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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 21: What Was The Name You Called Me
Gabrielle moved around the inn as if she walked on nothing but air. I wasn't the only one who watched her with a slight air of amusement. Our pleasure was in her great happiness. Delia and Anya had been delighted for their young friend. Even Ephiny smiled as Gabrielle struggled for most of the morning over what to wear.
The entire inn buzzed with Gabrielle's happy news, mostly because she told anyone within ear's reach. The closer the moment came to our departure, however, the quieter Gabrielle became. I could see her nerves beginning to fray. By the time we were packed and ready to leave, Gabrielle looked quite terrified. I should have known the realization of what she was about to do would consume her eventually. Frankly, Gabrielle had been such a source of strength through my own homecoming ordeal that I actually forgot that it might affect her so.
We brought enough supplies to camp for a number of days. Although Potidaea was only a single day's journey from Amphipolis, I had no idea how long Gabrielle would want to spend with her parents on this initial visit. I even thought that perhaps we could convince them to return with us to Amphipolis for a more extended visit.
I ordered Atrius to ready what soldiers and supplies we would need for the journey. While Potidaea was only a day away on horseback, if we were to spend any time there, we would need to pack accordingly. That meant wagons with camping supplies for ourselves, but also for the soldiers who would accompany us. Wagons meant an extra day's travel, but we were in no hurry.
Nearly everyone wanted to join us on our trip to Potidaea, but I quickly put a stop to that thinking. The last thing that Gabrielle needed was too many well-intentioned friends hovering about her. I could see that she had become more frightened than I ever was at returning home. I cursed myself for not anticipating her behavior.
Gabrielle's excitement wore off eventually. She rode in front of me on Tenorio and some time near midday she fell sound asleep. Nervous tension seemed to work differently on her. While I would be unable to sleep with something pressing on my mind, Gabrielle was the complete opposite. She could retreat so far within herself that she could sleep for days.
Suddenly, Gabrielle jerked forward in my arms. If I had not reacted so quickly, she would have tumbled toward the ground.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?"
"I don't feel well, Xena," Gabrielle said.
I noticed she was rather pale when she turned to look at me.
"I need to stop, Xena. I need to stop right now!"
I knew the tone in her voice could only mean one thing. By the time I slid off of Tenorio's back and managed to set Gabrielle upon the ground, she heaved the entire contents of her stomach into the long grass.
"Think you can standup now?" I asked Gabrielle some time later. She kneeled beside me on the ground, wiping her face with a damp cloth that Ephiny had provided.
"Is she ill?" Atrius came up to ask.
"Perhaps too much sun and excitement. Let's stop for a break here, Atrius. Send all but our private wagon on ahead so we don't get slowed down too much."
I helped Gabrielle to stand and Ephiny took a position on Gabrielle's right. We walked her toward one of the covered wagons. Gabrielle's Amazons had set up the wagon as a sort of tent. The inside had a comfortable layer of blankets and cushions along with our personal supplies.
"I feel incredibly stupid," Gabrielle said as we led her to the wagon.
"Well, that will teach you to stay up all night drinking," I responded. I said it to see what sort of expression I would receive from Ephiny. She didn't disappoint.
"Xena!" The embarrassment brought back some color to Gabrielle's face. "Don't listen to one thing she says," she told Ephiny.
"Not to worry. I rarely do," Ephiny said out of the side of her mouth. She looked up and glared at me, which caused me some satisfaction.
"Xena, I don't want to hold everything up."
"And you won't, love," I replied as we reached the wagon. "Now, I want you to have a lie down and relax. If you fall asleep, we can continue on without disturbing you too much."
Gabrielle looked at me, then Ephiny, and once more at me. "Oh, all right." I believe that she knew a losing battle when she saw one.
I chuckled as I helped her inside. Gabrielle made light of the whole matter. Her manner was rather cavalier too much so.
"Thanks, Ephiny. I think I'll sit with her for a bit," I told the Amazon. We stood outside the wagon and whispered.
She nodded. "Is she really okay? She's acting a little odd," Ephiny said.
"I know what you mean, but I don't know yet. Considering that I just went through the same thing, I can honestly say that it might be nothing more than a nervous reaction to meeting her parents again."
"Well, I can see how that would do it." She looked toward the wagon and lowered her voice another notch. "And, the other? I haven't heard any news yet."
"Acasia said she bit him. Seems as though she's a female terror, I guess she'll fit right in where she's at, eh?" I chuckled and slapped Ephiny on the shoulder.
"Then I suppose my only payback will be that when you leave she'll be going with you."
My laughter stopped as I stared at the Amazon's retreating figure. My hearing was acute and I swore I heard her laughter as she walked away.
I climbed into the expansive wagon to find Gabrielle cooling her flushed face with a damp cloth.
"To tell the truth, I thought this thing carried camping supplies," Gabrielle indicated the wagon. "I imagine Queen Cleopatra's golden barge to be slightly smaller."
I laughed aloud and removed my traveling armor. I thought it might be a nice change to you sitting astride a horse."
"Always thinking of me." Gabrielle had a far away look in her eyes. Something had disturbed her enough to make her physically ill, but she didn't appear to be in a mood to speak of it.
"Are you sure you're not ill, love?" I asked.
"Positive. Thank you for being concerned, but really, I just became overheated and what with all the excitement my stomach rebelled."
"You woke quite suddenly when we were riding on Tenorio. Was it a dream?"
"I think it was," she answered calmly.
"I don't quite remember, so it must not have been important."
Gods on Olympus, but she was good. Then again, Gabrielle had spent a lifetime learning how to lie with the best of them. I, however, was unlike those masters she had previously served. I had trained nearly a lifetime in order to hone certain skills. Among which was the ability to ferret out those who would deceive me with untruths.
It was subtle, but as I said, Gabrielle was very good. I had noticed, however, the slight increase in the speed of her heart. I could see it beating erratically against the skin of her neck. A slight perspiration formed upon her brow and I watched as her right eye ticked almost minutely.
For very nearly the first time in our relationship, Gabrielle sought to keep the truth from me. That was somewhat unusual. Unusual enough that it disturbed me. It didn't bother me quite so much that Gabrielle wished to keep her own counsel. What bothered me the most was that she would lie to me in order to keep it. That simply wasn't like her.
I had two choices in the matter. I could simply leave it be and respect her wish to do the same. On the other hand, I could force the issue and confront her. With age is supposed to come wisdom. Why then do I seem to do the same things over and over again, without care to wisdom? Never being a subtle woman, I chose confrontation.
"My love, you no longer lie well," I said.
She lowered her head to stare at the hands in her lap. "Only around you, my Conqueror. Only around you."
"Gabrielle, I can see that you've had a vision that you don't want to speak of, but you do understand that the only reason I press is in order to help in some way. You do know that, don't you?"
"I know that, love. I just if it had anything to do with you or us, I would speak of it, but they were images that confused me. Remember what you told me when we talked about Selene? You said that you weren't ready yet. Well, that's exactly the way I feel. I apologize for the lie. I don't like doing that with you. It makes me feel almost dirty, but well. I'm just not ready to talk about it, Xena. I'm sorry."
I crooked one finger in her direction, beckoning her to me. She accepted the invitation immediately. My heart felt better the moment she rested within my embrace. "No apology is necessary, my little one. Gabrielle," I tilted her head so that I could look into her eyes. "I don't want you to feel that you can't keep your own counsel about matters such as this. You are your own woman and that will never change. I only ever wish that you communicate with me. Even if you say that I'm to mind my own business, it's better than what my mind can conjure up as an alternative."
"I understand, Xena. I'll do better next time, I promise."
I kissed her forehead and simply held her like that for some time. Neither of us had any inclination to change positions. If it was forgiveness that she sought, then I gave it willingly, even though I believed she needed none from me. Why would I not forgive? Had not Gabrielle offered me the same, time and again, for some thoughtless action or ignoble behavior?
I wondered, though, as I held her. What images could have disturbed Gabrielle enough to make her ill, but most of all, why couldn't she understand them?
"Feeling better this morning, my Queen?" Mika asked Gabrielle.
"It feels like a brand new day, thank you."
"Sure you're feeling well enough to riding up here?" I asked from astride Tenorio.
"Absolutely. I love you for thinking of the wagon, but riding in there yesterday well, I didn't know you could get sea sick on dry ground."
Mika gave Gabrielle a foot up and my wife sat sidesaddle in front of me. Gabrielle had deliberated for some time that morning whether she should wear her traveling clothes, leather pants and armor, or dress like the Queen that she was. We talked over morning tea and she decided that the shock for her parents would be great enough. There was no need for their first impression to be that they had a battle-hardened warrior for a daughter. Instead, she dressed in a gown the color of the sky. Not the sort of fancy dress worn for a banquet, but an everyday lady's gown. Gabrielle looked regal, yet familiar.
We rode along in relative silence until Gabrielle spoke. "Do they know we're coming, Xena?"
"I sent Atrius ahead early this morning with a few men. He'll speak with your parents and the soldiers will make sure everything is safe for us. That's why Ephiny went with them."
"Safe? Do you expect some sort of trouble?"
"Not at all, but you have to remember who we are, love. Rulers are always targets. Besides, we have no military presence in Potidaea, not even an outpost."
"Because Amphipolis is so close?"
"Precisely. Even though Potidaea's a major port of the north Aegean and the harbor generates a great deal of traffic, it would be a waste to have two outposts so close."
Have you ever had trouble there dissenters or unrest?"
"No, none to speak of. I hope that nothing will ever happen to either of us in that regard, but if it should, I'd rather be prepared. If we always plan as though something will happen, chances are it never will."
"That's rather the depressing part of ruling, isn't it?" she asked. "I mean, to think that someone out there would want to hurt you, worse, see you dead simply because you are who you are."
"Don't let it bother you too much, love. Besides, the Empire enjoys a prosperity greater than at any time in the past. People don't usually try to kill their rulers when things are going good." I reached in and kissed her neck, which caused her to lean back into me. "I can tell you feel better today."
She turned slightly and smiled at me. "I decided that making myself sick over things that I not only didn't understand fully, but couldn't do anything to change was foolish."
"That's my girl."
We rode into town surrounded by infantrymen and members of the Royal Guard. The town stopped, as they usually did. We tried to be as quiet as possible about it, but unobtrusiveness became a tad difficult surrounded by fifty soldiers in gleaming metal armor.
I looked on as Gabrielle's hungry gaze swallowed every visual detail of her hometown. Potidaea had grown into a lively harbor town over the last ten or twenty seasons. If Gabrielle did remember anything about the place, chances were slim that it had remained the same.
"Recognize anything?" I asked.
She shook her head. "I don't remember much about the town. I suspect we didn't come here very often."
Gabrielle smiled and tossed a few drachmas out to a group of waving children. We each nodded to those people who were respectful enough to stop along the sides of the road and bow or acknowledge us in some way. As we rode on, the stone pavement from the town streets had turned into a dirt road.
The many small farms surrounding Potidaea all looked prosperous and healthy. The mid summer crop of wheat blew gently in the breeze like golden surf breaking onto the shore. The air smelled sweet, a combination of newly cut hay and the fig orchards, in abundance, around us.
Ephiny cantered down the road toward us, her pale colored pony tossing his head as though he would have loved to have free reign to gallop through the endless green pastures that surrounded us. Ephiny, on the other hand looked nervous. I suppose she felt as I did about Gabrielle's safety. Strange places always had a way of making a second in command worry.
"You're looking much better today," Ephiny said as she pulled alongside us.
"Thank you, I feel much better," Gabrielle replied. "Have you um met them, Eph?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," Ephiny answered without looking over at Gabrielle. The Amazon reached over and briefly touched Gabrielle's hand, as much as our moving horses would allow. "Don't worry, Gabrielle. They seem like nice people."
I felt the tension slip from Gabrielle's body. I silently thanked Athena for the small favor. If we could at least get past the first bit of awkwardness, I just knew everything would turn out for good. After all, what parents would not want a girl as beautiful as my Gabrielle for their daughter?
Atrius met us at the edge of a recently plowed field. He saluted and ordered the majority of our men to remain there. We followed Atrius and Ephiny off the main road and onto a narrower road that led up to a small farmhouse. It was more path than road. Wagon ruts and patches of weeds had eaten away the long grass.
Gabrielle let out a small gasp and I followed her gaze to a large tree beside the barn. Two lengths of old tattered rope hung from one of its twisted branches, a plank of rotting wood dangled haphazardly from one of the pieces of rope. It looked to have been a child's swing once, long ago.
"Xena, I remember that swing. I remember that tree," Gabrielle said.
"Want to take a closer look?" I asked.
I didn't really need an answer. She fairly jumped into my arms the moment I dismounted. Atrius also descended, drawing my attention from Gabrielle with his dour expression.
"Conqueror, I wonder if I might speak to you about where to camp the men for the night," he said.
I raised an eyebrow at him. "Will you be okay for a moment?" I asked Gabrielle.
"Of course, love," she answered in a distracted fashion. Her eyes never left the old tree.
Atrius walked beside me and we moved away from the rest of our party. I looked back to see Ephiny and Mika standing protectively beside Gabrielle. I looked back at Atrius. My captain's demeanor hadn't changed. He looked upset, worried, or both. I already knew something was wrong by Atrius's carefully chosen words where to camp the men for the night. It was a code of sorts. We had used it for seasons, but it had been some time since he'd last used them.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"It might be nothing, but " he paused and looked around uncomfortably.
"Come on, old friend. Evasiveness doesn't suit you. What's going on?"
"Her parents," he said. We both knew he spoke of Gabrielle. "I get a funny feeling about this."
"What's that mean? What kind of feeling?"
"Saying it out loud makes me sound like a worried old woman, but I talked to these people, Xena. All I can tell you is they sure don't act like people that just heard their long lost daughter is alive."
I didn't know what to say. I should have been able to read between the lines better, but his words took me by surprise. "Well I guess we have to cut them some slack here. I mean, it has to be strange for them, too. So they're not the nicest--"
"That's just it," Atrius said. "They are nice. They're polite, but pretty quiet."
"You drag me away to complain that you have an odd feeling about Gabrielle's parents because they're nice?"
"Trust me, I know how odd it sounds. It's just that they're too nice. You think they'd have questions or act surprised, but they act like someone comes along everyday and changes their lives like this. The woman acts I just don't know how to put it."
I took a deep breath. If it had been anyone else telling me this, I would have laughed aloud, but this was Atrius. He had never been prone to hysterics. His suspicions had usually proved to have some basis to them.
"Are you saying you think they knew already that Gabrielle was their daughter?"
"It would explain their behavior."
"I don't like the conclusions that I'm drawing from that. I especially don't like Gabrielle walking into a situation that might burn her." I ran a hand through my hair and sighed deeply. All right, there's not much we can do at this point, but watch and ensure they don't do anything to hurt Gabrielle.
"Sorry to be the one--"
"Forget it, friend. I'd rather know what to expect and I trust your instincts. Come on," I turned and indicated that Atrius follow me. "And get rid of that grim expression. Gabrielle will be able to read that in a heartbeat."
"Hey, there. Everything all right?" I asked Gabrielle as I drew closer.
She had been touching the tattered rope that held the old wooden child's swing, touching it as if it were a sacred icon of some sort.
"I remember playing here, Xena. I remember this swing," she said.
I smiled. It was a genuine pleasure to see Gabrielle's eyes light up at a good memory from her past. We all turned toward the sound of Atrius clearing his throat. When we turned, there they were standing before us. I didn't know if I should feel joy or anger. I only hoped that my confusion wouldn't become apparent to Gabrielle.
They stood beside one another and I assessed their relationship at once. He was a short man, thinly built. His skin had been darkened from seasons of working out under the sun. I noted his stance. It spoke to me of uncertainty and insecurity. His wife, however, stood out in stark contrast to her mate. Her bearing spoke one word pride. Even the haughty way she carried herself told of her nature. I am no seer, but I have been blessed with certain gifts of observation. I could tell in an instant that it was she who ran their home.
Atrius took a step forward. "Lord Conqueror, may I introduce Herodotus and Hecuba of Potidaea. Sir madam," he nodded toward them. "I present to you Xena, Lord Conqueror of the Greek Empire and her mate, Queen Gabrielle."
The introduction silenced us all for a moment or two. Personally, I had no idea how to greet or treat these two. Atrius had given them the basics of Gabrielle's story before we arrived, leaving out, I am sure, the more terrible parts of her life as a slave. Gossip traveled faster than a speeding caravan across the Empire, however. Gabrielle's story, who she was before she came to me, had made its way into even the smallest provinces. I knew that I had to be the strong one this time, just as Gabrielle had led the way during my own return home.
I stepped forward and the man bowed just as his wife curtsied.
"Well, now that we're all completely uncomfortable " My jest drew a smile from all concerned and seemed to ease the tense atmosphere, if only a small bit. I held out my hand to the man first and he accepted it readily enough, even though he wore nervous smile. The woman was going to be a harder sell. I could see that at once. She didn't say or do anything terrible, she just didn't act very enthusiastic about meeting her daughter. I kept telling myself that the situation was just as difficult for these two as it was for Gabrielle.
"Let's forgo some of the formality of the situation, eh?" I said. "Please call me Xena. And," I motioned for Gabrielle to come stand beside me. "This is Gabrielle, but I believe you know that already, don't you?"
"Indeed, we do," Herodotus said. His smile came much faster this time, even the woman, Hecuba, smiled. Her expression looked as though she thought on some long forgotten memory.
Gabrielle came alongside me. She touched my arm, actually held to it just above the elbow. She didn't squeeze hard, but I felt the action must have made her feel grounded in some way. I understood completely.
She held out her hand and Hecuba hesitated before taking it in her own. It was an almost imperceptible pause, but I noticed it nonetheless. Thank the Gods, it seemed as if I was the only one to notice. If Hecuba had been at all standoffish, Herodotus made up for it. He took Gabrielle's hand and swallowed it up between both of his own. He just stood there, seemingly unable to speak.
Being Gabrielle, I should have anticipated my wife's next words. She had never been one to shy away from a situation, even an emotional one.
"Am I your daughter?" Gabrielle asked.
Only my wife could have been so bold and brave as to confront the situation head on. For all my strength and bravado I am sure I would have hid my feelings rather than leaving them so close to the surface. I heard Gabrielle's voice, though; heard the nearly indiscernible hitch in her tone that spoke of her apprehension. I think she was actually afraid of the answer.
"Yes, Gabrielle, I believe you are," Herodotus answered. He continued to hold Gabrielle's hand, but Hecuba abruptly turned back toward the house.
"Why don't I fix us all some tea?" She said as she walked away.
Herodotus motioned me to follow, but he kept his touch upon Gabrielle. He wrapped her hand around his arm before leading her toward the small home. When we arrived at the entrance's threshold, he turned to speak to me.
"Your people they are welcome too," he said.
Atrius and Ephiny each gave me a subtle shake of their heads. "Perhaps we might get to know one another in a more private atmosphere. I think we might all feel a little more comfortable that way."
Gabrielle looked relieved and I gave her a wink. I followed behind Herodotus and Gabrielle as they led the way into the small cottage. Hecuba had already placed a kettle of water over a hook in the hearth. The fire caused the small room to become warm, but not stifling. Actually, the climate outside had grown damp, rain clouds threatening to open up at any moment, so the warmth of the fire felt good.
The cottage looked as many a farmhouse in the Chaldice area. A moderately sized wooden table sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by four chairs. Another table, built somewhat higher than the first, separated the kitchen space from the rest of the room. I assumed that the high table had been a place on which to prepare food.
Two doors led into what I could only guess were other rooms. I could not say for certain, as they were closed. For the most part, this small house looked like all the other cottages I had ever seen. I admit, my mind had wandered as I examined the details of the house. My musing ended and I heard Herodotus's voice.
"It's impossible to be certain, of course, but it makes sense. Our Gabrielle and her little sister, Lila, disappeared when Gabrielle was only five summers. The men of the village helped me search the woods nearby, but we found no sign."
"They never suspected slavers?" Gabrielle asked.
"We looked for a fortnight, at least," Hecuba responded. "How could we have known I mean, no one thought that here in Potidaea we had never heard of such a thing." Hecuba sounded defensive, but I'm not certain whether I could blame her. They had lived in an innocent age, in an area that had not previously known such an evil as slave traders.
"It must have been very hard on you," Gabrielle said. Gods, how like her to think of her parents.
"Not nearly the same as the pain you must have endured," Hecuba answered. "We've heard how the Persians beat their slaves." There was some genuine feeling to the woman's words. I thought she must have been warming to her daughter.
Gabrielle looked taken back. I could see her mind searching for an answer behind her emerald gaze. I suppose that neither of us ever thought to mention what kind of a slave Gabrielle had been.
"Actually--" Gabrielle began.
"Maybe we should speak of happier moments. Gabrielle, perhaps your parents would like to hear about Corinth," I said.
I could see that Gabrielle had been about to reveal the truth of her past to the couple. What purpose would it serve? Did it honestly make a difference what sort of servitude Gabrielle had been forced into? Perhaps my affection had made me naïve, but I couldn't see it mattering one bit to loving parents, hence my interruption. Gabrielle smiled after she took a moment to gaze at me. I believe she understood my intention. I listened then as Gabrielle told them of our home in Corinth and how she had become an Amazon Queen. As always, Gabrielle forgot herself when telling her tales. She drew the couple into her story, only pausing to answer an occasional question. Herodotus seemed quite interested in all of Gabrielle's tales. He even drew me into a conversation about naval battles I had seen and the shipbuilders at Amphipolis. We discovered that he had been a sailor as a young man. Settling in Potidaea had been his way of remaining close to the sea.
Hecuba had been an altogether different story. It appeared to me that she repeatedly tried to steer the conversation back to Gabrielle's time as a slave, no matter how often I directed the conversation away from that area. I couldn't understand what she was after, if anything. I knew exactly what Atrius meant now concerning his gut reaction about Hecuba. It wasn't anything I could pinpoint, no particular action of hers that led me to be suspicious of her, aside from her curiosity about Gabrielle's time as a slave. It was a feeling, nothing more. I could scarcely accuse her of anything. One moment she was compassionate, seeming to feel Gabrielle's pain when my wife referred to the days before we met. Two heartbeats later, Hecuba appeared to eye Gabrielle suspiciously, as though the woman mistrusted her for some unknown reason. I can put it no other way. It's so difficult to explain a sense that one has about things. I write these things now to show that it didn't surprise me at all when Hecuba next spoke.
"How did you serve, Gabrielle? What did they force you to do?" she asked.
"Ba, we agreed," Herodotus pleaded with his wife, using what I assumed was a pet name. "It doesn't matter."
"And if the rumors are true? How will we hold our heads up?" she snapped back.
Their exchange took place so quickly that Gabrielle and I both sat there with our mouths nearly hanging open. The atmosphere had changed so suddenly from one of pleasantness to anger. The harsh words between Gabrielle's parents had evidently left my wife reeling in wonder. Gabrielle looked confused at the almost bitter tone to Hecuba's voice. I think I knew even then that it wasn't really confusion that Gabrielle felt, but surprise, for she knew as well as I what rumors Hecuba had heard.
My heart ached for Gabrielle. This was going to be hard. More than hard, I feared that it might be the blow to finally break this incredible young woman's spirit. I finally saw what I could not previously describe, what had only been a feeling. Had Hecuba suspected all along? Obviously, she had heard the rumors about Gabrielle's previous life and had taken some sort of offense. I would not have guessed that the mother of my wife, a young woman who held absolute goodness within her soul, could have been so judgmental, so cruel and petty as to condemn her own daughter for doing anything she had to do to stay alive.
The look that Gabrielle and I exchanged in those passing heartbeats told me that she had chosen. Was it really a choice or was it resignation defeat? For that is most certainly what I saw in her eyes just then. Those precious, always honest, emerald gems looked at me with a maturity far beyond Gabrielle's physical seasons. Without words, she expressed the disappointment of her dashed hope, the wish for unconditional love from the family that she had to grow up without.
"I have nothing to hide Hecuba--" Gabrielle started.
"Gabrielle, you owe no one--" I tried to interrupt.
"It's all right, Xena." Gabrielle placed her hand over my clenched fist, which rested upon the table. "Honest," she repeated.
"You obviously have some concerns about who I am. What is it you wish to know?" Gabrielle asked.
I waited for Herodotus to be strong. It was obvious that he knew, suspected, perhaps even believed the stories he had heard about the Queen of the Empire. He knew yet hadn't cared. I could see it in his eyes. All he saw in Gabrielle was his lost daughter returned to him. That made it even more disappointing, his behavior. I expected him to stand up to his wife, to put her in her place, or at the very least, to apologize to Gabrielle. To ask Gabrielle to forgive his wife's petty minded behavior. Instead, Herodotus displayed the type of man he was. He seemed to shrink in his chair, to almost cower beside his wife. Gods, had these two actually created the woman who sat beside me?
Hecuba took Gabrielle at her word. "Do you know what they say about you?" she asked.
"A good many things I should imagine," Gabrielle answered. "I've learned that being in the public eye makes one fodder for every gossip in Greece."
"What you've done. I mean, the things you've done when you were a slave."
"Look," I interrupted, half rising from my chair. I found it difficult to hold my tongue at the woman's accusations.
"Xena," Gabrielle again caught my attention with her calm demeanor. "Thank you, love, but let me do this please?"
I nodded and rose the rest of the way, pushing my chair away from the table. I folded my arms across my chest in order not to strike out at Hecuba. I stood in one corner, glaring at the infuriating woman.
"I don't see how they could possibly know anything about the life I had to lead unless they knew me then," Gabrielle continued. "I admit, some could have met me back then, but I seriously doubt they would have remembered a slave girl."
"I think you know what I mean. You sound as if you're trying to hide--"
"I beg your pardon!" Gabrielle said sharply, rising from her seat. "I have never once lied nor tried to hide what I have done in my life."
"What you did--"
"What I did was anything and everything I had to do in order to survive! Yes, I know exactly what you're trying to imply. Would you like to know how I served?"
"Gabrielle " I said as gently as I could.
"No, Xena. If they want to know so badly, if it means so much to them, then they should hear it from me," Gabrielle responded.
Once more, I acquiesced to Gabrielle's will. The determination in her eyes actually caused me to take a step back until I felt my back pressed against the wall.
"I had only one job during all the seasons I spent as a slave, one job and many masters. I was a body slave. From the time I was kidnapped until I met Xena I served in my master's bed giving physical pleasure when it was demanded of me."
Gabrielle stepped away from the table and turned away from them. She abruptly turned back to face them, her dress swinging around her body.
"I was good at what I did very nearly the best. Each day I did exactly what I was told, exactly when they told me. I never spoke back and I never disobeyed, and because of that, I stayed alive for one more day. Each and every day that became my goal, simply to live for another day until someone, somewhere, would come for me.
"I know more about the art of pleasure than you can even imagine. I've been educated in more countries and on more subjects than merely pleasure. I've been a student of some of the greatest minds across Greece, Persia, and Chin. I've seen more things in my young life than most people could hope to see in an entire lifetime. I feel my own shame for what I did, but I will never again let anyone make me feel ashamed for doing it."
"Y--You sound almost proud of what you did," Hecuba struggled to say through her indignation.
"If that's what you think then you haven't heard a word I've said."
"You admit that you had a choice. You chose to give them your body."
"That's right, I gave them my body. I did what they ordered me to do. There even came a point where I strove to become the best at what I did. They had all of me, whenever and however they chose. So, yes, I gave them my body, but I never once gave them my soul. Not once did I give any of them who I was inside. And I never - ever - judged anyone else for doing what they had to do in order to survive."
"We're not judging you, Gabrielle." It was the first time Herodotus spoke since Gabrielle's outburst began.
"We are the ones who have to face our friends and family with this shame!" Hecuba shot a withering glance at her husband. He backed down immediately. "I don't know if we can accept this accept what you've done."
Hecuba's words struck Gabrielle as one final blow. "You have to face?" Gabrielle shook her head in disgust. I could see her anger, her righteous indignation burning brightly in her gaze. Part of her looked amazed, too. As though she was as astonished as I was to hear those hateful thoughts coming from her own mother. "Would you care to share what I was supposed to do, in your opinion?"
"You should have refused to obey."
"And be hung, beaten to death, or worse?" Gabrielle responded, a genuine look of amazement still on her face.
"At least you would have had honor in death," Hecuba answered before turning away from Gabrielle.
"By the Gods," Gabrielle finally said in defeat. "How could such a pathetic excuse for a woman have given birth to me?"
Gabrielle turned and walked out of the house, leaving Hecuba sputtering with rage. The woman's anger had left her unable to verbalize a coherent response. Herodotus looked as defeated as Gabrielle. Yet she had left standing tall with self-respect and pride, whereas he sat there limply, fully aware of his shortcomings and unwilling to change them.
I watched as Gabrielle stalked through the door, Ephiny immediately two paces behind. I slowly turned back to the room's occupants. I took a deep breath, feeling the beast so close to the surface, so quickly, that it frightened me. Another cleansing breath. Now, it was my turn.
To be continued in : Chapter 22: He Jests At Scars, Who Never Felt A Wound
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