Gabrielle and Turian spent much of the afternoon together walking the city streets in the company of Samuel, Alem and two Athenian guards. Gabrielle knew Trevor had men dispatched to provide covert security. She was sure she spied Sentas on a rooftop and looked forward to teasing him of her discovery.
“So, if you were given the choice to live only in the city or in the countryside which would you choose?” asked Gabrielle.
“Like you, I would choose the countryside,” Turian replied. “The only skill I hold that would find limited use is that of war and I shall know no loss in setting my sword aside. But for you, Gabrielle. In the countryside you would forego the grand audiences that the city offers. Isn’t that a loss to you?
“There are no finer audiences than those in the villages I have visited.”
“There is a village near my estate. I am certain they would welcome your talent for telling tales.”
“You have never heard me.”
“I trust your reputation is well earned.”
“Where is the village? If I am near I shall make certain that I visit it.”
“It would be an honor to host you on my estate. It is near Ambracia.”
“That is far.”
“Far enough to grant limited security from Athenian retribution. My estate stands in the heart of a valley. The Achelous Mountains are to the east. There are waterways in the south that lead to the Ionium Sea. I have sheep and goats and a few milk cows. The land is fertile so we grow all we need, barley, wheat, vegetables. I have a fine orchard of fruit and olive trees.”
My overseer Brith and his wife Ajacia keep the estate for me. They have three children, two boys and a girl.”
“Are you close to them?”
“If anything were to happen to me, the estate is deeded to Brith. He and his family deserve to reap what they have sown.”
“That is good of you.”
“I wonder what Brith would think if he knew how I envy him. I know I shouldn’t,” said Turian wistfully.
“You have learned a lesson only few are taught. Worldly riches do not ensure happiness.”
“Happiness is an intimate gift a man and a woman can give each other if they are both brave enough to bear the Fates most painful weavings.”
“I agree that love must be tested to be proven true.”
“Justifying the pain?”
“Tempering it so it is bearable.” Gabrielle smiled breaking the solemn mood. “I also think that love is not limited to a man and a woman.”
“I understand why you wouldn’t. I have never felt drawn to a man in that way.”
“Love is not limited to romantic feelings. The best friendships share the same qualities.”
“You have such friendships.”
“I do and cannot imagine my life without them.”
“In Athens it is hard to have friends.”
“But not impossible.”
“I cannot stand in your presence and discount the possibility,” said Turian kindly as he offered Gabrielle his arm.
“Shall we be friends, Turian?” asked Gabrielle with a gentle smile as she wrapped her arm through his.
Turian smiled brilliantly. “Yes, Gabrielle, I think we shall.”
Gabrielle sat at a small dining table within her rooms eating a private dinner.
Kartis entered the chamber unannounced. “Good evening,” said Kartis. The Governor noted that Gabrielle was wearing her traveling clothes. “Well, I can see you obviously did not want to dress for dinner.”
“I sent a message,” said Gabrielle unapologetically.
Kartis raised a piece of parchment he held in his hand. “I received it. I was concerned. You seem well enough. Has my company grown tiresome?”
Gabrielle stood up. “I am accustomed to a less social life. An evening to myself didn’t seem too much to ask for.”
“These are uncommon times requiring more from both of us than we may be accustomed to giving.” Kartis approached Gabrielle until he stood only two hand widths from her. He looked into her eyes. “Have you made your decision?”
Gabrielle gestured toward the table where a scroll lay. “I have drafted a message to Corinth notifying the Conqueror of my decision to remain in Athens for another fortnight. You have asked much of me. I will not make my decision prematurely.”
Kartis spoke in a stern whisper. “I wish I could trust you.”
“You can,” said Gabrielle unflinchingly.
“No, I can’t, can I?” He raised his hand and traced Gabrielle’s jaw with his fingertips. “I trust my eyes and what I see is a woman who is not willing to be seduced.” He dropped his hand back to his side. “That is unfortunate because you are now more a threat than an asset to Athens and have left me with no choice but to imprison you.”
“Prison?” Gabrielle stepped back. She opened her arms wide, presenting a defenseless target. “Why not kill me?”
“No, I don’t want your blood on my hands.” Kartis turned toward the table. He picked up the scroll and read the message. His voice gentled. “I know you have been meeting with Udell. I trust the man. So do you, I think. My former tutor is very devoted to me. Upon my request he eagerly shared the content of your discourse. I don’t think he thought he was betraying a confidence. Udell is impressed with how you wrestle with difficult questions: the nature of the soul, truth, integrity, the greater good. Hearing how he admires your commitment to duty and justice, I admit I am disappointed. I thought reason would convince you that the greater good would be better served if you joined me. Unfortunately, because of your decision many Grecian lives will be lost.”
Gabrielle’s temper reached its limit. “You are audacious declaring civil war and then blaming me for the deaths you cause.”
Kartis responded with equal vehemence. “Gabrielle, you are the lone force of stability in the Conqueror’s life. Without you who knows what madness she will perpetuate in seeking vengeance for a betrayal.” He pointed the scroll at her. “Then again, you better than most must know what she is capable of. I am aware of the Conqueror’s ugliness only by reputation. I am sure you have seen it in very personal ways. Given your past, living with a woman like the Conqueror should be familiar though I cannot imagine it is easy.”
“Please stop...” Gabrielle’s distress was only partly an act for Kartis’ benefit as Xena’s greatest acts of cruelty flashed before Gabrielle’s mind’s eye.
“Just because your soul can bear the Conqueror’s darkness does not mean that the rest of humanity can or should.”
Gabrielle steeled her spirit. Before Kartis’ blind eyes she transformed herself to the indomitable Queen of Greece. “What are you going to do with me?”
“Give you more time to think,” said Kartis arrogantly. “By now all your men have been arrested. You are without allies.” The Governor seemingly waited for a reaction from Gabrielle. Receiving none he continued. “Gabrielle, I am sincere. I find you to be very beautiful and intelligent and I have no wish to hurt you. On the contrary, I am optimistic that we can still be allies.” Again, Kartis waited. Again, Gabrielle remained silent. Angrily, he asked, “Will you come peacefully with me or must I call my guards?”
Gabrielle betrayed no fear. “I will not fight you.”
“Good. Now, please come this way,” he gestured toward the door.
Gabrielle did as asked. As she and Kartis stepped out of the suite two Athenian guards immediately bracketed her. She looked about for Samuel. There was no sign of him. To her relief she saw no blood on the walls or floor. She prayed he and his brother Guardsmen were not harmed in their capture.
The four walked to the dungeons located in the depths of the palace. Gabrielle was not taken to the main prisoner hold. Instead she was ushered into an isolated cell. Though not to the standards of Corinth, the cell was inhabitable.
Kartis stood at the door. “I will return tomorrow. Given that I am providing you the solitude you have sought, it is my hope that you will revisit my proposition and that our future discussions will be more sincere as well as fruitful.” He raised the scroll he still held in his hand. “And thank you for this scroll. I will send it off to Corinth. I now have an additional fortnight to prepare for the Conqueror.”
Gabrielle stood in silent watched as Kartis closed the prison door. Left alone she began to pace as she considered her options. If indeed all her men were arrested, she would have to wait for them to find a means of escape. She took heart in the fact that she had warned Trevor and that her Guard was comprised of the most resourceful men in the realm.
There were only two things Gabrielle felt she could do. One was to continue to engage Kartis in a dialogue. He had not gone so far beyond the pale that the damage done could not be mitigated. She sat down on her pallet considering the circumstances as objectively as she could, setting aside her need to see the good in people where there might be none left untainted. “Damn,” she whispered, fearing what seemed to be the inevitability of a civil war. She leaned back against the prison wall and raised up her knees close to her body. She felt her loneliness. She wanted nothing more than to be in Xena’s safe embrace. She hated that Xena would soon find herself in battle. She hated what war did to her partner, how hard it was to bring the warrior back from her darkest instincts to a gentler experience of life.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and concentrated on her Lord. Xena’s essence remained faint. Gabrielle would not be discouraged. She traveled within herself seeking their place of spiritual union. The corridors were pitch black. With each step she felt no displacement, no other presence, only her aloneness. In the opaque space she called out for her partner. Her voice echoed. With the return of silence she waited.
Gabrielle was awakened from sleep by the sound of her prison cell opening. Turian stepped inside. Disorientated, Gabrielle quickly scanned her surroundings trying to make sense of place and time. She remembered her imprisonment the night before. More importantly, she remembered that she had failed to find Xena on their intimate plane.
“I’ve seem to have woken you from a sound sleep. I will counsel Kartis to reconsider your accommodations. They are obviously far too comfortable to motivate a change of heart,” said Turian derisively.
Gabrielle swung her feet to the floor, sitting upright on the bed. “Why are you here?” she said crossly.
“Just paying a visit. I would hate for you to find fault with Athenian hospitality.” Turian stood brazenly in the center of the cell. “Kartis is a good man. You may find that hard to believe sitting in here but it is true. He dreams of a Greece that will match the ideals brought forth by his revered philosophers.” Turian glanced for a moment back to the cell door now closed by the guard. He approached and knelt on one knee before Gabrielle. He lowered his voice as he took Gabrielle’s hand tenderly in his own. “Philosophy is a worthy occupation though it has no practical application. We must be careful, Gabrielle. As you are aware there is no dearth of watchmen in this city.”
“You are not of the same mind as Kartis?” asked Gabrielle softly.
“Hardly. But, I think you suspected that all along. I have my own plans for Athens and Greece.”
Gabrielle removed her hand from Turian’s. “So you are orchestrating your own overthrow of the throne.”
“I am not a man with such ill advised ambitions. I am however doing what must be done given the state of affairs that shrouds Greece.”
“Your song is not so different than Kartis’.”
“Gabrielle, in spite of your placement here, Kartis is smitten by your virtues and wants to believe that he will win you over. Doing so will bolster his conviction that he is acting in the right. I say it can be you who wins him over. You only have to try.”
“I have tried. If I could I would stop this madness.”
“You cannot succeed unless you alter your message. You must comply with his demands.”
“I believed you thought me more than an opportunist.”
“You must be practical. There is no place for idealism in the world. The wheels are in motion. There is no going back for Kartis. Gabrielle, I propose an alliance.”
“This alliance will not include Kartis,” speculated Gabrielle.
“No it won’t. I am no advocate for the man.”
“You advocate for yourself.”
“Of course. What else would you expect from me?”
“Nothing less,” said Gabrielle bitterly.
He sat beside her. “You have many assets, Gabrielle. You would make a fine partner. Together we can lead Greece to a better future.”
“I am Queen. What do you offer me that I don’t already have?”
“A life without the Conqueror.”
Gabrielle stood up placing distance between her and the Athenian. “Why does everyone in Athens assume that my life is misery?”
“I have listened to you and I know better than to discount your feelings for the Conqueror. However, the Conqueror is not here and your life is at risk. Saving yourself should be your first priority.”
“There are more important things than my life.”
“What good will your death do? You cannot help Greece from the grave.”
“Nor can I destroy it.”
“Gabrielle, listen to me. It is true that I concur with Kartis that the Conqueror is not the future of Greece. What I do not concur with is his plan to declare civil war. I have forged my own alliances. Do as I say and I promise you Kartis will free you and I will squash his rebellion.”
“What must I give you in return for my freedom?”
“Your word that you will work with me on fashioning a new Greece.”
“I ask for nothing more. I wish to gift you with a better life.”
“How can you expect me to believe you? Remember, I am a former slave. What men do for women is not necessarily given nor received as a gift.”
Obviously offended, Turian stood up. “I am a man of honor, not a rapist.”
“You and Kartis present yourselves in like manner.”
“What?” Turian laughed derisively. “Are you going to tell me Kartis has been a perfect gentleman? Don’t be fooled. He is a man and his admiration for you does not end with your higher virtues. He has commented time and time again on your beauty. He will have you or give you to the highest bidder once you agree to his terms.”
“And what makes you different?”
Turian’s brashness was arrested by the question. For a moment he looked down in thought. He took a calming breath and then raised his eyes to Gabrielle. “You have no reason to believe that I am different,” he said sincerely. “I must be honest with you. I find you desirable. I cannot veil my feelings like a more sophisticated perpetrator might do. If you came to me I would welcome you and be a happy man. But, that is not why I am here. What I do is separate from anything you and I could ever be to one another. I act for the good of Greece. Kartis must be stopped and Greece must change its course.”
Gabrielle believed him. She did not want to see Turian die at the end of Xena’s sword. “Turian, work with me and the Conqueror for the reforms you feel are so essential to Greece’s future. The Conqueror is not as closed to new ideas as you believe her to be.”
“Like Kartis there is no going back for me, Gabrielle.”
“If I say no to you?” she asked, intent on having a final measure of the man.
“The truth is that if you do not work with me Kartis will see Athens destroyed.”
“He loves Athens. All he does is for the city.”
“Kartis will destroy what he intends to save. He will not be the first to live such a paradox. Nor will he be the last.” A sound on the other side of the prison door momentarily distracted Turian. He refocused on Gabrielle. “You don’t have much time. You will have to make a choice. Take this last counsel to heart. There is no escaping your destiny. You cannot simply wait here to be rescued. By either Kartis or by my hand your future will be decided. If you wish to see me ask the guard. I will come to you.”
The day passed slowly with no sign of Kartis. Evening meal had been served and the dungeon was relatively quiet. Gabrielle debated how to address Kartis when he did come to her. Turian’s offer had left her confused. She felt terribly unsuited for the machinations of political intrigue within the palace. Xena had always been far more astute in recognizing and neutralizing such deceptions. Gabrielle’s strength was in dealing with a challenge straightforwardly. Since arriving in Athens, Gabrielle had come to appreciate Xena’s impatience with diplomacies that were by her judgment duplicitous, fueled by self-serving motives.
Gabrielle revisited every encounter she had with both Kartis and Turian, trying to find the key to each of the men’s personalities. Turian judged Kartis a good man, yet resented Kartis’ priorities and desire for power. Turian painted himself as a common man no longer willing to see the waste perpetuated by the aristocracy. Xena considered both men threats, but seemed more wary of Turian. It was hard to discount Xena’s assessment and yet Gabrielle found goodness in him.
Gabrielle debated whether to pretend to collude with either man or to reject them both. She believed Kartis would not harm her in the near future. Turian’s warning of Kartis’ more carnal desires gave her pause. Kartis had been complementary from their first meeting. The nature of his admiration was now in question. Turian had been equally attentive and had spoken candidly. That Turian made no threat, and chafed at her reference to being violated was countered by his willingness to unseat Xena from the throne. The contradictions embodied within both men left her at a loss. She faced neither good nor evil without qualification. They were complex men. Her life with Xena taught her that truth resided within the complexity. A wishful desire to find a simple answer would do her no good.
Sitting up in bed Gabrielle closed her eyes and tried again to reach Xena through their connection. Xena’s essence continued to be faint. Gabrielle opened her eyes and stared at her hands, focusing on their joining ring. “My Lord, please hearken my call to you,” she whispered. It was her hope that Kartis would bring Xena to Athens by having her message delivered. Kartis seemed please with Gabrielle’s brief dispatch not knowing how contrary to custom it had been.
The silence was shattered by a sudden cry. Gabrielle went to the prison door, placing her ear against the wood. More sounds marked a rise in activity. All led her to believe that a skirmish was in progress. She continued to listen hopefully as the sounds grew louder. Now she heard voices. They were too faint to identify any one man. Without warning a great impact hit the door. She jumped back. After a few moments a key was inserted into the door lock. The door opened. Trevor stood on the other side. “Gabrielle, are you all right.”
“Yes!” she said feeling a wash of relief.
The Captain reached out for her. “Come then. We don’t have much time before the palace guards are roused.”
Gabrielle ran forward, taking Trevor’s hand, allowing him to guide her. Four of the Guardsmen led the way. The balance fell behind her and Trevor. Reaching a stairwell they faced a band of Athenian guards, Turian at their lead.
There was an immediate clash of men. Weaponless Gabrielle stood against a wall behind a protective perimeter created by her Guard.
Turian fought through a breach and captured Gabrielle’s arm. He dragged her down a side corridor, placing himself between her and the fighting. Having achieved a safe distance he stopped and faced his Queen. “Gabrielle, I say again, if you leave Athens will fall.”
From the far side of the confrontation, Kartis approached with a dozen men. The Queen’s Guard was now outnumbered.
“Get away from her!” Trevor hit Turian in the face with the side of his sword. Gabrielle pulled free. She cried out as the Captain raised his sword for a death blow. “Trevor, wait!”
Samuel charged forward and took Gabrielle from behind lifting her up and carrying her away.
“Sam, stop!” Gabrielle shouted to no avail as the Guardsman continued to run toward an exit at the far end of the dungeon. Three Guardsmen passed by leading the way while the balance followed. One was Trevor. To Gabrielle’s relief, his sword was free of fresh blood.
After scaling a flight of stairs the Corinthians bolted through a door that led to the palace courtyard. It was only upon reaching the courtyard, dark with night, that Sam released Gabrielle, setting her on her feet.
“What did you think you were doing?” Gabrielle angrily demanded.
“Saving your life,” responded the unrepentant Guardsman. “Or did you want to stay with Turian?”
“Shut up, Sam!” shouted Trevor.
“What, you too? By the Gods what’s going on here that no one has told me?”
Tavis placed himself between the two men. “Calm man,” he said to Sam then turned to Gabrielle, gentling his voice. “We need to keep moving.”
As they spoke Brogan and Hamish jammed the palace door preventing the Athenian guards from following.
“I say we break up in smaller teams,” said Sentas. “We will be less conspicuous and increase our chances of getting out of the city.”
“Sentas is right.” Trevor took command. “Sam and I will stay with Gabrielle. The rest of you go in twos and threes. We need to get word to the Conqueror.”
“She may be on her way,” said Gabrielle.
“Finally, luck is with us.”
“We need horses and more weapons,” said Tavis.
“We have enough swords,” said Trevor, finding that each man held one in hand. “As we leave the city we’ll have chances enough to increase our weaponry at the expense of Kartis’ men.”
“Don’t take any unnecessary risks,” Sentas counseled. “We will have our day.”
“By the Gods, Sentas, are you getting careful in your old age?” asked the Captain.
“Judge for yourself. Take this.” The Guardsman presented his short sword to Trevor. “Gabrielle needs a fully weaponed guard.
Tavis handed his similar weapon to Samuel. “Take mine, too. Sentas and I can do well enough with our wit and our hands. Right brother?”
“Let’s go,” said Sentas rising to the challenge. He paused and set his own challenged before his fellow Guardsmen. “First team that reaches the Conqueror shall have a night of drinks at the expense of his brothers.”
In spite of the dire situation Gabrielle smiled, for as the moment proved once again, the Guardsmen could always find a reason for a wager.
The threesome of Gabrielle, Trevor and Samuel exited the palace grounds through a gardener’s entrance previously identified by the Guardsmen. They chose sparsely traveled streets that wound through the city. Their destination the poorest district where they might be able to find an unoccupied shelter. They search nearly two candlemarks before reaching a small street that ended in a terrace, below them a house was built on a moderate sloping hillside. Gabrielle and Trevor rested on the ground side-by-side while Samuel took first watch near the street entrance.
Having time to think Gabrielle replayed their escape in her mind. She sought to better understand the events she had just lived. She turned to her companion. “Trevor, how did you escape your cell?”
Trevor reached into his breast pocket and removed a key. “Your friend Udell arranged for this to be hidden in my dinner. It was a sloppy but effective trick.”
“I owe him a debt of gratitude.”
“We all do. It’s good to know that not all the educated Athenians think like Kartis. The people are with you.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Gabrielle, the reception you received coming through the city and every day since should be all the proof you need. The respect and affection the people have shown you has not been given grudgingly.”
“That is why Kartis wants my help.”
“He’s not a fool to want you. He is a fool to think you would betray the Conqueror.”
Gabrielle was thoughtful. “Trevor, I’ve learned one thing while here. There are still many people who question why I’m with my Lord. My motives are questioned.”
“That’s because they haven’t seen you two together.”
“They have. But not like the palace household or our armies or even the Corinthians at Niko’s.”
“It’s their loss.”
Gabrielle looked away. She could not remember the last time she felt so uncertain, so unprepared to cope with the events of the day. Trevor spoke her name. She turned her gaze to him.
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
“I wonder if we’ve been complacent,” said Gabrielle, her internal tumult evident.
“How so? You’ve never stopped trying to improve conditions for the people of Greece.”
“Change comes slowly and our improvements cannot be characterized as bold and sweeping. They are modest in comparison to the vision of the Athenians.”
“Ask a former slave and he or she will disagree,” said Trevor referencing the realms outlawing of slavery.
“The one policy that has left the rich landowners livid.”
“Don’t confuse the Athenians with Kartis and his privileged lot.”
“I’ve spoken to other prominent men and women. They are not all looking to increase their fortunes.”
“Are you saying you agree with them?”
“I’m saying some of their ideas have merit.”
“Like building more bathes?”
Gabrielle smiled. “I didn’t say all their ideas had merit.”
“Why overthrow the government? Why not work with it?”
“They feel they’ve tried and Corinth has failed them.”
“If you ask me I say they’re selfish and impatient.”
“There has been more than one occasion in which my Lord has accused me of impatience.”
“But not of being selfish.”
“I’ve had my moments,” said Gabrielle sheepishly.
“Gabrielle, you said the Conqueror might be on her way. What do you know?”
“I wrote a message to my Lord that I would be delayed another fortnight. I think Kartis sent it to Corinth.”
“How does that help us?”
“The salutation in the messaged was addressed to the Conqueror.”
Trevor grinned. He asked knowingly, “Not to your Lord?”
“In formal correspondence I address her as Sovereign and yes, privately either by her given name or as my Lord. Never do I refer to her as Conqueror. I also failed to mention our meeting in Megara. I think she will be suspicious.”
“This one time I hope she is also impatient.”
“When it comes to my well-being she usually is.”
“That’s love I think.”
Gabrielle leaned her head against Trevor’s shoulder. “Yes, I agree.”
“So, you will forgive Sam for taking liberties with you?”
Gabrielle nudged the Captain. “Trevor, I didn’t realize you aspired to be a statesman.”
“Do you disapprove of my aspirations?”
“No. And, neither can I can blame Sam for carrying me away from harm’s way.”
“Glad to hear.” The sound of men shouting distracted the two friends. They sat silently, listening, unable to clearly hear what was being said. “I better take a look.” Trevor stood up. “Will you be all right?”
“I’m fine. Go on.”
“Yes, your Majesty,” said Trevor bowing graciously. That earned him an affectionate slap on the leg just as he began to walk away.
Gabrielle watched him as he disappeared around a corner. She took hold of what had been Tavis’ short sword and readied herself mentally for a fight or a retreat whichever would serve them best. Within a few heartbeats a flash of light signaled the appearance of a divine force. A goddess dressed in luminous silver armor appeared. Gabrielle did not know her.
“You are Gabrielle?” asked the Goddess.
“I am Athena. How are you?”
Under the current circumstances the question struck Gabrielle as absurd. She remained silent.
“For a bard you are not much for idle talk. Very well, I shall waste no more words and speak to why I’m here. It must be difficult knowing that the fate of my city rests in your hands.”
Gabrielle now knew that Turian’s warning had merit. “Are you going to tell me that I have to go back to Kartis?”
“You are not my Chosen. I haven’t the right to tell you what to do.”
“I don’t know what to think.”
“Do you believe Kartis will sacrifice my city to realize his ambitions?”
“You are right. What is your opinion of Turian?”
“I want to believe he is sincere. The only thing I know is that I can’t afford to misjudge him. Too many lives are at stake.”
“Now that I have come to you what will you chose to do?”
Gabrielle looked down to her hand. She focused on the insignia on her ring. All that Xena taught her about being a leader came to her in her Lord’s most uncompromising voice. You must be willing to sacrifice yourself for the greater good. Greece comes first. “I’m left with only one choice. I have to go back.”
Athena glanced down the street. “Will you take your Guardsmen?”
“No, they’ll try to stop me.”
“With good reason. The Athenians battling for power are ruthless. There is no promise that they will show you mercy. And even the fastest courier in Greece could not have yet delivered your message to the Conqueror. She cannot save you.”
“Why go back then?”
The question surprised Gabrielle. “You don’t think I should?” Receiving no answer she reasoned, “If I can make a difference isn’t my life worth the lives of the innocent?”
“There is something you should know,” said Athena with a hint of unease. “The Fates have granted me the favor of seeing into the future. I found myself at a crossroad where you alone stood. The future of Athens depends upon which path you choose.”
“I will do what I must.”
“Contrary to what you may think there is no obvious right or wrong choice. The future may unfold horrendously in spite of your best intentions.”
“Going back is not enough?” asked Gabrielle, confounded. “What must I do to save Athens?”
“Be careful in how you listen to your heart.”
“That tells me nothing.”
“I have no right to say more.”
“Since when do the Gods play by any rules?”
“I gave my word to the Fates.” The Goddess observed Gabrielle’s obvious turmoil. Affected by it she warned, “Gabrielle, you are Aphrodite’s Chosen. Know that I wish you no harm.”
“Though my entreaty is sincere and though lives may be saved if you follow my counsel, you will never thank me for my intervention. In fact, I think you will curse me.”
“I don’t understand. Why did you come?”
“I do not want to see my city destroyed. The people of Athens expect nothing less than my protection. There is a way to avoid a holocaust. To do so you must petition the Fates to show you the same thread I have seen.”
“The Fates gave Xena a choice. She is still haunted by her decision.”
“I speak of knowledge. You will learn what will come to be given whom you are and a choice you will make. Armed with that knowledge, knowing the far-reaching consequences of what you believed was a personal decision, you can choose whether to alter your course. If you don’t accept my offer, I will have changed nothing.”
“You’re telling me that either I do as you say or I will be responsible for the destruction of Athens and the deaths of thousands.”
“No, I am not placing that responsibility upon you. You will not raise the sword. You will not light the flames. Those who do will be held accountable.” The Goddess paused thoughtfully. “To be fair to you, will you leave the city if I assure you that if you escape and return to the Conqueror, the fate of Athens will remain unchanged?”
Gabrielle did not believe she had reached the critical crossroads. “The Athenians will be saved?”
“I did not say that. I only propose that you will have no reason to regret your escape.”
“You are telling me that Athens will be destroyed whether I leave or stay without touching the thread of my destiny, but if I go to the Fates and touch the thread there is a chance to save the city.”
“Gabrielle, there are worst things than losing ones life.”
“Yes, I am.” Athena said forcefully. “And, for generations I have observed the trials of mortals. What I say is true. The day may soon come when you will welcome death over life.”
“I’ve already survived the darkest nights of the soul.”
“There are darker still.”
Gabrielle stood up. “When I accepted the throne, I took an oath to always act for the benefit of Greece. Take me to the Fates.” The Goddess seemed unmoved. “Athena, I am willing to take the risk. It is my choice as Aphrodite’s Chosen.”
“For your love of the people? My sister may disagree but she will be hard pressed to argue.” Athena extended her hand. “Come with me.”
Gabrielle glanced back to the street that led to Trevor and Samuel. There would be no farewells. She took Athena’s hand and immediately felt a sudden, somewhat nauseating sense of displacement. She closed her eyes causing the sensation to gradually ease. Sensing a renewed stillness and the release of her hand she opened her eyes finding herself in the presence of not only Athena but also a loom made of unfamiliar woods with countless threads leading to it and three women standing beside it guiding its threads. She assumed they were Clotho, the maiden, Lachesis, the mother, and Atropos, the crone.
Atropos turned unhappily towards the uninvited. “Athena, you had no right to bring her here.”
“The decision is yours, Atropos.” The Goddess’ words were greeted with a heavy silence. Her anger rose. “Did you expect me to do nothing?”
“I did not expect you to compound your mistake. I told you, Gods and mortals alike are meant to remain blind to the future.” The Fate sighed heavily. “What did you tell her?”
“To go back to the Conqueror.”
Atropos directed her words to Gabrielle. “Is that true?”
“Yes,” said Gabrielle.
The crone returned her gaze to Athena. “I’m impressed. Aphrodite will thank you.”
“I doubt that,” said the Goddess dismissively.
“Your rivalries are unbecoming,” responded Atropos tartly.
Gabrielle stepped forward. “Excuse me.”
“You wish to see your destiny?” asked Atropos gently.
“I wish to save Athens,” responded the determined Queen.
Atropos walked closer to the loom and pointed to a thread. “This is your life Gabrielle. At this point, not yet passed, there is a mark. When time reaches that point the thread will be cut and you will enter Hades’ domain. It is that point in time that Athena is concerned with. Touch the thread just before the mark and you will come to understand your destiny and your legacy.” It is knowledge that you must not share or all good that comes from it will be unraveled.
Gabrielle understood that she was being invited to see her imminent death. This did not surprise her. She also understood that with the privilege of seeing the future came the burden of secrecy. She assumed she would not live long enough for the burden to cause her much distress. She approached the loom, reached out and placed a fingertip upon the thread.
Gabrielle walked the main road to the Governor’s palace. The crowd separated as her identity was acknowledged and relayed forward. Kartis waited for her at the gated entrance.
“You surprise me, Gabrielle. I did not expect your return.” said the Governor.
“My first interest is the people of Athens.”
Kartis stepped forward seeking a private counsel. “I’m listening.”
“Are you a man of your word?”
“You know I am.”
“I offer my life in exchange for your assurance that you will do what you must to safeguard the people of Athens from civil war.”
“That promise could be construed in many ways. I will not surrender in the face of the Conqueror’s forces.”
“That is not what I ask. You will escort the women and the children and the old and ill out of the city’s district.”
“I see you know the story of Xena’s siege of Corinth. I am no Bevan. I will not use the innocent as a shield or for barter.”
“Other’s among you may expect you to do so.”
“If they do they are worse than barbarians. I value Athenian lives. I will not lower myself to the level of a snake devouring all that is before me.”
“Have I your promise?”
Kartis looked up, over Gabrielle’s shoulder. “The people of Athens are watching you, Gabrielle. I’m sure they wonder where the Conqueror is right now. Is she in your thoughts as well?”
Gabrielle was taken aback by Kartis’ tone. She chose not to give him the satisfaction of receiving an answer. “I am here with you. You are primary in my thoughts.”
“Primary but not solely. You are a Poteidian are you not?”
“My promise will not spare you.”
“I look at you and I wonder whether you have finally understood the wisdom in accepting my proposition or if you are conspiring to betray me. I can tell you that your escape has embarrassed me among my associates. I feel like a groom who has been cuckolded. What goodwill there was between us has withered on the vine and shall bare no fruit. As a spoil of war, you will be tamed, Gabrielle. If it were not for my commitment to Sarah I would do the honors myself. I am a man with many friends and more than one of them has expressed an interest in knowing his Queen intimately. Being a good friend I should not withhold the opportunity, don’t you agree?”
“Kartis, why are you like this to me now?”
“You who choose to be the Conqueror’s whore instead of being bound to a man of honor ask me to explain myself. Look in the mirror for my reasons.”
“You are wrong to condemn me.”
“Athens will know who is their rightful ruler. Bend down to your knees, Gabrielle.” Kartis lowered his voice malevolently. “Do it!”
“I will not grovel to you in the public eye,” said Gabrielle defiantly. “ My value rests on my Queenship. Strip me of my dignity and I am nothing.”
“You are a strong-willed wench. I shall enjoy breaking you.”
“You can try.”
“Have I your word that you will follow my commands after we enter the palace?”
“I will follow all commands as they pertain to me. I will not consent to any command that harms another.”
Kartis leaned closer, the scent of his sour breath repulsed Gabrielle. “You will be with whom I assign you to willingly?”
“I cannot give you that pledge. I gave my heart and soul to the Conqueror and belong to her.”
“I now have proof of your true allegiance. I was right not to trust you. To whom you have given your heart or soul is of no consequence. The men I speak of want only your body and the right to boast that they have fearlessly taken you in the face of the Conqueror’s wrath.”
“Whomever he is he will not be the first man to have me.”
“He will be the last. I am certain of it. And, only you and I will know under what terms. Now, when I offer you my hand you will accept it and you will stand by my side for all of Athens to see that you have chosen me over the Conqueror. They will soon recognize me as the Conqueror’s successor.”
In was at that moment, with her death certain, Gabrielle decided to take her own life. She refused to re-experience the humiliation of being violated, of being debased. She refused to have Xena live with such images in her mind.
Kartis escorted Gabrielle into the palace and then to her suite of rooms. There one of two Athenian guards standing at attention opened the door. Kartis gestured for Gabrielle to enter. She did so. He followed her inside. The door closed.
“There is no better time than the present to discuss your role in my government,” said Kartis.
Gabrielle walked to the heart of the chamber and turned back to her imprisoner. If true to his word, Kartis had no intention of violating her. She would listen not argue, pacify not provoke. She needed only a few moments alone to carry out her plan.
“You will adorn my palace, your purpose decorative. I shall display you at all government functions not to be admired for your own sake but as a reflection of the power of your master.” Seeing Gabrielle’s countenance harden Kartis paused. “I see you do not welcome the notion. I think your garments and accouterments give you a false sense of importance. Strip your clothes… slowly.”
Mortified, she removed one garment after another, each falling to the floor at her feet until, except for her medallion and her ring, she stood naked.
“Turn around. Let me see you.” Upon seeing the scars tracing Gabrielle’s back Kartis asked, “The Conqueror marked you?”
“No,” whispered Gabrielle.
“Keep turning.” Gabrielle closed her eyes and bowed her head, feeling a long dormant shame.
“Look at me.” Kartis wore a self-satisfied smile. “As you said, strip you of your dignity and you are nothing.”
A knock on the door caused Kartis to cease his insults and impatiently tramp to the suite entrance. He opened the door slightly, receiving a discrete message. He turned his gaze back to Gabrielle and commanded, “Stand there. I won’t be long.” He stepped out. The door shut behind him.
Left alone Gabrielle closed her eyes and sought out Xena’s essence. She felt a fragile thread of her partner’s vibrant energy. From it she received solace. Her resolve to act strengthened. Gabrielle bent down to her knees and searched her clothes. She retrieved her boot dagger. Again, she closed her eyes and sought out the intangible connection she shared with her Lord. With both hands she raised the dagger, point facing toward her. As tears fell silently down her cheek Gabrielle spoke aloud, “Xena, hear me. I pray that you will forgive me for coming here without you. Believe me when I say that I did what I thought was best. I love you and I will wait for you. If you will have me I will spend eternity with you whether Hades commends you to Elysia or condemns you to Tartarus.” With one quick stroke she plunged the dagger through her heart.
Kartis entered the room in Turian’s company. Turian stopped shocked to see Gabrielle lying naked in a pool of blood. “What did you do?” he demanded of Kartis.
Stunned in his own right and intimidated by Turian’s anger Kartis stepped back. “I did nothing. I just readied her for you.”
“Damn you, Kartis.” Turian went and knelt beside Gabrielle. Removing his cloak, he covered her body with unexpected gentleness. He reached out and grazed her tear stained cheek with his fingertips. After a moment he composed himself and turned to Kartis. “There will be no stopping the Conqueror now.”
“Then no one will know that Gabrielle is dead.”
“How long do you think you can keep this a secret?” asked Turian with a sweep of his hand over the lifeless body.”
“Long enough to ready for a battle,” said Kartis.
Within the palace Xena and her men battled the Athenian guard.
“Conqueror!” called Udell from his hiding place.
Xena caught sight of the philosopher. “Where is Gabrielle?” she demanded.
“I will take you to her,” the scholar stuttered. He turned and led her and her men down the palace corridor until they reach a door to a guest room. Entering he stepped aside remaining by the door.
Xena entered impatiently. Her eyes were drawn to a bed. There Gabrielle’s body lay in state. She went to the bedside and fell to her knees. Jared, shaken collapsed into a chair. Stephen stood behind Xena. Sentas turned his face away as Tavis placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder for support. There was no motion other than Jared’s trembling body and the muffled tears the other men shed.
Udell took a step forward. “Your Majesty, Queen Gabrielle took her own life instead of betraying you or allowing herself to be…” He could not finish his statement, thinking the truth too ugly for those who loved the young woman.
Athena appeared. “Why are you standing here doing nothing? There is a battle to win. The Goddess received no response. Stephen alone raised his gaze to the Goddess. He had never seen a divinity and for a moment wondered who she was. He judged by her angry, edgy demeanor that the Goddess was not Gabrielle’s benefactor Aphrodite.
Athena caught Stephen’s gaze and held it. “You are here to protect my city. Not to stand pathetically mourning one woman.”
Stephen spoke in a hush. “Athens can burn to the ground. My sister’s life was worth more than all the Athenians combined.”
Athena’s nostrils flared in anger. She pointed to Gabrielle and shouted. “Your Queen did not think so!”
“I would have stopped her if I could.”
“I saved her life for this day.”
“You were there. Her infected arm. Gabrielle was right. Even if you had amputated she would still have died.”
“We owe you nothing,” spat Stephen.
“Mind your tongue.”
“Why? Take my life. I don’t care.”
Xena took hold of her dagger. “Athena, you have left me no reason to live.”
Correctly interpreting Xena’s intent, Stephen lunged forward. “No!”
Xena trust the dagger at the place upon her chest that still held a faint scar from Aphrodite’s wound.
What followed were moments of grief followed by rage, as the men she loved, her brothers began killing Kartis’ men without discretion. The killing escalated indiscriminately, as one Athenian after another found death waiting for them at the end of a Guardsmen’s and the First Army’s swords. Torches were lit and the city dwellings burned, the flames taking flight from thatch roof to thatch roof, until the metropolis was completely engulfed by the inferno. Athens experienced the annihilation of Cirra multiplied a thousand fold.
The images ended and Gabrielle opened her eyes. She stepped back, overwhelmed by what she saw. She whispered, “That can’t happen.” Her concern was more for her Lord and the tarnished souls of her brothers than for the Athenians. She looked to Atropos and asked, “If I live?”
“As your destiny unfolds on that night so does Athen’s.”
“Then I will live.”
“Tell her.” Athena demanded of the Fate.
Atropos stared at the Goddess, obviously not one to be dictated to. She then gentled her expression as she said to Gabrielle, “Kartis will kill you unless…”
“Unless what?” asked Gabrielle as she glanced between the Fate and the Goddess.
The crone’s pity was evident. “Unless he believes that you have chosen him over the Conqueror or you seduce a champion among the Athenians to stop him.”
“You are dealing with men, Gabrielle,” said Athena.
Gabrielle turned toward the Goddess angrily. “You expect me to betray Xena? I won’t do that! I can’t!”
“Then return to the Conqueror,” interjected Atropos. “Athena told you the truth. There is nothing else you or the Conqueror can do to save the city.”
“Damn you! Damn you, both!” Gabrielle shouted.
Athena kept her composure. “As I warned you Gabrielle, you would be given reason to curse me.”
“Never again, Athena.” Atropos vowed sharply, and then walked back to her work.
Gabrielle stared at the three Fates and their loom. She knew one thread of the future. She and Xena would die by their own hands. She could hope that their earthly suffering would end. If so, the price was terrible. How could she justify herself to the souls that would die because of her decision? Eternity with the memory of her decision would be Tartarus no matter where Hades sent her. And what of Xena? Gabrielle was not surprised by Xena’s decision to raise a dagger to her breast. Unaware that Gabrielle had been taken to Ithome by Ares, believing that Gabrielle had died; the warrior had sought death as a release from her suffering. Choosing life, Gabrielle might change the future enough to give Xena a reason to keep living.
Atropos was clear. By returning to Kartis Gabrielle was signing her own death decree unless she recruited a champion. From what she witnessed she believed there was indeed a champion within her reach. A decision made Gabrielle shifted her vision towards the waiting Goddess. “Athena, take me back to Athens. Someplace away from my men where I might not be recognized.”
“What are you going to do?” asked the Goddess.
“Tell me first. Once we leave here can I ask for your help?”
Athena looked over to the loom. Atropos caught and held her gaze. “No, Gabrielle. The Fates will not allow me to interfere again.”
“I will go back to Kartis and I will choose life over death. With time we will both learn what my choice will mean to your city.”
“Thank you, Gabrielle,” said Athena sincerely.
“I’m not doing this for you.”
“I know. You are helping Athens in spite of what I’ve done and for that I am grateful.”
Within her let room at the Dolphin’s Cove Inn Gabrielle sat at a small table with a sheet of parchment and a jar of ink before her. She held a quill tentatively in her hand, set in her task of composing a message to Kartis. Her mind and heart were at odds. She decided to use the fact that Samuel had swept her away to her advantage. The message was drafted to pander to Kartis’ ego and to infer her willingness to betray her Lord.
Forgive my abrupt departure. As must have been apparent, I did not take leave of you voluntarily. Unfortunately, in the face of my hesitancy my Guardsmen demonstrated a lapse in discipline.
I am pleased to inform you that I have been able to extricate myself from their zealous guardianship. I will present myself to you in front of the Governor’s Palace at noon.
It is my hope that I may fulfill my role in making your vision for Greece come true.
Queen of Greece
Gabrielle folded and sealed the message. She left her room, walked down to the inn’s tavern and secured a messenger. She immediately left, seeking anonymity in the crowds of the city. For now she was simply an undistinguishable Athenian traveling through the city streets. Soon she would be seen as a traitor. To be deemed a traitor by those she loved raised within her an unsettling nausea.
The sun was directly overhead as Gabrielle walked the main road to the Governor’s Palace. Like her vision of the future, the crowd separated as her identity was acknowledge and relayed forward. The Governor waited for her at the palace gate.
“I was pleasantly surprised to receive your message, Gabrielle,” said Kartis. “I did not expect your return.”
“May we speak privately?”
Kartis stepped forward. “I’m listening.”
“I would hope to have the wisdom to see what is right and good for the people of Athens. The Conqueror is in Corinth and I am here. You have called upon me to make a choice. By my presence before you I have made my choice obvious to the people of Athens.”
“Are you willing to make that choice before all the people of Greece?”
“Yes. Tell me what you wish from me and it will be done.”
Kartis smiled and extended his arm. “Come with me, Gabrielle Queen of Greece.”
Gabrielle took his arm in her own and allowed Kartis to escort her back into the palace. She saw Turian standing nearby observing the scene. He matched her gaze. After a heartbeat Gabrielle shamefully averted her eyes.
Gabrielle was left alone after sharing dinner with Kartis and a half-dozen corrupt Athenian businessmen and an equal number of Kartis’ military echelon. She had remained silent unless directly spoken to, which was rare. Her acquiescence to Kartis, as treason was spoken in her presence, damned her.
Gabrielle excused herself and returned to her suite of rooms. Kartis promised a visit later in the evening. She dressed in a simple peach silk nightdress. Its skirt was slit open to the thigh. She also wore a robe of the same material in a slightly darker shade. Standing on the balcony, Gabrielle waited for Kartis’ inevitable appearance. Looking up to the stars, reminded of her Lord, she shut her emotions within the deepest recesses of her heart as she had learned to do during her slavery. As a slave she never had to pretend she welcomed her violation. Athens would demand far more from her. She would seduce her adversary and give him free access to her body. Gabrielle did not understand how Xena could have used her body in such a way as warlord and as Conqueror and survived without her humanity damaged. She reconsidered and came to the conclusion that her partner’s humanity had been warped by her indiscriminate use of her body. Xena’s acts were not without ramification. The outcome was, in part, the warrior’s sexually bound battle lust.
Gabrielle’s thoughts were maddening. She tried to shut her mind. She was left in a cruel limbo knowing that soon Xena would learn of her betrayal and in lesser time Kartis would physically claim her as his prize. She would take her own life if she were assured that the future was sufficiently altered to stop Athens’s destruction. If only she was certain Xena would not fall upon her sword in grief.
Her thoughts went to Lucretius’ philosophy. She prayed that he was wrong. She wanted her soul to continue on long enough to confess the truth to Xena. She wanted so much to save Xena the hurt, if not in her mortal life, then in eternity. She resigned herself to the harshness of the un-vindicated legacy that was to be her destiny.
Gabrielle heard her suite door open. As Kartis entered, she walked down the few balcony steps into the main room. If Kartis was intent on playing cat and mouse with her, Gabrielle would offer him catnip as a distraction.
He paused and crossed his arms. “Have you been waiting for me?”
He shook his head. “Look at you. Do you think yourself so irresistible that I would come to you seeking your favor?”
“You have been… very solicitous toward me,” said Gabrielle humbly.
“By the Gods, why would I want to be with the Conqueror’s whore?”
Gabrielle’s thoughts split in two conflicting directions, overwhelming relief that she would be spared Kartis’ touch and anger at the insult. She spoke coolly, keeping to her formal diction, “Our arrangement is not precipitated on any further increase in our intimacy.”
“So right!” Kartis affirmed disdainfully. “I doubt you could give me anything worth sending Sarah out of my bed.”
Gabrielle bowed slightly, wordlessly echoing Kartis’ statement.
Kartis approached her. “I expect the arrival of Brutus within the next handful of days. Do you know him?”
“We have met.” The mention of the Roman was unwelcomed.
“What is your impression of him?”
“I sensed he is an honorable man. Unfortunately, Caesar stands in his blind spot.”
“He trusts Caesar.”
“So you think me a fool to trust Caesar?” Kartis’ agitation betrayed his uncertainty.
“As you have proven to me tonight, you are a prudent man in how you develop your alliances. I can only counsel you to tread carefully.”
Unexpectedly, Kartis laughed. He spoke with renewed confidence. “You surprise me, Gabrielle. I threaten your life to gain your cooperation and you acquiesce without not so much as a curse. I offend you and you respond with reasonable counsel. Are you your own woman or do you attach yourself to the most powerful in order to gain benefits otherwise beyond your reach?”
“I have learned from my years with the Conqueror when and how to influence others.”
“You will influence me?”
“I already have.”
“Have you? I hadn’t notice.”
“Why did you not kill me and take comfort in having one more adversary dead at your feet? You know as well as I do that I can be of use to you. And, I know just as you do that by forcing my seemingly voluntary public declaration of an alliance that I can never return to Corinth. The Conqueror will cut me down without a second thought.”
“You could plead your case with the Conqueror. She is said to love you, or was I right that you are a carnal convenience to her.”
Again an insult, again Gabrielle chose not to respond. “You do not know the Conqueror as I do. She values her honor above all else. And love… I doubt that you would measure the Conqueror’s love as equal to the Athenian concept of the virtue.”
“You will not have my pity.”
“I don’t seek it. I surely do not deserve it.”
“As I have said, you are a survivor, Gabrielle. That makes you a dangerous woman. And yet, I cannot help but admire you. I know of no slave that has risen so high from the dregs of society.”
“You give me too much credit.”
“I doubt that. The men you have met with these past few days have been won over by your beauty and intelligence and that has posed a problem for me. Who of the many should I give you to?”
Gabrielle steeled. “There is no candidate I would welcome.”
Angered, Kartis grabbed her harshly. “But you will welcome him.” He pulled Gabrielle back by her hair. “I have your promise.”
Turian entered unannounced. “Don’t go bruising my reward, Kartis.” he said edgily.
Kartis released Gabrielle. “No harm done, Turian. We were just coming to an understanding. Weren’t we, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle turned toward Turian. “I am your reward, then?”
Kartis walked to the silent Turian and gave him a congratulatory slap on the back. “He was very persuasive.” Kartis then walked to the door where he paused and chuckled, “Only the best for the Queen of Greece. Enjoy her my friend.”
Turian waited until Kartis had exited. He kept his distance from Gabrielle. “Are you all right?” he asked with obvious concern.
Gabrielle’s anger subsided as her hopes grew. “Yes, thank you.”
Turain looked about and sat down in a nearby chair. “You can go to your bedroom. I’ll be here. I shall not intrude any further upon your privacy.”
Gabrielle had no intention of retiring to her bed. There was too much to learn. “Turian, why?”
“Gabrielle, you are safe with me. Kartis and the others can think whatever they want.” Seeing that Gabrielle remained unmoved, Turian leaned forward. “I have been truthful to you,” he said reassuringly. “I do hope you can trust me. We are facing difficult days.”
“What will happen?”
“I have lost my leverage. By your public declaration Kartis has what he wanted. He is goading the Conqueror to travel to Athens. He is sure he can exploit her pride and bring her into the palace. He won’t stop until he kills her.”
“But he won’t.”
“Depends if she can maintain her focus on the prize, which is Kartis and not you.”
Gabrielle was not concerned. Xena was never more focused than when faced with a betrayal deserving her vengeance. Her calculating mind would make no mistakes. “You said Kartis is goading the Conqueror. How?”
“The declarations he had you sign. One was sent by messenger to Corinth. Two have been posted: one at the city gate and the other in the Agora. The fourth he keeps for himself as a trophy.”
“I knew before I returned to the palace that I was forfeiting my life. Still, it’s hard…”
“Why did you come back?”
“For the greater good. Because I believe the city has a better chance of surviving with me here.”
“Why sign the declarations?”
“Kartis would have killed me if I refused. I still serve a purpose alive.”
“It is selfish of me but I am glad you chose life. I will do my best to keep you from harm’s way.”
“Turian, you don’t owe me anything.”
“But, I do. I am the one that asked you to remain in Athens.”
“I did so because I am Queen and am sworn to place Greece above all else.”
“I see.” Turian fell back against the chair disappointedly. An aching fatigue carried in his voice as he suggested, “You should try to get some sleep.”
“What will you tell Kartis in the morning?”
“That you were sweet to me and that I will not share you with another man. Gabrielle, I think it best if you move your things into my suite. There will be less chance some fool will take exception to my claim upon you.”
Gabrielle turned and walked to the bedroom, pausing at the threshold. She had lost Xena. As much as she tried to keep the devastating truth from her heart, it made an excruciating incursion up it. She faced a lonely death. So too did Turian though he might not know it. Whether fact or fiction, that he was believed to be intimate with her condemned him. She wondered if he understood his fate and stayed to protect her anyway.
Gabrielle looked back to the man who had garnered her affection. She remembered Atropos’ guidance - she would die unless she seduced a champion among the Athenians. Gabrielle did not fear death. Athena was right. There are worse things than death. In losing Xena to a perceived betrayal Gabrielle had entered the darkest night of her soul. Gabrielle did not want to be alone and she felt Turian deserved more than what life had given him. She gazed down to her left hand and felt her loss of Xena’s love, knowing nothing that Turian offered her could be as wondrous. She removed her ring, placing it in the pocket of her dress. She then silently returned to him.
Turian looked up to her. “Gabrielle, what is it?”
She reached out her hand to him. He took it and after a thoughtful moment stood up. She leaned forward and gently kissed him. For a brief wisp of time she was released from both the past and the future. The kissed ended.
“You don’t have to do this,” said Turian.
“I know,” said Gabrielle as she raised her hand gently to his cheek.
Turian kissed Gabrielle. He brought her closer to him with a firm yet tender embrace. Gabrielle allowed herself to be carried away by his sensual desire for her. Turian released her taking her hand in his. “I swear I will be good to you.” As a tear fell down her cheek Gabrielle renewed their kiss.
Their lovemaking led them to the bedroom where they patiently undressed each other. Seeing Gabrielle’s scars for the first time Turian paused. He silently matched Gabrielle’s questioning gaze then swept his hand across her back without further hesitation.
Turian was a patient lover. Their extended foreplay had heightened Gabrielle’s receptivity. He took care not to overwhelm her as he reached climax. Afterwards, he held her, offering her a constant reassuring embrace. Gabrielle fell asleep with Turian’s touch firmly in her mind. She could not allow any other thought and not act to end her life.
Gabrielle awoke to the diffused light of dawn. Turian held her gently. “Good morning,” he said.
“How did you sleep?”
To her relief Gabrielle recalled no dreams. “Fair.” She raised herself up, holding the bed sheet close to her.
She answered honestly. “No.”
“What do you ask of me, Gabrielle?”
“I’ve been thinking about what lays in store for Athens and for us. I expect times will become ugly. Gabrielle, if you could have one outcome in addition to saving the city, what would it be?” Gabrielle looked away, her most painful thoughts resurfacing. “Be truthful,” coaxed Turian.
Gabrielle returned her gaze to the man. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You won’t. Tell me. What is your heart’s desire?”
“I want no harm to come to the Conqueror. I want her to beat back Kartis and stop Rome from entering Greece.”
“Since my dream for Greece is now beyond my reach I will do what I can to give you yours.”
Gabrielle knew war. She had seen in her brief lifetime overwhelming indiscriminate death and wanted an end to it. She could not save herself. She could save the man beside her. “Turian, you can still leave the city and join the Conqueror. You can be of use to her.”
Turian sat up and turned to Gabrielle. “If you come with me.”
“Then I am more valuable here.”
“Don’t stay because of me.”
“I’m not. I’m being as selfish as a man can be.”
Gabrielle covered his hand with hers. “Thank you.”
“I promise you, Gabrielle. I will do what I can to help you and the Conqueror. Now, I need to dress and make an appearance before Kartis. A man must boast of his conquests.” He paused contritely. “I am sorry but it is expected.”
Gabrielle smiled sadly. “The conversation of men. Yes, I know.”
“I will not say much. For once I rather not taint my memory.” Turian kissed her. “There will be no lie. You gave me a sweet night.”
Gabrielle watched as Turian left their bed and dressed. She tried not to dwell on the unfolding tragedy that was their lives. They had both reconciled themselves and surrendered to their fates, sharing an uncommon peace in the process.
Gabrielle now had Turian as an ally. Having Kartis’ confidence no one in the palace was better positioned than he to monitor and mitigate the Governor’s actions. Winning Turian over to her cause had not motivated her invitation. She had sincerely needed and wanted the comfort and companionship he offered. Maybe, she thought, he proposed to help her because he sensed her lack of ulterior motive.
Turian and Gabrielle entered the dining room where Kartis and Sarah sat dining.
Upon seeing them, Kartis exclaimed to Gabrielle, “Ha! We have captured two of your Guardsmen.”
“I want to see them,” demanded Gabrielle.
“Why should I let you?” asked Kartis like a child refusing to play politely.
“Because she will try to convince them to go along with this charade,” said Turian.
“What good can they do me?”
“Kartis, impressions are made by the most innocuous images. Right now Gabrielle is seen surrounded by you and your guards. Some observers may wonder if she is indeed here by her free will or is in fact a prisoner. Have her bracketed by her Guard and suddenly speculations change. The question then posed is whether the Royal Guard supports the Queen against the Conqueror.”
“He is right,” said Sarah softly.
Kartis turned to his lover and held her gaze. He spoke to Turian without diverting his eyes. “You make a good point. I’ll arrange an escort.” He stood and offered his hand to Sarah. She accepted and allowed him to escort her to the door. There Kartis paused and turned to the fallen queen. “Gabrielle, if you say or do anything to make your men suspect your motives I will kill them before they take their next breath.”
“I will win them over,” said Gabrielle reassuringly.
“See that you do.” Kartis exited with Sarah.
Left alone, Gabrielle gratefully took Turain’s hand. “Thank you.”
Turian kissed her lightly. “Be careful.”
“You won’t come with me?”
“I cannot be publicly solicitous to you. Don’t worry, I will never be far away.”
Gabrielle was escorted to the dungeons. Bypassing the private cell she had been assigned, she entered a large enclosure separated by floor to ceiling bars. Upon seeing her Trevor and Samuel stood from where they sat on the floor.
“Stay were you are,” a guard ordered the unshackled men. He then opened the prison door and allowed Gabrielle to enter.
She embraced Trevor who warmly greeted her and then reached out to Samuel. The latter Guardsman refused her hand. “Sam…” she said, a muted plea.
“What’s going on?” he demanded.
“We read the declaration in the city square,” said Trevor as he released Gabrielle.
“Did you go back on your own?” asked Samuel impatiently.
Expecting the request, but not prepared to completely explain her actions, Gabrielle kept a measured voice. “Yes, I did.”
“By the Gods, why do it?”
“I thought it best.”
“For Athens. For Greece.”
“You really believe Kartis should rule? What did the Conqueror do to deserve you placing her under your boot?”
Samuel’s relentless challenge took its toll. Gabrielle retreated further into herself seeking refuge. “I can’t explain.”
“You mean you won’t!”
“You’re right, I won’t explain myself to you,” said Gabrielle sharply. “You have a choice to trust me or not.”
“Gabrielle,” said Trevor introducing a calmer voice into the conflict. “What are we to think?”
In response Gabrielle gentled her mien. “You know me.”
“And you know us. There is nothing you can’t tell us.”
“I made a promise.”
“To whom? Turian?” Samuel kept an interrogatory posture. “Was that before or after you broke your vow to the Conqueror?”
Gabrielle shifted her gaze from Samuel to Trevor. The Captain glanced down uncomfortably. “Gabrielle, the palace guards talk. They say you share Turian’s bed.”
“You don’t look worse for wear,” said Samuel.
Gabrielle turned furiously toward him and slapped the Guardsman across the face. Shock and anger equally etched on his face, Samuel instinctively stepped back then surged forward
Trevor placed himself in between the two holding Samuel. Behind him Gabrielle said dispassionately, “I ask you to trust me!”
“Trust! Trust!” shouted Samuel. “Are we simply to accept what you say and do blindly?” He pushed himself from Trevor and stepped away. After a moment he refocused upon Gabrielle. “Would you be so liberal with us?”
“If I asked you and you told me that there was nothing more you could tell me then yes, I would.”
“Even if your life depended on it?”
“Especially if my life depended on it. You are sworn to safeguard me and I know you would never risk my life.”
“And what are you sworn to?”
“My Lord. My brothers. Greece.” She said the latter with emphasis.
“Is the Conqueror still your Lord?” asked Trevor.
Gabrielle could not prevent a tear from falling down her cheek. “Yes!” she said fiercely.
“And what you’ve done is for Greece?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle repeated this time softly.
“Gabrielle, what should Sam and I expect?”
“Our execution,” spat Samuel unmoved.
“Sam…” Trevor chastised with his tone.
“Trevor, Sam’s right.” Gabrielle reached out and rested her hand on his arm. “There is a way to keep you alive. You must stand by me.”
“And betray the Conqueror as you have,” said Samuel in his fathomless anger.
“Sam, shut up!” Trevor’s own temper rose.
“Is that an order?”
“Yes, damn it, if it must be.” Trevor glanced from his pain racked friend to the woman he loved above all others. “Gabrielle, you are still our Queen.”
“And the Conqueror is our Sovereign,” interjected Samuel.
“For Zeus’ sake…” Trevor seemed ready to pummel Samuel.
“Trevor, you owe me nothing.” Gabrielle slipped her hand down his arm, taking hold of his forming fist, easing it back to a less aggressive state as their fingers intertwined. “Sam is right to honor his vow to the Conqueror.”
Trevor raised their bound hands. Gabrielle could see how much he wanted to believe in her. The Captain smiled painfully. “I am with you.” He turned to his brother. “Sam?”
Gabrielle could see that Samuel was affected by her exchange with Trevor. His bluster ebbed. “Do you need an answer now?” he asked.
“He will do as you ask. As your Captain I order it.” Trevor said plainly. “Sam, if we live to face the Conqueror I will tell her I gave you no choice.”
“That is a coward’s way out,” countered the proud Guardsman.
“No, you are a solider following an officer’s orders. You will receive a soldier’s pardon.”
“While you stand alone on the gallows? That is not who I am. I’ve said my peace. I’ll stand with you.”
“Thank you, Sam.” Gabrielle released Trevor’s hand and reached out again to him.
For a second time he refused her. “I’m doing this for Trevor, not you.”
Gabrielle’s hand dropped to her side. “Very well. I’ll tell Kartis and try to get you out of here.”
Gabrielle left the men and then briefly reported to Kartis their willingness to cooperate. She negotiated better accommodations for the Guardsmen then made her way to the suite she shared with Turain. Securing her privacy she sat down. Her meeting with Trevor and Samuel replayed in her mind. No manner of self-distancing could spare her from the hurt she felt. Samuel’s anger was honest and justified. She had made her decision for the greater good. She had and continued to be willing to pay the price exacted. What she tried to keep at arm’s length in order to save herself further heartbreak was the knowledge that those she loved were being hurt as a consequence of her choice.
She knew that if Athena had not intervened, if the Fates had not given her the limited vision of the future, she would have taken her own life and saved Trevor and Samuel the dishonor they had consented to on her behalf. Gabrielle’s decision traded one dishonor for another. No innocents would die because of the Guardsmen’s grief. The fact offered limited solace.
The following day promised further hurt. Kartis was clear in his intentions. He would arrange for Gabrielle and her Guardsmen to visit the Agora. There was no better medium of communications than the network of tradesmen and tradeswomen. With each transaction Gabrielle’s presence would be commented upon. Customers would carry the news to their homes scattering it throughout the city and its environs.
Turian entered the suite. He immediately approached Gabrielle, moving a chair across from her and then sitting down. Her distress was obvious. “What is it?” he asked as he took her hand, offering comfort.
“I met with my men. Trevor and Sam came back looking for me.”
“Will they stand by you?”
“Yes. Kartis has agreed to release them under an escort. They shall remain weaponless.”
“They are confused and angry with me. Sam especially.”
“What did you tell them?”
“Very little, really. I asked them to trust me.”
“And they do?”
“I don’t think they can bear thinking the worst of me.”
“Lucky for them. To have refused would have meant immediate execution.”
“They are men of honor. They would not think twice about dying for what they believe in.” Privately, Gabrielle felt her men had consented to a greater price than the loss of life.
After allowing a moment of stilled silence, Turian squeezed Gabrielle’s hand gently, claiming her attention once again. “Gabrielle, I have a report from the outlands. It should only be a matter of days before the Conqueror is at the city gates. Word is that she and her forces left Corinth the day after receiving your first message. Your declaration was delivered to her on the road to Athens.”
“She will call on both the 2nd and 3rd armies,” said Gabrielle knowingly.
“Will she wait for them?”
“I’m not sure. It depends on her assessment of Kartis’ forces. I hope she doesn’t wait. Rome cannot be given time to march to our borders.”
“Kartis’ hubris will be his downfall. He is still intent on provoking the Conqueror to attack.”
“She won’t take the bait. She will set the terms of engagement.” Turian leaned back. Gabrielle wondered aloud the cause. “What?”
“Everything you’ve said is sound,” said Turian earnestly. “You do trust me not to betray the Conqueror further.”
Gabrielle realized Turian still doubted her commitment to him. What they shared did not near the unconditional trust that had grown between her and Xena. She felt the pain that accompanied her sacrifice of that trust. Once again, she pressed her feelings for Xena down. She could not be Queen and continue otherwise. “You gave me your promise,” she said sincerely.
Turian glanced down to her hand. “Gabrielle, I notice you no longer wear your ring.”
“I am not worthy of it,” she said feeling her shame.
“You are being too harsh with yourself.”
“You do not understand the meaning of the ring.”
“So your naked hand is not a sign that your heart has changed?”
“The Conqueror’s Queen’s heart has always been constant. It is that she died the moment I removed the ring.”
“Then who are you that sit here before me?
“If we survive this battle of wits and swords I want to be with you,” said Turian, his words heartfelt. “I want to take you to a safe place…”
Turian’s proposal offered Gabrielle no peace. “Turian, I will not leave Athens alive.”
“Have you lost hope?”
“The moment I decided to return to the palace I knew my fate. The question of my death has only been on what day and by whose hands. You have saved me from Kartis. You cannot save me from the Conqueror.”
Turian did not shield his upset from Gabrielle. “Do you want to be saved from the Conqueror’s wrath?”
Gabrielle remained unaffected. Her heart was not to be touched.
“What I want no longer matters.
I made my decision and I shall see it through to the end.”
“Gabrielle, you are not alone in this fight,” said Turian fiercely.
Gabrielle raised her hand to his cheek. “I know and I thank Aphrodite that I’m not.”
Turian took Gabrielle’s gesture as an invitation. He kissed her passionately and soon thereafter took her to bed.
PART THREE: FROM CORINTH TO ATHENS / THE CONQUEROR
Xena stood under an oak tree in the palace courtyard, her gaze directed to the infirmary, her thoughts lingering upon Gabrielle. Jared exited the Guardsmen’s mess hall. Seeing Xena he walked to where she stood and for a moment traced Xena’s point of interest. Making an assumption he asked, “Thinking of the lass?”
“Jared, do you remember telling me that I could stand at the hitching post in front of the infirmary and listen to Gabrielle’s storytelling without her being the wiser?”
“I do,” said Jared, a smile rising.
“She has changed from those days of shyness and self-doubt.”
“Yes, she has. To become our Queen she had to change.”
“I find it hard to believe that she’s traveled so far in only five years.”
“Why? You were younger than she when Cortes attacked Amphipolis. You formed and led an army and you did it alone.”
“Not in the beginning. In the beginning I had Lyceus and then I had you.”
“Gabrielle has us.”
“I worry about her.”
“So do I.”
“I wish we had been on better terms when she left.”
“Did you argue?”
“She has gone to Athens against my wishes.”
“What harm could it do? The reports from Athens…” Jared referred to daily communications from the realm’s spies dispatched by Xena as a precautionary measure to safeguard Gabrielle’s well being.
“There is nothing for me to latch on to. Gabrielle is meeting with Athens’ elite. Her public appearances with Kartis have been cordial. Turian remains in the periphery.”
“All as you would expect.” Recognizing his friend’s heightened concern Jared probed further. “Xena, is there something else?”
“I just received a message from Rome. Caesar has ordered Brutus to prepare for a diplomatic mission. Our informant doesn’t know exactly what the mission is except that Greece has been mentioned.”
“You think Kartis is looking to Rome?”
“Thanos failed to deliver me to Caesar. It is only a matter of time before Caesar seeks another vile alliance.”
“The timing is off. Gabrielle is scheduled to leave Athens before Brutus could possibly reach the city.”
“Unless keeping Gabrielle in Athens is part of the plan.”
“I don’t see how that can be. It was Gabrielle’s decision to go to Athens. Neither Caesar nor Kartis could have anticipated her presence.” Jared placed a comforting hand on Xena’s shoulder. “You will be seeing the lass in Megara. Wait and speak to her then.”
Xena turned to the General, not hiding her sorrow. “Jared, I can hardly sense her and I want to. There is a growing emptiness inside me as if I’m losing her.” Her expression changed to attentive interest. “What the..”
Targon had hurriedly exited the palace. He walked in his fragile gate toward her. The Administrator carried a scroll in his hand. Xena exercised all restraint in her wait for him. Upon reaching his Sovereign and the General, the man breathlessly said, “Your Majesty, a message from the Queen.”
“Here,” said Xena extending her hand. Targon immediately placed the scroll within her grasp. Xena impatiently opened and read the scroll.
My dear Conqueror,
I regret that I will be delayed in Athens another fortnight as I continue discussions with Governor Kartis and distinguished leaders of the Athenian populace. I am optimistic that our dialogue will conclude with a mutually acceptable resolution of our differences.
Gabrielle, Queen of Greece.
“Well?” asked Jared.
Xena handed the scroll to him. “You tell me.”
Jared read, a look of puzzlement swept over him. “Conqueror? This doesn’t sound like Gabrielle.”
“No, it doesn’t. Jared, I’m done being patient. I don’t need my connection with Gabrielle to know that there is something wrong.”
“What do you plan?”
“I will lead two of the First Army’s companies and the Royal Guard to Athens. I want the rest of our armies on alert. And, send a message to Megara. I want Stephen to join us in route. We leave at dawn.”
The following evening Xena sat removed from camp. Jared sought her out and rested beside her. He was a silent witness to her state of internal turmoil.
After some time, with all emotion arrested, Xena turned to him. “Jared, Ares told me that the day would come when Gabrielle would have to repay a debt to Aphrodite.”
“What on earth for?” said the General with undisguised impatience towards the Gods.
“Saving her life. Gabrielle would have died from the Persian’s poisoned blade.”
“That is only Ares’ talk. Who is to say any god healed Gabrielle?”
“I say. Gabrielle was dying. I knew it then.”
“Even if Aphrodite did save Gabrielle, what does her owing Aphrodite a debt have to do with the goings on in Athens?”
“Ares said that on the day Gabrielle’s debt came due I would live Tartarus on earth unless I called on him.”
“He did, did he?” said Jared disdainfully. “What did Gabrielle think?”
“I never told her. I didn’t want her to live in fear.”
“Aphrodite has no special love for Rome to use Gabrielle to Caesar’s benefit.”
“Aphrodite may have chosen Gabrielle for someone else,” speculated Xena.
“That does not make sense. Aphrodite has never criticized your joining. Remember, she helped you keep Gabrielle.”
“We are talking about the Gods, Jared.”
“You understand Ares well enough. Aphrodite is not her brother.”
“She is a God and the Gods have made a point of reminding us that their actions are not only beyond our control but also beyond our understanding.”
“Ares, Xena. You can’t be thinking of asking for his help. You know how Gabrielle feels about him.”
“She once asked me to promise never to seek a favor from him again. I never gave her that promise.”
“You can’t trust him,” Jared contended. “Look at what he has done in the past to break you and Gabrielle apart. Who is to say this intrigue is not his doing?”
“And if it is am I to stand helpless while the world as I know it is stripped away from me?” asked Xena helplessly.
“You cannot barter with the God!” said the General heatedly. “There will be nothing left for you to give Gabrielle.”
“What should I do then, old man?”
Jared saw Xena’s rarely expressed vulnerability. She was truly at a loss. He knew this woman well. He knew what she needed to do to keep her equilibrium. “You must do what you have always done. Live by the truth.”
“The truth?” said Xena as if the virtue had lost its moral quality. “Right now the truth frightens me. I’m afraid it will destroy me.”
“It may hurt you but you will survive.”
“And if I rather not… survive,” asked Xena disheartedly.
“Then don’t. But at least die with honor. Don’t lick Ares’ boots.”
“I am to be the Conqueror to my last breath?” sighed Xena.
“Yes. It was you who told me that to become the Conqueror was your destiny. And it was also you who told me that you could not escape that destiny.”
“I think… I think I will need you by my side in the coming days. What we learn… if it is the worst that I imagine, it will have an effect on every man in the Guard and many in the Army.”
Jared stared at Xena disbelievingly. “Xena, Gabrielle has done nothing wrong. Right now we only have insinuations, hearsay and gossip. None can be relied upon.”
“We will see with our own eyes,” said Xena unconvinced. “Let us hope we don’t wish to gouge them out for what they show us.”
“Damn it, why are you so despairing?” said Jared exasperatingly.
Tears welled in Xena’s eyes. “Jared, Ares has never lied to me.”
Stephen had joined the Conqueror’s march during the afternoon of the following day. He took comman of one First Army company. Camp was established and meals were served when an Athenian courier delivered a message from the Queen. Stephen took personal possession of it and approached Xena and Jared.
Xena took the scroll Stephen offered her, breaking the Queen’s seal. She read the declaration. “No,” she whispered with an aching sorrow.
“What does the lass say?” Receiving no answer Jared repeated urgently. “Xena, what does she say?” He reached out and took the scroll from Xena’s trembling hands. Stephen read over the General’s shoulder. Both men were momentarily struck speechless.
“It’s in Gabrielle’s script. It’s not a forgery.” Stephen’s observation clashed with the disbelieving tone of his words.
“She could have been coerced,” said Jared. “Xena, you must not judge her until you know for certain.”
Xena did not answer him. She turned and walked away.
“Jared, this is not written by our Gabrielle. It can’t be,” said Stephen.
Jared rolled up the scroll. “There is something you don’t know. We’ve been receiving disturbing reports from our spies.”
“Do they condemn Gabrielle?”
“No, they were inconclusive. Now… Stephen, I don’t know what to think.”
“Why, Jared? Ask yourself why Gabrielle would do this. If there is no reason then it is not her doing.”
“Stephen, I love Gabrielle like a daughter but there is a part of her that has always been hidden away from me… and you. You can’t deny that. Who knows how Athens has touched her heart.”
“I stake my life on Gabrielle’s heart and soul.”
“And what of Xena’s? Think hard Stephen. Today you must make a choice. Will you stand by Xena or Gabrielle?”
The Major stated his answer unequivocally. “Gabrielle made that choice for me a long time ago. I promised to stand by Xena.”
“And so we will. For now keep this news to yourself.”
Xena walked away from camp. With each step she steeled her heart, raising barriers from the assault of emotions that had the power to ruin her. Her heart was a wasteland devastated by Gabrielle’s searing words. Gabrielle had condemned not only Xena’s rule but also Xena herself. Describing the Conqueror as a woman of unforgivable and uncontrollable violence too unstable to trust with the realm.
Xena paused in a grove of trees. She stood feet planted solidly and closed her eyes, traveling inward as she had done for days. Gabrielle’s essence had grown fainter. There was no reaching Gabrielle. There was no knowing Gabrielle.
Xena felt an eerie disturbance around her. She opened her eyes to find Ares leaning against a tree. Seeing he had her attention Ares said, “Xena, if you are praying to me, I can’t hear you. Try shouting at the top of your lungs and you might just get me interested in your troubles.” Saying nothing, Xena walked away. “Hey!” called Ares indignantly. “Why is it so hard for you to admit that I was right and you were wrong.”
Xena turned on her heels. “Shut up, Ares!”
“I can stop this Xena. All you have to do is ask me.”
“Stop what, Ares? What in Tartarus is happening that makes me need a favor from you?”
“You read Gabrielle’s declaration. She is determined to take Greece from you. I’ll make sure Greece remains yours.”
Ares’ offer proved that he had no idea of who Xena had become, what she valued in life. He did not offer her Gabrielle. She wondered if he could or if Jared was right that by asking Ares for help she would forfeit any possibility of having Gabrielle’s return. “No, thank you. I’ll deal with Gabrielle in my own way.”
“Know this Xena,” said Ares smugly. “When you change your mind, and I know you will, I won’t hold this refusal against you.”
“By Zeus, you are arrogant.”
“Tell you what. Hear what your visitor from Athens has to say and then tell me you still think that way.” Ares put his hand to his ear. “Hark, I hear him now.”
Xena watched Ares disappear. Knowing not to discount his taunt she walked back to camp. There she saw Jared and Stephen speaking to Udell. She called out the philosopher’s name as she approached the threesome.
“Your Majesty,” said Udell deferentially, “may we speak privately.”
“You can speak freely,” said Xena.
“I’m sure your officers are honorable men, however, what I must discuss with you is of a personal nature.”
“Come with me.” Xena guided Udell toward the camp’s perimeter. Finding themselves alone Xena asked, “What is it?”
“Your Majesty, Queen Gabrielle is reportedly…” The philosopher hesitated, his discomfort reflected in his inability to look the Conqueror in the eye.
“What Udell!” demanded Xena impatiently.
“She has moved her belongings into Lord Turian’s suite of rooms.”
Showing no surprised Xena asked, “What else?”
Udell paused as if gauging the Conqueror. He spoke more ably. “She has toured the Agora in the company of two Royal Guardsmen. I saw her there. She looked unharmed and was very solicitous to Governor Kartis. There is also a declaration…”
“I’ve read it,” said Xena, wanting to keep the interview as short as possible.
“It was been posted in the city gate and at the center of the Agora. The city has been thrown into a state of confusion. The people do not know what to think.”
“What do you think?” asked Xena coolly.
“I spoke to the Queen twice before these events unfolded. She gave me no indication that she was considering challenging the realm.”
Xena’s interest piqued. “What did you talk about?”
Udell gave an accounting of his meetings with Gabrielle and then waited silently as Xena considered what she had heard. Xena asked, “Did the Queen give you reason to believe your conversations would end?”
“As we bid farewell after our first discussion she was clear that she wished to meet again. She gave no such indication after our second meeting.”
“Why come to me, Udell? I know you are fond of the Queen. Why not stand by her?”
“With all due respect, your Majesty, the Queen is wrong in her criticism of the realm.”
“Philosophers speak of ideals. I am no one’s ideal,” said Xena warily.
“You have done great things for Greece. Kartis is a spoiled whelp.”
“Thank you, Udell.” Xena dismissed the philosopher with genuine appreciation. “If you speak to the General he will see to your comfort.”
Udell bowed to his Sovereign and then said sincerely, “Your Majesty, I am sorry I could not bring you better news.”
“As long as it is the truth,” said Xena in a clipped diction.
“Your Majesty, may I say one more thing?”
“I use reason to search for truth, and yet in my life I know that there are some truths beyond reason. That is where our faith resides. You are facing many daunting facts. Don’t let them blind you to the truth that resides hidden behind them.”
Udell’s counsel demanded a profound unbiased insight into the human condition, an insight Xena doubted she possessed. “How will I know, Udell, that such a different truth exists? My own desire for a less painful truth could move me to an unsound judgment.”
“I can only counsel you to act such that you minimize the risk of regret. Some actions can be reversed. Others cannot.”
“It is fair advice. I will keep it in mind.”
“Your Majesty,” said Udell as he bowed a second time and left Xena’s presence.
Xena watched the philosopher as he reentered the camp circle. She was decided. She would not call upon Ares. It was obvious to her Ares could not help her. She was tempted to call upon Aphrodite seeking an explanation but thought better of it. Aphrodite proved to be no ally.
Three days passed. Kartis entered Turian’s suite and called out for him. In the process of dressing, Turian entered the main chamber from his bedroom. Kartis set formalities aside. “Xena has infiltrated the palace. Today is judgment day and we will succeed.”
“Kartis, are you insane?” said Turian having no further reason to withhold his judgment. “Your militia is no match for the Conqueror’s armies.”
“They don’t have to be. I only need to kill her. Without the Conqueror her army will fall like a house of cards.”
“You underestimate her generals and her army.”
“Why the sudden respect for those muckers?”
“All these moons you have not heard a word I’ve said to you.” The sounds of fighting filled the palace halls. Turian glanced toward the bedroom anxiously. Then he ordered Kartis, “Seal the door.”
“Why? There is no reason to delay the fight.”
“There is every reason to keep the Conqueror out of this room.”
“You’ve got her whore with you.” Kartis laughed. “By the Gods we shall have a sweet meeting with the Conqueror.”
“Shut up!” Turian reached for his sword, which lay on a nearby table and ran and opened the suite entrance. He could see men fighting nearby, the Royal Guard’s insignia prominent on many uniforms. He shut and locked the door.
* * *
Xena sliced her opponent across the torso. She did not wait for him to fall. Ahead of her a Guardsman was conferring with Stephen. The Major called out to her. “Kartis was seen running into Turian’s suite at the east end of the palace.” Without a word Xena ran in that direction, followed by her best men.
* * *
Standing in Turian’s bedroom Gabrielle listened as Kartis and Turian argued. Not long after she heard the front suite door forced open. Within the room Kartis called out, “Xena, I must give tribute to the Gods for bringing you to my doorstep. With you dead my rule of Greece is assured.” Gabrielle then heard the distinct sound of Xena’s bootsteps marching across the marble floor.
* * *
Xena approached wordlessly, holding her sword firmly with both hands. Kartis stood before her. Turian was a further five paces beyond, near the balcony. Xena engage Kartis as Jared and Stephen entered the chamber. Stephen immediately battled Turian. Jared remained by the entrance guarding against Athenian militia.
With matched strokes Xena and Kartis crossed swords holding them against the other with equal force. Kartis taunted, “How does it feel to be betrayed?”
Xena surged forcing Kartis backwards. Two more strikes of their swords and Xena thrust her blade through the man. Kartis exhaled a low pain racked groan as he fell to the floor dead.
Gabrielle stepped out from the bedroom. She was dressed in a long silk robe. She was obviously unharmed and in light of the battle that was being waged around her remarkably self-composed. Kartis lay dead at Xena’s feet. The warrior’s sword was crimson with his blood.
Upon seeing Gabrielle Turian and Stephen halted their fighting. Gabrielle turned from Xena to Turian. For a moment all followed her gaze. There was an obvious silent exchange between her and the Athenian. Turian took advantage of the distraction and leaped from the balcony onto a vine covered wooden trellis, climbing down to the ground seeking an escape.
Gabrielle walked forward until she stood directly before Xena. She observed how her partner tightened her sword grip, a certain sign that the warrior was readying herself to strike. Gabrielle waited for the deathblow.
Xena could smell sex on Gabrielle. She trembled consumed by the realization of the complete extent of Gabrielle’s betrayal.
Jared had gravitated toward Gabrielle. He now stepped to Xena’s shoulder softly speaking his Sovereign’s name.
Xena glanced toward the General. Her sense of time and place momentarily lost, returned. She had a battle to win. What she would do with Gabrielle could not be her first concern. She turned her gaze back to her former Queen. The Conqueror within her supplanted all other qualities that composed the warrior. “By your actions you have flung yourself upon my sword,” she said. “For that more than anything else you have done this past moon, I will never forgive you.” It was the Conqueror’s minatory voice that Gabrielle heard. The Conqueror faced Jared. Her mien altered as she commanded in an agonized whisper, “Arrest her.” She then walked to the door regaining her composure. Her command rose high to the rafters. “Stephen, you’re with me!” After a brief masked consideration of Gabrielle the Major followed his Liege.
Gabrielle looked down to Kartis. As expected, his destiny was an ignoble, young death. He had lost yet won a victory. In the course of his own demise he had destroyed her. Gabrielle raised her gaze to the door. Kartis’ harm did not end with her. She wondered how complete he had triumphed over Xena. Xena might survive physically. But, Gabrielle had every reason to believe that the fate of Xena’s soul was not as certain. Gabrielle’s betrayal had the power to rob Xena of her fragile hope. Xena’s life once again took the form of an endless odyssey whereby the Fates caused her to suffer retribution for past sins. Xena was at risk of being propelled into an abyss so deep that she would never again know the light of day.
“Lass, why?” asked Jared.
Gabrielle never expected to be alive to answer the question. Sworn to silence she said nothing. Averting her eyes from Jared, she felt her brokenness absolutely.
“If you don’t speak in your own defense Xena won’t have a choice but…” the General coaxed.
“I know,” she whispered.
“Do you know what you have done to her?”
“Did she deserve it?” he asked in a low, firm voice.
Gabrielle fixed her gaze upon the suite door, the image of her Lord’s retreat firmly in her mind’s eye. “No, Jared, she didn’t.”
“Lass, look at me.” He reached out and gently placed his hand on her chin, guiding her to meet his eyes. “You have in the past sacrificed yourself because you believed you were doing good by it. Tell me, is this one of those times?” Tears wells in Gabrielle’s eyes. “As I hoped. I need to get you out of Greece.”
“No! I won’t run away,” said Gabrielle taking a step back.
“Do you want to die?”
“I will do no more harm.”
“Blasted stubborn girl!” said Jared angrily.
Alem entered. He glanced toward Gabrielle uncertainly then shifted his attention to Jared. “General.”
“What!” demanded Jared as he struggled to hold his temper.
“We have Trevor and Sam. The Conqueror has order them arrested. They will stand trial in Corinth.”
“They did nothing wrong!” Gabrielle protested.
“They will have an opportunity to explain their actions,” said the General.
“Jared, we have nothing more to argue about. I must return to Corinth to defend them.”
“Gabrielle, it will be the Conqueror not the Xena you love that will pronounce judgment upon them… and you. Lass, hear me. There will be no reasoning with her.”
“I have to try,” said Gabrielle. She had no desire to save herself. She did however owe a debt to the Guardsmen and would not abandon them.
“So you must,” said Jared dejectedly. “Alem, take the Queen into custody. Make sure no harm comes to her.”
“General, I don’t understand,” said the perplexed Guard.
“It’s not your place to understand,” he snapped. Seeing Alem’s obvious confusion Jared grew angrier. “Damn it! Just follow orders.”
“Jared, he’s my brother,” Gabrielle whispered so only the General could hear her.
“And I lass? Who can I now be to you?” asked Jared heartbreakingly. He reached out and placed his hand on her cheek. “Gabrielle, whatever you did… whatever happens next, know that I love you.”
“I love you, too,” said Gabrielle refusing to shed any further tears. “Go, Jared. Please stay with Xena. I’m afraid for her.”
Jared shook his head. “It’s too late. As I said, I stand by the Conqueror. Xena is nowhere to be found.” He turned his back to Gabrielle and left the room.
Alem stepped forward.
“May I change to my traveling clothes?” asked Gabrielle.
The Guardsman nodded his head.
For a moment Gabrielle observed her brother’s noble carriage. She was grateful that she was with a Guardsman and not a regular soldier. Guardsmen were trained to maintain a soldier’s emotional distance in the face of devastating misfortune. These were the worst of times. She could not imagine a more painful detail than escorting a loved one to her death. “Alem,” she said gently. “Thank you.”
Alem swallowed hard as Gabrielle removed herself to the bedroom.
Gabrielle sat up on the pallet in her Athenian jail cell. Three days had passed with contact only from her assigned First Army guards. Hearing the sound of footsteps and muted voices she looked over to her cell door. It was too early for evening meal. Someone was coming to her. She braced herself for the encounter.
The door was unlocked. Jared entered and then closed the door behind him. “Lass.”
Gabrielle was relieved to see a familiar face. “Jared.”
“Have you been treated well?” asked the General.
Jared took a chair and placed it close to Gabrielle’s pallet before sitting down. “We must talk, you and I. The fighting is done. We suffered few loses. I can’t say the same about the Athenian militia. What can you tell me of Kartis’ associates?”
“I can give you a list of the men I met with.”
“Good. I will have supplies brought to you so that you can write them down. Is there anything else you can tell me that will help us get this city back in order?”
“Sarah, the daughter of Lord Eurius was Kartis’ lover.”
“So I’ve been told. Is that it?”
“All right then.” The General stood up.
Gabrielle had expected a longer and more personal interview. She was disappointed by the Jared’s military comportment. “Jared, how is Xena?”
Jared held himself stiffly. “I’m a general in the Conqueror’s army. I no longer keep company with the Xena I love.”
“You can’t let her shut herself away from the world,” pleaded Gabrielle.
“Let her?” said Jared, his voice rising with emotion. “Do you think I have a choice? Stephen and I have both tried to reach her. She is an angry woman. Her eyes are cold and distant. Her orders are exact and not to be argued with.” He sighed, his passion dissipating as he exhaled. “There is a great deal of hurt behind her anger.”
“With time…” said Gabrielle hopefully.
“Maybe an eternity.” Jared ran a hand through his hair. “I never thought a day such as this would ever come.” He regarded Gabrielle thoughtfully. “Lass, we are alone. You can explain yourself without fear of being overheard.”
“Jared, I can’t justify my actions.”
“Lass, what do you expect Xena to do?”
“Now, I don’t know. I expected her to defend her honor and kill me along with Kartis.”
“You wished that for her? For yourself?”
“Wish for? No, Jared. What I wish for is Xena’s mercy.” As improbable as it would seem, having been spared, Gabrielle’s faith in Xena’s steadfast love and capacity for forgiveness had taken residence in her heart. Gabrielle embraced her hope, having nothing else to commend enduring another candlemark of life.
Jared stared at Gabrielle incredulously. “Do you believe she will forgive you without being given an explanation? Gabrielle, you betrayed Xena, your brothers, Greece. You left no stone unturned in destroying all that I thought you held dear. You don’t ask for much.”
The General’s words were crushing. Before Gabrielle stood the man who had always been more than a friend to her. He had been her self-appointed guardian. He had safeguarded her even when she doubted her place in Corinth. She feared there could be no reconciliation between them. “Jared. What of you and I?”
Jared seemed very much at a loss. “I want to understand why you insist on being a stranger to me.”
“I’m sorry.” Feeling helpless, a tear traced down Gabrielle’s cheek.
“Gabrielle, I love you,” said Jared agonizingly. “But, I also love Xena. You’ve left me no choice. I stand by her.”
Gabrielle felt the void a soul enters when the totality of its aloneness can no longer be denied. She had known that terrible place during her slavery. “Jared. Give me your dagger. I swear to you that its sole use will be to end Xena’s torment. She will not have to sentence me.”
“No,” said the General decisively. “You will face her in Court. You will answer her questions and absolve her of any inferred responsibility for your treason. Only then will I consent to hand you over to Hades.”
Gabrielle bowed her head. “I understand.”
Jared walked to the cell door. “Gabrielle, think twice before you speak in Court. I doubt you can save your life. You might still be able to save Xena from the torment of your betrayal.”
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