Lost Innocence

Part 2

by Paully Adams

See part 1 for disclaimers. *****

Caesar, along with 2 armed guards and Gilmos, approached the Amazon Borders. He held up his right hand, motioning the group to halt. A small grin pulled at his lips as a group of twelve amazons appeared from the tree line.

Eponin approached the Romans with caution. "Ceasar of Rome, we are here to escort you to our Queen." Epinon pulled a blindfold from the side of her skirt. Two of the amazons followed suit. "I'm sure that Gilmos told you how this is going to work."

"Of course." Ceasar and his guards lowered themselves from their steeds. Within a few candledrips, the men were blindfolded and being led to their destination. About one candlemark later, Caesar was pulled to a halt. The blindfold was lifted from his eyes and Caesar blinked as his eyes readjusted to the light. As his vision focused, his eyes fell upon the Amazonia ruler. "So you are Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons. Gilmos, you did not tell me that the Queen was so beautiful."

"Does that matter?"

Caesar gave Gilmos a scowl. "Please forgive the rudeness that Gilmos displayed. I can assure you that I only wanted to discuss certain issues with you."

"So he told me. You want to discuss exactly what?"

"As you know, Greece and Rome are going to be united as one empire." A smug expression appeared on Ceasar's face as confidence filled his voice. "There is nothing that can stop this union. I wanted to make sure that you are well informed about these events so that you can make a wise decision for your people."

"I know about the Roman empire. I know all abut the blood that your armies have shed, all for the glory of Rome."

"I'm here to prevent anymore bloodshed; for it is not required. I hope to convince you to use your influence in making sure that this city-state aligns itself with me."

"What makes you think that the people of this city-state wouldn't rather die as Greeks than live as servants to the Roman Empire?"

"I really don't care what the people think, I'm far more concern about what you think."

"And why is that?"

"Because you are the Queen of a very powerful people. The leaders will listen to your advice and words. They will follow your lead. Trust me; this union can benefit all of us."

"You haven't done anything to earn my trust Caesar."

Caesar smirked. "True, I haven't earned your trust just yet." The Roman leader turned to Gilmos and his escort. "I want you to leave me."

"You can't be serious."

"More than you know." Caesar turned back to the Queen. "If it's your wish, please escort them to the borders. I will stay here, right in this cavern to discuss things with you, and tell you my plan for a greater Greece and Rome. I would like to stay for three days if possible."

Gabrielle was not expecting this turn in events. Protocol dictated that Caesar should stay in more suitable quarters. However, she wanted to see just where he was going with this request. "Here? In this cavern? Without your escort?" "Yes, and I expect guards to remain posted at the entrance to keep an eye on me. I am determined to win your trust, Gabrielle."

Gilmos shook his head. "Three days, my Siege? My Lord that..."

Caesar's eyes flashed in anger. "Don't ever question my decisions. Now leave me."

Without taking her eyes off of Caesar, Gabrielle nodded to the guards and they moved forward to blindfold and bind Caesar's escort. After Gilmos and Caesar's guards were escorted out, Gabrielle questioned her guest. "Why Caesar? You really don't think you can convince me that Rome has Greece's best interest at heart, do you?"

"There are two reasons why I'm willing to stay. One, I know I can trust you and I'm determined to win your trust." Caesar took a step closer to her. "And I'll tell you reason two tonight at dinner. That is if you accept my invitation. Of course, you have to bring the food."

Gabrielle gave him a cold smile. "Fine." She turned to Chilipa. "Post five Amazons to guard our guest." She returned her attention back to Caesar. "See you tonight then."

"I look forward to it."

Gabrielle left the cavern and nodded to her left, giving Xena the signal that the coast was clear. "So what do you think?"

"I think that having dinner with him is a bad idea."

"He invited me and as a diplomatic gesture, I accepted."

"I say we kill him now."

"Xena, diplomacy is my area. If the fighting starts, then I will let you take the lead."

"Sorry Gabrielle, but I dealt with him before, and I know what he is capable of. I don't want to see you hurt."

"I won't. I'll have plenty of guards around okay?"

"I would feel better if I could be there."

"Xena, you're our ace in the hole. I don't want Caesar to know you are alive and well until it is absolutely necessary. But for now, I need you to do me a favor."

"What is it?"

"Go tell Ephiny to make the arrangement for dinner. We are going to need lots of pillows and a low table, wine goblets, strawberries and cherries, the good wine..."

The Warrior Princess narrowed her eyes. "If I didn't know any better, I would think that you were trying to seduce him."

Gabrielle frowned. "Xena, he is the leader of Rome and as such he will be treated as a dignitary. Besides, I want him to be comfortable with me. Don't worry, I'll be fine."

Caesar eyed the young Queen as he picked up a strawberry from the fruit bowl and bit into it. "Simply delectable."

Gabrielle returned his stare. "I take it that the meal was to you liking."

He looked at his empty plate and wine goblet. "The meal was good," he glanced up at the Amazon Queen, "the company even better."

Gabrielle gave a small smile. "Are you always such a charmer?"

"When I see something I want."

"And if that doesn't work, I suppose that you take it." She watched as shock shined from Caesar's eyes. Gabrielle smile grew. "I've been studying you Caesar, and I doubt that you let anything or anyone stop you from getting what you want."

Caesar smiled arrogantly. "You been studying me? I hope you like what you have found so far." When Gabrielle did not respond he continued. "Well, let me confess that I've been studying you too."

"And?"

"I like what I have found. To be quite honest, I was not sure what I would find when I arrived. I've heard so many tales about man-eating Amazons, and after the story that Gilmos told me, I thought those stories were true. However, you surprised me with you beauty and grace. You should take that as a compliment, I don't get surprised too often." He poured himself another goblet of wine. "That is why I wanted to stay. You intrigue me."

"And all awhile I thought you were here to convince the Amazon Nation to join with Rome."

The arrogant look returned to his face. "That too. I like to mix business with pleasure."

"I like to keep the two separate, business before pleasure."

"Looks like we are having our first disagreement."

"Probably won't be our last."

"Well it doesn't matter." He reached out and brought Gabrielle's hand to his lips. "As long as the pleasure comes."

Gabrielle arched her eyebrow. "On that note, I will take my leave. Tomorrow, we will discuss business. Good night Caesar."

"Good night."

Gabrielle stepped outside into the cool night. She took ten paces and looked up into the oak tree. "Come on out Xena." The Warrior Princess jumped down from the tree. "Don't you trust me?"

"You? Yes. Caesar? No."

"I have it all under control. I learned from the best, remember?"

"That is what he wants you to think Gabrielle. And then when you are most confident, he is going to hit from your blind side."

"I know what Caesar is capable of. That is why I need to get to know him, find out what makes him tick. The more information we have the better off we are."

"So what information did you get from him?"

Gabrielle crossed her arms. "Nothing really new. He just confirmed everything you told me about him. He will stop at nothing to get what he wants and what he wants in Greece under Rome's power and influence. But he did say he wanted the Nation to be his ally. Plus, he is too arrogant for his own good. That will be his downfall. Look, I know it isn't much, but it was only the first real conversation I had with him."

"First one?"

A nervous smile appeared on her face, and the Warrior Princess knew she wasn't going to like what Gabrielle had to say. "Um, yeah. By the way, I'm having breakfast with him tomorrow."

Xena could feel the quickening of her pulse. "Breakfast tomorrow."

"And lunch."

"Lunch." A serious smile appeared on her face as she began to count to ten silently.

"And dinner."

"Dinner." *I can't believe what I am hearing. She is spending the whole day with HIM.* "Gabrielle, do you REALLY think that is wise?"

"I have to do this."

"Why?" Jealousy and fear began to rear its ugly head. In her mind, Caesar was the type of person that attracted Gabrielle: strong willed, powerful, and filled with darkness. "Gabrielle, I know that you want to find the goodness in everyone you meet, but you might as well stop looking, there is none in Caesar."

"I'm not looking for it. The only reason he is here is to get the Amazons to join with him. He wants to avoid war if possible."

"And you think that he is telling the truth?"

"Hope for the best and prepare for the worst, isn't that what you taught me?"

Xena's eyebrow quirked up. *Just what is she planning?* "Okay Gabrielle, now what?"

"Xena, there is no way this city-state can win a war with Rome and its allies; even with the Amazons and the Centaurs. But we may win a few battles to buy us time. The only way we can win is if we have allies."

"How about other city-states?"

She shook her head. "I received Ephiny's report this morning. Most of the city-states are more than willing to follow Athens lead. I had considered contacting Pompey."

Xena shook her head, "That option is no good. Even if Pompey agrees, his demand will be the same and that is coming under his power."

"So, we are stuck at the edge of a cliff with an army chasing us down. Do we jump or fight?"

"You know what my answer is going to be."

"I know. And your answer is the same as the Amazons. I just hope we can avoid fighting."

"When Caesar is involved, probably not."

Gabrielle looked at Xena. *There's got to be a way. And hopefully I can find it before it is too late.*

"So have you thought anymore about joining with me? You do know that a Rome and Greece union is inevitable. And I want you to be a part of it."

"Don't you mean the Amazon Nation?"

Caesar intensely looked at the Queen. "You are the Amazon Nation."

Gabrielle smirked. "Maybe in Rome that is how it works, but here, I am just the Queen. My people are the Nation, and without them I am nothing."

"You shouldn't hold yourself in such low esteem."

"And you shouldn't think so lowly of the people."

Caesar smiled at the comment. "I see why your people love you so much. They seem to obey you without thought."

"Doesn't Rome obey you?"

"Revolts are a common occurrence in Rome. Rome's way is war, whether it is a war of words or of swords. That is the Roman way."

"And you want to drag Greece into that?"

"No. Rome and Greece has a lot to offer to one another. Greek has some of the greatest philosophers and thinkers to offer and Rome can offer stability for we have a strong government; a strong government that can make sure things gets done. And to have a strong government, you must have a strong leader. I'm the person."

"A strong leader needs strong people who are willing to support him or her by the sharing of ideas and trust. Tell me Caesar, do you have those people or is everyone trying to become the strong leader?"

Caesar did not answer, but asked a question of his own, "Do you have those type of people?"

Without hesitation she answered, "Yes I do."

Caesar smirked at his host. "Well then, I would like to meet these people. How about tonight? I have a proposal that I would like for them to consider."

Gabrielle arched up her eyebrow. "What kind of proposal?"

"That is what I like about you Queen Gabrielle. You are straight forward. You love your people and treat them well, and because of that, they hand their power over to you because they know they can trust you. I need someone like that by my side. I need someone who I can trust. I need you." He looked straight into her eyes. "I want to propose a union between our two people. A union that involves us being married."

Shock covered the Queen's features. "Why would I marry you?"

"Simple really- In order to protect your people. As long as the Amazons are under your control they will respect your wishes. And the thing you wish for most of all is a peaceful solution." He arrogantly smiled at Gabrielle. "I know that you don't love me. You definitely intrigue and fascinate me, but make no mistake, love is not in the cards for us for there is no room for that weakness. As people of power, we cannot afford love."

"So the marriage will be in name only."

"Not quite. We will be married in Rome, where we will live. You will continue to rule Amazonia, only from afar, through edicts and correspondences, coming back every few moons to make sure that your orders are carried through and to assure your people that you are being treated well. Then when we have a daughter, we will come back here for the ceremonies to name her as your heir to the throne. Our daughter will rule Amazonia and our son will rule Rome."

"You have this all plan out. What happens if the Council says no to your proposal?"

"Hopefully we won't have to cross that bridge. It could get very messy. Make no mistake Gabrielle, I want Amazonia standing by Rome, I want you standing beside me. You said so yourself, I always get what I want."

"A what?"

For a split second, Gabrielle could see the rage and surprise in the warrior princess eyes. "Xena, calm down. It would be a political marriage."

"Roman marriages are not just political Gabrielle. As his wife, you will be expected to be his...WIFE." Gabrielle dropped her eyes to the floor and didn't say a word. Xena looked at the window and watched as the sun began its descent below the summit; marking the end of the day She returned her attention back ot the Bard. "Just a couple of days ago we told each other how we felt and now you are telling me you could enter into a marriage with that man, stand by his side, and bear his children."

"I have a chance to save my people."

"Your people would rather die as Amazons than live as servants of Rome."

"We'll see. Caesar is speaking to them at this very moment."

A few moments of tense silence passed before Xena found her voice again. "Can they really dictate you to marry him?"

"No, in fact I can overrule any decision that they make. And I'm afraid I'm going to have to do that."

"What are you saying?"

She looked at the Warrior Princess with tears in her eyes. "I will do what is best for the nation Xena. As Queen, it is my responsibility. I cannot stand the thought of my people dying just because of their pride. There was a point in our history that we could have beaten Rome and all of Greece combined. But now, we can't. I not going to sit back and watch as everything and everyone I love is destroyed in a war that I can prevent." She turned her back to Xena. "Look, I know how much you hate Caesar, but can you please see this from my point of view?"

The Warrior Princess moved closer to Gabrielle. "You know what I see. I see a young woman who loves her people so much that she is willing to do whatever it takes to save them. And right now, I'm just wondering how a person filled with such love and compassion can even think about being in such a relationship with a monster." Xena turned Gabrielle to face her, "Yes, I hate Caesar, for the things he has done and for what he is capable of doing. But this isn't about hate Gabrielle. This is about love." She placed her hands gently upon the Bard's shoulders, "Our love. You can't do this because you love me." Xena looked Gabrielle in the eyes, "Don't you?"

Gabrielle paused to gather her thoughts. She knew what she had to do, she had to lie, to tell Xena no. But as she tried to answer, the words became stuck in her throat. She closed her eyes and tried again, but she couldn't do it. She opened her eyes and saw the love of her life standing before her, pleading with her blue eyes. "You know that I do. You are the most important person in my life Xena. If this only concerned us, I would..."

"It is about us. There is no one else here but you and me. And I'm not letting you go without a fight. I won't let you sacrifice yourself Gabrielle. I won't." She lifted up her hand and caressed Gabrielle's cheek. "Remember when I promised you that nothing would be able to separate us, not even death. We have survived everything that has been thrown our way because we stick together. Nothing can break the bond we share; not Caesar, not Rome, not anything." She paused at she tried to find the right words to say. "Gabrielle, I love you more than anything or anyone else. My heart, my soul belongs to you, now and forever."

"And I love you, always."

With nothing more to say, the Warrior Princess claimed Gabrielle's soft lips in a gentle kiss. "Come on, let's get some rest, then we will speak to the Council in the morning." After changing into their shifts, the two women went to bed. Gabrielle smiled and held Xena closer to her. Within moments she could hear the gentle breathing that told her that Xena was asleep. She looked at her Warrior and whispered, "To you I give my heart." A tear fell from her eyes and rolled down her cheek. "I love you, please remember that, always."

Gabrielle patted the neck of her horse, a gift from the Council at her coronation. *By the gods, I hope I'm doing the right thing.* Her decision, which at one time seemed sure and clear, was know a mass of confusion. "Okay Gabrielle get a grip." She broke down her staff and placed it into its holder on the saddle. "The sacrifice of one for the survival of the whole. Just tell them that this is for the greater good." She grabbed her one of her saddlebags by the wrong end, and watched as the contents spilled out. She retrieved the items: extra quills and ink, some scrap pieces of parchment and a wooden toy lamb.

As she picked up the lamb, flashbacks of the past whisked through her mind. It was their first Solstice together, and she had told Xena abut the little toy lamb her parents had given her when she was just a child. By the Solstice Eve, Xena had given her a new lamb. *But I didn't get you a gift. You are a gift Gabrielle.*

Gabrielle closed her eyes, trying to stem the tide of memories. Once more, she glanced back at her hut, before climbing upon the steed and heading towards the caverns.

Xena reached out her arm and felt nothing but the cold sheets. *What do you know, she's already up.* "Gabrielle?" She reached higher on the bed and her hand came into contact with a piece of parchment. Xena quickly sat up and looked at it. The front had her name on it and the handwriting belonged to the Bard. Dread filled her being as she opened the note:

Please know that you will always have my heart.

Love, Gabrielle

The feeling of dread grew. *She wouldn't.* The Warrior Princess scanned the room and noticed the missing staff and saddle bags.

"Damn it!" Xena jumped out of bed and threw on her leather dress and boots while cursing Gabrielle for leaving, Caesar for manipulating the situation, and herself for not seeing what Gabrielle was planning. *If this marriage takes place* she grabbed her scarab and placed it on her back, *it'll be the second time she's a widow.* She pulled the door open and raced outside to the stables. She looked and saw that Gabrielle's horse was indeed missing. Without hesitation, the Warrior Princess ran to the Regent's door and quickly banged upon it.

The just awakened Regent opened the door. "Xena, it's early."

"What did the Council decide?"

Ephiny narrowed her eyes as she heard the impatience and concern in Xena's voice. "The Council decided that the Queen would not marry Caesar. What's wrong Xena?"

"Gabrielle is missing. I think she decided to take Caesar up on his offer."

"What?" Ephiny grabbed a staff. "If that's true, the Border Patrol would have seen her. Let's go."

They finally found one of the guards. "Did you see Gabrielle?" Ephiny inquired.

The guard nodded. "About five candlemarks ago, she had us escort Caesar to the border. When we arrived, she took off his blindfold. She told him that a decision had been reached, and the terms were accepted. Then she left with him."

Xena took a deep breath as she tried to calm her raging emotions. "Call the Council together now. We have to get her back."

Ephiny shook her head. "I don't see how. She made her decision."

"She did it to protect the Amazons."

"I know she did. But we can't dictate who she marries or don't marries. Xena, there is nothing we can do, short of kidnapping."

Xena looked off into the horizon. "Yes, there is."

Epiny, along with three Royal Guards raced through Athens' streets. Once they stored their horses in a stable, they headed to the Governor's home.

After being shown inside, the Governor walked into the room. "This is a surprise. Have you come for the wedding? It won't be for a couple of days, but I'm sure..."

"Save it." Ephiny sneered. "Where is Caesar and our former Queen?"

A look of shock planted itself on the older man's face. "Former Queen?"

"Did you really think we would let her continue to be Queen after she decided to marry that Roman?"

The Governor snapped his finger and a thin young man appeared at his side. He whispered to the young man and watched as the messenger bowed and took off. He then returned his attention to the Amazons. "He will be here in a moment."

Caesar walked into the candle lit marbled bedchamber and looked at Gabrielle. Dressed in a flowing white gown and adorned with the finest gold jewlery, she did indeed look like a Queen. Everything seemed in place, except for one thing.

The Roman softly sighed as he noticed her mood. Once again, his intended sat on the balcony and looked out over the city with sadness in her eyes. "Staring outside again? Gabrielle, you have to get over this sadness. Our wedding is going to be a celebration. It is not good for the people to see their future Queen upset."

Gabrielle lowered her eyes. Even though she knew it was a lie, she stated, "I'll be fine when the time comes."

Caesar bent down. "I have a surprise for you. Visitors from afar."

"Who is it this time? Diplomats from Egypt? Members of the Senate?"

A grin danced on the corners of the Roman's lips. "Amazons."

Gabrielle quickly lifted her eyes in surprise. "Amazons? Why?"

"I had hoped it was to wish us well." He stood up straight and looked over the dusky horizon. "But it seems otherwise. We are meeting with them immediately. So remove the long look from your face. We can't have our subjects think you are unhappy, now can we?"

Caesar and Gabrielle walked down the stairs and into the main hall. The Bard and Ephiny eyed each other, while Caesar gazed upon the Regent with deadly intentions. "What do you mean Gabrielle is Queen no longer? You don't have the right to dictate who she marries."

Ephiny returned the menacing stare. "No we don't. But if she marries you she won't be Queen any longer. You can be assured of that."

"And how are you going to do that?" He looked back at his intended and then at Ephiny. "Surely, you're not stupid enough to threaten to assassinate her."

"That is Rome's way, not ours." The Regent returned her attention to her friend. "I issue the challenge Gabrielle."

Without taking his eyes off Ephiny, Caesar tilted his head towards Gabrielle. "What's that?"

"The challenge is a fight to the death. Only members of the Royal Family can issue it to each other. And as Regent, Ephiny can issue that challenge if she wishes." Gabrielle continued to gaze at her Amazon sister. "Why Ephiny? Tell me you're not serious."

"You want us to live as Roman servants. I want us to live or die as Amazons. So yes, I am serious Gabrielle. Deadly serious."

"You said it. Guards!" Caesar cried out as he grabbed his dagger. Gabrielle quickly reached out to him. "My Lord," she watched as both Roman and Amazon pulled out their weapons, "I beg you, let me talk to my Regent alone."

Caesar looked at the young Queen. "Fine." He pointed his dagger at the Royal Guard. "As long as they leave as well."

Ephiny looked over at the rest of the Amazons. With a slight nod, the Amazons still had their weapons drawn, but they visibly relaxed. "As soon as you do."

Caesar nodded to his guards, and they lowered their weapons. He watched as the Amazons did the same. "See, you do follow Rome's lead," he smirked. He turned to Gabrielle. "I'm leaving one guard posted with the doors open. Just in case."

Once they were alone, Ephiny looked with sadness at her friend. "My Lord? Your pet name for him?"

The Bard ignored the comment. "How is she?"

"What do you care?"

"Please Ephiny. How is she?"

"How do you think?" She leaned in towards her friend. "You broke her heart. And now, it seems that you are fitting in just fine. Are you carrying his heir yet?"

Gabrielle closed her eyes. "I'm doing this for the Amazons."

"Gabrielle, do you even know what that word means? I thought you did, but now I'm not sure. WE are AMAZONS. We are an all female society and those clashes with Roman thoughts and practices. We'll never be a part of Rome."

"We can't win a war against them Ephiny. Think about the Greater Good."

The Regent shook her head. "My Queen, you may be able to delay a confrontation, but you can't prevent one. If you continue on this path, then the Challenge stands. You will force me to kill you."

Sadness filled Gabrielle's face. "I won't kill you."

"The Challenge still stands Gabrielle." Ephiny looked towards the opened door. "We are finished!" The Regent watched as everyone returned before turning back to the petite blonde. "So do you accept?"

"If that's the way you want it. Weapons?"

Ephiny smirked. "Why are you worried about that my Queen? That's your Champion's job." Without warning, the Warrior Princess silently walked into the room.

Both Caesar and Gabrielle's breaths caught in their throats, but for entirely different reasons. The leader of Rome found his voice first. "Hello Xena. Walking straight I see." He turned to the Bard. "You know her?"

Gabrielle swallowed before answering. "She's my" The Bard managed to tear her eyes away from the tall warrior, "She's my Champion."

Ceasar sensed the tension and saw the emotional tidal wave in both pairs of light colored eyes as he cut his own dark orbs between the two women. "Really?"

"Yes I am," Xena hissed to the Roman. She then turned to the Bard. "Gabrielle, did you accept the Challenge?"

Fearing that her voice wouldn't work, the Queen nodded.

"Fine then."

"No, not fine," Caesar interjected. "It is obvious," he gracefully lifted Gabrielle's hand as he stared at the Warrior Princess, "that my wife is in no condition for this challenge."

"She's not the one fighting," Ephiny snarled.

"Nevertheless, she can't possibly witness this tonight. Tomorrow will come soon enough." A cocky smirk danced upon his lips. "Now, if you will excuse us, we are retiring to our bedchamber. Guards, show them out."

Ceasar continued to hold Gabrielle's hand all the while staring at the Warrior Princess. "We will see you in the morning." He started to walk towards the stairs.

Gabrielle did not follow him, instead she continued to look at Xena, her eyes pleading for understanding and forgiveness.

"Gabrielle." Caesar called.

The Bard looked at Xena once more before she turned and ran up the stairs.

Xena watched with concern as Gabrielle made her way up. Then she focused her lightning blue orbs upon the Roman, not bothering to hide her anger.

*Obviously she wasn't just your Champion. Looks like I'm going to conquer once again.* "I hope you have a lovely evening." Caesar turned and walked upstairs.

Caesar knocked on the door before allowing the guard to open it. He watched as Gabrielle leaned against the marble railing and stared out over the balcony. "So Xena's your Champion. How did the two of you meet?"

She continued to look out over the balcony. "My village was attacked and she stopped the slavers."

"And how did she become your Champion?"

"When I became the Amazon princess, I had to issue the challenge to Queen Melosa in order to stop a great injustice. Xena became my Champion."

"So you're the petite blond who traveled with the Warrior Princess." The Roman walked directly behind the young Queen. "She told you about us."

"Yes."

"And you still agreed to marry me. Why?"

Without turning around she answered. "This isn't about your history with Xena. It's about the future of the Amazons."

He placed both hands on her shoulders. "You're right. Let's leave the past where it belongs," he touched his lips to the back of her neck, "and focus on the future."

Gabrielle pulled away. "Don't you want to know the outcome of the challenge first? You may be marrying the wrong Amazon."

"I'm not worried about the outcome. Xena is one of the best warriors in the world. As far as our being married," he forcefully turned the Bard around. "I have already announced you as my intended, so Rome must recognize you as such. The ceremony is for show, I don't care what the gods think. So in only one way you are not my wife." A darkness clouded his features. "And I'm about to rectify that." With that he gripped her upper arms as pressed her against a doorframe and began to assault her neck with his mouth.

Gabrielle tried to push him off. "Don't do this!"

Anger and lust filled his dark eyes as he pulled back. "You said it yourself; I always get what I want. Now remember, the fate of the Amazons is in your," a smirk appeared on his lips, "our hands." Again he pressed his lips to her neck. "If you must, just pretend I'm your Champion." With that he began to mark her with his teeth.

Gabrielle forced down the bile that threatened to erupt and bit her bottom lip in an effort to keep from crying.

*BANG-BANG*

"Who is it?" Caesar yelled out.

"Sorry to interrupt my Lord, but Pompey is here in Athens."

Caesar strode over to the door and opened it.

Brutus bowed to Caesar and then turned to bow down to Gabrielle. However, he sensed the tension in the air and looked at the young woman who refused to meet his glance.

"What were you saying about Pompey?" Caesar asked; irritation clearly in his voice.

Brutus pulled his eyes away from the young Queen. "My Lord, Pompey has called some of the leaders of Greek City-States together. I think it would be wise if you were there."

"Where is it?"

"In a small village, about two candlemarks outside of town." He leaned in and whispered, "You should know that the Senate sent him here. They have concerns about a union between you and the Amazon."

Caesar straightened his stance. "I want you to send a Greek messenger to the Amazons. Tell them the Challenge will have to wait for I've been called away. I also want you to send a squadron with the Greek messenger. They are to escort the Amazons safely out of the city." He turned and glanced at Gabrielle. "Make sure her Champion is with them." The Roman then returned his focus on the Bard. "We will continue this later." Caesar walked out of the bedchamber with Brutus following close behind.

Once the door closed, Gabrielle shakily slid down to the floor, allowing her once silent cries to come as tears fell freely down her face.

"Caesar's orders. No one is allowed to disturbed the Queen."

The guard bowed and watched as the other guard walked down the hall. Once the coast was clear, the guard opened the Queen's bedchamber door and silently entered. At once, the guard's supersensitive hearing picked up the sound of sobbing. The guard pulled off her helmet and raven hair cascaded into place. "Gabrielle?"

The young woman snapped her head around at the familiar voice, her long blond tresses hiding the red bruising on her neck. "Xena?"

The Warrior Princess ran to the still shaken woman. "What's wrong?" She watched as Gabrielle shook her head. It was then Xena finally saw the bruises on the neck. Her eyes scanned further, and saw the other bruises on the Bard's arms through the sheer fabric. Xena could feel blazing anger in her soul as she tried to slow down the quickening pace of her heart. "Did he "

Gabrielle once again shook her head. "Brutus came before he could."

Xena pulled the petite woman into her arms. Once again sobs racked the young woman's body. "It's all right." She pulled back and looked into the glistening green eyes. "We need to get out of here before he gets back from his meeting with Pompey."

"How did you know?"

"I'll explain it all once we get out of here."

"I can't leave!" Gabrielle walked away from her soulmate's glare. "If I leave, Caesar will surely go after the Amazons."

"I know you want to protect the Amazons. But your marriage to Caesar is no guarantee." Xena paused. "Or necessary."

The Bard turned around as her eyes filled with a ray of hope. "What?"

"Greece will come under Rome's rule; there is not way to stop it. Our main concern is Amazonia. Caesar is making promise he cannot keep. Rome will not allow the Amazons to survive. So the only option is for the Amazons to leave Greece." The tall Warrior walked over to the woman who owned her heart. "There are Amazon lands north of Greece, near the Barbarians. You were right, the Council voted against your marriage to Ceasar." She placed a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, "and then that morning, they voted to migrate north to their sisters."

Shock flashed from the Bard's eyes. "I'm betrothed to Caesar for nothing!"

"No, not for nothing. The Amazons were all too willing to throw their lives away in a suicidal war with the Romans. When the Council saw what great lengths their Queen was going to prevent this war, they finally let go of their pride and look at the situation for what it was." A quizzical look appeared on Xena's face. "Did you say betrothed? He called you his wife."

As she remembered his words earlier that evening, anger flashed through green eyes. "Caesar must have sensed something between us. He was trying to mess with your mind. In no way, shape, or form am I his wife." A dazzling smile returned to the Bard's lips. "Nor will I ever be."

A sly smile came upon the Warrior's features. "Let's get out of here."

A soldier pushed the door open and Caesar cockily stepped inside the tavern with Brutus on his heels. All voices hushed as Caesar looked around the room. "Look at what we have here. A Meeting? And I wasn't invited?"

Pompey stood tall. "I don't want you to think we overlooked you. But I thought you would be busy with wedding plans." A small smirk played at the corners of his mouth.

"Queen Gabrielle understands that Rome comes first."

"Well then Caesar, maybe you should take lessons. Between your visits to Egypt, Britannia, Greece and Amazonia, the people of Rome hardly see you."

Caesar eyed each of the gentlemen. "I work to bring glory to Rome and its allies," he lifted his gaze until it fell upon his rival, "unlike some others who just talk about it." Remaining stoic, he asked, "Why are you here Pompey?"

"The Senate has received your announcement about your impending wedding. We have concerns Caesar. And after talking with these fine gentlemen, those concerns are not limited to the Senate."

"Really?" What concerns?"

"Amazons."

"Ah, yes. They will make a fine addition to the Empire. They are some of the best warriors"

"They are WOMEN warriors," Pompey interjected. "A woman's duty is taking care of the home, not fighting in battle. They have no men, they rule themselves. In civilized society, men are at the head. If we accept them, other women may think that the Amazon lifestyle is appropriate."

"Aren't you stretching things a bit Pompey? After all Queen Gabrielle agreed to be my wife. And you can rest assure, I will rule my house."

"Maybe she will be obedient, but remember Caesar, she wasn't raised by Amazons. And if she loses the Challenge, then what?" The blond Roman inwardly smiled to himself as shock flashed in Ceasar's eyes. "Yes, I know about the Challenge. The walls don't only talk to you. This alliance you have with the Amazons is weak, at best. At worst, it can cause a rip in the foundation of our society."

"And I suppose you have a better idea?"

"Amazons make terrific slaves. Those who can be broken will be obedient. And those who won't obey, they will be broken." Pompey placed his hand upon one of the men's shoulders. "Then you can marry a woman the Senate and the people of the Empire fully support."

"Pompey, I can see you have thought about this. But clearly, not enough." Caesar eyed each of the men gathered. "Let us consider what would be best. We can destroy the Amazons, but that would take hundreds of men, with huge loses of both sides. Your brothers, sons, nephews will be the ones dying, on Grecian land. War with the Amazons and the Centaurs will take many moons, if not years. Once engaged in battle, they will continue fighting until their last breath is drawn. We all know the stories and tales. And those tales are based on fact."

"Maybe the men fighting weren't real men." A smirk danced onto Pompey's lips.

Caesar eyed his opponent. "And how many real men have you lost in your skirmishes with the Amazons? How many of your soldiers have died so that you many have a few slavegirls to auction?" Caesar watched as a grimace replaced Pompey's smirk and then returned his gaze to the leaders in the room. "I know some of you may have relatives who became Amazons. No matter how you angry you are, do you really want to see them dead or sold to far off lands? If Pompey has his way that is exactly want is going to happen. If they are going to be warriors, why not let them fight for us, instead of against us? Imagine the Roman Legion, Amazon Archers and Centaurian footmen fighting together. The barbarians who attack our borders won't stand a chance. Imagine the impact we can have if we simply unite peacefully. That is the world I'm helping to shape."

Nods and verbal affirmation followed. Pompey narrowed his eyes at his foe as he realized the gathering was going to back Caesar. Knowing this, he simply bowed his head. "I must return to Rome, but before I do, I'd like a word with you Ceasar." Without looking back, he walked outside from the gathering.

"What is it Pompey?"

"You may have fool these Greeks, but the Senate..."

"The Senate will know that I have things well in hand here. Now if you will excuse me, I have other matters that need attending." Without another word, Ceasar walked away from the Roman official.

Brutus strode over to his commander. "Ceasar, is it wise to ignore the concerns of the Senate? Pompey already has a small majority on his side."

"My friend, there is no need to worry. With the Greeks under our control, Pompey and his allies will soon learn the truth."

"And what truth is that my Lord?"

With a confidence that was almost overbearing, Caesar answered. "I am Rome."

Ephiny cautiously eyed the ten Roman soldiers as they escort the Amazons, Xena and their empty wagon to the city gates. Once they arrived, the Commander turned to the Regent. "Again, Caesar sends his regrets that you won't be at the wedding. But both he and his wife thank you for the barrels of fine wine."

"No regrets needed...or wanted. Let's go Amazons." After two candlemarks of traveling in the dark, they came to a fork in the road.

Ephiny turned to Xena. "Anyone following?"

"Not for the last candlemark." Xena slid off of Argo and walked over to the wagon. With a solid hit, she knocked a board loose. After removing four of the boards from the fake floor, Gabrielle crawled out.

"I think you missed a couple of potholes back there," the Bard said as she rubbed her posterior.

Ephiny smiled. "Just trying to knock some sense into you."

"Wrong part of the body," Gabrielle smirked.

The Regent embraced her Amazon sister. "If you ever do something so crazy," she pulled away to look the Bard in the face, "so self sacrificing ever again, we are going to tie you up to the throne."

Xena smiled as the two friends embraced once again. "Okay you two, the reunion is going have to wait. Time for you guys to head north."

Gabrielle eyebrows furrowed in a frown. "And where are you going?"

Xena's eyes lit up. "We are going to visit Solon."

As one of the Amazons unhooked the steeds from the wagon, Ephiny turned to Xena and embraced her forearm. "Thanks again Xena. Take care." She then turned to her Queen and gave another hug. "Keep out of trouble."

"I'll do my best." Gabrielle and Xena watched as the Amazon group headed north.

Finally Xena hopped upon Argo. Extending an arm, she pulled Gabrielle into the front. "I'm going to keep you where I can keep an eye on you." With a gentle click of her tongue, Xena urged Argo down the road.

"Where is she?" Caesar stormed.

Brutus twisted his neck, trying to relieve some the tension he was feeling. "According to the guards, no one entered or left after we did."

"What did the Commander have to say?"

"The same six Amazons were escorted out of Athens late last night, as you commanded."

"And Xena?"

"She was with them. Maybe Gabrielle decided to look around the city and get away from these walls. Didn't she say she likes to shop and haggle?"

Caesar walked over to the messy bed. The jilted groom quickly tossed aside the blanket, then proceeded to lift up a large pillow and a blond wig. "Then why Brutus, did I find this in the bed instead of her?" Caesar took a deep breath. "I want her found and brought back to me."

Brutus bowed and began to leave the room. "And Brutus?" He turned back towards Caesar.

"If Xena is with her, kill the Warrior Princess."

"Did you find her?" Caesar quickly scribbled a letter as he waited for an answer.

Not wanting to be the deliverer of bad news, Brutus looked over at the Commander, nodding for him to speak. The Commander cleared his throat. "No, my Lord."

Caesar looked up, not bothering to hide the anger in his eyes. "I see. Tell me exactly what happened last night."

"A squad escorted both Xena and the Amazons out of the city."

"And you didn't see anything unusual?"

"No sir. Xena and the Regent, as well as three other Amazons rode steeds, while two drove a wagon."

"A wagon? Why did they have a wagon?"

"They delivered six barrels of wine for the wedding party on the day they arrived."

"Really? And just where are these six barrels at now?"

"In the storage cellar." The three made their way to the cellar. As the Commander had stated, six barrels of wine were there. After seeing the barrels, Caesar turned to the Commander. "Was the wagon empty?"

"Totally. Nothing was in the bed."

Caesar eyed the Commander. "Did anyone check for a false bed?"

A flash of doubt flew through the Commander's face. "I'm sure one of the men..."

"Did YOU check for a false bed?"

The Commander swallowed hard. "No sir."

"I see. You're dismissed." Caesar watched as the soldier walked up the stairs and disappeared from sight before turning to Brutus. "I want you to transfer him to back to Rome."

"Rome?"

"Yes." Caesar began to walk away. "Be sure he is sent to a unit whose next assignment is to deal with the Barbarians. When you are done with that, assemble three units. We will leave before first light tomorrow. And Brutus," He turned and stared into the eyes of his second in command. "Make sure neither Pompey nor Gilmos hear about this."

Nightfall finally came, so Xena found a place to camp for the night. The pair fell into their usual routine of setting up camp and fixing dinner. After dinner, Xena pulled out her sword and Gabrielle began to work on a scroll.

Xena quickly glanced from the corner of her eye at the Bard. She thought she knew Gabrielle and what the young woman was capable of. But at that moment, she realized the Poteidean woman would keep her on her toes. *Oh well, its going to be an interesting life.* She quickly glanced back at the young woman before returning her focus to her sword. *And I wouldn't have it any other way.*

"Xena, do you have any of my clothes?"

"In the saddlebag."

"Good." The Bard jumped to her feet. "I need to change."

Xena nodded her understanding. The white garment and gold adornments only served as bitter reminders of the past. "Just be careful."

"I will." After a few moments, Gabrielle returned to camp in her green top, brown skirt and boots. Without hesitation, she tossed the Roman items into the fire. "Much better."

Xena gritted her teeth. Now in her old clothing, the dark bruises showed clearly. *That bastard. I owe you one Caesar.*

Gabrielle saw the anger and knelt down beside Xena, placing her hand on the Warrior Princess' knee. "What's wrong?"

Xena gave her a small smile. "Nothing. I'm just glad you're all right." She reached up and caressed the Bard's cheek. Then, in a burst of emotion, she embraced Gabrielle tightly. "If you ever do something like that again..."

"Don't worry. I've learned my lesson." She pulled back and looked into the blue eyes before her. "From now on, I'll run my plans by you first."

A grin brightened Xena's face. "And how long is that going to last?"

Gabrielle tilted her head. "Oh, maybe a moon."

"That long?"

A giggle escaped from the Bard's lips. "Okay, maybe a week."

"I thought so." The smile slowly disappeared as Xena became serious. "I need to ask you something."

Gabrielle furrowed her eyebrows. "Yes?"

"The night you left, your note said I have your heart." Xena paused as she tried to gather her thoughts.

"When I said that Xena, I was preparing to spend the rest of my life with a man I could never love. I needed for you to know that you would be the only one in my heart."

"And now?"

The Bard took Xena's hands into her own. With all sincerity, she placed the pair of hands over her heart. "Eveything I have, everything I am, I give to you. That is if you still want it."

Xena leaned in and kissed her soulmate.

"I guess that's a yes?" The Bard inquired.

"Most definitely." Xena gently took the Bard's lips once again. She pulled back and slowly caressed Gabrielle's throat. Once again, the ugly bruise made itself known. Trying to express all her love and devotion to the Bard, the Warrior Princess placed a tender kiss on it as well as on her arms.

Tears well up in Gabrielle's eyes as she watched Xena's actions. She knew that she could never leave Xena ever again. Because tonight she realized their two souls were indeed one.

The Roman contingent arrived at the Amazonia's borders. But no one came from the trees. Caesar looked around the unusually quiet woods. With full alertness, the men crossed over the borders and into the land.

After a half candlemark of unease traveling, the group finally arrived at the village. Once more Caesar scanned the area. Seeing no one, he turned to Brutus. "Have the men search the huts. If they find anyone, bring them to me."

After a few moments, Brutus reported back to the Roman leader. "Not one soul was found. It is as though they disappeared. Maybe they went to their ally, the Centaurs."

Caesar's jaws tightened. "Gilmos, come here."

The ambassador came forward. "Yes, my Lord?"

Caesar looked down from his mount at the tiny man. Even though he hated the idea of taking Gilmos along, he knew the man might be useful. But he had other reasons as well. Someone had leaked information to Pompey, and Caesar had a good idea of who it was. *Keep your enemies close, your 'friends' even closer.* A smirk crossed Caesar's lips. "Tell me what you know about the Centaurs."

"My Lord, the alliance between the Centaurs and Amazons is very strong. However, to the southeast of Centaurs' land lives a weak warlord, who like most humans, don't like Centaurs. In fact, Milos had a few battles against them some time ago, and lost badly."

Caesar smiled. *Good.* "I bet he would love to have an opportunity against them again. Gilmos, send a messenger to the officials in Athens. Tell them that I require a sign from them that proves that they are serious about a union with Rome. Tell them they must send enough gold for this Milos to hire enough mercenaries to destroy the Centaurs. And if any Amazons are there, tell them to destroy them as well. But no harm is to come to Gabrielle or Xena. They are to be brought to me."

Gilmos jaw nearly hit the floor. "Why Caesar?"

"The Queen was kidnapped by the Amazons and Xena. Xena needs to die in front of the people for her crimes against the Empire. And once that has happened, we can go ahead with the wedding."

Gilmos narrowed his eyes. "The people of Rome will never accept Gabrielle, she is not Roman."

Caesar thought back to the night Pompey told him the same thing. "Gabrielle wasn't born an Amazon, and yet she is their Queen, a Queen for whom they are willing to go against the Empire. The people of Rome will accept her. And they will come to love her. Therefore, she will be the greatest asset I could ever obtain in preparation for my destiny." He looked in the direction of Centaur lands. "You have your orders Gilmos."

Brutus watched as the Ambassador walked away. "Caesar, we both know that Gabrielle probably left with Xena willingly."

A look of arrogance graced Caesar's features. Now he was fighting a battle, not for the glory of Rome, but one of a very personal nature. *And I will win this one Xena.* "Precisely. Gabrielle will have a choice; either marry me or watch as Xena is killed. And Xena will watch as Gabrielle marries me. And once we head for our honeymoon, a terrible accident will happen, and Xena will die in the process."

"And if Gabrielle doesn't agree?"

Caesar shrugged his shoulders. "Then they can watch each other as they are crucified."

Xena woke up to the sounding of faint scratching- specifically a quill scratching against a scroll. She opened one eye and watched as the Bard concentrated on her writing. "Gabrielle, I don't know what you are doing, but we really need to talk about this annoying habit of you not being in my arms when I wake up."

"Can't help it. I was- inspired."

Xena crept out of bed and looked over Gabrielle's shoulder. A smile grew on the Warrior's lips. "You are changing your poem."

"I had to, since it is no longer true." She turned her head so she could look at the Warrior Princess. "For I have every intention of loving you for the rest of my life."

"I'm glad to hear that," the Warrior Princess leaned down until aqua eyes met green, "for the feeling is most definitely mutual."

It was then Gabrielle and Xena heard a horn roar through the village. "Trouble." Without wasting a moment, the two ran out, weapons in hand.

Xena noticed the size of the invading army. The Centaurs were greatly outnumbered, but were still holding their own. Then she saw five soldiers attacking an old friend. She decided to even the odds. She flipped in the air and landed on the Centaur's back, and was able to block the fatal blow from behind. "How are you doing Kalpris?"

The centaur neutralized another soldier. "I'll be fine once we drive Milos and his men out."

"Him again?"

"Milos will never be accused of being smart." The two quickly dispatched the other three attackers. Xena turned to her friend. "Where are the children?"

"Solan, Xenon and the rest of the children and women are in there." He pointed left to one of the buildings in the center of the village.

It was then Xena noticed that a few of the soldiers were setting buildings on fire. "We need to get them out of here." Xena and Kalpris fought their way toward the structure. On the way, the Warrior Princess made eye contact with Gabrielle and pointed to the building.

Gabrielle nodded, and after knocking out her opponent with a hard hit to the jaw, she began making her way to the building. One by one, five men fell to her staff by the time she reached it. *That was easy. Too easy.*

Xena saw the look of concern. "Are you okay?"

"Fine. What do we do now?"

"The children are inside. We need to get them out of here." The three friends rushed inside the structure. Inside the found the children and women of the village, some crying loudly, reflecting the fear and anxiousness they all felt. Xena scanned the large space until she saw Solan, who was with the young Xenon, holding his hand. She stared at those two while she spoke, "Everyone, don't worry. We will get you out of here. Follow us." Xena nodded for Kalpris to open the door. As they started to head out of the door, a soldier jumped out from the side and attacked, slicing open Kalpris' arm. Xena ran her sword through the man, killing him instantly.

"Xena look!" Gabrielle pointed straight ahead. Eleven soldiers were running full speed toward them.

"Get back!" Everyone ran inside as Xena and Gabrielle quickly closed and bolted the front door. "Kalpris is there a back door?"

Kalpris clutched at his left arm. "Yes, and about 20 body lengths away is the edge of the woods."

"Good." Xena turned her attention to the crowd. "Listen up, Kalpris and I will distract the men, while the rest of you run out the back door and head to the woods. Keep running and stay together!" She turned to Gabrielle. "I need for you to lead them out of here."

"Hold on Xena, Kalpris is hurt..."

"No arguments. Please." She glanced over to Solan and Xenon.

Gabrielle sighed. "You be careful, you hear me?"

Xena smiled at her. "I will." She grabbed Gabrielle's hand and gave it a squeeze, letting her eyes show her love. "See you later. Now go."

Gabrielle walked to the back door and waited for Xena's signal. She noticed a young Centaur, about five summers old standing very closely to her. She could tell that he had been crying. She kneeled down, bringing herself to his eye level. "What is your name?"

With a shaky voice he said, "Hiolaus."

"Everything will be all right, Hiolaus," she stated as she smiled down him. The young boy, eyes wide with fright, grabbed at her hand. She nodded and said, "That's right Hiolaus, stay close to me and you will be fine."

Xena nodded for Kalpris to open the front door. The soldiers came storming in. All Gabrielle could hear was the sound of metal hitting metal as she led the people through the back door.

"Run!" The women and children all ran toward the woods, Gabrielle leading the way with Solan and Xenon on her left, Hiolaus on her right.

"Get them!"

Gabrielle turned around when she hear the soldier's voice and saw three men heading towards the running crowd; one foot soldier and two bowmen. "Keep going!" she yelled to the three children. She quickly knocked one soldier off his feet before sending her staff full force to his head. As she lifted her eyes, she noticed that the other two had crossbows drawn, aiming at the children.

With all speed, the young Bard ran towards the two. With a shoulder block, she knocked both men off balance. Quickly planting her left foot, she spun around and let her staff connect with one soldier's jaw, knocking him out cold.

Once he fell, Gabrielle found herself staring at a readied crossbow. Then the sharp pain and intense white light engulfed her senses as the bolt pierced through her chest. She hit the ground hard and stared at her attacker. She couldn't blink, she couldn't move, she couldn't scream. All the young woman could do was watch as the soldier turned away from her and made his way towards the children. One thought engulfed her mind: she had failed to protect the children, failed to protect Solan, and failed Xena.

Xena could hear the pounding of hooves and clashing of metal. The Amazons had finally arrived. *And none too soon.* The Warrior Princess side-stepped the arcing sword swing before slicing down the man chest. She looked at Kalpris and headed to him, wanting to check on his arm.

He shook his head. "I'm all right. Go and check on the others."

Xena ran out the back door. She could hear a centaur barking orders to a small group. "Get a litter quickly!" He looked down at the young woman. "Gabrielle, let go of the dagger. You need to lie down."

Xena's heart dropped to her stomach as she ran to the scene. A feeling on numbness began invading her mind as her eyes took in the sight before her. Gabrielle sat on the ground while the Centaur pressed the heavy cloth on her upper left chest, trying to stop the bleeding from the bolt wound while Solan, Xenon and Hiolaus stood over the Bard. All along, Gabrielle held on tight to the blood covered dagger in her hand and stared at a dead soldier.

Forcing her knees to be steady, Xena rushed over to Gabrielle's side. While the Centaur took care of the wound, she tried to ply the Bard's fingers from around the dagger. Xena looked at the young woman's pale face. "Gabrielle, it's okay. It's over. Let go of the dagger." After a few more words of coaching, Gabrielle's fingers relaxed, and Xena was able to remove the dagger. But the Bard continued to stare at the dead body.

Xena forced her attention to the Centaur. "How is it?"

"Luckily it struck a rib; otherwise it would have gone through her lung. It has to be cut out, and her rib is broken, but she'll live."

Xena nodded and returned her focus upon her lover. "Gabrielle." When the Bard did not look at her, Xena gentle grasped the young woman's chin and turned it towards her. "Gabrielle, it's all right."

Tears began to well up in the green orbs. "Xena, I ki..."

"It's all right. First let's get you to the Healer's hut and take care of your wound."

"You wanted to see me, my Lord?"

Caesar continued to stand with his back to Gilmos, his right arm behind his back, hidden under his cloak. "I just received the report about Milos' attack on the Centaurs. They managed to defeat Milos again."

"Yes, but not without heavy loses. The Centaurs are no longer a threat to the union. So your plan was a success. Congratulations."

"Tell me Gilmos; were my instructions clear to you concerning this plan?"

"Why, yes my Lord. Athens was to send gold to Milos so he could build an army to attack and destroy the Centaurs."

"And?"

"And if the Amazons were present, he may kill off as many as he liked, but the neither Queen nor Xena were to be hurt."

"Exactly." Caesar turned and walked to Gilmos, stopping only when he was right in front of him. "And did you relay my message clearly?"

"Yes, my Lord."

Anger flashed in Caesar's eyes. "So why does the report say that the Queen was shot in the chest with an arrow and fell dead to the ground?"

Fear filled Gilmos. "I don't know my Lord." He tried to say something to save his neck. "But I'm sure that the new Queen will respond to your proposal in a more positive light now."

Caesar grinned at his diplomat. "What new Queen? No one knows where the Amazons are. And because of this little fiasco, some of the city-states are reconsidering their alliance with Rome. Obviously, you did not relay my message clearly enough. And there is still that little matter of you leaking information to Pompey." He pulled his hand from under his cloak and drove the dagger through Gilmos' stomach. "Your usefulness to me has run out." He watched as his former ambassador slid down his body and to the floor. "Guard!"

A guard came in and stood at attention. Caesar stepped over the body and started walking out of the room. "Have someone clean this mess up."

Day turned once again into night, but Xena did not notice the setting of the sun as she continued to hold her soulmate's hand in their hut. Each time a nightmare grasped hold upon Gabrielle, the Warrior Princess squeezed her hand and whispered soothing words to lull the young woman back to a peaceful sleep.

Finally, after several candlemarks, Gabrielle woke up. Slowly she opened her eyes. "Hi," she croaked.

"Hi yourself." Xena grabbed a water goblet and brought it to the Bard's lips. Once Gabrielle had a couple of sips, Xena placed the cup down. "How do you feel?"

"Like a bunch of Centaurs used me as a dance floor."

"Hey," the Centaur Healer stepped out of the shadows, "watch what you say about Centaurs." Halaki smiled at his patient. "Now how do you really feel?"

"In lots of pain."

"Well, you should be. That bolt got you good." He lifted up the poultice and checked the wound. "You are going to be fine."

"Thanks," Gabrielle softly whispered.

Halaki nodded and left the room, leaving the two women alone. Xena watched with concern in her eyes as Gabrielle stared down at her hands. The Warrior Princess knew why. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Gabrielle kept staring at her hands. Even though they were clean, the Bard could still see they blood that had covered them. "It happened so fast." She closed her eyes as the memory made its way through her mind. "They were going to shoot the children. I managed to knock out one, but the other one shot me. All I kept thinking about was him hurting the children and you finding out that Solan was dead. I couldn't use my staff, and then I saw it." She paused to take a breath. "The first soldier had a dagger. I pulled it from his belt. And then..."

Xena watched as every emotion played through the young woman's face as she continued to stare at her hands. Finally, Xena reached over and embraced Gabrielle's hands. "And then you saved Solan's life."

The Bard looked at her soulmate. "Xena, I killed a man. I stabbed him in the back. I watched as he fell, and then everything went black." The injured young woman slowly shook her head. "Somehow, I always thought that love was enough to break the cycle of hate and violence. I was going to be the one to prove it. And now, I can't."

Xena squeezed the Bard's hands. "You already have. Meleager regained his life because of you believed in him. And remember the time when everyone let their anger and hatred take over, but not you. It was your love and light that touched so many lives. Because of your love, you didn't want to take a life. Now that same love allowed you to save others by giving you the courage to do what was needed. There wasn't any other way."

Gabrielle thought about the events that led to the lost of her blood innocence. "No, there wasn't." Even with that realization, tears still flowed from emerald eyes.

Xena moved to the bed and laid the young woman's head upon her chest, then leaned back on the mattress. "I won't lie, you are going to remember it for the rest of your life and it's going to hurt for a very long time."

"Killing changes everything-everything," the Bard whispered as she remembered the words Xena had spoken to her so long ago.

The Warrior Princess began to stroke the young woman's hair. Not knowing what to say, she continued the tender act until she heard Gabrielle's light snores. But sleep eluded her. Instead she stared out into the darkness, knowing that things indeed would not be the same.

THE END

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