Disclaimers: See Chapter One for all disclaimers, warnings, etc.
I only know how others feel about my stories from feedback. Let me know what you think. I'm at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 19: I Remember A House Where All Were Good"You drugged me," I said in a slow drawl to Gabrielle as she smiled down at me.
I toweled dry my hair; still damp from the bath I'd taken. Apollo had long since put the sun to rest yet I felt refreshed and oddly relaxed. A certain vigor had taken hold of me, I assumed from all the sleep I had obtained.
"Oh, please," she said as she stood before me. "Do you mean to tell me that you couldn't tell what was in it?"
"Willow and valerian," I responded. I had caught the scent of the willow powder and the faint aftertaste left by the crushed valerian root.
"I knew you wouldn't have taken it if you didn't feel as though you needed it."
"I believe I did need it, thank you, love."
"It gave me time to get to know your mother," Gabrielle said, to my instant dismay.
"What?" I tried to remove the discomforted tone from my voice, but I'm not certain I was successful.
"You act as though that bothers you," she replied.
"My mother and my wife left alone all day with nothing in common but me? Oh no, where did you get that idea?"
"Very amusing, my dear Conqueror. I admit, we did speak of you, but only briefly. Hard as it may be for your ego to believe, we found things to speak of other than you." She finished with a huge smile. Her relaxed and easy manner seemed as refreshing as my newfound energy and tranquility.
Suddenly, I wanted her. It wasn't merely a desire to make gentle love to my wife. It was a need, pure and simple, the need to take, to own. It had been quite some time since I'd felt such a raw surge of lust, but it wasn't the physical pleasure alone that struck at me. In the past, I had taken, but mixed into this current eclectic cluster of emotions was something new.
As I have said many times before, I have always taken care to do everything in my power not to make Gabrielle feel used, not to remind her of the days when a master could have her as rough or as coarsely as it pleased him.
I wanted her now, without even thinking of Gabrielle's past, if for no other reason than because this woman fueled my passion beyond anything I'd ever known. I stilled my passion long enough to at least return my mind back to my wife. I was uncertain about doing anything that might make Gabrielle believe that I wanted to treat her body as a mere possession. It's what I wanted at that moment, however. I wanted to claim her, to exert my right of ownership. I couldn't explain this sudden need to control. Frankly, I had no desire to examine my psyche at that moment. An ache had begun between my legs that bordered upon the painful.
My hands wanted nothing more than to be on her body, and I drew her in toward me, between my open legs. I felt the muscles in the backs of her legs through the dressing gown that she wore. When my hands stopped at her backside, I realized that she wore nothing underneath the robe. That fact alone caused a raging river to flow from my aroused sex, and I was soaking wet in record time.
Her fingers traced soft patterns against the skin of my exposed shoulders and I felt the muscles in my belly tighten and quiver. It took everything in me not to grab her and drive my hand into her, claiming what was mine. I held back, closing my eyes in an attempt to restrain those emotions.
Warm lips upon my own caused my eyes to reopen rather quickly. Gabrielle's tongue reached out and flicked against my upper lip. Her tongue pressed in, not pausing for permission to gain entrance to my mouth. Gods, if she only knew the fire she toyed with. We jousted for control, and as enjoyable as her questing tongue felt, I took no time at all in establishing the rules for the night's pleasure. I wondered if she would be agreeable to them.
"Latch the door," I said to her, pushing her away slightly. If she thought the tone of my voice odd in any way, she never said.
My eyes followed the sway of her hips as she walked across the room and closed both the top and bottom latches of the door. My heart tightened in my chest as I watched her. It was as if my emotions were at war. I wanted to take Gabrielle, to tease her, make her beg for release. There was another side to this desire that took me by surprise. Seeping into my conscious mind was a feeling that I could barely put explanation to. While feeling all this pent up need for control, I experienced something odd, the strange sensation that with Gabrielle, making love was never merely sex. In sharing my body with Gabrielle, torture became teasing, lust turned into longing, and the need to exert power was simply another way of giving without taking. I was simply amazed that I could attain such a personal epiphany in the throes of so much physical need.
By the time Gabrielle returned to our bed, I was in the process of tossing aside the towel I had wrapped around my body. She pushed the damp tendrils of hair away from my face and I saw a glimmer of something in her eyes. The emerald of her eyes darkened and I recognized what I could only describe as hunger. Could she need this as much as I?
I reached out and easily slipped free the loose knot of the dressing gown's belt. The robe opened and upon seeing Gabrielle's naked body, I felt lost. My eyes tracked upward, the smoothly shaven skin of her pubis, the flat, slightly muscled, abdomen, and the swell of two perfect breasts, hidden in part by the edges of her gown.
"Come down here," I said.
I pulled her down toward me, situating her so that she faced me, straddling my lap. I pushed the robe from her shoulders and she easily shrugged out of the clothing. I ran my hands down her smooth back, grabbing her backside and pulling her tightly to me. We both groaned at that first skin-to-skin contact.
As our tongues teased, first in one mouth then in another, I was careful not to allow Gabrielle to feel as though she held any control. Just as she lost herself to her passion and reached out to touch me, I drew back and captured her wandering hand in one of mine. I briefly wondered at the small mind game that I thought I had put behind me upon meeting Gabrielle. There it was again, rising up like a hissing cobra from the grass. It was somehow softer now. Upon closer inspection, the sharp taste to my sexual dominance had lessened.
My fingers slid into her golden hair, pulling her head backward. The lovely line of her exposed neck was simply too much to resist. My kisses started out gently enough, but in moments, my lips drew the skin of her neck in hard enough to mark her. Gabrielle's languid moan dispelled another passing thought, that perhaps my actions were too rough. The sound encouraged me and I felt a little better about loosing my libido. My hands tantalized, nails running along the line of Gabrielle's back, my palms massaging her backside, pulling her against my belly.
One of my hands massaged her breast as my mouth feasted upon the opposite one. I teased and tongued a pale-colored nipple. Wrapping my lips around the hardened nub, I sucked and pulled, at last tugging at the sensitive flesh with my teeth. While sucking none too gently on one nipple, I pinched the other between my fingers. Gabrielle's response was to grind her hips against me and cry out.
"Oh, Xena yes."
"Do you like it like this, Gabrielle?" I breathed against her ear.
"Yes, oh yes. Xena, please I I need you."
"Need me, love? How do you need me?"
"Oh, Gods," she moaned as I teased her with my words, continuing to stroke and torment her breasts.
"This like this," she gasped.
"This? Show me, Gabrielle," I responded, entreating her to take an active part in her pleasure. "Show me how you want me, love."
Gabrielle's free hand reached for mine, guiding me to her own center.
My fingers slid through drenched folds. "Gods, you're so wet," I groaned.
I easily slipped two fingers inside of her just as her mouth covered my own. The sound of pleasure that she made, the way her moan vibrated against my lips caused an additional flood of wetness from my own body.
"Oh, Gods, Xena harder. Gods, harder!"
I did as she asked. I made love to her with as much passion and physical force as her small body dictated. When she requested more, I gave it to her. This was no sensitive and kindhearted seduction. This was raw excitement, the sort of emotion that manipulated our eyesight into tunnel vision, narrowing our focus to only the absolute pleasure of the moment.
She came with a loud verbal cry, her climax almost sounding as if it had come upon her unawares. I trembled as I held her tightly, the touch of her skin setting my own aflame. I could barely speak a coherent thought, so great was my physical need. All my conscious thought had focused on the small area between my legs, flooded in moisture. I groaned as if in pain and slowly Gabrielle pulled back to look into my eyes.
"Xena?" she asked in a voice hoarse from passion.
"Your tongue, Gabrielle I want to feel your tongue on me."
I didn't ask or beg. I simply stated my desire, what would bring me the greatest pleasure at that moment. I had no doubt that Gabrielle would provide what I wanted, exactly when I wanted it. I had already imagined in my mind what that warm tongue would feel like, sucking at those drenched folds.
As for Gabrielle, there was no hesitation on her part. She slid to her knees before me. The expression on her face caused me to believe that she anticipated as much enjoyment from pleasuring me as she had received when I had pleasured her.
I spread my legs wide and watched as the palms of Gabrielle's hands slid along the inside of my thighs. She bent down to me, kissing and licking her way along the path that her hands had previously traveled. I groaned, not only at the feel of her, but of the sight, as well. Hearing the moaning sounds, that Gabrielle made as she moved closer to my center, merely intensified my excitement.
She explored and tasted my skin with her mouth, hands roaming up and across my stomach. It didn't take her long to reach all of the little places on my body that made me writhe in pleasure. Gabrielle took her time with slow, lingering caresses. The touches were intoxicating and infuriating at the same time. I wanted the pleasure to last forever, but at the same time, I couldn't reach the ultimate pleasure of my climax fast enough. By the time the tender strokes of Gabrielle fingers grazed the soaked curls between my thighs, my body already trembled in fiery expectation.
Never pausing for even a moment, Gabrielle slipped two and then three of her slender fingers inside of me.
"Fuck, yes!" I cried out as she wrapped her lips over the small hood of flesh and began to flick her tongue against it in a quick steady rhythm.
She continued the motion of slowly sliding out and then pressing in while continuing to suck at the pulsating bundle of nerves.
"Oh, yes!" I groaned even louder. The sensation of Gabrielle's fingers filling me competed with the sensation of a firm tongue lapping insistently at my center.
A furious heat encompassed my body. I could scarcely catch my breath, unable to focus on anything beyond the warm, liquid feel of Gabrielle's pleasuring. My body raced toward the swirling center of my being, to that hidden point where light and dark converged, where there was no beast within me, only untainted ecstasy.
I felt my inner muscles tighten, and then quiver uncontrollably. I took in one long gasp and threw back my head. The cry from my throat felt as though it had been ripped from my soul. Gabrielle's tongue went still, but she continued the motion of her hand, its steady rhythm continuing to move in and out of my body. Before my mind had come down from my first orgasm, another shook me completely.
My muscles held on to those fingers buried deeply inside. I wove my hand into the thick golden hair, pulling her head firmly against me and feeling that delicate tongue once more. I rocked my hips in keeping with the rhythm she used, touching me to my very core. With one more cry I arched my back, unable to hold back any longer and not even sure why I wished to in the first place.
I fell back onto the bed, Gabrielle climbing up beside me. We were both sated beyond measure, but we continued to spend the rest of the night touching and pleasuring one another. There was not so much urgency to our passions, but it felt as though our love grew stronger with every touch.
"I forbid you to leave the room this morning until you remove that grin from your face," Gabrielle admonished me.
I tried, but was unable to remove the ridiculously smug smile. Yesterday's enormous amount of slumber had instilled me with more stamina than I'd experienced in ages. We pleasured one another so many times that I lost count and, for the first time in our relationship, Gabrielle cried mercy, giving in to the need for rest before I did. Of course, being the naturally forgiving woman that I was, I hadn't wanted to toss that fact back into her face. Little did I realize that my haughty grin was a crystal clear reminder.
"What?" I attempted to appear innocent. I'd been working on just such a look for some time, and I was convinced that I'd finally perfected it.
"Don't even try that, my Conqueror," she said, easily seeing through my ruse. "You look about as innocent as a python caught in a bird's nest."
All right, I would have to go back to the practice arena to further work on my attempts at an innocuous expression. I tried to subtly express myself with words instead.
"My little one, I have no idea what you're talking about."
Gabrielle rewarded me with a glare. I would have to resort to emergency behavior. I pouted.
"Oh, stop that," she said through her laughter, flouncing down upon the bed beside me.
"Well, I'm just not sure I know how to act in the face of such accusations," I responded.
"All I know is that I have to walk out of this room today and face nearly all our friends and family, knowing full well that every one of them heard me scream and beg last evening as if I was a willing prisoner in a brothel."
The smile returned, which earned me a good-natured slap on the arm.
"Xena, have you no shame especially in your mother's house?"
"Nope. Gabrielle," I hurried to explain to her thoroughly crushed look. "It isn't as though we were the first married couple to enjoy pleasure in this inn. Plus, I don't know about you, and you'll probably think me mad or arrogant, but any day that I can hear sounds like those of last evening come from your lips, I consider it a good day, indeed. That I in particular caused those sounds you made, well, for that I consider myself a most fortunate woman."
Gabrielle smiled at me and followed it with a gentle kiss. "How is it your eloquence never deserts you when you're trying to talk your way out of something, my Conqueror?"
"I suppose the Gods just get tired of picking on me most days," I replied. "What have you planned for today?" I asked, changing the subject.
"I thought I'd spend some time with Selene."
"Selene?" I questioned. "Why?"
I knew what my tone said. It indicated that I might as well have said, why bother? It was a cruel thought, but still rather apt. I thought the girl had all the charm of a poisonous asp. In the little interaction I had with her since our arrival, she had displayed a total disdain for me.
"Xena," Gabrielle said in such a way that I recognized it as a chastisement. I knew that I deserved it.
"Oh, I know, but she's just so I mean that girl is--"
"Your sister?" Gabrielle asked.
"I suppose, as much as it pains me to say it."
"I think she envies you, love. Probably just a bit of sisterly jealousy."
"Envy? Me? What in Hades name for?"
"One very good reason that neither of you can do a thing to change. You were here first. You know, Cyrene told me that she's kept your room downstairs, just as you left it, for all these seasons."
"I know. I saw it the other morning. It was a little unnerving, but sort of reassuring at the same time."
"I think that might have affected Selene more than Cyrene realized."
"You should talk to her, Xena."
I tied off the laces of my leather trousers, preparing to leave the room without Gabrielle if I had to do. I was no more ready to have this conversation with Gabrielle than I was prepared to confront my half-sister.
We stood toe to toe, my much smaller wife and me. It felt like an eternity since I'd lost my temper, even longer since I'd directed it at her. I held tightly to the reins of my control, however. Gabrielle meant well, yet I didn't know exactly how to tell her that I simply wasn't ready for this, for the emotional toll that another family confrontation was certain to bring. Perhaps my expression told her what my tongue could not.
"I'm sorry," she said, lowering her head. "I didn't mean--"
"Neither did I." I reached down and kissed the top of her head. She looked up at me and once more, I realized that without saying a word, Gabrielle had known what was in my heart.
I kissed her forehead lightly. "I will do exactly as you say, love, I promise. It's not that I don't agree with you, but I'm just not ready. Not yet."
She nodded her head. "I understand. Forgive my impatience."
"Now, are you going to finish dressing, or do I leave you to walk into the dining room unescorted?"
"Oh, no you don't," she said past her laughter. "I'll only be a few more moments. I have no intention of walking into that room, filled with the jeering faces of our friends and family, without you beside me."
"I'll wager they heard nothing," I said in an attempt to reassure. I sat down to wait.
"Well, I hope you're right," she replied. "I suppose the only satisfaction I might have will be that they heard your cries right along with mine." She smiled one of those 'payback' smiles.
My happy expression slowly faded as I thought about her last statement.
"I told you so," Gabrielle just couldn't wait to say.
Chuckles and red-faced comments abounded the moment we sat down to a morning meal with the rest of our party.
"All right, I'll have no more nonsense at the table," Cyrene said as she sat down beside Gabrielle, patting her shoulder.
"I don't get it," Cor said to Atrius. "What's everybody laughing for?"
"Don't know, son. I didn't hear a thing last night," Atrius answered.
"That's because he was making more noise than the two of you," Solan leaned closer to me to say. His voice was just loud enough for the others to hear, however, and Anya's face turned as scarlet as the bowl of pomegranates.
"Cyrene is right. I'm amazed that intelligent adults have so little else to talk about," Delia said.
I have never seen grown people express so much chagrin in so little time. My mother was a stranger to many of those around the table, but Delia was a friend and mother figure to us all.
"I must learn your technique," Cyrene said, sharing a smile with Delia.
"Yes, well ahem," I cleared my throat, attempting to take back some control. "Atrius, have you notified the harbor and the Captain there?"
"Aye, Conqueror. Would you like to inspect the operations today?"
"Might be a good day for it," I replied, knowing that the harbor at Amphipolis would require a good two or three days to inspect.
The port was an important one to the welfare of the Empire and I wanted to concentrate on our mining and ship building operations there. Thrace was an important source of raw materials used in both these industries. The gold and silver mined from the Mt. Pangaeus district supplied a great deal of the Empire with metals. Gold was mostly decorative, but we used silver as money and bullion. My profile shone from where it had been stamped into the drachma, along with Athena's image on the reverse side. The smaller obols held my image and that of a lion on the reverse. There were many other types and denominations of silver coins, all with some traditional Greek design on them.
Timber was another valuable product found in abundance within the area of Thrace. Actually, the hills that surrounded Amphipolis had been nearly bare of wood at one time. I remembered a day when I had been forced to purchase timber from the Etruscans in order to build ships. Now, the forests grew so thick that it became a necessity to farm the timber. Warships were constructed right at the harbor in Amphipolis. Both the mining and ship building operations were extremely important to the Empire. It would never do to allow the officers and leaders of these industries think that the Empire was not always watching them.
"Solan, I'd like to introduce you to a few of the officers there. Are you up for it?"
"Master Yu Pan, you are welcome to join us, of course," I said.
"Thank you, Conqueror. I already have another invitation for the day, however."
"Master Yu Pan has been good enough to agree to visit with me today," Cyrene informed me. My mother had long been the healer for our village. She had been looking forward to sharing information with the well-known practitioner since his introduction.
I watched, from the corner of my eye, as Gabrielle chatted quietly with Selene. My sister looked uncomfortable and I could only wonder of what they spoke.
"And what will your Amazons be up to today, Ephiny?" I asked.
"We go where the Queen goes," she replied.
"That's wonderful Ephiny. We'll be able to use your help, I'm sure," Gabrielle said.
"Help?" Ephiny asked.
"Yes. I just told Selene that I would give her a hand this morning watching the children."
I always enjoyed seeing Ephiny's discomfort. I'm not sure why, but we had that sort of friendship. Perhaps it's something only understood between warriors, I don't know. What I do know is that the expression on the Amazon's face gave me a great deal of enjoyment.
"Selene runs sort of a community child care. It really helps out, especially during harvest when the women work in the fields during the day," Gabrielle explained.
"Well, that sounds wonderful, doesn't it Ephiny?" I said while trying to keep a straight face.
She glared at me, which only made it that much harder not to burst into laughter.
"Uhm," Cor straightened in his chair in an attempt to get my attention. "I could show you how to get down to the harbor," he finally said.
"But, I already know where the harbor is."
"Oh." He looked crestfallen. I didn't have the heart to prolong his misery.
"That doesn't mean I wouldn't like my brother's company, though."
Cor's smile lit up the room even more than the sunlight already filtering in through the windows. The boy was genuine and I couldn't quite help but like him. I found his energy and enthusiasm refreshing as well as contagious.
"Cor, have you forgotten about Altus?" Cyrene said.
"Oh, no," Cor answered.
"Altus the smith?" I asked.
"I'm working as his apprentice," Cor answered with an expression of pride.
"I'm impressed," I said.
"That's pretty tough work," Solan added.
"But, I have to work this morning, until midday. I can't go to the harbor with you." Cor's disappointment came through in his voice.
"So, Altus is still the smith, eh?" I repeated. "Well, I wouldn't mind paying him a visit. What to you say, Atrius, think we can postpone the inspection until this afternoon?"
"Aye, Conqueror. Easily enough."
"How about it, Cor? Why don't you take me along with you so I can visit Altus? That way we can all go down to the harbor this afternoon."
"Oh, that would be great, Xena--I mean, Conqueror."
I hadn't been the only one uncertain about the true nature of the relationship I had to these people, this family. Cor acted just as confused as I was.
"Cor, I'm your sister. There's no need for formality between us," I said. "Altus must be getting a little long in the tooth for smithy work."
"He's the best," Cor said. "He can make anything and he's as strong as a Minotaur."
"Well, we best be off, then," I said.
I kissed Gabrielle goodbye and slapped Ephiny on the back. "Have fun," I whispered to Ephiny.
Alerting Atrius as to exactly where I would be, Cor and I took off toward the center of town. I should have known that Atrius would be looking out for me. Four of my guard followed along at a discreet distance.
"Hey, Cor!" A small group of boys called out from behind us. "Is that your sister the Conqueror?"
They laughed heartily and I saw the tips of Cor's ears grow red. I suspected that Cor's insistence that his newfound sister was the ruler of the land had been met with some ridicule from his mates.
I turned around once the boys grew closer. I stood up straight and folded my arms across my chest. I expect I was an impressive sight, considering the tallest among them only came up to my shoulders. They looked like a string of trout, all staring at me wide-eyed with their mouths hanging open.
"L--Lord Conqueror," one boy finally managed. Soon they had all dropped to one knee. At least their parents had taught them manners.
"Get up, gentlemen. If you're friends of Cor's then you've no need to cower."
"Wow," one lad kept saying.
I smiled because I remembered what it was like to meet a full-fledged warrior for the first time, to have him acknowledge someone as insignificant as me. I felt as though the world had been mine that day, merely because a hero had spoken to me.
"Do you really live in a castle in Corinth?" one asked.
"Aye," I answered.
"And is it as huge as they say?" another asked as we all walked along.
"Well, I think I do remember getting lost in the halls a time or two."
"The sword," the shortest among them whispered to Cor. "You said she had the sword."
"Oh, you mean this?" I drew my weapon and held one hand up to the nearest guard. He had stepped forward, unsure of what I was doing.
I twirled my wrist, the large sword whistling through the air. "Here, Cor, why don't you show it to them." I handed the blade to my brother. I could see that he hadn't expected such weight.
"Careful now. The blade's damn sharp. Look, don't touch or you're likely to lose a finger," I said.
Each youngster stared at the weapon in turn and I finally took it from Cor's grasp. The boys realized they were all still standing there, staring. They all went their own ways, but I saw the way in which they looked at Cor. I hoped he would use the new respect that I had earned him wisely. He seemed like the sort who would.
We entered the large barn used by the smith. I smiled at the memories the place conjured up for me. It smelled of wood smoke and the back of my throat burned at the acrid odor of smelted metal. My mouth felt rather like I'd placed a silver drachma on my tongue.
Already sweltering hot inside the barn, Cor immediately stripped off his shirt and began to feed wood into the belly of a large log-fired forge making the temperature inside the building rise rather quickly. "Altus should be along shortly. He taught me how to get the fires hot enough, so he can start work as soon as he gets here."
I sat down atop an old barrel and removed my leather vest, rolling up my sleeves and loosening the ties of my shirt at the stifling heat. I glanced around the large building, at the weaponry, armor, and tools scattered around the building in various states of repair. Surrounding the smaller hand forge lay anvil, hammer, pliers and, other hand tools. The smith used a hand forge to work on things like horseshoes and plow shares. As if for proof, horseshoes of various sizes hung on all the rafters.
I examined a large sword with intricate metalwork around the hilt that lay on a table beside me. "He still does fantastic work," I said.
"You talk like you've seen his craft before. Do you know Altus, Xena?"
"That she does." A voice from the past answered Cor. "Lord Conqueror," Altus said, bowing low before me.
I rose and moved to where he stood. He must have been close to seventy seasons, but for all the time under his belt, he still appeared trim and well fit. The top of his head was smooth, but the hair on the sides of his head had long since gone gray.
"Altus, my friend, I was never more than Xena in my youth. Please think of me that way again."
"Xena," he said as he rose. He said my name with a sort of dreamy reflection on his face and I guessed that he must have been thinking on memories from days when we were both much younger.
He grasped my arm and we stood there without saying a word. I had a fondness for this old man. He had taught me much about using a sword when I was a youngster, and he was one of the few who had stood beside me back in the old days. He had felt as strongly about fighting off Cortese as I. Suddenly, I felt ashamed, mortified at what I had become over the seasons once I ran away from Amphipolis. I wondered what he had thought of me during that time and how disappointed he must have been. To my relief, he mentioned none of it.
"Well, one thing's certain. You've grown a bit since you left home," he said.
He laughed and I noticed for the first time that we were of nearly equal height.
"I've missed your talents, old friend. Now that I've returned, I plan to spend some money on your custom work."
"Working in the metal has always been my love, Xena, as well you know. I'd be happy to create anything you have need of. This one, though," he nodded his head in Cor's direction, "Has the talent in his blood. He does all my heavy work these days. By the time I'm ready for Hades, this will be Cor's business."
"A talented smith in the family? Now that is a boon." I winked at Cor, who responded with a broad smile.
I conversed with Altus and watched as he and Cor worked for most of the morning. The old man had been correct. Cor did seem to have an eye for how to work the metal. The boy had inherited a good work ethic from Cyrene and the respect he showed Altus impressed me. They stopped for a break at midmorning and we all sat outside, away from the heat of the smelting pots.
"Did Altus make that sword, Xena? The Lion one?" Cor asked. It made sense to me now as to why he had been so fascinated with my blade. His chosen profession gave him a natural admiration for such metalwork.
"That he did." I touched the lion's head and fingered the two sapphire eyes, thinking of the days when I had earned the name, Lion. Those were good days. I was a warrior, but one with honor and integrity. Back then, mothers wanted their daughters to be like me, a woman with strength enough to earn her own way in a land where men had always ruled. That was before I changed. Once the beast stole control of my life, those same mothers hid their daughters when I rode into town.
"I remember," Altus said, looking at me. "Hot, just like today it was. Funny, the things your memory keeps a hold of when you get older."
I smiled and nodded my head in agreement. "I remember blue."
"The color blue?" Cor asked.
He looked at Altus and I as though we had lost our senses. I didn't blame him. At his age, I'm sure I looked at my elders in the same way when they began reminiscing.
I chuckled at the boy's confusion. "Yes, the color blue, the sky, the ocean. I remember how blue they were that day. I wore blue silk pantaloons, too. The village council of Amphipolis presented me with this sword in appreciation for keeping the Thracian coast free of invaders."
"Persians?" Cor asked.
"Persians, Romans, Pirates Barbarians," I replied.
"Except them Britons, speaking of blue, of course." He laughed aloud at a memory from some long forgotten battle. "They preferred to fight on their own soil."
I grinned right back at the old man and turned to Cor to explain. "The Britons scared the Tartarus out of me the first time I did battle with them. The men wore women's skirts, if you can believe that, and they painted their faces this wicked blue color. Gods, what fighters they were. They had no fear of us at all."
"And the sword, Xena, does it really turn into a burning hot flame when you're in battle?" Cor asked.
He had such an innocently curious expression on his face that I didn't want to laugh, but Altus saved me the trouble. He roared with laughter.
"Boy, where in Hades did you hear such a thing?" He asked as he tried to regain his breath.
"Well, you know " Cor's face had turned scarlet and I lowered my head so that my hair covered my face, along with the smile that I wore.
"A guy hears things " He trailed off and dug into the soft earth with a twig he had picked up.
"What else have you heard about me, Cor?" I figured we might as well get it all into the open.
"Stuff " He continued to absently twirl the stick in the dirt.
"Coras," I prodded.
"Well Brentillius told me that you used to ride down from the sky and onto the battlefield in a chariot of flaming fire that Ares himself fashioned for you!" His sentence took on momentum with every word and his eyes were wide by the time he had finished.
Altus snorted. "Hades' teeth, boy. You been livin' with them women too long!"
"But, Brentillius said he saw it with his own eyes."
"Chances are he'd had his fill at the tavern before he saw it, too." Altus continued to laugh. "Cor, have you ever seen anything like that for yourself?"
"Well, no. I just thought that maybe "
"It's all right, Cor," I said. "We all want to believe in the fanciful now and again. I'm just a flesh and blood woman, though, and that's the truth. I've had more than a mortal's share of experience with Gods, but there's no flaming sword or chariot of fire. I hope you're not disappointed."
"Oh, no, not in you, Xena. Deep down, I think I knew that such things were impossible. I guess maybe I wanted to believe. It kinda made you like I don't know a hero or something."
I wondered what to say to my brother. What words of wisdom could I offer the boy that would tell him who I once was and who I became, and of all the days in between?
"My life has been far from a hero's tale, Cor. In fact, I'm not too proud of many parts and downright shamed by others. There are many things about who I am that I don't wish you to know of and, if you already know, I'd pray that you don't imitate. One thing I'm sure of, and that's that I will never be remembered as a hero."
"But, you changed," Cor said.
From unsuspecting lips can come the most profound of statements. Cor looked at me and I realized that if he knew of my past, the worst parts of it, he gave no indication at all. My heart felt lighter because of that fact. I had only ever experienced that sort of unconditional love from Gabrielle. Perhaps I felt good because of the simple idea that I had a little brother who loved me once more, but I think it went deeper. His love and acceptance also told me that perhaps I hadn't been born bad, fated to evil. If there was even one drop of the same blood flowing in each of us then maybe it meant that I had a chance. Maybe there was hope for me yet.
"Aye, Cor. I changed."
"And that is the mark of a man, or woman, of honor," Altus said.
We exchanged a look and the old man's expression told me that he believed my
past to be far behind me. His respect did more to encourage me than all the
words he could have thought to utter.
Back to the Academy