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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Cor and I washed up, put on fresh clothing, and joined the rest of our party. Cor appeared slightly in awe of the fresh uniforms and armor that Atrius and the other soldiers wore. Even I had donned my finest for the inspection. The high collar and tightly fastened jacket were far from comfortable, but I knew that it looked impressive. That was all that mattered, especially since I only went there on a rare occasion. It wasn't far to the port offices and I preferred to walk rather than ride. I suppose it may not have been the most impressive or regal way for the Conqueror to enter the harbor. Appearance was directly related to power among the men of Greece.
I had to actually formulate a plan for this inspection. It would do no good for those in my employ, yet so far from the throne in Corinth, to think that I didn't have a clue as to what went on here. Some of the men in charge of the Empire's work in Amphipolis were honorable and had earned my trust. Others were simply good at what they did; yet, I suspected them to be men who weren't reluctant to lining their pockets with someone else's wealth.
It was a delicate thread, the one that separated Xena the ruler, from Xena the woman. I balanced myself along that faint line, careful not to appear too casual, too familiar with these men, especially those in charge of the Empire's coffers. At the same time, the new woman I had become did not want them to see me only as their lord and master. I was their ruler, that was true, but I preferred them to serve out of loyalty rather than fear. I believe this is the first time I have ever written those words. Perhaps it means that there is hope for the Conqueror yet.
Atrius joined us, easily stepping into pace beside me. "The officers will be meeting us near the mill, Conqueror. You can speak with them, see the lumber operation, and visit the warehouses without too much travel."
"Excellent planning, my friend. Tell me, Cor, have you ever been aboard a warship before?" I asked as we walked along under the summer sun.
"I've never been on any ship before. The only thing I've ever been on the water in was an old raft I used to fish off of."
"I can't wait myself," Solan added, slapping Cor on the back. "The ships made here in Amphipolis have a reputation as the best in the Empire. I've been on some big ships before, but never a warship."
"Have you traveled a lot, Solan?" Cor asked.
"Hardly any at all yet." He smiled over at me. "I'm an emissary for the Empire now. I'm going to travel a great deal from here on in, go to all the places I've dreamed about. Master Yu Pan is going to accompany me to Chin. He's even been teaching me their language. Pretty exciting, huh?"
I smiled at my son's boyish enthusiasm. At that moment, I had to wonder which of these young men my son was and which was my brother.
"Um I suppose," Cor answered.
"Travel and adventure are not for everyone," I added, guessing the reason behind Cor's hesitant response.
"The other fellows my age think I'm foolish to want to stay here in Amphipolis," he said. "It's not that I'm afraid of traveling. I think it would be awfully fun to meet new people and see new places, but I really love what I do, working with Altus."
"And that's a bold choice, little brother," I responded. I draped my arm over Cor's shoulder as he walked between Solan and myself. "It takes as much courage to spend your life in one place as it does to travel the known world," I responded.
"Really?" Cor sounded surprised.
"Absolutely. There's no given that your life will be any easier staying close to home. Sometimes it can be harder. What makes the difference is why you're doing it. You want to stay here and do something you love, something you've a talent for. That will make all the difference where your future happiness is concerned, Cor. Besides, there's something to be said for having a home and a family to come home to each evening. Your nephew will learn that in time," I added with a wink at Solan.
"In time, mother, but in the meantime, I plan on having some fun," Solan quipped.
I said nothing, but arched one eyebrow in Solan's direction.
"Within the parameters of my position, of course." He coughed and straightened his jacket.
"That's what I thought you said," I replied.
It felt so refreshing, the casual banter between the three of us, my son, my brother, and me. It also felt odd, but most of all, it seemed right and natural. I sent what had become my daily expression of thanks to Athena as I walked along. I offered it in silence with no temple in site, but I was sure the Goddess understood. Actually, aside from my lovely Gabrielle, I felt as though Athena had been the only other woman to halfway understand me. She had suffered, with unending patience I might add, through my bouts of childishness, customary selfishness, and monstrous ego. For that alone I owed her much.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
"Please don't make me, Gabrielle," Ephiny said. She stood before me and looked into the room as though it contained a thousand deadly cobras.
"Ephiny, you're an Amazon. I would have expected a little more backbone than this."
"Gabrielle, I would do anything for you, I think you know that. I would gladly step between you and an oncoming chariot, a centaur's arrow, or even a mountain troll. But, please, I beg of you, please, do not make me go in there with that pack of of wild--"
"You make it sound as if they're jackals." I chuckled at her aversion to being in the same room with the children that Selene cared for during the day. "Look at Mika and Shanta. They look like they're actually having fun."
"They are. They love kids. Some women are like that, but not me. I'm a warrior, Gabrielle, through and through."
"I distinctly remember you saying that you go where the Queen goes."
"Really? I think you take what I say much too literally. What I actually meant was that I go almost anywhere the Queen goes."
We stood there staring at one another in silence. I had my arms folded across my chest as I valiantly tried not to laugh. In reality, I had no intention of forcing Ephiny to do anything she didn't want to do, but I must admit that I was mildly amused, watching as Ephiny shifted her weight uncomfortably from foot to foot. I was rather surprised at my own behavior. This was more like something Xena would do in order to make Ephiny squirm. I could hear Xena's voice inside my head telling me that it was all a part of coming in to my own.
"All right, all right. Don't have a breakdown on me." I could barely contain my mirth. "I'll be fine with Mika and Shanta, besides there are guards all over the inn, inside and out. Why don't you catch up with Xena, go hunting, or find something to do that befits a warrior."
"You are the greatest Amazon Queen to walk the earth." The relief in her voice was more than apparent. As long as I live, I will never understand how anyone could fear something as small as a child.
"Go on, get out of here," I replied in between my laughter.
I don't think I had ever been around youngsters very much. How odd that I could love children so much and yet rarely have been in their company. Standing at the door, watching as Selene welcomed each of the women who brought their children to the inn for the day, I felt as though being in a room full of boisterous children happened to me every day. I couldn't seem to stop smiling and in the back of my mind, I wondered why I was one of those women. The women I'm speaking of are the ones that Ephiny referred to, for whom child rearing appeared to come so naturally. How does that happen? Is it something that Hestia is responsible for? Does the Goddess of hearth and home choose women of particular characteristics to bestow the honor upon, or is it more random?
I greeted each of the strangers with a smile and accepted their praise and curtsies with as much graciousness as I could. It always seemed perfectly normal for people to call me Queen when Xena stood at my side, but without her, it felt wrong somehow, not exactly wrong, but altogether different.
Selene was quite expert at childcare. She played games, laughed, and even sang with the youngsters. I had as much fun as the children listening to the stories she made up for them. To see Selene smile and laugh made me feel better about her. I had begun to think that she didn't know how. Her constant posture of mistrust, almost anger, made her so unlike Cyrene and Coras. I wondered how she could be so different from them.
"You're quite a storyteller," I said.
"Do you really think so?" she asked.
I heard uncertainty in her voice. Gone was her confident facade. She sounded as any other young woman who needed love and support. It made me wonder if Cyrene had been so busy building a better life for her children that she forgot the here and now of raising them. I mentally rebuked myself for the thought. Never having lived Cyrene's life, I had no right to pass judgment.
"I do indeed. You should write them down. I know Xena would love to read them."
It was immediately apparent that I'd said the wrong thing. The mere mention of Xena's name was enough to ruin the moment. Selene's scowl returned.
"I can't picture the Conqueror enjoying children's tales. I can't even picture her around children," Selene said.
I smiled, overlooking the fact that she meant the comment as an insult. "I must say, children do have a way of scaring the Tartarus out of her, but the funny thing is, they actually take to her quite well."
"I wouldn't trust her with my kids," Selene said.
"Why?" I asked. I wanted to hear it from her, why she had such contempt for my wife. I was actually rather curious to know if it was more than jealousy on her part. I wondered if she would continue or retreat into her customary silence. It seemed as though my conversation had loosened her tongue, though.
"She's a monster," she blurted out. "I've heard tales of the things she's done."
I took a deep breath. I had to calm myself and remember who I was speaking with, and why. Of course, every instinct within me wanted to go into protection mode for my Xena, but I realized that wouldn't do with this young woman.
"I won't lie to you, Selene. Yes, in the past, Xena has done some things that even I have considered quite monstrous. Nevertheless, the key word here is past. Simply stated, she's no longer that woman."
Selene let out a short burst of air that sounded like a snort of disbelief. "It's not that easy. No one can change overnight like that."
"Xena's change has been far from simple and by no means overnight."
"So, you've changed her, have you?" she asked.
I laughed aloud, which caused the children around us to join in with their own giggles although they had no idea of what we spoke. "Nothing could be further from the truth," I replied. "To change one's character, their very soul, takes amazing strength and a great deal of time. Xena began to change her ways long before she met me, seasons in fact. It wasn't that she didn't want to turn her life around, but she had no idea how. Maybe that's what my role has been in her conversion, I don't know, but I do know that she no longer resembles the woman in those old tales."
"You seem to have a great deal of confidence in this conversion of hers, Gabrielle."
"I suppose I do, but then again I've seen the effects more than anyone else has. Selene, do you honestly think a woman like the one in those old tales could fall in love with her slave, marry her, and make her a Queen of the entire Greek Empire? You've seen the way she treats her friends, the way she acts toward me. Does that sound anything like that old Xena you've heard so much about?"
She shrugged and I saw that she didn't want to admit defeat, but I had at least caused her to question her previous thinking. That was a start.
"She doesn't know how it's been here all these years," she said at last.
"I'm sure she has no idea what your life has been like, Selene. I'm sure none of us truly understand how it's affected you."
She looked at me, appearing to take comfort in my simple acknowledgment of her life as the younger sister of the woman famous throughout the known world as the Conqueror. I could only surmise that Selene looked at herself as the one who came last and had always felt as though she was second to Xena in all ways.
"Look at those two for example." I pointed out two girls of about four and seven summers. I knew them to be sisters, but they had done nothing but go head to head since the moment they walked through the door.
"Cara and Pavi," she replied. "They're always at each other. It's like they grate on each other or something."
"True, I've watched how they act toward one another all morning, but look over there. See the little boy who wants the wooden soldier that Pavi has?"
Selene nodded and we continued to watch the scene play out. "Cara always seems to either physically push her smaller sister around, fight with her, or order her about. The curse of the younger sister, I suppose. Have you ever seen Cara actually behave in just a plain out and out mean way to Pavi?" I asked.
"I don't really recall. I think they just argue all the time."
"I suspected as much. Just watch what happens now, though."
The little boy snatched the wooden soldier from Pavi's hands and the girl began to cry. Selene made a move to intercept the boy, but I stayed her with one hand.
"Not yet. Look," I said.
Cara's head whipped around as soon as she heard her younger sister's cries. It didn't take her long to cross the room and confront the boy. She stood between Pavi and the boy, snatching the toy from his grasp.
"Here Pavi, don't cry anymore," Cara said.
We continued to watch, knowing that in another candlemark, the girls would probably be at one another again.
"I honestly never expected that," Selene said.
"Maybe Cara just doesn't realize how Pavi feels about being the younger one. You can see, though, that the moment Pavi needed her, Cara was right there. Sometimes life is just like that."
A long silence endured between us as we sat there, watching Mika and Shanta play horse and rider with the children. The two Amazons took turns giving the children rides on their backs.
"Do you have children, Gabrielle," Selene asked me at last. She didn't look over at me, but kept her eyes focused on the activity in the center of the room.
"I--No, I don't." I had no idea how to explain my past, nor did I feel like divulging it just then. What a relief it was to me when I realized that I could actually think on that memory without falling apart. Master Yu Pan's skills had truly helped me. "I very much want to, though."
She looked over and raised one eyebrow. Gods! How she reminded me of Xena when she did that. "Xena's children, of course," I quickly added.
"The logistics of that seem a little tricky." She grinned and I returned the smile with an awkward one of my own.
"Well, I'm a faithful servant of Athena. I have hopes that she will answer my prayers. The last time I saw her, she did give me certain reassurances."
"You saw her in person?"
"Wow. Have you met any other Gods?" she asked. I heard astonishment in her voice. How quickly I had become accustomed to the immortals that came and went in our lives. One summer earlier, I had the same expression on my face when Xena told me that she actually had personal dealings with the Olympian Gods.
"Well, tell me. Who?" she asked.
"Artemis, of course. She's the patron of the Amazons. I recently met Pan in Athens. I quite liked him. Oh, and there was Ares."
"The God of War? Wow, I would have been shaking in my boots. What did you do when you met him?"
"I slapped him, as I recall."
"You--" She stopped and pulled her head back, looking me up and down. "Remind me never to get on your bad side," she said with a smile.
"I wasn't nearly as brave as I make it sound. It's a long story, but I tend to forget just how little I am when I'm confronting someone on Xena's behalf, and at that moment, that's exactly what I was doing."
"Gabrielle, I have this feeling that you're the only one who thinks of yourself as small."
Her response, I noticed, carefully avoided mentioning my wife's name at all.
"So," I began as I looked around the room. The conversation had seemed to spotlight me and, as usual, that made me slightly uncomfortable. I tried to change the subject. "I bet you can't wait to have a whole houseful of your own." I indicated the children before us.
"I won't be having any children. I can't," she answered.
For the second time during our conversation, I had placed my foot in my mouth. "I'm so sorry, Selene. I didn't mean to--I mean, I didn't realize you couldn't have children."
"Oh, no. It's not that I can't. It's nothing physical. I just can't um, I've just decided that I can't be with a man."
I wondered if my face reflected the confusion I felt. "I I don't think I--I mean you've decided this already?"
"Gods, this is embarrassing," Selene said. Her cheeks began to glow pink. "I never expected to be telling a stranger this."
"I'm not exactly a stranger."
"Well, I just mean that I really haven't told this to anyone." She took a deep breath and I remained silent, allowing her the time she needed.
"It's not exactly something I decided. Actually, it is and it isn't. What I mean is that I don't want to be with a man that way any man," she enunciated the last words slowly and I knew that she was sending me some sort of a message that I wasn't getting.
"Oh," I answered. Finally, it dawned on me what she meant. "Ohhh," I responded. "I'm sorry. That was a little thick of me."
"I figured if anyone would get it, you would."
"There's nothing wrong with wanting to share that kind of a relationship with a woman, Selene."
"It's not that I'm ashamed. I know a few women who feel the same as me. I guess I'm disappointed at the idea of never having my own children. I don't really know the Gods well enough to ask for favors."
"I understand completely, but not having children from your own body doesn't mean that you'll be forced to go childless. There are alternatives. Besides, there are orphanages full of wonderful children who want nothing more than to be a part of a loving family, to have a mother who obviously has so much love to give. Your choice to love a woman doesn't mean you can't have a family of your own."
"I guess I never thought about it that way." Selene turned on the bench so that she faced me. "Thanks, Gabrielle. I appreciate you talking to me like this. It helps getting someone else's perspective, especially someone who knows people as well as you seem to."
"I enjoy talking to you, Selene, so it's been my pleasure. Cyrene's a pretty smart cookie, though. Have you ever talked about these things with her?"
"Are you kidding with mother?"
"I take it that means you haven't told her how you feel about women."
"She'd flip, plain and simple."
I smiled at her assessment of her mother. How we underestimate those around us. Cyrene and Selene weren't the first mother and daughter that I knew to be oblivious to each other's thoughts and feelings. Part of the problem was that daughters always seemed to believe that their mothers just fell from the sky one day and had not experienced any life at all. I wondered why that was.
"You'd be surprised, not only at how understanding your mother can be, but also how worldly. I imagine she's seen quite a bit within these four walls."
"I don't know about that."
"Give her a chance. I'll bet she surprises you."
"You think so?" I could see that the idea tempted her.
"I can almost guarantee it."
"I'm taking a big chance if your guarantee fails. I'll have to come live with you if mother throws me out." She grinned.
I knew she was teasing, but I also wanted to make her feel welcome. I smiled right back at her. "Even if you don't get thrown out, the invitation exists. You're welcome to stay with us whenever you care to. I'm sure you'd love Corinth."
"Of course, that involves making some sort of peace with your sister," I added.
She shrugged and looked away. I didn't want to push, but I did want her to know that Xena felt just as awkward about initiating a conversation between the two of them. "If you and Xena were to talk, I'm positive you'd find it easier than you think."
"You sure are good at making guarantees."
"Only about things that I feel sure of."
"And you think that me and Xena would hit it off, huh?"
"Well, I make no promises, but I will say that I think you're both feeling a lot of similar emotions. Just because you share a bond of blood, doesn't mean that you'll become the best of friends. If nothing else, though, talking may make it a little easier to be around one another."
She rewarded me with her customary shrug. "I'll think about it," she finally said before leaving and returning to the group of children.
End of Gabrielle's Addendum
"Feel like some company?" I asked my mother as I sat down.
She stood behind the long wooden bar stacking clean mugs against the back wall. I always liked the tavern like this, quiet and hushed at the end of the day. The room was somewhat dark with only a few candles lit within the area Cyrene worked. She had already extinguished the two large oil lamps that hung from the ceiling. Elias, her hired man, must have lowered the chains that the heavy lamps hung upon in order to put out their flames.
The tavern had long since sent its last patron home or to bed here at the inn. It was late, but Gabrielle had grown accustomed to my late night wanderings. I never actually slept more than four candlemarks or so. I never felt as though my body needed more save for the times when I had engaged in anything strenuous or unless Gabrielle gave me a good enough reason to remain in bed. Back home in Corinth, I usually ended up in my study, reading and answering correspondence until morning, or unless I grew tired again.
Selene's group of children had worn out Gabrielle. She fell asleep nearly as soon as her head hit the pillow. She slept with a smile on her face, however, and it caused me to think of the small package I had Acasia deliver. Perhaps it was time to tell Gabrielle.
I hadn't wanted the lamplight to disturb Gabrielle, so I made my way to the tavern downstairs, in hopes that a late night mug of port would help me sleep. In truth, I had hoped that my mother would still be awake. Once I began thinking of Gabrielle, the girl that I assumed was her daughter, and Gabrielle's parents, I was wide-awake. I thought about rousing Delia. She had always been my confidant in such emotional or moral dilemmas. I had a thought as I dressed, one that surprised me. I wondered what advice my mother could offer. She and I had spoken in a couple of short conversations, none nearly as emotional as our first. She did indeed seem to like Gabrielle. I suppose I wondered what it might be like, to go to my mother for advice. Frankly, I hadn't done it much as a young woman. I was rather wild and kept my own counsel. It was easy to do since my mother was always busy with the inn.
"What are you doing up so early?" Cyrene asked.
"I might ask you the same question. It seems a bit early, even for you."
"Ah, the older I get, the less sleep I need. I remember when you and the boys were toddlers, what I wouldn't have given for a few extra candlemarks in bed. Now that I have people who can actually run the place, I find that the luxury doesn't mean as much."
I smirked at how familiar that thought was. "I know exactly what you mean. It must run in the family, although I think Gabrielle's getting used to waking up and finding nothing but bedclothes."
"Newly married and you can't find a reason to stay in bed?"
I hadn't said that since...well, just about ever, but it came sliding off my tongue as though I had never left Amphipolis. I wondered if the heat creeping up my collar was visible in the low light of the room. The sly look on her face told me she had been teasing.
"I usually do pretty well in that arena," I said wearing a smile.
"I'll just bet you do," she replied as she poured me a tall drink. "This is the kind you like, isn't it?"
"In fact that's what I came in search of. I'm impressed that you know me so well already."
"Well, remembering what someone drinks is my business. When it comes to you, though, Xena, I don't think I know you at all. Not the woman you are now anyway."
"I'm sorry. That's my fault."
"No, I didn't say it to place blame, my dear. I said it because it's the truth, just as you know little about who I've become. Tell me something about you, Xena," she asked as she poured herself a mug of tea from a brown glazed pot. I smelled the odor of sweet mint and my mind flew backward to my days as a child in this very inn and my mother's early morning mint tea.
"To tell the truth, talking about myself is about my least favorite thing in the known world. Even so, I think I'd like that."
It was almost as if someone else had spoke those words. Had I actually said that I would like to talk about myself? Gods, Gabrielle would get a laugh out of that one. It wasn't that I actually wanted or desired to talk of myself. It was something more, something deeper. I think that in my heart I wished to speak of anything as long as it involved a conversation with this woman, the mother upon who my heart had pinned so many hopes.
"And?" Cyrene said at my hesitation.
"Well, as much as I would enjoy that, I have something on my mind that won't really allow me to engage in talk of me. I wonder instead if I might speak of Gabrielle?"
She looked at me strangely just then. It was an expression I'd seen her direct my way before, one that spoke of a sort of pleasant surprise.
"Of course, my dear. Is something wrong with her?"
"No, not in that way. I just well, I'm rather stuck on what to do, but to understand what I mean I have to go back and tell you the whole story."
She settled into the chair she'd been lightly perched upon and waved in my direction. "Well, we've a good three candlemarks before Apollo lights up the sky, and I'm all ears."
I began to speak and once I did, the words came with ease. I told my mother just about everything I knew of Gabrielle, of her past and how she came to be with me. Oh, there were personal moments that I left unsaid, private times, but I tried to be as honest with my tale as I could. I knew those early days would not flatter my image, but still I told her about them.
When I finally fell silent, my mother breathed a great sigh. "I knew there was something special in that girl the first moment I laid eyes on her. Gods, what her life must have been like, and you'd never know it to speak with her."
She took a sip from her mug and made a face at the tea that had grown cold. She poured the contents of the clay pot into a metal one. As she hung the metal container on a long metal hook and swung the hook over the fire in the hearth, I explained the dilemma I now faced. She nodded her head and I watched as tears formed in her eyes when I told her of the child that now waited safely for her mother, or at least for who I believed was her mother.
"I can see your concern," Cyrene said.
"Any wisdom you'd care to share at this point would be most appreciated," I answered.
"Xena, how can I know what is right?"
"I'm not looking for right and wrong here, mother. Oh, Hades, I suppose I am. How can one know what's right? I don't want to hurt Gabrielle. That would break my heart. I don't know how much to tell her or when."
"I suppose the only advice I can offer is what I would do in your stead."
"Anything you can offer will help."
"I think you should tell Gabrielle of her parents, right away today if you can. I know she's more nervous about meeting them than she lets on. Perhaps if she could see them, feel the bond of family again, she would be strong enough to face the other."
"And if the child's not hers?"
"How would she really know?"
"I suppose you're right. I don't know, I expected her to feel some sort of rightness about it, I guess."
"That's possible, if not a little fanciful. I think, little one, that it will boil down to one thing. If Gabrielle wants to think of the child as hers it will be."
"I suspected as much."
"It's getting lighter outside," Cyrene said. "Come and sit with me in the kitchen while I make up the morning meal. You can take a tray upstairs to Gabrielle when I'm finished."
I followed her into the large kitchen and pulled up a chair to watch her work, much as I had as a child. She moved with purpose and speed, but the pleasant expression on her face said that this was not so much a chore as a labor of love. I watched as she set a pot of grain to boil for porridge. She cut up some of last season's dried apples and added them to the pot. With a mortar and pestle, she crushed hardened strips of cinnamon bark until they were powder and added it to the pot, as well. A most delicious odor soon filled the kitchen.
I continued to watch as she sliced salted meat to fry and mixed together ingredients for flat bread. I'm not sure it was one thing, but rather the combination of sights and smells that caused my heart to fill with all the good memories of my childhood. I remembered sitting there as a youngster thinking much the same thing as I did now that there would never be another place in this world that would mean as much to me as home.
"Wake up, my love," I whispered softly into Gabrielle's ear. She murmured and attempted to move away from the sound of my voice, which made me smile.
"Gabrielle," I insisted.
She opened one eye to glare at me, but she looked so absolutely adorable I could not even feign remorse. "It's morning, Gabrielle."
"I beg to differ," she mumbled. "Xena, it's still dark out."
"If you don't get up now, though, you'll miss the best part of the day."
"According to who," Gabrielle answered as she closed both eyes once more.
"I've ordered it especially for you, little one."
She continued to ignore me. I knew this called for some unfair play on my part. I took one of the steaming bowls from the tray and brought it closer to her. It was apparent that the tantalizing odor had reached her when her face twitched and she involuntarily smiled.
"Mother made porridge with sweet apples and cinnamon. There's even a huge chunk of honeycomb on top."
"Mmmm," she murmured.
"And hot mint tea," I added.
"Well, at least you know how to wake a girl up properly, Conqueror," she said with a smile. Gabrielle yawned and sat up in bed, moving some pillows behind her.
We ate our meal sitting in bed, a rare indulgence for us. When I looked out the window, I saw that Apollo's chariot had just begun to light up the sky below the horizon. The blackness of the foreground stood out starkly against the red and pink tinged sky behind.
"Throw on something and let's go drink our tea while we watch the sun rise," I said. Gabrielle smiled and looked outside, nodding her head in agreement.
There was no one else about, as Gabrielle and I sat casually upon the wooden steps that led up to the inn. I wrapped a blanket around Gabrielle's shoulders and she leaned back against my chest.
"Mmmm," Gabrielle sighed as she settled herself against me.
"You're going back to sleep again, aren't you?" I whispered.
"Very funny, my Conqueror. I'm just enjoying the feel of you."
"Oh, well then, may I say the feeling is very mutual," I replied as I hugged her.
I missed this manner of quiet time we had always shared. Since we had left Corinth, our daily routines had changed so much that I hardly knew where Gabrielle was half the time. I believe I had been growing jealous of the time she spent with others.
"What are you thinking so hard about?" Gabrielle asked.
"Now, how do you know I'm concentrating on anything at all?"
She made a noise that sounded distinctly like a snort. "I can feel it in your body. Besides, a woman can just tell."
"Is this stuff written somewhere?"
"What?" she asked after a short burst of laughter.
"I don't know, but most women seem to have an awful lot of intuition or inside knowledge that I'm not privy to. I just wondered if there was a scroll somewhere that I was supposed to get and missed out on."
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle continued to chuckle. She turned and placed a quick kiss on my lips. "You have more intuition in your little finger than I do in my whole body."
"Okay, now you're making fun of me."
"Honestly. There's only one difference between us, Xena as women, that is."
"And that is?" I was intrigued now. Gabrielle rarely missed anything about a person's behavior. I was interested to see what it was that stood between me and this knowing that other women seemed to have.
"My Conqueror, your mind is much too busy to really hear anything that small voice in there tries to tell you."
"I beg your pardon. I happen to perform my ch'i ritual every morning and--"
"Xena, you're a warrior that's your way. I think that means that even when you calm yourself to the point where you feel that you're thinking of nothing else, there's still something there."
"Instinct. It's always there with you, lying just beneath your conscious mind. Your instincts are what make you the great warrior that you are, though. You possess impulses instincts, whatever you want to call them and they're a part of you. In a lifetime of acquiring the same skills as you, I could never be your equal as a warrior. I simply don't have the natural instincts that you do."
I kissed her, once again marveling at the depth of this young woman. Gabrielle had lived so much life in so few seasons. How could a woman trained in every aspect of physical pleasure, used by men and women for most of her life, look at me with such an innocent gaze?
"You make it sound as if you have nothing up there," I said, pointing to her head.
"I don't. Not in the way you mean, but I don't have the instincts that you do, Xena."
"But, I've seen you fight. When you spar--"
"I react to what's happening around me. I suppose the easiest way to explain is to say that my actions aren't instinctual. The forms that Yu Pan taught me are anticipatory in nature. I react only to my opponent's moves to defend myself. There's no plan."
"That's why you're so good at King's Men, isn't it?" I asked, rather amazed at the insight into Gabrielle's way.
She just smiled.
"You tried to explain this to me once before, when I asked you why you were so good at the game. I don't remember hearing it this way."
"Perhaps you just weren't ready to hear," she answered.
She returned to her previous position, her back pressed against my chest. "You never did answer my question," she said.
"What question was that?"
"When I asked what you were thinking about. I can feel the tension in your body. Is anything wrong, Xena?"
"No, love, not wrong. I just " I took a deep breath and continued. "I had a sort of, I don't know, surprise, I guess, to tell you about. See, I saved it until now, thinking it would be something grand, but now I'm not so sure. I'm afraid you might be upset with me for not telling you before this."
"Xena, I would never be upset with you for trying to do something nice for me. You should know that."
"Yes, well we'll see. Gabrielle, I I "
She turned to look at me then. "It's not something terrible, is it? Your mother hates me and wants us to leave."
"What? Where on earth--no, of course not. I think Mother likes you better than me." I chuckled lightly.
"No, it's a good thing I think. You see when we were in Corinth I made some inquiries and I found your mother and father. They're living on a small farm just outside Potidaea."
I waited for the storm that would cloud her features. It would start slowly, her brow furrowing together, then her eyes would darken from their normally emerald green irises to the color of a dark forest. I looked at my boots as I tried to explain.
"You knew they were alive before we left Corinth?"
"I'm sorry, I know I should have told you about this sooner. At first it was to be a pleasant surprise, then Marathon happened, and it's been crazy ever since, and I--"
I think I actually shut my eyes tight, preparing for the verbal dressing down that I felt sure was coming. I hate surprises, but when I felt Gabrielle practically launch her body into mine, it was a most welcome jolt.
"Oh, Xena, how wonderful! Thank you, love, thank you so much."
She kissed me repeatedly until I truly believed that there would be no frightful display of temper.
"So, you're not mad at all?"
"Mad?" she asked as she pulled herself back from me. "Why would you think such a thing?"
"Well I I mean, I thought you know, the last time you okay, now I'm confused."
Gabrielle chuckled and threw her arms around my neck, kissing me soundly enough to make my libido forget we were in public. A flash of heat struck at my lower belly and I had a quick vision of tossing my wife over one shoulder and carrying her off to our room.
"You can be so funny sometimes," she said.
"That's me," I replied. "A laugh a heartbeat."
The news had finally settled in upon Gabrielle. I could see her mind spinning and working behind the expression in her eyes.
"It's more than I ever dared hope for, Xena. Were they well, did they look very old? Is their farm a large one or small? Oh, can we go right away?"
I don't think she took more than one breath throughout all her questions. She jumped up and stepped back, the blanket falling from her shoulders as she twirled around. Suddenly, I wanted very much to meet the girl that I suspected to be Gabrielle's daughter. I had a feeling that an excited five-year-old girl could have looked no different than Gabrielle did just then.
"We should go quickly. Let's leave right now, Xena." Her face burned with vivacity, a combination of happiness, excitement, and pure energy.
I raised an eyebrow at my wife, standing in the street in only her dressing gown, the sun's first rays striking at her in long golden beams. I smiled a very large happy smile.
Gabrielle looked down at her own state of dress and her laughter burst forth like water through a dam. "All right, don't say it. I know what you're thinking. Perhaps I should get dressed first."
I answered her laughter with my own. "Actually, little one, I was thinking how very beautiful you are and what a lucky Conqueror I am."
I stood and she made her way quickly into my embrace. "Xena, how is it you know exactly what to say and do to make me happy?"
I smiled inwardly and hoped she hadn't noticed the sigh of relief that escaped me.
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