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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Gabrielle looked a tad uneasy. Not that I ever had, but she looked rather as if I was about to unleash some sort of terrible punishment upon her. Of course, she most probably knew that wouldn't actually happen, but she didn't look absolutely certain, which is where the uneasy expression entered into play.
I decided to charge right in and confront my mother. I knew it might end in a knockdown drag-out situation between the two of us, but for Selene's sake, it had to be done. I owed my sister that much.
"Mother," I said.
"Xena," she interrupted. "I need to know. Is it true that Selene can't read?"
"Yes, it is. Mother--"
"Oh, Gods! What can we do to fix this?"
"Well, you might start by talking. You and she need to have a very long talk and you need to--"
"...Start talking with her instead of at her," Cyrene finished.
"Um...yes," I replied. "Look mother there are some things you need to know about Selene--"
"...And I've never even given her the opportunity to tell me about herself...what she wants out of life. I've spent her life telling her what she couldn't be instead of discovering who she wanted to be."
"That's right." I felt a little confused. Was I that good or had someone else discussed this with Cyrene before me? "Yes, well, you really need to--"
"...Discuss this with her as soon as possible. Do you think she'd be open to talking with me right now, dear?"
"Uh...okay," I said in a slow drawl. This was going very well. "I mean, I'm sure that would go a long way toward straightening some things out. Mother, just remember--"
"Selene's probably as skittish as a newborn colt right about now."
"Well, yes, and--"
"...I don't really even know her. I need to let her tell me what she's feeling in her own time."
"Yes, um, my thoughts exactly."
"I'll go right now," she said. She turned to smile at Gabrielle and my wife smiled back. Then, Cyrene reached up and gave me a quick peck on the cheek before she rushed from the room.
"That was...um, easy. Too easy," I added after a moment's pause. "Gabrielle?" I called out her name in a slow drawl.
"Yes, Xena?" she answered, much too dutifully.
"What was that all about? Had you and mother already discussed Selene?"
"Just a little. I mean, I just happened to mention to Cyrene that perhaps she might want to look at Selene in a different way than she had been."
"Gabrielle..." I repeated in a slow cautionary tone.
"Yes?" she answered.
I looked across the room at her and arched an eyebrow, attempting a stern expression. "Come over here."
She fairly flew at me and I caught her in midair, crushing her to me until neither of us could breathe.
"You nearly scared the life from me, girl!" I whispered fiercely before kissing her hard.
I won't say that it was harder than I intended for that wouldn't be the truth. I wanted her to feel me in that kiss, to know what I felt for her and how much. It eased my heart to feel her return the intensity.
"Don't you ever, ever do that again," I said once we'd separated.
"I promise," she replied. "I'm so sorry. I didn't think. No, that's not true." She pulled away a bit more to look up at me. "I was thinking, but only of myself."
"I don't understand what you mean."
"Xena, I think...I'm not certain, but I think I snuck away like that because I could."
I'm sure I looked at her strangely. "I'm not sure if you're making fun of me or not," I answered with some suspicion.
"No, never. I'd never humiliate or make a fool of you, Xena. I thought you'd know that by now."
"I thought I did. I mean...yes, of course I do, love. I didn't intend it to come out like that. I suppose I thought your answer was an attempt at I don't know impertinence."
"Not at all. I certainly didn't mean it that way. I haven't even thought it all through until just a few moments before you arrived. Cyrene and I had been discussing how the decisions we make as adults stem from events we experienced as children. We had actually been speaking of Selene, but it struck me that I did the same thing today."
"Okay," I began. "So, there's some connection between you slipping off today and how you spent your childhood?"
"I think...maybe. It suddenly reminded me that I never got away with anything like that as a child. I played with other children my age that snuck away from home and played tricks on their tutors. I was a slave, and even though I was a child, my owners would have severely beaten me if I had tried anything the other children had. I suppose, somewhere deep down, I saw an opportunity to be the child I had never been. Gods, does that make sense at all? Sometimes the words just flow from me and other times I can't express what I'm feeling at all."
It all made perfect sense, and even though Gabrielle felt as if her explanation wasn't clear, I understood perfectly. I had long wondered about the playful and childlike behavior that Gabrielle had displayed on rare occasions. That it had never occurred to me made me feel a fool. I believe I had conveniently forgotten that she served at such a young age. To think on it only made me angry or heartsick, so I mostly put it from my mind. I had to remember that trying to forget Gabrielle's past was no way to deal with it.
"Yes, love, it does indeed make sense," I said as I pulled her into my embrace once more. "I suppose it's something we'll have to work on together."
"I'm sorry, Xena, but you shouldn't have to deal with the headaches that my past brings on."
I laughed aloud at her answer and had to immediately respond to her indignant glare. "Oh, little one, you are a funny lady. How many times have you smacked me across the jaw to fight back my demon? You've been taking on my past since the moment we first met."
"Well, that's different," she answered with an embarrassed grin.
"Different? And, why should it be different?"
"Because a Conqueror's wife gets to make those kinds of rules." She played with my collar, never meeting my eyes.
"I see. So, you get to worry, and fuss, and generally take a beating because of my past, but I can't do any of those things. Have I got that right?"
"Hhmm, I must have missed all that in those Conqueror classes."
"I suppose I could overlook it this one time."
She giggled when I pulled her closer and tickled her. I knew that we had once again been able to settle our anger without argument when I heard that laughter. It might not always be so, but I thanked Athena each and every time it happened this way.
A timid knock on the door brought Scylla's face into view.
"Forgive me, Lord Conqueror, but I have her highness's bath ready. Shall I help you, Miss?"
"No, that won't be necessary, but thank you, Scylla," I answered before Gabrielle had the chance. "I'll help Gabrielle. Have a good evening."
"Yes, My Lord Your Highness."
"Goodnight, Scylla," Gabrielle added.
Scylla hurriedly left the room, and Gabrielle and I made our way just as quickly to the bathing rooms on the main floor of the inn. At that time of the evening there were no guests using the rooms, so I locked the main door for our privacy.
When I still lived here in Amphipolis, the only bathing options were two copper baths separated by curtains in a small room behind the kitchen or, for guests who could afford it, having a hired man haul one of the copper baths up to the guests room, followed by twelve buckets of heated water.
The inn's current bathing chamber was something that my mother had often dreamed of building. I recalled her talking of such an area when I was a child here. She must have gone to some expense to build the addition with its tiled floors and sunken baths. There were also the traditional copper baths, which Gabrielle preferred. Three fireplaces heated water for the individual metal tubs, but a small system of waterworks controlled the sunken baths, adding and removing water via an aqueduct system such as Athens used.
Scylla indeed had prepared everything. Tendrils of steam rose around us from the heated water. In no time at all, Gabrielle felt clean and rejuvenated. I sat behind her as she lay in the still warm water. I had combed her long golden hair, and with a couple of deft moves, she tied her tresses up and off her face.
"I'm sorry," she said, turning back to look at me.
"You don't have to keep apologizing, love."
"I feel like I've disappointed you. I know I've disappointed myself."
"No, love, please don't think that way," I answered.
"Xena, you were so angry that your darkness struggled to break free."
"I won't lie to you, Gabrielle. The beast was beating on the gate, but it never broke through. I'm not even sure I understand how that happened, but I know now that my behavior was due more to fear than anger."
"Fear? I don--"
"I was afraid, Gabrielle, afraid that you were hurt, that I'd lost you. A million scenarios ran through my head, all of them bad. I didn't know what I would do if " I took a deep breath and turned away from her. Perhaps it would be easier to admit my weakness if I couldn't see her.
"I don't know what would become of me if I ever lost you, if anything ever happened to you. I'm afraid afraid that I'd go back to being the woman I was before I met you."
"I don't think that's possible, love," Gabrielle responded. She sounded so sure.
"How can you sound that certain?" I asked.
"For one, because I know that I'm never going to leave you of my own will, and I send Athena a daily prayer that we should always be together as one."
"You said, for one. Is there a number two?" I asked, almost fearful of her answer.
"The second reason is the most important, my Conqueror. You're simply not that woman anymore and I don't think you could become her again for all the talants in your treasury."
I finally looked up and met her gaze. She smiled at me with a look full of so much warmth and love that I believed her. Frankly, if Gabrielle had just told me that the moon was blue, I would have believed that, too. If there were only one thing that I would remember all my life about this young woman, it would be her enduring faith in me.
"As long as you belong to me, little one, I actually feel that I can be the woman you think me to be." They weren't merely words. I truly meant every one.
I leaned over to place a kiss upon her bare shoulder and just like that, I wanted more. A great deal more. I wasn't certain this was the right time and I knew without question that it wasn't the proper place, but my body didn't care. The thing to do was to discern whether Gabrielle's body ran in tandem with my own, slightly impulsive, desires. It took no more than a breath's span to discover that she felt the same.
"Xena," she moaned breathlessly as she turned her head, exposing more of her neck.
The vision was too much to refuse and so my mouth sucked gently on the skin there. Gabrielle raised her arm and wound her fingers within my hair, holding me to her. Soon, I left my seat and kneeled behind the end of the tub, my hands caressing Gabrielle's arms, shoulders, and chest. I let my fingers roam wherever they had a mind. I didn't even think about what I wanted to do next. I could only concentrate on the sensation of touch and Gabrielle's silky wet skin.
I did separate from my desires long enough to wonder how far we should carry this seduction in such a public place, even with the door locked. However, just before I voiced my thoughts on that subject, Gabrielle's small hand grasped one of my own and drew it downward across her body. She slid her own hand over her breasts, massaging each one. I watched, mesmerized as she circled her nipple with a delicate forefinger. Gabrielle removed her other hand from my hair and used it to force my hand over that of hers, the one that touched her body. Every miniscule thought I had regarding self-control, or of even moving to our bedroom, simply dashed away after that.
Gabrielle's fingers pulled gently on her nipples, eliciting mild groans from each of us. She forced me to keep my hands atop hers, never touching her, only watching the pleasure her own hands created. The visuals struck directly between my legs and I felt myself growing wet. Gabrielle turned her head toward me once more and I captured her mouth in a passionate kiss, thrusting my tongue past her lips to taste her as deeply as possible.
We drew our mouths away from the kiss, each of us panting as we pulled much needed air into our lungs. I bent once more to her neck and sucked at the soft flesh there. Gabrielle's fingers entwined themselves into my hair to draw me closer again.
"Yes, Xena harder," she moaned.
I bit the supple flesh of Gabrielle's throat and sucked harder. "I want everyone to know you belong to me," I growled, pulling that tender flesh into my mouth, sucking long and hard.
Gabrielle gasped. "Oh Gods, yes!" she cried out.
My lips slid down her neck and across her shoulder. Each gentle bite and subsequent caress of my tongue drew gasps of pleasure from Gabrielle. Once again, she used her own hand to touch herself and I allowed her to keep my hand atop her own.
"Hold on," I said in a voice that cracked when I spoke. I reached back to my neck and brought my shirt up and over my head. I needed to feel to feel her skin, even this small bit. When I returned to my previous position, I pushed my chest against Gabrielle's back. My breasts pressed into her shoulder blades and when she resumed the downward movement of her hand, the motion caused my nipples to tighten in pleasurable anticipation.
"Please, Xena." Gabrielle groaned as if in pain. She arched her back, finally her hand disappeared into the water and down between her legs.
I followed Gabrielle's every movement with one hand, while the other made its way to her breast. I kneaded the full flesh and teased the hard nipple, flicking across it lightly with my nail. I could see her hips jump forward at my touch. Once again, she reached up and captured my lips in a kiss filled with intensity and fire. We broke from the kiss and I whispered in her ear.
"Do you feel this?" I asked, squeezing her nipple between my thumb and forefinger.
"Oh, Gods, yes. Deep inside."
"You feel me inside, or you want me there?" I teased her with seductive words. She was oh so ready.
"Inside, Xena. Oh, Gods, please, I need you in me."
I slid my palm down across her stomach and into the water. Gabrielle raised her hips toward my hand and I slid my fingers across her slick folds in long teasing strokes. Her legs parted wider and the muscles in her thighs stretched taut. Her breath caught in her throat when in one fluid motion, I slid two of my fingers deep inside of her.
Gabrielle's hips tried to follow when I pulled my fingers away, just as her inner walls grasped at the loss. I followed the rhythm her hips set and she thrust harder against my hand until her entire body started to tremble. Her eyes rolled back in her head just before her eyelids snapped shut.
I was nearly ready to climax myself, watching as Gabrielle quickly crossed that line from pleasure to ecstasy.
"You'll always be mine, Gabrielle. No matter what, I'll always love you," I said into her ear.
My words became the catalyst. Gabrielle's body froze and her breath stopped, as wave after wave of sweetly intense pleasure swept through her. I wrapped one arm around her, my other hand stilled yet deep inside her. I was just as reluctant to leave that warm haven, as she was to feel me depart. Eventually, however, I gently removed my fingers causing Gabrielle to sigh in pleasure and contentment.
Gabrielle turned slightly, until she could see the expression on my face. "No matter what?" she asked breathlessly. "Even if I forget and do something incredibly stupid again?"
I chuckled and kissed the side of her neck before claiming those wondrously soft lips. "No matter what, my love. No matter what."
"I'll never leave you, my Conqueror. We'll always be together."
"I pray that it will always be so, little one."
Since we hadn't made too much noise, and my mother hadn't come pounding at the door, we decided to spend some more time in the bathing room. I took my turn in a warm bath. There was a great deal of cuddling and relaxing involved. Two things at which Gabrielle said I continued to excel.
Back in our room, Gabrielle and I stayed up late into the night talking with only the moonlight streaming into the bedchamber as illumination. We sat upon cushions spread beneath the window, much like the day Yu Pan came to visit. To a stranger, I'm certain we looked like two schoolgirls, our heads pressed close together, sharing our secrets. We spoke to one another of private matters, things between us two, meant for no one else's ears but our own.
We shared some of the conversations we had with others, as well, and I told her about Selene's problem and my sister's willingness to accept our help. Gabrielle did something then that surprised me, although it really shouldn't have. My wife is the most compassionate and loving person that I have ever encountered, yet it still surprised me when she cried for Selene. Gabrielle understood what it felt like, thinking everyone around her was better than she was. She shed tears of empathy for a young woman she had only recently come to know. How could I not love this woman with all my heart? And, as I lay in bed that night, holding my entire happiness tightly in my arms, I prayed that Athena would actually grant Gabrielle's somewhat farfetched requests. For the first time in many seasons, I looked forward to the summers ahead.
"So, I just wanted to apologize to all of you and tell you that there won't be a repeat of what happened yesterday. Some of you risk your lives, or would be willing to, in order to protect me, and I don't want to disrespect you or your loyalty to the Empire."
"No apologies are necessary, Your Highness," Atrius stood to say.
"That's very agreeable of you to say, Atrius, but we both know it's not the truth." Gabrielle smiled rather sheepishly at my Captain. His attempt to put Gabrielle at ease was not lost on me. "At any rate, I've caused all of you a great deal of trouble and that's something I never meant to do," Gabrielle finished.
I stood beside Gabrielle, as a sort of support. She wanted to apologize to all those who either cared about her, or whose job it was to protect her. The tavern was full of family members, soldiers, and Amazons. I thought it took a great deal of nerve to stand before everyone that way and so I stood beside my wife, showing everyone that I believed in her.
The sound of a woman clearing her throat drew our attention to the back of the tavern where Selene stepped out from behind the bar. Her eyes gravitated toward the floor and she kept rubbing her palms against the coarse, green fabric of her skirt. Gabrielle and I looked at one another with duplicate expressions of bewilderment.
"I--I guess well, since Gabrielle is big enough to apologize to people th--then I guess I should, too. I know some of you don't know me so good, but I'm not really a bad person."
"Of course you're not, Selene," Gabrielle said as she quickly stepped forward and took one of Selene's hands within her own. The simple action evidently made a big impression on Selene.
"Gabrielle, I'm so sorry. I never meant to hurt you or Cor, I--"
"I know that, Selene, and none of us blame you in any way. Come on," Gabrielle squeezed her hand. "It's okay really."
I saw tears slowly fall from Selene's eyes and my mother quickly rose to stand beside her daughter. It was perhaps the first time that Selene had ever received such general and unconditional support from her family, and I suspected that she was a bit of an emotional wreck.
"Thanks, Gabrielle. That means a whole lot to me," Selene said, wiping the trail of tears from her face, as usual with her sleeve. I smiled inside, wondering if we would ever be able to turn this gangly young woman into a lady.
Selene continued. "I need to say this to everyone, though."
"You don't have to say anything more," Cyrene put an arm around the tall girl.
"But, I do, mom. I need to say it for me, you know?"
Selene looked around the room at the mostly uncomfortable sea of faces. Those who didn't appear ill at ease looked at my sister with compassion. I suppose word had already gotten around about Selene's inability to read. I don't know how, but that was the way. The thin walls of an inn made even the most personal moments fodder for public gossip.
"I just wanted to let all of you know well, I guess most of you have heard that I got a note from Gabrielle yesterday. I um I didn't say anything about, even though she told me that her and Cor were stranded. I guess when you heard about it a lot of you thought I was just being a bitch."
"Selene!" Cyrene admonished her youngest daughter. Some of us actually smiled at this point. I believe we all pictured cursing within earshot of our own mothers.
"Well, mom, it's true," Selene replied. "Anyway " She paused to dry her obviously sweating palms along her clothing once more. "I just didn't say anything 'cause I I couldn't read it the note. See I can't read." She finished by staring at the floor.
"But she's going to work hard at changing that," I finally stepped in to say.
Selene's head snapped up and she smiled over at me. I swear she looked like another person entirely when she smiled.
"Yea," she agreed. "Xena said she'd help me."
"And I'll help, too," Gabrielle added. "If you want me to, that is."
Selene shyly nodded her head and once more, I reflected upon the change in her since we had arrived. Gone were the slouched shoulders, which she had used in an attempt to disguise her height. Standing amidst a room of Amazons and soldiers perhaps she felt much more at home. The most noticeable change was in her facial expressions. No longer did she appear dour and bitter, older than her seasons. Now, she simply looked like a young woman, awkward, shy, and quite attractive. Too good-looking I thought, as I noticed more than one soldier in the room managing a subtle eyeful. I didn't want to ruin this time with morose thoughts, but I wondered if I would have turned out as Selene, had I never run from home.
A certain uncomfortable silence reigned after that, and we all looked around as though struggling for the perfect thing to say in order to wrap the whole issue up. The words we needed came from an unlikely source.
Ephiny rose from her chair and looked uncharacteristically understanding, as opposed to the customary stern expression she usually wore. "I think we should just chalk yesterday up to one huge learning experience, then. I don't know about anyone else, but with the insight that Gabrielle and Selene have received, I see it as a rather positive thing to have happened."
I stood there with my mouth hanging open until Gabrielle gave me a light elbow in the ribs. Realizing that all eyes were on her, Ephiny coughed and cleared her throat. She wasn't used to the attention and attempted once more to blend into the walls.
"Well said," Cyrene responded as a way to put an end to our open-mouthed staring at Ephiny. "How about a midday meal? The drinks are on the inn."
It was definitely a way to reanimate the room. Predominantly soldiers and Amazons, no one had to ask them twice to accept free drinks. In no time, the room filled with laughing, talking family and friends.
It was some time later when I happened to catch Ephiny returning to the room. She pulled Selene to one side and I admit; I shamelessly strained my ears to hear their short conversation.
"Um here." Ephiny thrust what looked to be a beaded necklace into Selene's hands.
"I um it's very nice," Selene responded. She looked a bit surprised and maybe a bit flustered at the gift. I figured that's why she blushed furiously at Ephiny.
"It's a trainer a letter-trainer," Ephiny explained. "See, each bead has a letter on it. In the Amazon village, we teach youngsters to speak at least two languages. This one is for the Greek alphabet. A young girl wears the necklace and she always has the letters to look at. It helps her to learn her letters. I just thought "
"Thanks, Ephiny." Selene carefully fingered the wooden beads. "Would you help me put it on?"
I watched as Ephiny expertly tied the cord behind Selene's neck and cut off the extra with her knife.
"I don't know how to thank you," Selene said.
"Maybe you can send me a scroll sometime. You know um, send a note or something when our tribe comes to town for supplies. Then I'll know that it helped."
"I--uh, yes yes, I'll do that."
I believe it was when Ephiny saw me watching, and my arched eyebrow, that she moved on.
"Gabrielle," I whispered in my wife's ear. "Do you think Ephiny is could she be after Selene?"
"Oh, Xena, you worry about the strangest things. I think Ephiny is just being friendly."
I nodded my head, but made a mental note to keep an extra eye on my suddenly popular sister.
Somehow, the midday meal turned into a daytime celebration. There was music from a traveling group who wished to stay the night at the inn and eventually the lyrical sounds brought out the dancers. It had turned into a rather carefree event, even for me. I felt eyes on the back of my neck, however, and when I turned toward the feeling, I felt as though a darkness was about to fall upon our happy time.
Acasia stood near the door. My accomplice in the plan to rescue Gabrielle's possible daughter had a way of blending in, amazing given that his physical attributes alone usually caused him to stand out in a person's memory. A long scar across his rugged and tanned face, and missing one arm, he had still been able to merely lean against the wall and quietly enjoy a mug of ale until I noticed him.
"Acasia," I grasped his arm and smiled cordially so as not to arise the suspicions of anyone in the room. "So, you're finally taking some time out?"
"Aye, Conqueror. I also wished to ask permission of you to leave Amphipolis."
"Leave?" I questioned.
"Unfortunately, to attend an old friend's burial ceremony in Ambracia."
I struggled to discern where Acasia's hints were taking us, but I could not think who had passed into Hades' realm that would matter to us. I knew he spoke of someone that we both knew. It couldn't have been the Governor or someone would have notified me already.
"I hope it's not someone too close to you," I said.
"A very old friend. He was a healer from the Land of the Pharaohs. I believe you knew of him?"
"Yes," I answered sadly. "You don't know how distressed I am to hear of your news. Do you know what he died of?"
"Bad news?" Gabrielle interrupted. She had materialized beside me without a sound while my head had been busy mulling over the implications of Acasia's information.
"Uh, yes, love. An old friend of Acasia's well, of ours has died. A man who was a friend to the Empire."
"Oh, I'm so sorry. Were you close?" Gabrielle asked Acasia.
"Actually, Your Highness, it's been many seasons since I--we last saw him. I was just here to ask the Conqueror if she wished to travel to Ambracia, to pay her respects."
"Oh, Xena, you should go. His family might need financial help. Did he leave children?"
"Um, yes, I believe there were quite a few of them," I answered, seeing a plan begin to take shape.
My chest ached from lying to Gabrielle, but I promised myself that I would tell her everything soon. I justified it mostly by telling myself that the ends definitely supported the means. I could no longer afford to be subtle about the matter. My subterfuge had, quite possibly, cost the healer his life. He had been brought to the Governor's palace in Ambracia and likely executed in order to keep his silence about the selling of children as slaves. Now, I planned to confront Telamon and place it all in the open. With Gabrielle insisting I go, it would be easier than I expected.
"I think I should go, love, but you're still not strong enough for a fortnight's trip on horseback. Will you be able to get along here?"
"Of course. As long as your mother will have us, I'm sure none of us are in a hurry to leave."
With the old healer dead, I would probably never learn if the child was Gabrielle's
or not. It left me in a rather sticky situation. At this point, I couldn't make
any sort of plan or decision. I would have to see what I turned up in Ambracia
before deciding what to do about the youngster. I forced myself to smile and
kissed Gabrielle's forehead, again promising myself that I would explain everything
to her as soon as I knew for sure.
To be continued in : Chapter 28: A Little Learning Is A Dang'rous Thing
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