Legal disclaimer: Don't own 'em, wish I did. Story's mine though and I promise to return them to their places after I've played with them. Well, maybe not Xena... I think I'll keep her.
Explicit content and sex warning: This alt story features consensual sex between two adult women, the works with all anatomical details, with possible BDSM content.
Extreme violence warning: This is Xena. The old Xena. Need I say more? Where the dark lady kicks butt, there's blood and bodyparts so in this story, extreme violence and its aftermaths are depicted in a realistic, graphical way. Torture, yes; sexual violence, no.
Notes: I use only Proper English. Place names are spelled in the official translitteration from Greek so Amphipolis is Amfípolis and so on. This is the third part in a trilogy of sorts that began with Penance and continued with Blood Meridian so I suggest you read those stories first.
My everlasting gratitude
must go to my most excellent beta reader, Michal Salat.
© Penumbra 1999
It was the coldest morning in living memory.
It came from somewhere far to the north, this wind that delivered the snow and the bitter chill. The icy talons of the merciless wind had raked over the land, leaving behind bare skeletons of trees and a lifeless white landscape in its wake. Over the hills and into the valleys the wind had howled, driving the snow before it with a sound like a dying beast in the claws of a bird of prey.
In one of the innumerable valleys of the Eastern Macedonian high plains, the virginal white snow was stained deep crimson, small lakes of the bright liquid of life marking each spot where a soul had departed its incarnation. The battlefield, a boiling kettle of furious fighting just candlemarks earlier, had settled down as the two armies had hacked one another into oblivion. Now, it was just a field of death, the numerous bodies that littered the ground slowly vanishing under a shroud of snow, with not a sound audible above the keening of the wind. The bony black limbs of trees that reached into the murky white vastness of the sky now seemed an eerily prescient image of the fate of those who had taken to the field the night before.
The wailing of the wind woke her, or perhaps it was the shrill cries of the airborne scavengers circling high above her in their quest for sustenance, their black eyes as cold and unfeeling as the air.
But inside of her it was colder still.
Still the name rang on her lips, her first thought as she woke every morning, and her last prayer before she left this world for Morpheus' realm. Now, as wakefulness robbed her of the peace of oblivion, that name, pronounced so quietly not even the wind caught it, ignited the familiar flame of anguish inside her. The sharp nausea made her gut twist as, with great effort, she pushed herself up off the snow.
"Mother of Zeus," the Conqueror murmured as her eyes swept over the plain of death. As far as she could see in the waning snowstorm, small mounds of white swelled from the ground, marking a fallen warrior or his horse.
Not one of her warriors had survived. Turning slowly around in a circle, she sought out any sign of life -- a movement, a sound -- but the only thing she found was a large, twitching black form that emitted a quiet whining sound.
"Androdameios, no..." the Conqueror sighed and went to kneel beside the big cat, her bloodied hands gently gliding over equally blood-soaked black fur. The panther was taking quick, shallow breaths, the wound in his side welling up with fresh warm blood with every exhalation; he was beyond saving now, the light of life dimming from his emerald eyes. Pulling out her dagger, she placed it over the cat's heart and, with a deep breath, drove it home. "I'm sorry, Androdameios," she whispered, feeling the last hot breath on her palm, before the panther stilled for good. "I'm sorry."
Xena's blood mingled with the panther's, the hot liquid steaming in the cold air. She was bleeding from innumerable small cuts and nicks scattered over her forearms and shoulders, wherever an angry blade had sliced through her cloak and leathers. A long but superficial gash decorated her arm, the wound crusted with old blood and fluid; the whole limb had gone numb from exposure to the elements. As she moved around, the wound started to throb and she grabbed her tricep, pulling the edges of the gash together.
It was a marvel, she mused, that she had any blood to bleed -- so hollow was her heart.
"You would understand, Androdameios," Xena said to the panther, her voice hoarse from the battle. Pulling out the blade again, she slid it through the wound and down the tick torso before pulling the two sides apart and efficiently skinning the carcass.
She had left her horse in the hands of her stable master before the battle broke, and now Pyrgomache was nowhere in sight. Still squeezing her wounded arm, shivering uncontrollably from cold and blood loss, the Conqueror wrapped the sticky pelt around herself and bowed her head to the wind. Her pace was strong and sure as she headed towards the western ridge and the location of her base camp.
The hooves missed her head by mere inches but she refused to flinch.
"Whoa, boy! Steady!"
The man struggled with reins, leaning back and attempting to control the horse and cart with the sheer power of his bulk. The hulking monster of a horse, a dun stallion, reared again, vainly fighting his pinions. It took the man a few moments to get the horse to calm down, but eventually it did, snorting hostilely towards Xena.
"Good day, traveller," the driver said, his breath forming small, white clouds in the air. "Where are you headed?"
She had walked for candlemarks, down from the plains of death that were once again the domain of hungry beasts eking their living from the landscape. The air was still thin, the sun just a small circle of gold in the clear blue sky, and she was exhausted. It had been two days since she had slept for more than a fraction of a candlemark or had anything decent to eat -- at her base camp she had found yet another scene of carnage, the corpses of her rear guard slumped in various caricatures of suffering and terror on the ground. She had found her stable master, a manure fork through her chest, but her warhorse was nowhere to be found.
"South," Xena answered tonelessly and wrapped the black, furry hide tighter around herself. The horse was still edgy, whinnying quietly and turning his head, trying to get a good look at her. She lifted her hand and patted the horse's muzzle, touching the flaring nostrils gently. Her skin was of a peculiar coppery shade, the blood staining her fingernails and the creases of her hands a deeper crimson, and the stallion was obviously fearful of the primal, dangerous scent.
"His name is Aellus," the man said. "If you're heading due south, I can quicken your journey. I am Phineas of ůvridios, heading home, and the journey is long if travelling alone." He graced his statement with a small smile.
"Phineas of ůvridios," the Conqueror nodded back and patted the horse once more before circling round the animal and pulling herself up to sit next to the young man. She glanced at his big, paw-like hands, the deep purple-black half moons that decorated his nails and the numerous small, thin marks of gleaming scar tissue. "You're a blacksmith, if I'm not mistaken."
He threw Xena a sharp look, observing for the first time the razor-sharp intelligence that was evident in those eyes -- eyes of a pale blue even chillier than the winter sky. The woman he had at first taken for a lone traveller, perhaps on a pilgrimage through the volatile, violent area of Eastern Macedonia, was certainly not an ordinary vagabond. The animal skin covering her was freshly skinned and untanned, still smelling strongly of the beast that had previously worn it, and the rest of her was hidden inside a thick, ragged cloak.
"You have keen eyes, stranger."
"Yes, indeed," Xena said and turned her head towards the road ahead, not volunteering any further information.
The man clicked his tongue and the cart jerked forward, the heavy wooden wheels grinding into the frozen earth.
She was beyond caring, beyond concern for her own health. She fought with an emptiness of purpose, merely out of habit; killing was what came naturally to her, as automatic as breathing or the beating of her heart. She drowned her pain in the pain of others, the anguished song of her soul, cold as stone, overwhelmed by the wailing of the doomed in the fields of death.
Macedonia was on fire, and she had been the glowing ember, the divine spark, that had ignited the tinder. All through the fleeting autumn and subsequent harsh winter, she had scourged through the north of Greece, fighting off either the barbarians that poured across the border, or the dissidents among her own people. Where she didn't find old enemies, she had made new ones, just for the sake of letting her blade taste fresh blood.
Her reason for living was no more. It was as simple as that.
She'd once had a reason to seek out peace for her people, a motive for uniting all the unruly, bickering poleis under one banner, be it with brute force or with the sheer cunning of her mind -- she'd wanted peace because it was good for her Gabrielle. She wanted to give her beloved freedom to blossom, the time to see the beauty of her work and the justice in her rule. But all that had been for naught; no longer could she find any reason to strive for tranquility in her land.
Her blood ran bitter in her veins. Her Gabrielle had been the sole barrier between her mind and the deep nothingness of madness, and now, without her, she was sinking into the lake of darkness.
Xena followed the pointing finger and true enough, on the horizon narrow columns of smoke rose towards the sky.
"Thank you, blacksmith Phineas," the Conqueror said. "Your courtesy will be rewarded."
"All I ask for is Hera to slap some sense into her unruly son," the man replied, wry humour in his voice as he gestured in the general direction of Mount Olympus.
Xena nodded, not wishing for him to continue along that thread of thought. Compared to her, the God of War was a feeble and unimaginative fool; her mortal flesh had perpetrated the deeds he referred to, not some divine power.
The strong tang of smoke and beasts of burden clung in the back of her mouth, the bitterness of it tickling her throat, which had suffered already from days of shouting in the cold climate. A few goats traipsed down the main street, an uneven lane of frozen mud and animal dung. ůvridios was obviously a poor village, victimised by the raiders gallivanting around the countryside, as a few charred roofs and collapsed huts clearly indicated. But for most part, the small houses were clean and the goats looked well-fed, prosperity stemming not from fortuitous conditions but from strength of spirit.
The blacksmith pulled up his cart at his house, the open front of the smithy like a black maw. The forge was silent, the bellows lying deflated and sooty on the ground. A scattering of old horseshoes, waiting to be smelted and worked into new shapes, spoke of the important role Phineas played in the everyday life of the village. Hopping down from the cart, he removed the horse's tack and nodded towards the door.
"My wife is inside. Broth and a piece of hard bread is all we can offer but..."
The Conqueror inclined her head, and even dredged up a small smile. "Broth and a spot of warmth is all I desire, blacksmith."
The broth was on the thin side, the strips of meat floating in it tough and stringy, but it was nourishment. Inside the small house attached to the smithy, it was warm and the air was stuffy, the gnarled logs crackling in the hearth, giving out a sharp-scented smoke that stung her eyes. Xena drained the last of the warm liquid and set her bowl down on the table, letting her eyes roam around the small room.
Phineas was obviously a man who took great pride in the talent of his hands. Woodcarvings adorned the two windows of the house, impish curls and tendrils above the small panes made of pig's bladder skin; the legs of the narrow cot at the far end were fashioned in the shape of a lion's paws. Everything was lovingly cared for but well-worn, and their poverty was evident in the threadbare clothes worn by the smith and his wife, a small, plump woman with jolly eyes. Suddenly ashamed, the Conqueror looked down into her bowl, and at the blood-encrusted hands that were curved around it.
She was warm for the first time in days, except for her heart, whose stony centre was as cold as the frozen earth. How dare I, she asked of herself, and rubbed her hand around the bowl, feeling the texture of the carved wood beneath her callused palms. How dare I come here, eat their food and enjoy what little they have, when I am the one responsible for taking away so much of it already?
She entwined her hands, leaning on the table with her elbows, and laid her forehead on her sore knuckles. Only now she allowed herself to acknowledge the bone-deep exhaustion that had pursued her for days -- no, for moons -- on end. So tired. She was just so very tired.
"You carry the smell of hard days on the road, stranger," Kepa, the smith's wife, said. She kept calling their visitor 'stranger' because she had not offered her name. A peculiar traveller, this one is, she thought and retrieved the bowl from the stranger's hands. "Perhaps you would appreciate a bath?"
"Most gracious of you," the stranger replied. Her voice was low and unobtrusive, very toneless at the moment, but Kepa had a feeling it was a voice more used to commanding than making idle talk. Arresting, throaty, made to deliver the parlance of assurance itself.
Rising with a quiet sigh, Kepa went to the corner and hefted two large buckets of water from the barrel, pouring them into a cauldron she placed over the hearth. The flames licked the blackened metal with great glee and soon enough, small bubbles rose to the surface and wandered towards the edges of the cauldron. A cloud of mist rose around her as she struggled to carry it to the bathtub.
"Let me help you with that."
Kepa nearly jumped out of her skin at the voice, so near her ear. How the traveller had managed to sneak up so close was beyond her.
The steaming water rushed into the tub with a mighty splash and, after a dose of cold water to temper it, the bath was ready. Kepa busied herself with putting away the buckets while keeping a wary eye on their guest. While the woman had been subdued and passive enough, the times they lived were dangerous; no-one warranted complete trust. But this one seemed complacent enough, wounded and weary. The heavy fur that had been draped over the stranger's shoulders was folded on the bench, and the stranger gave the pelt a gentle pat, pausing as if to remember something. The moment was obviously a private one and Kepa felt almost ashamed for intruding upon it.
The torn grey cloak parted and upon seeing what was revealed, Kepa straightened. She had thought the coppery hue of her skin to be the dirt of the reddish earth that was common in the southern fields, but the pieces of the puzzle clicked together when she saw the gore-encrusted armour inside the cloak, and the two swords that the woman carried on her hips.
Blood. That's blood, Kepa told herself and instinctively backed up a step. Why did Phineas have to go to work just now? The stranger looked as if her last bath had been in ichor; the curious crimson sheen was dotted with numerous dark, angry cuts, and as the woman turned, Kepa blanched as she saw the long gash on her arm. The sides of the wound had curved outward and the trench between was but a mass of near-black gore.
"You are hurt, stranger," she said, her voice trembling. She swallowed and steadied herself, determined not to show any frailty or fear.
The stranger paused in her task, holding her breastplate in front of her. To the wonderment of the smith's wife, a sad smile came onto the woman's lips.
"Nothing worse than what I bear beneath this," she said cryptically, and hefted the breastplate over her head. Her moves were terse and efficient, the pieces of her armour coming off in an almost ritualised sequence, carried out by the visceral memory of muscle rather than conscious though.
What was revealed under the layers of skilfully crafted bronze and thick leather was a woman of a quality Kepa had never seen. She had heard tell of women warriors but never seen one; this stranger was just as she had imagined them to be: wide shoulders, taut skin stretched over well-defined muscles, limbs long and limber. The woman moved with innate grace, the shifting shadows and light upon her body fluid and ethereal. What Kepa had not expected were the many silvery lines of scar tissue that marred the otherwise smooth skin. A few dark lines were criss-crossed among them, new additions to the already vast assortment she sported.
The water in the tub was tinted red as the visitor lowered her body into it. The colour ran like a dye from the stranger's skin and into the water, the pale pink waves cascading over her head and down her torso as Kepa poured more water over her. The gore and clotted blood washed from her head, leaving behind a sleek mass of hair as black as sin itself. While in the bath, the stranger took a scrap of cloth, dipped it into the water and started scrubbing her leather garments, softening the layers of encrusted blood. Kepa sat on the bench, watching the process with fascination, trying very hard not to look at the two long swords that leaned against the seat next to her.
"You are a warrior, then, stranger?" There was, she now realised, something so oddly familiar about the length of raven hair and the high, angular cheekbones. And those eyes. Most definitely the eyes.
The pale blue orbs, like two chips of ice, looked up from their task and the stranger nodded slightly.
A chatterbox, obviously, Kepa thought and leaned against the wall. The smell of the strange fur was strong and she touched it gingerly. It was too big to be the hide of any regular forest-dwelling game and the hair was too short to be a bear's, but whatever it was, it was luxurious and exotic. Brushing her hand over the stranger's cloak, she noted the way it was reduced almost to tatters, blood staining whatever cloth was left. Her eyes shifted to the warrior sitting in her bathtub, to the tired trembling of her muscles and the dark half moons under her eyes, and suddenly she felt very grateful for her share in life; at least she didn't have to risk death by blade every day to earn her bread and home.
"Your cloak is very badly damaged."
"Yes," the stranger said, her eyes not leaving the bracer she was cleaning.
"I have..." Kepa said, rising from her seat and going to rummage through a chest at the foot of their bed. With a satisfied grunt, she came up with a bundle of dark cloth. "This belongs to Phineas. It's in need of a bit of mending, but it's in far better shape than -" She pointed to the shredded garment on the bench.
"No, I cannot take what is yours," the stranger said, but Kepa waved her protests away. "All that you have endured, the blood you have shed for this land, is enough payment."
The stranger nodded, a sad enigmatic smile gracing her lips, as she rose from the tub and vaulted over the edge before dressing. The newly-cleaned black leather and softly gleaming brass armour made her look ...larger, somehow. Kepa felt the personality of the person standing before her, the overbearing, even suffocating, disposition of the tall woman so strong that her mental image of someone commanding an army was strengthened. If she were a commander, which she most certainly was, she was the sort who tasted first blood -- one who rode in front of the army and was the first one into the fire.
"Thank you of everything, Kepa of ůvridios," the stranger said and accepted the offered cloak. Bundling it under an arm along with her swords, the laid a heavy hand on Kepa's shoulder. The squeeze was strong and Kepa had to crane her neck to meet the stranger's eyes. "May life be propitious to you and your husband," she said, before turning abruptly and leaving the house.
All that remained of the stranger was a scent of something dark and primal, and a gleaming gold coin on the table. Blinking, Kepa picked up the circle of precious metal and turned it over.
Though the eyes in the portrait were golden instead of blue, they were the same eyes, with the same empty look in them.
"Who is that?
The blacksmith turned and squinted into the distance. Sweat was running into his eyes from the heat of the forge. "That is Simon," he said and spat onto the ground.
Xena's eyebrow rose. "You hold a grudge?"
"He holds one," the blacksmith said and set the hasp back on the anvil. Sparks flew as he drove his hammer angrily down upon the glowing metal. "Against life."
The Conqueror watched the man called Simon, her eyes narrowing. He was attempting to control a jet-black horse who looked unmistakably familiar. Storm clouds gathered in Xena's eyes, her posture becoming more erect.
"His life must not be very dear to him."
Phineas set the half-finished hasp into the forge again and wiped off his sweat with his forearm. "He has no honour," he said quietly. "Makes his living on the misfortune of others -- pillaging battlefields, robbing travellers."
"Yes," Xena smiled darkly, her eyes still on the man in the distance. "But Fate is about to have Her revenge."
Against the whiteness of snow, the fan of red teardrops that she had flicked off her sword reminded her of a peacock's tail, the colours similarly brash. Cleaning the last of the still-hot blood from the blade with two fingers, she re-sheathed the sword and hoisted herself up into the saddle.
"Hello, old girl," she murmured and patted Pyrgomache's strong, veiny neck. The mare whickered in response, throwing her head. The horse was nervous by nature, her gigantic bulk belying the agility and explosive power she possessed.
It was her tack, here on her horse, the saddle still warm from the thief's seat. Twisting, Xena could see the razor-sharp lines of whip strikes on Pyrgomache's flanks, and her blood boiled. The man should have suffered far more but, alas, her justice had been as swift and effective as always; now Simon lay in the gutter, smiling through his throat.
"Tried to whip you into submission, hmm?" the Conqueror queried quietly. Pyrgomache sidestepped and whinnied in reply, and the Conqueror grabbed the reins, calming the beast. "With very little luck, I assume," she continued, fighting the fidgety horse. The mare eventually responded to the firm, familiar hand, quieting down, and then they were off.
They rode through the long day and into the night, even after the waning light had bowed to Hyperion's spawn and the stars. The sky was a velvety shade of dark indigo, the moon a third of a way through its arc, when the Conqueror finally reined in her already foam-flecked charger. Pyrgomache replied sluggishly, the hard beat of her hooves picking up clouds of dust from the road, the sand silvery and sparkling in the pale light. Finally, she slowed down to a canter so that Xena could steer her to the side of the road, where a plain opened between two distant treelines.
After giving the winded horse a good rubdown and seeing to the lash marks, Xena settled down, opting not to make a fire, but instead rolling open her sleeping furs in the middle of the wind-swept opening. Settling down on the furs, she gazed up at the quiet stars, the worldaround her ethereally silent as though it were holding its breath. She could hear Pyrgomache pace around her, the massive bulk of the horse ghostly in the midnight penumbra, and she could hear the wind wail through distant trees, slithering between branches and stalks of grass, before screaming across the field towards her, ruffling her hair and making the hide around her undulate. In the quiet, she thought of her Macedonian campaign.
The battle of the previous day had not gone well. It had not started providentially, and neither had it seen the Conqueror hold the whip hand in the end. The opposing side, barbarians driven from the north by the unusually harsh winter and the approaching Huns, were hungry and desperate. They had fought fiercely and what they had lacked in skill and battle tactics they made up in ferociousness and sheer numbers. It had not been at all elegant, not the refined art that she preferred to practice. Winning by cunning rather than the blade was always more honourable. No, it had ultimately been only about survival -- war reduced to its most primal, fundamental elements.
The news of my presumed demise has probably reached the capital already, she thought bitterly, and dug out a needle and a length of gut thread from her pack. The wound on her arm was throbbing again, agitated by the hard ride, and it was bleeding. The thread hissed quietly every time she threaded it through her skin.
Rumours travelled faster than the breath of Aeolus, and while she had been near death this time, she had been closer before. But the lack of reinforcements she had requested, and the fact that she had not seen any troops heading north during her ride, spoke volumes to her. In K█rinthos, blood had been shed almost certainly, and like a pack of carrion-devouring jackals, the people closest to her would be clambering for power, even sooner than her carcass would have cooled.
Biting off the extraneous thread after she had knotted the stitching, the Conqueror set the needle down and sighed. Not even the winds shifted with such volatility as did the reins of power. The life of a dragonfly was an eternity, the state of the seas immutable compared to the swiftness with which fidelity transformed itself to betrayal. One sign of weakness, one wrong word, one false, malicious rumour was all it took; kingdoms had fallen for less than a measure of jealousy, and for no more than a drop of bad blood.
"And what have I now, to show of my power?" the Conqueror asked of the wailing wind and of the frost-numbed grass, her words a mere whisper. Turning her hands in her lap, in the sallow moonlight she could still see the complex map of scars on her skin, and the dark blood under her fingernails where the bath had not cleansed them. Blood, that was what she had had for all her power. Blood, pain and more blood.
She had seen so many men succumb to her blade, seen the last look of agony on their faces before the oblivion took them away. Felt the sickly, thick resistance of flesh around her blade as she parted muscle from bone, life from body. The warm, viscous liquid of life had flowed over her hands and arms in crimson waterfalls, and she had bathed in it, breathed its essence, felt the strong, coppery taste on her tongue. The faces came to haunt her in sleep, but she had long since gotten used to them; to her, painting her masterpiece in blood and pain was as natural as stroking clay into the shape of a wine jug was to a potter. Her art was the application of terror, her talent in the ruthlessness with which her hands imparted it.
A dark shadow detached from the darker ones around it and came forward, the shuffle of shod hooves soft against the grass.
"Too quiet for your tastes?" the Conqueror murmured and, as Pyrgomache's raven head dipped lower, she laid her palm on the noble, elongated bridge of the mare's nose. The sensitive nostrils under her hand twitched in response and the horse gently nudged Xena's shoulder with her head. Brushing her hand over what remained of Androdameios, the Conqueror smiled wanly. "Do you know what that means?"
Pyrgomache whickered quietly in response, turning her head so that one large, dark eye was aimed at Xena. The Conqueror's level gaze held eternal sadness.
"It's just you and me, girl."
It took the Conqueror two days to get clear of the Macedonian plains and reach a more temperate climate. The forests had retained some of their lushness even in the face of winter -- a mere whisper of the splendour they displayed in warmer seasons, but much less monochrome than the wintry expanse of land she had left.
The roads were quiet and none of the fellow travellers she met dared approach her; rather, they gave her a wide berth, skirting to the other edge of the road upon the first sight of the lone warrior on her monster of a horse. The woman's melancholy mien and otherwise dark countenance was enough to discourage attempts at friendly chatter. And so Xena rode in solitude, her only companions the pensive thoughts in her mind and the silent warhorse.
Pyrgomache was obviously tiring from the days of hard riding, her coat, usually so luxurious, now dull and sticky under a layer of grime and lather. As for Xena, she felt the ache of exhaustion all the way to the marrow of her bones; she had not had a decent meal in the days after she had left Ţvridios.
"You want to make a stop in the next village, girl?" the Conqueror murmured, scratching her mount behind one twitching black ear.
Pyrgomache twisted her head, whickering quietly but not breaking her stride.
"A brushing for you and a bath for me, then," Xena said, and steered the horse towards the thin columns of smoke she could see in the distance.
In a candlemark, she was on the outskirts the village. Riding along a small brook and through the village gates, she was struck by a vague sense of premonition, and of remembrance. It was as if...she knew this place, somehow. Perhaps it was a memory from the brash days of her youth, when she tore through every hamlet and small town in this part of Hellas, vainly seeking to calm her anger by plundering villages such as this one. But that was ten winters ago; to these people she was but a legend now, a ghost with no face.
Xena reined Pyrgomache to a halt in front of the only inn that looked respectable. An old, low building that yawed slightly in the wind, it didn't look very promising, but the scent of food that wafted from within the establishment was irresistible.
A balding, middle-aged man wearing an apron rushed out, grabbing the horse's reins as the traveller dismounted.
"Evening, traveller. I hope the gods smiled on your journey?"
"Phoebe was my companion and she was benevolent enough," Xena replied; the night sky had been cloudless all through her ride, the round face of the moon watching over her solitary travel. She grabbed her kit and turned to face the innkeeper. "The best for her and a platter of whatever you're serving for dinner, if you please."
The inn was quiet, with only a few other customers scattered around the large room. A stocky young woman -- the innkeeper's daughter, Xena guessed, for the family looks ran strong -- brought her a large slice of boar and a cup of mulled cider. She was halfway through her dinner when the innkeeper wandered closer and pretended to wipe clean the tables surrounding hers. When he began cleaning the same table for the third time, Xena set down her dagger and turned his way.
"What?" she growled.
He jumped slightly but dropped the rag, fiddling nervously with the hem of his apron nervously. "I do not mean to intrude upon your meal but...you come from afar, traveller?"
The Conqueror sighed, momentarily debating barking at him to mind his own business, but deciding to be courteous, if only to be left alone sooner. "Yes."
"We have heard of news of big battles...barbarians...great disturbance."
The innkeeper's brows drew together. This guest was certainly less than forthcoming.
"Is it true that the barbarians have invaded and are heading...here?"
"How can you be so sure?" the innkeeper said, clearly puzzled. "Did you fight against the army of that daughter of Ares?"
Xena's ears pricked up and she shifted her eyes from the cooked boar to the innkeeper. "Ares' daughter?"
"Yes -- she's the worst of all his bastard offspring," the innkeeper hissed, clearly warming to his subject. He spat, repugnance wrinkling his face. "She is no mortal, I tell you."
Xena nodded and leaned back, her head resting against the wall as her eyelids drooped almost closed. She hummed, urging the innkeeper to continue. The man perched on the edge of her table and leaned in conspiratorially, not noticing the viper-like look aimed at him across the table.
"Did you know that she breathes fire? And a soldier on his way from the front who stopped here on his way to his home village swore that he saw that gods-damned woman eat the hearts of her enemies," he said, pursing his lips in a gesture of disgust. "We have lost many of our own -- of our best -- to that soulless bitch," he continued, clearly inviting Xena to encourage him, which she did with a nod.
The innkeeper straightened, his eyes focused somewhere above the Conqueror's head. "There was a girl from here -- a girl just blossoming into young womanhood, a thing of beauty indeed. Her mind was as bright as the fields of flowers in Elysia, her heart as pure as spring water. Many winters ago, she was stolen from us...and sold to the slavers as that woman rode through here and destroyed our homes.
"During the last harvest, she returned -- on her own, no less. But she was not the same girl any more, no...she was marked, tainted by the evil of that inbred bacchae who dares call herself Conqueror."
"Marked, you say?" Xena's voice remained silky and smooth, like oil on water, betraying nothing of the sudden turmoil inside her.
"Marked, yes," the innkeeper said, nodding enthusiastically. It was not often that he got visitors from outside the immediate environs, and gossiping was one of his great vices. "Marked by the signet of the bastard woman..."
"I see," the Conqueror said and rose, her hands shaking from both rage and trepidation. Steadying herself, she paced around the table to stand in front of the man. She pulled out a dagger from her gauntlet, hefting it by the blade. "And was the mark -" she said and lifted the dagger, "- like this?"
Upon the dagger, where the gleaming blade met the hand guard, was her sigil -- an X inside a circle -- fashioned skilfully out of bronze and black enamel. The innkeeper's eyes darted from the mark to Xena and back.
"Yes, it is. Whose dagger is this?" he asked, beads of sweat appearing on his forehead.
"Mine," Xena purred, a slow, dangerous smile forming on her lips but never reaching her eyes. She flipped the dagger around in her hand and pressed the point to the innkeeper's jugular. The tip pricked his skin and a small pearl of blood ran down the blade. "Now, we are going to have a little chat, you and I."
The name was fire in her veins. As she ran along the village's main street, her heart hammering in her chest, the word, the sweet name of her beloved rang in her mind, over and over. She remembered not the bitterness of Gabrielle's sudden departure, nor the pain she had carried with her all these moons; there was, for the first time in what seemed like an eternity, something akin to joy inside her. She would see her love once more, and that was all that mattered.
With his last breath, the innkeeper had revealed that the bard was being kept in the village reeve's house, and that was where Xena was running. Bursting through the door, she was greeted by the sight of the reeve and his family seated around the table, having their evening meal.
"What is the meaning of this?!" the man bellowed, after hastily swallowing the bit of venison he had been chewing. He got halfway up from his chair before Xena closed a hand around his throat, throwing him against the wall and pinioning him there.
"Gabrielle -- where is she?" Xena hissed, her face inches from the reeve's. "Tell me, or by the gods I will glut the maw of death with the blood of your children," she said, shaking him like a rat in the jaws of a terrier.
The reeve had the wherewithal to pale at the utterly deadly look that she fixed on him, reinforcing the promise behind the words. His eyes darted around, frantically seeking help, but his family was frozen in place, the eyes of his children wide as tin platters.
"Who...are you?" he managed. The hand around his throat tightened perceptibly.
"I," Xena said, leaning even closer, "am her rightful owner."
Understanding glittered in the reeve's eyes, warring with a sudden flare of anger. But he was wise enough a man not to play courageous in the face of death; this woman would find her soon enough, whether he divulged the information or not. "In the cellar, out back," he choked out.
The stairs that led beneath the barn were narrow and rickety, groaning under the Conqueror's weight as she rushed down the steps. She met a sturdy locked door and unsheathed one of her swords, driving the heavy blade into a hinge. Sparks flew and the metal parted, as did the other, and the door swung aside.
Inside it was dark, with only a few slivers of sunlight streaming through small gaps in the foundation of the barn, barely illuminating the cramped space and the dance of particles in the close, mouldy cellar. Xena drew a breath of the rank, foul-smelling air and crouched to fit through the doorway. Her eyes adjusted to the dimness quickly and her sword swept through the rays of light, throwing glittering, nervous reflections on the walls.
Though it was hoarse and pained, Xena recognised the voice instantly. Her heart missed a beat and she turned toward the far corner whence the words had emanated.
A shadow moved in the corner, and her precious Gabrielle came into view. Her...betrayer, the true source and cause of her pain. Anger flared into life within the Conqueror, her knuckles going white as she squeezed the hilt of her sword. The joy had been but a momentary diversion; the agony dulled but not dead.
The figure rose to a crouch. "Xena...?"
"Yes," the Conqueror hissed, stepping closer and bringing her arm around so that the sword pointed directly at Gabrielle. The long blade shook with her rage. "Me. The one you deceived. Double-crossed. You," she said, the word a low growl, "you made me what I am now."
"Yes," Gabrielle whispered and stood up. Even in the sparse light, the pallor of her skin, stretched taut over her cheekbones, could clearly be seen. But her eyes had lost none of their fire, and now they blazed with courage and desperation. "But I can say the same of you."
Only then did the Conqueror take a look around. It was a cellar indeed, but one purposely designed for the storage of people. Her dark brows drew together. "Why are you here?"
"Because of what I am," Gabrielle stated simply and bowed her head. "Because of what I was."
"And what was that?"
The single word, spoken so quietly, shattered the air.
"I was yours," Gabrielle repeated and turned around, lowering the thin, crudely patched cloak she wore. Her once-strong, muscular back now bore a collection of bruises across the pale, parchment-dry skin, and on the shoulderblade was a large circular wound, badly treated and clearly infected. It was the spot where she had borne her mark: the Conqueror's signet.
"What have they done to you?" Xena queried, her voice thick.
"They tried to cut it out of me -- what they thought made me yours," Gabrielle replied and turned. The green of her eyes was a dark, muddy colour. "To them, I was your slave, a body to be owned and traded. By erasing your mark, they thought they could erase all that you were to me."
"And what...?" Xena began, but couldn't finish the question. Again, she felt cold, but for different reasons than before; the sword trembled so badly in her hand that she almost dropped it, as the blood drained from her extremities.
As simple as that.
"You were my life and my soul, Xena," Gabrielle said and stepped closer, gently pushing the sword aside. "But..." she began, laying a hand hesitantly over the dark bronze of the Conqueror's armour, "I wasn't your soul. Your soul is darkness."
Xena laid a hand over the smaller one on her chest, her heart aching from the first contact with Gabrielle's flesh. It was an overwhelming feeling, her head swimming as her skin recognised and remembered.
"I could not reign in here."
The Conqueror knelt, her sword meeting the ground with a muted thud as she wrapped both arms around the slender figure of her beloved. She breathed in the moist, dull scent of the earth on Gabrielle's cloak, and the warmth that the body in her arms emanated, feeling small hands settle upon her hair. Oh Gabrielle...you are so very wrong.
"I know I betrayed you," the bard said, her voice rough. "But I could not stand what was becoming of my soul...and the destruction being wrought in my name."
The hands entangled with her hair, brushing the silken, smooth strands gently, almost reverentially, before Gabrielle joined her on the floor. The Conqueror gathered her into her arms, squeezing the slim body close against herself.
It felt so good to hold her, giving slight easement to her painful yearning. It was her Gabrielle once more, and the feeling of belonging now blossoming in her heart was testament to the falsity of Gabrielle's statement.
"Come with me. We have much to talk about."
"She has to be removed," Etor whispered, too loudly for Saba who discreetly motioned him to silence.
"Later," she whispered and turned back towards Tyra, the council elder who was having a shouting match with Erasmus.
The Conqueror's First was not a woman of fickle mind, on the contrary; she had attained her position by out-surviving all the other commanders who held the post before her. The job held many dangers, the least of them certainly not being the Conqueror's capricious nature. Many had tried to outmanoeuvre the Destroyer of Nations but had paid dearly for their mistake.
"Titus confirmed that he saw her body!"
"And where is Titus, then?" asked Erasmus calmly, unperturbed by Tyra's heated tone.
"Not here, obviously," Tyra replied, clenching her teeth. She was a woman hardened by the years, her eyes dark and unforgiving as flint, and she was clearly losing her patience with the ever-sceptical, elderly general.
The people of K█rinthos were blissfully unaware of the play of power underway inside the royal palace. Ever since the news of the Conqueror's demise had reached the capital six nights ago, the war council had been in turmoil. What had been a collection of brilliant people, their talents and minds as diverse as their histories, had been reduced to a bunch of bickering backstabbers in the absence of the Conqueror. The council had been the ruler's right arm and the extension of her genius, but without her guidance, its members were lost.
And so the game is underway, Saba thought, already smelling the blood in the air between Erasmus and Tyra. Recently one of the council's youngest members, a young captain called Milleius, had mysteriously disappeared, and the First had a hunch he wouldn't be the last one to do so. Power as absolute as that which the Conqueror held -- had held -- was beyond tempting; it was downright intoxicating.
She herself didn't know what to believe and thus took a carefully neutral stand on the issue, letting the others fight for succession. While the seal on the message under dispute had been genuine enough, Saba was troubled by the fact that Titus himself had not delivered it. There were also rumours of Romans funding the barbarian upsurgencies along the northern border, the same that the Conqueror had ridden off to calm, be it with sword or with the weight of her word...although Saba suspected that words had not much chance of succeeding this time, the Conqueror's eyes had held nothing but deadly intent.
Saba cleared her throat.
"Do you wish to take a stand, ma'am?" Erasmus asked, the irony in his voice delicate.
"No. I have a suggestion," she said firmly, halting Tyra's impending protest with a raised hand. "Hear me out. I propose the middle route...let us wait for a few days more for Titus. He could just be delayed. If he is not here in, say, ten nights, we will consider the situation again, with firmer footing on the issue."
After a few half-hearted protests, the council agreed to her proposal, if only because the time was past the witching hour. The council dispersed soon after, Etor gesturing for Saba to linger. Finally, they were the only people left in the great hall.
"Excellent work, Saba," he said, a small smile on his lips. "More time for us to remove the others who stand before us."
He has to go, Saba thought, but dredged up a smile.
"Soon," he confirmed and unconsciously touched the hilt of his dagger. "I have already arranged the assassins."
Saba nodded and turned to leave. Soon, Etor...even you will feel the blade most intimately.
The brook gurgled gently through small rapids, the air otherwise quiet. Pyrgomache was drinking from the clear water a few yards downstream, and Xena watched the mare's noble head dip down and come back up, small beads of water glistening on her muzzle. She was a thing of beauty, that horse.
Behind her, Gabrielle was attacking her small reserve of food, wolfing down the hard bread and dried venison. The Conqueror herself was not hungry, and she could not bear to see what had become of her lover; Gabrielle had been a woman of bright, healthy composure but now she was half a wraith, her skin almost translucent.
"Would you like to have some?"
At her words, Xena turned and offered a wan smile with the shake of her head. "No. I'm not hungry."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, Gabrielle," the Conqueror said, relishing the familiar feel of the name rolling off her tongue. It felt wonderful to say it with a different meaning; for moons, it had been either a prayer or a curse, but now, it was simply a beautiful name.
When Gabrielle had finished the last of the hard meat, she straightened in her cross-legged position, her eyes still not meeting Xena's. To the Conqueror, she looked so young and frail, almost a child, but with the eyes of an ancient.
A grimace briefly crossed the bard's face.
"Yes," Gabrielle whispered and took a deep breath, almost as if she was unsure of how to formulate her next words. Xena nodded, understanding, and dug out her healer's kit.
Gabrielle obeyed, letting her cloak slide from her shoulders. In the cold air, sudden trails of goosebumps appeared and Xena laid her hands over the narrow shoulders, making Gabrielle shiver.
She worked in silence, in fear of letting her anger cloud her tone when she needed her words to be soothing -- anger not for the woman before her, but towards those who had injured her so unjustly. What had been a sign of love and protection, the only pure and good thing in the Conqueror's life, had been branded as something brutal and low, its meaning perverted and distorted, until people had seen in it only what they wanted to see. And as always, people saw the worst, assumed the most loathsome things.
The skin had been scraped, not removed -- a procedure that under normal circumstances would have healed in mere weeks. But the conditions in that cellar had obviously not been conductive to healing, Xena deduced, as she spread the ointment on the wound.
"How long has this been like this?"
The tendons in Gabrielle's neck corded as she turned her head, trying to swallow her scream of pain. "At least two moons...I'm not sure. Days ran together down there."
"I know," Gabrielle responded, turning to face forward again.
Xena's hands had lost none of their talent; with the same infinite patience and feather-light touch she showed handling her sword, the Conqueror had loved her, had felt her, and was now, once more, healing her. It was infinitely reassuring; ever since Gabrielle had departed, she had felt herself half a woman, missing the presence of her love, the feeling of safety and calm that permeated her environs. The warmth of the body behind her was a balm to both her ragged flesh and her tattered soul.
Though she had not wanted to admit it, and could not have allowed herself before now, she had missed her. The Destroyer of Nations.
"Gods, Xena..." Gabrielle said, her voice suddenly tired. As she turned, the dark half-moons under her eyes were clearly visible, a stark contrast to the sickly pallor of her face. "I have no words to..." She swalloed hard. "I...betrayed you."
The intensity of Xena's enigmatic gaze upon her made Gabrielle feel uneasy. Deciphering the mind that operated behind those oceans of pale blue was a sheer impossibility; the bard could only guess at the depth of emotion from what was visible and from experience, she knew that it was a mere shadow of what truly lay in the Conqueror's heart.
Quietly, almost hesitantly, Xena took one of the bard's hands into her own larger one. "No worse than the way I betrayed myself," she stated simply. "By not giving you reason to believe in me."
A heartbeat passed before she continued. "I want to give you that reason now. If you'll let me."
It was as close as she had come to pleading in the past ten solar cycles, and it was so hard.
"I will try," was Gabrielle's reply.
She was still weak and hungry, but the pain of the wound had receded to a dull throb. Inside the cocoon of Xena's cloak where the wind could not reach her, she was warm.
At first she had ridden behind the Conqueror, but her diminished strength had not been enough to keep her from sliding off the galloping mare. So she now sat in front of Xena, her legs around the armoured waist and her head resting on the hard, cold shoulder guard. Pyrgomache strode smoothly, her pace even and strong.
She could not remember ever feeling this safe.
"Are you okay there?"
"Yes. Very much so," Gabrielle said and adjusted her cheek to lay more comfortably against the ridges of the engraved metal of the shoulder guard.
Her days in captivity had been long. For moons, she had not been warm, nor had a decent meal. She had longed for a fire, or a bowl of stew, but her reality had been hard bread and water. In the wan light the short days had given her, she had seen her health slowly drain away, felt the weakness invade her body.
She had arrived in Potedaia during the last harvest season, in the hope of finding her parents, should they have by some miracle escaped their captivity. Alas, no miracle had been forthcoming; all that had been waiting for her was news from her cousin of her mother's demise in the great famine two winters ago. And when the mark on her flesh had been discovered, her fate had been torn from her hands once again. She had refused to denounce its true significance, and so she had been jailed for the sake of her love, to await spring and the arrival of the slaver caravans.
Oh, my beloved. If only you could see the irony of it all, Gabrielle thought sadly and adjusted her arms around the Conqueror's midsection. A circle complete. What her love had wrought upon others -- pain, annihilation -- she had faced herself. Xena had destroyed all in her path in retribution for the random act of cruelty that had been perpetrated against Gabrielle, and now Gabrielle had paid for it. They were both mere pawns in the great game of vengeance, neither strong enough alone to swim against the tide of fate.
Leaning out a bit, she caught Xena's eye. There was a slightly dreamy smile on the Conqueror's lips, but it did nothing to hide the new, hard lines around her eyes. She had heard the stories of the Conqueror as a woman possessed, had seen the dried, clotted blood under her fingernails and smelled it in the fur she wore and in her very being; the Conqueror had drowned her rage in the only way she knew.
Out of the skillet and into the flames, Gabrielle, the bard thought and lowered her head.
"Hmmm?" the Conqueror replied, a low murmur that the bard more felt than heard over the rhythmic beating of Pyrgomache's hooves.
"Where are we going?"
Of course. Gabrielle sighed and shifted in her seat.
She had used to find that dedication so enchanting...and she still did, but for a different reason. She could never own Xena like Xena did her, for the core of the dark woman's nature was hers and hers alone; in that mind were recesses and canyons so deep and dark that the bard dared not even consider what might lay there. But, like a faraway mountain beckons a wanderer, she strove for that which seemed impossible -- the Conqueror's love.
When she had left Xena out of her love for the people of Hellas and
for the sake of her own broken heart, she had been confident of the
justness of her decision. But during her long months of solitude in
imprisonment, she had come to find that there were infinite varieties
of love. She had come to understand that the nature of Xena's soul was
inherently dual: light and darkness and little in between. The
darkness was Xena's, and what light there was -- that was Gabrielle's
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