by Nene Adams ©1998 - All rights reserved
NOTE: This story takes a second look at the events described in The Beauty in the Beast, this time from Gabrielle's point of view. At last, you'll learn how she came to visit the warlord Xena - and why.
Xena looked at the scroll in her hand, then down at the lifeless face of the only person in the entire universe she considered her friend. No, more than a friend... Gabrielle was lover, best friend, confidante and younger sister rolled into one.
The warrior clenched her jaw, fighting back tears, then said to the waiting priest, ''How long's she been like this?''
He cocked his head to one side and regarded Xena, taking note of the expression of concern and sorrow she could not hide, then replied, ''A market interval since she was brought to us. Some of the villagers found her in the forest; her condition hasn't changed. She still remains unconscious, although we have not found any mark of injury on her at all. As for poison: it is possible she ingested some substance, but again, we know of no herb or drug that would cause such symptoms without inflicting eventual death. The scroll we found in her hand; we have not touched it, as it was addressed to you.''
Xena took a deep breath, one slightly trembling hand reaching out to touch Gabrielle's cheek; she might as well have been stroking a marble statue. The flesh beneath her fingers was so cold... ''Leave us,'' she said abruptly, and waited until the old priest shuffled away, closing the door behind him.
Blinking back tears, she unrolled the scroll and began to read her bard's words.
When I woke up that morning you were gone.
I searched the campsite, but not a trace remained. It wasn't like you'd packed up and fled in the night; there was absolutely no sign that you'd been there at all. No footprints, no fragments of food, not even a single broken branch or horse dropping from where you'd had Argo tied up the night before. It was as if you didn't exist at all.
That's when Artemis appeared.
She told me that somehow, Ares had managed to change time. Or rather, to go back in time and alter possibilities. The Xena I knew never existed, had never become friend and more to me. Succeeding in killing Hercules, the Xena of this strange time in which I found myself had pretty much conquered the known world, like a female Alexander. But unlike the Macedonian general, she hadn't died in Babylon on the eve of her greatest triumph. In this world, Xena had become the head of a mighty empire that stretched from Greece to the Indus Ocean, and even farther.
And Artemis said it was up to me to put things right. The other gods, although they knew of the alteration, refused to interfere further; a mortal would have to put the world, and history, back on its proper course.
When She told me the only way to do this was to use a certain jewel which the Empress kept in her bedchambers, I nearly wept with frustration and fear. But soon I steeled myself to doing what had to be done; the fate of the world rested in my hands... and if I ever wanted to get back the Xena that I loved with all my heart and soul, I would have to somehow find the courage to face a Xena unchanged by remorse and guilt; a Xena consumed by blood and fire - in short, my worst nightmare.
With Artemis to guide me, I found the way to a bustling city, and following Her advice, I quickly sold myself to a slave dealer. The Empress' factors always attended the slave auctions, looking for pretty and/or gifted girls to grace Empress Xena's harem. After exhibiting my storytelling skills, I found myself in a litter with half a dozen other girls, on the way to the capital of the empire.
The Empress' harem contained literally hundreds of other women; the current favorite was an Egyptian dancer named Sajet. There was a deadly atmosphere about the place, one of intrigue and sudden death. These women competed for Empress Xena's attentions the way they would a king's - and I was but one of many.
I'd been there for a week before the eunuchs announced that the Empress would be coming that night to inspect the harem. The other girls hurried to prepare themselves, fighting over outfits and jewels. But I elected to remain in my brief Amazon garb, much to our keeper's disgust.
When the Empress swept in, accompanied by her guards, my heart stopped. This was a Xena who was familiar, possessing the same effortless aura of command, but in appearance she had changed so much I felt like weeping.
Years of good and riotous living had placed a layer of fat over her muscles; her face was lined with care, and her eyes puffy and bloodshot. I'd heard that she drank and sometimes used drugs - apparently Egyptian poppy was a favorite - but I'd never expected this.
Much to my surprise, she chose me out of all the other women lined up for her inspection. Sajet gave me an ugly look as we passed by, but I knew that somehow, in some way, Empress Xena recognized me, and our souls communicated that recognition.
The first night, I told her stories of you, MY Xena - vhanging the names, of course. She was thrilled and hung on my every word. Nothing else was ever asked of me; she never laid a finger on me except to stroke my hair or feed me a bit of fruit. When I was finished, she fell asleep, holding me in her arms as if I were a doll.
And thus began my existance as the Empress' favorite.
My duties became clear after a few days. I looked after the Empress' private needs; told her stories when she was bored; and allowed her to pamper me like a beloved spoiled pet. Despite the cruel things I'd heard about her, she never once offered me violence. I soon learned that many of her more sadistic impulses had worn away with time, although I'd heard tales about her excesses in her younger days that would make a strong man shudder and soil his loincloth in fear.
At night, when she fell asleep, I searched for the gem Artemis had told me about. The Empress' bedchamber was huge and ornate, filled with the detrius of a lifetime of conquering and subduing other nations, and it took me a long time to find what I was looking for. Then, finally, after nearly two moons, I found it. An enormous yellow diamond called the Titan's Tear.
Using the incantations the goddess had taught me, I opened the Gate within the gem and found myself projected into the past. It was frustrating to learn that while I could communicate with the younger you, I couldn't affect anything physically. On the other hand, considering that you tried to ram a sword through my belly the first time I appeared, I was probably better off.
It was hard and very draining on my strength. Artemis had warned me that the gem would sap my life's energy; too much usage would kill me. But I was determined that I would continue traveling through the Gate until I'd convinced you to make the right choice, take the correct path, and become the Xena that I loved.
I grew steadily weaker as the days passed; the Empress, concerned, summoned her personal physicians to attend me. They were baffled, of course, about my illness; nobody, including the Empress, knew about the unique properties of the Titan's Tear, stolen who knew how many years ago from some obscure temple in Thrace.
On the seventh night, I was so weak I could barely crawl out of bed. The Empress had dismissed the physicians and attended to me with her own hands. But she soon fell asleep, and I knew I had strength for only one more attempt. After that, if I failed, I would be dead, but I didn't care. I had to keep on trying.
I didn't expect the Empress to awaken, but she did. She caught me in the middle of the opening incantation, and I had to stop.
She insisted I tell her what was happening, so I did. I truly didn't have the strength or willpower to resist her. I was weeping when I finished. And that's when she surprised me.
Instead of calling her guards and having me arrested for treason, or killing me herself, as I'd half expected, she just nodded. She told me that she knew I'd been sent there for some deep purpose, and had from the first moment she'd seen me. The Empress called me a gift from the gods, a precious treasure. I looked into her eyes, so like your own, and saw the love there, brimming over from her soul. I cried again, because the truth was, Xena, that I'd grown to love the Empress as well. But I had no choice; I had to heal the breach in time that Ares had wrought, and while I'd get you back, the Empress would be dead.
I was truly caught between Scylla and Charybdis.
I was so weak, so confused... and she made the decision for me. She put the gem back in my hands and told me to finish it. And for the first and last time, she kissed me, so sweetly and tenderly - my heart nearly broke.
I used the gem a final time, and when I was dragged back through the Gate and into the world, I knew, somehow, that I'd succeeded. I quickly sat down and wrote this scroll with the last of my strength, feeling the darkness of oblivion creeping up on me.
I love you, Xena. For all time, now and forever.
Xena let the scroll roll back up and wiped her face with her hand.
She looked down at Gabrielle again. So small, so fragile, seemingly weak... but with a soul of steel and more courage than any hundred warriors.
Xena felt the tears flowing again. She set the scroll aside and buried her face in her hands, giving in to the sorrow, the pain, the guilt that lashed her like a fiery scourge.
And in her darkest moment, when blackest despair consumed her utterly, and the only solace she had was the thought of falling on her sword - a small, hoarse voice said, ''Xena?''
The warrior looked up, face wet, eyes wide.
And saw Gabrielle looking back at her. Alive.
The old priest walked into the room - then turned with a grin and started to walk out again.
As he left, he coughed discreetly and said over his shoulder, ''When you're finished, ladies, the room's needed for other patients.''
A muffled snort was his only reply.
And the world spun in its proper place, everything in its season, time turning down the path of redemption and love... as it should.
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