Ascension, part 3 (conclusion) --- by Penumbra
Please see part 1 for disclaimers and copyright notices. Comments, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
"Oh Hades," Gabrielle cursed and rubbed the fresh ink stain on her thumb, managing only to spread it around. "Jacinthe, could you fetch me a cloth?"
"Yes, my mistress," the slight girl murmured and vanished among the gaggle of brightly coloured courtiers, only to return a moment later with the requested item.
"Thank you," Gabrielle smiled and wiped her hands. When Jacinthe responded with a low bow, the bard grabbed her shoulder and pushed her gently upright. "There are limits to obsequiousness, Jacinthe," she admonished gently.
"Yes, my mistress," the girl replied again and offered a slightly awed smile, along with another bow.
It's hopeless, Gabrielle sighed in her mind, and turned toward her writing desk again, picking up the quill she had abandoned when it had spat ink all over her hands. I should have the royal quillmaker spend the afternoon in the public stocks for producing such sub-standard implements, she thought idly, until a shiver ran through her. I actually have the power to do that, now, and nobody would second-guess my decision. Gracious gods.
As she shifted uncomfortably, her stiff clothing adjusted to her change of position, the heavy, gold-embroidered tunic rustling as she bent her arm. As she moved, the courtiers turned their heads her way, idle question in their eyes, but soon turned back towards their respective companions. Gabrielle darted a covert look around before focusing again on the landscape that opened before her.
The spring was slowly giving way to summer. The sun was hot and bright, the flowers on the knoll she was sitting on already in full blossom, spreading their sweet fragrance over the grassy slopes below her - slopes that were now teeming with troops.
The warm spring had given birth to other things besides the rich fauna covering the landscape around K█rinthos. While the harsh winter had acted as a deterrent to the barbarians flowing over the northern border, as the weather warmed the conflicts had again increased. The attackers were now better armed than before, their professional tactics speaking strongly of outside military influence, and even the Persians had taken interest in the conflict, amassing troops to their own western border. And so, on that day, two moons after the vernal equinox and her ascension to the throne, Gabrielle was overseeing the final exercises before the troops were to march to Larn╠a, where they would board ships bound for Thrace.
The tunic was heavy upon her and she could feel beads of perspiration slip down between her shoulderblades, but she bore this onus of her duty gladly. Anything to help, Gabrielle thought wryly and bit the end of her quill. Her position was still anything but secure, and she could sense the venom in the whispered voices around her, could feel the gazes of those envious of her position burning holes into her back.
"Is everything to your liking, mistress?"
Jacinthe's worried words brought Gabrielle out of her trance and she straightened, dropping the quill on the empty parchment with a sigh. The Muses seemed disinclined to cooperate with her this afternoon. "Yes... but it's been a long day."
"It has been that," the girl agreed and filled Gabrielle's goblet.
"And," the bard continued, leaning towards Jacinthe and lowering her voice, "these people make my skin crawl," she said, and pointed discreetly over her shoulder at the chatting groups of noblemen and ladies-in-waiting, the precious metals and stones of their outfits competing in brightness with the sun itself, their talk superficial and otiose.
Jacinthe nodded, not quite comprehending what could be so scary about the well-dressed men and women milling about. After all, they seemed complacent enough, sipping their wine slowly and trying very hard not to appear bored as they pretended to be interested in the mock battle winding down before them.
The field had been trampled down into dark reddish brown sludge, the horses struggling to stay upright with their heavy cargoes as their hooves sank into it. Squinting against the glare of the setting sun, Gabrielle tried to make a pattern out of the sheer visual and aural chaos of it all - lieutenants shrieking instructions over the deafening clang of metal on metal, horses veering past one another in a wild dance, the underlying low sounds of the courtiers conversing behind her.
"Madness, I tell you," she muttered, picking up the quill and twirling it in her fingers as she considered the many layers of meaning to the words. "All of it..."
As she watched, the largest concentration of troops broke up, the soldiers sheathing their weapons and sending a quick prayer to the gods for letting them live through the dangers of the exercise. But even in their bone-tired state, the troops parted quickly as their commander rode towards the high ridge, still sitting upright and proud after hours of grueling training. Gabrielle's lips curled up in a wistful smile.
"...but isn't she just amazing?" Gabrielle murmured as she watched her lover reach the crest of the ridge and turn around, with her long mane of midnight black hair flowing behind her. As always, Xena had fought with her head bare of a helmet -- so brazen and sure was she of her superiority, and justly so.
"Pardon?" Jacinthe said, bending closer.
"Oh, I was just talking about her," Gabrielle said, sitting back. "Xena," she clarified, gesturing towards her with the quill. "She looks so...happy."
"If you say so," the girl murmured, casting a curious eye towards the tall silhouette of the Conqueror. There was a faint touch of a smile on Xena's lips, a hint of joy underneath all the cold cruelty evident in the firm set of her mouth.
Though she could not hear the words with which Xena addressed her troops, Gabrielle was more than able to hear the voice in her head, and imagine the words it delivered: they were smooth, firm, simple; they spoke of what was to come, honestly and with great belief in her soldiers' abilities.
The Conqueror's speech was short, and soon the troops dispersed, the men conversing among themselves in small groups as they headed towards the stables. Under the grimy layer of dust, sweat and mud that stained all of the men's faces, Gabrielle saw nothing but confidence. What Xena wove with her words was sheer magic, Gabrielle thought, and uttered a self-derisive snort. And she calls me the bard. She set the quill down once more and leaned her elbows on the desk, and closed her tired eyes.
The quietly murmured word drew her out of her inner musings and she opened her eyes to the sight of Xena, in all her dark glory and with a devious smile on her lips, standing before the desk.
"Yes," Gabrielle smiled, letting her eyes sweep over the muddy form of her beloved. "And all I did was sit here and watch you."
"Well," Xena said, resting her palms on the desk and bending closer so that she could whisper into Gabrielle's ear, "spending a day with the ladies-in-waiting is enough to drive the strongest of us to the brink of exhaustion."
At that, Gabrielle let out a dry snort of laughter. "My cheeks are sore from all the smiling," she whispered back.
Xena straightened, her armour jingling softly. Brushing an errant strand of her hair out of her mouth where the wind had driven it, she smiled to Gabrielle and extended her hand. There was a twinkle of mischief in her eyes.
"Ride with me, your majesty?"
Gabrielle bit her lower lip and shot a quick look towards the people looming near her, whose undivided attention was now upon them, their every ear straining to hear the conversation. May Hades greet them all soon, she thought, and turned towards her love.
"It would be my pleasure," she said, not missing the double entendre, and placed her hand in Xena's.
The Conqueror's smile shone brighter than the setting sun. "I know."
The infantryman had lain on the battlefield for candlemarks, the essence of his life slowly seeping into the hard ground, his entire world one of pain as he lay there in limbo, unable to die but too gravely wounded to live through the night. And so, when his last breath escaped through the wound in his chest, he gave the Conqueror an unmistakable look of gratitude.
"Next?" she murmured, yanking the pike out of the now-dead soldier.
"Over there," Gillas said, pointing to his right. Out of the corner of her eye, Xena saw the man's throat undulate wildly as he fought to keep his composure and she smiled, knowing that it was necessary for him to see this task through if he was ever to make his heart hard enough to survive the wars fought off the battlefield. Gillas was one of her newer lieutenants, and a soldier of great promise, but only the Fates knew how much of that promise would be realised.
The next casualty died as silently as most of the others, his strength already exhausted. His blood splattered to the ground in thick, dark red pools as Xena pulled the pike out, his body giving one last shudder before stilling for good. She heard Gillas murmur a small prayer and she shook her head. She realised that the distinction between killing one's enemies during battle and dispatching them when they lay on the ground afterwards - the fine line between warfare and murder -- could be disturbingly fluid. But if Gillas was to ascend beyond the stature of lieutenant, he would quickly have to learn to squelch such troublesome thoughts and learn that the only safe enemy was a dead one -- regardless of how the said enemy was dispatched.
"Next?" she asked. And so they continued, pacing the battlefield, sending the men laying next to the corpses of their comrades on to whatever gods they worshiped. It was the first day of battle, and while she usually took prisoners, tonight she couldn't be bothered. They still had a day's journey before they would meet the main contingent of the northern invaders, and she didn't want to be burdened with the extra effort of transporting captives.
The sounds of the battlefield quieted as dusk settled upon them. Those who had eluded her pike soon exhausted either the air in their lungs or the blood flowing in their veins, and the Conqueror's army retreated to the base camp. She was one of the last ones to leave the field, Gillas moving quietly by her side and holding up a torch to light their way through the maze of bodies and trampled vegetation.
"Cold night," Gillas offered, obviously made uneasy by the stretch of silence. By way of a reply, Xena nodded, changing her grip on the pike resting against her shoulder. As she looked across the vast battlefield, she could see the last of her men, the ones who had helped with her gruesome but necessary task, go through the last piles of bodies to see if anyone was left alive. Their breath formed small white clouds, which disappeared quickly into the darkening night.
"Make sure the perimeter guards light no fires tonight." Her voice was a low, unobtrusive murmur.
"Yes, my lord," Gillas replied, and bowed as they parted ways at the entrance of her tent. While he headed towards his tent at a brisk pace, rubbing his bare arms to keep them warm, she turned towards one of the two guards and handed the blood-crusted pike to him.
"My lord," the guard greeted her.
"Evening, Eustis," she murmured, wrapping the cloak around herself. "Where is Linus?"
"The captain should be back from his dinner any moment, my lord," Eustis said, his voice quavering slightly as he shifted the pike from one hand to the other. He did not know how to have polite idle chat with the Conqueror and so he chose his words carefully. "Do you wish me to let him know you are looking for him?"
Turning her head towards the camp, Xena narrowed her eyes, tired as they were from the long day and the smoke of burning houses. "No, it can wait."
She fell quiet after that, standing there in silence, surveying the sea of tents before her. A feeling of d╚jç vu enveloped her. How often had she stood before her tent, looking out over the temporary city sprawling around her and wondering how many of the men there would see the next nightfall? The pain would not be hers, nor theirs; no, the price would be paid by their mothers who would outlive their sons, and the wives who would no longer have a father for their children.
"Such is war," she muttered quietly, pushing a strand of wind-swept raven hair behind her ear.
"Pardon, my lord?" asked the guard, but Xena ignored him, shifting her eyes from the anthill of her camp to the distant horizon, the sky now just vast darkness above her. The world around her was black as well; no longer could she see the blood covering her hands and armour, nor smell the sweet scent of death above the smell of food and torch smoke. Though her flesh was sticky against the leather she wore and the dark passion of battle still rushed through her veins, if she just closed her eyes she could well imagine that her day hadn't been one of death.
"But that would be futile," she murmured and turned abruptly, startling Eustis so that he almost dropped the pike. "Arrange a hot bath for me," she said and the guard nodded, rushing away to find the Conqueror's servants. As her eyes flickered to her other guard, the man kept his eyes forward and his posture painfully erect. Humming in satisfaction, Xena entered her tent.
Without Gabrielle, it was cold and empty inside. Removing her cloak and draping it carefully over a chair, the Conqueror paced around the table, sitting down heavily in her chair. Empty, she repeated to herself and sat back, feeling her gore-encrusted back stick to the chair in a most unpleasant way. Gods, I miss her.
Pouring herself a goblet of wine, she sat back again and sipped at the rich, dark liquid, the burning of alcohol in her empty stomach a welcome diversion from the wounds on her body which were beginning to demand attention. Sloshing the wine in the cup, Xena licked her lips and smiled crookedly. It certainly does not pay to be the responsible one...I'm getting to be too old for this game, she thought idly, too tired to count all the small aches and pains. Fingering the golden goblet, she cast an appreciative eye over the intricate engravings of battle scenes on its sides. Vainglorious yet utilitarian...the very picture of me, she thought, a bit bitterly perhaps. For what else am I but conceited in my quest for absolute power?
That was a question she asked of herself often, and always in vain -- it was clear to her that she did not share Gabrielle's instinctive understanding of why she waged these endless wars. Somehow, Gabrielle understood her better than she did herself -- understood what drove her to such heights of selfishness that she was willing to let others be slaughtered in her name, for her glory.
"Here's to you, Gabrielle," she said quietly, and saluted the empty air with the cup.
Shifting in her awkward pose on the windowsill, Gabrielle turned. "Yes it is," she smiled. "Come on in, Mentu."
The tall, gaunt man stepped through the doorway, his feet silent on the plush carpet as he crossed the room and came to stand next to the still-seated Gabrielle. Bracing an arm against the wall, he leaned forward to peek over her shoulder. "The stars are bright."
Resting her head against the cool, coarse stone of the wall, Gabrielle wrapped an arm around her knee. "Yes," she said quietly, tracing the unseen patters of constellations with her eyes. "I wonder if she's looking at the same sky as I am now."
Turning to lean his shoulder against the wall, Mentuhetep smiled at her quiet words. "I'm sure she is alive and well."
"Oh, I don't worry about that," Gabrielle said and laughed, despite her sombre mood. "I was just wondering...if the battle is over yet."
"Ah," said Mentu, comprehending. It was the seventh night after the Conqueror's departure, and also the fall of the day when her troops would have met the first of the invaders. Messengers would not arrive for several days. "Do you miss her?"
"That is a bold question, Mentuhetep."
"Yes, it is," he said, smiling to match Gabrielle's expression.
"And I wouldn't have pegged you as one to make so obtuse an inquiry," Gabrielle added, great warmth in her voice as she turned away from the stars to face the third member of the triumvirate.
"You do know I miss her as much as you do..." he said.
"And you worry even more," Gabrielle quipped in between.
"...and worry more, yes," he smiled. "But of the three of us, she is the strongest."
The vernal equinox had seen more than Gabrielle's ascension to power; it had seen the birth of a triumvirate, with the Conqueror raising her and Mentuhetep up as equals beside her throne. That had been Mentu's idea, his humbleness not preventing him from suggesting such an unorthodox arrangement. The advantage it offered was a ruling body with six eyes and three lives -- far more than its enemies had.
"I so detest this," Gabrielle said quietly, closing her tired eyes. She was weary to the bone, the long day behind her full of dignitaries, courtiers and common men vying for her attention. Like flowers, they sought out the brightest light in their vicinity, and right now, in the Conqueror's absence, that light was Gabrielle.
"Life at court?"
"No," she said, opening her eyes and shaking her head emphatically. "Not being there with her...not knowing how she fared today." She paused, struggling for words. "Not having her near me," she finally said frankly, her words quiet and frangible.
"So it is her physical presence that you miss above all else?" Mentu asked and perched on the corner of a nearby desk. "Interesting."
Gabrielle's eyes shifted from the far wall to him, a twinkle of ironical laughter in them. "No, it's pathetic. But after what happened last time...I'm understandably reluctant to part ways with her." Leaning back against the wall, Gabrielle sighed. "The blood of the people she killed is as much on my hands as it is hers, and I fear what she will do. She gets so angry and careless, so easily...killing without reason other than the thrill she gets from it. But in that state she can become blind to the dangers around her."
"But Gabrielle, you cannot blame yourself for what she has done, or protect her from the dangers she chooses to walk into," Mentu protested, gesturing towards the window with a long arm. "Her will is her own."
"But her heart is not hers, Mentuhetep," Gabrielle said, leaning forward and locking eyes with the man. "There is a bond, here," she said, brushing the chest of her ornate tunic with her hand, "whose depth even I don't understand...but it is the only thing that prevents her from being swallowed by the darkness. She was there once, last winter, and she almost died. I will not make her go through that again, if I can help it."
Mentuhetep shifted in his place, in silence. Evident in the clear sheen of Gabrielle's eyes, its intensity overwhelming, was a wisdom a woman of her age should not possess - for such wisdom was brought about by pain and suffering, not by a happy life. Night and day, they are, he thought. Both with such charisma, and neither with any clue about the extent of its power...together, they are indomitable.
"What she does is as much an extension of me as it is of her...and that's why I am willing to walk through Tartarus for her," she finished, gesturing vaguely towards the chamber door and the castle behind it. Mentuhetep smiled quietly at the evident frustration in her words, but saw the reason in them: for Xena, Gabrielle was ready to endure a life in court, as dangerous and tedious as it was.
"She is fortunate to have you as hers, Gabrielle," he said, leaning in to lay a light hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "You have the heart to guide her to use her power wisely."
"Yes...and you know what?" Gabrielle asked, to which Mentu lifted a questioning eyebrow. "I believe in what she is doing."
"In what sense?" Mentuhetep asked, his brows knitting.
"I believe she is what's best for the nation. She is ruthless, yes, but..." she paused, her eyes narrowing as she sought among the stars for the correct words. "I mean, who am I to stand in the way of history? What she has done has made the whole of Hellas fight under one flag for the first time in the written history of our nation. She has united our people...and she has been the one to pay the highest price for that accomplishment." She turned her head, her eyes reflecting eternal sadness. "She has given her soul for it."
Frustrated by how little of what she felt could be conveyed with words, Gabrielle leaned back again, turning her head towards the window next to her. She could feel Mentu's silent presence next to her but it was not an oppressive feeling, merely...comforting. The wide windowsill gave her generous room to sit but it was still hard, the sharp edges of the stone digging into her behind. Reaching out with one hand, she touched the glass. The pane was slick and cool, distorting the stars slightly.
"The sky is like velvet tonight," she said, brushing her hand across the glass, trying vainly to feel the imagined softness of the firmament above her, picturing her lover standing in the cool night air, breathing in the smoke of torches and the scent of the blossoming trees.
Though it was well past the witching hour, she was not sleepy. Resting her forehead against the window, she gazed outside and down into the city surrounding the castle. Guttering torches, their light feeble in the deep darkness, signaled city guardians on the move, traversing the empty streets as K█rinthians slept. To Gabrielle, the streets were but a great maze, stretching far and wide before meeting the city walls, now nothing but shadows in the distance. "All these people...putting their faith in me," she murmured, squinting. "I feel so inadequate, unable to protect them."
"Protect them from what, Gabrielle?" Mentu asked, softly.
"The world," she replied, rubbing her upper arm. "We live between powerful enemies...I fear for the safety of my people, who trust me to give protection I'm not able to provide."
"That is Xena's job, Gabrielle. Have faith in her, as I do" Mentuhetep said quietly as he stood up. Placing a light kiss on Gabrielle's temple, he took one last look at the dark sky. "Good night."
"Good night, Mentuhetep," she said, turning her head and giving the man a small smile before he departed, quietly, leaving the bed chamber for Gabrielle again. She rose, carefully stretching limbs that had grown stiff from her position in the windowsill.
Working a kink out of her neck, she paced quietly across the plush rug to the candelabrum next to their bed, only one of the candles still lit. Running her palm lightly along the thick shaft, the white wax surface feeling slick and warm on her skin, she smiled. "Good night, my love," she whispered to the small flame before pinching the wick and extinguishing the last light in the chamber before climbing into the bed. Morpheus took her quickly away and she dreamed of a camp far to the north, quiet in its midnight rest, and her beloved sleeping under the same stars.
Epilogue -- three generations later
The door of the inn opened with great force, letting in a billowing cloud of soft snow and a gust of cool wind, before a figure wrapped in heavy layers of wool stepped in and closed the door behind him. The inn's occupants, clustered around the hearth and cradling mugs of hot mead, cast hostile eyes upon the newcomer as they shivered from the sudden blast of cold. But when he unwrapped the woollen cloaks from his tall figure, recognition made many a face smile.
"Afternoon, Eugeios," the newcomer greeted the innkeeper, clapping his hands together to restore circulation. "Enchanting, what the sky is sending down to us."
"Two days of snow," Eugeios the innkeeper said, lifting his scrawny arms in a gesture of surrender. "Did we not sacrifice enough at winter solstice? Why are the gods testing us thus? This is not good for business!" he finished, his voice thundering through the small common room of his inn.
"Well, that's why I'm here, eh?" Nostromo countered, winking, an ever-present grin on his lips as he rapped his scroll case. If you asked anyone in Komotin╠, nobody could recall not seeing the storyteller smile in his inimitable way, as if he was in on the universe's little secrets and was finding them very amusing indeed. A wiry man with ageless features and a penchant for razor-sharp irony when it came to tales of the high and mighty (a talent that had nearly cost him his life on more than one occasion), the storyteller was a much-loved man in the village.
"The stage is all yours, my friend," Eugeios said, gesturing grandly towards an empty table next to the hearth.
"I, Nostromo, teller of tales," he began as soon as he had jumped onto the table. His voice was low and clear, carrying easily over the buzz of the conversation in the inn. At the words, most heads turned his way, those interested shushing the rest to silence. "I sing the song of light and of darkness...and of how they came to be torn apart, only to be united again."
A quiet hush travelled through the crowd as it recognised the oft-told tale.
Nostromo paused there and looked up from the scroll that he kept in his hand, more as a prop than anything else, for the knew the story by heart. His audience was gazing at him, their eyes unblinking and expectant.
The tale of the two is the tale of one
Two halves of a whole, brought together
Two lives, entwined as one
And when apart, on that sad day, even Gaia herself cried.
Too few lives had Hellas to offer
For the Conqueror's thirst to be quenched then.
Too feeble were the bard's powers
For her to tear out her own empty heart.
Taking a sip from his cup of mead, the storyteller snuck a peek at the crowd. These people, the hard men of the north that scrounged out their living from unwilling, cold earth, were sitting quietly, their attention riveted on him. Most remembered the tale from their childhood, old as it was, and while only the very eldest among them had seen the Conqueror except on the rare coin that came their way, the story -- of the legendary Xena, the most notorious and most respected ruler in the history of Hellas, who in the course of a reign that lasted longer than the life of an average man guided the nation to prosperity within and glory without, and of the bard Gabrielle who captured her heart -- was much-loved and one they would never tire of hearing.
At the last word, Nostromo snapped his fingers, smiling a crooked smile that spoke of personal experience on the subject of the fickleness of fate.
I sing the song of Xena the Great
Who with blood united Hellas
I sing the song of Gabrielle the Conqueror
Not of men but of hearts.
He finished with a flourish, letting the scroll re-wrap itself with a snap before bowing. The inn's patrons rewarded his troubles with a cacophonic clatter of mugs against tables and a few copper coins thrown in the general direction of his reward collection cup.
"Thank you," he said, still smiling, flipping through his scroll collection. "What will the next story be about?"
"Troy!" came a shouted request from the audience.
"Ah, the lovely Helen and what men will do for love, eh?" Nostromo countered, selecting the correct scroll. "Have you no sympathy for poor Menelaus?" he asked with a twinkle if mischief in his eyes.
"None whatsoever," one brave and somewhat inebriated patron replied, his brazen tone eliciting a round of laughter.
"Trojan wars it is, then," Nostromo said, shrugging. "Because what is a bard's job if not to recite history?" Untying the scroll and opening it, he cleared his throat and began.
And so the night went on in the inn, a spot of warmth in the midst of a field of snow. Tale after tale was told until Nostromo's voice grew hoarse and pained -- each story relating moments of glory, great battles won and lost, the past glory of Hellas. And in each story were two hearts finding one another, as it should be -- for if anything, it is love for which the greatest hardships are endured, and for which the greatest battles are fought and won.
-- T h e E n d --
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