Disclaimer: Characters from Xena Warrior Princess belong to Renaissance Pictures/Universal and whoever else owns them now. For the rest, ancient history has been plundered, bent, stretched and occasionally plain rewritten for the sake of the story.
Content Advisory: Violence and brutality, plain speaking (also known as bad language), sex (lesbian, hetero and homo), some dark moments and hopefully, some lighter ones.
The story: Remember nothing about the past and one is free to rewrite it. So this is an alternate Xenaverse a little different from the canon; the story of the early lives of Gabrielle and Xena, and the misfortunes of war that led them to meet.
This is my first full-on fanfic (after a couple of goes at the bard's challenges). Feedback is very much appreciated (email@example.com). Thank you for reading.
Her Story Retold
Book 1: Potidaea
The army made camp a few miles from the town. In the late afternoon sun the men went about their tasks with a practised efficiency born of good training and repetition. The supply carts were unpacked, tents erected, latrines dug, armour polished and weapons sharpened. The horses were watered, fed and groomed; their tack polished and adorned. Firewood was gathered and the cooks set about preparing the evening meal. The engineers in charge of the siege catapults inspected every last inch of the great beasts of wood and metal that had not yet failed to give them victory. In the centre of the camp, in the command tent, the leader of this army was briefing her generals. Seasoned fighters all, each one had chosen the life of a warrior for his own reasons: for the honour of his family or his city, for adventure, for hatred of the barbarian yoke, for personal gain. Only a few years ago, if anyone had told them that they and their men would be gladly following a woman into battle, they would have ridiculed the suggestion. But this tall creature with the jet black hair and piercing blue eyes, who looked fearsome and every inch the warrior even in her basic training leathers, was no mere woman. Unmatched in courage and determination and skill with the sword, unmatched also in cunning and an understanding of the strategies of war, she was surely the Chosen of Ares. After the first victory, their scepticism turned to surprise; in the victories that followed, surprise turned to acceptance, to respect, to admiration and even to awe. Time after time, village after town after city, she led them to honour and glory and spoils beyond imagining. So they followed her, their loyalty beyond question. But if you could look through a man's eyes into his soul you would see that the generals (and indeed most of the men) were tired. Each one had at some point thought it might be time to stop: to lead the men home, or make a new home in a place they fancied; to find a wife and raise sons; to fully enjoy the fruits of their victory; even, perhaps, to grow happily old and fat, feasting on tales of their glorious fighting past. But she cared nothing for honour or glory or land or gold or any of the other spoils of war. That which she sought, she had not yet found and so she would not stop. Time and again she entreated them to move on to the next battle and because she spoke to them in the Voice of Ares, of course they, too, would not - could not - stop.
She was speaking to them now in a voice that was jovial, but her words belied some small frustration.
"Tell me Petracles, is your intelligence good this time? He is
"Yes Lord Xena. My man has been in the town a full three days, disguised as a trader. It seems C-" Petracles stopped himself even as anger flashed in the woman's eyes. Every man in the army knew: that which Lord Xena sought was unworthy of a name. "It seems the cur is governor there, or some such, though apparently he is to be found more often than not in the local whorehouse."
"That sounds like him. Spending time with his mother, no doubt." Xena laughed mirthlessly and the generals joined in as they were expected to.
"But you're sure it's him?"
"Yes Lord Xena."
"Good. Then you know what to do. I want everything in position by first light. And fetch in your spy; I want to question him myself."
"Yes Lord." Petracles paused, then asked cautiously, "And shall I send for the scribe? You will be offering terms?"
"Of course, I'm not a barbarian." Xena could not hide her reluctance. "But if he is here, if this town is his... I tell you Petracles, I pray to Ares they choose to fight."
My Lord Cortese has been teaching me to read and write. He is pleased with my progress and says it is time for me to start writing my own words, instead of copying the words of others. He tells me if I want to be a bard I should write every day, for practice. I still cannot fathom why he indulges me in this, but mine is not to question, only to obey and in this case I would do so gladly; it is, after all, something I have long dreamed of. Except that now, faced with the reality of the task, I am losing confidence and lost for words. I ask him what I should write. He says, anything, everything. He says, write what you know. I say I don't know anything, I've not been anywhere or fought any great battles or done anything really. All I know is my life and he says, well write about that.
I know Potidaea, it's my home. A long time ago, before I was born, when the Lords of Corinth settled here, they first made their home at the port. This was the land they claimed and all my forefathers were the people who worked it. This was our home, a small haphazard settlement of farmers, a few craftsmen and the occasional trader; all of us who worked for the Lords. Some of the Lords were fair to us and some were not, but that was the way of things and not to be complained about (though of course we did). As they grew rich on the back of our labours so more people came - merchants, craftsmen, farm workers - and the town grew. Some of the wealthy men cast their eyes to the countryside, and built houses here in our village - because it pleased them to show off their riches, because they wished to escape the bustle and stench of the port, because they wanted to keep a closer eye on us - and so the town grew until it met our village and the two became one. This is the town of Potidaea that I know.
And the people. My father Herodotus is a farmer, like his father and his grandfather before him. Working the land is all he knows. My mother Hecuba is a farmer's wife, like her mother and her grandmother before her. Working the land, cooking, cleaning, making, mending, the trials and tribulations of a husband, the joys and agonies of children are all she knows. My sister Lila (the good one) and I, Gabrielle (the troublesome one) are farmer's daughters. The encouragements (to Lila) and admonishments (to me) of my mother - Next time you fetch water use a smaller bucket then you won't spill so much! No, don't pull those up, they're not weeds! I know you're hungry but wait until your father's finished eating. Oh Gabrielle, how do you expect a man to ever marry you if you can't even bake a simple loaf of bread! - these are, were, all I knew.
Cortese has just read my first scroll. He smiles, tells me it is a good beginning but am I not over-exaggerating my ignorance? Pretending I know nothing and therefore have nothing to write about will not get me out of the assignment. He places a fresh blank parchment in front of me and tells me I cannot leave the room until I have filled it. With words, he adds. And don't write too big.
Not quite all I know. I know the tales my father told. He knew them all: the story of our town, the legends of the heroes and gods, the fables and cautionary tales told to children, the bad puns and shaggy-dog stories passed between the men in the fields or the taverns. He had a way with words that could turn the most mundane of everyday occurrences into a performance. It was a gift, people said, and it made him popular in the taverns and as a visitor to the houses of neighbours and acquaintances. Much to the irritation of my mother. It was not that she minded him being out of the house so late, on so many occasions. It was that, when he returned, usually only mildly drunk (he was a temperate man in that way) he did so empty handed. "What use is there having a gift such as this," she lamented, "if you do not profit by it?" (My father's skill with words was not matched by any similar skill with coin; that role fell to my mother). "Ah woman, we may be poor, but our souls are rich," he would say, half justification, half apology. Then he would entreat her to bed with promise of one of her favourite love stories, perhaps the one he had first wooed her with, and she would harrumph and pretend to busy herself with some task for just long enough before giving in. They married for love, my mother and father, over the objections of her parents who had intended for her a man with fewer dreams and more financial common sense; and though my mother might find herself increasingly wishing for the same, I think if she went back to do it over she would not choose differently.
One evening my father was invited to the house of a rich man,
down at the port, to entertain his family and guests. He did not
return empty handed. My mother's amazement and approval was short
"A scroll," she said, dismissively.
"Woman, I did my best. I hinted that a token of gratitude would be appreciated and this was it. What could I do? I'm not a beggar to ask for money!"
I was supposed to be asleep and would have maintained that pretence, but the lure of a scroll was too much.
"Now look what you've done! Get back to bed, Gabrielle." My mother's words fell on deaf ears as my father unfurled the parchment and together we gazed in wonder at the squiggles on the page. There didn't seem to be that many of them, but then, what did I know?
"What is it, Dad?"
"A passage from the story I was telling. Of Odysseus and Circe."
"We-e-e-ll I'm not sure. I started the tale with the part that goes we came to the island where Circe lives, she a great and cunning goddess, so maybe it's that."
I stared and stared and traced the lines of the black squiggles and wished that they would reveal themselves to me and wondered, "Dad, d'you think Homer wrote this scroll, this very one?"
"Who knows, little one. Perhaps he did at that. Tell you what, you find a safe place to keep it and it can be your treasure."
Out in the wide world there was trouble. This was nothing new, it seemed there was always trouble somewhere; just like in the stories, men of power can find any excuse to get into a fight. Then we were called upon to work harder; to harvest more grain, fashion more leather and sharpen more swords, keep the town walls strong; all to help our Lords get into and out of more trouble. But we were lucky: no matter that our backs were breaking and our bellies never full, the fighting was always elsewhere. Potidaea endured.
Then trouble came to Potidaea and it had the face of Darius, the King of Persia and the body of an army too big to fathom. Unperturbed by the odds, our Lords were of a mind to resist. The attack would come by sea, they reasoned, our lands would be untouched; they would feed us and our walls would keep us safe. They did, for a while. But the Persians found a way round by land and then there was no labour that could eke food from ravaged fields or draw water from wells run dry. After a time, the Lords found they had no stomach for hunger and thirst and the sicknesses that come with it, and they began arguing among themselves as to what to do next. Some still wanted to fight to the last, others wanted to surrender. Amongst the people too, opinion was divided. My father had no love for the Lords but liked the idea of Persians even less. "We're Greeks," he said. "What good is it being Greek if you starve to death," my mother retorted.
Potidaea surrendered. Did anything really change? The Lords who had advocated fighting were killed, some who had offered surrender managed to keep their power over the town, although now they must answer to the Satrap and, ultimately, to the King. There were many new people coming to town, strange faces and voices and clothes ("bloody foreigners", my dad would shudder) from all over the empire. There were new building projects bringing in new craftsmen and merchants; new laws bringing new scribes, administrators, enforcers, soldiers. And we, who had always been here, were called upon to work harder, to harvest more crops and fashion more goods to pay the new taxes to send to the King. Our backs were still breaking and our bellies never quite full. My father told stories and somehow found a way to add little twists and jokes that mocked our new rulers and made people laugh. My mother worried about the usual things - our future, making ends meet - and that my dad might get into trouble. My sister Lila made herself useful and kept obedient silence. And I didn't care about any of this. I was in love.
Her name was Irini and she was the most beautiful creature Aphrodite has ever put on this earth. We had been best friends since I can first remember and I knew that I wanted to be best friends with her forever. No that's not quite right, I wanted to be more than best friends: I wanted to marry her. Which was a problem because she was betrothed to Andreas and I to Perdiccas. It was even more of a problem because, as her wedding day got closer that's all she would talk about. I hated it. I tried to remind her that she was supposed to be marrying me - I had said that to her many times when we were children, and she'd said 'yes' - but she laughed and told me it was time to give up joking now. I knew better than to tell her I wasn't joking.
Sometimes being with somebody is better than not being with them, even if all they want to talk about is being with somebody else. Even if being with them makes you miserable. There's always hope.
Just re-read my last scroll. Gods I was naive.
Lord Cortese is in negotiations with some visiting dignitaries - trade agreements, I think. After a long day they are eager for entertainment. Cortese has brought them here. The feasting, music and dancing is in full swing downstairs. I've retired early; I want to write but I'm too tired.
It's the morning after. Late morning, after a very late and busy night. I can hear the sounds of general recovery and clearing up coming from below. I should be down there helping. Instead I'm up here writing. Despite his late night, Lord Cortese was up at his usual time - dawn! how uncivilised! - and eager to start me on my daily 'regime'. Plenty of vigorous physical exercise "to keep me healthy and strong" followed by some study: reading, poems or a bit of a play, and writing. I tell him I want to go down and help out. I tell him I'm worried the other girls will think I've got above myself. He asks me, "Do you want to be a Bard or not?" I have to admit that yes, I do, and before I can continue with "but really, it's only a childish dream" he commands, "Then get writing! Remember the deal." His voice is stern but his face is smiling. I can almost imagine him as a rich and indulgent father. Anyway, where was I?
Irini. Talking incessantly about her wedding day and her betrothed: would Andreas like this, what would their house be like, how many kids he wanted, she hoped they were sons even though she wanted a daughter, what would it be like on their wedding night. And me saying mostly "I don't know" and thinking 'I don't care.' OK, so she didn't feel the same way about me as I did about her, but looking back, I think she was terrified and wanted support. Some best friend I was. Her family and mine both worked Lord Timon's land. It was coming to the end of planting time; the last field was finished with daylight to spare and Timon's overseer let us go home early. I persuaded Irini to come for a walk with me, I wanted to show her the big house. It was on the edge of town, grand and old and, in a town now full to bursting, inexplicably empty. Therein lies a tale, of course. It is said that one of the first Lords of Corinth had many daughters but only one son. The boy was a weakling and a romantic. He had no interest in politics or power or wealth, but preferred to immerse himself in poetry and the quest for perfect love. Despairing of his son's fecklessness, the Lord entreated none other than Zeus himself for help; as father to the Gods, he could surely understand how troublesome sons could be. And Zeus responded. He said that he could quite easily turn the boy's mind to ambitions more befitting a future ruler, but there was a price. If the boy took this path, he would never know happiness. Not the love of a woman, nor the passion of a poem. Even the simple joy of a flower blooming or birdsong on a summer's evening would be denied him. The Lord accepted the deal. His son became so single-minded in his pursuit of wealth and power, that he was hated by all. Even his father could not bear to see him and eventually conceded that he must be banished. The son built the house, which at the time was far outside the town, to be bigger and grander than any other known and he lived in it all on his own. He grew old and mad there, and as death approached, he could not bear to think that anyone else might gain the house - his power, his wealth, his possession. So he took every last coin he had and bribed Charon not to carry him over the Styx but to leave him be, a ghost, guarding his own house, forever.
Even in decay, the house was beautiful. How sad, I thought, that the poor man never knew how to appreciate that beauty. I wanted to live there with Irini; I figured that the ghost (if ghost there was) and I could maybe come to some arrangement.
There was a huge walled courtyard garden at the back with a bathing pool. It was empty, but the place had its own well that still worked after all these years. I persuaded Irini it would be a good idea to take a luxury bathe like the rich ladies do. It was a simple plan really, except once we were naked and splashing around, I wasn't sure what to do next. Aphrodite must have been smiling on me that day because Irini gave me the perfect excuse. As usual, she was talking about her wedding day and, in particular, what it would be like on her wedding night. I suggested we could practice; I would pretend to be Andreas. So we kissed for a very long time and Eros sent tingles of desire all the way through my body, but especially between my legs. When we finally broke for air Irini said "that was nice" in a very unconvincing tone and I figured Eros wasn't working in her. So I shrugged, "yeah that was OK". We got out of the pool and dried off. Part of me wished she was not there so I could touch myself and make the tingling go away.
I was late getting home - it was getting dark. Mother was beside herself with worry, Dad was furious. For the first time in my life he took a belt to me. I was both frightened and angry; I thought he'd gone crazy. Looking back I think I understand he was worried and frustrated; he feared that he would not be able to keep me safe. Turned out he was right.
Cortese has been in a foul mood today. It is one of his grieving days. When he's like this I know to wear a boy's tunic and strap up my breasts very tight - he makes me keep my hair short anyway. He'll drink too much wine and fuck me up the arse, then cling to my back weeping and moaning, "Bessus, Bessus." Bessus was his longtime companion. A soldier. He didn't meet a glorious end on the battlefield but was bitten by a mosquito and died of a fever; I think somehow that makes it worse for Cortese. I ask him (as I always do) why he chose me, when there are many young men - his soldiers mostly - eager for his attention. He snarls that there is not a young man on this earth that could replace his beloved Bessus and he would never defile his lover's memory by taking another man to his bed. I accuse him of being defeatist, of refusing to accept even the possibility of new love. Why should he take advice from me, he sneers, who has been so successful in matters of the heart, that I can only find affection paid for by the hour. I call him bitter, he calls me an ignorant whore. We hurl insults like this until his foul mood is spent. Tomorrow he will apologise and lavish me with affection and encouragement. For now, he is snoring and I am trying to banish his words and find mine.
Who am I kidding? I am an ignorant whore and not a bard. Write what you know.
I don't know the names of the men who raped me; there were six of them and twelve of us girls coming home from Master Elias' olive groves. His overseer was supposed to be escorting us, but he was newlywed and in a rush to get home, so had left us early. Not that he would've been able to do much. Six passing soldiers saw something they wanted and decided to take it. I had some foolish notion that I could maybe save Irini if I fought back. The soldiers liked a girl with spirit. They liked it rough. As they took it in turns ripping me apart on the inside, I heard Irini crying. Then I passed out.
I woke up in the temple of Asclepius down at the port. My parents had scraped together every last thing that they could sell, including all the things saved for my sister's meagre dowry, to pay for the journey and offerings to the priests to save my life.
They would have done better to let me die.
The priests said I would never have children. Perdiccas, the sweet fool, said that didn't matter, that he would marry me anyway. Ah, Perdiccas, poor Perdiccas. A good farmer's boy. Respectful, hardworking, kind, gentle and dull. People couldn't understand why I hated him so. I didn't hate him, I hated that I was to be married to him. He had pursued me with kind words, home-made gifts and simple gestures of friendship. I had rebuffed him with every manner of ridicule and insult my young girl's mind could think of. Folks couldn't understand why he kept on pursuing me when I was so mean to him. Sometimes you can't help loving someone, even if they don't love you back. One time I had a pang of guilt about all my taunting and tried to have a serious conversation with him. I tried to explain why I didn't want to marry him. I tried to explain about Irini. He laughed and told me that of course Irini would still be my best friend after our wedding, but surely I didn't seriously believe that I would marry the girl. I went back to being mean to him. And there he was at my bedside, still declaring his love. His father had more sense - what good is a wife who cannot bear children? - and cancelled the match. That was fine by me. Soon after, he left town. Folks said he'd gone off to do some soldiering.
And poor Lila, who awaited her wedding with almost as much eagerness as Irini. Without her dowry she was in danger of losing her betrothed. Demetrios had eyes only for her and said he would wait, but his family could not afford to let their son marry only for love.
Overnight we became dirt poor; my parents with nothing to their name but two unweddable daughters. Mother worried. Father could not look me in the eye. Lila tried so hard to hide her disappointment and make me feel better. It made me feel worse. Even before I could stand I was back to work, mending clothes. I hate sewing, and I'm all thumbs. As soon as I could walk I got myself a different job; crushing olives. I was still hurting, but it got me out of the house and gave me a chance to see Irini. That hurt the most.
All the life had gone out of her. Andreas had told her he had no intention of marrying used goods. Said as far as he was concerned she was only fit for whoring. The cruel selfish pig! I wanted to kill him. I wanted to save her. I suggested we could run away and live together; I would look after her. Yes, somehow I was still that stupid and naive. There was nothing she said to me then that I wouldn't say now to my younger self. I didn't see her for weeks after that. So you can imagine my surprise when I found her waiting outside my house one morning. She was looking a little fat in the belly. She walked with me to work. She apologised for before; said she'd been thinking about what I'd said and would I really look after her. She said I was the best friend she'd ever known. She told me she loved me. We hugged, she cried. She asked me to meet her out by the big house after work.
I figured she wanted my help getting rid of the baby.
I had to work late. By the time I got to the big house she was on the floor barely moving, unable to speak. At her side was a handful of half eaten leaves, hemlock, I think, and a wine flagon larger than any I'd ever seen. It was three quarters empty. She died in my arms.
Everything hurts today. Especially my head. Cortese is disappointed in me; it's been a while since he's had to give me the lecture on the perils of drinking. I tell him this: writing makes me sad, wine makes me numb; numbness is better than sadness. Simple. I tell him I do not want to write today; he says I should at least try. He promises if I do, he will take me to see a play. I have never been to a play; it is something I always dreamed of.
It was after Irini died I developed a taste for wine and a disinterest in everything else. Only one thing stopped me from following Irini to her grave: my sister Lila. It was my fault she was unhappy and my responsibility to make things right. I had to give her back her dowry. I could spend all my life sewing shirts, tending fields and tramping olives and it would barely be enough. Lila and Demetrios couldn't wait that long. I needed another way to make more coin.
I was helping dad carry things back from market when I saw her:
a woman dressed so modestly and in such finery that she must be
rich, yet she had no servant to fetch her shopping. It was the
Fates that caused an apple to drop from her bag, allowing me to
rush and pick it up for her. Her hair was fully covered. Her face
was older but blessed with eyes, nose and cheekbones that would
always be beautiful. She thanked me at the same time as my father
shouted at me to "get back here!" so there was no time for
conversation. Back at my father's side he grabbed me roughly and
hissed, "Don't you go near her, you understand me? Never. Persian
"What's wrong with whores?"
"Nothing. But no daughter of mine will be one. So don't go looking at her finery and getting ideas."
The woman was a whore and 'not from round here'; but she was not
Persian. She sold her services in a very fine house near the centre
of town. I wanted to meet her. It was many days before the Fates
intervened on my behalf but intervene they did. They sent me alone
on an errand to market. They left an almost full flask of wine
unattended outside the tavern for me to drink (every coin I earned
was for my sister, my wine I had to steal as and when I could).
They sent the beautiful whore to cross my path. The rest was up to
me. Handed the perfect opportunity, words froze in my mouth. I
resorted to following her. It wasn't very subtle. She led me almost
to her door before she turned to face me. (Was that the Fates'
"Why are you following me girl?" I blushed. Then, "You're the girl who saved my apple." She sounded amused. I nodded. "So come on girl, tell me why you're following me. Have I dropped something else today?" Her voice was smooth and slightly deep and mesmerising. It was as beautiful as her face. I couldn't speak. "OK, perhaps we should start with something simple. What's your name, girl?"
"And you are following me because?"
"I wanted to meet you."
"Well, hello Gabrielle, I am Mistress Eleni. Now that we've met I suggest you get yourself back home, or you'll be in a heap of trouble with your father."
"I want to work for you." I blurted it out. She laughed. Her laugh was as beautiful as her smile and her face. I felt that tingling again, it was Eros mixing it up with the wine and before I could stop myself I said, "Do you sleep with women?"
She was surprised by that. "I think you'd better come in," she said and ushered me inside.
"Now then, If a customer has money I will do whatever he or she
wishes, within reason. I take it you have coin?" She already knew
my answer. "Which is why you want to work for me?"
"Then why, exactly?" I felt very stupid. I wanted to be outside. I badly wanted more wine. In a few blunt sentences I told her my life, emphasising the part where I needed to make money quickly for my sister's dowry.
"I can see that the Fates have not been kind to you. And what does your father say to this?"
"He doesn't know I'm here."
"I see. Well, you have my sympathy but-" She was going to send me away.
"I don't need your sympathy, I need work! Please," I begged.
She studied me for a very long time. Finally she agreed, "Then you shall have work."
I became her domestic servant. Shopping, cooking, cleaning,
washing and mending became my domain. She had only one demand: that
I kept out of sight of her customers until I had "learned to make
"How do I do that?"
"You can begin by giving up the wine. If you can manage that I may consider teaching you." She bought me for little more than I had earned in the fields, but at least there was the promise that I could earn more, and in the meantime I was grateful for every last coin.
My father disowned me and refused to accept my money, mother told him not to be so stupid. They argued long into the night. A compromise was reached: my coin was welcome, I was not. After that I only visited when dad was out. The money I earned was intended purely for Lila's dowry, but I knew much of it went on food, clothes and other household necessities.
Without wine I found it hard to sleep and harder to banish all the terrible thoughts the drink had kept at bay. Sometimes, if Eleni was not with a client she would let me into her bed. I would curl up into her belly and she would stroke my face and hair, kiss me softly on the neck and whisper kindnesses to me. Eventually comforted, I would fall asleep thinking of her as mother and lover rolled in to one.
Eleni kept her promise and began my schooling. I learned there was far more to her kind of whoring than simple fucking ("Leave that to the miserable wretches down at the port"). I learned from her that whoring was an art: the art of listening, of conversation, of keeping company with men of culture; of music and dancing; of entertaining; the art of discretion and flattery and a goodly deal of acting. I learned that the rich and powerful men of Potidaea would gladly part with a considerable amount of coin to spend an hour or two with Eleni, instead of at home with their wives. Even though the sex might last only five minutes.
When Eleni was satisfied I was properly respectable, I was allowed to greet clients, though it was made clear to them and me that I was not for sale. I learned that many of her clients wished I was. One day when a client came to visit, Eleni was out on an errand and late getting back. Maybe it was the Fates or maybe it was deliberate; it was my opportunity and I took it. My career as a whore had begun.
The travelling theatre has come to town. They are performing in
the new amphitheatre. (Apollo bless the Persian town planner who
decided the old one was decrepit and not fit for purpose!) The
theatre being no place for respectable women, I am strapped up and
in my best boy's clothes. Cortese is in a very good mood and
feeling horny; we almost miss the opening act. The play is about
Theseus and Hippolyta, the Amazon Queen; a war story with sex, or a
sex story with lots of fighting, depends on how you look at it. The
part of Hippolyta is played by a young eunuch. He is dressed in
leathers - tight laced waist, short skirt - and sporting impossibly
large false breasts.
"I thought Amazons only had one breast," I whisper to Cortese.
"Artistic licence," he replies, "the audience would prefer two."
"I'd prefer real breasts on a beautiful woman in all that leather!"
"I'm sure half of the audience would agree with you," he winks.
As we walk home Cortese smiles indulgently as I give full voice to my enthusiasm, regaling him with a blow by blow account of all my favourite scenes. I spend a lot of time on Hippolyta. I barely notice that we are back in Cortese's bedchamber and he is undressed, preparing for bed. When I finally pause for breath he tells me he wishes to sleep alone tonight: I am clearly not tired and perhaps I would like to go downstairs and visit Eleni or one of the girls. Another time, I might have. Indeed, there have been other times when he has given me coin and permission, and I have. There are many beautiful girls in the brothel and much fun to be had. But it is sex, not passion, not love; and somehow tonight that is not enough. I do not go downstairs; I sleep on some blankets in Cortese's study.
I wake up from a vivid dream where I am Theseus, and Hippolyta has Eleni's face and voice, Cortese's full battle dress and the subtle muscular arms of the theatre eunuch. One hand is on my breast, the other between my legs. I want to luxuriate in the remnants of my dream but I can hear Cortese moving around next door. I hurry up and bring myself to orgasm.
Cortese says it's about time he had another look at my writings. I give him my last scroll, the one about meeting Eleni. He asks me what I'm writing now. I shrug and tell him it's a kind of diary, for practice, day to day stuff. "Such as what?" he asks. I try very hard to sound disinterested. "Oh you know: got up, got dressed, got fucked by Cortese, did sit-ups, that kind of thing." He smiles. I don't know if he believes me but he doesn't ask to see it. He just says, "Well make sure you tell your diary what a great and kind and generous lover this Cortese is. And give him a big cock."
I was a success at Eleni's place. I acquired a number of regular
clients, most of whom enjoyed the sound of their own voices as much
as my body; each one contributed in his own way to my continuing
education. I learned more than I cared to know about the various
tiers of shipping tax, the complexities of a new design for a
drainage system, the petty rivalries and bickering that goes on at
the weekly Council meetings. Amongst my regulars was a wealthy
merchant from the port. Overly conscious of his lowly heritage (his
grandfather was a slave who'd bought his freedom), he took great
pains to elevate his status by relentless pursuit of culture: he
was a prominent patron of the arts. He was particularly fond of
Homer and enjoyed acting out with me various escapades from the two
epics. He thought I made a very convincing Circe. For his part, in
the throes of passion he grunted very much like a pig. One day I
took the opportunity to show him the scroll. My father used to tell
the story, I explained, and a grateful listener had gifted it to
him. I, in turn, would be very grateful if he would read it to
"Yes, he's a storyteller, among other things. His name's Herodotus."
I thought I saw a flicker of recognition and slight embarrassment cross his face as he unfurled the parchment, but it passed. He stared at it for considerable time, saying nothing; then finally asked, "You have read this?"
I admitted that I could not read, nor could my father.
"I see. Well, it seems you have both been duped. This is nothing more than a shopping list."
Feelings of embarrassment and foolishness would serve me no purpose so I put them aside. The words of Homer or a shopping list, I said, I did not mind, if he would only teach me to read. I even offered him a discount.
Eleni was furious with me. Yes, she conceded, reading might be a useful skill and I was more than welcome to spend my coin on whatever I pleased; but I was not my own master and it was not for me to negotiate in matters of payment. I would do well to remember my place. Still, she let my offer stand, and the next time the merchant visited he brought two more well-worn scrolls: the letters of the alphabet and a list of simple vocabulary.
I studied them in scant moments between clients and sleep and those moments were getting fewer: Eleni and I were overworked.
Winter was coming on and I was in town to the tailor's shop to
order some new cloaks.
"Mister Cleopas has just popped out for a few minutes; if you'd like to wait"
I recognised the voice that came from the back of the shop. Sofia, Mister Cleopas's daughter. She'd been there on that day too. Same story; lost her betrothed to shame, doomed to the solitary life of a spinster. Or a seamstress.
"That's OK, maybe you can help."
"Gabrielle?" Sofia put down her sewing and came to the counter. "Wow! you look really beautiful. Such lovely clothes!"
"As lovely as the girl who made them."
She giggled and blushed. "So you. You managed to find a rich man to marry you?" Her tone suggested she didn't quite believe it.
"Not exactly." I beamed.
I told her what I did. Although a little shocked, she was intrigued by what she heard: it sounded to her like easy money. Unlike my father, Mister Cleopas had a keen sense of profit and loss. When I returned to collect the finished cloaks, I brought back a new domestic servant. We also bought ourselves an old crone to do all the housekeeping.
Lila came to visit me today. She's been working her way through
her dowry buying herself pretty clothes and jewellery and trinkets.
She looks good.
"What are you doing here sis? If father finds out he'll kill us both!"
"No he won't. He'll just rant and rave and make mum's life a misery. And confine me to the house for a week, which is no big deal since I've got nowhere exciting to go. I wanted to see you, It's an age since you've been round."
"I'm sorry, it's just-"
"Don't tell me, your Master is evil and mean and keeps you locked up all day and night. Never buys you nice things or takes you to the theatre disguised as a boy."
"How did you know about that?"
"One of the girls downstairs told me. Next time ask him if he wants to take me. Seriously Gabrielle, how come you don't visit much anymore? I miss you."
"I don't know, I guess I don't want to upset dad or mother and since I've no money to bring-"
"Mum misses you too. You're family Gabrielle. We love you."
"Dad doesn't. He has 'no daughter called Gabrielle' don't you remember?"
"I do, but you're wrong. He loves you. He's just too angry and prideful and stupidly stubborn to admit it." Sometimes my sister Lila can be very persuasive. Somehow I allowed her to talk me into coming round for dinner.
Oh yes. Almost forgot. Cortese bought me a gift today. A wooden strongbox with two separate lockable compartments. "For your scrolls, to keep them safe."
The old crone coming to clean the rooms in the late morning,
found me blind drunk on the bed. She fetched Eleni who was furious
and ready to throw me out on the street. "Don't bother," I managed
to slur. "Just find me more wine and some hemlock and I'll be out
of your life forever." Instead I got several hard slaps across the
face, a freezing cold bath and a flagon of the most vile tasting
concoction I've ever had to drink. It made me very sick.
"When you're done vomiting, clean yourself up and come to my room. You owe me an explanation."
"My sister came to visit yesterday." I began.
"Lila, what are you doing here? If Dad finds out he'll-"
"I know, but I had to see you."
Lila was crying. I rushed her inside and straight to my room. It seems Demetrios's father was playing away from home and his wife was convinced it was with me. It wasn't (though I think he might've visited Eleni once or twice) but the man did nothing to disabuse her of that notion. After all, better to let his wife curse the peasant whore and leave him to carry on his affair. Of course, poor Lila has been tainted by association. "Demetrios swears he still loves me but his parents insisted they call the whole thing off," Lila sobbed. By the sound of it Demetrios didn't fight too hard for his love. The little shit's either a snivelling spineless worm or a barefaced liar. Poor Lila. Got the dowry (finally), lost the man. I tried to make it better and I made it worse. Sweet, kind Lila tried her best to stem her tears and convince me that it wasn't my fault. In the end neither of us could find words that would bring us comfort so we simply clung to each other and wept. After only a short while I had to rush her out; if she was gone too long mother and father might suspect something amiss. And anyway, I had clients arriving and needed time to cover my red eyes and puffy cheeks and make myself look like a beautiful girl with not a care in the world.
Dionysus must have heard my inner cries for he sent me a client
bearing gifts. Mister ----- carrying a sizeable flagon from the
local vineyard. "I know, Mistress Eleni doesn't like her girls to
drink, but I just had to bring you this as a token of my affection.
It's the first pressing of the season. Delicious, if I say so
myself." We shared a small cup in a toast.
"It is delicious!" I enthused.
"I'd love to but I mustn't drink too much, Mistress Eleni will be furious."
"Of course dear." He was quite happy for me to hide it away and 'enjoy it later'.
It tasted like pine scented piss - Potidaea is not renown for its wines - but I wasn't drinking it for the flavour.
"So let me make sure I understand you." Eleni's voice, cold and
harsh, stopped my tale of self-pity in its tracks. "Your childhood
sweetheart, who didn't even love you, is dead by her own hand. Your
father has disowned you for trying to help support your family.
Your sister has lost her betrothed because of the petty
small-mindedness of his family. And all of this is somehow your
fault. Your life is over and you'd be better off dead. Is that
"What?" I was expecting a scolding, maybe hoping for some comfort. I wasn't expecting this.
"Do you want to die?"
"It's a simple question with a simple answer, yes or no?"
I said nothing. I was sobering up, my head was thumping and I was beginning to feel very silly.
"Oh wait, I forgot..." Her tone was sarcastic now. In a few swift moves, Eleni removed all her clothing.
Very silly and slightly embarrassed.
"...I'm sure I remember you telling me that you didn't want to leave this world before you had known the love of a woman."
Very silly, very embarrassed and the tiniest bit horny.
"Doris. DORIS!" Eleni shouted for the old crone who shuffled in almost immediately. "Go down to the Apothecary and buy a small bag of hemlock leaves. And fetch one of those jugs of cheap cooking wine from the cellar on your way out. Leave it by the girls' bedroom door." The crone nodded and shuffled out. Eleni turned her attention back to me. "You have until she gets back to make a decision. I suspect she'll be a while. Now you can either take yourself back to your bed to wallow in wine and misery or..." I made no move to leave the room. She stepped up to me and kissed me full on the lips for a very long time. Her tongue darting around my mouth sent arcs of desire across my whole body. Abruptly she pulled away. "... you can stay here and know the love of a woman." Her voice was a purr, dripping with the promise of sex. I stayed.
She helped me out of my clothes and onto the bed. She brought
her mouth to my breasts, kissing each nipple in turn and then the
skin in between. It seemed that she was planning to take her time
enjoying every bit of my body and nowadays I'm all for that; but
then I was young and impatient and just that first kiss had brought
on an insistent throbbing between my legs that demanded attention
NOW! I grabbed her hand and pulled it down to that throbbing,
pushed three fingers into my very wet cunt. She raised her head and
kissed my face.
"Patience, dear, we've got plenty of time for everything. There's no need to rush."
"No. Can't wait. Need you inside me. Please." I pushed myself down on her fingers like a dumb rutting animal.
Sometimes a whore's art is satisfying desperation, not desire, even when you suspect that later, the experience will not be remembered as the best sex ever. She pumped into me, three fingers, then added a fourth, her thumb flicking my clit with each thrust. Her teeth were hard on my mouth, even harder on my nipples. The only sound was my moaning. I screamed when I came and moments later I started to cry. I curled tight up into a ball, my whole body shaking. She wrapped herself round me, stroked my face, kissed my hair, whispered kind nonsense into my ear until I fell asleep.
Later that day she woke me with soft kisses and a sweetened herbal infusion. "Come on Gabrielle, It's time to ready yourself for work." She had already despatched the crone back to the Apothecary to return the hemlock.
After that day I prayed to Aphrodite for any excuse to find myself in Eleni's arms again. It was not long before the Goddess answered in my favour: she sent us Kalliope.
Kalliope was a friend of Sofia's. Her father had died "of exhaustion and a broken heart." With two daughters and no sons, Kalliope's mother was finding it impossible to make ends meet.
"I know she's not the greatest beauty," the mother said, "but she's attractive enough and she has the voice of a siren. When she sings there's not a man alive who would not be entranced by her. Come on girl, show them; sing!" The tearful girl did as she was bidden. Her mother spoke the truth; Kalliope's singing was good, far better than her mother's bartering skills, and she was sold to us for a very modest sum. At the time, Sofia shared my room (of course everything in the house belonged to Eleni, but as I was there first, I thought of it as mine). To help poor Kalliope settle in to her new life it would be better if she shared the room with her friend, and probably best if they had some privacy. This would leave me without a bed; the simplest solution would be for me to sleep in Eleni's room. This was the argument I put to Eleni. "I'll have a palette on the floor in the corner, you won't even know I'm there," I assured her. She laughed knowingly and said "Of course." And so, at the end of each day-and-night's working, poor Kalliope cried herself to sleep in Sofia's arms while I luxuriated in the embrace of Mistress Eleni. In my thoughts and dreams she became my lover, though I knew to never call her that. Sometimes, if we were not too tired, she would send me into a frenzy with her lips and tongue and fingers. Occasionally, she would let me reciprocate, though then she could not refrain from giving me instructions on "how to do it properly". "Remember," she would say, "it's not simply what you do, but the way that you do it. To be a good lover, you should think not of your pleasure but to the enjoyment of the other."
Soon after that I learned that there were men who would pay extra to watch two women having sex.
Times were getting harder. It seemed almost every day taxes were being raised or some new levy introduced. Still the men of the town (and not only the rich and powerful) found the means to visit us and bemoan their reduced income and the greed of the distant barbarian King. And every so often a poorer man, or sometimes a woman, would come to us with an entirely different request.
Kalliope had been the first; then there was Daphne who could
play the aulos and the lyre, and Phoebe who was a passable dancer.
Both were from good families struck low by the Fates or the times,
and for each the transaction was accompanied by much sobbing.
The twins Helen and Persephone were from out of town. They had no particular skills but they were young beauties and, their haggard wine-soaked father assured us, were "very supple" and "quick learners". For this pair, Eleni did not even attempt to barter, but paid the man his asking price and rushed him off the premises.
"Why?" I asked her later, cradled in the comfort of her arms.
"Ah, sweet Gabrielle, you still have much to learn. That man was not their father. A slaver, perhaps, but not a very good one; or maybe an old soldier trying his luck. Whatever his reason, I'd say he took those girls and was desperate to get rid of them and even more desperate for coin. His next stop would've been the port and after that, who knows."
"Of course he wasn't their father," I said, "but still, full price?" The Eleni I knew was always very careful with her coin and had never paid full price for anything.
"Did you know I was born to this life?" she asked me, gently stroking my hair as she spoke. "My mother was a courtesan in a big establishment back in Smyrna. It was a good place to be, very civilised, but the training started young and some of it was hard. I was a troublesome child and I didn't like hard work. My mother dragged me to a place right by the dockside. The girls were in tiny stalls, like animals, naked and mute. Young as I was, I could see that some were terrified cowering in the corner while others just sat there as if they were dead inside. My mother told me if I didn't behave and apply myself, I would end up in a place like that." She paused and planted several gentle and very motherly kisses on my head. "Such a place is where those girls were headed and I would not wish that on anybody."
Eleni and seven girls (and Doris the housekeeper) in her small
house, things were getting too crowded. Eleni had long dreamed of
recreating the Courtesan House of her youth. Now, she joked, she
had the raw materials, she just needed somewhere to put them.
I took her to see the big house. A half jar of cooking wine from the cellar fortified me against Irini's ghost who stalked the place in accusation and admonishment. Eleni could surely smell the wine on my breath but all she said was, "Are you alright Gabrielle? You seem uneasy."
"Folks say this place is haunted. Silly superstition," I shrugged. "I'll get over it."
The big house was perfect. And free. Needed a little work doing but Eleni said she could easily take care of that. Between us we had several clients who owed us favours and now was the time to collect. The rich men sent their slaves or their hired hands, the poorer men brought themselves; all gave their labour freely towards the building's restoration. When she was sure the work was progressing smoothly, she made preparations to leave on a fast ship to Smyrna. She had two brothers in slavery there, both eunuchs working in the Courtesan House and she was bound to buy their freedom. In her absence she left me in charge.
Eleni was gone two months and during that time, thankfully, everything went according to plan. On her return the house was ready to move into. As a girl I don't think I'd really appreciated how wonderfully big the place was. The main hall was large enough to host a village wedding. There was an upstairs. The house was so big each of us had our own room and there were still rooms to spare. Of course with Eleni's plans - more girls, dancers, musicians, actors; not to mention cooks, barkeeps and waiters - we would need the room.
Eleni's younger brothers, Spiridon and Artis had grown up in the Courtesan House; they knew everything about the running of a respectable brothel even larger than ours and precious little about the rest of the world. For some reason, I imagined eunuchs would be small and weak and not at all manly; they were entirely the opposite - athletic, strong and quite respectable fighters. Neither of them was remotely romantically interested in girls but they were accustomed to female company. So in addition to their other duties (they were in charge of the kitchen and the bar, the maintenance and general upkeep of the place) they became our protectors and we became quite fond of them.
Of course, life was not perfect. My sister was still sad and unwed, the taxes were crippling the town and now that I had my own room there was no easy excuse to spend the night with Eleni. But I unwittingly found consolation in Spiridon. I had introduced him to one of my clients - a soldier - and the two had become close friends. As thanks, Spiridon, was more than happy to keep me supplied with wine - and some of it the good drinkable stuff too - so things weren't looking too bad.
Dinner with my family last night. That was… interesting. I
think Lila wanted me there to help run intervention on my father.
You see she's getting married. It was news to me but I'm guessing
she had already told mother who'd had time to get used to the idea.
Now all that remained was to get my father's permission. When his
belly was full and the wine had put an almost-smile on his lips she
made the announcement. You'd think that would be a good thing,
right? You'd be wrong. She's marrying a foreigner. Worse: a foreign
soldier. What does it matter that he's so in love with her that he
cares nothing for her dowry or her family's reputation and wants
only to make her happy? No, my father was adamant, he's foreign and
that's that: no daughter of his is going to marry a barbarian. What
does it matter that my father only has two daughters and the other
one's a whore who'll never marry? "Well at least she's a Greek
whore," he blustered, talking as if I weren't there. What does it
matter that this might Lila's one last chance for marriage, that
she likes him and might just have a chance to be happy? "Then
she'll learn to be happy as a spinster!" he pronounced as he helped
himself to more wine.
"Perhaps you should meet him first, I'm sure he's a very nice man," my mother ventured.
"Don't need to meet him!" Dad was the voice of reason. "Can tell by his name he's a bad sort. I mean, Archiomandri! What kind of name is that?!"
So the evening went on, and with each rebuttal my dad drained his cup and mother made sure the jug was kept filled. Eventually he was too tired and drunk to argue and barely managed to slur, "OK! Enough! Damned women and your endless prattle. I don't care what you do, just shut up and let me sleep."
We all agreed that this was the closest thing to permission we would ever get.
Lord Cortese seems pleased when I tell him the news.
"Archiomandri, eh? I know the lad. Nice. A bit dim but a good
heart. He'll be a good husband to your sister."
"Don't tempt the Fates." I tell him. "My father could still put a stop to the whole thing."
"That would be unfortunate." he says and his tone signals an end to the conversation.
The town Elders had been fiddling their - our taxes. It seems they thought that what, with Potidaea being so far from the royal court and - all things considered - quite small and unimportant, the King would not miss the odd bag of coin here or there. But when it came to matters of money, the eyes of Darius saw a very long way indeed. He sent someone to investigate the matter. Enter Artabazus, the accountant, accompanied by a retinue the size of a small army: scribes and translators, cooks and other household staff, and a worrying number of big strong armed guardsmen.
Artabazus was a short, fat, fussy man with pig eyes that saw people only as numbers, values to be recorded and balanced in his accounts. I suppose it made him good at his job: he reminded us often that he was one of the King's best and most trusted accountants. He was certainly very thorough; there was not a man in Potidaea that he did not question. But his manner made him no friends. Yes, at first, most folks in the town were in two minds about the affair. On the one hand, we were furious with the Lords: siphoning off the fruits of our labours (all the while complaining at how they too were being crippled by taxes), and bringing unwanted attention to the town. On the other hand, the Lords may be liars and cheats but they were our liars and cheats, and Artabazus was an unknown entity and a foreigner, to boot. It usually only took one personal meeting with the accountant for a man to make up his mind: who did this heartless stuck up little barbarian think he was, coming here turning his nose up at honest working folk, like he was better than us. We wouldn't stand for it, no sir!
There was never any suggestion of open revolt; Artabazus did not go anywhere without at least two of his guards and they looked like they would welcome the chance to exercise their fists. But almost overnight there were many men that became quite simple. They would stare wide eyed at the accountant then shake their heads and say, "Not sure what you're getting at sir," before launching into a lengthy tale of the time when so-and-so's grandfather got into a dispute with his neighbour over a cow. Also, never before had Potidaea had so many generous community minded citizens. "Oh no sir, that corn's not mine, I'm storing it for a friend." Which friend?" "Well now, let me see, was it Pallas, or Cleopas or maybe Selkis?"
It didn't take long for Artabazus to catch on and then his henchmen's fists got their exercise after all.
For the whole summer Artabazus focussed his heartless eyes into every last corner of the town, counting and logging and interrogating, while the people of Potidaea cursed his name under their breath and worried what would happen next.
I saw more than I wanted to of Artabazus during that time and I detested the man; but I have to admit I was secretly thankful to him. It was because of him that I met Selene.
As I said, he was a fussy man. The house the Lords had arranged for him was "unacceptable"; it was too close to the centre of town, the noise and stench were "quite unbearable". And it was far too small to accommodate his personal staff. It was only a matter of days before he dispatched some of his men to find something more suitable. The big house was just the place they were looking for. He sent his most trusted aide to make the arrangements.
Gyges was a tall, thin, old eunuch who would have been beautiful in his youth and, from the look of his clothing and his make-up, liked to imagine he still was. He doted on his master and seemingly despised everyone else. I later learned that he and Artabazus were lovers. They deserved each other.
Gyges looked round the house with approval and glared at us with distaste.
"This house is now the property of Lord Artabazus," he said, in
heavily accented Greek. "You have an hour to gather your things and
try and make yourselves respectable..." his tone indicated he
thought this would be impossible "and then you will leave."
The five well armed thugs he'd brought with him ensured our complete co-operation.
"Wait!" he said as we made to go and pack our possessions, "You!" He pointed at me. "Come here and let me take a look at you." I walked over to him. "Strip!" he commanded. I did as was told. He looked me up and down with a detached interest, the way one might look at a prize bull or horse. He didn't seem very impressed. "Best of a bad bunch" he muttered, "I suppose you'll have to do."
He turned to address two of his thugs in his native tongue. I didn't understand a word but I figured none of it would be good.
The two guards laid me out on the stone slabs by the bathing
pool. One man opened my mouth, examined my lips, tongue and teeth
and muttered something. The other spread apart my legs, took a long
hard look between them and muttered something. There was a brief
conversation, then two fingers thrust into my cunt, wiggled around
and pulled out.
Seemingly satisfied with the results of their examination, the guards looked at each other, then at me. I didn't need to understand their words to know what would happen next.
Afterwards they threw me into a tub of too-hot water and
scrubbed every bit of my skin red raw. Peering at my head,
apparently concerned, they hacked off all my hair down to the
scalp. They indicated that I should go and dress myself and, that
done, they led me back to Gyges for a final inspection. His face
was a mask of disapproval. The dress - my best and most modest
dress! - made me look like a cheap whore, he said, and he couldn't
believe I didn't possess a wig. "Tell me you at least have a
headscarf!" he snapped. I did, but that was barely acceptable. He
flapped and fussed around me, pulling at various bits of my dress
and scarf until he was almost satisfied. "Well that's the best I
can do!" he exclaimed, shaking his head. "What more can one expect
from a barbarian whore."
Finally he explained to me what my duties were.
I was here to serve Artabazus' wife.
Selene arrived the morning after my 'cleansing'. When she had been settled in her room, Gyges sent for me and led me in. She was covered from head to toe by a brightly coloured dress of blues and greens that shimmered in the light - silk, I thought - and a matching veil that concealed all of her face but her eyes, which were the darkest brown. She was talking at Gyges; she sounded stern, haughty and not best pleased. The eunuch, when he could get a word in edgeways, veered between pleading and defensive. In the background, two old women in plain black dresses scuttled around, unpacking and arranging a seemingly endless string of clothes, pretending not to listen.
"At least tell me you speak Greek, girl, and not some other barbarian tongue." It took me a minute to realise she was addressing me, in Greek, and before I could reply she had turned back to Gyges and let loose another torrent of words that I imagined was abuse.
I was fed up with being humiliated and treated like an ignorant
barbarian. "Of course I speak Greek, Mistress," I interrupted
loudly, looking her straight in the eyes. "I'm sorry it took me a
minute to reply but your accent is almost impossible to
As defiances go it was a small act, but it was all I dared.
"Are you being impertinent, girl?" she demanded.
"No Mistress," I said evenly. I refused to lower my gaze.
"Of course not. And do you understand why you're here?" Her tone was sarcastic.
"Gyges says I'm here to serve you. He did not explain exactly how."
"Ever the prude, Gyges," she laughed mirthlessly. "You'd best leave then, before your senses are offended."
The eunuch wasted no time scuttling out.
She turned her attention fully on me. "Well?" she said
expectantly. I stood silent, staring at her.
"Do you have any idea why you're here, girl?" she asked.
"Gabrielle," I said.
"I'm not 'barbarian' or 'girl' or 'you there'. I have a name. It's Gabrielle. And since you've brought your house servants with you, I assume I'm here for some other reason. And since I am a whore I'd guess that would be for your pleasure."
Her eyes flared, in shock or anger, I couldn't tell, and for a moment I thought she might hit me. Then she said "You do have an attitude, don't you Gabrielle," and by the sound of her voice she was amused. "Whether or not you can please me remains to be seen. You can start by taking your clothes off so I can have a look at you."
She took a long time looking me up and down and it seemed she
liked what she saw. Plenty of men have looked at me that way but
never before a woman and I was suddenly embarrassed.
"This makes you uncomfortable?" she asked. "You have no experience with women?"
"Of course I do!" I snapped, irritated at my rising blush. "But not like this. Usually they're naked too." She was staring at my face, my head. "And please, don't ask about my hair, it wasn't my doing. And no, I don't have a wig."
"No matter; I have plenty. I'm sure we can find you one to suit."
I stood there waiting, unsure of what to say or do next. The silence added to my embarrassment. Her next words came to my rescue.
"I am tired and filthy from my journey. I need to bathe. I don't suppose this place has a pool?"
"As a matter of fact it does."
I dressed and left with her servants to help make the
preparations (the pool filled with fresh cool, flower-scented
water, oils and sponges placed on the edge and screens placed
around it for privacy); it was preferable to a long wait in
uncomfortable silence. I sent the old women back to fetch her.
She undressed quickly and almost jumped into the pool, beckoned me to join her. Until then I had seen nothing of her but her eyes, and I stood for a while looking at her. This seemed to make her uneasy. A small vengeful part of me thought 'payback', but as I kept looking, she tried to shrink from my gaze, suddenly more like a self-conscious unhappy young girl than the haughty bitch with the whiplash tongue of the morning.
Selene was not what most people would call beautiful. She was tall and gangly and not at all curvaceous; her hands were too big and her breasts too small. Her face - prominent nose, thin lips, angular cheekbones - was what generous people would describe as 'handsome'. Her head was as bald as mine. Despite her obvious discomfort I could not stop looking at her. She could not know I was not 'most people'. To me, she was stunning.
"Stop staring, Gabrielle, and get in the pool." She was trying to sound commanding but her voice now seemed very small. I couldn't stay angry at her. I decided I wanted to please her after all.
It pleased her for me to wash all of her body with sweet scented
soaps. It pleased her for me to caress her skin with fragrant oils.
It pleased her for me to kiss her head and feet, and all the places
in between. At some point we had to pause; to dress and get
ourselves back to her room and her bed, where it pleased her then
to touch my body as I had touched hers. It pleased her that I be
gentle and take things slow. There were moments of awkwardness,
when the mood was almost broken. When her tongue had driven me to a
frenzy and I grabbed her hand, begging her to fuck me and she
retorted that perhaps she could call in one of the guards who would
be more to my liking. When my tongue was almost numb with licking
and I thought I might bring her to a climax, and she pushed me away
laughing, saying, "slow down girl, I'm not paying you by the hour",
and implied that my technique left something to be desired. When
she teasingly asked if all Greek whores were so rough and
Much as her words stung, I hated to admit there was some truth in them. I was not used to such extended… foreplay; if I had lingered this long with any of my clients Eleni would've had my hide. Unless they had paid for the day. But 'think only to the pleasure of the customer' went Eleni's voice in my head. I dismissed Selene's words as stupidity and resolved to prove her wrong.
The sun was just setting and Selene was wet and moaning when her husband walked in. He addressed her coldly and she responded in kind. He turned to me and said, "You've readied her for me, I see. You can get off her now girl." I rolled away as he approached, his hand fumbling beneath his tunic. I lay with my back to them and tried not to hear as he thrust himself into her, grunting with exertion. It was over very quickly. His duty done, Artabazus lifted himself off her and left without a word.
"How can you bear being married to a man like that? He's a
cold-hearted pig and he obviously doesn't love you." I knew I
should keep silent, but I couldn't stop myself.
"Don't be so naive, girl," she snapped back bitterly. "Surely you can't think the marriage has anything to do with love."
From her earliest years, Selene's parents had looked upon their only child - a daughter; how they had wished for a son! - and observed that she was not beautiful. Her mother had worked hard on Selene to make the most of herself but the girl's efforts had mostly been to no avail. As she approached marriageable age they worried about the lack of suitors. Selene's family were rich, powerful and well respected in the city of Sardis which was their home. Most of their wealth was inherited, however, and Selene's father was keen to find new profitable ventures to invest in, for the future. Having no son, he was equally keen to find a suitable man to become his son-in-law. Artabazus was the son of a lowly merchant, entirely lacking in grace or social standing but possessed of a keen intelligence and burning ambition that gained him a reputation in the city: he was a man with a gift for numbers and making money grow. Thus it was that Artabazus came to meet Selene's family. At first they had no thought of him as a potential husband - his lower social class made him rather unsuitable - and he had no interest in romance with Selene or any other woman, for that matter. But he was very interested in political and social advancement and saw in Selene's family an opportunity for both. So he presented himself as humble suitor; he was, he knew, entirely unworthy, but if they would give him a chance he promised to always honour and respect their daughter and work day and night to keep her in a manner befitting her status. Her father took some persuading but eventually Selene gained a husband and her parents gained a canny financial advisor. In all the negotiations, there was never any mention of love.
Artabazus was true to his word. When it came to possessions or home comforts, Selene wanted for nothing. Realising quickly that she had no interest in him he gave her the freedom to follow her own passions, for learning and reading and the company of women. It was an unusual move but it worked to his advantage: it kept her out of his way. It was not too long, however, before his skills landed him a job at King Darius's court and Selene was summarily uprooted from her happy life in Sardis and taken east, to Persepolis. The centre of the kingdom, the centre of the universe, was a city where a man like Artabazus could realise all his ambitions. But it was a lonely place for his wife; a strange new world with a different language, customs and gods, and so far from her friends and family. As was the custom for a man of his growing status, he took several other wives. He had no particular interest in any of them, but it made a statement: he had made it, he was somebody. And they would be company for Selene. At first there were small rivalries between some of the young things who thought they could usurp her. She left them in no doubt that her family ensured her position as first wife (none of the others were so high born) and if there was a way to Artabazus's heart (which she very much doubted) it was through her. After a time she settled in and grew to enjoy her new home.
But then there was the small matter of children. As first wife
it fell to her to give her husband a son; it was the only thing he
required of her and she was failing him. She feared that he might
turn to one of his other wives and she would lose the status and
freedoms that made her life bearable. He feared that to do so would
give insult to his respected first father-in-law, who he still
needed as patron. Uncharacteristically, he asked Selene what they
should do; she suggested he consult a seer. Though this was not the
way of the Persians, several respectable seers could be found in
the city. Artabazus dealt in facts and figures and held no stock in
'superstitions', but Selene seemed desperate to please him and so
he relented. The seers divined that the coming summer was a most
auspicious time for his first wife to conceive. Only a few days
after the consultations he was ordered to go to Potidaea. Furious
that the seers had not foretold this, he threatened to expose them
all as charlatans. Selene pleaded with him to desist and give them
another chance to explain their full meaning. Sure enough, they
returned with more predictions, suggesting that this trip might not
such a bad thing after all. They had seen that a son conceived in
the rough barbarian lands would be fearless and strong and grow to
be a great man indeed.
Once again Selene was ripped from her life, in the most civilised city of the Empire and dumped in some backwoods town at the farthest edge of the universe. With only a single barbarian peasant whore for company.
Just got back from town, on an errand. Not quite sure I believe
the gossip I've been hearing. Apparently, the youngest daughter of
Herodotus is getting married with the blessing and patronage of the
Governor of Potidaea. So-and-so told someone who told someone else
that their friend had seen Lord Cortese turn up at Herodotus's
house with a huge sack of coin and they reckoned it was to pay for
Some people thought it was all my doing:
"Well that's what happens when your eldest daughter has the Governor's ear."
"His ear? That's not all she has, the sly little whore!"
"Who would've thought it," said the baker's grandfather, shaking his wizened head, "your dad the farm boy going up in the world." He fixed me with a toothless grin. "Reckon it wont be long 'til the Guv'nor makes an honest woman out of you, eh?"
The man's ancient, he's clearly lost his mind.
Cortese is in his study, poring over papers. He is humming.
"Heard some interesting stories in town today." I say.
"Oh, you shouldn't listen to stories, you never know if any of them are true," he grins.
He ignores me and starts humming again. I realise the tune is a wedding dance.
"Why?" I ask.
"Why what?" He is being deliberately obtuse.
"You know what. Why did you give my family-"
"Why not? My turn. Why are you giving me this interrogation? Surely a simple thank you would be more appropriate?"
"Thank you," I say, arms crossed, waiting expectantly. "So?"
"Well if you insist on a reason, I'll give you this. Because I can; because it makes your sister happy and that makes you happy; because I want to make you happy; because somewhere along the way - I don't know how it happened and may the gods forgive me my foolishness - I've grown to love you."
I look at him in stunned silence. I know my lack of response is making him uncomfortable: the poor man has just made a declaration of love and all I can do is stare at him like an imbecile. I should pull myself together; I'm a whore, I have a whore's art, I know any number of things that I could and should say or do. Instead I walk over to him, grasp him in a big bear hug of friendship and say, simply, "Thank you."
"He's not a bad man really," Selene said, gently stroking my
"I didn't say a word."
"You didn't need to. I can feel-"
"What? You've known me five days and you can read my thoughts?" I interrupted, turning to face her.
The four days had passed much as the first, in an indulgence of slow sex, punctuated with stilted small talk and Selene's occasional remarks on all that was right about Persepolis and, by implication, all that was wrong with Potidaea. And every sundown, a conjugal visit from Artabazus. Over those brief moments my opinion of him had changed: at first I disliked the man, I now despised him. But since Selene and I were managing to spend a mostly pleasant time together; I didn't want to spoil it with a discussion of her husband's character.
"I can feel you tense up." she continued. "Please Gabrielle, don't be like this." She leaned in and nuzzled my neck, trying to appease me. "I mean, he can't be all bad; he gave me you.
"I doubt he'd ever laid eyes on me until that first evening. It was Gyges who picked me."
"Yes but Gyges and my husband are like that." She held up two crossed fingers. "A proper married couple. I swear they even finish each other's sentences."
"Really? Are they, um, you know…" Despite my mood I was intrigued, and seemingly suddenly overcome by an uncharacteristic prudishness.
"Oh yes, since forever, as far as I know."
An image popped unbidden into my mind, of the cold fat pig and the skinny effeminate eunuch in the throes of passion. "Can you imagine-"
"Don't go there." She put a finger to my lips to shut me up. "I did, once, and I had nightmares for days after."
"Ugh!" we chorused and burst into fits of laughter, like a couple of innocent young girls. We began pretending to be Artabazus and Gyges in love, driving each other to hysteria with increasingly ridiculous situations and before too long we were lost in a passion of our own.
Much later, when we were stretched out next to each other, contented and close to sleep, I told her, "If it would please you to talk about your husband, to tell me why he's not such a bad man, then I'll listen. I can't promise I'll change my mind, but I'll try."
"OK" she mumbled.
"But I've something to ask in return."
"Let me take you out, show you around Potidaea. You never know, it might not be as dreadful as you think."
"OK." Her voice was barely audible. Then she let rip with a huge snore.
Selene tried hard to pretend she liked Potidaea, but I wasn't
fooled. From her descriptions of the wonders of her adopted home
city, I had to concede she had a point, but then my hometown was
never the centre of anybody's empire, so what did she expect? She
enjoyed it more when we went for walks out in the country;
meandering through the olive groves and watching the 'delightful'
peasant folk tending the fields. Only a woman who'd never done a
day's work in her life could think that pulling weeds was 'noble'
or 'romantic'. She especially liked listening to the women singing
as they toiled.
"What are they singing?" she asked.
"You know, the usual. Love songs mostly. The occasional lament about the death of a child. And every so often there's a rousing one about our brave sons going off to kick some Persian butt."
"Can you sing?"
I laughed. "There are many fine voices in Potidaea but I have to confess that mine isn't one of them. Tone deaf. And with two left feet. But I'm not a bad actor," I said, "and a pretty good storyteller, too."
So I launched into a tale - I forget which now, probably one
involving Hercules - and when I finished she clapped and said
"You really liked it?" I asked "You're not just being kind?"
"I really liked it. Do you know any more?"
"Are you kidding? This is the land of meddlesome Gods, heroes, warriors and kings; we've got so many tales I could bore you for years."
"I'd like that" she said "and I promise, I won't be bored."
I still wasn't totally convinced. "If you're sure. But you must've heard stuff like this before?"
"The Persian gods are very different, Gabrielle, and so are the stories. Of course, there are many tales, mostly about the fight between good and evil, and in the hands of a good storyteller... But I'm ashamed to admit it, after a while they all start to sound the same. Yours is more exciting..." she paused. "Maybe it's not just the story, but the storyteller I like."
Days upon days passed, every one much the same: slow sex, a walk
to the fields to hear the women singing, a story or two, a visit
from Artabazus. And conversations fuelled by curiosity - Have you
always been a storyteller? What's it like being in a harem? Have
you ever been to Athens? Is Persepolis really that big? Did you
always know you liked women (we chorused)? Who was your first love?
- between two people looking to become friends. The only dark day
was the morning she started her bleeding; proof that, once again,
she had failed to be a proper wife. Then she was despairing and did
not want to be consoled with sweet songs or tall tales or gentle
kisses. She would not even let me hold her. "Oh for goodness sake,
stop pawing at me girl! What good will any of that do?" she
snapped. "Will it give me the child I desire?"
She was right of course, but still, I couldn't help feeling useless. I hate feeling useless.
"But I want to help," I tried.
"Just… Get out!"
I went to town to visit Eleni. She, having not set eyes on me
for weeks, was pleased to see me, concerned for my welfare and
anxious for news; but I had a more urgent purpose and did not want
to be diverted from it by gossip. I begged her to give me some of
the money I had earned.
"How much do you need?" she asked.
"How much have I got left? Never mind, I'll take it all."
"All of it? What do you need it for Gabrielle, are you in some kind of trouble?"
"No, I'm fine, really. I don't have time to explain now, Eleni, please."
She gave me the bag of coin, reluctantly.
"Why the rush?" she asked, unsure whether to be amused or worried.
"I have to catch the traders before they set off for the afternoon market at the port." At the mention of the port, her eyes widened. I could imagine all the things she might be thinking.
"I'll be back later, I promise." I ran out before she could change her mind take the money back.
This part of Potidaea, that once was countryside, has only a few small shrines which the gods have to share. Which is fine for all the day to day stuff: help finding a lost possession, resolving a dispute with a neighbour or dealing with an errant husband; thanks for a good crop, the extra eggs the hen laid, the continued good health of family and friends. I was looking for a major godly intervention - the gift of a son! for an unbelieving foreigner! - and that meant a visit to the big temples down at the port. I had just enough time to buy some wine, grapes and oil to lay at Aphrodite's local shrine, just in case she was passing by, before buying a seat on the fastest port-bound cart I could find.
The port, as always, was a riot of people coming and going,
buying and selling, stopping and starting, getting lost and found,
begging and ignoring, whispering and shouting, weaving and jostling
and bustling around. Clutching my bag of coin very tightly under my
cloak and trying not to look like an innocent waiting to be mugged,
I threaded my way through the noisy, smelly mass, heading for
Aphrodite's Temple. The really big temples were in a prime spot
right on the waterfront. Poseidon's was the biggest, with hordes of
folk waiting to get in. Aphrodite's was next door and, thankfully,
not nearly as busy. I was greeted by an acolyte who assumed I was
seeking a simple love charm, or perhaps help with my appearance.
When I told him what I wanted, he told me to wait, he would fetch
the head priest.
"So let me understand you, young woman," the priest said sternly. "You wish Aphrodite to bless your friend with a son and this friend of yours is Persian?"
"Well, I think she's from Sardis originally, but I'm not sure where that is, so, yes."
"And how do you come to know this woman, to intercede on her behalf?"
"It's a long story," I answered, in a manner that suggested the telling of it would bring me shame. I hoped he would not press the point. The temples had not escaped Artabazus's investigations and he had no more friends there than anywhere else. If the priest knew it was the wife of Artabazus who needed help, I'd have no chance. Fortunately, many kinds of foreigners pass through the port and the priest was not especially interested.
"Then perhaps you can answer me this: has she ever, herself, given offerings or praise to the Goddess, or any of our gods, for that matter?"
"I don't think so." This wasn't helping my cause but it doesn't do to lie to the gods.
"And is she planning to do so any time soon?"
"I don't know. She's ignorant of our ways, but I'm trying to teach her. Maybe if the Goddess can help her she will be overcome with gratitude," I ventured. I doubted it but I couldn't know for sure. That wasn't lying, was it?
"I see." He paused, fixing me with a look that was designed to make me uncomfortable. "I must go and consult with the other priests. While you wait, you might consider making a small offering over there," he said pointedly, indicating a series of gift-laden tables lining the side of the temple, "as thanks to the Goddess for her patience so far. If you need assistance, call for an acolyte." With that he marched off.
An acolyte appeared from nowhere and was happy to help. "This is Small Offerings; candles, food and drink only," he explained as I placed a coin on one of the tables. I looked along the row, mine was indeed the only coin.
"I'm sorry, I haven't brought... I didn't have time..."
"Not a problem Miss. I know you're waiting for the priest. If you like I can pop out and buy something for you."
"Yes, thank you."
He left with my coin and returned only moments later with half a coin's worth of grapes.
After a seemingly endless wait, the priest returned, his face grave.
"Well, young woman, it seems we may be able to help you and your friend after all. It will be expensive, however."
Of course it would. I reached into my hidden bag and retrieved a quarter of the contents.
"More expensive than that."
I pulled out another handful, taking care not to let the remaining coins jingle. "That's all I have," I pleaded, "I've just enough left to get me home.
He studied me sceptically, but did not press for more. "I must stress to you Miss, your request is most… unconventional. Even with all our ministrations on your behalf, there is no absolute guarantee that Aphrodite will respond in your favour..."
"I understand. Thank you," I said, preparing to leave, but the priest was not done yet.
"...But as men, we priests are not without concern for your friend's troubles. Here at the Temple of Aphrodite we have had the finest apothecaries concoct a potion to enhance fertility." An acolyte was suddenly by his side, proffering a small brightly painted jar. "It costs two coins. I know that is double what you would pay to one of those street vendors, the charlatans! But ours is made with the blessing of the Goddess herself. Many women swear by it."
No wonder the temples are so grand and rich; these priests don't miss a trick. I almost declined his offer but, what can I say? I was desperate.
Desperate enough to hedge my bets.
I had half a bag of coin left. I set aside enough for some food and my journey back; the rest I divided between the Temples of Eilythia, Demeter and Hestia. I figured that, even if they could not help me directly, since the gods spent so much time meddling in one another's affairs, maybe one of them could meddle on my behalf: persuade, cajole, challenge or trick Aphrodite into helping me. At each temple, when the acolytes asked my business I told them none of this. I said only that I wanted to thank the Goddess, who had been kind to me and wanted to ensure her continued favour. I asked that I be allowed to spend a few moments alone in the temple to marvel at its glory. They were happy to take my coin and leave me to my silent conversation.
I got a ride back home with the baker's grandfather. His cart
was laden with sacks of spices and jars of honey and pulled by a
donkey almost as old as he. The journey would be slow but I was in
no rush. He would not take coin from me - "No need, little
Gabrielle, I'll bring you safe back to your father" (his memory was
badly failing) - and even offered me a small jar of honey "for your
I asked him to let me off at the edge of town nearest the olive groves, dropping a coin into the back of the cart as he trundled off. The honey had given me an idea, one last request for help. At the far end of the grove was a small group of olive trees, larger than any others in living memory. They had not been planted but had always been there. They never suffered from blight and the olives they produced were always big and rich and full of flavour. Opinions initially varied over which of the gods was responsible for their creation but the balance was in favour of Gaia, mother of all things. Surely if there was anyone who could persuade Aphrodite to our aid it would be she. Gaia would have no use for coin, but perhaps the sweet honey would persuade her to heed a peasant girl's words.
The sun had long set when I returned to the big house. Selene's
mood had not improved.
"Where have you been?" she demanded. "Do you have any idea of the trouble you caused? I had no idea where you were. Artabazus was furious."
Surprised at this outburst, I nonetheless started trying to explain. I didn't get very far.
"Don't bother girl, I'm really not interested in your excuses!"
I was stunned into anger. "Excuses! That's rich coming from you. I bet your husband didn't even notice I wasn't there and you're just mad at me because I wasn't around to comfort you after he'd gone!"
She slapped me across the face. "Don't you dare take that tone with me! Let me remind you, lest you are labouring under the misconception that you free to do as you please: you are not. You are here at my husband's command and your sole purpose is to please me. I should have you flogged for running away."
"You'd like that wouldn't you? Stuck up bitch!"
She made to slap me again, but I caught her wrist. I brought my face close to hers.
"The only thing that's keeping me here 'at your husband's command' are those hulking thugs he's got at the front door and since they were happy enough to let me out today 'on an errand' I figure I could leave you any time I want. Maybe Artabazus would send men to look for me, but he's a busy man, your husband, and since the only concern he has for you is that you give him a son, I doubt he'd bother. And while we're at it, let me explain to you, in case your mind is too simple to understand these things: a person who's 'running away' doesn't come back of their own free will. I went out today to try and find a way to help you. I wish I hadn't bothered!"
Selene was staring at me, mouth open, lost for words. I don't think anyone had ever spoken to her like that.
Having said my piece I had no idea what to do next, so I turned to leave.
"Where are you going?" It was an interrogation, but her tone was less certain now.
"I don't know, maybe I'll sleep in the outhouse; it would be better than spending any more time with you."
"Please Gabrielle... I…I was worried about you, I didn't know where you were. Artabazus noticed your absence; he was already in a foul mood because of my bleeding and I feared if I told him the truth... I told him I'd sent you on an errand."
"Is that supposed to be an apology? Because it doesn't sound like one to me." I stopped by the door, waiting.
"Please, Gabrielle, I'm trying to explain... what more do you want?"
I turned to face her. "I want you to admit that I'm right you're wrong and say you're sorry. And really mean it."
I wanted her to beg.
She apologised. Several times. She pleaded. She begged. With her words and her body, holding herself against me, hands running through my hair, lips nuzzling my neck. "I'm sorry Gabrielle, please don't be angry with me, I was so afraid, I missed you."
We made up in a frenzy of sex that was, for once, neither slow nor gentle.
Afterwards, cradled in my arms, she asked me where I had been. I
told her and she was sceptical. My gods were not her gods and she
was not entirely convinced she believed in hers. "Thank you," she
said. "But, all of your coin? Why would you do this?"
"Because I have no use for it." Forgive me, Father, Mother, Lila. "Because I know how much it means to you. Because.." I dare not tell you I'm in love with you "... I want to make you happy."
I don't know if it was the Goddesses, the Fates or just plain luck, but the next month Selene's bleeding did not come. She was with child. She was happy. Artabazus was happy. I was happy. The very next day Artabazus made arrangements for her to go back to Persepolis. Those arrangements did not include me.
"Why now? Why do you have to leave now?" Now, when I have
come to need you.
"You know why, Gabrielle." She stroked my face gently while her two servants bustled about, packing her endless array of dresses. "My husband's business here is nearly done. He is being sent to Macedonia to investigate some 'irregularities'. It is not safe to travel with him there, so I must return to Persepolis before my child is grown too big inside."
"You could wait for him here, instead," I suggested. "It's a good place. Didn't your oracles say this is a good place to give birth to your child?"
"No Gabrielle," Selene corrected, "they said it was a good place to conceive a child. And If I am not with my husband then my place is at home, where my servants will do everything to ensure the good health of my child and me."
"Then take me with you," I said. (I sounded too desperate). "As far as Artabazus is concerned I'm his - your servant. He has many; surely he wouldn't notice one more."
"My husband, the man who keeps a record of every last coin acquired or spent? Of course he would notice. Your existence will be logged somewhere... I'm afraid, as far he is concerned, you are no longer needed."
"You could tell him I am still needed. He's overjoyed; you're going to give him a son. He'll listen to you."
"I fear that moment has passed, Gabrielle. His mind is already filled with resentment at his next 'foreign' assignment. I doubt he would listen."
Silence. And a moment of understanding.
"You're not even going to try, are you? It's you that doesn't
want me to come to Persepolis, isn't it?"
"Gabrielle, you don't understand. Here, I've been allowed more freedom than I would ever have at home. Back there I have duties and responsibilities; I can very rarely just please myself - there are always many other people to consider - and when I do, I still have to play by the rules. You are a Greek peasant who has learned, what, a few words of Persian? You could not be one of my personal servants. For you to instantly gain such an elevated position would cause offence and resentment. It would be inappropriate. You might be given a job as a kitchen-help, cleaner or washerwoman, though we already have enough of those. We would not be able to see each other. Granted, you are clever and quick-witted, and maybe you would be able to work your way up. But in the meantime you would be alone, with no friends or family, no allies of any kind, and a very long way from home. I would not wish that for you."
More silence. And a moment of suspicion.
"So who is it?" I asked. "One of the other wives?"
Selene looked at me blankly.
"Your lover; the 'other people' whose feelings you have to consider, who would be offended and resentful."
"No Gabrielle, I didn't mean..." she began then changed her mind. "Would it make a difference, knowing her name?"
"Please believe me Gabrielle. The time I have spent here, with you... I have been happy. I am very fond of you. But now it's time to-"
I didn't want to hear more. I kissed her. It was the quickest way to shut her up.
With Selene gone, Artabazus had no need for me. Based on Selene's description and my own limited dealings, I expected Gyges to appear and put me to some other use (waste not, want not), most likely menial and demeaning. But he did not come. It seemed Artabazus had forgotten about me after all.
I had lost my love. I was alone and at a loss. How was it
possible to still be alive? (Looking back, it all sounds so
melodramatic, but at the time my despair felt very real). Beyond
notice, I was free to do as I pleased. I could go back into town,
to Eleni and the girls. I could return to my life. I
should go back: Eleni would be worried about me. My
family, poor Lila! I had wasted our money in a moment of madness,
on a lie.
Or I could steal a large amphora of wine from the kitchens and hide in a dark corner of a store-room at the farthest end of the courtyard.
I chose the latter option.
The wine was finished and my sore head was demanding more, when a guard found me. He was glad to help me (poor girl!), to fetch me wine and food. He took his payment in kind. Over the following days I was visited by quite a few guards with a similar interest in my welfare.
And then the guards were gone. Artabazus had concluded his investigations. The town had been judged and found (mostly) guilty. Artabazus saw no need to inflict physical punishment or imprisonment (the men responsible were most relieved at that); it would be counter-productive. But many possessions had been confiscated and taxes were increased to make up the deficit. And to ensure no further transgressions, Potidaea was to receive its very own Governor.
There's been news of trouble in Macedonia; Cortese is planning to go and investigate. He could send any one of his commanders but he says this needs his personal attention. I assume he's feeling restless and in need of some small adventure. He assures me that this is really important; he may be gone for some time and in his absence he's putting Perdiccas in charge. The two men are in Cortese's study now, finalising plans. When I bring in food and wine, Perdiccas's eyes follow me from the door all the way to the table; even after all this time, his desire is barely disguised. Cortese puts his arm idly but possessively round my waist, all the while smiling and talking to the younger man. Perdiccas's jaw clenches. They stare at each other like rutting bulls, these two men who love me. If I could love either one, would my life be any better?
Cortese has been gone a day and Perdiccas has already installed
himself in the big house. He and a few of his men are camped out in
the courtyard. I can't believe his cheek and I tell him as much.
It's not what I think. Cortese left him with instructions to
strengthen the town's fortifications and to start with the walls
right next to the big house.
"So come on Gabrielle, relax, you've nothing to fear from me," he smiles. "Sit down, have a drink, for old time's sake."
"There were no 'old times'," I retort, "unless you want me to spend an evening insulting you."
He laughs. "Yeah, I guess."
"I'm sorry about that. You know I never really wanted to hurt you. It's just-"
I did hurt him.
"So, the Governor of Potidaea, eh? You've done well for yourself."
"So people say."
"And what do you say?"
"I could've done worse." I shrug.
"D'you love him?"
He doesn't want to know, but he has to know.
"Love is over-rated," I smile. "So what about you? All grown up and handsome and second-in-command to the Governor."
"What can I say? Turns out I have a skill for soldiering."
He does, at great length, and the evening passes pleasantly enough. Helen and Persephone join us and I leave him in their very capable hands.
Night. Alone. With Cortese absent, the room seems very empty. I don't think I ever realised how much I am used to him being around, how I've come to enjoy his company. I miss him.
The first time Cortese laid eyes on me I was in the courtyard, naked and on my knees, retching. I'd been planning to take a bath but hadn't quite made it. The wine was finished and there was nothing to distract me from my misery but my thumping head, wrenching gut and general stench. I must've made quite a first impression.
"You there, girl. What are you doing?" It was a commanding voice. There was an accent, but definitely Greek. It belonged to a tall rugged man, with grizzled grey beard and hair and a scar across his right cheek. A man in battle dress (a soldier then), a fine cloak bearing the insignia of the Persian king (a general?), and (I wasn't sure I was seeing right) a beguiling smile.
I should have been aware of his rank and my quite debased
position and addressed him respectfully.
I said: "I live here."
"I see. So the Accountant forgot to take you with him when he left, eh? Although, the state you're in, I couldn't blame even him." He spoke the word 'Accountant' as an insult.
I should have apologised and perhaps tried to explain my
I said: "You've met Artabazus then. Most folks have called him much worse."
The man laughed. "You've a mouth on you girl. You took that tone with your master, it's a wonder you escaped a flogging."
I should have taken heed and asked his forgiveness, peasant
whore servants have no business addressing anyone like that.
I said: "Artabazus wasn't my master and this isn't his house! It belongs to Mistress Eleni. That bastard stole it from us and took me-"
"Use that tone with me girl, and you might get much worse!"
Two other soldiers had joined the grizzled general and were watching the exchange.
I was alone with three armed men. Perhaps I should have been
I said: "Go ahead! There's nothing you can do to me that hasn't been done already. Except maybe kill me-"
And there it was, my mind finally registered: maybe I'd gone too far. I wanted to sleep, I wanted a drink, I wanted the pain to stop. I didn't want to die, not really. At that point, perhaps I should have begged for my life. Instead, I threw up.
Fortunately, the grizzled general and his two companions found
me amusing. (Or ridiculous. Or both.)
"Got a pair of balls on her, that one" one soldier laughed.
"More man than you" teased the other. "A looker too."
"Perhaps she's a boy in disguise." said the first.
"You blind, man? Or just stupid?" the second man again. "Don't tell me you've never seen a naked woman!"
"Course I have." the first blustered. "But look, from behind, with that short hair and that cute arse..."
"You know, you could be right." The grizzled general was studying me intently.
"Wishful thinking, sir." All three laughed at that.
"Right, that's enough fun for one day," barked the grizzled general, smirking. "Come on, we've got work to do. And you," he nodded at me, "get yourself clean and dressed. And make sure you look respectable!"
They walked back into the house and I finally made it into the bath.
I was clean but all my clothes were filthy. There was nothing
for it; I'd have to wash them in the pool and hope they dried
before the grizzled general came back to do... whatever he was
going to do.
"I thought I told you to get dressed." He was back already.
I held up one of my dresses. "I'm sorry sir, I can't put these on, they stink."
"Yes, I imagine they do. And you've nothing else?"
"Pity. Oh well. Wait here."
He disappeared inside, returning a short time later with a man's tunic made of rough grey cloth, which he handed to me.
"This'll have to do for now. At least you'll be covered up. I came to ask you, what's your mistress's name and where is she now?"
"Mistress Eleni, sir. She'll be staying somewhere in town."
"Eleni? Here, in Potidaea?"
He left again.
The sun was setting when he returned. I was clean and clothed.
And starving. And thirsty.
"Please, sir. Is there any chance I could have some food. I haven't eaten for a couple of days. And some wine."
"Cortese," he said, ignoring my request. "My name is Cortese - Lord Cortese to you. I am the newly appointed Governor of Potidaea."
His voice betrayed no emotion. I stared at his face, trying to judge his mood, but it was a mask.
"Your name is Gabrielle. And you are whore."
"You found Mistress Eleni, then."
"And she told me exactly the same story you did; this house belongs to her. Though she was unable to find the papers to prove it. Artabazus took it. Etcetera."
"So-" I began hopefully. You'll give it back to us?
"So now, we have a problem. Because as Governor of Potidaea, I have the right to claim this house, or any in Potidaea as my own. And I like this place. It is ideal as a governor's residence."
Of course not. Why would I even think that? Please can I have a drink?
"So you're keeping the house. What about me?"
"As I said, we have a problem. Mistress Eleni is of the opinion that this place would be ideal as a high class brothel; that use as such would be better for both of us. She is a woman of great ambition and powerful argument."
"So we get the house?"
"Well that depends."
Clearly, he was toying with me and I didn't know why. Please, just tell me and get it over with. I need a drink.
The negotiations had gone something like this:
The big house was the only house in town large enough to function as a high class brothel. A high class brothel would be an ideal place to entertain important men, offering food, fine wine, music, dancing, arts and of course, beautiful women. It would also be a good place for his soldiers to come and take their pleasures; granted, more expensive than some of the hovels at the port, but Eleni was sure his men had taste and perhaps discounts could be offered. This would keep the men off the streets and away from bothering the local girls, which would keep the townsfolk happy. And a happy town would be a much easier place to govern.
It was perhaps, a flimsy argument, but Cortese had allowed himself to be persuaded. He had seen another advantage, one which Eleni had been careful not to mention. A place such as Eleni envisioned would be highly profitable, and liable for a considerable amount of tax.
They haggled over the numbers and came to an agreement.
Cortese had another condition. He really did like the house and wanted to take rooms there. Not to visit. But to live.
A most unconventional request, Eleni thought.
What better place from which to keep an eye on the business of the town, he argued
Her clients valued discretion, she countered, and her girls would not be spies.
Of course not, he agreed, but wine and a beautiful woman had loosed many a man's tongue and the walls have ears.
The deal was nearly struck.
"One last thing," he mentioned idly. "That girl, what's her name? Gabrielle. I want her for my own."
"Of course you shall have her whenever you please. You are welcome to any of my girls."
"Just her. Exclusively. As my slave."
I don't know why Eleni did not simply agree. She had the right to and it was a small price to pay for her ambition. If our positions were reversed I think I would have done. Instead she told him, "Gabrielle is not mine to trade. For that you'll have to ask her yourself."
"That's a pity. Without her, we have no deal."
It was up to me.
"You understand, girl, I'll own you, you'll obey me in
everything. You will do nothing without my scrutiny and my
permission. There'll be no whoring, no earning money for you or
your family." He was making it sound most foreboding and I thought
I understood his intent. He wanted the big house for himself, but
he wanted Eleni as an ally. If I said no, he could keep the place
and point the finger of blame at me. I considered saying no; my
family must surely be in need of money by now. But without the big
house I might be free but how would I prosper, where would I ply my
trade? Eleni's old place was crammed to bursting, and having sunk
her dream, would I be welcome?
"I understand, Lord Cortese. Give Eleni the house. I will be your slave."
"Right then. We have an agreement. I'll send word to Eleni," he said matter-of-factly.
Later there was paperwork, though thankfully no branding, but in
that moment I became the possession of Lord Cortese. He sent me to
wait in one of the rooms he had chosen for his own. I sat in a
corner and waited in silence.
Waited while he marched round the house barking orders at his men.
Waited alone in silence once he and his men had gone, presumably to town, or to their encampment just outside.
Waited and watched as, on his return, he chivvied a whole host of red-faced sweating soldiers carrying tables and chairs, a bed, boxes big and small filled with clothing and armour and trophies and many other things that had to be arranged just so.
Waited, seemingly unnoticed, until I thought I might faint from thirst or fall asleep. Until my Lord Cortese was finally satisfied with the arrangement of his quarters and dismissed his men.
Waited until he finally noticed me and said, "Ah, Gabrielle, still here? I thought you might have popped off to the kitchen to eat."
"You told me to wait here, Lord."
"Ha! Of course. And you are so accustomed to obedience." He was amused.
"I have an incentive."
"Indeed you do."
I waited some more as he stared at me intently, then said, "You know, short hair suits you. Keep it that way!"
"Yes Lord," I said, and I waited.
He said, "Well, what are you waiting for, girl? Come here! Bend over."
He fucked me up the arse. I wasn't expecting it and it hurt more than a little, but I managed to stifle my cry.
"How did you like that?" he asked afterwards, looking to judge my reaction.
"Did you like it, Lord?" I kept my tone even.
"Then I'm sure I'll get used to it."
The long days upon days that followed were filled with agonies I never believed I would endure. It was not sex that pained me, it was a form of torture that he called 'physical training'. There were exercises to make me strong, exercises to make me supple, exercises to make me fast; my arms, my legs, my belly, my heart, for every part of me there was an exercise. They were exercises to make me mad. When I complained (which I did often) he would smile and say something 'motivational' such as "Healthy body, healthy mind" or "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" or, more often than not, simply remind me of 'the deal'.
My day's training over, he would dismiss me to the bathing pool.
Sometimes he would stand and watch me. The first time, aware of his
eyes on me, I said "I hope you're not wanting to fuck me now. I'm
nearly dead and that would finish me off. I'm only mortal you
know!" (In my agony and exhaustion I neglected the proper forms of
address. Cortese did not punish me; he liked what he called my
"I wouldn't dream of it," he chuckled. He was true to his word. For at least a month he made no demands on me for sex.
I was convinced I knew his plan: surely he meant to break me, to
force me to recant on 'the deal'. So I endured, in the best way I
knew how; wine is a wonderful balm for pain and I still had an ally
in Spiridon. Cortese refused to make allowances for the inevitable
mornings after. I'm sure he could have cut off my supply, instead
he chose to lecture me mercilessly as I panted and sweated and
strained my way through the exercises.
"Well, what do you expect, you drink too much."
"Nonsense! No more than anyone else! Don't tell me you've never been drunk."
"True, I enjoy a cup or two as much as the next man; it's good for a night of merriment and celebration, or, sometimes, to banish an ill mood. But when I was in training, or before a battle... Well there are men who swear that a drink gives courage, but, in truth, wine fuddles the mind and weakens the muscle; the best warriors would not touch it."
"Not a warrior," I gasped between heaving breaths, "I'm - whore slave - soon be - cripple if - keep - on - like - this." I collapsed on the floor.
Cortese laughed and handed me a cup. "Water. Try it. It's good for what ails you."
Stubbornness kept me in my habit for a few more days before I heeded his advice. There followed more seemingly endless days which made the fires of Tartarus appear very inviting, but Cortese was right: slowly I began to feel much better.
I became stronger, more agile, faster, fitter. With my toned muscles and short hair I looked more and more like a youth. But with breasts. Cortese approved of the changes. As my training progressed he came to watch me more often at the pool and after a time, his desire was plain to see. As a concession to my sex and my comfort, he agreed to use mostly my cunt for his pleasure.
"Gods give me patience! Cortese, please, get your nose out of
those scrolls and get changed. We've a wedding to go to."
"In a moment, Gabrielle. This is serious. There's trouble coming." He sounds worried.
"I know Lord…" He looks up then. These days, I only call him Lord when I am being very serious, or wishing to taunt him. Now it is the former. "…But trouble is not here now, and surely tomorrow will be time enough to start making preparations. Today, everyone is readying themselves for the wedding. My sister and Archiomandri have waited long enough for your return. To get married without the blessing of you, their patron, would have been unthinkable. And if what you're reading is that bad, then there will be time enough for woe. For this day at least, let them - let us - be happy."
"Ah my sweet Gabrielle. You always did have a way with words. You're right, I suppose."
As I help him put away the scrolls, I glimpse a phrase or two: …did not surrender…razed to the ground…invincible…they do not fly the banner of any city or place, but only that of…people call her 'The chosen of Ares'… Terrifying, yes. But 'her'? Surely someone has been telling tall tales.
It's a lovely day for a wedding. When Lila and I used to talk about her wedding day, neither of us imagined anything as grand as this. The celebrations are in the agora and it seems like the whole town is here. There are more lambs on spits than I have ever seen in my life and an army of amphorae of wine, lined up in rows. There are musicians and singers, street performers to entertain the children. Priests from the Temples of Aphrodite, Hera and Hestia are on hand to give blessings (they are junior priests, there are limits to Cortese's generosity and his purse). Cortese tries his best to enjoy himself but I can tell he is distracted. No-one else notices. Not Lila and Archiomandri, who are lost in their own private bliss. Not my mother, who would throw herself at Lord Cortese's feet and kiss them, if it were proper for her to do so, but instead maintains a respectful distance, surrounded by her friends. Not my father who is so drunk on joy, wonder, disbelief and wine that he is at a loss for words and chooses instead to express himself through elaborate dancing while trying not to fall over. He and half the other men in the town. Not Perdiccas, who has his hands full with Helen and Persephone. Not the Lords of Potidaea who are struggling to fathom how a lowly peasant farmer could be so easily elevated, when they must plot and scheme and out-do one another to try and gain favour with the Governor.
As the day's merriment progresses and the line between proper
and improper behaviour begins to blur, I decide that, if my Lord is
distracted, he might as well be distracted by me. I approach him,
bearing a huge cup of wine. "Now is one of those times when it
would be appropriate to get very drunk, dance badly and sing bawdy
songs, much like everyone else is doing."
"Oh I couldn't do that. I might lose all sense and ask you to marry me, and then where would we be?"
"I've no idea. I might lose all sense too, and say yes."
He downs the wine in one. I fetch more. We drink, dance, embrace, get caught up in drunken conversation.
"Why me?" (The familiar question, still unanswered.)
"You remind me of me, when I was a lad."
"There was a battle. I was very young. Too young to remember where or why. But my parents died and I was taken east, as a slave. I was a boy whore. In Smyrna."
"Smyrna? Did you know-"
"Eleni? No I didn't" he laughed. "It's a big city, you know. Anyway, there was a Persian commander who took a liking to me. He said he saw something in me, said I had 'potential'. He bought my freedom and became my patron. Trained me to be a soldier. Now here I am. And when we first met, I saw that same something in you."
"I hate to break it to you, lover," I giggled "but as hard as you train me, I'll never be a soldier, never mind a general."
"True. You've the makings of a great bard, though. But-"
"You couldn't possibly have known that!"
"-but," he continues, "that's not what I meant by 'something'. It was less tangible than that. More a kind of sense. You had a look, an air that told me you have an instinct for survival and success. The gods favour you Gabrielle."
No they don't. But you do.
"You think so? Maybe. Perhaps they brought me you. My lover." I nibble his neck, work my tongue and lips round to his mouth, run my hand up his thigh. After a time he breaks the embrace and stills my hand.
"Tell me Gabrielle, if you were my wife would you still dream of an amazon queen who whisks you away?"
"I don't know. Maybe. But it's just a dream, that's all." That's all it will ever be. And I don't think I can spend my life alone. "You're real. This is real." I push myself onto him. "I need this. I need you."
We fuck, drink, dance, sing, fuck some more, and, long after the sun has set, we finally stagger home.
Cortese does not ask me to marry him.
With the governorship of a town comes much paperwork. Cortese detested paperwork and would leave scrolls strewn across his desk. Irritated by the mess I would tidy them away. It became a habit, as did the petty bickering that accompanied my efforts. Would it hurt you just once to put these things away? - Why should I my dear when I have my own personal slave who does it so much better! And so on. Like an old married couple. So I decided I might as well try to benefit from his stubborn laziness. I would take one and practice my reading.
I was concentrating so hard I didn't hear Cortese come in.
"Gabrielle, where in Hades did you put my scrolls?" he shouted from the other room.
"Away. In their proper place."
"Well you've lost one. The latest inventory of sales at market." I heard him enter the room. "What are you doing?"
"I'm reading. ...from Agathon, two sheep and four bushels of wheat-"
"Not very inspiring I know. But I need the practice."
"You can read?"
I showed him my scrolls, my treasures that I had managed to keep
safe through all that had happened. I told him how I had come by
them and how I had once entertained a hope that I would read the
words of Homer and maybe even write some words of my own. Spoken
out loud, my words, my hopes, sounded suddenly ridiculous. "It's
nothing," I finished brusquely. "A foolish child's dream. I'm
sorry. Here." I handed him the scroll.
"And yet still you read." He handed it back.
Thereafter my daily regime took a new course. In the morning there was still physical training, that must always take precedence. In the afternoon there was 'academic study': a rather pompous way to describe learning to read and write, I thought, but I wasn't going to argue. He bought me a slate and some chalk (no need to waste parchment just yet) and, in lieu of the great works of poetry or drama, gave me his administrative scrolls (inventories and letters, anything that was not too sensitive) as study materials. For dictation he used the speeches from council.
They liked to talk, these men who ruled us. Even more so in council than in a whore's bed. Using words as their weapons, they sparred constantly in an effort to be first and best. The parables, fables and great heroic tales would all be called into service, even though the matter for discussion might be setting a new price for corn, granting a merchant new trading rights, or the buying and selling of slivers of land. It made for great reference material and, when I had become proficient, Cortese allowed me parchment for these dictations. Together we amassed considerable numbers of scrolls, which I jokingly called 'The Grand Ramblings of the Oligarchs of Potidaea.' Vassal Oligarchs, if you please, Cortese corrected.
I was transcribing the fable of the hawk and the nightingale. It
is a story I remember my father telling me. The hawk has a
nightingale in its claws and the nightingale is struggling to break
free. "Why do you struggle" asks the hawk, "when you know I am
stronger and more powerful than you?" The story was popular in
Council, it had come up several times. Its hidden meaning suddenly
became very clear to me and I blurted out, "They're planning a
"What?" Cortese was surprised. "What makes you say that?"
"This speech. The hawk is the Persians, the nightingale is Potidaea, struggling to break free."
"Oh that." he laughed. "You Greeks do love to go on about the perils of kingship. If I had a coin for every time I'd heard that story-"
"But they're talking about overthrowing Persian rule."
"And talk is all they're doing. Let them. It helps them vent their frustrations and gives them the illusion of power."
"But aren't you worried that they'll actually do it?"
He found that idea ridiculous. "With what? With whom? Sweet Gabrielle, I have the army. The only army. Men who are well trained and absolutely loyal to me. And it includes all the young men of Potidaea who have a skill for fighting. But thank you for your concern." He walked up behind me and put his arms around my waist. I could feel that he was bored of dictation and of a mind for something else. My learning would have to wait.
"In truth, you're the hawk, aren't you?"
"Yes I am." He began kissing my neck. "And you are my beautiful, talented, clever nightingale. So tell me, will you struggle to break free from my arms?"
Trouble has come once more to Potidaea. It arrived two days ago, heralded by drums. At first, from a distance, they sounded like the rumble of thunder, though the sky was clear. As they drew near they became the booming incessant footfalls of giants come to destroy us. Cortese tells us to ignore them; it is a common tactic of war, he says, designed to terrify an opponent. It is working. Although we are prepared - we have stockpiles of food and water, our walls are strong and our soldiers well trained, ready for battle - people are going about their business as though their world were about to end. It is not just the drums that have us so afraid. It is the signs of our enemy we can now see from the walls. Row upon row upon row of shields gleaming in the sun. (We are many, you are few. With our numbers we will crush you, sing the drums). The catapults and siege towers growing before our eyes. (We are giants you are small, how easy we will smash your wall). The line of banners black as night and death, every one bearing the sign of Ares. We have heard the rumours, the banners tell us they are true. This army is led by a witch who calls herself the Chosen of Ares and because it is unthinkable that a mere woman could lead such a fearsome army of men, it follows that this creature must be the God of War himself, in disguise. The temples are all busy, and especially the temple of Ares; some people have spent all night queuing to get in. If they cannot persuade him to change sides, they believe, then we are doomed.
Today a messenger has come with a parchment, a simple ultimatum: Surrender unconditionally or be destroyed. We have until tomorrow sunset to give our reply.
The old Lords of Potidaea cannot decide what to do. No longer the real masters of the town they have forgotten how to make critical decisions. And, their endless complaints notwithstanding, they have become accustomed to the good life under Persian rule; they have grown soft and lost their taste for fighting. But if they were to surrender without a fight, what would their Persian masters do? Cortese is their most immediate Persian master. So they defer to him.
"What happens to us if we surrender?" I ask Cortese.
"I don't know. Reports say the army is mostly Thracian and Thracians are not known for their mercy. But this army seems most un-Thracian. Cities that surrendered, the army took tribute - coin, supplies, young men for soldiering or to sell as slaves - but no more than any army might. They would stay for a few days for rest and leisure and then they would simply leave. Almost as if, the conquest over, the city was of no interest. If that is true, it is most unusual. Which makes me wonder if the reports are entirely true."
"So what will you do?"
"I don't know. As a soldier for the King, my responsibility and instinct is to fight. But I fear this is a battle we cannot win. We're on our own here, Gabrielle, the nearest Persian forces are too far away to help. If we lose..."
"Yes, I saw the report, bits of it, anyway."
"So you understand. And as Governor, I feel responsible for every last life in Potidaea. If there is even a chance that surrender brings mercy... I must do whatever it takes to keep you safe. For now, I need time to think. There's nothing you can do for me here Gabrielle. You should go and see your family. They would be glad to see you." In case it is the last time, in case I cannot keep you safe.
I will go later. For now I stand on the walls letting the drums fill me with fear while my closed eyes see the parchment, focus on the name of the woman-witch-warrior who holds our fate in her hands. And I pray.
O Gaia, mother of earth and life, long suffering Hera, wise Athena Nike, Artemis protector, beloved Aphrodite, O Fates: is this warrior truly Ares in disguise or simply a mortal woman? And if a woman, is there any hope that you would persuade her of the quality of mercy? I, Gabrielle of Potidaea, a lowly peasant whore slave, beg this of you for the sake of my family and Eleni and Cortese and all whom I love. All I have to offer you is my life, which is worth nothing I know, but I swear I will gladly accept any fate you choose for me if you will only do this. Goddesses all, please save us from Xena.
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