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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
"I had no idea." Gabrielle said the words almost reverently.
Her soft voice was enough to pull me from my memories of the past. When I opened my eyes and looked up, Gabrielle was staring straight ahead. I couldn't tell what she was thinking, but I did recognize that expression. I saw that same look on her face when she had confronted Ares on my behalf. I remember being amazed at the time that a young woman whose own life had been like an extended trip through Tartarus could summon no anger for her own life's injustice, but she had been willing to face down a God for mine.
"Gabrielle?" I finally asked.
Her jaw tightened, but I received no reaction from her that she had heard me speak.
"Gabrielle? Are you all right?" I sat up and her eyes finally focused on me.
"How could he?"
"Which he? Who?"
"Who? Julius Caesar! Xena, what he did--Why are you smiling like that?" She abruptly stopped to ask.
I hadn't meant to look amused. In truth, it wasn't so much amusement as happiness. Even with all the emotions of betrayal and physical pain that still swirled around me from the tale I had told Gabrielle, I felt the oddest sort of pleasant sensation. My heart was near to bursting and I felt as how I imagined a schoolgirl would, falling in love for the first time. I suppose it was inappropriate, since we had been serious only moments before. Gabrielle sat there, upright and rigid, full of all the righteous indignation her heart could muster. Her eyes spat green fire and her cheeks were flushed pink. All I could manage to think was all for me. She felt all of this because of a wrong someone had done to me. Sweet Athena! Was there a more loving mate in the entire known world? And could there have possibly been a more perfect example of redemption for a blackened soul than me having Gabrielle in my life?
"Well? What are you grinning at?" She stared at me until I did burst into that laughter.
"Little one, I'm sorry. I don't mean to ridicule you at all. It's just that "
"What?" she asked, looking a little insulted.
"Gabrielle, I want you to know how honored and loved I feel by your anger." I pulled her into my arms and squeezed her tight. I felt her relax slightly and she looked up at me wearing a rather confused expression.
"It's just that well, while your anger certainly isn't misplaced, yes Caesar was an evil bastard. Think about it a moment you're mentally disemboweling a man who has already been dead for over ten seasons."
There seemed to be some moments of silence and, at first, I thought that perhaps Gabrielle was angry with me. Perhaps I should simply have been gracious at her gesture. My fear grew until she pushed away from me a small ways. When she looked up at me, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Gabrielle's face had that innocent, sheepish expression that I find so endearing.
"Oh," she eventually responded. "I knew that, of course." Finally, she chuckled aloud with me. "I suppose I do lose my mind when I think of anyone hurting you. It didn't seem to matter that it happened ages ago."
I raised an eyebrow and put on an offended expression. "Well, I wouldn't say ages."
We laughed and snuggled together under the blankets. I pressed my chest against her back and wrapped my arms around her small frame.
"Each time you tell me a story about your past, I realize that circumstances affected your life to make you the person you are just as they did me," Gabrielle said. "I think it's odd that a woman as powerful as you and a slave should have so much in common."
"I guess it proves that we're not born to be any certain way. Most of the way we act now has to do with everything that happened to us in life. Those experiences actually shape us. You know I never liked to talk much, especially about myself. I'm finding it a bit easier to do. Well, to you anyway."
I didn't have the nerve to admit that I worried about opening up completely to Gabrielle. I feared that one day I would reveal too much, that it would be too terrible for Gabrielle to accept. She hadn't yet given me any indication that she might ever do so, but it seemed to plague my mind just the same. Perhaps it was only my insecurity speaking.
"How long before we get to Athens?" Gabrielle asked in a sleepy voice.
"Hmm, I'm not sure. It depends on what kind of time we make with the wagons. I'll talk with Atrius in the morning and see how we're keeping pace."
Gabrielle didn't move and I realized the long day had finally gotten the best of her. I kissed her neck and moved into a more comfortable position. It wasn't very long before I succumbed to my own weariness and joined her in the realm of Morpheus.
"Gods above!" Gabrielle groaned as I helped her into the saddle the next day.
She was as sore as I thought she might be. I opened my mouth to tell her so, but she abruptly stopped me.
"Xena, if you say I told you so, I swear "
"Would I do that?" I tried to look innocent. I definitely had to work on that expression.
"Okay, what were you going to say?"
"Yes. What were you going to say that wasn't I told you so?"
"Uhm I forget?"
Gabrielle laughed aloud and her peevish mood all but disappeared. "You brighten my day, my Conqueror. You definitely brighten my day."
"I try," I said with a wide smile as I mounted Tenorio.
We walked again near midmorning, both of us leading our horses. I tried to prepare Gabrielle for what it would be like to enter Athens.
"We'll stop and camp about a day outside Athens. That will give us a chance to send soldiers ahead and for us to prepare."
"Prepare?" Gabrielle asked.
"Gabrielle, you do realize that we have to ride into Athens."
"I rather thought that's how we would get there."
I smiled at her misunderstanding. "I mean a procession. The Athenians will expect the Conqueror and her new Queen to ride into Athens at the head of a military procession, colorful banners, white doves the works."
"Oh my," Gabrielle said softly. Finally, after some moments of silence, she looked over at me and nudged me in the shoulder. "I expect it's a good thing I learned to ride. Eh?"
We both laughed heartily. "I think we would have found some alternative, but it will look good for you."
"You mean, I'll look good on horseback?"
"Well, that, too. I mean in strength and power. Remember when we talked about the politics of you being Queen of the Empire?"
I had spoken to Gabrielle of this soon after our marriage. She was not unfamiliar with the games people play where position and power are concerned. She had lived as a slave in households where those games meant the difference between comfort and agony, pleasure or pain. In particular, we discussed Athens and the huge power struggles I constantly had with the city. They had felt second best from the start, since I had selected Corinth as the seat of the Empire.
The battle that had sealed my conquest of Greece had been the taking of Athens. It wasn't an easy battle. It was vicious and bloody. Aside from the harshness of the campaign, my own personal vendetta against the city caused me to nearly raze it to the ground.
Pericles was Athens. He had made the mistake of standing against Amphipolis during the Peloponnesian War. I never forgave him for that. Of course, there was also the aristocracy that Pericles promoted and perpetuated. I did two things upon entering a burning Athens on that cold winter morning after I'd defeated them. I had Pericles crucified and I killed most of the members of the aristocracy.
The aristocracy had been a small circle of noble families. They had all the wealth and power, monopolized the government, and held all the judiciary positions. It was a tight little circle and they were loath to give it up. Funny what a hurry they had been in to beg for a democracy once they saw Pericles's body hanging there. The lower citizens paid all the taxes, served in the military, and essentially, obeyed all the directives of their noble born superiors. It's true, all of the Empire was a monarchy, but I liked the idea of listening to the people as long as it didn't get out of hand.
I put an intelligent man named Cleisthenes in charge. I regretted destroying so much of the city during my assault, but I was confident that this young man would help to restore the city, even surpassing its previous glory. By the time I'd left Athens, headed toward Corinth, they had already begun to replace the wood and limestone temples atop the acropolis with structures made of marble.
He presented me with his ideas for reform that, while not a democracy, still gave the general populace a say in their city and their lives. Since I would settle in Corinth, it made sense to try their form of government. He divided the population of Athens into ten tribes. Each tribe elected a general who spoke for them. Although the generals were under my ultimate command, it looked to the people as though they governed themselves. Thus, the Athenians looked on me, not as the Conqueror who had defeated them, but as the warrior who liberated them from the aristocracy's tyranny.
"So, I have to impress them, is that what you're saying?" Gabrielle asked.
"Just be yourself, love. That's impressive enough. Remember, Gabrielle, that once we get to Athens well, it's still a city full of ex-noble families who would love to start trouble. Don't trust anyone completely."
"Ride into the city, impress them, but don't trust them. So far I think I can handle it."
She turned and winked at me and I knew in that instant that Gabrielle would be able to handle anything they might try to throw at her. How was I to know that we would actually be faced with a situation that would put both our skills to the test?
As we neared our midday break, Gabrielle caught me unaware with her next statement.
"Xena, I would like to have your permission to learn how to use a weapon."
She surprised me with her request. In part, because I hadn't thought Gabrielle ever entertained the notion of honing her warrior side. Her asking such a thing in the first place baffled me. Was she still unaware that my life was for her? There is nothing that she could desire, nothing she might ask for that I would deny her. Of course, she was unaware you old fool. I had still been unable to gather the nerve to voice all my emotions to her.
"Little one, you know you don't have to ask for my permission. You are your own woman."
"Even though I'm your Queen, you are still My Lord. You rule the Empire and it's only fitting that even my actions should come under your authority."
I glanced over at her just to be certain she wasn't having a bit of fun with me. She looked straight ahead and I realized that she was well and truly serious. Gabrielle, of all people, understood protocol. I had no fear that she would ever slip in front of anyone else. Her life as a slave made her very aware of proper behavior and chain of command.
"Very well," I chuckled. "What sort of weapon did you have in mind, were I so inclined to give this permission?"
"Oh well, I hadn't really thought that far ahead. That's your area of expertise. What sort of weapon do you think I'd be suited for?"
"Hmm," I thought quickly. Gabrielle was a master at hand-to-hand combat. She was small, but amazingly quick. With the skills taught to her by Yu Pan, she had the agility and strength to use a larger opponent's size against them. "Well, given your skills and size, how about a stave?"
"A staff. You know, like the one you've seen Ephiny with."
"Ohh, the big stick."
I laughed at her terminology. "Right, the big stick."
"I don't know, Xena. It's so big. Where would I put it when I wasn't using it? I'd look pretty silly carrying it around all the time as we traipse all over the countryside."
"Besides, that ugly carved bird on the top of Ephiny's staff scares the Tartarus out of me."
"All right," I chuckled. "Something else then." I went through a mental list of weapons I thought might match her skills. She appeared to have a reason why none of them was suitable.
"Sais?" I asked at last. We had come to the short weapons that could be used effectively by someone skilled in hand combat. I explained what they looked like and how they were used.
"Yes, I remember seeing something like that in Chin. They used them to move hay and for other farm work," Gabrielle said. "Hhmm, I think I might feel a little foolish carrying around a farm tool."
"That's the one, but they're far from farm tools. Ours are made of steel with sharp pointed tips as opposed to the rounded one you're familiar with."
"I don't know it sounds awfully lethal."
I stopped walking and turned to her. "That is sort of the point of a weapon, love. It's supposed to be lethal. Otherwise, what's the point?"
"I understand what you're saying, Xena, but I don't think I want something quite so lethal. A blade of any kind could be so final. I shudder to think what could happen in an accident."
I sighed inwardly. "Okay, no sais."
"Maybe I should re-think the big stick. Do you think Ephiny might give me a few lessons?"
"I think she would be happy to comply, under one condition."
"You promise not to call it a big stick in her presence."
"Oh, very funny." She slapped me on the arm.
"Hey, you hit me," I responded.
"I'm sure it won't be the last time, my Conqueror," she quipped.
Gabrielle surprised me with her actions and light banter. I had never been happier. The young girl who had been afraid to meet my eyes when we first came to know one another was nowhere in sight. This was an independent woman before me and no longer a cowering slave.
I just couldn't resist removing that smirk of hers, though. I leaned down close to her ear and whispered in my most seductive voice. "Maybe next time you could tie me up before you hit me. Hhmm? Just imagine me tied up and naked before you. Which do you prefer riding crop whip?"
I watched with pure enjoyment as my seasoned young queen's cheeks flushed a beautiful scarlet. Pure wonderment filled me as I thought of Gabrielle's embarrassment. That a young woman so experienced in sensual pleasure could find it in her to blush at my comments well, it always caused me to thank Athena.
I was feeling rather full of myself as I straightened back up. Being Gabrielle, however, I should have known that the girl never let anyone get the better of her if she could help it. I wasn't prepared for what happened next.
"Tie you up? And what makes you think you should be the one to have all the fun?" Gabrielle slid her hand down my backside as she spoke and punctuated her remark with a slap that suddenly drew every drop of blood in my body to my, suddenly, aching groin.
She kept walking, a spring in her step that spoke volumes. As for me, all that focus on the space between my legs was making it particularly difficult to walk. Then there was that visual that kept flittering before my mind's eye. The one of me naked...restrained...Gabrielle looking me over...well, you get the picture.
"Ready to ride again?" Gabrielle turned back to ask.
"No!" I nearly shouted. There was no way in Hades I'd be able to mount a horse just then.
She was smiling at me now, realizing my discomfort. "Mercy." I grinned as I slowly limped up to where she stood.
"Chobos!" I straightened tall as the thought occurred to me. I wasn't certain what clubs had to do with anything in the moment, but there you are.
"What?" Gabrielle wore a confused expression.
Once I explained that the wooden clubs were a much-used Amazon weapon, Gabrielle seemed intrigued. We took our midday break, but she was too excited to relax. She went to Ephiny, since I had told her that the best chobo users I had ever seen were Amazons.
After two candlemarks had passed, I went in search of Gabrielle. I needn't have been worried. I found her well protected by our own personal guard, as well as the Amazon Royal Guard. Ephiny sat upon the grass, watching Gabrielle in the middle of a makeshift ring. My wife was receiving instruction on using the chobos from an Amazon I was unfamiliar with.
"I told her to talk to you about it, but I didn't think you'd have her using them the first day," I said as I sat down beside Ephiny.
"She has an affinity for the clubs. Besides, I take orders from her, not the other way around."
"Point taken. Do you trust the warrior she's with?"
"With my life," Ephiny responded. "That's Eponin, our tribe's weapons master. She's about ten seasons younger than I am. There's no one better for the Queen to learn from. Except perhaps me or you." She gave me a sidelong glance. "Rumor says that you were quite the skilled young thing with a pair of chobos. I believe they say that you learned from Cyane herself."
I flinched at the sound of Cyane's name. It was true. She had taught me everything there was to know about being an Amazon. And I repaid her by murdering her. I shook my head to dispel the dark memories. When I looked up, with an expression filled with regret and pain, Ephiny was watching me.
She looked away and sighed deeply. "The past is a harsh mistress, Conqueror. Just when we think we've given her all we have to give, she comes along and demands more. We cannot refuse her, though. She owns us and we know it."
"There are those of us who cringe at her demands." I rubbed my hand across my jaw. "I wish I could forget. I wish it never happened in the first place."
"Then that's a start, my friend."
I looked up quickly, but Ephiny was already concentrating on the scene before her. Had she just called me her friend? I just sat there, stunned. How to express what I felt at that moment. You see; I'd never had a friend before. Of course, there was Atrius and Delia, but their association with me had been forced from the start. They had each known me many seasons and eventually we became friends. This, however, was very different. Here was someone that I didn't really know all that well, someone who could simply tolerate or ignore me if she wished. Instead, she chose the path of friendship. It confused and elated me at the same time.
"Gabrielle doesn't know. Or at least I don't think she knows," I said. "I suppose the Amazon scrolls have more in them about that time than my own library's works."
"Some things should only be revealed in their time." She turned to look at me again. "She won't hear it from us."
It turned out that Gabrielle did indeed have a talent for the chobos. Each morning, after her Qigong routine, she went to study with Eponin. She did the same at midday. I would watch, offer encouragement, and the odd instruction, but as with everything Gabrielle set her mind to, she soon became quite passable.
The Amazons were extremely decent to Solan, also. It seemed as though word had silently spread through the caravan grapevine. No one had asked me directly, nor Solan, to my knowledge. They must have heard him call me mother at some point. It still came as a surprise, given how most of the Amazons still felt about our centaur friends. I would swear, however, that I saw Ephiny speaking with one of the centaurs around twilight the previous evening. It didn't seem like an official chat. From my vantage point, it looked very much like they were laughing.
Solan had expressed a desire to learn of the Amazon culture. My son the inquisitive one. I was certain Yu Pan welcomed the reprieve. Solan followed the old man around like a puppy most of the day, always asking questions about Chin, the people, the language. He was slowly learning. I heard him attempt to exchange a few words with Gabrielle in the regional dialect used in the area that Gabrielle had lived in. She looked at him oddly and then smiled. She quietly took him aside and said that the mispronunciation of one word had taken his enquiry as to her health, and turned it into, you will die today. As I said, he was learning slowly. He found a few willing Amazons to assist him in his quest for knowledge. I didn't want to even think about what else they were probably teaching the young man when the sun went down.
I even saw Yu Pan and Eponin speaking together, discussing fighting techniques with particular weapons. That was one Amazon who certainly didn't act like any of her sisters. She spent most of the time tongue-tied and tripping over her own feet with the exception of the time she spent with a weapon in her hand. When she was sparring, she was as graceful as a bird in flight. When I presented myself to speak with her regarding Gabrielle's lessons, she muttered and stuttered, backing up so fast that she tripped over herself.
Whatever Eponin's problems were, it appeared that Gabrielle had the power to still them to some degree. Eponin lost her nervous demeanor around Gabrielle. The Amazon was actually able to walk and talk at the same time. They laughed and joked like schoolgirls most of the time. It felt good to see Gabrielle develop a friendship with someone rather close to her own age.
It may have seemed odd to some, but it appeared that our caravan was becoming a closer knit group without anyone really trying.
"What did you do after, Xena?"
We had been relaxing in our tent, waiting for the generals of Athens to come out and greet us. The sun was already high in the sky, but we hadn't made plans to enter Athens until morning, anyway. It was apparent we were close to the city, as the smells wafted out into the countryside to greet us.
"After what, little one?" I questioned absently. I had been reading some maps of the region, planning our next stop at Delphi.
"After well, after Caesar's men found you? Is that when you went to Chin?"
It had been a long time since I'd thought about that time. Did I remember everything that had happened to me so long ago? Borias Alti the Amazons Gods, the Amazons. I still hadn't told Gabrielle about them. How could I tell the Queen of the Amazons what I had done to her adopted people back then?
"Ares gave you a second chance then?" Gabrielle asked.
Her question finally drew me from my introspection. "A second chance? I suppose you could put it that way. He tried to beat the crap out of me. I gave as good as I got, though," I finished with a smirk, remembering that fight.
"You beat up the God of War?"
"Well, that's being a little generous. Let's just say I held my own against Ares."
"Still, Xena He's a God. Didn't he have his powers? I know you're a spectacular warrior, but he's--"
"Ares had a weakness back then that not many knew about."
"Which was?" Gabrielle asked.
"Me," I answered. "See, Ares had a sort of a no win situation going on where I was concerned. He knew that only the threat of physical power and might kept me in line, but he also knew that if he ever used any of that power against me, that I would walk. That was why he treated me with a velvet glove most of the time. The interesting part was that when he didn't use any God-like powers, he and I were very evenly matched.
"So, what happened? Did he take it well the fact that you were able to match him?"
"Not one little bit. He finally lost his temper and zapped me with one of those power bolts he liked to throw around. It broke my leg, in nearly the same place that I'd had it broken by Caesar's man when I was on that cross. Ares walked away after he told me that I could drag myself back to Nicklio's cabin since I liked him so much. I didn't see Ares for at least another five seasons after that. My leg didn't heal properly, and so I walked with a limp until the time I told you about in Chin when Lao Ma healed it."
"A lot happened in between. I've read of some, but that really only touches the surface, doesn't it?" Gabrielle asked from her reclining position on a low-lying couch.
"I feel like those seasons lasted for an eternity. In that short time, I was at my worst. There's always been one Xena that was even more cruel than the Conqueror ever could be she was the Destroyer of Nations."
"I read a little of that Shamaness. What was her name?" Gabrielle asked.
"Alti," I answered flatly.
I wasn't sure how much longer I could continue with these memories. I was feeling a little nauseous, reliving a part of my life that time had cruelly left intact within my mind. It made me wonder why Athena never took me up on my offer to purge that period in history from my mind. She had something about being condemned to relive the past if I tried too hard to forget it. I still didn't know exactly what she meant by that.
Gabrielle jerked herself into an upright position from the couch. "Had you told Ares what Caesar had done to you?"
"What do you mean?" She had switched the momentum of the conversation so quickly that it confused me.
"You once told me that you made a constant effort to keep Ares out of your mind. Right?"
"Right," I drawled out. "I hate when Gods read my mind. It's just a little technique I picked up from an old man in Amphipolis. He taught me the way and he gave me some lessons on how to scramble my thoughts in the presence of a God. At the time, I never thought I'd ever have to use it."
Gabrielle kept looking at me as though I was missing the most obvious point. In truth, it turned out that I was.
"I guess it strikes me as odd that Ares told you to go back to Nicklio. How did he know you'd been there in the first place?"
I opened my mouth to speak, but found myself without the words to say. How had he known? More importantly, why had I never come to this conclusion?
"I suppose it's all moot now. Athena and Artemis both have told us that Zeus had Ares put away for the rest of our lifetimes. I know that doesn't take away any of the hurts he caused you."
I looked over at the compassionate woman who held only love and devotion within her emerald gaze. How quick she was to focus in on only me.
"Mine weren't the only hurts, love. Ares set your life's path along an alternate line that could have ended in your death. As it was, he caused you more pain than most have had to endure in their entire lifetime."
She rose and quickly ended up in my lap. Placing her arms around my neck, she softly kissed me. "Do you want to know the funny thing? Ever since I met you, my Conqueror, I feel as though I'm living a different life. Well, I know I am living a different life, but it's like all that old pain those old memories have disappeared. Does that sound crazy?"
"No, little one. It sounds wonderful."
I didn't tell her how much I envied her at that moment. For my past to disappear it was more than I could ever hope for.
To be continued in : Chapter 7: Flower in the crannied wall
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