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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle, etc. are ©copyright MCA/Universal,
StudioUSA, and Renaissance Pictures. I Whoever owns them now. Absolutely no
Copyright infringement is intended in the writing of this fiction. It is Fan
Fiction and for entertainment only. All other characters that appear are ©copyright
to the author, LJ Maas. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any
way. Copies may be made for private use only and Id appreciate if you
included all copyright notices and this disclaimer.
VIOLENCE WARNING: There is violence (come on its the Conqueror). The nature of the story is not nearly as dark or sadistic as some Conqueror fiction; rather it explores the alternate, loving relationship that exists between Xena the Conqueror & her onetime slave, Gabrielle.
TIMELINE: My own making. Xena is the Lord, Conqueror of the Greek Empire, but she is forty-five years old when she meets the slave, Gabrielle. Many of Xenas evil ways have been sedated, but not all.
SEX: Have I taught you nothing? Its not gratuitous, but it is quite explicit when it gets going. This story shows consensual love, sex and yes, even some light bdsm between two adult females.
This story is the third in a continuing series. I suggest starting at the beginning with Tale One, Journey's End. Otherwise, you may have a hard time understanding the storyline.
Prologue: But at my back I always hear time's winged chariot drawing near
Two nights had passed since our wedding. It was late night, and I sat alone
in my favorite chair before the window, having left Gabrielle sound asleep in
our bedchamber. I fastened back the heavy tapestry that covered the window to
expose the night sky to my pensive gaze. I don't know why, but it relaxed me,
looking into the heavens from that vantage point. Leaning my head against the
high back of the chair, I grasped a quill in one hand and a scroll in the other.
After our wedding, we spent the first pass of the sun in bed. Gabrielle and I took turns wearing one another out. We made love, relaxed in hot baths, and sometimes did nothing but talk by the fire. We took all of our meals in our private rooms, and we enjoyed every moment of our personal time together. In the coming days, there would be social gatherings aplenty for the new Queen to attend. That first day had been ours, however, away from the politics and the prying eyes that ruling an empire could bring.
My body ached somewhat, but it was a most pleasant hurt. I honestly believed that I had been trying to make up for my lack of sexual activity for the last few seasons, all in the space of a few days. I had my suspicions at my renewed vigor. I wasn't sure if I was insane, or if the physical manifestation of energy had been real. I wondered if I should tell Gabrielle of my unexpected youthful zest. How would she feel to know the Gods sometimes took such an active hand in my life?
I suspected that it happened the last time Athena reached out to me. Ares had beat up on me rather well, but Athena had healed me with a single touch. She had touched my face, she said, in order to heal that one last cut. It was that second bit of contact that I presently wondered about. At the time, I felt a sudden I'm not sure what it was, but I immediately felt somewhat lighter younger. How could I have known? I simply thought I was happy in love. I could still be wrong, but it would be so like my patron to try to make up for what she perceived as her failure in protecting Gabrielle and I from Ares.
On this evening, before I sat in my familiar chair, I peered into the looking glass. I was positive that a few wrinkles around my eyes were missing. Certainly, the silver hairs that had collected at my temples seemed fewer now. It was subtle, but I could account for the phenomena in no other way. I was determined to speak to Athena about it when we next met, but some small part of me didn't exactly feel like railing against her this time. If returning some of my youth was Athena's idea of a gift, perhaps it was as much a present to Gabrielle as to me.
Earlier that day, Gabrielle had spent time with the Amazons and took care of a number of palace situations that my advisors seemed to think demanded the Queen's touch. That, simply translated, meant they were of too diplomatic a nature to have me attend to them. Gods above us, could I possibly be blamed? The way some of those local merchants and businessmen droned on everyday about the amount of taxes they had to pay. It was enough to make me wish for public crucifixions again. I admit, in those days I had an attention span about as long as my temper. I do not mean to make too light of it, but, in those days, ordering someone's death had such an uncanny way of cutting short some dreadfully boring meetings.
So, while letting my new Queen get her feet wet by attending to some civil matters, Solan and I spent a great deal of time mapping out his position within my Empire. It gladdened my heart to see Solan and Gabrielle so at ease with one another. It made things easier all around. Kaleipus and I spoke briefly regarding Solan's future. While I could see that it broke the Centaur's heart to give up his parental claim on the young man, I reminded him of his continued place in Solan's life. I assured Kaleipus that we would talk more before he and his group returned north.
Solan wished to travel, to see the lands he had only heard about in stories. I was always looking for intelligent men to serve as emissaries to my court. Now that my conquering days were past me, it took more than the might of a large army to deal with provinces outside my immediate realm. I told Solan I had an idea, but it would require diplomacy and hard study on his part. He agreed and I spoke to Yu Pan right after Solan left my study.
The old man had expressed a wish to return to the province of Chin, to meet with people he knew, and to visit places that had long been a part of his memories. He surprised me by agreeing rather quickly to my plan. I supposed he'd grown rather fond of Solan, and the boy's constant attention. My son was eager to learn about the old healer's homeland and the languages of Chin. I smile even now when I think of the expression on Solan's face when I told him how many different dialects were spoken in the numerous provinces of Chin. The prospect of learning some of the fighting techniques Yu Pan had taught to Gabrielle years ago, also excited Solan.
I am thankful that Yu Pan will be Solan's mentor. I can ask for no better teacher and companion for my son than the man who brought so much light into my own life. The old man could teach Solan much, of that I was certain. I explained to Yu Pan that I wanted Solan to learn about more than simply the ways of a warrior. I wished him to become a compassionate and educated man. In fact, I wished for Solan every opportunity that I myself had missed.
As happy about my new marriage as I had been, I still experienced a certain despondency at the idea of Solan leaving. I felt as if I was giving him away all over again. I had missed so much of his life. Now that we were mother and son, I felt an ignoble and selfish desire to have him beside me for a while longer. He was a grown man, however, and I had to allow him his freedom. I would worry less knowing that Yu Pan would travel alongside Solan. Even though the young man's body was that of an adult, his brain and maturity level lagged behind at times. He was his mother's son after all.
As I said, Yu Pan accepted my offer rather quickly. That, in itself, caused me some wonder. The old man always knew more than his words willingly implied. I let him keep his silence. His reasons were his own and I, above all, understood his desire to keep his past to himself. He would travel back to Chin under the protection of the Empire. Most importantly, he would travel with Solan. The young man was to be my emissary. My recent laws regarding slavery were not the most popular, especially in lands that depended on slave labor for their economic growth. The further away from Corinth, the more difficult it was to spread the new concepts that were now law.
I expected that there were areas of Chin that had not even heard of the Empire's new direction. I had heard, just a day previous, that some of the outer regions of the Empire, places occupied by Celts and Scythians, had never even heard of my latest proclamations. This fueled my decision to travel with a goodly number of my army on our upcoming trip.
Conquered peoples tended to make for obstinate citizens of the Empire. I would expect nothing less, for wouldn't I be the same if my life had gone differently? I can only imagine what would have happened had my armies not kept Rome from Greek soil. Whom would my countrymen swear fealty to had Ares not used me as his Warrior Princess? He delivered Rome into my hands and secured Greece's future.
Hence, even during my less than compassionate years, I had always held a particular consideration for any land I have conquered. Oh, not so much in my youth, but in the last ten or twelve seasons. As such, I have never forced the Greek Gods, nor my own Greek culture, on any of the lands now under my rule. I have encouraged the people their own beliefs as long as I govern their system of law. Even though I allowed the people cultural concessions, I permitted no latitude in regards to my new policy on slavery within the Empire.
Of particular concern to me were areas of the Empire that had subsisted for many seasons, not only far from the reaches of Corinth, but also dependent on slave trade. Scythians made their homes on the outer fringes of the Empire. They were fierce nomadic warriors who seemed content to live in the bitterly cold, mountainous lands to the north. They were also an extremely barbaric and bloodthirsty race. A fact I discovered when I learned that the Scythians shaped the skulls of their slain enemies into drinking cups. I supposed that I was going to suffer some difficulty in finding an emissary willing to travel to the northern wilderness to confront this race of people with my prohibition of slavery. Not many men desired to have their heads fashioned into decorative household objects.
I had recently heard some interesting gossip from a group of traveling bards that had passed through Corinth. Truth be known, I found Gabrielle's tales much more imaginative and entertaining than any one of the men in that ensemble. A number of them passed on the notion that there were actually people who existed past the point where the Scythians dwelled. I eavesdropped on many a drunken conversation and certain tales told of a group of women known as the Sauromatai, the slayers of men. From the little information the bards had, it sounded to me as if these Sauromatai could possibly be the escaped Amazon prisoners from the battle at the Thermodon. I made a mental note to question Gabrielle's Amazons when we traveled north. Surely, they would know if these women were indeed their kin.
Odd, how things turn out the way they are supposed to all along. For nearly twenty seasons, Ares had conspired to keep Gabrielle and I from ever meeting again. He knew what would happen if we ever did. She would save me from myself, thereby saving the world from a dark and monstrous beast. Destiny is such a fickle thing. As Gabrielle is fond of saying, 'If it's meant to happen, it will happen'.
I looked up to find a sleepy looking wife with a fur robe pulled close around her.
"Aren't you tired?" she asked.
"A little, but you know how I get at times. Come here, little one."
Gabrielle wasted no time curling herself into my lap. She pressed her body close to my own.
"I was just thinking," I said.
"Thinking or worrying?"
I smiled at her intuitive response. "Perhaps a little worry, but a very small bit." I described just how small by holding up my thumb and forefinger, a hair's width apart.
That caused her to smile, and instantly my worries were gone. It was as if the sun had risen within our room.
"Gabrielle, would you like to go on a trip? A sort of wedding trip?"
"I'd love to travel with you, Xena, but can we just leave like that?" Gabrielle inquired.
"Good point, but there ought to be some gain in being Conqueror." I grinned and kissed the tip of her nose. "Actually, it won't be very difficult. The circle of advisors do most of the day-to-day work anyway. Besides, there are so many places I've wanted to go back to again. I think it would mean so much more to be able to share them with you."
"Xena, if we travel, do you think . . . "
Gabrielle trailed off and refused to meet my eyes. "What, love? Is there somewhere you'd like to go?"
"Home," Gabrielle whispered softly.
"Potidaea?" I asked.
Gabrielle nodded her head in silence.
"Of course, little one, forgive me for not thinking of that ages ago."
She brightened considerably at that. My own happiness was so tied up with hers that I felt lighter just seeing her come to life again.
"I know that my mother and father . . . well, that there's every chance they may be dead by now, but if I could only know."
It broke my heart when she never even mentioned her younger sister. Knowing Gabrielle, I'm sure she thought that would simply be hoping for too much.
"I have an idea. Since Solan will be leaving with Yu Pan, and the Amazons and Centaurs will all be heading north, why don't we join them? A caravan of sorts. Solan wants to go back to his Centaur home and take care of some loose ends there. This will give you time to get to know the Amazons a little better, and we can have the ships meet us in the harbors of Potidaea or Scione. Solan and Yu Pan can begin their journey from there. It will even give us time for the Queen of the Amazons to visit Amazonia. You have a crown to accept there, you know."
"Oh, Xena, that sounds wonderful!"
Gabrielle kissed me and then began talking in an animated fashion. Even though it was the middle of the night, she started making lists of all that would need to be done, things to bring, clothes for travel. I listened attentively to every word, sincerely and utterly fascinated by the way my wife's mind worked.
Once again, I wondered at my good fortune. How could my life have been so miserable
and dead just moons ago? How is it that I was chosen at birth by the Gods to
receive such joy by Gabrielle's mere presence in my life? What one thing did
I do, what one selfless act atoned for my many crimes enough to know such happiness
now? So many questions and too few answers. I know that our lives will not always
be as though sailing on a sea of glass, but even when the difficult times come,
I know I will never again have to face them alone.
That is what will matter the most.
As I have said before, I cannot accurately acquaint you with the Conqueror without speaking of her. For no Conqueror's tale would be complete without the telling of Gabrielle.
We were to leave on our extended travels in two days time, and still my wife had me writing in those infernal scrolls. It was in my nature to grumble and complain. What I found most odd, and almost entertaining, was the fact that I had actually begun to look forward to the writing. I merely grumbled so that Gabrielle would not realize what a short tether she had me on. I smiled to think that she probably already realized it, but loved me enough to pretend that she did not know. How well the girl knew me. She had not made a bard of me, that much was certain, but Gabrielle had undoubtedly given me a release of sorts. Perhaps that had been her intention all along.
I scribed my thoughts and feelings at the end of the day, along with the events that had occurred. It helped me to see my actions in writing. I was learning, and at my age that was not always an easy thing to do. I looked at the page before me, and realized that some days I was able to look at it quite objectively, others I was not so good-natured. I tried to look at the occasions when I lost my temper or spoke sharply to an underling. I remembered the incident, and I tried harder the next time to keep my feelings more in check.
A knock on my study door stopped me in mid thought. "Enter."
Acasia, a trusted soldier, saluted me. He was among the number of men and women I entrusted with highly sensitive or private matters. They were loyal unto death, and had, in the past, been spies or assassins. Those past lines of work made them perfect for discreet operations.
Gabrielle was frightened of Acasia, she who showed no fear and stood toe to toe with the God of War himself. I was certain it was because of his physical appearance. His face showed the many scars of battle and his manner was cold and aloof. If only Gabrielle knew that the brand on Acasia's chest was proof that he would have willingly given his life for her. There were only a dozen such people in the Empire who wore those brands. They were the people I felt I could turn to in times of treachery and betrayal.
Acasia handed me a scroll and I perused it before speaking. I motioned with one hand for him to sit, but he did not, I usually expected him to act no differently. His handwriting was neat and precise. Something I did not initially expect from a soldier. I know better now. Acasia was an educated man, but he detested being an officer. He was a soldier, through and through. It was he who had first suggested the elephants.
He probably wondered why I smiled, but I was remembering the looks on the Roman's faces in Taras that day. The Tarantines had contacted me in Corinth requesting military aid against the encroaching Romans. In those days, all I had to do was hear the word Roman and I was off to do battle. I brought over 20,000 soldiers, but it was Acasia, a member of my personal guard at the time, who suggested the Indian war elephants I had so recently acquired.
I recalled that it was spring when the fighting began. It started at Heraclea, not far from Taras. Acasia had been right. The Romans had never seen such beasts as these animals called elephants, especially decked out in armor and spikes as they were. They looked like moving armories and the Romans ran for their very lives. They sought to regroup and make another go at us, but that was when I let loose with the Phalanx. The heavy infantry used fourteen-foot sarissas, to crush forward. Between the Phalanx, their pikes, and my cavalry, we took down 7,000 Romans that day and captured nearly another 2,000.
"The mother and father?" I asked as I continued to read the scroll he had given me.
"Still alive, a small farm just as you said in Potidaea, no word on the girl, though. If she was taken as a slave at the same time, she could be dead many seasons past. I still have a few connections. I have the word out, Lord Conqueror. If she's still alive, I'll track her down."
"Excellent work! I'll reward you amply for this, Acasia."
"And the other, My Lord? Do you wish to know of the woman?"
"She must be feeling time's hand by now," I answered. I was unsure of what else to say. I feared the soldier's answer, no matter what it should be.
"Aye, Conqueror, she's felt the seasons, but not so that she's lost her matronly looks."
"She's alive then?" I asked, feeling my belly clench tightly.
"Aye. She still owns the inn there in Amphipolis. She married about fifteen seasons ago, has a family helping her. Her old man died a few seasons back, but she's got a son and a daughter, some little ones that must belong to one of them."
"Did she . . . how did she look? Well?"
"Aye, well enough, Conqueror," Acasia answered.
"Thank you, Acasia. You've done well. Have some of your men see that no harm befalls any of these people. We leave in five days."
I opened a drawer at my desk and handed the man a bag of talants, then dismissed him. I leaned back in my chair and wondered what she looked like. The little child in me still ached for acceptance, but I knew the time for that had passed. Cyrene had a new family, and with any luck, they helped her to forget the heartache the first had left her with. I fervently hoped that her second daughter gave her what the first could not.
I pushed my melancholy aside and rose. I put out the lamp and returned to the rooms Gabrielle and I shared. The news for my wife was good. I would tell Gabrielle somewhere along the way that her parents still lived. I would do everything in my power to find her sister.
It was odd, but I wasn't as sad as I expected to be, hearing of Cyrene and her new family. Perhaps now, being a wife and mother, I understood the woman a little bit more. With age comes many things, understanding foremost among them. I now understood a little of Cyrene's anger on that day when Cortese attacked our village. She had lost her youngest child at the end of a sword and her oldest ran away, forever branded a coward. Friends and family were dead or dying all around her and they felt compelled to cast the blame upon someone.
I put out the candles and stood there in the dark. How different things might have been had I given her time with Lyceus. I can still see it before me as though it had happened a fortnight ago instead of almost a lifetime. I remembered the sight of his small body laid out upon the dining table. My mother sobbed as she leaned over and brushed his blonde curls from his face, even matted with blood as they were. She was heartsick and it was only my bad fortune to have walked into the room just then. I tried to explain, but my words were useless. She wanted someone to rage at, someone to blame, and I had been the one standing in her line of fire.
I almost didn't leave home that evening. I sat in the barn behind my mother's inn, my cheek still stinging from the slap she'd given me. I almost ripped off my armor to put on a cotton dress. I had a thought to slip into the house and wait for my mother's ire to cool. Even then, I knew that the hurtful words were my mother's broken heart speaking and nothing as she had treated me in the past. I had been so close to turning around. That's when Ares materialized before me and offered me his gift. He called it the ultimate power. To me, it became my curse, the beast within.
I left my study with a sigh. I shook off the memories that I could do little at this point to change. All I could hope was that the long road home, which Gabrielle and I were about to embark upon, would be one of forgiveness and perhaps even happiness. I said a quick prayer to Athena that time would temper it's usually fell hand and be considerate toward us.
Chapter 1: It was many and many a year ago
"Are you sure you're all right, Xena?" Gabrielle gingerly raised her finger as if to touch my face, but she shrank back upon seeing my expression. Instead, she cautiously indicated with her hand the tender area under my eye.
"Yes, I'm fine." I could scarcely believe that she had the nerve to utter those words, since she was the one that gave me the black eye in the first place. Perhaps it wasn't actually a black eye, but it was rather swollen and hurt like the sting of an angry wasp. I scowled in her direction. To tell the truth, I was suffering more from acute embarrassment than any sort of pain.
"I really did expect you to block that kick," she said.
"I know, love."
"I would never have hit you with purpose, even in jest. You do know that, don't you, Xena?"
We had been going around and around like that for nearly a candlemark. We were in the seclusion of our private chambers, but it felt nothing like home. Gabrielle walked about as though treading on eggshells with the intention of leaving the pieces whole. Then, there was me. I was, generally, humiliated beyond belief. I examined invented scenarios in my head as to how I would explain my swollen eye to others.
Gods! I just knew I was going to have to break quite a few noses over the incident. Some miserable wretch would say something and I would attempt to ignore the comment. Then the cursed dog wouldn't realize when he was ahead and he'd push me until I'd have to break his nose, his knee, or even something he held much more dear. I'm sure running him through with my sword would be more gratifying than hitting, but my new sense of morality, and Gabrielle, prevented me from killing my friends over minor infractions.
"I just don't understand it. You've always blocked those kicks before," Gabrielle said.
"I understand," I answered. My tone was more curt than I had intended, but once a foul mood took me it was extremely difficult to halt its progress. "I simply thought that you would stop."
"I'm sorry, Xena," Gabrielle answered. "I suppose I should have. I'm just not as good as you are "
She had tears in her eyes as she trailed off. She turned and left the bedchamber where I continued to stand. She stopped beside the outer window and leaned against the stone wall. She appeared to be watching something in the courtyard below.
Now I felt like a complete villain. The truth was that I never even saw her last kick coming; she was that fast that good. All right, to be entirely honest with myself, I am never in absolute fighting mode when I spar with Gabrielle. She will not enjoy hearing that I hold back when I train with her, but what can I do?
How does one become a demon for only a short spell? Gabrielle doesn't truly
understand my fighting methods yet. Most do not. The people hail me as the greatest
warrior the Greek Empire has ever known, even knowing forty-five summers as
I have. They, like Gabrielle, surely assume it is due to my fastidious training.
Some even whisper that it was a gift from the Gods upon my birth. Well, it was
certainly not at birth nor was it a blessing. It has been the curse of my life
since my fifteenth summer.
"All you have to do is say yes, Xena, and from this moment on, you'll fight with the skills of the most seasoned warrior. You'll own the strength of ten men. Never again will anyone like Cortese be able to take what is yours."
"There must be a catch. You're the God of War, Ares. I'm not naïve enough to think that you won't want something in return."
"There'll come a time, Xena, when I'll ask you to battle at my side, but not now. This gift I give to you freely and without any promises required on your part. Just remember, though, once you accept my gift, you can't ever give it back."
"Give it back? Something that gives me the strength of ten men? Why
in Hades would I want to do that?"
Those words still echo through my brain, even today. What Ares called a gift turned out to be the death of my innocence.
I saw Gabrielle across the room and she was hurting. Should I have allowed her to hurt for beating me on the field of battle, or was I to ultimately hurt her once she learned that I played her for a fool and hadn't displayed my full skills during our sparring bouts? Gods! I cursed whichever deity was responsible for making lovesick fools feel the need to tell their lovers the truth at every opportunity. I was certain that I would pay the price for that. It might not be immediate, but I would feel its effects one day, of that I was sure. My beautiful wife, soft spoken and lovely, was not the sort of woman to take my deception, albeit a well-meaning one, lightly. I gritted my teeth and moved to stand behind her.
"Gabrielle?" She didn't answer immediately. "I am sorry for my sullen--"
"Please, Xena, if you apologize to me for this, I swear I'll break down in tears. It was my fault and I--"
"You hit me because I didn't see it coming." There, I'd said it. Although I wondered if she understood me since I said it so quickly, the words seemed to come out as one long jumble.
There was a moment of silence that lasted far longer than a moment should have.
"What?" Gabrielle stopped speaking. In fact, I think she might have even stopped breathing. She simply stood there and stared at me. Perhaps she hadn't made sense of my words. Should I repeat them?
I began to feel that uncomfortable warmth creep up my neck. The kind of prickly heat that reminds me that I've gone and done something Gabrielle is not going to like, not one little bit. I braced myself for, at the very least, a verbal onslaught.
Now, I should interject at this point to admit to a certain wonder on my part. In the retelling of this tale, I am nonplussed as I read my own written words. Why did I fear Gabrielle laying into me in such a manner when she'd never done so before? My Queen can get her point across very well with a glance. Gabrielle's face is so expressive that an arch of her eyebrow can cause her eyes to go from a bright emerald to a dark, verdant green in heartbeats. She has looked at me with such love yet from the same eyes comes a scolding rebuke when I have snapped at someone.
Why on Zeus's earth was I so fearful of Gabrielle at that moment? I could only attribute it to something Atrius said to me once when Anya was not speaking to him. I had caught him with a bunch of flowers that he had attempted to hide from my gaze. After he'd told me the whole story, I was amazed that he would apologize for something that had clearly not been his fault. If I lived to be a thousand, I would remember his words.
"Remember, Conqueror when you're a warrior, it's always your fault.
Thus explained my fear. I stood there, a warrior, completely at fault. If warriors were to be blamed when it wasn't their fault, surely the cost must be double when it was. That's when the oddest thing happened.
Gabrielle smiled just the tiniest bit.
I watched as she tried to hide the smile behind one hand.
"So," she began shyly. "I really, sort of beat you up."
"Don't go there, Gabrielle," I warned.
"Oh, now you think you can be indignant, do you? Xena, I'm surprised at you! You actually let me go on thinking I'd hurt you."
"Well, I wasn't going to let you think that for too long." I attempted to look as contrite as I could. In reality, I felt badly over my actions, but the amused look on Gabrielle's face caused me to cheer considerably.
"Xena, what shall I do with you?" Gabrielle slipped her arms about my waist and my arms instinctively wrapped around her shoulders.
I couldn't prevent the leering grin that crossed my face at her words, so filled with double meaning. She looked up and saw my face and she gave me one of those looks.
"Oh," I said. "You meant that rhetorically."
"Xena!" She slapped me in the ribs as she moved away. She went into the bathing chamber and when she returned, she sat down at the table we used for dining. She began to make a small poultice of sorts.
"I can't understand why you wouldn't have simply said that in the first place." She was focused again on my previous admission. "Come sit here." She patted the bench beside her.
The Conqueror of the Known World dutifully trotted over and sat. "Ow!" I pulled away from the cloth that Gabrielle held to my cheekbone. "It stings," I confessed to her questioning glance.
"How is it that such a great warrior is so averse to pain?" She teased.
"That's how I stay a great, alive warrior. I don't like getting hurt. Fear makes a great motivator."
Suddenly she was silent. She bowed her head and I couldn't tell what she was thinking. She raised her head again and I could see that she was no longer teasing.
"Why do you hold back when you spar with me, Xena?"
Gods above, why did I even try to hide the truth from this woman? She saw through me as if my thoughts had been wrapped in gauze. I took her hands in mine and kissed each one.
"I didn't know you knew."
She gave a little snort that sounded a great deal like Delia's little sounds of disbelief. "I am married to you, My Conqueror. I share your nights as well as your days. I've seen you fight, I mean really fight a man, remember? I've also seen the look of the beast when it tries to claw its way out. I've seen that first hand. Xena, I know the cast to your eye when you can feel nothing but the lust of battle. I'm not saying I ever expected to see that expression when you practiced with me, but I did expect to see some I don't know, some sort of excitement. You never appeared to take any thrill in the fight, even if it was practice."
"Forgive me," I apologized.
"It's not an apology I'm looking for, love. What I need is an explanation. Is it because you're afraid of hurting me?"
"Xena, you already admitted that I blindsided you with a kick. Surely I could take care of myself."
"Could you? Even if I should fall prey to my darkness?"
"Is it that hard? To hold back the beast when you fight even with me?"
"How does one loose a wild beast and then expect it to come when you call, especially when it knows you intend to chain it up again?"
Gabrielle reached over and touched my cheek. She looked into my face as if for the first time and, judging by her next words, I think she was. "I don't think anyone gives you the credit you deserve for being a civilized woman, Xena. Most would have been driven mad by Ares' curse and yet you continue. Forgive me for not understanding better. I have no idea what it must be like for you to hold back the darkness let alone return after the beast has had you in its grasp."
I kissed her then, not merely because I wanted to, but also because I had no words to thank her for her understanding. "No one has ever been able to comprehend what it's like," I said.
"What is it like, Xena? Tell me. I want to understand."
I took a deep breath and tried to put into words what it felt like to lose control of my very senses, helpless to stop it. "When I fight, even in practice such as sparring with you, I get a sense of something, a taste of something from the past. I know I must be explaining this badly."
"No, go on."
"I end up being like the wild dogs we use for hunting. They're rather tame around us. They'll even lie beside us when we sleep beside the open campfire on a hunting expedition. You've seen how tame those two large hounds that roam about the castle are."
"Yes. They let me pet them, but they're so big. I admit they frighten me most of the time and I attempt not to tease or try their patience."
"And so you should give them a healthy amount of respect. Essentially, they are tame animals. They'll obey their commands and protect us from harm because that's what we have trained them to do, but the blood that flows through their veins is still wild. You've heard me tell the cooks never to feed the hounds raw meat?"
Gabrielle nodded her head.
"I don't want them to get the taste of blood on their tongue. One drop of blood and we take the chance that they will remember."
"Remember what, Xena?"
"What it was like to be free. They get that little taste of blood and it awakens all the memories of when they had to hunt like any other beast of the forest. They remember what it felt like to hunt their prey and to have free reign with such lust. That is me, Gabrielle."
"You are not a beast!" she answered me almost angrily.
I told her then, about the night that Ares came to me as a young girl. How I had already felt as though I was alone in the world, and how I detested the feeling of losing of being beaten in battle. Finally, I told her how I had accepted the gift that Ares offered. He said it would make me the most powerful warrior in Greece, perhaps the known world. I admitted to Gabrielle that even once I had discovered what the darkness could do, I continued to let it rise up and crush my enemies. I shamefully confessed that it had become pleasurable to me, the sight of a man's blood on my blade. I told her how the beast eventually took control during my sexual escapades. I couldn't even meet Gabrielle's eyes upon that admission.
"But that's not you, Xena," she tried to convince me.
"But it is, little one. It's a part of who I am."
"No," she shook her head back and forth. "That's not the way you are now. You're not that woman!"
"Xena of Amphipolis never was. They called me the Lion before the darkness took complete hold of me. It was a compliment. The people of Thrace looked on me as a hero, their savior. The Lion was their protector. Proud and strong, I controlled my territory with a velvet-covered fist. Then the beast got that one drop, that small taste of blood. That's all it took. The beast wanted more than to simply protect Greece it wanted to conquer. You've seen me when it takes control. Now, I can at least fight it. In days past " I lowered my head, my thoughts trailing off into silence.
"Is there nothing we can do, Xena? Some way to reverse it or rid you of it completely?" she asked.
"If there is, I don't know of a way. I distinctly remember Ares saying that once I accepted it I could never give it back."
Gabrielle abruptly stood and angrily paced the floor. "I don't see as to how you can be held to that bond. You were a child."
"Well, I was fifteen summers."
"Hardly a truly accountable age. Besides, were you fifteen mentally as well as physically?"
"I suppose I had some to learn, but I'm not sure I could cry foul on the situation at this point in my life. The answer is, no, I wasn't a mature young woman at all. Emotionally, I suppose I was still rather young."
I said this last in sort of a reflective whisper. It had only just occurred to me that I was simply a young girl when I started out, to make my way as a warrior. I'm certain that Ares' gift and my own anger were the only things that kept me alive.
"I still think it was unfair." Gabrielle's voice pulled me from my own thoughts. "I should petition Athena," she said. "Have you ever broached the subject with her?"
"Hard as it may be to believe, little one, but before you came to live here, I couldn't remember the last time Athena and I spoke. I certainly never prayed to her for anything other than battle concerns."
"But she's your patron." Gabrielle looked at me as if I had just told her that the moon was red. She honestly had no concept of my irreverence toward the Gods.
"I know since you've been here it seems as if the Gods meddle--"
I abruptly halted my speech when Gabrielle arched her eyebrow at me.
"I mean show up on a daily basis, but it's been many seasons since they appeared to me. Frankly, I liked it that way, Gabrielle. If I'd been you, and lived the life you were forced to, I would have given up on Athena long ago." I held a hand up to stave off the rebuke I saw coming. "I've since changed my mind. Age has given me a changed perspective about my patron."
"Well," Gabrielle said in a rather deflated sounding voice. "I still plan on bringing it to her attention someday."
"I would expect nothing less from you, my love."
"No! Please, don't!"
Gabrielle's cries easily brought me to my feet. It was the early hours before dawn and, as usual, I was already awake and in my study. When I had left our bedchamber, Gabrielle gave me a sleepy kiss and curled languidly beneath the covers. She was fast asleep again by the time I dressed and left the room.
I burst into the room even as Gabrielle was still held in Morpheus' clutches. She held to the covers as though her life was being dragged from her.
"Gabrielle," I called as I gently shook her awake.
She took a deep breath as though it took some effort. "Gods!" she groaned just as her eyes focused on the shadowy shapes around her.
I quickly lit some candles beside the bed and then returned my attentions to Gabrielle. I sat down on the bed beside her and it didn't take much coercion to urge her into my arms. She held to me and I rocked her until I gradually felt her body relax.
"What is it, little one?"
I felt Gabrielle's head shake against my chest and I thought that odd. She had never tried to hide her dreams from me before. "Did you dream?" I asked. Gabrielle had the gift of foresight through her dreams, although she considered it more of a curse than a gift.
"Not that kind of a dream."
"Something real from the past?"
She nodded once again. I could only wonder through what terrible dreamscapes Morpheus had been leading the young woman. Gabrielle's life as a slave had surely been filled with atrocities that no woman should be condemned to relive, even in her dreams. Her continued silence was something I thought we had moved beyond, however.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"Would you mind if I didn't? I know we don't keep secrets from one another, but--"
"Of course not, little one." I held her tighter and kissed the top of her head. "Gabrielle, you know I'd never force you to talk of your past. If, and when, you want to speak of these things, you know I'll be here for you. And I'll think no worse of you for remaining silent."
She thanked me and snuggled further into my embrace. I made myself comfortable on the bed, since Gabrielle's body language said that she did not intend me to leave just yet. I understood her wish for secrecy, or perhaps it was simply a need for privacy.
I remembered a time when I would awaken in the middle of the night, screaming at the memory of the faces of the innocents I had slaughtered. I could never speak of my nightmares while nighttime still caused the shadows in my room to take on the shapes of the monsters in my dreams. I would wrap a fur robe around my shoulders and sit on the floor, in a corner of the room, with my sword in one hand until the sunlight pushed away my fears. I was always thankful that Delia respected my privacy, even when she was the one who oftentimes braved my wrath to wake me from my nightmares. I vowed to do the same with Gabrielle. She would talk when she was ready.
The annoying sound of snoring woke me some time later. I felt a fool when I realized the sounds were my own. My embarrassment seemed complete when I looked up and found our maid, Sylla in the middle of the room. She had her arms full of clothes to be laundered and she smiled at me.
"Good morning, Lord Conqueror."
Once I closed my mouth and my surroundings came into focus, I offered her a morning greeting.
"Rather late for you to be in bed."
I rose and held my arms out wide. " Do these look like sleeping clothes?" For your information, I was awake before dawn. I sat down with Gabrielle and I must have dozed off. Where is my wife, by the way?"
"She finished her tea and said that she fancied a walk. She asked me not to make any noise, so that you might sleep." She gave me a superior sort of smile before continuing. "I figured with the racket your snoring was making, you wouldn't hear me working."
"I do not snore," I replied as I indignantly straightened my clothes and went into my study. I could hear her laughter follow me.
Ahh, yes. Public crucifixions made life so much easier! I thought to myself.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
Should I tell her?
The question circled my head like the birds that floated lazily in the air above me. I sat in the garden, just a stone's throw from Xena's rose garden. I usually went there in the mornings. Our routine was to have morning tea and perhaps a light meal. Xena would begin her day in her study and I would go to the garden. I must admit, the Conqueror's day customarily began much earlier than mine. I had finally grown accustomed to the times that Xena would rise candlemarks before Apollo's chariot flamed across the sky. I would most always find her in the study, hunched over a scroll, or seemingly lost in thought. It was there, in her study, that Xena sat when my cries roused her into action this morning.
I wiped my face with the cloth lying on the stone bench beside me. Even my Qigong routine did not ease my mind. Xena had been lovely to stay with me during the morning. I smiled to think of the sight she made when I left our rooms that morning, sprawled across the bed as she was.
I know that Xena has heard my nightmares the last few nights, though she has said nothing. I believe my wonderful wife has a tendency to believe that so much is her fault. Are we not well suited to one another? Who would believe that the Conqueror of the Known World and a former slave might have similar issues with self-esteem? Odd, isn't it? From the lowest to the highest born, do we not all bleed the same red blood?
I worried about how I would explain to Xena. Was it how I would tell her or was I thinking if? No, of course, I would tell Xena. I refused to entertain any other possibility. How, though, can I tell her that Athena has not, and will not, bless me because of what I did on that day? My heart ached and despair filled me as it did when I was that frightened slave. Taken and used, tortured and neglected, I struggled not to think of those days too often. In the past, Yu Pan's hypnotic suggestion had kept me from remembering a great deal of what happened to me. It wasn't that I didn't remember; rather, I recalled the events as though standing outside myself, as if watching another in my place. Once my mentor removed the suggestion from my mind, the connection between thought and emotion returned. Now, the memories had a way of becoming real again and as often as not, I felt myself clouded by a sense of despondency that I would rather not revisit.
The remembered sadness of that day filled my thoughts. The nightmares would last for a few more days, I was certain. It should have been no surprise, as they came to me at this time each season for the past five summers, but this time I had thought, maybe I suppose it was mostly hope on my part. I have experienced such happiness of late. Xena gave me more than I ever dreamed of, even when I was a child, before the slavers came. She gave me the greatest of gifts...hope. I had love, family, and home. Still, though, the nightmares returned to me. I considered them a just curse for my past weakness.
I looked up to see Solan's concerned face.
"Gabrielle, are you ill?"
"Thank you, that's just the sort of greeting every woman loves to hear." I watched his cheeks turn pink. How like his mother.
"I'm so sorry I didn't--"
"I'm teasing you. Come sit."
Solan sat beside me, but I could tell that he was staring at me while trying not to be obvious about it. "I'm just tired, that's why the dark circles under my eyes."
His cheeks turned even redder, if that was possible. "Oh, I should have--I wasn't thinking. No wonder Mother smiled the whole time she was addressing the troops yesterday."
He grinned and I heard the unspoken words. Of course! It would make sense for a new bride to look tired and the Conqueror to have a smile as wide as the Aegean. That simply confirmed that all was well with the royal marriage.
"I only wish it was due to that," I answered absently. I cursed my tongue as soon as the words escaped. I usually keep my own counsel about such things, but I was tired and that must have caused my mind to falter. Solan reacted unexpectedly.
"Have there been problems, Gabrielle?"
Now he looked quite concerned and I wondered how to explain myself out of the situation.
"No, really "
"I saw Mother sporting a shiner this morning."
"Solan." I was about to warn him about jumping to conclusions when he bolted up from his seat.
"If she hurt you in any way--"
"Solan! Don't be ridiculous. As much as I appreciate your noble gesture, it's nothing of the sort. Xena and are doing fine together. I've never been happier. Sit down, please."
"Oh." He sat down and looked even more humiliated. "What a mutton head I am. As if you and Mother could come to that. I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I didn't mean to--"
"Solan, don't give it another thought. I'm actually flattered that you hold my honor in such high regard."
"Funny thing, isn't it? By all accounts you're my stepmother." He grinned and I knew he felt better about his assumption.
Truth was, I felt better as well. Solan had become a friend and his innocent gesture, his willingness to do battle with the Conqueror, made me feel as though our bond was real. That meant a great deal, considering that it hadn't been too long ago since Solan's envy and dislike for me had nearly caused his death at his own mother's hands.
"It's more like you're a sister in a way. I hope that doesn't offend you or sound too stupid."
"Not at all. I feel the same way, Solan. I'll be sorry to see you leave us."
"Yea." He hung his head and fiddled with the lace on the top of his boot. "Part of me can't wait. You know? I've always wanted to go to the places that other men talked about. It's somewhat scary, too. Things are different in other places and you know what an idiot I can be."
"You are not an idiot, Solan. Quick to act perhaps " I smiled for his benefit and laid a hand on his arm. "Yu Pan will be with you. He won't let you look a fool, and he'll teach you more than you ever dreamed possible."
"I guess there's another part of me that's sort of sad to be leaving you and Mother, too."
"Especially your mother," I said knowingly.
"That's strange isn't it? I suppose there's still a lot unsaid between us."
"The good news is that you and Xena will have a great deal of time to spend with one another as we travel. Take advantage of that, Solan. It may not come again. I know Xena wishes for time with you as well."
"Do you ever feel stupid talking to her, Gabrielle? I mean, she doesn't say much back. She just kind of looks at me like she's studying me or something."
His observation was accurate. I always thought that was why Xena and I got along so well. Neither one of us felt inclined toward useless chatter. Actually, I found that the more comfortable I became with Xena, the more animated I became.
"That's just her way, Solan. It's not as though she's judging you with her silence. When she has something to say, she'll say it. She's spent most of her life in a world where saying the wrong word might destroy her, or at the very least, create fodder for her enemies. That's a hard habit to change over the space of several moons. Talk to her anyway. Give her a chance, Solan. I don't think she'll disappoint you."
Solan shook his head. It appeared to be a gesture similar to disbelief. "I don't know why, but I always feel better having talked to you."
"I'm glad I could help."
"Now how about letting me help you. What's wrong, Gabrielle? I mean, why are you so tired?"
"It's nothing," I said as casually as possible. "I haven't been sleeping well."
"Why?" he prodded.
"I--I can't really say. It's a dark part of my past that won't stay buried."
"Then perhaps you should bring it out into the light. Maybe examination will have a cleansing effect."
I looked at him in mild surprise. The words sounded similar to something Yu Pan might have said. "When did you become such a philosopher?"
"I must have been taking lessons from you. Don't skirt my questions, Gabrielle. Gods, you're good at that." He laughed lightly.
I lowered my head, a submissive habit from my past. I'd been caught at my evasion. Solan, like his mother had an uncanny talent for reading me so well. There were times when I felt completely transparent to Xena's perceptive gaze.
"So?" he asked again.
"I--I don't think I can talk about it Solan. It's very personal. Please don't take offense."
"It's all right, Gabrielle, I understand."
I could tell from the slightly pained look on his face that he truly did understand. Solan remembered me as a slave on that pirate ship. It was apparent that he knew the ways I had suffered at my owner's hands.
"Have you spoken to Mother about any of this?"
I shook my head in response.
"You should, you know."
"I know. It's just that--"
"Give her a chance, Gabrielle. I don't think she'll disappoint you."
Solan came back at me with my own words. Yes, he was Xena's son. It was obvious from his sparkling blue eyes and teasing smile.
"I know you're right. Besides sharing my problem, Xena has a right to know what's been bothering me." I reached out and squeezed Solan's hand. "Thank you for caring enough to ask."
"Hey, didn't you teach me that's what friends do for each other?"
I walked back in to the castle with Solan and, along the way, we chatted about our upcoming trip. I listened to his words, but in the back of my mind, I was planning exactly how I would tell Xena of my secret. I didn't doubt her love for me, but could even Xena forgive me for a crime such as this?
To be continued in : Chapter 2: No more be grieved at that which thou hast done
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