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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 42: Sweet Chance That Led My Steps AbroadI sat down heavily; never even suspecting that Yu Pan spoke of Gabrielle in his tale. Shouldn't I have guessed it immediately? No, the tale was similar to the unfortunate tales of hundreds of young women I had heard of throughout the Empire, and Yu Pan told his tale in such a way that the girl could have been any of them. Since I had known nothing about Gabrielle's chance meeting with her attackers, it became even more of a surprise.
I had nearly forgotten that Prax was in the room with me until she spoke. "Was that true, Conqueror the things he said?"
"Yes," I answered in a distracted fashion. Why didn't Gabrielle ever tell me about meeting up with the brigands who had raped her? Was it one of those things that she had no memory of because of one of Yu Pan's spells?
I looked up to find Prax staring at me with the oddest expression.
"Unfortunately, yes," I answered her again.
"And all the other stories they tell, are they true as well? You know the bad things, too?" She spoke softly. I was uncertain if it was because she feared the answer or feared me.
"I expect most of them are. Now maybe you can understand why I'm a little overprotective of her."
She nodded her head and we sat in the stillness of the room for a long while, each of us lost in our own thoughts. I had no idea what she was thinking, but Prax's expression grew gloomier as the moments passed.
"I had no idea." Prax looked down thoughtfully at the hands lying in her lap. " She truly is an incredible woman, isn't she?"
"You have no idea," I replied. "She's led an inordinately hard life, but you'd never know it to speak with her. I don't believe that I've ever once known her to give in to self-pity."
"Do youdo you think that's what I've done pity myself?" she asked with her head still bowed. There was no hint of animosity in her voice, no defensive tone. Actually, I thought I heard a measure of defeat there.
A fortnight ago, I would have easily answered in the affirmative. Just now, I was no longer certain. My own conversion had been gradual, but this girl had encountered some sort of change in a matter of days. There was also a big difference in our ages. I thought on what she had suffered in one so young, trying to remember the tumultuous feelings and innumerable emotions I myself had experienced at a similar age.
Age had a great deal to do with how intensely Prax had felt Timara's loss. I knew from the limited amount of time that Selene and I had been together that these girls felt everything so deeply, especially love. It was life and death to them, as though they would never find or experience something like they had with their former love. They usually did, though.
I don't know would I say that if it were Gabrielle and I? No, life and love had taken on much different meanings, as I had grown older. Had the emotions changed, the world, or merely me? No, I was definitely different. The chance of my ever finding love again, let alone someone such as Gabrielle, dwindled to a mere thread compared to these young girls who would probably fall in love time and again before their soulmate came along.
I became afraid that my silence had depressed Prax even further. I suddenly felt the need to explain. I took a deep breath. "I was just thinking of my own life and how lucky I've been to find love at my age. It may not be easy for you to hear right now, Prax, but you will love again. I'm certain of it, but the older you get without opening up your heart again, the slimmer your chances become."
She looked up at me and I thought I saw a glimmer of hope in her eyes.
"And the answer to your question is no, I don't think you've given in to self pity. That's not to say I condone any of your actions, but well, I guess I can see how you were led to them. Keep your eyes on where you're going and not on where you've been and you should make it all right. I think the important thing now is that you realize where you went wrong, and you seem like you're making a pretty good effort to change."
"Will people see that do you think?"
"The people who matter will. Why don't you get some rest? I'll stop by tomorrow if you'd like."
"Yes, please. Thanks for everything. I don't deserve it."
I winked at her before I left. "Few warriors ever do, so don't feel too special." I grinned until she smiled back and then left her.
I met Lexa outside the hospice and we chatted for a moment. I shook my head as I walked away. I had rarely seen two women change so much in so little time. I, of all people, knew that with a little encouragement they would each do well on their new paths.
I walked into the quarters that had become our Amazon home. Gabrielle sat in a large chair, one that made her look as small as the sleeping child she held in her arms. Amira didn't hear a thing as I slipped in beside the two. Gabrielle nestled her warm body against me and I pulled her close.
"Don't tell me you and Ephiny have been working out all this time?" she asked.
I chuckled. "I admit I wasn't in the mood for it today. We stopped much sooner than Ephiny would have liked."
"And you still won't tell me what you're up to?"
"Such a common expression." I looked at her with an expression of mock disgust on my face.
"Very amusing. I understand."
"Of course, you could show me your wedding dress and I'll tell you my secret."
"You know very well that Satena would have my skin for that. All this Amazon tradition," she mumbled sleepily as she shook her head against my shoulder. "Six more days and it will all be over."
"Six? I thought it was three days away?"
"Didn't I tell you? I could have sworn I did. I'm sorry, love, but I was informed that three days was simply not enough time for certain, politically important, ambassadors to arrive."
"This sounds vaguely familiar."
"Do you really listen when I talk?" she asked, nudging me in the ribs.
"Yes, all except for those time when my eyes start to glaze over. Then you're taking a risk."
She chuckled and kissed my cheek, settling back against me. "Gods, this wedding is turning into a coliseum event."
"I agree. Any way we could have a couple look-alikes stand in for us and we run away to Crete or something?"
"Ooh, don't tempt me."
"We'll have to think about leaving for home soon after the ceremony. Harvest is almost here and the rains will start another two moons after that. We don't want to be traveling in that."
"As much as I love these people and will miss your mother's company, I do miss our home."
I smiled. "I didn't realize you felt that way about Corinth. You don't know how that makes me feel." I couldn't speak again without first swallowing the lump that had formed in my throat. How I had longed to share my life and the estate in Corinth with my Queen. I never believed it would happen.
"Actually, and this might sound silly to you, but Corinth is really the only home I've ever known. It's all I've ever wanted, Xena a home, family love."
"And you have them all, little one, of that I can assure you." I wished I could say more, but words always seemed to abandon me at such times. I kissed her instead, attempting to give her a hint at the depth of my feelings. As always, she understood what I could not verbalize.
We sat there, snuggled against one another and listening to Amira's childlike snores. Gabrielle suddenly remembered what she had asked in the first place.
"So, where have you been all this time, or shouldn't I ask?"
"You'll never guess," I replied. I quickly related what had happened with Prax and Yu Pan, omitting Yu Pan's story of her. I figured that if she had never told me of the event that there was no sense in bringing up the why of it just then. It would keep until we returned home.
"Then I took a small walk before coming here. I needed to think about things."
"Oh?" She raised her head, looking worried.
I quickly gave her arm a squeeze. "Nothing like that."
I kissed her forehead and, once again, wondered in amazement at her complete trust in me. All I had to do was assure her with a few words that my concern lay in matters other than our relationship. As if proving me correct, she relaxed against me once more.
"I was thinking about when we first met. Sort of in awe at the way the Fates finally chose to bring us together. Looking back on it, I can see the Godly intervention."
"Just because you decided to go to Ambracia?"
"Exactly. We've never really had time enough to speak of it, but I was quite unhappy then."
"I do remember that," she added. "I remember thinking that I had never met a woman so filled with sadness."
"You saw that? Gods above, whatever attracted you to that?"
She nodded. "You appeared to be trying so hard to change. How could I not have fallen in love with you?"
I smiled at her reply, staring into the candle on the table before us. The wick sputtered against the melted wax, and the action caused shadows to scamper across the walls of the room.
"I don't think I even knew that change was what I wanted. Everything bored me. Even the things that I had loved in the past, riding, sailing, sparring brought me no joy at all."
Gabrielle took my hand in hers and stroked the rough flesh. I looked down at her perfectly manicured hand as compared to mine. Fine white scars crisscrossed the knuckles of my blade hand from season after season of holding a sword. They looked so different lying there together, so completely opposite, a perfect example of Gabrielle and I.
"I don't even like to think about what would have happened if I hadn't gone abroad when Ambracia called for the Empire's assistance. I would have missed our last chance to meet one another."
"Have you forgotten the perseverance of Athena and Artemis to bring our lives back to our original fate?"
"You have more faith in them than I do."
"I hardly think it requires a great amount. They've proved twice over that they wanted us together all along."
"Even they couldn't have bent my will if I hadn't allowed it," I answered.
"You sound as ifwhat are you saying, Xena?" She sounded disconcerted now, perhaps even frightened. That was the last thing I wanted to put her through, but I thought it important that she should know.
"I've never told you this before, but when I left for Ambracia, I didn't intend to return."
"Where did you plan to go?" she asked. We had never spoken of this. Gabrielle hadn't any true idea of the depth of my melancholy back then.
"To Tartarus, I suppose. I don't mean to scare you, love, that's not my intention, but you should know that I had every intention of dying in battle."
"Was it a premonition, something like that?"
"No, little one. It was a wish. In fact, I placed myself in every certain death situation I could find, but either those damned pirates were that bad or I was that good. Maybe Hades simply refused to take me that day."
"II 'm not sure what to say, Xena. I'm sorry."
"You're sorry? For what?"
"Because you had to go through that pain alone. I wish I could have done something to help."
"My love, you did. That's what I'm trying to say, and I don't mean just by offering me pleasure. I know you always look on this as though I saved your life, but really just the opposite is true. You truly did save me."
"From what?" She looked up at me in disbelief.
"From myself," I answered. "I wanted well, I guess I wanted you to know how much you mean to me, how much our love means. Maybe I don't say it as often as you'd like, and even though the words tend to get jumbled in my brain before they make it to my tongue, I feel them just as strongly as you."
"If I ever doubted that, I certainly don't any longer. Xena, for the past few moons, you've suffered humiliation, heartache, and pain just to see my wishes fulfilled. I have everything I've ever dreamed of. It's not so much that you saved my life as you've given me one."
We kissed. A gentle, slow kiss. Of course, just about the time when I thought about whisking the woman off to bed and taking that kiss a little further, Amira stirred in Gabrielle's arms, opening up sleepy green eyes.
"I better get you in bed," Gabrielle said, looking down at the child. Gabrielle reached down and kissed the tip of Amira's nose, which made the girl smile and giggle.
I sighed inwardly, wishing Gabrielle's words had been directed toward me. I was trying to be patient, but the quick lovemaking we'd had time for lately left much to be desired in the quantity area. Another reason I longed to be back in Corinth.
I understood that having Amira would change our lives. Even I knew that children would do that. Gabrielle had assured me that once we were back home, in familiar surroundings and without the constant trials we had experienced of late, our spontaneous passion would return. The stress of our most recent situation and scenarios had left the both of us slightly bereft of ardor. Even now, at this very moment, I had the inclination, but not the stamina. Climax sounded wonderful, but sadly enough, so did the thought of a soft bed. The Conqueror had finally become a family woman.
Gabrielle gave me an understanding look before standing and pulling Amira up with her.
"Xena goes, too," Amira cried out, wiggling the fingers of her outstretched hand in my direction.
"I think she means she wants you to come tuck her in, too," Gabrielle explained to my confused expression.
"Oh." I quickly rose. "Here, hand that bundle to me." I took the child from Gabrielle.
"I think she's grown an inch in the fortnight we've been here," she said, rubbing the muscles in her forearms.
We tucked Amira into bed. She was nearly asleep again. Gabrielle surprised me by already knowing the way Amira liked her blankets tucked around her feet, the window open a fraction, and her doll, Yu Pan's present, lying beside her. I wondered if I would ever pick up such details.
We silently walked from the room, but just as I began to close the door, Amira's eyes popped open.
"Not all the way," she called out.
"Like this?" I asked, looking back at Gabrielle, then turning toward Amira and leaving the door ajar.
"Little more little more nope, too much. Okay, that's it. Jess right," she said at last after I had opened and closed the door by small increments for quite some time. She made it all worth it with her next words, however.
"I love you, Mama."
"I love you, too, sweetheart" Gabrielle returned, tossing a kiss in the air to her daughter.
There was a miniscule pause. "Love you, Xena," her voice called out at me from the semi-darkened room.
There it was. Small words, yet ones with a massive price attached. Once I said them, I could never take them back. It was the first moment, since all this had begun, that I finally realized I had a daughter, too. And yes, my life would never be the same again.
"I love you, too, Princess," I replied.
We stood gathered in the large open space of the community hall, everyone that would play a part in our upcoming wedding. The room was a flurry of activity as people rushed in to ask questions, take clothing measurements, and at the same time, a group of women worked to make the room capable of handling the large variety of wedding guests. Their centaur neighbors became a particular concern for the builders considering a centaur's size.
Most of us still had no idea what we were supposed to do, but I figured I had it rather easy. The clue was to watch Gabrielle, do everything she did, try not to knock over anything important on the stage, and answer yes to every question the priestess, Satena, asked.
"Is there something um wrong with her?" Satena finally asked Gabrielle.
I watched as Gabrielle covered her face with one hand, her cheeks turning pink. Her embarrassment was evident, but she couldn't help the smile that tugged mercilessly at the corners of her mouth. Everyone in the room turned toward the youngest member of the wedding party.
We stood there looking at Amira. They had once more attempted to clothe her like the princess she was. She looked lovely with one exception. She fidgeted and scratched in places I had seen a soldier only touch in private. Indeed, she had begun to look as though she had some sort of itching ailment.
I felt for her. The poor girl looked about as unhappy and uncomfortable as one girl could. Gabrielle had asked Amira to be in the wedding and the girl agreed thinking it would be fun. I think she was still waiting for the fun part. I expect that, as a youngster, her surrogate parents had allowed her to run around in what she cared to wear. Coming to the Amazons, she must have thought she was in heaven. Many of these women wore as little as possible, especially during the sweltering summers.
Gabrielle sighed. She attempted to explain to Satena that Amira hadn't yet grown accustomed to fine clothing. The priestess looked unconvinced as Amira scratched again.
"Amira, come here, sweetheart," Gabrielle said. She knelt down beside the girl.
"I'm sorry, Mama." She apologized before Gabrielle had a chance to say anything. How like me.
"Why are you sorry?" Gabrielle asked, attacking the problem with her customary patience.
"Don't know, but everyone was looking at me, so I guess I'm in trouble again."
Yes, very much like me. I felt even more sorry for her.
"Honey, it's okay." Gabrielle lifted Amira into her arms and stood. "I know how uncomfortable these clothes make you. Would you rather not be in the wedding?"
"No! I wanna be, but this dress it itches, Mama." Amira tried to whisper the last, but as with any child, everyone in the room heard her whisper.
Gabrielle sighed again and looked to me for help. I was afraid that would happen.
"Um, we could let her wear something else I guess," I suggested.
"Yes, yes!" Amira wiggled around in Gabrielle's arms.
"I suppose," Gabrielle answered, looking unsure. "It would still have to be something nice, Amira."
"Could I have armor like yours, with the coins all sewed together?"
"Well, that would be nice, but I'm afraid we haven't the time to create something like that. The ceremony is tomorrow."
"Oh," Amira answered sadly.
"We'll make it something nice and comfortable, though. I promise."
"It won't be itchy."
"No," Gabrielle answered, followed by an amused smile.
"And, I get to pick it out?"
"Well " Gabrielle looked around for help, but no one seemed very willing to step into the middle of the mother-daughter moment. "Oh, all right. You can choose, but I get final say."
"Promise?" Amira asked with a most sincere expression. I knew Gabrielle would be a goner with that look. I know I was.
"I promise," she replied
"Excuse me, Lord Conqueror?"
Anya appeared behind me holding my new tunic. I'd expressed such an interest well, actually, I complained so loudly the last time I had to wear it that Anya had practically redesigned it entirely. She had me try the jacket on nearly a dozen times already, checking for the perfect fit.
"I'm so sorry to interrupt," Anya said, holding out my jacket.
"Not at all," I replied. Shrugging off my vest, I easily slipped into the more-comfortable-than-ever tunic. I stood still while Anya pulled on the jacket in places, smoothing it down with her hands against my back and shoulders.
Gabrielle took the time to speak with her Amazon seamstress and Ephiny, asking for any ideas. Amira, now standing beside her mother and hoping, I'm sure, that we would allow her to wear her every day leathers, hopped from foot to foot impatiently.
"Yes! Mama, that's it that's it!" Amira jumped around, tugging on Gabrielle's skirt.
"That's what I want to wear."
Amira pointed in my direction, and I turned to see what she was looking at. When I saw no one, I turned back to find every eye in the room on me. It was a most particularly awkward feeling, and one which I shied away from whenever possible.
"What?" I asked of no one in particular, acute paranoia settling upon me.
"I'm not sure," Gabrielle answered.
Amira continued to jump up and down. "That's what I want to wear. It's nice, Mama."
"What do you mean? You want to wear what, sweetheart?"
"I wanna wear what Xena's wearing. Please, please, please?" She drew out the last word for about ten counts.
Gabrielle just stared at me, as my mother arched an eyebrow, making it apparent from where I'd acquired that trait. I felt distinctly uncomfortable under the scrutiny. Now, even as a young girl, I had never cared to dress in girl's clothes, much preferring my brothers' trousers to my own skirts. It caused some consternation with my mother, but she eventually gave in, realizing she fought a losing battle.
Early in my career as a warrior, I wore the traditional short leathers that many of the Greek and even Roman soldiers wore. As the years passed, I gave my short leathers up for leather pants and loose fitting, mostly silk, blouses. For tomorrow's ceremony, I would wear my black leather trousers, black boots, and white blouse. Then, there was the tunic Anya had created. Could Amira actually mean that?
"What Xena is wearing?" Gabrielle finally asked.
"Uh huh," Amira replied, still looking quite excited. "Please, Xena, please?" She ran toward me and jumped into my arms.
Gabrielle walked over to where we stood. "Now, sweetheart, Xena isI mean, she can" Gabrielle was as tongue tied as I was.
"But you promised, Mama." Amira put on her most pitiful expression.
The look tugged at Gabrielle's heart, something I anticipated. Whether intentional or not, Amira had successfully won the game of manipulation. After all, how were we to explain to Amira that I could wear such an outfit, but it wasn't meant for little girls? Gabrielle looked to me once more, but all I could do was shrug.
"It is nice," I added, perhaps a tad unconvincingly.
"Yes," she replied slowly. "I suppose it is. But, we don't really have enough time to"
"If I may interrupt, Gabrielle?" Anya said.
"By all means."
"It wouldn't take me any time at all to accomplish such an outfit for Amira, provided that is indeed what you want," she quickly added the last. "It would only require a few candlemarks."
Gabrielle looked unsure, and so I decided to step up at last.
"I think it will be fine," I said.
Gabrielle sighed in relief. She appeared simply thankful that she didn't have to make one more decision. I kept a good grip on Amira, who squirmed with delight.
"She'll be comfortable and look nice. Anya will see to that," I added.
"Are you sure?" she asked of me, and I nodded.
"Well, that's settled then, isn't it?" Gabrielle twirled and faced the others. "Shall we continue, Satena?"
I'm sure Gabrielle would have enjoyed a little girl who liked dresses as much as she did, but it appeared that was not to be. Instead, and much to her dread, I'm sure, she ended up with a child who acted just like me. I would not have wished that upon any mother. The only consolation I could ever give my wife would be to point out that Cyrene had, somehow, survived the experience.
"Gabrielle, did you hear me?" I asked for the third time.
We sat on our balcony enjoying some morning tea. This was to be the big day, and neither of us was in a very talkative frame of mind. I knew why I had been overcome by a case of nerves, but I couldn't understand what kept Gabrielle so preoccupied. She usually took everything in stride, and I believed that included this, her wedding day.
"Hhmm?" she finally answered.
I still hadn't caught her full attention yet. I wondered where her mind was. "Oh, nothing. It's just that I'm running away with Ephiny."
"Yes. Mother's even given us her blessing."
"That's good what? You did not just say what I thought I heard."
"Just testing you, love," I said, chuckling at the surprised look on her face. "You looked like you were in another land."
"I'm sorry. I suppose I was. I guess it's just nerves."
"We've done this before," I said with a confident tone, one I didn't actually feel myself.
"I suppose when we did this the first time I was too naïve to realize how important the whole thing was and how many eyes were on us."
I caught the way she lowered her head to concentrate on her lap. That little move was a Gabrielle giveaway, the sign that told me she hid something from me. She could fool most people, perhaps we both could, but not one another not now after all we'd been through.
"You're a terrible liar, little one. What's really bothering you?"
She looked up quickly then gave me a little half smile. "I should know better by now than to try and hide anything from you."
"It was a silly dream, and I don't think it was any sort of a premonition. It was too ludicrous. I saw a little flash of something that didn't really make any sense, but I suppose it's just got me a little concerned, for lack of a better word."
"What did you see, love?" I always took Gabrielle's dreams seriously. She had been blessed with a foresight that made itself known through dreams. More than once she had foretold events in our lives quite accurately.
"It was the oddest sort of think. All I remember is seeing my Queen's mask and I don't know how to say it well, your sword, with it's lion head, was sticking out of my mask."
I could have told her the truth. I knew instantly what incident she had received a premonition of. Perhaps I should have told her, but this was exactly what Ephiny and the others had been trying to avoid by not telling her. They didn't want her to have to worry about one more thing.
"I think you're right, little one. It was just a strange dream. Too many late nights and too much on your mind. I wouldn't worry about it. I'll be right beside you during the ceremony."
"You're right, of course." She laughed at herself. "I should have told you right away. You always have the ability to make me feel so much better about things."
"That's what I'm here for, love."
Her expression immediately became more relaxed, as I watched her pour us each another cup of tea. She had inadvertently taken a weight off my mind, however. Knowing that Gabrielle's dreams were never just dreams, I was able to relax myself because of the scene she described. I felt rather guilty for keeping the truth from her, but it just didn't make sense for her and Ephiny to be worried sick.
To be continued in : Chapter 43: There Is No Remedy For Love But To Love More
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