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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Eight advisors surrounded my desk in a semi-circle of chairs, as I fidgeted restlessly in my seat. I listened to the Minister of Finance go on about the amount of money the Empire could afford to send to the library in Athens. I was acting as a mediator between the Ministers of Education and Defense. Both of these advisors believed the extra silver should be spent within their own areas of concern. Actually, it was rather like refereeing two five year olds who both wanted the same toy.
The Minister of Education tried to explain his position. "Lord Conqueror, if I may--"
"You may not."
I was tired of these men and my patience had ended. A timid knock drew my attention from the Ministers and to the slowly opening door that joined my study and our private rooms.
Gabrielle stood in the doorway looking quite confused. The Ministers, realizing who stood at the entrance, all jumped to their feet.
"My Queen," a few of them uttered as they bowed out of respect.
Gabrielle looked at me and I watched as her expression quickly changed to one of fear. The look caused me to immediately recall that I had once told her to never interrupt me in a meeting. That time seemed like an eternity ago. I thought Gabrielle would have realized that those old rules weren't meant for her now, but it was most probably the sort of thing that she would have a hard time overcoming quickly.
"My Lord I'm terrible sorry I didn't--I had no idea--" Gabrielle quickly closed the door.
My advisors sat down and looked at me.
"Gabrielle," I called out.
The door swung open very slowly and Gabrielle stepped back into view. As before, the advisors stood up. Gabrielle stared at them oddly.
"What is it?" I think I was looking for an excuse to end the meeting that was going nowhere.
"I'm sorry, my Lord, it can wait." Again, Gabrielle left and closed the door behind her.
Once more, the men in my study sat.
Gabrielle's odd behavior, and my confused advisors' expressions, amused me. I couldn't help myself. I laughed as I called out Gabrielle's name. "Gabrielle!"
I rose and went to the door, opening it just as Gabrielle stepped through again. We barely avoided running into one another. Naturally, the men in the room stood up.
"It's all right, Gabrielle, we're almost finished here. Really, it's fine." I winked at her and she immediately smiled. I felt better having seen that smile.
Gabrielle leaned closer to me and whispered. "Why do they keep bobbing up and down like that?"
It took a great deal of strength not to burst into laughter. "You are the Queen of the Empire," I whispered back.
"What did you need, Gabrielle?" I prodded.
"Oh! I'm sorry, but I wanted to talk to you. It can wait."
"Nonsense. We're done here. Gentlemen " I held the door for Gabrielle as she passed through. "Discuss this amongst yourselves and see if you can manage to make an adult decision. I know that will be a strain on you, but see if you can manage it."
We left the room, but Gabrielle touched my elbow and turned back to my study. She wore a devilish grin. She opened the door to my study with a quick thrust and I saw my advisors rise from their chairs. Gabrielle's smile grew larger. It was then that I realized what she was about.
"Gabrielle," I drawled out in an amused warning tone. She looked like a child with a new toy. I fully expected her to continue to open and close the study door, simply to see the men jump from their chairs.
She nodded to the Ministers, closed the door, and once again turned toward me. "Sorry," she grinned. "I couldn't resist."
"Gabrielle, I'm certain it's not nearly as bad as you fear."
Alone in our private chambers, Gabrielle stood pacing before me. She had asked that I sit down and I chose the comfortable love seat. The only information I had been able to gather thus far had been a lot of hand wringing and confessions about what a terrible and loathsome person she was.
"You won't understand, Xena, I just know it. You'll hate me."
"You must not have much confidence in me, then, to believe such things." I shouldn't have baited her heart so, but I believed that my words were necessary to shock Gabrielle back to herself. My ploy worked.
"Oh, Xena, I'm so sorry!"
She flung herself into my arms and I felt her trembling. This wasn't like Gabrielle at all. She had become strong and assertive, not at all like the frightened girl I now held in my arms. The girl who now clung to me so desperately was that slave I had picked up over a summer ago. It worried me and suddenly I wondered just what it was that Gabrielle had to confess. She stammered a number of times, but seemed unable to begin.
"Gabrielle, you don't have to prepare a speech for me. Just begin anywhere. I'm an intelligent woman. I'll be able to figure it out. Now, just start anywhere you'd like, little one. It takes more than words to confuse me." I smiled and attempted to gentle her with reassurances I wasn't certain I felt. Gabrielle's reluctance to tell me what had made her feel this way had begun to disturb even me.
She tried to explain; at least I believe she was speaking a language I should have been able to understand. She spoke through her tears, and so quickly that I honestly didn't catch more than a word here and there. She sobbed for a while, went silent, and finally looked up at me.
What else could I do? "Okay, I lied. I'm sorry, Gabrielle, but I am confused. You're going to have to start at the beginning."
Gabrielle's body language told me that, for some reason, this conversation terrified her. I knew that her nightmares had returned. For the last few days, she had tossed fitfully in her sleep, finally screaming as she did this morning. I had foolishly assumed that returning to the place of her birth had brought them on. I had thought that they would disappear as soon as our travels began. Gabrielle's fear had pushed her back into the mindset of a fearful slave, begging my forgiveness. It broke my heart to see that.
I forced myself to remain calm for Gabrielle's sake. I wiped her eyes, that had begun to tear up again, and softly kissed her forehead. "It's all right, little one. Gabrielle, you're my wife now. You don't ever have to fear that you could do something to cause me to stop loving you. That simply will never happen. Understand?"
She nodded her head, but wouldn't meet my eyes.
"I want to hear what's troubling you so I can help, but I need you to go slowly and explain it all. Can you do that for me?"
She nodded again. "It hurts, and I'm so ashamed. I've done the most terrible thing and Athena will never forgive me for it."
"I understand that you feel that way, love, but let me judge for myself. Okay? Here, let's get comfortable."
She settled against me with her head on my chest. Perhaps she felt it easier to talk when she didn't have to look at me. Whatever the cause it worked to calm her enough to speak, although I could still feel her tears wet through the material of my shirt.
I gently stroked her hair. Silence prevailed for quite some time and even though I was nearly frantic to discover what this was all about; I allowed Gabrielle the time she needed.
She started quietly at first, so hushed that I barely knew she was speaking at all.
"I don't think Athena is going to give me a baby, Xena. I'm sure she feels too badly to come right out and say it to me, but I don't think she can forgive me. I'm so sorry. I wanted I so wanted to have a child who was a part of both of us."
"I know you do, love. Let's talk about this first part, though. Why would you feel that you've done something so unforgivable in Athena's eyes?"
"In anyone's eyes."
"Can you tell me?"
"I I killed a baby."
I could only think about Gabrielle's last words as they rolled through my mind. She clung to me and sobbed even harder than before. I was torn between discovering the truth of the situation and calmly comforting my wife. I had a hard time believing that my Gabrielle could actually be guilty of such a crime. Could her life before me have been such that she was that different of a person?
It took some time, but eventually Gabrielle ran out of tears to shed. She remained silent and so I began.
"Can you tell me, Gabrielle? Tell me whose baby you're talking about?"
The silence in the room threatened to swallow me whole. I felt the tiniest pull in my chest. I could picture myself in an earlier day pulling away and tossing Gabrielle to the ground for her supposed crime. An earlier day. I scarcely believed the progression of my own thoughts. Gods, it had been so long since I allowed my brain to overrule my emotions. I had a moment of personal epiphany as my mind spoke the loudest, reasoning with me to think before I acted. I did just that, and I realized that this was my Gabrielle and not some stranger. This was the woman whose heart I knew as well as my own. Could this Gabrielle possibly have committed such a deed? The answer was no. I would never believe it.
I didn't think that my feelings were because I didn't want to believe that Gabrielle was guilty. The more I thought on it the more I became convinced that Gabrielle had done something, but being Gabrielle, I was certain she had built the guilt associated with her actions to epic proportions. She was taking far more blame than due, but how to convince her of that? How was I to convince her that as a slave, her life was not her own. It had belonged to another and the things she had been forced to do were not hers to own responsibility to. If I couldn't persuade her, then at least I had to assure her that I didn't believe it.
"Can you talk to me, little one?" I gently lifted her chin until our eyes met.
Gabrielle looked at me and tears spilled from her green eyes and slid down her cheeks. I pulled a clean cloth from my trouser pocket and gave it to her. She used it to wipe her nose and eyes, but the tears silently continued.
"I--I'll try," she hiccupped. "It's s--so h--hard."
"I know, love. Let me ask you a few questions and then maybe you can tell me the whole story when you feel calmer. Is that okay?"
She looked at me oddly for a moment. I could only guess that she had fully anticipated my anger or some other emotion akin to it. I thought no worse of her for that expectation. I had a temper, even in my newly reformed state, that had previously led to many a person's demise.
"Was this truly your baby?"
My heart ached for her. "Gabrielle, did this baby die by your hand?"
"It might as well have," she quickly said in response.
"No, my question is, did you actually kill the child?"
A few long moments of silence passed. I believed that in that quiet Gabrielle was at war with herself. Knowing her gentle soul the way I did, I possessed a feeling that perhaps she didn't want to relieve herself of her guilt. Perhaps she thought the crime so heinous that a lifetime of guilt was indeed a just punishment.
Finally, Gabrielle looked at me and shook her head.
Thank the Gods! Now, to get Gabrielle to open up to me about the incident.
"Gabrielle, is this what your nightmares have been about?"
She nodded slowly, then gripped the cloth of my shirt in each of her hands. "Oh Xena, it was still all my fault, and Athena is punishing me for it."
Gabrielle clung tightly to me and I wrapped my arms securely around her. I held and kissed her in such a way as to show her that she would always be safe in my embrace.
"You feel too much, my love. Now," I tenderly smiled down at her and once more wiped her yes. "In seasons past, did you ever think that there would come a day when you would be accused of that? You who kept all her feelings locked securely away?"
She smiled a small bit through her tears. At least she was listening to me.
"Besides, you were the one to tell me that you didn't believe in Gods who punished in that way. Frankly, I've done things that were downright evil, but Athena never turned away from me, and I don't believe she has turned from you either."
"Even for this?"
Gods, what an innocent and childlike expression. I had forgotten that Gabrielle's maturity was all self taught. She had grown into a woman within the boundaries of being a slave. As intelligent and intuitive as she was, when it came to her own emotions, she was but a babe.
"Yes, little one, even for this."
"If I hadn't have wanted a baby so bad, it probably wouldn't have happened "
She trailed off and I could see she was struggling with the memories. The anguish was visible on her face, but she did seem slightly calmer. I waited patiently, hoping that she could divorce herself from the pain long enough to tell me the whole story.
It was some time later before she began. I had heard her speak like this before. The tone of her voice changed, the inflection altered enough to alert me that Gabrielle was outside herself. She often did this when speaking of a past that I knew was too painful for her to endure again, even in memories. She spoke as though she was telling another's tale and not her own.
"It's been five summers now. At the time, if I had ever dreamed that it could have all ended the way it had, I never would have done it, I swear. I belonged to Nahil Abdular. Do you remember him?"
"The Pirate King," I said.
I remembered why Gabrielle came to be my slave in the first place. I had been called to Acacia to fight off the marauding pirates who plagued the entire coast. When asked for assistance by the Governor of that area, I had decided to rid myself for the last time of this Pirate King, as he had become known along the desolate coast. He may have been royalty in the Land of the Eternal Desert and on the high seas, but his lifeblood flowed as easily as any other man's when he met with the end of my blade.
I fell quiet once more and eventually Gabrielle began again.
"I belonged to him. He had won me in a game of dice from my previous master, a man who had lost nearly all his wealth to drink and gambling. Nahil Abdular was not a nice man. If I displeased him in any way, and some days all it took was to move a step too slow, he would have me locked in one of the holds deep in the bowels of the ship. They were little more than cages, but he would leave me there for a day or two without food.
"I quickly learned what he expected, going so far as to anticipate his needs. Occasionally I spent a night in the hold, but those occurrences became less frequent as my time with him continued. He rewarded me for good behavior and gave me some leeway in regards to my run of the ship. I'm sure that was why I became lax. I allowed myself to become pregnant."
I could hear the pain and regret in her voice. It was always understood that a body slave knew enough about the ways of healers to prevent a pregnancy. There were herbs and devices used, but I had never been concerned enough to learn more. It was one worry my concubines never had. A slave, used only to pleasure her master, would be worthless if pregnant. If one was so foolish as to allow herself to get in this condition, surely she understood it would mean forfeiting her life.
"Why Gabrielle? You were always so smart to avoid conflict."
"I had heard Nahil Abdular speak so often of children, to carry on his royal blood. He had said that all of his wives, back in his homeland, were barren. I thought "
For the first time in her narrative Gabrielle looked and sounded as though she was truly speaking of her own life. A flicker of pain briefly became visible on her face.
"I thought that if I could give him the child, he would allow me to be a nursemaid, or even to teach the child. They were foolish thoughts. I realized that later, but I don't think I was in my right mind. My plan seemed to make so much sense at the time. Afterward it almost seemed as if I had been under a spell."
She grew silent again, staring down at her hands. After some time, I believed that she had given up on her tale. I couldn't let it go, not after we'd come so far. As with cauterizing a nasty wound, it was better to do it quickly and suffer the pain only once.
"What did he do when he found out?" I asked.
Another expression filled with anguish covered her face.
"I remember he was angrier than I had ever seen him before. It wasn't his habit to beat women. Something to do with his Gods, and so I thought I would only spend time in the ship's hold until the worst of his anger departed. It was different this time. He left me in that place until I couldn't even remember how many days I'd been there. I thought that was his plan, to leave me there until I died.
"One day the cell was opened and the guards returned me to my master's cabin. I was cleaned, fed, and a healer from Acacia was even called in to see me. I remember him because of his brown skin. He was an older man and I had never before seen a healer from the Land of the Pharaohs, but he treated me very kindly. He looked at me in the same way as Yu Pan had, almost fatherly. I fell asleep until the next day when Nahil Abdular came to speak with me. He told me that if I would bear him a male child he would keep the boy as his heir. If the child was a girl she would be drowned so as not to cause Nahil Abdular, or his line, any bad luck."
I was too afraid to ask, but yet I think I already knew the answer to my question. I didn't have to wait for long, as Gabrielle must have seen into my thoughts.
"The child was a girl," she answered flatly.
I sat beside the bed and watched Gabrielle as she slept. She had cried until I could no longer understand anything but the smallest additional tidbits of her story. From what I did gather, it sounded as if the moment Gabrielle had given birth, her little girl had been pulled from her arms. The last look at her newborn child had been as an uneasy guard carried the baby off to dispose of her. It was no wonder that Gabrielle felt herself responsible for the baby's death. It still confused even me. Why had a slave with the wit and survival skills to outlast so many of her peers put herself into a situation she must have known would end badly? I had no answer, especially since Gabrielle seemed equally confused in regards to that question.
My anger was so great. Never before, though, had I been unable to give into it. This time I hadn't the luxury of losing myself in my rage. I had to remain aware for Gabrielle's sake. This time, she needed me to stay calm and rational. Even the beast cowered in the corners of my psyche, too afraid to slip into the conscious realm of my righteous wrath. I sent a silent prayer to Hades asking that he bring the Pirate King to life again, so that I might squeeze that gift from his body with my own hands. The God of the Afterlife did not grant me my wish. It didn't surprise me. I was certain Hades still held it against me for all the work I caused him in my younger days.
Gabrielle had initially been so upset that she hadn't been able to do much more than cry. She would appear to calm herself for a spell, but then she would begin once more. I had sent for Kuros to see if he could come up with something to calm Gabrielle's nerves. Unfortunately, the healer was out in the village and unavailable. Thankfully, upon Delia's request, Master Yu Pan came.
As usual, I hovered until Yu Pan addressed me directly. "Tong zhi zhe," he began.
Yu Pan had a habit of addressing me in a rather formal manner at times. It was always out of respect, however. It was the closest thing the people of Chin could find to my title, and there was a period in my life when I was known as nothing else. It wasn't exactly my name, but in a way, it meant, ruler of the world. I lived in Chin, protected the people from the vicious feudal Warlords that set themselves up in a province, and then proceeded to bleed its inhabitant's dry. Of course, I left the country before my reputation was sullied too badly. There were still a few out there who remembered the days when Tong zhi zhe swept through many of the provinces of Chin.
"Perhaps you have more important issues to attend to this morning?" he added.
"Nothing is more important than Gabrielle." I looked into his smiling eyes and realized what he was asking. "You have some herbs she can take?" I purposefully ignored his subtle hint for me to leave the room.
"We shall talk."
"Talk? That's it?"
"Perhaps we shall have some tea."
At this point, I knew better than to question him further. I sat down beside Gabrielle for a few moments and held her in my arms. I kissed her forehead and she tearfully assured me that she would be fine in Yu Pan's care. I kissed her one last time, not caring that Yu Pan looked on. My feelings for Gabrielle were emotions that could no longer be hidden, even if I had the inclination to try.
Yu Pan's talk and beverage must have contained some sort of miraculous soothing properties. I continued to sit beside the bed as Gabrielle's steady even breaths advised me that she was still asleep.
I heard a timid knock on the door to the outer chamber. Through the open bedchamber door, I saw Delia carry in a tray and place it upon the table in the other room. I rose and stretched, making my way to where Delia stood pouring a mug of tea.
"Good afternoon, Lord Conqueror."
"Delia. What's this?"
"Master Yu Pan's orders. He left the dried leaves for me and gave me detailed instructions on exactly how they were to be brewed."
"But Gabrielle's still sleeping."
"Not for Gabrielle, for you."
"Will I end up spending the day with Morpheus, too?" I asked with a grin.
"We shall see. Shall we not?" Delia smiled in spite of her attempt to remain serious. "He said it was called Mountain Tea, and it's not the same as the one he fixed for Gabrielle."
I sat down and took a quick sip, savoring the earthy flavor. "Hhmm, this is different."
"His own special blend, I suppose."
Delia moved as if to leave, but I quickly stopped her.
"Please, Delia, stay and join me. Please?" I repeated after seeing her hesitant expression.
We sat and enjoyed our beverages in silence. I stared off into the room where Gabrielle slept. I had left the door open a hand's width, or so, in order to keep one eye on my sleeping wife. I turned back to Delia some time later only to find her looking back at me and wearing an amused half-smile.
"I know," I returned the smile with an embarrassed grin. "I'm pathetic. Aren't I?" I referred to Gabrielle's sleeping form with a nod of my head.
"Caring and concerned was actually what I was thinking."
I shrugged, mostly from embarrassment.
"Can you tell me what happened to upset her so?" Delia asked.
"I would, Delia " I ran my fingers through my hair. I could see that she only asked out of her own concern for Gabrielle. "But, it's something Gabrielle told me in confidence. I don't know if she's ready for anyone else to know."
"I understand completely. Something from her past?"
I felt Gabrielle would forgive me divulging that much, especially to Delia. "Yes before we met."
How ironic that thought should slip from my tongue so easily before we met. My choice of verbiage made it sound as if Gabrielle had been a young woman I courted, and then wed, instead of a much-abused slave given to me as a sort of political gift.
"That girl's experienced more suffering than most people will know in a lifetime. I wonder at times what kept her from giving up on life altogether."
Delia must have taken notice of the distressed look on my face.
"Gabrielle is not just a survivor, though. She's a fighter," she was quick to add.
"She is that indeed."
Another long bout of silence ensued. I couldn't help but think, not only of Gabrielle, but also of myself. We had lived lives so different, yet there was one distinct similarity. Each of us had a past that we wished we could change. If not change, then at least forget.
"Do we ever get to move beyond it all?" I voiced my thought without actually realizing that I had spoken aloud.
"Beyond?" Delia's brow
furrowed together in confusion.
"The past. Do we ever get to the point where it's not an albatross hanging about our neck?" I'm sure Delia thought I spoke only of myself; of my own life. Actually, my thoughts were mostly of Gabrielle.
"I suppose we all have certain areas of our past that we wish could have been different."
"But, atonement can that ever be?"
Delia looked at me thoughtfully and placed the mug in her hand back on the table. "I don't think forgiveness can be sought or even earned. I believe it simply has to come to you."
I nodded my head, only half understanding her meaning. I think she recognized my expression and so she continued.
"Do you remember, Xena the day you hit Gabrielle?"
I'm sure my expression turned sour as I recalled the painful emotions associated with that day. Delia only rarely used my given name, and when she did it usually prefaced some sort of heartfelt or profound thought. It was for this reason only that I gave in and allowed the sorrow of that day to fill me once again.
"I had a feeling it would be a day that would stay with you," Delia remarked.
"It does indeed," I answered hoarsely. "No day fills me with more regret, yet at the same time reminds me of its joy." I recalled the day when I struck Gabrielle. On that same day, I freed her from her servitude, only to have her freely choose to stay with me.
"I think the lesson you learned on that day, concerning a future with you and Gabrielle, explains my thinking. Do you remember the realization you came to?"
I smiled then. I could finally see her meaning. "I realized that if she and I were to have any sort of a life together I would have to ask her forgiveness, but not expect it. Mostly, I would have to free her from the bonds of slavery, knowing full well she might choose to leave me."
"And aside from your love for her, why do such a thing?" she asked.
"I had to let her decide her own path. No matter what I did for her; what I promised to do for her, or give her, if she stayed, it would all be hollow if it had been exacted in that manner. Her forgiveness was honest and true since it came without my coercion.
"I believe, my friend, that you've the answer to your question. You can't live your life ruminating over whether you'll be forgiven for past misdeeds. The path to forgiveness lies in how you're living your life right now. Absolution will either come or it won't, but if you force it, the act becomes tainted.
"You ought to have someone pay you for these wise thoughts, you know."
"I do, and she pays me quite well," she said with a wink.
"Not near what you're worth, dear friend, not near at all."
"Xena, I couldn't even begin to spend the money you've put aside for me since Galen crossed over."
"I suppose I wasn't completely referring to monetary worth."
"Well then, you're quite right. I am priceless."
We both laughed and each turned our heads at the sound of Gabrielle's voice.
"I heard voices. I was a little worried that they were in my head." She gave us a sleepy grin and ran a hand through tousled hair.
"And so you did hear voices." Delia said as she and I rose at the same time. "Would you like some tea, dear?"
"Yes, please," Gabrielle answered. "That sounds lovely. "
"Why don't you go on back to bed and I'll carry it in for you?"
"Oh no, I've slept too long as it is."
"The sun is still high in the sky. It's only been a few candlemarks, love," I answered as I moved to stand beside her. I placed an arm around her shoulders and gently led Gabrielle to the table.
"Is that all? I feel as though I've slept for simply days."
"How do you feel otherwise?" I asked with some trepidation.
Gabrielle's smile, filled with a sort of genuine ease, told me that whatever Yu Pan had said to her had worked. I was curious to know what that had been, but at the same time, I wasn't sure I wanted to find out. Seeing Gabrielle without the furrowed line to her brow and the deep inscription of pain that had been visible earlier seemed to be all the edification I desired.
Gabrielle laid her hand atop my forearm and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Much better," she answered.
We continued to stare at one another in a way that must have been some sort of sign to Delia. "Well," she broke our silence. "I best be on my way."
"Delia, you don't have to leave," Gabrielle responded.
"I have a great deal to do before we leave tomorrow. If I don't supervise those young men who are packing my kitchen supplies, the Gods only know what we'll be eating for the next few months."
Delia made her departure with her customary spirited enthusiasm. Gabrielle and I looked at one another once the older woman was gone and chuckled. A room tended to bristle with energy whenever Delia swept through it.
Gabrielle and I sat in relative silence after that. The only noise came from outside the castle walls or from the dull sound our mugs made when we set them on the table. I suppose I was waiting for her to speak and she was expecting the same of me.
"So then " I said, letting the words just trail off.
"So then," Gabrielle repeated.
"I'm sorry," we both said in unison.
"What are you sorry for?" we each asked at the same time.
"Okay, this might work better if we took turns," I said as we both laughed at ourselves.
"I'm sorry I lost control of myself like that," Gabrielle said first.
"Gabrielle," I reached across the table and covered both her hands with my own. "Please don't ever be afraid to be yourself with me. Besides, I thought I was the only one who hid all her feelings." I smiled in an attempt to remove the worried expression from her face. Apparently it worked. "I'm just happy you felt able to tell me."
"Actually, Solan prompted me to tell you. He reminded me, without intending to, that we were partners and not merely lovers. I never meant to let it build up until I was hysterical, though. Losing control isn't something I feel comfortable doing."
"None of us do, little one, but wasn't it you who once told me that letting go is good for the soul? At least that's what you to try tell me after I've embarrassed myself and had a good cry."
"I suppose it's a lot harder to apply it than to say it." She grinned and I knew that she was feeling better.
"So what are you sorry for then?" she asked me with a quizzical expression.
I suddenly wished that she hadn't heard me say those words. It seemed rather silly now and I said as much to preface my awkward admission. "I suppose I'm mostly sorry that I couldn't help you. It seems that Master Yu Pan was able to succeed where I was lacking."
I felt somewhat guilty. Gabrielle's face took on that understanding veneer that she usually gets when she deals with me. Rather like a mother dealing with a down in the mouth child. My guilt came because suddenly this had turned into being about Xena instead of Gabrielle. It was always about me, but I was trying very hard to change that attitude. Every once in a while, I admit, I slipped back a few paces.
Gabrielle slipped from her chair and, just as easily, made her way into my lap. Like that downhearted child, I immediately felt comforted.
"Xena, you are not the Conqueror of the Known World to me. You may have to be all things to your people, but remember that I see you for who you really are. When I look at you, I see a flesh and blood woman and not the demi-god the tavern bards tell stories of."
I looked at my wife with as loving an expression as I could muster. "The Gods have treated me much too kindly to have given me you. I feel as though I do little to deserve you."
I grew emotional in an instant and turned my head away. I didn't want Gabrielle to see the tear in my eye, yet another weakness of mine displayed before her. She quickly reached a hand out, though, and turned my chin back to face her.
"Don't, love," she whispered softly. "Don't hide your emotions from me. I want you to share everything with me."
What was I to do with a woman such as that? I did exactly as my nature bid me. I was a physical woman and I decided to express my feelings in kind. Tomorrow we were to travel north and Gabrielle and I would have all the time we wanted to talk. I would do my best to convince her that she was not the guilty one in the death of her child...tomorrow. Tomorrow we would talk of the past and how we would handle the future. Today I had other plans.
I rose and lifted Gabrielle in my arms as I kissed her.
"Xena, where are we going?" she finally had a chance to breathlessly ask.
"To bed." I grinned.
"I've already been there," she said with a humorous glint in her eye.
"Not with me you haven't."
Gabrielle laughed. "And just what will you tell your subjects? That the Empire is on hold while you bed your wife?"
"Excellent suggestion!" I dropped her lightly to her feet. "Don't start without me," I said with a wink. I turned and walked to the door of our outer chamber.
Throwing open the door I looked into the faces of two very alert guards. "Hades take the first man to disturb me before one--" I turned to see Gabrielle drop the bed robe she had been wearing. It hit the floor and she looked back at me wearing nothing but a seductive smile before she disappeared into our bedchamber.
before two candlemarks
have passed! The same goes for anyone looking for the Queen. Is that understood?"
I asked of my guards.
"Aye, Lord Conqueror," they answered in unison.
I didn't even care that I saw the beginnings of a grin on their faces as I quickly slammed the door. I left a trail of clothing on the floor all the way to our bedchamber, setting a record for disrobing, I'm sure.
"So beautiful," Gabrielle said as her fingertips lightly played along my skin.
My body tingled from her touch alone. I swallowed and seemed to have lost the ability for speech. I could only watch as she reached out her hand and let her fingers slide against my already overheated skin.
"I know all the places you like to be touched. Don't I, Xena?" she asked me and something in me knew it was a rhetorical question.
Gabrielle didn't seem to expect an answer, which was just as well because I couldn't verbalize a single word. I watched her eyes as they followed the progress of her hand from my face down along the length of my throat.
I nodded and felt the pressure of her fingertips as I swallowed. She continued on, down into the hollow of my chest, spreading the palm of her hand over one breast. When she squeezed the flesh just slightly, I groaned and felt my nipple harden and press into her palm. I think she moaned at the sensation, too.
"Here?" she asked again, her voice taking on a sensuous throaty quality. When she concentrated her efforts on the hardened nipple I moaned again.
"Oh, yes." I breathed and closed my eyes. My eyes opened quickly when I felt her fingers move through the dark triangle of curls and graze across my clit. "Gods, Gabrielle!" I exclaimed and grasped her wandering hand in mine.
This seduction wasn't going exactly as I had planned. If I continued to let my wife have her way, I'd end up being taken instead of the other way around. The woman already knew of the power she held over me, especially in this arena. My experiences in the bedchamber rivaled that of most men and women, but to Gabrielle, I deferred to her exceptional skill. Gabrielle smiled as I reversed our positions and gently pushed her back against the bed. I stretched my body out alongside of her, pressing against her.
"Gabrielle let me make love to you," I whispered. I then kissed her in a way that would show her just how much I wanted her.
It was a passionate, yet gentle kiss. Every time Gabrielle and I had come together to make love, I wished only to please her, but there had always been something more. For the woman who had experienced so much pain with this act, my desire had always been to love Gabrielle with as much tenderness as possible. She'd come a long way in voicing her desires and allowing her passion to make its demands, but I never treated my wife as any other woman I had taken to my bed. Gabrielle was different special and I treated her as such.
That thought had never appeared so important to me as right at this very moment. It seemed to me that now, above any other time since we met, Gabrielle needed to feel safe in our physical love. Perhaps I was simply remembering the tears she shed earlier or the way she had clung to me, so desperately afraid that I would put her aside for some past misdeed. Whatever the reason, I simply wanted to make love to Gabrielle as though I was the first person to ever do so.
I kissed her once more, surprised at my own breathlessness as I whispered into her ear, "I love you, Gabrielle. No other will ever exist for me in this way."
Gabrielle slipped her fingers into my dark hair. She urged my head back until our eyes met. "Thank you, my love," she whispered back.
She continued to slide her fingers into my hair. I found it odd at times how entranced she was by the feel of her hands in the long locks. She would close her eyes and smile as though running her fingers against a smooth piece of Egyptian silk. Many a time would I have stopped to reflect over why the act delighted her so, but to tell the truth; the feel of her carefully trimmed nails raking across my scalp sent my own body into a fit of shivers.
I directed my kisses lower, along her throat and the upper swell of her chest. I let my right hand roam across her body, gently caressing the flesh of her breast. I leaned down to place a soft kiss on the pebbled flesh that quickly became erect with desire and spread Gabrielle's thighs apart, running my fingers along the smooth skin on the inside of her thigh. Gabrielle's breathless moans were like music to my ears.
I touched her that way for a long time until my lovely wife finally indicated she could stand the evasive caresses no longer. She arched her back and I let her hand draw my head eagerly down to her breast. I started out gently, with a kiss and an occasional flick of my tongue along the soft curves of her flesh, but soon it wasn't enough for either of us. I covered a very rigid nipple with my mouth and sucked ever so lightly, working the area over with my tongue, and then sucking it into my mouth with a gentle pressure, before releasing it between my lips.
"Xena yes," Gabrielle exclaimed, pressing her body against my own.
I continued making love to her breasts, alternating between the two, leaving my lover gasping for breath and anxious for release. Reaching my hand down between her thighs, I let my fingers lightly stroke along the length of her sex, so that she barely knew she was being touched.
"Gods you're so wet." I moaned at that first touch and I felt her move her legs wider apart in encouragement.
When I slid my body down to position myself closer to her center, she seemed to know exactly where I was headed and spread her legs open even further. I took my time here as well, using my lips and my tongue to blaze a path along the sensitive skin of her inner thighs. Her skin tasted faintly musky and I felt a hitch in my breathing as my tongue ran across the wetness that had made its way onto her leg. It only fed my craving and before long, I simply couldn't hold back any longer.
"Oh, Xena!" Gabrielle cried out as my tongue slipped through the golden curls.
I explored every crease and fold that was drenched in my wife's wetness. I lost myself to a place of pure delight. The sensation my wife's taste caused on my tongue could not be compared to anything I had yet experienced. The more I allowed myself, the more I wanted until I finally wrapped my arms around her smooth thighs and pulled her closer, drinking from the luscious gift she offered like a parched woman in the desert. I pressed my tongue against her opening, testing her readiness by barely slipping my tongue inside.
"Gods, Oh Gods!" Gabrielle cried out at the sensation and wrapped both her hands in my hair, pulling me more tightly against her.
I eased my tongue in an out of her sensitive entrance. Gabrielle's hips moved against me as she continued to hold my hair in both her hands. I heard her rapid breathing and constant moans. Her muscles begin to twitch in anticipation. I slid my tongue to the top of her cleft, concentrating on the area I knew would bring her the most pleasure. As I did this, I pressed the tips of two fingers just inside her. The liquid fire flowing from her made the task quite easy. I pressed in, never stopping my tongue's motion against her. I groaned in absolute pleasure at the feel of the warm velvety flesh that surrounded my finger.
"Oh, Xena, please. I need..."
"What, love? Tell me anything you want."
"You please, I need you here with me. I need to see you."
I moved my body up, lying over her, pressing kisses against her throat, letting my tongue slide along the edge of her ear. I replaced my tongue with my thumb and let it make slow steady circles across that swollen bit of flesh. I moved my fingers in and out to a slower rhythm than Gabrielle's hips dictated, but I wanted this to last. I continued the motion of my hand slowly relentlessly. Finally, Gabrielle reduced her efforts and went along at the pace I set.
I groaned aloud at the fire that I could feel gradually building between my own legs. I spread myself open and allowed Gabrielle's thigh to stoke my needy flesh.
I could feel her limbs beginning to tremble, my own center quivering in ecstatic empathy. I continued the motion of my fingers, my thumb pressing down harder against her sensitive flesh.
"Xena, oh Gods, Xena, yes yes " Gabrielle's head pressed back into the covers of the bed as her eyes closed in unrefined rapture.
At that moment, I knew there was only one thing that I desired of Gabrielle, only one thing that could send my own body over the edge.
"Gabrielle," I said hoarsely. "Look at me."
I took her face in my hand and stroked her cheek with my thumb until she opened her eyes. She struggled to keep her gaze on me, my own intense stare fixed on only her. I silently asked that she share the most personal thing any woman could. I pleaded with her to share this one moment of fiery pleasure with me. I chose the most appropriate words for my request, the very phrase that Gabrielle had used earlier.
"Don't hide your emotions from me, Gabrielle. I want you to share everything with me."
She understood exactly what I was asking and her emerald eyes grew large just as the first cry left her throat. When she convulsed against me a second time, I pressed my thumb against her clit, moving against the tender area. Gabrielle cried out again in pleasure at her second release. My own climax ripped through me as I felt Gabrielle's tightness clamp around my fingers, her inner muscles clenching and unclenching involuntarily.
My body trembled nearly as much as Gabrielle's as I let go to experience my own release. I held her close to me with one arm and simply let her feel the fullness of my fingers, still deep inside her. After she had been silent for a few moments, I gently eased my fingers from her, causing another small volley of aftershocks.
Gabrielle finally focused fully on my face and I saw the verdant gaze clear of its sensuous haze. "Thank you," she whispered once more. "I never want to think of my life without you."
Did she really have no idea that I should have been thanking her? Tears filled my eyes and I could have sooner held back the tide from the shore as the emotions that suddenly welled to the surface of my heart.
"Gabrielle my little one," I choked out. "I will always be here for you."
Some time later, as Gabrielle was falling into a light slumber and I stared contentedly up at the ceiling, her voice came to me lightly.
"When I'm with you, Xena, you make my past seem like a memory. As if there's only my future with you."
"And I'm a greedy woman,
my love," I answered. "I want all of your future
every last bit
To be continued in : Chapter 3: Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore...
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