Chapter 1: Recon
Xena strode through her palace, surrounded by her Royal Guard. Even though she could handle herself perfectly fine, having the guard diminished the number of attempts on her life. The less of those, the less stress she had.
Today, nothing of note was supposed to happen. She didn't have any meetings or any diplomatic appearances for once. That meant she was left to her own devices, but that just posed the question of what she should do with herself.
She had conquered the Known World a few years ago and the world had settled into the routines set. Rogue warriors were punished for disobeying the laws, villages paid taxes in exchange for protection, and slave laws had tightened considerably, especially after Xena publicly punished and executed Krykus. Her different liaisons made ruling over the different countries easier, so that relieved a bit of hassle from her shoulders.
Still, being Empress of the Known World had its drawbacks. The main one being the lack of battle. Xena was a warrior by nature and not having to clash swords with anyone for a reason other than sparring was boring. She wanted action, the smell of blood, the feel of her strength pitted against someone else's. Couldn't get that when everyone submitted to her rule.
Groaning, Xena stepped into her private chamber, her guards saluting and remaining on watch outside. Xena sank into her chair and placed a hand over her face, wondering what she could do with herself. A sharp tingle down her spine made her sigh.
"What is it you need, Ares?" she asked, not moving her hand.
Ares sparkled into existence beside her and chuckled. "Why the long face, Xena? You're ruling the world. What's not to love?"
"The boring, running the world bit," Xena responded. "I control everything, but the goal is much less desirable than the journey to get here. I want to fight with someone seriously, but all the world has heard of my skills and few are stupid enough to try their luck."
"Yeah, sounds tough," Ares agreed, stroking her hair. "Once a warrior, always a warrior. That thirst for blood, the lust for battle, trading blows and sinking your sword into a chest or a neck."
"Not helping," Xena huffed, finally removing her hand and looking up at him.
Ares gave her a smug smile as he sauntered over to the map hung on the wall. He examined it calmly and cocked his head. Near Corinth, there was an area outlined in red and marked on the map. One section read 'Amazon territory', another was 'Centaur territory', and 'Horde: Dangerous' was the last one. "What do we have here?" he murmured, looking closer. "Looks to me there's a sizable chunk of land you haven't touched yet."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Ah, Amazon and Centaur territory. I've made agreements with Melosa and Tildus that I wouldn't march on their lands. The Horde is too dangerous, even for my army."
"Aren't you the Conqueror of the Known World?" Ares sneered. "I'm pretty sure those areas are known. Can't really claim the title when there are autonomous pockets like those out there."
"Both have formidable forces." Xena knew Ares was trying to goad her into making more war. She was itching for a battle, but even she wasn't sure about fighting the Amazons or the centaurs. The Horde wasn't even a question, there was no fighting them.
Even so, it couldn't hurt to at least stir a bit of conflict before settling things down again. Standing, Xena stretched and sighed. "I think the best course of action is to do some recon work to make sure they can be fought." She smirked over at Ares. "Last thing I need is any unwelcome surprises."
Ares grinned at her. "You'll do just fine," he shrugged nonchalantly. "Soon, those stick carrying recluses will either be part of your rule... or erased for defying it."
"The Amazons and centaurs are an honorable people," Xena told him. "With any luck, I won't need to get rid of them completely. Would be a waste of history and skill."
"Yeah, yeah," Ares rolled his eyes. Still, she was doing as he wanted. That's what mattered. "Regardless, within the week, you'll rule over all the world, including those little pockets."
Xena watched him sparkle away and rolled her own eyes. Personally, she'd rather not fight the Amazons, but with any luck, she could convince some of the scouts to fight her. Just to get a thrill like old times.
Stripping of her commanding leathers, the ones that showed her rank and command, Xena stepped into some leather she hadn't worn in a long time. The dark brown leather still fit, even after all this time. She hadn't worn it but a handful of times since becoming the sole ruler of the world. Thankfully, not many even remembered this outfit, so it was perfect for going out without being too noticeable.
Xena fastened her old armor in place and stepped from her quarters. The guards saluted her and took in her attire. Mavican cocked her head in confusion. "My Lady, are you going out on a solo venture?"
"Yeah," Xena replied. "Just need to get away for a bit. Heading to the Amazon Nation to do a bit of recon. I trust the decoy will be ready by the time I leave?"
Mavican nodded with a salute as Petracles hurried off to prepare. Xena returned the nod and headed off to the stables. Her trusty Argo stood at attention as she strode in and Xena rubbed her nose affectionately.
"Ready to head off on an adventure, girl?" she cooed. "It won't be quite the same as old times, but that might be good for ya, huh?" Argo only huffed in response and Xena chuckled, leading her from the stable.
Xena mounted and off they were. She urged Argo into a steady canter. It wasn't enough to diminish Argo's strength, but enough that they'd be near Amazon lands before noon. As she rode, Xena took in the fresh air and her surroundings. With summer well on its way, the trees were blooming with new leaves. She'd missed being able to just enjoy nature. The wind in her hair, the feel of Argo beneath her, the sun beaming down on her, it was all so familiar.
Before too long, they were nearing Amazon lands. Xena knew that riding in on Argo would only make her more noticeable to the scouts, so she dismounted before they made it that far. Patting Argo's side, she sent her off into the surrounding fields. With any luck, this wouldn't take too long, a day or two at most. Argo dutifully headed off and Xena started for the markers.
She walked carefully, not wanting to be taken off guard. The scouts were usually hiding in tree branches, so if an attack was coming, it would likely be from arrow or-.
An axe sunk itself into the tree beside her and Xena had a split second to react before several men with markings covering their bodies converged on her at once. Xena cursed. What the Hades were the Horde doing in this area? Had even the Amazons not been able to fend them off? That wasn't good. More Horde territory meant a power imbalance in this area. Even worse, the Horde weren't known for being merciful to those in their territory.
Xena didn't even have time to remove her sword before three axes were aimed at her from different directions, one poised right under her neck. One of the warriors not holding a weapon to a vital body part stomped forward and tied Xena's hands behind her back, keeping her defenseless.
This was probably the worst case scenario. Xena had no clue how to get herself out of this one. She was trapped.
Chapter 2: Enter Queen Gabrielle
Xena meets the Queen of the United Amazon Nation and sparks instantly fly.
Xena glared at the Horde warriors, waiting for them to deal the final blow. She wasn't fond of the idea of dying this way, but she knew this would be the consequence of walking into Horde territory. Hopefully, her warriors would avenge her and raze the entire area.
She raised an eyebrow in surprise when the warriors made no move to do so, but simply kept their weapons on her. They appeared to be waiting for a signal of some kind.
Suddenly, a bird cry came through the trees, and the warriors stood at attention. If Xena was shocked before, she was even more now. From the trees strode several Amazon scouts, all of them holding their weapons defensively. But not aimed at the Horde warriors, who should have been the threat. All weapons were on her.
What in the Gods' names is going on? Xena wondered. Amazons working with male warriors? Members of the Horde trained to follow signals? Something wasn't right.
One of the Amazons eyed the captive speculatively before turning to the warriors. "Take her back to camp," she ordered, using hand signals Xena didn't recognize. The warriors seemed to understand, though, and lifted Xena between them.
The party started off for the Amazon village and Xena looked between the two groups. The Amazons weren't showing any disdain for the Horde warriors and the Horde wasn't attacking everything in sight. She had never seen either group like this in all her time as Conqueror.
As they walked, another bird call sounded from the surrounding trees and the group stopped. Xena felt a small stab of relief at seeing a small centaur scouting party step from the underbrush. Centaurs and Amazons hated one another. She had a chance to escape.
The Amazon in charge stepped forward, but none of the others drew their weapons, even the centaurs. What the Tartarus has happened? Xena inwardly grumbled.
"Ephiny," the centaur in the lead smiled and nodded his head to her. "What have you got there?"
"A trespasser," the Amazon, Ephiny, responded with a gesture to Xena. "We're taking her to see the queen."
The centaurs eyed the captive before the one in the lead nodded. "We'll run ahead to announce your arrival. Her Majesty hates unpleasant surprises."
The centaurs took off back through the trees, while the Amazon-Horde party continued on their way. Xena was the most confused she'd ever been. The centaurs and Amazons were both highly trained and deadly, as was the Horde. When she conquered Greece, she specifically left those territories alone because she knew her men wouldn't survive. She assumed all three groups would despise each other and yet, she had seen with her own eyes for this not to be the case.
As they marched into the Amazon village, Xena stared around in wonder. It was larger than she had initially assumed, obviously to accommodate more people. Horde warriors and Amazons communed in peace, centaurs striding from hut to hut. Somehow, within the last few years, these three groups had come to an understanding with one another.
That made them dangerous.
Xena was pushed to the ground in the middle of the village, residents coming from all over to witness the spectacle. Gritting her teeth at being put on display, Xena bided her time. When she got out of these ropes, this whole village would pay for humiliating her.
A throat cleared and all eyes turned to the lead Amazon from before, Ephiny. She stood on a raised platform overlooking the village center. A hush fell over the gathered crowd as she spoke, "May I present to you, Queen of the Amazons, Grand Mistress of the Pomira, and Leader of the Centaurs, Her Majesty, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle? Xena wondered. That doesn't sound like an Amazon...
Her eyes never strayed from where Ephiny was standing. The queen would appear near her, that was for certain. Xena needed to know the person so dangerous and cunning, they managed to unite three conflicting nations. Once she knew her target, she was going to do everything in her power to squeeze the life out of the woman and gain control of what she had created.
Movement behind Ephiny drew Xena's attention and she waited, body wired. The figure stepped up and Ephiny bowed respectfully. As she moved to the side, the queen finally made an appearance. And Xena's eyes widened.
A young woman, likely no older than twenty, stepped into view. Her body was hard-packed, rippling with muscles just under the surface. It was clear she spent a lot of time sparring. Her long redgold hair framed her youthful face. Sharp yet kind green eyes gazed down at the captive, not a hint of malice held in their depths.
Though her pale skin bore few scars--a testament to her lack of experience--the staff at her side held marks from any kind of weapon. Grooves from maces, swords, and daggers, chipped wood from where other staffs and clubs had made contact. Even if she wasn't as seasoned a warrior as those around her, she definitely knew how to handle herself.
Xena had never felt so enthralled in all her life.
Gabrielle cocked her head down at the captive. When Phantes had come back from his scouting trip to tell her they had a trespasser, she had been internally agitated. She hated dealing with trespassers, especially since most of them were just commonfolk passing through. Rarely did they get anyone instigating trouble. The Conqueror and her lot tended to leave their pocket of Greece alone.
Knew we were bound to get a warrior at some point, Gabrielle inwardly sighed. Time to play Queen.
She eyed the captive and felt her breath leave her lungs for a moment. She had never seen someone so amazingly beautiful in her life. Every inch of the warrior screamed out for battle, from the well-worked muscles under her glistening tan skin to the sharp blue eyes staring right at Gabrielle like a predator sizing up prey. The dark leathers she wore were perfectly fit to her curvaceous form and helped her raven hair frame a face of sharp, angular features.
Gabrielle needed to take a moment to compose herself. With a deep breath, she brought herself back to the present and blinked down. She needed to get answers from the warrior before she could get answers from herself.
"You there," she called in a firm voice, finally starting. "What is your name?"
Xena wanted so badly to tell her, to divulge every bit of information asked. She had no idea why she felt so strongly suddenly, but she also knew that revealing herself could mean trouble if this queen wasn't as gracious as Melosa.
"Xe," she responded hesitantly. "My name is Xe."
"What business do you have in our lands, Xe?" Gabrielle inquired, watching her carefully.
Xena thought of something quick. She couldn't tell the truth, as that would only cause more problems than she was already facing. "I was hunting with some other officers. We got separated and I ended up lost and wandering through your lands."
"How do we know you aren't a spy for the Empire?" Ephiny demanded with a furtive look to the queen for approval. Gabrielle gave a nod and turned her attention to Xe expectantly.
"The spies aren't allowed to wear the Empire's colors or insignia at any time." Xena said almost mechanically. "Doing so, even accidentally, could expose them and jeopardize their mission. Even more, I was caught pretty easily for a spy."
There were murmurs around the village. Many of the warriors were clearly on edge having a potential threat in their compound. Xena couldn't blame them, considering there wasn't much contact between the Empire and the (now United) Amazon Nation. They had no idea how tensions were.
"What is your rank?" Ephiny called suspiciously. "In the Empire, what rank and position do you carry?"
Xena bit her lip. She was clearly too disciplined to be a low rank officer in the army, but she couldn't yet tell them she was the leader of the army. No, she needed a good cover for now. "I'm one of My Lady's personal guards. My shift was over so I was taking time to relax with my fellow squad mates."
More murmurs lit the air. "I say we string her up!" someone in the crowd called. "Make an example of her for all those Conqueror dogs! We can't let them think we'll take trespassing lightly!"
"A public execution!" a centaur agreed. "To ward off any others from following!" Grunts of approval from the Horde followed this and Xena wondered if she'd make it out after all.
Ephiny stepped up and raised a hand to silence the crowd. "You all know how Her Majesty feels about that sort of thing. Stay yourselves."
"She may be one of the Conqueror's soldiers, but she has posed no threat," Gabrielle pointed out. "We do not shed blood unjustly in this Nation. Doing so would make us no better than those who would see us dead." To Xena's shock, the crowd shifted guiltily under the reprimand, even the Horde warriors. Gabrielle glanced to the sun and gave a soft sigh. "It is too late to send an escort party with her. Take her to one of the guest huts. Untie her, but have guards posted outside should she need anything."
Now Gabrielle looked to Xena. "It's dangerous traveling through our lands in the dark. You could trigger one of our hunting traps. Stay for the night. We will escort you back in the morning."
Xena had no words to describe how she was feeling. This majestic creature of a woman was not only merciful, but just in the way she handled things. It clearly wasn't just her sweet face that had brought her into these nations' rule. Xena knew she should take this information and exploit it, but for some reason, the thought of hurting this woman, even emotionally, pained her in ways she had never felt before. No. No, this would be one nation the Conqueror left alone.
Bowing her head respectfully, Xena called, "Thank you for your kindness, Your Majesty."
"Don't let it be undeserved," the centaur from before, Phantes, growled with a quick glance to the queen. All of the Horde warriors growled and grunted in agreement. They all valued their queen and her methods. They refused to let slights against her go unpunished.
Xena said nothing as she was untied and helped to her feet. She made no move to reach for her weapon and dutifully followed her guards to the guest hut.
"It has its own bath," one of them told her in a level voice. "Dinner will be held around the fire. You're welcome to join, if you'd like. Otherwise, we can have food brought to you."
"I don't want to inconvenience anyone," Xena responded calmly, taking in the hut. "I'll eat with everyone else."
The Amazons nodded and stepped out of the hut, giving her privacy. Good, Xena needed it. All of these confusing emotions needed to be sorted out before she could face the queen again. Settling on the bed, Xena crossed her legs and began to think.
Chapter 3: Shimmers and Sparkles
Aphrodite pays a visit to give Gabrielle some advice. Ares finds out that Gabrielle is once again in the picture.
Gabrielle paced her hut, a hand pressed to her chest absently. She could still feel it, the rush of adrenaline accompanying looking at the Imperial soldier. She had no idea why she reacted so strongly to her, but now, she couldn't get Xe out of her head.
Ephiny watched her queen pace and wondered what could be wrong. Was she having second thoughts about keeping the prisoner? No, that couldn't be it... Gabrielle wouldn't send someone to an unjust death. And her prophetic gift had saved them a lot of trouble in the few years she'd been here, so there wasn't any danger. Something else was bothering the queen about their captive guest.
"Gabrielle," she called softly, only able to address her as such when in private. "Is there something wrong?"
"No," Gabrielle sighed. "Not exactly. It's... confusing. That soldier out there..."
"Did you sense danger from her?" Ephiny pressed. She knew it wasn't the case, but prodding tended to help Gabrielle open up.
Gabrielle shook her head. "May I confide in you?"
"Of course," Ephiny responded soothingly. She knew this was serious if Gabrielle had to ask that first. "You know I'm here for you."
"That soldier," Gabrielle began. "When I saw her, I... I felt a strange sensation, a rush of some kind. I felt... connected to her, Ephiny. I felt drawn to her in a way I've never been with anyone else. And I know she felt it too."
"How can you be sure?" Ephiny had no doubts about Gabrielle's intuition, but she wasn't going to let some Empire dog break her queen's heart.
"The way she looked at me, and her body language. It changed the second she saw me, as if someone had flipped a switch. She didn't seem as on guard when I came out. Her eyes never left me, even for a second, not even to survey her surroundings." Gabrielle rubbed her arm. "I doubt a highly trained bodyguard would pass up a chance to understand any potential threats. Something about her... calls out to me... and it's definitely reciprocated."
Ephiny chuckled and brought the shorter woman into an embrace, placing Gabrielle's head to her chest. "This must be pretty new to you, love at first sight or whatever this is. Seems Aphrodite has smiled on you."
She pulled back to look at Gabrielle. "I'm going to go oversee dinner preparations. Will you be alright?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle nodded. "I'll just... digest the information."
Ephiny laughed and made her way from the tent. No sooner had she gone than Gabrielle felt a familiar tingle down her back and turned to see Aphrodite materialize on her bed. The Goddess waved to her favorite mortal in greeting.
"'Aphrodite has smiled on you'," she mimicked Ephiny. "More like a wide freaking grin, babe! Look at you, falling in love! And with a nice catch, too! That warrior babe out there is definitely one of a kind, I'll tell ya that much."
"So you approve of her?" Gabrielle asked, settling on the bed as well.
"Well duh, sweet cheeks!" Aphrodite chirped. "I wouldn't allow you to fall in love with people who aren't good for you. Other mortals try to force it with wrong matches, but you? You've always followed your heart."
Gabrielle nodded as she listened. "She's just so... beautiful," she whispered. "The way she carries herself is like a general commanding an army, which makes sense as she was probably a general first. But there's just something... I don't know what it is, but I want to get closer to her, to find out."
"Then go for it," Aphrodite urged her with a shrug. "It might be only one night, but one night is enough to start something, and that's all you need. You just gotta start it and it'll snowball from there."
"How did I ever end up with you as such a good friend?" Gabrielle asked, leaning over to hug the goddess.
Aphrodite smirked. "When you ended decades of animosity and disdain without shedding a single drop of blood. Ares wanted your head, but Artemis backed me up."
Gabrielle gave her an impish smile and Aphrodite sat up. "Now, go on. Make sure your people are good to go. You'll be having company for dinner after all." She winked and disappeared in a flash of golden light.
Over in the guest hut, Xena caught the scent of flames and worn leather and turned expectantly to where Ares had appeared. "Well, this is unexpected," he said, looking around the hut. "When I imagined you in the Amazon Nation, I certainly wasn't expecting it to be as a guest." He leaned against the wall. "So, when are ya gonna take out the queen?"
"I'm not," Xena responded calmly, not moving from her spot on the bed.
"What?" Ares blinked, obviously waiting for her to laugh and say she was joking. When Xena said nothing further, he straightened up in confusion. "Wait, you're serious?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Of course I'm serious. I'm not killing the queen."
"You're just gonna take her hostage until they submit to you, right?" Ares tried.
"Nope." Xena smiled over at him. "I'm not conquering the United Amazon Nation."
Ares couldn't believe this. "Wha-? Why not?!"
"I don't think it'll benefit me any," Xena explained, nonchalant in the face of the God's growing anger. "These people united under her and swore fealty to her. To kill her is inciting a bloody war that would annihilate all of them and dwindle my army significantly at the same time. The Amazons and the centaurs are honorable people. I'll not have them wiped out. They're more valuable alive, and for them to be valuable, I need her."
Xena knew that wasn't the reason she refused to kill Gabrielle, but she needed to convince Ares that the woman wasn't a threat. The last thing she needed was him posing as her to march her army on the Amazon lands and stir a fuss. The kindness Gabrielle had displayed, to a complete stranger and supposed underdog of the Conqueror of the Known World, made Xena feel shame even thinking of hurting the woman.
Ares stared at his Empress suspiciously. Something was up. She never thought of sparing people of use before. Usually, she'd conquer and destroy. Sure, the Amazons, Centaurs, and Horde were formidable, but was it really about not wiping them out? There was something he was missing and something suddenly clicked into place.
Trying to act cool, he asked, "What's the queen's name? Did you find out?"
Something in his voice made Xena wary of relaying that information. "Yes, I learned her name. Why do you ask?"
"Just curious who could make you, Conqueror of all the Known World, decide fighting wasn't the best option." Ares' sharp eyes watched her every move and Xena was convinced something was important about Gabrielle.
Slowly, she pinned Ares in her gaze and said, with a firmness that belied the underlying threat, "Gabrielle."
All the way up on Mount Olympus, Aphrodite and Artemis heard the roar of absolute fury that reverberated from somewhere on earth. With a grin, Artemis asked, "How much you wanna bet he's going to try to get rid of her?"
"I hope he isn't stupid enough to try after the last time," Aphrodite snickered. "Xena didn't need the power to kill gods to put fear into him that day."
Artemis nodded, continuing to braid Aphrodite's hair. "He'll never learn, honestly. He's tried to get our sweet Gabrielle killed so many times in this universe alone. And every time, he fails to remember that she is just as skilled as his Xena, if in a different way."
"Our Gabby can talk her way out of everything," Aphrodite agreed. "And what she can't talk out of, she'll happily fight for those she loves. Ares can't understand it so he tries to get rid of her. Ends badly for him every time."
"He just can't accept their souls being bonded," Artemis sighed. "Now, it's time to watch the fallout of this one."
Aphrodite waved her fingers and grabbed some popcorn. "Yes, let's watch."
Ares could not believe this shit! He'd managed to get her exactly where he wanted her, ruler of the world. The only thing left had been this stupid Amazon pocket. He should've never sent her this way. Now the bard was back in the picture again!
Running a hand down his face, he sighed. With any luck, he could still do damage control. It'll take a little time, but with any luck, he'll keep his Conqueror. With a snap of his fingers, time began moving again.
Ares tapped his chin. "Don't think I've heard the name before. How do you know she's trustworthy?"
Xena recalled the compassion in Gabrielle's eyes and said, "I don't. But I can't risk anything without more information. The United Amazon Nation will be left alone."
Ares huffed. "Alright, you're the boss. I just hope you know what you're doing."
"I usually do," Xena smirked.
Ares only returned it before disappearing. Xena took a fortifying breath now that he was gone. She had zero intention of conquering the Amazon Nation, but leaving them to their devices had given her a surprise this visit. She needed more contact between the two of them, more information shared.
A knock at the door made Xena look up. The two guards nodded to her in greeting and one said, "It's dinnertime. The village is gathering around the fire as we speak."
Xena stood and nodded. With any luck, she could get some information before everyone retired to bed. If not, well, at least she'd be seeing Gabrielle again.
Chapter 4: Bonding
Over dinner, Gabrielle tells Xena about how she united the centaurs and Amazons. They grow closer talking about peace.
The fire roared high in the middle of the village. Dancers already circled it, Horde and Amazon alike. The residents milled about, picking their dinner from the spoils of the hunting party. The best quality food was left alone for the queen to choose from first.
Xena joined the line and grabbed up some fish, already prepared for cooking. She examined it, checking the stick quality so it wouldn't drop into the fire. Deeming it acceptable, she nodded to the centaurs manning the table. The fire wasn't crowded, some of the Horde warriors keeping the lines moving.
As Xena waited for her turn, she glanced around. Queen Gabrielle was nowhere to be seen, and Xena wasn't even surprised to feel a small bit of disappointment at her absence. Whatever this feeling was, she knew only Gabrielle could incite it. She wasn't sure if she liked that someone had that kind of power over her, but Gabrielle didn't at all have the tells of someone who would take advantage of that power.
A horn sounded and all heads turned. Ephiny strode in with Gabrielle right behind and all present gave a salute of some kind at her arrival. Gabrielle nodded to them all before heading over to choose her dinner. She wondered what she was in the mood for. Her stomach swirled as she drew closer to tonight's goal, and she chose a small duck to make herself feel better.
Xena tried not to watch Gabrielle the entire time, but she couldn't help it. Something about her was so enthralling. Before Xena knew it, it was her turn in line to cook her food. After a moment, she stiffened and found the queen herself standing next to her. Xena cocked an eyebrow in confusion. Why would the Queen of the Amazons stand beside an outsider, one that could be hostile at that?
Even more... Xena couldn't believe how much smaller than her Gabrielle was. She barely even came to Xena's shoulder. From the podium, she'd looked larger than life, but down here, she seemed smaller, somehow more vulnerable despite her position. Xena felt an unexpected hint of protectiveness seep through her at discovering this.
"Is the hut to your liking?" Gabrielle asked calmly, turning her duck expertly over the heat.
"It's very beautiful," Xena responded. "Thank you for showing such hospitality to an outsider."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Outsider, village-born, it makes no difference. We're all people. People shouldn't be treated badly for small transgressions just because they're from somewhere else."
Xena bit her lip as her fish finished cooking. "That is a gracious way of doing things. It's no wonder the centaurs and Amazons are no longer fighting under your rule." She paused and asked, "How did you manage that, if I may ask? Even the generous Queen Melosa couldn't manage such a feat."
"It's actually an interesting story," Gabrielle chuckled. "I would love to tell it if you're willing to listen."
Xena was a split second from reassuring Gabrielle she could listen to her all night. That seemed a bit too strong. Instead, she said, "I would very much like to hear it."
Ephiny eyed the pair from the other side of the fire. She watched the warrior carefully for any sign of hostility. One wrong move and the entire village would be prepared for a fight.
However, hostility seemed the last thing on Xe's mind. Her body language wasn't as tense as it had been on the way back through the forest. She didn't try to move away from Gabrielle and looked to be having a civilized conversation just fine. Ephiny never would've thought this possible from an Empire dog before. Maybe the Conqueror wasn't as brutal with her warriors as expected. Or perhaps Xe was just a better person than the rest. Either way, Ephiny would give as much privacy to them as she could.
"...and Tildus agreed to talk peace treaties once the rogues were out of the valley. Unfortunately, he died during the battle, but Phantes came at the battle's conclusion and signed a peace warrant with Queen Melosa. He believed, as I did, that fighting one another was exactly what our enemies wanted and together, we were stronger. We could protect ourselves from more rogue warriors and mercenaries in the future with our combined forces." Gabrielle gave a chuckle as she looked over the last of her duck. "He didn't surrender leadership of the centaurs until after Queen Melosa's death the following year. By then, our people were comfortable enough around one another that no one objected to the merging."
Xena listened with rapt attention, captivated by the story. It was remarkable, really. With Ephiny's help, Gabrielle had ended a feud decades long and united two of the oldest civilizations in Greek history. That was something even Xena herself had never thought possible, yet the proof was all around her.
"You're-." She cleared her throat and tried again. "That's incredible. Most would think this impossible, all three of these civilizations communing with one another this way."
"Queen Melosa thought it impossible, too, as did Tildus. But all either side needed was a nudge." Gabrielle looked around her village. "Peace is all we seek. Amazons are warriors by nature, but that only serves to keep our communal lifestyle safe, not to hurt others. The centaurs just wanted to be left alone to live their lives. This way, we can do both."
Xena looked down at her hands. Peace, huh? she thought. Pretty much the only thing I've been thinking to get rid of since I conquered the world. Seems a little petty wanting action after seeing what she created in the name of preserving peace.
To Gabrielle, she asked, "Do you think that approach would work for everyone?"
Gabrielle laughed. "I'm optimistic, but I'm not as naive as I used to be." She shook her head. "No. In order to maintain peace, something has to come along able to disrupt it. I imagine that's why you even still have a job. The Empress must know it, too. That if she were to drop all the fighting, some malevolent force could seep out of the framework and threaten all she's built."
Xena stared at Gabrielle in shock. She wouldn't have expected that answer from someone with such a sweet face. Gabrielle was hiding more intelligence than first assumed, but Xena couldn't find it in herself to view that as a bad thing. In fact, it thrilled her. She wanted to peel back every layer of Gabrielle's mind, to get to know her in every way possible.
Gabrielle chewed the last of her duck. It felt so right being next to Xe right now, like this. They weren't fighting or discussing their different kingdoms or anything like that. They were just two people getting to know one another. It was relaxing.
Maybe Aphrodite is right, Gabrielle thought. All it takes is that first step.
Chapter 5: Don't Want This to End
Xena and Gabrielle part for the night. On the way to the border, Ephiny asks Xena about the queen and Xena walks away with a valuable piece of information.
As the fire wound down, everyone began retiring for the night. Gabrielle watched her people head to their huts and sighed. She glanced to Xe. "I suppose you should be getting to bed," she said. "You should rest for your trip in the morning."
Xena gave a hum of agreement. "Yes, that would be the best course of action." She stood and cleared her throat. "And, uh, I'll be sure to inform My Lady of the great kindness you've shown me, Queen Gabrielle."
Gabrielle also got up and smiled at Xe. "It was no problem." She gave a soft chuckle. "Besides, I doubt killing one of her soldiers would endear us to the Empress any." They shared a laugh.
Neither wanted to leave the other's presence. There were so many questions Xena still had. She'd gotten a few answers, but she wanted to know more. About how this United Nation operated, about the duties of each tribe therein, about Gabrielle herself. There was so much to know. Gabrielle wanted to tell more stories to someone who hadn't heard them all. She loved telling the stories so much, especially when she got to play bard and perform them for the children. Xe listened to her, even though she had no reason to. That alone made Gabrielle excited to tell her more.
Ephiny glanced over to her queen's date--she inwardly snickered at the word--and found Gabrielle and Xe watching one another. Clearly, they didn't want the night to end and Ephiny rolled her eyes. Lovestruck fools, the both of them. Making her way over, Ephiny cleared her throat to get their attention. "My Queen," she said calmly, bowing her head to Gabrielle. "Shall we retire for the night? You need rest for tomorrow's activities."
"Yes," Gabrielle agreed, shooting another look to Xe. "Good night, Xe. Safe travels back to Corinth."
Xena bowed her head respectfully. "Thank you again, Your Majesty."
Slowly, Gabrielle followed Ephiny toward their huts and Xena watched them go the whole way. Once they were out of sight, she turned and made her way back to her own hut. She leaned against the wall and pressed a hand to her chest. Whatever was happening to her, Xena knew she wouldn't be able to stay away from the Amazon lands for long.
Gabrielle pulled her knees to her chest and stared at the wall opposite. Xe was unlike anything she'd imagined from the Empire. From the moment she was rescued, the other Amazons had made sure she knew how ruthless and brutal the Empire was. The soldiers plundered as they wished, the subjects were downtrodden, and the Empress was a manipulative overlord that ruled with an iron fist. After meeting Xe, Gabrielle isn't sure any of that is true anymore. Someone like Xe couldn't exist in that kind of world... right?
The next morning, Xena stepped from her hut and nodded to the escort party waiting for her. Ephiny stepped forward as the others surrounded her. Xena glanced around, trying not to be too obvious with her disappointment.
Ephiny snickered and moved closer to her. "Unfortunately, Her Majesty usually accompanies the hunting parties in the morning. However, you have her sincerest wishes for safety, I assure you."
Xena remained quiet. She didn't want to admit just how disappointed she was. She supposed she could wait until the next time she had an excuse to return. Though, she didn't know how long that would be.
Looking to her companion, Xena asked quietly, "Ephiny, should I, uh, get lost in your lands, is there a way to indicate that I mean no harm? As a warrior, I'm not particularly comfortable with being tied up every time I lose my way. I'm sure you understand."
She's truly that taken with our queen, hm? Ephiny internally laughed. To Xe, she explained, "There's a sign of peace used to identify common outside presences like traders." Ephiny clasped her hands above her head. "Drop your weapons and do this. All of us will recognize it and escort you to the village."
Xena nodded, watching the gesture carefully. She had already known the sign of Peace, but she wanted to make sure it hadn't changed since the union. "I'll remember that," she said.
"So," Ephiny began conversationally. "You seem to have known of our departed Queen Melosa. How are you feeling about her successor?"
"I'll admit, it was a shock," Xena said, chewing her words carefully. "She's quite young to hold that mantle. And to have accomplished what even My Lady thought impossible is quite a feat in itself. Most in the Empire would think her manipulative and power-hungry, but she's nothing like that at all. She's merciful, just... pure, for lack of a better word." She cocked her head. "Gabrielle doesn't sound like a traditional Amazon name, though. Is she-."
The entire party froze, looking to her cautiously. Ephiny gave a strained smile. "That's, ah, that's not to be discussed. Her Majesty prefers that story be told only by her tongue."
Xena eyed those around her warily. "I didn't realize it was private."
"Common mistake," Ephiny told her as the party began moving again. "Still, it sounds like you have quite a high opinion of her. Careful, or your Empress might get jealous."
Xena chuckled. "I'll only speak truths of Queen Gabrielle. That should set My Lady's heart at ease."
They cleared the trees and Xena saluted the escort party. "Take care, Xe," Ephiny called. "And remember what I told you when traveling through our lands."
The group dashed back into the underbrush until only Ephiny remained. Xena watched her curiously and waited. Ephiny sized her up. "You're not like how the Empire soldiers used to be," she said. "It seems both our people have much to learn about each other." She gave a good-natured smirk. "That is, should we meet again." She gave a cheeky wink before disappearing after her group.
Xena shook her head. She knew she was obvious, but she couldn't help it. Gabrielle... Gabrielle was unlike anything she'd experienced before. Xena wanted to experience more.
Turning to the field, she gave a whistle. Argo trotted from the other side and Xena climbed up onto her back. Now, for a long ride away from where she desperately wished to be.
Ephiny watched Xe ride away before turning to head back to the village. She timed it just right so that she was just in time for the hunting parties to return. She watched as the queen's shoulders slumped upon seeing the assigned escort members already returned. She's smitten, Ephiny thought. This really must be the work of Aphrodite.
Ephiny made her way to her ruler's side as Gabrielle chose her breakfast. "Your Majesty," Ephiny greeted with a bow of her head and a salute. "Your spirits are looking a bit low. Displeased with the selection?"
"Not at all," Gabrielle sighed. "Just... thinking."
"About Xe?" Ephiny teased lowly.
Gabrielle pouted at her. "Did she get to the border alright?"
"Yes she did. She even located her horse with little trouble." Ephiny couldn't help poking a bit more fun and added, "She had a bit to say about you before leaving."
As expected, Gabrielle tried to look nonchalant as she perked up with interest. "Good things?" she asked hopefully.
"Overwhelmingly good," Ephiny laughed. "She did venture into your name-" Gabrielle's eyes narrowed minutely and Ephiny hurried on, "-but we informed her of the rules."
Gabrielle nodded and stepped over to the fire to cook her breakfast. "Am I... wrong for wishing she could've stayed just a little longer?"
"Nothing about love is wrong," Ephiny reassured her, snagging a fish as she accompanied Gabrielle. "If the two of you are meant to be, you will see her again."
Gabrielle took a deep breath, letting Ephiny's words sink in. That's right. Aphrodite had approved Xe. She wouldn't let the soldier slip away if they're meant to be. Trusting in her two friends, Gabrielle straightened up. "You're right," she conceded. "Can't spend all day thinking about it. What's on the schedule for the day?"
Ephiny smiled at her and began recounting the day's agenda.
Chapter 6: Consultation
Xena returns home and consults her personal guard about what to do. The faster she's back with Gabrielle the better.
Xena rode Argo all the way back to the palace. Because of her reluctance to return, she allowed Argo to walk as slowly as the horse's patience would allow. It gave her time to fully digest all she'd learned from the visit. The downside was that it also gave her more time to miss seeing Gabrielle.
I cannot believe I'm pining after her like some lovesick idiot! Xena groaned to herself as she dismounted and took Argo by the reins, leading her toward the stable. I'm Conqueror of the Known World, Empress over everyone! And yet, one short, kind, intelligent, captivating Amazon can make me go googly-eyed so overtly even her subordinates can tell!
Xena pressed a hand to her face before she began removing Argo's gear. She didn't understand it. Of all the people she had come into contact with, the flings she'd had... why did this woman make her feel this way?
The scent of mild perfume and fresh growth filled the air and Xena smiled. "Could you tell I was thinking about you?" she asked to the air.
Aphrodite shimmered into existence against the stall beside Xena and smirked. "No, but I did know that you're thinkin' about a cute little Amazon, amiright?"
Xena sighed. "Yeah, I am. She's different than your usual picks for me, Aphrodite. What gives? You changing things up?"
"Look, babe," Aphrodite told her. "After all the rough and tumble you've had up 'til now, I think she'll be good for ya. Seems Artemis likes her quite a bit, so ya know you've got one foot in the door already."
"Alright." Xena took a deep breath. "Stinks she's all the way over there."
Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "Uh, hello? Last I checked, Ar made you his Empress or whatever, which means you can do as you damn well please." She gave Xena a knowing look. "You want the girl? Figure out a way to get the girl. That's gotta be one of those many skills ya brag about."
Xena smirked at her good-naturedly. "Thanks for the pep talk."
"It's what I do," Aphrodite winked at her and disappeared in a ray of golden light.
Xena finished taking care of Argo and made her way up into the palace. The guards at the front gate saluted her and one ran off to alert the private guard. Xena had made it only as far as the Throne Room Hall before her guard converged on her.
Mavican saluted her and greeted, "My Lady, you're back. How was the mission?"
"A failure," Xena huffed, stepping into the throne room. Murmurs instantly went up among her guard, but Mavican waved for them to quiet down.
"We need to hear details before jumping to conclusions," she reminded her comrades.
Xena nodded to her thankfully as she settled on her throne. "Unfortunately, as soon as I entered Amazon land, I was surrounded and detained... by Horde warriors."
Now, even Mavican made a fuss, looking over their ruler for wounds or injuries. Being detained by an Amazon squad would have been expected, but the Horde? They're too dangerous for anyone to handle alone!
"Relax, I'm fine," Xena told them. "They didn't hurt me. In fact, all they did was keep me in place until Amazon scouts showed up. The two groups worked together to get me back to the village."
"Amazons are working with male warriors?" Meleager gasped. "Has the world gone mad?"
"That's what I thought too," Xena nodded to him. "Even more when centaur scouts walked out and didn't start attacking the Amazons. In fact, they were also working with one another."
Wide eyes gazed back at her and Xena took a deep breath. "It would seem that all three civilizations have united together under a single leader, Queen Gabrielle." Xena had to force her face to remain neutral while her guard shared murmurs of interest. The last thing she needed was for them to know how she felt about the Amazon Queen. If word of that spread, there could be trouble, for her and for the Amazons.
"She must be quite a conniving, power-hungry bitch if she did that in such a short time," Petracles sneered, eyes glittering with the prospect of a new hunt.
Xena had to stop herself from storming over and strangling him for saying such things. Instead, she took a deep breath through her nose and said, "Not in the slightest, it would seem." This made her guards pause. "Under a fake name, I learned that she only cares for preserving the Amazons and, to do so, bloodlessly gained control of the centaurs. She helped form a peace treaty between Tildus and Melosa with the help of Tildus' son, Phantes. Upon Melosa's death, Phantes wasted no time in surrendering leadership to her."
Silence met her words as the group processed this. Finally, Joxer spoke up. "She... ended decades, centuries even, of fighting... through talking?"
"That's right." Even acknowledging it felt strange. Xena had seen how happy the village was. That kind of happiness can't be achieved in a short time, not with bloodshed.
"Wh-what did she do when they took you to the village?" Mavican called. "Amazons usually punish trespassers, and you used a fake name..."
Xena tapped her chin. "Gabrielle is a benevolent queen. The rest of the village called for my death and she told them I hadn't actually been a threat. In her words, 'We do not shed blood unjustly in this Nation. Doing so would make us no better than those who would see us dead.' After that, she gave me a guest hut and guards. The guards seemed like a regularity for anyone staying in the guest hut, not just me."
"She... sounds like a... nice lady," Joxer said hesitantly. "So she just... let you go?"
"She didn't want me traveling at night and getting caught in a trap," Xena explained. "I was escorted safely to the edge of Amazon territory this morning."
Her guards blinked up at her. Xena couldn't blame them. Up to this point, the Amazons were regarded as a noble but brutal people, harshly punishing trespassers. The centaurs, also noble, rarely got as far as punishment, killing trespassers on sight. And the Horde... well, they just killed everybody. For all three to work together was unheard of, unthinkable, until now.
"Well, this is good, right? Petracles asked, looking around at his fellows to back him up. "She's done all your work for you. All ya gotta do is slit her throat and it's yours."
Mavican and Meleager quickly moved into action. They had sensed the earlier tension rolling from their ruler at Petracles' misguided description of the queen. Now, as much as she tried to hide it, Empress Xena looked downright murderous. To minimize damage, Mavican tackled Petracles to the ground and whispered furiously for him to keep his mouth shut regarding the Amazon Queen.
Meleager, meanwhile, stepped forward and asked hurriedly, "So, what are your plans regarding the Amazon Nation, My Lady?"
Xena took several quiet deep breaths, all of her officers waiting in tense silence. They desperately hoped she was in a forgiving mood. At last, she sighed. "That's why I'm talking to you. I'm not sure. To kill her would cause an uproar that would surely diminish forces and completely exterminate the three tribes, a great loss for certain. If there's some way to do this without bloodshed, I'd love to hear it."
Mavican chuckled, helping Petracles to his feet. "Unexpected for you to look for bloodless answers, My Lady. Still..." She looked to her fellow guards for help. "Maybe stage a coup? You wouldn't need to kill her, just strip her of enough power to move in and take her place?"
Xena shook her head. "No, there are restrictions in Amazonian law. Too many ways to get caught."
"How about holding her loved ones hostage until she concedes?" Petracles piped up hesitantly.
"We'd run into the same problem as if I murdered her," Xena told him. "Only this time, she'd be the one leading them to vengeance."
Joxer cleared his throat. "Just a thought," he said slowly. "But don't you have a peace treaty in place with the Amazons and the centaurs right now? If they're both under the same rule, why not just do a new peace treaty?"
Xena and the others blinked at him. Despite being a good warrior, Joxer usually didn't have the brightest torches in his halls. However, this idea might actually be good.
"With the terms of the treaty, I would be able to claim dominion over the Amazons without actually taking anything from them." A slow smile spread over Xena's lips. "Good job, Joxer. Looks like we've got a plan. Mavican?"
"My Lady?" Mavican stood at attention.
"How soon can a trip be arranged to the United Amazon Nation?"
"About a week, My Lady."
Gods dammit! Xena wouldn't be able to see Gabrielle for another week! Outwardly, she nodded. "Good. The sooner we have more stable communication, the less likely we'll be caught off guard like this again. I'll need a single soldier to accompany me when I go."
Petracles made to raise his hand, but Meleager slapped it back down. Joxer didn't want to be around his ruler should the Amazons prove uncooperative. Mavican rolled her eyes at the three of them and dutifully raised her hand.
Xena smirked down at her. "Be ready in a week then, Mavican."
Chapter 7: Ares Doesn't Have a Clue
Ares, Artemis, and Aphrodite all have a chat about Xena and Gabrielle.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The week leading up to the visit to the Amazon lands was the longest in Xena's life. She tried to keep herself busy as best she could. Her sparring sessions went longer than usual in an effort to exhaust herself. She tried not to send too many of her soldiers to the infirmary, and let them switch out with one another as they needed.
If that wasn't happening, meetings and citizen requests took up her time. Most of the requests were obviously ridiculous and vetoed, but the ones Xena liked were the ones that needed more thought. If she was thinking about someone's problems, she wouldn't be running herself ragged waiting to see Gabrielle.
Mavican kept an eye on her ruler as the week drew on. Something about the visit to the Amazons was making Empress Xena fidgety and Mavican wondered what it could be. She had made it perfectly clear that no harm was going to come to the Amazon Queen or her subjects, so why would Empress Xena pay it any more thought than that? It could be the possibility that this meeting would not involve any kind of bloodshed, which meant more brain power would have to be employed than usual. Empress Xena wasn't stupid by any merit, but she definitely did prefer to use her sword when not talking to her liaisons.
This all only brought Mavican back to Xena not killing the Amazon Queen. To the other three in her main guard, it might seem that the reasons she gave were adequate. Maybe Meleager would notice the underlying tensions, but he wouldn't comment on it either. Something about the Amazon Queen made Empress Xena downright murderous when she was insulted or threatened in any way. Even when speaking about her, Empress Xena was wired and ready for a fight, like she was actively stopping herself from doing something. Mavican couldn't begin to understand why this queen made the empress act so strange. With any luck, she would be able to figure it out when they went to the Amazon lands.
Ares watched over Xena with a frown. He hated this. He wanted her as his. His queen, his empress, his Goddess of War! How could he achieve that when the stupid bard (or sometimes Caesar and then the bard) kept getting in the way? He didn't actually think Gabrielle was stupid, naturally. In every universe, she showed her prowess in different ways. More than a few times, Ares even tried to covet her skills, with varying degrees of success. Still, she kept getting in the way of him and Xena, which only made her a thorn in his side in most cases.
Sighing, Ares turned from his viewing shield and made his way from his chambers. Strolling down the great hall, he passed Aphrodite's room and heard her speaking inside.
"I'm telling you, Missy, I didn't have to lift a finger this time when it came to Xena and Gabrielle." Of course she was talking to Artemis and of course they were talking about that. "Seriously, they fell all on their own. It usually happens that way, but this time was more potent than usual. It comes close to the one Ar did a while back, ya know, when Warrior Babe was with the Roman Ego and Gabs was a bellydancer."
"Ah, that one was one of my favorites," Artemis murmured. "Gabrielle was a particularly good Amazon back then, even if she had only been a princess."
Ares scoffed, stepping in. "Oh yeah, great Amazon, dancing for the pleasure of men."
His sisters smirked at him upon entrance and Artemis corrected, "For the pleasure of everyone, Ares. Gabrielle's heart was too pure to be held back by men drooling over her."
Ares only raised an eyebrow at her. "Yeah, yeah, pure soul, even after killing, code of honor, kill only when necessary, yadda yadda." He drew a hand down his face. "How is it, exactly, that she keeps finding Xena again? Last time, Melosa was still alive and Gabrielle was a princess, time before that, the little bard was a slave, a few times before that, she was a playwright or someone else's bard or managed to join that Academy thing." He glared at Aphrodite. "And yet, every time, she and Xena manage to meet, either on their own or through divine intervention."
Aphrodite leaned over to Artemis and mock-whispered, "Someone's mad he's to blame this time."
"Real funny," Ares grumbled. "How am I supposed to get Xena as mine when your stupid blondie is always around?"
Artemis rolled her eyes and sighed. "You're not meant to, Ares," she tried. "Even if, by some miraculous, titanic stroke of luck, you managed to get Xena to agree to be your Goddess, as soon as Gabrielle came along, you would become an afterthought. They are destined to be together."
Silence followed her statement and the two goddesses wondered if they'd finally gotten through to him. Their hopes were dashed a second later when he smirked. "So there's at least still a chance of getting her to be mine before the goody two shoes comes along." He tapped his chin. "Looks like I've got some planning to do for next time."
"He'll never learn," Aphrodite sighed with a shake of her head.
"His funeral," Artemis muttered, going back to cleaning her bow. "I'm fine watching these different universes play out, but we all know the outcome every time."
"I created them," Aphrofite snickered. "There's nothing that can undo this one."
"You two are no fun," Ares huffed, turning to stride from the room. Before he left, though, he looked back. "I'll watch for now, but one of these times, she'll be mine. And don't expect me not to try again this time either. Xena's not completely under the bard's hold yet. I've still got a chance."
Aphrodite watched him go and a smug grin curled her lips. "Yeah, and Gabrielle will be Dahak's goddess bride."
Artemis curled her lip at her sister. "Goodness, don't even joke about that. After all she's gone through with him for every different alternate universe... she's quite lucky she didn't run across him in this one. I don't think I could stay my bow again."
Aphrodite's eyes narrowed. "I may be the Goddess of Love, but I honestly wouldn't blame ya. I'd rather she end up one of Ares' power-hungry lackeys before ever having to deal with that utter trash again."
Sorry this chapter is more transitionary. I needed the week to go by quickly. Next time, Mavican gets to see why Xena's so fidgety. ^ _ ^
Chapter 8: Just a Friendly Spar
Xena returns to Amazon lands with Mavican and Gabrielle challenges her to a friendly spar.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
At last, the big day had arrived. Meleager, Petracles, and Joxer saluted their leader as she and Mavican climbed onto their steeds. "Are you sure you don't want the whole squad coming along, My Lady?" Meleager called up to Empress Xena.
"No, just one is fine," Xena told him, clicking her tongue ar Argo. "They knew me as a different person before. Don't want to overwhelm them by bringing too many people on the second visit."
She smiled down at him. "Try to keep the place from catching fire while I'm gone."
"Of course, My Lady," Meleager smiled up at her and stepped aside so Xena and Mavican could leave.
"Good luck keeping the idiots in line!" Mavican laughed as she rode passed.
Xena took a deep breath. She was finally going back. She was going to see Gabrielle again. Those kind green eyes, her free-flowing redgold hair, that sweet, gentle smile... Xena couldn't wait to hear her tell more stories. She imagined the one in which Gabrielle managed to get the Horde to cooperate was a captivating tale, and who knew how many others there were. Xena urged Argo just a little faster, eager to find out.
The trip to Amazon lands was largely silent. Neither Mavican nor Xena particularly felt the need for conversation, just enjoying the scenery and companionship as they trotted along. Mavican kept her senses poised for any attack, considering she was still on duty. She wouldn't let anything ruin her empress' peace on the way.
When they neared the border, Xena hopped off Argo and Mavican mimicked her. "You two stay together, alright?" Xena ordered Argo. "We'll try to be back soon."
Argo nudged Xena's shoulder and the empress huffed quietly. "Just cause I wanna see her doesn't mean I want you all by your lonesome. Now go on." Argo dutifully headed off, Mavican's horse following after her.
Xena turned to the trees and cracked her neck. "You remember the sign of peace?" she inquired, looking to Mavican.
"Yeah," Mavican affirmed, stretching her arms. "I'm ready when you are, My Lady."
Xena said nothing, setting off into the trees. They stepped carefully, not wanting to be taken too off guard. A warrior didn't like surprises, especially in unfamiliar territory. Moments after they stepped into the trees, figures began dropping around them. As instructed, both clasped their hands above their heads.
The scouts didn't move to tie them up like with Xena's first visit and an Amazon stepped up. Xena recognized her immediately and grinned. "Ephiny," she greeted.
"Xe," Ephiny said, removing her mask. "Good to see you again." She turned eyes on Mavican. "And you've brought company?"
Before Mavican could say anything, Xena hurried to say, "Yes, this is Mavican, a friend of mine. She kept me from losing my way this time."
Ephiny smirked. "At least you wanted to find us this time." She jerked her head with a warm smile. "Come, we'll escort you to the village."
The scouting party surrounded them and the group moved quickly for the village. Xena couldn't stop the excited flutter in her chest at knowing just how close she was to Gabrielle. Mavican noticed the energy rolling off her leader and prepared for a battle.
They arrived in the village just as a sparring match was going on and Xena stopped to watch curiously. Mavican joined her, eager to see an Amazon sparring match in action. It only took Xena a moment to spot the telltale hair of the queen, her much smaller stature standing out among the taller warriors.
Gabrielle ducked under the swing of a sword and stabbed her staff into the side of its wielder. She lifted the staff in time to block a mace coming from overhead. She spun from underneath it and swung her staff into the leg of her attacker, unbalancing them. As another ran at her with an axe, she kicked backward into the stomach of a behind attacker, and jabbed her staff into the chest of the person in front of her.
Xena watched the spar in fascination. Gabrielle was a magnificent sight, dominating the battlefield despite having less height advantage and a blunt weapon. Xena followed her every movement, feeling excitement mount in her stomach. It had been so long since she felt the thrill of battle, just watching one was enough to make her wanna join in.
Mavican watched the tiny warrior lay waste to all the others. The woman wasn't as imposing, height wise, as those around her, yet she managed to overcome all of her opponents with ease. Her staff had clearly seen more than its fair share of battles and spars, but the woman had hardly a scar on her. She must have practiced hard to get to where she is now. Mavican couldn't help feeling some respect for this random Amazon warrior.
Gabrielle flipped over her remaining opponent and stabbed the staff at his back, sending him careening onto the ground. That ended the spar and she raised her staff in a show of victory. Cheers echoed around the village and Gabrielle grinned at her subjects. As she did a sweep of the main village area, her eyes met piercing blue, and she stopped.
"Xe!" she called, trying not to display too much enthusiasm. "Good to see you again!"
Mavican made to correct the little welp, but again, Xena cut her off. "And you as well, Your Highness." Xena gestured to the arena. "Very impressive spar. Your skills are incredible."
"Would you like to be my next opponent?" Gabrielle asked.
Mavican stared at the woman incredulously. Did she have a death wish? No one could match the Empress. And it was clearly not worth Her Lady's time to-.
"Sure, I wouldn't mind," Xena agreed, reaching for her sword. "If it's alright to do so, of course."
Ephiny cleared her throat. "Medics are on standby should either of you get seriously injured." She smirked at Xe. "Plus, none of us have seen a real Empire soldier fight in a long while. Even if it's just a spar, it'll be educational for the little ones."
Xena grinned and stepped into the arena. She and Gabrielle stretched themselves out and waited for the signal. At Ephiny's word, they charged one another. Xena swung her sword first, and Gabrielle ducked the blow, finding her staff blocked on its swing.
The entire village watched with rapt attention as their queen went against an Imperial soldier. The children, familiar with their queen's prowess, cheered for Gabrielle's victory. The more seasoned warriors eyed Xe curiously, wanting to see what they could learn from watching a high ranking Imperial soldier fight. Ephiny and Mavican kept a close eye on their respective rulers. Mavican wondered if Empress Xena was toying with the Amazon, while Ephiny ensured her friend didn't overexert herself doing one spar after another.
Gabrielle couldn't help the excitement bubbling up in her at finding an opponent worthy of her full attention. Xe kept her on her toes with every strike and Gabrielle couldn't imagine doing this with others in the middle of the session. No, it was just her and Xe, and something about being the only one fighting her made Gabrielle's stomach fuzzy.
Xena couldn't believe how much energy she needed to expend to keep ahead of her opponent. Gabrielle wouldn't be on her level if this were a real fight, but from the way things were going, she would've at least been a difficult foe. As it was, Xena was fighting at a good chunk of power just to keep a full victory from Gabrielle. And the queen wasn't even at full power herself.
Soon, Gabrielle began to wear down, having already expended a lot of energy from her earlier spar. Xena's attacks began landing, causing the Empress to start using the flat of her sword so she didn't hurt the Queen. A particularly hard jab in the chest sent Gabrielle to the ground and Xena took her chance, aiming the point of her sword at Gabrielle's neck.
The entire village was instantly on edge, not liking their queen being at the end of an outsider's sword. Ephiny raised her hand to signal the forces should Xe prove hostile this time around, but there was no need to worry. Xena almost immediately moved the sword from Gabrielle's neck and extended a hand. Gabrielle took it with a smile and let Xe help her up.
"Like I said," Xena chuckled. "Incredible. You know, you could've done some real damage to me had you not sparred before we got here."
"I'll keep that in mind for your next visit." Gabrielle leaned on her staff to catch her breath. "So, what are you doing here?"
At this, Xena motioned to Mavican expectantly. Mavican straightened up and cleared her throat. "Forgive me for not introducing her sooner." Mavican gestured grandly to Xena and announced, "Her Royal Highness, Empress of the Known World, Lady Xena."
This one took a little longer than expected because I wasn't sure if I wanted Gabrielle to know who Xena really was or not. But since Xena is there to redo treaties, it would make no sense for her to send an envoy instead of coming herself.
Chapter 9: Interrogation
Gabrielle diffuses as much tension as she can and welcomes Xena to stay. Ephiny questions Xena on her motives for being there.
The entire village went silent at this news. Everyone stiffened, even the Horde warriors, and all eyes flicked to their queen for guidance. Some of the warriors reached for their weapons, ready to do battle if their Queen so wished or if the Conqueror revealed herself to be hostile. Ephiny signaled the archers to be on standby and motioned for everyone not to pull their weapons as they waited for Gabrielle's verdict.
Gabrielle looked from Xena to Mavican and back, her eyebrows knitting slightly. This was a lot of information to take in at once. Xe was actually the Empress? Yet she acted nothing like what Gabrielle had been told or expected. Tension filled the air. Having the Empress of the Known World in their home was putting her warriors on edge. She needed to do damage control before someone acted rashly. Clearing her throat to gain everyone's attention, she said, "Well, this is a surprise. Still, you are no less welcome, Your Majesty."
Mavican huffed and stepped closer. "Proper etiquette dictate you bow when welcoming My Lady."
"They are on the same ground," Ephiny snarled. "No further etiquette is necessary."
"No one is on the same level as My Lady," Mavican growled at her. Ephiny's hand swung near the dagger at her hip, eyes narrowed.
"Mavican." Xena cut in, knowing where this much tension could lead. "We are not in our own territory. And Ephiny is right. Queen Gabrielle and I are on the same ground here."
"Quee-?" Mavican flashed back to earlier when Empress Xena had called the woman 'Your Highness'. "She's the Amazon Queen you spoke of? The uniter?" Demeanor changing, Mavican eyed Queen Gabrielle curiously. "In that case, my apologies, Your Majesty. That was my mistake. It will not happen again." She glanced to Ephiny and added gruffly, "Sorry."
Ephiny nodded to her and turned back to her ruler. "Your Highness, some of the other warriors and I will help get Xe- ah, the Empress and her envoy settled in guest huts while you rest."
"No, it's fine," Gabrielle shrugged. "I'm sure the envoy can relay the information to her ruler." She eyed the Empress speculatively. "Something tells me this visit is for business, not pleasure."
"There's no reason it can't be both," Xena said quietly. "And you should rest a bit, Your Highness. I'm sure our business can wait. I would hate to intrude more than I already have."
The two rulers sized one another up. Xena knew that Queen Gabrielle needed the rest after two back-to-back spars. Gabrielle vaguely wondered if this wasn't a ploy of some kind to make her let her sudden guard down. Finally, Gabrielle nodded. "Very well. We will open discussion tomorrow. I trust the pair of you will join the village for dinner?"
"We'd be honored," Xena nodded.
Gabrielle smiled at her and turned, tossing her staff to Eponin as she made her way to her hut. She needed a bath and she was actually thankful Xe-, Empress Xena had agreed to meet tomorrow. She couldn't show it in front of her subjects, but she was utterly exhausted. She would need a nap before dinner.
Xena watched Queen Gabrielle disappear into the Queen's Hut and moved over to Ephiny. Ephiny eyed her cautiously before dipping her head. Xena knew she would be on guard for a bit, knowing she was in the presence of the Conqueror.
"Right this way, Your Highness," Ephiny gestured for the Conqueror and the one called Mavican to follow her. She wove through the crowd, several of the older warriors moving out of the way and dipping their heads respectfully to the Conqueror.
Arriving at the guest huts, Ephiny gestured to two of the nicest ones. "Dinner will be by the fire. Guards will come to get you when it's time. Please feel free to call out to any of us if you need assistance."
Mavican nodded, saluted Empress Xena, and stepped into one of the huts, leaving Xena and Ephiny relatively alone. Xena watched the Amazon carefully, waiting. Ephiny pursed her lips before taking a deep breath.
"I just need to know some things," Ephiny said lowly, her eyes flicking around to ensure no eavesdroppers. "It's mainly for Her Majesty's safety, as well as because you aren't as the stories say."
"I will answer all I'm able," Xena responded understandingly.
Ephiny nodded. "When we caught you before, why were you here?"
"I was initially doing recon," Xena stated, watching Ephiny's face for any change. As expected, Ephiny's eyebrows furrowed. "I had the intention, at the time, to observe the Nation to see if you were worth deploying my army to conquer."
It was clear from the curl of her lip that Ephiny did not at all like what she was hearing. Xena didn't move, nor did she break eye contact. She wouldn't lie if she could help it. Queen Gabrielle had spared her life. Xena owed her this.
Ephiny took a deep breath. Had the Conqueror deployed her army, yes, they all would gladly have died protecting their way of life. It still infuriated her that the woman would do that in the first place. Amazons kept to themselves, as did Centaurs and Pomera. They weren't a threat to her rule.
Ephiny shook her head and went on. "Alright. I assume not wanting to blow your cover is why you lied about your name and rank." Xena nodded. "Why are you here now?"
"I want to reaffirm the peace treaty I originally had with the Nation," Xena explained. She still couldn't believe Joxer of all people had come up with the idea, but even a cracked sundial was right twice a day. "I nearly broke it with my recon mission. I want to add in terms on my end to prevent something like that from happening again."
"You... want to put restrictions in place?" Ephiny asked slowly. "To protect... us?" She blinked. Was this really the Conqueror she was talking to?
Xena glanced to Mavican's hut before moving closer to Ephiny. She lowered her voice even further. Ephiny was clearly the Queen's right hand, so whatever Xena needed to get out had to be for her ears only. "Look, I thought things were the way they used to be, when Melosa was queen. At the time, I knew the Amazons would rather die defending their land than hand themselves over to me, same with the centaurs. And I would have relished in the battle and the bloodshed and the exhilaration that comes with taking something again.
"But Melosa isn't queen anymore and she and Tildus are dead, so things need to be done differently. I wanted to avoid a war in the first place, but now, I have to." She didn't say it, but the unspoken "for her" was clear to both of them. Xena stared down at Ephiny earnestly. "Will you help me preserve the peace your people have achieved?"
Ephiny stared up at the Empress, the Conqueror, not quite believing her ears. But she looked completely serious. There was no hint of deception, no lie in those eyes. Everything Conqueror Xena was saying was true. "She really had that profound an effect on you, didn't she?" Ephiny finally whispered.
Xena sighed. She didn't like feeling vulnerable, especially to someone she barely knew. She had already spoken her mind more than she ever would have to her own men. Still, she couldn't deny Gabrielle had an effect on her. Chewing her words, she said, "I don't want to ruin what she worked to create. I... don't want to hurt her." She glared at Ephiny. "But don't go telling anyone that or I'll break your arms. I have a reputation to maintain."
A smile finally broke across Ephiny's face and she gave a chuckle. "Very well, Your Highness," she teased. "I'll do what I can." She sobered momentarily. "You're... really not the way the stories portrayed you, but...I can't say I'm upset by this side of you."
Xena smirked and hesitantly held out her hand. "While the stories aren't completely wrong... she has that effect, I guess." Ephiny grasped her arm and they shook.
"You should get settled in," Ephiny told her as they let go. "I need to make sure Her Majesty didn't pull a muscle."
Xena gave her a wry smile before heading into her assigned hut. Ephiny stared at the door a moment longer before heading off to check on her queen. She knew Gabrielle was likely bone tired physically, but her mind wouldn't let her rest without answers.