DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, etc. are ©copyright MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. I don't own them, I just play with them for a while and, like the good girl I am, I put them back when I'm done…okay, they get a little worn, but hey…I play hard! Absolutely no Copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fiction. It's intended as flattery toward the creators, writers, and actors of the characters. All other characters that appear are ©copyright Devlin@xenafan.com. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies may be made for private use only and I'd appreciate if you included all copyright notices and this disclaimer.
VIOLENCE WARNING: There is violence (come on it's the Conqueror). The nature of the story is not nearly as dark as some Conqueror fiction, but it's essence is still the slave / master relationship that exists between Xena & Gabrielle.
TIMELINE: My own making. Xena is the Lord, Conqueror of Greece, but she is almost forty-five years old when she meets the slave, Gabrielle. Many of Xena's evil ways have been sedated, but not all. I call this Xena the "thinking woman's" Conqueror. She is a woman who wants to try to do the right thing, but doesn't always know how.
SEX: Yes, I'll have some, thank you. Ooops! I mean, yes there is. It is our favorite two Soulmates, after all. It's not gratuitous, but it is quite explicit when it gets going. This story shows consensual as well as non-consenting love (master/slave), sex and yes, even some light bdsm between two adult females.
HIGH ANGST WARNING: I was threatened within an inch of my life if I didn't start putting this disclaimer on some (all?) of my work. I will henceforth rate the angst content with sad faces, one being the lowest and four being the highest. This story earns: L L (2 sad faces for those without TT Fonts)
UNDERAGE WARNING: Hey, the Supreme Court said in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997) that laws against making available, online, certain "indecent" materials for those under 18 was unconstitutional…look it up! Besides, this is perfectly "decent." J
I only know how others feel about my stories from feedback. Let me know what you think...homophobes need not apply, however. I'm at: Devlin@xenafan.com
**Special thanks to Jim Kuntz for his permission in using any Lion of Amphipolis references.
The Conqueror Series
Tale One: Journey's End
By LJ Maas
I lie here awake, as the predawn light attempts to filter in from behind the heavy tapestries that cover the windows. I listen to the regular breathing and feel the tiny twitches of sleep-absorbed muscles, coming from the woman in my arms. I take this moment to thank those Gods still favoring me, amazed at Athena's tolerance of my twenty-season absence from her temple. Perhaps a bit of placating is in order. For I know with certainty, only the power of the Gods could have brought Gabrielle and I together in this fashion.
Waking at my usual time was no more a chore than it always was, however I was loath to leave this spot at present. I now had a reason to stay and linger, the feeling of Gabrielle's small body tucked against me, compelling me to lie here, for just a while longer.
I heard Sylla in the outer room. She was no doubt cleaning up the mess I left, and that Gabrielle was too preoccupied to remember. My maid decided that coming into the bedchamber to wake me was too personal a task to attempt, now that I was no longer alone. I smiled at the times Sylla hustled a sleepy whore from my bed, so I wouldn't have to look at the woman the next day. Gods, the things people put up with from me. I appreciated the fact that Sylla afforded this respect, not only to me, but to Gabrielle also. The reason why took the smile from my face and replaced it with a frown. Sylla provided this courtesy to Gabrielle because she no longer thought of the young woman as a slave. Actually, very few people in the palace did. When people spoke of her to me, they called her, my Gabrielle. They could just as easily have said, my slave, but none did. It seems that only one person still thought of Gabrielle as a slave, and that was Gabrielle herself.
Of course, I perpetuated that notion with my selfish denial of her freedom. With only a word, I could have a Queen by my side, and yet I settle for a slave. I know…I know in my head the wrongness of it all, but Gods, my heart. I couldn't take it if she were to leave me. That's what it all boils down to, doesn't it. She may say she loves me now, but wait. Just wait until the moment the beast is loosed upon her, instead of an enemy. If she were a free woman, she would be able to run, any sane woman would, wouldn't she?
I have found the love of my life, the woman that no other has or will ever compare to, yet there is still that tiny voice, deep inside. That voice that tells me I don't deserve to be loved, that given time, I will only hurt this beautiful young woman. I wonder when I will have a day when I feel it's okay for someone to love me. I release a heavy sigh and suddenly the woman beside me is awake.
"You're thinking grave thoughts," she whispered humorously, in a sleepy voice.
"How long have you been awake?" I chuckle and ask. I was so involved with my own introspections that I didn't even hear the pattern of Gabrielle's breathing change.
"Long enough to feel your body tighten up with those worries." She answered. "Xena?"
"Is it still all right…to call you that?" Gabrielle asked, a small hint of concern in her voice.
I rolled partially over, until I was leaning against her, looking down into that beautiful face. "It would take more than a night in Morpheus' realm to cause me to forget my love for you, Gabrielle." I punctuated the statement with a deep, lingering kiss.
The doubts vanished from Gabrielle's face, while my own self-recriminations were tossed into a heap in the corner of my mind. It was still a concern, but Gabrielle had a way of dispelling the darkness from my heart and mind, not to mention the absolutely heart stopping way she was preparing to thank me, for not leaving our bed too early this morning.
A couple of very pleasurable candlemarks later, I was in the process of receiving a much-needed back massage. I laughed aloud at the memory that passed before my mind's eye.
"Are you suddenly ticklish?" Gabrielle questioned the small laugh.
"I was remembering the first time you did this for me. You know where that got us, don't you."
It was Gabrielle's turn to release a small bit of laughter, moving her body up until she was lying across my back. Gods, she felt good.
"Would you like a repeat performance, My Lord?" Gabrielle asked in a teasing manner, stressing my title, to make me more aware of that fact.
I rolled over, laughing, at the enthusiasm of her youth, and that I was even entertaining the notion. I pulled her into my arms. "My heart says yes, most definitely, my body, however, says that if I have one more orgasm this morning I'm going to pass out. I will take you up on that offer later, however." I added with a smile.
Kissing her once more, I reluctantly pulled away to rise, but it was the feel of the small body in my arms that caused me to lie back against the pillows, once more. We lay there for some time, each of us lost in separate thoughts, but something told me we were both replaying yesterdays events in our minds.
"Gabrielle?" I asked hesitantly.
"Yes, Xena?" she answered, rising up on one elbow, to look down on me.
Suddenly my mouth went dry. She was leaning over me, her golden hair falling over her shoulder, the strands reaching down to tickle my arm. She was a vision and her heart belonged to me, just as I gave mine to her for safekeeping.
"Gods, I love you." I blurted out, feeling instant embarrassment at my juvenile method of expressing the emotion.
Her smile said more than an entire scroll. It lit her from within and she practically shimmered from the ethereal quality of the effect. There I was, looking up into the face of a woman, young enough to be my daughter, an expression on her face that belied her seasons. She directed so much warmth and compassion toward me, through that one smile, that I momentarily lost my voice.
"So beautiful." I finally uttered, reaching up to stroke her cheek.
A dark thought occurred to me and I felt myself needing to clear the air. "Gabrielle…those things I said to Demetri…you know I only said what I did to--"
She reached up and pressed her fingertips to my lips, effectively halting my speech.
"I know," she answered simply.
"I had to let myself go, to get you away from him, I had to become…become something…"
"Dark?" Gabrielle voiced the words I found so difficult.
"Yes, dark. Gabrielle, I don't know how to explain it, but I lose myself when that happens. I fear that I might forget myself that way around you. I would never purposely hurt you, but I'm afraid that I might someday. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if that happened. It almost did happen, Gods, Gabrielle, if you hadn't moved out of the way of my blade so quickly, I might have stabbed you."
I watched the play of emotions express themselves in her face. I wondered if she was thinking twice about this whole thing…about me. Gabrielle appeared to be struggling with some unknown choice. She seemed to finally come to a decision and spoke.
"I knew." She stated quietly.
"Knew you would turn with your dagger…I saw it…in a dream." She slowly finished.
My first impulse was to laugh at the young woman's jest, but the look on Gabrielle's face said she was anything but joking. The expression told me she was expecting…well, I don't know what, but something. She lowered her eyes and silence hung heavy between us, until it dawned on me. She was serious. Gabrielle was taking a huge chance in revealing this to me.
When I was a young woman, oracles were feared, yet respected individuals, whom the Gods blessed, or cursed, depending on the way you viewed their situation. The world was a different place now. The Gods rarely showed themselves, although I still received regular visits from some of the most annoying of them. As this world changed, so did its people. People were no longer open and accepting of what they did not understand, rather they let fear become a ruler in their lives. Because of this behavior, gone were the gifted ones with the sight, even the Oracle at Delphi, either murdered or gone into seclusion, no longer speaking of her visions.
To this day, I look back with wonder at the one true seer I ever met. She called herself Beve, and I met her not long after my army swept through Athens on the final leg of successfully conquering the Greek Empire. I refused to make Athens the capital city of my new empire because of what they'd done to my homeland, during the Peloponnesian War. I ordered Pericles and most of the statesman to be crucified and many of the Athenian halls torn down and destroyed. I felt my destiny click into place on the day I watched them destroy the marble architecture of my enemies.
Atrius, who heard the woman tell of her visions, brought Beve into my tent that evening. He thought her predictions real enough to bring her to my attention. As I sat across from her, an amused, wine induced smile on my face, she told me things that I thought impossible, some merely impossible for her to know. Strangely enough, every single word the woman told me eventually came true over the passing years.
I was overcome with an uncharacteristic sadness on the day that I heard they stoned her, along with a woman by the name of Hypatia. I think part of the reason for their unnecessary deaths could have been the fact that they were popular women in a male dominated society, but mostly, I believe they were murdered because their visions of the future made them different. Frighteningly enough, being different in today's society, caused fear, then anger, then rage, usually inciting the passions of the mob.
"Are you an oracle, then?" I asked Gabrielle, who was still patiently waiting for my comment.
"Oh, no, I only have…dreams sometimes, and sometimes the things end up happening like they did in my dreams, but not always." Gabrielle answered.
I kissed her forehead. "It would be all right if you were a seer. You know that, right?"
"Thank you, Xena," the young woman breathed a heavy sigh of relief at my answer. "I know how people feel about such things. When I was a small child, I told my mother about a dream I had that came true. She told me never to speak of it again. After I was sold into slavery, when I would have these visions come to me, I always kept them to myself, for fear of being branded as a priestess of Hecatē."
"Gabrielle, you don't have to keep these things to yourself any longer. I'll always listen, and no one else ever has to know." I smiled at her.
"I'm so glad to know that, Xena. When I was a teenager, I saw the men of an Ambracian village hang a woman for her visions. I've always been too afraid to tell anyone my secret, until now." She finished, looking into my eyes. I saw love and trust in that gaze, and my heart ached over the seasons of pain this lovely woman had to endure.
"People can have such small minds sometimes. They only want to know what has always gone on before, what has always been. Change frightens them, Gabrielle; anything different frightens them." I commented.
"It is so much more so for slaves, Xena."
I watched the young woman's face, yet Gabrielle didn't say this out of meanness or to chide me. It was obvious that she was more accepting of our slave/master relationship, perhaps more resigned at what she thought of as fate, than I. Here it was then, our first words about the issue that hung silently between us. What could I honestly say that would not be a lie, for that, I would not do to her. Yet, she didn't ask me for her freedom, did she?
"You do know, Gabrielle…I…I don't think of you that way…as a slave." I was simply trying to tell her how I felt.
"Yet…I am." Gabrielle answered softly, not a hint of spite or anger in her reply. She was simply stating a fact.
My young lover, unlike myself, was resigned to the reality that she was in love with, and loved by, a woman who owned her, a woman who, when it came right down to it, was her master. There wasn't much either one of us could say after that simple phrase. I would spend the rest of my days in this mortal realm, cursing my own selfishness and the outcome it was to bring about.
Gabrielle and I enjoyed our days, not to mention our nights together. She was still the model of civility to me in public, but in private, she was becoming open and fun loving, even learning that she could tease me. She continued to beat me at King's Men on a regular basis, my pride refusing to ask how she was able to consistently perform such a task. When at last I grudgingly accepted the idea that Gabrielle's mind was better suited to the game than mine, I inquired as to how she employed her strategy. The rather amazing thing, was that she beat me every time from a knowledge, not of what she would do in six future moves, but in knowing what I would do. She was reading me, not the board. Very simply, she told me my arrogance made my moves predictable, once my King was in trouble. Even more ironic, was the fact that it was this very ability that led me to conquer Greece. I was able to read and predict people, just as Gabrielle seemed to have a feel for them. Only, somewhere along the way, I lost touch with people, and therefore, the ability to know them.
She enjoyed her growing friendships with Anya, Sylla, and Delia. I neither said nor did anything to discourage the relationships she was forming. I knew friendships were important to the young woman, they were a new experience, and I was quickly discovering, my Gabrielle loved a new experience. Her life as a slave left her little time, nor inclination, to make friends. I kept my opinions to myself and hoped she was smart enough to know that she had to take care regarding those who would befriend her. There were always people who would hurt or even use her to get to me.
Gabrielle was a relatively good judge of character, however. Because of this, I never thought to question her as to who exactly she spent how much time with. I was learning to trust, and even surprised myself, simply because that was very new for me. I never cared for her friendships with Carra, however.
Carra was a slave, but that had little to do with my dislike of her. She was captured as a very young woman, part of the spoils of war, from one of the many battles my army and I fought, in lands far to the north. Gods, what country! The land was beautiful for perhaps two or three moons of the year, and then grew cold and icy. The snow, which I previously only saw on mountaintops, covered their entire country during the winter spells. Surely the Goddess of their people suffered a similar fate to Persephone, but the God who kidnapped her must not have been as easy going as Hades, to let her return to the earth for half the season. It was a murderous campaign, and the men and women of their armies were huge, hulking people, whom the bitter cold did not appear to affect. Their weapons were stronger and larger, yet their battle strategies were pitiful. It was only that fact that led to my eventual victories. I left that country without adding it to my already growing realm. I took slaves, resources, and precious booty, but left the inhospitable land, vowing never to return if I could help it.
Carra had a look in her eye that spoke, not only of pain she suffered, but also of pain she would like to inflict. It was not a new expression to me; I'd spent most of my life with that look, burning from my blue orbs. It was a thirst for revenge. However, Gabrielle saw someone in need of a friend, and I found it, a little harder every day I must admit, to deny my little one anything.
Carra was a tall, strong, dark-haired woman, and I attributed my feelings to jealousy more than anything else. It was the way she looked at Gabrielle that I never cared for, but I held my tongue, not wanting to appear the jealous lover. Perhaps if I'd voiced my concerns, Gabrielle would have been more aware, not quite so trusting. If I'd broken my silence, Gabrielle might not have suffered so much hurt, not only at Carra's hands, but also by my own.
My days began to be completely dominated by the trial of Kassandros and his men. I could have simply declared them guilty, after all, they all confessed, quite eagerly I must say, once Demetri's lifeless body was paraded in front of them. I had it in my mind to put them on trial for their illegal slavery tactics, a fair and unbiased one, not some mock court procedure, and to use the trial as a precedent to banish and outlaw slavery within the Greek Empire.
It would have to be prepared with care. I didn't want an uprising over the issue, so I spent long hours with my advisors, running messages throughout the entire Empire to men and women of position and power, who I knew to be loyal to me. A full moon passed before I received the answers I needed. With the exception of a few dissenters, who would stand behind me nonetheless, the majority of the people who held any kind of power in the land, agreed to my concepts.
It would not be an easy task. There were those who truly believed that fate made certain people slaves because they were not able to take care of themselves, that they weren't as smart, or as capable as the people who owned them. It was because of this that I told no one but my advisors, and the key people around the Empire, of my plan. Even Gabrielle did not hear of the plan from my lips.
I thought it would truly be the ultimate gift to her if I could announce, not only her freedom, but also an end to slavery throughout the realm. I prepared myself as best I could for the eventuality that Gabrielle would want to leave me. She was a young woman and had her whole life ahead of her. I, on the other hand, was nearing my journey's end, finally realizing that my love for Gabrielle, would not allow me to cage her like a pet.
It was because of something Delia said to me that I charted my course of action. The older woman cajoled me on a daily basis regarding Gabrielle's freedom. Once I voiced all my fears to her, she reminded me of the golden eagle that still lived in the hills and forest outside my palace.
An accidental bowshot downed the animal some fifteen seasons ago. We were out hunting and the huge shadow that covered us spooked the horses, and scared the wits out of one young archer. His shot went wide, but caught the bird's wing and it fell from the sky. Thinking to put it out of its misery, I jumped from my horse, but realized, with a little care, the wound might not be life threatening.
That began a journey for both the young bird and myself. I fancied myself quite a falconer and began the conditioning necessary to prepare the bird for training, but this bird was not to be trained so easily. Its wounds healed, but it would only obey half my commands, ignoring me the rest of the time. After a full season, I realized the creature was quite like myself. This is how I would be in captivity, isn't it? I was born free and would never be able to forget the fact, nor completely bow to anyone. Because of this revelation, I took the bird out one day, and with a heavy heart at losing such a magnificent creature, I removed his hood, untied the anklets that held the jesses to his legs, and finally removed his leash. It was the first time in captivity that he was without his leash and he didn't know quite what to make of it. He looked rather like a child about to dive into the deep end of the pond for the first time.
At last, I threw him into the air and he took flight. He circled for a long time, swooping closer to see if I would toss out the lure as I had in training. After some time, he flew off. I stood there for quite some time just in case, but he was free now and able to make his own choice. At that moment in my life, that profound thought made a difference in me. Although it would be a great many seasons, before the thought would be put to good use again.
On the day I spoke with Delia regarding Gabrielle, the older woman reminded me of what happened the next day, on a crisp fall morning. The screeching of the massive bird brought me from the castle, glove fixed firmly on my hand. When I raised my arm, the bird glided gracefully to the perch, the muscles in my arm straining to bear the weight of the creature whose wingspan was easily the length of my body. He sat there regarding me and accepted a few tidbits of meat from my hand; it was quail, his favorite. The bird flew off again, but he circled the castle once as if to say that he knew this was home. Delia said he was letting me know that his heart would always be here, therefore, he would always return.
We built suitable shelter and sanctuary for him outside the palace walls, and he came and went as he pleased. It was the remembrance of this time, which made up my mind about Gabrielle. Late one evening, as we lay together in bed, I decided to let Gabrielle fly free. I knew, however, that unlike the eagle that still came to my gloved hand, my small slave might choose not to return. I also understood that although I was able to deal with the loss of the magnificent creature from my life, I would not fare so well if Gabrielle left. If she were to leave, I realized that my life would never know joy again, and if she stayed, it would never experience greater happiness.
The trial went on for much longer than I expected. I would end my days, completely exhausted from listening to, and ruling on points, that the two magistrates argued back and forth. Of course, this being the case that I would use as a precedent to put my new law into effect, I had to keep going back to my libraries to reference scrolls. Reaching my limit one day, I sent a messenger to find Gabrielle, telling her to pull two particular scrolls and send them to me. It was with some surprise that she not only found the scrolls, but also did it in half the time it would have taken me. The young woman became invaluable at referencing material and soon, I found that she was scribing the sketchy notes I made during the trial onto scrolls in the evening, so I might read them easier the next day. The ironic part about Gabrielle's involvement was that, although I could have used her abilities down in the Great Hall, where the trial was being conducted, slaves were not allowed to enter the room unless they were directly involved in the trial.
Therefore, it was no surprise that I was somewhat oblivious to the change in Gabrielle's behavior. I noticed for the past few days she was quieter than usual, but she would smile and shrug off my concerns. If my mind hadn't been quite so focused on the damned trial, I might have learned the truth before the palace was thrown into such chaos.
I rose even earlier than usual one morning, spending the time in my study with the scrolls Gabrielle transcribed for me the night before. I smiled when I realized that it was I who fell asleep, for a change, waiting for Gabrielle to come to bed. She sat up late, copying my notes by the light of the candle, leaving them in the middle of my desk, so I would find them first thing this morning.
The sun was not yet up, when shouts could be heard, not only throughout the palace, but outside in the courtyard as well. I armed myself and stepped into the hall, nearly running into a young soldier.
"What in Hades is going on?" I yelled.
"The slaves, Lord Conqueror…some are causing trouble, a few have already escaped beyond the palace walls."
"How many is some?" I asked quickly.
"Twenty-five…maybe fifty." He answered, looking nervous and rattled.
Half a dozen slaves were trouble; fifty…well, fifty was an uprising. Ares balls! Why now, I was so close, this could ruin everything. I grabbed the youth by the shirt and pushed him off in the opposite direction.
"Go find Captain Atrius--"
"Aye, Lord Conqueror..." I heard the familiar voice already behind me.
I turned to find Atrius leading six members of the royal guard and Delia.
"Here, here, and here," the Captain indicated the entrances to our rooms, stationing guards at each point.
"I came to be with Gabrielle," Delia stated simply and I knew there was no point in arguing.
Atrius, Delia, and I entered the outer room and I opened the door to the bedchambers to find Gabrielle already putting on her robe.
"I hear shouting." Gabrielle said with a worried frown.
"It's all right, love. It seems some of the slaves have staged a small revolt--"
"Oh no!" Gabrielle cried out.
I wrapped my arms around her trembling figure. "Shhh, it's not that bad. I've got to get down there, Gabrielle, but Delia is in the other room, she's come to stay with you, and there are guards at all the doors to our rooms. Don't worry," I kissed her forehead. "I'm going to try my best to see that no one gets hurt."
I hugged her and walked through the door to the outer room, Gabrielle tying her robe and trailing behind me. It was unlike the small woman to forget there were others in the room, but when I opened the door to leave, she cried out.
I turned, and she held such a look of fright in her face that I moved to sweep her in my arms once again. I kissed her one more time.
"It will be all right, little one." I said and pushed her toward Delia. I left the room with a backward glance at my young slave, only to watch as tears slid down her face.
Two candlemarks. As slave revolts go, it was probably the shortest one on record. They weren't very well organized and had no weapons. A few guards got the stuffing knocked out of them, but with the exception of a few cuts and bruises, there were no casualties on either side. I was adamant about the fact that no slaves were to be harmed. I know how soldiers operate, I made sure every man and woman that made up the six squads, was aware of my order.
I sat heavily in the chair in the Great Hall that served as throne. A serving girl brought me a hot mug of tea and I sat alone and in silence as the sun came up. As Apollo's chariot pulled the burning orb up into the sky, I watched the shadows on the floor creep away, until the whole room was bathed in brilliant light. Scuffling and cursing broke out behind me and I knew they were bringing her before me for sentencing. Slaves, unlike free men, received no trial. They were either guilty or they weren't and in this case, part of me was glad, the other part cursing myself for what I was about to do. I finally looked up from my musings, to notice Atrius and four guards holding the prisoner in chains before me. It didn't surprise me in the least that the leader of the slave revolt was Gabrielle's friend, Carra.
One of her eyes was swollen shut and she had a number of small cuts on her, but nothing she wouldn't recover from. She was pushed from behind to kneel to me and she spit at my boots.
"You may think you own me, but you don't!" she hissed.
I took a deep breath, trying not to let the woman's words affect me. How can I condemn or punish slaves now that I have Gabrielle? I felt that every decision I made would have an emotional impact on the relationship between the small blonde and myself.
"So, what am I to do with you now, Carra?" I asked seriously.
I think the tone of my voice confused her. She furrowed her brow and continued to glare at me.
"You can no longer be trusted as a slave within this palace, but there are few laborers who will take a woman, especially one who incites the other slaves to riot. You leave me with few choices."
"Go ahead and crucify me," she spat, "I know you're dying to. Bet you won't be so quick to nail your little plaything to a cross, though."
"And what's that supposed to mean?" I asked, assuming she meant Gabrielle.
She laughed then and just stared up at me defiantly. "Are you forgetting, Conqueror? Your precious Gabrielle is a slave, too. If the slaves mutiny, do you really think your personal slave wouldn't know about it?"
The comment took me absolutely by surprise. I never even considered that Gabrielle would know. Suddenly I was remembering the young woman's terrified reaction to the news. She didn't act surprised…only frightened.
"You're thinking about it now, aren't you Conqueror? Ever think about what else your slut and I did together?"
I slowly rose from my chair. I towered over the still kneeling woman, remembering the way I ordered the chains removed from Kassandros, so that I could make him pay for his comments about Gabrielle. My mouth opened to speak and I realized that this slave almost beat me. She almost caused me to lose my temper along with my focus. I should have been immune to childish taunts, but for a moment, I let her get the better of me.
I slumped back into my chair, that same confused expression plastered on her face. That's when I let the thought in my brain, the nagging kernel of half-truth that this slave planted in my brain regarding Gabrielle, possess me. It didn't take long for the idea to germinate and, like the roots of a tenacious plant, take hold of my conscious mind.
"Get her out of here." I ordered between clenched teeth.
The guards looked at Atrius. "Her punishment, Lord Conqueror?"
"Did you hear me order a punishment?" I screamed at the top of my lungs. "Throw her in a cell and get her out of my sight!"
When they dragged her from the room, and I was once more left in silence, I looked down to see that my nails left their imprints in the wooden armrests of my chair. I sat there for quite some time, at first thinking of nothing, finally thinking too many different thoughts, all of them centering around Gabrielle. I believe a long time passed before I heard a noise at my elbow and saw that it was Atrius. As always, he intuitively knew when to leave me alone, and how long it would take for my initial anger to pass.
"Lord Conqueror?" He queried respectfully.
"Yes?" I answered in a low tone.
"I feel that I must be the one to speak with you regarding this matter…for two reasons." Atrius said stiffly.
"And what do you have to say?" I refused to meet his eyes.
"She's not the only one saying it, Lord Conqueror," Atrius finally said in a tired voice. "Two others we rounded up said they heard the same thing. The slaves across the palace are talking and by nightfall, with the way gossip travels in here, everyone will have heard."
I breathed a heavy sigh, trying to force the anger inside me down to a manageable level. It rose up like bile in my throat and my head began to throb with the effort of containing it. I rose and walked over to one of the windows, glancing outside. The day was so beautiful; it was hard to realize that my love and my dreams were shattering inside of me.
"Yes, Lord Conqueror."
"What were they? You said there were two reasons why you needed to be the one to tell me." I asked, seeking explanation.
"Because I knew the temptation would be great to kill the messenger. I hoped that after twenty seasons, I would fare better." He said with a wry smile. "The other reason is that I genuinely like that girl. I think that if Gabrielle did know, she must have had a good reason for not revealing it," my Captain answered.
"Do you honestly believe that, Atrius?" I asked him.
"Yes, Lord Conqueror, I do."
I turned from the window and walked past him, out of the hall. I wasn't sure I was heard as I passed him by.
"That's good…I'm not sure if I do."
I stood in front of the open balcony in the outer room, looking out onto the landscape, but not really seeing anything. I sent a guard looking for Gabrielle the moment I entered the rooms and found her gone. It wasn't long before I heard the sound of the door opening. It wasn't long enough, however, because I was nowhere near ready to do this. I would ask and she would answer, and it would be over. How could I have left myself open for this heartache? My bruised ego and wounded heart left me feeling heart sick and sorry for myself. That feeling was quickly being replaced with anger. Gabrielle made her choice; she would have to live with the consequences. Like a child with no ability to reason whatsoever, I saw the situation in only one light. I knew only that Gabrielle chose her slave friends over me, and when I turned, my arms folded across my chest, directing my angry gaze in her direction, she realized that I knew.
I watched as her expression changed from loving concern, to fear, and then finally, resignation.
"My Lord." She bowed her head in submission.
Part of me hoped it was in regret, but that small part of me was becoming more miniscule with the passing moments. I could feel that old anger bubbling just under the surface, waiting to rise up and engulf me. The beast was pacing like a panther in an iron cage.
I clenched my jaw tightly, raising my head up to stare at the ceiling, while I took deep even breaths. "Gabrielle, I have been given distressing news and I want you to either confirm or deny it." I said in an ominous low tone, that I'm sure she hadn't heard me use before, at least not directed at her.
"Did you know of the slave revolt, before it happened?" I asked, my voice tight and controlled.
"Was anyone hurt?" she asked quickly.
"Did you know?" I demanded again, through clenched teeth.
Gabrielle looked up and I watched as her eyes filled with tears, spilling out to run down her cheeks. Under normal circumstances, the sight would have caused my own heart to break, but now there was only anger. I'm sure it was apparent, even to Gabrielle, that the Xena she loved was being trampled and overcome by the Conqueror.
"Yes." She answered softly, lowering her head again.
"And you care so much more for Carra than me, that you refused to warn me?"
"No." Gabrielle's head popped up. "Xena, I love you…"
I merely arched an eyebrow at the admission as she stumbled on.
"I didn't know what to do…I couldn't…I couldn't tell. She…I needed to prove to her that…that I was her friend."
I quickly turned my back and pounded my fists loudly into the table. "Gabrielle, do you know what you've done? I am working day and night to prepare a trial to put in place laws to banish slavery, and now this!" My voice grew louder with every word and I knew that if I turned around, Gabrielle would be staring at me in surprise.
"Now, how do I tell the people that slaves are no different from them, mean them no harm, after something like this?!" Again, I slammed my fist into the table, until it was numb, feeling my fury inching closer to the surface.
When I turned around, Gabrielle could only stare at someone she could barely recognize. I could see it in her face.
"I didn't know what to do," she cried. "I wanted her to have a friend…to show her that she could trust me," she finished.
"Trust? I trusted you!" I shouted back at her. "You didn't believe that I changed, did you? You thought the Conqueror would sweep down and nail those slaves to crosses, didn't you?"
That's when she gave me a look that was filled with an incredible sadness. She didn't have to agree; I saw the truth of it acknowledged in her eyes. I narrowed the space between us, feeling my whole body trembling with rage.
"You're right," she answered, "but my mistrust of you is no more than what you still feel of me, Xena."
"I trusted you with my life!" I shouted.
"Only not with my freedom."
Her answer was spoken so calmly, so softly, that she came across as a woman already condemned, and so she was. I could no longer hold back the demon inside me. The beast clamored for a release to the white-hot fury that was the truth of my actions. I would hold myself accountable for every heartbeat of every day for my next act.
I was no longer in control of my body, and I watched as if outside myself, as my arm lashed out and struck Gabrielle across the cheek. Regret instantly burned through me like hot metal, even as I saw the hand in motion, but I was not in control enough to halt its movement.
It wasn't a punch, and I suppose I attempted to pull back enough so that it was simply a hard slap, but the deed had been done all the same. Gabrielle stood there, steadfastly refusing to fall to her knees. The look in her eyes seemed to mock me, telling me that she knew one day I would strike her.
Breathing hard, I wheeled away from her, my chest heaving as I tried to catch my breath, my eyes focused on the hand I held before me. I could only stand there and stare at my right hand, five seasons of control, wasted in a heartbeat. How long I stood there looking down at my hand, I couldn't remember, but I knew I couldn't even bring myself to look in her eyes. The weight of what I'd done, falling on me heavily, I continued to stare, transfixed, at that one hand. Finally clenching my fingers into a fist, I hissed.
Just before I heard the door open, Gabrielle poured salt in the open wound by uttering the cruelest words I ever heard her say.
"Yes, Lord Conqueror."