Disclaimer 1: Almost all the characters depicted in this work of fan fiction belong to Renaissance Pictures and MCA Universal Studios being taken from the TV-show Xena: Warrior Princess. No copyright infringement is intended; no profit will be made. I made use of a lot of details and background stories from the show but there have been some changes in them. I reclaim full responsibility and rights for the general story outline.

Disclaimer 2: This story deals with violence and its aftermath, some graphic descriptions included.

Disclaimer 3: This is a work of alternative fiction, i.e. subtext is maintext. So, there are rather graphic scenes of consensual sex between adult women. There also may be allusions to non-consensual sex, sexual violence, and child abuse (not graphic, of course!). If this is offending to you, or if you're under age: Go away, now! (There are a lot of great general X:WP stories waiting for you.) If this stuff is illegal where you live: Just move to a more liberal country or state!

Disclaimer 4: Timeline – this is the sequel of "Conqueror and Amazon: Towards a new life". Reading it probably would facilitate the reader's understanding. Though there will be some flashbacks I doubt that they will satisfy a curious mind. Just to get you up to date: Xena has conquered all Greece and Rome, and defeated the Persians. Her home is safe and she is weary of ruling and also regretting some of the things she did in the past. Together with Gabrielle she goes to Amazons to balance the scales with them. She is found guilty of sacrilegious behaviour and now lives with Queen Melosa and her tribe as a warrior, teacher, and temporary slave. This story begins one moon after "Towards a new life" ended.

Disclaimer 5: English still isn't my first language, so please be kind. I apologise for language violation, grammar abuse, and punctuation neglecting. I'm deeply indebted to my beta readers, Mary and Wendy. They really came through for me and without them I couldn't have done it. So if there are still some minor or major mistakes left, I am the one to blame.

Acknowledgements: A special thanks to all the Xenaverse, its incredible bards and faithful readers.

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Conqueror and Amazon: Echoes of Darkness

By romansilence Chapter One: Making Up

It was the third day after her second whipping. Xena was lying flat on her stomach, silently berating herself for having so easily given in to Gabrielle's request. She had promised to stay in bed for at least four days after her punishment, and by now she was cursing herself of being unable to resist the pleading eyes of the blonde.

The objective part of her mind, however, told her that all in all it had been a good decision. A moon ago, when she first submitted to the Goddess' whip, she had had to acknowledge, at least to herself, that the strokes had been harder to take than ever before. This time, it had been even worse; every stroke felt like fire and lightning hitting her back. Every stroke felt like it would need suturing, and some of them really did. For the fraction of a heartbeat she even had begun to doubt the wisdom of her decision to offer herself up to Amazon justice.

More than a season ago, when she left her palace in Corinth to personally look into the rumours about an Amazon uprising at the north-eastern border, she just had had in mind a peaceful trip with her lover, some quality time away from the every-day demands of ruling Greece and Rome, with as small a compliment of guards as she could get away with. Her frontier fort really had been destroyed, but not by Amazons. Nearing the Amazon border, she found them at the brink of a battle with soldiers wearing her colours, and she instinctively had stepped in to keep those men from breaking the almost five summers old peace treaty she had with Amazons and Centaurs. Gabrielle, her fair haired, kind hearted lover, had been gravely injured along with all of her surviving guards. She had offered herself up as a prisoner to ensure that all of them would be taken care of. While tending to the injured and caring for Gabrielle whose right leg had been almost shattered, all the feelings of a past long put aside had come back to her.

She remembered the time spent with the Northern Amazons and how she had repaid their kindness. She remembered the seasons she had lived in an Amazon village while still a child. Looking down at the peaceful face of her sleeping lover she once again felt that she wasn't worthy of the younger woman's love but she desperately wanted to be. So, Xena the Conqueror stepped down from her throne and declared that she wanted to stand trial for her crimes against the Amazon nation, only then realising that she probably would have to pay with her life. To her utter surprise she wasn't condemned for murder but only for sacrilegious behaviour; and next moon, she had to be whipped a third and last time to scale the balances of justice with the Amazons who now no longer called her the Conqueror but a friend, and even a sister.

More than two candlemarks ago, the younger woman had left to get some more of the repugnantly smelling poultice the Amazon healer insisted on putting on her back. She couldn't blame her companion for taking her time coming back, she knew as a rule she wasn't easy to live with when injured but now, with the Goddess Artemis having granted her plea, it was even worse. Lying there with nothing to do but to think was slowly driving her stir crazy, and she was hard pressed to keep the anger and irritation she was feeling from showing in her voice. She was healing agonisingly slow, and that alone made her cranky and hard to keep from being bored.

More than a moon ago, Gabrielle had been livid when she found out what her stubborn lover had done – begging the Goddess to take away her supernatural healing abilities in her eyes was not only stupid, it also bordered on suicidal.

When the Amazon jury came up with their decision, the sentence for sacrilegious behaviour, they had taken this special ability well in account. But with the execution already set in motion the sentence could not be changed. Gabrielle was exaggerating, the whipping didn't endanger her life but as it was it would leave a whole set of new scars on her back – and in a twisted way she would be as proud of them as she was of the scars left by the gauntlet. Her blonde lover hadn't been the only one angry with her.

Queen Melosa had given her a lecture that Amazon justice was nothing to play with and that no culprit had the right to make it neither better nor worse for herself by asking someone, be it God or human, for help. Anara also lectured her – on the dangers the repeated whipping could present to the muscles in her back and that the blatant disrespect for her own health and well-being was setting a bad example for the other equally stubborn Amazons.

Only Eponin and Theano showed some kind of support. Eponin told her that she didn't like her decision one bit but that a warrior had to follow her instincts and her heart regardless of the consequences. Theano was the only one to really understand her need to atone for the crimes she had on her conscience and the deaths she had caused over the years. She understood her motives and her reasoning but not her methods. The older Amazon just knew her too well.

These thoughts automatically brought back the reason Xena had to tell them about her deal with Artemis in the first place – without the incident with the barn, she was convinced, she would well have been able to cover it up.

x

After the first whipping and her somewhat surprising proposition to Gabrielle slightly over a moon ago, Eponin and Theano laid her down on her bed and Anara began to clean the lash marks. Part of her verdict stated that no painkillers could be administrated but the healer still applied a soothing balm to her torn flesh and insisted that she took at least a minimum amount of sleeping herbs. She wouldn't have given in if not for the stern look of the Queen and the hurtful expression of Gabrielle's eyes.

In the afternoon of the second day, Xena was still half asleep, she heard the distinct whiny of her horse. At first she thought it was part of a dream but then she was convinced that Argo was afraid of something. She closed her eyes to concentrate on the sound. There was no doubt, Argo was in danger. The tall woman hoisted herself out of bed, put on one of her sleep shirts, jumped out of the window, and ran to the barn. She could smell the fire half across the compound and accelerated her steps. Out of the corner of her eyes she could see others also hurrying towards the barn and stables.

When she threw the double door open the smoke already was thick enough to cause her eyes to water. She stifled a cough and entered. The horses were in a frenzy, she couldn't get near enough to let them loose. Argo alone stayed relatively calm when she heard the voice of her mistress. The next horse she was able to approach was Eponin's black stallion. With the two of them gone she managed to near the others from the front, and as soon as they knew they were free most of them bolted away. It was an arduous process and took her longer than anticipated. The smoke was burning in her lungs when she reached the far corner of the barn.

The last two horses didn't move an inch, two mares, much smaller than most of the other horses. They belonged to the delegation of the mountain tribe, the first one was black with white spots, the second one white with black spots. They didn't react at all to her, they just stood still, seemingly petrified. Only when she put two burlap sacks over their eyes was she able to lead them out of the smoke infested barn.

Xena knew the fire was on the upper level where the bigger part of the hay supply was stored in bales. She let go of the two small horses. The Amazons meanwhile had organised a chain to douse the flames leaking out of the roof and she turned around to make sure that there was no living thing left in the barn.

The tall woman once again closed her burning eyes and concentrated on the sounds surrounding her. One by one she shut them out, the Amazons shouting orders, the horses running wild through the central square, the crackling of the flames, and the angry hissing when water hit them – so far, so good, but there was more. It was a sound like the subdued wailing of a small child too feeble from hunger to really cry. The sound definitively came from the barn. Xena took some steps inside, the smoke making it impossible by now to see anything and concentrated once more.

Under a blanket in the corner where Argo had been stabled she found a small bundle of fur. She couldn't see what it really was but she cradled it in her arms and turned to get out. Xena almost had reached the doors when a ceiling beam came down in front of her. She hopped back to avoid the flames, stumbled over a pitchfork and crashed backwards in the central stone column that guaranteed the stability of the barn. Instinctively she took a deep breath and almost lost her cargo from coughing. The burning beam was blocking the entrance, there was no way around it, and she knew she was running out of time. She had to get out, immediately. So, she gathered all of her energy to push back the pain that was radiating from her back through the rest of her body, went as far back as possible, took aim and somersaulted over the flames. She made a few stumbling steps forward, still almost completely blinded by the smoke.

Xena more sensed than heard the front part of the barn collapse, instinctively regaining her balance she propelled herself in two flying flips to better get out of the way. The Amazonian bucket chain froze for a second and then frantically continued to douse the flames in order to keep the barn from totally burning down and also keep the other buildings in the vicinity from catching any sparks.

The furball in Xena's arms began to squirm and to sneeze at the same time, and it was only then that she took a closer look at her charge. Her eyes still rimmed with burning tears she at first took him for a dog but the pointed ears and rather narrow and long muzzle identified him as a mountain lynx puppy, not older than two or two and a half moons. She carefully knelt down and put him on the ground but he didn't run away. When Gabrielle and Anara found them only a few candledrops later they were still staring at each other.

x

They slowly brought her back to her hut, with the puppy only inches from her heels. They showed her what was left of her sleeping shirt after they had to cut it from her body to tend to her back. The back part was literally soaked with blood, most of the whip marks obviously having broken open when she collided with the central column. The following conversation was nothing she was too fond to remember, well most of it. Gabrielle was nearly out of her mind with worry and Anara was clearly puzzled.

"I don't get it. This isn't healing as it should, not at all." The Amazon healer was mumbling to herself. "The lash marks should have scabbed by now but there's not a trace of it. I don't understand it. This back looks as if the wounds just recently have stopped bleeding but that's impossible. I know you crashed into this damned column but still, there shouldn't be this much damage. It's against everything I know about your healing abilities."

Xena knew that Anara didn't expect a reply but she also was sure that at least some of the wounds would need stitches. The older woman had to know the truth to treat her back accordingly. Not only healing would take longer now, her sensibility to pain was also considerably heightened. This much she knew since the first stroke had hit her back the day before, and in a strange way she had welcomed the pain. But it also made it more difficult to cut her mind from her body's reactions, to keep a distance from her injuries.

When she had finished her 'confession' Anara was speechless and Gabrielle now was not only worried but also very angry. At the time the blonde still depended on the wheelchair to move around, and Xena was certain that if she had been more mobile the younger woman wouldn't have stopped by pounding only the armrests. As it was she began to shout at her lover and soon had herself worked up in a full fledged temper tantrum. The tall woman couldn't help but find her adorable in her wrath.

While Gabrielle was still venting her anger something happened that guaranteed that this afternoon always would count among Xena's more pleasant memories. She knew the puppy had entered the hut with them but she soon had all but forgotten about him. In the midst of Gabrielle's outburst she heard a faint growling. She turned her eyes from the younger woman's face to her feet, and there he was.

His tail was pointing straight to the sky and he did his best to appear taller than he was. He was growling at Gabrielle, his upper lips drawn back and his pointed teeth gleaming in the daylight. Anara and Xena started laughing at the same time. The young woman stopped her tirade and the puppy turned to Xena and wagged his tail, obviously proud of having silenced the other one.

Xena told him that he was a good boy but that Gabrielle was a friend and that she had every right to be angry with her, and that it now was his job to protect her as well. He looked at her as if understanding every word but the following days he growled at everyone from the Queen and Eponin to Theano and Ephiny until she told him that they also were friends who needed protection.

The tall warrior knew that as soon as he was big enough to survive on his own she had to bring him back to where he belonged, back to the mountains. She didn't have a clue how he came to take refuge in the barn but after only a few days she knew that she would miss him a lot. That's why she didn't want to name him while Gabrielle and the girls soon began to throw name suggestions in her face whenever she talked to them. More than once she tried to get them to see reason but the lynx puppy quickly was becoming the darling of the village. Even Queen Melosa and the rather stoic weapons' master couldn't help being enchanted by his antics; and though some of the elders were loudly complaining about wild beasts running rampant through the village square and scaring the live stock out of a year of growth they also weren't totally immune to his charm.

Having to spend the day after the fire in bed, Xena nonetheless was able to give the Queen and her carpenters some pointers about the rebuilding of the barn. Officially she was a slave carrying out the Queen's orders, in reality she soon was supervising the whole operation. She even enlisted the help of her brother who still was staying with the rest of her soldiers waiting for a message telling him about their mother.

The barn would become bigger and more solid. The central column would be supplemented by four more of the same built. Beside the two ladders inside of the barn an external staircase would lead to the upper level. The opening for the hay bales in the back would be enlarged and there also would be a second one at the front side of the building. Two metal beams embedded in the ceiling would make handling the heavy bales easier and more comfortable. All in all, the barn would become a much bigger reproduction of the one standing next to Amphipolis' inn.

Xena took advantage of her new assignment to get out of bed and to the building site. Despite her best intentions she soon involved herself, and not only theoretically, in the rebuilding process. She was carrying beams and helping to erect the outer poles though her rational mind knew that this wasn't one of the smarter decision of her life.

At the moment, she easily was able to ignore the pain her back still gave her. What was lost to her was her innate sense of how well her back was healing. A very new and unsettling feeling. She knew that this was one of the reasons why she tended to overdo it.

On the fourth day she was about to take a step up a ladder when something connected with her other foot and sent her to the ground. Moments later the steps of the ladder burst under the weight of one of the newly cut roof beams. When Xena shook herself back to reality the first thing she saw, apart from Gabrielle's rapidly approaching wheelchair was the young lynx growling at the beam. She slowly eased herself in a sitting position but wasn't able to suppress a groan of pain. The puppy turned around and found her eyes.

"You know, buddy, you just saved my live. We're even now."

He looked at her for a long moment, and then jumped aiming right for her chest and began to lick her face furiously thus effectively ruining her tough warrior image. The Queen took a look at the blood stains on her shirt and sent her to the healer's hut. The next two and a half days she had to spend flat on her tummy and also had to suffer through another set of lectures from Queen Melosa, Anara, Toris and Gabrielle.

During daylight she did what she was ordered to do: nothing. The nights, however, found her sneaking out of the infirmary to her own hut. She didn't dare to lie down but she knew that Gabrielle needed her next to her in order to sleep undisturbed without the help of herbs. She told the puppy to take care of Thania and the other Amazon warriors still in the healer's hut and he reluctantly stayed behind. When she returned long before dawn she always found him curled into a ball sleeping next to Thania's cot. Anara wasn't at all happy to have 'a dirty animal' in her hut but whenever she tried to get rid of him he looked at her with his green and yellow speckled brown eyes and she no longer had the heart to send him away.

x

The day Xena was released from the healer's hut, Thania also was allowed to spend a few candlemarks outside for the first time. The gut wound she had received from the renegade Amazon's arrow while saving Toris' son, Lyceus, now was healing nicely. Anara was convinced the change in scenery would speed up her healing even more. The middle aged Amazon healer especially was concerned with the nightmares disturbing the young girl's sleep, dreams she refused to acknowledge.

Under an old tree next to the training grounds two bedrolls were spread and a lot of fluffy cushions were waiting for her. Eponin gently sat her down on the furs and told her to pay attention to the staff class so she wouldn't fall behind her age mates too much. But there were a lot of other things going on that were more fun to observe.

Having spent the whole morning checking on the barn's progress and smoothing the feathers of some of the Amazon craftwomen who didn't take well having to listen to a man in her absence, Xena now was teaching archery. Though there were no absolute beginners in her class their arrows more often than not missed the targets. The puppy one moment was quietly sitting at her feet and the next raced to retrieve the misguided arrow and proudly brought it back to her.

Afterwards, he followed her to the building site, the dining hall and the storage hut. He was at her side when she helped Gabrielle to take the first tentative steps with the help of crutches. He also stayed next to her when a late afternoon sparring session with some members of the Royal Guard began. Xena barely avoided being knicked at her right arm while trying not to stumble over the puppy who obviously believed that he was taking part in some sort of exciting game. She still was annoyed at her obvious lack of coordination due to the fact that she hadn't been able to do her usual drills during the last moon and a half.

The dark haired woman ordered the excited puppy to go and stay with Thania and Gabrielle but to no avail, he didn't budge an inch. Then the Amazon girl shouted as loud as she could. "Shadow, come here," and the small lynx followed her command immediately.

When evening came and it was time for Thania to return to her cot in the infirmary Shadow longingly looked from Xena to the young Amazon to Xena 'til the tall warrior took him in her arms, whispered in his ear and returned him to the ground. He had to hurry to catch up with Eponin and Thania and slip in the healer's hut before the door fell shut.

From that day on he all but abandoned Xena and stayed with the girl – at first to Anara's great annoyance. Then she had to admit that the injured girl's sleep was much more peaceful with Shadow at her side. She even was healing faster. So, after only three quarters of a moon of recovery Thania was allowed to move to her room in the Queen's hut.

x

"You were as morose as Amazons on a rainy summer when I left. What happened that you are smiling now, Xe?"

"Do you know that you're the only one that can get this near to me without me knowing you're there before you even enter the hut?"

"So you keep telling me but your mind obviously was miles away. It's time for your salve. I know you don't like its smell, but it works and Anara is very proud of it."

"I do appreciate her ingenuity. The poultice does speed up the healing but it doesn't numb the pain. It's perfect for my needs, and as soon as I'm out of here, we'll work together on improving the smell."

"You didn't answer my question."

"I was thinking about Shadow and the fire in the barn. We still don't know how it happened and it's driving Solari to distraction. It could have been anything, glowing embers flying from one of the fire pits, a piece of metal or glass in the sun. She is sacrificing too much time to this accident."

"Solari feels responsible not only for the security of the Queen but also for the security of the whole village. It's part of her job to worry about these things. The Queen taught me that every true Amazon is devoted to her duty because most of them follow their hearts calling when choosing a profession. Solari fears that it wasn't an accident. She's suspicious of everything and everyone since Najara's treason. – Still, a burning barn is no reason to smile."

"No, the fire in itself is nothing to smile about but it had some unexpected side effects. Because of Shadow Thania no longer has bad dreams. The barn soon will be bigger than ever, and the village will need the new stalls. It's still too soon to be absolutely sure but considering the trouble we had to recapture some of the horses there probably soon will be a whole group of foals. Argo wasn't the only mare in heat at the time."

"How do you feel about Argo possibly becoming a mother?"

"I don't know, Gabrielle. I'm not sure that Argo will make a good mother."

"Why not? She's very protective of her mistress, she certainly will also be very protective of a foal or a filly of her own."

"Perhaps you're right, love." All of a sudden Xena's high spirits were gone but before the younger woman could question her about this unexpected mood swing there was a knock at the outer door.

"Come in, Thania. We're in the bedroom."

"Hello Gabrielle, Queen Melosa wants you to come to the council's hut as soon as possible. She also wants to see you there, Xena."

"I gather it's official?"

"Yes, I think all the adults will be there."

"Good, Gabrielle could you get the Amazon leathers from the dresser. Please don't look at me as if I've lost my mind. What ever else I may be to the Amazons, officially I'm still a slave – and now I have to dress the part."

Gabrielle went to the dresser and handed the rather skimpy leather outfit to her lover. "I love the way you look in these, and I know you don't have a choice but it's still too early for you to get up. – Do you know what this meeting is all about, Thania?"

"No, I only know that one of the carrier pigeons arrived earlier this day."

"Carrier pigeons?"

"Yes, we use them to communicate with some of the more remote Amazon villages and with the Centaurs. – Xena, the Queen told me to accompany you to the council's hut."

Xena now was dressed but still barefooted. She answered. "I'm at your command, little one."

The girl's smile wasn't completely sincere. "I don't like giving you orders, Xena. That's not the way it should be, and I will be happy when it's finally over at the end of next moon."

"I know you don't like it, Than, but it's part of your duty as the Queen's apprentice. Just try and look at it from another point of view. It's not you giving your friend orders, you're just the messenger giving the Queen's orders to a slave. It's nothing personal."

"I still don't like it, and I will be happy when this damned collar will be gone."

"Me too, Thania," answered Gabrielle. "It's less than a moon 'til then. The time will be up before we even know it."

x

Gabrielle entered the council's hut and took a seat next to Ephiny. The room was packed with women, some of them came visibly directly from the training grounds and others were still wearing the clothing of their respective crafts. Thania and Xena came in through the back door and knelt next to the Queen on the ground, the tall warrior on her left, the young Amazon on her right.

"Members of the council, Amazon sisters," the Queen spoke, "the time has come for our annual meeting with the Centaurs and their leaders, Tyldus and Kaleipus. The invitation arrived today. I called upon you to let you know whom I've chosen to be with me on the journey. Solari already has decided upon three members of the Royal Guard, Akyra and Theano will represent the elders. Last year I took members of the crafts, so this year Solari, Ephiny and Chandala will be there for the warriors. Gabrielle, the bard, will be the ninth member of my party."

"Gabrielle isn't even an Amazon, why take her?" An unidentifiable voice came from near the entrance.

"It never was the habit of Amazon Queens to give any explanations of their decisions, and I certainly won't be the one to start. – We will leave the village tomorrow at dawn, Eponin will be in charge until I'm back, with Anara as second in command. This meeting is adjourned."

Soon the big room was empty except for the members of the delegation, and Xena. The tall woman had tried to leave with the others but the Queen's hand on her shoulder had stilled her movement. "I should go and prepare your travelling gear, Queen Melosa."

"I'm perfectly capable of packing my things myself, thank you. You're not a servant, Xena, you're one of my warriors and teachers. Besides, you will have enough to do to prepare your own gear and to help Gabrielle. You will go with us, the Centaurs asked for your attendance."

"But that's impossible, my… Queen Melosa. The peace treaty clearly states that I'm not allowed to enter Centaur territory, under no circumstances. You must have been mistaken."

"I also was surprised, Xena. You will not be allowed to wear weapons at the village but that's about all. Read for yourself."

Melosa handed her a small piece of parchment with the encrypted message. "It's written in another hand, probably by someone not really comfortable with the code, someone rather young."

"My thoughts. It could be a trap, a way to get you to the village, and to try and kill you. There still are a few among them regretting the treaty and your role in it. It's your decision. I understand if you'd rather avoid the risk. You could stay here and we'll send a message if the invitation was genuine."

"There also are others remembering the time I almost annihilated the village and the Centaur nation. Yes, it could be a trap but the things I did during the war are among my debts still unpaid for. I'm ready to take the risk. It's possible that Kaleipus and Tyldus don't know about this extended invitation. They won't be happy about it, and the treaty gives them the right to punish my trespassing according to their laws. If they insist, please don't interfere, please."

There was a long moment of silence, finally the Queen, knowing the stubborn streak of the tall warrior, sighed and answered. "I won't promise not to interfere. But I can promise that I won't oppose any of their decisions. However, I will try to influence them. They don't know you. They only know someone who no longer exists. I will try and make them see the real woman behind your warrior's mask. I always was opposed to this particular section of the treaty, it's about time to get it out of the way, once and for all."

Xena nodded her consent, she knew this was the best she could hope for from the outwardly stern but deeply caring Queen, and though she also knew better than to think that the old Xena, Xena, the Conqueror, Xena, Destroyer of Nations, was well dead and gone, there was a small part of her that desperately needed the other woman to be right and revelled in Queen Melosa's confidence and friendship.

Gabrielle was excited to get the chance to see a real, living and breathing Centaur but she also was angry with the reaction of her raven haired lover. So when they were back in their hut she loudly burst out.

"You're the most stubborn, pig-headed, single-minded being I ever met. I don't want you to go with us. Tell the Queen that you've changed your mind. You're still dealing with the aftermath of your last guilt trip and now you're rushing headlong into the next. What by Hades is wrong with you? Did Athena hit you in the head as a child instead of giving you brains? Damn it, I won't let you harm yourself further…."

The young woman was so absorbed by her temper tantrum that she didn't see the changes in Xena's face that went from amusement to hurt to anger to coldness. She just stood there and looked at the blonde whose head just barely reached her shoulder level. Gabrielle's outburst continued on and on, invoking every God on Mount Olympus and beyond but the older woman didn't even try to stop her ranting.

When Gabrielle finally finished Xena's eyes were about as warm as chips of ice in the middle of winter, she still didn't react to the other's accusations but every single muscle in her body was tensed and ready to explode in action. Her voice was calm and expressionless.

"Solari and the guards will see to food and others provisions. I'll check the bedrolls and see that you are provided with a horse of your own. You certainly don't want to ride with someone as stupid and insensible as I am. You better decide upon at least one change of clothes for yourself and pack some bare scrolls and quills. Don't touch what is mine. I'll be back."

Xena turned and even managed to close the door quietly though she rather felt like rattling the whole house to its foundations by slamming it with all her might. She could feel anger and hurt rising in her heart and felt the temptation to act on these emotions as she had done so many times before. Years ago she would have gone berserk, killing everybody unfortunate enough to get in the proximity of her sword, replacing anger with battlelust, and later on quenching battlelust with sex. At the palace she would have held a sparring session with the soldiers of the First Order and probably sent a lot of them to the healers, and in the evening she would have returned to her rooms too tired to think or to feel.

A familiar voice snapped her out of her musings. "The Queen wants you to wear your leather dress and armour during our trip – and now I think you need to burn out some energy. Move it, to the training grounds."

"You know me too well, Theano."

"You're very good at hiding your feelings but you never could fool me. Your eyes always gave you away. Now, move it, little one." Came the gruff response.

When they reached the training grounds Eponin was already facing off against three of the more experienced warriors. "Seems as if I'm not the only one with anger management problems."

"Don't talk, little one, fight." A seemingly negligent sweep of Theano's staff send the tall woman flying but she didn't land on her back as most others would have. Instead she turned her fall in a rolling motion, flipped and faced her opponent. It was midday and the banging of the staves and clanging of the swords at this rather unusual hour soon brought them an audience. The Queen and Gabrielle among them.

The training square was a blur of motion but while Eponin's sparring partners soon were weaponless and with some minor scratches from the tip of her blade, the staff fighters didn't show any signs of stopping or slowing down. They obviously were equally matched, well versed with the other's moves, and they were moving so fast that for the first two candlemarks it was difficult to tell whom was attacking whom or even where one began and the other ended.

The audience slowly began to thin out, after all most of them had their chores to tend to. Gabrielle, Eponin, Solari, Ephiny and Melosa stayed. When their movements began to get slower, the intensity of the strokes increased, considerably. Theano's weapon connected with the hollow of Xena's knees and she went down on her knees but didn't break her own striking rhythm. She effectively used the suddenly changed angle of attack to her advantage, the older woman went down, Xena jumped to her feet and Theano was pinned to the ground, the end of a staff at her throat.

Theano took the taller woman's hand and got to her feet. The Amazon lawyer could tell that she still was angry. "You've greatly improved since our last sparring session. Congratulations. I think we both have earned a long, relaxing bath. Come with me, my second daughter."

Xena only nodded and followed her to the bathing area. The others cast questioning glances at each other until Eponin broke the silence.

"It didn't work, she still is angry. – Oh, please, Gabrielle, don't look at me with these big innocent eyes. You know what I'm talking about. She was intrigued and slightly worried about the Centaurs' message, nothing more. During the fight with Theano, anger was literally dropping from her like sweat. She's calmer now but there still are storm clouds in her eyes. You must have said or done something to push her this close to the edge."

"I don't know what you're talking about, Eponin, and how can you even have the slightest idea of what Xena was thinking?"

"That's easy to tell. It was in her eyes, a single unguarded moment, not longer then a fraction of a heartbeat. There's more to her and the Centaurs than she is ready to admit. And you know damn well what I'm talking about. Theano and her, that fi…, it was the same kind of fight Xena and I had the day we found out about the girls and all. We both were trying to get a better grip on our emotions but it seems that this time all the good it did to her was physical exhaustion."

Gabrielle suddenly found something very interesting to observe at the ground, and to cover her up Ephiny asked. "Queen Melosa, do you know more about Xena's history with the Centaurs? I remember that at the time of the treaty negotiations she stayed outside of Amazon as well as Centaur territory, except for the signing of the treaty. It struck me as rather strange that she insisted on coming to terms with the first draft of the treaty by way of emissaries."

"It was and still is a really unique situation, Ephiny. She stopped a war both our nations had been involved in for more generations than anyone cares to remember. But you're right, it was rather strange that she used different messengers for either party instead of trusting only one. We never knew who led the discussions with the Centaurs and they never knew who worked with us. – During our first visit I asked Tyldus but he was rather evasive in his answers and unwilling to tell my about Xena. However, I found out that about two or three seasons after the deaths of the Northern Amazons Xena launched an all out war against the whole Centaur nation. She had them all but defeated when she suddenly stopped and turned her army around to conquer Corinth. She just stopped and didn't look back. We can ask her what this was all about but I doubt that she will be very forthcoming with her answers."

There was a long moment of awkward silence, then Gabrielle found Ephiny's eyes. "Would you help me to get some items from the storage hut, Eph? I think there is something I can do to improve Xena's mood."

Moments later the weapons' master and the Queen were alone. "Are you still angry with me, Ep?"

"No, my love, please forgive me. I hadn't the right to react as I did. I didn't want to let you go without my protection though I know that you're very capable of protecting yourself and that Solari and the guards will see to it that you're safe – but still. While I was looking at Xena and her second mother, I understood that you want to give me the opportunity to spend some time with Thania, and now I appreciate the effort, my love. I'm still not sure that I'm mother material but she has the right to know me better."

"Sometimes you can be as stubborn as a mule, as stubborn and single-minded as Xena even but I love you, Ep. Perhaps after I've packed my stuff I can find a way to assure you of my forgiveness." The Queen answered with a smile.

"Your orders are my deepest desires, my Queen."

Xena and Theano were soaking in the big bathing tub. They were alone, so the only movements in the hut were the steam clouds rising from the water. "It didn't work this time. Tell me why?"

Xena tried to avoid the eyes of the older woman, without success. She took a deep breath and answered. "It worked, Theano, but not the way you expected it to. Years ago you taught me to transform emotions, negative emotions into action, into energy, and spending this energy cleaned my soul from the emotions. But it doesn't work this way any longer, it hasn't for a long time."

The younger woman fell silent but Theano let her take her time. "It doesn't work when I'm really angry or hurt or both. I simply spent too many years letting anger and hatred rule every aspect of my life. They still tend to take control if I don't reign them in. The old techniques now only would lead me to kill my opponents, no matter if its for real or sparring, no matter if there is only one or many, no matter if I'm injured or not. It's what I do while on a battlefield. Still, spending excess energy helps to put some distance between me and these emotions; it helps me to clear my head, at least enough to control them by meditation. This way they don't get the chance to overwhelm my rational mind."

Xena took another deep breath and lowered her eyes to the steaming water. "There's a lot of darkness in my soul, there always will be. I've learned the hard way that negative emotions trigger this darkness – and since I have someone to love in my life I can no longer afford to give free reign to the darkness, not even for a moment."

"Even when these feelings appear because of this loved one?"

"Especially then, my second mother. My head knows that she only said these things because she is afraid for me and because she doesn't want to see me hurt or in pain.

"I told her a lot about the years after I took Corinth and the time I united Greece, and even the campaigns against Persia and Rome. But I only let her know bits and pieces about the time before. She knows about Caesar but I didn't mention M'ila. She knows about the crucifixion but not what it really did to my soul. I told her about Borias but not why he died. She doesn't know why I fought the Centaurs or why I stopped. She doesn't know the extend of my crimes, and there's a part of me that is afraid to let her know, a part that's afraid to loose her love."

"Since the trial Gabrielle knows that there are a lot of things too hurtful to you to talk about. She also knows that the burden of guilt you carry is much heavier than any of us knows or ever will know, little one. Your anger and hurt comes from another source, they didn't call to your dark side, they were dark in themselves."

"You're right, my pride was hurt. She told me that I was stupid, and that what I'm doing now isn't real but only a guilt trip."

"Uh oh."

"Yeah. Don't get me wrong, I know that I can't right all my wrongs by letting the people I've hurt punish or kill me. Revenge won't give back what they lost because of me but the Amazons and the Centaurs are special. I owe them, more than most of them ever will know. Before the trial started I tried to explain it to her but she couldn't understand, and today, she didn't even ask why I want to go there. She didn't ask, and there's a part of me that really longs to let her know – despite my fears."

"It's hard to live with a secret like this, little one. But there's more to it. It wasn't just your pride, your anger was born out of fear."

While the wads of steam around them began to thin out, the silence became almost oppressive. "Talk to me, Xena."

The younger woman took a deep breath but her answer barely was audible. "She said, that she was sorry that I rescued her from slavery and saved her life, only to have her see me suffer and die. – I love her so much, and her life out-weights mine more than a hundred times. I can't stand the thought to lose her, but one day soon I will 'cause I keep hurting her."

The dejected undertone in the younger woman's voice and her obvious self-loathing made the Amazon lawyer's heart ache, but she also knew that only the blonde haired bard had a chance to re-adjust the tall warrior's perspective. She had to get them back together in a room, with no distractions for at least a couple of candlemarks. Then they would be able to work it out.

"You know she only said this because she's worried, because she's afraid for you, don't you?" The dark head nodded tentatively. "Then, let's get back to the problem at hand. I suppose you still love her more than your life." Xena nodded vigorously. "You want her to ride behind you during our journey and to close her arms around your waist?"

"Yes, but how do you know?!"

"I had a whole moon to get to know her. I listened to her stories, one of her favourites is you rescuing a whole bunch of slaves and saving her life. She also told me how she fell in love with you and how you made the pain and fear go away, and she told me about a romantic trip to a certain Amazon village, about long candlemarks of riding, cuddled against your back and hearing your strong heartbeat. She told me about nights spent next to you at a secluded camp fire, away from the protective eyes of your soldiers, sharing a bedroll and searching patterns in the night sky. This young woman is madly in love with you, little one.

"Help me out of this tub before I turn into a dried grape, and then go and tell her that you're sorry at getting this upset, and that you love her, and why you were hurt. And then…."

"Please don't, Theano, I know what I have to do to make it up to her."

"Hey, I only wanted to say: prepare for tomorrow!"

They both were laughing when they left the bathing area, and Xena went directly to the dining hut. Talking with the only human being that knew all her secrets and fears got her more relaxed than meditation ever could.

Shortly after, Xena tried to open the door to her hut while balancing a tray overflowing with food on her upraised right knee. She had raided the kitchen before the dinner crowd came in. With the help of the head cook who had a soft spot for the tall warrior who always managed to get her the fish she wanted, Xena had assembled a lot of Gabrielle's favourites: mulled cider, venison stew, nut-bread, honey cakes, vinegar cornichons and other treats reflecting the younger woman's fancy for sweet-and-sour dishes.

The blond woman had apparently been pacing the central room when Xena put the tray on their table. She looked up and found herself rapidly engulfed in her tall lover's strong arms.

"I'm sorry, I got angry, Gab, I know you're just worried about me." The tall woman was surprised to feel tears trickling down her chest. "Hush!, please don't cry, my love, don't cry. Everything will be all right. I owe the Centaurs as much as I owe the Amazons, perhaps even more. Please believe me, I don't want to go there just to get punished, I don't enjoy hurting but this is a risk I simply have to take. I love you and I plan on being with you for a long time to come. Please, don't worry."

Gabrielle pushed her upper body from Xena's comforting embrace and green eyes found blue ones filled with love and devotion.

"I'm sorry, my warrior. I shouldn't have said what I did. I know you're not stupid and I never will regret the day you walked into my life. You're the most intelligent, most caring woman I ever met and ever will meet. And I know you're very earnest in your need to atone but I can't help worrying. I love you but this whole thing is scaring me half to death and I don't want you to hurt. I hate the feeling that there's nothing I can do to help, and I hate…"

The young woman was silenced by a kiss. It was soothing and gentle at first but gradually grew more passionate when Gabrielle invitingly opened her lips to the other woman's gently probing tongue. They soon were thoroughly exploring the other's mouth only coming up to breathe. Xena took the blonde's chin in her right hand and looked at her as if she were trying to memorise every square inch of her face.

"I love you, Gabrielle. You are my life and my soul. You command my heart and my body."

Now, it was the smaller woman's turn to seek out Xena's mouth but instead of exploring, she posed tiny kisses on her lips and slowly worked her way down to Xena's throat. She had to get to her toes to comfortably reach the taller woman's pulse point and lingered there while her hands gently eased down the straps of Xena's leather top. With one hand the warrior opened the laces holding her bra in the back, and Gabrielle quickly made use of the opportunity and began to worship her lover's breasts. Meanwhile Xena proceeded to loosen the belt around the smaller woman's waist.

"Please don't, Xe, I'll do it this time. Just enjoy the show – for now. I want to feel you and I want you to feel me. Our stuff is already waiting in the saddlebags, we have all night."

"Do you know how much I adore you, my lovely bard? Do you know what a …" Xena managed to get out between moans of pleasure, "what a simple touch from you can do to me? When I wake up with you in my arms, our legs entangled, your head resting on my shoulder I know that I found something I never had expected to find, something I don't have the right to ex…."

Gabrielle's index finger sealed the tall beauty's lips. "Hush! I don't want to hear what you think you deserve or not. Let me be the judge of that. I plan on exploring every inch of your body. These passed days I so longed to take possession of your skin, your scent, the way you move with me…"

"Gab, you're driving me crazy." Xena's voice was nearing a low angry murmur.

"I do?" The blonde asked teasingly. "So, perhaps, we first should eat? Have to keep my strength up..."

The tall woman now was growling but only in mock frustration. Her sensitive sense of smell told her that her young lover was at least as ready to push their game to a the next level as she was. So, she tried to turn the tables.

"Eat? Food? Yeah, there's something I'd love to feast on, two luscious apples I'd like to get all smooth and hard. I'd like to chew every single pore until they go all mellow on me, and then I'd love to make them stand at attention once again."

Gabrielle visibly gulped but she also wasn't ready to relinquish control yet, so, she answered. "That's a privilege you will yet have to earn, my beloved warrior."

Xena growled like a caged animal but when the blonde once again turned her attention to her breasts, it slowly morphed in a very sensuous moaning that sent shivers down Gabrielle's spine and directly to her own overexcited centre.

Gabrielle's hands wandered down Xena's sides, conspicuously avoiding the tall woman's back, and she began to undo the thin leather straps holding the short skirt in place. It fell to the ground leaving her only in her briefs. With her thumbs the smaller woman was retracing the outlines of the suede leather garment while her mouth continued the assault on Xena's ample chest. She placed quick wet kisses on tender skin, never even coming near the proudly erect nipples.

They somehow managed to negotiate their way from the table to the fireplace and by then there was no fibre of cloth or leather left on Xena's body while Gabrielle apart from the belt still was completely dressed.

Xena's heart was racing, she had a hard time standing still. Part of her was itching to take over, to simply rip away the young blonde's clothes and ravish her but she also knew that soon she would get her chance and deep down she loved relinquishing control to her lover.

Early in their relationship, she had stopped questioning herself about the reasons, the tall independent warrior just knew it to be true. With Gabrielle she felt free, free to let herself revel in her emotions rather than ignoring them, carefree and playful, opened up to new experiences. The burden of her past wasn't half as heavy when she was with the younger woman.

Xena suddenly snapped out of her passionate haze when hands and mouth were abruptly removed from her skin. She opened her eyes and saw Gabrielle standing more than three feet away, hands on her waist. Her facial expression was inscrutable. She didn't say a word, just standing there, staring at her. Xena's heart still was racing and her skin was burning with the need to once again get showered with kisses. Finally she found her voice.

"Let me undress you, my love, please."

"Why should I do this? You weren't even paying attention to what I did to you."

"Oh, sweetheart, you're so wrong," the tall woman whispered. "Your kisses sent me in a world of bliss, you make me feel safe and loved and cherished. Please let us go there together."

For the fraction of a heartbeat a mischievous smile was flickering over Gabrielle's face, and Xena knew without the shadow of a doubt that she had swallowed the bait hook, line, and sinker.

"All right, my sweet warrior, you'll get another chance. Clasp your hands behind your back and kneel in front of me. I want you to watch while I strip for you. Don't move, just watch."

Xena visibly gulped, she knew she was in for a show. As a rule the young woman loathed to make use of her training as a body slave when they were making love, it simply brought back too many dark memories. This day she obviously was willing to make an exception.

The thought alone made Xena's hard nipples ache with readiness and brought her throbbing clit even more to her attention. She sank to her knees, opening them up to let Gabrielle have something to look at herself and entwined her fingers behind her back.

Gabrielle took another step back and began to slowly undo the buttons of her long, oversized shirt. The upper two afforded her audience a view of the silver necklace with the jade pendant Xena had given to her after their first night of making love. It snugly rested just where her breasts were beginning to swell. Her hands were hovering over the third when she hesitated and instead let them lingeringly travel down to the last one. While she continued her torturously slow unbuttoning, her tongue dreamily slid over her lips, her eyes half closed as if she were tasting something extremely delicious. Xena's breath caught for a moment in her throat, her arousal went up another notch and she had a hard time to stay in her assigned position.

While the last button was opened the younger woman began to sway her hips in a very slow, very sensual rhythm. Instead of discarding the garment immediately she turned around, let it slowly slide down her back thus revealing her slightly bronzed skin. But she wasn't naked underneath!

The tall woman couldn't help but moan at the sight of her lover wearing a set of light brown Amazon leathers complimenting the tone of her skin. The skirt was hugging her hips and thus accentuating her lean calves, from the top all she could see was a braided strap but there were no laces to open it up. Gabrielle's hands appeared at the small of her back and found the clasps holding the skirt in place. She tenderly caressed them but it was just a tease. Instead she put her fists on her hips, the sensuous circular motion immediately stopped and she turned around.

"Enjoying the view?" She asked with sparkling eyes.

Xena barely managed to nod; she was way beyond reasoning and no longer able to utter a lone syllable.

"Thought so." There was a predatory smile adorning Gabrielle's face.

She closed the distance between them and soon stood less than a foot from the kneeling woman. Near enough for Xena to smell the scent of the younger woman's arousal mixing with her own. For long heartbeats Xena's face was on a level with the other's centre but she had no appreciation for the intricately woven pattern of the broad girdle adorning the front part of her skirt. Gabrielle bent her knees and soon was whispering in her ear.

"You're the most beautiful woman in the whole village. I love the way your will is commanding the urges of your body. You're doing fine. You're so amazing."

No one ever had talked to her like this, they would have paid with their lives for even trying, with Gabrielle, however, she simply didn't mind. But still, she was surprised to feel something akin to pride at the words of her lover.

The blonde once again stood and gently posed her right foot on Xena's left shoulder, the rim of the sandal almost touching the slave collar. Her eyes were holding Xena's while she bent and untied the leather laces holding her footwear in place. Falling down one of them grazed an erect nipple and the tall woman almost jumped at the sensation, almost.

Gabrielle's feral smile intensified when she discarded the sandal and began to repeat the process with her other foot. The sole resting on Xena's collar bone she once again bent down. Her hands reached for the laces but then her movements stilled. She straightened up, and said.

"You do it! But keep your hands where they are."

The raven haired beauty struggled once again with the desire to take control. It would have been easy to overpower the younger woman, to let lose of her raging need. The years she'd spend as a warlord and leader no one dared to refuse anything to nearly took over – but in her heart she knew that this display above all was a sign of Gabrielle's trust and also of her slow healing. The damage done to the blonde's soul in the years of slavery was bit by bit losing its hold on her. She tentatively began to act on her dreams and desires, and Xena knew that this day was an integral part of it.

So, she smiled, bent her head and bit down on one of the laces. She tucked and the knot easily opened. She stopped in mid-motion when her eyes followed Gabrielle's thigh under the skirt. She saw the almost glistening wetness of the other's arousal but not on her panties but on the blond curls of her nether region. Xena's stomach did a flip, her heart missed a beat and she involuntarily began to shiver in anticipation.

The sandal was shook from Gabrielle's foot but the taller woman's eyes remained fixed on the skirt and its now hidden treasure she craved. The young bard was mesmerised by her lover's reaction but before she gave in to her own desires there was one more thing she longed to do.

She asked. "Xena, what do you want me to do now?" Knowing for certain that the tall woman wouldn't be able to speak, and she was right.

Xena's mouth opened but she wasn't able to form even a single coherent sentence. Instead she quickly leaned forward and tucked on the leather skirt with her white teeth.

Gabrielle smiled. "Good answer, my beloved. Now, I want you to spread your legs a little wider, as wide as you can. – Yeah, that's good. – Now, your upper body needs to go backwards, as far and as low as you can. Use your hands and arms to steady yourself. And now, look at me."

The kneeling woman somehow managed to lower herself on her elbows. The position she was in by no means could be called comfortable but she didn't care. She had to strain her neck to once again establish eye contact with her lover but the vision she was presented with was well worth the effort.

Gabrielle was gyrating her hips, slowly accelerating the speed of her movements. Her hands were waving an intricate pattern in front of her, suddenly she turned and bent forward, giving Xena an uninhibited view of her bottom cheeks lurking from underneath the skirt. When she raised herself and turned once more the leather top was gone. Taut nipples were looking down at Xena, and she spent some candledrops playing with them and making Xena groan with frustration.

The younger woman knelt down, her voice was heavy and deep with arousal. "Close your eyes and enjoy, my warrior."

Xena gladly complied and almost cried out when her clit immediately was sucked on. She had been more than ready but the aggressiveness Gabrielle showed was unexpected. She gave herself over to the experience and the intense emotions when a small hand found its way to her right breast and began to circle the nipple area. She soon was completely lost.

The way her body was stretched out made it almost impossible to move her hips. She could hear Gabrielle lapping up her juices and the sound alone brought her nearer to the edge. Xena tried to hold out as long as she could but when she felt the flat of a tongue rubbing over her clit and then quickly dipping into her centre she cried out Gabrielle's name in ecstasy.

The blonde didn't stop. When Xena began to relax from the first wave of orgasm two fingers were thrust into her centre, teeth grazed her clit and her left nipple was rolled between thumb and forefinger. Her inner walls clenched around the blissful intruders and another cry was wrenched from her throat. But her lover was insatiable, she helped her to unfold and stretch her legs. The blonde lowered herself on the longer body, pushing up the skirt to let pubic bone rest on pubic bone. She used her arms to keep some leverage and went for the proudly protruding breasts with her lips and teeth.

Xena was lost in a haze of desire and longing, satisfaction and newly building need, fulfilment and sensual overload. A mouth harshly bit down, she felt the additional wetness from her lover's release and Xena's arms gave way landing her flat on her still slightly hurting back. She instinctively grabbed for her smaller partner and pulled her up in her embrace. Her chin resting on Gabrielle's head she murmured. "Love you, Gab." and promptly fell asleep. The other woman smiled and followed her in sleep.

Xena opened her eyes to a sound halfway between rumbling and growling. She was laying on her back, vaguely aware of the silly smile adorning her face, with Gabrielle tucked securely in her arms, still wearing the skirt. Her partner obviously was hungry, so she carefully unwound herself from her human blanket, and went to the table.

The sun was just about to go down, so she had been sleeping for a couple of candlemarks. She picked up the tray with their food and also retrieved Gabrielle's belt. She built a backrest of cushions and pillows near the fireplace after putting the tray on a low table nearby. Having built a small fire to heat up the stew and the cider she turned her attention to her lover. Gabrielle still was sleeping soundly. She unclasped the skirt and used the belt to bind the young woman's hands in front of her. Then suddenly changed her mind and discarded the belt. She took her in her arms and made herself comfortable, the blonde's back now resting against her chest.

Xena began to place gentle kisses on the other's shoulder and neck. Finally she breathed in her right ear while her hands were keeping Gabrielle's crossed wrists immobilised. The smaller woman's eyes flew open and she immediately began to strain against her lover's grip.

"It's all right, my love, it's just me. You're save. Just me holding you. I want to feed you now." The blonde instantly grew calmer. "I will do nothing you're not comfortable with, sweetie."

"I trust you, Xe. You hold my heart prisoner, you may as well hold my hands."

This brought a dazzling smile to the tall woman's face. She shifted slightly from behind her beautiful lover and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek.

"Do you smell the stew? It soon will be ready for you. But to keep your strength up, there's some nut-bread waiting. You won't need your hands, I will feed you, bit by bit and morsel by morsel."

When Gabrielle took the first slice of nut-bread out of her fingers, the younger woman's tongue lingered on her fingertips, and Xena was acutely aware of her once again strongly building arousal. She took in the scent of her lover's hair mingling with the warming venison stew. She let go of Gabrielle's hands to get the steaming bowl, and her former captive used the opportunity to let her fingers wander, retracing the strong muscles sculpting the tall warriors thighs, then turning sideways journeying up to her hips, lingering at her waist and somehow finding her way to already erect breasts and hard nipples.

Xena couldn't suppress the long, growling moan these attentions elicited but she also didn't care. She took a piece of venison between her teeth and offered it to the blonde. They shared the meat and a kiss at the same time, their tongues still playing long after the morsel had been swallowed. The warrior put the stew back to the fireplace, and began a thorough sensual exploration of her lover's mouth and eyes and throat and chest and …. It took them a long time to finish eating their food, and when they finally migrated to the bedroom the games weren't at their end for the night.

Xena left the hut about one candlemark before dawn after having checked their saddlebags and rearranged some items to make them more balanced and easier for Argo to carry. She brushed the mare down and gave her an apple to munch on.

In the bathing area she ran into Theano and Akyra; and inevitably she took some teasing for the rather vocal signs of passion emanating from their hut almost the whole night through. Her only answer was to give them a smug grin and continue to wash.

A trip to the dining hut provided her with some trail bars, a strange mix of honey, cereals, and fruits she always was kind of fond of, and another small loaf of nut-bread, her lover's all time favourite. Not to mention a hearty breakfast for her still slumbering partner.

By the time she had put on her leathers and armour Gabrielle opened her eyes. She still was half asleep but her stomach was wide awake. "If you ever go anywhere without me I'll have to send a warning ahead, my bard, to let them know how to properly feed you and the monster living in your stomach."

The blonde launched herself out of bed intend on bringing Xena to the ground but she safely was caught in strong arms. Her naked skin produced goose bumps at the contact with the cold brass breastplate. The raven haired warrior bent down and kissed her passionately, only coming up to breathe.

"What a way to wake up! I'm beginning to think that you're way overdressed, Xe."

"Oh no, I'm not. You on the other hand are underdressed. I wouldn't approve your riding Argo in your birthday suit. Better hurry, Queen Melosa wants to get going shortly after sunrise."

"I'll get you for teasing me like this, for totally neglecting my need, o warrior of mine."

"Yeah, you're right, I'm yours, yours alone, my beloved. Besides, I brought food, there's cereals with milk and honey and sliced pieces of apples, peaches, and oranges, and tea – waiting only for you."

The younger woman peeked around Xena's shoulder at the table and began to smile broadly. "I think for once you will be forgiven, my warrior."

"Thank you, my princess. I'll go and saddle up Argo and check on the Queen's mount." Xena answered and shock herself free from the hypnotising sea green eyes of her partner.

Half a candlemark later everyone was ready to go when Thania stormed out of the Queen's hut, Shadow hard at her heels. "Xena wait," she shouted, "you have to take him with you. Shadow will protect you like he did at the barn."

Xena jumped down from Argo and knelt in front of the girl thus ensuring that they were eye to eye. "Shadow and I have balanced the scales, Thania. I saved him and he saved me. He made his choice, and moved on to a new companion. Shadow now is your protector and your friend. And he always will be. He will be by your side as long as he lives."

"But I don't want you to go all alone." The girl answered defiantly.

"I'm not alone, little one. I'll be with my friends the whole time, and they all will keep an eye on me and see that I don't get in too much trouble, I'll be back, I promise." To her own utter surprise the tall woman found that she really meant what she said. "But while we are gone you and Shadow will have to take care of Eponin and Anara and you also have to keep an eye on Lyceus. Promise?"

"Lyceus? But he's just a boy!"

"Yes, he's a boy but I also know that he's really, really good at getting into trouble. You saved his life, so you also have to see that he stays safe. You can't risk your effort being in vain, can you? Besides, I know that he's really bored with all the soldiers in the camp."

"I'll do it, you know the other girls say that he's kind of cute – for a boy, but I think he would rather like to be looked upon as tough and strong."

"You're right, little one, but one doesn't exclude the other. Think about it."

Thania nodded, got a heartfelt hug, and the Queen's party quietly left the village.

To be continued in Chapter Two: Journeying