Disclaimers: See Chapter One for all disclaimers, warnings, etc.
I only know how others feel about my stories from feedback. Let me know what you think. I'm at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Special Disclaimer: For this chapter I thought I'd give a heads up, so to speak. There is a wee bit of light bondage and a whip does come into play between our two gals. If this isn't your cup of tea...well, you've been warned.
The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
A particularly warm sensation upon my back pulled me from my sleep. As soon as my eyes opened and I saw Gabrielle sprawled across the bed, naked and with the sheet carelessly draped across her back, I smiled. I suddenly realized where the warmth on my backside had come from.
I stretched and tested my body, thankful that the previous evening's activity had only left me with a slight sting. It was a most pleasant reminder. Gods above! I knew that pleasure and pain made for occasionally happy bedfellows, but how could I have known that submitting to Gabrielle would be such a satisfying experience, physically as well as mentally. It hadn't been the pain, the gentle whispers of the whip, which I remembered the most about our night. It was the submission. It was depending on Gabrielle for my pleasure, trusting in another person to keep me safe, to please me beyond comprehension. In all honesty, it had been something that I had desired for some time, even when I had been younger, but I had never voiced that want. I had been unable to. Before, Gabrielle, that is.
With warm thoughts of contentment running through my head, I rolled over and curled up beside Gabrielle. I lay there, simply enjoying the feel of her. Sleep was past me, now, for I found it quite difficult to return to sleep once I woke. My thoughts returned to Acasia and my visit with him the previous day.
I looked at Gabrielle's sleeping form and asked myself the same question that had been niggling at my brain since I'd found out about the child in Thessaly. What if this girl wasn't Gabrielle's daughter? I thought about the odds and felt myself slightly depressed. What were the chances that Acasia had found Gabrielle's daughter in so short a time? Then I thought of the green eyes. What did that matter, though? Girls were born into the known world every day with green eyes.
Again, I asked myself what if this wasn't Gabrielle's child? It had taken everything in me not to tell my wife as soon as I had even suspected that we knew where the child was. I had thought long and hard about the consequences of such a premature action. What if I was wrong? What if the child wasn't Gabrielle's and I brought her out there with me? How would she react? I shivered as I recalled the day Gabrielle had told me about her baby. She was hysterical, actually, beyond hysterical to the point of a catatonic state. I remembered holding her in my arms, feeling her sobs over her own supposed guilt. Then, what a difference Yu Pan had made. He had helped Gabrielle to put the pain and loss away where it couldn't hurt her any longer. Would I undo all that good by announcing this find prematurely?
I sighed and wondered what to do. Hopeful that whatever decision I made, Gabrielle would understand that it was all for her in the first place. I rolled over and stretched out on my back, placing my hands beneath my head. I couldn't bear the heartbreak that Gabrielle would experience if I told her about the girl and my suspicions, and then this girl turned out to be someone else. Would Gabrielle be able to handle that?
Suddenly my unease was replaced with a most comforting feeling. I smiled after I realized I had probably been worrying much too much. It dawned on me that I hadn't been giving Gabrielle's inherent nature enough credit. How would Gabrielle react if this weren't her daughter? The answer became startlingly clear. Would it matter? Gabrielle would see a child that needed rescuing. If not the child of her body, Gabrielle would easily see the youngster as the child of her heart. In helping this girl, perhaps, in Gabrielle's eyes, it would bring her that much closer to absolution.
I realized, at last, what I needed to tell Acasia, in order to ensure the girl's safety.
"You want me to take the girl, Conqueror?"
Acasia's voice rose an octave. I had rarely heard any inflection to the man's voice, and if the situation had been less serious, I would have laughed aloud at Acasia's expression.
"No, not just take. Hades balls, man, use your imagination. You have to use a little cleverness with this one."
"Being clever is not exactly my strong suit, Conqueror."
I had to remember that the man before me was a soldier, an assassin. Spy games weren't exactly Acasia's style. He was more of a straight forward sort of fellow. With his rugged looks, the scars from battle, and, most of all, his missing arm, I realized that Acasia would hardly pass as a nobleman looking for a slave girl.
"I understand, Acasia. I do apologize," I said.
The man didn't even try to hide his surprise at my words. Actually, my apology came as every bit a surprise to me, as well. I had simply realized that I must have accentuated his physical shortcomings with my comments. How odd it felt rather good, though. It was my first apology without conscious thought and I felt very much like a child, so proud at its first spoken word.
"Acasia, who do you have watching the girl now?"
"Belleron, Lord Conqueror. He's one of my best."
"That wiry fellow with the dark looks?" I tried to remember the last time that I had met with Acasia's men.
"All right, he'll do. What I want, Acasia, is for Belleron to play the part of a wealthy nobleman. Do you think he's up to it?"
Acasia rewarded me with a sly grin. "I think it's just the sort of thing he would be good at."
"Good. I want you to offer a sum for the girl that they couldn't possibly refuse. Perhaps you can play the part of Belleron's man. That would explain how you heard about the girl in the first place. You are not to take no for an answer or leave that farmhouse without the girl. Do you understand?"
"Aye, Conqueror. And where shall we take the child?"
"I have to work on that yet. Come see me around noontime. I should have the rest of our plan pieced out by then."
"Aye, Conqueror." Acasia saluted me, taking my words as a dismissal.
"And Acasia " I called him back as an afterthought. I rose and crossed the room, opening a small locked chest. I drew out a bag of silver and tossed it in his direction. I turned away from Acasia and watched the gulls from my window.
"Do they have any other children there or is it just the girl?"
"No, just the girl, Conqueror."
I twirled one of my lion's head daggers around atop the chest in an absent minded fashion. "Acasia, I want it made clear that once you get the girl, this farmer and his wife are not welcome in Greece any longer. They have one moon until I show up there. If I find them there, I'll crucify them. Without mentioning my name, I want you to make them understand that."
"As you wish, Conqueror."
I stood before the window long after Acasia had left. I was consumed with the hope that the farmer would defy me. Some small, still untamed part of me wished for that with all my heart. When I looked down, my hands were clenched into fists that shook slightly. I could feel the beast, pacing back and forth like a wild animal that had been caged for much too long.
"You asked to see me, Conqueror?" Ephiny had appeared much sooner than I thought she would.
"I did. I hope you weren't insulted, what with me sending for you, but it's most important."
"Is anything wrong?" she asked wearing an expression of genuine concern.
"No, it's nothing like that. I have " I knew this was going to be hard, especially considering it was Ephiny I had to ask. She and I had acknowledged a certain friendship, but we still had what could only be described as an adversarial friendship.
"I would ask a favor of you," I finally finished.
"A favor?" Her eyes brightened and I should have known she couldn't let it go. How did I know? Hades, because it's exactly how I would have acted.
"The kind of 'you will owe me later' favor?" Ephiny inquired.
I smirked across my desk at her. "I prefer to think of it as a 'you will make your Queen a very happy woman' type of favor."
Silence reigned until neither of us could keep a straight face any longer. We both laughed aloud and I thought about how good that simple action felt after the anger I had experienced just a candlemark ago.
"Sit," I motioned to the chair across from my own. I rose and poured us each a mug of wine. "You're going to have to hear this story from the beginning. I just want to inform you that I tell you all of this, secure in the fact that the information will go no farther than to those who need to know."
Ephiny's face grew serious again and she straightened in her chair. "I think you know that goes without saying, Xena. What can the Amazons do to help?"
I relaxed at once. Hearing her use my given name seemed to confirm, even solidify, our friendship. I think I needed that. I told her then of what I had in mind. In no more time than it had taken me to tell my story, and of the plan I had concocted for the child that I thought was Gabrielle's daughter, Ephiny had arranged the necessary details.
Acasia left that afternoon with a parchment in his possession. The small scroll had been sealed with my crest and a small feather and bead wrap that I would soon come to recognize as Ephiny's seal. I was feeling as high as a hawk on the wind that evening. Gabrielle and I took a moonlight walk by the shore and we made love in the soft, high grass, neither of us even caring what our guards must have been thinking.
If only I could have known that this would be one of the last peaceful and romantic moments we would share for some time to come, I think I would have stayed there until dawn.
"My Lord?" Gabrielle slipped an arm around my waist as she handed me a silver goblet of port.
"How did you know I needed this so badly?" I asked before taking a large swallow.
"I could hear you grinding your teeth from the other side of the room."
I chuckled. At least Gabrielle had a way of putting me in a good humor.
A different politician had entertained us on each of our first five nights in Athens. At one time, many seasons previous, I had been more used to such dinners. Funny, but I liked them no more then than I did now. Even in the old days when I was still building the Empire I had a habit of sneaking away rather early from the evening's festivities. The company of men had only been able to entertain me for so long. Now, in my youth Gods! I had stayed up until dawn, out-drinking and out-screwing any man in my command. As for the present, even with my renewed youth and vigor, I looked forward to nothing more than a soft bed and my wife's company at this time of the night.
"So, how are you enjoying the evening, my love?" I asked.
Gabrielle reached for my goblet and took a tiny sip of port. She didn't usually care for drink.
"I think I need this, too."
"Uh oh. Do I need to run anyone through for you?"
"Hhmm, let me think about it." She smiled up at me. "Not right now, but I may call on you later be ready."
Again I laughed. Her sense of humor served us both well. "Let me guess. Militiades?"
"Do you know that man's wife is every bit as arrogant as he is?"
"That figures. The only thing I can say in their defense is that they're royalty and were a part of the old aristocracy system."
"Royalty? I had no idea. Should I be addressing him differently?"
"It's probably better that you don't. I don't think he's too proud of his behavior. He's from the Philaïd family. Do you know of the Ionian Revolt?" I knew Gabrielle must have at least been familiar with the subject, since studying war stratagems had been a particular hobby of hers. It was one of the reasons that she excelled at the game of King's Men.
"I'm familiar with the actions, but not all the players."
"Well, Militiades was a general here in Athens under Hippias. When his maternal uncle died, Militiades inherited a fiefdom in the Chersonese. He left Athens to rule the peninsula as its turannos, or dictator, over the Thracians there."
"And his wife?" Gabrielle asked softly.
"A Thracian King's daughter. He married her out there. Turns out they served the Persians. Their deal was that the Persians wouldn't attack the Chersonese and Militiades would serve as the Persian King, Darius's, vassal. When the Greeks turned out in their battleships to fight off the Persians, the Philaïds were one of the families who turned away from the fight. They left their Greek brothers to die or be sold into slavery by the Persians. Militiades wandered around for a long time before he approached me the day before I conquered Athens."
"I'm surprised you took him in."
"I am, too. Actually, Athena told me that he would prove valuable to me one day. Besides, despite his manner and the fact that his head is so big it probably has its own house, he is one Hades of a soldier. I figured I'd rather have him fighting for me than the other way around. So, do you think we've put in enough of an appearance?"
"Sweet Athena, yes."
I smiled slyly at her. "You just want to stay up and read, don't you?"
Gabrielle's cheeks flushed pink at being found out. "Would it bother you?" she asked with a worried expression.
"No, love. I knew before I even took you to the library that it might come to this. Enjoy yourself while we're here."
"Thank you, my Conqueror."
Gabrielle and her scrolls, I remember thinking. Every single time I watched, her attention solely on the parchment before her, I thought of the first day we spent together. She had been no more than a slave to me then, but I knew that I had to make her dream come true. I had to allow her access to the written word. I don't know why, only that it was important to Gabrielle. Since the moment we first met, what has been precious to Gabrielle has become important to me.
Seeing the look on Gabrielle's face as she read made the loss of her company worth it all. We had gone to the city library on our second day in Athens. I knew ahead of time that Gabrielle was going to be thrilled. She couldn't eat a bit of her morning meal before we left. Cleisthenes had kept his word about showing Gabrielle the sights, but I had wanted to be there for this one and see the look on Gabrielle's face myself. I remember how the girl who loved the written word so dearly had stood in awe at my own small collection of scrolls. I honestly think she almost fainted upon walking into the library at Corinth. When we walked into the archives, here in Athens, Gabrielle's emotional reaction took all of us by surprise. All of us except for the keeper of the archives, Periander, as I recall.
"Periander," Cleisthenes began, "Their royal highnesses, Xena the Conqueror and Queen Gabrielle. Your highness," he turned to Gabrielle. "Periander has been the keeper of the archives here in Athens for the last sixteen summers."
The old man who stood before us looked to easily be fifty or sixty seasons. He was no frail scroll monger, however. He stood a full hand taller than me and had a belly that indicated the expertise of his cook. He looked perpetually jovial with his reddened cheeks and nervous smile.He had an intimidating physical presence until one realized that he would have had a hard time wounding a butterfly.
He bowed to each of us out of respect and said a few words of greeting. Cleisthenes explained that Gabrielle had an interest in the scrolls and the history of the archive. Once Periander heard that he had an eager audience, he grew enthusiastic. He agreed with my request that Gabrielle's introduction to the Athenian City library and archives begin in the Great Room.
The outer doors to the Great Room were a good twenty hands high, made of some dark, highly polished wood. The inner doors were an iron-like metal, with large bars that hung off by the side walls. The metal bars could be slipped into brackets on the inner doors, to seal the archive from invaders.
We stepped in through the double doors and walked twenty paces into the center of the room. We all stopped to look up at the domed ceiling that had been gilded with gold. I remember that I had felt rather small the first time I stepped into this room. Shelves rose up as high as the eye could see. Those shelves held thousands upon thousands of scrolls. Young apprentices and students scrambled along ladders and scaffolding to arrange and catalog the scrolls. They looked much like bees in a hive, busily focused on the task at hand.
Gabrielle looked up until her head tilted back so far I thought she would fall backward. She looked up quickly at me and I don't think I shall ever forget the look of innocent awe on her face. She was speechless and appeared as a child who had just discovered something marvelous about the world around her. When I looked at her a moment later, she had tears streaming down her face.
"Are you ill, your highness?" Periander bent down to inquire of Gabrielle.
"She's all right, Periander," I answered for her. "She's just happy."
"Ahh," the older man nodded in understanding. Tears welled in his own eyes and he boldly took each of Gabrielle's hands within his own.
"Your highness, may I say that I have waited for the last sixteen seasons for someone to react in this manner upon entering the library? I had given up hope that anyone loved the parchment as well as me. Please allow me to show you more."
That had been the last moment that Gabrielle had free time. Since then, she spent much of her time surrounded by scrolls and she had become fast friends with the keeper of the archives. Periander's young apprentices made deliveries to our home in Athens on a daily basis, sometimes two and three times a day.
I smiled at my wife as we moved away from the other partygoers. We had said our goodnights and now, with the protection of our always-silent personal guard, we strolled along the path toward our home. I listened with some amusement, and an enormous amount of devotion, as Gabrielle described the latest play she had read by Euripides. She animatedly told me the story behind the play, Bacchae. I cringed at my wife's bardic interpretation of the blood curdling play.
I would never begrudge Gabrielle the time she spent studying, however. I sadly thought that, even after all of this time, there was a tiny part of Gabrielle's mind that perhaps still thought that all of this might be taken away from her again. Even after all my reassurances, I realized that time would be the only cure for that particular insecurity.
It was the tone of Gabrielle's voice that took me from a sleepy haze to instant awareness.
"What's wrong?" I quickly sat up, looking around. I unconsciously reached for my sword before I saw that it was Gabrielle before me. She wore a robe, and I noticed she was half dressed underneath the green silk garment that hung open in the middle. The look on her face told me that this wasn't going to be good news.
"Atrius is in your study. He has a man with him that looks as though he's seen Hades himself."
"Did he say what it's about?" I asked as I hurriedly pulled on last night's clothes.
"No, but he looks rather distressed. If I didn't know better I would say that he looks well, almost afraid. At the very least he looks concerned."
"Afraid?" I had known that man for nearly sixteen seasons and I'd never seen him show fear of any man. What could possibly instill fear into that man?
"Why don't you get dressed and join us when you're ready," I said as I kissed her forehead and went off in the direction of my study.
I arrived to complete silence. Gabrielle had been right. Atrius looked concerned and the man who stood with him looked terrible. Aside from the obvious fear on his face, the man smelled as though he'd spent a fortnight in a tub of squid. I took him for a sailor immediately.
I thought a bit of my own confidence might add some calm to the obviously tense atmosphere of the room. I nodded to Atrius and slowly walked to my desk, taking a seat before addressing either of them. I dismissed the two guards in the room, telling them to wait outside.
"How goes it Atrius? You have some news for me?" I asked.
"I saw it, Lord Conqueror, saw it with my own eyes I did," the stranger responded. "Best be actin' quick or we're all gonna die."
I raised one eyebrow at the man's words and looked at Atrius again. "Care to start at the beginning?" I asked.
"I sez I seen 'em--"
I held up one hand and the stranger stopped in mid sentence. "Atrius explain, please."
"Aye, Conqueror. This is Captain Selius. He's a fisherman, just come in from a two-moon fishing voyage. He arrived in port this morning. He and his crew all say the same thing. In the night fog, they saw ships sailing toward Athens. Persian ships."
At first, I didn't know what to think. Surely, this was some sort of a joke. "What in Hades name are you talking about?"
I stood and looked between the two men. I believe the fishing captain was seeing the intimidating side of me now. He stood silently, even backing up a step. I couldn't believe it could be true, but the mere thought of invasion struck at my pride.
"I sent riders myself, Conqueror. They went out disguised as fisherman. The Persian fleet sails perhaps five days from the coast of Greece. It's a war fleet."
Atrius spoke the words with such finality that I was at last forced to believe them. "Have you told anyone else of this?" I asked him.
"No, Lord Conqueror. Selius and his crew are residing in the soldiers' barracks for the time being."
I nodded as my brain raced ahead. At the same time, I was trying to control my anger. "Selius, how many ships did you see?"
"Hundreds, Lord Conqueror. I bet there was five or six hundred easy."
Atrius stood behind Selius and quietly shook his head, holding up two fingers.
I nodded again in silence. "Captain Selius, please wait outside for a few moments."
Once Atrius and I were alone, I breathed deeply. "Well," I inquired impatiently.
"It's just as he said, Conqueror," Atrius answered and I saw the strain on his own face.
"First off, see that Selius's crew stays restricted to the soldiers' barracks. I don't want panic in the streets. And the number? What is it really?"
"Closer to two hundred war ships."
"Ares balls!" I hissed. Two hundred wasn't six hundred, but it was still an army of considerable size. My anger was rising quickly, but I couldn't understand why the situation infuriated me so. Of course, there was a reason to be indignant, but this livid? What was wrong with me?
Unfortunately, Gabrielle took that moment to enter the room.
She stood silently, having slipped into the room by the door that led from our private quarters. I rose and turned toward the window, too irate to speak. I could feel the beast within as though it was pawing at the ground in front of its cage, just a thin layer away from freedom. The feelings I experienced at that moment were unreasonable, too great a reaction for the circumstance, but I couldn't stop myself. What bothered me the most was that I didn't understand this response of mine.
"Tell her," I ordered Atrius.
My captain explained to Gabrielle what had occurred.
"Is it Darius?" Gabrielle asked. I had nearly forgotten that Gabrielle had spent her youth as a slave in Persia.
"Yes, Darius, that bastard. Must think I've grown soft or something."
"Perhaps if you arranged a meeting " she offered.
"Gabrielle, they're on their way in war ships. I think that makes his intentions rather obvious," I responded testily.
"I just mean that--"
"You don't know what you're talking about!" I slammed my hand down on the top of the window sill.
As soon as the words rolled off my tongue, I regretted them. I watched the expression on Gabrielle's face change. I remembered at once when I had seen her last wear that look. It had been when I had slapped her. That time seemed ages ago, but my thoughtless words brought it all back.
I had reverted to my old ways in only an instant and hurt the one person I would willingly have died for. When I looked up, Gabrielle was still looking back at me, the expression on her face unreadable now. She turned to face Atrius. That was when I saw my second staring at me. He looked disappointed. I knew why and I agreed with him. He looked uncomfortable, too, as though he wished he could bolt from the room. I shared that feeling, wishing that at least the ground would swallow me whole, anything so as not to have to answer for my inconsiderate remark.
"Captain Atrius," Gabrielle said softly. "I wonder if you would excuse us for a few moments?"
"Aye, your Highness."
Atrius gave me one last look before he practically ran from the room. He obviously recognized a condemned woman when he saw one. Coward, I thought, hoping my eyes expressed that unspoken message.
Gabrielle waited until Atrius left, her eyes never leaving me. I could barely look up at her; ashamed by the words I had carelessly tossed at her.
I had expected Gabrielle's normally soft voice, even the stern one she used during admonishments, but I didn't anticipate this. The tone of her voice was strong. There was a confidence in that one spoken word and that took me by surprise.
"Gabrielle, I'm so sorry," I blurted out.
For what? Hadn't she been in the same room? "Uhm for the sharp words. It was wrong and I never meant--"
"I accept your apology, Xena, but that explains the sharp words, not the way you dismissed me."
"Yes. Your words really meant that you think I have no idea what I'm talking about."
"I know. I apologize. It was only because I mean I felt so damn--"
"Angry," she answered.
"Yes," I replied with a whisper of awe as I raised my head to look at her. I shook my head. "But, you don't understand--"
"You're doing it again," she said in an exasperated tone.
"What?" I held my hands wide, unsure of what she meant.
"You're discounting my knowledge."
"I am?" I was thoroughly confused now. The only good thing our argument had done was to help to evaporate some of my temper.
"You are. Xena, don't you realize how well we know one another? You may think I'm a mystery at times, but overall, you manage to say exactly what I need to hear or do just what I need to have done. I know you just as well, my Conqueror, perhaps slightly better than you know yourself at times. Now, tell me. Did you really dismiss my thoughts about Darius because you didn't think I knew what I was talking about, or was it because you thought I didn't understand how you feel about this situation?"
"Gabrielle love you can't understand--"
"Your darkness? The beast? Xena, I can feel your anger when you get that way. I feel it as completely as if it was happening to me. I wholly understand that you were feeling enraged enough to strike the first person that came close enough."
"I felt so damn! I don't even know why." I looked down at my hands in frustration.
"You don't know or you don't want to admit it to yourself?"
"What?" Suddenly I felt as though we were examining ground better left untouched.
"Look at it honestly, my love, and if you tell me that I'm wrong, I'll apologize immediately and never speak of it again. Your anger was uncontrollable because Darius's invasion strikes at you on a most personal level. Doesn't it all boil down to the fact that Xena the Conqueror is mad because someone had the unmitigated gall to cross the line you drew in the sand? Because someone dared to stand up to you to the Conqueror? Tell me I'm wrong if I don't know you as well as you know yourself."
How could she have known what I had only just realized heartbeats ago as she spoke? A hundred arguments popped into my head. I wanted to say that I had never been that petty or childish. I wanted to admit it and tell her that she had marked me for what I was. I wanted to apologize and hold her, but as usual, words failed me just when I needed them the most. Could I admit what I knew to be the truth? Could I allow my foibles to be laid bare before Gabrielle of all people?
"You're wrong," I said slowly.
I watched as her shoulders slumped and she hung her head to stare at the floor. I moved across the room and stood before.
"You don't know me as well as I know myself." I lifted her chin with two fingers. "You know me a thousand times better."
I reached down and kissed her then. I felt her surprise in that kiss and it made me feel good to think that I could catch Gabrielle unaware for a change.
"Forgive me," I asked as I wrapped my arms around her. "I'll try to do better." I felt the change in her immediately as she relaxed against me.
"I'm sorry, as well, Xena. I shouldn't have come across as so superior, but I wanted you to know that I really do understand. I don't know why, but it seems important that you should. And, Xena, there's no need to apologize for who you are with me. The Conqueror has kept the woman I love alive all this time, and for that I'll be eternally grateful. Besides which, the Conqueror has turned the Empire into something great and wonderful."
"That means more to me than even you realize, my love." I held to Gabrielle tightly. Our little disagreement had simply put off the inevitable and now the situation came rushing back at me.
"It looks as though we're going to war," I said.
Gabrielle didn't answer, she just wrapped her arms firmly around my waist.
To be continued in : Chapter 9: Some men with swords may reap the field
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