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Copyright Information: Xena, Gabrielle, Agro, and Ares all belong to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. I don't own a thing except my own twisted imagination.

General Disclaimers: This is the third part of a (gods willing) five part story arc called "Chiaroscuro."  The first two were "Tales of Dark and Light," and "The Queen and the Soldier." Reading those two are imperative if you don't want to be totally lost in this one.

Sex/Violence Disclaimers: There are depictions of consensual sex between two adult women. And violence. All of the violence is non-consensual. If this is illegal or distasteful in your world please excuse yourself now. Consider yourself warned.

Thanks: Special thanks to everyone who took the time to drop me a note with encouraging words. As anyone who does this knows, feedback is always invaluable and essential.

All questions, comments and other things are always welcome at:

There is a darkness inside us, and also a light. And sometimes both are wicked; and sometimes, both are love... Pain is not the same as suffering. We can have our sorrows and use them well, not just gyrate desperately to get rid of them. We can reach in and give and take. Reach in, or out, and be taken.
--Jenifer Levin
Part III: Innamorata
The First Day:
Xena woke with a blinding headache. She remembered Ares hurling her to the ground, and her last conscious thought was Finally, it will all be over. More memories came back to her: blood, broken bones, cracked ribs. All hers. Oh, this is gonna hurt, she thought when she contemplated moving. Flashes of the beach, Ares taunting her, a swift vision of herself backhanding the God of War. At least I got a good one in. Tentatively she flexed the curled fingers in her right hand, watching through slit eyelids as they moved perfectly. Not even a bruise? The last time she had hit Ares, she had broken all four fingers, and the god had warned her that it would be the last time she did that. Well, she had done it again. And he had let her get away with it. Then again, maybe not. It occurred to her that maybe she wasn't just hurt. Maybe she was dead. She rubbed her fingers hesitantly against the coarse blanket underneath her hand. Do they have blankets in Tartarus? 'Cause I know there's no way I'm anywhere else. That confirmed it; she knew she wasn't dead. What she didn't know was where she was.

A soft breeze tickled her bare skin. She was lying on something soft. Gingerly opening her eyes a little more, she found that she was resting on a pallet inside a roomy tent. She could see her leathers thrown carelessly across a chest, her sword and chakram sitting beside them. Her boots were on the floor. In spite of the throbbing pain coursing through her temples, she struggled upright to further examine her surroundings. A rough hewn table, strewn with what looked like scrolls and maps, and two chairs occupied the other half of the tent. From the sounds and smells outside, she guessed she was in an army's camp. Was she in the soldiers' camp at Pellos? That didn't make sense. If someone had found her, why didn't they take her to the healer in the castle? And where was Gabrielle?

A shadow flickered through the opening of the tent, followed by the tall figure of a blond leather-clad woman. "Are you finally awake?" Piercing green eyes smiled at her. "I was beginning to get a little worried. Usually takes more than a crack across the skull to slow you down."

Xena blinked her eyes closed, then opened them again quickly when the figure sat beside her on the pallet, running familiar fingers over her cheek. Just then she realized that she was naked, the blanket wrapped around her hips. She noted the woman beside her didn't seem too surprised by the sight.

"Xena? Xena? Say something."

"Corin?" she rasped in amazement at the sight of the Amazon she and Gabrielle had met on their travels. She remembered the woman's incredible fighting skills, her gentle humor, and the peace she had made with her own darkness. But more than anything, she recalled her own intense attraction to the blond warrior. "Where am I?"

Corin smiled at her, relief evident in her finely chiseled features. "You're in camp. Don't you remember? You staggered in, blood all over your face from the scalp wound. I have to tell you, love, I was frantic until we cleaned and stitched it up. Good thing you've got a hard head."

Xena noticed that the endearment slipped easily off the Amazon's tongue, as if it were something she said every day.

"You want to tell me what happened?"

"Ares happened," Xena answered grimly.

"Ares? What do you mean?"
"He's responsible for this." She gestured to her bandaged and aching head.

"What? Why would Ares go after you?"

Xena snorted and started to offer a biting reply until a memory surfaced. "I'm not asking you to come back. Just let me show you something. And if this life, this struggle, is truly what is in your heart, then so be it." She caught her breath sharply. This is the 'other way.' Corin, the camp, life as his Chosen. He said he wanted to bring us together. Oh Ares... Realizing that the woman before her was a different incarnation of the Corin she had met almost a moon ago, she knew that this explanation would be meaningless to her. This Corin had given into the thirst for revenge, and the Warrior Princess had been her reward. Quickly she shrugged, answering on impulse, "I think he just wanted to teach me a lesson. Keep me on my toes." She smiled sardonically, "You know how he loves surprises. Besides, he didn't do any real damage."

Sighing, Corin nodded her head and ran her fingers softly through Xena's hair. "I know. But you'd think that conquering Athens would have appeased him for now. He got his damned victory over Athena." There was an unmistakable touch of bitterness in her voice, the anger of a mortal abandoned by her goddess.

"Athens?!?" Xena couldn't kept the shock out of her voice.

Corin narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "Yes... Remember... Two moons ago?"

Okay, genius, get yourself out of this one. She knows something's up now. Actually, the truth might work best... "Things are kind of hazy for me right now. I didn't know where I was when I woke up. Ares hits a whole lot harder than your run-of-the-mill soldier." She tried to laugh, but a strangled noise came out in its place.

The Amazon pulled Xena into a fierce embrace, wrapping her arms tightly around Xena's long frame. "I'm just glad you came back to me," Corin growled in her ear, then she buried her face in the long dark hair, pausing to briefly kiss Xena's neck.

The dark warrior felt an involuntary thread of pleasure shimmer through her body at Corin's low whisper. Corin's lips picked up the increase in her heartbeat, and her teeth nipped lightly at the pulse point. The Amazon's fingers tangled in her hair, pulling their bodies even closer, and Xena fought to keep her unruly impulses in check. Picking up on the unspoken meaning of Corin's words, she grasped the woman by the shoulders and pulled her back. "About our fight..." she let the words trail off, hoping Corin would pick up where they had presumably left off.

"You want to finish it right now?" Corin asked, a small note of disbelief in her voice. "Look, I don't want to argue with you." She shook her head. "You win, okay?" No response from Xena, who couldn't imagine what their disagreement had been about. "Do you want to hear me say the words? Fine. I was terrified when you left that you were gone for good. And then when you came back to camp, soaked with all that blood, I was terrified that I'd never have the chance to tell you this--" Xena started to interrupt, but Corin placed slim fingers on her lips. "No, let me finish." She took a deep breath as if to steady herself for the words to come. "I don't care where your wanderlust takes us. If Greece wasn't enough for you-- so be it. Let's go get Italia. You want Caesar's head on a pike-- I'll bring it to you."

Xena' eyes widened at the mention of the Roman's name. I wanted to go after Caesar?
Corin looked down at the blanket covering Xena's legs, idly picking at the cloth. "I guess what I'm trying to say, in my own clumsy warrior-like way--" bringing her eyes up to meet Xena's cool blue ones "-- is that I love you. And I'd ride with you to the ends of Tartarus."

Forgetting to breathe, Xena stared hard at the green of Corin's eyes and saw them glimmering with love. Oh gods... How could you do this to me, Ares? Offer her like this to me on a silver platter? In spite of her roiling thoughts, she felt something deep inside herself respond to the woman, the same way she had responded when they had first met. She was falling into those eyes, looming ever closer as their mouths joined in an explosive kiss.

Soft... was the only word in Xena's head as she tasted Corin's lips, parting her own slightly in exploration. Corin's kiss was tentative. Not the shyness of a first encounter, but of a lover long familiar seeking forgiveness, seeking invitation after an angry separation. Their tongues met, dancing closer and then moving away. A first kiss and a reintroduction to the woman who was her lover. The embers flared deep inside Xena, threatening a flame that would rage uncontrolled. She sank deeper into the kiss, welcoming Corin further into her mouth. Wait... her mind screamed with its remaining vestiges of lucidity ...this is what he wants. As Corin sucked on her tongue gently, Xena let out a quiet moan ...this is what I want. Her hands wrapped themselves in the fine tendrils of Corin's blond hair, tugging the lithe form down on top of her as they eased onto the pallet. Their one deep kiss gave way to many fierce ones as the women sought to claim each other. Corin abruptly tugged away the blanket separating them. "Gods, you feel so good," she murmured, spreading Xena's legs and smoothly sliding a leather-clad thigh between them. Xena groaned at the contact, the rough leather of Corin's clothing setting her nerve endings on fire. "Don't ever leave me like that again, love. I don't think I could survive it."

For her part, Xena wasn't sure she was going to survive this, let alone anything else. She was fast becoming undone in the avalanche of pulsing senses and raw desire. Skin... she had to have Corin's skin next to hers "Corin," her voice was ragged.

"Mmmm?" The Amazon's mouth never stopped its ceaseless motion.

"Need you... need your..." Finally she gave up trying to communicate her passion and ripped savagely at the leather ties on Corin's shirt.

And was rewarded with a throaty laugh. "Is there something you want?"

"Feel... you... close..." Xena mumbled, her tongue seeking, and finding an exposed throat. Her fingers began to rend the shirt from Corin's body, until they were captured by equally graceful and powerful hands.

"Not so fast. Let me touch you, love. It's been so long."

Xena's mind returned to coherency briefly to wonder just how long she had been gone from Corin's camp. Her instinct was to resist surrender. It always had been. She entwined her fingers with the Amazon's and spread her arms, effectively pinning the length of Corin's body to hers. With a swift move and a wicked grin, she flipped them over, so now she loomed over the Amazon. Corin sighed and shook her head, "You always do that, " but seemed happily resigned to her fate. Just as Xena was about to make short work of the remaining barriers between them, a shout went through the camp. Instantly, both women were on their feet, Xena tugging on a linen tunic and fumbling into her boots as they ran to see to the commotion.

"Incoming rider!!!" A soldier gestured at the rapidly approaching figure.

Corin tossed Xena her sword and then drew her own. Assassins on suicide missions were not unheard of in their line of work. To look at the two alert warriors, a stranger would never know that they had been in the midst of making love. Only the bright blaze in their eyes gave evidence of the passion between them. Xena looked on in astonishment as the rider lifted a lavender and black banner bearing Xena's own personal seal interlocked with another seal that she recognized from the hilt of Corin's sword. So we're that close, Xena mused. She noted that there was no indication of Athena's mark anywhere, and the silver bracelet of the Chosen that Corin wore in their previous encounter was gone. Oddly enough, Ares' mark was absent from the camp as well, although he was usually content enough to let his calling card be the blood and carnage left by his Chosen.

"It's Kera from Athens," Corin frowned.

"That means trouble." Xena spoke confidently, even though she had no clue about what was going on. Trouble was the one thing she could generally safely predict to happen wherever she was. She hoped that she could pick up things quickly. I don't know how much I can rely on the "Ares smacked me around a little too hard" story. Although... she considered ... I don't think he's going to be contradicting me anytime soon around here.

"I just hope Ephiny hasn't let things get out of hand there. I worried when you put her in charge, but then again, you've always trusted her more than I do."

"Ephiny?!" She rides with us? "Why on earth wouldn't you trust her?" she asked to cover her shock.

"I don't know." Corin shook her head. Then she gave a wry smile. "I think I'm just jealous. I know she'd love to be in my place, permanently sharing your bed."

"You've got to be kidding me?" Xena kept her voice even, hoping beyond hope that Corin was kidding.

She wasn't.

"You seemed to enjoy her charms well enough when we were celebrating the treaty and the Amazons' joining us," the blond warrior answered nonchalantly enough, but there was a tenseness in her jaw that had previously been absent.

Xena didn't know what to be more amazed at, the fact that the Amazons were under her control or that she had apparently slept with Ephiny. I think I need to sit down. Fortunately the messenger was hastening over to them. Kera saluted her leaders crisply as the trio entered the tent. Xena gratefully sat at the head of the table, Corin at her shoulder. "Is there a problem, Kera?" she drawled slowly. Never let them see you sweat.

"Rebellion, Princess." the young Amazon was breathless from her ride. "Some of the Athenians mounted a counter-attack and attempted to retake the Assembly."

"Status?" she asked, unsure of what she should be hoping for. She was concerned about Ephiny and the Amazons and didn't know how they fit into this... life... she seemed to now be living.

"The attack was easily put down and all the insurgents were captured."

"Casualties on our side?"

"None, Princess. The lieutenant requests your direction as to how she should proceed with the prisoners."

She nodded. "Very good." Xena assumed the lieutenant Kera referred to was Ephiny. "Give Ephiny my congratulations."

"I will, ma'am."

"As to the prisoners," she cast a glance at Corin and quirked a brow, silently asking for her opinion.

Corin shrugged. "Kill the men, sell the women to Eastern slavers."

Although her outward appearance remained unchanged as she appeared to consider this, Xena's blood ran cold. Rage had truly claimed the woman beside her with a vengeance. Then why are you still so drawn to her? her mind mocked. You claimed it was her peace that so entranced you, but here you sit in the wetness of your own arousal as she calmly advocates executing her prisoners-- your prisoners. All of this is being done in your name, Xena. Realizing the two women were waiting for her response, she looked at the messenger, "How big was this particular 'rebellion'?"

"Approximately thirty people were involved."

Xena snorted. "They thought thirty people could take an Amazon-controlled building?" She asked incredulously. "Amazons trained by me?" she added because she knew, instinctively that in any partnership with the woman beside her, training and planning would be her forte; execution, Corin's responsibility.

"Yes, ma'am."

She turned thoughtful eyes to Corin. "You know, this doesn't seem like an insurrection at all to me. All of Athens subdued, and they only had thirty people? Sounds to me like they were pushing to see how far they could go. You know? Like when you're breaking a horse and it bucks to see if you'll give up trying to ride?"

Corin arched a brow, but said nothing.

She shook her head decisively. "Kera, tell Ephiny to make examples of the leaders-- live examples," she amended hastily. "And let the others go free. Tell them they're pardoned, courtesy of the Warrior Princess." She felt Corin tense beside her. "But let them know that my grace only extends this one time. I won't look kindly upon a repeat performance. Have one of the scribes write it up, and we'll sign it." She spoke to include the silent Amazon.

"Of course, Princess."

"Good. Go now." With that, she dismissed the younger woman and waited until Kera had departed before turning in her chair to face Corin, who remained motionless, standing beside her. "You disagree."

"I think it will send the wrong message."

"And what message is that?"

"That you're weak."

"I'm weak? Or that I'm merciful?" She knew that she had to convince Corin that her decision was a good tactical maneuver, even though her only thought was to spare those people. Quickly she glanced down at the maps spread before her. One was a map of all Greece with the territories that her army had apparently conquered. The parchment was littered with lavender and black markers of the city-states they had taken. Gods, she wasn't exaggerating. We really do control all of Greece. That gave her an idea. "Butchering those people will only breed more revolt. This time it was thirty people. Do we want thirty people grateful to still have their lives or thirty martyrs? Athens is the cradle of Greece. If Athens rebels, other territories will follow suit. On the other hand, if Athens goes relatively quietly... then we can spend our time... doing other things."

Slowly Corin shook her head, smiling in appreciation of the logic. "I don't know why I even bother to question you. You always do have the angles covered. I suppose you want to be free to pursue Caesar, even though I can't say I relish the idea of chasing down the Roman legions to do it."

Xena's mind was churning. Although there was still a large part of her that burned to do just that-- hunt Caesar down like the animal he was-- she realized that was probably Ares' plan. It bore all his trademarks. Seduce me with Corin. Give me an army like no other. And the ability to avenge the greatest wrong ever done to me. She had to admire the God of War's craftsmanship, if nothing else. As she pondered her situation, Corin slid long arms around Xena's neck, straddling the dark warrior's legs with her own. Bent on picking up where they had left off, Corin tilted Xena's face up to hers. "I believe we were getting reacquainted."

That's an understatement. Fortunately the interruption had given the Warrior Princess time to rein in her runaway emotions and re-establish some control, even though she knew it was precarious at best. Feeling Corin move sensuously over her was not helping matters any. She closed her eyes. Where's that iron will, Xena? That warrior mask? A shooting pain lanced through her temples. Oww... Reflexively, she brought a hand up to massage the point of pain. Corin instantly backed away from her, peering intently into blue eyes clouded over with pain. "Still hurt?"

The pain subsided, but Xena nodded, not trusting her voice not to betray her. "Yeah," she managed.

"Why don't I get you some willow bark tea?"

That's the last thing I need, to be unconscious again. Hades knows where I'd end up. "I don't think I should sleep for a little while. You know how head wounds can be." Then she added, "I was out long enough as it was."

"True," Corin agreed. "I can at least let you get some peace and quiet. I've been running the men through their drills in your absence. Maybe if you feeling up to it, you'll join us for some light sparring later?"

"Good idea," Xena responded, wondering again just how long she had been gone.

"But I don't want you going overboard." The blond warrior smirked. "You whip up on these guys all the time. They've enjoyed the break. A couple more days won't hurt."

Xena shot her an answering grin. "Oh, and you don't?" Even though she had no idea of how often Corin sparred with them.

A guilty shrug. "Guess so." Then a gentle smile. "Get some rest, love. I'll check on you in a little while. Okay?"


Corin nodded towards the table. "Don't think you're fooling me for a second. I know the instant I leave, you're going to be poring over those maps, plotting our next move."

"Who me?" Gods, she knows me well. How?

Corin only rolled her eyes as she exited the tent, leaving Xena alone with her thoughts. She glanced around the area that she seemed to share with the Amazon. From the looks of things, their lives blended well, and between them she felt the easy camaraderie of warriors as well as the deep passion of lovers. Although the whole Ephiny thing has me confused. As she was about to ponder that particular mystery further, her eye caught a map with Amphipolis and Poteidaia marked in lavender and black, and an overwhelming sense of loss slammed home. Gabrielle... the bard was lost to her, as was the fragile bond she had rebuilt with her mother. I never stopped being a warlord in this life. She never forgaive me... and Gabrielle... Remembering another path the Fates had once offered her. What's happening to you? Are you safe? A plan started simmering in the back of her mind. The first thing she needed to find out was where exactly she was.

And then she needed to find Gabrielle.

"We're what?!?!?!"

In a few hours, Xena had formulated a plan. Or at least half of one. She counted to ten and began to explain again. "We're going to Amphipolis. I want to make sure my home is secure before we embark on the journey to Italia. Who knows when we'll be back?" Everyone knew the reason she had started this whole warlord thing was to protect her homeland. It made sense that she would want to check on security before leaving. Even better, Amphipolis was only a day's ride from Poteidaia. She figured that if she had never stopped being a warlord, then Draco had never ended up at the head of his own army. That meant that Gabrielle had most likely never encountered him. And Perdicus never died. She's probably married with half a dozen kids. Xena didn't want to stop and think about how she felt about that little kernel of possibility.

Corin was still looking like she had just been poleaxed. "Amphipolis? Now?"

"Is there a communication problem here? Yes. Amphipolis. Now."

Green eyes narrowed as Corin spoke menacingly. "Don't try to pull that Warrior Princess act with me. I'm not one of your awestruck soldiers. Got it?" She moved forward until she was toe-to-toe with Xena, who savored the power radiating off the blond warrior. She felt the heat between them rising again and forcibly shoved it back down with a deep breath.

She seated herself at the table and took a sip of the wine Corin had brought in. "I'm sorry, you're right. But you know how I feel about Amphipolis."

Corin paused a moment before sitting as well. Shifting in her seat, she contemplated Xena. "You sure that's all?"

"Of course I'm sure. Why wouldn't I be?"

"It wouldn't have anything to do with Valesca, would it?"

During her musings, Xena had come to several conclusions. One was that Callisto was probably still after her ...if she wasn't working for us. That had given her a chuckle. The second was that Valesca was probably Queen of the Amazons. If there even is a Queen now. At least she's not a god. And she's not after Gabrielle. So she was able to calmly look at Corin and innocently ask, "Valesca?"

"I know how you love to torment her. Putting her in charge of the Amphipolis/Poteidaia/Amazon territories was a stroke of genius. It's probably the only thing she won't screw up. She's too terrified of what you'll do to her if she wrecks your homeland."

A large quantity of red wine escaped through Xena's nostrils as she choked on the news. Corin pounded her on the back until she was breathing normally again. "You okay? That wine is kind of strong, I know."

"Fine, thanks." Ares, if I ever see you again, god or no, you will pay for this.

"So?" Corin looked at her expectantly.

"So what?"

The blond warrior just glared at her.

"Okay, you win. Yes, I want to check on her." Boy, do I ever.

Corin leaned back in her chair with a smirk. "See, I knew it. You're not very good at hiding things from me."

Gods, I hope that's not true. If it is, then I'm in even more trouble than I thought. Glancing over at the woman beside her, Xena caught the glitter in her green eyes and felt an answering one in her own. And I think I'm in a lot of trouble already. Wordlessly, Corin stood and took Xena's hand in her own, pulling her out of the chair. They stood silently, palm-to-palm, the tension growing between them. I can't keep fighting this. Why am I fighting so hard? She feels so right. Pulling Corin tightly to her, wrapping her arms about the slim waist, Xena murmured in her ear, "Let's go for a ride. The sun is just setting. It will be beautiful."

"It's beautiful right here. Why don't we just stay?" Came the low reply.

Xena felt lips caress her neck as her mind cast frantically about for a reason to leave other than "I'm putting off making love as long as humanly possible because I'm afraid once I do, I'll be lost to you forever." Improvising wildly, she said "Because this is going to be loud, my love."

Corin smiled seductively in response. "I like the way you think. Let's go then. Argo and Berdach are tethered right outside."

Out of the frying pan...

At least Argo seems to be the same, Xena thought gratefully as she and her horse sailed over the land. She was fast on Corin's heels, as she chased the Amazon and her black mount through the forest. Fortunately she had found their position marked on one of the maps and was now comfortable with her surroundings. In fact, it was a place where she had camped with her army many times in the past. I guess that makes sense. Why change a good thing? She knew there was a river nearby, and she also knew what would most likely happen once they arrived there. She felt her muscles tightening instinctively in anticipation, but she feared the pleasure as much as she craved it. Ironically, her body-- the very thing she had always relied on unhesitatingly-- was the wild card in this whole scenario. Ares' plot, once she had really thought about it, was almost insultingly transparent. He was offering her not a new life, but one free of the guilt and doubt that were her faithful companions in her present one. Almost as faithful as Gabrielle. Her heart cried out for the bard, for the light that she cast on the dark recesses of Xena's days and nights, but her body... Her body was responding to Corin in ways even her dreams had never shown her. The Amazon's vibrant presence filled all her senses-- the salty tang of the skin on her neck, the faint scent of verbena that clung to her hair, the green in her eyes that was the exact shade of the moss that lined the riverbank-- at every turn her body betrayed her, betrayed what her mind wanted, what her heart clamored for. She didn't know if there was a way out of Ares' plot, and her body told her that it would be content if there wasn't.

That was why she was terrified.

Argo caught up to Berdach, and the two horses were nuzzling each other with easy familiarity. She glanced at Corin, who motioned to the wood surrounding them. "Listen," she said quietly.

An unnatural silence from the trees echoed back at them. "I'm not sure how many, maybe ten or twelve." She replied, just as quietly.

"Do we wait for them?"

Xena shrugged. "Why not? They'll be here soon enough." And drew her sword just as six men on horseback thundered down the path, and four more dropped from the trees. Their descent registered with Xena long enough for her to wonder about their use of the trees. That reeks of Amazon training. Then she was caught up in the whirlwind of the assault.

Corin unhesitatingly headed for the riders, and Xena somersaulted off Argo with a fierce cry to land behind the men who had dropped from the trees. Jumping nimbly, she sidestepped one man's charge and disarmed him as he passed her. "This is better," she laughed, twirling both swords easily. She met the men's charge as their blades sliced in front of her. Not forgetting the man she had disarmed, she ducked as his dagger sailed over her head and buried itself into the throat of the third man in front of her. "Nice shot," she thanked the soldier, even though the irony was lost on him.

Meanwhile, Corin slammed Berdach into the roan stallion ridden by the men's leader, using her horse's size to force the smaller animal to stumble. With a flick of her sword, she neatly cut the saddle's girth, sending the man to the ground. She whirled Berdach to face the remaining riders, trusting Xena to pick off the newly unseated fighter. "Got another one for you!" she called out.

"Gee--" slash "Thanks--" backspin "You know how--" thrust "I hate it--" parry "If you--" somersault "Have all--" disarm "The fun!" finish! Two men fell before her, leaving only three more.

"I like to-- ungh!" As one of the mounted attackers charged her, Corin brought Berdach around sideways to take the brunt of the attack. The man's horse stopped; its rider didn't. "Ouch! Spread it around." She watched the airborne man crash into the ground, the fall breaking his neck instantly. "So you don't feel left out."

Corin spared a quick glance across the meadow where Xena was toying with her remaining opponents. While the Amazon had been watching her opponent's crash landing, Xena had finished off another one, leaving her with only two. The dark warrior wove her weapons in a deadly arc, meeting the two men with a delighted laugh. Having two swords almost made it too easy, and Xena briefly considered tossing one away to make it more interesting. Nah... why tempt The Fates? Although I'm not sure I'd stay dead if one of them did get lucky. She could see Corin out of the corner of her eye, dealing efficiently with the three mounted riders. Making a snap decision, she swung the swords outward, opening her stomach to their attack. They predictably went for the kill, leaving their own torsos vulnerable. Faster than their eyes could register, Xena plunged her swords into the exposed areas, and the two fell quickly.

She ran towards Corin, who was surrounded by three attackers. Letting out her battle cry, she vaulted over one of the men and landed with a soft whuff behind Corin. Berdach didn't even startle at the sudden extra weight. Hmmm.... maybe I've done this before. She planted a quick kiss on Corin's cheek before swinging around to leap on an attacker's horse.

Corin rolled her eyes as she continued to parry the two riders in front of her. "Now she decides to get friendly."

Xena chuckled as she broke her assailant's neck before he even realized she was on his horse.

"Can you believe that? The blond warrior asked the soldier before her, almost conversationally.

The soldier, engaged in a fight for his life, didn't respond.

"Don't talk much, do you?"

Still no response, although his eyes were growing wide with terror as he watched what Xena was doing to the other living man.

Corin didn't even need to turn around to know she was going to have to leave this one alive. She parried the man's last desperate swing, knocking his sword free. Grabbing his still-outstretched arm, she tossed him to the ground, then dismounted. "Damn. I hate it when she does that," she muttered to herself, resting her sword against her shoulder. Looking down at the man on the ground, she cautioned. "Now you be good. Stay down." Swinging Berdach around to face the Warrior Princess, her beautiful face took on a scowl. "Why do I always have to leave one of mine alive?"

Xena couldn't contain the laughter that bubbled up. Adrenaline flooded her body; every muscle quivered with energy; every nerve sparked with awareness. Her eyes blazed with unchecked energy. "Maybe you wouldn't have to if you didn't always take so long," she shot back. Apparently this was an old argument.

"I think since you do the pinch interrogations, you should have to save one of yours."

"If it weren't for me, you'd still be fighting."

"Oh? Like that's a problem?"

A lascivious grin spread itself across Xena's face. "It is for me." She cast a quick glance to the downed soldier. "When we're done here, I have other plans for you."

Corin didn't hesitate. With a sweeping gesture she offered the prisoner to Xena.

As the Warrior Princess strolled up to the cowering soldier, she was stopped by Corin's hand on her arm. Drawing her close, the blond warrior pulled her forward and captured her bottom lip between sharp teeth. Nipping lightly at the sensitive flesh, Corin flickered her tongue briefly into Xena's welcoming mouth. "Don't take long, love. I don't want to wait."

Xena smirked in reply and then approached the prostrate man. With three easy movements, she left the man writhing underneath her boot as the pressure points cut off the flow of blood to his brain. "I'm sure you know this drill," she told him, recognizing the look of terror in his eyes. "We'll make this simple. I have only one question for you." The man nodded desperately, eager to comply and save his own life. "Who taught you to fight from the trees?" Corin's brows knit together in consternation at the unexpected question. "Who?" She prodded the man again, who could only shake his head helplessly. "Who showed you?"

The man choked as cells began rapidly dying in his brain. A strangled sound emerged. "Don't..." Gasping, clawing, clutching at his throat.  "Know." A thin trickle of blood began running from his nose.

Blowing out a frustrated breath, she turned to Corin. "Damn. He doesn't know."

Immediately guessing her worry, Corin asked. "You think there's a problem with the Amazons?"

"Could be. I've never seen men waiting in the trees like that."


Xena quirked a brow. "You really don't like her."

Any reply the Amazon was going to make was interrupted by a groan from their feet as the man's asphyxiated brain finally ceased its struggle. "Great. That helps a lot, Xena." Corin gestured to the dead man, "We don't even know who sent them."

"You don't think they'll send more?" she asked wryly. "Besides, the uniform's pretty basic, the men average fighters. My guess is somebody's using a warlord to try to sidetrack us, hoping we'll think that's the main threat. Then when we're not looking, the real attack will come. Probably from pretty close to home. We'll deal with these guys on the way to Amphipolis." The adrenaline was beginning to work on her mind now, engaging it in unraveling the intricacies of the puzzle surrounding them. She felt her face flushing from the power surging through her body.

"You don't think that won't sidetrack us?" Lost in contemplation of their impending betrayal, Corin appeared oblivious to the craving that was consuming the warrior beside her.

"Nah, the men need a good workout. I know you've been soft on them while I've been gone." Xena stepped behind the Amazon, wrapping long arms around her. "Speaking of soft--" With an imperious flick her hand, she swept the blond hair back and sank her teeth into the tender skin of Corin's neck. Immediately, she felt the heartbeat under her mouth double its intensity, felt the shudder that passed through the other woman's body. "There's something I want from you," she growled. Corin leaned against the dark warrior, trailing her fingers down her lover's bare arms. Xena's teeth were not gentle, and they left no doubt as to what was to come. She stopped her assault on the Amazon's skin long enough to emit a piercing whistle. In moments, Argo cantered into the clearing.

"Come on," she ordered, vaulting onto the mare and not releasing Corin's hand.

"My horse is right here."

"Come on." She lifted the Amazon onto the seat in front of her. "Berdach can follow us. I want you within reach right now." The intensity in those fierce blue eyes brooked no argument. She kicked Argo into a canter, heading away from the clearing. The mare traveled easily along the path, moving instinctively towards the sound of rushing water. Xena dropped the reins, trusting Argo would take them to the river. She kept her seat firmly with her legs and let nimble fingers unlace the leather ties on Corin's shirt.

"Xena, don't you think we should-- mmm, oh," her protest was silenced by the feel of Xena's large hands cupping her newly exposed breasts.

The sound of Corin's hungry moan, combined with the exhilaration of the battle, stripped away the last of Xena's control. Reaching the river, she tugged the Amazon roughly off Argo, divesting the woman of her remaining clothes as she pressed her against a nearby tree. "I need you, Corin," she whispered raggedly.

Their coupling was feral and starved, touching something deeply primal in Xena. She wrung the desire out of the other woman with her teeth, her hands, her mouth; until Corin was an exhausted mass of quivering nerves and spent muscles. And then Xena took her again. And again. She knew that Corin would bear more than a few bruises and even a couple of teeth marks in the morning, but the Amazon responded with abandon, urging her on with pleas and cries that echoed throughout the forest.

It's as if she was made exactly for me, she marveled later that night when they finally made it back to camp. Corin was soundly asleep, their long bodies intertwined. Although Morpheus tugged at her as well, Xena refused his entreaties, needing to think about what was happening to her. What would happen the longer she continued in this life.

Being able to indulge after that battle, having someone beside me who felt the same things... Gabrielle always shied away from that side of the warrior, intuitively understanding that it was best if she stay away from the other woman immediately after a fight. Not that she was in any danger from her friend-- Xena would cut off her own arms before she ever reached for the bard with those instincts-- but the rawness of Xena after a battle, when was every inch the Warrior Princess, unnerved the younger woman. Xena had seen it instantly in their early travels, and the longer they were together, the more she tried to harness that energy and make it palatable to the young woman. Gabrielle had referred to what happened to the warrior as "going away" in the couple of awkward conversations they'd had about it.

And the tension's only gotten worse since that kiss. Oh that kiss... Xena smiled silently as she remembered their lips meeting and the terrifying joy rising so quickly inside her she thought poor Autolycus' heart would burst. Kissing Gabrielle had been an impulsive decision, borne of the overwhelming need to comfort the grieving woman. What she had learned in those few seconds had opened up the possibility of a new dimension to their relationship. One that she had never before considered. Obviously, judging from the bard's recent actions, the same possibility had occurred to her as well. And neither one of them knew what-- if anything-- to do about it..

Corin shifted restlessly in her sleep, drawing her arms more securely around the Warrior Princess. Xena glanced down at the woman wrapped around her with dazed wonder. She knows-- all of it. The terror of battle, the joy of surviving, the pride in defeating your enemies. She knows what it does to me and revels in it. Because it does the exact same thing to her. Xena's eyes drifted shut at this thought, and she was finally claimed by Morpheus, who cradled her gently in dreams of a blond warrior smiling in the sun.


The Second Day:
The entire camp was on the move before the sun had reached its mid-morning peak. Despite her misgivings about Xena's orders, Corin had implemented them flawlessly, and the army had dismantled the camp with surprising speed. Xena watched in admiration as the men-- her men-- she was starting to think, in spite of herself-- formed squads, protecting the lesser number of noncombatants at the center of the march. The dark warrior recognized her unmistakable stamp on the force in their actions and brisk efficiency. It was smaller than one might think a conquering army should be, but she knew that most of those who fought under her banner were probably dispersed throughout the country, maintaining the territories, collecting "tributes," and keeping the inevitable groups of raiders at bay. The attack on them yesterday told Xena that there were still other warlords roaming around, so she sent advance parties ahead of the main body of the march and kept a rear guard on full alert.

With the full camp, Xena knew the march to Poteidaia-- Amphipolis, she corrected herself mentally-- would take five days. She didn't want to wait that long to find Gabrielle. But she found herself not wanting to leave Corin either, whose presence was fast become addictive to the Warrior Princess. They had made love again that morning, Xena's ferocity leaving the blond woman a shaking mass once more. Now the two rode side-by-side, always within arm's reach of each other.

The day was crisp and clear, and the group marched briskly towards their destination. Shortly past mid-day, they broke for lunch in a shady clearing. Again, Xena gazed with pride as a meal was assembled for everyone and the horses taken care of with a minimum of fuss. The warrior's pleased expression was not lost on Corin, who grinned at her lover. "You love this, don't you?"

"What's that?"

"Seeing your plans in action. Watching everything finally come together." The Amazon looked at Xena, a serious expression on her face. "You know, we never did talk about Athens, about what we're going to do with Greece now that we've taken it."

Xena froze. How do I tell her about plans I never made? About why we did all this? Then she thought about the ten summers she had spent as a warlord, lost in the erotic haze of power and war. When it had stopped being about defending her homeland and become about nothing more than assuaging her lust for conquest? Had it honestly ever been about protecting Amphipolis? She couldn't remember anymore. She tried vainly to recall that girl with the first blood on her sword, Lyceus' body in her arms. The fire had descended on her then and had never left. That's what this is all about, isn't it, Ares? Your fire. Whether I choose to let it rage or try to harness it, it never goes out, does it?

"So?" Corin prompted. "What now?"

Xena looked at her lover, a greying sadness veiling the sharp blue of her eyes. "I don't know, Corin. I just don't know."

The Amazon seemed to understand her mood and left her silently contemplating the scene before her. After a quick lunch of a meat roll and an apple, Xena remounted Argo and went to confer with the advance parties. She returned a short time later, the next leg of her plan formed. "I'm taking the A and D squads up ahead to see if we can draw this guy out," she told a startled Corin. "I'd rather take them on here, several days outside Amphipolis and Poteidaia. No need in losing unnecessary civilian life." In truth she had already spotted the warlord's ambush spot and had laid a counter-one of her own with the men from the A squad. From the looks of things, demolishing the enemy's camp shouldn't take more than a half day's time, leaving her free to travel ahead with the D squad to Poteidaia before Corin and the bulk of the army could make it to Amphipolis. "The B and C squads should be ample protection for the noncoms," she gestured to the group of cooks, healers, and various other personnel that were essential to an army's well-being. "Under your capable leadership, of course," she grinned at her lover.

A furrowed brow and silence was her response.


The Amazon set her angular jaw, and her eyes glowed an angry green. Xena was reminded uncannily of an ivory statue she had seen once, sharp lines carved into it hard planes, with eerie jade centerpieces that seemed to follow her about the room. The piece had been a looted treasure from her early mercenary days, and the sailors said it was cursed. Xena had laughed at them, but when the first mate had fallen to his death, they insisted the statue was responsible. Not wanting a mutiny over something that was stolen anyway, she complied with their wishes and tossed the statue overboard. Now she fleetingly wondered if it was back to haunt her.

"We need to talk, Xena. Now."

The dark warrior allowed herself to be led away from the main body of the march, until they were off the trail entirely in a small grove of trees. Corin hurled herself off Berdach and waited with crossed arms as Xena dismounted. "Is there a problem?"

"Since when have you started making unilateral decisions about how we march and where? And now you want to go riding out with the advance party to pick a fight with some warlord you and I both know we can take out in our sleep?" Fury seethed through the Amazon's calm words. "Do you forget whose seal these men also ride under?"

Xena arched a brow. "Is that what this is about, Corin? Not getting enough respect? Those men know we speak as one."

"No, Xena. Those men hear you speak and watch me execute your orders."

"There is a warlord out there whose job is to kill as many of our soldiers as humanly possible. So one of your Amazons, who is masterminding this whole thing, can take over." And I have a good idea who, she added silently.


"Meaning I don't have time for a lover's tiff over your image. You're right. This army rides under our combined seals. That means we trust each other, Corin. You have to trust me to know that right now, it's best that I ride ahead while you take care of the rest of the army." She only winced slightly at this deception. It was best that she go ahead, just not for the reasons she gave Corin.

The Amazon remained silent, but Xena noticed a slight relaxation in her jaw.

"What's the point of exposing the whole army to attack if I can get rid of the threat with a smaller force?" she argued. The tension eased slightly between them, and Xena approached her cautiously. "I know I was gone a long time." She softened her tone, sensing another reason behind the anger. Drawing closer and wrapping her arms around her lover, she whispered, "I'm sorry."

But because of what they both were, there was no room for tenderness between them now. Corin pushed her away savagely. "You do what you need to do, Xena. I'll get the rest of the force to Amphipolis." And was gone.

The warlord in question, Fextus, proved to be easy pickings for Xena's expertly trained squad. His men were easily scattered and when questions, the young warlord, fearing-- quite rightly-- for his life, supplied the name of their Amazon betrayer. So as Xena rode into Poteidaia, her thoughts were scattered.

She had suspected Valesca was behind the attacks, and Fextus, just before he died, had confirmed it. Once power hungry, always power hungry, I suppose. The only thing that had ever made Valesca dangerous was her immortality. Otherwise she was just plain stupid. Eliminating her would be relatively easy. Then she could clean out the small pocket of conspirators she was sure Valesca had surrounded herself with.

The rest of her tasks were not as simple, for they involved people she cared about and one rather nasty God of war. She kept an eye out for Ares, half-surprised he had yet to make an appearance. Of course, he's probably waiting for just the perfect moment to make his entrance.

Cyrene won't see me. That realization hurt the warrior, but what was more surprising was that it didn't bother her was much as she thought it would. Even growing up, Xena had been a trial to Cyrene's patience, refusing to stay in the inn or be a "proper" daughter, preferring to run wild with Lyceus. Coaxed by Gabrielle's gentle patience, she had tentatively begun reaching out to her mother, trying to bridge the gap caused by failed expectations and ten summers of wanton killing. All that's gone now, she thought, or rather, it never existed. And maybe it's for the best. Who wants a daughter that lives by the sword? Particularly one as bloody as mine.

And so, finding Gabrielle remained her first priority. Although I have no idea what I'll say to her when I do find her. I'm just another warlord to her now. No, she corrected herself, I'm the most ruthless and bloodthirsty warlord in Greece now. She sighed, knowing there was no connection between her and the bard any longer. I just want to make sure she's safe. She snorted derisively at this last thought. Right, Xena. Admit it. You're dying to see her, hoping she'll save you from yourself. Again. The warrior felt how easily she was slipping into this life, how automatically she assumed the mantle of command again. Already she was thinking about a suitable replacement for Valesca-- whose death was a forgone conclusion in her mind. Stopping in the middle of the road, she shook her head. Is it really that simple? I just step off one path and onto this other?

And what about Corin? The blond warrior burned even more deeply inside of Xena now that they had consummated their relationship. She walked away from Ares and made her peace with this fire in a way that I never have. Does she deserve to have all this hate thrust back on her? Xena thought back to their first meeting, remembered the calm acceptance in Corin's eyes as the Amazon worked to reconcile her path as Athena's Chosen with the visceral release Ares gave her. Dammit, Ares, she was free! She was going to see her goddess and you dragged her back. Where's her choice in all this?

Standing in the middle of the dusty Poteidaian road, she was tempted to summon Ares then and there, knowing he could never refuse her challenges. Making up her mind to call him out, she drew in a lung full of air-- which promptly left her body as she spotted a familiar figure just off the path in a stand of trees. Gabrielle... And laughed softly to herself as she realized this was exactly the spot they had met three summers ago, only their positions were now reversed. Then, Xena had been a burned-out husk of a warrior, desperate to bury her armor and weapons-- to bury her essence. Gabrielle had been just some village girl, but brave even then, offering herself to the slavers in place of the remaining girls on the road. Xena had rescued them all ...and the rest, as they say, is history. What the stories about them-- and the gods knew it seemed like there were more every day-- didn't mention was that the rescue was mutual. Yes, Xena saved the young woman's life, but Gabrielle in return gave the warrior not just a glimpse of a soul untarnished by fire, but a place inside it.

Gabrielle was moving among the trees, picking wildflowers, oblivious to the warrior standing on the road behind her. She looks older, Xena mused, taking in the village garb-- the long brown skirt, the pink filmy shirt...  and she looks so much better in her Amazon leathers, or even in that ugly green top she insists on wearing all the time. A flash of metal on her left hand caught Xena's eye, drawing to it the plain silver band Gabrielle wore. So she did marry... And felt a crushing sadness with that knowledge.

The red-haired woman was moving through the trees, heading for the river. Xena padded after her silently, too afraid to approach her friend but unable to walk away. She trailed far behind as Gabrielle approached a pleasant cove near the river's edge, where three stone markers rested underneath a canopy of willow trees. She sank to her knees, brushing some dirt off one marker. The faint sound of her voice reached Xena who couldn't make out the words. After a few moments more, the small woman rose and left the cove, placing her flowers gently on two graves.

Her curiosity driving her inexorably forward, Xena waiting long enough to be certain Gabrielle was gone before she approached the markers herself. "Oh, Gabrielle," she murmured softly to herself, "I'm so sorry." Running her fingers over the rough stone as each name etched itself into her already weary soul  ...Lila... Herodotus... Perdicus... "What have I done?" She closed her eyes and threw her head back, letting out a howl of rage and sorrow that rolled over the countryside, sending a tremor of fear through the villagers who shuddered at the inhuman sound.


The Third Day:
The next morning found Poteidaia well-aware that the commander of the conquering army was in their midst. That didn't take long, Xena laughed to herself, watching the averted eyes and hearing the hushed whispers that trailed her throughout the tiny streets. That morning she had sent a messenger to the Amazon territory with strict orders to bring Valesca back to her tomorrow morning. She had talked to some of the sentries that were posted, and what they had told her didn't make her too happy. Valesca was getting a little too power happy, using the citizens of Poteidaia as test cases for her despotic nature. She was sure Amphipolis had fared better because even Valesca was not so stupid as to harm the people of Xena's home village. Here,  however, whippings and beatings were not uncommon punishments.

She strolled back to the inn that her squad had commandeered the previous evening. Remembering the innkeeper's look of surprise when her lieutenant had tossed a heavy bag of dinars on the counter, she decided to follow up a hunch. "Keep--" She called the cringing man over to her table, located, as always, at the back of the tavern.

"Ma'am?" He kept his head bowed, not meeting her eyes.

"Bring me some cider and something for yourself. I want to talk to you." She consciously kept a friendly tone in her voice and smiled disarmingly at the man. The scent of his fear-- indeed of the whole village's-- clogged the air. If she wanted to find out what was truly going on, she needed to calm these people down. They're like whipped dogs. Just waiting for the next blow.

Seconds later two mugs of cider were on the table, the man not drinking his, just twisting the mug in his hands.

"Good cider," she said, taking a long drink and saluting him with the mug. "Thanks."

The keep ducked his head again.

"Tell me something," her voice took on a conspiratorial tone. "Why were you surprised when you were paid for the rooms we took?"

He managed a small shrug. "I don't know what you're talking about." But his eyes were darting everywhere but Xena's commanding form.

"Are my soldiers--" She only half-winced at that phrase now. "--not paying for services in this town?"

The keep was looking around frantically now, desperation written on his face, certain he was caught in some kind of trap. If this warrior didn't kill him, the other one would.

It wasn't hard for Xena to read the thoughts that etched themselves on the man's features. "Are you afraid of Valesca?" she asked softly.

The man nodded rapidly.

She let a wolfish smile cross her face, her eyes turning a hard, glittering blue where before they had been as clear as the summer sky. "Are you afraid of me?"

The man nodded even faster.

"You know this is my army," she said coldly. "Valesca answers to me."

"It's not all the soldiers." The keep suddenly found his voice. "It's that one you mentioned."


"Yeah, her and her Honor Guard."

Xena quirked an eyebrow at this last.

The man took a healthy swallow of his cider, realizing that it was in his best interests to appease this woman they called the Warrior Princess. "She's got a group of them, what runs around with her. Comin' round, bashing things up. Taking whatever they want. It was worse before she got this woman in town, who seems to keep her pretty happy now. But I think that woman-- what'd you call her, Valesca-- is just plain evil."

Sounds like Valesca all right. "So she comes here a fair amount?"

"Like I said, she's got a woman now." The keep shook his head. "I feel right sorry for the poor lass, but she chose to go with her when Valesca was looking for one."

An icy chill gripped Xena's body. No...

"Her name's Gabrielle--" the rest of the keep's word were lost to Xena as a killing rage swept through her blood.

"Enough." A single word uttered in a tone that convinced the keep that death was imminent and sent him scrambling away from the table.

Oh Gabrielle... no.

She took Argo for a long run on the outskirts of the village, desperate to cool the fury pounding in her veins. Valesca wouldn't be here until early tomorrow morning, so she had to do something to ease the fire. She had ridden the length and width of the entire village, checked the perimeter scouts, and was now leading her mare down a long, winding path that Gabrielle had shown her when they were last in Poteidaia. They had come there to escape the sullen glares cast the warrior's way by the bard's family. Gabrielle had taken her to a small deserted pond, fed by the river where they had lazed the afternoon away. Come to think of it, that was right after we trapped Valesca and Callisto in the lava. I was still trying to get used to my body again, and she-- well, she was trying to get used to me being beside her at all. Lost in the memories of that afternoon, Xena absently tethered Argo, leaving the horse plenty of room to graze, and knelt down by the water's edge.

She didn't detect the footsteps until they were almost upon her. Whirling instantly in a defensive posture, she turned to confront the invader. And almost dropped her sword in shock as Gabrielle stood before her.

"I'm sorry!" the smaller woman cried, backing away as if to ward off an attack.

Instantly sheathing her weapon, Xena held out her hands in a calming gesture. "No. I'm sorry. I don't usually go around assaulting unarmed women. You just startled me."

A rueful smile from Gabrielle. "I should know better than to startle a warrior. It's gotten me knocked down enough."

Valesca... Xena's mind fumed. Her eyes darkened with what she planned to do with that miserable excuse for an Amazon when she arrived.

Gabrielle cocked her head. "You're Xena, aren't you?"

The warrior nodded.

"I thought so. I heard in town you were here. I just didn't expect to find you here." She grinned hesitantly. "How did you know about this place? I've lived in Poteidaia all my life and I'm the only one who ever comes here."

You showed it to me, Gabrielle. We laughed and talked here. You touched my arm a hundred times to assure yourself I wasn't a dream. And I told you about the cross. And Caesar. You cried for me here, Gabrielle, because I couldn't do it for myself.

The stranger with Gabrielle's face merely waited for her answer.

Xena drew a shuddering breath, fighting to keep the emotion from her face. "I was just wandering. Checking the perimeters. I'm surprised a place like this isn't more popular with the kids. I can see young couples loving to come here. It's very romantic."

The woman was clearly surprised by the reply, and Xena imagined that she wasn't accustomed to warriors commenting on the area's beauty. You gave me that appreciation. "Well, I've always liked having this place to myself. I guess I'm glad no one's found it."

That was exactly what you said when you brought me here. "I've always liked having this place to myself. And I'm glad no one's found it because now I can share it with you." But this Gabrielle didn't know her, didn't care about her, and certainly didn't want to share her private place with a warlord. Her brain screamed at her to turn around and walk away. To take care of Valesca and just leave this place, but her heart forced her to stay where she was. "What about your husband?" She gestured to the band around Gabrielle's finger.

"He's dead," she answered matter-of-factly.

The pain and guilt that Xena felt over Perdicus' death at Callisto's hands surged through her, reflecting in her eyes. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. The fool threw down his sword in the middle of a battle. He was playing at being a warrior, and when he didn't want to play anymore, he thought he could just walk away."

"Was it when my army was attacking your village?"

"Attacking? No, Perdicus was fighting with your army. He was one of the volunteers the Amazons recruited. He was a farmer, not a warrior." Her eyes raked over Xena with a knowing look. "Not like you."

The warrior in question quirked a surprised brow at the blunt appraisal of her body. "Not like Valesca either, huh?" She kept her tone even.

"You heard about me and her." A statement of fact.

"Hard not to."

Reading something in Xena's controlled expression, Gabrielle cocked her head. "You don't like her."

"Do you?"

The smaller woman shrugged. "I could do worse." Then a short bark of laughter. "I have."

"So it wouldn't have anything to do with keeping her happy so she goes easier on the village?"

"Look, she was going to take someone. And someone was going to take me. Her... demands... are pretty simple to accommodate. At least I don't have someone pawing at me every night."

Each blunt word from Gabrielle's mouth pounded into Xena with inhuman force. This was a woman who knew war ...and warriors an unwelcome voice crooned in her ear. She winced, recognizing the sound of that voice as her own.

"And if it helps the village," she was saying. "Where's the problem?"

"I guess if I were your lover, I'd want you to feel something a little less... well, practical... for me." The words were out before Xena could stop them.

A grin spread itself lazily over the red-head's face. "You don't strike me as the sentimental type."

"I am about some things." About you. Xena, uncertain of where the conversation was heading or what she felt about it, managed a nonchalant shrug.

"Really? Well, the talk is that your lovers are anything but ambivalent about you, Xena."

"The talk?"

"Your reputation does precede you." An unfamiliar glint shone in Gabrielle's eyes, and it sent a shiver down the warrior's back. "Besides, Valesca talks about you night and day."

"I'm sure she does."

"She's planning on killing you, you know." The woman spoke as calmly about the plot as she did about her husband's death.

"She'll have to work a lot harder than she is now to do it."

"You don't sound worried."

"I'm not.

Gabrielle's stomach rumbled loudly, slicing neatly through the tension. For the first time since she encountered the small woman in the glade, easy laughter flowed from the warrior at the familiar sound. At least some things never change. Quickly composing her features, she asked, "Could I interest you in some lunch?"

The red-head flushed at her stomach's betrayal. "I wouldn't want you to go to any trouble."

"I have an entire army at my disposal. I think I can rustle us up some food without a lot of trouble."

"Well, if you put it that way--" The flash of a genuine smile pierced the warrior's aching heart.

That smile gradually reappeared more and more often  throughout the day, until it was a virtual fixture by nightfall. Xena spent the afternoon in Gabrielle's company, unable to bring herself to leave her friend's side. They strolled through the village streets exchanging stories about their lives, Xena pointedly ignoring the incredulous looks on her soldiers' faces. Eventually they ended up outside the small cottage where Gabrielle lived with her mother.

For Xena it was a disconcerting experience. This was Gabrielle, but not the bard she knew. The same humor and quick intelligence were there. And she's just as beautiful as ever... but there was something different about the red-head. The innocence that her Gabrielle brought to every situation, the exuberance with which she embarked upon their travels was gone, and Xena silently mourned that loss. In its place was a cool understanding of war and death, of what the warrior beside her had done and could do. This Gabrielle was softer and rounder than her bard-- whose muscles were sleek and hard from their miles of travel-- and she walked with a slight sway of her hips that Xena found entrancing in spite of herself.

The moonlight burnished the planes of Xena's cheeks, and it lent a silvery glow to her blue eyes as she gazed intently at the woman before her. Familiar and unfamiliar sensations beat a steady tattoo in her heart and between her legs. The surrealness of the world where she now lived, the life of the warlord that belonged to her again sent her mind racing in directions she would never otherwise contemplate.  So close... I could just reach out and touch her... and found her fingers doing exactly that, brushing softly against the silky strands of Gabrielle's hair. A breathy sigh was her reward, and the woman leaned her cheek against the warrior's callused palm.

Small fingers pressed against the leather covering her abdomen, and Xena felt her stomach muscles clench reflexively. She bit back a groan, feeling those fingers wrapping around her hips and pulling her close. "I should go." She demurred, thinking This is still Gabrielle.  The words traveled on an unsteady breath.

"No, you shouldn't," Gabrielle murmured, her lips roaming around Xena's neck with an ease that stunned the warrior.

The flick of a tongue in her earlobe and the tightening of fingers gripping her hips told Xena everything she needed to know. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Gabrielle wanted her, wanted everything she was. This is Gabrielle? Her hands caressed Gabrielle's face, drawing the sweet mouth to her own. The voracious kiss that followed spoke of the breathtaking desire they shared and warned the warrior that Ares had just upped the stakes. He was offering Gabrielle to her in a way she might never have the bard in her other life.

You bastard... she raged, pulling herself away from their embrace. "I can't. I have to go."

"I think we want the same thing." Gabrielle's voice was raw with need, and her hands stroked the rough leather of Xena's tunic, searching for skin.

She captured the small hands in her own, unable to resist placing two tender kisses on each of them. Afraid to look at those green eyes, she concentrated instead on the fingers entwining with hers. "I can't," she whispered hoarsely. "Not like this." Not with you as a spoil in this neverending war between Ares and me.

"Because you're dealing with Valesca tomorrow." Her voice held no reproach, even though she had to know that Xena was going to kill the woman who was her lover.

Xena only nodded, afraid her voice would betray her. It was best that Gabrielle believed that was her reason. Because she could never begin to explain the real one.

"But tomorrow," Gabrielle untangled their fingers and forced Xena to meet her eyes with a nudge of her hand. "Tomorrow," she repeated. "You'll come for me." She place one more searing kiss on the warrior's mouth and then turned away, leaving Xena alone, painted in moonshadow.


The Fourth Day:
"Just how long did you think it would take me to figure out this little plot?" Xena asked in a deceptively calm voice.

Judgment day had come for Valesca. And she knew it. Xena could see her mentally checking off possible answers and outcomes. The expression on the Amazon's face reflected her realization that indeed all the outcomes would be the same.

"We can do this one of two ways," she continued in the same easy tone, remembering Valesca's own words to Autolycus in another lifetime. "It's not whether you die, it's how you die." "I can carve the names of every soldier in my army into your skin until you tell me which ones belong to your little playmates or--" She cast a wicked glance at the woman opposite her "-- you can give me their names and I can give you a possible way out."

Valesca's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "You're lying. You're never going to let me live."

The Warrior Princess glared at her coldly. "First of all, I never lie. And secondly, I didn't say you were going to live. I said I'd give you a possible way out."

"Which would be?"

"If you wanted to challenge me, Valesca, you should have done it to my face." At least you gave Melosa that courtesy. "We fight. You can even choose the weapons."

"And in return I give up the names?"

"You know I'll find them all anyway." Xena shrugged. "And this way, if you win, it won't matter. I'll be dead." Not bloody likely.

"All right. I accept. When?"

"Now. Give me the names and then you get your shot."

Well, Valesca is nothing if not predictable. A few candlemarks later, both women emerged from the inn, the Amazon flanked by a set of guards. As word of Xena's offer filtered through the streets, a large number of villagers had gathered in the town square. One group of soldiers cordoned off the area with their bodies into a makeshift arena, while another group was dispatched-- unbeknownst to Valesca-- to round up the conspirators. The Amazon had chosen the sword as her weapon, knowing that Xena was proficient in anything she could have picked. Death was, after all, how the Warrior Princess made her living.

Xena glanced around at the sea of faces, wondering briefly if Gabrielle would be there. No, she thought, remembering the calm assurance the woman had left her with last night. She'll wait for me to come for her. She has no doubt in her mind how this is going to end up. Then a small snort of laughter. Of course, neither do I.

The sharp hiss of steel signaled the beginning of the battle for Xena. Valesca circled to the right, indicating to Xena that she favored attacks from the left. The dark warrior kept her sword in her right hand, but knew that as soon as the Amazon committed herself to the thrust she would switch hands. Which is exactly what she did as the attack came from the left. She blocked the blow easily and arced her own sword forcefully towards the smaller warrior. Xena had no desire to toy with her opponent. She merely wanted her dead. Preferably soon. Images of Gabrielle's torment at the Amazon's hands flashed through her mind, channeling her fury. She slashed her blade up and back, bringing it relentlessly against the weakening attacks. She moved unceasingly forward, until Valesca was on her knees. A final thrust through the Amazon's heart brought the battle to a close. It wasn't fancy; it wasn't pretty; but it was brutally effective.

Silence in the square.

Xena withdrew her sword, wiping the blood on the dead woman's clothing. Glancing around at the faces of the soldiers who surrounded her, she saw a familiar face. "Eponin," she called to the Amazon weapons master.

"Yes, Princess?" Steady eyes gazed back at her.

"These are your territories now." She spoke formally to seal the transfer of Valesca's authority. "Make sure you run them well. And tell your people that this--" She gestured to the corpse at her boots. "-- is an example of what happens to those who try to betray me." The darkness in Xena's soul surged up and through her eyes, blackening the blue. "Do you accept and swear your allegiance to none but me?"

The Amazon bowed her head briefly before returning her impassive gaze to Xena. "I accept, Princess. I won't fail you."

A short nod. "See that you don't." The warrior glanced down at Valesca again. "Now get this carcass out of here."

Three guards stepped forward to collect the body. "Do you want--" A slight hesitation from one of them. "-- a display?"

Xena closed her eyes wearily. Carnage was a given in her life now. "No." And dropped her head. "Give her an Amazon funeral. At least she died honorably."

"As you wish, Princess."

She brushed off questions about what to do with the conspirators, leaving the decisions as a test of Eponin's leadership. The Amazon had always been impeccably fair in the past. Or at least in the past I know. The gods only know what she's done in this one. What we've all done. And then she recalled something from her first encounter with Corin. "Xena-- gods-- except for the lesser, more mischievous ones-- very rarely cast out-and-out spells. Usually they merely appeal to some heretofore hidden, unexplored side of ourselves. In other words, you can't make an assassin out of someone who has no blood lust." As she through about the past few days, she realized this was true. Both she had Corin had behaved out of the depths of their personalities. The Amazon had reflected the darkness that Xena had known the warrior carried in her soul. And Xena herself had tried to show some mercy in spite of the strong burn of the fire inside. And what about Gabrielle? Did this mean that somehow the bard would eventually be able to accept the turbulent essence of the Warrior Princess?

Her footsteps led her inexorably towards the outskirts of the village, and soon Xena soon breathlessly before the smaller woman, framed by the doorway to her cottage. Gabrielle took the warrior's hands, trying to draw her inside, but Xena merely shook her head mutely.

A questioning glance. "You're trembling."

"Can we walk?"

Silently they made their way back to the secluded glade, Xena watching the shadows formed by their linked hands.

"Tell me about your life, Gabrielle."

The woman looked at her oddly, settling herself on the mossy bank, near the water's edge. "What's to tell? I was born here, married here, and I suppose I'll die here eventually." There was resignation in her voice, but not, Xena noted, defeat.

"Why didn't you leave?"

"I did for a while. But none of the places I went to filled what was missing, what I left to find in the first place. So I came back."

"To marry."

"Perdicus wasn't a bad sort. He wasn't even a bad husband. In fact, he was completely ordinary. A farmer who worked in the fields during the day and came home at night to sleep by my side."

"Sounds peaceful."

A wry smile graced Gabrielle's face. "I guess it would to a warrior."

"Did he fill this... thing you were missing?"

"He tried. We both tried. I always believed that was why he joined your army, trying to be something different, something he thought I wanted. The simple truth is, I didn't love him the way a wife should love a husband. He and I were the best of friends. Nothing more, really. I hoped we'd have children, that maybe that would help fill this... need. But looking back, it's for the best we didn't." She gazed intently at Xena, as if trying to answer an unspoken question. She laughed softly to herself. "You know, I've never told anyone that before."

"Has anyone asked?"

"Come to think of it, no one has. Why are you?"

"I need to know you." I need to know if my Gabrielle is still there. And listening to you, I think she is. Then she spoke her heart to this Gabrielle in a way she never had to her friend. "I need to understand this connection we have. Why being next to you feels as right to me as breathing." Why I crossed all of Tartarus to come back to you.

The red-head flushed at the passion underlying Xena's words. "I've never heard a warrior speak of things like that."

"Warriors like Valesca?" Xena couldn't keep the bitterness from her voice. "Why, Gabrielle? Why her? Just to help the village?"

"Partly. Valesca liked hurting people. She terrified me." Then she turned smoldering green eyes towards Xena. "But she-- she excited me too."

Xena was glad the Amazon was dead, but hearing those words made her want to go kill the damned woman all over again. "Did she ever hurt you, Gabrielle?"

"No, not the way you think." She returned her gaze to the pond before them. "Valesca enjoyed power. She enjoyed people thinking that she did awful things to me and that I let her because I was afraid. So yeah, she knocked me around a bit, but when it came to pleasing her--"

"STOP!" Xena held out her hands in supplication. "I don't want to know."

"I'm sorry. Did you and she--"

"Gods no!" Blue eyes widened at the concept.

"Then why does it bother you?" Gabrielle's face held honest confusion.

Now it was Xena's turn to flush. "Because--" she began, then faltered. "Because I don't want to imagine her touching you," she finished softly.

"Oh," Gabrielle breathed.

"Look-- I don't know what's going to happen next. And I know you have no way of understanding why I'm saying these things to you. After all, you just met me." The warrior laughed at the irony of the situation. Xena was always trying to avoid the bard's "sensitive chats," yet here she was, pouring her heart out to a silent Gabrielle. "I love you. I always have. Just remember that. And remember that I'll always be here." She touched the skin over her love's heart, her words echoing those she had spoken long ago.

"That's very touching." A voice called from the forest. "Honestly, though, Xena, you really should check to see if you have an audience before you declare your love to a village whore. People might start to get the wrong idea about the Warrior Princess." Corin's icy words preceded her into view. The blond warrior stood before the pair, jade eyes glittering with rage.

Xena stepped in front of her, blocking her access to Gabrielle. "Don't do this, Corin."

"Do what?" Corin drew her blade and placed the tip under Xena's chin. "Slit your throat? Or hers?"

"You have no quarrel with Gabrielle."

"Oh, this whore has a name. Usually they don't."

"Don't." Xena cautioned flatly.

"You know, I can deal with you bedding them. Aphrodite knows I can't blame them for wanting you. But it's these tender declarations that really irritate me." Corin's words were frighteningly calm, but Xena recognized the murderous fury behind them. "I warned you after your dalliance with Ephiny. You can have your fun, but I won't be made a fool of. Now draw your sword."

Xena didn't move.

"I said, draw your sword--" The blade swung towards Xena's head, and the warrior felt her body's defenses taking over, bringing her own weapon up to block the blow. Instantly the two women were engaged. Xena remembered the first time they had sparred and the delighted amazement she had felt at finding her equal with the weapon. That Corin had not been fueled by the raging of a jealous fire. Now she grimly faced the Amazon and, for the first time she had picked up a sword, truly feared for her life.

She brought her sword over Corin's, drawing the blade down and kicked upwards with her boot, catching the Amazon sharply in the chin. Corin staggered back, quickly recovering her equilibrium and launching another attack. Xena only wanted to disarm her opponent, but intuitively knew they were too evenly matched. She was going to have to fight to kill and hope that one of them surrendered before it came to that. She somersaulted over the blond warrior and dropped into a spinning back kick to knock the Amazon's feet out from under her. Instead of falling backwards, however, Corin used the momentum to backflip and land upright again.

Corin came at her again, relentlessly charging forward. Xena fell back to a defensive posture, parrying the blows easily. The blond woman's rage blunted some of her skill, and Xena began to hope that the other woman would exhaust herself. Already her own arms were aching from the strength of the blows rained down on them. Corin swung her sword downwards once more, but as Xena brought her own weapon up to block the thrust, the Amazon quickly changed directions, instead slicing across her lover's abdomen. Xena knew instantly that it was not a killing blow, but certainly a disabling one. The blade cut deeply into her left side and jerked cleanly out rather than plunging into her soft, unprotected organs. Gasping at the pain, she dropped her sword and fell to one knee. Gabrielle, who had stood behind her, horrified at what was happening, rushed towards her.

Instead of pressing the attack, Corin lowered her own weapon, staring at her lover with anguish that turned once again to rage as she watched this small red-haired woman kneel beside Xena. "I think it's time we finished this," she growled, grabbing Gabrielle by the hair and pressing the blade to the woman's neck.

"NO! CORIN DON'T!!" Xena screamed, helpless to stop the impending slaughter. Miraculously, the blade hesitated, and Xena closed her eyes as the answer suddenly came to her. "Corin-- think. Remember Athena." Praying that she was right. "Ares may have given you this fire, this passion, but did he give you the love you had for Livia?" Mentioning the lost love that had brought Corin across Ares' path. "Or the guilt you feel for killing her brother? How many summers, Corin, have you been letting this fire rage, hoping to forget the wrongs that have been done to you? The wrongs you've done?"

"I told you never to speak of her, Xena." Corin's tone was menacing, but still the blade didn't move.

Ignoring her warning, Xena continued. "I know you think Athena betrayed you. But she was letting you choose, Corin. You chose the path of vengeance, just like I did. You chose not to come for Livia like you promised. You chose to embrace Ares' fire." She hesitated, unsure if her words were getting through. Hoping they were. "Just like you can choose now to stop."

Bitter laughter answered her. "You think we can just walk away from Ares?"

"I know you won't believe me, Corin, but you have before. We both have."

The Amazon looked at her incredulously.

"It's hard, I know. Harder than I ever thought anything could be. Every day you fight against every instinct you have, struggle for control over your own body, you own mind."

"Then why do it?" The blade dropped a little lower, the hold on Gabrielle became a little lighter.

"Because it's the right thing to do. Because the greatest gift we have is free will. Because it's what we choose to do. Not what some god lures us into when we're lost or in pain." Keeping her tone even and calm in spite of the searing pain in her side, she pressed on. "Athena trusted you would find the right path."

The madness began to subside in the Amazon's green eyes, replaced by a mournful sorrow at the loss of her goddess. "It's been so long."

"She's still waiting for you, Corin. She still believes in you."

The last of the rage left Corin, and she dropped her sword with a bone weary sigh. "Athena," she whispered, releasing Gabrielle who hurled herself into Xena's arms.

The last thing Xena remembered was a burning pain in her head, followed by a piercing white light as the earth began to shake in a violent fury. The roar of the God of War swept over the lands, rumbling into the very bones of the mortals who would bear his wrath. "NNNNNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"


Sorry this part took so long, but as I wrote, the bloody thing seemed to take on a persona of its own. I hate it when that happens. Thanks for hanging in there with me. To be continued in Part IV: This Fire.

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