I lay awake much of the night before the morning I was to join Xena in her war against Shaikheti. Gray clouds had formed before dusk and a wicked wind followed them, causing the canvas of our tent to flutter violently. I was convinced that the stakes pinning it to the frozen ground would give, sending the tent and us into an icy whirlwind. As I lay on the ground, covered in blankets and hides, I listened to that wind and the soft breathing of a deeply sleeping Xena, who held me from behind.
Earlier that evening, she and I had had a terrible argument. She wanted to use my Amazon Sisters as snipers in her war while insisting that I remain coddled in the security of the camp. I maintained that if they were going to fight, I was to fight as well. I'm sure that she considered imprisoning me somehow in a desperate attempt to insure my safety. It's both flattering and haunting that Xena loves me so. In the end, however, she reluctantly agreed that my involvement in this battle was the most just way to go.
I thought a great deal about Xena that night. We've come a long way together. Sometimes it's still hard for me to believe that this is the same woman who took me as her slave six years ago. She was such a different person back then. For one, she hardly ever spoke to me in the first year or two of my servitude. In fact, I rarely ever saw her except when I was summoned to service her. Of course, I was summoned quite often; once, twice, sometimes several times a day. But outside of sex, we really didn't interact.
Xena the Conqueror was frightening in those early days. She was often angry with me for reasons I still don't fully understand. She sometimes displayed her anger during sex, but strangely, other times she was calm, quiet and surprisingly gentle. When she began giving me oral pleasure, I started to relax with her slightly. I began enjoying some of my "service," but I was never fully comfortable as her body slave. Much of the reason was because she was totally unpredictable. Sometimes the sex we had was so deliciously passionate that I wanted to devour her. A few times it was so violent and painful that I wanted to kill her. I also couldn't reconcile with myself how I felt about her. I hated her for being the evil monster that she was, but I also hated her for not being the beautiful person that I sensed she could have been.
The Conqueror was unpredictable about other things as well. One day she would lash me as part of my sexual "service," and then the next day she would have fresh scrolled parchments delivered to my bedchamber. Over the years I often received knocks on my bedchamber door from Mia or one of the Conqueror's corridor guardsmen delivering jewelry, pottery, dresses or special sweet treats to eat. I would enter my bedchamber and find a beautiful new tapestry hanging on my wall, a limestone statuette on my dresser, a lovely cloth doll sitting in my chair, a brilliant floral arrangement in a vase or a bowl filled with delicious fresh fruit. One time the Conqueror herself came to my bedchamber and gave me the most brilliant gem that I had ever seen. It was a huge emerald resting in a silk-lined carved marble box. As she handed me the box, she simply said, "This is for you." When I opened the box and saw the brilliance and beauty of her gift, I began crying. This, of course, angered her.
"Why the fuck are you crying, slave!?!" she yelled as she raised her hand to slap me.
"Happy tears, my Lady," I quietly responded, terrified. "Happy tears."
The Conqueror lowered her hand and stormed out of the bedchamber. She disappeared for five days after that. Mia told me that she suspected the Conqueror had gone to visit her mother. Until that moment, I didn't know that the Conqueror had a mother.
The Conqueror sometimes used whips as part of her sick sex games with me. It wasn't too often, but often enough that I despised her for it. One evening, however, she whipped me so badly that I thought she was trying to kill me. It turned out to be the last time that she struck me, until that night that she punched me after I had returned to the palace from my visit to Poteidaia for Lila's funeral. I never experience the whips again, however. This horrendous event also seemed to change her somewhat. It was as if she began to realize how much of a monster she had been to me.
For one thing, the Conqueror made it a point to be with me more often. She would come into the library, where I spent much of my time, and sit at a nearby table to observe me reading or writing. She hardly ever spoke to me. She would just sit there and watch me. Sometimes she found me eating in the palace kitchen and would sit across from me and eat as well. In hindsight, I wonder if she was waiting for me to start a conversation, but regrettably that never happened. I was often nervous about her presence. She was so intimidating, yet so beautiful, that I wanted to run away from her and gawk at her at the same time.
I had always been too edgy to merely sit around eating and reading all day. During those years of slavery, I would often lend a hand to the cooks in the kitchen, help the various suppliers load and unload their goods at the palace receiving areas or assist the chambermaids in their various duties. And when I wasn't telling stories to the children of the palace servants, I often frolicked with them. We would chase each other up and down the corridors and in and around the courtyards and gardens. It was a way for me to stay fit and fast on my feet since I wasn't allowed to leave the palace grounds.
One day the Conqueror caught me playing a hiding game with the children. It was a very hot day and I had been running around for several hours, thus a sheen of sweat covered much of my body. I was concealing myself behind a stone pillar in the central courtyard when she approached me.
"Why in Tartarus do you insist on behaving like a child, slave?" she asked me in a very daunting tone as she grabbed my sweaty tunic.
Perhaps the heat and my exhaustion could've been the problem, for it caused me to temporarily lose sanity as my response came out before I could stop it. "Would you prefer that I sat around and grew fat, my Lady?"
The apologies began unabated as the Conqueror roughly grabbed me by the collar of my tunic and slammed me against that pillar. As I beseeched her with apology after apology, I prayed in my mind to all of the gods that my death be quick and painless. But then our eyes met for what seemed like an eternity. Her eyes are so clear, so blue, so beautiful, I thought as we stared at each other. How could they belong to such an evil being as her? As my mind swirled with a legion of thoughts, her face closed in on me and I felt her lips touch mine. The kiss lasted only for a brief moment and was over before I could really respond to it. In an instant, she released me and briskly walked away.
Another day, about two years ago, the Conqueror found me in the palace kitchen eating midday meal. She approached me with two of my scrolls.
"I read these, slave," she said as she threw them on the table in front of me. "Are fables all you choose to write?"
I almost lost my bladder. "No...no, my Lady," I responded, petrified. "I... I write poems, sonnets, p...p...plays."
"Fiction, all fiction," she said. "You never write anything that's real?"
"I haven't experienced or observed anything worth documenting, my Lady," I stated truthfully.
"Very well," she said. "I want you to write a fiction with me as the main character."
"Yes, my Lady," I responded.
"And I want something by evening," she said before storming off.
I barely made it to the chamber pot.
I spent the next several candlemarks working and reworking a good fiction for the Conqueror. It was an exciting tale of how she defeats a barbaric city-state in exotic Galatia. Finally satisfied with my story, I took it to my dear friend Demitrius to critique before presenting it to the Conqueror. "She's sure to enjoy it," he told me with a sincere smile.
The Conqueror's expression remained indefinable as she sat on her chamber throne and read my story. When she completed it, she threw the scroll on the floor. "You're not anywhere in the story, whore!"
I tried to contain my fear. "I didn't realize that you wanted me in the story, my Lady," I confessed.
"Try again," she demanded. "And put yourself in the story as well. I want it before midnight."
I returned to the library and frantically rewrote the end of the story to include a victory march back to Corinth and a celebration that included the services of the "worthless slave, Gabrielle."
After reading my revised story, the Conqueror threw the scroll at me. "NO!" she yelled. "I want a fiction! Write about something that I would NEVER do in real life... and put yourself in the story." She stood and approached me. "I want it by the noon candlemark tomorrow."
I retreated to my room and cried. The Conqueror loved to play her sick games, I pondered, but I couldn't figure out what was motivating this particular one. I tried to sleep, but I couldn't. Finally, by candlelight, I began writing a story about a lone Woman Warrior who travels to Akanthos from northern Thessaly. She decides to rest by spending one night at an inn located in the tiny village of Methone. I wrote that during her stay, a barbaric warlord invades the village. I wrote that the Woman Warrior single-handedly defeats the warlord and his band of thugs, much to the surprise of the village men. The villagers are very grateful and reward her with a huge festive gathering. I wrote that many of the village men are taken by her beauty, but are too intimidated by her strength to approach her in courtship. However, one man, a handsome carpenter named Albertus, does approach her and is the one who eventually captures her heart.
I did put myself in the story. I was a young village maiden who assists the other village women in preparing the meal for the Woman Warrior's feast.
After reading my new story, the Conqueror stood up from her throne. I couldn't read the expression on her face. "We're never in the same place at the same time, Gabrielle," she said. "We never speak to each other. I'm not even sure if my character knows that your character exists. Is that the way you wanted it?"
"I didn't think it would matter, my Lady," I said.
"Get out of here," she hissed.
After that incident, I didn't see the Conqueror at all for over three weeks, although I knew that she hadn't journeyed anywhere. It was by far the longest time that I was spared servicing her, other than those times that she was away fighting. The Conqueror was deliberately avoiding me. After the first week, I began contemplating that perhaps I was going to be sold soon. For reasons that I couldn't understand within myself, the prospect frightened me. On one hand, there was the possibility that I would be sold to an older, married nobleman who would not be so demanding of my services. I was both a literate slave and the property of the Conqueror, so logically, I would only be sold to high nobility. I pondered the possibility that I could spend the rest of my life without the threat of being beaten or humiliated. I pondered the possibility that my future owner might eventually award me freedom.
On the other hand, I would never see those beautiful blue eyes again. My mind strangely wandered like a hopeless romantic at times, terrified at the notion that the gorgeous face and soft body to which I had become accustomed would be a foregone memory. But I also felt something else that I couldn't quite understand; jealousy. After those first few days had passed, I began suspecting that the Conqueror had perhaps taken a lover. I couldn't understand it, but I often found myself weeping at times over the thought that I wasn't being summoned because she was off somewhere sharing intimacy with someone else.
On the day that the Conqueror finally reappeared to me, I was reading outside in the palace gardens. She ordered all of the security Guardsmen to leave the grounds and then closed and locked both entryways and all of the shutters. She then approached me carrying a silken blanket.
I stood up, as was usually required of me when I was in the presence of the Conqueror. Without saying a word, she placed the blanket on the ground next to where I was standing and then ordered me to undress and lie down on it. She also disrobed. The soft fabric of the blanket almost matched the softness and warmth of her skin as she laid her lovely body on top of me. She kissed and sucked my neck and then grabbed my wrists that rested above my head. We then stared into each other's eyes as we had deliciously passionate sex. After climax came to us both, she climbed up off of me, threw on her peplos and quietly left the gardens. I remained on my back, naked, taking in the smells of both the flowers in the gardens and her scent on my body. I also stared up at the sky and smiled, oddly safe in the knowledge that I wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.
As my thoughts returned to the present, I shifted so that I could meet Xena's lips with my own. She awakened upon contact.
"Is it morning yet, my love?" she whispered.
"Not quite, Xena," I said. "I didn't mean to wake you. I was just thinking about you and wanted to kiss your lips."
"I like it that you think about me, Gabrielle," she stated as she stifled a yawn.
I ran my fingers down her lovely cheek. "Go back to sleep, baby," I said.
"What were you thinking about?" she asked.
"I was thinking about our lives together before you freed me," I responded.
Xena sighed. "I try not to think of that time, Gabrielle," she said. "I was such a bitch to you."
I sighed as well. "Do you recall the time that you told me to write a story, Xena?"
"Yes," she replied.
"Why did avoid me for weeks after that?"
In the darkness, I felt a trembling hand take mine. "I was hurting, Gabrielle," Xena admitted. "I had read several of your stories. You have such a wonderfully creative and vivid imagination and I wanted to see where you would put us in a fictional setting. That's why I wanted you to write about me in a situation that you'd never known me to be. I was so in love with you, Gabrielle. I had hoped that you would make us friends or lovers in your story. I thought everyday about the notion of being your friend. I guess that I wished, somewhere in your soul, you desired friendship with me as well. But you made me a hero, a do-gooder, and you had me fall for some man. And you didn't have our two 'characters' interact with each other at all. I so wanted you to be that 'one' in the story that stole my heart. In my deepest, most desirous dreams, we were friends and lovers and I wanted to see that in your story. What you wrote told me that your deepest desire was to not know me at all."
I squeezed her hand. "I'm so sorry, Xena."
"Please don't apologize, Gabrielle," she implored. "It was all my fault. I created my image of a monster to you. I was a monster to you. How else could you feel about me?"
"Did you take a lover in that time, Xena?" I needed to confirm a long-held suspicion.
Xena's grip on my hand tightened. "I made sure that you didn't see me for 24 days, but I saw you every night, Gabrielle," she confessed. "I came to your bedchamber after you fell asleep and knelt beside your bed."
"So that I could be close to you, touch you, whisper to you without seeing the fear and hatred in your eyes," she whispered. "So, no, I wasn't off fucking someone else."
I was shocked at the revelation of her nightly visits. "Oh, Xena," was all I could say for many moments. "I... I thought that you were planning on selling me," I finally sputtered.
"No, I wasn't planning on selling you," she said. "I was in pain... a pain that I couldn't fully understand at the time."
"Was coming to me in the palace gardens your way of healing, Xena?"
"Not exactly," she said. "I missed you terribly. I wanted to see your beautiful green eyes again and give you pleasure surrounded by the beauty and fragrance of the gardens." She thought for a moment. "I guess it was a healing, huh?"
I took her in an embrace. "I love the way you heal," I said.
Exhaustion finally claimed me and I drifted off to sleep shortly after that.
When I awoke that morning, the wind had finally died down. Xena was still asleep. Quietly, I crawled out of the bedroll and put on my boots. I scurried out of our tent, went to the edge of camp and picked some mistletoe that I had discovered some days earlier. I saw Bahri heading toward the pot tent to relieve herself and asked that she assemble Charicleia and the Amazons to the command tent. When I returned there with my little bouquet, Xena was awake and almost fully dressed. I gave her the mistletoe and told her that the Amazons were ready for their language lessons. She seemed delighted by my gift to her.
We learned several words from Hadiya and Bahri before setting off toward Shaikheti's war camp. We left during midmorning, but didn't arrive at the war camp perimeter until nearly nightfall. Several hundred of Xena's soldiers accompanied us. When we were in range of the enemy's camp, Xena quietly ordered her platoon sergeants to disperse the hoplites and other soldiers into several dozen groups after securing the horses. They stretched out in line formations for several lengths, although they were low to the ground and using the surrounding tree trunks and foliage as camouflage. We crouched down on the snow-covered ground as well. "We're creating a circle around the camp," Xena informed me in a whisper as she placed her arm around my waist and drew me closer to her.
"But we don't attack, correct?" I whispered in question.
"Correct, Gabrielle," she responded as she brought her mouth even closer to my ear. "We wait for them to move into their flanking position."
"When do you think that'll happen?"
"Depends on how savvy they are," Xena whispered. "It might be a long wait."
Her lips were lightly touching my ear as she spoke, sending waves of arousal through me. "What will we do in the meantime?" I croaked.
Our friends, my Amazon Sisters and the accompanying troops began huddling together. Xena took off her fur cloak and, using it as a makeshift blanket, cocooned us even closer together. "It never dawned on me that we would be sleeping outside," I said as I closed in on her, seeking the warmth of her body.
"No one sleeps on a battlefield, Gabrielle," Xena told me. "We may rest, we may snooze, and we may even take short naps. That's about it." I pressed my shivering body to hers. "And you wanted to be here, Gabrielle," she added.
I looked into her eyes. "I'm willing to tolerate anything as long as I'm with you, Xena," I whispered. "I love you."
Xena kissed my ear. "I love you Gabrielle," she whispered, "so much."
Xena's troops positioned on the east and west sides of Shaikheti's camp began their assaults after dusk. Because of the calmness of the night, we could hear the sounds of battle in the distance. Swords clanging, people screaming, people dying. I began to shiver more violently, not from the cold, but rather from fear of the unknown. Xena's grip around my waist tightened as those outlying sounds of battle went on for a very long time.
It was just before dawn when Xena's keen sight noticed a group of torches in the distance moving toward us. She turned to Lieutenant Agenta, who was on the other side of her. "Advance scouts," Xena whispered to Agenta.
Agenta appeared to be frantically counting the torches. "I'd say less than one hundred, my Liege," she whispered back to Xena.
"I agree," Xena replied in whisper. "Spread the command to the troops to stay low."
"By your will, Conqueror," Agenta said before dashing off to give orders.
Xena turned to me. "Stay here, Gabrielle," she whispered before putting her cloak back on and crawling over to Hadiya, Bahri and the Amazons. "It's time," she said.
"Ndiyo, ndiyo," Hadiya whispered her "yes" command to the Amazons. My Sisters began advancing, five scurrying off to the right with Bahri and Charicleia, the rest to the left with Hadiya.
Xena came back to me. "Don't leave my side," she said as she grabbed my arm and helped me to my feet. We began running, crouched low with Hadiya and five of my Sisters. Each Amazon then split off and selected a thick pine tree to climb and wait for her next order. Moments later, Xena and I moved away from Hadiya. Between the watchers on the ground and the ten Amazons by their chosen trees, we had a large area covered.
As the torches continued to advance, I looked at Xena. "Are you ready, Gabrielle?" she asked.
"I'm ready, Xena," I responded as I gripped my staff tighter.
"Jiti!" Xena yelled out the Bantu word for trees.
"Jiti!" Hadiya yelled, followed by Bahri and Charicleia off in the distance. The Amazons were up their chosen trees in a blink of an eye. In the darkness, I couldn't make them out at all. It was as if they had instantly blended in with the bark on the trees.
"Amazing, isn't it, Gabrielle?" Xena held.
"Yes, it is," I remarked.
The sound of the women's voices shouting out an unfamiliar word caused Shaikheti's advancing scouts to pause, but only for a moment. It soon became clear that whatever hesitation the voices may have precipitated was replaced by a marked determination. The scouts began advancing even faster. When they were close enough that we could make out their faces, Xena turned to me.
"Gabrielle," she started, "I want you to help Hadiya give commands to the Amazons. Listen for my commands to you, okay?"
"I will, Xena."
"I want you to stay right here," she continued. "I won't be far."
"Remember everything that the Amazons taught you," she said. "And everything that I taught you. Focus and stay alive."
"I love you, Gabrielle," she said before standing and raising her sword. "ATTACK!" she yelled before shouting out her signature battle cry and running toward the advancing scouts.
Coming from behind me were Agenta and her troops running toward the enemy. I remained crouched as I watched the battle ensue. I had only seen Xena fight once, but what I witnessed of her fighting skills that day in the Cimmerian fort so many months ago paled against what I saw as the sun began rising to our right. The Destroyer of Nations killed men with single, precise strikes across their chests or stomachs. Man after man fell to her sword. Not a single one of them remotely matched her fighting skill. She killed some two at a time and others with their own weapons. She slit some throats with her chakram and completely beheaded others with her sword. When she threw her chakram, it would ricochet off of a tree or rock or someone's shield and then slice across the faces of three or four men before returning to her. The blood of her growing body count was splattering everywhere. I also watched as several times, men tried to attack her from behind. She would either stab them as they held her in a headlock or flip them over and plunge her sword into them as they writhed on the ground. Her leaps, kicks and flips seemed humanly impossible.
Most of the scouts were dead within moments, many of them by Xena's hand alone, and now she and her troops were facing the main flanking force. I was almost in a trance from the carnage I was witnessing when I heard a voice shout out, "Now, Gabrielle!" It was Xena.
I looked up at one of my Sisters, a young guard named Amarice, positioned in her tree. "Fusa!" I shouted the command for "attack."
"Fusa!" Hadiya shouted. "Fusa!" the others followed.
Our voices drew attention as several of Shaikheti's men came toward us. Amarice and the other Amazons began firing upon the advancing enemy, but as one of them came toward me, I stood with my staff and took the ready position that I had practiced over and over again.
This is it, Gabrielle, I thought to myself. Focus and stay alive.