For disclaimers see Part1
Chapter Ten: Aftermath - revisited
Short of half a candlemark later, Xena was standing in front of the hut. The sun was almost down but there still was enough light to comfortably see. The tall woman, however, was holding a burning torch, anticipating the coming night and the probably already dim light inside of the hut. Solari and Ephiny were standing next to her. They had taken it upon themselves to close the door behind her and keep watch during the night should their help be needed. Xena found these security measures more than exaggerated but had resigned herself to the fact that an Amazon Princess needed a Royal Guard. She also was confident that they only would act when they heard the warrior's signal. She didn't know what to expect but she was sure that this night they wouldn't hear the hunting hawk's cry.
She opened the door, ready for anything, violence, screaming, a chair smashed on her head. But she wasn't prepared for what really greeted her: Gabrielle was slumped in the far corner of the hut, sobbing. Xena stuck the torch in one of the holders and hurried around the bed. She knelt next to Gabrielle, ready to comfort her and take her in her arms.
"Don't touch me!"
Xena looked at the devastated blonde; her mind was running a league a heartbeat. She was well aware of the fact that whatever she said or did would set the pace for their future. Simply staying away from her and waiting for it to run its course; taking over and drowning her blood lust in affection; forcing the younger woman to give in to her own demands; throwing her on the bed and restraining her until it was over.
None of these options was really convincing; so, Xena acted on her heart's desire. She sat down next to her. Candledrops passed in silence. Waves of energy emanated from the younger woman but even this close to her Xena was unable to determine if they were due to hurt or anger or desperation or simply the need to kill. There still was no reaction. Her heart was bleeding.
Without giving the impression of moving she had Gabrielle on her lap. She held both of her legs with one arm and had a hand around her wrists. The younger woman tried to free herself but Xena held on tight, all the time whispering reassurances and terms of endearment. Gabrielle still was struggling. She was pleading with Xena to let her go.
"I love you, Gab. I love you too much to let you go. Stay with me. I need you. You're the air that I breathe. You're the ground I walk on. Stay with me. Don't let this feeling win. Please."
Xena's half whispered, half breathed words finally were effective. "I'll hurt you, Xe."
"I love you, Gabrielle. I can stand it. Trust me. Do what you need to do. I'm yours."
The blonde still was cradled in the warrior's arms, tears running down her face -- and something akin to triumph in her eyes. Xena was puzzled, and even her abundant experiences with battle lust and bloodthirsty soldiers hadn't prepared her for a situation like this. How could someone possibly be dominating and at the same time be begging for attention?
Xena fell silent, letting the tears of her lover run their course. This was something entirely new to her, and it was hard to resist the temptation of simply taking over. She shuddered at the thought of what would have happened had she herself also been in the grab of battle lust and sent a silent 'thank you' to the two goddesses. Finally Gabrielle's tears subsided. She squirmed in Xena's arms, breaking the warrior's hold on her wrists with a sudden pull. She knelt in front of her still seated lover.
"I'll hurt you." This time her voice held no desperation, it was more a statement of facts.
"I love you, Gabrielle, and I'll do whatever it takes to help you to get through this. I know it's frightening; just do what your heart and your body need you to do. I'll be with you, all the way."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, my love."
Based on her own experiences, Xena was sure that she would be dominated by her smaller lover like she had been two nights prior. Considering the state she was obviously in the warrior also expected to be treated rather roughly. And at first it seemed as if she had been right.
Gabrielle ordered Xena to strip and wait for her on the bed, on her hands and knees. A blindfold was fastened around her head. Relying on her hearing only, the tall woman pictured in her mind's eye what Gabrielle was doing. She heard fabric falling to the floor and boots hitting the ground. The hiss of another torch catching fire. A fire was lit in the fire place. She smelled candles to the left and the right of her head. Rummaging in their saddle bags.
She was prepared when the mattress gave way behind her. She knew Gabrielle was getting ready to penetrate her. The thought alone made her wet, to her utter surprise. She felt no need whatsoever to take over. Then there was the tip of the ivory phallus at her entrance. She consciously tried to relax her thigh and back muscles to offer better access. Her juices lubricated the toy. The blonde's hand were on her hips. The tip of the phallus touched her clitoris and at the same time Gabrielle's breasts were touching her back.
"Who do you belong to?" The voice was much deeper than usual.
"I belong to you, Gabrielle."
A menacing growl close to her right ear was all the warning she got. One hand left her hip and tightly squeezed her nipple. The movement wasn't intended to caress or arouse but to hurt -- and hurt it did, to the point that she couldn't keep from groaning. This seemed to fuel the younger woman's passion. The second hand found the other nipple, adding her whole weight to Xena's back; squeezing and twisting, another groan. The hands were then closing around both globes, kneading them, replacing pain with pleasure.
"Who do you belong to, warrior?"
"I belong to you, mistress." She supposed that this was what Gabrielle wanted to hear but, strangely, it also was what she wanted to say.
"Yes, you're mine." The voice was even deeper now, with a sultry quality she never had heard before in her lover, increasing her excitement.
The newly proclaimed princess began to systematically lubricate the phallus. Xena knew what she was about to do and tried to relax further. The tip now was touching her sphincter, the hands once again gripping her hips, preparing to enter where no one ever had.
A tiny part of her had to admit that she was nervous and even afraid but the desire to help her lover predominated. Gabrielle was pressing down on her, she still tried to relax. But it wasn't any good. She unconsciously tensed.
Gabrielle reacted instantly. She scooted back to the foot rest, ready to curl up into a ball, a sound similar to the hauling of a wounded wolf coming from her throat. Xena turned quickly around and once again scooped the younger woman on her lap. She gently rocked her, waiting for the wailing to subside.
"Talk to me, my beloved." She whispered.
"I love you. I don't want to hurt you. I don't want to rape you. Please, don't make me."
"Follow your heart, my love." For a moment Xena was at a loss what her lover was talking about -- then she understood. "Follow your heart. Do what you need to do, not what you think you're expected to do. This night is for you -- and for you alone. I'm yours, Gabrielle."
There was a long period of silence. Xena concentrated on stroking her lover's hair and holding her tight. "What did you think about when they closed the door behind you?"
"You really heard that the door was closed from behind?"
"When you're a slave, you quickly learn to keep track of your surroundings. What did you think?"
"I don't know. I didn't know what to expect. I tried to anticipate what could happen but I wasn't prepared for your tears. -- No, that's not entirely true. I expected you to show violence, in one way or another. I expected you to act like most warriors do under similar circumstances. But now thinking more clearly I know it was a mistake. In fact, everyone has a different method to cope with the effects of battle lust. Meleager used to chop wood and Palemon shies away from the company of others. I should have given you more credit, my love."
"So, I don't have to…" Her eyes indicated the phallus still attached to her. "to rape you?"
"No, baby. Only if you really want to but I'd really appreciate it if you could first use your fingers to enlarge the opening. It would make things much easier for me." She answered with an attempt at humour. "This night is for you."
"Please take it off of me." The tall woman complied and threw the toy to the ground. "I don't want to hurt you but I want to control everything you do, every move you make, every breath you take. I want you to kiss me, every tiny part of my skin but don't touch my centre, my nipples or my mouth. Don't use your tongue, just your lips. -- And I don't want you to come without permission."
It progressed agonisingly slow and Xena was halfway through before she understood what the younger woman really needed. It should have been evident from the beginning. Gabrielle was a bard; her voice was her weapon of choice. So, Xena continued to pleasure her lover, finishing the first pass and starting all over when ordered to, this time using her tongue to her lover's benefit. Before being allowed to concentrate on the younger woman's breasts and nether region, Gabrielle had already reached two forceful climaxes.
At first the tall woman had a hard time to hold her own release off. Gabrielle was so beautiful, writhing in ecstasy but still in control, exhausting the restless energy of battle lust by gently dominating the other woman with her voice. The more Xena kept her mind on her lover the less she thought of her own need, like she had done at the beginning of their relationship. This, however, was different. It was more intense, more fulfilling. It simply was right.
The torches had long burned out and the last embers in the fire place were slowly dying when a sleepy voice said. "Please take me in your arms, just hold me." Xena changed position, putting Gabrielle's head on her shoulder and securing her in her arms. "I'll make it up to you, Xe."
"I love you, Gabrielle. Sleep well."
Xena woke to an inquisitive tongue sneaking in her ear, tracing the outline of the auricle and following her jaw line just to her chin. Mischievous green eyes looked up to her.
"Are you still mine, my warrior?"
"Always, Gabrielle, al…" A gentle kiss sealed her lips.
"It's my turn to give you pleasure. Grab the headrest, I don't want your hands to be in my way."
Xena's groan was cut short by another kiss and a tongue demanding entrance. Yesterday's arousal was back in force and she surrendered to the delicious torture she was sure was yet to come. Gabrielle easily read her body's signals and changed tactics. Her tongue left the mouth and quickly descended in a direct line to her lover's centre. She flicked the engorged clit and whispered just loud enough for Xena to hear. "Come for me, my love."
"Gabrielle!!!!" The shout of release echoed in the small room. Gabrielle continued her sucking and licking, quickly bringing her to the edge of another climax. She slowed her movements as if to gently bring her down, and entered the wet centre with two fingers, hitting a spot only she ever had been able to find and sending Xena over once again. Strong muscles were closing around her fingers and hand.
Her free hand went down to the other woman's feet, activating a pressure point at the ball of her right foot. Xena's hips jerked from the bed at the waves of energy suddenly coursing through her body, right to her centre, her heart running a mile a minute. Never before had she experienced an orgasm this forceful and breathtaking, leaving her panting. Xena's body shock with residual energy; Gabrielle undid the pressure point while still caressing her nether lips and clitoris. This time her movements were meant to calm down rather than to arouse.
A few candledrops later she licked her way back to the top, giving still erect nipples a gentle kiss, and snuggled back in her customary spot at Xena's shoulder. "Thank you for indulging my whims, my warrior."
Xena wasn't yet able to speak, so she simply turned her head and kissed the blonde head. When no other reaction was forthcoming Gabrielle asked. "Are you all right, my love? You can let go of the bars if you want to, you know?"
The taller woman slightly turned around, facing her lover and taking her gently in her arms. "I didn't even think about it." She said with a lopsided grin that took years off her face. "It was incredible, Gabrielle, thank you. You can take control in our bedroom whenever you want. This and what you did a couple of nights ago… I never before felt so loved, so fulfilled, so safe. I love you."
A few heartbeats later, Morpheus claimed them both, the last days' extreme physical and mental demands finally taking their toll. The door was opened two candlemarks after dawn to the two Amazon warrior's bringing a well filled breakfast tray.
"Time to get up, sleepyheads. There's a lot of work to do. Your mother and Anara need help at the infirmary. The scouts should be back in about two candlemarks and the Centaurs want a council session to decide on the prisoners."
"Take it easy, Solari. We'll be there in a about a candlemark. The prisoners are securely locked away and the council session can wait 'til we have news from the scouts."
Anara, Cyrene, the Centaur healer, and Akyra made for a very efficient team when Xena and Gabrielle entered the overflowing infirmary one and a half candlemark later. The better part of the patients had enough sense to let them simply do their job but a few were complaining, with raised voices. None of her men but some from the village, two of Queen Melosa's Amazons, three belonging to Regent Calliope, a couple of Centaurs, and Terreis.
Xena's hunting hawk's cry got their attention. "Shut up, all of you. You're here because you were wounded. The healers will let you go as soon as they think that you are able to resume light duty. A soldier's duty is not only to fight, it's also to do everything he or she can to get well again. Injured, wounded or ill you become a reliability to your comrades and companions. You're here because it's your duty to be here, so by the Gods, don't be stupid and obey the healers! Did I make myself clear?"
Murmurs and nods were the only answers but the noise level in the room had dropped considerably. Xena knelt next to Terreis' cot. "How do you feel?"
"I'm fine. My leg is fine. I want to get out of here. I have children to care about and the scouts to run." The younger woman said with a pout.
"I was told you treated her, mother. How is she?"
"A mule head with not enough sense the Gods gave a hedgehog." Xena's left eyebrow arched towards her hairline. "It seems she had someone holding their hands over her. The wound is slowly closing and there's no sign of infection but we can't be absolutely sure just yet. There's still a risk. I was told that you're an accomplished healer yourself. Have a look, it's time to change the bandages anyway."
And so she did. "Thank you, mother, you very possibly saved her life. -- You really were damned lucky, Terry. I know you are anxious to get out of here but your children are taken care of and Solari is in charge of the scouts. Your duty now is to heal.
"You not only lost a lot of blood but also flesh and muscles due to the acid on the spear head. In order to get your strength in this leg back, you have a long road of recovery before you. So, please, don't make it more difficult than it has to be. Besides, you're supposed to be an example for your fellow Amazons, Princess."
"All right, General, you win." Terreis answered, still pouting. "I heard you gave all of them a scare when you got knocked off your horse yesterday."
"A mace. Hit me pretty hard. I guess I was out for a little while but Gabrielle and the others kept me safe. When I finally came to it was almost over, all that was left to do was to take care of their leader. I did. End of story."
"There really is no doubt who's the storyteller, my warrior." Gabrielle said with an indulgent smile while trying to keep the sensation at bay that her stubborn lover had something to hide. "I recall a one-woman-thunder-storm cutting a path through the enemy line, going down, and then fighting off a man half again as big as she is with an ease as if he were a first time apprentice. Give me a few days to speak with the warriors and craftsmen that were with her at dragon's pass and you'll get the whole story, Princess Terreis."
"You're the Princess now, Gabrielle. I gave my right of caste to you and there only can be one heir to the throne at a time. It can't be given back, so, I fear, you're stuck with the job." The injured woman answered.
"You're not dead. Of course it can be given back. This is too great a responsibility."
"Gabrielle, lets go for a walk. There's a lot we have to talk about, better do it now than later." Queen Melosa interrupted the young woman's protests. "Xena, please come with us."
They walked to the river in silence. "Terreis is right, you know. The right of caste can only be given away in a life-or-dead-situation -- and it can't be given back. Terreis only will be a princess in name from now on. For every Amazon in our camp and soon for the entire Amazon nation you are my heir. They will be glad that I once again have someone to follow me. It will give the nation more stability.
"Terreis was always very direct in her dealings with others but we now live in a time when the destiny of the Amazon nation is as much in the hands of diplomats, of talkers than in the hands of warriors. And you, Gabrielle, are a bit of both. Amazon law gives me the right to challenge my sisters choice by challenging you. But I'm not stupid enough to entertain such ideas, aside from the fact that Xena certainly would name herself your champion and kick my ass.
"Terreis' choice was wise. I'm convinced that you will be good for the nation. A lot of my younger sisters already seek your advice on a personal level. It will be easy for them to also obey your orders, and the children simply adore you.
"There's another point: I had some time to reacquaint myself with my younger sister and though she always will be an Amazon at heart, her life now is with the Centaurs, with Phantes and her son and her daughters. Now, that we know she is alive she will visit once and again but that's it."
"Her daughters should be your heirs, Queen Melosa. I'm not even an Amazon."
"When they are old enough, after their initiation into the tribe, they have the right to claim their mother's place in the tribe -- and I have no doubt that they won't have to fight you to get it. But an Amazon only becomes a real member of the Nation after her second apprenticeship, usually around her eighteenth summer. And it's totally up to them, they, one of them or both could choose not to contest you or your reign."
"I'm not an Amazon, Queen Melosa. No apprenticeships, no weapons' training, no initiation. I'm not an Amazon." Gabrielle proclaimed forcefully.
"You are an Amazon, Princess Gabrielle, always have been and always will be. -- It's your turn, Xena." The Queen said and walked away.
Gabrielle looked at her lover with wide eyes and judging from the set of her jaw ready to explode. Not able to think of a diplomatic way to tell her lover, Xena decided to stick to the blunt truth. "You are an Amazon, Gabrielle, by birth. The mark you have at your thigh, it's not a birth mark. It's a branding, the mark of Amazon royalty. There are only two ways to get it. When you take the Queen's mask or are officially named heir to the throne. It then is done in a big ceremony during the coronation. But it is also given to every female child born to the Queen of the Amazons, just a few days after the birth during the naming ceremony. You are an Amazon princess, not just now, you always were."
Silence settled between them and Gabrielle's body language told the warrior enough to know that her revelations didn't sit well with her. She contemplated saying more but when she opened her mouth, the younger woman's face tensed even more and she prudently swallowed her words, waiting for her to process the information.
"Did we go to the Amazons so you could get rid of me, Xena? These last moons, were they a lie?"
Xena was shocked beyond speech by Gabrielle's imputations.
"Answer. I have to know and I won't bother you any longer with my presence." She turned to go.
"Please, don't go. I love you, Gabrielle. I don't want to get rid of you and I never wanted to. I love you. I can't imagine living without you." The blonde had not turned back yet. "We went to the Amazons to clear up the mess with my frontier fort having been attacked allegedly by them. I knew it would take at least two moons to make the journey, get to the truth of the matter, and come back to Corinth and I didn't want to be without you this long. That's why I wanted you at my side. I also wanted you to get to know your people but I never intended to leave you with them. You're far too precious to me, my love. I can't imagine my life without you."
Gabrielle finally turned around. Tears were running down her face. Xena opened her arms and two steps later closed them around her distraught lover. Part of Xena was convinced that her insecurities were some sort of strange after-effect of the blood lust; part of her was saddened that her partner still didn't fully believe in the strength of their love, no, in her love. "Please believe me. I love you." She whispered repeatedly.
It took a long time but finally she felt the younger woman relaxing in her embrace. She let herself sink to the ground, still cradling her. Gabrielle's right hand slowly began to stroke her back and she felt her own tension and stress pouring from her body. The other hand gently held her cheek and she found herself face to face with mesmerising green eyes.
"Why didn't you ever tell me?"
Xena struggled for a heartbeat with herself but then her love won out over her pride. "I could give you a lot of sensible reasons for not telling you. At the palace it simply wasn't important for your life. During the first few quarter moons with the Amazons, I thought that Queen Melosa would tell you after my death in order to make you stay. But these are nothing but pale excuses.
"The truth is: I didn't tell you because I was afraid of losing you. I was afraid that you no longer would need me if you knew, that you would find someone more worthy of your love amongst your Amazon sisters. I was terri…"
Gabrielle silenced her with a kiss, long and passionate, and leaving her breathless. "I think I understand, my love. But you won't get rid of me this easily. I would have followed you to Tartarus and beyond. I don't know why I was so insecure. Please forgive me for hurting you."
"There's nothing to forgive as long as we end up in each others arms." Xena answered and returned the searing kiss.
When they once again stopped to breathe, Xena saw one of her veterans in her peripheral vision, obviously uncomfortable with whatever task he had to accomplish. Gabrielle easily read the look in her eyes.
"Yes, my love. I'm sorry. He looks as if he were standing barefooted on glowing embers."
"Then you should end his pains by talking to him, my big bad warrior." Gabrielle said with a chuckle but made no attempt to leave Xena's arms.
The seated warrior motioned for the man to come closer. "General, there is a problem with the enemy's dead. There are too many of them."
Xena was so surprised that she forgot to admonish the soldier for calling her 'general'. "Too many? Are you sure?"
"Yes, General. Too many. According to the scouts, at the beginning our opponent had about 500 to 520 men. The Centaur leader said that you killed one to one a half score while freeing the children. Close to 220 died during the first battle together with Dagnine. We have three scores of prisoners and another score of wounded in custody. All in all there should have been no more than 200 corpses at the battlefield. We're not finished with cleaning up the back walls of the fortification but the count is already up to 350."
Having lived through Xena's mercurial temper during the year after her victory over Rome, experience told the seasoned soldier that his general now would go and have a field day with the scouts for having neglected to tell them about reinforcements this substantial. He really didn't want to be in their skin then. But before she had the chance to say anything, Gabrielle asked. "How many did we loose?"
"Surprisingly few. With the fatalties from the first battle, all in all 63 dead and 156 wounded. About half of them are still in the infirmary. We were lucky."
"Uriah, I want a full report ready for the council as soon as you and the funeral detail have finished. The council session will be held as soon as the scouts are back. Tell Tyldus I want the perimeter watch extended beyond the first battlefield, and have Palemon interrogate some of our prisoners. I want some answers. And Uriah, tell the Amazon guards protecting Princess Gabrielle that we don't want to be disturbed until the scouts are back."
"Yes, General." This time she arched an eyebrow at him. "May I speak freely?" She simply nodded. "It's good to have you back, Xena."
"Thank you, my friend." The man bowed slightly.
"What was he talking about, Xena?"
The tall woman sighed but with a smile. "Uriah is with me since I went to conquer Corinth. He was the leader of a village militia. My army helped them to get rid of a petty warlord pestering the whole region. He joined my army as a simply foot soldier but he was one of the first I promoted to the First Order, together with Palemon and Meleager. He knows me very well, and after the Roman Campaign I wasn't easy to live with. I lost my temper at the drop of a stalk of straw and it's only thanks to you that I once again became more level headed, my love."
"Would you really have taken the scouts' heads for not telling you about the enemy's reinforcements?"
"I would have been tempted to but I wouldn't have done it. My scouts are good, very good, the same goes for the Amazons. So, there must be a reason why they didn't send word. I'll wait what they'll have to tell. But it's true, I would have made their lives miserable, regardless of the reason. So, you see, I need you to keep me balanced."
"I think you largely overestimate my powers, my love."
"Oh no, I don't." Xena lowly growled close to the younger woman's ear.
"Oh yes, you do! But I don't want to argue. Take me to the bathing area. I want to give you a nice, long, thorough sponge bath."
"What would you think of a nice, hot, mineral bath? There's a hot spring not far from here."
Though Xena felt slightly guilty for leaving all the heavy work to the others, she was reluctant to let Gabrielle out of her eyes. The younger woman's insecurities were still in the back of her mind and seemed to somehow have infected her. She just felt the overwhelming need to touch her and hold her in her arms and stroke her hair. What better excuse to do all this then taking a bath?! And Gabrielle seemed to be fuelled by the same desire.
A couple of candlemarks later they were lying on a flat, sun soaked stone at the edge of a pool. Xena's hand was idly retracing the scar at Gabrielle's shoulder, remnant from the spear head that had almost taken her life about a season ago. Out of nowhere, tears were streaming down her cheeks and she whispered.
"I never want to lose you."
"I'll always be with you, Xena, my love. You always tell me that I am your heart and your soul but you also are my heart and my soul. I belong to you. Please stop crying. I love you."
Xena smiled through her silent tears and instinctively snuggled closer to her lover, burying her head at Gabrielle's shoulder in a reversal of their usual position.
"Yesterday, I was so afraid of losing you. I saw your eyes while you were fighting, sitting on the back of this Centaur with nothing to protect you but this spear and your courage. I saw your eyes and I was afraid that my sweet and gentle bard was gone forever but in the night you came back to me and I never want to lose you again." She finally said, her voice only barely above a whisper.
"I'll always come back to you, my love, even if it means crossing all of the world, Tartarus, and the Elysian Fields to do so. I can't live without you. There's nothing to be afraid of." The blonde answered also in a whisper.
Xena's lips kissed the side of her left breast, and oblivious to the fact that they were out in the open and about a half dozen Amazon guards were hidden at a distance they made love. Slow and gentle, and once again not only their bodies fit perfectly but also their minds joined. They could feel the other's love like their own, binding them together with a thick rope made of simmering light, connecting their souls irrevocably.
The feeling had been so intense that they were left in silent wonder for quarter candlemarks afterwards.
"I love you, my warrior." Gabrielle finally found her voice, once again nestled in her usual spot at Xena's left shoulder.
"I love you, my bard." Xena answered. She fell silent for a couple of heartbeats and then continued to speak. "I had a weird dream while I was unconscious, yesterday."
Of course the younger woman wanted to know all about it and so Xena told her about finding herself in Hades' hall of justice and Ares' claiming her soul, about Athena and Artemis trying to help her and her fight with the God of War, about what Athena had said of owing her mother and Artemis of Gabrielle one day becoming her Chosen.
"Perhaps you should tell your mother about this dream. If it was a dream."
"Gabrielle, be sensible. I'm only mortal. I wouldn't stand a chance against the God of War."
"I'm not so sure about this, my love. I always knew that you're the best there is. And you're a great fighter." The blonde said with an enigmatic smile and twinkling green eyes, deliberately making light of something that should have given her reason to wonder about her lover, at least -- because part of her was more than certain that it hadn't been a dream.
"Gabrielle, this is nothing to joke about." Xena tried to remain serious but her lover's facial expression was too tempting and when the blonde's stomach suddenly made its presence know she couldn't help but laugh. She turned her head towards the sun. "Come on, love, it's three candlemarks after noon. Time to feed the monster."
The day passed without any incident but also without any sign of the scouts. Solari proposed to send another group after them but Xena decided to wait 'til the next morning. As it turned out they didn't have to wait this long. One or two candlemark after midnight Xena was roused from sleep by insistent knocking at their door.
"Two of the scouts are coming in. The council is assembling as we speak."
"I'm on my way, Duinos." Xena yelled through the still closed door.
"Queen Melosa insists that the Princess takes part, too."
"We'll be there."
Gabrielle needed a few candledrops to find her wits but they arrived at the same time as the two totally exhausted scouts. The council room was full and everyone was asking questions at the same time. Once again Xena used the hunting hawk's cry to get everyone's attention. "First of all, do you need immediate medical attention?"
"No, Xena. It's nothing serious. We were lucky." Silea answered.
"Okay. Then let's cut straight to the bone. The new army, how big is it?"
"One hundred and fifty foot soldiers and five officers on horse back. They're on their way here and will reach the first battlefield tomorrow early afternoon. They have Roman weapons but are not very well trained. I saw them marching. I presume that they know the basics but once their formation is broken they won't easily be able to regroup." The young Amazon answered.
The council was shocked into silence, having been convinced that the war already had been won. Xena saw no other choice than to once again take charge. "Tyldus, Queen Melosa, I want every able bodied soldier ready to march out at mid-morning. We'll confront them at the first battlefield. Make sure to bring the catapult. This and the archers should be enough to break their formation. There still are a few candlemarks left until dawn, try to get some sleep." The determined tone of the voice didn't leave any room for discussions.
Xena turned her attention back to the two young women. "And now, tell me what happened. As far as I remember I told you to return to the village, get some sleep and help with the defense, didn't I?"
"Yes, General." Silea tried to stand at attention but failed miserably due to a couple of banged up ribs.
"It was my fault, General Xena. I was too restless to sleep and volunteered to take over for one of the scouts. Silea offered to go with me. We found three of the scouts dead and followed the trail of four horses, rapidly moving away from the encampment of the enemy. We found this other army, stole some horses and hurried here."
"You did good, both of you. I leave it to your commanding officers to deal with your disobedience. Now, go to the infirmary and get treated. You are off duty for the next two days."
"There's more, Xena. We saw slaves at their camp, female slaves, about twenty of them, tethered to the ground with manacles and chains like some animal. I think that some of them are Amazons." Silea's words were met with stunned silence.
"Silea, Carani, I revoke my earlier order. I want you to choose thirty of your Amazon sisters and ride out at first light. You will lead the rescue party. Make sure that all the guards are taken care of before you enter the camp. Take enough horses. And now go and get some rest. You'll need it."
"Xena, I'll go with them." Raneria said.
"Permission granted, weapons' master." The young women and Regent Calliope's bondmate left the room and all eyes returned to tall warrior.
"Xena, how did you know that there would be another army?" Gabrielle asked the question everone else was wondering about.
"When Uriah told me that there were more dead bodies than there should have been, it was only logical to expect a third army, held back to take over the moping up after the others were victorious. Plus it was standard procedure with the Roman army. Attack from two sides and then bring in fresh troups when the enemy is already totally exhausted. It was one of Caesar's specialties to always send two waves of reinforcements. I feared something like this would happen since I saw their leader wielding a Roman short sword and heard one of his men at the pass mention the name of Mars. He also used one of Caesar's most beloved sayings: Divide and conquer."
Neither Tyldus nor Queen Melosa said out loud what Xena knew to be the truth. The quest for the Ixion stone, Dagnine's self centered madness, the planned destruction of the Centaur nation, everything had been nothing but a first step in destroying the one person this Hawk and his followers held responsible for the fall of Rome and the death of Caesar, Xena, the Conqueror. But she herself knew that she was responsible for the death of 63 good men and women, it was her fault just as if she had murdered them with her own sword.
The tall warrior knew that she had to get these thoughts out of her head in order to effectively lead the rest of their army against the enemy but it was no good. Not even the peacefully sleeping form of Gabrielle in her arms brought the solace necessary. Only in the first candlemarks of dawn she fell asleep to another strange dream that let her change her battle strategy.
The next morning, instead of giving Gabrielle a kiss and leaving her behind Xena mounted Argo and extended her right arm towards the surprised blonde, lifting her easily behind her in the saddle. "I want you at my side, my love." She whispered while protectively cradling the younger woman's small hands snugged around her waist in one of her own.
Her party consisted of Queen Melosa, Regent Calliope, Tyldus, Kaleipus, and about seven scores of fighters, quite a few of them having just recently left the infirmary. There also was a wagon with the catapult on it and another one filled with healing supplies driven by Xena's mother.
It had been quite an argument between the two of them earlier, an argument the daughter ultimatively lost when Cyrene categorically refused to stay behind lest Xena bodily forced her to. So, the Commander of the allied forces grumpily assigned three Amazon guards under Theano's command for her protection, a protection not received without complaints from the older woman.
They reached the battlefield shortly after midday and had just enough time to take their positions and get ready when they were informed of the enemy's approach.
The foot soldiers were the first to come into view, advancing at a steady pace. They held their shields in front of them and over their heads, thus presenting a classical turtle formation; their commanding officers on horseback right behind them. Xena felt the anticipation on both sides like waves of energy but she also could sense fear and desperation coming from the enemy. A few hand signals told Lattenis and his men to ready the catapult and two bird calls let the Amazons and other archers get their bows ready.
Xena dismounted Argo, told the others to stay behind, and slowly walked towards the advancing enemy as if she were out for a stroll through the woods; intimidation the order of the day. About sixty paces from the edge of the forest she stopped and surprisingly the impressive heap of gleaming metal also came to a halt. She signalled for the catapult and two heartbeats later a very big stone embedded itself inches away from the front row of enemy soldiers. The men instinctively jerked back, stumbling over the feet of the men behind them, thus creating big gaps in their protective shield.
"Archers show yourself!" To the left and the right of the men, arrow heads and crossbow bolts became visible. "The day before yesterday one of your leaders died on the battlefield -- together with 421 of your comrades. The army at the other side of Dragon Head's Pass was completely destroyed before even getting the chance to fight. We don't want to add your bodies to the pile of corpses. Throw away your weapons and surrender! Walk away from your leaders hiding behind your backs, leaders who don't have the courage the gods gave a baby rabbit."
Queen Melosa and the others chose this moment to leave the protection of the forest. They soon were standing next to Xena. "I am Melosa, Queen of the Greek Amazons. Our nation is proud and free," she said, pushing back her mask, all the while wondering why they didn't attack and why their leaders didn't interfere. "When challenged we fight back as one, cut one of us and we all bleed, cut one of us and we all will exact revenge. Amazons are a sisterhood and we stand here with our brothers, the Centaurs to defend our lives and our freedom."
"Walk away from this fight and surrender! There is no glory in getting slaugthered. When this is all over you are free to go where ever you want." Kaleipus added. He made for an impressive and fierce sight with his big sword easily resting against his shoulder like a toy and one eye hidden behind the leather protection.
Silence settled on the field, then a low murmur of voices came from the tattered turtle formation. One of the shields to Xena's left dropped to the ground, followed by a Roman short sword. The shield next to it also hit the ground, and the next, and the next. Soon the men were standing there, defenceless. Having expected Romans, even Xena was surprised at the strange mixture of Greek, Egyptian, Briton, and Norse faces presented to her. Suddenly she knew why it had been so easy to talk them out of fighting: they were slaves and now, with the influence of Ares' helmet gone they had taken the first chance to get their freedom back. That's also why the five men on horseback hadn't done anything to hinder them; they no longer had the means to keep them in line.
Xena told them to go to the left side and quietly sit down. Then she turned her attention towards the riders. She somersaulted over the pile of weapons and shields, the expression on her face reminicent of a predator stalking its prey. "How should we play this, boys? One after the other or all at once?"
As if her arrogant question had been an attack signal of sorts all five of them spurred their mounts and tried to run her to the ground. Xena's battle cry seemed to fill the field while she jumped at them and kicked two of her opponents out of their saddles. She touched the ground, bounced back in a flip and landed behind a third rider. One of her arms immobilised his shoulders, with the other she broke his neck. Falling down his foot got caught in the stirrup, the fourth horse stumbled trying to avoid this suddenly appearing obstacle and threw his rider.
Only one of them got past her and headed directly for Queen Melosa. He launched himself out of the saddle, a long, thin dagger at the ready. Before even Xena or anyone else could react the dark haired woman was pushed out of the way, landing ungently on the bare ground. The blade embedded itself in the palm of Eponin's left hand, exactly where only moments before the Queen's heart had been. Too enraged to think of her own weapons, the Amazon put all her power in a right hook.
Her opponent whose face was still hidden behind the front shield of his helmet sank to the ground. The weapons' master had to suppress a cry of pain when she drew the dagger out of her hand and pounched on the enemy. There was nothing left of the usually stoic and calm woman; her lips were drawn back in a snarl; her eyes were cold as ice.
The tip of the blade pointed at her opponent's heart. Her hand came down like a smith's hammer on an anvil. There was the sound of metal meeting metal; the weapon was redirected and pierched the other's shoulder, breaking the blade in the process. The rest of the dagger slipped towards the throat, cutting through the leather strap holding the helmet in place.
Eponin's eyes were fixed on the rapid throbbing of the jugular vein, blind for everything else. The only sound she was able to hear was the roaring of her blood in her ears. The flick of her wrist would have been enough, and she was ready to obey this call of darkness.
Suddenly she was pushed to the ground and on her back, the broken dagger still in her hand, the other one bleeding profusely. She looked into Queen Melosa's face without recognising her.
The strong leader of the Amazons needed all her strength to keep the other woman down. She bent forward and whispered in the weapons' master's ear. "Come back to me, my love. I need you, my Eponin."
"Melosa? Mel…, are you all right? The soldier, I have to kill him."
"Everything's all right. Turn your head, my love. Look at her."
"Her? A woman tried to kill you?"
"Yes, but you took good care of me. She's out for the count and will stand trial for what she did. Come with me. Your hand needs some attention."
Meanwhile Xena was standing alone against three opponents; she had a smile on her face. Two of them were attacking in concert while the third one held back obviously waiting for an opening. She could feel the battle lust rising in her blood and this time she really didn't want to give in to it. She sped up the movement of her weapon, making it impossible for the average fighter to even see the blade. One highly arched swing cut the throat of her first opponent and, descending, slashed through the chest of the second.
At the end of the arc the warrior woman seemed to freeze for a heartbeat, following with her peripheral vision how the corpses sank to the ground. The last one rushed to this opportunity, exploiting what from his point of view was an awkward and slightly off-balance position. He attacked from behind. Xena, however, having anticipated his move, bent her hips and upper body out of the way, thrust her blade backwards and pierced his heart, hearing the satisfying sound of metal penetrating metal and the unforgettable crunching and squishing of blood and bones.
She didn't even turn around to make sure that he really was dead. Instead, she walked back to the treeline from where a very anxious Amazon princess came running. Her sword hit the ground and she buried herself in her lover's arms; effectively chasing away the last temptation to let the blood lust win.
Chapter Eleven: Tentative First Steps
Melosa and Eponin left the battlefield as soon as Eponin's hand had been cleaned and bandaged. Cyrene wanted to keep her in the infirmary under observation for signs of infection but one look into the Amazon warrior's eyes made her reconsider. Tyldus and Regent Calliope saw to the preparations for the funeral pyres planned for the next evening while Solari and Phantes were responsible for the safe return of the army. Xena, Kaleipus, and Gabrielle in her still unfamiliar role as Amazon princess spoke to the disarmed slaves turned soldiers, trying to decide what to do with them.
They learned that Hawk and his younger brother who just had ended his life at the business end of Xena's sword had only recently purchased most of them. The young Roman nobles wanted to take revenge for the destruction of the Roman Empire by the Conqueror and for the death of Caesar. The Ixion stone solution should have made them invincible but they hadn't counted on the accuracy of the Amazon archers and the power of a mace wielded by a Centaur defending his home.
Only the riders with Dagnine's army had been regular soldiers. The army now buried under Xena's articifially created stone avalance had almost exclusively consisted of mercenaries. So, the better part of the dead from the big battle next to the Centaur village the other day had been slaves, driven to fight by the promise of freedom and the influence of Ares' helmet.
The survivors offered to see to the proper burial of their comrades and the other enemy soldiers. Most of them only had one wish: to return to their homeland as soon as possible. Kaleipus offered to give them enough provisions for at least a part of their journey and they gratefully accepted. They also vowed that they never again would raise their weapons against the Centaurs or Amazons.
Before any more details could be dealt with, Xena was called to the infirmary wagon where Cyrene was trying to treat the woman taken down by Eponin. She already had lost a lot of blood and still refused to stay still. "Why don't you just knock her out, mother?"
"The weapons' master wants her conscious."
"Eponin wasn't in her right mind. She was in the grip of battle lust; you saw her eyes, you should know. Let me get out of this bloody armour and I'll help." The tall woman quickly stripped out of her armour and battle dress, leaving her in a simple shift that surprisingly only enhanced her natural beauty. She washed the dirt and grime from her arms and face and entered the wagon. A short pinch and the woman sank in a deep sleep.
Cyrene insisted that Xena took over the treatment with the excuse of her having more experience with battle wounds. In truth she wanted to watch her daughter at work. She had been at once apalled and fascinated by the cool efficiency and economy of movement she had used to deal with her opponents, now she wanted to know if Xena made prove of the same efficiency when saving people instead of killing them.
She cleaned away the blood and pulled the blade out. It came out easily enough but the tip was also broken and still embedded in the shoulder blade. "Do you have tweezers?"
"Of course but none that are long enough for what I think you are trying to do, Xena."
The warrior stuck her head out of the wagon and whistled. Argo immediately was at her side and Xena took her medical pouch out of her saddlebag. With the help of her own instruments she removed the rest of the weapon, surprised to find it free from poison or acid. A bandage was put in place and she checked for other wounds, stripping the woman off her leathers in the process.
What she found made even her gasp in horror: there wasn't an inch of her upper body not covered with scars and welts still oozing blood with tiny bits of leather threatening to give her an infection. Only the woman's face was unmarred and she was young, too young to have already suffered such abuse.
She called for an Amazon runner to find out if the rescue party was already on its way and gave order to send another group of Amazons and a few female healers to help them.
Xena continued her inspection with the lower part of her body and not only found signs of repeated rape but also a phallus held in her vagina with chains and a steel belt around her waist. The belt had been forged on her and the chains were fastened with tiny padlocks. Opening the padlocks was easy, getting the phallus out proved to be more of a challenge. When she finally succeeded she held in her hands a wickedly ridged instrument of torture, guaranteed to cause great pain with every step and every breath she took.
The blue-eyed woman's breathing was even but every muscle in her body seemed ready to explode. "If I had known, they wouldn't have died this quickly." She whispered and continued to stare at the infernal thing.
Not even in her darkest times she would have been capable of this kind of cruelty.
Xena suddenly jumped out of the wagon, snatched her sword from the pile with her armour, and went back to the battlefield. She stood over the body of her former enemies. She looked at them with pure hatred in her eyes; her sword held high, ready to draw and quarter the corpses.
"Xena, don't!" It was Gabrielle's voice.
The weapon began to tremble in her hand and fell to the ground. She sank to her knees, tremors shocking her whole body. Finally, her stomach also rebelled and she vomited. She felt Gabrielle's arm around her shoulders, a soft piece of fabric wiping her face, comforting words whispered in her ear.
"It's over now. They will ever again hurt no one. It's over, come back to me."
"The men told us. They said that she was forced to attack the Queen. They threatened to kill the other women. She had no choice. They also said that she… she was Hawk's favourite victim. -- I'm glad that he's dead; he deserves to suffer in Tartarus. Come, we'll keep her company. She shouldn't be alone when she wakes up."
Theano was driving the wagon with Cyrene at her side and Argo and her own mount following behind. Xena and Gabrielle were sitting next to her when the woman's eyes slowly fluttered open. "Are you Celesta?"
"So, I failed. I wanted to die."
"Not this time, my friend. You will survive. You were hit in the shoulder. Your body will heal and you will learn how to be free again. The Amazons will help you."
"The Amazon Queen? Is she all right?"
"Yes," Gabrielle answered. "You didn't even touch her."
"That's good. Tell her that I'll stand trial for my crime. I didn't want to kill her…"
"We know that you had no choice. The men told us. Your friends should be free by now. We sent a rescue party to the camp to make sure that no harm comes to them. They will arrive at the village some time after sunset." Xena continued. "What's your name?"
"I don't know; I don't remember my past. My sisters call me Lioness but I don't feel very brave at the moment. Is it true that they are all dead?"
"Yes, it's true. And I think that you are very brave to survive what you did and still care about your companions." Xena said softly. "Your oppressors are dead and I'm sure Hades will make them pay for their crimes. Try to get some sleep. We'll let you know as soon as your sisters are with us. Sleep, you're safe now."
"Sleep? No, I'd rather not."
"As you wish but I'll give you a painkiller. You'll heal faster if you don't have to fight the pain. What do you want to talk about?"
"Hawk, how did he die? He was invulnerable. He had one of the men shoot at him with a crossbow. He didn't even get a scratch. I saw it with my own eyes."
"I fought him. My sword pierced his ear. He was dead before his body hit the ground. I wish I could have…"
"Xena, don't. Don't do this to yourself. Don't lower yourself to his level, please. -- Hades will make him suffer in Tartarus. Torturing him wouldn't have changed what he did, my love. Don't lower yourself to their level." Gabrielle held the tall warrior's face in her hands and gently kissed her on the forehead. "It's over; no one will ever again be hurt by him."
Xena smiled tentatively. "You always know what to say, Gabrielle. Thank you, my love. -- I'm sorry, Lioness."
"It's all right. I know the feeling. Before I was purchased by Hawk and his brother, I was the property of a group of Romans using me as a Gladiator."
"But I outlawed Gladiator fights. They're just not fair." Xena answered slightly irritated.
"It doesn't keep the Romans from still enjoying them. Now, they just do it in private at their rural estates. As I said, when I still was a Gladiator, every day and every night I dreamed of making them all suffer for what they did to me and what they forced me to do. I wanted to pay them back for every fist I felt on my body, for every bruise, every lashmark. I wanted to treat them like they treated us. When I came in Hawk's household about three seasons ago, this changed. I learned that there is a big difference between revenge and justice. I learned that I would become like them if I'd give in to his desire. I had a good teacher."
"Tell us about her." Gabrielle demanded softly.
A smile transformed the still young woman's face, her pale grey eyes were smiling and her voice took on a dreamy tone. "She is the most beautiful woman I ever met, inside and out. When she smiles the sun comes up, even in the middle of the night. There is no hatred in her heart, even though she has every reason to, being a slave since she was a child. The goodness of her soul shines through her eyes. She taught me that hate only leads to more hate, that violence creates more violence, and that one can't change the past…"
"You can only try to learn and live with it." Gabrielle completed the phrase. "One day one of my former masters, a merchant, met with a Roman noble at his house. I met a young woman there. I never knew her name but she had big brown eyes and light blonde hair, like in a field of wheat on a summerday. She has a branding on her right breast, a rose."
"You were a slave?"
"Yes, less than a season's cycle ago, Xena freed me and saved my life. It's a long story, and I love to tell it, later. It's her, isn't it?" Gabrielle insisted.
"Yes, the description fits. She is the only reason I'm still alive. Whenever I wasn't preparing or recovering from a fight, Hawk did with me what he called 'playing'. Sometimes I lost my spirit and was tempted to let my opponents win. It was her smile, her words, her soul that kept me going. She gave me the courage and the strength not to give up and let him win." She answered stifling a yawn. "I don't want to sleep. Why did you do this? I don't want to dream."
"There will be no bad dreams, Lioness, I promise. You will sleep but you will not dream. The herbs I gave you will see to it. You can't have them on a regular basis, one tends to get dependent on them but for now it's important that you get as much rest as possible -- and tomorrow morning we'll try and get this iron band off your waist. Now close your eyes and rest."
For the rest of the day Gabrielle was in a rather pensive mood and refused to leave the young warrior's side. Xena knew that the best way to deal with her younger lover now was to let her be until she was ready to talk about it. So, when they arrived at the village they stayed and helped out at the infirmary as best as they could -- with more than seven scores wounded in more than one room it also was sorely needed.
The tall warrior also agreed to spend the night at the infirmary after Kaleipus had assured her that everything was in good hands, despite Queen Melosa's continued absence. They slept on a cot next to the injured woman, with Gabrielle securely nestled in Xena's protective embrace.
It was still in the middle of the night when Xena's warrior instincts snapped alive. Two shadows were just passing the threshold to the large room. She quickly recognised the Amazon scout Silea, in the company of a tall blond woman. She gave no indication that she was awake because she wanted to see what happened.
There was a scented candle next to the woman's head to deepen the effects of the sleeping potion but also shedding some light on her face. The blonde stranger knelt next to the bed, at her throat a small band of the same metal as the other woman's waistband. Slender fingers searched the pulse point at Lioness' neck, and she breathed a sigh of relief. The newcomer turned her head and found pale blue eyes observing her.
"Yes. I gave her a potion to ward off bad dreams. It will wear off before the sun comes up. Stay with her. I'm sure she'll need you before long."
"Are you a healer?"
"Sometimes. Hold her. I have a feeling that your touch will be better than any potion, much better."
"How would you know?"
Xena smiled and cast a quick glance towards Gabrielle. "Because she keeps my dark dreams at bay." Surprisingly the younger woman only nodded and cautiously snuggled next to the sleeping warrior.
The next morning, with the first rays of dawn, before Xena had a chance to have a good look at the young woman, she was called away to attend a council session with the Centaur elders. The better part of the former slaves was already on their way back to their homes and families. About a fifth of them had asked to be allowed to stay for some time for they had no families to return to and now were at a loss what to do with their newfound freedom. The elders had to approve the request and were rather uneasy about it.
So, this was to be one of the central subjects of the council meeting -- together with the still unsolved question of what to do with the prisoners. Most of them were mercenaries and thus likely to continue their killing career in the name of whomever was ready to pay their price. Xena was well aware that there only were a limited number of options: they could escort them to the border and make it very clear that they were not welcome to come back. They could have them stand trial for their crimes against the Centaur and the Amazon nation. They could kill them without a trial.
Xena wasn't happy with any of these options because they all came with a price she wasn't sure her friends were ready to pay but she tried to give a well-balanced opinion, emphasising the risks involved. They already were talking for more than three candlemarks and the tall warrior's patience, honed in long sessions with her own council and long campaigns, was running low.
Luckily, she was called away to assist the Amazon blacksmith Tanalata in removing the metal bands all the recently freed women were wearing around their neck. Lioness was the only one of them whose sign of slavery was locked around her waist. The metal had proved to be too hard to be cut through. The only way the smith saw was to try and heat it up to make it more supple and manageable but this inevitably would further injure the badly abused women. So it was out of question. The women also didn't seem to have any information about the kind of metal used for their collars, that's why Xena decided to have a talk with the only warrior of the group. She might have had another perspective.
The ravenhead entered the infirmary and her eyes fell on the young woman now sitting next to Lioness. Quietly coming closer she for the first time had a chance to have a good look at her. She stopped in mid-step and blinked. It simply wasn't possible, after all these years but the resemblance was too great to simply be a coincidence. However, it would have to wait. There were other things to see to first.
She was still a body length from the cot when the blonde woman turned her head. She jumped from her seat, ran towards her and attacked her with her bare hands. Xena easily awoided being hit by her flayling arms but it took her a few moments to understand what she was shouting.
"You killed them, you killed them all. You destroyed my village, my life. You're a murderer. I don't care what else they tell about you; you're a killer, nothing else."
The former Conqueror somehow managed to immobilise her by simply holding her by her upper arms. She sought her eyes and finally got her to fall silent, meanwhile Gabrielle and Cyrene had a hard time to keep her injured lover in bed. She was peripherally aware being the centre of attention in the whole infirmary but focussed her attention on the blonde whose identity no longer was an enigma to her.
Finally she spoke. "You are right, I am a murderer and a killer but I didn't kill your family, Callisto. Follow me, there's someone I want you to meet."
Surprisingly the young woman followed Xena like a docile pet. She found Cassandra where she expected her to be, at the training grounds, in the middle of some sword drills. As soon as the former slave saw the tall, well built, evenly muscled warrior she stopped dead in her tracks. "It's a dream," she whispered, "it has to be a dream. My family is dead, they burned at Cirra with the rest of the village."
At the same time the blonde at the sparring field also froze and her Amazon partner only barely awoided cutting her head off. They looked at each other, disbelieve written over both their faces. Finally, Cassandra sheathed her sword and took a step towards her; heartbeats later they were in each other's arms. Xena stayed a few minutes while they alternated between crushing the other in their arms and intently studying the other's face. She knew that it would take time but now both of them really could begin to heal some of the wounds of the past.
She returned to the infirmary and was greeted by a very agitated and worried Lioness. She was pelted with questions. "Where is she? Is everything all right? How did you know her name? I was the only one in the household who knew it! Did you know her before she was captured?"
"I know her sister and her mother, Lioness. I didn't know her be…"
"But they are dead. They burned at Cirra. -- So it's true that you destroyed her village." It wasn't really a question.
Xena caught the warning expression on Gabrielle's face and took a calming breath before answering. "No, I didn't destroy Cirra. A warlord with the name of Krykus burnt it down but I held myself responsible then and I still do. Cirra was under my protection but I wasn't fast enough to stop him and his men before most of the harm was done. There only were a few survivors and we took care of them as best as we could. When Arleia and Cassy told me about Callisto it was more than two seasons later and there was no sign to be found but when I saw her today I immediately knew who she was. There's a great resemblance between the sisters. Do you know what happened to her?"
Lioness had almost instantly calmed down and answered. "Only the bare facts. She rarely speaks of ther past. She said that she had been hiding in the barn but when she heard a commotion outside she ran away. She ran to a clearing in the nearby forest and fell asleep. The sun was going down when she left the protection of the trees and saw the burning remains of the village. She once again ran and was soon captured by slavers. One of her first owners told her that Cirra had been burned down by the Conqueror. I'm sure she will understand as soon as she gets to know the truth."
"Why do you trust her word? There's nothing to prove that she's telling you the truth." Cyrene suddenly asked.
"Her eyes. There's mournung and guilt in her eyes. If she were the murderer Cally believes her to be, there would be none of these emotions." The former slave answered without hesitation.
Xena couldn't help the slight blush flushing her dark skin but recovered quickly. "Don't bother, Lioness. My mother has no reason whatsoever to believe anything but bad things about me. I never gave her a reason to." She quickly changed the subject. "What do you know about the metal used to forge your waist restraints and the others' collars?"
"Not much. One day a rather large shipment was in the courtyard. Hawk had a smithy build. It was something new. It created much more heat. One of the male slaves was forced to forge his and his brother's armour and killed afterwards. Another replaced the leather slave collars with the metal bands. The ends were still red hot when they were put on and a few of my sisters died from the burnings. Do you know a way to get rid of them?"
"Not yet but with what you just told me, we now have something to experiment on. We still have their armours. It's only a question of time. I'll go and tell our smiths. They will find a way."
A few candlemarks later Xena was at the training grounds doing some solitairy swords drills. She tried to keep her mind off a multitude of things: the elders still discussing the fate of the prisoners; the problem with the metal bands; the reunion of Cassandra and Callisto; the necessity of talking with her mother, but foremost the still introspective mood of her lover.
She easily managed to ignore her changing public of casual onlookers but it still had been awkward at first. After about one and a half candlemark, however, she was satisfied with the fluidity of her movements. Now would be a good time to work on more complicated moves but it shouldn't be. Tanalata was standing at the edge of the sparring field, impatiently waiting to be acknowledged. They still hadn't found out how to cut through the metal but there was one thing they didn't understand.
The Amazon smith led Xena to the smithy. She showed her the breast armours of Hawk and his brother; one of them without even a scratch, the other with a hole where the heart would have been.
"We tried every weapon, from a dagger to a spear but nothing can penetrate this metal. Take this and try yourself." The broad shouldered woman said.
Xena took the sword but even she was unable to make a dent in it. She tried again but it didn't work. She put the weapon away and unsuccessfully tried with ther chakram. Then she unsheathed her own sword. This time it worked, now Hawk's armour also had a hole. She then tried to cut the breastplate and her blade sliced through the hard metal as if it were a piece of old parchment.
The final stages of her duel with Ares flashed through her mind's eye, the moment when Athena's sword had cut through the sturdy flagpole. She still was sure that it had been nothing but a dream but nonetheless Xena began to examinine the weapon as if seeing it for the first time and a puzzled expression was soon replaced by a smile.
"I suppose we now have the means to get these blasted collars off. Send someone to tell the women. Tell them to come to the infirmary."
After all the trouble they had had to find a solution, taking the metal bands off was rather anticlimatic. It all went smoothly and only one of the women got a minor scratch from Xena's blade. When Lioness' waistband was taken care of, only Callisto was left with a collar. The tall warrior finally found her and Cassandra in the storage area of the barn.
Resentment was still oozing from the former slave and the helplessness projected by her sister cut through her heart. Callisto simply refused to be touched by the former Conqueror, so Xena gave her sword to Cassandra to cut through the collar.
It was simple enough, and even someone not experienced with the use of bladed weapons could have done it but it didn't work. She even cut her sister's skin. It wasn't deep but needed medical attention.
At the infirmary Lioness convinced her lover to let Xena have a try and once again the weapon sliced through the material as if it were no more than a stalk of grass. Cassandra's pride as a warrior was picked and she wanted to have another go.
"Let it be, Cassy. The collars are off, everything else is not important."
"Do you want to tell me that I'm too inept to do it, Xena?"
"Cassandra, you should know better." Gabrielle's slightly reprimanding voice came from behind. "If this was what Xena wanted to say she would have done so. I'm sure it has nothing to with your skill as a warrior. Xena killed their abusers. It's only logical that she should be the one to get rid of these signs of slavery, don't you think?"
"I'm sorry, Xena. I apologise."
"No need, Cassy. I think your sister wants to introduce someone to you."
The dark haired warrior left the infirmary and headed straight for the shrine of Athena. She lowered herself on her left knee and laid the sword on the ground in front of the wooden statue of the goddess, next to one of metal bands. She closed her eyes for a moment, looked up, and began to speak.
"Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, hear my prayer. At the dawn of the world your breath gave soul and spirit to us mortals, your ingenuity kept us from dying from cold or hunger, you gave us the means to defend our freedom and the heart to long for peace, hear my prayer."
There was a long moment of silence.
"Great Goddess, I usually don't use the prayers my mother taught me and after all the crimes I committed I certainly don't deserve to use them now. But I want to thank you with all my heart for allowing me to do this, to set these women free. -- I know these are only words." She once again fell silent and closed her eyes. "Goddess hear my prayer. "
"Great Goddess, make me a channel of your peace, where there is hatred let there be love, where there is insult let there be pardon, where there is doubt let there be confidence, where there is darkness let there be light, where there is sadness let there be joy.
"Great Goddess, grant that I may not so much seek to be comforted as to give comfort, not so much to be understood as to understand, not so much to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, it is in living that we decide about our fate and our lives to come."
Her eyes slowly opened and found the vivid, lifelike eyes of the statue. "This is the first prayer I ever learned from my mother. Before it always was meant for Gaia but this time it was directed to the both of you. I hope I didn't offend you."
Her gaze fell on the sword. "I now give your sword back to you. I think it did what it was supposed to do. A weapon as powerful as this one shouldn't be in the hands of a mortal, a mortal like me. Please, take it back, Athena."
A golden light emanated from the statue, slowly envelopping the altar, Xena, and finally the whole shrine. The metal band and the sword disappeared; a heartbeat later, another sword was lying in front of the tall warrior and she heard a now familiar voice in her head. "You did good, warrior child!" The light disappeared suddenly and Xena was so dumbfounded, it took her a few heartbeats to regain her usual awareness of her surroundings.
Only when she left the room she saw her public. "Do you have time to talk, Xena?"
"Yes, mother. The funeral rites will start at sunset, I'll have to be back by then. Where do you want to go?" She asked.
"Whereever you feel comfortable, daughter."
"Do you mind a little ride? There's a hillock a few candledrops from here." The older woman just nodded. They rode in silence. Why she chose Borias' memorial stone to talk with her mother, she didn't know for sure but it somehow felt right -- and getting to know Gabrielle had taught her to listen to her feelings. She also remembered a long talk with her blonde lover about honesty and hurt feelings; and she owed her mother.
"What do you want to know, mother?"
"When you brought me to Corinth, was it to have me under your control or did you do it to keep me safe?"
Xena didn't answer immediately. She first helped her mother to make herself comfortable to the left of Borias' memorial stone. She had an internal debate with herself, considering to which extend she wanted to be honest to her mother. She sat down next to the older woman.
"Caesar had the bad habit to exploit whatever he considered a weakness of his enemies. He tried to get his hands on you and Toris more than once. Amphipolis no longer was safe. I had to make it impossible for him to get to you." Xena answered in a quiet voice. "I'm sorry that I didn't have the courage to tell you the truth then but I suppose you wouldn't habe believe me."
Cyrene cast a surprised look at her daughter but had to acknowledge. "Probably not." She fell silent and then asked. "Why did you fight the Romans?"
"They were a threat to Greece. Caesar needed our ressources, our silver and our soldiers to take revenge on the Britons. Boudica really had picked his pride by throwing his legions off her island. He may even have found out that I was behind some of her stratagems. He thought we would be easy pickings. I let him believe that our efforts were concentrated on our naval defences."
"Why did you fight the Romans?"
"They threatened our coast, disturbed the trade and took slaves whenever they could. They had to be stopped but I suppose you want to know if I also had a personal reason, don't you?"
The older woman just nodded.
"I wanted Caesar dead; that much is true. I wanted him dead but I wouldn't have started a war just to do this."
"So, it's true that he had you crucified?" Cyrene asked.
"Yes, it's true. He was kind enough to also break my legs." Xena answered, sarcasm still tinting her voice. "A friend set me free and payed with her life. She was killed by his soldiers. -- I was in a dark place before but after this I began to embrace the darkness."
"You lost yourself."
"That's how I see it now but then I thought that I finally had found my destiny." Xena said with resignation in her voice. "I killed for the sake of killing. It was then that I really became what I initially had set out to fight."
"I was told that you changed, even before taking Corinth."
The tall woman smiled and blue eyes found the brown orbs of her mother. "Not really. It's true that I felt some sort of change when I left the Centaurs and led my army towards the south but I don't think that I can pinpoint the exact moment. The most obvious thing was that killing no longer gave me the satisfaction and joy I had known before. I still wanted to rule Greece and some day the whole world but I also began to question the way to reach my goal."
Xena was speaking almost to herself, well aware that her mother no longer was her only public.
"Why did you just pray to Athena? Even as a child you refused to come to her temple with me."
"Even as a child," Xena quietly answered, "I wanted to be free from the influence of the gods but they just didn't leave me alone. Some of them just wanted to help, others wanted to rule my life. I couldn't deny their presence any longer. One night, just before the decisive battle against Caesar's army, I had a dream.
"I saw my life through the eyes of a stranger. I saw myself as kind and generous and brave and loving and loved. There was no trace of the egotistical killer I knew myself to be."
An almost inaudible gasp came from behind the tall tree on top of the hillock.
"The next day, I began to pray to Gaia. It just felt like the right thing to do and Gaia is one of the few gods who never had interfered in my life." She cast a quick glance at her mother and then said. "Why don't the two of you come out of there and join us?"
Embarrassed giggles were her only answer but soon Gabrielle and Solan joined them on the sunsoaked grass.
"Mother, you already know Gabrielle. May I introduce Solan. Solan, this is Cyrene, your grandmother."
"Awesome, I always wanted to have a grandmother. May I call you Gran?"
"You have a son? And you never told me!" Cyrene protested.
"I did wha…." Xena was silenced by Solan's hand on her thigh.
"She did what she had to do to keep me safe, from herself and from her enemies. She left me with the Centaurs when I still was a baby. I would have been a target, a weakness she couldn't afford and still can't."
"Do you really believe all this nonsense." The older woman retorted, suddenly angry.
"Mother, don't take it out on Solan. It's me you have a bone to pick with. I did what needed to be done to keep him safe and to make sure that he was surrounded by love and tender care while growing up. The person I was then was not fit to raise a child. My darkness would have swallowed him, sooner or later."
"Gabrielle, please, be realistic. You read the chronicles of my early conquests. You should know better. It took a lot of time for the light to take even a tiny hold on my soul; and I want you to never underestimate your role in all of this. Before you I was lost. Your love opened the door to my heart and to my soul. If I'll ever have a chance to become the woman I dreamed about it will be because of you. However, I can't deny my past, it wouldn't be fair to all the people I hurt."
Gabrielle searched the security of her taller companion's arms and smiled shyly at her lover.
"Xena," the boy said, "my uncle told me that I shouldn't call you 'mum'. He said that it's still too dangerous, and after what this horrible man, this Dagnine, tried to do, I really understand. But when we're alone or with friends, just like now, will you be my mother then?"
The dark haired woman was speechless; not even in her most adventurous dreams she'd expected that the boy really wanted her to be his mother. "Yes, Solan, if you really want to. I would be honoured but I'd rather thought you would be angry with me. You have every right to be, you know?" She answered.
"Perhaps some day I will be but for now, I'm happy that you're here. You saved my life, to me, that's prove enough for me that I'm still very important for you. You could have send me away with the others but you trusted in my abilities, you took care of me and got me out of harm's way. You trusted me, you sang to me -- and I always knew that my mother would come to me in a song." He answered with a shy smile.
Xena pulled him closer with tears in her eyes, now holding both blondes in her arms and whispered. "Thank you, my son."
They all were seated facing the setting sun, a couple of candledrops later Cyrene said. "You gave me a lot to think about, Xena, and you too, my grandson. The sun is going down. We should head back to the village."
Xena wasn't too happy about the part she would have to play during the funeral rites -- not because she would have to be there as Queen Melosa's slave, not because she had agreed to sing the funeral dirge together with Ephiny.
It was because she still held herself responsibe for all the senseless dead during this war. Without her interference none of this would have happened; if only she had stayed at the palace in Corinth, minding her own business and keeping an eye on her council, none of this would have happened.
So, when they finally arrived at their hut after the pyres had burned down, she still was quiet and gloomy. She also got another chance to experience just how well her younger lover knew to read her.
"Don't do this to yourself, Xena. None of it was your fault."
"Wasn't it? The Roman empire was defeated, Caesar was killed -- all because of me. If I had found another way to deal with them, they wouldn't have attacked, neither the Centaurs nor the Amazons."
"Please, my love, try to be reasonable. I heard what you told your mother. Was it true?"
The tall woman cautiously nodded.
"So, the Romans were a threat?"
"It was a question of defeating them or being defeated? A question of acting or being forced to react."
"How many of our countrymen would have died then or under Roman rule? Do you really think the Romans would have left the Centaurs or the Amazons alone? They never respected the traditions and cultures of the people they conquered. -- I know it's hard to see friends die, my love, but sometimes we don't have a choice."
Xena looked at the earnest face of her lover and a shy smile slowly crept on her face, very reminiscent of her son. "How did you get so wise, my love?"
"By worrying about you, my big dumb warrior!"
For the second time this day she was speechless and let her body speak for her. She took the smaller woman in her arms and let the overwhelming sense of their connection seep through her soul. It felt so right, so perfect, like stepping under a waterfall on a hot summer day. She felt at home and once again she acted on instinct alone.
She slipped to her knees, her arms still closed firmly around Gabrielle's waist. She thightened her grip and felt the younger woman's hands kneading her shoulders and easing away a tension she hadn't been aware of. It just was the right thing to do and Xena let this feeling wash over her like a gentle sunwarmed wave.
Gabrielle finally bent down and whispered. "Let's go to bed, my love."
This night, there were no games of dominance or submission. Just two women in love sharing their bodies and souls. This night, there was not one guiding the other. Just two hearts beating in the same rhythm.
Chapter Twelve: The Third Whipping
The next couple of days were spent caring for the wounded, and luckily none of them died. Xena had another few conversations with her mother and a short one with Callisto who still wasn't sure if she should believe all the things she'd heard about the former Conqueror.
Lioness was able to leave the infirmary just in time for the victory celebration but insisted on officially declaring her submission to Amazon law for having attacked the Queen before taking part in the festivities. Even the most severely injured of the Amazons would be able to travel in another two days; and so they would be back at the village with only another day or two to spare before the last part of Xena's punishment was scheduled to take place.
Kaleipus and a few other dignitaries would accompany them, as well as Regent Calliope and her fighters.
Solan had done quiet a bit of sneaky manoeuvring to be allowed to also come with them. After Kaleipus' blunt refusal, he got Terreis to speak for him who because of her thigh wound wouldn't be able to visit the village. He also got Cyrene to speak on his behalf. On the one hand Xena was glad to have him around a little longer, she felt the need to finally get to know her son; on the other hand she was worried how he would take her whipping.
So, she spent some time trying to explain it to him. Surprisingly, this conversation went a long way to help her understand her own actions a lot better. She understood that she gave herself up to the Amazons not only to assure the well-being of her soldiers and of Gabrielle, not only to pay for her crimes against the Northern Amazons, not only to get out of her boring life as a ruler, not only to begin a new life.
She also had done it to become once again a part of the Amazon community, to feel one with them as she had when still a child.
The day before they arrived at the village, at a small campfire, she told him about this time of her eleventh summer. She told him how at home she had felt living with the Amazons, for once she hadn't been the only girl good at running and fighting but she still had been a lot faster and stronger than most of her age-mates. She had spent long evenings, tucked away in a convenient tree, and listening to the Amazons telling stories of their hunts, their wars, their traditions, their laws, soaking it all up like a dried sponge. For the first time in her life she had held a sword and received her first lesson, surprising everyone with the almost instinctive skill she displayed, everyone with the exception of Theano.
There only had been one aspect of Amazon life she had felt utterly uncomfortable with and awoided as best as she could, Amazon spirituality.
She liked to listen to the stories but didn't want anything to do with religious ritual and ceremonies. Now, for the first time she ruefully acknowledged at least to herself what had made her this cautious and suspicious. What Castritius, the smith, had done to her and her family had made her doubt the benevolence and the power of the gods -- and if she was really honest, the feeling of having been abandoned by the gods never had left her. But slowly transformed itself in resentment, especially when some of them began to actively interfere in her life.
Xena was snapped out of her musings. "Gran told me that she was an innkeeper when you were a child. You were not born as an Amazon, so why did you live with them?" The boy asked.
"I had some trouble with one of the adults at my village and my mother thought it best for me to be away for a while." Xena simply answered.
Perceptive blue eyes found her own. "That's not the whole truth, isn't it?"
"No," she said with a resigned smile, fighting with herself. She was well aware that her story was not something one should tell her ten-year-old son but she felt the need to be honest, "it isn't. -- It was a very long time ago. The winter had been very hard; the harvest had almost completely failed. There were no customers for the inn and finally my mother didn't have enough to get us through, my brothers, and me. She went to the local blacksmith who always had surplus of all kind. She burrowed from him and gave it back during the spring and summer.
"Even after all our debts were paid, he insisted that we now owed him. He constantly passed by, invited himself to our evening meals and generally acted as if he were our father. My older brother was in the next village, as an apprentice to the local tavernkeeper. He… Let's just say that he wasn't nice. He steadily became more demanding but one day he went too far. He attacked me at his smithy and I defended myself. That's why I had to leave."
"He raped you? But you only were a child."
"What do you know about rape?" She asked completely surprised.
"I have an Amazon as a teacher and I was raised by the Centaurs. Centaur children very early learn about the differences between the sexes and the responsibilities both of them have. We learn that we have to respect each other." He fell silent for a heartbeat. "Respect. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked."
"It's been a long time ago, Solan. He can't hurt me any longer. Nor any other woman."
"Did you kill him?"
Xena once again was tempted to lie but she took a deep breath and answered. "Yes, I did. I didn't intend to. He tore at the front of my dress. It was shortly after the midday meal and he already smelled of strong liquor. He just had taken a metal bar out of the fire," Xena suddenly felt Gabrielle's familiar breathing in her neck and leand back, "I grabbed it and rammed it through his chest. He first stumbled backwards and then fell to the ground. I felt empty looking at him."
Xena looked at the ground, away from her two companions, and she suddenly felt the boy crawling closer and searching contact with her while she still was securely cradled in Gabrielle's arms. Solan snuggled up next to her. "Are you all right, mum?"
She blinked a few times. "Yes, thank you. The Amazons helped me to heal some of the wounds he inflicted and gave me back my sense of self. I'll always owe them."
"So, it's good that you now pay your debt." He answered with a child's simple sense of justice.
"Yes, my son. But I'd rather not have you at the temple. It's not easy to take and it will be hard to witness."
Unfortunately for Xena, her son was as stubborn as she was and she gave in. However, he had to promise to stay with his grandmother and to leave without protest whenever the older woman told him to go because she thought it became too much for him. He reluctantly agreed when he saw a warning glimmer in his mother's eyes, instinctively assuming that he only could push her this hard and not one step further.
Queen Melosa and Xena just had left the bathing area where the tall warrior had been prepared for her night's vigil and the third punishment she had to endure to balance the scales with Amazon justice. Theano and Cyrene intercepted them just when they were about to enter the forest path to the temple.
"My Queen, please give us a few candledrops of your time. I know it's against the law but please let this mother speak to her daughter." The Amazon healer said kneeling in front of her superior.
"Xena, it's up to you." The Queen answered.
The dark haired woman nodded.
The Queen also answered with a curt nod. "Theano, my friend, you still owe me the story of how Xena became your second daughter." She said leading the Amazon lawyer away, chosing a detour towards the temple. She was curious about what had happened but the priestess in her also was sure that the older woman wouldn't tell her the whole truth, not now.
"Daughter. -- In all the talks we had these passed days there is one thing I never said to you. At the beginning I was confused. I didn't want to believe what everyone told me about you. And I also didn't have the courage to. I still don't understand why you did most of the things you did or why you're doing this now. But I want you to know that I love you. When I was ashamed to be your mother, I loved you. Even when I denied that I ever had a daughter, I still loved you. That never changed and it never will."
"Thank you but what changed your mind, mother?"
"A lot of things, no, that's not the truth. A lot of people did, your soldiers, your friends, the Amazons, Theano, Gabrielle, Solan. My grandson, he really is a bright boy. You should be proud of him."
"I am, mother, but I don't have any right to be. When he was born I wasn't fit to be a mother. It was Kaleipus who raised him. He learned about love by people who loved him. Centaur traditions taught him respect and compassion. I had nothing to do with it." Xena said with sadness in her eyes.
Cyrene smiled back at her. "Xena, if nothing else, these words were proove enough for me that you no longer are the Conqueror. You've redeemed yourself, my daughter."
"Redemption… No, mother, I'm not worthy of redemption; that's out of the question. Tomorrow, I'll pay for the crimes I committed against the Amazon nation. But that's only the first step on a very long road." Reading the body language of her mother she added. "Being punished for my crimes, all of my crimes; I admit it was and still is a very tempting notion but I killed thousands but I only can die once. The Amazons and the Centaurs. They're something special, as you should know by now. I hurt you and I made a lot of mistakes but I also never stopped loving you. Thank you, mother. -- I have to go now."
Xena shared a heartfelt hug with her mother and somehow felt a lot lighter as if at least a part of the burden weighing down her heart had been lifted.
Queen Melosa and Theano found a comfortable bench in the back of the temple and the older woman began her tale. "From the first moment I saw her I knew that Xena was someone very special. She was really bright, never needing more than one try to get something right and always coming up with ideas to make it better. Even as a child she had a restless mind and great inner strength.
"I'm sorry. I'm starting to babble and it still doean't explain why I made her my second daughter."
"No, it doesn't but I suppose you thought that she needed some sort of role model. Xena is a fighter to the core; so she needed someone who taught her the responsibilities coming with wearing a weapon." The Queen answered.
"To a certain extend, yes. At least that's how I tried to rationalise it in front of myself and towards her mother. The truth, however, isn't this straightforward. After I had stopped this fight between Xena and the better part of the older children, she collapsed. Cyrene dressed her wound but she had to be down at the inn and so I sat at her bedside.
"Just before dawn, I fell asleep and I had a dream, a vision of sorts. I saw Xena, looking just like she does now, sitting at the right of a tall Roman and calmly ordering the death of a pregnant woman. Her eyes were not only cold but dead. It was as if she were unable to feel, no hate, no love, no hope, no joy, no sorrow. She just existed."
"You decided to safe her from herself." Melosa quietly commented.
"When I woke up and studied her peaceful features I decided that I wouldn't let her go down this path alone. Even when she was at her worst, I always saw the heart she so despeately was ignoring. I wasn't always successful but when I look at her now, I think it was worth the effort."
Queen Melosa had the distinct feeling that there still was a lot more to tell about the Amzon lawyer's decision to take Xena as her second daughter but as a priestess she also knew that some things had to come at their own time and now obviously was neither the time nor the place.
When Queen Melosa called Xena out to the entrance area of the temple, early the next morning, the tall warrior had spent a remarcably uneventful night in front of the altar. Melosa had arrived only a few candledrops after she had knelt down but they hadn't spoken. For some time she tried to figger out what Theano could have answered to the Queen's question because this was one of the rare topics the older Amazon always had refused to discuss with her. Her mind, however, calmed down surprisingly fast and she began to meditate, for once without being haunted by memories or visions of any kind.
"I am Melosa, priestess of Artemis, I am Melosa, queen of the Amazon nation by right of birth and mutual consent. I greet all of you, Amazons and guests, who have come here to witness justice satisfied."
Xena felt strangely relaxed when leaving the temple; though part of her was well aware that she should be terrified or at least worried about what was to come. Not only would she receive seventy instead of fifty strokes with the whip but this time not only Amazons would be present but also her son and her mother, representatives of her soldiers and the Centaurs. She also knew that Anara had a litter waiting just at the edge of the clearing and the rational part of her mind also doubted that she would be able to make it back to the village on her own feet after this many strokes.
"Xena of Amphipolis, you were found quilty of sacrilegious behaviour in three cases. Today you will face the last part of your punishment. For killing Queen Cyane of the Northern Amazons on sacred ground you will receive seventy strokes with a single tail whip. Are you ready to submit to Amazon justice?"
"Yes, Queen Melosa, I do. I choose Theano as my assistant."
"Do you accept the culprit's choice, Theano?"
"Yes, Queen Melosa, I do."
"Weapons' master, do your duty."
Eponin grimly nodded and handed the Amazon lawyer a pair of fur-lined wrist cuffs. She climbed the steps and fastened the cuffs around the taller woman's wrists. Xena turned around and knelt between the two pillars on the stony ground. Sturdy leather thongs were fastened at the D-rings of the cuffs and wrought tightly around each pillar stretching Xena's arms but not as tightly as the first time to keep her back muscles from cramping. The leather straps holding her top were unlaced and a great white towel tied around her waist. As before Eponin apologised to her friend for doing her duty, as before Xena answered her that she was grateful that it was a friend doing it, and no one else.
Theano gave the signal to begin. The first stroke hit Xena's back and she almost jumped at the sudden pain, more intense than ever before. She consciously calmed her breathing and relaxed the muscles in her back. The next impact was much more manageable and she soon realised that Eponin was trying to create an even rhythm, making it easier for her to control her body's reactions.
There was a side effect. She had lost count of the number of strokes, the pain had let her lose her awareness of her surroundings and to a certain degre also her sense of self. This wasn't supposed to happen; so, she sought Theano's eyes and the older woman called for a stop.
"Please, tell Eponin to change the rhythm, nothing regular. It has to be unpredictable, otherwise I get lost." The older woman just nodded, understanding her second daughter's need to control at least a tiny part of this ordeal. The weapons' master also seemed to understand and adapted her style.
Theano called another halt and brought a waterskin to the ravenhead's lips, reminding her to relax her muscles as much as possible.
Xena was surprised that she still was able to feel where the blows were marking her back. Every single one of them reveberated through her whole body but if asked she would have been able to pinpoint exactly where the tip of the whip hit her back. It was a strange sensation she intended to explore to keep her mind off the pain. It seemed to work.
She could feel that the moment when her mental exercises no longer would work was getting closer. She also knew that then she would no longer be able to hold back her cries of pain. She then would have to make a decision: giving herself up to the pain or concentrating on keeping her mind in the here-and-now.
In her time as a warlord she had seen a number of people who needed physical pain, lots of pain to feel alive or to reach their climax. During the last whipping she had begun to understand them. She had been so close, not close to sexual fulfillment but close to oblivion -- and she didn't want this to happen ever again.
This time Theano knew what her charge wanted before she told her. She asked Eponin to allow more time between the strokes to give Xena the chance to regain her bearing every time. It worked. It seemed as if her Amazon friend sensed exactly how much time she needed to get herself back under control. Instead shouting out the almost unbearable pain, Xena only grunted.
It became harder and harder to stay focused on the world around her. Xena closed her eyes to concentrate on the sounds: the birds, the rustling of leaves in the wind, someone, no, Gabrielle crying. This time the stroke came too fast, immediately followed by the next. Obviously Eponin had decided to get it over with.
More than only a couple of heartbeats went by before the kneeling warrior realised that the whipping had stopped. Her naturally exceptionally good hearing now was amplified. She not only heard the birds and the wind and Gabrielle's sobs. She also heard the voice of her son, quietly whispering to her lover. 'Don't worry!' He said. 'Everything will be all right. She's my mum, she'll make it.'
The absurd burst of irrational pride these words triggered brought Xena back to reality. She looked up and found the older Amazon's concerned eyes. Somehow she managed a tiny smile and nodded.
Her right hand was the first to be released from the cuffs. She needed a moment to adjust her balance. Then the other arm was freed from its bondage and despite her best efforts she tumbled forward, only to gently land in Theano's arms.
"Take it easy, little one. One step after the other. Catch your breath; let your heartbeat slow down. That's it. Take your time, little one."
Xena closed her eyes, only for a heartbeat, but she could feel the assembly of Amazons, Centaurs, and Humans holding their collective breath. She focused her attention on her feet and legs and slowly got up. She couldn't help but swaying a bit but everyone respected her need to do it on her own. The tall warrior finally regained her equilibrium and headed for the interior of the temple.
She stood in front of the altar, only vaguely aware of the multitude of eyes following her every movement. The towel still was wrapped around her hips but couldn't hinder at least some drops of blood tainting the ground. She finally got down on her knees and instead of just thanking the Goddess for allowing her to atone for her crimes, this time she also gave thanks to Artemis and Athena for helping her win this war and for giving her the chance to start a new life. It was hard to get back on her feet but using the energy she usually only could access while fighting gave her the strength to do it. She closed her eyes for another heartbeat of thanks, and slowly turned around.
She faced a small ocean of anxious faces. She walked towards the columns she just had been bound between, stilling feeling kind of wobbly. Suddenly the hairs at her neck were standing straight up but without the nauseous feeling she usually associated with Ares. Still, there was a god close by.
A column of blue light began to form next to her, and though Xena never would admit it to anybody except to Gabrielle, she was relieved to see the column change to a solid body: the body of Artemis.
Kneeling in front of a statue was one thing, kneeling in front of a real god was quite another. However, she surprised herself by reflexively trying to get down on her right knee. Two hands closing around her shoulders stopped her. At the same moment she felt some sort of tingling sensation sweep through her body. The collar around her neck fell to the ground just in front of her feet and the pain was gone.
"You are forgiven, warrior child." The Goddess said, her melodious voice reaching even the outer edges of the big square. "From this day on, Xena of Amphipolis, you are one of my own, an Amazon warrior with all rights and duties. You will fight for the Nation and the Nation will fight for you." A hand touched her left shoulder blade. "From now on there will be no scars marring your back but I leave the symbol of my chosen people in the centre of a coiled whip as a reminder that Amazon justice has been satisfied. Begin your new life with the Amazon nation untainted from the past. My blessing is with you and your love." The last words didn't carry beyond Xena's hearing and the Goddess was gone without any florish.
Xena quickly descended the steps and engulfed her lover in a much needed hug, completely oblivious to the multitude of voices coming from all sides, shouting. "Hail, Xena, Amazon warrior."
Author's comment to Chapter Eleven:
For those who didn't get it immediately: Xena's prayer was initially written by Saint Francis. I changed a few words to make it better fit with the story. It's one of my favourite prayers, next to the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, and I didn't mean to offend anyone's sensibilites. If I did I apologise.
For those who didn't get it immediately: Xena's prayer was initially written by Saint Francis. I changed a few words to make it better fit with the story. It's one of my favourite prayers, next to the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, and I didn't mean to offend anyone's sensibilites. If I did I apologise.
There still are a lot of questions left open, I know. It may take another year but I'll write a sequel -- at the moment there are two story lines occasionally running through my mind. The only question left is: Which one will I write first. The first one sends Xena and Gabrielle to Chin, the second has them dealing with Alti and the spiritual powers of the Northern Amazons. It's up to you, dear readers. Let me know what you'd like to read. I'm open for suggestions -- and there still is the question if Xena should be restored to her role as leader of Greece and Rome. I know what I'd like but I also would like you to have some influence. I don't know where my imagination will lead me in the end but it would be helpful to have some pointers.
So, even if usually you don't feed the bards, do it now. The story and I depend upon it. Send your comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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