"Are you all right?" asked Martinus as they left the room.
"Yes... as right as anyone can be after discovering her mother's dying. By the way, I'm Gabrielle," replied the still incredulous blonde woman, vainly trying to smile.
"It's not a pleasure to meet you under these circumstances, Gabrielle. I'm sorry for your mother," the soldier softly said.
"Can you ride?"
"No, I'm afraid I can't. Besides, nobody could ride with these chains on," she answered, indicating the manacles she still wore at her ankles and wrists.
"Oh, yeah, the chains, I almost forgot," Martinus said, slapping his forehead, as he took a small key from his pocket. Then he knelt and unfastened the ankle restraints, then the wrists.
"Thank you, sir." Gabrielle happily massaged her sore wrists.
"You have to thank the Conqueror," replied Martinus, guiding the young woman through the castle corridors, "She said they're not necessary. And I think she's right. If you want to reach Poteidaia as fast as possible you have to behave."
"I will," Gabrielle nodded seriously. She had no intention of running from the fastest way to her mother.
"I think so. But by night I'll have you chained as well, just to be sure. So you can't ride, uh?"
"No, sorry. I can hardly walk, after all those days in a cell..."
"Then we'll have to get a cart for you. Ah, please call me Martinus, will you?"
They reached a courtyard, where fifteen horsemen where chatting, warming at the weak afternoon sun, waiting for orders. Martinus signaled one of them and, when he approached, ordered him to get another cart and a blanket for "the girl." Then he realized Gabrielle was shivering. And smiling. Quickly he put his brown woolen cloak around her shoulders and simply asked, "Dinar for your thoughts."
"Uh? Thanks, sir... Martinus. I was just thinking how wonderful it is to see the sky again. And breathing clean air... I hadn't realized how I loved this until I lost it."
I like this child, the soldier thought; smiling, he sadly replied, "Yes. I know what you mean. Many people start appreciating things after they've lost them," and his eyes for a moment were lost on a point in the sky.
Surprised at his words, Gabrielle studied for the first time her new warden: he was thin and tall, grey hair and had wrinkles on his face making him seem really old. On the other hand, his bold demeanor and lively eyes clearly indicated that he was much younger than he looked. She couldn't determine his age, but was sure of one thing: this man was a veteran.
Embarrassed from the woman's stare, he cleared his throat and started yelling orders to the men, who efficiently mounted their horses and divided in two groups: half of them positioned themselves ahead of a wagon which Gabrielle thought carried supplies. The other half took position behind it, leaving just enough room for a second, approaching cart.
"You'll travel in the second one," Martinus explained, indicating the arriving cart. "I hope it's comfortable enough." He helped the blonde woman up into the cart.
She gratefully accepted his help and gave him his cloak back. "Oh, it will be more comfortable than a horse, don't worry. Here, this is yours. I won't need it now that I'm under cover. But thanks again."
"My pleasure," he replied. "We'll leave immediately and won't stop until after sunset. We have to hurry if we want to reach Poteidaia in time. I don't want you to put your head out of the cart until I'll tell you. Got it?" Gabrielle realized Martinus was deadly serious. He probably didn't want any of the rebels to see her leaving. She wanted to protest, but knowing that her opportunity to see her mother depended on him, she simply nodded and entered the cart, closing the curtain behind her.
Martinus yelled an order and the column moved. Alone in the cart Gabrielle started wondering in which state she would find her mother in Poteidaia... if they could get there in time. The thought almost made her cry. Only a candlemark before, she was so happy knowing Ephiny was free and she thought she had found complete peace, that nothing could hurt her anymore. And now... She struggled to force these thoughts out of her mind. Gently rocked by the cart's movement and helped by the wonderful feeling of a pallet instead of cold stone under her, Gabrielle soon fell asleep.
Gabrielle woke up when the cart stopped and Martinus called her. She poked her head out of the curtain and was surprised to see it was pitch dark. The soldiers had made camp and were all busy: some of them were tending to the horses, others were building a fire, others were mounting guard at the perimeter of the clearing.
"I thought you might be hungry," Martinus said, "dinner will be ready soon."
"Uh, fine" replied Gabrielle, amazed at the efficiency of the men who at first sight seemed nothing more than cutthroats. "May I help somehow?" she asked, getting out of the wagon.
"Well, there's no need, but if you really want to help, you can help the cook." He playfully whispered in her ear, "He's a disaster."
She winked conspiratorially, "I'll see what I can do," and headed towards the cook.
Martinus, amazed, watched Gabrielle approach the big man with a disarming smile, then start silently cutting vegetables at his orders, then tentatively giving advice... after a few minutes he was cutting vegetables while the blonde woman explained which herbs to use and which not. The soldier chuckled. Maybe tonight they will have something edible.
Gabrielle proved to be a great cook. The soldiers showed genuine appreciation for her soup, but she still noticed they watched her with clear contempt. After all she was a traitor, a rebel, a prisoner... simply scum to their eyes. After a while, unable to bear the hostile looks any longer, she asked to be led again to the cart to sleep. Then suddenly she got a idea. Turning back, she approached Martinus and tentatively spoke "Martinus, I don't know if you know this, but I'm a bard. Do you think I could tell some stories..." she looked at the surrounding soldiers, "just to lighten the mood?" even my mood, she mentally added, so I won't think about mom.
"You a bard? Sure, go on," replied the surprised man.
Gabrielle smiled, stood and cleared her throat. When she was sure she had the soldiers' attention, she started: "I sing the story of the mighty Achilles..."
For candlemarks, the young woman told stories of war and love. Of heroism and betrayal. Of sacrifice and victory. When she finished, every soldier had moist eyes. She smiled. She no longer felt uncomfortable among them. They were looking at her with newfound respect and admiration.
That same night, just after Gabrielle had retired to her cart, the horses suddenly became nervous. Their neighs became more and more persistent and everyone in the camp woke. The blonde woman poked her head out of the wagon and addressed the closest soldier, who, to Gabrielle's surprise, had his sword unsheathed: "What's up?"
He shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe the horses smell some predator. A lion, maybe."
"A lion?? Oh gods."
"Hey, Gabrielle, don't you tell me a big cat scares yo... what the..." before the soldier could finish his sentence the ground started shaking under his feet, lightly at first then more and more, making him stumble and fall. The horses, mad with fear, kicked and reared, trying to break free from their restraints. The earth emitted a low, threatening growl, like a far away thunder. Gabrielle felt her heart beat faster than ever before, her breath laboured and short. Then as quickly as it started, after endless moments, the earthquake subsided.
"Anyone injured?" Martinus' steady voice loudly asked. No one answered.
The commander then approached Gabrielle. "Are you okay?" She nodded, not trusting her voice.
"Don't worry. We're in a clearing, there's no danger here. Besides, I think the center of the quake was quite far from here." The blonde woman watched Martinus doubtfully. "I come from a region plagued by earthquakes," he patiently explained "Trust me, this was a strong one, but I know we're safe. You hear a much bigger noise when you're close to the center. Trust me. Now try to sleep."
Gabrielle nodded and lay on her blanket again, but for that night Morpheus did not come to her.
"Ephiny, wait, let me help you."
"Solari, please, I can stand alone, you know?" Replied an annoyed Ephiny.
"Yes, but you shouldn't strain. The healer said you're not healed yet."
Sighing, the injured Amazon let her concerned friend help her. "Any news of Gabrielle?"
"Nothing, but Melas says he has a plan. Can you walk downstairs where the others..." an annoyed glance cut off her sentence. She cleared her throat, "Fine then, the others are waiting for us."
When they arrived in the living room, everyone stood to let Ephiny have a seat. The Amazon sat on a chair close to the fireplace and rolled her eyes. "Please! Stop pampering me. I'm not going to die, you know? I'm fine. Give me another week and even my arm will be perfect again..."
"Come on, Ephiny, you can't seriously ask us to forget what you've been through," said Eponin.
"What I've been through doesn't matter: it's past. What really matters is to know what is happening to Gabrielle now." The Amazon seriously replied.
"We may know it very soon," Ipheus explained. "Melas, repeat what you just told me."
"With pleasure," the thin man started, indicating a young, muscular man, brown haired, sitting beside him. "This is my brother Gar. He's a blacksmith. He's only twenty, but he's probably the best smith of Greece."
Gar blushed "Hey, don't you exaggerate, bro..."
"It's true! Give him some metal and a forge, and he'll do anything you want with the metal," Melas enthusiastically explained.
"Sorry, Melas, but I still can't see how he can help us..." said a puzzled Ephiny.
"How? Working from the inside! He can go to the castle and ask for a job. With all the soldiers and horses they have down there, they'll surely hire him. And staying there he'll be able to learn something about Gabrielle."
"Sure!" said Eponin. "They may even let him inside the dungeon, to repair a chain or whatever... It's a great idea."
"But it's risky, too. Are you sure you want this, boy?" Asked Perdicus, still dubious about the plan.
"I am. I always wanted to join you, but Melas always said I was too young. Now I have the opportunity to do something good. Of course I want it!" Gar seriously replied.
Ephiny watched her companions one by one, and saw each of them nod their agreement. "So it's decided. You'll go." She said. "But promise you'll be careful, Gar. You're young. And you're Gabrielle's only hope."
"I promise. I won't fail you," he replied proudly. Then rose and left the house with his brother.
During the following days Gabrielle and her escort moved just after sunrise and stopped only for lunch and dinner. Gabrielle helped the cook and at night told stories to her guards. When Poteidaia was in sight, the soldiers were almost sorry their travel was over. Gabrielle instead just wanted to see her mother as soon as possible. When they reached her little house she jumped down from the cart and entered without knocking or waiting for permission from Martinus.
"What the...." The woman whirled from tending the fire, startled by the door suddenly opening. "...Gabrielle??"
"Yes, Lila, it's me. Where's mother?" Gabrielle said, in a hurry.
"In her bedroom, sleeping. Or at least she was..."
Gabrielle cursed herself for having made noise and quietly ran to her mother's chamber. She slowly opened the door a little and sighed with relief when she saw her mother was still asleep. She then closed the door and went to face her sister, who was waiting in the main room with her fists on her hips and a surprised expression on her face.
"Lila..." she just managed to say before hugging her sister with all her strength.
"Hey, easy Gabrielle, you're breaking my bones!" laughed the other woman, returning the hug. Then she realized her elder sister was crying. "Gabrielle?" No answer. "What's wrong, Gabrielle?" The older woman did not reply. After a while Lila moved Gabrielle to a chair and whispered softly, "Come on, sis, sit down. Would you like some tea?" Gabrielle nodded, still sobbing. Lila heated some water and prepared two mugs of tea. Seeing her sister calming a little, after some moments she tentatively asked "Better now?" Gabrielle nodded. Lila continued. "What's happened to you, Gabrielle? You arrive here all of a sudden, you're thinner than you've ever been, have circles under your eyes, burst out crying... what's wrong?"
Gabrielle wiped the tears away "Oh, Lila, I thought I would never see you or mother again... I've been arrested in Corinth."
"What? Then how..." Lila anxiously ran to close the still half open door. Gabrielle took another sip of tea. "Don't worry, sis. The Conqueror herself allowed me to be here. Don't ask me why. She just told me that mother was dying and that, if I wanted, I could visit her."
"So she set you free?" The younger woman asked with disbelief. The Conqueror wasn't exactly famous for her compassion.
Gabrielle shook her head. "No, she just gave me an escort of guards. I don't know how long I can stay. Lila, I wasn't even sure I could arrive in time."
Lila nodded, serious. "The Conqueror must be well informed. Mother isn't well at all. She stays in bed all day. As you saw, she sleeps sitting, with pillows under her back. When she's laying she can't breathe at all. She has a bad cough, sometimes coughs blood... I don't know how long she'll live, but she'll be happy to see you. She asked for you so many times, but we didn't know where to find you in Corinth..."
Gabrielle smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry Lila, we kept moving all the time. It was the only thing to do."
"Don't apologize, Gabrielle. You know, I don't understand why you couldn't fit here in Poteidaia, I don't like your choice to fight the Conqueror. But I do realize that after making those decisions, you couldn't really keep in touch with us." Gabrielle smiled thankfully. "Perdicus?" asked Lila.
"I think he's fine. I was arrested alone. I've haven't seen him since then."
"Thank the gods at least he is safe. Honestly, how did she treat you, Gabrielle?" Lila asked, obviously meaning Xena, with a worried look on her face.
"Better than I expected. She's not the monster she pretends to be, you know? I think she's just a woman who had to face events bigger than herself... And now she's lonely, but refuses to admit it..."
Lila thought Gabrielle was crazy. The blonde woman felt the dubious look of her sister and changed subject. "But I don't want to talk about her now. Tell me about Hector and the children. Where are they? Is Marcus still so lively?"
"Even more, if possible," promptly replied the younger woman, happy to talk about her family "And now that mom is ill I can't always be after him. Thank the gods the neighbors help me with little Herodotus when Hector is on the fields. Cyane is babysitting Marcus right now."
"Now that I'm here I'll help you too, Lila," offered the older woman. The sound of a cough silenced Gabrielle. The two women rose and headed to their mother's room. Lila winked and gestured for Gabrielle to stay outside, then she entered the simply furnished room and lit a candle.
"Already awake, mom? You promised you would rest for a while," she teased.
"Very... funny. As if... it depended on... me," the old woman answered with unease.
"You're right. I'm really impudent. I think I must do something to let you forgive me, uh? Let's see: what about a surprise?"
"A surprise?" Hecuba weakly asked.
"Yep. Surprise, come in!"
Gabrielle stepped in, smiling, "Hello, mom."
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle! Oh gods... it's you!" The old woman opened her arms and immediately her elder daughter ran to embrace her.
"Yes, mom, it's me. I'm here," she managed to say, then there were only tears
During the following weeks, Gabrielle never left her mother's side. Hector and Lila told her that the soldiers who had brought her home had left Poteidaia the day after they arrived, without a word to her. She didn't understand why, and had no time to think about it. Hecuba's health declined with every passing day.
Lila was as concerned for her sister as for her mother. Gabrielle insisted on watching Hecuba every night and only left the house to go to the well. Even her appetite was affected. At last, Lila decided to do something. One day at lunch, seeing Gabrielle once again leave half of her meal untouched, she knew it was time to act.
"Gabrielle, we need to talk," she said seriously.
"Uh? Sure, about what?"
"About you, Gab. You can't go on like this. You're going to get sick, too."
"I don't know what you're talking about" the elder sister said, shaking her head.
Lila rolled her eyes, "Of course not! You're not thinking about what you're doing! You're always here in the house. You don't sleep. You don't eat. When you're not with mom, you clean the house or feed the children or cook something for us..."
"I don't understand... what's wrong with that?" asked the blonde woman, truly puzzled.
"She means you should take a break, Gabrielle," softly explained Hector, smoothing his mustache. "You're very helpful, but you really can't go on like this. You're working too much, stretching yourself too thin. You're overworked. We're concerned for your health." Lila nodded. "Why don't you take a break today? Go meet your friends, or Perdicus' family, or whoever you want... everyone keeps asking me about you. They all know you're here. They saw the soldiers, too, and they're concerned because you avoid them. Come on, relax a little. It won't kill you."
"I don't know, Hector, I'm not in the mood for chatting," Gabrielle said, watching her plate.
"Here! Did you hear yourself?" playfully asked Hector, "Since when are you not in the mood for chatting? You need to rest and take your mind off your mother."
"If you get sick, Gabrielle, you won't help us, any of us, especially mom," insisted Lila.
Gabrielle sighed. "Okay, okay. I'll try."
"Thank the gods!" exclaimed Hector. "You could go to the tavern. They still remember your stories, you know?"
"Or to the market. Yesterday a merchant arrived from Killini. He told some incredible things about the Conqueror. They might interest you," Lila conspiratorially winked at her husband.
"The Conqueror? Why didn't you tell me sooner?" snapped Gabrielle, standing abruptly. "Who's this merchant?"
"Oh, I think you'll recognize him. He's the only stranger. Anyway, he sells pottery and his name should be Attalus, if I'm not mistaken." the younger woman said nonchalantly.
"Thanks. See you later," the blonde woman said and hurriedly left the house.
Hector smiled, "Good job, dear."
The merchant was still at the main square, carefully packing his goods in a cart. He was a short man in his forties, with curly black hair and a captivating smile. Gabrielle chose not to waste time.
"Excuse me sir, are you Attalus the merchant?"
"Yes, I am. What can I do for you, my beautiful lady?" He smiled broadly.
"Well, my sister told me she heard you say something about the Conqueror, and I was wondering if you could repeat your story for me," she hurriedly explained.
"Mmm, and why exactly would you like to hear it?" he asked, suddenly suspicious.
"Because I'm the bard of this village and I always need new stories," Besides, I'm personally interested in everything regarding the Warrior Princess, she mentally added. "Please?"
"Oh, well, if that's the reason... but I don't think it will make a great story, you know?" he shrugged and started explaining. "Anyway. You must know that almost two moons ago I was in Killini with some colleagues. One night, all of a sudden, the earth started shaking. It shakes and trembles and shakes... and seems that it will never stop... We were at the inn, already sleeping. It had to be the most terrible awakening of all my life." Gabrielle shuddered at the memory. He continued, "The inn fell down like a castle of cards. We were in a room on the upper floor and that saved me. A beam missed me by a hair's width. A friend of mine wasn't so lucky. I slowly managed to crawl out of the ruins." He squared his shoulders solemnly. "Being short and thin has its advantages, sometimes. But what I saw next made the blood freeze in my veins. Under the moonlight I could see only ruins. Not a single house was standing. Slowly, others climbed out of the ruins, covered in dust, and we started digging to see if anyone else was alive." He paused and continued with a sad voice. "We continued all the following day. For every person we found alive, we always found at least four dead. The next day we were exhausted, it was so cold, we had had almost nothing to eat and we had slept on the ground, but still there were a lot of houses to search and corpses to burn..." The merchant shivered remembering the funeral fires, burning for days, then continued, "That's when she arrived, on that big black horse. She was followed by fifty horsemen. At her signal they all dismounted. Some of them took care of the horses, others started building tents and cooking for the survivors, others started digging. She took care of the wounded. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed. She stitched, bandaged, cleaned wounds, set bones... she was amazing. In late afternoon many other houses had been checked, but only few people had been extracted alive. None of us believed there were any more survivors, and the officer in charge called a stop to the digging that night without asking her, planning to start again the following morning. When she got out of the healer's tent she saw the soldiers resting and went mad. She called that officer and asked for an explanation, with the coldest voice I've ever heard. He paled and babbled something about letting the men rest. She closed her eyes, clenched her fists and took several deep breaths. We all thought she was going to kill him on the spot and held our breath. But she just ordered the search to continue at the light of the torches and funeral fires if necessary. She herself joined the soldiers. That night, some soldiers started yelling that they had heard something from under the ruins. Everyone came to see what they found. Xena hushed everyone and, in the silence that followed, we heard the cry of a baby. It was weak, but unmistakable. Xena and the soldiers started digging again bare handed and cleared a small passage to the baby, but the ruins were unstable and threatened to fall upon them at any minute. The Conqueror then ordered them all to stay away and tied a rope to her feet. She crawled head first into the passage and after a while yelled to pull the rope. When she reappeared her arms and legs were full of bruises and scratches, but the baby was alive in her arms. I could swear I saw her crying, but I don't know if it was because of the dust..."
"Amazing!" Gabrielle exclaimed in wonder.
"Yeah. She was incredible. We had almost forgot who she was, when the soldiers caught two thieves."
"Scum. Men who taking advantage from the confusion tried to rob the survivors. Xena had them impaled at the entrance of the town." He shrugged, "She was really the Conqueror. The following day she left on her own, to check the victims and the soldiers she sent in the other villages of the region. I've never seen her again. That's all, girl, I hope you can make a good story of it."
"Oh, you can count on it. Thank you for telling me," said Gabrielle and, still
astonished, she left the merchant. So Xena had spared a general and risked her
life to save a baby. She didn't content herself sending aid, she had gone personally...
but why? Nobody could force her to go. She could simply direct the operations
from Corinth, but she had chosen to be there. And she let me come here, too,
the blonde woman thought. Then she's changing. Maybe she's really trying to
be a different ruler... oh, gods, let it be true! With that thought, Gabrielle
went back home.
Gabrielle's mother lived another week then, one night, she closed her eyes forever. Lila and Gabrielle accepted her death stoically. They knew Hecuba didn't suffer anymore and, although they missed her terribly, they knew she was in a better place.
But now what about me? thought Gabrielle, watching her mother's pyre burning slowly under the setting sun. Can I stay here... or not? What will the Conqueror do? I can't believe she'll simply forget I exist. Not after what I told her about my importance to the Resistance. Then what?
If Xena sets me free I can start a new life here. She shook her head. No, this is not an option. I always wanted to leave Poteidaia, mine wouldn't be a real life here. I would be useless. And I can't forget my friends like that... Then I should go back to clandestinity. I'll be able to resume my fight with the Resistence... Yes, but what if the Conqueror didn't mean to set me free? She'll think I betrayed her trust! She'll hunt me down until she arrests me again, and maybe she'll arrest Hector and Lila too, if she thinks they know where I hide. No, no, I can't permit this. Then what? Surrender? She sighed. It's so beautiful to be free again, to have someone to talk to, decent food to eat, a house to live in... I don't know if I have the strength to go back to the dungeon. Gabrielle shivered remembering her ordeal. If Xena is just toying with me and I surrender, she'll kill me. But, if she's really trying to change she needs me by her side now more than ever. It must be really hard for her, and I could encourage her, strengthen her resolve. That would be worth dying for. After all, what does my life matter if Xena will change, even slowly... if she'll be a better ruler? Too many lives depend on her. I have to take the chance. Yes, I have to go back, no matter what the price may be. Gabrielle slowly nodded; she had made up her mind.
The day after the funeral Lila and Gabrielle went out for a walk. The air was still cold, but the sun was getting warmer every day and spring was approaching. Marcus was playing with his friends and Herodotus was sleeping in his mother's arms. The blonde woman thought this was the right moment to talk to her sister. "Lila, I have something to tell you," she started, softly.
"About?" Lila asked, concerned.
"About me, sis. I'm going back to Corinth. To Xena."
"What! But... the soldiers, they left you here... maybe you're free." Lila said, confused. "You can stay here. Why risk being arrested again?"
"Because I have to, Lila. The Conqueror never said she was going to set me free, and I told you how she freed a friend of mine only because I surrendered. If I don't go she may arrest her again. Besides, if she wants to, she can always free me later..." Gabrielle patiently explained.
"Gab, your friend is safe now. If you go to Corinth, however, Xena'll kill you. You've even told her you're the one who writes the speeches for the rebels! You can't go. You have to hide!" She took her sister's hands, "Please, Gabrielle, I just lost mother. I can't lose you, too."
Gabrielle shook her head, fighting back the tears. "Lila, believe me, if I had another choice I wouldn't go. It breaks my heart to leave you, especially now, but I have to leave. Think about it: if I hide in Corinth or elsewhere, this is the first place they'll search me. I can't put you, Hector, or the children in such a danger. I have already given you and Hector too many problems. I have to go."
Lila paused and slowly nodded. Even if her heart screamed this was crazy, her mind told her Gabrielle was right. She and Hector couldn't risk being arrested. What would happen to Herodotus and Marcus then? It was typical of Gabrielle to care of the others before herself, and Lila was thankful to her sister for thinking of the children. At last she managed to say, "Gabrielle, do what you think is right, but please think about it twice. After you go back to her, there will be no turning back."
"I have thought about this, and I know the risk. And I'm afraid that if I go, I won't see home again." the blonde woman said seriously "Lila, I know we often disagreed on many subjects. We're different, even if we're sisters. I only want you to know I've always loved you and even when I left Poteidaia it wasn't because I didn't care, but--"
Lila stopped her "Gabrielle, please, I already know, there's no need to explain. I love you. I always did and always will. And I also believe that if someone can change the Empress, it's you." She hugged her sister, crying, and little Herodotus, waking up, joined them with his screams.
"Thank you, Lila. I hope you're right," the blonde woman replied, with a lump in her throat.
"Yeah. Well, when are you going to leave?" the younger woman asked after a while, wiping her tears and lulling the baby.
"Tomorrow morning, at dawn."
"So early?? And how will you travel?"
"I'll walk," Gabrielle shrugged.
"Walk? Alone?" the blonde woman nodded. "Gab, it's too dangerous. Corinth is too far for a woman alone. You risk not getting there alive. We have to find someone, or I'll come with you..." the younger woman said, worried.
"You have to take care of the children, Lila. Herodotus is a newborn child and Marcus is only four. You can't leave them to Hector for weeks. And I will have company long before Corinth. I'll ask the soldiers of the Pella's garrison to escort me," Gabrielle explained trying to calm her sister.
"What? And do you think they will?" The younger woman asked dubiously.
"When I'll tell them that the Conqueror made an edict to arrest me, they will. I don't really think they wish to face Xena's anger if something happens to me. Not that she's really going to get angry if anything happens to me, but they don't know that," she smiled conspiratorially.
Lila shook her head "So you've already planned everything... Gab, I'd really like to help you somehow. I can't really believe you're leaving again, to go right in the hands of that harpy, and I can't do anything about it!"
"Yes, yes, I know... she's not that monster she pretends to be. Just promise me you'll be careful, will you?" the younger woman pleaded, a concerned look on her face.
"I will, Lila, I promise. And there is something you can do." Lila watched her sister expectantly. Gabrielle explained, "Perdicus and the others are surely worried about me now. It's been almost three moons since I surrendered, and they haven't heard anything from me since. I want to let them know I'm fine. I'm going to write a letter. Could you send it to Corinth for me? There's a tavern, called ėThe Rising Sun'. The owner is a friend. He'll deliver the letter to Perdicus. I know it's dangerous, but..."
"I will, Gabrielle. And don't you worry about the danger." It's nothing compared to the danger you will face, Lila thought. "Well, we better go home. If you're leaving tomorrow morning you have to prepare your things... you'll need supplies for the journey, a blanket, oh, yes! Clean clothes for when you meet the Conqueror..."
Gabrielle arched an eyebrow, doubtfully, "Lila, I don't really think the Conqueror cares what her prisoners are wearing."
"She may not care, but I do, and you should. You're the leader of the Rebellion, Gabrielle. You're not going to meet Xena dressed as a smelling beggar! You'll take three changes of clothes with you, and you'll wear the newest only when you'll arrive in Corinth. Got it?"
"Yes, mistress," the elder woman replied and laughing, they went home.
The following morning Gabrielle woke up at dawn, finding Lila already at work in the small kitchen. "Is my nose deceiving me or do I smell nutbread?" she asked delighted.
"Good morning, Gab. I know it's your favorite. Here. For you." Lila replied smiling, giving her sister a double portion of nutbread and a cup of milk, and when the blonde woman finished eating, she offered her another plate full of fruit.
"Thanks, sis, but it's too much..." Gabrielle declined with a smile.
"Don't be silly, a long journey awaits you. You have to be strong if you want to reach Corinth," insisted the younger woman.
"If I eat all this stuff, Lila, I'll roll to Corinth, not walk!"
"Please Gabrielle! I'm your sister. Don't you think I know you keep a monster in your stomach? Give it a single hour, and you'll be able to eat as much as this, again." Lila teased, crossing her arms.
Both women laughed and, shaking her head in defeat, the older one started eating the fruit. She then checked one more time that she had packed everything she needed for her journey and rose.
Hector entered the room, cradling Herodotus in an arm and Marcus in the other. "So you leave, Gabrielle," he said seriously, putting down the older child. The blonde woman nodded "You can still change your mind..."
She smiled, "Thanks, but I can't. Marcus, honey, come here." The child toddled to his aunt. Gabrielle lifted him up and sat him on her knees "I have something important to tell you Marcus, listen to me," She seriously started "I am leaving for a long, long journey."
"Like grandma?" The baby interrupted.
Gabrielle swallowed "Yes, like grandma."
"Like Ulysses?" he asked again, delighted.
"Yes, like Ulysses"
"Wow! You, you will see Toy, and Ita- Icacha?"
"Yes, Troy and even Ithaca, maybe," lied the blonde woman, smiling.
"May I come with you, auntie?" the child asked, with excited eyes.
"No, Marcus, it's too far," Gabrielle explained, fighting back the tears.
"Please..." the baby begged, hugging his aunt tightly.
Tears started rolling down the blonde woman's cheeks. "No, I'm sorry. I'd like to have you by my side, but it's not possible... But listen to me: I'll be back and then I'll take you to Athens to see the Acropolis. I have many friends in Athens, you know? You'll meet them all. And then we'll go to Olympia to see the games. And every night I'll tell you a different story. Do you like the idea?"
"Yes, yes! When, auntie?" the child exclaimed, happy.
"As soon as I come back. My journey will be long, but when I come home, we'll leave for Athens."
She hugged the child tightly. "I promise, Marcus. But you have to make me a promise, too. You have to be nice to mom and dad until I'll come back. You have to deserve your prize. Will you be a good boy, Marcus? You promise."
"I promise, auntie," he said seriously.
"Good." said Gabrielle, and swallowed hard. "Now go and play with your friends. I have to say goodbye to your mom." She kissed him on his curly hair and he ran out of the house to tell his friends about his aunt's promise. The blonde woman rose and lifting her eyes, she saw that Lila was crying and even Hector had moist eyes.
"Oh, Gabrielle, be careful!" she said, tightly hugging her sister. Hector approached and hugged them both, not knowing what to say.
"I will, Lila, I will." The older woman broke the embrace and kissed the sleeping Herodotus "If I... When Herodotus is old enough, tell him he had an aunt, short, blonde, and stubborn. Tell him she loved him..." she said with a lump in her throat.
"You will tell him, Gabrielle," said Hector, "You'll be back."
"Yes, I will. I'll try," the blonde woman wiped away
her tears and cleared her throat "Well, it's time for me to leave." She picked
up her gear, a staff Hector had made her for support and for defense, and left
the house. Hector and Lila accompanied her. At the village's borders, she hugged
them one last time, she said goodbye to her village she walked down the dusty
road unwilling to look back at her sad family waving goodbye.
Gabrielle's journey was easier than she expected. In Pella she learned that, within the previous month, the Conqueror had sent two trusted undercover operatives to discover how the town was ruled. They found corruption among the civil employees and laziness among the soldiers. As a result, the highest civil officer and the commander of the garrison were executed and their heads displayed on pikes at the town's main door. The new commander was so afraid to fail the Conqueror even in the slightest way that when Gabrielle told him Xena had made an edict just to arrest her, he immediately ordered her arrest and gave her a huge escort of soldiers to Corinth. It seemed that lately the Warrior Princess had declared a war against corruption: her spies were making surprise inspections in every single town in the empire, and Pella's commander surely didn't want to lose his head.
The journey was uneventful, but many anecdotes told by the soldiers fueled Gabrielle's hope that the Conqueror was really changing. Corinth was still many days away, but Gabrielle's renewed enthusiasm sparkled in her eyes. She was looking forward to seeing Xena again.
Theodorus entered the throne room with a silly smile on his face and bowed. "My liege."
Xena raised a questioning eyebrow. "What?"
"Well, I think we should do something about the dungeon, my liege." He said, teasingly.
"No riddles, Theodorus. I'm not in the mood."
The soldier became instantly serious at the Conqueror's menacing voice. "Yes, my queen. I mean, your dungeon has always been a place that terrified everyone, wasn't it?"
"So?" the Conqueror asked, annoyed.
"Well, it seems it's not so scary anymore... the blonde, Gabrielle, is here. Willingly again." The general had not liked Xena's decision to let the girl leave, but now it seemed that the Warrior Princess had made the right choice again. He smiled, his respect for the queen evident in his eyes.
Xena put away the scrolls she was reading. "She's here?"
"Yes, my liege. Arrived half a candlemark ago."
The Conqueror had been informed of Hecuba's death almost immediately after it happened. As the days passed and Gabrielle didn't come back, however, she had lost hope to see the blonde woman again. Now she was pleasantly surprised. "Bring her here," she said at last.
"My liege, may I remind you about the meeting with ..."
Xena interrupted him. "I know, Theodorus. I still have
half a candlemark. Bring her here." The officer bowed and left.
After some moments Xena heard a knock at the throne room's door. "Come."
Theodorus entered and was dismissed even before he could bow. Gabrielle got in and advanced towards the Conqueror. The blonde woman was dressed as when she had left (even if now her clothes looked clean) and was chained again, as if nothing had happened. When she was a few feet away from the table at which Xena was sitting, she knelt, looking the Warrior Princess in the eye. She's smiling! Gabrielle thought, she's happy to see me...
"Conqueror," she simply said, uncertain on how to say the other things she had on her mind.
"Gabrielle. Rise." The blonde woman complied. Xena rose, too, and faced her prisoner.
"Why are you here? Did you miss these?" she teasingly said, touching the younger woman's manacles.
"Not really, but you never said I was free. And besides, you were telling me your story. It would have been rude if I had left in the middle of it, don't you think?" The blonde woman replied with a warm smile.
"Yes, I guess so. Sit." Xena said, indicating an empty chair, and poured two mugs of port.
"There's another reason I came back." Gabrielle added, summoning her courage.
"Really? What?" Xena asked, puzzled and offered her a mug.
"Well, I was curious. I wanted to ask you about Killini. How it felt doing good," she said accepting her wine.
So she heard, thought the Conqueror, and shrugged. "It was just my duty. How should it feel?"
"No, it wasn't just your duty and you know it. You could just send troops and supplies, but something compelled you to go there personally. Nobody could ask you to heal the wounded, to dig with your bare hands, to risk your life under the ruins. But you did it."
"I wanted to try something different for once." Xena shrugged.
"And?" The blonde woman prompted.
"And it was less exciting than a battle and more tiring. Same blood, same ruins, same misery. But more labour." Gabrielle held her breath, hoping these words did not mean what she feared. The Warrior Princess continued, "But it didn't feel bad, if it's what you wanna know. I felt useful."
Yes! The captive girl exulted inwardly. "I'm glad to hear that," she said, smiling. "I'm proud of you." she added, tentatively.
"You what?" asked Xena, unbelievingly, choking her port.
Gabrielle shrugged, smiling weakly. "I'm proud, yes, proud of you. I mean... I know it must have been a difficult choice for you. You didn't have to do it. It was a hard journey, through the mountains; you had to sleep in a tent, eat with the soldiers and see corpses all around... You could have stayed here, pampered in your palace. Nobody would have criticized you for it. I can imagine it's difficult to leave all of this" and she indicated the huge room with a wave of her hand, "even just for a few days. I admire you for it."
"Thanks," said a confused Conqueror.
"And I owe you for letting me see mother. I know what you'd like me to do in exchange, but I really can't betray my friends."
"Gabrielle, I told you I don't..." started the Conqueror.
"Please, let me finish," the blonde woman interrupted "I thought about what I could do to repay this debt, or at least to let you know I'm thankful, but it's not easy..." Gabrielle shrugged. "You have everything, and I couldn't come up with any good ideas. So it's really a silly little thing, but well, after all what matters is the intention, isn't it? Here. It's for you." She took a silk handkerchief from the sleeve of her shirt and, smiling shyly, gave it to the Conqueror. "I know it's a poor gift, I don't mean disrespect, much less flattery, but it's all I can afford."
Stunned, Xena accepted the gift. Not only had this woman come back even knowing that in doing so her fate was sealed, she had also brought a gift. And it wasn't a common present. She examined the uncommonly fine embroidery work on the cloth: all around it ran a cornice of laurel leaves. On one corner there was a little chakram, and inside it an "X" colored in gold and purple.
"Thank you, Gabrielle... it's... it's beautiful" the Warrior Princess spoke at last "Did you do it?" The blonde woman blushed and nodded. "You didn't have to... really. There was no need..."
"I know. But I wanted to" she smiled.
An embarrassed silence fell in the room. Xena cleared her throat. "Well, thanks then... I'm glad you came back. Not that I couldn't find you otherwise, but I'm glad you came willingly. I'm busy at the moment, but later..."
Realizing it was a dismissal Gabrielle rose. "Sure. I'm looking forward to it."
Xena clapped her hands and a soldier entered to lead the prisoner away. The Conqueror studied the gift again, caressing the embroideries with her fingers then, smiling, put it into her left gauntlet and with a cheerful voice called Theodorus.
Later that day the Conqueror summoned Gabrielle again. A small fire was burning in the fireplace warming the cool throne room, whose walls were too thick to let the warmth of the spring sun through. The two women sat on a sofa facing the fireplace, and Xena unceremoniously spoke.
"Well, where were we?"
Gabrielle reminded her where the story had ended. The Conqueror steeled herself and spoke. "Right. I had a whole empire at my command so I had no money problems. I built an army, but not too big at first... I didn't want to scare anyone too much. I didn't want the larger towns to league against me. It might have been an annoying problem. So I started attacking small villages like any other warlord, then small towns. Then, when my position in Greece was strong enough, big ones. I always gave them the opportunity to surrender. But those who didn't were burned to the ground." She spoke keeping emotion out of her voice, but it was a titanic effort. Inside she felt shame, guilt and pain grow wider with every word. These emotions were completely new for the Destroyer of Nations: she had always been proud of her conquests, but lately she was beginning to see events in a different light.
How can she be so cold, thought Gabrielle unaware of the Conqueror's inner turmoil. It seems like she's talking about the weather when she says she destroyed hundreds of lives! "Gods..." the captive whispered, not realizing she was voicing her thoughts.
"You don't approve?" Xena asked, saddened but not surprised for the blonde woman's reaction.
"How could I?" The younger woman asked bravely "You talk about towns and villages as if they were only points on a map, but you didn't just change maps. The towns you burned were real, the men you killed had sons, families! How am I supposed to accept that?"
"I didn't like it either, Gabrielle," the Conqueror replied sadly, acknowledging that what the girl said was true. "But they chose their destiny. They could surrender, and they didn't." Yeah, sure, she thought, I gave them a great choice. "What else could I do?" she asked at last, in self-defense.
"You could stop," the blonde woman immediately replied.
"I couldn't. And if it weren't me, it would have been some other warlord," Xena said, but uncertainty was transparent in her voice.
Gabrielle sensed her hesitation and pressed the issue. "That's not an excuse, and you know it. Maybe another warlord would have destroyed them as well, but it doesn't matter: it was you who sacked those towns, not someone else." The raven haired woman did not reply, her sad blue eyes intently watching the fire. "What happened then?" Gabrielle asked after some moments.
"In that period, Athens and Sparta were at war, each supported by a league of allied towns. I secretly sold weapons to both, at a cheap price, to let the war go on as long as possible." The captive woman gasped, stunned at the revelation that someone could actually wish and act for a war to last. Xena chose to ignore the sound. "Then Sparta won, too soon for my plans. So I corrupted dignitaries in Sparta's allied towns, and they persuaded the league to dictate humiliating conditions to Athens for peace. The people of Athens, wounded in their pride, refused the peace offers and the war exploded again." Gabrielle's eyes were wide with horror. "Both the armies were exhausted, and the Athenian army was really at its limits. So after a few more weeks of bloody battles I sold a load of worthless weapons to the Spartans then immediately declared war on them. Athens' league was excited, now they had fresh men, better weapons and the best leader. The Spartans were doomed, in fact we wiped them away easily. When Sparta surrendered, Greece was mine. Athens was already on her knees and couldn't seriously oppose me. They all had to recognize me as their Queen."
"A brilliant plan," Gabrielle said disgustedly, unable to wait any longer. "You could really be proud of it if it weren't for the useless deaths it caused."
"Useless? No, Gabrielle. Spartans and Athenians would have died as well, fighting against my army. This way, when I attacked, they were so weak I won with few casualties. This way I saved many of my men." Xena replied, matter-of-factly, but before her eyes she could see the battles she fought in that war: the blood, the screams of the dying soldiers, the tears of their families... and for the first time she asked herself if her vengeance was worth it.
"Even admitting this is true, you organized a war between two towns ready for peace only because it fit your plans of conquest! You betrayed both the leagues! They trusted you. It's awful..." Gabrielle continued, unaware of the effect her words were having on Xena's conflicting emotions, and not thinking that she was openly questioning the Conqueror's deeds.
"Divide et impera, Caesar taught me that" Xena said, defensively.
"And you learned well," the blonde woman's lips said, before she could stop them.
Xena jerked at the retort, angrily opened and closed her mouth several times, looking for the right answer to such disrespectful words, but she couldn't find any. They were just the truth.
"Yes, I did" she quietly admitted at last, looking at the bearskin laying before the fireplace, her legs aching at the memory of Caesar's lesson. After a long pause, she asked "Do you still want to know what happened next?"
"Yes, I do. Go on, please" the younger woman softly replied. Even if hearing of wars and battles sickened her, Gabrielle needed to know everything. It was the only way to really help Xena: know her and her past, her joys and pains, her dreams and fears. The stunned blonde woman listened as the Conqueror recalled her countless, bloody victories: the Destroyer of Nations remembered the betrayal she used against her friend Boadicea to claim Britannia. She recalled the countless battles she fought against the Roman legions under the burning African sun for possession of Egypt. She relived the final battle against Caesar and the few still loyal to him and her glorious triumph in the Forum when Rome proclaimed her empress, Caesar chained to her chariot. She explained in detail how she unmercifully tamed the Gaul tribes, burning villages and wiping away entire forests to make new crosses for them.
Gabrielle, fists clenched, was barely able to remain silent while the Conqueror mentioned the moaning of the dying rebels, begging for their sufferings to end, but couldn't restrain her temper when Xena mentioned the massacre of the Centaurs and the Amazon nation.
"How could you do that?" She exclaimed, her green eyes flashing anger. "Why did you do that? The Amazons lived happily in their hunting grounds, they wanted nothing more. They weren't a threat to your empire! And the Centaurs were already weak from the previous wars with the Amazons, they weren't a danger either."
The Conqueror shrugged. "The Centaurs had to stay out of it. I couldn't let them help my enemies and do nothing about it. I had to punish them. I had to make them an example."
"But that is the point, Conqueror!" the younger woman insisted "The Amazons weren't your enemies! They refused to help you, but they would have refused to help your enemies, too. They had nothing against you. They just wanted peace."
"Whoever isn't with me is against me, Gabrielle. I couldn't risk it. They had to choose between me and my enemies, and they made the wrong choice."
"Why? Do you always make the right ones?" Gabrielle asked, sarcastically.
The question made Xena feel suddenly dizzy. No, she thought painfully, I don't always make the right choices, not at all. I made my mistakes, too. I was wrong when I used my first army against the villages' league... wrong when I trusted Caesar. And I was wrong when I declared war on the whole world. At that moment the need to protect Amphipolis was just an excuse... I brought hurt and destruction into countless lives just to build my empire! Gods, how many people did I murder only because it fit my plans? How many people cried because of me? How am I different from Cortese?
Images of death and destruction flashed behind the Conqueror's eyes, the horror of her deeds dawning on her in its full monstrosity. The small fire burning in the fireplace called up images of the huge fire that burnt Cirra and so many other towns. She heard once again the desperate cries of the families trapped in the burning houses, she saw the Centaurs slayed by her troops, she remembered countless battlefields, rows and rows of crosses... and desperation overcame her. Gods, what did I do? She thought. How could I do it? And always without realizing all the pain I caused... No, without caring for it! I'm a monster! How can I think I can change, how can I think that being a better ruler now will erase the past? Whatever I'll do now, it won't bring back to life any of my victims!
The Conqueror was breathing heavily, her eyes wide in shock. Gabrielle, concerned, seeing Xena's pale, sweating face and horrified eyes, touched her on the arm and hesitatingly asked "Conqueror, are you okay?"
Xena jerked at the touch as if the younger woman's hand was a burning iron and instinctively jumped to her feet slamming her elbow into Gabrielle's jaw, the violence of the blow sending the blonde woman fly down the sofa. The Conqueror stood there, mouth open in disbelief, watching the little woman slowly try to sit, holding her bleeding jaw with a quivering hand, green eyes unfocused. After some moments Xena swallowed hard and called a soldier. When he entered, she almost shouted "Away! Take her away. Now!" and while the guard dragged the still dizzy prisoner out of the room, the Conqueror fell on her knees before the fire, tears streaming down her face. Won't it ever end? She thought. Will I ever stop hurting people? Even Gabrielle... What did she do to deserve this? She came back to listen to me... she trusted me, and I almost killed her because she touched me! Gods, I'm only a monster... a monster...
Gabrielle closed her eyes, taking deep breaths to calm herself and ease the pain pulsing through her chin. She took the piece of cloth she had torn from her sleeve and soaked it for the umpteenth time in the bucket of cold water found in her cell. She winced when the rag touched her skin again. She could feel her left cheek already swelling and wondered if she had a broken bone or tooth. She sighed. This time I really asked for it, she thought. I can't believe I did it again! The Conqueror was talking to me, and I provoked her. I openly questioned her deeds instead of giving careful opinions; I angered her instead of helping her. No wonder she was so angry that she hit me when I touched her... Stupid, stupid, stupid! But I couldn't help it. I knew she had hurt a lot of people, but hearing it, I just couldn't keep silent. The blonde woman shuddered remembering the details of the conversation. Gods, how much pain Xena caused everywhere she went... yet the real tragedy is that she's a victim, too. She has suffered so much. She was just a young village girl when she had to take up the sword to survive, and since then she has never put it down. She has always had new threats to face. This is the only life she knows. How can I blame her if she's ruthless, if her enemies' life has no value for her? If only she hadn't met Caesar... If only someone could touch her heart... she must feel so lonely. Gabrielle soaked the rag again. But now what will she do? She's angry at me, that's obvious. She even hit me, but that's not the point. Will she still think she can, she must change, now that I angered her? Because she was really changing... Oh, gods, I can't have ruined everything!
That thought alone hurt the blonde woman more than her jaw. Absorbed in her musings, Gabrielle didn't notice the cells door open and realized with a start she wasn't alone anymore.
"Don't worry, child, I'm here to help you" the approaching old man said, with a reassuring voice.
"How is she?" Xena asked hastily as the healer exited the cell, concern evident on her face.
"There's nothing broken, my liege." the old man respectfully explained. "It's just a bruise. I put some salve on it and gave the girl a painkiller. She'll be fine in a few days."
"Are you sure?" the Conqueror asked, doubtfully.
"Yes, my liege, there's really nothing to worry about," the healer replied, surprised to see the Conqueror concerned for a prisoner, and for such a minor injury. "You can see it personally, if..."
Xena interrupted the healer and, with a wave of her hand, dismissed him as she released a breath of relief. So it's nothing serious, she thought. Thank the gods. But it was so close... Xena shuddered at the memory of the young woman's pain filled eyes while the soldier was dragging her away. Gods, she's the only one who saw something good in me, she trusted me, and I almost killed her! She must be terrified now. I should go in, comfort her... explain... What? That I didn't really want to hurt her? That it was just my training? Yeah, sure, ėsorry Gabrielle, my arm moved of its own will, I wasn't able to stop it in time.' She'll believe that, sure... The Conqueror leaned against the wall, shaking her head, disgusted at herself; the shame she felt was overwhelming. No, I can't see her. I can't look her in the eyes... not now. And my appearance would only scare her more.
"Damn!" she exclaimed, slamming her fist on the rough
stone wall. I can't, can't keep hurting people like this. Gabrielle is right.
I really have to change. It won't undo the past, but at least it will protect
my subjects in the future. I have to do it. Even if Gabrielle won't ever
forgive me for what I did, at least what she suffered won't be useless. And
wondering how this young girl could be so important to her, sadly, Xena went
back to the throne room.
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