do you want?" Darfus asked, sneering over his shoulder at the interruption.

"Celebrating already?" Alti rasped, "I wouldn't count your griffins before they hatch."

Darfus pulled out of the slave and drew up his pants.

"What are you talking about? How could you know?" He glared at the slave. "Is this some trick to get me in trouble?"

"You're already in trouble," Alti commented with a chuckle, sneaking a peak at the slave's wares as she shuffled her skirt down. "You're both just too stupid to realize it."

Darfus narrowed his eyes at the witch. "What do you mean?"

"Listen closely and learn. Xena knows you better than you know yourself. She knows the minute she leaves Corinth, the two of you will conspire to take her place. Any fool could plan that type of coup. She just leaves you happily busy in your silly little plans while she goes off in search of a far greater prize. Corinth is nothing compared to the power she seeks now. What you don't realize is that with a gem like the Chronos stone in her hand, and the power of the Amazons at her side, she'll not only be able to rule the world, but she'll rule over time as well." She pointed a crooked finger in their direction. "You and I are nothing compared to this."

Satrina gulped. "Xena knows we plan to move against her?"

Alti laughed openly now, her grating voice bouncing off the cold stone of the corridors as though it would crack the marble.

"This is why you will never come close to being Xena. Poor little slave, wants to be a warrior princess so badly. Consider yourself lucky that Xena beds you, if she still does." Alti sneered as anger and embarrassment shifted across the slave's features. "Not even whipping you any more, is she? My, my, Xena really does seem to have Amazon on her mind. Especially `blond' Amazon."

The witch eyed the slave speculatively then licked her lips. "Xena certainly seems to have a taste for that little blond beauty, doesn't she Satrina? And you have a taste for Xena. Bet that doesn't sit well in your mouth?" Once again, abrasive laughter disturbed the hall. "How you two made it this far, I will never know. Fools! Xena is playing those Amazons the same way she is playing the two of you. She leads you off in one direction, while she continues on her own path unheeded."

At her own words, Alti froze, a sudden realization filling her thoughts. "Very clever, Xena, very clever," she said as she tapped the dirty nail of her finger against her chin. "You almost managed to manipulate all of us, the Amazons, these two fools ... and me."

Darfus and Satrina watched in fear as a dark shadow seemed to float across the hallway and settle upon the shamaness.

The witch continued to talk as though she were alone. "Thought you had me fooled, did you, Xena? But I'm not that easily manipulated. I know you too well. You think I'll just stay behind and baby-sit these two idiots while you go off and get one of the most powerful jewels in the world, then keep it AND the Amazons for yourself? I don't think so, Conqueror."

"Darfus!" She turned on the soldier so fast, both he and Satrina jumped at the name. "Prepare your soldiers. We're going on a little journey."

"A little journey?" Darfus asked, looking confused. "Where are we going?"

Alti took two steps forward and leered over the slave. "Where are we going, Satrina?"

The slave swallowed as she watched her plans for conquest swirl away, down the drain.

"Golconda," she said as she pulled up her underpants. "Golconda, India."

 

Continued - Part 2 (Conclusion)

 


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