The Leader
Storm





Chapter 21



Suddenly the crowd swayed. "There's something wrong," Perdicus whispered to his betrothed.

"I don't know, I can't see a thing," the blonde woman said, rising on tiptoes, in a vain attempt to see over the people rising to block her view.

Soldiers were running up the steps to the throne, others were yelling orders. In few moments all Xena's generals were at the top of the staircase, and the confusion was complete. The crowd sensed that something had happened and people started murmuring.

"It's an assault," a man behind Gabrielle said, excited.

"Yes, I saw the Conqueror fall," whispered another.

"The Conqueror is dead!" A voice louder than the others yelled from the crowd. "We're free!" And the crowd erupted in a shattering rumble of joy, as if it was the signal of the end of years of tyranny. Some people started shouting insults to the Conqueror and her men, others climbed the masts that were all around the square and ripped Xena's banners down. Others picked up stones from the ground and begun throwing them at the royal guard. The soldiers, surprised by the sudden riot, at first backed away, which emboldened the revolting Corinthians. Some broke the wooden barriers and, using the wood as a weapon, assailed the soldiers, the whole roaring square advancing menacingly behind them. Others took torches from the houses facing the square and threw them towards the palace. The soldiers unsheathed their swords and begun swinging them defensively in deadly arcs towards the peasants, but they were outnumbered. Theodorus and Ipseus went downstairs and joined their men, shouting orders. As they saw them, the soldiers took courage and doubled their fury. However, the crowd's rage increased, too, as they saw Xena's generals so close, and the battle raged bloody.

Gabrielle and Perdicus, dragged by waves of people tried not to lose contact with each other, while trying to move towards one side of the square away from the most violent protestors.

"I have to go to the palace, Perdicus," Gabrielle raised her voice above the chaotic din.

"No way!" He replied, worried. "It's too dangerous," and to make sure she wouldn't escape he put his hand firmly on her shoulder. Suddenly the palace's gates opened, and the cavalry emerged in battle deployment. They stopped a moment then, at Arcas' order, charged the peasants. The crowd dangerously swayed under the horsemen's pressure. The throwing of stones intensified but many people started yelling terrified, and many tried to run away, stumbling on those behind them. Panic seized the crowd and the square became a carnage. The soldiers hit mercilessly everyone that was at sword range, man or woman. People ran terrified, trampling to death the fallen. Some fanatics still threw stones and torches at the royal guards, but the enraged soldiers, now in control of the square, threw them back. Setting fire systematically to the houses where the rebels ran for cover, the soldiers pursued the terrified people down the nearby streets.

"We've got to get out of here," Perdicus yelled, and shoved Gabrielle towards a nearby alley. The blonde woman nodded and followed him, secretly unlacing her cape. As she passed by another alley she suddenly moved on her left, throwing her cloak on Perdicus' head. The young man, taken by surprise, left Gabrielle to get the cloak out of his way. After few moments, when he was able to see again, he couldn't see his betrothed anymore among the panicked crowd.

"Gabrielle!" He shouted as loud as he could. "Gabrielle! Where are you?" But the confusion easily masked his voice. He tried again and again to advance towards the palace, but the mass of people shoved him back in the opposite direction. At last, tired, he gave up and went towards the shelter, cursing.

Gabrielle waited, immobile, hidden between the wall of a house and a small wagon that the crowd had overturned. I'm sorry, Perdicus, she sadly thought as she heard his desperate calls, this is the second time I've deceived you. I know you don't understand, but I must go. Xena needs me... She waited until she didn't hear his voice anymore, and waited some more. The terrified crowd ran past her, and the pursuing soldiers didn't notice her either. When the sounds of the riot were far enough away, she slowly rose and checked if the road was safe. Then, afraid she had lost too much time, she started running as fast as she could towards the castle and Xena.

The alleys were almost deserted. The air was thick with the smoke of the fires; stones and other objects used in the battle were scattered everywhere on the ground. Wincing, the blonde woman passed by many alleys and several bodies laying in pools of blood, until she reached one of the palace's secondary entrances. She paused for a while, hands on her knees, long enough to regain her normal breathing rythm then, after wiping away the sweat from her forehead, steeled herself, approached the small wooden door and knocked decidedly.

"What's up?" an annoyed soldier asked, opening the peep-hole.

"I have to talk to Martinus. Now." She said quickly.

"Now? Don't ya see what's going on?" He asked, not recognizing the girl who had been banished from Corinth.

"Yes, I do, that's why I have to talk to him. Please!" She insisted, impatiently.

"He's busy. Come back later." He replied, closing the peep-hole.

Gabrielle stopped it with her hand. "Please, it's important! I've got to talk to him now. Just tell him I'm here..." she repeated.

"Listen, girl..." the guard started, annoyed.

"No, you listen! I have some urgent information he absolutely needs, and I have to speak to him personally. If you don't call him then you're looking for trouble, I assure you. He's going to be really mad about this and even the Conqueror will, when she finds out..."

"The Conqueror?" He asked, suddenly worried. This girl didn't look like a spy, but he didn't want to risk it. If she really had important information not calling Martinus could mean big trouble... "Fine then, wait here," he said at last, and closed the peep-hole.

The noise of the screams and of the fights that were taking place between the soldiers and the insurrectionists echoed through the narrowing streets. From the smell, Gabrielle could tell buildings were still on fire somewhere. I don't even want to know what might happen if Xena is really dying, she thought. No one is strong enough to take control peacefully.

After what seemed an eternity to the impatient woman, the peep-hole opened again and she could see Martinus' face. As soon as he saw her, his eyes widened in surprise. He opened the door and quickly got out, closing it immediately after. She smiled and opened her mouth to greet the soldier, but he roughly grabbed her arm and shoved her away from the door, checking suspiciously if anyone was watching them, and whispered menacingly, "What in Tartarus are you doing here? Are you suicidal?"

"Martinus, I have to see the Conqueror," the blonde woman explained seriously.

"What? She banished you, remember? You shouldn't even be here!"

"I know, but I was among the crowd... I saw what happened. I need to know if she's okay."

Martinus carefully studied the girl's face and saw concern written on it. During the journey to Poteidaia he had seen with his own eyes how good-hearted Gabrielle was; even if she had been worried for her mother, she was always kind to everyone, and she never complained. But this... this was nonsense. "She's fine, Gabrielle, go away now," he said after a long pause. Letting her go was betrayal, he knew it, but it was the right thing to do. He turned towards the door.

Gabrielle put her body between him and the door. "But she's injured, isn't she? How serious is it?" She asked, not believing the soldier's almost casual answer.

"Gabrielle, even if I knew, I couldn't tell you. Go away!" He hissed.

"So you don't really know if she's fine! Martinus, let me see her! Please!" She pleaded.

"Gabrielle, if she lives she'll kill you. Is this what you want?" He whispered, not wanting to be heard by the guards.

"If she lives? I want to be by her side now that she needs me, Martinus. Please," she insisted, her green eyes flashing determination.

Now that she needs me? She's crazy, the soldier thought. But if she wants to die, I can't do anything about it. Sighing, he knocked loudly and, when the door opened, with a nod he signaled her to enter.

_____________________________

Gabrielle was led through the palace's labyrinth. After passing countless long corridors and huge rooms, they finally reached an imposing door, guarded by two heavily armored soldiers that snapped to attention as they saw Martinus.

"Keep an eye on her," he casually said, and entered leaving Gabrielle outside.

She tried to calm herself, but with little success. She couldn't believe that Xena was really going to die. A single hit couldn't possibly kill her. But after all Xena was human, sooner or later she'd have to die... and what if today was her day? What could she do? And the soldiers at the door stood emotionless. How could they be so distant knowing who was behind that door? Or maybe they were so apparently calm because they knew who was behind that door? Martinus woke her from her thoughts, opening the door and calling her in. Swallowing hard, she complied.

Only some rays of light filtered through the heavy curtains opposite to the windows. She gasped as after some steps she realized this was the luxurious Conqueror's bedroom. And her heart almost stopped when, over the big canopy bed she saw Xena's body. She laid motionless, arms on her sides, in a simple linen shift, eyes closed. She was deadly pale.

The healer, standing beside a marble basin, was calmly drying his hands on a bloody rag, his head bent. Gabrielle stood silent for what seemed to her an eternity, a knot in her throat. Then she shakingly approached the head of the bed, watched the still woman in front of her and couldn't stop her tears anymore. She fell to her knees, bent at the waist on the big bed and rested her head on her forearms; before realizing it, she started sobbing loud. "Why, Xena? I had so much to tell you... Why now? Gods, why?"

After few moments, a cold, callused hand brushed her hair and a soft, concerned voice called her, "Crying? Don't cry, leader."

Gabrielle's eyes popped open. "X-Xena?..." She lifted her head and saw two marvelous, puzzled blue eyes a few inches from hers. "Oh Gods, Xena! You're alive! Alive!!" she exclaimed and, without thinking, she threw her arms tightly around the Conqueror's neck, crying for joy.

Surprised, Xena glanced at the soldier then, smiling, returned the hug fiercely. To Tartarus with Martinus and the servants! Gabrielle was back once again and was happy to see her alive! The Conqueror was happier than she had been in a long time. "I am." Xena relished the hug for a long moment. "Hey, you're supposed to be my enemy," the surprised Empress teased.

Gabrielle stood up and turned towards the wall, trying to regain her composure. "Well, no... yes, it's only that you were... I thought... damn! What a fool I am! It was all a trick, wasn't it? You were playing with me, weren't you?"

Xena smiled, amused. "Absolutely not. I was only meditating. Helps healing."

"Yeah, I'll bet. And if you hold your breath it works better, uh?" The blonde woman grinned.

Xena sighed, "Don't be angry, Gabrielle, I swear I wasn't holding my breath. Besides, why are you here? Have you forgotten what I told you last time we met?"

"Of course not. But it seems everyone is going crazy, having seen you fall... people rioting... and your men are all outside arresting and beating and burning... I thought you might be alone... what an idiot!" She spat, angry with herself.

The Conqueror's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Is what she said true, Martinus?"

"Yes, my liege, the soldiers are raiding the town."

"And why haven't I been informed?" The Conqueror growled, and wincing in pain, slowly rose from the bed.

"My queen, no, you're injured, you have to rest," the healer urged, hurrying at her side.

"Shut up!" She snapped at the healer and turned to a waiting servant growling. "You, bring my armor. And you, Martinus, call back Theodorus and the others. Call the people outside the palace. Use the horns. NOW!"

The horns were used only in special occasions, so the soldier was stunned at the order, but he knew better than to question it. He bowed and left the room.

"What... what are you going to do?" Gabrielle asked, her voice suddenly concerned.

"Kick sense into some heads," she nonchalantly answered, and not minding Gabrielle's presence in the room, she took off the shift she wore and with the help of the slaves slowly put her black leather, armour and cape on.

Gabrielle's green eyes widened in surprise as she saw the Conqueror undress in front of her, and she was going to avert them from that perfect body, embarrassed, when she noticed the bandages, at kidneys' height.

"You're really injured. You weren't kidding," the blonde woman whispered. The horns played.

"Just a scratch," the Conqueror shrugged. "Want to come along? After all you're here," Xena offered. Gabrielle nodded, not knowing exactly to what, and the raven haired woman signaled her to follow her.

The two women silently walked by several empty corridors, the younger one wondering what was going to happen, when they reached a door. Xena seized the handle, then closed her eyes and leaned her head on the smooth wood surface, a grimace of pain on her face.

Gabrielle immediately ran to her side hugging the Conqueror at the waist, sustaining her. "Conqueror? What's happening, are you fine?" She asked, concern evident in her voice.

"Yes," Xena replied through gritted teeth. "I'm fine." She took a couple of deep breaths, still leaning against the door, then gently pushed Gabrielle away and stood alone. "I'm fine." She repeated, studying Gabrielle's green, worried eyes, "Fine. Got it?" She asked, in her most commanding tone.

"Yes, Conqueror." The blonde woman said shivering at the tone, and realizing that Xena couldn't look weak in front of her generals.

"Good," the raven haired woman said, regaining her usual royal demeanour. "Thanks," she added with a shy smile, and opened the door.

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The generals arrived one after the other in the throne room. Theodorus was the last. "Glad to see you already standing, my queen," he smiled.

Xena didn't answer and addressed them all. "I've heard someone" she said this word coldly watching each of them, "has lost control. I've been attacked, true. But the attackers were two guards. Until someone proves me I'm wrong, the peasants outside have nothing to do with this."

"But they were rioting!" Ipseus interrupted.

"And cheering," Achilles added.

"Then bring back order, and don't add more confusion!" The Conqueror growled, slamming her fist on the throne's armchair. "I hear that some soldiers entered in the houses and shops, breaking everything! What makes them different from the revolutionists?" Xena paused. "I'm really disappointed in you all. These are the situations in which you can see if someone has nerves of metal or mush, if a general can control his men or not. So, judge yourselves!"

Gabrielle watched all those generals hung their head, one after the other. Ashamed! They were ashamed to have failed the Warrior Princess, like children scolded by their mother! The blonde woman was in awe.

"I hope you've understood what I expect from you. I won't tolerate any other episode like this. Got it?" The generals nodded, studying the floor intently.

"And now, let's stop the cheers." She rose from the throne and left the room, followed by the men. Martinus grabbed Gabrielle's arm and did the same.

They reached a huge balcony on the third floor, facing the main square in front of the palace. Martinus kept the blonde woman back, but she could see everything as well, from one of the windows that faced the balcony. Gabrielle gasped at the sight. The corpses had been dragged away and the square was so crowded that if a needle fell from the sky, it couldn't possibly fall on the ground. It seemed that the whole Corinth was there. The noise was deafening... as people were questioning of the reason of the sudden retreat of the soldiers and of the horns playing. Gabrielle could imagine her friends among the crowd, puzzled and thrilled like the others. Suddenly, tubes played again from the roof of the palace, and a general hushing filled the air until there was almost silence. At that moment Xena stepped on the balcony, alone. Her appearance caused complete, stunned silence. She slowly scanned the crowd below her feet, with cold, calculating eyes, put her fists on her hips and chuckled.

"People of Corinth!" She finally said, with a sarcastic smile on her face and a strong, steady voice, "I've heard that someone is spreading false rumors. Someone says that the Conqueror is dead." She paused for effect. "As you can see, these are just lies. The Conqueror is alive and kicking and in complete control." She watched the peasants again then continued, with a mocking voice, "So there is no need to show your grief for my death as you were doing before. I'm thankful for your loyalty but now that the misunderstanding is cleared up, I urge you to go back to your homes. Now." She concluded menacingly. Then turned and entered the palace again, as a huge line of soldiers slowly started positioning themselves in front of the palace, ready to act. After a moment of general surprise (but more likely it was delusion, as a big hope had been shattered), Gabrielle saw that the crowd started disbanding, peacefully.

"My liege, I'm so sorry you had to do this, being injured. We won't fail you again," Theodorus said, fearful of the Conqueror's wrath.

"I'm fine, it wasn't a big deal," she said nonchalantly while sitting on a nearby couch. "But you're right, this must not happen again," she threatened, pinning each of her generals with her iciest stare.

In that moment Ipseus noticed Gabrielle. "Crucifying this rebel on the main square would serve as an example to every fool who'd dare to oppose you, my liege," he said, and the other generals nodded their agreement, hoping this way the Warrior Princess would give vent to her anger on the girl and not on them.

The blonde woman swallowed. Xena stared at her intensely and spoke coldly. "I had clearly told you to leave Corinth, didn't I?"

Gabrielle sighed, already sensing the outcome of this conversation. The Conqueror couldn't show mercy to her in front of her generals. "Yes, you did," she said, meeting Xena's piercing blue eyes, with her own determined green.

"And you disobeyed me, purposefully," she continued, raising a perfect eyebrow.

"So it seems." Gabrielle acknowledged, not looking away.

Xena smiled, amused at Gabrielle's courage. "Then I condemn you to death. The sentence will be fulfilled by me personally. When I am better." Xena then raised an eyebrow and watched her generals. "Ya got it?" One after the other, each of them slowly nodded, shuddering at the simple thought of the kind of execution Xena could have in store for the rebel. Smiling contentedly, the Conqueror dismissed Gabrielle and Martinus with a distracted wave of her hand.

The officer led the blonde woman away and, when they were far enough from the soldiers, whispered in her ear, "Do you realize what the Conqueror has just done?"

"She has sentenced me to death. Why?" She answered, puzzled.

"No, she has just taken care of you. Now your life is in her hands only. No one else can raise a hand on you without being punished."

The girl's green eyes widened in understanding and, with renewed confidence, she followed the soldier towards her new cell. She expected to be put in the same awful one she was in on her first visit to the Conqueror's dungeon. To her surprise, instead, Bonacar put her in a very comfortable room, large, with a fire place, a table, two chairs, a real, soft bed and a basin. If it weren't for the iron bars at the window and the locked door it could have been a guest chamber. Gabrielle's surprise grew when she realized no one had chained her. So this is my home until Xena decides to kill me... as if she'll ever do it... she thought, sitting on the soft pallet. I really can't complain. Besides, I looked for this. It was foolish... still I'd do it again. This is where I had to be. Xena needed someone... I wonder when she'll call me again. Because she will, I'm sure of it. It's strange, but after all that she told me, I'm sure I know her better than most of her generals. And she happily laid down, her hope in the future finally renewed.



Chapter 22





The following day, in the evening, Gabrielle was led to Xena's rooms again. This room was large and dominated by a huge, square table, richly prepared. The many candles, flickering on the silver chandeliers, and the moonlight, filtering through the open balcony, emphasized the contrast between the festive colors in the Chinese porcelain plates and the dazzling white tablecloth. A bunch of fresh flowers artistically arranged on a round centerpiece perfumed the air.

Xena was standing beside the table, dressed in a simple blue robe closed by an intricate belt, with golden flames embroidered on the sleeves and shoulders, where her silky raven hair fell freely.

This was the first time Gabrielle had seen the Conqueror dressed in something different from her usual armor or strange Chinese outfits, and she had to admit Xena was indeed a marvelous woman. After a moment she realized she was staring and, blushing, bowed and saluted her. Xena, slightly surprised from the blonde woman's reaction, chose to ignore the girl's discomfort and gestured for her to sit at her right. Immediately the servants started bringing trays of vegetables and venison and, after one of them had tasted the Conqueror's part, they all exited leaving the two women alone.

"How are you?" Gabrielle asked, suddenly.

"Straight to the point, uh?" Xena mocked, starting to eat. "Fine, thanks. I told you it was just a scratch."

"I'm glad to hear it," the blonde woman said, with relief.

Xena raised an eyebrow: I even said I'll kill her when I'm better, and she's glad I'm fine? She really trusts me... but how can she? She saw what I'm capable of... "Why?" She asked at last, puzzled. "Why do you care so much for me? Why did you take the chance to come even knowing I have sentenced you to death?"

"I was afraid for you," the younger woman explained, softly. "There was such a confusion... Some said you were dead, others said you were seriously injured... And well, if you were dying, I really couldn't let you die alone."

"Why not?"

"Because you didn't deserve that, no matter what you did in life! You're my friend." Gabrielle's green eyes flashed determination as she continued, "And I was also afraid of the consequencies of your death. Don't you ever think about what it will happen to your kingdom after your death, Conqueror?" Xena's brows furrowed, "Obviously many, many years from now," defensively added the blonde girl. "You haven't an heir and none of your generals seem strong enough to overthrow the others, to gain their respect."

The Warrior Princess nodded, "True. It's like that because I want it like that."

"Why? I don't understand."

"Because if I choose a successor then I have to train him, give him power... so he might decide not to wait until my death to be emperor," the Conqueror explained.

"You're afraid that your chosen may betray you?"

"Power is a strong attraction, Gabrielle. Like a drug. The more you have, the more you want."

"So you won't name a successor," mumbled the younger woman. "But don't you understand that this way, if something happens to you, it will be chaos? Every general will proclaim himself emperor... there will be wars for years, until one of them defeats all the others!"

"I know..." whispered the Warrior Princess thoughtfully, "and I don't want it to happen. I've been looking for the solution for years."

"What would the solution be?" Asked the blonde girl, puzzled.

"It's quite obvious, leader," the Conqueror teased.

Gabrielle watched Xena doubtfully. "A successor. But you said..."

Xena stopped her with a wave of the hand. "There's another way." The younger woman shook her head, showing she had no idea of what the Conqueror was talking about. Xena smiled, amused that this thought was so far away from her prisoner's mind. "Think. When will the fighting begin?"

"The wars? After your death."

"Then..." prompted Xena

"Then?" asked Gabrielle, exasperated.

"Then I just won't die," explained the Warrior Princess with an innocent smile.

"But you can't live forever!" Gabrielle retorted.

"Can't I?" The Conqueror asked, feigning disbelief.

"Yeah! If you missed it, men live and die and only the go... Ohmygod!!" Gabrielle paled at the sudden realization, eyes wide. Xena chuckled. "No, wait a minute... you can't be serious. Y-you... you want to become a goddess?" Gabrielle was shocked.

"Honestly I don't crave godhood. I'd content myself with immortality," Xena said nonchalantly. Gabrielle was breathing heavily. Xena poured a goblet of wine for her. "Here, it seems you could use it." Gabrielle accepted the golden mug thankfully. "Is the thought so horrible?" Mockingly asked the Conqueror, feigning humour while she seriously wanted to know the other woman's opinion.

"No..." hesitatingly answered the girl after a while. "I mean... I surely did not expect such a revelation. Besides... if someone can gain immortality it's you..." she paused some moments. "And I never thought I would have said this, but... if I'd have to choose, well, I'd prefer to have you as my empress for eternity than Theodorus or Arcas, or another of them even only for some years. They're cruel. And really they aren't as clever as you. If they should rule, they wouldn't know where to start."

"Thanks," replied the Conqueror, reading sincerity in the blonde woman's emerald eyes. "But I don't know if I'll make it. It seems that the Gods don't like the idea very much. Especially Hades. He made clear he has a nice spot in Tartarus saved for me, and he's looking forward to my death."

"You met Hades?" Gabrielle's wonder grew.

"Yup. And Ares, Strife, obviously Artemis, too... she was so angry when I slaughtered her Amazons... Hera... These two in particular don't want me to become immortal. I know Zeus is trying to keep them from interfering with my life, but they still keep making trouble every time I've almost found the ambrosia," Xena said, with contempt.

Gabrielle remained silent for a while, absorbed in her thoughts. Then she spoke, serious. "I don't think I would be willing to face the gods to have the ambrosia. I really don't know if I'd like to be immortal at all. I mean... see all the people you love grow old and die before your eyes... and having no way to help them... No, I think I wouldn't want to be immortal."

"Seeing the deaths of those you love? It's not such a big problem," Xena retorted. "Just don't love anyone."

"Is that what you do? Keep your heart locked shut to keep everyone out?"

The Conqueror didn't answer immediately. "I can't allow the luxury to love anyone. That would make me weak," she explained at last.

"Love isn't a weakness," Gabrielle replied, but Xena grimaced. "At least you could let others love you..." the blonde woman offered.

"Love me? No, Gabrielle," and she shook her head. "I did that in the past. I admit it was amusing, but now I can't. It's just too big a risk to start loving back... Besides, who would honestly love me and not just my kingdom, my power, even just my body?"

Gabrielle wanted to reply, but felt incredibly silly: from the beginning she knew this woman had chosen power over everything else, power instead of love. But only now she was truly realizing how terribly alone Xena was, and how aware of her own situation. Gods, how can I help her? She thought. What can I tell her? To let go? That it isn't too late? Yes, but how? The Conqueror is right, nobody ever loved her for what she really is. Nobody ever accepted her entirely. I want to do it, but how can I offer Xena my friendship, my love, without making her laugh in my face? Gabrielle desperately looked for words, but every possible phrase seemed inadequate. At last she managed to say, "Don't give up hope. Love often arrives when you don't expect it." and mentally kicked herself for her poor choice of words.

Xena smirked. "Hope is long dead in my heart, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle realized that the Warrior Princess wanted to change the subject and used the opportunity to softly ask a question she desperately wanted to. "Conqueror, why did you banish me? I thought about it, but still I'd love to hear it from you..."

Xena studied the pattern in her porcelain plate for awhile, dubious if to tell the truth or not. "Because I saw myself in your eyes, Gabrielle," she answered at last, deciding the truth was the best choice. The blonde woman's brows furrowed. The Conqueror explained, almost in a whisper, "When I killed that man, I saw my inner self once again. And I saw how you looked at me. I saw contempt, horror. You know what I did to Ephiny. You had heard me threaten your life. But still you hoped to find an excuse for my actions. Then you heard how many lives I took, how many towns I burned to the ground... I even hit you... and still you gave me credit. Still you believed there was goodness in me... But that day, when you saw me slaughter those men in cold blood... That day you saw my real self and reacted as expected. You could hope to excuse me before. After that episode you couldn't anymore. You saw how I really am. And I saw it," Xena swallowed the tears that -to her surprise- threatened to flow freely from her eyes. "I realized that sooner or later I would have killed you, and I couldn't allow it. You don't deserve it." She paused. "I can't always control my anger, my wrath... I had even already hit you... but before that moment you were ready to take the risk. After that you weren't anymore. I disgusted you, Gabrielle, I saw you were horrified. You saw there's no hope for me... I can't change. Then I couldn't force you... to endure my company any longer, making you risk your life every moment. I didn't want to kill you, so I banished you..."

"You were wrong, Conqueror. You are wrong," Gabrielle said, matter-of-factly. Xena turned and faced Gabrielle, puzzled. "Yes, you're wrong, Empress. Gods, I should have told you sooner... Why didn't you ask me? You killed those men with no second thought, yes, but I would have told you I don't think that's your ‘real self'. I know better." Gabrielle smiled thankfully, "I saw you let the leader of the rebels go see her mother for the last time. I heard how you risked your life for a baby. I saw you helping an old man... You're a warrior, the best warrior ever, sure, but this doesn't make you a butcher. Murder is not your true self. But, even if it were, I don't blame you for what you did in your past. How could I after what you told me?? You were just a young woman and had to face challenges that would have broken even a god! Why shouldn't I excuse you now that I know all the pain you suffered? The duty to defend your village, the guilt over Lyceus' death, Caesar's betrayal, M'Lila's death... blood and pain followed you too closely, for too long. And at last they were the only things that you knew." Gabrielle's voice became a soft whisper, "No wonder they were the only thing you were able to give to others... No wonder your feelings were locked. Every time you loved someone, you lost the one you loved or were betrayed... You shed a lot of blood and I'm not saying it wasn't your fault, or that this excuses your choices: even if Caesar hurt you horribly, it was you who chose the path of hate. But who ever showed you there was another way? Who was by your side to help you? Only Lao Ma, at the worst possible moment. And after her, you've always been alone. You gained power and ruled in the wrong way, bringing death and destruction everywhere. But how can you be blamed for your mistakes after all you suffered?"

"You mean you don't despise me?" Xena tentatively asked, hope growing in her heart.

"Of course I don't! Anyone in your place would have done the same, or worse." Gabrielle replied, determined. "And even if nobody can undo the past, I saw you try to be a better ruler. Now that you've opened your eyes, you can change the future. You have the opportunity to do good, to help your victims, to protect the innocents... you can atone for your past. I know it must be really hard, but I saw you trying to do it. How could I despise you? How could I leave you alone in this fight? You were wrong thinking I didn't want to ‘endure your company' anymore, or take the risk to be by your side. I'll risk my life ten thousand times a day if that's what it takes to help you!" She paused, gathering her thoughts and lowered her eyes before continuing, in a softer tone, "That day, when you killed those men... I had been so rude to you while you told me about your past... I pushed you. You were mad because of my words."

"What? You think it was because you pushed me? Gabr..."

"No, let me finish, please. I had no right to be so judgmental of your past... And I'm so sorry I reacted that way when you killed those men... I had never seen so much blood, and... gods, I still think it wasn't necessary to kill them on the spot, but I had no right to judge your anger. I don't think you're a monster. I never did! There had to be a reason for such a reaction." Gabrielle paused a moment. This was really just a gamble, but she felt inside it had to be like that... she continued, "I reflected a lot on what I saw and now I think... maybe I know the reason why you did it. If only I was able to see it then..." she sighed. "You acted instinctively, with such rage... I don't think you just wanted to prove a point, to punish someone who trampled your laws. There was more. Am I right?"

The Conqueror watched Gabrielle as if she had no idea of what she was talking about. The younger woman continued softly, almost in a whisper, "There was a time you were that girl." Xena blinked twice, stunned, her internal struggle evident on her face, then after some moment she silently nodded. "It was Caesar, wasn't it? Before crucifying you..."

The Conqueror closed her eyes and swallowed. Images of that night so long ago flashed in her mind. A ship, sailing on the peaceful Mediterranean Sea, the cheers of the soldiers dividing an easily conquered booty among themselves, while under cover a cowardly celebration was going on. She took several deep breaths, struggled to find the strength to speak and for long moments she didn't find it. After a while, she closed her eyes against the images that normally haunted her nightmares and nodded, "Yes... He and his men...that night... they celebrated their victory over me... on me..." She watched the blonde woman in her open green eyes, without hiding the pain she felt and continued, "It took all my willpower not to scream all my hate that night... I didn't want to give him that satisfaction, but I... felt so helpless... I kept asking the gods ‘why?' and there was nothing I could do to stop them... I knew being a warlord that might happen someday, but with him!" She spat the word out with disdain, inhaled deeply and clenched her fists as the terrible memories flew in her mind. "When they finally had enough and left me I cried... cried all night... I was so ashamed, so angry... And now, every time I see a man forcing himself on a woman, Gabrielle, that anger resurfaces... I go berserk. I don't know why, so many years have passed and I had my vengeance... but I-I live that night again... I can't help it..." Against her will a lonely tear fell down her tanned cheek.

Gabrielle took Xena's hand in hers and felt her flinch. She was deeply touched by the pain she felt in the Conqueror's voice. "I'm so sorry, Xena, I... I didn't mean..." she babbled at last through her own tears.

Xena swallowed hard and interrupted the younger woman, "It's okay, Gabrielle. I had my revenge. It's past... And really it's not your fault," she paused and smiled weakly. "I like it when you say my name. You don't say it in fear... or hate... Please, always call me Xena when we are alone, will you?"

"It will be my pleasure," the blonde woman replied, moved, and Xena smiled thankfully, squeezing her hand.

After several moment the Conqueror regained her composure and cleared her throat "Another piece of rabbit?" she asked. With that question Gabrielle realized the argument was over, and soon dinner was over, too.

Xena started to rise and immediately Gabrielle was at her side, helping her out of her seat. The Conqueror's first impulse was to send the blonde woman away, since she didn't need any help. But something inside stopped her. Why should I? She thought. It's been so long since someone really caring has been at my side... and it feels so good... She smiled and looked the younger woman in the eye. "There's another part of the palace I want to show you, Gabrielle, how about a walk?"

"Why not?" The blonde woman replied, "Unless it involves weapons and flags..." she added teasingly.

"No, it's something completely different," Xena said in a mysterious tone and, gently guiding Gabrielle by the arm, she started walking. They passed by doors and corridors, then reached a narrow spiral staircase going up. The Conqueror climbed the steps first. After several moments Gabrielle couldn't keep silent anymore.

"Is it much farther?" She asked. "I'm becoming dizzy."

"Dizzy because of the stairs?" Xena teased. "Don't worry, we're here," and smiling opened the single door that was at the end of the staircase. She momentarily blocked the younger woman's sight as she went through the door then suddenly moved so Gabrielle could see where they were.

"Gods..." the younger woman gasped, and her jaw dropped in surprise.

Part 5

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