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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 17: Dark House By Which Once More I Stand...
Goodbyes are always difficult, even more so when friendships and acquaintances have been made. The moment had arrived for us to take our leave of Athens. We spent the last fortnight tying up the many loose ends that a battle can bring. Darius was uppermost on my mind. If he had the balls to attack the Empire at our strong point, he certainly wouldn't think twice about invading surrounding lands and allies. I commissioned a set of emissaries to travel across our own provinces and surrounding lands. They set out immediately, each with a scroll sealed with my crest. The scrolls contained nothing more than the facts of the unprovoked attack by Persia against the Greek Empire. We were strong, and I ruled two-thirds of the known world. I felt assured that not many independent lands would risk alienating the Empire by giving Darius sanctuary or providing an army to him.
I also put new laws in place, witnessed petitions from people who would not have had the means to travel to Corinth, and appropriated monies for a variety of projects. We also decided to enjoy ourselves. Gabrielle seemed more at home in her role as Queen and delighted in entertaining in our own home. The knowledge of who our true friends now were helped the situation. We all felt much more relaxed, which is why it surprised me when Gabrielle reminded me of the remaining portion of our trip.
As for myself, I hadn't been in much of a hurry to leave the city and our home in Athens. I admit, I believe I encouraged the easygoing attitude that prevailed around our household. Gabrielle gave in to my whim for a period, but soon enough, it became apparent even to her. I had been stalling.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked me as we sat on opposite sides of a King's Men board. I had finally gotten used to the fact that she usually won. It didn't bother me quite as much as it used to.
"Hhmm?" I hummed in a distracted fashion. When playing with Gabrielle, I simply couldn't let my attention lapse, even for a moment.
"About the rest of our trip "
"Have you well, planned which route we'll take?"
I'd been caught. To add to my discomfort, my mind was now far from the playing board. "Well I thought about maybe stopping at Delphi first."
"But, we hadn't planned on being away from Corinth that long, did we?"
"I don't know " I hedged, avoiding her eyes.
"Xena, are you trying to avoid going to Amphipolis?"
"What on earth makes you think such a thing?"
"Well, mostly because you're avoiding going to Amphipolis," she replied.
I looked at her with an arched eyebrow. "Very amusing. I take it you have a point you're trying to make?"
She opened her mouth, but I beat her to it. "And if you say the words 'avoiding going to Amphipolis' once more, I'm going to bed."
She closed her mouth and sat back. I loved being able to anticipate her. She gets that cute pout and crosses her arms. I knew she was thinking of a reply, one that was witty, yet not too biting. I waited for her response with some confidence, but I noticed that her shoulders had slumped and she appeared defeated. No, not defeated, but relaxed. Oh, no. Well, so much for expectations.
"I know what's wrong, Xena, and I want you to know that I do understand."
She blindsided me with compassion. I hadn't expected that.
"You may not realize it, but I'm just as afraid to go back home as you seem to be."
That confused me. Gabrielle hadn't acted in any way but with excitement over the prospect of returning to her birthplace. How could she dread returning home just as I?
"I didn't know you were feeling that, little one. Don't you want to go back home and see if your parents might still be around the area?"
I hadn't yet told Gabrielle that I knew her parents lived. I still felt the time wasn't right. I had hoped it to be after the stress of going to Amphipolis. My original plans had been to set camp outside Amphipolis, even though Potidaea was closer. They were each seaport towns, but Amphipolis provided a greater range of inns and taverns. It was also the harbor where most of the Empire's warships were built, and I wished to make an official visit. Potidaea, on the other hand, was a shipping harbor, too many strangers coming and going to make me comfortable. It would be no more than a day trip from Amphipolis to visit the farm outside of town where Gabrielle's parents lived.
"Yes and no," she replied. "I'm not sure how to describe it. Part of me can't wait, but there's another part of me that wonders if I tempt good fortune with this desire."
I smiled and nodded, rising and silently bidding her to follow me. We sat down once more on a small couch in front of the open doors to our private chamber's balcony. The warm breeze felt good and we settled into familiar positions before I spoke.
"I know exactly what you mean, love."
I hesitated. I hadn't yet talked of my own feelings about returning home. Gabrielle already knew why I left Amphipolis and that I had found my mother was still living there. The reason I hadn't had this particular conversation with Gabrielle earlier was that I hadn't yet examined my own feelings over the situation. I'd been so preoccupied since we left Corinth, leaving me little time for introspection.
"I think I know what you feel, anyway. That is if it's anything like I feel. I haven't really had time to feel elation or dread, but what I do feel is fear, I suppose. I'm just afraid, Gabrielle. I fear being turned away just as much as I do their acceptance."
"But, wouldn't that be better if they accepted you?" she asked.
"I'm not so sure. Acceptance brings with it certain responsibilities. What if I couldn't be the person they wanted me to be?"
"What if you never were the person they thought you to be," Gabrielle mused aloud, almost as if to herself.
"But, you're not afraid of anything, Xena." Gabrielle hugged me around the waist, her voice so full of innocence and trust that I actually wished her thinking it made it so.
I laughed and held her close to me, kissing the top of her head. "I only wish that your words were as true as you seem to believe they are. You give me too much credit, little one."
"Oh, I know you're human and I don't mean to make you think that I believe otherwise. It's just that most of the time that's the way my heart feels, as though you can do anything."
"Some days I feel I can, but that's because of you. You give me power, Gabrielle. I know that sounds incredibly sentimental, like something some has-been poet might say, but it's true. In reality, you may not be everything that I think you are, but the point is that I believe it and that makes it true to me."
We enjoyed the silence for a few moments more and I made the decision. "I suppose we should both bury some demons and just go home."
"Home to Corinth, or home to Amphipolis?" she asked.
"Home to Amphipolis," I replied in a wistful tone that surprised even me.
Finally, the day had come. We left Athens in much the same fashion as we had left Corinth. Once we knew we were leaving a great deal had to be done to accommodate a caravan of our size. Delia stepped in to help us once more. I didn't want to think what we would ever do without her, so completely did she run things when Gabrielle and I had to be absent, or were merely overwhelmed.
Gabrielle and I rode side by side and I was reminded of the day we started out on our little tour of the Empire. In much the same manner as she had on that first day, Gabrielle tugged at the collar of her armored vest. Over a full moon had passed since we had started out and the summer heat of Greece was now at its full might.
"Ugh," Gabrielle commented. "Maybe we should do what they do in the Land of the Pharaohs, sleep all day and travel at night."
"Gabrielle, you wouldn't have to wear that if you rode with Delia or the others in one of the wagons."
She scrunched up her nose and I had to bite the inside of my cheek not to laugh at her expression.
"I wouldn't look like much of a tough queen, hiding inside a wagon," she replied.
I smiled to myself. It appeared that my wife had developed something of a reputation during the battle as a young woman who could take care of herself. I leaned over my saddle to whisper to her. "You won't look like much of a tough queen when you pass out and fall off your horse either."
"Oh, very funny." She pushed me away, but at least she laughed at my jest.
I pulled a small piece of cloth from my saddlebag and used the waterskin tied to my saddle horn to wet the fabric.
"Here, love. Tie this around your neck."
She took the offering and did as I instructed. "Much better." She smiled and in only moments, she looked happier, if not fresher.
We were both rather surprised to see my trusted man, Acasia, ride up alongside us. His horse fell into step easily beside me.
"Lord Conqueror Queen Gabrielle," he acknowledged us with his customary reserve.
I nodded at the man. "Acasia, how good to see you. You missed a little excitement in Athens."
"I understand it was a roaring good fight, Conqueror."
"Any fight we win is a good one. Did you obtain the package I requested?"
"Aye, Conqueror. No trouble at all picking it up. It's been delivered safely, just as you asked."
Gabrielle surprised me by greeting him quite cordially. In fact, she addressed him with as much enthusiasm as an old friend. She, who took a step backward whenever Acasia entered a room.
"Acasia, good morning!"
He looked at me and I merely shrugged, as if to say he was on his own.
"I met a friend of yours in Athens," Gabrielle said. "Periander."
I gave her credit. She tactfully avoided saying anything more as to the exact nature of the relationship between Acasia and Periander. I'm sure she wanted him to take the lead as to how much he would divulge or how comfortable he felt acknowledging it.
"Aye," Acasia replied, looking around uncertainly.
"We became quite good friends. I'm afraid I'll miss him terribly. He has led an amazing life," she finished.
Acasia came as close to smiling as I think I had ever seen. "That he has, your Highness. He has a thousand stories and he loves to tell them all. I think some people look at him as simply a keeper of the archives."
"I suppose that at one time or another, Acasia, we have all been guilty of judging a scroll by the case it's carried in. It's not right, but it's the nature of humans. The good thing is that most of us learn from our mistakes."
Gabrielle's small statement left us speechless. I easily saw that she meant it as an apology of sorts to the man who she had judged by his physical appearance. Gladly, the expression on Acasia's face told me that he had seen the double meaning in Gabrielle's words, too. Before either of us had a chance to comment, she continued.
"Well, I suppose I should see how the others are managing and leave you two to your business. That way you won't have to talk in cryptic messages about packages being delivered and such."
She rode off toward the wagons leaving Acasia and me staring back at her in wonder.
"A pretty amazing woman herself," he said.
"You don't know the half of it," I replied.
"So, did you have any trouble getting her there?"
"She bit me." Acasia's pleasant demeanor grew sour as he spoke.
"What?" I managed to get out through my laughter.
"I'll tell you, Conqueror, that girl may have the face of an angel, but she's surely a messenger from Tartarus. I went without sleep for three days until we reached the Amazon Territory. The moment I'd turn away from her she would be off into something. And she's strong, too. A little bit of nothing, but she squirmed in my grasp and scratched at me like a bobcat."
I found it extremely difficult to stop my laughter. My mind conjured up an image of Acasia trying to hold off a five-year-old girl. Every time I thought of it, I would break into fits of laughter once more.
"Just wait. The next time she'll be your problem," he said and I laughed even more.
"Please, man, I do apologize, but it's hard to imagine a little girl with that much power."
"Begging your pardon, Conqueror, but that's because you've never had children. I'll warrant that the first time that girl blinks those big green eyes in your direction, then you'll realize the strength of her power."
I pictured a tiny version of Gabrielle pleading her innocence while gazing at me with those deep green eyes. Yes, Acasia was right. I would be quite lost.
"Any new orders, Conqueror?" Acasia's voice pulled me into focus again.
"Ah, yes. I received word from the Governor in Ambracia that he has no doctor living in his palace. He believes that the man I referred to died some time ago."
"Forgive me, Conqueror, but your Governor lies. I saw the Nubian doctor with my own eyes held within the protection of palace guards."
"Yes, I know you did, Acasia, and I'm not questioning your word. It seems, though, that the Governor wishes to hide the doctor from me for some reason or another. What I want to learn is why."
"Shall I start for Ambracia directly, My Lord?"
"Actually, no. I may need you with us for a spell. Do you have a team of men whom you can trust to follow your orders to the letter?"
"Men I've trained myself."
"Good. I want these men to kidnap the doctor from the palace in Ambracia. They must not be caught. I don't want him harmed, but I want this doctor brought to the camps where we'll be outside of Amphipolis. I plan to discover if he went to the Governor, seeking protection or if the Governor is hiding him for a reason of his own. Any questions?"
"None, My Lord. I'll make it so."
We were only candlemarks away from Amphipolis. I would have been able to guess at our proximity even had I not recognized the familiar scenery and landmarks. My heart told me that we were close. It had progressively grown heavier with each pass of the moon. Gabrielle had tried to make the journey lighter, occasionally coaxing me away from my burdensome thoughts, but after a certain point, even she gave up. I think that, she too, became overwhelmed with her own concerns about returning to the region.
I met with Atrius as we rode and Gabrielle left us without as much as a question. Most unlike her, but then I'm sure my mood was reason enough for her to want a respite.
"Scouts have found an excellent site to make camp," Atrius said.
"Do they know we're coming?" I asked. "The people of the town?" My captain had visited the town with a team of men to assess our need for protection and provisions.
"From what I heard they've been planning for it since you left Athens. Seems as though the whole town is in a sort of festival mood."
"Have you heard any sort of talk on the streets?"
I wasn't exactly sure how to verbalize what I wanted to know. Atrius knew who Cyrene was and he knew most of my past, but I still didn't enjoy displaying this kind of uncertainty and doubt around anyone other than Gabrielle.
"It's been nearly thirty seasons, Xena," he said. "A long time since you left."
"I terrorized this region for another fifteen seasons after the day I left home. When you bring that much shame to your people they develop long memories."
"For some, true. For most, they know only what you've done in the last few seasons. The young know only that you are the woman who abolished slavery and brought much prosperity to the Empire."
"You'd be surprised at how small towns like to pass down stories. I'm sure I grew more evil with each retelling," I replied. "Did you stop at the inn?"
"I did. The atmosphere is about the same as the town. I certainly heard no comments against either you or the Empire. You can bet that in a place where the ale flows so freely if you had dissenters, they would have been wagging their tongues."
"Did you see her?" I asked.
"Aye, Conqueror. She served us food and drinks herself. She looks quite well and the family resemblance is easy to see. Frankly, she looks to be a good ten or fifteen seasons younger than she is. I'm no expert when it comes to a woman's age, but that's how it looked to me is all."
"Did she say anything regarding your insignia?" I asked, indicating with my eyes the mark of the Conqueror that Atrius bore on his armor.
"She saw, and it was apparent she knew who we were, but "
Atrius looked over at me and gave me a small smile. "She's like her daughter in that respect keeps her own counsel."
I smiled back, feeling a strange sort of familial pride in his observation. I'm not sure why, especially since it had been nearly thirty seasons since I saw her last.
"I suppose since she didn't set the hounds after you there's hope, eh?"
"Let's ride in tomorrow at midmorning. As few soldiers as you expect to need. I don't want this to be a procession. We can make a bigger affair out of it when I visit the ships, but not the inn. It's sort of well, personal. Does that make sense?"
"Completely. Would you like moral support?"
"You mean some friendly faces in the crowd? Yes, by all means. Ask Anya and the children, Delia, too. Atrius?"
"All of you have been the only family I've known in nearly a lifetime. I'd like to share the good parts of my home village with you."
His visage softened and if I ever thought to see the man cry, it was in his eyes at that moment. His eyes grew misty and he held out his hand. I grasped his forearm and we squeezed.
"Wherever you go, Xena, whatever trials you face, I'll be at your back me and mine."
I nodded, unable to speak for fear of breaking down. I think he knew that. We rode the rest of the way in silence, yet I continued to think on the exchange. For most of my life, I had pushed aside bonds of friendship and did nothing to engender the love of family. Now, when my life lay closer to the end than the beginning, I realized just how important such things were. I nodded and laughed to myself. If I had only known, as a young warlord, just how much strength and power existed from such relationships, I could have been the happiest and strongest of all warriors.
We camped upon a rise just outside of Amphipolis, one that looked down into the valley and the center of town. Sylla had tied open the front entrance of our tent in order to allow in what little breeze existed. I looked through the opening and watched the lights that dotted the valley below, and I sat there worrying about what the following day would bring.
The slight breeze carried the sounds of laughter and music up to our camp. I had given Atrius permission for his soldiers to enjoy the town, but they were under orders to uphold a strict code of behavior. I knew how soldiers, whether they were men or women, acted while on a furlough. I did not intend to let them run wild. I suppose I thought that their behavior reflected upon me, too. Suddenly I felt myself acting as though everything I did here might come under the discriminating gaze of Cyrene, my mother.
"Hi there, remember me? I'm the one you share this tent with."
Gabrielle's voice registered in my head heartbeats before my eyes focused on the fingers she wiggled under my nose. I laughed at her and she seemed pleased that she could alter my humor, if only the tiniest bit.
"I'm sorry, love. I've been neglecting you I'm afraid," I told her.
"Xena, I wish there was some way I could make you feel better," Gabrielle said.
"Well," I drawled, raising my eyebrows suggestively.
She giggled. "Is that the only thing you have on your mind?"
"Not the only thing, but by far the best thing."
"Here, I made you something to drink," she said. She placed the mugs on a small table and sat down beside me on the low couch upon which I half sat, half reclined.
I took a sip and enjoyed the aroma and warmth of the brew.
"What do you think?" she asked.
Suddenly I was suspicious. "This isn't one of Yu Pan's magic teas, is it?"
"I wasn't aware he had any magic teas," she answered me with a coy expression. "No, love," she finally laughed aloud. "It's just white peony."
"One of your own?" I asked. I knew Gabrielle liked to cultivate herbs and flowers to create her own tea blends.
"Yes. It will relax you a bit without making you too sleepy."
We finished our drinks and settled back onto the couch. Instead of snuggling against me and lowering her head to her customary spot on my shoulder, she sat back and bid me to lean against her. I looked at the open entrance to our tent a little self consciously, but just as quickly dismissed the thought of embarrassment should anyone see us. Hades take them! I thought, while taking a deep breath and lying against Gabrielle's shoulder. My subjects, as well as my peers, would soon learn that I was the Conqueror when I ran the Empire, but I was simply Gabrielle's spouse in the privacy of our home.
"What can I do to help," she whispered as she let her fingers slide through my hair.
"I'm not sure. Trust me, love, if there was something that could be done to rid me of these butterflies doing somersaults in my stomach, I'd try it."
I felt Gabrielle take a deep breath as she prepared to speak. The action told me that she felt she needed to measure her words carefully.
"Xena, are you afraid?"
"Terrified," I admitted uncharacteristically.
"So, what do you fear the most about the situation?" she asked. She continued to stroke my hair and the easy touches relaxed me more than I thought anything could.
"It's the not knowing. Not knowing what to say, what I should do, or how she'll react. I just I don't know what's going to happen."
"What do you want to happen?"
"I want everything to be perfect, of course."
"Okay, now take one big step back into reality."
I looked up just in time to see her smile and wink at me.
"I think you know what I mean," she began. "You and I both know that situations rarely happen just as we'd like them to, and especially not perfectly."
"All right. Well, in a perfect world I'd like to to have my mother back. In reality, I'd settle for her not setting the hounds out after me."
"Okay, that's something we can work with. Why don't we try to shoot for something in between those two? How about if we go to the inn and simply make some introductions? You both know who each other are so all you have to say is 'hello, mother'."
"Maybe I should call her Cyrene."
"Did you ever call her that before?"
"You keep trying to make this harder than it has to be, my love."
"You mean you just want me to go down there without any sort of plan?" I asked, rising to look at her.
She smiled and gently grazed my cheek with the backs of her fingers. "That's why I beat you at King's Men. Did you know that?"
"Because I like to have a plan? I beg to differ. Gabrielle, on the battlefield--"
"On the battlefield you don't make plans. You adjust to strategies."
I stopped and looked at her in silence. Her words made sense, but I couldn't believe that my wife, a former slave was lecturing me on war stratagems. "Go on," I couldn't keep myself from saying.
"You've read the same war histories that I have. Caesar Alexander they were good leaders and warriors, yet you defeated them. They each had the same flaw. They were inflexible. They made battle plans, some were quite brilliant, but when someone threw them a different look, such as the Conqueror did, they were unable to adjust. Perhaps it was their own arrogance, but they each seemed unable to turn away from their plans. It became their undoing."
"When we play King's Men, don't you make some sort of a plan? Like if I move this way, you' move--"
"I know what my ultimate plan is, it's to capture the Queen," she said.
"How do you decide what your move will be, and so fast?" I asked.
"I simply adjust the board based on my opponent's move."
"But, then you're just reacting." I sat back, speechless. We had gotten so far off the original subject I almost couldn't remember what we'd been talking about. I only knew that Gabrielle's theories on battle and strategy were fascinating. The most interesting part was that they actually worked, on a game board, anyway.
"To a certain extent, that's right. Most importantly, I'm flexible."
"You mean, I should go down there tomorrow, say 'hi mother, this is my family' and just wait to see what happens?"
"Exactly," Gabrielle answered.
"How do people live like that?"
"You mean without thinking every single move and action to death?" She smiled slightly as if to tell me she was joking.
"Very amusing. Where did you say you were sleeping tonight?" I answered.
We both laughed and I did indeed feel lighter. I wasn't sure if it would last, but at least I would have Gabrielle and my friends beside me through the experience.
When we lay down to sleep a short time later I thought of the reasons I had previously used to avoid even thinking about returning home. I had meant to go back many times. There had been occasions when I had grown homesick or merely tired of the endless carnage my army engaged in with every league we crossed. There were even times when I just wanted to be a daughter again. Those moments would pass, however, and I would convince myself that there would never be a safe haven for me in Amphipolis again. It was not meant to be, but why then hadn't I ever come to terms with that? Why had I still been hoping that maybe someday, someday she would forget the pain and the anguish, the shame I had brought upon my kinsmen. That someday she might simply want to call me daughter one last time.
Everything was so green. The endless sheep pastures, the trees that dotted the hillsides. The fields of honey-colored wheat and the perfectly blue sky complimented the lush greenery. There was simply no better day to return home. The odors, freshly cut hay and summer lilies in bloom, brought me back to a time when the only responsibilities in life I had were to run and play.
The town was cleaner than most, probably because they knew we were coming. Amphipolis had grown over the seasons and many, if not most, of the buildings looked unfamiliar to me. There were a few that stood out in my memory and I was curious to know if the old healer who had taught me the way still lived. Did the smithy that made my first sword teach anyone his craft, and whatever happened to old Crassius who was the only merchant in town at that time?
"How does it seem?" Gabrielle asked. "After so many seasons."
She rode beside me, yet I'm afraid I had been so deep in my own memories that I had nearly forgotten she was there.
"Small," I replied. "Everything seems so much smaller."
There it was, the Golden Gauntlet Inn. It had started out as a simple lodging for sailors whose ships dropped anchor in the small, but busy port that was Amphipolis. I never even knew why Cyrene had named the place as she did. As the seasons passed, the inn grew in size and reputation. She added a tavern, more rooms, and a larger dining area. As a young girl, I remembered hearing folks say that it was the best lodging and food in all Macedon and Thrace.
We dismounted in front of the inn and I listened as Atrius gave orders to the soldiers and our personal guard. Gabrielle's Amazons took their directions from Ephiny. We positioned the soldiers all around the inn, but the only people inside would be Gabrielle, myself, and those we considered family. Atrius and Anya stood beside us with Delia. They knew we were coming, Cyrene, and her family. I didn't want her to be surprised or maybe I didn't want my mother reminding me that she had disowned me in front of a tavern full of patrons.
"How do I look?" Gabrielle asked me.
"Beautiful," I answered. She wore the same traveling clothes as I, not wanting any pretense of royalty.
"Good answer, Conqueror. You look quite beautiful yourself."
"Well, thank you."
"How do you feel?" she asked, giving my hand a squeeze.
"Surprisingly good. What happens happens. Right?"
"Absolutely. Xena?" Gabrielle called back to me as I turned. "I love you," she said quietly.
"I love you, too, little one. Thanks for standing by me."
"I wouldn't consider it any other way."
She made the statement with such a tone of strength and finality. I thought back to the time we first met and I wondered who had really belonged to whom. Few people might ever see it, but Gabrielle's power, the energy that she kept hidden from most of the world was a force that I almost envied. I may have had the unnatural physical power, surely a gift from the Gods, but Gabrielle had that unseen intensity. It was a calmness that lay just beneath the surface of her quiet demeanor. Where I might command, she would sway. When I would muscle my way through, she would use tact and persuasion. My Queen was subtle, but her might was no less than my own.
I opened the door to the inn and allowed the other women to enter before me. Gabrielle, Delia, Anya, and Sylla entered the building followed by Yu Pan, Solan, Atrius, and finally, myself. Atrius wasn't accustomed to going before me and I think he felt a little strange about it. To be honest, I believe I simply wanted to put off the inevitable for a little longer. Ephiny and the young Amazon, Mika, slipped in behind us. They were loathe to leave their Queen unprotected and so I told Ephiny that she and one other were invited to our gathering.
We chose to enter through the tavern and when I stepped through the door a plethora of memories assaulted my psyche at once. It was different and yet unchanged. Without warning of any kind, I had stepped back thirty seasons. The tables and wooden booths were all empty, but the unmistakable and tantalizing odor of roasted lamb floated into the room from the kitchen.
Standing before us were a young man and woman who looked as nervous as the rest of us. Cyrene was not present, but the two constantly looked back to the kitchen. I knew, just as in the past, that is where my mother would be, preparing, and supervising the meals for the day. My friends and family looked to me to take the lead, perhaps without realizing that I was as much a stranger here as they.
The young man looked to be no more than twelve. He had bright blue eyes, the color of my own and dark hair that was a mass of curls atop his head. He had an intelligent face and a perpetual grin as if he was always amused. I felt a sharp pang at the sight of this youngster whose face reminded me so much of my long dead brother, Lyceus.
The girl was different. She looked at me with fire in her eyes and I knew without question that she was my sister. I saw Cyrene in the girl's face and the line of her proud shoulders, held stiff and high. I didn't blame her for the way in which she looked at me. I suppose if our positions had been reversed, I would have been looking at her in much the same manner. I didn't know what or how much she knew of me, but at the very least, she knew that I was the woman who had caused her mother great pain.
She passed through the beaded curtain that separated the great room from the kitchen, looking as she did that last day. She wore a simple cloth blouse and skirt, blue - her favorite color. For a moment, I thought that no time at all had passed. For just that one moment, I was fifteen and I had slipped back into the house to return to my own bed instead of making the pact with Ares that would leave me forever scarred. The moment went by, however, and there was simply a woman in her sixty-third summer standing before us. She was tall, but not nearly as tall as I was. Her hair had a sheen to it that indicated the lawsonia leaves she must have boiled and used to rinse the gray away. It was a common practice among noble born women and one I expected to have to try myself one day soon. Cyrene's experience as a healer must have given her the knowledge.
Cyrene removed the towel from her waist and slowly wiped her hands, setting the rag upon the long wooden bar that ran along the back wall. She looked around the room once until her eyes found mine. They locked for heartbeats that felt like so much more. Her face was unreadable, as I saw neither disgust nor remorse in her expression, which made me all the more nervous.
"Selene Cor, come here," Cyrene called her children to stand beside her.
I looked at Gabrielle, to find her already watching me. She waited for me, but I felt as though my boots had been nailed to the floor. I slowly moved toward Cyrene and her children as Gabrielle came to stand beside me. I took a deep breath and struggled to find my voice.
"Mother," I said with a slight nod.
She took a step closer to me. In the sunlit room, it was easy to see every detail of her face. Once she stood toe to toe with me, I knew how the day would turn out. It was very much like playing King's Men with Gabrielle. I knew I was destined to lose, but I forged ahead anyway. I owed my mother that much.
"How dare you call me that," she said from between clenched teeth.
"Cyrene, then," I answered in an even tone. I could not fault her for this behavior. "Cyrene, I--"
I saw it coming, but I did nothing. I suppose it was the only thing I had to give her with any meaning - retribution. She slapped me hard across the face, but unlike that day so many seasons past, I didn't run. There was no righteous anger burning in me this time, there was only hurt and a longing for something more. I suppose that's why I didn't stop her when she raised her hand and struck me a second time. On the third, someone else stepped in.
Gabrielle caught Cyrene's hand in mid arc and held it there. The old woman turned eyes of fire toward my wife, Cyrene's hand shaking with the effort to push forward. Gabrielle didn't even look as though she was trying. Calmly she held the arm and just as coolly she spoke.
"She won't stop you, but I will," Gabrielle said.
Cyrene and Gabrielle looked at one another and I stood there, unsure of what my role was in the scenario.
"You don't understand what a mother's anguish feels like," Cyrene said to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle smiled a bittersweet smile. Cyrene had no idea the anguish that Gabrielle had actually suffered. "Perhaps you're right, but you won't know that until you get to know me...know all of us. This isn't the way."
Gabrielle's hold on Cyrene's arm loosened and the old woman dropped her hand to hang limply at her side.
"And are you the one they call the Conqueror's whore?" she said to Gabrielle.
"Enough!" I stepped close enough to tower over my mother. "You can say what you will about me; you've earned that right, but not her. A woman as decent as this doesn't deserve your misplaced wrath."
"Mother?" the young man she called Cor took a wary step forward.
Cyrene woke from whatever painful haze had taken her and turned to the boy. "It's all right, Cor. It's all right. "You're right," she said to Gabrielle. "This isn't the way. What's done is done, I suppose," she finished, looking straight at me. "This is Coras, your brother, and this is Selene."
She held her hand out and the young woman stepped up beside Cyrene. "Their father was Philius. I'm sure you remember him. He had a sheep farm by the river. He caught the fever and died about five seasons ago."
"He was a good man," I recalled.
Cyrene wasn't screaming at me, but there was no affection in her tone, either. I could have been a long lost relative that she barely remembered for all the warmth in her voice. I knew that this might happen and I tried to take comfort in the fact that she was at least speaking to me.
"You look well," I said. Gods, it sounded so lame, but I was trying.
"Well enough, I suppose," she answered. "You're looking fit yourself."
"Fit enough for forty-four summers, I suppose." I grinned. I couldn't help it. For a moment I thought she would smile back, but it wasn't to be.
Selene barely nodded in my direction, but Coras looked as though his grin was going to split open his face. I instantly liked the boy. He looked as though he was holding back from fairly bursting with questions.
"Are you wearing it?" He finally asked.
"It?" I asked.
"The sword...the one with the lion's head."
"Oh," I smiled and pulled my leather vest to one side. Gleaming in the light, the silver lion's head upon the hilt of my sword fascinated the boy. Blue sapphire eyes twinkled in the sunlight shining into the room.
"Wicked," he exclaimed with a low whistle.
Gabrielle nudged my elbow and I realized that we were all simply standing there, again waiting for me to do something.
"Mo-- uhm, Cyrene, this is my wife and Queen, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smiled and held her hand out. They slowly shook hands.
"Your Highness," Cyrene said, looking uncomfortable. "I apologize for--"
"Please don't," Gabrielle replied. "It's an awkward situation for all of us, I suppose. And, I insist you call me Gabrielle all of you," she added for Selene and Coras.
Leave it to Gabrielle to get to the heart of the matter with no mucking about. Cyrene gave an easy sort of relaxed smile for the first time since we'd been there and it heartened me somewhat. It gave her a look that reminded me more of the woman I knew than the tight-lipped stranger I now saw.
"Thank you," Cyrene answered. "And these others they work for you?"
"Work?" I looked around until I realized that she meant the others in the room. Funny, but it had only been a little over one season since Gabrielle had entered my life, and I had begun to temper my ways. It seemed like much more time had passed than that since I had thought of these people as working for me.
"Oh, no, mother " I slipped again, but she didn't seem to notice this time. "These are my friends. They've become my family over the seasons," I added.
I moved over near Delia and placed an arm on her shoulder. "This is Delia. Her husband, Galen, was my second in command for a long time before he fell in battle. I should think you two have a lot in common. Delia loves to cook and hides out in the kitchens all the time."
Delia chuckled at my comment and placed a hand atop my own. "It's an honor, Cyrene," she said as she shook hands with my mother, Coras, and Selene.
Cyrene looked confused and I would have loved to know what she was thinking. I'm sure that she had dismissed the changes she had heard about in the Conqueror, knowing the unforgivable actions of my youth.
"This is Atrius, the captain of my army and my second in command. This is his wife, Anya, and their children. The strong young man is Petra " He smiled up at me and it became easy to forget that I was trying to impress anyone.
"And these two here " I bent down and scooped up my two favorite companions. Anya's girls had been given the freedom to roam the castle and they would simply show up in the Great Hall while I was listening to petitions. They would crawl into my lap as a stunned room looked on. They were the only two people here who had never known me as anything more than the tall woman who lifted them high in the air to make them laugh.
"They are let's see, I always forget their names," I said, which made the girls giggle.
"Conqwer you know us!" Alisha, the oldest said between her laughter.
"Oh, that's right, I do. This is Alisha and this little squiggly bundle is Ariana."
I placed the still laughing girls back on their feet and when I looked up, Cyrene was looking at me as if I was a complete stranger. In fact I was, to her anyway. What she knew of Xena the Lion, The Destroyer of Nations, and the Lord Conqueror must have baffled her in comparison to the woman who now stood before her.
"Let's see," I began again as I spun around to see who was next. "This is Sylla. She's been with me for quite some time and she's become a sort of personal assistant to Gabrielle."
I noticed that Selene whispered something in Cyrene's ear, nodding toward Ephiny and Mika. It was easy to see what intrigued her. Amazons came and went through Amphipolis, but they usually kept to themselves. The girl had probably seen them before and her expression told me that she wished to learn more. Strong female role models were not something you ran into everyday in Greece.
"I've seen this woman before," Cyrene indicated Ephiny. "Eating in the tavern."
"That's right," Ephiny spoke up. "We've enjoyed your hospitality before."
"This is Ephiny and Mika. They're Amazons from the territory to the north. Ephiny is Gabrielle's second in command."
"So, it's true then?" Selene looked at Gabrielle. A slight bit of awe tinged her voice. "You're an Amazon Queen?"
"Well, it's a long story," Gabrielle admitted, "But, yes, I am."
"Ah, and our friend Yu Pan. You would enjoy speaking with Master Yu Pan, mother. He has amazing abilities, one of which is the healing arts."
"The man with the big dragon painted on his wagon?" Cyrene asked. Again, she didn't say anything about my slip and so I felt that she had decided. I would call her mother.
"Indeed, that is I," Yu Pan answered.
"Yes," Cyrene nodded her head, obviously impressed. "I've heard of your skill. It would be an honor to discuss the healing arts with you."
I turned to Solan last and waved my fingers for him to come and stand beside me. "I'd like you to meet someone very special to me."
Solan stood beside me and for the first time since we had been reunited, I noticed that he stood nearly as tall as I. Obviously, a late spurt of growth had added a bit to his frame. He shook raven hair from his eyes and pretended not to be embarrassed at a mother's pride, for I recognized it as such when I saved his introduction until last.
"This is my son, Solan. Your grandson."
It became apparent to me at that moment that it would be children who would someday bring unity to our world. Nothing has the power to bring people together like a child, that bond that helps to dissipate our own meager longevity. I saw it in Cyrene's eyes, as she looked at me in silent question. I nodded and nudged Solan forward.
"Grandmother--or should I call you Cyrene?" He asked, nervously glancing back at me.
"Grandmother will do just fine," she said, reaching out to touch his cheek. "A grandchild," she said, looking first at me, and then Solan. "A grandchild," she repeated.
Solan grinned and I saw tears form in Cyrene's eyes. I looked at my son and realized that he looked exactly like me when he smiled like that. I felt for my mother just then. I couldn't be sure whether she cried from happiness or if it wasn't laced with sadness at seeing my young likeness before her. Whatever the emotion, it didn't stop the two from embracing. I wondered then if Solan would be enough to assuage the old woman's pain, a pain that I had been responsible for in the first place.
"Hey, I'm an uncle!" Cor said.
Everyone laughed at the youngster's comic expression. It broke the tension quite nicely.
"We never knew you had a child," Cyrene said to me.
"Another long story. I'll tell you all about it if you'd like," I surprised myself by saying. I never talked about myself and certainly never talked about private matters with anyone other than Gabrielle. I owed the old woman, however, and I tried to pay my debt, albeit unconsciously.
She nodded and I was uncertain whether it was an affirmative response at my invitation to talk or if she was simply acknowledging my words.
"You've camped outside of town?" she asked.
"Yes, on the rise by the lake. We offered Palentus and his family fifty talents for the use of the land."
"How long are you staying?"
"Well," I looked at Gabrielle who shrugged as though to say it was my call. "We aren't really in any hurry and we planned to go down to Potidaea for a couple of days."
"You should stay here at the inn for a time all of you," Cyrene said.
There wasn't any real emotion in her voice. It sounded as if she felt she had to make the offer. Her next words clarified it for me, however. It wasn't that Cyrene was being purposefully cold to me; it was that she didn't know how to display affection for me. Perhaps she was at war with herself and didn't know what she was supposed to feel for me.
"Stay, Xena," she said to me. I suppose it was as close as she could come to pleading. I saw it in her eyes. "I would like to get to know Solan and all of you." She looked around the room.
I looked at Gabrielle and this time our silent exchange made the decision her call.
"Gabrielle," Cyrene began. "Don't hold my earlier words against me. Have her stay."
"But all of us? It would be too much of an imposition," Gabrielle replied.
"Nonsense. The inn is nearly empty and we have room enough for everyone."
"Yes, please stay," Cor chimed in. His sister, Selene was silent, but I could see that she was curious about us.
"Nothing this exciting ever happens around here," Cor added.
Gabrielle laughed, reaching out to ruffle the curls atop his head. "Well, then, we couldn't possibly condemn you to such a boring existence." Gabrielle winked at Cyrene and for the first time that day, the older woman smiled fully.
"My Lord?" Gabrielle addressed me as she usually did when others were present.
"I think my Queen has spoken, besides I think it's a wonderful idea, too. As for everyone else, I'll leave it up to all of you."
They looked undecided. Delia spoke first.
"We wouldn't want to intrude upon your family," she said to Cyrene.
"You are my daughter's family and that means you would never be intruding," Cyrene replied.
Cyrene began to give directions to Coras as the others spoke of returning to camp to pack their necessities. I simply stood there, frozen in place, until I felt Gabrielle squeeze my hand.
"Hey, are you in there?" she whispered.
"Did she did she just call me her daughter?" I whispered back.
"It feels good, doesn't it?"
All I could do was nod. Cyrene's choice of words stunned me. She was still careful to avoid looking at me or even speaking to me directly. I knew we still had a long way to go, but this began with more promise than I could have possibly hoped.
"Welcome home, Xena," Coras said as he rushed past us out the door.
To be continued in :Chapter 18: Happy Those Early Days
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