See disclaimers in part 1
Pride. It can be the heart of a nation like the Amazons – profound and noble. It can also be the destroyer of nations – and of love.
My need to protect my image in front of the Amazons and keep my relationship with Gabrielle secret had just blown up in my face. I had made a silly boast in front of Ephiny about bedding Gabrielle, and Gabrielle had overheard it. I did not mean it, but Gabrielle did not care. We had words. No, not just words, we had a lover's quarrel in front of the entire assembly. Worse was that Terreis took advantage of the opportunity to drive a further wedge between Gabrielle and me.
When Gabrielle started walking away from me and towards Terreis, I felt a physical pain sharper than any dagger. I so desperately wanted to go after her, take her in my arms, beg her to forgive me for my boastful pride. Instead, I clung tightly to the pretence that we were merely sovereign and subject.
"Gabrielle, I am warning you!" I said through gritted teeth.
Terreis stepped around and put herself between Gabrielle and me. "Look, Xena, Gabrielle's made it clear she's not leaving with you."
"Terreis, don't!" Gabrielle protested.
"Trust me, you do not want to make me mad," I warned the Amazon Queen.
"Xena, please," Gabrielle pleaded.
"No, Gabrielle." Terreis put her hand up and stopped Gabrielle. "Stay if you want to stay or go if you want to go, but do what you want."
Gabrielle backed up a few steps and resolutely said, "I want to stay."
The Amazon Queen faced me and said, "I think you better leave, Empress."
"This is not your business, Terreis," I snapped.
"I'm making it my business."
"Is that a challenge?" I asked in a low, menacing growl. "Because if it's not, then I am making one." I grabbed a staff from a watching Amazon and moved towards Terreis.
"Xena, stop this," pleaded Gabrielle.
"It's okay, Gabrielle," Terreis told her. "I can take her. Besides, a queen cannot refuse a challenge."
She gestured for Eponin to throw her a staff.
An intimidating smile curled my lips as I twirled the staff to get a feel for its balance. Terreis circled around to my left and prepared herself to engage. Solari pulled Gabrielle out of the way while the others formed a circle around their queen and me.
I allowed Terreis to make the first strike. It was predictable – a strike to the right side of my head, which I easily blocked with the upper part of my staff. Her next strike was to my right shoulder. I deflected it and got in a strike of my own. Terreis scrambled to deflect the blow coming up towards her left hip. We struck and guarded back and forth like this for a few minutes, trying to get a read on our opponent.
Terreis was very easy to read; her eyes gave her away. They lacked the cunning of a predator.
"You fight like an old woman," I teased her.
"At least I'll get to be one," she countered.
With shouts of encouragement from her sisters, Terreis launched a quick series of overhead and upper body strikes designed to catch me flat-footed, but I had no trouble keeping up my guard. I responded with a blistering attack – head, left knee, ribs, right shoulder. Terreis worked hard to keep up with me, but I managed to get past her defences and deliver a glancing blow to her left forearm.
Terreis was forced back to the edge of the clearing. Desperation showed on her face and she made a low swipe at my legs.
"Shee-yah!" I jumped into the air and did a back flip, landing easily out of reach.
With a frustrated yell, Terreis rushed at me. I deflected her blow and sidestepped her. As she moved past me, I caught her across the back sending her sprawling to the ground.
I taunted Terreis as she climbed to her feet. "Is that the best you can do?"
Terreis did not respond. She was beyond the banter stage now. No doubt, she realised I was the better fighter, but with that stubborn Amazon pride, she would die before admitting it.
She faced me with deadly seriousness and squared her shoulders, ready to resume. I stood casually, looking bored.
The Amazon Queen lunged at my stomach. I guarded my midsection and then feinted an overhead blow. As expected, Terreis guarded the overhead strike, leaving her chest wide open to a counter strike from me. The end of my staff caught her just below the ribs, forcing her to double over. Before she had a chance to recover I swung the staff with all my might and brought it down on her left shoulder. There was a loud, sickening crack as her collarbone broke.
To her credit, Terreis did not cry out. She did, however, let her guard down when she instinctively grabbed her upper left arm.
I stepped closer to press my advantage. Terreis tried one last attempt to stop me, which I blocked easily, sending her staff flying across the circle.
From the corner of my eye I could see the other Amazons tensing, but as much as they wanted to intervene, their code of honour prevented them.
Looming over the injured queen, I brought my arm back to deliver the killing blow to her head. Terreis, to her credit, looked me straight in the eye and accepted her fate.
I had been so focussed on the fight I had almost forgotten Gabrielle. She pulled away from Solari and she threw herself between Terreis and me. Only my lightning reflexes brought the staff to a halt in time.
"Gabrielle, don't," said Terreis. Terreis tried pushing Gabrielle off her, but she was too weak and wounded.
"Don't worry, I won't let her kill you." Gabrielle was speaking to Terreis but was looking straight at me.
"I'm the Amazon Queen, I cannot surrender," the defeated warrior replied.
"You heard her, Gabrielle," I said, "Move away."
"No!" Gabrielle stood up and pushed me away. "I won't let you kill her. Not over me!" Gabrielle angrily wiped away a tear that had slipped down her cheek.
My countenance appeared unmoved, but I was not unfeeling. With the wiping of that tear, I witnessed the death of the idealistic young girl who had joined my army and saw me as some kind of hero.
I had tried to shield her from the harsh realities of combat. I never wanted her to know the awful remorse of taking another person's life for the first time, or to become numb to the death throes of an opponent as they writhe upon the end of your sword, or to look into the eyes of the enemy as their life force faded slowly, painfully, regretfully away.
"This is the way of the warrior, Gabrielle. Terreis understands this." I glanced down at the wounded Amazon Queen, who nodded, seemingly resigned to her fate.
"I don't believe that. If you kill her now, it isn't just the fulfilment of your silly warrior's code, it's murder!"
Killing your opponent in a fight to the death was not murder, but Gabrielle was so distraught, I knew it was not the time to debate the point. I wanted to comfort her, to tell her she was the dearest thing in my life, but the look in her eyes told me I had damaged our relationship with my boasting and petty jealousy.
Hoping it would go someway to repair the damage, I did something for the very first time in my life. I dropped the staff. "I concede," I said to Terreis.
For a moment the wounded Amazon Queen seemed confused by my action, but when she saw the hopeful gleam in Gabrielle's eyes, Terreis nodded her acceptance.
I offered my hand to Gabrielle. "Come on. Let's go home."
"No." Gabrielle said it softly but forcefully.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. After all I had just done – how I had humbled myself for her! What did she mean 'no'?
Gabrielle turned her attention to Terreis as if her words had dismissed me. "Here. Let me help you," she murmured as she helped the wounded Amazon to her feet.
"Gabrielle," I croaked. My voice sounded lost, like a whisper in a hurricane.
"You may be my empress - my 'friend' - but you don't own me. I'll come home in my own time."
I was rocked to the core. Such blatant defiance of my position was tantamount to treason. Gabrielle had never undermined my authority to that extent in private, let alone in public before. But to do it in front of the Amazons was unforgivable.
I had promised Gabrielle that I would never again raise a hand to her; however, pride and reputation demanded that I take action and punish Gabrielle that instant. I could even see that the watching Amazons expected me to react in such a manner. It was a stark choice: punish Gabrielle or lose face in front of a potential enemy.
With righteous provocation, I raised the back of my hand. Gabrielle looked up at me, unflinching. I could see in her soft green eyes she knew she had hurt me and she was sorry, but there was also a steely resolve there that she was in control of what she did. And I saw love. That is when I realised this beautiful young woman in front of me was the only thing in my life that was worth more than my pride.
I lowered my hand.
I watched as Gabrielle helped Terreis to her feet. The Amazon Queen smiled at me – a smile that said 'you may have won the fight, but I've won Gabrielle'.
As much as I itched to wipe that smug look off Terreis' face and drag Gabrielle home, I didn't. Instead, I turned on my heels, and pushed my way out of the crowd.
I rode back to the palace alone, angry, and frustrated. I stormed past guards, barked at servants, shut myself up in my chambers, and proceeded to numb my wounded pride with several jugs of port.
At some point I must have fallen asleep and I awoke to a noise coming from the direction of the door to my chambers. For a fleeting moment, I thought it was Gabrielle come to apologise and beg me to forgive her. To my disappointment, it was only a servant. She was on her hands and knees cleaning up a puddle of spilled wine.
"Just leave it!" I yelled, which immediately sent pain reverberating around my head. "And get out."
I pulled the covers over my head and tried to sleep off my misery.
The next morning I was again awakened by a noise. This time it was a guard.
"Do you have a death wish?"
"My apologies, Your Highness, but General Darnell needs to see you. I told him you didn't want to be disturbed, but he was rather insistent."
"Very well, but give me a few minutes to freshen up and then show the General in," I replied.
Splashing cold water on my face did not do anything to ease the excruciating pain behind my eyes, but the bracing cold sobered me up enough to open them.
"Good morning, Your Highness." The General gave me a casual salute.
I massaged my pounding temples, trying not to wince. "General," I replied.
"Rough night?" He asked. Darnell's sceptical eyes gave me a good looking over. In our conquest days, Darnell, Braextus, and I had spent many and many a night drinking ourselves blind. He knew the signs.
"You could say that."
"No offence, but you look like death warmed up." He stepped over to the refreshment table and poured a goblet of wine. "Here, drink this." He offered it to me. "A hair of the dog."
"No! Thanks." I felt nauseous at the thought.
"Mind if I?" He lifted his cup.
I managed a slight, albeit painful, nod.
He drank the wine heartily and then wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "Ahh, that hit the spot," he said of the wine. "So, what are we drinking to? Do we have a treaty yet?"
I didn't answer. My headache began pounding anew at the mention of that accursed treaty with the Amazons. I never should have agreed to it, then Gabrielle would not have met Terreis, we would not have had a huge fight, and I would not have to listen to I told you so from Darnell.
"I didn't think so," he responded. "Mind if I sit down?"
"No, sit." I gestured towards two chairs.
"How long have we known each other – eleven years?"
"Yes, something like that," I offered.
"In that time I have served you well, fought by your side, watched your back – true?"
"Well, I'm watching your back now. So allow me to speak with the plainness of a soldier."
"Forget the treaty. There is nothing the Amazons can give us that we can't easily take for ourselves." He paused to gauge my reaction, and seeing that I was not bristling at his candour, he continued. "Our forces are already assembling in Vólos. We could be fully deployed in Lydia within the week. And with the Amazon Queen as our hostage, we could negotiate the Amazons' surrender without expending any resources."
I listened to what my military advisor had to say and what he said made sense. Unfortunately, it was not as easy as all that. Gabrielle was too invested in the treaty. She would never forgive me if I went back on my word to the Amazons. And if I actually took Terreis hostage, that would be the end of our relationship for good.
Gods, my head felt like it would split wide open! I thought.
"Your idea has merit, Darnell. But it is not that simple."
He jumped in. "Yes, it is that simple. As long as I've know you, you've had one goal and that was to conquer and rule an empire that stretched from horizon to horizon." The General emphasised his point by circling his arm from East and West. "Don't let anything or anyone distract you."
His meaning was clear. Darnell made little effort to disguise his disdain for Gabrielle, but I was too tired to argue with him.
"I will give your idea some serious thought," I said as I got up out of the chair. This prompted Darnell to get up as well. "Now, if you will excuse me, General, I would like to take a bath."
"Yes of course, Your Highness." He saluted and then walked towards the door, but before he left, he turned and said, "I wouldn't take too long though. My spies tell me that the Persian Army is already moving westward towards the Bosporus.So, when you are thinking about things, ask yourself if you want to be The Conqueror or the conquered."
As I lay in the bath my splitting headache eased to a slow pulsing throb.
Servants popped their heads in to the bathroom from time to time, to see if I wanted more hot water, but I dismissed them. Even the cold water was soothing.
Eventually I climbed out of the bath, grabbed a robe and wandered back to my bedchambers.
It was the middle of the afternoon and I realised I had not eaten all day. I ordered a servant to bring me something from the kitchen and sat down on the bed.
Some minutes later the servant returned with a large tray. She placed it on the table and curtsied.
"Your food, My Liege."
I stood up and sauntered over.
"Will there be anything else, My Liege?"
I looked down at the tray. "Why is there so much?"
"Won't Miss Gabrielle be joining you?"
I rounded on the servant. "Do you see her here?"
"N-no, My Liege." She tried to back away but a chair blocked her way.
I raised my hand and the servant let out a short cry and closed her eyes, bracing herself for my strike. It never came. Raising my hand brought back all the painful recollections of the previous night. The aching in my head flared to a stabbing pain behind my left eye.
"Go," I whispered.
The servant opened one eye and fearfully looked at me. "My Liege?"
"I said go!" I yelled, which I immediately regretted.
"Yes, My Liege. I'm sorry, My Liege." She scurried away
I do not know how long I stood at the table, one hand supporting me, the other trying to ease the pounding in my skull, but when the pain eventually subsided the sun had already set.
I didn't touch the food; instead I staggered to my bed, pulled the sheets over my head, and fell into a fitful sleep.
The following morning I awoke feeling sober but rotten. I had not seen Gabrielle for over a day. My mind was torn in two with what to do. The argument needed to be resolved, but I felt I should not be the one to apologise first. Gabrielle obviously felt the same.
I decided to go for a walk in the centre courtyard, as that was where I would most likely meet Gabrielle. If she saw me it would give her a chance to apologise.
As I stood by the carp pond I heard footsteps behind me. From the heavy footfall on stone, I knew it was not Gabrielle.
"Commander Galates. At ease." I acknowledged his salute.
Galates reported some mundane palace business that I have no recollection of. My mind was elsewhere.
When it appeared that he had finished his report, I asked nonchalantly, "Have you seen Gabrielle today?"
"No, she's still at the Amazon camp." Galates sounded a bit perturbed. "And if I may be so bold, it's time you went and asked her to come back."
I hadn't realised Gabrielle had not returned from the Amazons yet. This news made my anger boil and poor Galates was there to take the brunt. I grabbed the front of his uniform and snarled, "By the gods, I will not be spoken to like that by you or anyone else!"
The port had not dulled the memory of Gabrielle's open defiance the previous evening. "You have a privileged position, but do not assume that gives you license to talk to me that way. I do not care whose friend you are."
Galates swallowed hard but looked me right in the eye. "With all due respect Empress, someone needs to say it to you." He wasn't going to be bullied by me. In that respect he was just like Gabrielle.
I released the soldier and spotted a nearby bench and sat down to gather my thoughts. "What makes you think she will want to come back?"
"She loves you," he replied.
I sighed heavily. "Not after the argument we had. I said some pretty harsh things."
"Knowing Gabrielle, she probably didn't pull any punches, either."
I made a weak attempt at a smile. "No, she didn't. And now she has left me, and it may be for good."
"No, Your Highness, not for good. If I am certain of anything, I am certain that Gabrielle loves you."
"Are you implying that I do not love her?" My ire started to rise again but I pushed it back down. "No, you are not," I answered for him. It was as close to an apology as he was going to get at that time. "It is a difficult situation I find myself in, Galates. As much as I love Gabrielle, as much as I want to declare that love to all, I cannot. There is a more at stake than just my happiness; I have an empire to consider. Why does Gabrielle not understand that?"
"Because Gabrielle is without pretence," said Galates. "She sees things how they should be and acts accordingly. I guess it's naivety on her part that she expects others to see things that way too. She doesn't see the need to make things complicated."
"That's one of Gabrielle's most endearing qualities," I admitted with a wistful smile. "She can't see why we cannot be open about our feelings." I averted my gaze. In opening up to Galates I was doing the very thing that Gabrielle wanted – being honest. It was hard for me to do.
"She accused me of treating her like a possession," I continued. "She doesn't understand. I am trying to protect her. You are a soldier – you understand."
"I admit, I need to maintain control, but I also need Gabrielle. It looks like I cannot have both."
"You can have control of your empire, Highness, and you can have Gabrielle. You just can't have control of Gabrielle."
I looked up at the soldier. He was staring off into the distance as he spoke.
"She's braver than any soldier I've met," he continued. "She knew she wasn't meant to be a farmer's wife, so she took control of her life and did something about it. She knew you were not just 'The Conqueror'; that you could love and be loved." His cheeks flushed and he risked a quick look in my direction.
"Carry on," I put him at his ease.
"Gabrielle is like a…" He paused as he thought about what he wanted to say. He frowned. "She just sees things differently from everyone else. Do you understand what I'm saying, My Liege?"
I pondered the Lt. Commander's words. "I think so. Gabrielle does not accept the world as it is; she sees the world as it should be and then does something about it. Who else could walk into my camp, demand a job and get one? Who else could walk into my life, demand my heart and take it?"
"Yes, Gabrielle is a force unto herself," Galates agreed.
That was an understatement, and we both chuckled.
"Thank you, Commander."
"For what?" he asked.
"For putting your neck between the tiger's jaws," I said.
"You're welcome," he replied simply. So, shall I tell the stable master to have your horse saddled right away, Your Highness?"
"Make it mid-morning. My head is still a little delicate."
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