TRIAL OF THE DESTROYER
© 2000 by C.J. Wells
Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, Palaemon, Argo, Draco and those lovely Amazons, Melosa, Ephiny, Solari, Eponin, Chilapa, Otere, Yakut, Velasca, and Cyane belong to those rather fortunate individuals affectionately known as The Powers That Be at Studios USA, Ren Pics and whatnots. The only thing I’m gaining from using them here is the personal satisfaction of toying with the characters in my own image. For this installment, who better to pay tribute than to the Godmother of all Conqueror bards, Katrina Blau who wrote The Storyteller. Mithradates VI (120 B.C. – 63 B.C.) was a real King of ancient Pontus (part of what is now modern Turkey). All other characters named are mine.
Credits: Because this is a continuing saga, it is highly recommended that you read all of the preceding stories of this series starting with The Embrace and Freedom, as this will make absolutely no sense otherwise. Furthermore, reading them will make my day. This Part Two is, in its entirety, taken from Gabrielle’s Scroll Entry and picks up where Part One left off.
Character Warning: The Xena and Gabrielle depicted in this story are not exactly like the Xena as portrayed by the indomitable Lucy Lawless or the Gabrielle as portrayed by the effervescent Renee O’Connor. The only men in the Conqueror’s life are the ones she orders around. Gabrielle appreciates that.
Women in Love & Absolutely More Lesbian Sex Warning: To quote Austin Powers: "Yea, babe, yea!"
Violence Warning: This installment will include descriptions of torture. I both warn and apologize in advance, but it will not be gratuitous or graphic and is necessary for the plot of this story.
Inappropriate Verbiage Usage Warning: Big Gay Al says I’m special.
To my beta readers, Jean, Marlene, Sue and Mary, thank you very much!
Comments & Feedback: The more, the merrier.
During our first night in the Amazon village, following our brief war with Velasca, I had another one of those strange dreams where the event of the dream had actually occurred in my life. This dream was about an incident that happened only three weeks before my sister’s death.
I was summoned to the Conqueror’s bedchamber for service. When I entered the chamber, she was sitting on the miniature throne she kept in her chamber and was dressed in a beautiful silk robe. Only a single large candle positioned near the bed illuminated the chamber. I walked over to my reporting spot to await instruction. She stood up and walked over to me. She stood directly in front of me for a few moments, looking into my eyes, and then she ordered me to go lay down. I did and immediately took my servicing position. She came up to me and, lying on top of me, began to kiss my lips in her usual fierce manner. She smelled very sweet, as if she had bathed in a pool of lavender-scented water. After kissing me for a few short moments, she started licking my neck and ears, and then she ran her tongue down my body to my sex. Positioning herself between my legs, she began pleasuring me orally.
With the exception of those first nights after her return from a battle, it had been several seasons since the Conqueror last inflicted any real pain on me during service. In addition, she used that phallus on me less frequently. I was staring at that familiar spot on the ceiling and thinking about these things, and how enjoyable sex with the Conqueror had become over the last two or three years when my gaze shifted downward and I found myself watching this beautiful woman stroking my sex with her tongue. I was fully aroused and craved to touch her, but she would not allow that. So I watched her. After a few moments of blissful staring, the Conqueror looked up and caught me. In an instant, her body was on top of mine and her magnificent blue eyes only a breath away from mine.
"What are you staring at, slave?" she demanded.
"I’m…I’m sorry, my Lady," I responded in whisper, terrified.
"Do you enjoy staring at me, Gabrielle?"
I contemplated my answer. "Yes, my Lady." My response was barely audible.
The Conqueror didn’t respond. She released my wrist that she had been tightly holding since confronting me, and then scooted back down between my legs and resumed licking my sex. I subtly sniffed hard to capture more of the lavender and then stared at the ceiling for a few moments, but was once again tempted by her beauty. She caught me staring at her a second time, but this time she responded by taking her fingers and stroking the nipples of my breasts. When she started massaging my breasts and moaning on my sex as she licked, I climaxed.
When the last jolts of my release ended, the Conqueror rose up and again kissed my lips. I could taste myself on her mouth and tongue. She then lay down next to me. Quite a few moments passed before the Conqueror spoke.
"Service me," she said.
I positioned myself between her legs and began to delicately lick her sex. As I performed, I looked up and saw her staring at me, something she rarely, if ever, did. Those sky blue eyes on me galvanized me, and my tongue began stroking harder.
"May I go inside, my Lady?" I asked, knowing full well the insubordination of that request.
The Conqueror of four or five years ago would have struck me, or whipped me, or at the very least, would have peppered me with insults for daring to ask such a question. Back then, I never would have made the request. But the Conqueror of that night leaned up, putting her weight on her elbows.
"Go inside," she responded.
I entered her and thrust her more fiercely than I had ever allowed myself to do. Her head went back and her eyes rolled up as her hips moved rhythmically with my frantic tongue and fingers. When she began moaning, I became more excited. Inside of her, I bent my fingers and began pressing them on her inner core. She went wild in response to this sensation and her resulting climax caused her whole body to convulse as she let out a scream that could have awakened the dead.
After the last torrents of climax, the Conqueror fell back prone. When she looked down at me, I tenderly kissed her sex. I removed my saturated fingers from inside of her, rose up and sat on my knees on the bed. She rose up as well and, sitting with her legs crossed, stared at me. I stared at her. The staring seemed to last a long time. She had this strange look on her face that I had never seen before. It was a look of being stunned, of being confused, of being overwhelmed. I smiled at her and maintained eye contact. Looking away, she rose up off of the bed and went over to one of her tables. Pouring herself some wine, she said, "Leave, slave." I couldn’t see the expression on her face because her back was to me, but her voice sounded quiet and strained.
When I was safely in the corridor outside of her room, a huge smile spread across my face. I practically skipped back to my own bedchamber as I, for the first time in my life, felt what it was like to be a… Conqueror.
I awakened and looked upon Xena’s sleeping form lying next to me. She was lying on her back; her right arm was comfortably positioned around my waist. My right leg was comfortably sprawled across both of hers. I leaned up so that I could see her face. Then I just stared at her.
"You are so beautiful," I whispered to her sleeping form.
I thought about the dream. I know now that Xena was in love with me when we had sex that particular night. I know now why she would not allow me to touch her all of those years. What I was still uncertain about was my own feelings. When did I start to love her? She said to me at that hot lake a couple of days ago that I never showed her hate. But she was wrong. All of those times that I denied her my warmth, all of those times that I didn’t challenge the beast that she was, all of those times I remained silent to her, I was showing her my hate for her. Now, I would sooner die by her hand than allow her to brutalize me, or sit idly by and watch her brutalize someone else. That is how I love her.
That dream clearly reminded me of my physical passion for Xena. But it also reminded me of something else. I guess if Bahri were to ask me now what it was about the Conqueror that attracted me to her, I could give Bahri a coherent answer. I didn’t see it for a long time into my service with her, but Xena has the soul of a great and wonderful woman and leader. She is capable of so many great things. Her problem is that she executed that greatness in the wrong direction. Queen Melosa was correct. Xena the Conqueror had been a monster. But she had also tamed over the last few years. The Conqueror that purchased me nearly six years ago was not the same beast two years later. That beast of almost four years ago was not the beast that allowed me to attend my sister’s funeral nine months ago. I so want to believe now that the beast in Xena no longer exists. That’s unrealistic, I know. But I can believe that her greatness can be far more superior to her beast.
To answer my own question, I would have to say that I began to see two beings about three-and-a-half years ago. It began the last time she ever used her whips on me. That particular night, I reported to her in a beautiful dress that her dressmaker, Illiana had made for me. For reasons I still don’t know, she beat me savagely, but then the next morning, she herself gently cleansed and tended to the wounds that she had inflicted. She tended to me for the next few days as though she was my personal healer. She also allowed me to read and write my scrolls in her bedchamber uninterrupted. I ate meals with her and I didn’t have to service her again until I was completely healed. I didn’t know what to make of it. I saw the beast and I saw the woman for the first time, but she was still the Conqueror in either incarnation. Over the years since then, I watched as, ever so slowly, the woman began taking over the beast in her being. I think my love began to stir when the presence of the beast, although always present, was a diminishing part of that being. The first time I looked upon her and saw Xena, it was then that I fell in love with her.
Xena chose that moment of my musings to wake up.
"Morning, Gabrielle," she mumbled. "Why the wicked smile on your lovely face?"
"Morning, Xena," I responded. "I was just looking at you and thinking how lucky I am to have such a gorgeous woman lying next to me in my royal bed."
Xena chuckled. "You know how I love royalty, my Princess."
"I dreamt about you last night, Xena."
"Yea," I responded. "I’m sure you don’t recall it, but I dreamt about that time I, uh, I… you and I had sex, you know, before you freed me, when I… um… asked to go inside of you."
"Ah, yes," Xena responded. Her lip curled and she had this reflective look on her face.
"You remember it, Xena?"
"Gods, Gabrielle, how could I forget. You fucked my brains out that night."
I didn’t know whether to be flattered or offended by the remark.
"What in Tartarus got into you that night, Gabrielle?" Xena was smiling as she queried.
"I don’t know. I guess I wanted to conquer you, Conqueror."
"By Zeus, you already did that years ago," she smirked to herself and then looked at me when she realized what she had said. We looked at each other nervously for a few moments, before we both lost the ability to continue our gazes.
I cleared my suddenly dry throat. "Would you like some water, Xena?"
She cleared her throat. "Um… yea, sure, Gabrielle."
I rose off my high bed and padded over to the stand where I kept my water vase. "It’s empty, Xena. I’ll fill it at the well."
As I headed toward the well, I saw Bahri standing with a group of my Sisters. "Hey Gab!" she shouted as she frantically waved at me.
As I walked over to her, I noticed that she seemed quite taller. Surrounded by her male contemporaries in the Imperial Guard, Bahri appeared as a small and svelte presence amongst the hulking men. Standing along side these women, she commanded a regal presence with her crisp uniform; her clear bronzed skin and her athletic build. She stood eye to eye with Ephiny, Solari and Charicleia, and was taller than the other Amazons standing in their group.
"Morning, Bahri," I said as I reached the group.
"The guys here were just showing me some of the Amazon traditions and stuff," she said.
"We’re not ‘guys’, Guard," Ephiny chimed in.
"Sorry… girls," Bahri corrected herself.
"We’re not girls, either!" exclaimed Solari
Bahri looked defeated. "Whatever," she said.
I laughed and rubbed my hand in Bahri’s soft, curly hair.
"Hey," she said, ducking her head as she swiped my hand away. "Don’t touch the coiffure." She started patting her short ringlets of hair as if I had messed it up somehow.
"You are such a nut bread, Bahri." The others joined me in laughter.
"What in Hades is a ‘nut bread?’" she asked, clearly not pleased by our amusement.
I gave her shoulder a friendly squeeze and resumed my trek to the well when Ephiny stopped me by grabbing my forearm.
"Princess Gabrielle," she said. "Our Queen wishes a word with you and the Conqueror as soon as possible."
* * * *
When I returned to my yurt, Xena was up and dressing herself. Immediately, I was disappointed.
"What’s the matter, Gabrielle?" Xena obviously noticed the lost look of expectation on my face.
I set the vase on the table and looked at my feet. "I was hoping to bathe with you this morning," I quietly said.
Xena walked over to me and threw her arms around my shoulders, burying my head in her supple breasts. I instinctively inhaled deeply so as to take in her unique scent. "I’m sorry, Gabrielle," she said. "I heard Ephiny say that Queen Melosa wanted to see us."
I looked up at her. "You heard that from way in here?"
Xena smiled and tapped her ear. "I have many skills."
I threw my arms around her waist. "I want to bathe with you first, Xena. We can do it very quickly. My Queen won’t mind."
Her blue eyes seemed to sparkle at me at that moment. "Please?" I implored.
"Very well," Xena said, sighing dramatically. "If you insist."
Xena and I were alone in the baths yurt, as I had expected. Most of my Sisters were already out and about tending to their duties. I knew this time would be a rare opportunity for us to be together alone there. I frantically scrubbed my body. I didn’t want to keep my Queen waiting, but I so enjoyed the sight of Xena wet and naked. Her hair was slicked back to fully reveal her perfectly sculpted face, and beads of water rolled down her body and, particularly, her breasts as she cleansed herself. I felt absolutely wonderful in my private little perversion. I sensed that Xena could detect my lustful thoughts because, as she glared at me, she would seductively, yet casually, run her tongue across her upper lip a few times. I became excited as I watched her, the pounding in my chest matching the throbbing of my sex.
"Come here," I finally demanded.
"Yes, my Princess," Xena responded.
I sure hope my Queen isn’t an impatient woman, I thought.
* * * *
When we entered Queen Melosa’s yurt, she was sitting on her royal chair, sharpening her field dagger. Her actions quickly reminded me just how much these two strong and determined women had in common. When she looked up at us, she placed her weapon on the altar in front of her.
"Good morning, my Queen," I said. "Ephiny has informed me that you require my attention."
"Good morning, Princess Gabrielle," she responded, and then slightly nodding her head, regarded Xena. "Conqueror."
"Morning, Queen Melosa," Xena replied.
"I have briefly interviewed each prisoner this morning," she began. "We will commence the trial at midday."
"Yes, my Queen," I said.
"I appreciate the opportunity to afford these prisoners a fair trial under our system of Justice, Gabrielle. But I must tell you in all honesty, my sister, that I feel it’s patently unfair that these young women of the Realm will face our judgment while the individual who is ultimately responsible for the atrocities in Thrace and here in Thessaly is spared that judgment."
"But my Queen," I implored. "I know you would have preferred Velasca alive, but Xena had no choice. I saw it. You know how much I hate killing, but Velasca would have…"
Xena grabbed my shoulder. "She’s not talking about Velasca, Gabrielle," she said.
A painful charge of fear rushed through my body. Queen Melosa directed her cold eyes to Xena.
"Conqueror, I think you know our laws fairly well. Every day that you are allowed your freedom from our Justice casts a cloud on our Nation."
Xena released her grip on my shoulder. I looked up and saw the face of the Conqueror. "Get over it, Queen. You expect too much. I gave you the man who killed your sister. I brought to you the remaining Amazons of the steppes and I killed Velasca. What the fuck more do you want?"
Instinctively, I grabbed Xena’s hand in mine and gripped it tightly. I needed for her to feel my presence.
Queen Melosa rose from her chair. "I want you to pay for what you did to the steppe Amazons!" she exclaimed, pointing her finger at Xena. "For what you did to Queen Cyane, for the 23 Amazons of my tribe that you allowed Velasca and her men to kill. By the wisdom of the great Goddess Athena, I want you to pay for what you’ve done to Greece!"
Xena released my hand and unsheathed her sword, pointing it at my Queen. "Before me, Greece was a tattered land of warlord-infested and barbaric city-states," she said, her already low voice sounding dangerously lower. "I brought order here. Because of me, this land, MY land is the greatest power in the known world. No one fucks with Greece, and if they do, they die. You’re an ingrate, Melosa. Maybe I should pack up this entire village and ship you all off to Persia. When the Parthian and Sasanian savages there are done with you, what’s left of you, maybe then you’ll appreciate how good you’ve had it here."
Queen Melosa folded her arms, apparently calm to Xena’s threat. "Will our Sister, Princess Gabrielle, be joining us on this trip?" she inquired condescendingly.
At that moment, fury overpowered my fear. "Both of you stop this!" I tried to contain my tears, but was losing that battle. I looked at Queen Melosa. "There has to be a way to resolve Xena’s past with our Nation." I looked at Xena for a moment and then returned my attention to Queen Melosa. "My Queen, should Xena allow the jurists to try her here, and she is found guilty, what would be her punishment?"
Before Queen Melosa could answer, Xena did: "Death, Gabrielle. Death is the only punishment for killing a tribal queen."
Xena was still holding the sword, although she had lowered it to her side. I gently took the weapon out of her hand and set it down on the altar separating us from Queen Melosa. I returned my gaze to my Queen.
"Queen Melosa," I started. "In my studies as a jurist, you taught me about a tribal procedure called ‘allocution.’ Could this be an option for Xena?"
Xena’s angry eyes bore into me. "Are you out of your mind, Gabrielle? Do you expect me to admit guilt to THEM?"
"Xena, I’m one of THEM."
I watched as Xena’s eyes cast skyward as the anger in her face flushed. I looked at Queen Melosa.
"My sister," my Queen said. "Even if the Conqueror offers allocution, the judgment for her deed would still have to be death. That is Amazon law."
A silence followed. I was beginning to feel that nothing Xena did for the Amazons would make up for what she had done to them. As I watched the expressionless face of my love, I wondered if she pondered the same notion.
"Queen Melosa," Xena finally spoke. "I’ll leave the village before the trial begins. I’ll take my two Imperial Guardsmen in the village here with me. Bahri may remain. I have matters in the Peloponnese that I need to attend to anyway." She looked at me and then returned her gaze to Queen Melosa. "That way, I won’t be a reminder to everyone that I’ve gotten away with… murder."
"Gabrielle is in our Justice moiety," Queen Melosa responded. "Her presence here is necessary."
"I know," Xena responded. "I’ll come back for her, Bahri and the two battalion sergeants in three days. I suspect the trial will be over by then."
"It should be, Conqueror," the Queen stated.
"Very well." Xena turned on her heals and marched toward the yurt entrance. She paused at the sound of Queen Melosa’s voice.
"Xena the Conqueror, only because Princess Gabrielle loves you, if you are willing to consider allocution, I’ll allow the Hard Death as punishment for you."
Xena didn’t turn around nor did she respond. She simply proceeded through the entranceway. After my Queen indicated that I was dismissed, I quickly bowed before her and ran to catch up to Xena.
* * * *
Xena didn’t say anything as she gathered her few belongings and loaded her saddlebag onto Argo. I didn’t speak either. I just watched her pack. I didn’t want her to leave.
"You don’t have to go, Xena," I finally said as she stuffed some fruit and bread in her saddlebag.
"Yes I do, Gabrielle," she responded. "I want nothing more than for these Amazons to respect you, not just because you’ve got the right of caste, but because… by the gods, Gabrielle, you deserve it."
I could tell Xena was fighting back tears. I grabbed her forearm, forcing her to stop packing and turn her body to me. She cupped my face in her hands.
"Melosa knows, Gabrielle," she said as her eyes filled with tears. "All of the good I did for these Amazons I did because of you. I did it for you. Had you not come into their lives, Velasca would still be commanding my battalion at Pharsalus, picking off Amazons at will."
"Your reason doesn’t matter, Xena," I said, cupping her lovely face as well. "What matters is that you saved these women, you reunited two tribes, and you ended an era of tyranny here." I started crying. "I love you, Xena."
Xena folded her arms around me in a loving embrace. "I love you, Gabrielle." I once again found myself burying my face between her soft breasts, hidden under the fabric of her tunic, and inhaling in her scent. I looked up to see the most beautiful eyes in the world staring at me.
"Xena, what is a Hard Death?"
"You didn’t learn about that in your Justice training, Gabrielle?"
"No, I’ve never heard of it."
Xena loosened her arms around my body. "The Amazons believe in a humane death sentence, Gabrielle. A condemned prisoner receives a single dagger pierce through the neck. Done correctly, the prisoner doesn’t experience much, if any, pain and dies quickly."
"That I know, Xena."
"If a condemned prisoner desperately wants to live for some reason, she could request a Hard Death," Xena said. "I’ve been told that the request is rarely granted by the jurists. The traditional death sentence always results in death. Theoretically, one could survive a Hard Death."
"Is that why it’s rarely granted, Xena?" I asked. "Because one could survive it?"
"No," she said. "It’s rarely granted because it’s inhumane."
"But what is it, Xena?"
"The jurists determine the method," Xena explained. "I remember Queen Cyane telling me about an Amazon in her tribe who begged for it. The woman had savagely killed her lover, another Amazon, in a jealous rage and was sentenced to die after trial. Cyane and her jurists decided to give the woman thirty lashes with a braided whip made out of elk skins. She died before the twentieth strike."
"Xena, is that what they would do to you?" My heart seemed to sink into my stomach at the brutal notion.
Xena tenderly kissed my lips and mounted Argo. "Heh… I survived the Gauntlet, Gabrielle," she said with a bittersweet expression on her face. "Melosa would probably order one hundred strikes with a rod made out of Hephaestus’ metal," Xena chuckled. I wasn’t laughing.
At the moment, the two disappointed lovesick female Imperial Guardsmen rode up to accompany Xena to the Peloponnese.
She smirked at them and then ran the tips of her fingers down my face. "I’ll see you in three days, my love."
Xena dug her heels into Argo’s sides. As I watched them leave the village, I felt a foreboding sensation within my soul. Something terrible was going to happen.
* * * *
The trial began promptly at noon in the central plaza. The 16 deserters were brought before us. They were shackled together at the wrists in two rows of eight women, and they were ordered to sit on the ground facing us.
This was my first time acting in my capacity as a jurist. I sat at Queen Melosa’s right. Chilapa sat at her left. Although almost thirty Amazons in the village were members of the Justice moiety, during a trial, only nine would serve as jurists at a time. Jurists alternated Justice duty at different times. Only Queen Melosa sat as a jurist for every trial held in the village. In my training, I learned that the number of jurists was an odd number so there would never be an equal amount of "Acquit" or "Condemn" votes amongst them. If the decisions regarding someone’s fate were less than unanimous, the majority of votes would prevail.
In all fairness to the prisoners, Queen Melosa decided to allow one of the steppe Amazons to serve as a jurist. She reasoned that a northern Amazon would harbor sympathy for the deserters. The woman selected was considered to be the steppe Amazons’ acting Princess. She was reportedly Queen Cyane’s adopted daughter and her name was Otere.
As the witnesses lined up to testify, I sat in silent reflection, wondering why I was not told about the Hard Death in my training.
After the bailiff struck the plaza drum to begin the trial, the first witness, the northern Amazons’ only elder, stood to begin her testimony. Comparat was a woman of about sixty. She had curly reddish hair, flecked with a lot of gray, and intense brown eyes. In her youth, she had been the guard of the tribe in Gaul, but some years later she became an expert hunter and agriculturist. She gained the skills to survive under the most extremely harsh weather conditions brought about by the gods. She became a tribal elder approximately one year before the two northern tribes’ encounter with the Warrior Princess.
"When the Destroyer of Nations murdered Queen Cyane and the elite leaders of our village in Thrace," she began, "I gathered up all of the tribal children and the tribal elders and fled the village. It was decreed by my Queen years before that if such a drastic attack should ever happen, I would bear the responsibility of getting our very young and very old to safety.
"We immediately headed to our village in Gaul. Our two villages were relatively close in proximity. They were separated only by a small valley, which bordered Thrace and Gaul. It usually took us only a half a day on foot to travel from one village to the other, and when we arrived, our Sisters there took up arms in anticipation of the Destroyer’s attack. She and her army raided our village the next day. As my gallant Sisters fought, I took all of the children and elders of that village as well and escaped east. We hid in the caverns of the western steppes until the Destroyer and her raiders left the region. We then headed north and eventually took shelter in a tiny village near the Catalaunian Plains. About three months later, two of my Sisters from Gaul found us and brought us back to an area near where our old village in Thrace stood. We couldn’t return to what was left of the village since the Destroyer incinerated all of our harvest, our broad and green beans, our wheat, rye, barley, oats, millet and our healing herbs. Her army ransacked and burned our village in Gaul as well.
"I learned that most of my Sisters died fighting the Destroyer. I learned that several of the survivors were taken prisoner and sold into slavery. We knew that a handful escaped to the east of the Carpathian Mountains, and that others went to our Sister villages in Thessaly, Sparta and Lesbos, but I was convinced that I’d never see any them again.
"I am what is left of the tribal elders. All of the others have crossed over. Both of the Sisters who rescued us died during the Conqueror’s second invasion in Thrace when she waged her war against the Gauls six years ago. I decided to raise our Amazon children in the steppes, as opposed to relocating to one of the other tribes of the Nation, because I know that land like it’s an extension of myself and I always believed that the northern Amazons would rise again, new and strong, with the proud spirits of these young women. We erected a large yurt to house us all and resumed what we did best, hunting and agriculture. We harvested vegetables, wild berries, roots and herbs. We fished the lakes and streams and hunted deer, elk, boar, rabbit and wild game. The years have been hard on our young under the rule of the Realm, but all of the children that I took with me in my escape survived.
"Velasca found us on our land six days ago," Comparat said. Pointing at the prisoners, she continued. "She had these women with her. She told us that she was Queen Melosa’s daughter and was the heir to the throne of this tribe. She said these women were Amazons as well. I was well aware of the story of Queen Melosa’s rescue of a young girl from a band of marauders, and although I also knew of Queen Melosa’s sister, I did not doubt Velasca’s assertion that she bore the right of caste. Amazons don’t lie to Amazons, normally. Unfortunately, information stopped filtering to us after the Destroyer’s raids, so I did not know that Velasca was an outcast Amazon and an officer of the Conqueror, or that she had had the real heir to the throne murdered."
Queen Melosa raised her hand to interrupt Comparat’s testimony. "I have a question of you, Elder Comparat," she said. "I was told that there were raids on several villages in the region within the past week. Are your young Amazons responsible for that?"
"No, Queen Melosa," Comparat answered. "When Velasca and her entourage came to our land, she was well stocked with food, weapons and supplies. She told us that they were gifts from the women of the neighboring villages, but that the men, out of jealousy, would be after them to retrieve the goods. That’s when she suggested that we should leave our land and yurt, temporarily, and take up residence at the old Cimmerian fort. She convinced us that she was going to stay with us and rule us in the manner that she was taught to rule by you, Queen Melosa. So we packed our things and left with her that day. It was during our ride here after the Conqueror’s troops captured Velasca’s soldiers that we learned in conversations with your Sisters that those villages had been raided."
"Hmm…" Queen Melosa pondered. "So when you saw the Conqueror and her troops outside of your fort, you had not anticipated her presence, correct?"
"We expected to be attacked by the men of the local villages, Queen Melosa," Comparat answered. "We were not expecting the Destroyer of Nations."
Chilapa chimed in with a question. "Elder Comparat, how many days were you in the fort before our Amazons and the Conqueror’s troops attacked?"
"Only three full days," came Comparat’s answer. "Word had spread quickly that we were there somehow and others of our tribe began arriving. I reunited with Sisters I hadn’t seen in over ten years. Most left remote dwellings to join us. A few left husbands."
"What did you all do in those three days?" Chilapa queried.
"My young Sisters did a lot of weapons training with Velasca’s soldiers. Mostly, we listened to Velasca go on and on about how great our tribe was going to be under her leadership. She told us that it was your wish that she rule our tribe as queen."
I had a question. "Did she have any male soldiers with her at any point in her interaction with you, Elder Comparat?"
"No, Princess Gabrielle," Comparat answered with a bemused expression on her face. "Why?"
"Two men deserted the Thessalian battalion fort with Velasca and these women here," I said. "Their bodies were later found on the banks of the Danube. There was speculation that the men mated with some of your Sisters before their deaths."
There was a collective gasp from several of the northern Amazons in the plaza, including Otere. This little piece of information had escaped them somehow.
Queen Melosa looked down at the prisoners. "Is it possible that any of you women are with child?"
Velasca’s soldiers looked around at each other. Some of them actually laughed. "You’ve got to be kidding, right?" said Daidja, Velasca’s second in command.
Before Ephiny or any of the Guard could react, and to everyone’s shock including mine, Bahri rushed over to Daidja and kneed her in the back. "Address the Queen by her appropriate honorific, traitor!" Daidja looked up at Bahri with eyes that would kill if they could. The look was not lost on my friend. "You had better do something else with those eyes, bitch, if you don’t want me to gouge them out." Bahri then grabbed Daidja’s head and turned it so that she could look eye to eye with Queen Melosa. "Address the Queen by her appropriate honorific," Bahri repeated.
"Queen Melosa," Daidja started, "Those men were used to distract villagers before our attacks on the villages. Once we were done with them, my lieutenant and I eliminated them."
Queen Melosa regarded Bahri with a smile and a nod, and then studied the prisoners before her. There was a long silence following Daidja’s admission.
"I’ll ask again, is it possible that any of you women are with child?" my Queen finally said.
"It is possible that I’m with child, Queen Melosa," one of the prisoners responded.
"Your name, prisoner?" Queen Melosa requested.
"Mireia of Athens, Your Highness," came the reply.
"You bedded one of the dead men, soldier?" Queen Melosa inquired.
"Yes, I did."
There was a silence.
"Very well," said Queen Melosa before returning her attention to Comparat. "Now, noble Amazon Elder, please continue with your testimony."
* * * *
The trial went on into the evening. Several of the northern Amazons testified about the days leading up to our attack. We learned that Velasca had left her command post at Pharsalus four full days before Xena learned of it. Apparently, Velasca gave her battalion some excuse for a temporary departure. It wasn’t like she was missed by most of the remaining troops anyway. Also, Xena may have been mistaken about the purpose the two male deserters served for Velasca, but she was correct about King Mithradates. The Cimmerian fort wasn’t a chance location. Velasca knew about the old fort and she knew about Mithradates’ history with the Conqueror. She knew that he had supplied his army to Xena a few years ago so as to enable her to finally defeat the Romans. Velasca also knew that Mithradates was rewarded by the Conqueror with more wealth than that which he had as a king in Pontes, and that he willingly ceded his land to the Realm for that wealth. And Velasca knew that Mithradates was older, a widower and childless by choice. Comparat confirmed that Velasca intended on having several of the younger Amazons mate with Mithradates.
I was saddened by the fact that the northern Amazons were so easily taken by Velasca’s rhetoric. I was even more shocked at the fact that they were convinced that Velasca’s soldiers were Amazons. I had only lived amongst the tribe for less than two months and, even in my first days there, I presented a much more convincing Amazon. These women were foul. Although their clothing closely resembled the attire of the young women of the northern tribes, they were slovenly, inarticulate and crude. I had a hard time believing they were members of Xena’s army. Most of the soldiers I saw in Corinth, even the drunken ones in the North End Tavern the night Bahri took me there, were more refined and presentable than these women. How could anyone consider Velasca a great leader with followers like these?
Obviously, Velasca wasn’t a great leader.
I was exhausted when I returned to my yurt to retire for the evening. I dug out one of my poetry scrolls and settled in my high bed with a mug of warm ginger cider. I was working on a lyrical poem written in the style of the Tenth Muse. Over the years in my studies of the great Greek poets, I hadn’t really singled out Sappho’s literary art until I began acknowledging to myself my romantic and sexual feelings toward Xena. I chuckled to myself as I recalled the time that my dear friend Demi inadvertently stumbled across one of my Sapphic poems in the palace library. I didn’t know who was more embarrassed by my provocative descriptions of Xena’s luscious legs and supple breasts, Demi or me.
A knock at my yurt entrance brought me back to the present.
"Yes, who is it?" I asked.
"It’s me, Bahri."
"Come on in, my friend," I said.
I jumped down from my high bed and walked over to Bahri as she entered my yurt. Putting my arm around her shoulder, I guided her over to my table. She sat down on one of my stools.
"Would you like some cider, Bahri?" I asked.
After pouring her a mug and refilling my own mug, I sat on a stool next to her. She looked drawn and pensive. Something was obviously troubling her.
"What’s wrong, Bahri?" I asked. "If you’re concerned about your actions at the trial today, don’t be. I think my Queen was quite pleased at your gesture of respect."
"Thanks, Gab," she responded. "But that’s not it."
"What is it then?" I asked as I caught her eyes and took her hands into mine.
"I… I need your advice about something," Bahri responded, looking down at our clasping hands.
"Sure, my friend," I said. "If I can help."
Bahri took a deep breath. "It’s about Charicleia. I… I like her an awful lot. I… I… well, I think I may be in love with her."
I smiled at my friend. "That’s wonderful, Bahri!" I exclaimed. "I’m so happy for you."
"No it’s not," she responded as a single tear fell from a sad, brown eye. "We’re from two different worlds. I am an Imperial Guardsman, a soldier of the Realm and a servant to the Conqueror. Her world is here. I want to ask her to join me in union; to be my consort, but how can that happen if she lives here and I live in Corinth?"
"Have you thought of leaving your assignment and settling here, Bahri?" I asked.
"I’m not an Amazon, Gabrielle," she responded. "I don’t know the first thing about being an Amazon. Their way of life is very different from mine. And I’m Nubian. At least in Corinth, others of my race are there. Here, I stick out like a fly in goat’s milk."
"Oh, Bahri," I said as I gripped her shoulder. "That’s not entirely true, but even if it was, none of that matters to my Sisters. And as for being an Amazon, I didn’t know the first thing about it either when I came here. I couldn’t even fight. At least you have that skill already." I rested her head on my shoulder as her tears started to flow. "I think you could be very happy here. You’d make a great Guard, Bahri, and you wouldn’t suffer any more attacks from those old ‘friends’ of yours."
"But I love what I do, Gabrielle," she said. "I love being an interrogator. I believe it’s my calling from the Fates themselves." She raised her head and looked me in the eyes. "Do you think Charicleia would come to Corinth with me?"
"I don’t know. I’ve been told that there are Amazons in the Imperial Guard," I said.
"I’ve heard that as well, Gabrielle." Bahri’s eyebrows furrowed, pensively.
"Have you told her that you love her, Bahri?"
"Uh… I haven’t gotten around to that yet."
"Bahri, tell her that you love her," I said. "Tell her and then talk to her. Make the decisions together."
"Yea, you’re right, Gabrielle," Bahri responded. "I’ll tell her tonight." Bahri’s facial expression instantly changed from sadness to joyful anticipation.
"Gabrielle, do you think you and the Conqueror will ever join in union?"
The question took me by surprise and I felt an immediate flutter in my stomach. "I… I don’t know."
"The whole slavery thing aside, it’s obvious that you two are totally in love with each other," Bahri stated. "It’s like she’s a different person when she’s around you."
"Um… I um…"
"You should have seen her when she and I came here to get you," Bahri interrupted, snickering. "She told me she just wanted to see you. Yea, right. On the outside, she was our Ruler; focused, determined. But inside, Gabrielle, she was a mess. I could tell. I wasn’t stupid enough to ask the Conqueror what was bothering her, but I knew. I bet she was real worried you had found someone else and she came here to get you back. The Conqueror came here to claim her woman."
Now I was the one looking at my hands.
"That’s an interesting shade of red on your face, Gab." Bahri was laughing now. She stood and patted me on my shoulder. "I’ll leave you to your thoughts, O’ Princess of the Amazons. I have a certain lovely Amazon to call on myself."
"Good night, Bahri."
"Good night, Gabrielle."
* * * *
On the second day of the trial, we heard from a young Amazon named Yakut. She testified that she believed she and her best friend, Otere, were the only two of the northern Sisters who were dubious of Velasca and her "amazons."
"I believed that Elder Comparat was suspicious as well," she told us. "But Otere and I didn’t discuss it with her. In hindsight, we really should have, and we are remiss that the events that transpired could have been prevented."
"Why did you keep your thoughts to yourself, Yakut?" Queen Melosa asked.
Yakut looked at her friend who sat with us. We followed the gaze to Otere. "My other Sisters were eager to learn new fighting skills from Velasca," Otere said. "Only three of my Sisters had gone through proper scout guard training before the Destroyer’s raids ten years ago. I was only seven then. And although we all know how to fight defensively, Velasca made promises to train us to fight as well as you, as well as the Conqueror herself. We all really wanted to gain those skills.
"But there was something else, my Sisters," she continued. "Velasca spoke very ill of the Conqueror, but not in a manner that I recognized. She was telling us what she believed we wanted to hear. She knew a great deal about our way of life, but she also spoke in a manner that was contrary to our culture. I sensed that she knew the Conqueror, not as Amazon adversary, but as an ally."
"But why did you remain silent?" Queen Melosa asked.
"Yakut and I agreed to watch her closely. We were gaining some valuable fighting skills in such a short period of time, but we agreed that if something unusual occurred, we would take our suspicions to Elder Comparat. We were both on the wall when the Conqueror and her troops arrived. When she said something about Velasca being a lame leader of her army in Thessaly, that was when our suspicions were confirmed."
Yakut chimed in. "When we saw real Amazons coming over the wall of the fort with the Conqueror’s troops, we decided to engage Velasca and Daidja in battle. Otere was going to take on Velasca, but in all of the chaos, we couldn’t find her for a few moments. When we did, Xena the Conqueror was already engaging her in battle. We both engaged Daidja and were able to overpower her. You know the rest."
There was a brief silence.
"We apologize to all of our Sisters for not acting on our instinct," Otere finally said.
After the northern Amazons concluded their testimony, it was time for the deserters to speak. All but one refused. The one who did speak was Mireia, the young woman who believed herself to be with child. She broke down crying in her testimony, saying that Velasca lied about the two dead men. Mireia was told that that her lover and the other man had decided to go back to the battalion fort. She believed that only Velasca and Daidja caused the actual fate of the two men, and that the other deserters knew nothing about it either. She also said that Velasca promised positions of royalty in the Amazon Nation to all of the deserters. They believed that Velasca was not only the queen of a specific tribe of Amazons; they were convinced she was the displaced queen of the entire Nation.
Velasca may not have been a great leader, but she was definitely a corruptible manipulator.
The following day, all of the jurists retired to the Justice yurt to decide the fates of the deserters. We agreed that Daidja was the most culpable, but that all of them were guilty of deception and endangerment to the northern Amazons. Some of them may have believed that Velasca was an Amazon queen, but they all represented themselves as Amazons to Comparat, her young tribe and the other displaced steppe Amazons who joined them. We also had to consider the fatalities. Five deserters, not including the two murdered men, were killed in the attack. Seven of the Conqueror’s soldiers were killed and the northern tribe lost two Sisters, a former healer from the village in Gaul, and one of Comparat’s Amazons, a young woman only 19 years of age.
By mid afternoon, we had agreed on a sentence. Queen Melosa announced the judgment.
"The 15 followers of Velasca and Daidja are hereby sentenced to two years indentured service to the northern Amazons. Any violation of that service will result in your apprehension and punishment under the rules of the Conqueror’s Realm. May you learn about Amazon honor, courage and integrity during your servitude. Daidja of Pheres will be turned over to the custody of the Conqueror’s Thessalian soldiers present in this village, Sergeants Favrie and Viera. She is hereby sentenced to 25 years imprisonment in a prison designated by the Realm. May the great goddesses have mercy on your soul."
Favrie and Viera left the village with Daidja that evening. However, the others were returned to the prisoner holding yurt. Queen Melosa decided to take the opportunity to have a reunion celebration with our northern Sisters. Gathering in the plaza that evening, the hunters presented two wild boars that were roasted over the large fire pit. The Amazons ate, danced and celebrated well into the night. In the middle of the revelry, I decided to retire to my yurt. I was again exhausted from the emotions of the last three days, and without Xena present, I didn’t feel much like celebrating. Climbing up on my high bed, I once again began writing in my poetry scroll. I wrote for quite a while before Morpheus claimed me.
A few candlemarks into the night, I felt in my sleep a strong arm wrapping around my body. I felt a warm, naked body press up against my back and soft lips kiss my temple. My eyes struggled to open. Once they did, I turned my face and saw indigo gems staring at me.
"You fell asleep writing, eh Gabrielle?" A beautifully low and gentle voice whispered to me as a hand gently released my grip from my scroll and put both the scroll and my quill aside.
"Oh, Xena," I sighed as I turned my body and threw my arms around Xena’s neck. "I missed you so much."
Xena cupped her hands on my cheeks and looked deeply into my eyes. "Make love to me, Gabrielle," she said. "I want to make love."
I looked at her. There was an expression on her face that I recognized, but hadn’t seen in awhile. I couldn’t place it. "I want you, Gabrielle," she said. "I want to feel the love you have for me. I need you. Please make love with me."
I placed my hand on the back of Xena’s head and brought her lips to mine. We kissed briefly and then she began nibbling and licking my ear. I started running my fingers through her beautiful black hair. "Yes, Gabrielle. Let me feel you," she whispered in a sultry voice right in my ear. "Let me feel all of you."
Xena began biting and sucking my neck very hard. She bore her pelvis down onto mine and gripped my thigh between her legs. The pleasurable pain from her sucking aroused me quickly, and when she broke skin, I gasped at the pinch and arched my lower back to feel her body tighter on mine.
"Mmmm… yes, woman, let me feel you," she muttered. "Let me feel you hard."
Xena licked the blood from my bitten neck. She then grabbed my hands and raised my arms above my head, reminiscent of the days in her captivity. Instead of gripping my wrists, however, she lovingly interlaced our fingers. Her tongue ran a trail of fire around my neck and down my chest to my hardened right nipple. She took it into her teeth and bit lightly, and then started sucking it hard, passionately, and desperately.
"By the gods, you are a gift to me, Gabrielle," she muttered with a growl. "So, so gorgeous."
She ran her tongue to the other breast, where she gave my nipple one strong suckle. Then she ran it back up my chest and to my neck, where she created a second bruise. I lay in awe of her many powerful sensations. After a thorough discoloring of my neck, she ran her tongue up to my chin and then my lips. When I slightly opened my mouth to receive that eager muscle, she thrust it into my mouth, swirling it around my teeth, my inner lips and my tongue. A sheen of sweat covered her body. I was sweating as well.
We were grinding into each other hard. Our hands gripped tighter and tighter. Our tongues were at war. In my excitement, I lost myself and bit down on Xena’s lip. For a single moment, I was startled at my actions, but Xena responded by exuding a delighted growl as she sensuously licked the small trickle of blood off of her lip. The pace of her thrusts increased and I increased my pace to keep up with her. She brought her lips back to mine and kissed me hard. I tasted the blood on her lip as she groaned into my mouth. Our bodies were slapping together. My hands hurt from gripping hers so tightly. My pelvic bone ached from the friction of our thrusts, but I was lost in a primal bliss that the pain only served to accentuate.
We were both moaning very loud. For a brief moment, I worried about being heard by my immediate neighbors, but I just tossed that ridiculous thought aside.
"Come on… let me hear it… uhhhggg… let me hear it, Gabrielle."
My climax hit me like shattering glass. "XENA! Ooohhhh…"
Hers came as well. "Yyyyeeeeessssss!!! Ahh…"
As our collective storms past, Xena let go of my hands and threw both of her arms around me. I could feel throbbing in my chest and in hers, between my legs and on my saturated thigh where her sex rested. I turned my head slightly and kissed her sweaty cheek. She tightened her grip around my body and began quietly sobbing.
"I don’t deserve you, Gabrielle," she said in a soft whisper that I strained to hear.
I felt it strongly in my heart at that moment that during the time Xena was away, she had killed someone, and it had been someone that I had known.
* * * *
When I woke up the following morning, Xena was sitting in my lounging chair staring straight ahead. She was fully dressed in her signature battledress, breastplate, greaves and gauntlets. I jumped down off of my high bed and, throwing on a tunic, I walked over to her and ran my hand down her shiny midnight hair.
"Would you like a mug of cider, Xena?" I asked.
She looked up at me. There was such sadness in her eyes.
"Gabrielle, there’s something I need to tell you."
I climbed onto Xena’s lap and threw my arms around her neck. She began gently stroking my hair. "My time has come to invade Albion, Gabrielle."
My face flushed. "Why, Xena?"
"The tribes of the island have continually disregarded the orders of the Realm from my Roman and Celtic military leaders," she explained. "The tribes are stagnating the shipping ports in the channel between Albion and Gaul and along the North Sea. They are restricting trade. Much of my strength in that region is drawn from maritime trade, so I need to go there with my mighty army of the Realm and settle matters."
Xena took my hand in hers. "I want you to stay here with your tribe while I’m gone," she said.
"No, Xena. I’m going with you."
"Gabrielle, this battle won’t be an afternoon frolic with a bunch of teenaged Amazons. I’m going to do battle with barbarians more brutal, more animalistic than even the Romans could imagine. This is war, Gabrielle, and it will not be over after a single battle. The main tribal leader is a man named Niall of Calleva. He’s a sworn enemy of both Greece and Rome, and he is filled with bloodlust and hatred toward me. His power amongst his people is building, and I need to stop him." Lacing our fingers, she added softly, "You’ll see things, Gabrielle, things I don’t want you to see."
"I go with you, Xena. I don’t have to fight, but we stay together."
Xena looked away from me and a tense silence filled the room for several moments. "Gabrielle," Xena finally spoke up. "I have decided to take Queen Melosa up on her offer."
"What offer, Xena?"
"The Hard Death, Gabrielle."
I didn’t see this coming. "What? Why?" I asked.
"Because it needs to be done, Gabrielle," she explained. "The Amazons believe they are entitled to their retribution, and they won’t fully respect you until it’s done."
I jumped up off of her lap. "Xena, no!" I exclaimed. "If you have to go to Albion, let’s go. We’ll leave now."
"Oh, we’re going to Albion, but I’m going to do this first."
"What if you die, Xena," I said, visibly shaken and crying. "I don’t want you to die."
Xena stood and threw her arms around me in an embrace. "I won’t die, Gabrielle," she said.
"How do you know? You said it yourself. They’ll choose a punishment that you could never survive."
"Because I’m going to choose the punishment."
I looked up at her. "Xena, will they let you do that?"
"Gabrielle, I’m the Conqueror," Xena replied. "They aren’t in a position to refuse. They’ll do it my way or it doesn’t get done."
"What will you have them do to you?" I felt an instant terror for my love.
"Something that I can survive, but that will also satisfy their need to see me suffer."
She released me from the embrace and headed for the yurt entrance. "Where are you going, Xena?" I asked.
"I’m going to tell Queen Melosa that I’m ready to allocute and receive the Hard Death."
"Xena, no!" I shouted as I ran to her and grabbed her arm, forcing her to turn and face me. "Let’s talk about this, please."
"I don’t have time, Gabrielle," she said. "I need to do this now. I figure I’ll have one full day of recovery time before we leave here and head for Gaul. It’s going to take several days to get to Albion. At least six days land travel and two days at sea. Palaemon and Aerol are already in Salonae waiting for me."
"This is madness, Xena!" I said. "I’m not going to let them beat you."
Xena gripped both of my forearms tightly and bore her eyes down on me. "I need to do this, Gabrielle, for me as well as for them." She released my arms and stormed out of the yurt. I followed right behind her.
Queen Melosa was standing at the plaza, speaking with a group of my Sisters when Xena approached her.
"Queen Melosa," she said. "Are any of my soldiers still in the village?"
"Welcome back, Conqueror," my Queen greeted sarcastically. "Besides the jailed deserters, only your delightful Sergeant Bahri is here. I do like her, by the way. She’s… spirited."
"I’m glad, but we can discuss Bahri later," Xena said. "I’m here to take you up on your offer."
Queen Melosa immediately dismissed the others. I remained.
"I have a condition, Queen Melosa," Xena continued. "I get to decide the punishment."
"That’s not protocol, Conqueror," Queen Melosa replied.
"You want your justice, Queen?"
"Then we do this my way."
Queen Melosa let out a huge sigh. "Very well, Conqueror," she said, deflated. "How shall we inflict your Hard Death?"
"Who is the strongest of the northern Amazons?" Xena asked.
"Why? Do you want to fight her?" my Queen inquired in a mocking tone.
"Just answer the question."
"Escritt, an Amazon from the village in Gaul. She was 14 when you murdered her mother and sister. She is also one of only three of Comparat’s young Amazons to receive scout guard training before your invasion. She’s big, Conqueror, bigger than Eponin, MY strongest Amazon."
"Good," Xena responded. "You just answered my next question. Here is my Hard Death. Escritt will give me twenty lashes with this leather whip." Xena handed Queen Melosa a very thick, braided leather whip that had been attached to her battledress. "It’s thicker, but similar to the one I used to… use."
Queen Melosa pulled the ends of the whip, apparently satisfied with Xena’s choice of method. "Twenty lashes, Conqueror. Very well."
"I’m not done yet."
Xena walked over to Argo and pulled a rod out of her saddlebag. It was shaped at the end in the yonical symbol of womanhood. She walked up to us and handed the rod to Queen Melosa. I felt instantly nauseated.
"NO XENA!" I yelled. I started crying again.
Xena grabbed my arm. "Please, Gabrielle, I need to do this."
"You want me to brand you, Conqueror?" Queen Melosa asked.
"No, I want Eponin to brand me."
I was frantic. I grabbed her arms and began shaking her. "No, Xena, no! Please don’t do this!"
Xena looked at Queen Melosa. "Where’s Bahri?"
Surprisingly deferring to Xena’s rude demand, Queen Melosa departed. In hindsight, I believe it was for my benefit. Xena pulled her arms out of my grip and then gently gripped my arms. "I need to make things right, Gabrielle. For them… for me… for you. This is the only way."
"No, Xena," I pleaded. "I know that pain. I don’t want you to experience that pain."
Tears began falling from her eyes. "You know that pain because of me, Gabrielle."
"Feeling what I felt isn’t going to make what happened to me go away, Xena. It’s not going to make me feel any better. You don’t have to do this. I don’t want revenge."
"But you deserve your vengeance, Gabrielle."
"But I don’t want vengeance, Xena."
Queen Melosa returned with Bahri at that point. "Queen Melosa, how soon can you have the entire village assembled, including the steppe Amazons?"
"Consider it done now, Conqueror," our Queen responded. "Amazons!" she yelled. "Assemble!"
Others began yelling "Assemble!" and the plaza began to quickly fill with the presence of my Sisters.
"I don’t want any of those traitors to be present," Xena said to Queen Melosa. "Bahri’s the only soldier of the Realm who witnesses this."
"As you wish, Conqueror." Queen Melosa said. "I had no intention of letting them out of their place of confinement."
"What’s going on?" Bahri asked me.
"Bahri," Xena said. "Take Gabrielle’s arm. Be her friend, and don’t let her stop what’s about to happen." Xena started walking to the center spot of the plaza.
"Xena, don’t do this!" I pleaded again.
Bahri stood there confused. "I said take her arm, Field Sergeant!" Xena barked impatiently. Bahri reluctantly grabbed my arm. I yanked it away and began walking after Xena.
"RESTRAIN HER!" Xena yelled. Bahri snaked her arms around mine from behind.
"Let go of me, Bahri," I said as I desperately tried to pry my arms away from her grip.
"I’m sorry, Gabrielle," she whispered. "I can’t. I have my orders."
"Let go of me!" I began pulling maniacally and stomping on her feet. I hated myself for doing this to Bahri, but I just had to break free and talk some sanity into Xena.
Bahri yelled in the air. "Uh, ladies, can I get some help here!?!"
In an instant, Ephiny and Charicleia, along with Bahri, were restraining me. I was hysterical. "Let me go! Let me go! I hate you all! XENA!!"
Xena looked at me and time seemed to stop. We gazed into each other’s eyes. Everyone around us disappeared. We were suddenly in a space where only she and I existed. I no longer felt the hands holding me. I no longer saw the women surrounding me. Xena spoke to me. She was too far away for me to hear the words, but I heard them anyway.
"Before we can go on together, Gabrielle, I need to do this for you. You deserve a place of honor in your Nation without the curse of your love for me stifling it. I need to do this for me. I need to know this pain to heal me. I need to atone, for them, but especially for you… always for you. It is my way, my code, as a warrior. I need to do this for us. Don’t fight it, Gabrielle. When it’s done, we can move on."
I felt a painful resolve and nodded my acquiescence. Xena turned to Queen Melosa.
Queen Melosa made the announcement: "Xena the Conqueror will hereby admit her guilt for her war crimes against the Nation."
There were looks of utter disbelief amongst many of the Amazons. Xena motioned for Shaya, one of our village healers to come to her. She whispered something into Shaya’s ear. Xena then looked around the plaza and focused her gaze on Otere for a moment. At the time, I didn’t fully know why. She then raised her head and spoke out to the audience of Amazons. "I am Xena of Amphipolis. Ten years ago, my army and I raided a village at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains in Thrace. My army and I were responsible for the deaths of most of the villagers, including the parents of Otere of the steppe Amazons. She wasn’t an Amazon at that time. She was a small, orphaned girl whom my lover at the time brought to Queen Cyane, where she was to be raised as a proud Amazon. But then I killed Queen Cyane for no other reason than to secure my place as the Destroyer of Nations. My army and I killed and captured over 100 Amazons, but the Queen and her top warriors died at my hands alone. My actions ruptured the foundation of a strong segment of the mighty Amazon Nation."
Xena returned her gaze to Otere. "I’m sorry for my crimes against this Nation. I’m sorry, Otere, for killing both of your mothers. You know our history together. You know your fate. Follow it. You are the designated Queen of the steppe Amazons."
Otere lowered her eyes and began quietly weeping. Xena turned to Queen Melosa, who announced: "Xena the Conqueror, having pled to her crimes, is adjudicated Condemned. She has been offered the Hard Death and has agreed to it. Although she has designated her own method, I agree it to be appropriate."
Queen Melosa summoned Daphnis and Anthia, Ephiny’s seconds-in-command in Training. They entered the central plaza with a large cross made out of thick wooden boards. Xena removed her breastplate, greaves and gauntlets and took her battledress off from her upper body, resting it just below her hips. She gave her sheathed sword, breast dagger and chakram to Queen Melosa. The cross was positioned at an angle on a large log rolled in from the edge of the village. Xena was tied at her wrists. Her boots were removed and her ankles were tied as well. I turned away at this point and buried my face into Bahri’s shoulder. I heard Xena’s voice from behind me.
"Look at me, Gabrielle," she said. "If I should die, I want the Elysium beauty of your face to be the last thing I see before my journey to Tartarus."
"I can’t, Xena," I responded from my burrowed position on Bahri’s shoulder.
I turned and saw that same troubled face I saw last night. "Thank you, Gabrielle."
Escritt walked over to Xena. There was no denying her strength in appearance alone. She was a massive woman. Her arms were the size of tree trunks. Her facial features were strong and handsome. If it weren’t for her large breasts, she could easily be mistaken for a man. I was terrified at the notion of such a huge, muscular woman beating a bound and vulnerable Xena. She’s not going to live through this, I thought as my tears began anew.
"Begin the Hard Death," Queen Melosa demanded to Escritt.
Escritt raised her arm and began striking Xena with the whip. Xena didn’t scream, didn’t shout, and didn’t utter a word as the braided leather belt bore into her back again and again. The first few strikes produced protruding welts, but eventually the whip broke skin. When I saw the first sprays of my love’s blood on her back, I began crying hysterically, but I kept my eyes on Xena’s eyes. I wanted to be strong for her. At about the tenth blow, she closed her eyes tightly in response to the pain. I wanted so desperately to tell Escritt to stop this torture. I wanted to break away from Bahri’s grip and hurl myself onto Escritt to get her to stop. But when I started shaking my head in a maddening disbelief, Bahri tightened her comforting embrace.
"She’s going to live through this, Gabrielle," Bahri whispered in my ear. "This is Xena, the great and legendary Warrior Princess, who survived the Gauntlet, who survived the great tyranny of the that would-be Emperor of Rome, who conquered Greece, Rome, Anatolia, Persia and Gaul. Compared to what she’s experienced, Gabrielle, this is a mere afternoon stroll in the woods to her. Xena the Conqueror is the most powerful mortal to ever walk the earth, greater than any man or woman before her. She’ll live through this."
When Escritt inflicted the last strike, Xena opened her eyes. A momentary shot of relief ran through my body. I smiled at her to let her know I was there for her as a part of her soul. She forced a returned faint smile to me. The pain she felt and the blood she was losing were affecting her whole body. She was shaking uncontrollably, her hands were gripped in tight white-knuckled fists, her body perspired, but she remained silent. At that moment, Eponin walked up. She had the rod in her hand. The end of it was a bright fire orange color. Eponin blew on it for a moment and then looked at Xena. She then looked at the sky. "Mighty goddess Artemis, please forgive me," she said.
In an instant, I was taken to another time, almost five years ago, when the Conqueror’s smith, Kier, stood above me with a hot metal rod preparing to disfigure my body.
"God of Abraham, please forgive me," he said before pressing the metal onto my shoulder.
At that moment, the sympathy I felt for Eponin nearly matched what I was about to feel for Xena.
Eponin took a deep breath and, closing her eyes, pressed the fiery metal onto Xena’s back. On contact, Xena howled out a deafening scream and then went limp.
"NO!" I shouted as I broke away from Bahri’s embrace and ran to Xena. Bahri, Ephiny and Charicleia ran to her as well. "By the gods, she’s dead!" I screamed as I sank down on my knees next to her still form.
Queen Melosa quickly approached and touched Xena’s pulse point on her neck. "She’s alive," my Queen said. "She’s passed out from the pain."
Immediately, Eponin, Daphnis and Anthia began untying Xena’s bound wrists and ankles. Escritt grabbed Xena under her waist, and with the other three assisting, they hoisted Xena up off the boards. Ephiny, Bahri, Charicleia and I joined the others in carrying her as quickly as we could to the Hospice yurt.
Once inside, I stood to the side, my arms folded clutching myself. I watched the healers, including the Amazon Ouri, the guard who also served as a healer, apply saturated cloths to Xena’s back. As they worked, the healer Shaya explained to me what they were doing. She told me that the cloths had been dipped in a special solution of goat’s milk, horsemint, yellow spine thistle and honeysuckle. The combination was to stop the bleeding, reduce pain, draw out any impurities or infections and hopefully retard scarring. She explained that if fresh cloths are reapplied every candlemark, Xena should heal quickly with minimal permanent scars, at least from the whip marks. She knew that she didn’t have to explain to me about what was going to become of the brand mark.
Once the cloths were applied, Shaya went over to Xena. She removed the cloth that covered Xena’s fresh brand wound and, folding the cloth, gently padded the wound with it. Then, taking out a fine bone sharpened at the end, she dipped the bone into a tiny jar filled with a thick, dark solution of liquid and began poking tiny holes into the wound.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?!" I asked exasperated as I rushed over to stop her.
"Honoring the Conqueror’s request, my Princess," Shaya replied.
Shaya continued this dipping and poking ritual until she had completely covered Xena’s wound with the thick liquid. It was obvious that what Shaya was doing was a very painful procedure, and I was grateful that Xena was unconscious to suffer the added discomfort.
Xena remained unconscious for the better part of that day. I was getting more and more worried that she would never wake up, but Shaya and the other healers reassured me that Xena’s body was reacting to the trauma and that she would awaken when her mind and her spirit were ready to experience a painful consciousness. I sat in a chair next to the bed on which she laid. She was lying on her stomach. Her battledress had been completely removed and her lower back, rear and legs were covered with a thin blanket. Every candlemark, Ouri or Shaya applied fresh cloths to her back. After a while, I noticed an improvement. The bleeding did indeed stop, and the swelling welts, which had initially been an atrocity to see, had diminished. As I sat next to her, I gently ran my fingers through her hair, stroking it. She was asleep, but I wanted her to feel my presence, my loving comfort.
For much of the time, I was alone in the Hospice yurt with Xena, with the exception of Ouri, Shaya or the other various healers who wandered in and out to check up on Xena’s recovery or change her dressings. My Queen also came in from time to time, but I think she was more concerned about my well-being. At one point, both Escritt and Eponin walked in together.
"My Princess," Eponin started. "I hope you won’t think ill of me for what I did."
I stood and walked over to her and hugged her massive form. "Of course not, Eponin," I said. "What you did was the Justice our Queen sought and what Xena wanted too."
I then hugged Escritt. "I allowed myself to hate her for so long," she said. "I thought I would enjoy beating the living Tartarus out of her. But when I saw the first rips in her back and the blood, I wanted to stop. Would my mother want this? Would my sister? Did I really want this?" Escritt began crying. Eponin joined me in the embrace. I felt as though I was nestled between two soft, supple trees, but I felt a peace pass between us. Escritt spoke words that I could have very well spoken myself. Xena may have fashioned the life Escritt was forced to live from the age of 14, but Xena brought these women together as well. At that moment, the words Xena silently spoke to me earlier rang true: she and I could truly move on.
* * * *
Xena began to regain consciousness after dusk. Shaya was in the Hospice yurt with me when Xena began to stir. "Xena," I said as I stood up from my chair and began gently stroking her face. "I’m here, Xena."
A bright blue eye revealed itself to me. "Gab…ri…elle?" she said in question.
"Yes, my love, I’m here."
A small yet determined smile streamed across her face. "I told you I’d live."
The tears I tried so desperately to contain betrayed me. I began sobbing uncontrollably, covering her head with my face and my arms.
"I dreamt about you, Gabrielle," Xena said softly. "You were in a huge garden, larger than the palace gardens, and you wore white. You were so beautiful." Xena sighed, continuing. "I approached you and you handed me this beautiful bouquet of flowers. Cinerarias, zinnias, carnations and Aurelian lilies, I believe. I buried my face in the flowers and just breathed in their scent. That’s all I remember."
"How do you feel, Xena?" I asked.
At that moment, I had to chuckle. I knew that my Warrior Princess was on her way back in all of her profane glory.
Shaya walked over with a large steaming mug. "Conqueror, can you lift your head to drink this?" she asked.
"What is it," Xena inquired.
"It’s a broth of hot fermented apple cider laced with crushed arnica and gentian root," came Shaya’s answer.
"Oooh, yummy," Xena said facetiously as she slightly lifted her head, wincing in pain, to allow Shaya to bring the mug to her mouth.
"Drink it all, Conqueror," Shaya requested.
It was not clear if the expression on Xena’s face was from her pain or the bitter taste of the medicine she drank, but I suspected each played a role.
After drinking the cider, Xena groaned in pain and closed her eyes. Within moments, she was asleep again. I was worried.
"It’s okay, Princess," Shaya assured me. "The crushed roots are pain relievers. The fermentation of the drink acts as a wine. That’s why she sleeps."
"You mean she’s drunk, Shaya?" I inquired, concerned.
"Eh, that’s a strong way to put it," she replied. "I prefer to say she’s sedated. She’ll heal faster if she’s not troubled by the pain."
I decided to stay in the Hospice yurt with Xena for the night. I pushed one of the other beds in the yurt up against Xena’s as she slept. Lying down next to her, I began lightly stroking my fingers in her hair. My actions soothed me as much as I hoped them to soothe her. After some moments, sleep claimed me as well.
I woke up the following morning to a commotion coming from the central plaza outside. I ran out and saw a group of men on horses confronting Queen Melosa. Most of the tribal heavyweights surrounded her; Ephiny, Solari, Chloe, Charicleia, Eponin, Daphnis and Anthia. They were armed with swords. Standing off to the side, aiming her signature crossbow at the lead man’s head was Bahri.
"I don’t appreciate you casually riding into our village, Draco," Queen Melosa spoke up. "What do you want?"
"I need to see the Conqueror, woman," came the man’s reply.
"Brother, you had better throw in the word ‘Queen’ somewhere soon or your buddies here will watch as I send your brains flying," Bahri spoke up.
Draco regarded Bahri. He was a large, muscular, and rather handsome man. He was also about Bahri’s complexion. Judging by his distinct features, he could either be Oromo, Berber, Gaunche or Nubian. He returned his attention to Queen Melosa.
"Of course I meant no disrespect, Queen," he said. "I only wish to speak with the Conqueror."
"What makes you think she’s even here, Draco?" my Queen queried.
"The fact that you have a temperamental Imperial Guardsman ready to empty my brains from my skull is one giveaway," he replied. "The information was also relayed to me by some of my employees."
"What do you want with her?" Queen Melosa asked.
"Hey, I run a legitimate operation. She has sanctioned it for years. I just want to ask her why she suddenly decided to execute two of my top slavers, and in such a nasty manner, I might add. That’s all."
I felt all of the air in my lungs leave at that moment.
"The Conqueror isn’t here at the moment, Draco," Queen Melosa lied. "She had to ride to Ambracia. I do believe she may return here on her way back to Corinth. Try back in three days." After Xena’s Hard Death, I had told Queen Melosa of Xena’s plan to ride to Gaul within the next day or two. It was a clever deception on her part to send Draco on a wild goose chase.
"Very well." Draco signaled for his companions to turn their horses around. As they rode out of the village, Bahri kept her weapon aimed at Draco’s head.
"Fucking slavers… I hate the scum," she said as she finally lowered her crossbow.
The Amazons broke up and went about their collective duties. I ran back to the Hospice yurt. Xena was still asleep. I didn’t want to wake her, but so many thoughts swirled through my brain. What did you do, Xena? I pondered to myself.
I remained in the Hospice yurt with Xena for the remainder of the morning and into midday. Xena didn’t start to awaken until the early afternoon. The healers had replaced the medicated cloths with cloths dipped in special healing oils. Xena would periodically stir in semi-consciousness only to fall back deep into Morpheus’ grasp. It was about the middle of the afternoon when Queen Melosa entered and interrupted my deep contemplation.
"My sister Gabrielle," she said. "The northern Amazons are prepared to head back to their new home."
I felt emotionally drained. I rose from my seat and ran to my Queen and grabbed her in a tight embrace, crying into her shoulder. She soothed me by stroking my back.
"Your lover is a complicated woman, Gabrielle," she said. "I doubt any of us will ever understand her. But I do know one thing is clear, she loves you more than life itself."
I looked at Queen Melosa.
"You are a gift to her and to us, my sister," she continued. "I don’t fear many things, Gabrielle. My death, your death, the death of my cherished Sisters of this tribe, I know all of us would find peace in the afterlife. But I do fear what Xena the Conqueror would become if anything should happen to you."
"Her beast is always below the surface, my Queen," I said.
"Yes, sometimes deep, most times very shallow unfortunately, but you have the power to keep it there," she said as she ran her gentle hand down my face. "Now, come and say goodbye to our steppe Sisters."
"Yes, my Queen."
In addition to saying goodbye to Otere, Yakut, Comparat, Escritt, and thirty other Sisters we befriended, we were further burdened with the sad but hopeful departure of Ouri, Tania and four others of our villagers who were a part of the original northern Amazons. The deserters were let out of the holding yurt, still shackled together. Queen Melosa didn’t hold out much hope for them. She suspected that many of them would escape their parole, face capture and end up in one of the Conqueror’s squalid prisons. She also believed that some would be more of a burden to our northern Sisters than a benefit in their servitude. But we all sensed that a few of them would actually see this punishment as the masked gift it truly was and seek to become permanent members of the tribe. I secretly sent a prayer to the goddess Hestia that Mireia would choose this fate. Of all of the deserters, I believed that she sincerely wanted to walk amongst the Amazons.
After the tearful goodbyes, I ran back to the Hospice yurt. Xena was awake.
"I was sad to wake up and not see you here, Gabrielle," she said very quietly. "But I could hear that the steppe Amazons are leaving the village now, true?"
Xena began slowly hoisting herself off of the bed. "I need to get to the chamber pot fast before things get really messy here," she said in jest. I grabbed her arm and helped her down. She walked slowly over to the enclosed area where she could relieve herself. While she was in there, Shaya and two other healers entered the yurt. I indicated to them where Xena was and when she came out, they advised her that a special healing bath was awaiting her. She nodded in agreement and, as she was being escorted out of the yurt, she turned to me and smiled. When she was out of the yurt, I sat back down in my chair and began to cry.
Xena returned to the Hospice yurt about a candlemark later. Her eyes were sleepy and she had to be assisted by Shaya. Lying back down on the bed, she reached out for my hand taking it.
"I cleaned my teeth, Gabrielle," she said with a drowsy smile.
I rose and stepped up to her. I leaned down and kissed her soft, inviting lips. Shaya looked on as Xena and I shared a most deep and tender kiss that lasted several moments. Once we reluctantly broke it, I looked into her magnificent blue eyes and shared something else with her, my soul. Part of me wanted to ask about Draco’s visit, but I knew that was not the time.
As we stared at each other in a silent, loving communication, Shaya wandered over and began to rub the special healing oils onto Xena’s back. "I want you to do that," Xena said to me.
I looked up at Shaya. "May I do that, Shaya?"
"Of course, my Princess," she responded as she handed me the small bottle before departing the yurt. Straddling Xena’s back, I began gently rubbing in the oil over her healing welts and the brand mark. The liquid that Shaya applied to Xena’s brand wound had turned into a permanent body painting. It was black with a deep rich magenta tone in color.
"Xena, what was it that you had Shaya do to your brand?" I asked.
"That’s straw ash, oil and pigment," she replied. "I trust that she used a needle or sharpened bone of some kind?"
"Yes, Xena," I replied. "But why did you have her do that to you?"
Xena’s head was resting on her hands and her eyes were drowsy as she looked up at me from her side vision. "Because I belong to you," she said. "I love you, Gabrielle, so much." Moments later, Xena was asleep. I remained straddled on her back for a while, lightly running my finger along the oval and cross symbol that was Xena’s artistic injury.
* * * *
Xena was in and out of consciousness for the next two days. The healers tended to her vigorously. Her diminishing whip scars were given periodic treatments of scented healing oils and the distinctive baths she took had very hot water accented with a unique liquid made out of specially aged fermented grains. My healing Sisters told me that the liquid was far more powerful than wine or ale in its intoxicating force and to drink the liquid would be to tempt fate, but as a topical remedy, nothing seemed to match its healing strength. Unfortunately, a major side effect of the healing baths was Xena’s prolonged state of somnolence.
However, at nightfall the third day after her Hard Death, Xena woke up refreshed. I was sitting in my chair writing in my scrolls and hadn’t noticed her awaken. She quietly reached over and grabbed my scroll from me, startling me.
"Hi, Gabrielle," she said with a sinister smile on her face.
I clutched my chest. "Xena, you scared the Tartarus out of me."
"Sorry, love," she responded, still smiling mischievously.
"How does your back feel, Xena? I asked as I covertly grabbed my scroll back from her.
"Itches like crazy," she responded as she lifted her arms and let out a satisfied sigh. "But I feel renewed, Gabrielle. I told you, one whole day to recover and I’m ready to kick ass."
Apparently Xena lost track of time in her various states of consciousness.
"Xena," I said, mentally preparing for the hurricane to come. "Your Hard Death was over three days ago."
"WHAT!?!" she yelled as she literally jumped off of the bed and, grabbing my forearms, brought me to my feet. "You let me sleep here for three days?"
"You had been awake too, Xena," I responded. "Don’t you remember?"
Xena looked up, pondering, I suspected. "No, I don’t remember much," she said. "Why didn’t you tell me?"
I desperately tried to wiggle my arms out of her powerful grip. "I wasn’t aware that you had lost track of time, Xena. I thought you knew when each day ended and another one began."
Xena released my arms, dumbfounded.
"Don’t you remember anything, Xena? The dream about me in the garden? The northern Amazons leaving? Our conversations? Anything?"
Xena looked around the room. "Did you rub oil on my back, Gabrielle?"
"Yes, Xena. Many times."
"I remember feeling your soft, little hands rubbing oil on my back," Xena said as she began looking around the yurt.
"Xena, what are you doing?" I asked.
"Where are my battle garments?" she responded with a question.
"Over there," I said, pointing to her neatly folded battledress and other accessories piled on top of a chest. "Are we leaving the village now?"
Xena began dressing quickly. "Yes, we are," she curtly said. "I’ve lost two days letting these Amazons keep me in a drunken stupor." She looked up at as she laced her boots. "Are you coming with me or not?"
"Then I suggest you go throw on something more appropriate for travel and saddle up Chulytis."
"Xena, shouldn’t we wait and leave at dawn?"
"No," she responded with menace in her tone. "Too much time has been wasted. We ride now." Not only was Xena back, the rage and the focus of the Conqueror was with her.
I immediately left the Hospice yurt and returned to my own. Gathering up everything I believed I would need, I filled my saddlebag and hoisted it onto Chulytis. I looked over at Argo and noticed she was already saddled up and ready to ride. A few moments later, I saw Xena coming out of Charicleia’s yurt with a very irritated looking Bahri walking next to her. I ran over and gave Bahri a hug.
"I’m heading back to Corinth, Gabrielle," she said. "I have messages to deliver for the Conqueror."
"Safe travels, Bahri," I said.
"You too, Gabrielle," she said as she fought hard to hold back tears.
As the three of us mounted our horses, Charicleia came storming out of her yurt. "I’m coming with you, Bahri!" she yelled as she ran up to her. Bahri helped Charicleia up on her horse, Ru, as the sadness in her eyes instantly evaporated. Queen Melosa and the others began coming out of their dwellings.
"We’re leaving, Queen," Xena announced. "If anyone comes here looking for me, tell them I’m in Corinth." It was highly unusual for Xena to lie about her whereabouts, but I suspected that the slaver Draco was the reason behind it.
"Very well, Conqueror," Queen Melosa replied.
"Is this matter between me and the Amazons closed, Queen?"
"Yes, Conqueror," Queen Melosa replied. "Adjudicated."
Xena looked at me. "We need to go, Gabrielle."
I looked at Queen Melosa, Ephiny and Eponin, both of whom had joined her. "Bye, my Sisters," I said. "I love you." I looked at Bahri. "I love you too, Bahri." I looked at Xena. She nodded and smiled. It’s okay for me to love others now, I thought.
Bahri and Charicleia took off heading south toward Corinth. Xena and I took off heading east toward another battle.
You are cordially invited to read my next installment,
Union at Albion
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