Disclaimers: See Chapter One for all disclaimers, warnings, etc.
I only know how others feel about my stories from feedback. Let me know what you think. I'm at: Devlin@xenafan.com
The Conqueror Series
Tale Two: The Petal of the Rose
By LJ Maas
"Don't look so worried, little one." I stroked Gabrielle's cheek with the backs of my fingers. "I already promised you that I wouldn't hurt him too terribly bad, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did." She gave me a nervous smile.
It was midmorning and the three days I gave Solan passed quickly. We stood in the outer chamber of our rooms. I felt very strongly that Solon would not be apologizing, and so I intended to show up in full battle gear to meet my challenger. Gabrielle helped me dress. I wore my customary leather trousers and silk shirt. My boots were of thick, black leather. The front of the boots had the plated shin guards already sewn in. The tops of each boot ended just below my knee, with protectors attached there also. I had thick leather and metal studded gauntlets, but the only armor I wore was a breastplate of pounded bronze that connected to a back piece.
I belted my sword, adjusting it on my hip. I looked down at Gabrielle, who still watched me through an apprehensive gaze. "Then what is it, my love?"
She hesitated, shifting uneasily from foot to foot. "You are still a very good warrior, aren't you, Xena?"
She asked the question in such earnest that I hadn't the heart to berate or humiliate her. I should have known what caused that worried frown. Gabrielle had never seen me fight. Oh, I'd allowed her onto the practice field to watch me spar on occasion, but she'd never seen me involved in a true scrap. She's read more of my battlefield exploits than any mortal alive has, and I'm sure she thought most of the events embellished tremendously. It was odd, however. The moment that I held the heavy sword in my hand, I was twenty again. Failure simply wasn't an option.
"Yes, little one," I answered gently. "I am still a very good warrior."
Gabrielle brightened considerably, but I could still sense something not right in her manner. I stepped back and sat down on the heavy wooden chest in the middle of the room. Moving my weapon to one side, I took both her hands in my own and pulled her closer to me. Looking up at her this way, I could see what amounted to fear in her emerald eyes.
"What's this all about, Gabrielle?"
"I had a dream last night," she answered promptly.
"What did you see, love?" Gabrielle's dreams were something of an enigma to us. She would often get glimpses of the future, but so little or so disjointed as to be confusing. On occasion, she could foretell disaster through the visions her dreams brought to her. Once or twice, we were even able to change the way the fates spun our lives, but today seemed different. Gabrielle had never acted fearful like this before.
"He drew a dagger from his boot."
"Who did? Solan?"
Yes. It was hidden and I--"
"I know that, little one. He has it tucked inside his left boot."
"How did you--"
"That's why I'm a good warrior, Gabrielle," I smiled. "I make a habit of watching people very closely. That's not all, though, is it?"
She shook her head back and forth. "You're going to kill Solan."
"What?" I laughed. "Gabrielle, I already told you that I--"
"I know what you said, Xena, but in my dream I saw Solan lying on the ground and you kneeling above him. You had brought your sword down into his head. I saw him lying there, your blade still quivering after you plunged it into him, and then the ground."
"Gabrielle." I pulled her trembling figure down onto my lap. "I promise you, unless something extreme, or unavoidable happens, I will not kill the boy. We've changed the outcome of your dreams before. Don't worry, little one, please. Trust me?"
A tearful nod, and then a kiss to my cheek was my reward. "I'll try. You will take care, though, right?"
"Right." I playfully kissed her neck. "And at the end of the day, what will I get for my reward, after having been so good?"
"Hhmm, a sweet treasure. You get me," she giggled. I was happy that I'd been able to assuage her fears.
"Yes, but I already possess you," I countered.
"Then tonight, I will possess you." She replied in a seductive tone that caused the muscles in my belly to flutter.
My eyes closed as a wave of intense desire rushed through me. I reached in and kissed her hard, reluctantly pulling away from the sweet lips. "We will continue this tonight, my love, but if we don't get up right this moment, I am stripping every stitch of clothing from both our bodies and taking you to bed."
Gabrielle laughed. Gods, how I love that sound. She was unable to do it for so long, it gladdens my heart that I am the cause of it now.
"And that would be a bad thing, how?" she teased.
I abruptly stood, still holding on to her, her feet barely touching the floor. "Come on with you. Are you ready to play your part?"
She nodded and I adjusted my armor again. "Then school is in session. Shall we?" I offered my hand and we left for the training field.
* * * * * * * * * *
I have to admit, if only to myself, I made a rather impressive image as I walked down to the courtyard. The sun was high in the sky and every bit of metal on me, from my breastplate to the Lion's hilt of my sword, reflected the brilliant light. At least Solan had the decency to swallow hard at the sight, even if he did cover it right away with that snotty air he had about him.
"Lord Conqueror," he said as I passed by him, walking up to Atrius.
I ignored the boy and I could already see his inexperience showing. He grew angry and a childish temper is something you simply can't afford on the battlefield. I exchanged a few words with Atrius and he reacquainted me with a young officer by the name of Garamon. The lieutenant was the first to take a shift as Gabrielle's personal guard, and I instantly liked the boy. I realized who he was once I saw his face.
"I see it healed up nicely." I pointed to his chin where a scar ran across his dark skin.
"I'm surprised you remembered doing that to me, Lord Conqueror, especially after the pathetic attempt I made that day."
I gave a wry smile at the soldier's genuine humility. "I never forget a scar, or anyone who fights against me well enough to earn one and walk away." I was remembering that day on the training field just a short time ago. Atrius and I flexed our aging muscles against the newest cadets and the young man that fought the hardest turned out to receive Atrius's highest recommendation.
I was quite proud of Gabrielle. As worried as she was, she was playing her part well. We all agreed that even though Solan was probably quite capable of using the weapon he carried, I would be the victor today. I explained to my lover that psychology was an enormous part of battle. To humiliate Solan, we would have to act as if this were all just a stroll through the woods. Gabrielle was doing very well at affecting a casual air of indifference to the proceedings, as was Atrius. I was used to it, and it gave my naturally overconfident nature a chance to come out.
"If you're ready Conqueror?" Solan said impatiently, indicating the training field with a sweep of his arm.
Atrius stood next to me with his arms folded against his chest. "What, in a hurry to meet Hades, young pup?"
That remark earned the Captain a glare from the young man, but I had to laugh. "I've met him," I said turning to face Solan. "Trust me, he's not much on conversation."
We all had a good laugh, all of us except Solan, who was getting more frustrated by the heartbeat.
We were all acting out our roles, even though Gabrielle said she didn't think she could actually watch the fight and not show any emotion. We agreed that she would leave before the fight actually began. Of course, she said she would leave with a great deal of style and dignity, whatever that meant. I was soon to find out.
"I'll leave you to your play then," Gabrielle said. She walked up to me a squeezed my hand a little tighter than usual, but the expression on her face remained carefree.
"Where are you off to, while I'm having fun?" I teased right back.
"I'm off to have a bath, and then a fitting for new dresses. Will you be long?"
Gabrielle asked this last after she had walked back up the first two stairs that led from the courtyard. She turned toward us, as if nonchalantly awaiting my answer, and it struck me. For the first time, I was seeing one of the reasons why Gabrielle stayed alive so long as a slave. She even had me believing in her lack of concern regarding the upcoming challenge.
"Will I be long?" I answered, reiterating her question. I turned my head toward Solan and looked him up and down. "I hardly think so. I'll join you in that bath." I grinned.
"Very well," Gabrielle answered, climbing the stairs once more. "Try not to get so much blood on your trousers this time."
"I don't see why you should complain. It's not like it was my blood."
"But, Sylla had a fiendish time trying to remove it." Gabrielle quipped. She stopped one last time and looked at Solan dead on . "It was very nice knowing you, Solan."
She didn't wait for an answer before she turned and left, and it was all I could do not to laugh at the expression on his face. Now, the playing was over. It was time for the fighting to begin.
"Are you ready, young pup?" I asked.
Solan appeared to be taking a true hatred of the nickname that Atrius and I had grown quite fond of using.
"I'll try to take it easy on you, Conqueror. After all, I've heard tell that you've grown soft."
We walked to the training field, a squared off arena set up for sparring use. I didn't stop walking, but turned to him. "You better pray to whatever Gods an insolent boy such as you prays to. I'll show you how soft I've become."
"I should warn you Conqueror, I learned my swordplay from Kaleipus, the greatest warrior centaur in Greece."
I stopped and laughed heartily this time. I simply couldn't resist. I gave him my best feral smile and leaned in close. "I was trained by Ares, the God of War." I continued walking on to the field, but Atrius told me later that I missed the most priceless of expressions on the boy's stunned face.
* * * * * * * * * *
The sound of metal against metal is still like so much music to my ears. The love of a good fight must be in the blood. The boy was good; I'll have to give Kaleipus his due. His inexperience showed, however, and had I been less forgiving, or a good deal angrier, he could have been dead a few times over. His downfall was his inexperience, but what kept him in the fray was his youth. I was in good shape. It would be some time before I actually tired, but my muscles certainly felt the difference between a practice spar, and the heavy hitting they were doing now.
I knocked Solan to the ground for the second time, and good naturedly allowed him to regain his feet. Perhaps I should not have chuckled, or added that little sneer as I waited for him to rise. His face was flush with anger and embarrassment and he lashed out as a child would, with words meant to cripple and hurt. I didn't answer any of his little attempts to bait me until our blades met and we came face to face. Each of us had both hands on the hilts of our swords, using nothing but the strength in our arms to push against one another.
"I met Gabrielle, before, you know."
I ignored him and hoped he wasn't about to say what I thought he was. I feigned indifference.
He grinned, sweat trickling down the side of his face, dirt smeared across one cheek. "She was a slave to a rich privateer that I met in Thrace. He brought her on deck for the crew's enjoyment. I fucked her till she bled."
He whispered that last, and the boy never even realized what he'd done with those malicious words. Whether they were truth or falsehood, it mattered not. It only took one quick exhale and the beast was free.
I brought my knee up hard into his unprotected groin and heard the breath as it strangled in his throat. His muscles instantly relaxed and I pulled my blade from his, bringing my hilt down hard on the top of his sword hand. He cried out and I heard the bones break. I believe the beast that now controlled me laughed aloud at the sound.
I threw the point of my blade into the soft dirt at our feet, and hit his midsection, to the right and to the left. He must have tried to defend himself because I felt something hit me in the jaw. I tasted blood in my mouth and swiped my hand across my lips. The sight and the taste caused the monster inside to nearly howl in delight. I spit the blood back at him, advancing as he backed away. I believe I might have heard my name called, but it was too late now. Xena didn't exist. She was only a shell for a madness that lived only for blood lust.
I drew back and put all I had into one punch to his jaw. The force lifted him from his feet and once again, there was the satisfying crunch of breaking bones. The beast pounced on the fallen boy, holding him by his collar with one hand, while the other smashed into his face. The feel of warm blood on my hands only pushed me further. The beast raged and screamed out one word.
I jumped to my feet, still straddling the boy. I reached out for my sword, it still quivering, impaled in the ground. As I twirled the blade in my hand, I heard a scream full of rage in my ears and wondered if it was my own voice or the beast inside that made the incensed sound. I could hear my name, it was as if in a dream. My movements slowed as my brain tried to make sense of my actions. I could always hear their voices outside of me, but this time there was no going back. The darkness had spread to far, taken far too much control to give it up now. I raised my sword as high as my arms could reach, and then quickly brought the point of the blade down straight into the young man's face.
At the last heartbeat, my blade met with metal that slipped in front of my victim's face. The maneuver sent my sword veering into the ground next to his head. The razor sharp blade came so close, it sliced a gash across his cheek, but he was already too unconscious to care.
I heard my name again as I stood there, both hands still holding onto my sword. I could feel my heart pounding against my chest until it ached. Then, there was a scream. The woman's scream frightened the beast into submission. It cowered and curled in on itself until I was left standing there, exhausted and weak. Then the scream again, except it was closer this time. I turned toward the source of the sound just in time to see Gabrielle, wearing only her bathing robe, crumple to the ground near the low wall that ran around the training field.
I took one look at my bloody hands still holding my blade down into the ground, and Atrius beside me. We all seemed frozen in place. Atrius had his sword buried in the dirt under mine, his quick action sparing Solan's life. I looked down at the bloody mess that I'd made of my son and moved away from him toward Gabrielle.
"Call the healer." I rasped and Atrius nodded, relief flooding his features.
I knelt beside Gabrielle and someone shoved a rag before me. I wiped my hands of their red stickiness and scooped the small blonde into my arms. I looked up again, just as Kuros, my healer, and two of his apprentices ran out to the field. I silently prayed to Athena as I cradled Gabrielle against me. I asked the Goddess to spare my son's life, unsure as to what extent I had injured the boy.
As I watched Kuros, who nodded his head that the boy was alive, I looked on the sight that met Gabrielle as she came across the field. It did indeed look like her vision. From this angle, my sword looked as though it were imbedded in Solan's head, while it was really fixed in the ground beside him. The oddness of fate struck me just then. I had to wonder, was this Gabrielle's vision, her unable to see the whole picture from her angle, or was I indeed fated to kill my own son before Atrius stepped in and changed the course of events.
Gabrielle stirred and I touched her cheek, attempting to rouse her further. One of the maids who had apparently rushed outside with Gabrielle handed me a cup of water.
"Xena?" She opened confused eyes, then they widened with the knowledge of her vision. "Oh, Xena I--"
"No, little one, it's all right. Solan is still alive, but no thanks to me. He owes his continued mortality to Atrius and you this time."
By now, Kuros had already made his way inside with Solan's unconscious form on a stretcher.
"He's inside already. Kuros is seeing to him. Are you able to stand?"
She nodded and we slowly made our way inside, stopping first, on her insistence, at Solan's quarters. Kuros was washing his hands when we came into the bedchamber. The healer's assistants were cleaning and bandaging the boy up, but he still looked as though he were lifeless.
"He has not regained consciousness, Lord Conqueror," Kuros said upon seeing us.
I wasn't sure what I felt, looking down on the boy who was my only child. Moments ago I wanted him dead, but now, he looked rather pitiful lying there all swollen and broken. I know I should have had more compassion in me for my son, but some anger at his words still lingered within me. I knew it would be a long time, if ever, before I was able to resolve this event in my head.
"The extent of his injuries?" I asked.
Kuros sighed and I knew that could not be good. "The good news is his wounds are all broken bones and contusions."
"That's good?" Gabrielle asked incredulously.
"Actually, my Lady, it is. Bones mend, bruises heal. The body is a very good curative machine when given the proper environment. Cuts, stab wounds, those take a chance at introducing infection into the body. The young Emissary will heal in good time. He has a number of broken ribs; his jaw, nose, and his left wrist are broken too. Everything else is simply bruised. I'm most worried about his right hand however. The bones in that have been broken, but at least two of the fingers appear crushed."
I know I winced visibly as Kuros went on with his list of Solan's injuries. This was what the beast could do in a matter of heartbeats. Gabrielle and I exchanged a look and she slipped a hand around my waist.
"I fear, as talented a healer as I consider myself, my abilities may not be enough to restore full motion to the young man's hand."
"I'm sure you'll do your best, Kuros, and I thank you." I said softly.
"Kuros, would you allow another healer to examine this broken hand?" Gabrielle asked.
"Of course, Lady. I have no pride in that arena. Do you have someone in mind?"
"If My Lord has no objections, I know a healer who has very knowledgeable ways in ancient healing arts. He came from the land of Chin, but I last heard that he now resides on the coast in Epidamnus. His name is Yu Pan."
"You know the healer, Yu Pan?" Kuros asked.
The startled look in Kuros's eyes caused me to wonder. Was this was the same healer who taught Gabrielle her inventive massage techniques?
"He and I served in the same household at one time," Gabrielle answered.
"His reputation is quite well known, My Lord," Kuros addressed my apparent concern. "If the Lady can persuade him to visit, I think the Emissary will be in excellent hands."
Gabrielle looked up at me as if for approval and I quickly nodded my head. "Of course. We will send a messenger out at once."
I broke away from the two of them to stand at the foot of Solan's bed. My hands on my hips, I watched tight-lipped as the young men wrapped Solan's wounds in clean bandages, and then bound the broken bones in rigid splints made of woven willow bark. I had meant to teach the young man a lesson, not take his life from him. I still wasn't sure what I should be feeling. I only know that I had an ache in my chest that had little to do with the exertion I had so recently displayed.
"Let us know if his condition changes at all, or if he asks for . . . anything." I said, turning away from the young man's bed.
"Of course, My Lord." Kuros said in an understanding tone.
* * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle casually tossed a towel over the small washtub of water where our bloodied clothes were soaking. I had been staring at the bloody water from my reclining position in the tub. I felt Gabrielle's fingers massaging the tightness from my neck and shoulders. Eventually, her fingers and the warm water worked their magic, and I relaxed as she washed my hair.
I sat beside the fireplace, on the very cushions that had been placed here only days ago by my lovely consort. Gabrielle rested up against me, slightly behind, working a comb through my dark hair. I stared into the flames, knowing that the small blonde behind me had been patiently waiting all these candlemarks for me to yet utter more than one word at a time.
I was in a better humor since the dinner meal when Kuros announced that Solan had indeed awakened. The young man did his best, even in pain, to be as insolent as possible to those around him. The healer laughed at our relieved smiles, saying he was sure the beating had taken no toll on the young man's psyche. Kuros assured us that he would make Solan's recovery as painless as possible, but much depended on the boy's desire to heal himself. I agreed. I'd come back from some debilitating injuries in the past, but not without a great deal of hard work.
After we received these encouraging words, Gabrielle set about writing a letter to her old friend Yu Pan. She explained to me of the kindness the old man showed her, and how she often hid in his workrooms, watching or assisting in the healer's medicinal arts. She sent a messenger on his way to Epidamnus, and asked that the healer journey to Corinth at the first possible chance. I hoped that the miraculous stories Gabrielle told me of this man's ability were not just those of a young girl's imagination. I had seen a great deal, however, during my life in Chin. I had seen healing take place that was nothing short of magical, and so I again prayed to Athena that the old healer was still alive.
"Would you like to talk about it?" Gabrielle's voice brought me back to the present.
"No," I turned with a wry smile. "But that wouldn't be very fair to you." She continued to comb my hair, and I admit; the action was as soothing as a massage. "What in the world were you doing down there anyway, and in your dressing gown?" I asked.
"I was determined to trust in you," she answered. "I did enter the bath, and I believe I dozed off. I slept about as well as you did last night."
She paused then. It was nerves and worry, but I spent a good portion of the night tossing about, unable to get comfortable. Gabrielle was so still that I never realized she suffered from the same malady.
"I know I fell asleep because I saw the vision again. It seemed so clear, Xena, and it frightened me so. Just before you put your sword into him, Solan looked . . . well, he looked as if he'd tricked you in some way, almost triumphant. I had to warn you, but when I drew near, I thought I was seeing it all again. It was a little overwhelming. I don't usually make a habit of fainting."
"From your vantage point, it did indeed look as though my blade had entered the boy's skull," I mused thoughtfully. "Solan would be dead right now if it hadn't been for Atrius. I would have killed my own son, and I would have barely remembered how it happened."
"The darkness?" she asked.
I nodded, amazed that Gabrielle had a way of making this horrible monster sound so slight, so as to merely be thought of as a minor character flaw.
"Monster, you mean."
"Xena, you make it sound as if a beast lives within you."
"And so it does, Gabrielle. It thrives on the hateful, evil side of my nature. When it sees an opportunity to strike, it does so. To stop it after a certain point would be like trying to wrest a hound from its prey."
"If it truly is the beast you say it is, Xena, then it can be treated like any other living thing. If it's a creature as you say, then it may be tamed, controlled, or even killed." Gabrielle stated logically.
"I only wish that could be so, little one. The blackness that comes over me in times of anger, or battle, this curse as I know it now hasn't always been this way. I knew it as a treasure at one time, a cherished part of myself. I can neither destroy it nor control it. I asked for it a long time ago, when I was still a young girl, and it was granted me. It was a gift freely given and accepted," I said mournfully.
"A gift? Xena, who would do such a thing to a young girl?"
"Athena?" Gabrielle looked stunned and I turned slightly, realizing she hadn't put it together yet.
"No, little one. It happened when I was a young woman, living in Amphipolis. It was before Cortese came through our village. Before my brother . . . Athena wasn't my patron until the evening before I invaded Athens."
For the first time in many, many seasons, I spared a thought for my dead brothers. Lyceus had been just a boy when Cortese's army swept through Amphipolis. I convinced the young men to stay and fight for what was ours. We were victorious in battle, but the wounds that were suffered on that day shaped the pattern of my life, and the lives of those around me. Lyceus fell in battle, still a boy, a full head shorter than myself, but determined to fight as a man. Toris ran off. Branded a coward, he never returned to his village. Cyrene, her youngest child dead, her oldest never to be heard from again, held her only daughter responsible for the fate of the other two.
I remember it so clearly, standing beside Lyceus's body, watching as my mother came in and saw her baby's body for the first time. I tried to explain, to tell her what happened, how I failed to protect him, to explain in some way, but she slapped me hard across the face. I stood there for a few more moments, frozen in shock and grief. I watched as Cyrene threw her body across her dead son and sobbed. That night I packed together what few belongings I had, and set out on my own. Some ten seasons later, I heard that Toris found Cortese and his men.
My older brother tried to infiltrate the Warlord's band and was found out. He died the kind of a death that I would not have wanted to describe to my mother, had we even been speaking at the time. Toris justified himself in my eyes with his death, but my priorities were so skewed back then. I look to the past and think how much more valuable he would have been alive. I could have used an older brother; God knows Cyrene could have used a son. After having seen what forty-five seasons of life has had to show me, I would have taken a live coward for a brother, over a dead hero any day.
My meager bit of satisfaction was that I crucified Cortese when I finally caught up to him. It didn't take him long to die considering nearly every bone in his body was broken before I had him strung up. I never saw my mother again after that. I heard she used to tell people that all her children died on the day of Cortese's raid.
"What?" I asked, suddenly back from visiting my own demons.
"Who was your patron before you served Athena?" Gabrielle asked.
"Ares," I said flatly.
"The dark one?" she asked, almost in a whisper.
"You served Ares . . . did his bidding?"
Again, the slight nod of my head. "It was actually worse than that. I was his mistress," I said, and felt my cheeks grow hot with shame.
"Did you love him?" Gabrielle asked.
I turned to look at her fully. It took most of my control not to laugh at the young woman. Gabrielle had such a narrow focus where I was concerned. It touched my heart that the expression on her face was dreadfully serious. I took her hands in mine and kissed each one.
"Are you jealous, little one?" I returned, just as seriously.
"He is a god, after all, Xena. How can one not be jealous? I'm sure he makes my abilities look lowly in comparison."
I didn't want her pain to go on, but her words flattered and touched me at once. I became aware for the first time of a rather well hidden jealous streak that Gabrielle possessed when it came to me. This time I couldn't help but smile, so overwhelmed as I was by the feelings directed toward me from this small slip of a girl. I could see the green coloring of her eyes grow just a tad deeper, and her right eyebrow had a natural arch to it that seemed to spike up a bit when she displayed this possessive side of herself.
I reached out and stroked her cheek, bringing her eyes up to meet mine. "Gabrielle, don't you know that you possess every quality in a mate that I have ever prayed to Athena for?"
I know she saw the truth of it in my eyes. I watched as her features returned to normal, that beautiful pink tinge of embarrassment, that I loved so, returning to her cheeks. I am always amazed every time I see it. For a young woman to have lived the life that Gabrielle has, and to still have the ability for the flush of innocence to flower upon her face at the least little compliment from me, that will always bring joy to my heart.
"Now, are you going to finish combing my hair, or not?" I turned my back to her to hide my smile. She again began to comb the dark locks, still slightly damp, but drying quickly from the heat of the fire. A comfortable silence hung in the air. I was not a verbal person by nature, and so it was a comfort that Gabrielle could take my continuous attacks of speechlessness. I could feel the question in the air, however. It hung there, suspended aloft in both our minds. It had to do with Solan's taunt to me, no, actually his boast as we fought. I wanted to know if it was true, and Gabrielle was dying to ask what he'd done to trick me. I could feel her query come at the slight intake of breath as she prepared to speak.
"Yes, little one?"
"What did he do? Solan. What did he do to cause your darkness to emerge?"
I licked my lips, my mouth suddenly dry. I didn't want to be the one to cause her pain. Hadn't she had enough humiliation for one lifetime? But, how could I lie to her, she who could see into my heart so well?
"He said something," I answered.
"That doesn't sound like you, Xena, allowing him to bait yo--" She stopped abruptly. I suppose my silence only confirmed the suspicion she had. "It was about me?" she questioned, but we both knew that she was already aware of the answer. "What did he say?"
"What does it matter." I impatiently rose and crossed the room; pulling back the heavy tapestry to look out onto the village, smoke curling lazily from the chimneys of the newly built cottages.
I felt her rise and step up behind me. She circled my waist with her arms, pressing her cheek against my back. I covered her small hands with my own, enjoying the feel of her pressed against me.
"I always thought this might happen," she said. "I'm surprised that it never occurred to you."
She was right. I never even thought about it. What if a dignitary from another land visited the palace? What if he'd had Gabrielle that way . . . even owned her at one time? I bit my lower lip at the thought.
"What did Solan say to you, Xena?" she asked again.
I sighed and closed my eyes. "That . . . he said that . . . he'd been with you . . . had you. He said it was a ship, probably the pirates. You were . . ." I paused a breathed deeply. "You were the entertainment."
She held me tighter and I wondered just who was comforting who. "It's possible, I suppose. I know that's not what you want to hear, but it may not be the last time we hear it."
"Do you remember?"
I could feel her shaking her head against me. "No, but it happened a great deal."
"You're right," I hugged her to me tighter. "It's not what I wanted to hear," I answered in a strangled voice.
"I don't remember places, or their faces. I always hid inside of myself until they were finished with me, until it seemed safe to come out again."
I felt her pull away from me and turned, catching her in my strong grasp, pulling her face back to meet mine. She had tears in her eyes and I wanted to shed my own in empathy.
"I don't want to be a disappointment to you, Xena. The Conqueror needs a Queen that--"
"Is exactly like you," I finished for her. I brushed away the wisps of golden hair that head fallen across her eyes, letting my hand run along the line of her cheek to her jaw. "I choose you, and I accept all the consequences that choosing implies. I believe we can do this, Gabrielle, as long as we do it together. It won't always be easy love, but nothing worthy of a Queen ever is."
I know she wanted to say something, but she held her tongue, nodding, and then lowering her head. I lifted her chin with two fingers. "You have done nothing to feel shame over, little one. If anything, the disgrace belongs to those who would have hurt you in such a way. I can't promise that I will never feel anger or even jealousy at the fact, but I do promise I will never direct those emotions at you. Gabrielle, you've read my scrolls. You know what kind of a woman I was."
I paused. She was smart enough to know that I referred to my sexual proclivities. I used and I took. I know a few special scrolls I owned contained bards taking artistic license with some of my more private moments. Why anyone would want to read about an orgy was beyond me, but the stories amused me at one time. Now, they only filled me with embarrassment.
"Then why would you think that you have more to be shameful for?"
"I'm not sure. It just seems that I do."
I leaned forward and tenderly kissed her forehead, she, leaning into the loving gesture. "That is because you look at me through love's eyes, little one. I thanks the Gods for it, and I pray that it never ends," I whispered. "And because I look at you in exactly the same way, perhaps that is why we will never see our relationship in the same way as outsiders do. I will never appear evil in your eyes, and you will never be anything but beautiful and innocent in mine."
I wrapped my arms around her and we stayed that way for some time. Finally, I looked down and grinned at her. "Didn't you say something about 'possessing me' tonight?"
Again, that lovely blush.
"I did," she said softly, nuzzling the skin at my neck. "But, if you don't mind too much, I'm in a different mood tonight."
"Oh, and what kind of mood would that be, love?"
"A snuggling mood," she answered as she burrowed into my body further.
"A snuggling mood?" I repeated. I could feel a ridiculous grin beginning. Gods how I do love this woman, if for no other reason than simply because she taught me how to feel.
She nodded her head up and down.
"A snuggling mood," I repeate thoughtfully. "Well, I suppose it would be a different experience. Are you a good snuggler? After all, I am the Conqueror, and I do believe I deserve the best."
"I am a very good snuggler, My Lord." She whispered, kissing my collarbone.
I leaned down and scooped her up into my arms, thoroughly enjoying the bright smile on her face. "Then your wish is my command, My Queen."
I carried her into our bedchamber and kicked the door closed with my foot. We didn't make love that evening, although earlier, I certainly had the battle lust for it. Instead, we took turns holding one another throughout the night. I'm still not certain I want that little tidbit of information to be made common knowledge. I'd like to keep some semblance of my dignity intact. However, between myself, and the scroll I write upon, it was the most beautiful and peaceful night's rest I have ever experienced.
To be continued in Chapter 7: "Fettered In Prison And Without Relief."