The tears fall from my heart, my love
And loosen tangled reeds
That used to bind a life full rent
In tatters without peace.
The calming path that leads me down
Where waters still await
Reveal a truth that once was sown
And measured each by Fate.
Each grain a lie, the balance tipped
Oblivious to me
Was weighed against a bounty reaped
Found wanting, easily.
My cup, it runneth over now
With briny darkened depths
Your light has come to free my soul
And balance all my debts.
Thoughts both dark and dreary tumbled over each other as they were birthed and died only to be reborn, their nails sharp and teeth bared and at the ready.
If the justice she was so frivolously meting out was blind and not based on any truth, what did that make her? Had she become so lazy and caught up in her own growing ego that she’d willingly let lesser mortals decide the fate of her subjects? How could she have misread Mica and just how long had he been in cahoots with Dagnine and Caesar? Caesar. Crazy images of a proud larger than life emperor seemed to change into some sort of monster with two heads and two very large grasping claws for hands. Although never actually having met the man, she was certain they would – one day.
Xena tried to steady her thoughts on that thought but found them whisked away like so much smoke.
Images of a seemingly endless stream of men and women walked in and out of her bed, each one just as faceless as the next, and Xena felt almost numbed by the reality of it all. The more she tried to center her focus on their faces, the harder the task became. Some faces became almost recognizable and she felt a warm sensation spread through her being; one of them was Lao Ma. But her face kept changing into that of Ubris or Andros…or…this dark faceless figure.
A memory was being tickled but Xena couldn’t quite put her focus on it before it was gone, replaced by images she was all too familiar with: men and women she had betrayed and conquered, at one time or another, throughout her reign. There was her mother, the woman’s face twisted in disgust as Xena held out food and bags of money. And her two brothers standing young and virile in one moment and broken and all but dismembered in another, close enough to touch but floating just out of reach.
She wanted to explain her actions, why she’d lead the life the now lived, but their cold faces turned away from her in disgust. Everywhere she turned was a new familiar face, mocking her, and taunting her with truths that were too horrible to bear.
Clothing herself in the knowledge that she was a honourable warrior, Xena braced herself. Did she want Gabrielle to be one of the faceless demons that haunted her sleep? No, her presence in the bard’s life could only bring her pain and ruin. Was she strong enough to bare the look she knew Gabrielle would wear as the true nature of her dark soul was revealed? A searing pain entered her heart even at the thought of the young woman’s countenance twisted by hatred and bitterness for a life lost and just thrown away. For her.
Xena’s fingers twitched spasmodically in the hemp and she raised her chin ever so slowly.
The dark form at the foot of the cross ran his fingers through his short well-kept beard and sighed deeply. It was giving him a headache, peering into the chasm that was her mind right now, and he gratefully pulled back from the abyss. While some of the images were highly entertaining they lacked a battle worn feel he was accustomed to experiencing when probing the Conqueror’s mind. His eyes traveled the length of the woman’s naked body and his index finger twitched. How easy it would be to just whisk the woman away from this very maudlin scene and into a place filled with soft fabric, jeweled goblets and…’Oh, those open wounds and broken bones will just have to go.’
His eyebrow curled as the warrior began to weakly thrash in her bonds. Yes, she always did know when he was around. ‘Not yet, Xena, but soon. Finish off with your ridiculous feelings of guilt and pain and then we’ll talk.’
He thought briefly of putting himself into those dreams, coercing her into the direction he needed her to go…’But what’s the fun in that?’ Those kinds of games were for the mentally inept, something Xena could never be accused of. No, it was always better to manipulate the woman when she was conscious and thereby totally aware of the power he had over her. Yes, she was all about control, a tool he liked to use whenever it suited his purpose. He wondered if she ever felt the strings dangling overhead?
Ares rubbed his nails across his thick black leather jerkin and thought again on how much fun mortals could really be. He scratched his chin again as he wondered just how long it had been since he’d bedded the always fiery Xena. ‘Months, at least.’ A vulpine look twisted his lips. The accompanying chortle made even the unconscious warrior shiver in response.
It was only after the God of War had finally given up in sheer boredom and had left that the Conqueror’s erratic movements eased off into something more conducive to thought.
Many scenes of her life paraded past her jerking eyes, closed tightly against the realities of what pain had waiting for her. Her body needed both time and care in order to repair itself and yet her mind, always busy, never sedentary, was bursting with vitality, the energy pulsating through her visual cortex certainly not the product of good mental health.
As her focus bounded from one wretched scene to another, Xena could see that the truth of her life was something she’d have to bear…sooner or later. Everything she’d ever touched, every person she’d ever come into contact with, and every thought she’d ever entertained had been one of a selfish and destructive nature.
Xena’s eyelids fluttered briefly and then there she was, sitting at the foot of her bed, the large very comfortable bed she had in her chambers back in the castle. She blinked once and then the short hairs on the back of her neck began to bristle. A knowing smirk graced her lips and the warrior drummed her fingertips on her bare thigh. An eyebrow shot up as she noticed two things: one, she was wearing some flimsy shift that did little more than accentuate what it didn’t cover as opposed to offering any modest state of dress, and; two, that her hands were unmarked. In fact, after looking down at her body she could see that the wounds she’d incurred during the gauntlet were gone, along with her split lip and a few teeth she began to probe lovingly with her tongue.
“Come out, Ares. I know you’re here…I can smell you.”
She barely controlled her body’s reaction to his touch as the god dragged one finger across the nape of her neck.
“Good to see you, Xena. And I mean that in every sense of the word.” He grinned suggestively and the Conqueror began to wonder just what it was about the man that had infatuated her in the first place. Her past dealings with the god had shown her that he had an even bigger ego than she did and although her sexual appetite was legendary it paled compared to the seemingly endless fathoms of the God of War. While the former had been ignored, the latter had been more than a little enticing. But the sad part of it all was that he was so damned…predictable. Although she was instantly enamored of his prowess and logistical mind, it wasn’t long before she could see the truth: he was really nothing but a man – the same wants, needs and desires; manipulative, conceited and…predictable.
“Alright Ares, I’ll bite: what is it that brings you here? Things a little slow on Olympus today?”
The well-muscled god pursed his lips. He began loosening his jerkin and then threw a small fireball into the fireplace.
“I thought I’d…warm you up a bit. You looked a little…uncomfortable tied to that piece of wood. My, my, my…I turn my back for half a year and look at all the trouble you get into.”
Xena smirked but said nothing. Why bother; the man only heard what he wanted to and it was evident that he didn’t have conversation on his mind.
Xena pulled the flimsy fabric tighter across her bosom. Her mind was filled with the gentle touch of a certain bard and if she just held her breath a certain way the particularly alluring scent of the woman could be experienced again if only fleetingly.
“Xena?” Ares wiggled his fingers in front of the warrior’s face and frowned at her dazed expression.
“Alright, who is she and just how could she catch your cultured and very skilled eye?”
A shimmering apparition appeared before them and Xena found herself automatically reaching out to the bard.
Ares frowned. ‘Oh, this will just never do.’ The image of the bard vanished into thin air.
“Xena,” he said in a mocking singsong voice. “Snap out of it.”
The Conqueror fixed the god with a withering gaze. “Ouch,” he said in response. “Please don’t tell me that you’ve fallen for this…this…bard.” His eyes widened as her silence confirmed his suspicions.
“Oh come on! She’s a…baby! If you want a dalliance with her, fine, but please don’t go getting all…sentimental or noble here.”
Xena stood and walked over to the warming fire, taking quite a bit of pleasure in the fact that she could actually walk on legs that didn’t resemble tree trunks. ‘Oh, reality is going to be such a bitch when I leave this dreamscape.’ She sighed heavily and then turned to face the god.
“Listen Ares,” she began.
“Listen? You’ve got it backwards, Xena: you listen I talk. And the talking isn’t mandatory either.” He dropped his jerkin on the bed and moved towards her.
Her checks began to flush with heat the closer he came to her, his power all but oozing from every pore. Gods, but she got a rush out of being in his presence. She shook her head and moved a few steps away from him.
Ares’ eyebrows moved up a notch.
“You try to deny me? You forget yourself, Xena. You belong to me lock, stock and barrel. You’re mine.”
Xena’s mouth twisted. “I belong to me, Ares. And you don’t own me, and you never could. Oh, we’ve had our fun but that’s over. She has what you’d never be able to offer me…love.”
He rolled his eyes. “Is that what all these dark thoughts are all about? Don’t tell me you’ve gotten noble in your old age?”
Xena was silent and this more than anything seemed to enrage the god.
“Now you listen, Xena. We had an agreement: I gave you power and an endless supply of men, arms and support in return for undying and endless fealty. The operative word here is ‘endless’, and in case you haven’t noticed you aren’t dead. Oh, I’ll agree that you’re close…never been this close before, have you? How’s it feel, Xena? Well,” he purred and moved closer.
“I could fix that. I can take out that pompous Roman, even granting the thought that just entered your mind: now, was that using the flat of your blade on his ass or the point as you chase him all the way down to the Roman senate?” He smiled at her smirking response. ‘Making headway here.’
“Got yourself into a bit of trouble once you lost your focus, huh Xena? Well, I can fix that, too.”
“I don’t want your help, Ares. Not any more. Look, we both took what we wanted from this relationship. I gave you more than you ever wanted, Ares. Any deal we had has been paid thrice over.” She turned her back on him and braced herself.
“You’ve been in my life ever since I was a small child, goading me on, seducing me even before my body knew what feelings were for.”
Xena set her jaw as the god snorted. “I made you the strong, fearless all but invincible warrior you are, Xena. Or should I say ‘were’?”
Two hands gripped the mantle until the tendons in her arm screamed out in agony. “You made me a monster, Ares. While I was certainly a willing participant, those days are over…we’re over.”
The temperature of the room seemed to rise and their surroundings shimmered briefly before coalescing once more.
“I know your thoughts, Xena. How can you even contemplate thinking them let alone carrying them through? I could stop you, Xena. Why, I could keep you in suspended animation for…years. Until you come to your senses, that is. And by that time the bard will have either forgotten you or died of old age.”
Xena gritted her teeth at the realities of her situation. Everything he’d just said was more than a mere threat – it was a promise.
“Ares. Can’t you see how good she is in my life? I’ve lived alone for so long…”
Her breath caught as he moved his finger from the hollow at the front of her neck up and into her hair.
“I can be whatever you need, Xena.”
The smile on the god’s face faltered as his hand was seized in a steel grip.
“You can’t be her, Ares. I’ve been exactly what you’ve wanted me to be all these years…now it’s my turn; let me be me…with her.”
Running a slow hand through his thick slightly curly hair, the God of War shook his head.
“Let you be you so you can destroy that lovely black heart of yours?” He continued to shake his head. “Now, why ever would I want to do that?”
Xena smiled and then loosened her grip. “Because it’s always been a game to you, Ares, and who knows…maybe one day you’ll win. But ‘one day’s’ a long time…there’ll always be the sport of it.”
“You’re only deceiving yourself, Xena.” He moved away slowly, his body once more clothed in black leather. “I’ll be here to pick up the pieces. But don’t keep me waiting too long…I don’t know exactly how long my marker is good with Hades.”
The warmth of the room began to recede and the warrior’s eyes fluttered as an immense jolt entered her body, and then she was bathed in the blackness of unbearable pain.
The dreamscape was gone and she was locked in the grips of the tormented questions that all but ate at her very soul.
Could she be strong enough to do what needed to be done?
The Empress of Chin walked to the foot of the cross and nodded to Quan Su who moved quickly to cut the woman down. A slight intake of breath followed as the form was eased onto a waiting litter. Although she knew the condition of her new patient was grave, Lao Ma was also aware that the woman’s heart still had a regular beat.
She peered closely at the warrior’s pupils and then pursed her lips. Although she could see the fine specimen Xena had been before the beating, it was almost as if the woman had shrunk during and after her ordeal. Placing her hands palm down, she slowly moved them over the Conqueror’s body, careful not to pierce the aura, thereby upsetting the balance still taking form within.
Quan Su shook his head sadly. It was evident that the woman was terribly weak. He cast a quick look at his mistress and could see she too was troubled.
The air seemed heavy with mist as they both stood their vigil, the clank of steel upon metal and bone all but blanketed by the moisture. It had taken them a good three days to fight through the Roman forces and retake the castle…or what remained of it. Small pockets of resistance were still going on within earshot.
Lao Ma inhaled slowly, cleansing the remnants of fear that threatened to rekindle in her belly as each charred body was set before her for inspection. While deeply in tune with the rhythms of both the Conqueror and the young bard, she hadn’t been able to really pierce the wall that had fallen between she and Xena after she’d been dragged out into the courtyard.
That had troubled her. While blessed with the gift of sight, Lao Ma knew the vagaries of the Fates; it was one thing to have the tools by which the future could be told and quite another to have the veil lifted so that she could actually view it.
Yes, it had been a very long three days, not knowing for certain whether the Lord still lived or had died of her wounds. Had the Roman’s been true to form and used heavy spikes or had her men harried their forces to the point where by flight was preferable to the finer details of a crucifixion?
She rubbed the inner part of her left wrist and expelled her breath. She had all but sobbed her relief when Xena’s body hadn’t been found with the bonfire of lost souls, destined to wander endlessly through oblivion, their deaths unavenged. Shivering slightly at the thought of Xena haunting her nights, she pulled herself away from such thoughts and blessed the Fates once more for placing their fortune in her path.
She fingered the scroll that had been impaled on the cross at Xena’s feet. ‘Vengeance is mine.’ She wondered exactly what had prompted Caesar to reach out his long arm and deal with the Conqueror in such a way. It was clear that the woman had been stripped and then whipped after she’d been placed on the cross. Caesar had wanted the message to be clear: he would treat the Conqueror like a pariah, beneath even the custom dignity afforded a slave – breaking her legs would have hastened her death; even piercing her side would insure a less painful way to die. She shuddered again as she thought of the warrior languishing on the cross, thirsting, trying to stay awake, if only to fend off the ravens who would begin to peck at anything that lay still for too long.
Sighing heavily, she pondered the path these two would walk, knowing there could only be further bloodshed and only one survivor. But that was for another day. Pushing her hands deeper into her sleeves, the Empress began to silently meditate and cleared her mind of the violent images that assaulted her.
Quan Su cleared his throat as his new charge began her path towards consciousness.
The Empress gestured two men forward and they began removing the ropes that had fastened Lord Xena to the cross.
“Great care must be taken, for the body has been denied healthy blood flow for many days.” Taking a bit of cold flesh between her fingers, Lao Ma nodded and then gestured the men toward Xena’s hands.
Xena winced as the men began to untie her bonds. A stab of searing pain hit her as blood began to surge back into areas long denied circulation.
Lao Ma moved forward as Lord Xena’s broken body was carefully covered in the litter. The warrior tried to push away the soldiers but in her weakened state fell back gasping as she was tended to. The Empress gestured her men forward, away from the castle and into her secluded encampment nearby. She nodded and then moved slowly toward her tent. There were many preparations to be done. She only hoped the warrior would live to see their fruition.
The bard rubbed the ache in her legs and shook her head slowly. Was it only yesterday that she’d been locked in pain and agony, taking the brunt of the guard’s cruel kicks on legs only recently re-broken, their time mending ridiculously short? A frown creased her forehead as fingers moved gingerly over the swelling all but gone from her knees. ‘It can’t have been more than a fortnight since the healer…’ The bard shuddered and clutched the blanket more tightly around her. Wiggling her bare toes in the plush rug adorning the tent she now sat in, Gabrielle wondered at the circumstances that had lead her there.
She’d spent the day searching the area around the damaged castle but had ended up giving aid to put out a few fires, and minister to a few injured men. Her level of frustration had risen to the point that she hadn’t even responded when an aging Oriental had stopped her. He seemed quite familiar to her and although Gabrielle was intent on finding Xena it was only when she allowed herself to stop and think that the bard realized just how terribly fatigued she was. The man seemed kindly and she allowed herself to be lead to a place he assured her was safe. His insistence that help would be provided to find her ‘friend’ set her mind at ease. At that point, she was uncertain as to why he was there at all. Could he be an enemy spy? The question kept her busy as she awaited his return.
Eying a water skin nearby, Gabrielle licked her lips and then began to rise. Her movements stilled as the tent flap was raised and then she gasped with recognition. It was the woman of her dreams that now appeared before her.
“I know you”, she whispered in awe. “But I don’t know how.”
The Oriental woman dropped her chin slightly and smiled. Glancing quickly to the side, the Empress motioned wordlessly and the man Gabrielle had followed entered the tent carrying a tray.
Gabrielle’s belly growled as a platter of cold meats and fruit was set before her. Although her throat now filled with anticipation she made a quick decision and walked rapidly over to the where the water skin was. Drinking deeply, she sighed and then made her way back to the cushion she’d been sitting on.
“Thank you for your hospitality…?” She frowned. The woman looked to be a queen or some sort of diplomat. Then she remembered what the Roman had said earlier.
“You’re the foreigners that were approaching from the east.” A bit of fear began to tighten her belly and then she looked into the woman’s soft brown eyes as her hand was taken between long delicate hands.
“You have nothing to fear, Gabrielle: I am an ally of Xena’s. I am…”
“Lao Ma”, finished the bard. A slight smile appeared on the taller woman’s face and Gabrielle found her own lips twisting in response.
“Come and sit, Gabrielle.” The bard watched as the man knelt before her and set the tray down. She opened her mouth in protest as he placed one well-formed hand upon her dirty and somewhat battered feet. The idea of someone touching her was rather discomforting but in truth it was more than the pain such an inspection would cause that had her cringing away from the man’s touch.
“I can do it…” Oh, what she wouldn’t have given for a bath right at that moment. The idea of being inspected in such a way…She cringed as a bit of revulsion eased over her heart. She was a mess and knew it. In fact, she was sure anyone in a one-mile radius would know it as well. The finery of the rugs and tapestry lining this tent was overwhelming, making her feel less than worthy to even stand in awe of it all. Her fingers twitched as she thought of just how crisp and clean, soft and grand were the robes these two wore. She tried to smooth out the fabric stretched across her belly but could see how close to being threadbare it was. If she wasn’t very careful…a blush began at her throat.
“Please,” continued Lao Ma as she gently pushed the bard down onto the cushion. “You will feel no pain.”
The bard opened her mouth again but it was a gentle sigh of relief that was emitted rather than one of pain as a slight tingling began from her toes up to her ankles and beyond.
“It was him…in the cell…but how…?”
Lao Ma smiled and then settled herself on the chaise lounge nearby.
Gabrielle steadied her focus on the ritualistic movements the woman began to employ as she prepared a hot drink. Her nose twitched as the gentle scent of flowers filled the air.
“It is Jasmine tea, Gabrielle. But first,”
The bard yelped in surprise as a particularly painful bump on her leg was inspected. The man whispered soft words of encouragement and she removed her grip from his wrist. Although frail in appearance, Gabrielle could feel the steel-like tendons and ligaments that ran from his calloused hands up the inside of his arms. It was somewhat unnerving to think that she truly was at the mercy of these two strangers regardless of how well she thought she could defend herself.
“You must understand that we mean you no harm. We are here for only one thing.”
Gabrielle shifted her focus from the man’s hands as they moved slowly up and down her legs and then locked eyes with the Empress.
“You want Xena. I’ve looked for her…the Roman’s said…they took her…said they would…”
“Crucify her, yes Gabrielle, I know that”, finished the other woman.
Gabrielle tried to get up. “I have to find her…it’s been three days now and she might be…” She swallowed and then brought a shaking hand to her mouth. No, she wouldn’t think about it.
“Tell me, Gabrielle, are you a good friend of Xena’s?”
The bard thought of exactly what Lord Xena meant to her. Were they friends? Scenes of violence flitted quickly by and were replaced by those of a more caring and gentle nature. They had both faced death and danger together, had quiet moments filled with shared secrets, and had learned to trust each other without hesitation. The weight of the second tally overpowered the first and as she thought of how much more than a friend Xena had become, she smiled.
Lao Ma nodded. “That is good because it is a good friend that she needs right now.”
The bard pushed herself to her feet excitedly.
“You’ve found her? You know where she is? Is she all right? Where is she?”
Quan Su smiled and tsked softly. Even with his ministrations, this one would heal far slower than his mistress would want but she was young and had a very healthy aura. His fingertips rustled softly together with the energy field he could still feel as he pulled his hands away. His shoulders shook and he felt an almost overpowering need to dance across the floor. ‘Ah, sweet bird of youth, spread your wings in this old man’s heart so that he may relive your bounty, if only briefly.’
Lao Ma patted his shoulder and smiled. ‘This one has many gifts, Quan Su. Her potential is vast.’
The old man nodded and then took the tray away, a smile still playing on his mouth, all but erasing the touch of time from his face.
In her rush to search for her lover, the bard’s forward momentum carried both she and the Empress a short distance before the strength of the taller woman came into play.
“Gabrielle, you must wait.”
The blonde made a small squeaking noise as a firm yet gentle hand took hold of her upper arm.
“You must stay here and be patient. Lord Xena is in a very bad way.”
A stricken look instantly replaced the happy and expectant one the bard had been wearing leaving the Empress unsure of just how to proceed.
“You have endured much, Gabrielle. But are you prepared to face the possible death of one you love?”
Gabrielle felt her knees buckle and was eased gently down onto the rug. Her fingers traced the intricate grooves in the pattern and weave of the rug in an attempt to pull her thoughts away from what the Empress had said, and therefore deny them power. They had endured so much…she couldn’t lose Xena now.
‘Stop thinking about it! It can’t happen…it won’t!’ But the more she fought against the truth, the more she had to accept its possibility. Struggling to compose herself, Gabrielle raised her eyes and stared boldly into Lao Ma’s.
“Yes! Tell me more.” The blonde quivered at her audacity but her gaze never faltered.
Lao Ma’s eyebrows rose and she smiled.
“I will take you to her, but first I must prepare you for what you will encounter. You must know that the brutality she endured at the hands of Dagnine and his men was far more brutal than she has ever encountered. It was more than just a beating, Gabrielle; it was a breaking of her spirit. Even now…” She closed her eyes briefly and then shook her head quickly.
“Yes?” The bard leaned forward.
“I have certain skills, Gabrielle, that allow me to feel another’s aura, that which holds a person’s soul, nourishing it and keeping it safe. Right now, Xena’s aura is very weak. In fact, although the darkness is somewhat less the overall energy is the weakest it has ever been.”
The bard gulped. She wasn’t too sure exactly what the woman was talking about but she did understand one thing: Xena was giving up.
“If you’ll let me see her…I think I can change her mind, make her realize how much I love her, how much she means in my life, and how very empty I’ll be if she were to…”
Lao Ma patted the woman’s shoulder and then offered a hand up. A bit of green caught the bard’s eye and she reached out to touch the jade pendant hanging from a chain about the woman’s neck.
“How pretty. It reminds me of the small bits of jade the warrior has throughout her castle.” She cocked her head. “Did you know that at certain times your eyes look almost that colour?”
Lao Ma smiled a secret smile but said nothing.
“I think Xena told me the jade reminded her of you.”
“No, child. I can’t believe Xena would make that connection. Oh, it’s true, but only someone as intuitive as you would make that leap.”
“Leap? She told me a little of the history you share, Empress. And I saw you in a dream.” Lao Ma chuckled as the bard was overcome with a flush of crimson.
“Yes, you did, didn’t you?”
Gabrielle looked up sharply.
“Why did you give me those dreams?”
A smile was the only response she received.
“Did you know we were fated to be together or did you decide?
“We can talk of this another time, little one.” She moved over to her lounge and then waited until the bard was seated.
Quan Su arrived immediately and bowed. “Yes, mistress?”
“I believe the bard would like to bathe.”
Lao Ma quietly pulled the screen into place leaving the young woman to her privacy, and then worked her way across the field to where her friend lay.
The smile faltered on her lips as the condition of the warrior hit her full force. She had hoped some hot water and medicine would have improved the Conqueror’s condition. Xena had this mysterious ability to heal very quickly. A frown creased her brow as she wondered just when these properties would begin to work their magic. Any woman or man for that matter who had been mistreated in such a way would certainly have succumbed to such wounds. Although Xena looked very tired and weak, it was still early yet.
Xena noted the peripheral movement and slowly turned her face to the wall of the tent. Lao Ma stood in silence and watched as one of her men wrung out the bloodied rag and began cleaning away another deep wound on the warrior’s upper thigh.
“Her love for you is your salvation.”
“I remember…Gabrielle said my love for her was her salvation.”
Lao Ma chuckled. “The bard’s salvation was never in question. The girl’s bond with you is eternal and only through your own pain and acceptance of the woman and her pain that you can accept the gift, your destiny, as it was written.”
“I’m sorry that I could never accept the gift that you offered.”
“I am too, Xena.” The two fell silent as their shared memories blossomed forth.
“It is quite amusing how the Fates set you on a course, a path where your destiny will take you, and while it intersects with another you feel is ordained, it will then veer off into areas you would never have expected.”
Xena wiped at a little moisture on her jaw and tried to smile but her mouth was so swollen and lips so bloodied that a grimace is all that was produced. Lao Ma noticed the rapid blinking and the tightening around Xena’s lips and sighed. ‘Always the stoic warrior, Xena? Why deny the truth?’
“Although your path has been littered with death and violence, setting you up as one of the cruelest of Lords that ever ruled Greece, it also placed you in a position whereby you were the salvation of many. You may belittle the positive impact you have had on your realm in general and your subjects in particular, Xena, but the proof is there. Not only have you been responsible for putting a stop to the violence that used to ravage this land but you’ve helped to put those whom you govern in a position whereby they can achieve their own dreams.” She placed a soft hand on her friend’s arm and smiled.
“Because of you a young child grew up believing she could be a bard.”
The Empress felt a catch in her breathing as the warrior finally loosened the grip on her emotions and let a small tear traverse her sharp features, its existence apparent to anyone present. She could feel the angst mirrored in her manservant and filled his heart with a cleansing warmth. As to the warrior, however, the Oriental merely recognized the turmoil boiling within mixed with the self-hatred that threatened to swamp her and bided her time. Finally the warrior spoke.
“How could anything thrive beneath my boot, Lao Ma? It was because of my very nature that Gabrielle was incarcerated and crucified. Because of me…”
Dark thoughts of cruelty meted out by her guards crashed down heavily upon her shoulders and Xena moaned deeply.
“I didn’t know…”
Lao Ma nodded slowly.
“While this feeling of being out of control is new to you, those of us who are your allies and friends have seen this building until it was apparent that something would have to give…and that something was you, Xena.”
A faint bit of defiance rose up in the woman’s eyes and Lao Ma grasped at the little hope it provided. If she could just move the woman beyond her self-pity…
An eyebrow rose quickly. Thinking of Xena and self-pity in the same breath was so…wrong. Perhaps she should have lent aid before the beating could exact such damage? Each blow that had filled her mind had been felt as if it were she enduring the gauntlet and not the broken woman before her.
“As cruel as you are, Xena, I cannot believe that you knew of the terrible toll the bard paid while in the care of your headsman.” She raised a hand as the warrior tried to protest.
“Oh, do not misunderstand me, my friend. I am well acquainted with the violence of your lovemaking. I am also privy to the many truths and lies as to the varied liaisons in your past; I am under no illusions as to the many degrees of persuasion you have employed in your efforts to quench the darkness within you.”
Shame bubbled up and Xena quickly looked away.
“You are responsible for those acts, and you have never tried to deny their truth. But you have also moved on, throwing off the shackles Ares would have you wear, thereby chaining you to him forever. It was your free will that did that, Xena, your desire to change. While your violence towards the young woman who now holds your heart was brutal and terribly unkind, it was nothing compared to those in your past, and certainly not to be seen in the same light as that of your heartless guards. In fact,” she paused pensively. “In fact, it was a conspiracy by Mica and Dagnine to undermine your position, thus diverting your attention from the treason afoot.”
Xena leaned forward, her pain briefly forgotten. “How could they know how important Gabrielle would become? Even I didn’t know…not until…the assassins.” She rubbed her chin thoughtfully. Blinking deeply, she snorted as the truth hit her: no wonder the assassin had seemed so familiar.
“It was you who fought me in my chamber. But how did you disguise yourself so well, and to the point whereby I was sure you were a male?”
“I have skills you can only dream of, my friend. It is merely a parlor trick, really. I simply become what my adversary believes I am, nothing more.”
Xena nodded and then gestured the woman to continue.
“They couldn’t have known you would fall in love with the bard, Xena, although it was very apparent to me, even as you watched the woman hobble into your presence that first time. All that they hoped was that the woman would provide you with a bit of distraction, allowing them to continue their transactions with Rome.”
Xena shook her head ruefully. “I never expected at this time in my life…I’m in that danger zone, Lao Ma. I haven’t many years ahead of me; what warrior ever does? You live by the sword, you…”
“Then put down the sword, Xena.”
The warrior clenched her bloodied fists and turned her gaze back to the Empress.
“What am I without a weapon or the skill to wield one? Dagnine was right…I’d be nothing but a joke if I stay alive now.”
Loa Ma pursed her lips and then nodded at the downcast expression on the warrior’s face.
“I believe he said you would be proof that he was weak and nothing compared to you. I took that to mean that your survival would guarantee his demise.”
Xena spit out a gasp.
“You knew! You were there! How could you just let…” Hiding her eyes beneath a trembling hand, the Conqueror tried to regulate her breathing, fearing she’d go mad with this final betrayal.
“If you cannot deny your warrior ways, then you must modify them.”
The Conqueror’s eyes flashed red-hot.
“I’ve done nothing but change…and look where it’s gotten me!”
The Empress picked at a bit of non-existent fluff on the sleeve of her silk robe, resettled the sash at her waist and then fixed the warrior with a cold gaze.
“Tell me what you want, Xena?”
Many things filled the warrior’s mind at that moment, but all of them involved thoughts and images that had the Empress all but reeling as she felt them beetling over her heart. As much good as the bard had accomplished, there was still so much darkness, so much pain and inner hatred in the woman. She doubted that would ever change.
Xena tried to fill her lungs and voice her displeasure at her current well being, or lack thereof, but only succeeded in causing a rather unpleasant fit of coughing. A tiny drop of blood was smeared along the point of her chin as she finally regained her composure. The baleful look she threw at the Oriental was a mixture of rage, pain and terrible anguish. Lao Ma’s breath caught as she watched the warrior struggle with her words.
"I want you...to stop the pain."
The Oriental fought to keep the surprise from her face.
"You have known pain all of your life, Xena. I have seen you endure more than this many times and yet not once in your life as a mercenary did you not face it - embracing it willingly."
Xena probed a bloody hole in the back of her jaw and looked away. Her youth had been spent suturing more than one mistake, and although it had taken quite a bit before she'd learned the lessons life as a budding warlord would offer, she had...finally. It wasn't that she was thick headed, although that was arguable, and it wasn't that she enjoyed the pain, although that too had a ring of truth to it; it had more to do with her living life as it came...good, bad or indifferent - life was a banquet to be savoured and enjoyed. By the time the feast had ended, she and pain were well acquainted.
'Feast had ended.' Xena ran a shaking hand over her swollen legs and although every breath and every movement was almost too much to bear, she knew that Lao Ma was wrong - she'd never endured a beating such as this. But that wasn’t the point, was it? After feeling the total hatred of a man she’d once been very willing to endure, his despicable ways very much like her own, she’d found herself questioning their differences. Were there any to be found? Would she have done the very same thing were the circumstances more in her favour than his?
A kernel of magma began to blossom as she contemplated those very thoughts. While her hatred of Dagnine had been great, it hadn’t been all encompassing. Yes, she had wished him dead and had certainly taken no small bit of comfort knowing that it was by her hand that he was sent to the Underworld, but take the time and patience to form an alliance with Rome and create a contest that required neither strength nor endurance thereby discounting its very nature because she had purged him of any hopes his advances would be welcome? A bit of something dark was added to the magma as the warrior contemplated the very nature of betrayal. There had been so much in her life that it was commonplace, a tool she was well acquainted with.
Xena lay there pondering the very audacity of the man. Not only had he presumed himself worthy of her affections but had assumed that she would have been open to such attention. No, as twisted and grotesque, both in mind and spirit, as the Lieutenant had been he wasn’t even worth the time or effort required to plan any more fitting a death than he had already endured. Her lips tightened as she thought of the surprised look he’d worn, all but assured that a half-dead unarmed woman would be easy prey, to find that cold steel was the only cold comfort he’d ever get from that quarter.
How could she convince this intuitive woman that it was death she wanted so very badly?
"Look at me, Lao Ma; I am old and feeble and broken in too many places. All the kings horses and all the kings men..." A smile twisted her features again.
"There was a time when only you could put Xena together again, my friend. I think those days have passed." The Empress paused and then took a large but battered hand into her own.
"Why do you wish oblivion from the one who holds your heart? It will take time but you will mend."
"I don't want mend, Lao Ma!" She groaned as the pain shot through her chest. Pressing a hand to the plaster covering the hole, Xena drew a slow thready breath. Although the pain had been excruciating, she had insisted on personally directing the surgeon as he re-inflated her lung. Keeping her ribs from reacquainting themselves with the tender flesh of her chest cavity was going to be difficult...but if she was forced to...
An eyebrow raised and Lao Ma pursed her lips.
"Ah, the great and powerful Lord Xena wishes more than a temporary haven from the pain? Tell me, Xena, why you believe I would help you change your destiny? While our paths have always been entwined, this is not the way. Your destiny..."
The warrior pushed the blankets from the litter and glared up into the passive face of the Empress.
"You say you know my destiny...if you did, then why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you warn me that Caesar would move on me, that Dagnine would grow balls and ally with him, and why not warn me about a mere slip of a girl who would bring down my very empire?"
A shadow passed over the Oriental's face and Xena's jaw dropped open in surprise.
“It was you who put those dreams of her into my head! But…but why?”
“It was foretold that you would find your peace in another’s pain. For a very long time, I believed that only through the suffering of others could you achieve your true destiny, as dark as that might be. I misread the future, Xena. Your destiny lies in the pain of this woman, this slave who would love you despite your dark nature.”
Xena eased her shoulders a bit and then rolled her eyes skyward.
“You always were inscrutable, weren’t you? Can’t you just say what you mean and get on with it?”
The Empress tapped a front tooth and wondered just how far the Conqueror had gotten with the little bit of patience she had.
“Only Gabrielle could reach past the pain and bring you into the light. Your acceptance of her pain as your own has allowed you accept what you were and become what you truly are."
She turned as Quan Su came out of his tent.
“Empress, the visitors have arrived.”
Xena narrowed her eyes. “What kind of visitors? Unless you’ve got what remains of Dagnine to nail up for the crows, I’m not interested in being the afternoon’s entertainment.”
Lao Ma cocked an eyebrow and quashed a sudden urge to shake the woman until her teeth rattled.
“Must everything be about you, Xena? Have you no interest in what has befallen your men, your servants, or…”
“Of course I have. But I know you, woman; you’d have bypassed this entire scene of skullduggery and told me had they been killed straight away. All this verbal sparring has done is waste time…something I have precious little of these days.”
“I have grown tired of this talk of death, Xena. You have many years ahead of you, years of health and happiness. I won’t listen to any more of this nonsense.”
Xena smirked as the woman turned away.
“Oh, yes you will. I can see how those cute little ears perk up as you run those long skilled fingertips through my affairs. You’ve had a hand in all of this from the very first. Damn me for not seeing it before. Destiny be damned, it’s been you who have orchestrated this whole thing, from beginning to end.” She watched the set of the woman’s face.
“Tell me, Lao Ma. How much has been foretold and how much has been simply your meddling? You foreign women of intrigue seem to revel in games involving the mind and the heart. Tell me you aren’t gaining any satisfaction from seeing me beaten almost to death, my realm shattered beyond repair, and the once proud warrior I was reduced to that of a piece of dung. Tell me.”
Lao Ma released a slow measured breath.
“It’s like old times with us, isn’t it Xena? We’ve always approached each other as if we were some fierce jungle cats, hissing and spitting, when all we wanted was to lie in the sun and be worshipped. We are of a kind, you and I. We must be hard as a defense against our soft nature. But what we perceive to be a weakness is in reality the very strength that drives us forward.”
Xena rolled her eyes again.
“More talk of love. Tell me, Lao Ma, what do you know of love? You certainly never loved your husband and yet you stayed with him. He treated you like dirt before your marriage was arranged and that never changed. Lao Tsu…”
“…Was a man of great foresight, Xena. He had grand plans for Chin, plans that unfortunately became corrupt as he was entangled in court intrigue.”
She looked off into the distance for but a moment and then resettled her steady gaze on the woman before her.
“Yes, I have known love. One had great potential, Xena; potential that was not fully realized. Although filled with visions of peace and prosperity for our Province, the quest for power became all consuming, reducing a fine mind and spirit to that of a monster. And yet my dreams for him never wavered.”
“You’ve been slowly killing him for years, Lao Ma. Who rules Chin now?”
Tucking her small feet beneath her, the Empress sat a little off to the side quietly, running her long dainty fingers through the ruined grass.
“Lao Tsu was the first man I fell in love with. He was a ruthless tyrant, a truth I came to see before too long, but one that I was blind to for many years. He had so much potential, Xena, and I had so much hope for him.” The Empress remembered the brash young nobleman he’d been, filled with promise and an eager heart. Although she had not been his first wife, Lao Tsu had honoured her family by taking her as a secondary wife. A smile tickled at the corner of her mouth. There had been good times in their union…once upon a time. Ma blinked the images of her youth away and then smiled.
“My love for him was so great that I took the very thing that seduced him: power. Without this craving went his need for violence and control. When that was gone, all that was left was a man well aware of his own limitations. Lao Tsu had outgrown his own boundaries of sanity. Many think I have been poisoning him for years, taking the reins from him gradually until he was nothing but a shell. How could this be true when I loved him, and love him still? No, Lao Tsu was a brilliant man whose forte was best employed on the battlefield. Easily corrupted, his visions for peace became visions of domination at any cost. Why would I use a difficult and painful method when simple coercion was the key?”
The Conqueror pretended to yawn. Everyone did whatever it was they needed to do to achieve their own ends. It was an age-old story, and one she had helped write on more than one occasion. Lao Ma expelled a slow breath, the only sign of her mounting frustration as she noted the warrior’s focus wavering. Moving closer to take the woman’s larger hand, she waited until Xena’s gaze was locked with her own.
“He wished a realm filled with those he could control and dominate. I gave him the life he lusted for.”
“You wove a fabric of dreams and illusions, didn’t you?” Shaking her head slowly, Xena pulled her hand away.
“Your vision of love isn’t love at all; just another type of control.”
“I am what I need to be, Xena, nothing more.” Lao Ma held the warrior’s gaze in a show of mutual understanding. Yes, they were of a kind.
Quan Su blinked. While he had been a manservant for Lao Ma for many years, this news of her husband was startling to say the least. He shifted his gaze from one woman to another. Both wore masks from which they could control those around them. Was there any difference between them? He felt as if a warm invisible hand was stroking his face and looked down to see the Empress wearing a gentle smile.
“It is true, my friend. Of course I feel unfettered and free after many years of wearing the yoke of ‘concubine’, living the life of a pariah, and then enduring the growing sorrow of watching my husband being manipulated. While he saw me as nothing more than a possession, I became his only friend; by taking his power am I ensuring his legacy.”
She paused, and then reached out a hand to the old man who helped her to her feet.
“He’s dead, then?”
The Empress nodded. “He suffered an attack of some sort a year ago and remained in a coma until only recently. Although there are those who oppose it, my ascension to the throne has been met with little resistance. It has taken me years of example to show that a mere ‘wife’ can be of great importance. While I have never truly wished to exchange that title for ‘Empress’, there is little I can do about the hand the Fates have dealt me.” Nodding her thanks to the man, she threw the warrior a weak smile as she adjusted her robe.
“You are the only woman I have ever loved and my love for you would have been all encompassing had it been allowed to flourish…but it would have consumed us both in the end. My destiny lies as Empress of Chin and yours lies in the hands of another.”
Xena sneered and darted her tongue out to lick at the coppery taste dotting the corner of her mouth.
“You think you know me as well as you know yourself, Lao Ma. I think you’re wrong.” She focused on the old man by the woman’s side.
“I’m not a nice person, she’d be the first to tell you. Why, I remember holding her down for hours, piercing that veil of inscrutability until she screamed.” Xena smiled a secret smile as a faint blush fluttered across the woman’s high cheekbones.
“You thought you could change me…you couldn’t. Neither can Gabrielle…not completely. Can’t you see how much pain I’ll cause her? Any goodness she has in her will be rung out, droplet by droplet, until there’s very little left that resembles the sweet bard she is.”
Quan Su placed a hand on the litter as it wobbled on the struts it had been placed on.
“I am not an innocent either, Lord Xena. I have heard many tales, both good and bad, but I know you are wrong. While everyone, even my mistress, would be pleased to lie back and enjoy the fruits of life they have struggled for and earned, it would be of no use to deny what destiny has in store for them. My mistress says that you have changed. Even the rock must wear the brunt of the raging river in order to remain. While you are the rock Lao Ma is the raging water. Her destiny is to restore a country still ill at ease with its own grandeur and ignorance. Yours,”
He paused as the warrior began to struggle into a sitting position.
“Yours lies in rebuilding a life on the foundation of truth.”
Lao Ma nodded and patted the man’s shoulder.
“Yes, the time of the barbarian is almost over, Xena. While you achieved much by use of violence and degradation, it is time to move on.” She pursed her lips. “And you do have many skills, my Warrior Princess. You will adapt. Your future might still include ruling with an iron fist, but the velvet encasing it will ensure your place in history. Do not run from your destiny, Xena…embrace it. Embrace her.”
Quan Su bowed as two figures pushed through the flaps of the main tent.
“Godsbedamn you, Lao Ma…not like this…” she said, recognizing the ‘visitors’.
Ubris darted forward as the warrior attempted to roll out of the litter.
“Sire! You mustn’t.”
Xena gritted her teeth as the pain increased with every movement. Her eyelids fluttered as her ribs grated against bone and soft tissue. ‘Gods,’ she thought pitifully. ‘I’ll be reduced to a mewling sop in no time. Give me a sword and let me die as I’d always planned.’ She chuckled coldly. ‘Mind you, that was my second choice.’ Making love endlessly to some ravishing beauty beneath her had been first, of course. However, both seemed to be slightly out of her reach in her current state. The thought of giving up what little control she still possessed was totally abhorrent to her. At this juncture in her life when everything had been taken from her, she would have some say as to how she lived out her life…or didn’t.
“Their presence won’t deter me, Lao Ma. I’ll not lie here one second longer…if you won’t help me, then I’ll find a way to do it myself.” Her jaw twitched as the Egyptian began to cry softly. Casting an imploring look at her Lieutenant, she tried to gain an ally.
“You more than anyone, Andros, should understand why I can’t…” She sighed mightily.
“Look at me, I’m a ruination of what I once was. No more is there the proud valiant, strong, fearless Conqueror who rides at the head of every battle. No more. It’ll take me a good 13 months to get back on my feet and in that time I’ll be the easiest mark any warlord would want to have.” She glared at her Lieutenant. “I won’t be molly coddled, and I couldn’t stand seeing her…She’d grow to hate me, Ubris. You can see that, can’t you? I’m a terrible patient, and I admit it.”
A cough rattled her bruised frame and Ubris brought a water skin to her lips. Xena drank a few drops and then leaned back onto the bundle of rags she lay upon.
“I would help you in any way I could, Lord Xena…you must know that. But I can’t…I won’t…”
The Conqueror peered through one bloody eye and managed a weak smile.
“Why won’t you do this for me, Andros? You've been more of a friend to me than I could be for you...and more than I ever deserved.” She coughed painfully and both friend and servant moved a little closer. Ripping a section of her ruined shift, Ubris knelt beside the litter and began to tend to the woman.
“You have been injured very badly, my Lord. It will take many more rags than I can make in order to tend you.” She darted a look at the old man and he smiled, nodded, and then left.
“Andros…will you hold this?” She frowned as the man made no attempt to acknowledge her request. Her eyes darted back and forth between the two and then she sighed. She felt a tingling across her scalp and looked up into the very warm and kind eyes of the Empress. ‘All will be well.’ Ubris swallowed a sob and fervently wished that it would come to pass.
Andros finally released his breath and then, stumbling with emotion blurted out, "I am a true friend, sire, but don’t ask this of me.” Each wound was noted by his subconscious but the Lieutenant kept pushing the truth away. If he just didn’t look too closely…’If only I could have…’
He cleared his throat and then grasped both hands behind his back. The effort caused him to wince.
Xena skewed her jaw painfully and studied the Lieutenant more closely. His clothing was dotted with stains of red here and there, and one hand was heavily bandaged.
“You have always been loyal, Andros. Everything I have ever asked of you…”
Andros stared straight ahead.
The Conqueror’s features twisted as her efforts in using their friendship to gain an end she sorely desired fell short. Wiping the sweat from her brow, she held her servant’s hand for a moment and then spoke. Her voice was rather unsteady but she continued on, despite her deepening state of fatigue.
“Thank you for saving Ubris. I don’t know how you escaped the castle; I wasn’t even aware security had been breeched until…” The fierce grip on her hand had the Egyptian shuddering.
“Were there many loses?”
Andros wiped his nose and then nodded. “Yes sire, on both sides, but I fear it isn’t the last we’ll see of Caesar.”
“Ah, the Romans. Yes, and what of our two guests? Were they spirited back to Rome to await an audience with the grand and imperious Julius Caesar?”
“No sire. There is little remaining of either Flavius or Cassius. It seems his Tribune had a little score to settle with one of them and had orders on how to deal with the other.”
Xena nodded. “Were there enough survivors to rally against them or was the battle a complete loss?”
Andros blinked the tears of shame from his eyes and looked away. “Christo was badly wounded, but Polis…”
Xena felt her breath catch. ‘Oh no…’
“What of Polis? Tell me.”
A bit of steel crept back into the man’s voice as he began detailing one or two of the more victorious skirmishes. And then his smile faltered.
“You would have been proud, Lord Xena. The man fought like a lion, taking many down with him, but in the end…the enemy forces were too great. His wounds are grievous, sire, and I fear he shall not survive them.”
So many men lost. Xena felt her emotions very close to the surface and willed them back down. ‘Now was not the time for blubbering’, she thought, but the truth was that at that very moment part of her wished she could do that very thing. And although there was a fierce war going on inside, Xena was determined not to give in. If she did, wasn’t it akin to admitting that Dagnine had won, that he’d broken her and reduced her to being nothing more than a fragile woman who now knew her place?
Lao Ma sensed the inner turmoil and closed her eyes. Suddenly, the urge to hyperventilate subsided and Xena was able to gather her defenses. She was never a mewling child, never a petulant teen, and certainly not a weak teary-eyed adult. She was just feeling…defenseless…right now. It would pass…when she healed…if she healed.
Everything she had fought for and gained over the years – all of it gone? The once feared and mighty warlord and her army who bent the will of a nation scattered by a handful of Romans in a sneak attack?
“Were there no pockets of resistance, Andros? How many attempts to regain the castle were there?”
Ubris’ lips were white as she fought to keep her tongue.
“And what of the treasury? Have we been totally burned out and ransacked?”
The Egyptian finally threw a sodden rag down and got to her feet.
“Many risked their lives to come to your aid, Lord, and many died. While the castle can be rebuilt, the slaves and servants who have been with you for many years cannot.”
“Those that were able took up arms against the Romans, sire, but we didn’t have a chance.” The Lieutenant’s determination seemed to vanish and he stood there with shoulders slumped. “I tried, Lord Xena. But every time...we were beaten back. Ubris showed me where the underground tunnels were and we tried..." His hand gripped the hilt of his sword. Andros looked stricken and for a moment the Conqueror felt humbled. How could she think ill of such a man? It was clear by his very appearance that he’d done everything possible. She used to be so good at judging a situation, and yet lately had failed at every turn.
Ubris squeezed the Lieutenant’s arm tightly and Xena winced as a smile played across her broken lips. ‘Could it be that you’re happy at last, my friend?’
However, the good Lieutenant misread her attempted smile and flinched thinking the Conqueror was in pain. Looking over at the Empress beseechingly, her response left him none the wiser. She had just steepled her fingers beneath her chin then shook her head slowly and smiled benevolently. Approaching the litter, she began rearranging the blankets around her wounded charge.
“Of course you tried, Andros; I wouldn’t expect anything less,” Xena grumbled before pushing the busy hands away from her.
“But perhaps you and the men should have cut your losses? After all, even I didn’t know I’d survive.” Xena pulled the blanket down and examined the plaster covering her chest wound. “And who knows, perhaps I won’t.”
She clenched her teeth as the Lieutenant took a step backwards as if her words had been a physical blow.
“You have to know when to quite the field, after all.”
Ubris recognized the look in the Conqueror’s eyes; the one she had when coming to a final decision. She clutched at the Lieutenant’s arm, willing him to say something, anything, to pull the warrior out of her funk. While there had been days when Lord Xena’s melancholy was particularly deep, Ubris had never known her to be so…resolute in her depression. It was almost as if she were reveling in her choice. Self-pity and despair were certainly not things one would equate with the Conqueror. No, it was almost as if…
Ubris locked eyes with the Empress and felt her insides quiver in fear as her thoughts were all but confirmed. Yes, Xena had truly decided that it would be best for everyone if she just…died. The thought caused the Egyptian’s knees to wobble and she tottered against the Lieutenant, who pulled her aside and then sat her gently on the grass. He frowned as the woman began a low keening wail. A few words were whispered into his ear and then he rose to face the Lord.
“How can you possibly even consider this seriously?” Setting his jaw, Andros gazed at the Conqueror with such intensity that it was she who dropped her eyes first.
“There is something more important here than your pride, Xena. There have been men who’ve died for you, men who have gone willingly into the breach, doing so for the sheer honour of protecting their sworn liege.” The tension was palpable as he stood glaring down at the Conqueror. Although his voice still held a note of respect, there was a decidedly pinched look to his face that was all but contorted by the tendons racing up either side of his neck.
Xena’s raised her eyes slowly and Andros flinched. “It has very little to do with pride, Andros, and everything to do with…duty.”
The Lieutenant unclenched his fists and then sighed deeply.
“But sire, surely you know what peril you’d put this realm in, let alone the rest of Greece, were you to suddenly…disappear.”
Xena’s lips were a thin line as the muscles bulged in her jaw.
“And what of Caesar?” he continued. “Without your connection with the other rulers nearby, we’d be ripe for the picking, sire.”
Placing both hands against her temples, the Conqueror squeezed her eyes shut and lay back on the litter, determined not to lose this battle.
"Oh, Xena; this facade you wear grows too small and far too cumbersome. Would you not have fought Hades himself to rescue either one of these friends? Their acts of bravery are more than mere tokens of fealty. Loyalty and duty are indeed precious and worthwhile but love and friendship are the keys to all the treasure we seek."
Lao Ma was in the midst of turning her attention back to the Lieutenant when the Conqueror began to speak in a clear and very concise voice.
“You don’t understand, any of you. I’ve lived most of my life at the beck and call of others, doing their dirty work. Of course, I promoted myself along the way, but as a warlord that’s to be expected. I never wanted any close ties, taking my pleasure whenever and where ever I found it.” She looked at Lao Ma.
“I couldn’t see the gifts offered then and I don’t deserve them now. All I have left now is the duty I feel for Gabrielle; this is my destiny. I can’t let her hopes and dreams be destroyed waiting for me to become something I’m not nor ever could be.”
A small hand wiped at the eyes clouded over by tears and then Gabrielle let the tent flap fall back into place.
She fingered the fine silk robe that had been left for her and wiggled her toes in the strange footwear. She had enjoyed food and comfort from the Empress of Chin and had been left to rest while certain preparations had been made. Now she knew what they were and could see that this whole scene had been orchestrated just for her.
It broke her heart to think that someone as strong willed as the Conqueror would ever believe that her life had such little meaning; that any goodness she had a hand in paled beside the belief that only her death could make the difference. But what was any final sacrifice to the greater good compared to the promised future they were sure to have? And didn’t a leader who knew first hand the error of blind justice through violence serve the greater good best?
A gentle sigh escaped the Empress’ lips and she slowly turned to face her tent.
“Your destiny has arrived.”
It was as if every stone and every bit of mortar Xena had managed to shore up against her emotions crumbled and lay at the feet of the woman who now made her way closer.
Pressing a cool cloth to the Lord’s face and neck, Gabrielle finally let loose the sob she’d been holding.
“I thought…I’d been told you were dead.”
“Dagnine thought I was. He sent his men to finish the job, but I fooled them into believing I was already dead,” Xena rasped through dry, cracked lips.
“I dreamt of your crucifixion. I…I could see it clearly, Xena. Conqueror,” she corrected herself.
Xena lifted her hand a few inched off the litter, her teeth gritted against the pain, and then sighed in relief as two fingers were pressed against her side and then against the bones in her neck.
“I think we are passed that, little one. I remember the first time you spoke my name, your tongue wooly with delirium. You spoke of your Xena. The ice within my heart began to shatter then, I think. I was angry at your comparison. I could never be that woman you spoke of…”
Lao Ma took the large and battered hand into her own, eyes clear and bright, and then placed a gentle kiss on Xena’s palm.
“But you will be, Xena. It just took a little bit of influence to make you see the light and walk the path you were born to.”
Gabrielle gasped as a knowing look came into her eyes.
“You put me under a spell, bewitching me with dreams…” Her voice stilled as the warrior completed the sentence.
“…and with unrealistic hopes.”
“The truth came to me in a dream, my friend. Your suffering has been so great these past years, growing unchecked as the evil influences increased about you, twisting you into that which you were never meant to be.”
She turned to face the young woman and then smiled.
“They were not dreams, Gabrielle. What I showed you was your future - together.” Her heart seemed to expand as she watched the shadows leave the Conqueror’s eyes.
Xena’s astonishment was complete; although she felt totally manipulated by her old friend, she was pleased to see that the effort to get her to this point in time was not in vain. Shaking her head, the Conqueror marveled at the persistence of the woman: to have waited patiently behind the scenes, manipulating pieces as if on a chessboard…
Arching an eyebrow, Xena smiled; she had learned from the best, it seemed.
It was then that the truth of Lao Ma’s words hit her and she shook as if from a palsy. Xena reached a hand out tentatively to both women who smiled and then held on to her tightly. A small bit of hope began to kindle in the warrior’s heart. If what Lao Ma had said was true…
It was only the beginning.
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‘Bold Truth,’ ©ArdentTly, 052100, Chapter One
‘Sweet Deceit’ ©ArdentTly, 062400, Chapter Eight
‘Tyrannical Trysts’ ©ArdentTly, 073100, Chapter Twelve
‘Unchained’ ©ArdentTly 112700, Chapter Eighteen
‘Judgment’ ©ArdentTly 010601, Chapter
’Hands’ ©ArdentTly 011101, Chapter Twenty-One
‘Harvest’ ©ArdentTly 022201, Chapter Twenty-Three