by Leslie Ann Miller
Disclaimers- The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended.
Violence - Yes, some. Nothing worse than what you'd see in the show.
Subtext / sex - Yes, this story depicts sexual acts between women. If that is illegal where you are, you should go read something else.
Hurt / Comfort - Yes
Other - This story is loosely based on the Hercules episode "Armageddon Now"
Thanks - I'm especially grateful to Fizz for all the help. Also thanks to the ex-Guards for their feedback and assistance.
Let me know what you think, good or bad! My email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Light and voices woke me from a fitful slumber.
"Listen, you idiots," Xena was saying. "I thought you were loyal to Alexander. He's not going to be happy when he finds out what's been happening to his favorite poet!"
I opened my eyes. Xena was pulled back against the bars by her chains, and a guard was kneeling in front of the cell, bread and cheese still in hand.
"Aye," he muttered glancing at me guiltily. He blushed when he saw my eyes open and quickly looked away, putting the bread and cheese down hastily. "We don't have the keys, lady," he said, and I knew he was talking to me.
"If the damn bitch is drunk, just take them from her," Xena exclaimed.
"The Captain won't let us." The guard met my eyes again. "I'm sorry, lady."
I started to push myself up on my elbows, then collapsed as a wave of dizziness overcame me.
"Lady?" the guard asked in concern.
"See!" Xena said. "And she's not going to get any better until you bring me something to splint her leg with. I swear upon the Styx that I will not use them to hurt anyone."
The guard stood up, but hesitated. He glanced at his companions holding the crank at the base of the stairs. "It'll be up to the Captain, but I'll ask." He caught my eye. "Hang in there, lady. We'll get you out somehow."
Darkness descended as the guards released Xena and retreated back up the stairs.
"Thanks for trying," I said.
Chains rattled as Xena moved to get the bread and cheese. She then came to sit down beside me. "I know you must be starved." She placed a hunk of cheese in my hand.
"How do you do that?" I asked.
"It's like you can see."
"I can. There's a tiny bit of light that comes through the water hole in the ceiling during the day. It's enough. Stick around for a year, and you, too, might develop the ability."
We finished eating in silence. She gave me some bread, and then we shared the remaining water from the waterskin. I would have given anything for some wine and my painkilling medicine, but I still felt considerably better with something in my stomach.
"I never thought stale bread could taste so good," I muttered.
Xena snorted. "Well, you didn't eat much the first three days."
Then it occurred to me. "Much? You mean.... I was awake?" How odd, to lose time like that. How very disturbing.
"Well, you weren't very coherent. In fact, you mainly just kept asking the same questions again and again." She sounded annoyed.
I was mortified. "What sort of questions?"
"Where am I? What happened? You couldn't remember anything. Not even your own name."
"Oh." I was still wondering what it would be like to forget one's own name when I heard strange scraping sounds coming from a far corner of the room. "What's that?"
"Oh... just Ares and a few of his friends coming for a snack. They know to come after the torches leave. I'll scare them off if you like."
"Far be it from me to stand in the way of friends...!"
"Gabrielle, they're rats. Do you really want them climbing on you?"
I swallowed. "Climbing?"
"After a while, you long for contact with any living thing."
I didn't say anything, but Xena must have sensed my answer. She shouted towards the scrabbling noises until they finally went away.
After a while, you long for contact with any living thing. For a moment I saw with stark clarity just how horrible Xena's existence in this cell truly was. How had she managed to survive?
Xena touched my shoulder. "Gabrielle..." she started.
I smiled at the darkness and placed my hand on hers.
She started to draw her hand back, then stopped. "Ummmm..." she began again. "I know this probably doesn't mean much to you, coming from me, but for what it's worth, well, I'm sorry this happened to you. You don't deserve it."
I know I must have gaped. "Xena, are you sure that fever didn't addle your brains?"
She pulled her hand away angrily, and I immediately regretted my words.
"It has nothing to do with the fever," she huffed.
"Xena, I'm sorry. I was just teasing you." I fumbled in the darkness. I found a chain and followed it to her wrists. I took her hand and squeezed it. "I'm just surprised, that's all. I, well, you know, I never expected you to be kind to me, and yet you have been. I just don't understand why."
"I suppose I'm..." she hesitated. "I'm... I guess... I... Oh by Athena's tits, I can't do this!"
"No! What were you going to say?"
"Oh bother! You never give up, do you?"
"No. Stubborn as a mule, as my father used to say."
"And just about as irritating, too."
"So what were you going to say?" I asked, refusing to be diverted.
I heard her chuckle, then finally sigh. "How long have I been here, Gabrielle?" she eventually asked, and her tone was as serious and non-confrontational as I'd heard her use yet.
"A little over a year."
"A little over a year. A year is a long time to have nothing to do but think."
It certainly was. "And?" I prompted when it appeared she would not continue.
"Many years ago, a woman in Chin, Lao Ma, taught me how to meditate. It's the only thing that's kept me sane. But..."
She sighed. "When you meditate, you're forced to look inside. Suffice to say, I didn't like what I eventually saw. I don't like... what I see." She snorted. "You're missing a leg, Gabrielle. But I'm...I'm missing a soul."
Oh gods, what a confession. An introspective Conqueror didn't bear consideration, but it was clear to me that Xena was wrong about one thing: she did have a soul, because she'd just bared it to me as certainly as if she'd taken a sword, ripped her chest open, and plunked her heart down on a table in front of me. And what was I supposed to do with this?
For gods' sakes, I'd spent most of my life hating this woman. Rare was the day in the past eight years that I hadn't consciously cursed her name. Yes, I'd allowed myself to feel sorry for her in recent days; yes, I'd seen that she wasn't entirely a monster. But it seemed as if Olympus should topple and the sun stop shining and the land be swallowed by the sea on the day that Xena, Destroyer of Nations and Conqueror of the World, admitted she was not a nice person. It upset the order of the universe, and it certainly upset me.
I admit I struggled with my emotions... how could she put me in this position? I could take this offering and throw it back in her face, hurt her like she had been so happy to hurt me on so many occasions; or I could accept it graciously.
"I guess you knew that already, though, didn't you?" Xena said quietly when I said nothing.
I sighed heavily. "Xena, there was a time when I would have agreed with you completely. But I'm lying here alive; and I'm in considerably less discomfort than I might otherwise be; so I feel obligated to point out to you that a person without a soul would not be bothered by the lack of one. I think that says something about you whether either of us would like to admit it or not."
"And you'd rather not?"
"It's far easier to hate you than forgive you."
"Do you think you could ever forgive me?"
"Are you asking me hypothetically?"
"I... I don't know."
"Hypothetically..." I started, then stopped. I couldn't believe I was having this conversation. It seemed so surreal. "Are you asking me to forgive you, Xena?"
"Of course not!"
I rolled my eyes. No, of course not. "All right, then, hypothetically, I would like to think I could forgive anyone, because it's the right thing to do."
"Why is it the right thing to do? What good does it do?"
I suddenly felt like a philosopher with a young student. How did one explain the benefits of forgiveness to a child? "Well, first of all," I began, "forgiveness isn't something someone does for another person."
"If I forgave you, Xena, it wouldn't make you a better person. Nor would it make what you did to me any less terrible or wrong. Forgiveness is something you do for yourself, so you don't have to carry around the burden of resentment."
"So why haven't you forgiven me?"
I swallowed hard. It was a fair question, but I couldn't immediately formulate the answer. Gods knew I'd asked myself the same question a thousand times. I hated myself for hating Xena, but I'd never been able to forgive her. Why not? "I guess I always convinced myself that you were unforgivable," I said slowly. "But I think, I think it may really be because I am reminded of what you did to me every single day, so I can't just forget it. I don't always like who I am, Xena, and I blame you for it. And I suppose it's because I have blamed you and disliked you for so long that it's become a habit. Some things become so much a part of you that they're hard to give up, even if they aren't good for you."
Again, there was silence between us, and I no longer felt the part of poet or philosopher. I felt raw and bloodied having admitted the truth to myself. I was holding on to my hatred of Xena simply because it was habit. It was who I was. Who I'd become. And it was very, very ugly. I fought a rising onslaught of tears.
"Would it help if I told you I was sorry for what I did to you?"
Again, furious with my lack of control, I started crying. My world was falling apart. As a poet, I thrived on emotion and experience, but this was just too much.
"Oh no," Xena groaned. "I take it back!"
"Don't you dare!" I sobbed. "Don't you dare."
"Do you always cry this much?"
"Are you in pain?"
"No! I mean, yes, but that's not why I'm crying..."
"Why are you crying, then?"
I tried to smile between heaving breaths. "Because I forgive you, Xena." There. I said it. I said it, and I meant it. I picked up the baggage and tossed it out, and let my tears wash away the ugliness it left behind.
When I finally cried myself out, Xena squeezed my hand, and I realized with surprise that she'd been holding it all along. "You're wrong about one thing, you know," she said softly.
"What's that?" I sniffed.
"Forgiveness can mean something to the other person."
With a sob, I reached my free hand up to touch her face, and my fumbling fingers found her cheek. It was damp. "Xena, are you crying?"
She jerked away from my touch. "Of course not!"
I smiled, despite myself. "It's okay to cry sometimes, you know."
Xena snorted. "You would certainly say so."
"Even Achilles cried when Patroclus was killed."
"Achilles was a wimp."
"How can you say that?!"
"Easy. Four words: Achilles.... was... a...."
She stopped when I gently pressed my fingers to her lips. "Xena..."
"Xena, I'm too tired to argue with you." I let my fingers wander across her cheek, wiping away the dampness that still remained.
Xena caught my hand. "Your hand is icy," she said.
I grimaced. "I'm sorry," I said, trying to pull it out of her grasp. She held it tight.
"Don't be." Warm lips brushed my skin.
The feeling that the world was turning upside down returned in full force. "Don't...." I whispered, feeling the tears rising yet again. What was wrong with me?!
"Why are you trembling? Are you cold? Don't what?"
I was so confused and tired. My head still hurt. I was tired of thinking, tired of trying to match wits with this exhausting woman beside me, tired of trying to comprehend what was happening to me, tired of worrying about what might happen. "Hold me," I breathed.
"Don't hold you? What makes you think I was planning to? I only did it before because you were freezing to death!"
Gods, did she have to turn everything into a battle? And when had she held me before?
"Or did you mean...?"
I didn't know what I meant. I didn't know what I wanted. I felt so hazy all of a sudden. What was happening? I had the oddest sensation of falling. "Catch me," I whispered as I let myself slip away.
I woke to darkness and warmth, wrapped in Xena's arms under two blankets. She snored softly beside me. It was strange, considering who was holding me, but I felt safe, comforted. Perhaps it was because the only other person who had ever held me like that was Alexander, and I trusted him with my life. Easily I went back to sleep.
I was lying on the cross, my hands and legs held by soldiers with faces carved of stone. The first nail was driven into my right hand. The feel of metal sliding through my flesh, tearing sinew and bone, was mercifully unclouded by pain. I did not scream when they drove the nail through my left hand with the same sickening sensation. Oddly, they only nailed one foot to the wood.
"Break her leg," Xena's voice ordered, and I looked past the faces of the guards to see Thelassa, dressed like Xena the Empress, looking down at me with an evil grin. She held a whip in her one hand. It had the head of a living, hissing snake.
I prayed to Athena for mercy when a large guard stepped forward with a large hammer. He swung, and I screamed in agony as the bones in my lower leg splintered.
Thelassa waved the guards away and kneeled beside me. "Gabrielle," she said, stroking my cheek with the back of her hand. "We were meant to be together, you and I." The snake that was her whip slithered across the exposed flesh of my stomach.
I groaned, struggling against the nails that held me in place. I couldn't move, not even my free leg; I couldn't defend myself against Thelassa or the snake.
Thelassa dropped the whip, and it started to worm its way beneath the waist of my skirt. "Gabrielle," Thelassa whispered, leaning down to my face. She ran her tongue along my jaw line.
I tried to turn my head away, but she grabbed my chin, forcing me to look at her.
"I love you, Gabrielle," she said softly, her lips nearly touching mine. Her breath stank of alcohol and vomit.
I gagged. "No!!!"
She kissed me, driving her lips against mine until they went numb, her tongue trying to force its way between my teeth. Between my legs, a cold, scaly serpent began to coil itself around my upper thigh.
I tried to scream but couldn't.
Thelassa's tongue pried my teeth open and sneaked inside, exploring the back of my mouth, forcing its way deeper, heading down my throat. At the same time, the snake wriggled against my groin, sliding across my private recesses.
My mind filled with horror and panic at my powerlessness.
Suddenly, Thelassa started shaking me, shouting my name. "Gabrielle! Gabrielle!"
"Wake up, Gabrielle!"
I surfaced from the dream with a gasp, like a drowning woman coming up for air. My eyes opened to total darkness, and I wondered for a terrible second if I had awakened at all.
"Gabrielle?!" Xena asked with a gentle shake of my shoulders.
"Xena?!" I asked wildly, trying to find her with my hand.
She grabbed it firmly and squeezed. "I'm here. You were having a nightmare."
"Oh gods...oh gods, it was awful." I gagged at the memory. I knew I was shaking, but I couldn't stop myself. I panted, still feeling the suffocating presence of Thelassa on top of me.
"It's all right. You're awake now," Xena said softly, stroking my hair.
Gradually, I calmed beneath her touch. I drew a shuddering breath and let it out slowly, letting the last remnants of horror fade away. "I had nightmares almost every night for months after I lost my leg," I said quietly. "It's been a long time since I had any, though."
"I'm sure this...situation... is dredging up many unpleasant memories for you."
"Yeah. I... I really hate feeling so helpless."
Xena continued stroking my hair in silence.
"Thank you for waking me up."
I couldn't go back to sleep, not so soon after the nightmare, and Xena didn't seem inclined to try, either. She settled herself next to me on her side, just close enough that her arms were barely touching me. I longed to have her hold me like before, but I didn't know how to ask without sounding more foolish and weak than I already felt.
It seemed like we stayed that way for an eternity. Without the clue of light or other stimulation, it was hard to tell the passing of time. I listened to the sound of Xena's breathing, the only external distraction I had to keep my thoughts from dwelling on my pain. Breath, life, soul. There was something sublime about the simple act of breathing. Odd that I had never paid it much attention before.
I awoke with a start, surprised that I had fallen asleep.
"Guards coming," Xena whispered, and I felt a cold draft of air as she slid out from beneath the blankets.
I noticed light flickering off the walls and the sound of several feet coming down the stairs. Xena was sitting against the edge of the cage where the chains would drag her when they turned the crank.
The light from the torches as the guards entered was almost blinding. There were three of them, one being the soldier who had promised to ask about getting some splints for my leg.
"My lady," he said softly. "Are you still awake?"
What he was really asking, I thought, was "are you still alive?" I waved my hand at him reassuringly, since it hurt to raise my head. "Still here, still kicking," I said, then reconsidered. "Er, not kicking, actually, but definitely still here."
He grinned and nodded at his companions. They wound the crank until Xena's arms were stretched out behind her at that horribly uncomfortable angle.
He came forward and knelt before the cage, placing two of my long waxed leather scroll cases on the floor along with one of my old chitons.
"Why did you bring those?" I asked, perplexed.
"The healer suggested the cases would make good splints, but not good weapons. The chiton can be torn into straps to bind the cases. I'm sorry, lady, but the Captain forbade me from bringing you any of our supplies. Of course, since these belong to you, they're not technically our supplies..."
"Could you get in trouble for doing this?" I asked, concerned. I didn't like how I'd seen punishment administered here so far.
"Well, we're not actually disobeying his direct orders." He glanced at Xena. "As long as Xena keeps her oath not to use them against us, the Captain won't do us any permanent harm."
"I'm more concerned about Thelassa. And stop calling me 'lady.' My name is Gabrielle."
He grinned. "I can't predict what the warden will do, but I'm not afraid of her."
"You should be," Xena said darkly. "She's dangerous."
"Maybe," he said doubtfully. "But she has never mistreated a guard. Never."
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Paeonius," he answered.
"Paeonius," I said, "you're a good man for helping me, and you have my deepest gratitude. But if you will do one more thing for me, I'll make sure your name is immortalized in a poem of gratitude."
He swallowed, but his eyes lit up with excitement. "Anything," he said.
"Will you send word to Alexander about my plight? Perhaps the cook would be willing to take his boat. Or you could send a message with the next supply ship."
He looked disappointed. "It's already been done. The cook's helper left yesterday."
I smiled at him. "Don't worry, I'll still write you a poem."
"Thank you! I have a son... it would mean so much to him." He looked back at the stairs. "We must go now, before the Captain comes by. If you need anything else, tell the guards who bring the evening food. Just be sure the Captain isn't with them." With that, he retreated to his companions. They released the crank, and together they headed up the stairs, taking the torches with them.
Xena retrieved the scroll cases and chiton. I heard her tearing cloth into strips. When the scrabbling sound of approaching rats startled me, she shouted to scare them away.
Poor Ares. No meal again.
"I'm going to splint your leg," Xena said, pulling the blanket back. "This will probably hurt."
I gritted my teeth during the painful ordeal, but once it was done, I breathed a sigh of relief. At least I could shift my position on the floor now without fear of displacing the bones.
"Better?" Xena asked.
"Most of your chiton is still left. Do you mind if I wear it?"
The thought crossed my mind that she was so beautiful naked, it was a shame she'd want to cover up, but that was silly, of course. "Please, go ahead."
After a good deal of chain rattling, Xena grunted. "You're a tiny little thing, aren't you?"
"It doesn't fit?" Chitons were worn loose. Even given our size difference, it was hard to believe Xena couldn't wear it.
"Well, I can't pull it over my shoulders because of these damn chains. Suffice to say that it will stay up on its own." She chuckled. "I suppose that's a good thing, now that I think about it." She settled down beside me. "Would you like to try sitting up?"
"You know, it really hurt when I tried to lift my head to look at the guard. I'm not sure that would be such a good idea."
"Hmmm. Probably not, then." She began to probe my skull with gentle fingers. "Does this hurt?"
Lightning flashed before my eyes. "Ow!"
"Uh-huh. You've got a knot the size of an egg right behind your ear. That's going to cause you problems until the swelling goes down."
"Well, stop poking it!"
"I'm not poking! I'm just rechecking to make sure nothing is fractured."
"Like you could do something about it if it was?!"
Her hand pulled back with a rattle of chains, then resettled on my shoulder. "I'm sorry. You're right."
I could tell by her voice that she felt badly, but my head was now throbbing again, and I was feeling crabby. "Xena, why did you become a warlord?"
Her hand froze. "You are more stubborn than any mule. More like a tree stump in some poor farmer's field!"
I cringed at the anger in her voice. "Forget I asked."
She sighed. "I was a very angry young woman, Gabrielle. I became a warlord because I could. I was good, and I knew it."
"That's obvious," I agreed. "But why were you so angry?"
At first I didn't think she would answer me. I could feel the tension in her hand, and I'm sure she was having a serious internal debate. Did she want to tell me? Did she even know the answer? Did she want to admit it if she did? Finally, however, she haltingly began to tell me the story of how her brother Lyceus had been killed, and how her mother had disowned her.
"Cyrene slapped you?" I asked in shock when she finished.
"And that's when you left home?"
To think, Cyrene of Amphipolis created Xena the Conqueror with a single slap. Oh, it was quite possible that something else might have turned Xena to a life of violence, but the rejection of her mother coupled with the death of her beloved brother had obviously been the catalyst that sent her on her path of destruction. Even Xena identified it as such.
How different might history have been if Cyrene had comforted her instead? "I'm going to have to rewrite my chapter dealing with Cyrene and the battle of Amphipolis," I said seriously.
To my relief, Xena chuckled. "Yeah, you do that."
I smiled. "I'm going to have to rewrite a few of my chapters about you, too."
"No. I deserve whatever you've said. And probably a good deal worse."
"But you're capable of change, Xena. That's something Alexander and I would never have believed."
"Just goes to show that pretty-boy isn't perfect, doesn't it?" Xena snorted. "Don't count on my benevolence lasting forever. Old habits are hard to break."
Oh, I had no doubt that the Xena I hated could return at any second. But I had seen a different side of her now, and I knew that her heart wasn't as completely corrupted and evil as I once believed. In fact, there was something there that was quite, well, likable.
"Why are you smiling like that?" Xena asked suspiciously. "If you knew what was good for you, you'd be afraid of me."
I hoped she couldn't see me blush in the dark, but I felt like a child caught stealing sweets. "If I knew what was good for me, I would never have left Potidaea," I grinned, trying to cover my embarrassment. "And I certainly wouldn't have joined the rebellion against you."
"You never were afraid of me, were you?" she asked slowly.
So much for my attempt at humor. "No, I was terrified of you. You crucified me. You killed so many..." I couldn't finish that thought, couldn't bring myself to think about all the friends and companions killed by this woman and her soldiers. "How could I not be afraid of you? We lived in fear of you and your army every day of our lives!"
I heard her stand up restlessly. "I'm sorry," she said.
I closed my eyes. "It's over now. I've forgiven you."
"I know, but...I don't want you to be afraid of me, Gabrielle. Not any more."
I sighed. "I see that now. Although I still don't understand why. You could easily hate me as much as I hated you."
She echoed my sigh and sat down by my side again. "Tell me about your family," she said.
"I want to know more about you."
"Okay," I said slowly. She was changing the subject, and I wondered what that meant, but I didn't mind talking about my family. So I told her about my parents and my sister Lila, and what it was like growing up on the farm in Potidaea. It had been a good life until Xena came to power. Then, things got hard.
I glossed over the worst details, of the young men who signed up with the army to compensate for the taxes their families couldn't pay; the same young men who weren't given paid positions as soldiers as promised, but wound up instead as galley slaves in Xena's navy. I skipped the hard, hungry winter that had driven me out of my home simply because there was not enough food for us all, and I, with my bardic skills, had the best chance to find a living elsewhere. I told her that my father had been killed during the war; but not that he had been executed for striking one of Xena's soldiers while defending Lila from his violent drunken advances.
I finished on a happy note. My mother had managed to keep the farm with Lila's help; and now that Alexander was Emperor, things were very good for them.
When I was done, Xena was silent for a very long time. "There's a lot you didn't tell me," she said. "Why did you leave home?"
"It doesn't matter, Xena. It's the past."
"Why did you leave home?" she insisted.
I sighed. "There wasn't enough food."
"Why not? You had a farm, didn't you? Did the crops fail?"
"Your army confiscated most of our harvest and our animals; we had to sell what they left to pay taxes. We managed to keep one old cow and some chickens that were too fast for the soldiers. But it wasn't enough. I told my parents I was leaving to go find Perdicus, but I think they knew the truth. Otherwise, they wouldn't have let me go."
"How did you manage without any money?"
"At first, I told my stories. After that, I met Alexander."
"And he had money?"
"I'm glad," she said slowly. She reached for my hand and squeezed it. "Sometimes I wish..." She stopped, and let go my hand.
I fumbled for her hand, but found her thigh instead. I let my hand rest there, enjoying the warm smoothness of her skin. "You said, 'sometimes I wish....' I'd like to know what you wish for, Xena."
She cleared her throat. "Sometimes I just wish I could go back and do things differently."
"You're not just saying that?"
"If you could escape this prison and regain your freedom, what would you do?"
"Is this a trick question?"
"No, I'm just curious. Would you try to overthrow Alexander?"
She thought about it for a while before answering. "First things first, I would kill that bitch Thelassa for what she's done to you.
While it wasn't the answer I had been expecting, it didn't entirely surprise me. "She blames you for the loss of her arm, you know."
Xena snorted. "Yeah, she's been reminding me of that for the past year. Trust me, it's the only reason she's still alive. But that's no excuse for hurting you."
"You mean, you had an opportunity to hurt her, and you didn't?"
"Gabrielle, not only have I had the opportunity to kill her, but I could have escaped on at least four different occasions. For crying out loud, she brings the keys with her and dismisses the guards so she can torture me without them watching."
She told me this so casually, I couldn't help but believe her. Besides, I'd seen Thelassa passed out near Xena's cage myself. Without the guards holding her in place, Xena could no doubt have taken Thelassa's whip away and turned it against her. That meant Xena had willingly let herself be whipped, and she'd refused the opportunity to free herself as well. "Why didn't you escape?"
She made a noise that I couldn't interpret without seeing her face. "Maybe it seemed like too much effort."
"You wanted to be punished, didn't you?" I asked in astonishment.
"I'm not some kind of masochist, if that's what you're implying!" she said angrily, sounding truly offended.
"Maybe not, but... you really do think you deserve it, don't you?" Though she had said so before, I had taken her words to be a form of resignation or an acceptance of her fate. But this... this was much more than that.
Her silence was all the affirmation I needed. I tried to comprehend this latest revelation.
It was unthinkable that she'd had the opportunity to escape and hadn't. One thing was clear, though, Xena's guilty feelings ran far stronger and deeper than I suspected. Given that, her uncharacteristic behavior towards me was not quite so unbelievable. Obviously, this transformation in character had been coming on for a long time.
Then the thought hit me like one of Zeus's thunderbolts. "You let us win the war, didn't you?" I breathed. It made sense... the fact that she'd let us capture her in the final battle; the fact that she'd made so many errors that last year. Now that I thought about it, it all started with the razing of Athens... and Amphipolis at the same time, of course. What should have been a fatal defeat for the rebellion had turned instead into the turning point of our success.
I heard Xena shift positions. "I didn't let you win," she finally answered.
"But you could have ended it after Athens, if you'd wanted, couldn't you?" I pressed.
"Maybe... I don't know!" She stood up, and her agitation was again tangible in the darkness. "It doesn't matter now, anyway."
Perhaps she hadn't even been aware of what she was doing, I thought. It was possible she'd undermined herself subconsciously. Whatever the cause, she'd made several uncharacteristic mistakes that last year. "It matters to me," I said.
"Why? Why should it matter to you, Gabrielle? You want history to remember Alexander as "the Great.' It would leave his great victory a little hollow if I'd let him win, now, wouldn't it?" She laughed harshly.
"I'd prefer history to know the truth," I said carefully.
I heard her pacing the cell and held my breath.
"Tell them this, then" Xena finally grated. "Ares abandoned me the day I burned Athens"
"Ares? The god of war?"
"No, Ares the rat," she said, irritated. "Who do you think?!"
I ignored the jibe. "Why did he abandon you?"
"Athena. The bastard is afraid of her, and when I tore down the Parthenon, it really pissed her off."
I was a bit taken aback. She talked of the gods as if she knew them in person. "So really, you blame your defeat on the Gods," I said.
"No. But when Ares left, I think I started to realize what I'd become. I didn't want to admit it, Gabrielle, but I was sickened by what I did in Athens. All those children..."
She made a noise that sounded very much like a sob.
Her soldiers had butchered hundreds of innocent civilians when Athens fell. Many more had burned alive in the buildings where they'd gone to seek refuge. "All those children," I repeated in a whisper, closing my own eyes against the horrible memory.
"Oh gods," Xena moaned, a gut wrenching sound that brought instant tears to my eyes. Suddenly she fell to her knees beside me and buried her head in my shoulder. "Tell them I'm sorry, Gabrielle. Please... tell them I'm so very sorry! Let history know I regret what I've done!"
It was so sudden and completely unexpected that I just lay there, stunned, as the woman, literally, broke down on top of me, weeping.
I took a moment to gather my composure, then gathered her in my arms. My heart ached for her. Such slaughter would weigh heavily on anyone with a conscience. And Xena had a conscience. I felt the tears flowing down my cheeks. Why, oh why, hadn't she discovered it years ago?!
It would have been an odd site for any guard who ventured down to Xena's cell; to see the two of us wrapped in each other's arms, crying like infants until we had no more tears.
As it was, we held each other silently until the flicker of torches announced another visit from the guards bringing food.
"Thank you," Xena whispered in my ear before she started to push herself away.
I caught her shoulder. "Xena, I'll make sure the future knows the truth about you."
To be continued in part 9
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