These characters are not owned by me. I have borrowed them for my own amusement. I am not making any profit from this story.
A quick note about the diction: I use British English, because I'm British. Consequently there will be many more u's in this story than an American reader may have expected - hooray for the u', a most undervalued letter!
There is some violence depicted at the beginning of the story, nothing that won't be healed though. There are no gratuitous sex scenes, sorry folks.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, I hope you enjoy reading my first fan-fiction story as much as I ' ve enjoyed writing it. Good luck everyone!
Scroll One: Threshing
The golden dawn ' s radiant light glanced over eyelids heavy with sleep. Another day of harvest, another day threshing the freshly cut wheat. That familiar aching of shoulders, back and arms. Is that mother calling me? Just few more minutes rest. This is bliss. Lila ?
Lila woke me, as she had done each and every morning since she was born. At first with cries, then with laughter, today with a well-aimed pillow thrown at my somnolent head. Lethargy, like Lila, has been my constant companion. We had stretched awake into the lingering night, whispering stories by moonlight, my audience of one, enraptured by tales of ancient gods.
Last night I sang of Demeter, the golden-haired goddess, for the time of her harvest festival approached.
Shall I tell you now, how s ummer sighs over the humming meadow where Demeter ' s daughter idly picks flowers?
Elegant fingers plucking the unfurled lily and ruffled larkspur from the field, gathering the blushing rose and the open-faced violet, gently harvesting the delicate crocus and the rich blue iris, the flower that adorns the graves of the dead.
In the blink of an eye, those vibrant hues darken as that hazy pasture is cast into dankest shade, heralding the arrival of the Lord of Tartarus . The young maiden is dragged wailing into the darkness. And those delightful flowers, garnered by her innocent hand, spill upon the grassy ground, their many-hued blooms wilting under the summer sun.
Can you hear her cries, as I mmortal Demeter hears the lingering echo of her girl- child ' s piercing scream? The Goddess's eternal voice resounding with grief as she scours the mortal world for her beloved Persephone from the oceans ' depths to the mountains ' peaks.
That mother-goddess, giver of grain, wanders the land for nine days in her anguish, ceaselessly searching, with blazing torches outstretched, illuminating even the darkest corners of the earth, until w atchers from the heavens, Hecate and Helios, moon and sun, with pity for that most bountiful of goddesses, laid bare Hades' dishonourable deed .
In mourning, that divine Lady, goddess of the harvest, shrouds her face from mortals. Without her love no verdant shoot springs from the earth and no seed flourishes in the fields. All land is barren, veiled with her sorrow.
Zeus, the father of the gods, saw the harsh hunger blighting humankind and summoned Hades, commanding that the lord of the darkest realm return Persephone to Demeter ' s side. And, once commanded by the thunder-bearer, even the Dark Lord obeyed. Yet that Cimmerian prince deceived them all: from his hands Persephone had eaten the honey-sweet seeds of the pomegranate, thus was she forever bound to her L ord 's dank domain.
Zeus, the Keeper of Oaths, ruled that Persephone must indeed linger in the underworld ' s shadowy mist , constrained by deception to her captor's confinement. Yet Zeus, Leader of the Fates, commanded too that once each year Persephone must return to Demeter ' s side , to the comfort of her mother's bosom and the warmth of the summer sun.
And s o, every solar cycle, following this reunion of cherished daughter with devoted mother, all the land ' s fertile furrows overflow, and the earth begins to bloom again with the fragrant flowers of spring, garlanded once again with leaves and blossoms, echoing the resplendent goddess ' s delight.
The resplendent goddess ' s delight did not echo though our village that morning. Potedeia's fertile furrows overflowed only with blood. The macabre harvest of our fathers, brothers and sons had been gathered before they took the village, where Lila and I attended to our labour at the threshing floor.
They hid under the murmuring of gossiping mothers, disguised below the high-pitched inflection of the young girls ' rhythmic refrains. Who knows how long they lurked beneath the rasping grind of the threshing board, concealed behind the repetitive thudding, pounding, beating of flails, timelessly separating the wheat from the chaff. The flails fell silent. The songs of children ended. All stood speechless before her ice-blue glare.
Surrounded by the smell of leather, sweat and blood we were huddled and herded away from our homes. I held my sister ' s hand, we were bound to each other, for the last time. We reached their camp as the evening ' s haze descended over the sea. We were ushered into a single phalanx, standing close, shoulder to shoulder, so the weaker could rest, if only for a moment, against the bodies of the strong.
I watched as the soldiers arrived with cartloads of food, wine, oil and wood, everything that we had stockpiled for winter. Several women wept when more carts arrived, this time piled high with our possessions, each object bearing a memory, a story of family and friends, of what our lives had been.
There were times when I had longed for adventure, to leave those objects and stories behind. I did not choose. That life was stolen from me and I from it.
Lila jabbed me in the back.
I whispered barely moving my parched lips and desperately trying not to be overheard by the soldiers guarding us.
If they have our things, why don ' t they let us go?
Our things are worthless child, someone replied, it ' s us that ' ll bring in the dinars .
She was right, everything we owned of value was stacked in front of us and it was all worthless.
We ' re slaves .
That was Lila again, she had a gift for stating the obvious. Before I could answer her my stomach rumbled, I ' d had nothing to eat since breakfast and nothing appeared to be forthcoming.
They ' ll give Gabby back, it ' s too expensive filling that stomach of hers .
I heard vaguely disguised sniggers from behind me. They were quickly silenced by a glare from one of the guards. I will miss you Lila .
At dusk torches were lit, scattering shadows across the boot-worn ground, their spluttering flames lighting the narrow paths between canvas tents. If only there was a distraction, a fire or a fight, perhaps we could slip away into the darkness, cut our bindings and run.
Then I heard it, bellowing cries and the beating of steel blades against shields, a rhythmic hammering pulse, shaking the earth like a titan ' s footsteps. Whispers passed between us like village gossip, the men were coming to save us. That dissonant roar transformed into two syllables, as each man added his voice to the chant:
Xe-n a! Xe - n a! Xe - n a!
No one was coming to save us.
The torches continued to flare like the fires of Hades as she processed through the camp, past the incessant cries of her men, past the heap of our former possessions, past reality and into legend. The Conqueror had come to claim us.
I felt Lila shiver behind me as that phantom approached, dark-haired and dark-souled. Those around me cast their eyes to the floor. I could not. Numbed and frozen I stared into her eyes, into those steel-sharp slivers of rage. A stinging pain flashed through my head, knocking me to the ground.
Get up! , the guard who had hit me bellowed.
Lila! I stumbled to my feet, blocking the Conqueror ' s view of my sister with my body.
A hand grabbed a fistful of my hair, yanking my head savagely upwards. Tears welled in my eyes and my knees trembled. With one calloused thumb she lifted my upper lip, inspecting my teeth; such a warm touch, for such a cold gesture.
She looked past me, observing the women standing behind. I snapped my head, reclaiming it from her lingering grip, directing her attention away from Lila. She regarded me once more, a disdainful curl of her lip hinting at the cruelly beautiful smile beneath. As she strode away from me, a comforting hand touched my back. Lila was with me, Lila was safe, for now .
The burning of our meagre possessions provided the focal point for that night ' s festivities, their feasting a mock ing imitation of our own harvest festival. They had sown nothing, reaped nothing, yet they took everything. And when they had feasted on our crops and toasted their fortunes with our wine they turned themselves to other entertainments.
They brought a man out, in chains, silhouetted against the blazing bonfire. As he turned I saw his face, it was Mentes from our village. A short sword was pressed into his open palm. He was two years younger than me, he used to follow me around when we were children ... they attacked in twos and threes, taunting him, goading him to fight ... he used to pull my hair, he used to tease me in front of the other children ... for every strike he blocked, another hit its mark, they were playing with him, laughing at his struggle ... I hated him then ... he lashed out, wounding one of them ... then he ' d say sorry, he used to say sorry a lot and ... they set upon him with ferocious blows ... and want to hold my hand and play ... their swords pierced him though ... and play in the fields behind the barn until sunset ... and his mother is watching, his mother is watching behind me, his mother is weeping behind me. Mentes died screaming, to the sound of their cheers.
I didn ' t cry when the guards came for me, I whispered goodbye to Lila. I didn ' t cry when they shackled my wrists and ankles with heavy iron cuffs, fastening my legs with a chain. I didn ' t cry when they dragged me across the gravelly ground when I stumbled. And when I saw what cruel depravity they had envisaged for me, I did not wail, whimper or snivel, all of my tears had left me.
When the first whiplash scourged my naked back, and the second and the third, I cried then. I cried and I wailed and I whimpered and I suppose I snivelled too, between screams. The beating continued, longer and harder than any my father had given me. I choked and coughed, as fire lashed and exploded in my back. Borne upright and bound to a wooden stake, I gazed mesmerised at the patterns made by the blood dripping down my chin and pooling on the flame-lit earth. I had bitten my tongue.
They stopped. I was untied and I fell to my knees. Brutish hands shoved me forward and pulled my rear into the air, other calloused hands grasped at my breasts, and raked fingers through my sweat-damped hair. Amongst the jeering and laughter I heard a single word spoken. Stop. More laughter.
The taunts silenced.
Bring her to me .
Hesitant hands lifted me upwards by aching shoulders. The soldiers parted to form a passage between her and I. She sat on a simple wooden bench, one hand resting casually on her thigh, the other holding a clay beaker. A man walked beside me, clutching at my arm, matching my quivering gait, as I was presented, unceremoniously, to her.
Do you deny us our spoils, my Lord?
I do. If you cannot control yourself, Vettias, then pay for your own whore .
The man who had held me suddenly released his grip and I collapsed.
Go drink my wine Vettias, amuse yourself, but remember, those slaves belong to me .
I crawled bloodied and beaten across the jagged ground towards the sound of that honeyed voice, towards blood-stained black boots, between long leather-clad thighs and I lay in the dust, curled at her feet.
I am your Empress. You will address me as My Empress ' or My Lord', is that understood?
Yes. Yes, my Lord .
You will submit to my commands, immediately and without question. You will not attempt to escape. Your life, your body, everything you are or ever will be belongs to me. Do you understand?
Yes, my Lord .
Those were her first words to me and mine to her. I had sat at her feet as the moon arced through the star-pierced sky. I had listened to her speak with her generals of philosophers she had debated with, of distant lands she had travelled to, of the many languages and cultures of the people she had met, met and fought, met and conquered.
When I began to shiver, still naked in the cool autumn breeze, with her boot she had ushered me closer to her, nestled between her legs, and drew her cloak around us both, absently stroking my hair. When she had taken her fill of wine and conversation she retired to her tent and I, naked, barefoot and chained, trailed after her.
These were my next words to her.
Speak carefully, slave .
Yes my Lord. My Empress, I beg of you...
What do you beg, slave, my pity?
Your mercy, my Lord .
Have I demonstrated that I am merciful?
Yes, my Empress, when you took me for yourself, and saved me from those soldier s .
Many would disagree with your interpretation of mercy. Well, what merciful thing is it that you beg of me?
I do not beg for mercy for myself, but for my mother .
I hesitated, afraid to continue speaking, though fearing not to.
Go on, girl .
My mother was away from the village today, when she returns, tomorrow, she will find that you have killed her husband and taken her daughters into slavery. I know that I can never return, for I am yours, to do with as you will. I beg, my Lord, that you spare my sister, she is with the others, she is just fourteen, my Lord, and my mother ' s only hope .
Is your sister the dark-haired girl, the one you tried to hide from my gaze?
Yes, my Lord .
You failed .
Yes, my Lord .
And if I released your sister, returned her to your mother as you request, what will I receive from this bargain?
My Lord? I do not know. All that I have, all that I am, and all that I will ever be is already yours .
A submissive, yet astute, answer. Since I possess everything, what more could I possibly want? The Muses have cursed you with a logician ' s mind and an eloquent tongue girl. Neither are good qualities in a slave .
With that my Lord grasped a woollen blanket from her sleeping pallet and threw it onto the floor.
Sleep there clever little slave. We shall see how merciful I am in the morning .
The golden dawn ' s radiant light glanced over eyelids heavy with sleep. Another day of harvest, another day threshing the freshly cut wheat. That familiar aching of shoulders, back and arms. Is that mother calling me? Just a few more minutes rest. This is bliss. Lila ?
Lila did not wake me. I was woken by a sandalled foot insistently prodding my uncovered leg. I clambered to my knees, startled awake, gripping the woollen blanket tightly to hide my unclothed form. The sandalled foot and its owner retreated. I gasped at the throbbing ache of the lash wounds on my back, the gashes stretching open at my sudden movement.
Three men, servants, perhaps slaves, like me, were methodically removing the furnishings from the tent. They paid me no attention as I sat on the floor, wiping at my tear-stained face with one coarse edge of the blanket. Sandals returned, without a word, placing an earthen bowl containing water beside me. I washed my dirt-encrusted hands, trying to ignore the sting of the frigid water as it trickled down my wrists to lick at the red-raw scrapes left by the leaden shackles that bound me.
I was still debating whether I had the courage to attempt to wash my wounded back when Sandals reappeared. He silently gestured that I should rise. I stood, hesitant, on shaky limbs, clutching the blanket to my chest. I glanced around the tent, it had been emptied of fittings, furniture and chattels, except for me.
The blanket I had slept under was firmly removed from my hands and wrapped swiftly around my smarting shoulders and I was led from the tent, the chain between my feet trailing behind me. Sandals lifted me into the back of a covered wagon, which already contained my Lord ' s other baggage. He tugged together the edges of the canvas which overlay the cart, curtailing my view of the camp and the soldiers ' view of me.
A short time later the wagon jerked into motion. As it rocked shakily away from the ditched enclosure of the camp and onto the dust-dry road, the canvas flaps fluttered open slightly in the breeze. I could see the women from my village, standing in lines, bound now with chains and heavily guarded. I searched for Lila. She wasn ' t with them. Please Lila, be safe, by the gods, be safe.
The cart staggered and lurched over the compacted trail, away from home. Obscured inside the cover of the wagon I peered out into my new world, glimpsing helmeted soldiers, spears shaking as they marched, watching archers on horseback assiduously patrolling the forest edge. And, concealed between the smell of horses, leather armour and men, I discerned the familiar scent of rain. The first skyfall of the season, ushering summer ' s verdant beauty into autumn ' s sepia chill. Around midday the blackened sky began to rumble with Zeus ' thunderous bolts and the birds that had accompanied my journey with their brightly trilled anthems fell silent.
Soon muddy water ran in rivulets beside the road and sheets of driven rain pelted the wagon ' s canvas covering. The horses whinnied as the cart squelched to a halt. The heavy cloth that had shrouded me was torn aside but just as suddenly replaced, sealing me firmly inside once more. There, by the entrance, was a parcel of cloth. I shivered at the frigid air that had pierced the warm, dark, confines of the wagon as I examined the intruding bundle. Wrapped inside a heavy brown cloak were two apples and a small loaf of bread, a boxwood hair comb of the kind soldiers use, a sleeveless pale blue stola, two golden clasps to pin the garment at the shoulders and two belts with which to fasten its abundant folds of linen.
The relief that I had been fed and clothed was tempered by the humiliation that I had been left naked and hungry until now. The delight I felt handling these clothes, finer than any I had worn when free, was tempered by shame, shame that I took any pleasure from these things, from objects stolen or bought with blood. And the knowledge that I could reject neither gift, would, with time, be tempered only by acceptance. Acceptance of my utter dependence on another human being, one who did not love me as a daughter, or a wife, one who simply owned me. I had been unable to understand the aching, grasping force of freedom, until I was no longer free.
I had fallen asleep on the floor of the wagon, wedged between a wooden chest and a backless stool. It was not the most comfortable of arrangements, though by resting my head and neck on the stool ' s seat and positioning my body between its ornately carved legs, I was able to avoid further irritating most of the wounds on my back. I slept so soundly that I almost didn ' t notice when the wagon halted its lumbering course. The canvas drapes were hoisted aside revealing the dull light cast by an ashen afternoon. A man clambered into the wagon. It wasn ' t Sandals. The intruder hadn ' t seen me, nestled between the furniture, disguised beneath my blanket.
Now girl, there is no use hiding from me. Come out .
His clear, sharp eyes searched amongst the shadows of the wagon. It didn ' t take him long to discover me. That damn blonde hair gave me away, shining like the golden fleece!
What are you doing down there? Come out .
She ' ll kill you if you touch me .
I do not doubt that. Of course, she ' d probably kill you too .
His tone was mild and his speech lightly accented.
Please, if you leave now, I won ' t tell anyone .
She already knows .
So, she had saved me from her soldiers yesterday, to offer me to another man today.
What do they call you little one?
Does it matter to you?
Of course, every patient has a name. The Conqueror ordered that I should attend you, and attend you I shall. I am her physician, Linos of Athens, and you need not fear me .
Gabrielle. My name is Gabrielle, I am, was, from Potedeia
Thank you, Gabrielle . Xen a , our Lord Conqueror, in her great wisdom, believes that you have incurred some injuries .
I ' m fine .
I don' t know why I lied to him, this tall, mild -mannered doctor from Athens.
Gabrielle, you need not speak of how these injuries were sustained. There is no shame, for you. Please, Gabrielle, let me tend to your wounds, come out from there .
I did as he asked. I could almost stand upright in the wagon, while he had to stoop his thin frame. He asked me to sit on the stool. I sat, facing away from him as I unpinned my gown, revealing the weeping gashes, bruises and broken scabs on my back.
He asked before he touched me. He tended to the wounds, first rinsing them with water, squeezing out the sponge, trickling the cooling liquid downwards over ruptured skin. He carefully cleaned the lacerations, needlessly apologising for the pain his actions caused, before gently applying a salve. He covered and bandaged the worst of my injuries, though not too tightly, and I redressed. Next, he knelt at my feet to examine the abrasions on my ankles from where the heavy cuffs, weighted with an iron chain, had scraped their way through my skin. As he repeated his ministrations I looked on, observing his long raven hair neatly braided at the back of his neck. He turned his attention to my wrists.
I can do that , I whispered.
As you wish Gabrielle. Rub this salve, gently, on the wounds, keep them dry and clean. I will leave you clean bandages and dressings. For what it is worth, I shall recommend that you be released from the manacles and chain. I shall see you again tomorrow evening .
Sandals came for me then. I think he had been standing outside the wagon the whole time. He lifted me down and this time he carried me all the way to the reassembled tent, his sandals splattering through the mud. The three servant-slaves slowly replaced all the furniture around me, exactly as it had been this morning. And like this morning, neither the chain nor fetters had been removed.
I awoke in darkness. A single candle burnt low, somewhere away to my right, vainly casting a pale ethereal blush into the oppressive darkness of the tent. Something moved. To my left. Something in the dark. There, again, a breath, no a choke. It moved again, something jerking, writhing. It was her. I should stay here on the floor, close my eyes, she ' ll leave me alone. More twitching, and staccato, shuddering breaths.
If I just fetch the candle, quietly, maybe I won ' t be so scared. There, I stand and then now if I shuffle my feet, like so, then the chains don ' t jangle, and I can make it to the table without waking her, and if I reach out, a bit more, careful, and just below the candle ' s base and i ' ve got it. Candlestick ' s mine. Easy.
I can see her now that I ' m standing, grasping a solitary candle against the dark. She ' s lying sprawled on the bed. Her boots have been cast to the floor, but she ' s still in her clothing, tight black leather breeches cut off below the knee, a sleeveless black tunic barely covering her torso. Her blanket ' s been tossed aside, pitched over one long leather-clad limb and snared under the other. There it is again, that breathy, whispered cry and she lashes out, still waging war, even in Morpheus ' realm.
I can see her more clearly now, now that my eyes have adjusted to the gloom. I can see tears, lit by the glowing candlelight, as they flow from long dark lashes onto the crumpled sheets. Now she ' s crying aloud for someone, Lyceus .
I should wake her. I can stop this pain, it ' s just a dream. And i ' m over by the bed with my hand on her shoulder and i ' m rocking her gently, urging my Lord to wake up. I have the candle in my left hand and a knife at my throat and those slate-chilled orbs are boring into me and I don ' t want to die tonight.
Never wake me , girl .
She pushes me away from the bed and I stumble back to the blanket. I have the sense to put down the candle before it drops from my trembling hand.
Go back to sleep .
I lie down, still shaking, I close my eyes tight and I think about the dawn. This long night will be over soon. Apollo ' s healing warmth will soothe my spirit and calm my quivering heart.
She ' s sitting upright on the bed, I can hear the wooden frame creek. I can feel a chill caress my face as she glides past me, barefoot. She ' s moving, over by the entrance to the tent, her breathing is quickening, and I can hear the fearful sound of a blade arcing through the early morning air. I hear her muttering and the sword drill ceases, only to resume again with heavier breaths.
I can hear her feet now, shuffle and skip, as she turns and twists and paces inside the confines of the tent. I open my eyes a fraction, the daemon from my nightmares dwells coiled between two glinting swords, terrible and ghastly and so very alive. With a final strike she beheads her illusory opponent and stands still and panting, glistening with mortality, reflected in the dawn ' s first breath .
The swords are flung clattering onto a table as she slumps onto the small backless stool, facing the tent ' s canvas covering.
Don ' t just lie there watching me girl, fetch me water to bathe .
I stand, quickly reaching for an amphora I know to contain water. I fill a wide brimmed bowl and carry it to her, careful not to spill the precious liquid. Next I bring a sponge and place it near to her hand. She stares ahead, neither dismissing me nor issuing further commands. Slowly she takes the sponge, distractedly dropping it into the bowl and wringing it out with one hand. She sits like that, wrist overhanging the rim of the water bowl, hand clutching the damp sponge, staring.
Hesitantly I take the sponge from her fingers and tentatively I begin to wipe her arm. She startles a little at my touch, and I half expect to find myself impaled on the pointy end of another knife. I rinse the sponge and renew my attentions, gently cleaning each lithe tanned arm, washing away the night ' s sweat and yesterday 's journey' s dust from her shoulders. I pause to move her hair aside, my fingers brush lightly against her skin, so much softer than I expected, so much warmer. I continue my ministrations, rinsing, wiping, cleansing her heated flesh. Each stroke reveals another faint scar, a tapestry of injuries and a monument to survival.
Again I rinse the sponge, she grasps my wrist, unexpectedly gripping the iron cuff weighing down my arm. She pushes me firmly aside and without hesitation removes her shift.
I am not bashful or shy with women. Lila and I would always bathe together, though bath-time for us was a very noisy affair, with ceaseless chatter and recurrent splash-fights, during which neither one of us would ever concede defeat - by the time mother intervened there was always more water on the floor than in the tub.
But this is a duty performed in silence, washing her broad muscled back, the sides of her chest, where long, toned muscles run perpendicular to her ribs, dipping my hand over her shoulders I bathe her breasts, and her firm muscular stomach. When she decides that I am finished she stands and turns to face me. She is taller than any woman I have ever met, my head barely reaches her shoulder.
Lightly touching my arm she urges me to my knees. I watch as graceful fingers untie her breeches, recovering powerfully athletic limbs from the unwanted garment, now cast, like I, at her feet. I begin to bathe her again.
The bards whisper that she is immortal, this conqueror of men, the bastard child of a malevolent god, or some foul spirit escaped from the underworld. Yet, though the image of her statuesque perfection could grace the walls of any temple, I know that she is mortal. She touches my hair, so lightly, gently entangling a golden strand between agile fingers.
My brother ' s hair was this colour. Like freshly harvested corn .
She spoke so tenderly, a bare hushed remembrance issued from softly parted lips. For once I was speechless. That patient warmth departed as abruptly as it had appeared. She strode away, leaving me kneeling on the floor clutching at the dripping sponge.
Tonight she asked me my name.
I have been traveling for days. In which direction, I know not. Each morning the wagon and I begin our shambling journey, winding and weaving through stoney mountain tracks, through narrow gullies, swept along with the soldiers and horsemen, the supplies and slaves.
My Lord leaves before dawn and returns long after dusk. I saw her once during daylight, as I peered outside, veiled by the wagon ' s covers. She rode a magnificent horse, the finest I had ever seen, tall and lean. I could almost taste that aura of terrifying power that she exudes, that radiates from her, the malignant savage violence that has brought nations to their knees, subjugated to her will and stifled beneath her dominion. I know something that they don ' t, this fierce warrior, this conqueror, weeps alone in the dark.
My wounds are healing well. I am still bound and chained, though I am permitted to walk a little in the evenings, even so I stay close to my Lord ' s tent and her guards. I hear the soldiers sniggering at me. Whatever depraved desires they maintain, they assume that hers are worse and that I am the object of these licentious acts. How shocked they would be to discover that the only service I have been asked to perform is simply to bathe my Empress's majestic form , to wash and plait her raven hair. Still, the other servants and slaves rarely speak to me. I am beneath them. Sandals cannot speak to me. Linos the physician told me. Our Lord had the boy ' s tongue cut out, he had spoken unwisely, was overheard singing some scandalous bardic song about her and never sang again.
At dusk we arrived at a huge fortified settlement. It occupies a sweeping plane still green with summer ' s last flush. I was transferred immediately to an ornately decorated tent, assembled on a raised ridge, overshadowing the expansive camp which lies sprawled beneath. I heard the soldiers, the inhabitants of this canvas city-state clamouring for her, a great roar roiling through that vast polis; a city that trades in conquest, with a currency of blood. The site is bounded by watchtowers, whose flames will burn long into the night. None enter and none leave this place unobserved or unaccounted.
I retire to the warmth of my Lord ' s tent, to sit on a bench by the brazier, gathered in my cloak, I mean the cloak that she gave me to wear, for nothing is truly mine anymore. I admire the painted silks and decorated vases carefully collected from distant lands, now cast haphazardly between various weapons, pieces of armour, and papyrus scrolls, some with strange diagrams, of circles and ellipses, others composed entirely from unfamiliar characters, or lines upon lines of tiny images. There ' s another, in Greek, on the table. I pick it up and try to read it in the fading light: I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess because I wanted to see...
What are you doing with that?
My, my Lord, I was just, it was on the table and I noticed it and I meant no harm, I am sorry my Lord, please forgive me .
I fell to my knees, carelessly dropping the cloak from my shoulders onto the floor. The light from the brazier cast its fiery glow, illuminating her gilded armour as she stood sentinel, overshadowing my crumpled figure.
Who taught you to read girl?
A travelling bard, my Lord. He stayed in our village one winter. I begged my father to let him sleep in our barn and, and I would pester him to teach me my letters. I wanted so much to be like him .
I might have known you ' d have been a pest .
I smile a little, comforted by her playful tone.
And what about you my Lord?
I was not a pest!
I ' m sorry, that wasn ' t, I didn ' t, what I...
I know .
She smiles at my stuttering. At this moment she is so achingly beautiful. Then some thought intrudes, that unwelcome, yet frequent visitor, a spectre whispering from the prison of her past, and her smile fades to a familiar haunted expression. I thought she would not speak again.
What is your name girl?
Gabrielle, my Lord .
Well, Gabrielle, it was my mother who made sure that I could read. As a child she sent me with my brothers to the didaskalos to learn to read and write in Greek. The other languages I taught myself .
She stalks across to her table, selecting a single scroll from the many scattered over its surface. As she places it gently in my open hands, I glance upwards, cerulean eyes glint down at me in the delicate light of the burning coals.
I will be late Gabrielle, do not use all of my candles .
She had given me the Histories of Herodotus. She had given me the world to explore from the shadows of her tent. I did not use all of her candles, though I was tempted.
Scroll Two: Reaping
I learned from Linos that we are in Thrace, probably for the entire winter. The soldiers are bored, though they drill for hours each day. My Lord is bored, though she drills the soldiers for hours each day and herself for several more. When my Lord is not present I explore a little, just near the tent, listening to servants and the other slaves.
Sometimes I ask the guards to accompany me to the infirmary so that I may sit with Linos as he prepares his medicines. He teaches me the names of the herbs and their properties, whether they are warm, cold, moist or dry and how to combine them to restore a patient ' s humoral balance. I learn which herbs are beneficial for fever and which for phlegm, which of them are also poisons and which are useful for pain. Apparently I am a very good student, if only I had been born a boy, Linos lamented one lazy afternoon, then I too could have studied the healing arts.
I am careful to return always to my Lord ' s tent before eventide. It is her wish, during the murky autumn evenings, that I remain with her. She works, in silence, seated on a wooden stool by her table, reviewing scores of scrolls and tablets by candlelight, long into the lonely night.
At times she will tease me to amuse herself. I know that I should hate her for what she has done to me, to my family, but I too am alone and friendless, so I play and banter in return, though her humour can be terrifying at times, should her mood change and her wrath rise against me. Last night, when she had finished with her reports, when she began to sharpen and polish her knives, her concentration curled over their deathly blades, I washed her hair with scented oils.
Is that jasmine?
Yes my Lord .
Where did you find jasmine oil in my camp?
Not all of your men are adversed to personal hygiene, my Lord .
How many of my men did you flaunt yourself at to discover that little fact?
I didn't! I mean I didn't flaunt', my Lord .
With a wry smile, slivery sharp, she granted me a moment to compose my flustered thoughts into a coherent answer.
I spoke once with your personal guardsman, Cleomachus, of Thebes .
And this scented warrior simply gave you the oil? Tell me, little slave, what did you trade for it?
I tease her now, intoning carefree innocence as I smooth the oil into her ebony mane.
My talents, I suppose .
Really? And which particular talent would best amuse Cleomachus of Thebes?
I know of what kind of talent she speaks, her arch smirk makes certain of that. I can play this game. I can play coy.
If you must know, my Lord
She takes the bait, pale eyes glinting, whetted smile gleaming.
I simply must
The look on her face is priceless to me. That feline leer replaced by surprise, by curiosity.
My Lord, I told him a story, one that I heard from the bard in Potedeia .
I see. I thought that I ' d familiarised myself with all of your talents .
Like my Lord, I have many skills .
Do you now? Perhaps it ' s time I sampled this particular skill for myself .
As you wish, my Lord. But I shall tell you a different story, one for only my Empress's ears and my Empress's mind.
As I narrated my tale she continued meticulously to grind the killing edge of her weapon against a whetstone while I gently combed smooth her long, ink-black hair.
I sing a song of Kallisto, the beautiful Arcadian nymph, most favoured of the goddess Artemis. One day, as Kallisto roamed the sacred woodland, hunting with her bronzed-tipped spear and strung bow, a sweet slumber embraced the noble creature, caressing laden eyelids and soothing restless thoughts. Overcome, she lay on a pallet of verdurous grasses, her head pillowed on her painted quiver, spear silent by her side.
But she was not alone in that unfelled forest, for Lord Zeus, who drives the clouds of heaven, saw that innocent nymph and, enchanted by her loveliness, sought the maiden ' s affections for himself .
Zeus! That lecherous swine!
She slammed the stone and blade to the table: the candlestick on its surface shaking, its flames quivering in chorus as she hissed;
The gods play with us for their pleasure Gabrielle , they treat us as nothing, nothing but slaves to their whims!
My Lord, I can tell another tale if you wish?
Sullenly, after a few breaths, she recaptured her absconded composure.
No, I interrupted you, go on with the story .
Thank you, my Lord.
I continued and she turned back toward the table. Curiously the half-sharpened knife remained untouched, glinting beneath the steady candle's rose-tinted glow.
Zeus, thinking himself beyond Hera ' s jealous gaze in that sacred glen, approached the restful girl, disguised as Artemis, the goddess whom Kallisto most revered .
Incautious and pure, that sweet nymph awoke at the sound of the mellifluous voice of her divine protector. Between them were shared gentle words, softly spilling from youthful lips, like the waters of a flowing forest brook.
Then Zeus, cloaked in the image of the virgin goddess, kissed the innocent maiden, not modestly, nor as a maiden kisses.
Now, truly, the hunter had become the hunted. Zeus betrayed his lustful intentions, embracing that enchanting creature and, though she struggled against him, who could prevail against the might of Zeus?
Xena! My Empress !
Another interruption. Someone outside.
You will finish your story later Gabrielle. What is it General Adrastos?
The broad shouldered general hastened to enter, heralding the night ' s chill into the sheltered warmth of the tent. I retreated to the shadowed depths, taking refuge beyond my Lord ' s bed.
Word from the northern border my Lord. Our scouts ' reports have been confirmed; the tribes have crossed the mountains and attacked our villages in force .
I see. Tribesmen attacking from the north.
We must repel these heinous attackers! At once!
They, they, must die my Lord if it is your will of course
The General stumbled, as the Empress paused.
That pause though, not hesitant nor fearful, not uncertain nor indecisive. She was looking back at me, and I at her, and I saw in those pale blue eyes simple reluctance, only for a moment, before she steeled her gaze, and that striking face, which had charmed me only moments before, was instantly shielded, armoured and arrayed, by a mask of enmity.
Yes, I suppose they must. Well then General, begin preparations for war .
My Lord and I did not speak again that evening. She sat by the steadily burning brazier, staring into the infernal light of the smouldering coals until long after I had fallen asleep. When I awoke, she was gone.
We travel north, further from home than I have ever been. Once again I ride with the baggage in a covered wagon stuffed with far too many furs and blankets. I think they cannot all be for me, but it has been days since I beheld my Empress. I am no longer chained, though the guards are never far from the wagon. When I leave its musty confines, they are cautious and take great care to watch me. To lose me is death. How precious my life has become, as a slave .
Each evening we make camp and I am transferred to my Lord ' s tent along with the remainder of her possessions. The darkness falls early in these lands of dense forests and jagged peaks, and dawn ' s rosy fingers are hesitant to fracture night ' s veil. From inside the tent I keep a lonely vigil for my Lord ' s return, but I am no watchman and I often fall asleep long before the spectral sunrise.
My Lord came to me yesterday, in her tent.
I had heard the hammering, rhythmically pounding time, and the vibration of so many horses ' hooves on stoney ground, and the cadence of murmured voices, pulsating through the camp, feeding that monstrous kosmos , to which I, in some way, belong.
I could feel her rage, taste the bitter tang of blood and sweat that surrounded her, like a corona of fury and wrath. At the sight of the crimson-tinged whip clawed in her hand I fell to my knees. She stood still as I trembled.
Stand up, this is not for you .
She threw her whip to the floor, where it slithered beyond my sight. From where I knelt, transfixed by her black booted feet, I watched her sit on the edge of the bed. I had failed to stand immediately, as she had ordered, and I struggled upright on shaking limbs. She began to speak.
There was a time, Gabrielle, when no man, nor woman, would ever desert from my army. I held their loyalty. Their love of victory, of battle, of conquest matched my own. Now their lifeless bodies hang uselessly from crosses .
I picked up the wash bowl and knelt, laying it and myself at my mistress ' s feet. I began to wash away the blood on her hands, the splattered traces of suffering and death.
It doesn ' t wash away so easily any more .
I cannot be lenient, orders must be followed, death dealt, and disobedience punished, there can be no weakness .
She spoke with such vehement certainty, to persuade me perhaps or only herself.
They were n 't cowards, Gabrielle, they didn't desert from fear of battle. One of those men, Leandros, fought by my side for seven years .
I continued to wipe her arms, gently bathing her limbs, though no evidence of blood remained. The familiar gesture seemed to soothe her anger. Again she spoke.
After so many years of carnage, after so many wars, they are tired. I am tired, but I cannot falter. A war may be won and an enemy defeated, its lands and peoples subdued, but the conquered do not stay conquered. For every challenger I defeat, beyond every border I build, there are still more who challenge me, more enemies who oppose my will, my rule .
Does my Empress long for peace? I should not have spoken so rashly.
What is peace to a warrior? She scoffed. This time I remained silent, resuming my repetitive sponging of her calloused hands.
I have spent so long rushing into battle, into death ' s maw, it is all I know, all I can remember. I defended my homeland, I rendered brutal vengeance against those who betrayed me, I laid siege to the most glorious of cities, my banner has burned across ancient nations, over sea and sand, pasture and mountain. I conquered. For what Gabrielle ? So, that now, whenever some miserable tribe declares war, I must hasten to fight, whenever some city stirs in unrest, I must ride to crush their pitiful rebellion. I am the conqueror of all, except myself. Tell me, answer me this Gabrielle, which one of us is the slave?
My Lord, I do not understand .
Uncertain what to answer, I played for time, but time was not granted.
You understand me perfectly well. Answer me .
I am a slave, I do only as my Lord desires. My Lord, is the ruler of the civilised world .
As ruler of this civilised world', can I do whatever I desire?
I considered my next words carefully.
No, my Lord. You have your duties to the realm and to your men, as I have my duties to you. Though I suspect no one can beat you if you do not complete them .
Do I beat you, Gabrielle ?
No, my Lord .
I raised my eyes to hers, a coy smile teasing the corners of my mouth,
but I always perform my duties assiduously and with great enthusiasm .
Yes, you do little slave, though you can stop washing my arms now, before you scrub through to my bones. I have another duty for you to perform, one more suited to your particular enthusiasms .
What would that be, my Lord?
Tell me how your story ended .
Not well, my Lord .
Tell me anyway .
My Empress lay back on her pallet, long limbs stretched beside her, her head resting on a stuffed pillow and I, kneeling beside her bed, told her how the story of Kallisto had ended.
How that sweet, most beloved, nymph walked with downcast eyes, consumed by the guilt of Zeus ' s actions. How, for nine full moons she had vainly striven to hide her pregnant form. How Artemis had discovered the crime, as her best-loved consort bathed naked in the sacred pools. And how that goddess, refusing to forgive Kallisto for the injustice the nymph had endured, expelled the girl from the sacred forest and from the goddess's hallowed heart.
My Lord had strayed from the waking world long before I had completed my tale. As she slept I contemplated the meaning of her words. I had been torn from my home and my family, beaten and bound in chains, she had chosen battle and conquest, she had chosen me for her slave, yet was she really as enslaved as I?
Rumour stalks the camp. Day and night the rain had cascaded from the sunless sky. The baggage carts became bogged down in the mud. They were left behind, far away from the frontline. Back here official reports are few in number, only whispered stories tell of the fortunes of the soldiers still fighting.
In the valleys, horses and men are swept away by flash floods, they drown weighed under by their armour, condemned by that which shields them from sword, arrow and spear. On the peaks the tribesmen attack and vanish wraithlike into the murky trees, their stinging arrows piercing the forest ' s haze, their razor-edged blades parting bodies from souls. Another bloody harvest.
At the camp, there are murmurs of mutiny, talk of desertions. Twice, I have heard told that my mistress is dead. I choose not to believe it, besides, even a goddess cannot die twice.
I work in the infirmary. Every day I clean the soiled bodies of the wounded, boil and scrub their bandages and sheets, feed those who are still able to eat. So few men make it back here alive and of those who do, most of them die. Our medicines are almost exhausted. We must conserve what we have, there will be no reinforcements and no more supplies until winter ' s frost thaws and the mountain passes to the south reopen.
Some soldiers arrived just now, walking wounded, they ' ll be sent back to the front. There ' s another man, his flesh pierced twice with arrows, once in the stomach, once in the leg. Though he is awake, he doesn ' t cry out with pain as they lay him down on an empty pallet. They ' ve carried him on their shoulders for days, through the icy mud, down the slippery mountain tracks. His wounds are festered, even I can see that, blackened lines track upwards towards his chest .
Linos tells them what all of us know, there is nothing that we can do. One of the soldiers who saved him, who brought him back to us alive, clasps his head between strong powerful hands, and snaps his neck. I have to leave that place, at once, there is so much suffering, so much death, and there is nothing that I can do, nothing that anyone can do.
Linos, i ' m so sorry. It ' s, it ' s just so senseless .
I know, Gabrielle .
I ' m sorry, Linos .
As am I. This is war, Gabrielle, there is no sense, only death, only suffering. Brother slaughters brother, till one, or both, lie bleeding face down in the dust. The Conqueror knows this as well as you and I. Yet she leads men to their slaughter all the same .
What do you mean, she knows this ?
She lost a brother, a long time ago. Though many believe she was spawned from Hades ' realm, this is not so. She had a family, once .
She had a brother? What was his name?
Lyceus. He was her younger brother. He died during an attack on her village. They fought off the attackers together, little more than children, both of them. They repelled the soldiers and saved their village, but the boy still died .
That ' s terrible .
It is Gabrielle. Still, many of us have lost our families, suffered those stolen from us, but we do not endeavour to slaughter half the population of Greece .
Lyceus was her brother, that man she cries out for in the dark silence of the night, that boy.
Gabrielle. Men have lost their minds, consumed by their wrathful irreverence for life, but I still need your help, Gabrielle. I need clean dressings and bandages, I need the sick fed and washed, I need fresh, clean water brought to the infirmary. If you cannot continue to do this, you may leave, return to your tent, no one is forcing you to stay .
I know what I have to do .
Good. There are still those depending on us, Gabrielle .
There were still those depending on me and they needed my help. After that it was simple, not easy, not effortless, but simple. Treat those who could be saved, walk away from those who could not. But there was one who I could not walk away from.
They conveyed her into the camp on a stretcher in the beating rain. Her tanned skin blanched, her wide blue eyes, unseeing. She had fought their leader, hand-to-hand, like the ancient ones. She had won.
Her ribs were broken, her left arm was broken, her right hand was broken (how she ' d held her sword to strike the killing blow only the gods can know). She had a fever, was dehydrated, weakened from the loss of her blood from open gashes on her legs and torso. As they laid her down gently on a pallet, she held my hand with her shattered fingers, and sunken grey eyes glistened at me by the infirmary ' s candlelight.
Take me home to, to lie, lie beside Lyceus , she whispered to me, so quietly, between those parched and cracked lips, before she succumbed to a fitful slumber.
Exhausted, numb and aching I tended my mistress, secluded inside her vaulted tent. Outside the frozen snows of winter dusted, like flour , the blood -splattered earth. Inside my Lord ' s fever raged unabated. The Drakon of Thrace, the scourge of Greece herself, lay curled in my arms in the Stygian gloom, her broken body quivering in wretched torment, crying out into the blinding darkness.
Her last coherent command, before febrile delirium swept through her spirit, was to banish her generals and Linos from her presence. I watched and waited, as the stitched ragged gashes in her sides faded from livid scarlet to pale pink, as her blackened bruises metamorphosed into ashen olive and pallid yellow. I wiped and washed her battered body, I soothed and eased her scourged soul.
On the seventh day the fever broke and pale blue eyes, framed by shadowed hollows, peered out at me with a faint glimmer of recognition. I called for Linos. There was hope.
The generals now gather at her bedside. None wish to speak first, but all dwell on the same question. These fierce generals betray their fear, hesitant before a dying woman.
Who will command the army, your Grace, should the tribesmen attack again? Who will rule the Empire your Grace? Who will continue your Grace's legacy?
She answers them all, a venomous whisper of choleric fury.
I will not die surrounded by traitors and cowards. I forged my destiny, I forged an empire, but you, pathetic creatures , cower from me, huddled in your gilded tents, counting wealth that I gave you, waiting like vultures to pick the flesh from the carcass of my creation. I would rather leave my empire to a slave than to any of you pitiful spineless maggots. Get out of my sight! All of you! Out! Except you, physician. You stay. Fetch parchment and a quill, let us finish this legacy of mine .
The generals scurry from the tent, leaving my Lord alone with her physician and myself, still concealed in the shadows.
Linos, this is my last will and testament, record it. In the event of my death, my body is to be returned to Amphipolis, to lie beside that of my brother, Lyceus. My slave Gabrielle is to be granted her freedom and returned unharmed to her mother and sister in Potedeia, conveyed there by Linos of Athens, formerly my physician. There, my legacy is complete, seal it closed, until my death, and speak no word of it. Tell my generals that it is done .
This was her legacy? My freedom was her one last act of twisted defiance, to spite her generals.
Oh, and Linos, I ' ll know if you fail me, the dead can hear the thoughts of the living, even from the depths of Tartarus .
If she dies, I am to be set free. I will receive my freedom and return home to my city near the sea. I will hold my mother again. I will play with my sister in the fields again. I will plant and harvest again, thresh the wheat again, cook and clean again. I will finally go home. I do not want her to die.
That night I lay asleep in my customary fashion, under the blanket on the floor beside my Empress ' s bed.
Hades take you!
Startled, I leapt to my feet. My Lord lay defenceless, crumpled on the dirt-strewn floor on the opposite side of the bed. A man was standing over her, his knuckles blanched, clasped tight around the hilt of a sword, his long raven hair braided neatly at his neck. While his back was to me I grasped for the knife my Lord habitually concealed beneath her pillow.
What are you doing? My sleep-dreared voice fractures his concentration.
He turnes slowly to face me, my Lord lying unconscious behind him.
Linos . Linos put down the sword . Even I could hear the trembling in my voice, I could barely cut a cabbage, let alone slay a man.
Gabrielle, stay out of this .
You don ' t have to do this, please, Linos, think about what you ' re planning to do .
I have thought about this Gabrielle, every day, for so many years. This moment, this time when I avenge my family, my friends. That harpy murdered them all, when she sacked the golden city, Athena ' s blessed city, all that was beautiful in the world died. I will not let her live. I will not let her kill any more innocents. She awakes in the underworld tonight .
No, please, if you leave now, run far from here, you ' ll be safe .
No, child. Her generals have fled, her army has deserted her, only the dead and the dying still abide here in the north. Don ' t be afraid, once she is dead, I will take you with me, I shall protect you .
I, I don't want to go with you.
Remember what she did to you Gabrielle, she took your family from you as she took mine, she made you a slave to her depraved desires. I have seen for myself what she did to you, how she whipped you .
That wasn ' t her, she stopped it, she stopped those men .
Gabrielle, please, deceive yourself if you must, but you cannot deceive me. Have you forgotten that you were once free?
I remember my freedom Linos. Before I was taken I was free to do as my father bade me, free to be given by him to another, free to serve and obey my future husband, free to sow and harvest and thresh and then to have it all taken from me by whoever was stronger, whoever held a sword. Was that my freedom?
That is the way of the world, Gabrielle .
My Lord has taught me another way .
That rabid bitch teaches nothing but death .
No, not death. A choice Linos, to create your own future. To free yourself from the prison of your past, the pain, the suffering, the hatred and desire for revenge. Killing her won ' t bring your family back. In the end, you ' ll be just like her .
Gabrielle, can ' t you see, she has twisted even your noble heart, deluded you. Lay your knife aside and I will finish this, I won ' t leave you here alone, i ' ll keep you safe, she won ' t hurt you any more .
I am not afraid of her Linos. Please, have mercy on her Linos, choose to forgive her, for yourself. Leave the camp tonight .
Or what? Are you so much her creature that you would murder for her? I do not see the killer in you Gabrielle .
In the space between heartbeats, a sliver of steel pierced his chest and darkness veiled his eyes. My Lord had awoken.
It ' s the killer you don ' t see, that ends you .
Xena ! No ! He would have left .
Gabrielle, get out of here, now. They will tear up the camp, they will take you .
Not without you .
I command you, take my horse, ride away from here .
Scroll Three: Sowing
Frosty earth crisp-crunched beneath my sandalled feet. Beside my footprints, military boots scraped, ploughing the path with stumbling steps. I staggered under her weight as the tent ignited behind us, flaring into flame. Every untended torch within reach was swiftly toppled, setting the remains of that tented city ablaze. We fled on the back of her huge mare to the sounds of startled horses and men screaming, into exile, pressed into that cold dark night, numbed, blind, and searching.
We rode into the ghostly dawn, and onwards until ashen fingers creased the cloud-covered sky. With a last Herculean endeavour she led us to a slope, guiding her horse by the bridle and me by the hand. We clambered upwards with frozen fingers, moss-wrapped branches scraping at our limbs and faces. At the summit of that lonely, rimy hill lay a crude wood-built hovel, listlessly slumped to one side. On its eastern aspect, lit by the morning light, three roughly dug graves proclaimed the recent passing of its previous residents.
For three days she lay on the floor of this tiny wooden shack, in fitful delirium, under a meagre grey blanket. I stitched her reopened wounds and attended to them. I scavenged wood from the forest to feed our fire. I found water nearby, at a fast flowing brook. From here I fill our only water-skin several times a day, bearing it back to the hut with numbed pink hands and vaporous breath. Each day I bathe her, hand-feed her, clean her wounds, she cannot walk or leave the hut, so I must tend to her personal needs, cleaning and washing her as I would a child.
When she cries out in her sleep, I talk to her, gently stroking her hair. Her nightmares are not borne from physical pain, nor from grief for her lost brother as they once were. Now they are fed by anger, burning vengeance against the generals who betrayed her, against the soldiers who deserted her, the slaves who fled from her, the tribesmen who attacked her and the villagers who had failed to resist them all. Sometimes I think she must hate all the world. Even I do not escape her rage. When she wakes, which is not often, she lies still, watching me, unspeaking, azure eyes blazing, like the day we first met.
Linos ' s words echo in my memory, I will not let her kill any more innocents. How many more innocents will die when her wrath is unleashed? How many more will fall before her vengeful blade? Am I a fool to believe that mercy and forgiveness can temper the rage and hatred that forged the C onqueror?
Today I travelled to the village again. It is a long journey through thick forest, but it feels good to leave the confines of that stifling shed. I feel so much lighter out here. Though the villagers ' dialect is foreign to me and I understand only a little of their speech, I am accustomed to the rhythms of their life, their worries and routines, the gossip whispered between friends, reverberating though many mouths and through many minds. Visiting that place and speaking with those people, I am enveloped by the comforting weight of the familiar and, for the first time since I was stolen, I longed for the pastoral life that had been left behind .
These people were attacked by the tribesmen, raided and robbed. When the army marched north they were raided again, pressed for food and supplies for my Lord ' s men, a less bloody reaping, but just as devastating. Which would you choose, to be slaughtered by the sword or to starve slowly through the winter?
There is a little good news, a little life in the village. One woman, Efthalia, will soon deliver her baby. She has been kind to me. She spoke up for me when others were suspicious of the strange girl from the south, the slave girl hiding in the woods. I collect wood for her on my journeys through the forest, delivering it to her door. In return I receive a loaf of freshly baked bread and a small sack of oats.
The oats are for Xen a ' s horse, though Efthalia thinks that they are for me. She still frightens me a little, the horse, she is so tall and her hooves are so big they could easily crush my feet, and when she nudges me with her warm muzzle I stumble and once I even fell. Admittedly I tripped over my own feet, but I feel she contributed to my graceless descent and the subsequent bruising of my posterior. But it is not her fault that she ' s so big, and I will feed her now, before I return to the hut, to the oppressive silence and the C onqueror ' s ill-tempered glare. Perhaps she will still be asleep and I can work unnoticed and unharried.
I duck under the wooden lintel, laying down the saddle bag, which contains our supplies.
Where have you been?
I went to the village. Xena , you ' ve torn your stitches again, you ' re bleeding .
Never, never leave my sight girl. You understand me, there are soldiers out there, tribesmen, and wolves, they ' ll kill you .
We needed food. Please let me look at your wounds .
Enough! You will not leave here without my permission .
Please, my Lord, I was careful. We needed supplies again, but I had to trade your saddle .
You did what?
I got us another blanket and a frying pan and some medicines for your wounds and we even had some dinars left for a little wine .
You traded my saddle for a frying pan? Stupid girl, that saddle was worth ten times that!
It is worth nothing to us if we starve .
And what if they followed you, there will be men scouring the country for me .
No one followed me and no one is looking for you. They think that you ' re dead. The villagers told me that the soldiers found a body in your tent, Linos ' s body I suppose, he was so badly burnt that they think he was you. No one is coming after you .
Then it will be quite the surprise when I ride back into that camp and kill them all. Fetch me water and bring more wood for the fire .
Please, I need to rest, just for a moment .
The firewood! Now!
I ' m not your soldier to order around .
You are my slave!
No. You're d ead to the world and I am a free woman. You freed me yourself .
I ' ll kill you! Selfish little bitch!
With what? Should I fetch you a knife my Lord, lift your broken hand to my throat, or can you do that for yourself?
I trample back through the forest. Slippery frozen earth scrunching, crunching beneath my booted feet. Her boots. Stuffed with rags. Because they ' re far too large for an ordinary woman. Clutching her cloak, around my chest, with frost numbed fingers. I don ' t have one of those either, and this one drags on the floor. Perhaps she ' ll slit my throat for trailing it through the snow. Then it ' ll all be over. A sad little end. To a sad. Little story. I pause for breath.
The climb gets more difficult here, slimy roots claw through the dirt on the steep hillside, each a tenuous handhold, clung to with unfeeling fingers and aching arms. My burden is heavy and i ' ve travelled a long way. My breath leaves its imprint in the gathering dark. Another few moments to rest, then i 'll continue.
What did I expect? She was a murderer, a tyrant, I knew that, she killed my father, she stole me from my home and brought me here, to this frostbitten land of unending night and interminable cold. I can barely speak the village rs' language, and I get more conversation out of the horse than I do that sulking, irascible warrior.
I ' m sure they would take me in, at the village, give me a place to stay, find a husband for the peculiar foreign girl with the pretty blonde hair, but they would never take her. No, they ' d know what she is, who she was. What did I expect of her? M y Lord . M y C onqueror .
The moon is rising, twilight ' s stars shiver in the east. It ' s cold here. I shift my burden to my other shoulder, the one unscarred by the whip ' s lash, fingers grasp damp wood, oversized boots forage for a foothold, I push with my legs and I climb.
Gabrielle? Is that you?
Yes, it ' s me.
I didn't think you would return .
She had slept almost solidly since her little outburst, turned away from me, her shoulder shielding her face from mine. Now s he lies curled around a meagre fire, barely covered by a blanket, bronzed by the flame ' s warmth. She is still beautiful, even now.
Gabrielle. Come, sit by the fire. Warm yourself .
I sit by the fire and take off the soaked boots, unwrapping the rags as my toes tingl e from the unfamiliar warmth. I clasp a dry blanket, drawing it around aching shoulders, then she speaks to me, she seems unsure of herself.
I regret, I regret the things I said to you, before .
I understand. This must be difficult for you. You ' ll be well again soon, try to be patient .
I am not a patient woman Gabrielle, but I will try. I will try to be better .
We sit there, for an age, by the crackling fire. I flinch a little when she speaks again, more used to commands than conversation.
Gabrielle ? Did you go to the village again today?
Yes, but I was careful .
Yes. Good. And, and, everything is well there?
You really want to know?
Yes. Please .
That simple word, please, sounded so strange to my ears, and probably to hers, somehow strained and forced, tentative and almost fearful, but her eyes yearned for something I could not refuse.
Well, Efthalia gave birth to twins, two boys, all three are in good health .
That ' s good news. Go on .
They are so tiny, one held my finger and he wouldn ' t let go of it .
Wise boy, he knows a good thing when he ' s got it. And what of my crumbling empire? Any news from Corinth or Athens?
None. My Lord . Do you think that the Athenians will rebuild their democracy?
Does it matter to you? A woman couldn ' t vote anyway .
I suppose. I think it would be good to have some say in how you ' re ruled .
I used to have the only say. I'm not sure if that was good for me .
She grows stronger each day. She sits by the fire, sword in hand, grasping and releasing its hilt, over and over again. She doesn ' t need my help to walk anymore, she uses a staff to limp about our hovel. She killed a hare with it yesterday. Apparently he had it coming, he peeped while she peed, her words, not mine. Even a stick can be a deadly weapon in the right hands, in her hands. She says she ' ll teach me, if I want.
I think I annoy her. I talk too much. I sleep too late. I ' m clumsy. I don ' t pay attention to my surroundings. I still don ' t like her horse, she ' s just too big. I understand though. What good is a useless, lazy peasant girl?
After we had eaten the inquisitive hare, she surprised me, again.
Gabrielle, what will you choose to do now ?
No one had ever asked me that before.
Gabrielle, you are free to leave, unless I enslave you again. I am in great need of a cook".
I judge, from the faint smile tugging at the corners of her elegant lips, that she is teasing me.
Your cooking can ' t be that bad?
How do you think I took Corinth so easily? I subdued their entire army with one foul dish .
They say that Corinth blazed for a week, once the walls crumbled, fuelled by the families burning within.
My Lord, my uncle died at Corinth, during the siege .
Silence smouldered inside the stark wooden chamber, thick with the past ' s acrid haze.
I am no longer your Lord .
The wind still carries a bitter chill, though the earth has begun to thaw. Verdant grasses, until recently shrouded by snow, unveil themselves in the dewdrop dawn and the forest ' s claw-like branches have begun to blossom, harkening the return of Demeter ' s daughter.
Our sojourn in this place nears its end and we must leave our shadowy shelter. Each day more strangers travel the roads through the forest, bringing news of the outside world and with it the risk that she will be recognised. I have no doubt that she could defend herself, and I, if we were attacked. She has even begun to teach me to use her staff, but never a sword, she tells me, never a blade, so that I may be forever innocent, that I may never take a life.
She still snaps at me, from time to time, when I am slow to understand what she wants, or if I put myself at risk, talking when I should listen, tripping clumsily over my feet when I should be stalking in silence, but I can tell that she regrets it. In the evenings I tell her stories as she works. Many bards recite their tales accompanied by a lyre, but mine are told to the ghostly rhythmic scraping of the sharpening of a sword.
Tonight I tend to our meal while she busies herself with the remains of my sandals, fashioning them into boots to better withstand our journey.
I wonder what happened to Sandals?
Whose sandals, Gabrielle ?
Sorry. I didn ' t mean to speak aloud. Sandals was one of your slaves, that wasn ' t his real name, he couldn ' t tell me his name .
I cut out his tongue. I see. Were you and this Sandals close?
No, but he was never cruel to me, even at the beginning. Do you not recall him? He would pack your tent for the journey, and he ' d lift me into the wagon .
I do remember him. His name was Mesomedes. He had a beautiful voice, was a talented poet too. I suppose his is another life that I wasted .
I ' m sorry Xena, to bring back bad memories .
Bad memories are all I have .
Xena, can I ask you something?
Why did you free me?
She paused then, for such a long time, her needle soundless and still in her right hand, her left hand steady, cradling the worn leather and torn fabric creation that would one day protect my toes.
Will you answer me? Xena ?
I am not sure that I can, Gabrielle. I wanted you to go back to Potedeia, to what is left of your family . It was more, though, I think that I wanted you to remember me, but not for my empire, or my conquests. Adrastos was right, I do have a legacy, a legacy of death and suffering. I hoped, I think I hoped, that you might remember something else of me, something better .
I do. You are not the monster you pretend to be, you never were.
It was just the delusional fallacy of a dying mind Gabrielle. If I lived a thousand lifetimes I could never atone for the suffering that I have caused. And your suffering too. I am evil incarnate, Gabrielle , don' t you see that?
No, I don' t see that .
Then you ' re wrong. What I did to you is unforgivable, to all of those people. I didn ' t ask them what they wanted, I took everything, because I wanted it, because I could. You should have left me to die back there in the camp .
So that my hands could be stained with blood too?
Gabrielle, that ' s not what I meant .
No, Xena, you would have me called a murderer too? Should I pay for your guilt? Is the remedy for death, more death? You spoke to me once, about freedom, you said that neither one of us was truly free, neither master nor slave. And I thought about it and you were right. But that world we lived in, that world of death, that horror, that you brought me to, it's gone. Now we have nothing. No one to tell us what to do, or where to go, no commands to give or to follow, we are free to choose, and that ' s terrifying, but its beautiful. Come with me into this new world.
Her only answer is a mournful sorrowful smile, a joke that only she is privy to.
Xena, we can live in some waking nightmare of guilt and remorse, hatred and vengeance or we can choose to forgive and seek forgiveness through our actions.
Earning forgiveness? For me, it would be like emptying the oceans themselves with a leaking, broken bucket. No, you must leave me, before I hurt you again.
Listen to me, please, if I saved you, that was my decision, if I forgive you, that ' s my decision and if I stay with you, that ' s my choice too .
I see. And if I command you to leave me, to run away from here?
I ' ll stay .
And if I return you to your home?
I won ' t stay home. I don ' t belong there. I 'm not the little girl my parents wanted me to be".
The road is a hard place to live Gabrielle, and my journey will be tough .
I know. I've been travelling with you for some time .
Then why would you wish to continue on that path with me?
That ' s what friends do, they walk beside each other, even when it's tough .
We spoke together in the hushed, waning light, of our lives, of the past, as we waited for our future to begin. Soon we will leave this place, one warrior, one horse and one bard. If anyone should find this, please do not scorn my story, I told it as well as I could. It ' s no epic to be sung by gifted bards, no accomplished actor shall perform it on the Athenian stage, but it has been my life, so far. I leave these scrolls buried under the threshold of our hut, but I shall take with me these memories, this friendship, and this love.
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