Tale Three: Time’s Fell Hand by LJ Maas

times fell by lj

Tale Three: Time’s Fell Hand
By LJ Maas

#3 in the Conqueror Series

 

 

 

Prologue: But at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot drawing near…

Two nights had passed since our wedding. It was late night, and I sat alone in my favorite chair before the window, having left Gabrielle sound asleep in our bedchamber. I fastened back the heavy tapestry that covered the window to expose the night sky to my pensive gaze. I don’t know why, but it relaxed me, looking into the heavens from that vantage point. Leaning my head against the high back of the chair, I grasped a quill in one hand and a scroll in the other.

After our wedding, we spent the first pass of the sun in bed. Gabrielle and I took turns wearing one another out. We made love, relaxed in hot baths, and sometimes did nothing but talk by the fire. We took all of our meals in our private rooms, and we enjoyed every moment of our personal time together. In the coming days, there would be social gatherings aplenty for the new Queen to attend. That first day had been ours, however, away from the politics and the prying eyes that ruling an empire could bring.

My body ached somewhat, but it was a most pleasant hurt. I honestly believed that I had been trying to make up for my lack of sexual activity for the last few seasons, all in the space of a few days. I had my suspicions at my renewed vigor. I wasn’t sure if I was insane, or if the physical manifestation of energy had been real. I wondered if I should tell Gabrielle of my unexpected youthful zest. How would she feel to know the Gods sometimes took such an active hand in my life?

I suspected that it happened the last time Athena reached out to me. Ares had beat up on me rather well, but Athena had healed me with a single touch. She had touched my face, she said, in order to heal that one last cut. It was that second bit of contact that I presently wondered about. At the time, I felt a sudden…I’m not sure what it was, but I immediately felt somewhat…lighter…younger. How could I have known? I simply thought I was happy…in love. I could still be wrong, but it would be so like my patron to try to make up for what she perceived as her failure in protecting Gabrielle and I from Ares.

On this evening, before I sat in my familiar chair, I peered into the looking glass. I was positive that a few wrinkles around my eyes were missing. Certainly, the silver hairs that had collected at my temples seemed fewer now. It was subtle, but I could account for the phenomena in no other way. I was determined to speak to Athena about it when we next met, but some small part of me didn’t exactly feel like railing against her this time. If returning some of my youth was Athena’s idea of a gift, perhaps it was as much a present to Gabrielle as to me.

Earlier that day, Gabrielle had spent time with the Amazons and took care of a number of palace situations that my advisors seemed to think demanded the Queen’s touch. That, simply translated, meant they were of too diplomatic a nature to have me attend to them. Gods above us, could I possibly be blamed? The way some of those local merchants and businessmen droned on everyday about the amount of taxes they had to pay. It was enough to make me wish for public crucifixions again. I admit, in those days I had an attention span about as long as my temper. I do not mean to make too light of it, but, in those days, ordering someone’s death had such an uncanny way of cutting short some dreadfully boring meetings.

So, while letting my new Queen get her feet wet by attending to some civil matters, Solan and I spent a great deal of time mapping out his position within my Empire. It gladdened my heart to see Solan and Gabrielle so at ease with one another. It made things easier all around. Kaleipus and I spoke briefly regarding Solan’s future. While I could see that it broke the Centaur’s heart to give up his parental claim on the young man, I reminded him of his continued place in Solan’s life. I assured Kaleipus that we would talk more before he and his group returned north.

Solan wished to travel, to see the lands he had only heard about in stories. I was always looking for intelligent men to serve as emissaries to my court. Now that my conquering days were past me, it took more than the might of a large army to deal with provinces outside my immediate realm. I told Solan I had an idea, but it would require diplomacy and hard study on his part. He agreed and I spoke to Yu Pan right after Solan left my study.

The old man had expressed a wish to return to the province of Chin, to meet with people he knew, and to visit places that had long been a part of his memories. He surprised me by agreeing rather quickly to my plan. I supposed he’d grown rather fond of Solan, and the boy’s constant attention. My son was eager to learn about the old healer’s homeland and the languages of Chin. I smile even now when I think of the expression on Solan’s face when I told him how many different dialects were spoken in the numerous provinces of Chin. The prospect of learning some of the fighting techniques Yu Pan had taught to Gabrielle years ago, also excited Solan.

I am thankful that Yu Pan will be Solan’s mentor. I can ask for no better teacher and companion for my son than the man who brought so much light into my own life. The old man could teach Solan much, of that I was certain. I explained to Yu Pan that I wanted Solan to learn about more than simply the ways of a warrior. I wished him to become a compassionate and educated man. In fact, I wished for Solan every opportunity that I myself had missed.

As happy about my new marriage as I had been, I still experienced a certain despondency at the idea of Solan leaving. I felt as if I was giving him away all over again. I had missed so much of his life. Now that we were mother and son, I felt an ignoble and selfish desire to have him beside me for a while longer. He was a grown man, however, and I had to allow him his freedom. I would worry less knowing that Yu Pan would travel alongside Solan. Even though the young man’s body was that of an adult, his brain and maturity level lagged behind at times. He was his mother’s son after all.

As I said, Yu Pan accepted my offer rather quickly. That, in itself, caused me some wonder. The old man always knew more than his words willingly implied. I let him keep his silence. His reasons were his own and I, above all, understood his desire to keep his past to himself. He would travel back to Chin under the protection of the Empire. Most importantly, he would travel with Solan. The young man was to be my emissary. My recent laws regarding slavery were not the most popular, especially in lands that depended on slave labor for their economic growth. The further away from Corinth, the more difficult it was to spread the new concepts that were now law.

I expected that there were areas of Chin that had not even heard of the Empire’s new direction. I had heard, just a day previous, that some of the outer regions of the Empire, places occupied by Celts and Scythians, had never even heard of my latest proclamations. This fueled my decision to travel with a goodly number of my army on our upcoming trip.

Conquered peoples tended to make for obstinate citizens of the Empire. I would expect nothing less, for wouldn’t I be the same if my life had gone differently? I can only imagine what would have happened had my armies not kept Rome from Greek soil. Whom would my countrymen swear fealty to had Ares not used me as his Warrior Princess? He delivered Rome into my hands and secured Greece’s future.

Hence, even during my less than compassionate years, I had always held a particular consideration for any land I have conquered. Oh, not so much in my youth, but in the last ten or twelve seasons. As such, I have never forced the Greek Gods, nor my own Greek culture, on any of the lands now under my rule. I have encouraged the people their own beliefs as long as I govern their system of law. Even though I allowed the people cultural concessions, I permitted no latitude in regards to my new policy on slavery within the Empire.

Of particular concern to me were areas of the Empire that had subsisted for many seasons, not only far from the reaches of Corinth, but also dependent on slave trade. Scythians made their homes on the outer fringes of the Empire. They were fierce nomadic warriors who seemed content to live in the bitterly cold, mountainous lands to the north. They were also an extremely barbaric and bloodthirsty race. A fact I discovered when I learned that the Scythians shaped the skulls of their slain enemies into drinking cups. I supposed that I was going to suffer some difficulty in finding an emissary willing to travel to the northern wilderness to confront this race of people with my prohibition of slavery. Not many men desired to have their heads fashioned into decorative household objects.

I had recently heard some interesting gossip from a group of traveling bards that had passed through Corinth. Truth be known, I found Gabrielle’s tales much more imaginative and entertaining than any one of the men in that ensemble. A number of them passed on the notion that there were actually people who existed past the point where the Scythians dwelled. I eavesdropped on many a drunken conversation and certain tales told of a group of women known as the Sauromatai, the slayers of men. From the little information the bards had, it sounded to me as if these Sauromatai could possibly be the escaped Amazon prisoners from the battle at the Thermodon. I made a mental note to question Gabrielle’s Amazons when we traveled north. Surely, they would know if these women were indeed their kin.

Odd, how things turn out the way they are supposed to all along. For nearly twenty seasons, Ares had conspired to keep Gabrielle and I from ever meeting again. He knew what would happen if we ever did. She would save me from myself, thereby saving the world from a dark and monstrous beast. Destiny is such a fickle thing. As Gabrielle is fond of saying, ‘If it’s meant to happen, it will happen’.

“Xena?”

I looked up to find a sleepy looking wife with a fur robe pulled close around her.

“Aren’t you tired?” she asked.

“A little, but you know how I get at times. Come here, little one.”

Gabrielle wasted no time curling herself into my lap. She pressed her body close to my own.

“I was just thinking,” I said.

“Thinking or worrying?”

I smiled at her intuitive response. “Perhaps a little worry, but a very small bit.” I described just how small by holding up my thumb and forefinger, a hair’s width apart.

That caused her to smile, and instantly my worries were gone. It was as if the sun had risen within our room.

“Gabrielle, would you like to go on a trip? A sort of wedding trip?”

“I’d love to travel with you, Xena, but can we just leave like that?” Gabrielle inquired.

“Good point, but there ought to be some gain in being Conqueror.” I grinned and kissed the tip of her nose. “Actually, it won’t be very difficult. The circle of advisors do most of the day-to-day work anyway. Besides, there are so many places I’ve wanted to go back to again. I think it would mean so much more to be able to share them with you.”

“Xena, if we travel, do you think . . . ”

Gabrielle trailed off and refused to meet my eyes. “What, love? Is there somewhere you’d like to go?”

“Home,” Gabrielle whispered softly.

“Potidaea?” I asked.

Gabrielle nodded her head in silence.

“Of course, little one, forgive me for not thinking of that ages ago.”

She brightened considerably at that. My own happiness was so tied up with hers that I felt lighter just seeing her come to life again.

“I know that my mother and father . . . well, that there’s every chance they may be dead by now, but if I could only know.”

It broke my heart when she never even mentioned her younger sister. Knowing Gabrielle, I’m sure she thought that would simply be hoping for too much.

“I have an idea. Since Solan will be leaving with Yu Pan, and the Amazons and Centaurs will all be heading north, why don’t we join them? A caravan of sorts. Solan wants to go back to his Centaur home and take care of some loose ends there. This will give you time to get to know the Amazons a little better, and we can have the ships meet us in the harbors of Potidaea or Scione. Solan and Yu Pan can begin their journey from there. It will even give us time for the Queen of the Amazons to visit Amazonia. You have a crown to accept there, you know.”

“Oh, Xena, that sounds wonderful!”

Gabrielle kissed me and then began talking in an animated fashion. Even though it was the middle of the night, she started making lists of all that would need to be done, things to bring, clothes for travel. I listened attentively to every word, sincerely and utterly fascinated by the way my wife’s mind worked.

Once again, I wondered at my good fortune. How could my life have been so miserable and dead just moons ago? How is it that I was chosen at birth by the Gods to receive such joy by Gabrielle’s mere presence in my life? What one thing did I do, what one selfless act atoned for my many crimes enough to know such happiness now? So many questions and too few answers. I know that our lives will not always be as though sailing on a sea of glass, but even when the difficult times come, I know I will never again have to face them alone.
That is what will matter the most.

As I have said before, I cannot accurately acquaint you with the Conqueror without speaking of her. For no Conqueror’s tale would be complete without the telling of Gabrielle.

****

We were to leave on our extended travels in two days time, and still my wife had me writing in those infernal scrolls. It was in my nature to grumble and complain. What I found most odd, and almost entertaining, was the fact that I had actually begun to look forward to the writing. I merely grumbled so that Gabrielle would not realize what a short tether she had me on. I smiled to think that she probably already realized it, but loved me enough to pretend that she did not know. How well the girl knew me. She had not made a bard of me, that much was certain, but Gabrielle had undoubtedly given me a release of sorts. Perhaps that had been her intention all along.

I scribed my thoughts and feelings at the end of the day, along with the events that had occurred. It helped me to see my actions in writing. I was learning, and at my age that was not always an easy thing to do. I looked at the page before me, and realized that some days I was able to look at it quite objectively, others I was not so good-natured. I tried to look at the occasions when I lost my temper or spoke sharply to an underling. I remembered the incident, and I tried harder the next time to keep my feelings more in check.

A knock on my study door stopped me in mid thought. “Enter.”

“Lord Conqueror.”

Acasia, a trusted soldier, saluted me. He was among the number of men and women I entrusted with highly sensitive or private matters. They were loyal unto death, and had, in the past, been spies or assassins. Those past lines of work made them perfect for discreet operations.

Gabrielle was frightened of Acasia, she who showed no fear and stood toe to toe with the God of War himself. I was certain it was because of his physical appearance. His face showed the many scars of battle and his manner was cold and aloof. If only Gabrielle knew that the brand on Acasia’s chest was proof that he would have willingly given his life for her. There were only a dozen such people in the Empire who wore those brands. They were the people I felt I could turn to in times of treachery and betrayal.

Acasia handed me a scroll and I perused it before speaking. I motioned with one hand for him to sit, but he did not, I usually expected him to act no differently. His handwriting was neat and precise. Something I did not initially expect from a soldier. I know better now. Acasia was an educated man, but he detested being an officer. He was a soldier, through and through. It was he who had first suggested the elephants.

He probably wondered why I smiled, but I was remembering the looks on the Roman’s faces in Taras that day. The Tarantines had contacted me in Corinth requesting military aid against the encroaching Romans. In those days, all I had to do was hear the word Roman and I was off to do battle. I brought over 20,000 soldiers, but it was Acasia, a member of my personal guard at the time, who suggested the Indian war elephants I had so recently acquired.

I recalled that it was spring when the fighting began. It started at Heraclea, not far from Taras. Acasia had been right. The Romans had never seen such beasts as these animals called elephants, especially decked out in armor and spikes as they were. They looked like moving armories and the Romans ran for their very lives. They sought to regroup and make another go at us, but that was when I let loose with the Phalanx. The heavy infantry used fourteen-foot sarissas, to crush forward. Between the Phalanx, their pikes, and my cavalry, we took down 7,000 Romans that day and captured nearly another 2,000.

“The mother and father?” I asked as I continued to read the scroll he had given me.

“Still alive, a small farm just as you said in Potidaea, no word on the girl, though. If she was taken as a slave at the same time, she could be dead many seasons past. I still have a few connections. I have the word out, Lord Conqueror. If she’s still alive, I’ll track her down.”

“Excellent work! I’ll reward you amply for this, Acasia.”

“And the other, My Lord? Do you wish to know of the woman?”

“She must be feeling time’s hand by now,” I answered. I was unsure of what else to say. I feared the soldier’s answer, no matter what it should be.

“Aye, Conqueror, she’s felt the seasons, but not so that she’s lost her matronly looks.”

“She’s alive then?” I asked, feeling my belly clench tightly.

“Aye. She still owns the inn there in Amphipolis. She married about fifteen seasons ago, has a family helping her. Her old man died a few seasons back, but she’s got a son and a daughter, some little ones that must belong to one of them.”

“Did she . . . how did she look? Well?”

“Aye, well enough, Conqueror,” Acasia answered.

“Thank you, Acasia. You’ve done well. Have some of your men see that no harm befalls any of these people. We leave in five days.”

I opened a drawer at my desk and handed the man a bag of talants, then dismissed him. I leaned back in my chair and wondered what she looked like. The little child in me still ached for acceptance, but I knew the time for that had passed. Cyrene had a new family, and with any luck, they helped her to forget the heartache the first had left her with. I fervently hoped that her second daughter gave her what the first could not.

I pushed my melancholy aside and rose. I put out the lamp and returned to the rooms Gabrielle and I shared. The news for my wife was good. I would tell Gabrielle somewhere along the way that her parents still lived. I would do everything in my power to find her sister.

It was odd, but I wasn’t as sad as I expected to be, hearing of Cyrene and her new family. Perhaps now, being a wife and mother, I understood the woman a little bit more. With age comes many things, understanding foremost among them. I now understood a little of Cyrene’s anger on that day when Cortese attacked our village. She had lost her youngest child at the end of a sword and her oldest ran away, forever branded a coward. Friends and family were dead or dying all around her and they felt compelled to cast the blame upon someone.

I put out the candles and stood there in the dark. How different things might have been had I given her time with Lyceus. I can still see it before me as though it had happened a fortnight ago instead of almost a lifetime. I remembered the sight of his small body laid out upon the dining table. My mother sobbed as she leaned over and brushed his blonde curls from his face, even matted with blood as they were. She was heartsick and it was only my bad fortune to have walked into the room just then. I tried to explain, but my words were useless. She wanted someone to rage at, someone to blame, and I had been the one standing in her line of fire.

I almost didn’t leave home that evening. I sat in the barn behind my mother’s inn, my cheek still stinging from the slap she’d given me. I almost ripped off my armor to put on a cotton dress. I had a thought to slip into the house and wait for my mother’s ire to cool. Even then, I knew that the hurtful words were my mother’s broken heart speaking and nothing as she had treated me in the past. I had been so close to turning around. That’s when Ares materialized before me and offered me his gift. He called it the ultimate power. To me, it became my curse, the beast within.

I left my study with a sigh. I shook off the memories that I could do little at this point to change. All I could hope was that the long road home, which Gabrielle and I were about to embark upon, would be one of forgiveness and perhaps even happiness. I said a quick prayer to Athena that time would temper it’s usually fell hand and be considerate toward us.
Chapter 1: It was many and many a year ago…
“Are you sure you’re all right, Xena?” Gabrielle gingerly raised her finger as if to touch my face, but she shrank back upon seeing my expression. Instead, she cautiously indicated with her hand the tender area under my eye.

“Yes, I’m fine.” I could scarcely believe that she had the nerve to utter those words, since she was the one that gave me the black eye in the first place. Perhaps it wasn’t actually a black eye, but it was rather swollen and hurt like the sting of an angry wasp. I scowled in her direction. To tell the truth, I was suffering more from acute embarrassment than any sort of pain.

“I really did expect you to block that kick,” she said.

“I know, love.”

“I would never have hit you with purpose, even in jest. You do know that, don’t you, Xena?”

We had been going around and around like that for nearly a candlemark. We were in the seclusion of our private chambers, but it felt nothing like home. Gabrielle walked about as though treading on eggshells with the intention of leaving the pieces whole. Then, there was me. I was, generally, humiliated beyond belief. I examined invented scenarios in my head as to how I would explain my swollen eye to others.

Gods! I just knew I was going to have to break quite a few noses over the incident. Some miserable wretch would say something and I would attempt to ignore the comment. Then the cursed dog wouldn’t realize when he was ahead and he’d push me until I’d have to break his nose, his knee, or even something he held much more dear. I’m sure running him through with my sword would be more gratifying than hitting, but my new sense of morality, and Gabrielle, prevented me from killing my friends over minor infractions.

“I just don’t understand it. You’ve always blocked those kicks before,” Gabrielle said.

“I understand,” I answered. My tone was more curt than I had intended, but once a foul mood took me it was extremely difficult to halt its progress. “I simply thought that you would stop.”

“I’m sorry, Xena,” Gabrielle answered. “I suppose I should have. I’m just not as good as you are…”

She had tears in her eyes as she trailed off. She turned and left the bedchamber where I continued to stand. She stopped beside the outer window and leaned against the stone wall. She appeared to be watching something in the courtyard below.

Now I felt like a complete villain. The truth was that I never even saw her last kick coming; she was that fast…that good. All right, to be entirely honest with myself, I am never in absolute fighting mode when I spar with Gabrielle. She will not enjoy hearing that I hold back when I train with her, but what can I do?

How does one become a demon for only a short spell? Gabrielle doesn’t truly understand my fighting methods yet. Most do not. The people hail me as the greatest warrior the Greek Empire has ever known, even knowing forty-five summers as I have. They, like Gabrielle, surely assume it is due to my fastidious training. Some even whisper that it was a gift from the Gods upon my birth. Well, it was certainly not at birth nor was it a blessing. It has been the curse of my life since my fifteenth summer.

“All you have to do is say yes, Xena, and from this moment on, you’ll fight with the skills of the most seasoned warrior. You’ll own the strength of ten men. Never again will anyone like Cortese be able to take what is yours.”

“There must be a catch. You’re the God of War, Ares. I’m not naïve enough to think that you won’t want something in return.”

“There’ll come a time, Xena, when I’ll ask you to battle at my side, but not now. This gift I give to you freely and without any promises required on your part. Just remember, though, once you accept my gift, you can’t ever give it back.”

“Give it back? Something that gives me the strength of ten men? Why in Hades would I want to do that?”

Those words still echo through my brain, even today. What Ares called a gift turned out to be the death of my innocence.

I saw Gabrielle across the room and she was hurting. Should I have allowed her to hurt for beating me on the field of battle, or was I to ultimately hurt her once she learned that I played her for a fool and hadn’t displayed my full skills during our sparring bouts? Gods! I cursed whichever deity was responsible for making lovesick fools feel the need to tell their lovers the truth at every opportunity. I was certain that I would pay the price for that. It might not be immediate, but I would feel its effects one day, of that I was sure. My beautiful wife, soft spoken and lovely, was not the sort of woman to take my deception, albeit a well-meaning one, lightly. I gritted my teeth and moved to stand behind her.

“Gabrielle?” She didn’t answer immediately. “I am sorry for my sullen–”

“Please, Xena, if you apologize to me for this, I swear I’ll break down in tears. It was my fault and I–”

“You hit me because I didn’t see it coming.” There, I’d said it. Although I wondered if she understood me since I said it so quickly, the words seemed to come out as one long jumble.

There was a moment of silence that lasted far longer than a moment should have.

“What?” Gabrielle stopped speaking. In fact, I think she might have even stopped breathing. She simply stood there and stared at me. Perhaps she hadn’t made sense of my words. Should I repeat them?

I began to feel that uncomfortable warmth creep up my neck. The kind of prickly heat that reminds me that I’ve gone and done something Gabrielle is not going to like, not one little bit. I braced myself for, at the very least, a verbal onslaught.

Now, I should interject at this point to admit to a certain wonder on my part. In the retelling of this tale, I am nonplussed as I read my own written words. Why did I fear Gabrielle laying into me in such a manner when she’d never done so before? My Queen can get her point across very well with a glance. Gabrielle’s face is so expressive that an arch of her eyebrow can cause her eyes to go from a bright emerald to a dark, verdant green in heartbeats. She has looked at me with such love yet from the same eyes comes a scolding rebuke when I have snapped at someone.

Why on Zeus’s earth was I so fearful of Gabrielle at that moment? I could only attribute it to something Atrius said to me once when Anya was not speaking to him. I had caught him with a bunch of flowers that he had attempted to hide from my gaze. After he’d told me the whole story, I was amazed that he would apologize for something that had clearly not been his fault. If I lived to be a thousand, I would remember his words.

“Remember, Conqueror…when you’re a warrior, it’s always your fault.

Thus explained my fear. I stood there, a warrior, completely at fault. If warriors were to be blamed when it wasn’t their fault, surely the cost must be double when it was. That’s when the oddest thing happened.

Gabrielle smiled just the tiniest bit.

I watched as she tried to hide the smile behind one hand.

“So,” she began shyly. “I really, sort of…beat you up.”

“Don’t go there, Gabrielle,” I warned.

“Oh, now you think you can be indignant, do you? Xena, I’m surprised at you! You actually let me go on thinking I’d hurt you.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to let you think that for too long.” I attempted to look as contrite as I could. In reality, I felt badly over my actions, but the amused look on Gabrielle’s face caused me to cheer considerably.

“Xena, what shall I do with you?” Gabrielle slipped her arms about my waist and my arms instinctively wrapped around her shoulders.

I couldn’t prevent the leering grin that crossed my face at her words, so filled with double meaning. She looked up and saw my face and she gave me one of those looks.

“Oh,” I said. “You meant that rhetorically.”

“Xena!” She slapped me in the ribs as she moved away. She went into the bathing chamber and when she returned, she sat down at the table we used for dining. She began to make a small poultice of sorts.

“I can’t understand why you wouldn’t have simply said that in the first place.” She was focused again on my previous admission. “Come sit here.” She patted the bench beside her.

The Conqueror of the Known World dutifully trotted over and sat. “Ow!” I pulled away from the cloth that Gabrielle held to my cheekbone. “It stings,” I confessed to her questioning glance.

“How is it that such a great warrior is so averse to pain?” She teased.

“That’s how I stay a great, alive warrior. I don’t like getting hurt. Fear makes a great motivator.”

Suddenly she was silent. She bowed her head and I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. She raised her head again and I could see that she was no longer teasing.

“Why do you hold back when you spar with me, Xena?”

Gods above, why did I even try to hide the truth from this woman? She saw through me as if my thoughts had been wrapped in gauze. I took her hands in mine and kissed each one.

“I didn’t know you knew.”

She gave a little snort that sounded a great deal like Delia’s little sounds of disbelief. “I am married to you, My Conqueror. I share your nights as well as your days. I’ve seen you fight, I mean really fight a man, remember? I’ve also seen the look of the beast when it tries to claw its way out. I’ve seen that first hand. Xena, I know the cast to your eye when you can feel nothing but the lust of battle. I’m not saying I ever expected to see that expression when you practiced with me, but I did expect to see some…I don’t know, some sort of excitement. You never appeared to take any thrill in the fight, even if it was practice.”

“Forgive me,” I apologized.

“It’s not an apology I’m looking for, love. What I need is an explanation. Is it because you’re afraid of hurting me?”

“Yes.”

“Xena, you already admitted that I blindsided you with a kick. Surely I could take care of myself.”

“Could you? Even if I should fall prey to my darkness?”

“Is it that hard? To hold back the beast when you fight…even with me?”

“How does one loose a wild beast and then expect it to come when you call, especially when it knows you intend to chain it up again?”

Gabrielle reached over and touched my cheek. She looked into my face as if for the first time and, judging by her next words, I think she was. “I don’t think anyone gives you the credit you deserve for being a civilized woman, Xena. Most would have been driven mad by Ares’ curse and yet you continue. Forgive me for not understanding better. I have no idea what it must be like for you to hold back the darkness let alone return after the beast has had you in its grasp.”

I kissed her then, not merely because I wanted to, but also because I had no words to thank her for her understanding. “No one has ever been able to comprehend what it’s like,” I said.

“What is it like, Xena? Tell me. I want to understand.”

I took a deep breath and tried to put into words what it felt like to lose control of my very senses, helpless to stop it. “When I fight, even in practice such as sparring with you, I get a sense of something, a taste of something from the past. I know I must be explaining this badly.”

“No, go on.”

“I end up being like the wild dogs we use for hunting. They’re rather tame around us. They’ll even lie beside us when we sleep beside the open campfire on a hunting expedition. You’ve seen how tame those two large hounds that roam about the castle are.”

“Yes. They let me pet them, but they’re so big. I admit they frighten me most of the time and I attempt not to tease or try their patience.”

“And so you should give them a healthy amount of respect. Essentially, they are tame animals. They’ll obey their commands and protect us from harm because that’s what we have trained them to do, but the blood that flows through their veins is still wild. You’ve heard me tell the cooks never to feed the hounds raw meat?”

Gabrielle nodded her head.

“I don’t want them to get the taste of blood on their tongue. One drop of blood and we take the chance that they will remember.”

“Remember what, Xena?”

“What it was like to be free. They get that little taste of blood and it awakens all the memories of when they had to hunt like any other beast of the forest. They remember what it felt like to hunt their prey and to have free reign with such lust. That is me, Gabrielle.”

“You are not a beast!” she answered me almost angrily.

I told her then, about the night that Ares came to me as a young girl. How I had already felt as though I was alone in the world, and how I detested the feeling of losing…of being beaten in battle. Finally, I told her how I had accepted the gift that Ares offered. He said it would make me the most powerful warrior in Greece, perhaps the known world. I admitted to Gabrielle that even once I had discovered what the darkness could do, I continued to let it rise up and crush my enemies. I shamefully confessed that it had become pleasurable to me, the sight of a man’s blood on my blade. I told her how the beast eventually took control during my sexual escapades. I couldn’t even meet Gabrielle’s eyes upon that admission.

“But that’s not you, Xena,” she tried to convince me.

“But it is, little one. It’s a part of who I am.”

“No,” she shook her head back and forth. “That’s not the way you are now. You’re not that woman!”

“Xena of Amphipolis never was. They called me the Lion before the darkness took complete hold of me. It was a compliment. The people of Thrace looked on me as a hero, their savior. The Lion was their protector. Proud and strong, I controlled my territory with a velvet-covered fist. Then the beast got that one drop, that small taste of blood. That’s all it took. The beast wanted more than to simply protect Greece…it wanted to conquer. You’ve seen me when it takes control. Now, I can at least fight it. In days past…” I lowered my head, my thoughts trailing off into silence.

“Is there nothing we can do, Xena? Some way to reverse it or rid you of it completely?” she asked.

“If there is, I don’t know of a way. I distinctly remember Ares saying that once I accepted it I could never give it back.”

Gabrielle abruptly stood and angrily paced the floor. “I don’t see as to how you can be held to that bond. You were a child.”

“Well, I was fifteen summers.”

“Hardly a truly accountable age. Besides, were you fifteen mentally as well as physically?”

“I suppose I had some to learn, but I’m not sure I could cry foul on the situation at this point in my life. The answer is, no, I wasn’t a mature young woman at all. Emotionally, I suppose I was still rather young.”

I said this last in sort of a reflective whisper. It had only just occurred to me that I was simply a young girl when I started out, to make my way as a warrior. I’m certain that Ares’ gift and my own anger were the only things that kept me alive.

“I still think it was unfair.” Gabrielle’s voice pulled me from my own thoughts. “I should petition Athena,” she said. “Have you ever broached the subject with her?”

“Hard as it may be to believe, little one, but before you came to live here, I couldn’t remember the last time Athena and I spoke. I certainly never prayed to her for anything other than battle concerns.”

“But she’s your patron.” Gabrielle looked at me as if I had just told her that the moon was red. She honestly had no concept of my irreverence toward the Gods.

“I know since you’ve been here it seems as if the Gods meddle–”

I abruptly halted my speech when Gabrielle arched her eyebrow at me.

“I mean show up on a daily basis, but it’s been many seasons since they appeared to me. Frankly, I liked it that way, Gabrielle. If I’d been you, and lived the life you were forced to, I would have given up on Athena long ago.” I held a hand up to stave off the rebuke I saw coming. “I’ve since changed my mind. Age has given me a changed perspective about my patron.”

“Well,” Gabrielle said in a rather deflated sounding voice. “I still plan on bringing it to her attention someday.”

“I would expect nothing less from you, my love.”

****

“No! Please, don’t!”

Gabrielle’s cries easily brought me to my feet. It was the early hours before dawn and, as usual, I was already awake and in my study. When I had left our bedchamber, Gabrielle gave me a sleepy kiss and curled languidly beneath the covers. She was fast asleep again by the time I dressed and left the room.

I burst into the room even as Gabrielle was still held in Morpheus’ clutches. She held to the covers as though her life was being dragged from her.

“Gabrielle,” I called as I gently shook her awake.

She took a deep breath as though it took some effort. “Gods!” she groaned just as her eyes focused on the shadowy shapes around her.

I quickly lit some candles beside the bed and then returned my attentions to Gabrielle. I sat down on the bed beside her and it didn’t take much coercion to urge her into my arms. She held to me and I rocked her until I gradually felt her body relax.

“What is it, little one?”

I felt Gabrielle’s head shake against my chest and I thought that odd. She had never tried to hide her dreams from me before. “Did you dream?” I asked. Gabrielle had the gift of foresight through her dreams, although she considered it more of a curse than a gift.

“Not that kind of a dream.”

“A nightmare?”

She nodded.

“Something real…from the past?”

She nodded once again. I could only wonder through what terrible dreamscapes Morpheus had been leading the young woman. Gabrielle’s life as a slave had surely been filled with atrocities that no woman should be condemned to relive, even in her dreams. Her continued silence was something I thought we had moved beyond, however.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Would you mind if I didn’t? I know we don’t keep secrets from one another, but–”

“Of course not, little one.” I held her tighter and kissed the top of her head. “Gabrielle, you know I’d never force you to talk of your past. If, and when, you want to speak of these things, you know I’ll be here for you. And I’ll think no worse of you for remaining silent.”

She thanked me and snuggled further into my embrace. I made myself comfortable on the bed, since Gabrielle’s body language said that she did not intend me to leave just yet. I understood her wish for secrecy, or perhaps it was simply a need for privacy.

I remembered a time when I would awaken in the middle of the night, screaming at the memory of the faces of the innocents I had slaughtered. I could never speak of my nightmares while nighttime still caused the shadows in my room to take on the shapes of the monsters in my dreams. I would wrap a fur robe around my shoulders and sit on the floor, in a corner of the room, with my sword in one hand until the sunlight pushed away my fears. I was always thankful that Delia respected my privacy, even when she was the one who oftentimes braved my wrath to wake me from my nightmares. I vowed to do the same with Gabrielle. She would talk when she was ready.

The annoying sound of snoring woke me some time later. I felt a fool when I realized the sounds were my own. My embarrassment seemed complete when I looked up and found our maid, Sylla in the middle of the room. She had her arms full of clothes to be laundered and she smiled at me.

“Good morning, Lord Conqueror.”

Once I closed my mouth and my surroundings came into focus, I offered her a morning greeting.

“Rather late for you to be in bed.”

I rose and held my arms out wide. ” Do these look like sleeping clothes?” For your information, I was awake before dawn. I sat down with Gabrielle and I must have dozed off. Where is my wife, by the way?”

“She finished her tea and said that she fancied a walk. She asked me not to make any noise, so that you might sleep.” She gave me a superior sort of smile before continuing. “I figured with the racket your snoring was making, you wouldn’t hear me working.”

“I do not snore,” I replied as I indignantly straightened my clothes and went into my study. I could hear her laughter follow me.

Ahh, yes. Public crucifixions made life so much easier! I thought to myself.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
Should I tell her?

The question circled my head like the birds that floated lazily in the air above me. I sat in the garden, just a stone’s throw from Xena’s rose garden. I usually went there in the mornings. Our routine was to have morning tea and perhaps a light meal. Xena would begin her day in her study and I would go to the garden. I must admit, the Conqueror’s day customarily began much earlier than mine. I had finally grown accustomed to the times that Xena would rise candlemarks before Apollo’s chariot flamed across the sky. I would most always find her in the study, hunched over a scroll, or seemingly lost in thought. It was there, in her study, that Xena sat when my cries roused her into action this morning.

I wiped my face with the cloth lying on the stone bench beside me. Even my Qigong routine did not ease my mind. Xena had been lovely to stay with me during the morning. I smiled to think of the sight she made when I left our rooms that morning, sprawled across the bed as she was.

I know that Xena has heard my nightmares the last few nights, though she has said nothing. I believe my wonderful wife has a tendency to believe that so much is her fault. Are we not well suited to one another? Who would believe that the Conqueror of the Known World and a former slave might have similar issues with self-esteem? Odd, isn’t it? From the lowest to the highest born, do we not all bleed the same red blood?

I worried about how I would explain to Xena. Was it how I would tell her or was I thinking if? No, of course, I would tell Xena. I refused to entertain any other possibility. How, though, can I tell her that Athena has not, and will not, bless me because of what I did on that day? My heart ached and despair filled me as it did when I was that frightened slave. Taken and used, tortured and neglected, I struggled not to think of those days too often. In the past, Yu Pan’s hypnotic suggestion had kept me from remembering a great deal of what happened to me. It wasn’t that I didn’t remember; rather, I recalled the events as though standing outside myself, as if watching another in my place. Once my mentor removed the suggestion from my mind, the connection between thought and emotion returned. Now, the memories had a way of becoming real again and as often as not, I felt myself clouded by a sense of despondency that I would rather not revisit.

The remembered sadness of that day filled my thoughts. The nightmares would last for a few more days, I was certain. It should have been no surprise, as they came to me at this time each season for the past five summers, but this time I had thought, maybe…I suppose it was mostly hope on my part. I have experienced such happiness of late. Xena gave me more than I ever dreamed of, even when I was a child, before the slavers came. She gave me the greatest of gifts…hope. I had love, family, and home. Still, though, the nightmares returned to me. I considered them a just curse for my past weakness.

“Gabrielle?”

I looked up to see Solan’s concerned face.

“Gabrielle, are you ill?”

“Thank you, that’s just the sort of greeting every woman loves to hear.” I watched his cheeks turn pink. How like his mother.

“I’m so sorry…I didn’t–”

“I’m teasing you. Come…sit.”

Solan sat beside me, but I could tell that he was staring at me while trying not to be obvious about it. “I’m just tired, that’s why the dark circles under my eyes.”

His cheeks turned even redder, if that was possible. “Oh, I should have–I wasn’t thinking. No wonder Mother smiled the whole time she was addressing the troops yesterday.”

He grinned and I heard the unspoken words. Of course! It would make sense for a new bride to look tired and the Conqueror to have a smile as wide as the Aegean. That simply confirmed that all was well with the royal marriage.

“I only wish it was due to that,” I answered absently. I cursed my tongue as soon as the words escaped. I usually keep my own counsel about such things, but I was tired and that must have caused my mind to falter. Solan reacted unexpectedly.

“Have there been problems, Gabrielle?”

Now he looked quite concerned and I wondered how to explain myself out of the situation.

“No, really…”

“I saw Mother sporting a shiner this morning.”

“Solan.” I was about to warn him about jumping to conclusions when he bolted up from his seat.

“If she hurt you in any way–”

“Solan! Don’t be ridiculous. As much as I appreciate your noble gesture, it’s nothing of the sort. Xena and are doing fine together. I’ve never been happier. Sit down, please.”

“Oh.” He sat down and looked even more humiliated. “What a mutton head I am. As if you and Mother could come to that. I’m sorry, Gabrielle, I didn’t mean to–”

“Solan, don’t give it another thought. I’m actually flattered that you hold my honor in such high regard.”

“Funny thing, isn’t it? By all accounts you’re my stepmother.” He grinned and I knew he felt better about his assumption.

Truth was, I felt better as well. Solan had become a friend and his innocent gesture, his willingness to do battle with the Conqueror, made me feel as though our bond was real. That meant a great deal, considering that it hadn’t been too long ago since Solan’s envy and dislike for me had nearly caused his death at his own mother’s hands.

“It’s more like you’re a sister in a way. I hope that doesn’t offend you or sound too stupid.”

“Not at all. I feel the same way, Solan. I’ll be sorry to see you leave us.”

“Yea.” He hung his head and fiddled with the lace on the top of his boot. “Part of me can’t wait. You know? I’ve always wanted to go to the places that other men talked about. It’s somewhat scary, too. Things are different in other places and you know what an idiot I can be.”

“You are not an idiot, Solan. Quick to act perhaps…” I smiled for his benefit and laid a hand on his arm. “Yu Pan will be with you. He won’t let you look a fool, and he’ll teach you more than you ever dreamed possible.”

“I guess there’s another part of me that’s sort of sad to be leaving you and Mother, too.”

“Especially your mother,” I said knowingly.

“That’s strange isn’t it? I suppose there’s still a lot unsaid between us.”

“The good news is that you and Xena will have a great deal of time to spend with one another as we travel. Take advantage of that, Solan. It may not come again. I know Xena wishes for time with you as well.”

“Do you ever feel stupid talking to her, Gabrielle? I mean, she doesn’t say much back. She just kind of looks at me like she’s studying me or something.”

His observation was accurate. I always thought that was why Xena and I got along so well. Neither one of us felt inclined toward useless chatter. Actually, I found that the more comfortable I became with Xena, the more animated I became.

“That’s just her way, Solan. It’s not as though she’s judging you with her silence. When she has something to say, she’ll say it. She’s spent most of her life in a world where saying the wrong word might destroy her, or at the very least, create fodder for her enemies. That’s a hard habit to change over the space of several moons. Talk to her anyway. Give her a chance, Solan. I don’t think she’ll disappoint you.”

Solan shook his head. It appeared to be a gesture similar to disbelief. “I don’t know why, but I always feel better having talked to you.”

“I’m glad I could help.”

“Now how about letting me help you. What’s wrong, Gabrielle? I mean, why are you so tired?”

“It’s nothing,” I said as casually as possible. “I haven’t been sleeping well.”

“Why?” he prodded.

“I–I can’t really say. It’s a dark part of my past that won’t stay buried.”

“Then perhaps you should bring it out into the light. Maybe examination will have a cleansing effect.”

I looked at him in mild surprise. The words sounded similar to something Yu Pan might have said. “When did you become such a philosopher?”

“I must have been taking lessons from you. Don’t skirt my questions, Gabrielle. Gods, you’re good at that.” He laughed lightly.

I lowered my head, a submissive habit from my past. I’d been caught at my evasion. Solan, like his mother had an uncanny talent for reading me so well. There were times when I felt completely transparent to Xena’s perceptive gaze.

“So?” he asked again.

“I–I don’t think I can talk about it Solan. It’s very personal. Please don’t take offense.”

“It’s all right, Gabrielle, I understand.”

I could tell from the slightly pained look on his face that he truly did understand. Solan remembered me as a slave on that pirate ship. It was apparent that he knew the ways I had suffered at my owner’s hands.

“Have you spoken to Mother about any of this?”

I shook my head in response.

“You should, you know.”

“I know. It’s just that–”

“Give her a chance, Gabrielle. I don’t think she’ll disappoint you.”

Solan came back at me with my own words. Yes, he was Xena’s son. It was obvious from his sparkling blue eyes and teasing smile.

“I know you’re right. Besides sharing my problem, Xena has a right to know what’s been bothering me.” I reached out and squeezed Solan’s hand. “Thank you for caring enough to ask.”

“Hey, didn’t you teach me that’s what friends do for each other?”

“Indeed.”

I walked back in to the castle with Solan and, along the way, we chatted about our upcoming trip. I listened to his words, but in the back of my mind, I was planning exactly how I would tell Xena of my secret. I didn’t doubt her love for me, but could even Xena forgive me for a crime such as this?
Chapter 2: No more be grieved at that which thou hast done…
Eight advisors surrounded my desk in a semi-circle of chairs, as I fidgeted restlessly in my seat. I listened to the Minister of Finance go on about the amount of money the Empire could afford to send to the library in Athens. I was acting as a mediator between the Ministers of Education and Defense. Both of these advisors believed the extra silver should be spent within their own areas of concern. Actually, it was rather like refereeing two five year olds who both wanted the same toy.

The Minister of Education tried to explain his position. “Lord Conqueror, if I may–”

“You may not.”

I was tired of these men and my patience had ended. A timid knock drew my attention from the Ministers and to the slowly opening door that joined my study and our private rooms.

“Oh, my.”

Gabrielle stood in the doorway looking quite confused. The Ministers, realizing who stood at the entrance, all jumped to their feet.

“My Queen,” a few of them uttered as they bowed out of respect.

Gabrielle looked at me and I watched as her expression quickly changed to one of fear. The look caused me to immediately recall that I had once told her to never interrupt me in a meeting. That time seemed like an eternity ago. I thought Gabrielle would have realized that those old rules weren’t meant for her now, but it was most probably the sort of thing that she would have a hard time overcoming quickly.

“My Lord…I’m terrible sorry…I didn’t–I had no idea–” Gabrielle quickly closed the door.

My advisors sat down and looked at me.

“Gabrielle,” I called out.

The door swung open very slowly and Gabrielle stepped back into view. As before, the advisors stood up. Gabrielle stared at them oddly.

“What is it?” I think I was looking for an excuse to end the meeting that was going nowhere.

“I’m sorry, my Lord, it can wait.” Again, Gabrielle left and closed the door behind her.

Once more, the men in my study sat.

Gabrielle’s odd behavior, and my confused advisors’ expressions, amused me. I couldn’t help myself. I laughed as I called out Gabrielle’s name. “Gabrielle!”

I rose and went to the door, opening it just as Gabrielle stepped through again. We barely avoided running into one another. Naturally, the men in the room stood up.

“It’s all right, Gabrielle, we’re almost finished here. Really, it’s fine.” I winked at her and she immediately smiled. I felt better having seen that smile.

Gabrielle leaned closer to me and whispered. “Why do they keep bobbing up and down like that?”

It took a great deal of strength not to burst into laughter. “You are the Queen of the Empire,” I whispered back.

“Oh.”

“What did you need, Gabrielle?” I prodded.

“Oh! I’m sorry, but I wanted to talk to you. It can wait.”

“Nonsense. We’re done here. Gentlemen…” I held the door for Gabrielle as she passed through. “Discuss this amongst yourselves and see if you can manage to make an adult decision. I know that will be a strain on you, but see if you can manage it.”

We left the room, but Gabrielle touched my elbow and turned back to my study. She wore a devilish grin. She opened the door to my study with a quick thrust and I saw my advisors rise from their chairs. Gabrielle’s smile grew larger. It was then that I realized what she was about.

“Gabrielle,” I drawled out in an amused warning tone. She looked like a child with a new toy. I fully expected her to continue to open and close the study door, simply to see the men jump from their chairs.

She nodded to the Ministers, closed the door, and once again turned toward me. “Sorry,” she grinned. “I couldn’t resist.”

****

“Gabrielle, I’m certain it’s not nearly as bad as you fear.”

Alone in our private chambers, Gabrielle stood pacing before me. She had asked that I sit down and I chose the comfortable love seat. The only information I had been able to gather thus far had been a lot of hand wringing and confessions about what a terrible and loathsome person she was.

“You won’t understand, Xena, I just know it. You’ll hate me.”

“You must not have much confidence in me, then, to believe such things.” I shouldn’t have baited her heart so, but I believed that my words were necessary to shock Gabrielle back to herself. My ploy worked.

“Oh, Xena, I’m so sorry!”

She flung herself into my arms and I felt her trembling. This wasn’t like Gabrielle at all. She had become strong and assertive, not at all like the frightened girl I now held in my arms. The girl who now clung to me so desperately was that slave I had picked up over a summer ago. It worried me and suddenly I wondered just what it was that Gabrielle had to confess. She stammered a number of times, but seemed unable to begin.

“Gabrielle, you don’t have to prepare a speech for me. Just begin anywhere. I’m an intelligent woman. I’ll be able to figure it out. Now, just start anywhere you’d like, little one. It takes more than words to confuse me.” I smiled and attempted to gentle her with reassurances I wasn’t certain I felt. Gabrielle’s reluctance to tell me what had made her feel this way had begun to disturb even me.

She tried to explain; at least I believe she was speaking a language I should have been able to understand. She spoke through her tears, and so quickly that I honestly didn’t catch more than a word here and there. She sobbed for a while, went silent, and finally looked up at me.

What else could I do? “Okay, I lied. I’m sorry, Gabrielle, but I am confused. You’re going to have to start at the beginning.”

Gabrielle’s body language told me that, for some reason, this conversation terrified her. I knew that her nightmares had returned. For the last few days, she had tossed fitfully in her sleep, finally screaming as she did this morning. I had foolishly assumed that returning to the place of her birth had brought them on. I had thought that they would disappear as soon as our travels began. Gabrielle’s fear had pushed her back into the mindset of a fearful slave, begging my forgiveness. It broke my heart to see that.

I forced myself to remain calm for Gabrielle’s sake. I wiped her eyes, that had begun to tear up again, and softly kissed her forehead. “It’s all right, little one. Gabrielle, you’re my wife now. You don’t ever have to fear that you could do something to cause me to stop loving you. That simply will never happen. Understand?”

She nodded her head, but wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“I want to hear what’s troubling you so I can help, but I need you to go slowly and explain it all. Can you do that for me?”

She nodded again. “It hurts, and I’m so ashamed. I’ve done the most terrible thing and Athena will never forgive me for it.”

“I understand that you feel that way, love, but let me judge for myself. Okay? Here, let’s get comfortable.”

She settled against me with her head on my chest. Perhaps she felt it easier to talk when she didn’t have to look at me. Whatever the cause it worked to calm her enough to speak, although I could still feel her tears wet through the material of my shirt.

I gently stroked her hair. Silence prevailed for quite some time and even though I was nearly frantic to discover what this was all about; I allowed Gabrielle the time she needed.

She started quietly at first, so hushed that I barely knew she was speaking at all.

“I don’t think Athena is going to give me a baby, Xena. I’m sure she feels too badly to come right out and say it to me, but I don’t think she can forgive me. I’m so sorry. I wanted…I so wanted to have a child who was a part of both of us.”

“I know you do, love. Let’s talk about this first part, though. Why would you feel that you’ve done something so unforgivable in Athena’s eyes?”

“In anyone’s eyes.”

“Can you tell me?”

“I…I killed a baby.”

I could only think about Gabrielle’s last words as they rolled through my mind. She clung to me and sobbed even harder than before. I was torn between discovering the truth of the situation and calmly comforting my wife. I had a hard time believing that my Gabrielle could actually be guilty of such a crime. Could her life before me have been such that she was that different of a person?

It took some time, but eventually Gabrielle ran out of tears to shed. She remained silent and so I began.

“Can you tell me, Gabrielle? Tell me whose baby you’re talking about?”

“Mine.”

The silence in the room threatened to swallow me whole. I felt the tiniest pull in my chest. I could picture myself in an earlier day pulling away and tossing Gabrielle to the ground for her supposed crime. An earlier day. I scarcely believed the progression of my own thoughts. Gods, it had been so long since I allowed my brain to overrule my emotions. I had a moment of personal epiphany as my mind spoke the loudest, reasoning with me to think before I acted. I did just that, and I realized that this was my Gabrielle and not some stranger. This was the woman whose heart I knew as well as my own. Could this Gabrielle possibly have committed such a deed? The answer was no. I would never believe it.

I didn’t think that my feelings were because I didn’t want to believe that Gabrielle was guilty. The more I thought on it the more I became convinced that Gabrielle had done something, but being Gabrielle, I was certain she had built the guilt associated with her actions to epic proportions. She was taking far more blame than due, but how to convince her of that? How was I to convince her that as a slave, her life was not her own. It had belonged to another and the things she had been forced to do were not hers to own responsibility to. If I couldn’t persuade her, then at least I had to assure her that I didn’t believe it.

“Can you talk to me, little one?” I gently lifted her chin until our eyes met.

Gabrielle looked at me and tears spilled from her green eyes and slid down her cheeks. I pulled a clean cloth from my trouser pocket and gave it to her. She used it to wipe her nose and eyes, but the tears silently continued.

“I–I’ll try,” she hiccupped. “It’s s–so h–hard.”

“I know, love. Let me ask you a few questions and then maybe you can tell me the whole story when you feel calmer. Is that okay?”

She looked at me oddly for a moment. I could only guess that she had fully anticipated my anger or some other emotion akin to it. I thought no worse of her for that expectation. I had a temper, even in my newly reformed state, that had previously led to many a person’s demise.

“Was this truly your baby?”

“Yes.”

My heart ached for her. “Gabrielle, did this baby die by your hand?”

“It might as well have,” she quickly said in response.

“No, my question is, did you actually kill the child?”

A few long moments of silence passed. I believed that in that quiet Gabrielle was at war with herself. Knowing her gentle soul the way I did, I possessed a feeling that perhaps she didn’t want to relieve herself of her guilt. Perhaps she thought the crime so heinous that a lifetime of guilt was indeed a just punishment.

Finally, Gabrielle looked at me and shook her head.

Thank the Gods! Now, to get Gabrielle to open up to me about the incident.

“Gabrielle, is this what your nightmares have been about?”

She nodded slowly, then gripped the cloth of my shirt in each of her hands. “Oh Xena, it was still all my fault, and Athena is punishing me for it.”

Gabrielle clung tightly to me and I wrapped my arms securely around her. I held and kissed her in such a way as to show her that she would always be safe in my embrace.

“You feel too much, my love. Now,” I tenderly smiled down at her and once more wiped her yes. “In seasons past, did you ever think that there would come a day when you would be accused of that? You who kept all her feelings locked securely away?”

She smiled a small bit through her tears. At least she was listening to me.

“Besides, you were the one to tell me that you didn’t believe in Gods who punished in that way. Frankly, I’ve done things that were downright evil, but Athena never turned away from me, and I don’t believe she has turned from you either.”

“Even for this?”

Gods, what an innocent and childlike expression. I had forgotten that Gabrielle’s maturity was all self taught. She had grown into a woman within the boundaries of being a slave. As intelligent and intuitive as she was, when it came to her own emotions, she was but a babe.

“Yes, little one, even for this.”

“If I hadn’t have wanted a baby so bad, it probably wouldn’t have happened…”

She trailed off and I could see she was struggling with the memories. The anguish was visible on her face, but she did seem slightly calmer. I waited patiently, hoping that she could divorce herself from the pain long enough to tell me the whole story.

It was some time later before she began. I had heard her speak like this before. The tone of her voice changed, the inflection altered enough to alert me that Gabrielle was outside herself. She often did this when speaking of a past that I knew was too painful for her to endure again, even in memories. She spoke as though she was telling another’s tale and not her own.

“It’s been five summers now. At the time, if I had ever dreamed that it could have all ended the way it had, I never would have done it, I swear. I belonged to Nahil Abdular. Do you remember him?”

“The Pirate King,” I said.

Gabrielle nodded.

I remembered why Gabrielle came to be my slave in the first place. I had been called to Ambracia to fight off the marauding pirates who plagued the entire coast. When asked for assistance by the Governor of Thessaly, I had decided to rid myself for the last time of this Pirate King, as he had become known along the desolate coast. He may have been royalty in the Land of the Eternal Desert and on the high seas, but his lifeblood flowed as easily as any other man’s when he met with the end of my blade.

I fell quiet once more and eventually Gabrielle began again.

“I belonged to him. He had won me in a game of dice from my previous master, a man who had lost nearly all his wealth to drink and gambling. Nahil Abdular was not a nice man. If I displeased him in any way, and some days all it took was to move a step too slow, he would have me locked in one of the holds deep in the bowels of the ship. They were little more than cages, but he would leave me there for a day or two without food.

“I quickly learned what he expected, going so far as to anticipate his needs. Occasionally I spent a night in the hold, but those occurrences became less frequent as my time with him continued. He rewarded me for good behavior and gave me some leeway in regards to my run of the ship. I’m sure that was why I became lax. I allowed myself to become pregnant.”

I could hear the pain and regret in her voice. It was always understood that a body slave knew enough about the ways of healers to prevent a pregnancy. There were herbs and devices used, but I had never been concerned enough to learn more. It was one worry my concubines never had. A slave, used only to pleasure her master, would be worthless if pregnant. If one was so foolish as to allow herself to get in this condition, surely she understood it would mean forfeiting her life.

“Why Gabrielle? You were always so smart to avoid conflict.”

“I had heard Nahil Abdular speak so often of children, to carry on his royal blood. He had said that all of his wives, back in his homeland, were barren. I thought…”

For the first time in her narrative Gabrielle looked and sounded as though she was truly speaking of her own life. A flicker of pain briefly became visible on her face.

“I thought that if I could give him the child, he would allow me to be a nursemaid, or even to teach the child. They were foolish thoughts. I realized that later, but I don’t think I was in my right mind. My plan seemed to make so much sense at the time. Afterward it almost seemed as if I had been under a spell.”

She grew silent again, staring down at her hands. After some time, I believed that she had given up on her tale. I couldn’t let it go, not after we’d come so far. As with cauterizing a nasty wound, it was better to do it quickly and suffer the pain only once.

“What did he do when he found out?” I asked.

Another expression filled with anguish covered her face.

“I remember he was angrier than I had ever seen him before. It wasn’t his habit to beat women. Something to do with his Gods, and so I thought I would only spend time in the ship’s hold until the worst of his anger departed. It was different this time. He left me in that place until I couldn’t even remember how many days I’d been there. I thought that was his plan, to leave me there until I died.

“One day the cell was opened and the guards returned me to my master’s cabin. I was cleaned, fed, and a healer from Acacia was even called in to see me. I remember him because of his brown skin. He was an older man and I had never before seen a healer from the Land of the Pharaohs, but he treated me very kindly. He looked at me in the same way as Yu Pan had, almost fatherly. I fell asleep until the next day when Nahil Abdular came to speak with me. He told me that if I would bear him a male child he would keep the boy as his heir. If the child was a girl she would be drowned so as not to cause Nahil Abdular, or his line, any bad luck.”

I was too afraid to ask, but yet I think I already knew the answer to my question. I didn’t have to wait for long, as Gabrielle must have seen into my thoughts.

“The child was a girl,” she answered flatly.

****

I sat beside the bed and watched Gabrielle as she slept. She had cried until I could no longer understand anything but the smallest additional tidbits of her story. From what I did gather, it sounded as if the moment Gabrielle had given birth, her little girl had been pulled from her arms. The last look at her newborn child had been as an uneasy guard carried the baby off to dispose of her. It was no wonder that Gabrielle felt herself responsible for the baby’s death. It still confused even me. Why had a slave with the wit and survival skills to outlast so many of her peers put herself into a situation she must have known would end badly? I had no answer, especially since Gabrielle seemed equally confused in regards to that question.

My anger was so great. Never before, though, had I been unable to give into it. This time I hadn’t the luxury of losing myself in my rage. I had to remain aware for Gabrielle’s sake. This time, she needed me to stay calm and rational. Even the beast cowered in the corners of my psyche, too afraid to slip into the conscious realm of my righteous wrath. I sent a silent prayer to Hades asking that he bring the Pirate King to life again, so that I might squeeze that gift from his body with my own hands. The God of the Afterlife did not grant me my wish. It didn’t surprise me. I was certain Hades still held it against me for all the work I caused him in my younger days.

Gabrielle had initially been so upset that she hadn’t been able to do much more than cry. She would appear to calm herself for a spell, but then she would begin once more. I had sent for Kuros to see if he could come up with something to calm Gabrielle’s nerves. Unfortunately, the healer was out in the village and unavailable. Thankfully, upon Delia’s request, Master Yu Pan came.

As usual, I hovered until Yu Pan addressed me directly. “Tong zhi zhe,” he began.

Yu Pan had a habit of addressing me in a rather formal manner at times. It was always out of respect, however. It was the closest thing the people of Chin could find to my title, and there was a period in my life when I was known as nothing else. It wasn’t exactly my name, but in a way, it meant, ruler of the world. I lived in Chin, protected the people from the vicious feudal Warlords that set themselves up in a province, and then proceeded to bleed its inhabitant’s dry. Of course, I left the country before my reputation was sullied too badly. There were still a few out there who remembered the days when Tong zhi zhe swept through many of the provinces of Chin.

“Perhaps you have more important issues to attend to this morning?” he added.

“Nothing is more important than Gabrielle.” I looked into his smiling eyes and realized what he was asking. “You have some herbs she can take?” I purposefully ignored his subtle hint for me to leave the room.

“We shall talk.”

“Talk? That’s it?”

“Perhaps we shall have some tea.”

At this point, I knew better than to question him further. I sat down beside Gabrielle for a few moments and held her in my arms. I kissed her forehead and she tearfully assured me that she would be fine in Yu Pan’s care. I kissed her one last time, not caring that Yu Pan looked on. My feelings for Gabrielle were emotions that could no longer be hidden, even if I had the inclination to try.

Yu Pan’s talk and beverage must have contained some sort of miraculous soothing properties. I continued to sit beside the bed as Gabrielle’s steady even breaths advised me that she was still asleep.

I heard a timid knock on the door to the outer chamber. Through the open bedchamber door, I saw Delia carry in a tray and place it upon the table in the other room. I rose and stretched, making my way to where Delia stood pouring a mug of tea.

“Good afternoon, Lord Conqueror.”

“Delia. What’s this?”

“Master Yu Pan’s orders. He left the dried leaves for me and gave me detailed instructions on exactly how they were to be brewed.”

“But Gabrielle’s still sleeping.”

“Not for Gabrielle, for you.”

“Will I end up spending the day with Morpheus, too?” I asked with a grin.

“We shall see. Shall we not?” Delia smiled in spite of her attempt to remain serious. “He said it was called Mountain Tea, and it’s not the same as the one he fixed for Gabrielle.”

I sat down and took a quick sip, savoring the earthy flavor. “Hhmm, this is different.”

“His own special blend, I suppose.”

Delia moved as if to leave, but I quickly stopped her.

“Please, Delia, stay and join me. Please?” I repeated after seeing her hesitant expression.

We sat and enjoyed our beverages in silence. I stared off into the room where Gabrielle slept. I had left the door open a hand’s width, or so, in order to keep one eye on my sleeping wife. I turned back to Delia some time later only to find her looking back at me and wearing an amused half-smile.

“I know,” I returned the smile with an embarrassed grin. “I’m pathetic. Aren’t I?” I referred to Gabrielle’s sleeping form with a nod of my head.

“Caring and concerned was actually what I was thinking.”

I shrugged, mostly from embarrassment.

“Can you tell me what happened to upset her so?” Delia asked.

“I would, Delia…” I ran my fingers through my hair. I could see that she only asked out of her own concern for Gabrielle. “But, it’s something Gabrielle told me in confidence. I don’t know if she’s ready for anyone else to know.”

“I understand completely. Something from her past?”

I felt Gabrielle would forgive me divulging that much, especially to Delia. “Yes…before we met.”

How ironic that thought should slip from my tongue so easily…before we met. My choice of verbiage made it sound as if Gabrielle had been a young woman I courted, and then wed, instead of a much-abused slave given to me as a sort of political gift.

“That girl’s experienced more suffering than most people will know in a lifetime. I wonder at times what kept her from giving up on life altogether.”

Delia must have taken notice of the distressed look on my face.

“Gabrielle is not just a survivor, though. She’s a fighter,” she was quick to add.

“She is that indeed.”

Another long bout of silence ensued. I couldn’t help but think, not only of Gabrielle, but also of myself. We had lived lives so different, yet there was one distinct similarity. Each of us had a past that we wished we could change. If not change, then at least forget.

“Do we ever get to move beyond it all?” I voiced my thought without actually realizing that I had spoken aloud.

“Beyond?” Delia’s brow furrowed together in confusion.

“The past. Do we ever get to the point where it’s not an albatross hanging about our neck?” I’m sure Delia thought I spoke only of myself; of my own life. Actually, my thoughts were mostly of Gabrielle.

“I suppose we all have certain areas of our past that we wish could have been different.”

“But, atonement…can that ever be?”

Delia looked at me thoughtfully and placed the mug in her hand back on the table. “I don’t think forgiveness can be sought or even earned. I believe it simply has to come to you.”

I nodded my head, only half understanding her meaning. I think she recognized my expression and so she continued.

“Do you remember, Xena…the day you hit Gabrielle?”

I’m sure my expression turned sour as I recalled the painful emotions associated with that day. Delia only rarely used my given name, and when she did it usually prefaced some sort of heartfelt or profound thought. It was for this reason only that I gave in and allowed the sorrow of that day to fill me once again.

“I had a feeling it would be a day that would stay with you,” Delia remarked.

“It does indeed,” I answered hoarsely. “No day fills me with more regret, yet at the same time reminds me of its joy.” I recalled the day when I struck Gabrielle. On that same day, I freed her from her servitude, only to have her freely choose to stay with me.

“I think the lesson you learned on that day, concerning a future with you and Gabrielle, explains my thinking. Do you remember the realization you came to?”

I smiled then. I could finally see her meaning. “I realized that if she and I were to have any sort of a life together I would have to ask her forgiveness, but not expect it. Mostly, I would have to free her from the bonds of slavery, knowing full well she might choose to leave me.”

“And aside from your love for her, why do such a thing?” she asked.

“I had to let her decide her own path. No matter what I did for her; what I promised to do for her, or give her, if she stayed, it would all be hollow if it had been exacted in that manner. Her forgiveness was honest and true since it came without my coercion.

“I believe, my friend, that you’ve the answer to your question. You can’t live your life ruminating over whether you’ll be forgiven for past misdeeds. The path to forgiveness lies in how you’re living your life right now. Absolution will either come or it won’t, but if you force it, the act becomes tainted.

“You ought to have someone pay you for these wise thoughts, you know.”

“I do, and she pays me quite well,” she said with a wink.

“Not near what you’re worth, dear friend, not near at all.”

“Xena, I couldn’t even begin to spend the money you’ve put aside for me since Galen crossed over.”

“I suppose I wasn’t completely referring to monetary worth.”

“Well then, you’re quite right. I am priceless.”

We both laughed and each turned our heads at the sound of Gabrielle’s voice.

“I heard voices. I was a little worried that they were in my head.” She gave us a sleepy grin and ran a hand through tousled hair.

“And so you did hear voices.” Delia said as she and I rose at the same time. “Would you like some tea, dear?”

“Yes, please,” Gabrielle answered. “That sounds lovely. ”

“Why don’t you go on back to bed and I’ll carry it in for you?”

“Oh no, I’ve slept too long as it is.”

“The sun is still high in the sky. It’s only been a few candlemarks, love,” I answered as I moved to stand beside her. I placed an arm around her shoulders and gently led Gabrielle to the table.

“Is that all? I feel as though I’ve slept for simply days.”

“How do you feel…otherwise?” I asked with some trepidation.

Gabrielle’s smile, filled with a sort of genuine ease, told me that whatever Yu Pan had said to her had worked. I was curious to know what that had been, but at the same time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out. Seeing Gabrielle without the furrowed line to her brow and the deep inscription of pain that had been visible earlier seemed to be all the edification I desired at the time.

Gabrielle laid her hand atop my forearm and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Much better,” she answered.

We continued to stare at one another in a way that must have been some sort of sign to Delia. “Well,” she broke our silence. “I best be on my way.”

“Delia, you don’t have to leave,” Gabrielle responded.

“I have a great deal to do before we leave tomorrow. If I don’t supervise those young men who are packing my kitchen supplies, the Gods only know what we’ll be eating for the next few months.”

Delia made her departure with her customary spirited enthusiasm. Gabrielle and I looked at one another once the older woman was gone and chuckled. A room tended to bristle with energy whenever Delia swept through it.

Gabrielle and I sat in relative silence after that. The only noise came from outside the castle walls or from the dull sound our mugs made when we set them on the table. I suppose I was waiting for her to speak and she was expecting the same of me.

“So then…” I said, letting the words just trail off.

“So then,” Gabrielle repeated.

“I’m sorry,” we both said in unison.

“What are you sorry for?” we each asked at the same time.

“Okay, this might work better if we took turns,” I said as we both laughed at ourselves.

“I’m sorry I lost control of myself like that,” Gabrielle said first.

“Gabrielle,” I reached across the table and covered both her hands with my own. “Please don’t ever be afraid to be yourself with me. Besides, I thought I was the only one who hid all her feelings.” I smiled in an attempt to remove the worried expression from her face. Apparently it worked. “I’m just happy you felt able to tell me.”

“Actually, Solan prompted me to tell you. He reminded me, without intending to, that we were partners and not merely lovers. I never meant to let it build up until I was hysterical, though. Losing control isn’t something I feel comfortable doing.”

“None of us do, little one, but wasn’t it you who once told me that letting go is good for the soul? At least that’s what you to try tell me after I’ve embarrassed myself and had a good cry.”

“I suppose it’s a lot harder to apply it than to say it.” She grinned and I knew that she was feeling better.

“So what are you sorry for then?” she asked me with a quizzical expression.

I suddenly wished that she hadn’t heard me say those words. It seemed rather silly now and I said as much to preface my awkward admission. “I suppose I’m mostly sorry that I couldn’t help you. It seems that Master Yu Pan was able to succeed where I was lacking.”

I felt somewhat guilty. Gabrielle’s face took on that understanding veneer that she usually gets when she deals with me. Rather like a mother dealing with a down in the mouth child. My guilt came because suddenly this had turned into being about Xena instead of Gabrielle. It was always about me, but I was trying very hard to change that attitude. Every once in a while, I admit, I slipped back a few paces.

Gabrielle slipped from her chair and, just as easily, made her way into my lap. Like that downhearted child, I immediately felt comforted.

“Xena, you are not the Conqueror of the Known World to me. You may have to be all things to your people, but remember that I see you for who you really are. When I look at you, I see a flesh and blood woman and not the demi-god the tavern bards tell stories of.”

I looked at my wife with as loving an expression as I could muster. “The Gods have treated me much too kindly to have given me you. I feel as though I do little to deserve you.”

I grew emotional in an instant and turned my head away. I didn’t want Gabrielle to see the tear in my eye, yet another weakness of mine displayed before her. She quickly reached a hand out, though, and turned my chin back to face her.

“Don’t, love,” she whispered softly. “Don’t hide your emotions from me. I want you to share everything with me.”

What was I to do with a woman such as that? I did exactly as my nature bid me. I was a physical woman and I decided to express my feelings in kind. Tomorrow we were to travel north and Gabrielle and I would have all the time we wanted to talk. I would do my best to convince her that she was not the guilty one in the death of her child…tomorrow. Tomorrow we would talk of the past and how we would handle the future. Today I had other plans.

I rose and lifted Gabrielle in my arms as I kissed her.

“Xena, where are we going?” she finally had a chance to breathlessly ask.

“To bed.” I grinned.

“I’ve already been there,” she said with a humorous glint in her eye.

“Not with me you haven’t.”

Gabrielle laughed. “And just what will you tell your subjects? That the Empire is on hold while you bed your wife?”

“Excellent suggestion!” I dropped her lightly to her feet. “Don’t start without me,” I said with a wink. I turned and walked to the door of our outer chamber.

Throwing open the door I looked into the faces of two very alert guards. “Hades take the first man to disturb me before one–” I turned to see Gabrielle drop the bed robe she had been wearing. It hit the floor and she looked back at me wearing nothing but a seductive smile before she disappeared into our bedchamber.

“Uhm…before two candlemarks have passed! The same goes for anyone looking for the Queen. Is that understood?” I asked of my guards.

“Aye, Lord Conqueror,” they answered in unison.

I didn’t even care that I saw the beginnings of a grin on their faces as I quickly slammed the door. I left a trail of clothing on the floor all the way to our bedchamber, setting a record for disrobing, I’m sure.

****

“So beautiful,” Gabrielle said as her fingertips lightly played along my skin.

My body tingled from her touch alone. I swallowed and seemed to have lost the ability for speech. I could only watch as she reached out her hand and let her fingers slide against my already overheated skin.

“I know all the places you like to be touched. Don’t I, Xena?” she asked me and something in me knew it was a rhetorical question.

Gabrielle didn’t seem to expect an answer, which was just as well because I couldn’t verbalize a single word. I watched her eyes as they followed the progress of her hand from my face down along the length of my throat.

“Here?”

I nodded and felt the pressure of her fingertips as I swallowed. She continued on, down into the hollow of my chest, spreading the palm of her hand over one breast. When she squeezed the flesh just slightly, I groaned and felt my nipple harden and press into her palm. I think she moaned at the sensation, too.

“Here?” she asked again, her voice taking on a sensuous throaty quality. When she concentrated her efforts on the hardened nipple I moaned again.

“Oh, yes.” I breathed and closed my eyes. My eyes opened quickly when I felt her fingers move through the dark triangle of curls and graze across my clit. “Gods, Gabrielle!” I exclaimed and grasped her wandering hand in mine.

This seduction wasn’t going exactly as I had planned. If I continued to let my wife have her way, I’d end up being taken instead of the other way around. The woman already knew of the power she held over me, especially in this arena. My experiences in the bedchamber rivaled that of most men and women, but to Gabrielle, I deferred to her exceptional skill. Gabrielle smiled as I reversed our positions and gently pushed her back against the bed. I stretched my body out alongside of her, pressing against her.

“Gabrielle…let me make love to you,” I whispered. I then kissed her in a way that would show her just how much I wanted her.

It was a passionate, yet gentle kiss. Every time Gabrielle and I had come together to make love, I wished only to please her, but there had always been something more. For the woman who had experienced so much pain with this act, my desire had always been to love Gabrielle with as much tenderness as possible. She’d come a long way in voicing her desires and allowing her passion to make its demands, but I never treated my wife as any other woman I had taken to my bed. Gabrielle was different…special and I treated her as such.

That thought had never appeared so important to me as right at this very moment. It seemed to me that now, above any other time since we met, Gabrielle needed to feel safe in our physical love. Perhaps I was simply remembering the tears she shed earlier or the way she had clung to me, so desperately afraid that I would put her aside for some past misdeed. Whatever the reason, I simply wanted to make love to Gabrielle as though I was the first person to ever do so.

I kissed her once more, surprised at my own breathlessness as I whispered into her ear, “I love you, Gabrielle. No other will ever exist for me in this way.”

Gabrielle slipped her fingers into my dark hair. She urged my head back until our eyes met. “Thank you, my love,” she whispered back.

She continued to slide her fingers into my hair. I found it odd at times how entranced she was by the feel of her hands in the long locks. She would close her eyes and smile as though running her fingers against a smooth piece of Egyptian silk. Many a time would I have stopped to reflect over why the act delighted her so, but to tell the truth; the feel of her carefully trimmed nails raking across my scalp sent my own body into a fit of shivers.

I directed my kisses lower, along her throat and the upper swell of her chest. I let my right hand roam across her body, gently caressing the flesh of her breast. I leaned down to place a soft kiss on the pebbled flesh that quickly became erect with desire and spread Gabrielle’s thighs apart, running my fingers along the smooth skin on the inside of her thigh. Gabrielle’s breathless moans were like music to my ears.

I touched her that way for a long time until my lovely wife finally indicated she could stand the evasive caresses no longer. She arched her back and I let her hand draw my head eagerly down to her breast. I started out gently, with a kiss and an occasional flick of my tongue along the soft curves of her flesh, but soon it wasn’t enough for either of us. I covered a very rigid nipple with my mouth and sucked ever so lightly, working the area over with my tongue, and then sucking it into my mouth with a gentle pressure, before releasing it between my lips.

“Xena…yes,” Gabrielle exclaimed, pressing her body against my own.

I continued making love to her breasts, alternating between the two, leaving my lover gasping for breath and anxious for release. Reaching my hand down between her thighs, I let my fingers lightly stroke along the length of her sex, so that she barely knew she was being touched.

“Gods…you’re so wet.” I moaned at that first touch and I felt her move her legs wider apart in encouragement.

When I slid my body down to position myself closer to her center, she seemed to know exactly where I was headed and spread her legs open even further. I took my time here as well, using my lips and my tongue to blaze a path along the sensitive skin of her inner thighs. Her skin tasted faintly musky and I felt a hitch in my breathing as my tongue ran across the wetness that had made its way onto her leg. It only fed my craving and before long, I simply couldn’t hold back any longer.

“Oh, Xena!” Gabrielle cried out as my tongue slipped through the golden curls.

I explored every crease and fold that was drenched in my wife’s wetness. I lost myself to a place of pure delight. The sensation my wife’s taste caused on my tongue could not be compared to anything I had yet experienced. The more I allowed myself, the more I wanted until I finally wrapped my arms around her smooth thighs and pulled her closer, drinking from the luscious gift she offered like a parched woman in the desert. I pressed my tongue against her opening, testing her readiness by barely slipping my tongue inside.

“Gods, Oh Gods!” Gabrielle cried out at the sensation and wrapped both her hands in my hair, pulling me more tightly against her.

I eased my tongue in an out of her sensitive entrance. Gabrielle’s hips moved against me as she continued to hold my hair in both her hands. I heard her rapid breathing and constant moans. Her muscles begin to twitch in anticipation. I slid my tongue to the top of her cleft, concentrating on the area I knew would bring her the most pleasure. As I did this, I pressed the tips of two fingers just inside her. The liquid fire flowing from her made the task quite easy. I pressed in, never stopping my tongue’s motion against her. I groaned in absolute pleasure at the feel of the warm velvety flesh that surrounded my finger.

“Oh, Xena, please. I need…”

“What, love? Tell me…anything you want.”

“You…please, I need you here with me. I need to see you.”

I moved my body up, lying over her, pressing kisses against her throat, letting my tongue slide along the edge of her ear. I replaced my tongue with my thumb and let it make slow steady circles across that swollen bit of flesh. I moved my fingers in and out to a slower rhythm than Gabrielle’s hips dictated, but I wanted this to last. I continued the motion of my hand slowly…relentlessly. Finally, Gabrielle reduced her efforts and went along at the pace I set.

I groaned aloud at the fire that I could feel gradually building between my own legs. I spread myself open and allowed Gabrielle’s thigh to stoke my needy flesh.

I could feel her limbs beginning to tremble, my own center quivering in ecstatic empathy. I continued the motion of my fingers, my thumb pressing down harder against her sensitive flesh.

“Xena, oh Gods, Xena, yes…yes…” Gabrielle’s head pressed back into the covers of the bed as her eyes closed in unrefined rapture.

At that moment, I knew there was only one thing that I desired of Gabrielle, only one thing that could send my own body over the edge.

“Gabrielle,” I said hoarsely. “Look at me.”

I took her face in my hand and stroked her cheek with my thumb until she opened her eyes. She struggled to keep her gaze on me, my own intense stare fixed on only her. I silently asked that she share the most personal thing any woman could. I pleaded with her to share this one moment of fiery pleasure with me. I chose the most appropriate words for my request, the very phrase that Gabrielle had used earlier.

“Don’t hide your emotions from me, Gabrielle. I want you to share everything with me.”

She understood exactly what I was asking and her emerald eyes grew large just as the first cry left her throat. When she convulsed against me a second time, I pressed my thumb against her clit, moving against the tender area. Gabrielle cried out again in pleasure at her second release. My own climax ripped through me as I felt Gabrielle’s tightness clamp around my fingers, her inner muscles clenching and unclenching involuntarily.

My body trembled nearly as much as Gabrielle’s as I let go to experience my own release. I held her close to me with one arm and simply let her feel the fullness of my fingers, still deep inside her. After she had been silent for a few moments, I gently eased my fingers from her, causing another small volley of aftershocks.

Gabrielle finally focused fully on my face and I saw the verdant gaze clear of its sensuous haze. “Thank you,” she whispered once more. “I never want to think of my life without you.”

Did she really have no idea that I should have been thanking her? Tears filled my eyes and I could have sooner held back the tide from the shore as the emotions that suddenly welled to the surface of my heart.

“Gabrielle…my little one,” I choked out. “I will always be here for you.”

Some time later, as Gabrielle was falling into a light slumber and I stared contentedly up at the ceiling, her voice came to me lightly.

“When I’m with you, Xena, you make my past seem like a memory. As if there’s only my future with you.”

“And I’m a greedy woman, my love,” I answered. “I want all of your future…every last bit of it.”
Chapter 3: Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore…
I must have actually fallen asleep, for I awoke, not with my customary level of alertness, but as a fat, contented cat. I stretched my body out and turned to spoon against Gabrielle’s sleeping form. She slept much more deeply than I, and I smiled to hear the tiny snores that my wife refused to believe ever came from her.

I could tell by the sight outside our bedchamber window that Apollo was beginning his descent into the horizon. The sky glowed a warm orange color as the God’s chariot carried the ball of fire below the edge of the known world. I lay there and nuzzled Gabrielle’s neck and hair. She slept so deeply that she barely stirred. I wondered if it had anything to do with my sexual prowess or if it was merely an after effect of Yu Pan’s tea. I chose to believe it was because of the former.

I, on the other hand, was quite awake. After counting everything from sheep to barmaids, I was still no closer to Morpheus’s realm. It shouldn’t have surprised me, however. I had lazed the entire day away, having done nothing more strenuous than making love to my wife, which had been a most pleasurable task. My body shivered slightly at the remembered bliss. There was nothing left to do, but to rise and spend the evening doing the things I should have been doing all day.

After a quick wash up and dressing, I went to work in my study. I surprised myself with the amount of work I was able to accomplish. There had been a great deal of paperwork to wade through. For some odd reason, the ruler of the Empire leaving the realm seemed to be cause for some distress among my Advisors. Therefore, I did a fortnight’s work in one evening, attempting to provide for any unforeseen circumstances that might arise during my absence.

A number of candlemarks passed as I energetically attacked the piles of scrolls that demanded my attention. Soon after I had begun, however, I felt my concentration waning from my undertaking, even though I pressed on to its completion. My mind wandered repeatedly back to Gabrielle and her recent admission.

Now, in the old days, as I like to remember my youth, I could never let anything interesting go. Not so much interesting, rather…inconsistent. Whenever I heard a story, and the hairs on the back of my neck prickled and stood up, it usually meant that there was something odd or off about it. That there was more I wasn’t being told. This time, I kept going back to things that happened within Gabrielle’s tale.

Once finished with my writings, I poured myself a cup of wine and sat back in my chair. I casually rested my feet on a nearby stool. Artisans had crafted the intricately carved stool out of the same wood as the chair I now sat upon.

“Enter,” I said upon hearing a knock on the outer study door.

The Captain of my army walked in, but he had a distinct look of discomfort on his face. Atrius and I had become more like good friends than anything else over the years. His manner around me was usually one of reserved ease. He knew he was always free to speak his mind to me, however, but he rarely had to. Atrius could say as much with one look as my beloved wife.

“Lord Conqueror.”

“Atrius. What’s up man? You look like Hades.”

“Uhm, well…I…we… heard that Lady Gabrielle wasn’t feeling well. So, I…I mean, we…I mean–”

“Gods man, you sound like you’re trying to ask for my hand in marriage! Spit it out,” I added with a chuckle.

“Hades,” he muttered and rubbed his jaw. “Truth is, Anya heard that the Queen wasn’t well and she sent me to find out if she could do anything to help.”

I couldn’t keep from laughing. I certainly knew how he felt and I told him so. “Sit down and have a cup of wine with me. Gabrielle is with Yu Pan now…just some nightmares.” I purposefully made light of the situation.

Once we both had a good chuckle about our women having the nerve to order us around like house servants, we sat and relaxed. We spoke of the trip the next day and the precautions we would take. Leaving Corinth was not something I did lightly, even though it may seem a casual thing, to simply take a holiday. Even though the empire experienced great prosperity, there were always factions who thought they could do better. A portion of my army would go with me. Actually, a much higher number than I usually brought. This, however, was a trip with the royal family. I would spare no cost in seeing Gabrielle and the rest kept safe. The armies that stayed to defend Corinth were five times the size that were normally kept on alert. The last thing I wanted to come home to was an attempt to overthrow my rule. What is mine stays mine. I may have changed in many ways for the better, but I could still be like a hound with a highly prized bone when it came to the things I considered as belonging to me.

Atrius and Anya had been married in a small joining ceremony just a few days previous. Since this trip seemed to be turning into a family affair, Gabrielle had planted the seed in my head to prompt Atrius to bring his new family along. Their two little girls, who affectionately called me the Conqwerwor, and their son, Petras, were all looking forward to the journey. I knew that friends were a new concept and something important to Gabrielle. I believed having Sylla, Anya, and Delia as female companionship, the long trip would be made more pleasant for my wife.

Silence lasted for quite some time between Atrius and myself. It was a comfortable sort of quiet, however. We had known one another too long to resort to feigning conversation when it wasn’t there. My thoughts had gone back to Gabrielle’s most recent dilemma and suddenly I sat up, placing my feet flat on the floor. I had just remembered one of the things that had bothered me about Gabrielle’s story.

“Atrius, do you remember last season, when we fought the pirates in Ambracia?”

“Aye, I do at that. Easier than training new recruits. Those pirates sure weren’t much on dry land now, were they?”

“Do you remember the healer the Governor’s troops had?”

“The one who made a mess of fixing your shoulder?”

I laughed. My right arm had a habit of becoming dislocated since I had popped it out the first time as a young woman. It had happened again while fighting in Ambracia and some ill trained battlefield healer only popped it in halfway. My laughter quieted into a pleasant smile as I remembered how my arm had been fixed. Gabrielle had given me a massage on the first night I came to own her. It was my wife’s talent that healed my arm.

“No,” I answered slowly. I tried to recall the face of the man I was thinking of. “It was another. He was older. He tended to people in the village, but the Governor recruited him to help in the castle while we were there. He had skin like a Nubian.”

“Aye, I think I might remember the man you mean. Tall and kinda thin, from the Land of the Pharaohs.”

“Yes, I think that’s the same man. I probably only saw him in passing, though, either at the village or in the castle halls.”

“As I recall, he always had a pack of children in his shadow.”

“Yes,” I answered thoughtfully. My brain rushed forward at the possibilities. “I remember that about him, too. Have any idea why?”

I don’t recall ever asking. I assumed they were orphans of war. He was probably too kind-hearted to turn them away being a healer and all.”

I ran my fingertips up and down my throat. “Either that, or once word got out, he had people bringing them to him.” I had no idea why the thought occurred to me in the first place. Perhaps it was a well-timed gift from Athena, but I believed that this man was the healer who Gabrielle said had been so nice to her. If he was the same man who treated her when she was pregnant, then could he have possibly been involved after the child’s birth?

I realized then what else had bothered me about Gabrielle’s story. Gabrielle had actually said it herself. Nahil Abdular had been nearly obsessed with having children to carry on his line. I hadn’t spent much time in the Land of the Eternal Sands, but I knew some of the ways of the dark-skinned men. Mostly, I remembered the reverence with which they treated their offspring. It was a country where even the most poverty stricken families never put their children to work. Youngsters were encouraged to be children for as long as possible, spending their days doing nothing more strenuous than play.

My questions now concerned the soldier who’d been ordered to take Gabrielle’s child from her, with the command to send the child to its death. Even if Abdular had worked up his courage to order the child’s death, certain he was appeasing his Gods, what would the underling do? In my experience, even the most blood thirsty of killers had Gods to whom they remained true. Could a man put aside his beliefs, even if he knew he would spend an agonizing afterlife paying the penalty? It simply didn’t correspond with the almost fanatical veneration these men showed to children of all lands.

I was quite some time later, when the candles had burned low, that I realized that Atrius had quietly left me to my thoughts.

****

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I woke feeling tremendously rested. It was as though I had slept for an entire fortnight. The first odd thing was that I had startled myself awake, and I breathed a sigh of relief to find that Xena had already risen. She had tried to convince me on more than one occasion that I snored, which I vehemently denied. Okay, so she had been right all along. It had been the sound of my own snoring that woke me.

I lit some candles in the outer room and one of the large oil lamps that hung from the ceiling. I saw the glow of lamplight coming from under the door to Xena’s study. She never could stay in bed for any prolonged length of time. Well, for sleeping anyway. I was sure our day spent doing nothing at all would have her up the entire night.

I went to her study door, but heard muffled voices. I recognized that Xena was talking to Atrius and left them to their business. I went into the bathing chamber and set some water on the grates to heat for a bath. It didn’t take very long before I was lying in a warm bath and allowing the day’s worries to disappear into the bath water. The fact that I was able to do that amazed me more than anyone else. For five seasons, I had taken my guilt to extremes and now…well, now it was in its proper place…a safe place. The way that came about is a story in itself. I smiled as I thought about the waves rushing in toward that pebbled shore. But, I get ahead of myself.

I continued to think about how different I felt this evening, as I combed my wet hair before the looking glass. I paused in brushing out the tangles and peered at my reflection. Was it possible? I looked…lighter somehow. It was the only word I could think of to describe the combination of physical and mental well being I now experienced.

I eventually made my way into my old room, across the hall from our bedchamber. I entered the large room and immediately made a fire in the large fireplace. It was the warm season in Greece, but the stone of the castle held in the chill and the dampness. I also lit a number of lamps and sat down at my desk. The room glowed a soft amber color caused by the dancing flames of fire. It gave the room a very comforting feel.

The room had once been my personal bedchamber. That was before Xena and I began sharing the same bed at night, which had been only one day after I arrived at the palace. I closed my eyes and could still see her standing in the shadows of this very room. She made herself known and she looked a fright. Dark circles under her eyes, her hair wind blown, and her boots soaked through and muddy. It was as though I was cast back into that moment…

I immediately felt another’s presence in my new room and I awoke in a state of confusion. I looked around and could see no one, but I felt someone near. I leaned over and lit the candle at the bedside. Still, I clung to the feeling that someone was there, watching me from the shadows. I was certain that my expression had caused her to reveal herself as I went from sleepy disorientation to fear.

She took a step forward, letting the light from the flickering flame announce her presence.

“My Lord.” I exclaimed, starting to rise. “How may I serve you?”

“Relax, Gabrielle,” Xena said, moving closer to the bed. “I have no need of you in that way.”

The strained silence persisted as she stood there rather awkwardly. She looked as though she wondered if she should explain her reason for being there. I found her behavior strange. She was my master…the Lord Conqueror. Why in Tartarus should she feel she had to explain herself to anyone? I tried to discover the reason for her discomfort and how I might serve her.

“Are you troubled, My Lord?” I gently inquired.

She appeared at war with her own emotions. She moved forward and sat at the end of the bed, just opposite, but facing away from me.

“I…I…” She cleared her throat and tried to begin again. “Sometimes I…being alone at night. I mean, with you in here and me over there…sometimes I wish it were different,” she said with a heavy sigh.

I saw then what troubled her. Had she really grown accustomed to sleeping with me in her bed? I didn’t understand her need, but I understood what drove people of strength…warriors. They taught themselves never to show weakness or emotion. The sad end to that tale was when they did wish to show such emotion, they knew not how.

I did not pretend to understand why the Conqueror of the Known World actually felt anything for me, if that was even the case. I did know that it was my duty to serve her; to anticipate her needs when possible, even in the times when she herself knew not what she desired. I hoped I was correct in assuming what she wanted at that moment, and, deep down, I hoped that I was right.

“There are times, My Lord, when the only thing necessary to bring comfort to a person’s soul, is the sound of another’s heart, beating along with your own.”

She looked taken back. When she didn’t move or attempt to speak, I continued.

“I may be very unworthy company, My Lord, but perhaps…perhaps if you were to lie here, Morpheus would beckon you.”

When she looked over at me, and I turned to see her face, I saw into those eyes of beauty and pain. I saw the truth of it there in her gaze. In my company is exactly where she wanted to be. I was determined to show her as much kindness and compassion as she had shown me. I did not even understand why I wished it to be so. It was simply something inside of me.

Without removing her clothes, she made a move to lie back on the large bed, but realized that she still wore her boots, wet and muddy from outside. I was her slave, in her bed. It should not have mattered to her where she placed her dirty boots, but she carefully removed them all the same. Was it respect she showed me or simply concern over an expensive coverlet?

She lay down atop the blankets. I pushed the sheet from my body, knowing that the proper behavior for a body slave was to uncover myself in my master’s presence. I did not pretend to know why she did it, but she grasped the end of the sheet and pulled it back up to cover me.

“Roll over, Gabrielle, facing away from me,” she said. It sounded as if it was neither command nor request, but something in between.

I rolled over onto my side, as she requested, and she pulled the sheet up further. She then draped her arm around my waist. It seemed quite natural for me to settle my back against her chest. The warmth behind me felt so relaxing.

“Goodnight, Gabrielle.”

“Goodnight, My Lord.”

She fell asleep in moments. Beginning the following evening, I spent my nights in the Lord Conqueror’s bed. Every night, all night. I had never felt so safe and relaxed anywhere in my life.

I shook my head to bring myself back into the present. I pushed aside the many scrolls littering my desk, making room for me to write. As I glanced around the room, I had to pause in near disbelief. I had shelves filled with my own scrolls and many more from writers whose works I enjoyed. Had my life here actually existed for so short a span of time? It had been a little over one summer, yet the change had been dramatic.

I shaped the nib of a new quill with a tool meant to shave the pipe of the feather. I repeatedly dipped my new pen into the ink to prime it. At last, I began writing.

This scroll, like many others previously written, I meant for Xena’s eyes alone. It would be an addendum to her current work, The Chronicles of Xena the Conqueror’s Life. Some day, others would read these scrolls, but not just yet. It hadn’t been unusual for me to add information to Xena’s scrolls. She usually read them through in my presence and we might even discuss the writings. Afterwards, Xena sealed my scroll to the end of hers with hot wax and her heavy signet ring. She always made it clear that she did not do this to show that I needed her approval of my writings. The action was one of mere acceptance. I understood that she hadn’t ever meant for me to feel demeaned, but it would always remain true that Xena was the Ruler of the Empire and even I must bow to her.

I knew that Xena was curious to know what had transpired between Yu Pan and me earlier today. To tell the truth, I’d like to know myself. I was there, but Yu Pan’s mystical ways of healing and teaching continued to astound me. Most of the time, I learned from the man without ever knowing I was being taught. I decided that I would tell the tale as it happened. It would be up to Xena to determine the amount of belief she would place in the story.

****

I still cried uncontrollably after Xena had left the room. Yu Pan patted my hand and went about brewing tea with the requested supplies Delia had sent up from her kitchen. He had also sent one of the maids to his room for his own tea making materials. I had learned during my time in Chin that brewing and serving tea was not simply an everyday act. It was an art surrounded by a great deal of ceremony. To this day I did not understand all of the words Yu Pan spoke while executing his infusion skills.

I sat, as quietly as I could, while Yu Pan prepared his brew with very slow and deliberate movements. I honestly tried to stop my tears and my efforts seemed to work for a while. Then, I would think of my tiny baby girl and the tears would come again, no matter how hard I tried to hold them back.

“Come, Gabrielle, wipe your eyes and sit up,” Yu Pan requested.

I did as he asked and even though I wasn’t sobbing any longer, the tears continued to silently spill from my eyes. I couldn’t possibly give up my own guilt in the whole affair. No matter that Xena had offered me her own absolution. I simply couldn’t forget. And so, my tears continued.

“Now, now…here,” Yu Pan held out a small stone. It was a smooth piece of jade, about the shape and size of my thumb.

“What do I do?” I asked as I wiped more tears from my cheek.

“I want you to concentrate for me. You must hold the cup in one hand and sip the hot tea. With your other hand I want you to balance the stone, lengthwise up, in the palm of your hand.”

I was skeptical, but as with every other lesson Yu Pan had ever taught me, I silently accepted it as fact and did as he bid me. Trying to do both was more difficult than I had first thought. I suspect nearly a quarter of a candlemark had passed before I huffed out a sigh in complete exasperation.

“I know this is important, Yu Pan, please forgive me. I don’t mean to question your methods, but this treatment simply isn’t going to work. I can’t do it.”

“Oh, this is not treatment, my nuér.” Yu Pan used the term of endearment that I had grown accustomed to hearing from him and no other. In his language it meant daughter.

“What? But I thought–”

“I have found that occupying one’s mind with a nonsensical task, while attempting to sip boiling tea, tends to take one’s mind from its worries.”

“What? I…you–”

“Well,” Yu Pan poured me another cup of tea as he spoke. “You have stopped your weeping.”

I sat and stared openmouthed. It was true. I had stopped crying. For a few moments, I had forgotten my heartbreak.

“Master Yu Pan, what is wrong with me?” I finally asked in frustration. I pulled at my hair and ran my fingers through the locks.

Yu Pan sighed as he sat down beside me on the bed. I suppose that action would have been considered inappropriate had he been a younger man, or even if he had not been my best friend. As it was, I looked on him as more than a friend and teacher. To me, he was the closest thing to a father I had ever known. I imagine that was why I had always felt quite comforted when he called me nuér.

I felt, however, as though I would always call him Master. I had learned from my time spent in Chin and with The Order of the Rose that the term had little, if nothing, to do with slavery there. Students used the term to show respect to their teachers. In Chin, a learned teacher taught so much more than elements of education such as letters and numbers. A teacher taught life as well. That is what Yu Pan had been teaching me ever since we first met…living…how to exist in a world that often seemed foreign to me.

He placed his hand around mine and closed his eyes for a few moments. When he opened his eyes, he touched my forehead with the palm of one hand. He moved his hand gently in a circular motion.

“It is the dreams,” he stated.

I nodded. I didn’t know if he pulled the thought from my mind or if he simply remembered that, in seasons past, I had experienced the same depression during this time of the summer.

“My nuér, do you not practice your Qigong every day?”

“Without fail, Master.”

The Qigong, pronounced chi-kung, were breathing and meditative techniques. It worked by manipulating or affecting the flow of Qi through exercise, breathing, and meditation. Qigong exercises produced very strong healing effects, for the mind as well as the physical body. A daily use of Qigong maintained good health and prevented illness before it started. The ch’i-related forms, or moves, I used in self-defense. Yu Pan had called the movements Tai Ch’i. The Shaolin fighting techniques that Yu Pan had taught me were nothing more than ch’i exercises.

“You practice them with this,” he touched my arm to indicate my body. “But do you practice with this?” He then tapped my forehead.

“I–I don’t understand, Master. I study all the techniques exactly as you have taught them to me. I leave no form out.”

“Then the fault is mine. I sent you into the world only half clothed against the harsh elements, Gabrielle. You dream of your child again?”

I nodded my head. I didn’t need to say more to Yu Pan. He knew more about my past than even I could remember at times.

He breathed out an audible sigh. “My nuér, it seems as though you cannot let go of this bit of sadness.”

“My heart breaks when I think about it,” I answered in defense. For a moment, it sounded to me as though Yu Pan had brushed off my old feelings of pain and regret. That surprised me, until his next words.

Yu Pan took my hand in his again. “I do not mean to discount your emotions. I know your pain is great. I feel the imbalance of your ch’i; it is quite palpable. But, to hold on to the past is not in our way.”

Yu Pan spoke often about the two halves of a whole, the ch’i. It was written Qi, yet pronounced ch’i. It had often been translated as vital force, vital energy, or life force. Qi was both energy and matter. Qi flowed in, around, and through the body. A well and healthy body was a perfectly balanced machine. The yin and yang expressed the idea of pairs of opposites hanging balanced against one another, such as day and night, sun and moon, light and dark.

“I don’t mean to, Master. Some days I think it’s gone, but when I next meditate, it returns. It seems as though the feelings come back twice as strong as I had previously experienced them. I try, but–”

“Nuér, there is no try when working with the ch’i. There is only do.”

“I have failed,” I responded. I didn’t like disappointing Yu Pan.

“You have learned,” he answered. It was so like him to say the nonsensical words that would ease my humiliation. “Tell me, do you understand the way the ch’i works?

“I–I think I remember.” I felt as though this was a test…and so, I suppose, it was in a way.

“Elaborate, please.”

“Well, the ch’i is a sort of energy inside of us. The human self has four parts…mind, body, ch’i, and thought. The ultimate well-being is when all four of these areas are whole. Ill health comes when we lose contact with one of these four areas.”

“Very good. Now tell me what it means.”

“I–Uhm. What do you mean?”

“You recite your lessons superbly, but instruction without true understanding is merely recitation.”

“I thought I was telling you what it meant.”

“But, what does it mean to you, Gabrielle,” Yu Pan prodded.

I thought for a moment about what he had asked. In a way, this was a very comforting situation for me. It reminded me of a time when I would sit beside Yu Pan in his tiny garden. He would talk and I would listen. Always there were lessons in his speech.

“What it means to me,” I began thoughtfully, “is that my mind is being affected by outside forces. Because I can’t get the past out of my mind, the natural flow of my body’s resources has been interrupted.”

Yu Pan looked very interested in the words I spoke. He nodded his head and was silent for some time before he addressed me again.

“Let me tell you something about these ‘outside forces’, shall I? Suppose a friend tells you something that upsets you. Perhaps she tells you that another of your friends has been talking about you behind your back. The words from the woman who told you keep running through your mind to the point where you can think of little else. Not only the words of the first woman upset you…the one who told you about it, but you also experience a myriad of emotions surrounding the betrayal from the second friend. You wonder why that woman said such things behind your back and how your future as friends will stand.”

Yu Pan paused and I nodded my head to show that I followed his line of thinking. He quickly began again.

“Now, it is your own thoughts and worries that keep you awake at night and not the words of the unfaithful friend. Once, it could be said that it was she, an outside force, who troubled your mind. Once you have taken on anger, fear, even guilt over the incident, you are responsible for what is in your mind. You are no longer at the whim of another’s words, now your pain is of your own doing.”

“But, why can’t I just rid myself of the pain? I can make other unpleasantness disappear when I meditate and practice my Qigong.”

“Is this how you practice the way?”

“I couldn’t have defeated the Amazon Queen, Melosa, in combat if I hadn’t cleared my mind of all my thoughts of peace. I pushed them all away until I could scarcely remember I had ever felt them.”

Yu Pan looked concerned and it worried me. “Master, have I done something wrong in this?”

“Not quite wrong, but dangerous my nuér.”

“Something in me tells me you might have told me this sooner.” I jumped up and nervously paced the room. I knew I sounded indignant and was already prepared to apologize when Yu Pan’s smile stopped me.

“It is nothing that cannot be fixed, so not to be overly concerned. Let me explain. You have made a mistake common to those who practice and try to initially live according to the way.”

Yu Pan had grown accustomed to calling the philosophies by which he lived his life, the way. I had never adopted all of his customs, but what he had taught me would stay with me all my life. It was almost as if he had adopted me into his way.

“When you do Qigong what do you think of?”

“Nothing, just as you taught me. It just comes.”

“Do you put your thoughts away from you completely or do you gently put them aside?”

“I–I’m not sure. I don’t think I understand the difference. Are you asking if I clear my mind completely?”

“Precisely,” Yu Pan answered.

“Of course. It’s almost as if I become a different person. While I’m in the way, my thoughts are so far removed that I scarcely know who I am.”

“That is the danger you toy with, Gabrielle, although I know that you do not do it intentionally. When used correctly, Qigong should be as natural as breathing. We do not remove what clouds our mind, for in that, there is the danger of losing one’s self.”

Yu Pan smiled again, which was unusual. Ordinarily he hid his emotions.

“Why do you smile at my failure, Master?” I asked with some confusion.

“My joy comes, not from your wrongdoing, but at another opportunity for you to learn. I felt you would be advanced many summers before you would be confronted with these subtleties of the way.”

“I suppose that’s good, right? I don’t think I much like the reason why I’m learning a lesson, though.” My earlier sadness returned and I hung my head.

“Gabrielle, would you like me to help you put these memories in their proper place?”

“I don’t want to forget about her!” I quickly exclaimed.

I remembered how Yu Pan had used a form of hypnosis to suspend my memories of my earlier days spent training with him. I had been brought to him after having been raped and beaten until near dead. I still remember little of that incident, but it turned out that it was our own Solan who had brought me to the healer, Yu Pan. As I healed, Yu Pan taught me the Qigong, which led to instruction in Tai Ch’i and his Shaolin fighting techniques. Once I had been discovered as a runaway slave, Yu Pan used his skills in hypnosis to temporarily suspend my memories of any of the skills he had taught me. If he hadn’t, I would never have been able to return to my submissive slave’s posture. It wasn’t until I faced a royal challenge, hand-to-hand combat with the Amazon Queen, that Yu Pan had used his skills once again to restore my forgotten memories.

“My nuér, what I am offering isn’t like that at all. To be truthful, this has been the flaw in your own meditations.”

“Flaw?”

“Gabrielle, there are two methods used by those of us with the power and knowledge of the way. The first way is to remove, or separate, one’s self completely from the mind. This has been, in a sense, what you have already been doing. I do not encourage this type of method.”

“I don’t understand why. This method has worked for me so far. I’m not questioning you, Master, but I need to know why it’s wrong.”

“Do not sound repentant because of your query. It is a mark of maturity when the student can intelligently question the teacher,” Yu Pan responded with his customary good nature.

“Then why, Yu Pan?” I sat back down beside him. I rarely used my mentor’s given name. I don’t know why, it just happened that way.

He sighed deeply before he began speaking. “Your mate, the Conqueror, is an example of what can happen to those of us who understand the power of the way.”

“Xena?”

“Do you know the one that the Conqueror calls the beast?”

“I’ve seen it face to face,” I answered slowly. “How do you know about Xena’s darkness?”

“I know of many things not spoken, my nuér.”

He didn’t need to say more. Yu Pan obviously possessed gifts given to him by the Gods of the Eastern realm. I had never questioned him before and I did not intend to demand any further answers now.

“Xena’s darkness was a curse from the God of War, Ares.”

“Mostly true. It is a spell cast directly from the hand of a God, but it is the Conqueror herself who perpetuated the darkness.”

“But, Xena has tried everything to rid herself of the beast,” I said in her defense.

“It started when she was quite young. Xena, too, knew the way. Whether it was a gift from the Gods, upon her birth, or some being who found favor in her when she was a child, I know not. No matter what the cause, the Conqueror had skills that were beyond human men even before Ares placed his curse on her. Perhaps it has been those skills that have prevented the darkness from swallowing the Conqueror completely.”

I took in all his words and sat there in confusion. Perhaps if all of this was as Yu Pan said, maybe then there was a way to turn Xena’s curse around, to eliminate it altogether. I had to turn my attention back to the conversation at hand so as not to allow myself to become too excited by this latest prospect.

“I’m still confused,” I said in response to Yu Pan’s still grave expression. “How is Xena’s darkness supposed to have anything to do with the way I’ve been practicing my Qigong routine?”

“I am thinking mostly of the potential for danger, the potential to lose one’s self to the point where that piece of yourself cannot be retrieved again. Gabrielle, when you forget who you are during Qigong, much as you did when you fought the Amazon Queen, you risk being unable to get that part of yourself back. Even worse, of an unknown entity taking over that piece of you.”

“Is that what happens to Xena, then? Does she do this to herself willingly?” I asked in astonishment.

“No, my nuér, but her practice of losing herself in battle left her open for the God’s curse to work with that much more strength. As you would say, she never had a chance. I am certain this Ares knew that before he gave her the dark power. By the Conqueror’s own admission, when in battle she knows no one, not even herself. She loses herself to the dark lust for blood upon her blade.”

“By the Gods, is that what I’ve been doing?”

“Gabrielle, have no fear. Your heart has kept you safe. Darkness cannot feed upon a light as bright as yours. Your ch’i has always remained balanced toward the light, whereas darkness and death has surrounded the majority of the Conqueror’s life. With the new strengths you have about you now, there is always the possibility for you to turn toward something you do not fully understand, however.”

Thoughts filled my mind of how close I might have come to a life filled with a darkness such as the one my beloved Xena existed with.

“You said that there were two methods used in the way. Is the second a safer method to use? Can you teach me this new way?”

“So eager,” Yu Pan smiled. “You have changed little from the young girl who begged to learn more of the way.”

Now, it was my turn to smile. Since Yu Pan had restored my memories of that time I had spent with him, I recalled them as fondly as my old friend did.

“There are two ways to immerse yourself within the power of the way,” Yu Pan referred to the meditation I knew as Qigong. “You may submerge yourself within your meditation so deeply that you lose all concept of who you are. There is only the moment and all that it holds. There is another way, too. Rather than remove all thoughts of who you are from your conscious mind, you simply put aside that part of your mind.”

“I’m not sure I understand the difference,” I said.

“To remove is quite different than to put aside. Placing one’s thoughts of self, your memories and who you are to one side is temporary. You put these things in a safe place until the time when it is safe to retrieve them.”

I thought about his words. Such subtle differences, yet a world apart in their outcome. Would it be possible for me to simply place certain emotions in a secure spot until I was strong enough to deal with them? How I hoped that such a thing was possible.

“I will repeat my request to you, young one. Do you wish to learn such techniques to relieve you of your pain?” Yu Pan asked.

“I’ve tried so many different ways,” I said in a voice that I could hear was filled with defeat. “I don’t know if I’m strong enough to do it on my own.”

“My nuér, as long as my teachings live within your heart, you will always have my strength to aide you. It is quite simple, shall I assist you?”

It took only a heartbeat to decide. I nodded my head and took both of my friend’s hands within my own. I bent forward and touched the tops of his hands to my forehead. From my time in Chin, I had been taught that this was the highest form of respect a student could show a teacher.

“Come,” he said. “I will help you to put your painful memories somewhere safe.”

He directed me to a comfortable seated position on the bed, one where I could relax and lean back against the pillows.

“Close your eyes, Gabrielle. Quiet yourself and relax your entire body. I want you to breathe naturally. Once you relax, you will feel a warm breath, as it makes its way throughout your body.”

I did indeed feel that inner breath. It started at the top of my head and flowed throughout my entire body. Nearly a quarter of a candlemark later, I felt it tingling in the soles of my feet. I knew this was part of a ch’i healing, as my body had experienced it at Yu Pan’s hands long ago.

“Only when you are completely relaxed and breathing naturally can the relationship between ch’i and thought be made into a true connection. The warmth that you feel passing through your body is your thoughts and your ch’i making that desired connection. Use your whole body to breathe, Gabrielle. Feel the earth beneath you and do nothing more; think nothing more.

“Now, place an image in your mind’s eye. Picture only one thing, that of the seashore. Watch the waves as they crash into the shore, taking the sand and pebbles with them as they wash back into the ocean. See only this in your mind.”

I don’t remember how much time passed after that. It could have been moments or candlemarks before Yu Pan next spoke.

“Tell me what you feel, Gabrielle.”

It took neither time nor effort to answer. “Happiness,” I said, and I meant it. It was a feeling coming from inside of me, this inner happiness.

“Good. Continue to relax every part of your body. Feel even your internal organs, blood, and nerves connect to your thought and your ch’i. Breathe with every part of your body. Now see the shore again. Watch as the waves come repeatedly to that pebbled shore. With each set of waves that break onto the beach, another washes back toward the ocean. When they break away, they carry sand and pebbles away with them. Can you feel yourself as those waves, Gabrielle?”

“Yes.” I smiled to think that I knew what to do. Yu Pan didn’t have to hypnotize me. I only needed his additional strength to face that pebbled shore. Now, I had the ability to see the direction in which I needed to go. Just as the pebbles and sand were washed back into the ocean, to be placed on some other sandy shore, so I needed to place those harsh and unbearable moments of my life. I would not forget, but I would put those times that would cause me pain in a safe spot, on some other shore, until I could safely return and visit them without fear of the agonizing grief. As I already knew, time would be the only thing that could accomplish that task.

I never even realized that I had slept until I heard voices. Upon rising and walking into the outer chamber, I found Xena and Delia sharing a cup of tea.

****

I came to the end of my tale and blew on the still damp ink. I took a small scoop of sandy powder and poured it onto the wet ink. I tilted the parchment this way and that, finally pouring the sand back into its container. I carefully rolled the parchment, yet did not seal it as I usually did. I wanted Xena to read it as soon as possible.

I noticed that the sky was a misty sort of predawn gray. I made my way back to our bedroom just as Xena entered through the opposite door. We both smiled and disrobed, sliding into bed and silently curling against one another. We were both too tired for many words, but there were certain things that simply had to be said before the last candle was put out.

“I love you, Xena,” I said sleepily.

“And I you, little one,” she whispered back.
Chapter 4: There was this road…
“…And Athena’s protection on all who travel with you today.” Lydia, the High Priestess of Athena’s temple here in Corinth, was just in the process of completing her blessing over our main caravan.

Gabrielle and I both chose that moment to yawn. We tried to stifle them as best we could. The erratic hours we had kept yesterday had both of us feeling more than a little drowsy this morning. Lydia arched an eyebrow between us. Gabrielle had the good sense to blush, but I could do no more than shrug in embarrassment. Like chastised schoolgirls, we couldn’t resist sharing a small grin.

Lydia finished with her short blessing and we prepared to leave. The working part of our caravan had left at dawn. It had been comprised of numerous wagons loaded with the majority of our living supplies for the coming moons. The wagons would always travel at least three or four candlemarks ahead of us. The commanders would scout out suitable locations to make camp at midday and in the evening. By the time our main convoy arrived at the pre-selected destination, our tents would already be pitched and meals nearly prepared.

It was a great deal of work and very little leisure time for the servants, but Gabrielle stepped up to their rescue. She organized them to work in shifts so the same people were not always carrying the brunt of the load. She earned praise from the Amazon and the Centaur camps alike for her foresight. Even I could not help but add my admiration for my wife’s actions. Having been served by others for most of my life, I didn’t always think of the comfort of my hired people. I tried, and I think I was getting a little better at it, but Gabrielle seemed to think of others naturally.

The Centaurs and the Amazons had their own tents, but we provided wagons and supplies for their journey, along with any servants they needed. One thing that all factions of our party agreed on; each of us would keep our own camps. It was a relatively new truce between the Centaurs and these Northern Amazons. I didn’t want any unconscious sleights to ruin the peace we now enjoyed. Then there was the simple fact that each of us, as a people, had our own customs and ways of doing things.

Of course, in the back of my mind lurked my jealous nature. In all honesty, I didn’t want those Amazons any closer to Gabrielle than they had to be. Gabrielle was their Queen and they treated her with the utmost respect, but I also noticed the way that their eyes lingered when she passed them by. Most of them were women who enjoyed the company of other women. They appreciated a good-looking female, so in that respect, I understood their sidelong glances. It was my job, however, to keep them aware that Gabrielle belonged to me and no other. Yes, it was terribly possessive of me, and when Gabrielle reads this scroll, she will no doubt have words for me. What can I say? I barely noticed that just as many Amazon eyes followed me. I did find it amusing, however, that Gabrielle had been the one to point that fact out to me. So, I ask. Which of us is more jealous?

Just as thoughts of my jealous nature and Amazon women filled my head, the Amazon’s second-in-command came into view.

“My Queen.” Ephiny bowed low before Gabrielle.

Gabrielle stood a dozen paces away, but as she walked toward me, Ephiny walked beside her. Gabrielle had a wry look on her face.

“Please, Ephiny, call me Gabrielle.”

“Ah, yes. I forget that you prefer that informality.”

“Why is it that I think you tend to forget on purpose?”

Ephiny chuckled under her breath. She had actually held some small bit of animosity for Gabrielle when my wife had initially received Melosa’s Right of Cast. However, Gabrielle’s caring and compassionate nature, along with her intelligence and strength, had slowly earned her the respect of this loyal Amazon. I wondered if these two would always be somewhat at odds, however.

“Lord Conqueror,” Ephiny addressed me with a slight incline of her head. There was always a tightness there in her voice when she spoke to me, as if she were grudgingly speaking through clenched teeth.

“Ephiny,” I returned. “How is it that you can make addressing me sound like you’re telling me to go fuck myself?” I asked in a low whisper.

“Why, I’m sure I have no idea what you mean, Lord Conqueror,” she replied.

“Yes, I’m sure you don’t,” I facetiously agreed.

We both laughed at our innocent banter. Some would think that we held a dislike for one another. That was quite opposite from the truth. Actually, I got on quite well with Ephiny. We were warriors and hence, knew where we stood with one another. There was that code, after all. Then, there was our common denominator…Gabrielle. True, she was Queen to each of us, but there was something more. Ephiny was more attracted to Gabrielle than she would ever let on. She knew it, I knew it, and Ephiny knew that I knew. I believe she rather enjoyed me knowing. I also didn’t, for one heartbeat, believe that she would ever do anything to dishonor her Queen or her people. So, as it stood, Ephiny knew of my jealousy in regards to Gabrielle and the Amazon played it for all it was worth. I never faulted her for it. It was exactly the sort of thing I would have done.

“Ladies,” Gabrielle joined us. She waved to Anya across the courtyard and at the same time she muttered, “Don’t make me separate the two of you.”

Gabrielle gave the two of us that look. It was amazing what she could do with a mere gaze. I thought I could cast an intimidating glance, but Gabrielle outdid me easily. She arched one eyebrow so high into her bangs that I thought it would pop off. Then, her eyes turned such a green color. I don’t exactly know how to describe it, but her eyes went all sharp, as if they had become two pieces of flinty emerald ice.

She gave us her look and just as quickly smiled at someone passing by. Her face did a complete transformation, turning warm and sunny in only the blink of an eye. Satisfied that we had adhered to her warning, Gabrielle walked away and began talking to Sylla.

“Just between you and me,” Ephiny said out of the side of her mouth. “That look is enough to scare the Land of the Dead right out of me.”

I smiled. “You and me both.”

Part of me enjoyed that Gabrielle could instill that small amount of fear into those around her. I admit, I didn’t like being on the receiving end, but then again, I suppose I deserved it most of the time.

I did notice that Ephiny’s eyes lingered slightly longer on Gabrielle than usual. I felt proud, and yes, I suppose a little jealous. I was certain it was due to Gabrielle’s traveling attire. Since Gabrielle had decided to ride alongside me on her own mount, as opposed to in the wagons, I encouraged her to have Anya create more appropriate riding attire than her customary dresses.

Gabrielle now wore trousers, blouse, and vest. Her trousers were leather, but different than the sleek black leather pants I wore. Hers were a fawn color. They were textured, as though someone had worked the leather until it became soft and pliable, but almost a bit fuzzy. Gabrielle liked the feel to them and I certainly liked the way the tight leather clung to her body.

I waved off the young stable hand that brought Gabrielle’s roan mare up. Gabrielle had just recently learned to ride, an accomplishment in which we both took a great deal of pride. Although, if the truth were known, the only reason that she finally made up her mind to sit her own saddle was mostly because of her fear of high places. She had said on more than one occasion that my own black stallion, Tenorio, had a back that was simply too far a distance from the ground. She had fallen only once when taking her lessons and I feared that one time would put an end to her equestrian enthusiasm. I should have known better. This was Gabrielle, after all. In keeping with her determined nature, she picked herself up and started all over.

I helped Gabrielle onto her horse and then I easily mounted Tenorio’s muscled back. He was a warhorse and stood nearly 20 hands high. He had a number of seasons under his saddle fur, but in a contest of sheer strength, I would still wager all I had on him. He’d carried me a fair piece over the seasons. I patted his neck affectionately and he snorted in that way that told me I was probably embarrassing him in front of the mare.

I looked at Gabrielle and noted that while she didn’t look terrified, she didn’t exactly look comfortable.

“Are you sure about this?” I indicated her horse, Ridian, with a nod of my head.

“Yes,” she answered. “Very sure.” She turned and smiled at me then.

I returned her affection and said no more. Besides, I could tell by the set of her jaw that nothing I said at this point would talk her out of riding on her own. I was quite proud of the way she sat the saddle, remembering everything she’d been taught. Simply recalling all the instructions that Marcasius had given her seemed a feat in itself.

Marcasius was an expert horse trainer and Captain of the Cavalry regiment of my army. Whenever I wanted to learn something new, I made it a point to learn from the best. I expected no less for my wife. The young Captain willingly gave Gabrielle his time, and she appeared the better horsewoman for it. He was demanding, but no more so than Gabrielle could be of herself.

I remember thinking that it would look awfully good, too; Gabrielle riding by my side, the people of Corinth cheering their new Queen along. It made her look strong, worthy of the crown. Best of all, Gabrielle’s Amazons watched their Queen with renewed admiration.

A few farewells later and we made our way out the palace gates and into the streets of Corinth. Children ran alongside our procession and I smiled when I saw Gabrielle toss some honeyed dates to the laughing youngsters. She looked over at me guiltily as she quickly licked the stickiness from her fingers.

“Delia said I’d need some energy food.” Gabrielle patted the sack tied to her saddle and smiled.

I admit; we made an impressive sight. The army and our personal guard wore their brightest armor. The deep purple banners fluttered in the gentle breeze, my lion’s crest emblazoned on the cloth in a bright yellow. I wore my usual black leather and lightweight body armor. I’m sure we made an impact on a few eyes. Right up to the point when Gabrielle began to constantly tug on her vest.

I was partial to body armor made of discs or coins. It had kept me safer than any solid piece of metal I’d ever worn. Only one problem with it all…it was heavier than a barge. It was also hotter than Hades underneath. I only wore a thin shirt with no sleeves under the leather. Gabrielle chose to wear a silken blouse under her armor, a choice that had been against my advice. It was apparent that she was regretting that decision now.

My whole top was black leather. Golden discs and hard leather covered my vital organs. Metal workers had fashioned Gabrielle’s vest with real coins and I don’t think she was quite prepared for how the protection she wore would feel.

“How are you holding up?” I asked Gabrielle.

“Good,” she answered as she tugged at the collar of her vest again. “It’s warm, though, isn’t it?”

“Not too bad. We should stretch our legs in a little while and walk for a spell.”

“I’m really not sore at all, Xena.”

I smiled at her ‘first day of travel’ enthusiasm. “You may not be now, but tomorrow you’ll be singing a different tune.”

Gabrielle tugged at her collar once more and I saw her loosen the buckles that held her vest fastened together in the front.

“Take care not to reveal too much, little one.”

“But we’re surrounded by a huge army, Xena. We have personal guards, Amazon guards…surely, you don’t fear assassins.”

“A hard truth to learn is that when you rule, even a farmer can become an assassin.”

“Why would a farmer want to kill us?” she asked in all her innocence.

“It could be any reason. It doesn’t even have to make sense to anyone but him. Maybe he didn’t like the taxes he had to pay or the prices in the market. Maybe his son was killed in some battle defending the Empire. Hades, maybe he simply knows me from the days when I offended everyone. It could be anything, but since I’m the ruler, I’m the one he’ll want to exact his revenge upon. Because you’re my Queen, you are automatically included. I’m sorry, love.”

Gabrielle appeared to think for a moment. She turned to me and offered up her customary smile. “There’s nothing for you to apologize for, Xena. I suppose I was being overly naïve in thinking that if the Empire was prosperous people would be happy.”

“Well, maybe just a tad naïve. It’s one of the things I love about you, though.”

We rode on in silence for a few moments before Gabrielle spoke again.

“It’s a strange feeling, isn’t it?”

“What’s that, love?”

“The feeling that someone you don’t even know might hate you enough to want to take your life.” She shook her head to dispel some private thought from her mind. “Don’t worry, I’m not frightened,” she quickly reassured me. “I was just thinking out loud.”

“Good. I want this trip to a pleasant one for you, little one.”

“No matter what we find in Amphipolis or Potidaea?”

“Uhm…about Amphipolis. You know, I’ve been thinking and I–”

“Not on your life, Conqueror. Xena, you promised we would stop there. Solan is looking forward to meeting his grandmother.”

I squirmed in my saddle under Gabrielle’s admonition. I had told her of the news I had received, that Cyrene still lived in Amphipolis. I had said nothing, however, about what I’d found in Potidaea. I was hoping to make that a rather pleasant surprise.

I was already rethinking the idea of standing before Cyrene again. I’d hadn’t seen the woman since I ran away on the night my brother Lyceus had been killed. Cyrene had blamed me. She slapped me across the face and I ran. I suppose I’d been running ever since. I wondered if even the Conqueror of the Known World had the nerve to stand before her mother once again. If the old woman was anything like her daughter, time might have slowed her down, but it most certainly would not have softened her.

“You don’t understand, Gabrielle. I’m pretty certain she wouldn’t want to see me anyway.”

“I know from the few things that you’ve told me that you both said and did things that you regret. Perhaps she feels just as you do. She could be every bit as frightened as you are about meeting again. Her heart may ache for the missed years just as yours do, Xena.”

I sighed. “I wish I held your optimism, love. All right, I did give you my word.”

“I just have a feeling that good things will come of it,” Gabrielle said with an enthusiasm I wished I felt.

“Then far be it from me to go against one of your feelings,” I added with a smile.

“Xena, did you have time to read the scroll that I gave you yet?” As usual, Gabrielle was off on another subject, satisfied that we had settled the previous conversation.

“I have it right here.” I patted Tenorio’s saddlebags behind me. “I’m sorry, but after being up most of the night, I could barely keep my eyes open this morning.”

She smiled just slightly, almost as if to herself. I wondered if she was remembering our lovemaking from the previous evening. At least, in my vanity, I hoped she was.

“I didn’t really think you’d have the time this morning. I suppose I just wanted to make sure you brought it.”

“I had planned to read it when we stopped for a midday meal. Would that be all right?”

“Of course,” she answered.

I worried now at what the scroll contained. Gabrielle had said that I was to add it to my scrolls of the past two days. The only explanation she gave me was that it explained the time she had spent with Yu Pan yesterday. I had wanted to know what had transpired between them. Now, I wondered if I still did.

****

“So, you read my scroll?” Gabrielle asked.

“I read your scroll,” I answered.

We walked together, hand in hand, leading our horses. Our midday break had been a short one. In the coming days, we would rest longer, occasionally waiting for the most intense heat of the day to pass before continuing. We started rather late today, partly due to Gabrielle and myself, but mostly because of the size of our caravan. We’d never traveled with this many women and children before. Usually it was just me and my army, and perhaps Sylla as my personal maid.

I don’t know what I expected as I lay under the shade of a tree, reading the words Gabrielle had written. I now wondered why I had been so worried. There were no new horrors or revelations in the text. However, I did learn more of my Gabrielle. I discovered…perhaps discovered is the wrong word, for it wasn’t really something that came as a surprise to me. I found that Gabrielle had a strength within her that even surpassed what I had previously believed she possessed.

I, above many others, knew what it took to change, to put guilt behind, and move on. I was in a sort of awe over the ability Gabrielle seemed to possess. It was something I had been unable to do, even given that I had some of the same training that Gabrielle had. When I was half the age that Gabrielle was now, I too had studied with an old gentleman in my home village of Amphipolis. Again when I was older, an angry young woman who had just recently turned to the beast and all its darkness, I studied the way.

Her name was Lao Ma and she taught me more about myself than any before her. The only problem was that I was too young and filled with hate from what had gone on in my life previous to that point to really listen to what she was saying. Many of the great powers that she taught me have faded away with time, but I have always held faith that if I needed those powers, absolutely needed them, that they would be within me to access. On the other hand, that could be nothing more than wishful thinking.

My entire point with this ramble was to compare myself to Gabrielle, in this instance at least. She had accomplished what I could not, and I wanted her to know that.

“And, what did you think? Did it make sense?”

“Completely.” My smile seemed to alleviate whatever silent fears she had been harboring. “I want you to know how much it means to me that you shared of yourself that way, Gabrielle.”

“I suppose it makes it easier knowing that no one else will be reading about it anytime soon. I mean, I know it’s a part of your chronicles, but I figure we’ll be old and gray by the time it’s put in the library. Right?”

“Very true. I have no doubt that you’ll have me writing in these scrolls until the very moment Hades sends his sister for me.”

“Very amusing, Conqueror.” Gabrielle nudged me with her body and we both laughed.

“I suppose what I really wanted to say to you is that I’m very proud of you, for the way you’ve been able to live with your past.”

“Thank you, love. That means a great deal to me, coming from you. Although, I still think that if I’d never done the deed in the first place, I wouldn’t be suffering the guilt now.”

“That’s true, but we work with what we have, little one. You’ve done better than I ever did.”

“Xena, that’s not true. Look at the woman you are now,” Gabrielle argued.

“Now,” I said with a particular finality. “Gabrielle, this is the me that you know. I was a very different woman before you came into my life.”

She hung her head in silence. I was aware that while Gabrielle had been no more than an infant during my more infamous years as Conqueror, she was familiar with the scrolls by which other bards had chronicled my life. My saving grace was that nothing that had been written about me, no matter how foul, had even touched on how evil I had been.

“Why, Xena?” Gabrielle asked in a soft voice. “Why did you ever become that way in the first place?”

I thought it ironic that no one had ever asked me that question before. Why had I gone from being the Lion of Amphipolis to simply the Conqueror? In the few heartbeats that it took for me to answer, scenes played before my mind’s eye. Amphipolis…Lyceus…Cyrene…Ares…Caesar. Had they contributed in creating the Conqueror or had I no one but myself to blame?

“I’m not sure that’s a question that can be easily answered. It wasn’t one instance, but a combination of many things. I suppose it all comes down to the fact that different people handle bad experiences better than others do.”

Gabrielle and I continued to walk along holding hands. It was odd, the things to which I had become accustomed. Friends, bodyguards, and nearly half my army surrounded us, yet we spoke to one another as though we were quite alone. In our minds, I suppose we were. It wasn’t as if we were shouting, however, and everyone kept their distance, allowing us our private time.

“Look at your life, Gabrielle. The situations you had to live with, the unhappiness and pain you were forced to endure. There must have been something in you, though, some force that kept you the way you are now. After all you’ve been through you still have such a beautiful nature. Some would think it unbelievable, but you continue to possess a certain innocence. I find it refreshing and at times I envy that you were able to keep it.”

“But I don’t know why I’m this way, Xena.”

“Nor do I understand why I turned out the way I did. I made choices, it’s true, but there was something in me that just wasn’t…nice. Look at Solan. Remember how he was when he first got here?”

“Do I,” Gabrielle added with enthusiasm.

“Well, he is his mother’s son. I was just like that at his age. I was angry all the time. I don’t know why, but that’s the way I was.”

“Insecure,” Gabrielle mused.

“Me? Insecure?” I chuckled.

“You may not want to admit it, but that’s usually the reason people push.”

I thought about it for a moment. She was right, of course, but in all the seasons I had ruminated over my life and my, oftentimes, abominable behavior, I had never drawn that conclusion. Perhaps it appeared too obvious. I had a tendency to think that feelings and reasons for my behavior were complicated things.

“I suppose I never thought that someone as aggressive as I could be insecure or unsure, but in truth, that’s exactly what I was. What made me even more dangerous than Solan was that I had the skills and the ruthlessness to back up my mouth.” I swallowed and came to a complete stop. Turning toward Gabrielle, I knew I was about to make one of those confessions that I felt would cause Gabrielle to one day want to leave me, or at the least, fear me. “What Solan did for you, the day he took you to Yu Pan’s to be healed, I would never have done that. In all honesty, I was more like the men who used you.”

I just stood there, head lowered, unable to risk meeting Gabrielle’s gaze. I wanted to be honest with this woman, but what would it cost me? I was terrified that I would see contempt or fright within those emerald irises one day.

I realized that she still held my hand when I felt her gentle squeeze. I looked up to see the wonderfully compassionate gaze that, by now, I should have realized would always be waiting for me.

“Just as you said…that was before. You are a very different woman now.”

And so, once more, Gabrielle proved to me that insecurity still surrounded me. For with one look, and a few loving words, she caused my world to lighten. She also helped me to put one more day between my past and my present.

****

“I have to admit, this feels rather decadent.” Gabrielle sat back in the bath large enough to hold four or five people.

It was a large portable tub made of wood and leather, sealed with pitch and other glue-like substances. This one was relatively new, but I had traveled with similar conveniences for many seasons.

“How long do you suppose it took them to get this ready?” Gabrielle asked.

“The better part of the afternoon, I should think.”

“Well, I’ll have to reward the people who work so hard at it with something extra. It feels wonderful at the end of a day of riding and walking.”

“If you think it feels good after a day of traveling, try it after you’ve done battle since sun up. It must be how the Gods’ feel about ambrosia.”

“How did they know where we want everything, Xena?” Gabrielle asked as she looked around the room, recognizing many of our favorite belongings. “I gave instructions on what to bring, but I never told anyone how we wanted anything placed.”

“Atrius and Sylla, I suspect. In my conquering days, I lived in a tent like this one for most of the season. Surrounding myself with the comforts of home made a hard life more bearable. After a while, my servants just knew what I liked and where I wanted it put.”

I removed my own robe and tossed it upon the cushioned bed. A warmth quickly spread through my belly at the appreciative look in Gabrielle’s eyes as she gazed upon my naked body. It excited me beyond belief that I could instill that expression of desire in my wife, not bad for a warrior who had seen nearly forty-five summers. Oh, all right. Athena’s rejuvenation helped to tighten up those muscles in a few strategic places.

“Do you have room in there for me?” I asked.

“Well,” Gabrielle looked around at the ample space in the tub. “I don’t know. We may have to sit very close together in order to fit.”

I chuckled as my long legs stepped into the warm water. It wasn’t steaming, that would have taken the servants an entire day to accomplish with a bath this large. I imagined that the sudden increase in my body temperature would surely make up for any lack of warmth within the water.

I sat in the water that came up to my shoulders and immediately groaned. It was a sound borne of equal parts contentment and arousal. I pulled Gabrielle close and I think we both moaned as our bodies came together. Our mouths met, tenderly at first. Gabrielle’s tongue gently traced the outline of my lips before entering my mouth.

We traded kisses this way for some time, the act serving to arouse us further. She wrapped her legs around my waist and I felt a slickness on my belly that had little to do with the water. My hands couldn’t keep still. I slid them against Gabrielle’s skin, one moment in gentle caresses, the next moment I kneaded the flesh, roughly possessing the body in my embrace.

“Gods, I want you, my Conqueror,” Gabrielle gasped when our mouths separated.

I instantly flashed to the times when I had three women entertaining me in a bath such as this. I would have spent the day fighting, finishing the evening by working off the battle lust for which the beast demanded sex as payment. Never, though, had any woman said those words to me. Want had never been an option. They had pleased me by my command.

Gabrielle’s words touched a place in my heart that only she could reach. They wrapped me in a sense of security, and the safety I found within Gabrielle’s embrace only served to excite me more. She used my title as an endearment, a sort of inside joke between us. She had a choice when it came to being with me. At any time, she knew that she could turn away from me and I would let her go. It was that she chose me, knowing all that I was, and all that I had been. She wanted to be with me, and her decision meant all the world to me.

“You have me, little one,” I answered. “Body and soul.”

I cupped her breast and squeezed the flesh in my hand. My fingertips toyed with the hardened nipple, teasing, then pulling at the sensitive nub. She tilted her head back in delight and I took the opportunity to kiss and lick at her neck, sucking hard enough at the skin there to mark her.

One of my arms held Gabrielle to me and the other hand found its way between her legs. She sucked in a breath when my fingers explored the flesh there, made wet by her increasing desire and the warm liquid surrounding us.

“Please, Xena…I need to feel you inside me.”

That’s all the invitation I needed to place two fingers against her and slowly press inside. She groaned loudly and murmured a few words that I couldn’t understand. I pressed my fingers deeper and she began to grind her hips harder against my hand.

“Yes, just like that,” she panted in my ear.

The first time we made love, Gabrielle had said barely a word, having been trained since childhood to serve and stay silent. It thrilled me to hear Gabrielle’s voice during moments of passion, but to hear her ask, even demand, what she desired, Gods, for me, it came close to euphoria.

Suddenly I felt Gabrielle’s hand between my legs and I nearly exploded into orgasm then and there.

“Gods, Gabrielle! Don’t stop,” I begged as she mimicked the motion of my own hand deep inside of her.

It was intense and quick, the climax that we brought one another to. Our timing was perfectly synchronized as we both froze at the same instant. I could scarcely believe that my own hand had kept moving inside of Gabrielle all that time. I wasn’t consciously keeping it in motion, so focused on the pleasure I was receiving. It crept up on me unaware the second time and my body felt as though it were turning inside out as I strained to capture every last sensation of my orgasm.

When I could at last open my eyes and feel myself in my own skin again, I found Gabrielle with her arm wrapped tightly around my neck. Her body convulsed against me as she experienced a few aftershocks of her own.

I kissed her lips as we struggled to regain our breath. She leaned back and smiled that weak, sated sort of smile that she has after we make love.

“I suppose you want to take that bath now?” she asked with devilment in her eyes.

We both broke into laughter and I realized that Gabrielle had been right…again. I would indeed have to reward the servants for providing us with this bath.

****

Gabrielle and I enjoyed the evening meal with a number of our traveling companions. Delia had created her customary culinary extravaganza and the whole evening felt like what I supposed a family outing would. It was a unique experience for me. In the past, travels such as this usually meant war and battles. Back then, there had only been my armies and me, a lonely world for a woman. I never forgot the feeling of traveling, surrounded by thousands of men, yet feeling completely alone.

The sun had already set by the time Gabrielle and I reclined on the well-cushioned mattress that served as our bed. I lay with my head in Gabrielle’s lap and she slowly ran her fingers through my hair.

“Do you feel like talking, Xena?”

“Of course, love. What would you like to talk about?”

“You might think it too invasive,” Gabrielle said with a slight hesitation in her voice.

“Gabrielle,” I opened my eyes to look up at her. You’re my wife. There’s nothing about my life that I wouldn’t tell you.”

“But I’m not sure I have the right to ask.”

In truth, I did fear the question, but I could refuse this woman nothing. No matter what Gabrielle asked, I would be as honest as I could. For the unconditional love that this woman gave to me, I could give her nothing less in return.

I took both of her hands in mine. “You have the right,” I uttered softly. “What would you like to know?”

“When did it happen? When did you become…”

“Evil?”

“I just meant, when did people stop calling you the Lion and start to call you the Conqueror?”

I suppose I knew that this question would come some day. There were worse things Gabrielle could have asked about, but that thought didn’t help at the moment. I closed my eyes and settled my head back into Gabrielle’s lap. She stroked the side of my head as I wondered how she would take this story. I had discovered that my wife could be a jealous creature, every bit as much as I could.

“I suppose I’d have to go back quite a bit to give you the whole story. It wasn’t long after I’d run from Amphipolis and accepted what I thought was a gift from Ares. Warriors started showing up wherever I was camped. Seemed as though word had been spread that I was Ares’ chosen. Easy as that, I was a young girl leading my own army.

“I changed a small bit every day. You can’t possibly live amongst a bunch of soldiers without becoming a little like them. There were times when I had to fight my own men to prove myself as their leader. That was when the abilities Ares gave me seemed a good thing to have.

“The God of War and I parted ways when it came to how I would use this new army he’d provided. Ares lived up to his reputation back then. He was the God of chaotic warfare. He wanted to slash and pillage the entire country, but Greece was where I drew the line. I suppose I still had some small bit of goodness left in me back then. The attack on my village by Cortese was still fresh in my mind. I wouldn’t ever forget Lyceus, and so I made it my mission to drive the warlords out. Soon enough, my goal became larger. I realized I wouldn’t be content until I’d driven every foreigner off of Greek soil.”

“You sounded quite admirable back then,” Gabrielle commented.

“For a while there, I actually think I was. The change wasn’t all at once, but little by little, I began to lose my compassion for people. Part of my transformation was inevitable. Power does odd things to some people. I suppose it didn’t help that I had Ares whispering in my ear every time we–”

I stopped abruptly, realizing my mistake too late. Hades balls! Me and my big mouth! I just lay there with my eyes closed. There was nothing to do now, but to admit it. If I had never stopped talking, I could have covered. I slowly opened my eyes and found Gabrielle looking down at me with an expression that seemed almost amused.

“What?” Innocence was not something I feigned well. After all, I’d had so little practice.

“You’re the one who stopped talking.”

“Oh…so I did.” I sped through my brain looking for a good explanation, but none came. “Uhm…I thought…I mean I didn’t want you…oh, Hades.”

Gabrielle reached down and touched her index finger to my lips. “Xena, when you first told me that you were Ares’ chosen I sort of realized that he wasn’t after your mind.”

I sighed and gave her a half smile of relief. “I just didn’t mean to…I don’t know, throw it in your face. I wasn’t thinking.”

“I feel honored that you can forget yourself in your tales, Xena. It tells me that you feel comfortable, that you feel free to talk to me, and I know that’s not something you do with just anyone. You do feel comfortable talking about all of this, don’t you?”

“Up until a few moments ago I did.” I finally laughed when I couldn’t keep the dour expression on my face any longer.

“You’re such a funny lady. Go on with your story.”

I took her hand and kissed it. Once more Gabrielle surprised me with her understanding.

When had I changed? When had this new Xena been born? I closed my eyes once more until I could smell the ocean and feel the movement of the ship under my feet. Some memories were still quite vivid to me and this one was no exception. The words echoed through my brain like the clash of cymbals in an empty hall.

Tell Hades to prepare himself. A new Xena is born tonight…with a new purpose in life…”
Chapter 5: I Remember, I Remember…
As much as I loved speeding along on a spirited stallion’s back, I quickly became addicted to the feel of the ocean. The sights, the sounds, and the way the deck of the ship rolled beneath my feet. It made me feel free. I forgot everything standing at the helm of one of my ships.

Her name was Kleonike. In the language of my fellow Greeks it meant, Famous in Victory. In Greece, good building wood was scarce. Quality warships, such as this one, were often inherited or won in battle. I’d been fortunate. All I had to do was spread the word, and villages along the coastline, from Amphipolis to Athens, couldn’t wait to give talents to the Lion’s cause. Timber was purchased from the Etruscans, as distasteful as I found that.

She was a trieres, a modern and impressive fighting ship. She ran under oar and sail, three tiers of oars to be exact. The Kleonike had a large square sail when she wasn’t stripped for battle and I loved the feel of standing at the helm as she cruised with a full spread of canvas. The wind cut through my silk clothes and it felt as though I was naked on the bow. It took a crew of 200 to maintain her, but it was worth every talent I had to pay them. We could cover nearly 200 leagues at almost seven and a half knots without stopping. At 60 cubits long, and with 170 oarsmen, there wasn’t a ship on the sea that could successfully stand against the Lion of Amphipolis.

On this day, the smell of salt was in the air, nothing out of the ordinary for the small seaside towns. Occasionally the villages would contain a Roman garrison. Those towns paid mightily for their betrayal to Greece. The soldiers found there fared much worse. No one put on a better show at their own beheading than Roman soldiers, unless maybe it was the Persians.

We’d just fought off a small, but ineffective group of Romans outside Neopolitis. The town quickly joined in the fighting alongside us, and so I felt generous when addressing them later. We settled for supplies for our ship, but I never wanted them to forget that the Lion of Amphipolis protected Greece’s shores. My men herded them out onto the beach where I addressed them.

“People of Neopolitis. Friends…you’re free to go, but spread the word. My army will punish any village that allies itself with the enemies of Amphipolis, and I will do anything to ensure the safety of my homeland. Those who don’t heed my warning will pay a terrible price.”

My men had just executed a few Romans. I didn’t like my soldiers acting of their own accord, but I didn’t feel like challenging anyone over it. I simply gave orders for them to bind the last three until we could perform a more public execution the following day.

“Put them on board,” I ordered one of my marines. “And Tellus, be sure they get food and water.”

“But, we’re gonna kill’em tomorrow.”

I arched one eyebrow in Tellus’s direction.

“Beggin’ your pardon, Lion,” he muttered as he rushed away.

I turned toward the ocean and smiled. Sometimes all it took was a look to remind them of their own mortality.

Later that day I watched as Tellus carried out his orders. He did more taunting than actual feeding of the prisoners, but as I pointed out before, I had to let the soldiers have their fun. I noticed this one, the prisoner on his knees before Tellus. There was something about him, although I couldn’t put my finger on it. He was different from the other; of that much I was certain.

“You hungry?” he asked as he shoved some meat under the Roman’s nose, wiping it on the prisoner’s face. “Ah, what’s the matter? You not hungry?” He reared his head back and laughed at his own humor.

“I generally don’t eat food touched by a pig,” the prisoner responded haughtily.

There it was again. I could see the man’s arrogance even from a distance. I looked on as Tellus finally realized that he’d been insulted. He slapped the prisoner, but the Roman barely flinched.

“You have a woman’s touch,” the prisoner said

“So, you not afraid of a beating, huh? You afraid to die?” Tellus drew his dagger.

“A brave man dies only once. A man like you…dies a thousand times.”

“All right, brave man…you’re one time is now!”

I hadn’t been sure until he spoke, but when he opened his mouth, I knew exactly who, or rather what, he was. “Tellus, look at him…the robes; the bearing, the poise. Why, we have a Roman nobleman…a valuable commodity.”

“What are you talking about?” Tellus looked confused.

“Ransom. She’s talking about ransom, pig.”

“That’s right, we can get 20,000 dinars for him.”

“Twenty-thousand isn’t enough.”

“Oh, really?” I was beginning to enjoy this condemned man’s attitude, as if nothing I could do to him mattered. I didn’t meet many people like that, especially men.

“They’ll never believe you have me, if that’s all you’re asking. I’m worth five times that.”

Under any other circumstance, I would have thought that this man had a very over inflated sense of self worth or that he was quite insane. It was the way he looked at me, though. At the very least, he believed he was worth that much. Suddenly something in his manner told me that he probably was.

“Very well.” I began. “But if you’re wrong, it’s your neck. Lycerius, send out a ransom demand to the nearest Roman settlement. Tell them to send 100,000 dinars if they ever want to see– what’s your name?”

“Caesar, Julius Caesar.”

“Caesar, Julius Caesar, again.” I moved closer to the dark-haired man. His manner was more than curious. He intrigued me. “You really weren’t afraid to die, were you?”

“I knew someone would stop him,” he answered with an air of confidence.

“And, how could you know that?” I was most definitely intrigued now.

“I know what I’m fated to do with my life.”

“And what’s that?”

“Rule the world.”

I laughed at him, thinking my initial assessment regarding his sanity had been valid. He looked back at me with that annoying expression of indifference. I happened to find that extremely sexy. Now, as a rule I slept with anyone as a way of getting what I wanted or as a way of asserting my power. Sex was nothing more than another warfare strategy. Ares had certainly taught me that lesson well enough. When it came to actual pleasure, however, I preferred a woman in my bed. I simply couldn’t make myself feel the same arousal for a man. I suppose that was why this particular moment took me so much by surprise.

More than anything, I detested surprises, and the feelings I was having were a definite surprise to me. I’m certain that was why I suddenly forced myself to become cold. I nodded my head toward the sailor and dismissed him with a wave of my hand. I turned away and didn’t look back at the Roman, but I could feel his stare.

“Let’s go, Roman,” Lycerius said as he dragged the prisoner away.

****
It was two days later that I was wandering the deck; trying to rid myself of the increasing feelings that I was having for this Roman prisoner. They weren’t really emotions, I suppose. The more I examined it, the more I realized that it was lust. It wasn’t just about sex, though. At first, it hadn’t been sexual at all. It was his manner, the attitude, and the way he carried himself. His unwavering confidence reminded me of myself.

I heard a rustling under some furs in a basket on the deck and immediately drew my sword. “Do you hear me? Don’t make a move,” I said. The form went perfectly still.

“What is it?” Lycerius quickly came up to me to ask.

“We have a stowaway.”

Just as I said the words, I lifted the furs from the basket. Something popped up from the basket so fast that at first I thought it was an animal. In a blink of the eye, pandemonium broke out.

A hooded figure broke free and attacked me. It struck out and my sword clattered to the deck of the ship. It threw punches that I blocked and on the third punch, I ducked as a fist whistled in the air above my head. I stood just as the figure spun around to face me and lifted my right leg for a front kick. I aimed for the midsection to knock the breath from the stranger, but the figure effortlessly moved to the side and caught my leg in a vice-like grip.

It happened so fast that I couldn’t do a thing to protect myself as the figure held my leg with one hand and jabbed at a spot just below my knee with the other. Just as quickly, the figure let go of my leg and used that hand to jab at a spot directly on my kneecap.

I cried out in agony as a lightening bolt of pain paralyzed the limb. The pain concentrated in my groin, making my leg useless. The figure then spun its body around and kicked one soldier in the face. In a jump that even I found amazing, it flipped backwards and landed behind Tellus. I saw a flash of its white teeth before its hands shot out. Three fingers jabbed at a spot, first on one side and then the other side of Tellus’s neck. He dropped to my feet unconscious.

One by one, the soldiers on the deck attacked the figure and each in turn promptly landed flat on their face. It made one incredible leap onto the mast and scuttled up the tall wooden pole as fast as a spider climbing up a web. I’d never seen anything like it. Although I was in pain, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the stranger’s skill.

Finally, one thinking soldier tossed his dagger upwards, but the figure neatly caught it in one hand. I was transfixed on the stranger, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw my prisoner, Caesar, looking at me. He was tied to one of the masts and gave me the strangest look. It was almost as if he was calmly judging me over how I handled the situation.

The figure leaped at the small sail and cut it with a dagger to slow its fall. Landing upon the deck once more it easily fended off a soldier with a javelin and thrust the point of the spear into the deck. It jumped into the air and used the wooden handle of the weapon as a tool with which to rotate its body around. It struck at soldiers with its feet, never touching the deck of the ship.

I figured the sail that had been cut nearly in half was a loss anyway, so I quickly pulled my dagger from my seated position on the deck. I aimed for the rigging and in one easy move, the entire sail and it’s rigging fell to the deck, covering and effectively trapping the stranger beneath.

I found my sword beside me and used it to rise from the deck. My leg was numb, but at the same time, it hurt like Hades. I limped over to the, now kneeling, figure and tossed back the hood that covered its face.

“A woman,” I heard one of the soldiers say.

No one was more surprised by that little revelation than I was. She was cute enough, but my libido was the last thing on my mind. The pain in my leg took my breath away. I don’t like pain; in fact, I try to avoid it when I can. It puts me in a bad humor and at this very moment, my mood was exceptionally foul.

“What did you do to my leg?” She stared at me defiantly. I realized that whatever she did was growing worse as the moments passed. “Fix it. My leg, fix it!” I shouted.

She stared at me and then glanced at my hand that twitched nervously on the handle of my blade. It was taking every bit of self-control not to lop her head off. I kept telling myself that if I killed her I might never regain the use of my leg.

She finally pushed up the sleeves of her tattered cloak and pressed two fingers from each hand on a spot above my knee. The relief was immediate and I had to grit my teeth to a new pain as the blood flooded back into the cold limb.

“Bring over Tellus.” I panted. “She can fix whatever she did to him.”

The young woman spat out something in a language that I was completely unfamiliar with.

“What’s she saying?” I demanded of no one in particular.

“She said it’s too late for him.” The prisoner on the deck, Caesar, looked rather bored as he looked back at me and translated the girl’s words.

I looked at Lycerius, who had dragged the marine over. He lifted the lifeless head of Tellus for me to see. The girl had indeed killed Tellus with that move of hers. I cursed to myself. Not that Tellus was a friend, or even well liked for that matter. He was only one of ten marines on the ship, and therefore most valuable. The other thirty or so men were non-sailors. Good soldiers and great fighters, but not terribly experienced at sea.

“She’s killed him!” Lycerius cried as he raised his blade over the young woman’s head.

“Wait,” I ordered as I held him back. I looked over at the still amused Caesar. “You speak her language. Tell her I’ll spare her life if she’ll teach me how she did that.” I motioned with my fingers in the way the girl had when she attacked me.

Caesar spoke calmly to the girl. She stared up at me and I put on my most intimidating stare. Finally, she reluctantly nodded her head.

“Take her down below,” I told the men surrounding her. I turned and watched as they dragged her away.

“Be careful,” Caesar called out without facing me. “Runaway slaves are very dangerous people.”

“How do you know she’s a runaway?” I asked.

“She speaks Gaelic, but she’s clearly from the land of the Pharaohs, probably abducted as a child by raiders from Western Gaul.”

“Western Gaul, huh? Why do you say that?”

“Gaul is divided into three parts. Each area speaks its own different dialect. One day I’ll conquer all three provinces.”

I smirked at the man. I couldn’t stop the arousal I felt at such arrogance. Why did I just know he was smiling? I walked around to face him and just as I thought, he was indeed smiling. “How can you be so sure of yourself?”

“I told you. I’m–”

“Oh, that’s right. You’re fated to rule the world. Do you really believe that?”

“Of course. Each event in our life is part of a great plan. There are no accidents…only destiny.”

I’d heard that word a lot lately…destiny. Ares used it every time he promised me that I would conquer the known world. He said my destiny was inevitable; that there was nothing I could do to keep it from happening.

“And who shapes this destiny…the gods?”

“Perhaps. Or it’s the blood in our veins, our…souls…our desires…our will. They’re all in it– together, weaving a tapestry we call…destiny.”

He looked in my eyes, with that arrogant smile on his face, and all I could think about was being in bed with the man. Gods! What was wrong with me? This wasn’t like me at all. There was something about him, though, something that excited me more than any man ever had. It was something around him, some force that surrounded him. The same thing caused my attraction for Ares, but he was a God. I honestly never expected to find that quality in a mortal man. Especially one that reminded me of…well, of me. To Hades with it, I told myself. I take what I want in life.

“Well, I can tell you one thing about your destiny,” I leaned in close to him. “You’re fated to have dinner in my cabin tonight.”

“Lion, what shall we do with Tellus?” Lycerius asked as I walked past.

I sighed. What a waste…another marine to replace. “I suppose someone should say I few words…” I paused and looked at the uncaring soldiers. “He fancied himself a sailor. Let Poseidon have him.” I moved on toward my cabin below deck.

“Grab his legs!” I heard the soldiers say.

I heard Tellus’s body as it hit the water and then the shouts of the men fighting over his sword.

****

I walked into my cabin just as the dark-skinned girl was tugging desperately on the shackle that encircled her left foot. I’m sure my men expected me to train her as a body slave. The men knew my preferences and that slaves meant for pleasure weren’t to be shackled by the wrists. It made it too hard to get at them.

I tossed the keys to the shackle down at the girl’s feet. As she removed the iron, I removed my armor and weapons. She looked frightened at last, as though she finally had an inkling of what I wanted her for. She was wrong, but for the moment, I let her think it was a possibility.

“Show me that thing you do,” I said as I motioned with my hands. I pointed two fingers on each hand just as I had seen her do.

She began to kneel and I stopped her. “No– no, not on my leg. Show me on my neck.”

She backed up half a step and looked afraid.

“Yeah, come on,” I encouraged in a soft voice.

She jabbed the fingers into the sides of my neck with lightning speed. I immediately fell to the ground and felt as if the world around me was growing dimmer. I couldn’t catch my breath and I looked up into her defiant gaze. She almost smiled as she watched me suffer, probably knowing exactly how this felt. I admit, I was afraid. I had just given a slave, who had already tried to kill me once, the power to watch me die. I forced my mind to focus and I controlled my panicked breathing.

“That was too fast. Now, take it off and do it again, slower.”

She stared at me as though she was content to watch me die.

I felt a slight trickle of blood from my nose. “Take it off. Come on!”

At last, she reached out and jabbed at my neck. Just as with my leg, the relief was immediate.

“You got some sense of humor,” I said as I rose and wiped the blood from my nose. “Now, teach me how you did that.”

She raised her hands slowly and moved toward my neck.

“No, not on me. Teach me on yourself.”

She placed her fingers to a spot on each side of her neck.

“Here?” I asked as I positioned my fingers in the same place and manner.

She repositioned one of my hands.

“There…oh.”

She nodded her head and I roughly jabbed her neck in the spots that she indicated. She instantly dropped to her knees. A moment passed and she nodded her head slightly at me. I pretended to ignore her and reached down to rip the amulet she wore from around her neck.

I held the necklace up and stared at it, as the slave beckoned me in her tongue. I waited a few more heartbeats as the blood oozed from her nose. I wiped again at my own nose, taking my time so she would see exactly who was in charge here. I bent down to her and sighed. I quickly jabbed at her neck once more to release the hold.

“You see,” I said. “I can play, too.”

****

For the next couple of moons, as we awaited the ransom for our prisoner, all I could do was fantasize about the Roman. No matter what I did, with whomever I pleased, his face kept popping up. The slave girl pleasured me a few times, but I finally put a stop to that. Besides not being who I wanted at the time, it was also rather like sleeping with my sister. Well, if I had a sister I imagined that it would feel like that.

I ate dinner each night with the Roman, but nothing more happened than a lot of flirting. He never advanced; seemingly content to let me lead. I couldn’t stand the tension any longer. The next evening when he entered my cabin, I knew he wasn’t getting out again until I’d had my fill.

“Where did you steal that dress?” He asked of the red dress I was barely wearing.

I rose and walked toward him, stopping just a few paces away. “Stagira,” I answered.

“Maybe someday, you can go back for the rest of it.”

“Are you complaining?”

“No…not at all. It’s lovely. Why Stagira?””

“It’s the ancient enemy of my home village, Amphipolis.”

“Amphipolis. So, all your raiding and looting is about protecting your homeland?”

I instantly grew defensive. He looked at me as though my answer meant I was some idyllic child. “That’s right. It was once brutally attacked by a warlord, but I’ve made sure that’ll never happen again. And what about you?”

“What about me?”

“What drives you?”

“The desire to be great,” he answered with determination, as he sat down upon my bed.

“You mean powerful?” I questioned. I was trying not to let him see how much his mere presence was affecting my physical body.

“No. Greatness isn’t just about possessing power. If it was, any thug with an army would be entitled to that label. Greatness is about achieving what seems impossible…to other men.”

I purposefully lifted my dress higher to place one knee on the bed beside him. “Why don’t you and I work together?”

“What do you mean?”

“This life I’m living is beginning to bore me. I’d love to join forces with you.” I wasn’t even sure why I was saying this. Ares would never let this mortal have me for good. Ah well, the things we say to get laid. Although I honestly believed the words as I was saying them.

“So…you want to help me conquer the world.”

“Why not? We’d make an unstoppable team.”

“Indeed. I bet you know a lot…about conquest.”

Ah, there. He finally made a move. “Yes…I love it.” I crawled forward on the bed. “Pursuing the enemy, breaking down his defenses, cutting off his only path of retreat, and then closing for the kill.” I reached out and ran my fingertips along his chin. The look in his eye made me even wetter than I already was.

“Some enemies are…harder…that others.”

“Oh, I count on it,” I responded with a sneer. I leaned in and roughly kissed him.

I had no intention of doing it more than once, nor of allowing myself any real emotions for the man. Most of all I was positive I could never fall for a Roman.

I was wrong on all counts.

****

“What’s the matter? Not all there?”

Caesar came up behind me on the beach as I dipped my hands into the chests filled with gold and jewels. He was right. His fellow Romans were eager to pay for his return.

“No. I was just wondering if we’ll ever see one another again.” Gods, did I sound as pathetic to him as I did to my own ears?

“A moment won’t pass when I’m not thinking about you.”

We kissed and I knew at that moment that I was done for. I’d let a schoolgirl’s emotions take me over.

“Now, go. I’ll find you, I promise,” he said as Brutus, his second in command, walked up and stood beside him.

I walked down to the beach and turned just as he saluted me. I’m sure he saw the lovesick expression on my face. I knew one thing for certain, however. I could see it in his eyes…that he would indeed come to me again one day.

****
The days and night passed quickly. I had become lovesick, or as close to love as I felt I could ever be. I spent most of the time in my cabin or wandering on deck. The men grew restless for action and I knew how they felt. The slave girl taught me many more moves like the first pinch she had used. She also taught me the fighting techniques and back flips she was so skilled at. Relentless practice took up the candlemarks of every day and at least gave my mind something else to fixate on.

I entered my cabin one morning to find Ares lounging on my bed. It was a large bed, but his frame dwarfed everything in the room.

“So, are either one of them as good as me?” he casually looked at his fingernails.

I knew he spoke of Caesar and the slave girl. I ignored him and pulled out a map of the Aegean.

“I’ll take that as a no,” he answered his own question.

“Did you want something, Ares?”

“I just wanted to see how pathetic you look when you let someone lie and slobber all over you. I didn’t think you, of all people, would fall so easily.”

“I haven’t fallen for anything!”

“Or anyone?” he asked coyly.

“No one has that sort of control over me. No one.” I added the last in a slow deliberate tone just to tick him off. It always had been a bug up his ass that I had never sworn complete allegiance to him. I suppose it wasn’t smart to push the God of War in this manner, but I didn’t like him pointing out my weakness. I liked it even less given the fact that it was true.

“And just how do you plan on serving me when you’re serving him?”

“I’m not going to serve him,” I answered angrily. “I don’t serve anyone.”

“Maybe you better look back and see who gave you all you have today.”

“I worked and fought for everything I have.”

He arched an eyebrow and I could see I was pushing him dangerously close to some sort of breaking point. I wasn’t sure it was the smartest thing to do, but it was as if I was helpless to stop once my temper got me going.

“I expect an oath of fealty from you soon, Xena. If you want your little plaything, so be it. I’ll demand the same allegiance from him that I do of you.”

I thought about it a moment. I couldn’t picture Caesar bowing to anyone like Ares, let alone the fact that he was a Greek God. And, how would my lover feel if he knew that I came as a package deal with Ares, that I might have to leave our bed to spend the night pleasuring the God of War. I could see that little point sailing with Caesar about as well as a skiff with a hole in the bottom.

“Look, Ares, maybe it’s time for us to–”

“Don’t even think about it, Xena.”

Suddenly I felt very small as he stood and walked up behind me. When he came that near, so close I could feel the heat of his body without the physical contact, I could also feel the aura that surrounded him. I suppose it was the power of his immortality, but whatever it was, it always played havoc with my senses. For a moment, I felt invincible. The next moment I felt an arousal that nearly made my knees buckle with its intensity.

“Just remember, Xena,” he whispered in my ear. “You are my chosen.” He pinched my nipple and, although I tried to ignore it, I felt a flood of wetness between my legs.

“Only I have the power to fulfill all your desires. Get over this lovesick attitude of yours and get on with business. Don’t cross me, Warrior Princess.” He grabbed the back of my hair and jerked my head back. I held my tongue against the pain, but I couldn’t keep Ares from reading my thoughts.

“If you think this is pain, you are oh-so-wrong. Get rid of that Roman because if you turn away from me, Xena, I will fuck you so hard your whole life will change!”

My body fell against the desk as I felt him disappear into nothingness. I knew he was gone. I had the uncanny ability to feel the Gods when they were in my presence. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and a prickly feeling would run down my spine.

From behind a wardrobe, the slave girl ran out and threw her arms around me. I could feel her trembling, but couldn’t understand everything she rattled off in her Gaelic language. She knew more Greek than she often let on and it was obvious that she understood what Ares had told me.

“It’s all right.” I smiled down at her. “He’s full of hot air,” I said. I wondered who I was trying to convince…her or me.

****
Late one day, as the sun was sinking into the western horizon, I heard Lycerius shout from the crow’s nest.

“Ship ahoy!”

I stood with the dark-skinned girl on deck and we looked out onto the water. In the distance I saw the Roman ship approaching and I simply knew it was him. The girl looked up at me and spoke frantically in her native tongue. She had become as a friend, or how I imagined having a friend would be. It was rather like having a kid sister around. Her frightened voice told me that she remembered Ares’s warning better than I did. However, in my mind, the God’s threats were leagues away and Caesar was directly before me.

“Bring her around! We’re going to join them!” I turned, but the slave quickly grasped my arm. I could see that she was distressed. I assumed she had been jealous of my relationship with Caesar. She looked fearful and shook her head, but I didn’t understand why.

“It’s all right. He’s my friend,” I tried to sooth her. “Hurry up!” I shouted to the helmsman.

It was nightfall by the time we drew close to the ship and pulled down the sails. The Roman ship came up to our side and I watched from the stairs of the top deck as Caesar boarded the Kleonike.

Lycerius began to pull his sword from his scabbard, but I stopped him. Caesar and I crossed the deck of my ship slowly, neither of us wanting to be the first to show weakness. After all, our entire relationship was based on power.

I stopped and slowly pulled down the hood of my silk cloak. He must have known that he had me. Even I knew what the expression on my face must have looked like. I stepped closer and we circled one another. Just as I was about to offer him my embrace, he spun me around and pressed a dagger to my throat.

“Now!” he shouted. His soldiers all stood ready and his archers all had arrows pointed at me.

I honestly had no idea what was happening for a moment. I was helpless as I watched the Roman archers take down Lycerius. The Roman soldiers boarded the ship and made quick work of my men.

“What do you think you’re doing?!” I cried out.

“This…is my destiny. You’re a part of it…and I’m a part of yours.”

****

I was roughly pushed to my knees, shackles around my hands and neck.

“The ship is secured, Caesar,” Brutus said.

“Good. Where’s that friend of yours…the Gaelic slave girl?”

I didn’t intend to let this bastard get his hands on her. All right, she did nothing to save me, but she was just a kid and probably scared. If she hid in the hold of the ship, there was a chance she could get away.

“I had to kill her…because she betrayed me.” I spat the last words out in Caesar’s direction.

“Really? Well I don’t blame you. Still, she would have fetched a good price with the gladiator dealers.”

“Is that what you have planned for me? We were going to conquer the world together. What happened to those plans for us?” I was still in a fog as to how I could have let this whole thing happen. What could have I been thinking, although I realized exactly what I’d been thinking with.

“Us? There was never any us, Xena…only Rome…and I am Rome. Still…” He bent down beside me. “Don’t think that what we had was meaningless. I’ll always remember it…and you’ll have a special place of honor…among my conquered.”

Conquered? I thought. My anger began to reach its boiling point. It is I who will conquer you, I silently promised, you, and everyone else. I will be the conqueror, Caesar, and men like you will all beg for my mercy.

****

I could hear them walking up the beach. Roman soldiers were tying me to a cross.

“She was an easier prey than I expected,” Brutus said

“Divide and conquer, my friend. You divide a woman’s emotion from her sensibilities and you have her.”

The soldiers raised the cross and when they dumped the end in the hole they had dug, the force of it nearly ripped my arms from the sockets.

“I could’ve sold you and all your friends into slavery, Xena, but that’s what any common warlord would do. But with this…and especially with you…I defy myself, to all those who would dare oppose me…all those who would dare prey on Rome.”

I did the only thing I could do from such a vantage point. I spit at him.

“Goodbye, Xena.” He turned his back to me and spoke to the soldier before him. “Break her legs,” he said casually before he walked away.

It was later that night…or maybe a few nights had passed. I thought I was dreaming, but I saw the slave girl in my dream. I thought I saw her fighting, and then she threw two daggers and cut the ropes, releasing me from the cross.

I fell to the ground and into her arms. I heard her whistle and the next thing I knew, I was looking up at the full moon. It was bitterly cold when we came to a small cabin. The next thing I knew, I was screaming as a man twisted and pulled my broken legs. I don’t think I’ve ever again felt physical pain such as that.

“I’ve just reset your bones,” a strange man said. I assumed he was some healer that the girl knew. “You’re lucky M’Lila brought you here.”

“Yeah, lucky,” I spat out. I was full of rage, but I didn’t want the girl to think it was directed at her. I couldn’t understand, though, why she went to all this trouble for me. “M’Lila, huh? Ask her why she saved me.”

The man called Nicklio spoke in M’Lila’s language and the girl spoke back to him.

“She says it’s not your time to die,” Nicklio translated.

“Well, if not now, then when?” They could both only stare down at me.

I believe a few days had passed. M’Lila cared for me, fed and cleaned me each day. Nicklio placed something like a brace on each leg, and then he used an odd skill to treat my pain. He inserted long thin needles into my body. They were so light that I barely felt them, but whenever he finished with the treatment, I felt worlds better. I awoke one evening to find the healer examining one of my injured legs.

“You have amazing recuperative powers. How are you feeling?” He asked.

“Fine…much stronger. Those needles are fascinating.”

“Hmm.” The healer walked away to another part of the cabin.

M’Lila sat down beside me.

“M’Lila…up on that cross…I wasn’t sure that I wanted to live. You–you had no reason to save me, but you did. Thank you.”

The young girl just smiled at me and shrugged her shoulders.

“I know you can’t understand.”

She started speaking and I looked to Nicklio for a translation.

“She wants to know if you feel anger…towards Caesar.”

I thought about it for a heartbeat, but that was all the time I had. Another heartbeat later and the door burst open. Roman soldiers ran into the room.

“There she is! Get her!” they shouted.

They rushed into the room and shoved Nicklio aside, knocking him unconscious. I took out the first two soldiers who came close to me. I turned too late to see the man with a crossbow pointed at my heart. She moved so fast…always so fast I could barely see. M’Lila leapt into the air and landed in my arms just as the arrow came whistling through the air. Before it had a chance to reach me, the arrow struck M’Lila in the back. It ran clean through to her heart, making her death almost instantaneous.

I barely remember what happened after that. The beast within me made his first appearance on that night. It rushed into my conscious brain so quickly that there was nothing I could do to hold it back. But, at that moment, I didn’t want to. I only wanted someone to pay. I wanted to feel the blood of my enemies on my hands.

I grabbed the last soldier and I could see myself as though I had been standing outside of my body, watching it all happen. Just as M’Lila had previously instructed, I placed the pinch on the kneeling soldier.

“You’ll be dead in thirty seconds, but know this…you won’t be the last,” I heard myself say. “Tell Hades to prepare himself. A new Xena is born tonight…with a new purpose in life…”

“Death,” I uttered just before I broke the soldier’s neck.
Chapter 6: To think of time – of all that retrospection…
“I had no idea.” Gabrielle said the words almost reverently.

Her soft voice was enough to pull me from my memories of the past. When I opened my eyes and looked up, Gabrielle was staring straight ahead. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, but I did recognize that expression. I saw that same look on her face when she had confronted Ares on my behalf. I remember being amazed at the time that a young woman whose own life had been like an extended trip through Tartarus could summon no anger for her own life’s injustice, but she had been willing to face down a God for mine.

“Gabrielle?” I finally asked.

Her jaw tightened, but I received no reaction from her that she had heard me speak.

“Gabrielle? Are you all right?” I sat up and her eyes finally focused on me.

“How could he?”

“Which he? Who?”

“Who? Julius Caesar! Xena, what he did–Why are you smiling like that?” She abruptly stopped to ask.

I hadn’t meant to look amused. In truth, it wasn’t so much amusement as happiness. Even with all the emotions of betrayal and physical pain that still swirled around me from the tale I had told Gabrielle, I felt the oddest sort of pleasant sensation. My heart was near to bursting and I felt as how I imagined a schoolgirl would, falling in love for the first time. I suppose it was inappropriate, since we had been serious only moments before. Gabrielle sat there, upright and rigid, full of all the righteous indignation her heart could muster. Her eyes spat green fire and her cheeks were flushed pink. All I could manage to think was…all for me. She felt all of this because of a wrong someone had done to me. Sweet Athena! Was there a more loving mate in the entire known world? And could there have possibly been a more perfect example of redemption for a blackened soul than me having Gabrielle in my life?

“Well? What are you grinning at?” She stared at me until I did burst into that laughter.

“Little one, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to ridicule you at all. It’s just that…”

“What?” she asked, looking a little insulted.

“Gabrielle, I want you to know how honored and loved I feel by your anger.” I pulled her into my arms and squeezed her tight. I felt her relax slightly and she looked up at me wearing a rather confused expression.

“It’s just that…well, while your anger certainly isn’t misplaced, yes…Caesar was an evil bastard. Think about it a moment…you’re mentally disemboweling a man who has already been dead for over ten seasons.”

There seemed to be some moments of silence and, at first, I thought that perhaps Gabrielle was angry with me. Perhaps I should simply have been gracious at her gesture. My fear grew until she pushed away from me a small ways. When she looked up at me, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Gabrielle’s face had that innocent, sheepish expression that I find so endearing.

“Oh,” she eventually responded. “I knew that, of course.” Finally, she chuckled aloud with me. “I suppose I do lose my mind when I think of anyone hurting you. It didn’t seem to matter that it happened ages ago.”

I raised an eyebrow and put on an offended expression. “Well, I wouldn’t say ages.”

We laughed and snuggled together under the blankets. I pressed my chest against her back and wrapped my arms around her small frame.

“Each time you tell me a story about your past, I realize that circumstances affected your life to make you the person you are just as they did me,” Gabrielle said. “I think it’s odd that a woman as powerful as you and a slave should have so much in common.”

“I guess it proves that we’re not born to be any certain way. Most of the way we act now has to do with everything that happened to us in life. Those experiences actually shape us. You know…I never liked to talk much, especially about myself. I’m finding it a bit easier to do. Well, to you anyway.”

I didn’t have the nerve to admit that I worried about opening up completely to Gabrielle. I feared that one day I would reveal too much, that it would be too terrible for Gabrielle to accept. She hadn’t yet given me any indication that she might ever do so, but it seemed to plague my mind just the same. Perhaps it was only my insecurity speaking.

“How long before we get to Athens?” Gabrielle asked in a sleepy voice.

“Hmm, I’m not sure. It depends on what kind of time we make with the wagons. I’ll talk with Atrius in the morning and see how we’re keeping pace.”

Gabrielle didn’t move and I realized the long day had finally gotten the best of her. I kissed her neck and moved into a more comfortable position. It wasn’t very long before I succumbed to my own weariness and joined her in the realm of Morpheus.

****

“Gods above!” Gabrielle groaned as I helped her into the saddle the next day.

She was as sore as I thought she might be. I opened my mouth to tell her so, but she abruptly stopped me.

“Xena, if you say I told you so, I swear…”

“Would I do that?” I tried to look innocent. I definitely had to work on that expression.

“Okay, what were you going to say?”

“Say?”

“Yes. What were you going to say that wasn’t I told you so?”

“Uhm…I forget?”

Gabrielle laughed aloud and her peevish mood all but disappeared. “You brighten my day, my Conqueror. You definitely brighten my day.”

“I try,” I said with a wide smile as I mounted Tenorio.

We walked again near midmorning, both of us leading our horses. I tried to prepare Gabrielle for what it would be like to enter Athens.

“We’ll stop and camp about a day outside Athens. That will give us a chance to send soldiers ahead and for us to prepare.”

“Prepare?” Gabrielle asked.

“Gabrielle, you do realize that we have to ride into Athens.”

“I rather thought that’s how we would get there.”

I smiled at her misunderstanding. “I mean a procession. The Athenians will expect the Conqueror and her new Queen to ride into Athens at the head of a military procession, colorful banners, white doves…the works.”

“Oh my,” Gabrielle said softly. Finally, after some moments of silence, she looked over at me and nudged me in the shoulder. “I expect it’s a good thing I learned to ride. Eh?”

We both laughed heartily. “I think we would have found some alternative, but it will look good for you.”

“You mean, I’ll look good on horseback?”

“Well, that, too. I mean in strength and power. Remember when we talked about the politics of you being Queen of the Empire?”

I had spoken to Gabrielle of this soon after our marriage. She was not unfamiliar with the games people play where position and power are concerned. She had lived as a slave in households where those games meant the difference between comfort and agony, pleasure or pain. In particular, we discussed Athens and the huge power struggles I constantly had with the city. They had felt second best from the start, since I had selected Corinth as the seat of the Empire.

The battle that had sealed my conquest of Greece had been the taking of Athens. It wasn’t an easy battle. It was vicious and bloody. Aside from the harshness of the campaign, my own personal vendetta against the city caused me to nearly raze it to the ground.

Pericles was Athens. He had made the mistake of standing against Amphipolis during the Peloponnesian War. I never forgave him for that. Of course, there was also the aristocracy that Pericles promoted and perpetuated. I did two things upon entering a burning Athens on that cold winter morning after I’d defeated them. I had Pericles crucified and I killed most of the members of the aristocracy.

The aristocracy had been a small circle of noble families. They had all the wealth and power, monopolized the government, and held all the judiciary positions. It was a tight little circle and they were loath to give it up. Funny what a hurry they had been in to beg for a democracy once they saw Pericles’s body hanging there. The lower citizens paid all the taxes, served in the military, and essentially, obeyed all the directives of their noble born superiors. It’s true, all of the Empire was a monarchy, but I liked the idea of listening to the people…as long as it didn’t get out of hand.

I put an intelligent man named Cleisthenes in charge. I regretted destroying so much of the city during my assault, but I was confident that this young man would help to restore the city, even surpassing its previous glory. By the time I’d left Athens, headed toward Corinth, they had already begun to replace the wood and limestone temples atop the acropolis with structures made of marble.

He presented me with his ideas for reform that, while not a democracy, still gave the general populace a say in their city and their lives. Since I would settle in Corinth, it made sense to try their form of government. He divided the population of Athens into ten tribes. Each tribe elected a general who spoke for them. Although the generals were under my ultimate command, it looked to the people as though they governed themselves. Thus, the Athenians looked on me, not as the Conqueror who had defeated them, but as the warrior who liberated them from the aristocracy’s tyranny.

“So, I have to impress them, is that what you’re saying?” Gabrielle asked.

“Just be yourself, love. That’s impressive enough. Remember, Gabrielle, that once we get to Athens…well, it’s still a city full of ex-noble families who would love to start trouble. Don’t trust anyone completely.”

“Ride into the city, impress them, but don’t trust them. So far I think I can handle it.”

She turned and winked at me and I knew in that instant that Gabrielle would be able to handle anything they might try to throw at her. How was I to know that we would actually be faced with a situation that would put both our skills to the test?

As we neared our midday break, Gabrielle caught me unaware with her next statement.

“Xena, I would like to have your permission to learn how to use a weapon.”

She surprised me with her request. In part, because I hadn’t thought Gabrielle ever entertained the notion of honing her warrior side. Her asking such a thing in the first place baffled me. Was she still unaware that my life was for her? There is nothing that she could desire, nothing she might ask for that I would deny her. Of course, she was unaware you old fool. I had still been unable to gather the nerve to voice all my emotions to her.

“Little one, you know you don’t have to ask for my permission. You are your own woman.”

“Even though I’m your Queen, you are still My Lord. You rule the Empire and it’s only fitting that even my actions should come under your authority.”

I glanced over at her just to be certain she wasn’t having a bit of fun with me. She looked straight ahead and I realized that she was well and truly serious. Gabrielle, of all people, understood protocol. I had no fear that she would ever slip in front of anyone else. Her life as a slave made her very aware of proper behavior and chain of command.

“Very well,” I chuckled. “What sort of weapon did you have in mind, were I so inclined to give this permission?”

“Oh…well, I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. That’s your area of expertise. What sort of weapon do you think I’d be suited for?”

“Hmm,” I thought quickly. Gabrielle was a master at hand-to-hand combat. She was small, but amazingly quick. With the skills taught to her by Yu Pan, she had the agility and strength to use a larger opponent’s size against them. “Well, given your skills and size, how about a stave?”

“A stave?”

“A staff. You know, like the one you’ve seen Ephiny with.”

“Ohh, the big stick.”

I laughed at her terminology. “Right, the big stick.”

“I don’t know, Xena. It’s so big. Where would I put it when I wasn’t using it? I’d look pretty silly carrying it around all the time as we traipse all over the countryside.”

“Point taken.”

“Besides, that ugly carved bird on the top of Ephiny’s staff scares the Tartarus out of me.”

“All right,” I chuckled. “Something else then.” I went through a mental list of weapons I thought might match her skills. She appeared to have a reason why none of them was suitable.

“Sais?” I asked at last. We had come to the short weapons that could be used effectively by someone skilled in hand combat. I explained what they looked like and how they were used.

“Yes, I remember seeing something like that in Chin. They used them to move hay and for other farm work,” Gabrielle said. “Hhmm, I think I might feel a little foolish carrying around a farm tool.”

“That’s the one, but they’re far from farm tools. Ours are made of steel with sharp pointed tips as opposed to the rounded one you’re familiar with.”

“I don’t know…it sounds awfully lethal.”

I stopped walking and turned to her. “That is sort of the point of a weapon, love. It’s supposed to be lethal. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

“I understand what you’re saying, Xena, but I don’t think I want something quite so lethal. A blade of any kind could be so final. I shudder to think what could happen in an accident.”

I sighed inwardly. “Okay, no sais.”

“Maybe I should re-think the big stick. Do you think Ephiny might give me a few lessons?”

“I think she would be happy to comply, under one condition.”

“Which is?”

“You promise not to call it a big stick in her presence.”

“Oh, very funny.” She slapped me on the arm.

“Hey, you hit me,” I responded.

“I’m sure it won’t be the last time, my Conqueror,” she quipped.

Gabrielle surprised me with her actions and light banter. I had never been happier. The young girl who had been afraid to meet my eyes when we first came to know one another was nowhere in sight. This was an independent woman before me and no longer a cowering slave.

I just couldn’t resist removing that smirk of hers, though. I leaned down close to her ear and whispered in my most seductive voice. “Maybe next time you could tie me up before you hit me. Hhmm? Just imagine…me tied up and naked before you. Which do you prefer…riding crop…whip?”

I watched with pure enjoyment as my seasoned young queen’s cheeks flushed a beautiful scarlet. Pure wonderment filled me as I thought of Gabrielle’s embarrassment. That a young woman so experienced in sensual pleasure could find it in her to blush at my comments…well, it always caused me to thank Athena.

I was feeling rather full of myself as I straightened back up. Being Gabrielle, however, I should have known that the girl never let anyone get the better of her if she could help it. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

“Tie you up? And what makes you think you should be the one to have all the fun?” Gabrielle slid her hand down my backside as she spoke and punctuated her remark with a slap that suddenly drew every drop of blood in my body to my, suddenly, aching groin.

She kept walking, a spring in her step that spoke volumes. As for me, all that focus on the space between my legs was making it particularly difficult to walk. Then there was that visual that kept flittering before my mind’s eye. The one of me naked…restrained…Gabrielle looking me over…well, you get the picture.

“Ready to ride again?” Gabrielle turned back to ask.

“No!” I nearly shouted. There was no way in Hades I’d be able to mount a horse just then.

She was smiling at me now, realizing my discomfort. “Mercy.” I grinned as I slowly limped up to where she stood.

“Chobos!” I straightened tall as the thought occurred to me. I wasn’t certain what clubs had to do with anything in the moment, but there you are.

“What?” Gabrielle wore a confused expression.

Once I explained that the wooden clubs were a much-used Amazon weapon, Gabrielle seemed intrigued. We took our midday break, but she was too excited to relax. She went to Ephiny, since I had told her that the best chobo users I had ever seen were Amazons.

After two candlemarks had passed, I went in search of Gabrielle. I needn’t have been worried. I found her well protected by our own personal guard, as well as the Amazon Royal Guard. Ephiny sat upon the grass, watching Gabrielle in the middle of a makeshift ring. My wife was receiving instruction on using the chobos from an Amazon I was unfamiliar with.

“I told her to talk to you about it, but I didn’t think you’d have her using them the first day,” I said as I sat down beside Ephiny.

“She has an affinity for the clubs. Besides, I take orders from her, not the other way around.”

“Point taken. Do you trust the warrior she’s with?”

“With my life,” Ephiny responded. “That’s Eponin, our tribe’s weapons master. She’s about ten seasons younger than I am. There’s no one better for the Queen to learn from. Except perhaps me…or you.” She gave me a sidelong glance. “Rumor says that you were quite the skilled young thing with a pair of chobos. I believe they say that you learned from Cyane herself.”

I flinched at the sound of Cyane’s name. It was true. She had taught me everything there was to know about being an Amazon. And I repaid her by murdering her. I shook my head to dispel the dark memories. When I looked up, with an expression filled with regret and pain, Ephiny was watching me.

She looked away and sighed deeply. “The past is a harsh mistress, Conqueror. Just when we think we’ve given her all we have to give, she comes along and demands more. We cannot refuse her, though. She owns us and we know it.”

“There are those of us who cringe at her demands.” I rubbed my hand across my jaw. “I wish I could forget. I wish it never happened in the first place.”

“Then that’s a start, my friend.”

I looked up quickly, but Ephiny was already concentrating on the scene before her. Had she just called me her friend? I just sat there, stunned. How to express what I felt at that moment. You see; I’d never had a friend before. Of course, there was Atrius and Delia, but their association with me had been forced from the start. They had each known me many seasons and eventually we became friends. This, however, was very different. Here was someone that I didn’t really know all that well, someone who could simply tolerate or ignore me if she wished. Instead, she chose the path of friendship. It confused and elated me at the same time.

“Gabrielle doesn’t know. Or at least I don’t think she knows,” I said. “I suppose the Amazon scrolls have more in them about that time than my own library’s works.”

“Some things should only be revealed in their time.” She turned to look at me again. “She won’t hear it from us.”

It turned out that Gabrielle did indeed have a talent for the chobos. Each morning, after her Qigong routine, she went to study with Eponin. She did the same at midday. I would watch, offer encouragement, and the odd instruction, but as with everything Gabrielle set her mind to, she soon became quite passable.

The Amazons were extremely decent to Solan, also. It seemed as though word had silently spread through the caravan grapevine. No one had asked me directly, nor Solan, to my knowledge. They must have heard him call me mother at some point. It still came as a surprise, given how most of the Amazons still felt about our centaur friends. I would swear, however, that I saw Ephiny speaking with one of the centaurs around twilight the previous evening. It didn’t seem like an official chat. From my vantage point, it looked very much like they were laughing.

Solan had expressed a desire to learn of the Amazon culture. My son the inquisitive one. I was certain Yu Pan welcomed the reprieve. Solan followed the old man around like a puppy most of the day, always asking questions about Chin, the people, the language. He was slowly learning. I heard him attempt to exchange a few words with Gabrielle in the regional dialect used in the area that Gabrielle had lived in. She looked at him oddly and then smiled. She quietly took him aside and said that the mispronunciation of one word had taken his enquiry as to her health, and turned it into, you will die today. As I said, he was learning…slowly. He found a few willing Amazons to assist him in his quest for knowledge. I didn’t want to even think about what else they were probably teaching the young man when the sun went down.

I even saw Yu Pan and Eponin speaking together, discussing fighting techniques with particular weapons. That was one Amazon who certainly didn’t act like any of her sisters. She spent most of the time tongue-tied and tripping over her own feet with the exception of the time she spent with a weapon in her hand. When she was sparring, she was as graceful as a bird in flight. When I presented myself to speak with her regarding Gabrielle’s lessons, she muttered and stuttered, backing up so fast that she tripped over herself.

Whatever Eponin’s problems were, it appeared that Gabrielle had the power to still them to some degree. Eponin lost her nervous demeanor around Gabrielle. The Amazon was actually able to walk and talk at the same time. They laughed and joked like schoolgirls most of the time. It felt good to see Gabrielle develop a friendship with someone rather close to her own age.

It may have seemed odd to some, but it appeared that our caravan was becoming a closer knit group without anyone really trying.

****
“What did you do after, Xena?”

We had been relaxing in our tent, waiting for the generals of Athens to come out and greet us. The sun was already high in the sky, but we hadn’t made plans to enter Athens until morning, anyway. It was apparent we were close to the city, as the smells wafted out into the countryside to greet us.

“After what, little one?” I questioned absently. I had been reading some maps of the region, planning our next stop at Delphi.

“After…well, after Caesar’s men found you? Is that when you went to Chin?”

After…

It had been a long time since I’d thought about that time. Did I remember everything that had happened to me so long ago? Borias…Alti…the Amazons…Gods, the Amazons. I still hadn’t told Gabrielle about them. How could I tell the Queen of the Amazons what I had done to her adopted people back then?

“Ares gave you a second chance then?” Gabrielle asked.

Her question finally drew me from my introspection. “A second chance? I suppose you could put it that way. He tried to beat the crap out of me. I gave as good as I got, though,” I finished with a smirk, remembering that fight.

“You beat up the God of War?”

“Well, that’s being a little generous. Let’s just say I held my own against Ares.”

“Still, Xena…He’s a God. Didn’t he have his powers? I know you’re a spectacular warrior, but he’s–”

“Ares had a weakness back then that not many knew about.”

“Which was?” Gabrielle asked.

“Me,” I answered. “See, Ares had a sort of a no win situation going on where I was concerned. He knew that only the threat of physical power and might kept me in line, but he also knew that if he ever used any of that power against me, that I would walk. That was why he treated me with a velvet glove most of the time. The interesting part was that when he didn’t use any God-like powers, he and I were very evenly matched.

“So, what happened? Did he take it well…the fact that you were able to match him?”

“Not one little bit. He finally lost his temper and zapped me with one of those power bolts he liked to throw around. It broke my leg, in nearly the same place that I’d had it broken by Caesar’s man when I was on that cross. Ares walked away after he told me that I could drag myself back to Nicklio’s cabin since I liked him so much. I didn’t see Ares for at least another five seasons after that. My leg didn’t heal properly, and so I walked with a limp until the time I told you about in Chin when Lao Ma healed it.”

“A lot happened in between. I’ve read of some, but that really only touches the surface, doesn’t it?” Gabrielle asked from her reclining position on a low-lying couch.

“I feel like those seasons lasted for an eternity. In that short time, I was at my worst. There’s always been one Xena that was even more cruel than the Conqueror ever could be…she was the Destroyer of Nations.”

“I read a little of that Shamaness. What was her name?” Gabrielle asked.

“Alti,” I answered flatly.

I wasn’t sure how much longer I could continue with these memories. I was feeling a little nauseous, reliving a part of my life that time had cruelly left intact within my mind. It made me wonder why Athena never took me up on my offer to purge that period in history from my mind. She had something about being condemned to relive the past if I tried too hard to forget it. I still didn’t know exactly what she meant by that.

Gabrielle jerked herself into an upright position from the couch. “Had you told Ares what Caesar had done to you?”

“What do you mean?” She had switched the momentum of the conversation so quickly that it confused me.

“You once told me that you made a constant effort to keep Ares out of your mind. Right?”

“Right,” I drawled out. “I hate when Gods read my mind. It’s just a little technique I picked up from an old man in Amphipolis. He taught me the way and he gave me some lessons on how to scramble my thoughts in the presence of a God. At the time, I never thought I’d ever have to use it.”

Gabrielle kept looking at me as though I was missing the most obvious point. In truth, it turned out that I was.

“I guess it strikes me as odd that Ares told you to go back to Nicklio. How did he know you’d been there in the first place?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but found myself without the words to say. How had he known? More importantly, why had I never come to this conclusion?

“I suppose it’s all moot now. Athena and Artemis both have told us that Zeus had Ares put away for the rest of our lifetimes. I know that doesn’t take away any of the hurts he caused you.”

I looked over at the compassionate woman who held only love and devotion within her emerald gaze. How quick she was to focus in on only me.

“Mine weren’t the only hurts, love. Ares set your life’s path along an alternate line that could have ended in your death. As it was, he caused you more pain than most have had to endure in their entire lifetime.”

She rose and quickly ended up in my lap. Placing her arms around my neck, she softly kissed me. “Do you want to know the funny thing? Ever since I met you, my Conqueror, I feel as though I’m living a different life. Well, I know I am living a different life, but it’s like all that old pain…those old memories have disappeared. Does that sound crazy?”

“No, little one. It sounds wonderful.”

I didn’t tell her how much I envied her at that moment. For my past to disappear…it was more than I could ever hope for.
Chapter 7: Flower in the crannied wall…
“Lord Conqueror, you look well.”

“As do you, Cleisthenes. How fares Athens?”

I could see that he was staring at me, perhaps a little too intently. I wanted to laugh aloud, knowing that he was thinking a woman of my age should be showing…well, her age. It seemed as though Athena had put time in reverse for me, to a certain point, anyway. The physical indications were far less than the inner signs. I felt half my age, and whether it was due to having Gabrielle in my life or Athena’s touch, either way I considered it a gift.

“Extraordinarily well, Lord Conqueror.”

It was a stiff and formal reception that I received from the generals and the polemarchos, or war leader. I recognized a few of the generals from the Athenian campaign so long ago. Themistocles, Aristides, and Stesilaus were all excellent soldiers, getting a little long in the tooth, but weren’t we all. Militiades was the polemarchos. I had issues with the man because he had served the Persian king, Darius, before I conquered Athens. Militiades pledged his allegiance to me before I swept into Athens, however, and that had saved him. He was simply too good a warrior to execute and he proved his loyalty throughout the years. After all these seasons, it was still Militiades old tie to the Persians that fueled my suspicion. He allied with the enemy once. What was to keep him from doing it a second time?

When I shook Cleisthenes’s hand and offered him a friendly hug, they all looked as though I’d just lopped the man’s head off. I had changed much since I was last in Athens, nearly five seasons previous. I didn’t take any notice of the generals’ reserved behavior. They didn’t mean their actions as a personal affront to me. They were warriors and I would not have expected anything different from them.

Cleisthenes, however, had never reacted much to who I was or the abominable way I acted. He seemed to take it all in stride. I remember I had been in a meeting with him once about restoring the great library. During my siege of the city, much of the building had been damaged, but quick thinking citizens had relocated most of the parchments to the library’s subterranean level to save them from destruction. During a pause in the conversation, I had ordered the execution of a man I considered a traitor to my throne. It was a gross over reaction, but I was prone to such behavior back then. Cleisthenes never blinked an eye, even though I could see that my order affected him. He paled, swallowed once, and continued his presentation. Being a very young man at the time, he had impressed me with the control he had over his emotions.

At that moment, Gabrielle returned from a meeting with the Amazons. Ephiny and two members of the Royal Amazon Guard stood with the young Queen. We had nearly given up on receiving the generals, as darkness drew near. Gabrielle was dressed rather casually in her riding clothes, as was I. She wore her hair tied back at her neck, but looked every bit the Queen in her leather togs.

“Gentleman, may I present my wife, her highness, Queen Gabrielle,” I said as Gabrielle came over to stand beside me.

The generals made their perfunctory greetings, each in their turn. To their credit, they each dropped to one knee to acknowledge Gabrielle’s royal status. Cleisthenes stepped forward and kneeled respectfully before Gabrielle. He appeared a bit dazed, but it wasn’t the first time Gabrielle had this affect on a man.

“So, it’s true then,” he said in a voice filled with awe.

He looked between Gabrielle and her Amazons. Ephiny glanced at me and we each arched an eyebrow in question to his statement.

“True?” Gabrielle asked as she looked around at all of us.

Cleisthenes paled slightly as he realized his rudeness. “Forgive me, your highness. I meant no disrespect. It’s simply that…well, all of Athens is talking about it.”

“Talking about what?” I was quick to ask. If I had hackles, I was certain they would have been standing straight on end.

“Well, that you…” he stammered and hesitated. “Well…that you married a beautiful Amazon Queen,” Cleisthenes explained all in one breath.

I chuckled as I noticed that the Amazons stood just a little taller.

“I admit,” Cleisthenes said as he shook Gabrielle’s hand. “I think the rumors truly underestimated your beauty, however. If I may be so bold as to say.”

He said this last to me and I grinned like a hero who had just had a medal pinned to her chest. “You may indeed.”

Gabrielle flushed appropriately at the comment. “It’s a pleasure to meet all of you, gentleman. I can see why Athens stands so proud with leaders such as you. Militiades, it’s a privilege. I’ve read many of your war stratagems. I’d very much like to discuss some points with you, if you have the time.”

Militiades inclined his head stiffly in Gabrielle’s direction. “You honor me, your highness.”

He was civil in tongue, but the polemarchos’s expression said that discussing battle strategy with a woman was the last thing in life he wanted to do. Hades, he used to grind his teeth when he took orders from me. He had an Athenian manner to be sure. They had been the worst city in Greece when it came to the rights they gave women, especially their wives. A prostitute had actually been able to travel to more places, unattended, than a nobleman’s wife could. Wives had no money, no status, and were often as much a prisoner in their own homes as their slaves. My reign tried to change some of that, which made me no friends among the aristocracy left in Athens.

I smiled to myself at the man’s predicament. The only reason he obeyed me was probably because I could kick his ass from here to Corinth and he knew it. As an afterthought, I realized that Gabrielle could probably kick his ass, too. That hero’s grin on my face grew larger.

“Cleisthenes, I’ve heard wonderful things about your work. I’m especially interested in visiting the city library,” Gabrielle continued with her greeting.

“Ahh, you appreciate the parchment, your highness?”

“I do indeed,” Gabrielle answered. I knew the library and the schools would be high on Gabrielle’s list of places to visit within the city. I wanted to be there when she walked into the library for the first time. The library in Corinth would seem miniscule in comparison.

“Then I shall be at your disposal during your visit. Please allow me to show you anything our city has to offer.”

“Thank you. I shall definitely take you up on your gracious offer,” Gabrielle responded.

“I believe we should be on our way, then,” Cleisthenes began. “I understand that you have yet to take your evening meal and we have no wish to intrude further. Will you ride into the city tomorrow, Lord Conqueror?”

“I think at midmorning,” I answered.

“The citizens are quite excited over your arrival. Who should I speak to regarding the processional, Lord Conqueror?”

“Atrius is my Captain. I believe many of you remember him. He can make any arrangements and speak for me in these matters. Atrius,” I called to my second in command. He stepped forward.

“Please see that Cleisthenes has what he needs in order to make arrangements for tomorrow.”

“Aye, Lord Conqueror,” Atrius responded.

“If there is nothing else, I bid you a good evening, gentlemen.”

“Aye, Conqueror,” they said in response.

****
The morning began overcast and I feared it would rain, not an auspicious way for Gabrielle to ride into the city her first time. By midmorning, the skies cleared and the light breeze from the coast blew off any chance of poor weather.

Now, I should go back and tell of a brief conversation that happened during our meal the previous evening. We had been invited, along with our friends and family, to the Amazon camp for dinner. The meal had gone exceedingly well and we enjoyed the friendly conversation.

Gabrielle and I sat across from one another and Ephiny sat beside Gabrielle. She had gloated some over that seating arrangement, but what could I do? Their camp; their rules, so to speak. I wasn’t in the mood to cause trouble about it, especially since I was beginning to enjoy this little game of one-upmanship Ephiny and I continued to play in regards to Gabrielle.

“Can you believe the nerve, though,” I overheard Gabrielle telling Ephiny. “The man was more impressed that I was some Amazon Queen than with anything else.”

Ephiny and I laughed at the same time. “Well,” Gabrielle pouted slightly. “I wonder what he’d think if he knew just how much Amazon experience I actually had.”

“So,” Ephiny began. “Why not give the people what they want?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“If they want to see her Maj–um…Gabrielle as an Amazon, surrounded by her loyal Amazon warriors, then why not give them what they want. Besides, think how good you’d look Conqueror. All those adoring citizens thinking you won the heart of Amazon royalty.”

“Very amusing,” I responded. I saw the expression on Gabrielle’s face, however.

She looked over at me and I saw the twinkle in her eye. She had that look that told me her brain was working up something devilish. She smiled at me then and I knew I was caught.

“Go on and do it then. What’s another thirty or forty Amazon’s in our procession,” I said.

I spoke with Atrius and my officers before mounting Tenorio. Not only had the procession been planned like a military engagement, but safety had been an even greater concern. Atrius had already doubled the personal guard that would ride around Gabrielle and me. We traveled with 400 of the best of Corinth’s army. It was an enormous amount of manpower to take on a holiday, but we had women, children, and the very throne of the Empire in our caravan. I wished to take no chances with our safety.

I mounted Tenorio, who had been waiting beside Gabrielle’s mare. “Ready?”

“If I said no, could we do this another time? Maybe in…oh, I don’t know…a few seasons?”

“Athens will fall at your feet, my love.”

I meant that with all my heart. Gabrielle sat straight in her saddle, wearing her riding leathers and body armor. The bright gold coins that made up her armor glittered and cast the sun in a thousand different directions. Eponin had showed her how to braid small beads into her golden locks and on the horn of her saddle; Ephiny had strategically placed the Queen’s mask. It was a frighteningly impressive mask, and I knew it would work its magic on the people of Athens.

“Shall we ride?” Indicated with a wave of my hand that we were finally ready.

It only took us a little over a candlemark to reach the city gates. Gabrielle and I were somewhere about three quarters of the way back. We had a few surprises for the ride in, mostly entertainment for the crowd. In addition, there was Gabrielle’s Amazons. The men we sent to the city in advance of our party said that word had spread quickly of the Amazon Queen. The city streets were jammed and people lined up six and seven deep. The city had all but come to a stop in hopes of catching a glimpse of never-before-seen Amazons.

I turned to see Gabrielle’s hands tightening around her mount’s reins. The white knuckles gave away her carefully concealed apprehension. I reached over and took her hand in mine. I leaned down slightly as I brought her hand to my lips. Turning her hand over, I gently kissed the open palm.

“I have waited my whole adult life to ride into a city where welcome waited for me on the other side of the gates. I never even dreamed that it would happen with a woman so incredibly wonderful as you by my side.”

I waited for her to chuckle or make light of my declaration. I waited anxiously for her response. It was still difficult to make myself vulnerable and open my heart, even to Gabrielle. When I let my heart speak, instead of my brain, I found myself saying the things I actually felt. I feared that such openness came with a price, however. I should not have doubted.

Gabrielle squeezed my hand and her thumb caressed the back of my hand. “You always know exactly what to say to make me feel safe and loved.”

It was a good thing that I was on horseback. She looked at me with an expression that melted my knees. Then she smiled that refreshingly open smile she has.

“I love you, Xena.” She squeezed my hand once more.

It always startled me to hear my given name. Even Gabrielle had given to calling me Conqueror most of the time, even though she used it as more of a pet name than my title. To hear my name and her profession of love in the same breath, I thought that at that moment, I could have flown into Athens. I returned the sentiment.

“I love you, Gabrielle.”

The horns at the front of the procession told us that the front of our line had reached the gates. When an enormous chorus of voices all cheered out at the same moment, I knew that they had entered the city. It was unlike anything I had heard in a great many seasons.

The first sounds to reach our ears had been cries of, “Lion! Lion!”

I swallowed down the lump in my throat and actually struggled to hold back the tears that pushed their way past my tightly held control. How time does change everything. Ten seasons ago, small children threw rocks at my party upon entering Athens. Old women spit on the ground and clutched the talismans around their necks when I rode by. They thought of me only as the Conqueror, one time Destroyer of Nations. To them, I was an abomination, a freak of nature, or perhaps a joke of the Gods.

Now, my reputation may still have been tarnished, but it was no longer as black as the pits of Tartarus. Some of my former self had begun to show through and it was all because of the woman by my side. I may have begun to change before Gabrielle came into my life, but I would have been a lost soul, floundering without guidance had it not been for her light. I slowly made my way to her goodness and light as if they were beacons set upon the rocks. Her soul steered me clear of the dangerous cliffs and toward the shore, to the promise of home.

I could not see the spectacular display as we entered Athens, but I knew exactly what was happening. I had witnessed it a hundred times before. I could see with my mind’s eye as the soldiers of Corinth lined themselves six across. They wore bronze armor polished to such a luster that it gleamed as would gold. The cavalry, about two-dozen men on horseback, preceded the infantry. The soldiers’ parade tunics were deep purple with golden trim. They matched the banners that the front line men carried. On poles seventeen hands high, the men steadily unfurled the deep wine colored banners bearing the massive head of a lion.

Before the cavalry and the infantry, though, would come the archers. These were ordinary archers, but within their quivers, they held most astonishing arrows. I could picture the scene as the people cheered, rushing toward the front of the streets, jostling for a position by which to view the spectacle. The archers would separate from the ranks and run forward. In unison, they would drop to one knee and fire their arrows high into the sky, directly over the crowd.

I listened for the crowd’s gasp to indicate the archers had let loose their arrows. I counted to five, waiting for the expected cheer to rise up from the crowd. I wasn’t disappointed and neither, from the sounds, was the crowd. The reason for their amazed cries were because the arrows were actually brightly colored parchment tightly rolled into the shape of ordinary shafts. When the faux arrows were shot into the sky, the parchment quickly loosened and colored streamers fell upon the delighted spectators.

The city provided musicians and soon, even from our distance, we could here the reverberation of sounds beyond the gates. The soldiers before us advanced steadily, and we moved slowly behind them until Gabrielle and I could see the wide-open gates to Athens.

“I suppose this is it,” Gabrielle looked over at me and said. Her voice betrayed the nervousness that her expression hid. I silently applauded her.

“I’m beside you, little one. Just remember that.”

“For always?” she smiled at me and I understood the reassurance she was asking for.

“For always and then some, my love.”

It seemed to be exactly what she needed to hear and I silently thanked Athena for giving me the words. Gabrielle’s smile broadened and she urged her mount forward.

“Then I guess we should go smile and wave at all the people.”

I chuckled lightly. “Tell you what. You smile and wave and I’ll ride along and look like my usual menacing self.”

“You are a kill joy, my Conqueror,” she said as she laughed.

“Then I am nothing if not predictable,” I replied with a sly grin.

Ephiny directed the Amazons to surround us in a semi circle in front and with four lines of soldiers behind. The Amazon warriors, dressed in their skins and feathers, and outfitted with short swords, looked quite fearsome as they slipped their masks over their heads. The frightening, hand-carved masks maintained the notion of their strength.

It was our turn as we entered the gates of Athens. The crowd caught sight of the Amazons and a collective gasp, along with assorted oohs and ahhs, went up from the people. Then the people took in the vision of Gabrielle and myself.

A sort of hush fell upon the thousands, of people lining the streets. Balconies were filled to overflowing, people crowded the side streets, and young boys even hung from the olive trees. That one moment seemed to last forever as I prayed that whoever held a dislike for me would not take it out upon Gabrielle.

Just as suddenly, cheers exploded into the air. The sound was deafening, as Gabrielle looked at me in complete surprise. I don’t think either of us had been ready for the hero-like reception the people of Athens showered us with. I could barely hear the musicians, or even the sound of my own horse’s hooves on the limestone streets.

The applause and cheering followed us all the way up to the Acropolis. We had arranged earlier to end our procession on the steps of the Parthenon.

Although it had been Pericles who had begun the work of the Acropolis, it had been my coffers that had actually finished the labor to make it one of the true glories of Greece. There were three contrasting temples and a most impressive gateway. They had recently begun the building of the Theater of Dionysos and I had hopes of building an additional, even larger, theater there. It was Athena’s temple for which I spared no expense.

I had entrusted the sculptor, Pheidias, with supervising my new temple to Athena. I figured it was the least I could do, given that Athena herself had awarded me her city and, consequently, victory over Greece. Many questioned my decision to give Pheidias the job. He was an artist, not an architect, but it was mostly as a reward for the incredible sculpture of Athena that he had created upon my commission. The Parthenos, an impressive statue that stood over 50 hands high, had been ornately covered in ivory and gold. It was so priceless, in my opinion, that I believed it deserved a house just as worthy.

Pheidias hired the architects, Kallikrates and Iktinos to plan the marble structure. They used Pentelic marble, found in the quarries of Mount Pentelikon in Attica. I was most impressed when I sat down with their plans and drawings. Instead of building in the traditional sense, with straight lines, they used curves. As I said, I was most impressed with the idea to make the structure appear even more majestic than it actually would be. All of the columns had been designed to swell in the middle and all lean inward just slightly. At the same time, the foundation rose from the center somewhat.

My favorite part of the temple had always been the pediments and friezes that went around the entire temple. I, most especially, enjoyed the intricate sculptures on the east pediment. Created by Pheidias and two of his students, Agorakritos and Alkamenes, it was an incredibly complex and life-like sculpture of the birth of Athena. Nearly all of Olympus was present in the work, and as little as I care for the Gods, this one always impressed me.

The temple took only nine seasons to complete. I had the temple dedicated to Athena during the Great Panathenaia, a festival that we celebrated all out only once every four years. Held in the late summer, it was always in honor of our patron goddess, Athena.

When it came time for Gabrielle and I to dismount, we did so and stood on the steps above the Beule Gate. It was over a quarter of a candlemark before the crowd silenced enough for us to speak. I was uncharacteristically nervous and if I felt that way, Gods only know how Gabrielle was holding up. She refused to let go of my hand, but I suppose it made us look more the newlyweds, endearing us to the people even more. I forgot what I even said when I finally spoke, but whatever it was it must have been sufficient. For the first time in my memory, I saw noblemen, slaves, and even metics, foreign residents living in Athens, standing side by side and cheering for a like reason.

I think that as long as I exist in this mortal life, I will never completely forget the vociferous sound of that one word, shouted over and over again by thousands of cheering Athenians…Lion.

****

“I never knew you liked to take so many baths,” I said to Gabrielle.

My wife had her eyes closed, a sort of half smile on her face. It was obvious that she was relaxed and feeling wonderful as she luxuriated in the warm water.

“I never knew I did either, but Xena, just look at this!” she exclaimed, waving her arms around her. “Have you ever seen anything this big that wasn’t a lake?”

I chuckled at Gabrielle’s childlike expression. The marble bath was indeed a sight. It was easily large enough to hold a dozen people. The servants must have placed the floating flowers there just recently as their scent filled the room caused by the reaction with the warm water. I suppose I assumed Gabrielle had seen such opulence before in her varied life, but she was in awe of the entire house.

The house was one that I had built for the occasions that I would stay in Athens, which were few. Unlike the palace in Corinth, this house had been created in traditional Greek style. The design left most of the house open from one room to another with a few private rooms, such as our bedrooms and study. Gabrielle loved the open balconies. She seemed a new woman since we rode into Athens yesterday. Actually, I believe the changes started the day we began our little holiday.

I stretched out on the floor beside Gabrielle, still in her bath. There was something so wonderfully sexy about a woman who had no idea how absolutely beautiful she was. I rested my head in the palm of one hand and simply watched her.

“Conqueror?” she asked in such a coy manner that she must have seen where my eyes had strayed.

“What?” I asked. I really thought I was getting that innocent look down.

“Don’t even try that false innocent expression with me.”

Damn! I suppose it need more work.

I inched closer until I was able to kiss her ear, enjoying the sight of the gooseflesh that rose upon her skin. “Can I help it if every time I see you naked I feel like being bad?” I kissed her neck.

“Hhmm,” Gabrielle hummed. “Remember, Conqueror, bad girls get spanked.”

Gods above! Instantly I was wet. Now, I had never once entertained the notion of allowing any man or woman to take me, let alone play the submissive in that kind of game. Of course, I was the first person to admit that a little pain with my pleasure did marvelous things for my libido, but to let another dominate me? Ares balls! It was all I could do to allow Gabrielle to tie me down in our own bed. To allow her control of my pleasure was one thing, to trust her to carry out physical pain using a sensual method, that was another…wasn’t it?

“Xena?”

I quickly came out of my sexual haze, uncertain how long Gabrielle had been calling my name.

“I am only teasing,” she said.

I was sure she said the words to comfort what she must have perceived was some sort of distress on my part, but when she uttered those words, something in me felt…well, disappointed.

Gabrielle read my mind. “You look disappointed.”

“No! I mean…well, I…I mean, it’s just that…” How eloquent I could be. The question was, did I want to go there? Why did the vision keep popping back into my head, and why do I feel so damn hot just thinking about it?

“Xena?” Gabrielle asked slowly. “Is this…is it something you want to explore?”

“I uhm…I think…maybe I–how do you feel about it?” I abruptly turned the question around.

Gabrielle smiled one of those slow, delicious smiles of hers. She stood up in the water and turned to face me. I was still lounging beside the bath when she leaned forward. The ledge around the bathing area pushed her breasts even further into my view. Gabrielle leaned in and kissed me, gently at first, but expertly using nothing but her lips and tongue to build the heat between us. Eventually, she paused to take my lower lip into her mouth and sucked, but as she released my mouth, she took a sharp nip from my bottom lip.

That was it…I was a goner. My body had instantly turned into liquid. I lay there in a puddle unable to articulate one single thing. At that moment, if Gabrielle had even thought about touching me I would have come for her in an instant. I believe I may have made some unintelligible noises, but that was being generous. In reality, I think it came out as more of a strangled groan.

“I’ll take that as a yes?” Gabrielle asked.

I could do no more than nod, hypnotized by her emerald gaze.

The sound of someone softly clearing their throat interrupted our plans. We both looked up to find one of the young female servants that worked in the house.

“Many pardons for the interruption your highnesses, but there is a soldier who says that he has a most urgent message for the Conqueror.”

“Who is our caller, Lydia?” Gabrielle asked, submerging herself back into the bathwater.

“His name is Lieutenant Acasia,” My Queen.

“Ah, I should speak with him.” I rose quickly. I didn’t want to take one step away from this spot, but if Acasia had followed me to Athens then his news must have been important. “He’s uh…doing a few things for me,” I explained to Gabrielle.

“Don’t forget, Conqueror,” Gabrielle began in a very saccharine voice. “We have a date later.”

I grinned and quickly kissed her goodbye. As I left the room, I was overcome with a feeling of dread combined with intense sexual longing. I didn’t even know I could feel both of those sensations at the same time.

****

“Are you sure they said it was the doctor that gave them this child?”

Acasia had brought me very interesting news, indeed. I was trying to concentrate on the man’s information and not on the ache between my legs, that Gabrielle had left me with. My mind was even further preoccupied with the sort of evening I might find waiting for me when I arrived home on this evening.

“Aye, Conqueror. Everything they told me is in the report.”

“So, you actually spoke to the parents of the child? Did you see the doctor, as well?” I asked as I took the sealed parchment from the soldier’s hand. I began to peruse it as I listened.

“I spoke at length with the father. He was anxious to give out information in the local tavern for free drinks. I was unable to speak with the doctor.”

“Why was that?”

“Your Governor there has him working in the palace now. It’s odd, that is.”

“Odd in what way? I understand he’s good at what he does.”

“Aye, Conqueror, but I thought it strange that as soon as I began my discreet inquiries as to the child, the doctor ended up working in the palace. I’m unable to get close to him. Even when he goes outside, now, they have him with at least two guards.”

“Yes,” I nodded slowly. “I find that most odd.”

“I was afraid that I would be discovered or arrested sooner or later. It seemed as though the only way to get inside the Governor’s palace would have been on the Conqueror’s business. I wasn’t about to reveal anything.”

“Of course not,” I answered in a distracted fashion as I read his report. “So the doctor found homes for this orphaned baby. Did that happen often?”

“Aye. It was a common occurrence in that province, more mouths to feed than most places with fewer resources. It wasn’t until one of my informants contacted me about some farmer. Turned out the man and his wife have a little business going on that the doctor was unaware of. It’s very discreet. The farmer and his wife take in a stray and raise it until it’s old enough to be sold on the black market.”

“And the child they have now…this child?” I indicated the parchment in my hand.

“Another two seasons until even the Persians will take her as a slave.”

I relaxed, but only slightly so. I thought about the young girls I’d saved from that sort of servitude back in Corinth. For the first time in a fortnight, the beast clawed at my chest.

“I want a watch placed on her every moment of every day until I arrive in Thessaly.”

“Aye, Conqueror.”

I continued to read the scroll. I wondered if Acasia had any idea why I was so interested in this child. If he held any curiosity whatsoever, he hid it well. It probably didn’t matter to a soldier such as him. He took orders and carried them out steadfastly. I wished for an entire battalion of soldiers this loyal.

“Acasia,” I paused and looked up at the still standing soldier. I tossed the scroll upon my desk and leaned back in my chair. “Do you know why this child is so important to me?”

“It’s not my place–”

“I’m making it your place.”

“No, Conqueror, I have no idea.”

“Certainly you’ve thought about it…guessed?”

“It’s true, I’ve held my own counsel on the matter.”

“And your conclusion?”

He looked most uncomfortable, but since I had asked him a direct question, he could hardly refuse to answer.

“I assumed…well, the child has dark looks, just like…” He paused in what could only be described as embarrassment.

“Like me?” I asked.

“Aye, Conqueror.”

“I suspect that this child is the daughter of the crown, Acasia, but not mine.”

He looked away to the wall, then back to me. His eyes squinted together as he finally understood my meaning. Then he did a most strange thing. He smiled. Now, I think it had easily been over five seasons since I had seen anything resembling humor on this man’s face. Actually, I wasn’t certain that I could ever recall such a time. His reason was about to become clear.

Then I think her highness will be very pleased, Conqueror.”

“Why is that?”

“The child, my Lord. Her natural coloring is dark; it’s true. She has hair and skin the shade of yours, but she has one distinguishing feature.”

“Which is?” I leaned forward, never having expected the conversation to have taken this turn.

Acasia’s smile grew broad and it looked out of place on his face.

“The child has eyes the color of two of the greenest emeralds I’ve ever seen, Conqueror.”

****
Not only could I not get back to our rooms before dark, I had a sexual frustration building like a ball of fire inside of me. Spending all day terrified and elated, plus in a near constant state of arousal had me as tight as a bow string.

When I arrived at our home, the first thing I noticed was that all the guards were outside, even some distance for the house.

“Explain?” I demanded of the first man I encountered.

“The Queen’s order, Lord Conqueror.”

“Oh.” I entered through the front doors and dismissed my own guard to set themselves up some way from the house, just as the other soldiers had.

The house was quite dark except for a large dining area. The room, one of the few closed off from the rest of the house, was surrounded by seven marble columns and in the center waited my Gabrielle. She was surrounded by at least fifty candles and she stood beside a table filled with food. Along the floor she had spread cusions and pillows.As I quickly took in the room, I noticed a small wooden table. The table obviously had items atop it, but they were covered with a length of cloth.

All that inspection took place in the blink of an eye because the true focus of my attention definitely clung to Gabrielle.

“You’ve been shopping,” I said as I moved in and kissed her.

She stood there in a most traditional Greek gown. The cloth fell just off her shoulders and there was a split in the floor length dress all the way up to her hip. The only difference between this dress and any other Greek woman’s gown was that this material was sheer. It was refreshingly delightful to Gabrielle’s naked body, yet to feel that she was still clothed.

She kissed me long and slow.

“Where are the servants,” I asked in a hoarse whisper.

“I sent them away for the evening. There isn’t another soul within…screaming distance of the house.”

I swallowed hard at the emphasis she placed on that one word.

“Are you…hungry?” She extended a hand toward the table of food that just happened to be at the same height as that triangle between her legs.

That’s when I saw it.

Gabrielle had shaved the golden hair of her pubis and it simply beckoned to me. I could see it, but with the sheer cloth, I thought perhaps I had imagined it. I looked again, taking a good long look this time. Her fingers played with the tile at the edge of the table before her, which drew even more attention to the spot.

I didn’t want to know how she did it, I didn’t want to even think about if she had help to do it, I only knew at that moment, that I wanted nothing more in life than to run my tongue along that smooth flesh. My mouth actually watered.

“Xena, would you like to…eat?” she asked with that same come-hither expression.

It nearly undid me when she dipped an index finger into the bowl on the table in front of her, drawing my eyesight to her shaved sex once more. She brought the finger to her mouth and slowly licked the sauce away with her tongue.

Gods! What did I have to do to get over to her? Walk, yes that was it…Gods-be-damned…why couldn’t I remember what walk meant?

“Not hungry yet?” she asked.

Suddenly I remembered what nodding was. I shook my head vigorously. I tried to verbalize a thought, but I think it came out as a grunt. Okay, I can do this…I want this, right? Gods, I don’t think I can do this. My thoughts raced and I’m certain Gabrielle saw that implosion was nearing.

“Come along, my Conqueror,” she smiled and grasped my hand and led me to our private rooms.

Over a candlemark later, I had been lovingly bathed and Gabrielle had given me a most relaxing massage. I had one or two quick orgasms along the way, but she never really concentrated for long on pleasuring me. I was soon to realize that it was because she had much bigger things in mind.

We lounged on cushions in the dining area. Gabrielle had done her best to elude my wandering hands. At one point during an exceptionally passionate kiss, she broke away. Rising, she went to the covered table and folded the cloth back, exposing part, but not all of the items beneath. What she had exposed was a whip made of black, well-oiled leather.

I closed my eyes as my belly cramped in pleasurable anticipation.

“Remove your robe,” she asked softly.

It wasn’t an order, but I found myself wanting to stand before her naked, wanting to feel her eyes roaming across my body, hoping her hands would soon follow. I rose and let the robe fall to the floor. I walked over to her, already feeling my palms grow sweaty and my body flush.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked in a moment of bravery or foolishness. I wasn’t certain which.

She led me over to one of the columns and told me to place my back against it.

“Put your arms around to the sides.”

The table was before me and I saw her hand slip under the cloth and pull free a set of leather restraints. In moments, I felt my wrists bound behind me around the column.

Her voice was stern, commanding, but the tone held a sound like indifference. She was now in her mode of expertise. Not just that, but it was as though she had completely immersed herself in her role of dominatrix. I began taking deep breaths as I watched her walk away.

“Are you sure, Xena? Certain that this is what you want?”

Hades no, I wasn’t sure. I certainly was the other day, though, and this morning. Hadn’t I gotten aroused at the mere thought of Gabrielle controlling me…dominating me? Hadn’t I gotten sopping wet just picturing her holding the same whip that lay on the table before us now? So why were my knees feeling a bit weak just now? This is your wife, your lover. She would never really hurt you…would she?

It was that one bit of doubt that made something such as this so alluring. The fear was what added to the pleasure. The fact that I could be hurt, but that I trusted Gabrielle not to hurt me…Gods…what a powerful thought. Not hearing any dissent, Gabrielle simply waited patiently. I knew she would wait for as long as it took for me to process my fears and to decide. She moved to the table and carefully picked up the whip. I watched as she examined the soft, dark leather. Gabrielle held out her arm and the whip uncoiled until it reached the floor.

Two warring emotions competed within me just then…panic and pleasure. I think my undoing had been when I tested the leather restraints around my wrists. As Gabrielle examined the whip, testing its weight in her hand, I pulled my wrists apart. I could feel the leather stretch and hear the creak as I reached the limits of my bonds. I realized that at that moment I was well and truly caught. That’s when the panic set in. I pulled even harder, the muscles in my arms bunching together and straining to pop out from beneath my skin. I took in a deep gulp of air when I gave up and relaxed my arms.

I wanted to surrender. I wanted to know what it felt like, especially at Gabrielle’s hands. Only for her. I wanted Gabrielle to know how much I loved her and just how much trust I had in her. I could feel the sweat trickling down my ribs and hear my own panicked breaths. I was moments away from simply losing it and tearing the column from the floor in my attempt to escape.

Gabrielle looked at me as if this was nothing out of the ordinary, as though she had six feet of naked warrior tied up before her everyday. The lines in her face spoke of indifference, but the tone in her voice betrayed the depth of emotion she herself experienced just then.

“Xena,” she called out my name as she came toward me.

I tried to focus on that beautiful face, but suddenly the room had turned unbearably hot, making it all that much more difficult to breathe. My vision tunneled until all I could see was her.

Gabrielle drew closer and gently pinched and rolled my nipples between her fingers. She looked at me until I closed my eyes in pleasure. I opened them again when I felt her tongue and then her warm mouth enclose a frighteningly hard nipple. By the time she’d finished giving that treatment to each breast, I was rocking my hips into the air. This was the pleasure. She definitely had me focused, but I knew that it was only momentary, or so I thought. I believe I underestimated her skill in this area.

“Xena, this will only happen if you want it to happen,” she whispered between kissing my neck and throat. “I will never hurt you beyond what you desire for pleasure. I will never humiliate you. “This,” she indicated the whip that was still in her hand, “is something that requires the ultimate level of trust between lovers.”

As she spoke, she began to stroke my overheated flesh with the whip. She brushed the plaited leather across my nipples repeatedly until an involuntary moan leapt past my lips. Moving behind me, Gabrielle ran the whip along my back. Suddenly, I felt my wrists released from their restraints.

“No, Gabrielle,” I said breathlessly. “I can do this.” I felt like crying. Why was control so hard for me to give up…even to this woman?

“Quiet!” a sharp slap to my backside told me that Gabrielle had not given up on the game.

I felt my hands bound together again, but this time it was a silken scarf that restrained me. I knew Gabrielle’s intent and I wanted to shout for joy. Part of my fear had, of course, been of Gabrielle and the pain of that whip, giving her the power to hurt me. There was more to it than that, though. I had been afraid of having no way out. If harm befell us, tied up as I had been, I could not have escaped. With the scarf binding my wrists behind my back, I could always break free. It was a way out if I needed it.

Gabrielle’s voice came to me softly as she kissed the backs of my shoulders. “You could break free if you want, but if you do…I’ll stop.”

Those words were like a death knoll and I realized that she meant them. It was also rather interesting that she allowed me the opportunity to hold myself back.

“Control can be so arousing, but you already know that, don’t you, my Conqueror? But to control yourself, testing yourself not to break your bonds…it makes you so wet, realizing you’re in control and yet not…doesn’t it? Of course it does. I can smell the scent of you, all desperate and excited at the same time.”

Her hand roamed the front of my body, never staying in one place long. She moved to the table once more and I watched as she brought over a delicate chain, lifting it to my sight. In the middle was a circular piece of metal and on each end of the chain hung a small dragon’s head. I’d seen an object like this before, even used them on others, but never myself. Just the thought caused a trickle of wetness to run down the inside of my thigh.

“Know what this is for?”

I nodded.

“Any objections?” she asked, but the tone of her voice told me she didn’t expect to receive any. She was so right.

I shook my head back and forth quickly.

Gabrielle leaned in and sucked each nipple hard until they tingled and my knees felt like melting. She took the dragon heads at each end of the chain into each of her hands. She held them between her thumb and forefinger and squeezed until the jaws of the head gaped open. She quickly attached the clamps to each of my nipples and I threw my head back and groaned. She allowed me a moment for the initial shock to wear off, and then she gently tugged on the circle in the middle of the chain, pulling toward her.

Oh, Gods!” I exclaimed. It was as if my nipples and my groin were connected in some way. I felt the pull deep inside of me.

She leaned up and kissed me fiercely. I nearly forgot what breathing was, not wanting it to end. She stood on tiptoes to whisper directly in my ear.

“That’s your safe word, Xena. Remember that it’s not enough to simply say no. When we explore our passion in this way, saying no becomes part of the game. If you ever are unsure, or you want to stop for any reason, use your safe word. I’ll stop without hesitation.”

She lowered herself back down to her normal stance and looked at me with an intense gaze. I saw the emerald fire sparking behind those demure eyes and I marveled. Who knew that such a dominatrix hid behind that demeanor?

“I’ll ask you once more, Xena. Are you sure?”

There was no hesitation this time. I loved Gabrielle…I trusted her.

“Yes.”

The words had barely left my mouth before I felt the handle of the whip pressed against my center. Gabrielle moved the length of the handle along my entire sex, coating it with the wetness that I already knew would be abundant.

“Right here?” she asked. She pressed the knob at the end of the handle against my clit, just as she reached up to tug gently on the chain dangling between my breasts.

“Gods, please,” I moaned. I had never begged before, but Gabrielle had barely touched me and I was already a quivering mess.

“Tell me what you want, Xena. You’ll have to beg me if you expect to get release.”

“Gods…Gabrielle…” she pressed the handle into my opening and I struggled to spread my legs wider. “Please, mistress, fuck me.”

In that moment, not only was I entirely lost as Gabrielle slipped the handle of the whip inside me, slowly stroking my inner walls, but I knew that she deserved the title of mistress. At that moment, she had complete and utter control of me. Even more, I knew that if Gabrielle didn’t give me release, I would simply die. No amount of pleasuring with my own hand or another would bring me to feel the way I knew Gabrielle could. It had to be her and I was willing to prostrate myself in any manner to feel her special brand of pleasure.

To Hades with being a Conqueror tonight!

A long, languid moan fell from my lips as Gabrielle thrust the handle inside, pulling back just as my inner walls tried to grasp the object and draw it back in. I came in a rush that I wasn’t even prepared for. I cried out loudly and my legs trembled as I fought to stay upright.

I caught my breath and looked up just as Gabrielle raised the handle of the whip to her lips. She licked my wetness from the leather, her eyes never leaving mine. That one quick orgasm had obviously done little to sate me as I groaned, unable to tear my eyes from her as she licked the whip’s handle clean.

She stepped behind me and loosed the scarf from my wrists. I watched as the red silk fluttered to the floor.

“Turn around,” she commanded. I obeyed immediately, facing the round column.

Moving behind my body once more, she ran both hands up my backside and along my spine. She raked her nails back down the way she’d just come. I shivered and cursed my body’s betrayal. Surely, I could hold out longer. I was about to find out just how long.

“Place your hands on each side of the column and spread your legs apart.”

I did as I was told and waited.

“If you let go, Xena…I will stop.” She repeated her earlier command.

Just like that, and I knew that she meant it, too. I admit, I was terrified just then. I was more afraid of letting Gabrielle use that whip on me than in fighting any battle I’d ever fought. Thank the Gods for my libido, however, because my raging hormones finally told my brain to shut up and enjoy the ride.

“I understand,” I responded earnestly.

“And you’re sure this is what you want? To give this to me?”

“Gods, yes,” I replied in a voice hoarse from passion.

I heard her step away and I flinched when she tested the whip by cracking it in the air. I wondered just then if I shouldn’t have found out if Gabrielle well and truly could handle this whip. An odd time to wonder that, I know, but thinking was difficult with my clit pulsing its need incessantly.

I felt the feather light rush of air just before the whip touched my skin the first time. I gasped, partly from surprise and in part from the sensation. It was like a slightly stinging touch. Gabrielle’s hand was expert with the whip as she placed three more hot kisses of the whip against my back, moving lower with each strike. It came to me then, in a jumble of passion. Of course, Gabrielle was an expert at this. She had been trained in every aspect regarding the art of pleasure.

My skin grew hot and I could feel my body beginning to arch toward the sizzling sensations that came with each flick of Gabrielle’s wrist. She went lower to my backside and I could feel each blow as though it was Gabrielle’s tongue on my clit. I wanted to open my legs wider and press them together at the same time.

Gabrielle paused. “Do you want me to stop?”

The words that came from my mouth fell out in a jumble of begging and pleading. “Gods, no…please, mistress, please, don’t stop.”

In my mind’s eye, I pictured the corners of Gabrielle’s mouth upturned in a delightful smile. The next blow barely landed on my skin, snapping almost tenderly against the highly sensitized flesh of my backside. I finally spread my legs apart even further and attempted to arch into the caresses, presenting myself for Gabrielle’s whip.

That’s when it happened…three sizzling kisses from the leather in rapid succession. The last felt as though it had been aimed precisely at my clit. I cried out in ecstasy, but before I could even come down from the high of that orgasm Gabrielle was behind me. I felt her fingers inside of me, her hand pumping in and out until my hips thrust back against her roughly, nearly demanding that she give me everything she had.

She removed her hand and when I felt her enter me again, her thumb penetrated my ass.

“Yes!” I cried out with the only coherent word I could utter at the moment. The feeling was incredible as I silently granted Gabrielle permission to touch me in a way that no other had ever been allowed. Just as I could feel my orgasm rising up to meet me, Gabrielle’s hand left me. My hips rocked against nothing but air for a few moments before I even realized that she had moved away.

“Please, mistress,” I was quick to beg without any prompting.

It didn’t take long before Gabrielle returned and I felt her naked breasts press against my back. I felt the hard leather thickness of a phallus press against my sopping opening, but as she moved her hips into place, I felt her beginning to penetrate my ass, too.

“Good Gods!” I shouted at the filling sensation.

Gabrielle stopped pushing. “Do you want me to stop?” she asked.

“Fuck no!” I said forcefully. Remembering who was controlling my pleasure, I quickly apologized. “Forgive me, mistress. Please…don’t stop. It feels so good…I’m so close,” I whimpered pathetically.

Satisfied with my contrition, Gabrielle reached around and pulled none too gently on the clamps connected to my nipples. The sparks flashed behind my eyes and I felt myself penetrated completely. I shamelessly pushed back against her thrusts, begging her to take me harder and faster.

I promised her everything once she pressed that spot on my inner thigh with her fingers. It had been a while since she had used that pressure point on me, but I felt it down to my soul. It felt as though a million tongues were lapping at my clit at the same time. The down side was that it sort of disabled my ability to come. Instead, the feelings built up and once I heard Gabrielle’s own moans, I realized what she was building up to.

She took me, for that’s exactly what I had wanted, even though I had been unable to admit it to myself. I wanted to be possessed, controlled. Perhaps not always, maybe never again, but at least this once, and Gabrielle was the only person in this world that I could imagine giving it up to.

“Gods, Xena!” Gabrielle cried out just as she released the fire in my groin with an expert touch of her fingers.

With the pressure point released, every nerve ending around my clit fired at the same time. I came so hard I dropped to my knees. Both our bodies shook for long moments after. I remember the emptiness as Gabrielle removed the phallus and its companion piece from inside of me.

The hot, stinging flesh of my backside cooled when I felt Gabrielle’s wetness on me. She opened herself and began to rub her swollen sex along my ass. Something in me snapped when I heard her languid moan from behind me.

I turned around quickly and pushed her the rest of the way to the floor. I kissed her passionately, tasting myself upon her lips from when she had licked the whip clean of my wetness.

I went up on my hands and knees and lowered my head to her spread legs. With no more preamble than that, I dove in and eagerly explored her sex with my tongue. I moaned into the wet flesh as I ate her. I couldn’t stop, even after her second orgasm. Not that she seemed to want me to. Gabrielle’s fingers curled within my hair and she pulled me harder and harder against her.

I sucked her swollen clit as she bucked against me. I spent a long time just doing what I’d wanted to in the first place, running my tongue along the smooth, newly shaved skin. Just when I felt that she’d go over the edge any second, I simultaneously slipped two fingers inside of her and used my teeth to, ever so carefully, bite down on her clit. The effect was amazing and I thought for a moment that her orgasm would never end.

After what seemed like an eternity, we both relaxed and our breathing returned to normal. My heart hadn’t yet resumed its normal cadence, but I couldn’t resist grinning as I pulled her into my arms.

“Okay, I think I’m hungry now,” I said as Gabrielle breathlessly laughed in my arms.

****

It wasn’t long before Gabrielle slept soundly in my arms. After the paces she’d put me through, I thought I would have been the one to slip into Morpheus’s realm first. Instead, I lay here, my body reliving moments of our previous pleasure. The memories weren’t intended to arouse, rather they were pleasant, warm emotions.

I marveled at the small woman in my embrace. What a treasure she was, I thought with a smile on my face. It wasn’t the sex or her extraordinary capabilities in that regard. There was so much more to this woman than that. What I loved the most was that Gabrielle had the amazing ability to surprise me when I thought that no such surprises existed anymore for me in this life.

I saw a flower once, growing into what appeared to be solid rock. It was an old stone wall that had fallen into some disrepair. Against the most staggering odds and under the most inhospitable conditions, the tiny blossom not only existed, but thrived. I thought of the similarities between my Gabrielle and the flower in that crannied wall. She was a thing of beauty who had existed in a harsh, oftentimes hostile environment. I could not rush in and save the flower from its predicament, for it had grown accustomed to living there, grown used to a life on its own terms.

I could never give Gabrielle back the life that had been stolen from her. I could only stand in awe of the ability she drew, from who knows where, to sustain her beautiful spirit through it all. The last thought I had, as my eyes grew heavy with fatigue and my thoughts grew dim, was of Gabrielle’s beautiful face and that flower in the crannied wall.
Chapter 8: When the lamp is shatter’d…
A particularly warm sensation upon my back pulled me from my sleep. As soon as my eyes opened and I saw Gabrielle sprawled across the bed, naked and with the sheet carelessly draped across her back, I smiled. I suddenly realized where the warmth on my backside had come from.

I stretched and tested my body, thankful that the previous evening’s activity had only left me with a slight sting. It was a most pleasant reminder. Gods above! I knew that pleasure and pain made for occasionally happy bedfellows, but how could I have known that submitting to Gabrielle would be such a satisfying experience, physically as well as mentally. It hadn’t been the pain, the gentle whispers of the whip, which I remembered the most about our night. It was the submission. It was depending on Gabrielle for my pleasure, trusting in another person to keep me safe, to please me beyond comprehension. In all honesty, it had been something that I had desired for some time, even when I had been younger, but I had never voiced that want. I had been unable to. Before, Gabrielle, that is.

With warm thoughts of contentment running through my head, I rolled over and curled up beside Gabrielle. I lay there, simply enjoying the feel of her. Sleep was past me, now, for I found it quite difficult to return to sleep once I woke. My thoughts returned to Acasia and my visit with him the previous day.

I looked at Gabrielle’s sleeping form and asked myself the same question that had been niggling at my brain since I’d found out about the child in Thessaly. What if this girl wasn’t Gabrielle’s daughter? I thought about the odds and felt myself slightly depressed. What were the chances that Acasia had found Gabrielle’s daughter in so short a time? Then I thought of the green eyes. What did that matter, though? Girls were born into the known world every day with green eyes.

Again, I asked myself…what if this wasn’t Gabrielle’s child? It had taken everything in me not to tell my wife as soon as I had even suspected that we knew where the child was. I had thought long and hard about the consequences of such a premature action. What if I was wrong? What if the child wasn’t Gabrielle’s and I brought her out there with me? How would she react? I shivered as I recalled the day Gabrielle had told me about her baby. She was hysterical, actually, beyond hysterical to the point of a catatonic state. I remembered holding her in my arms, feeling her sobs over her own supposed guilt. Then, what a difference Yu Pan had made. He had helped Gabrielle to put the pain and loss away where it couldn’t hurt her any longer. Would I undo all that good by announcing this find prematurely?

I sighed and wondered what to do. Hopeful that whatever decision I made, Gabrielle would understand that it was all for her in the first place. I rolled over and stretched out on my back, placing my hands beneath my head. I couldn’t bear the heartbreak that Gabrielle would experience if I told her about the girl and my suspicions, and then this girl turned out to be someone else. Would Gabrielle be able to handle that?

Suddenly my unease was replaced with a most comforting feeling. I smiled after I realized I had probably been worrying much too much. It dawned on me that I hadn’t been giving Gabrielle’s inherent nature enough credit. How would Gabrielle react if this weren’t her daughter? The answer became startlingly clear. Would it matter? Gabrielle would see a child that needed rescuing. If not the child of her body, Gabrielle would easily see the youngster as the child of her heart. In helping this girl, perhaps, in Gabrielle’s eyes, it would bring her that much closer to absolution.

I realized, at last, what I needed to tell Acasia, in order to ensure the girl’s safety.

****

“You want me to take the girl, Conqueror?”

Acasia’s voice rose an octave. I had rarely heard any inflection to the man’s voice, and if the situation had been less serious, I would have laughed aloud at Acasia’s expression.

“No, not just take. Hades balls, man, use your imagination. You have to use a little cleverness with this one.”

“Being clever is not exactly my strong suit, Conqueror.”

I had to remember that the man before me was a soldier, an assassin. Spy games weren’t exactly Acasia’s style. He was more of a straight forward sort of fellow. With his rugged looks, the scars from battle, and, most of all, his missing arm, I realized that Acasia would hardly pass as a nobleman looking for a slave girl.

“I understand, Acasia. I do apologize,” I said.

The man didn’t even try to hide his surprise at my words. Actually, my apology came as every bit a surprise to me, as well. I had simply realized that I must have accentuated his physical shortcomings with my comments. How odd…it felt rather good, though. It was my first apology without conscious thought and I felt very much like a child, so proud at its first spoken word.

“Acasia, who do you have watching the girl now?”

“Belleron, Lord Conqueror. He’s one of my best.”

“That wiry fellow with the dark looks?” I tried to remember the last time that I had met with Acasia’s men.

“Aye, Conqueror.”

“All right, he’ll do. What I want, Acasia, is for Belleron to play the part of a wealthy nobleman. Do you think he’s up to it?”

Acasia rewarded me with a sly grin. “I think it’s just the sort of thing he would be good at.”

“Good. I want you to offer a sum for the girl that they couldn’t possibly refuse. Perhaps you can play the part of Belleron’s man. That would explain how you heard about the girl in the first place. You are not to take no for an answer or leave that farmhouse without the girl. Do you understand?”

“Aye, Conqueror. And where shall we take the child?”

“I have to work on that yet. Come see me around noontime. I should have the rest of our plan pieced out by then.”

“Aye, Conqueror.” Acasia saluted me, taking my words as a dismissal.

“And Acasia…” I called him back as an afterthought. I rose and crossed the room, opening a small locked chest. I drew out a bag of silver and tossed it in his direction. I turned away from Acasia and watched the gulls from my window.

“Do they have any other children there or is it just the girl?”

“No, just the girl, Conqueror.”

I twirled one of my lion’s head daggers around atop the chest in an absent minded fashion. “Acasia, I want it made clear that once you get the girl, this farmer and his wife are not welcome in Greece any longer. They have one moon until I show up there. If I find them there, I’ll crucify them. Without mentioning my name, I want you to make them understand that.”

“As you wish, Conqueror.”

I stood before the window long after Acasia had left. I was consumed with the hope that the farmer would defy me. Some small, still untamed part of me wished for that with all my heart. When I looked down, my hands were clenched into fists that shook slightly. I could feel the beast, pacing back and forth like a wild animal that had been caged for much too long.

****

“You asked to see me, Conqueror?” Ephiny had appeared much sooner than I thought she would.

“I did. I hope you weren’t insulted, what with me sending for you, but it’s most important.”

“Is anything wrong?” she asked wearing an expression of genuine concern.

“No, it’s nothing like that. I have…” I knew this was going to be hard, especially considering it was Ephiny I had to ask. She and I had acknowledged a certain friendship, but we still had what could only be described as an adversarial friendship.

“I would ask a favor of you,” I finally finished.

“A favor?” Her eyes brightened and I should have known she couldn’t let it go. How did I know? Hades, because it’s exactly how I would have acted.

“The kind of ‘you will owe me later’ favor?” Ephiny inquired.

I smirked across my desk at her. “I prefer to think of it as a ‘you will make your Queen a very happy woman’ type of favor.”

Silence reigned until neither of us could keep a straight face any longer. We both laughed aloud and I thought about how good that simple action felt after the anger I had experienced just a candlemark ago.

“Sit,” I motioned to the chair across from my own. I rose and poured us each a mug of wine. “You’re going to have to hear this story from the beginning. I just want to inform you that I tell you all of this, secure in the fact that the information will go no farther than to those who need to know.”

Ephiny’s face grew serious again and she straightened in her chair. “I think you know that goes without saying, Xena. What can the Amazons do to help?”

I relaxed at once. Hearing her use my given name seemed to confirm, even solidify, our friendship. I think I needed that. I told her then of what I had in mind. In no more time than it had taken me to tell my story, and of the plan I had concocted for the child that I thought was Gabrielle’s daughter, Ephiny had arranged the necessary details.

Acasia left that afternoon with a parchment in his possession. The small scroll had been sealed with my crest and a small feather and bead wrap that I would soon come to recognize as Ephiny’s seal. I was feeling as high as a hawk on the wind that evening. Gabrielle and I took a moonlight walk by the shore and we made love in the soft, high grass, neither of us even caring what our guards must have been thinking.

If only I could have known that this would be one of the last peaceful and romantic moments we would share for some time to come, I think I would have stayed there until dawn.

****
“My Lord?” Gabrielle slipped an arm around my waist as she handed me a silver goblet of port.

“How did you know I needed this so badly?” I asked before taking a large swallow.

“I could hear you grinding your teeth from the other side of the room.”

I chuckled. At least Gabrielle had a way of putting me in a good humor.

A different politician had entertained us on each of our first five nights in Athens. At one time, many seasons previous, I had been more used to such dinners. Funny, but I liked them no more then than I did now. Even in the old days when I was still building the Empire I had a habit of sneaking away rather early from the evening’s festivities. The company of men had only been able to entertain me for so long. Now, in my youth…Gods! I had stayed up until dawn, out-drinking and out-screwing any man in my command. As for the present, even with my renewed youth and vigor, I looked forward to nothing more than a soft bed and my wife’s company at this time of the night.

“So, how are you enjoying the evening, my love?” I asked.

Gabrielle reached for my goblet and took a tiny sip of port. She didn’t usually care for drink.

“I think I need this, too.”

“Uh oh. Do I need to run anyone through for you?”

“Hhmm, let me think about it.” She smiled up at me. “Not right now, but I may call on you later…be ready.”

Again I laughed. Her sense of humor served us both well. “Let me guess. Militiades?”

“Do you know that man’s wife is every bit as arrogant as he is?”

“That figures. The only thing I can say in their defense is that they’re royalty and were a part of the old aristocracy system.”

“Royalty? I had no idea. Should I be addressing him differently?”

“It’s probably better that you don’t. I don’t think he’s too proud of his behavior. He’s from the Philaïd family. Do you know of the Ionian Revolt?” I knew Gabrielle must have at least been familiar with the subject, since studying war stratagems had been a particular hobby of hers. It was one of the reasons that she excelled at the game of King’s Men.

“I’m familiar with the actions, but not all the players.”

“Well, Militiades was a general here in Athens under Hippias. When his maternal uncle died, Militiades inherited a fiefdom in the Chersonese. He left Athens to rule the peninsula as its turannos, or dictator, over the Thracians there.”

“And his wife?” Gabrielle asked softly.

“A Thracian King’s daughter. He married her out there. Turns out they served the Persians. Their deal was that the Persians wouldn’t attack the Chersonese and Militiades would serve as the Persian King, Darius’s, vassal. When the Greeks turned out in their battleships to fight off the Persians, the Philaïds were one of the families who turned away from the fight. They left their Greek brothers to die or be sold into slavery by the Persians. Militiades wandered around for a long time before he approached me the day before I conquered Athens.”

“I’m surprised you took him in.”

“I am, too. Actually, Athena told me that he would prove valuable to me one day. Besides, despite his manner and the fact that his head is so big it probably has its own house, he is one Hades of a soldier. I figured I’d rather have him fighting for me than the other way around. So, do you think we’ve put in enough of an appearance?”

“Sweet Athena, yes.”

I smiled slyly at her. “You just want to stay up and read, don’t you?”

Gabrielle’s cheeks flushed pink at being found out. “Would it bother you?” she asked with a worried expression.

“No, love. I knew before I even took you to the library that it might come to this. Enjoy yourself while we’re here.”

“Thank you, my Conqueror.”

Gabrielle and her scrolls, I remember thinking. Every single time I watched, her attention solely on the parchment before her, I thought of the first day we spent together. She had been no more than a slave to me then, but I knew that I had to make her dream come true. I had to allow her access to the written word. I don’t know why, only that it was important to Gabrielle. Since the moment we first met, what has been precious to Gabrielle has become important to me.

Seeing the look on Gabrielle’s face as she read made the loss of her company worth it all. We had gone to the city library on our second day in Athens. I knew ahead of time that Gabrielle was going to be thrilled. She couldn’t eat a bit of her morning meal before we left. Cleisthenes had kept his word about showing Gabrielle the sights, but I had wanted to be there for this one and see the look on Gabrielle’s face myself. I remember how the girl who loved the written word so dearly had stood in awe at my own small collection of scrolls. I honestly think she almost fainted upon walking into the library at Corinth. When we walked into the archives, here in Athens, Gabrielle’s emotional reaction took all of us by surprise. All of us except for the keeper of the archives, Periander, as I recall.

“Periander,” Cleisthenes began, “Their royal highnesses, Xena the Conqueror and Queen Gabrielle. Your highness,” he turned to Gabrielle. “Periander has been the keeper of the archives here in Athens for the last sixteen summers.”

The old man who stood before us looked to easily be fifty or sixty seasons. He was no frail scroll monger, however. He stood a full hand taller than me and had a belly that indicated the expertise of his cook. He looked perpetually jovial with his reddened cheeks and nervous smile.He had an intimidating physical presence until one realized that he would have had a hard time wounding a butterfly.

He bowed to each of us out of respect and said a few words of greeting. Cleisthenes explained that Gabrielle had an interest in the scrolls and the history of the archive. Once Periander heard that he had an eager audience, he grew enthusiastic. He agreed with my request that Gabrielle’s introduction to the Athenian City library and archives begin in the Great Room.

The outer doors to the Great Room were a good twenty hands high, made of some dark, highly polished wood. The inner doors were an iron-like metal, with large bars that hung off by the side walls. The metal bars could be slipped into brackets on the inner doors, to seal the archive from invaders.

We stepped in through the double doors and walked twenty paces into the center of the room. We all stopped to look up at the domed ceiling that had been gilded with gold. I remember that I had felt rather small the first time I stepped into this room. Shelves rose up as high as the eye could see. Those shelves held thousands upon thousands of scrolls. Young apprentices and students scrambled along ladders and scaffolding to arrange and catalog the scrolls. They looked much like bees in a hive, busily focused on the task at hand.

Gabrielle looked up until her head tilted back so far I thought she would fall backward. She looked up quickly at me and I don’t think I shall ever forget the look of innocent awe on her face. She was speechless and appeared as a child who had just discovered something marvelous about the world around her. When I looked at her a moment later, she had tears streaming down her face.

“Are you ill, your highness?” Periander bent down to inquire of Gabrielle.

“She’s all right, Periander,” I answered for her. “She’s just happy.”

“Ahh,” the older man nodded in understanding. Tears welled in his own eyes and he boldly took each of Gabrielle’s hands within his own.

“Your highness, may I say that I have waited for the last sixteen seasons for someone to react in this manner upon entering the library? I had given up hope that anyone loved the parchment as well as me. Please allow me to show you more.”

That had been the last moment that Gabrielle had free time. Since then, she spent much of her time surrounded by scrolls and she had become fast friends with the keeper of the archives. Periander’s young apprentices made deliveries to our home in Athens on a daily basis, sometimes two and three times a day.

I smiled at my wife as we moved away from the other partygoers. We had said our goodnights and now, with the protection of our always-silent personal guard, we strolled along the path toward our home. I listened with some amusement, and an enormous amount of devotion, as Gabrielle described the latest play she had read by Euripides. She animatedly told me the story behind the play, Bacchae. I cringed at my wife’s bardic interpretation of the blood curdling play.

I would never begrudge Gabrielle the time she spent studying, however. I sadly thought that, even after all of this time, there was a tiny part of Gabrielle’s mind that perhaps still thought that all of this might be taken away from her again. Even after all my reassurances, I realized that time would be the only cure for that particular insecurity.

****

“Xena…Xena!”

It was the tone of Gabrielle’s voice that took me from a sleepy haze to instant awareness.

“What’s wrong?” I quickly sat up, looking around. I unconsciously reached for my sword before I saw that it was Gabrielle before me. She wore a robe, and I noticed she was half dressed underneath the green silk garment that hung open in the middle. The look on her face told me that this wasn’t going to be good news.

“Atrius is in your study. He has a man with him that looks as though he’s seen Hades himself.”

“Did he say what it’s about?” I asked as I hurriedly pulled on last night’s clothes.

“No, but he looks rather distressed. If I didn’t know better I would say that he looks…well, almost afraid. At the very least he looks concerned.”

“Afraid?” I had known that man for nearly sixteen seasons and I’d never seen him show fear of any man. What could possibly instill fear into that man?

“Why don’t you get dressed and join us when you’re ready,” I said as I kissed her forehead and went off in the direction of my study.

I arrived to complete silence. Gabrielle had been right. Atrius looked concerned and the man who stood with him looked terrible. Aside from the obvious fear on his face, the man smelled as though he’d spent a fortnight in a tub of squid. I took him for a sailor immediately.

I thought a bit of my own confidence might add some calm to the obviously tense atmosphere of the room. I nodded to Atrius and slowly walked to my desk, taking a seat before addressing either of them. I dismissed the two guards in the room, telling them to wait outside.

“How goes it Atrius? You have some news for me?” I asked.

“I saw it, Lord Conqueror, saw it with my own eyes I did,” the stranger responded. “Best be actin’ quick or we’re all gonna die.”

I raised one eyebrow at the man’s words and looked at Atrius again. “Care to start at the beginning?” I asked.

“I sez I seen ’em–”

I held up one hand and the stranger stopped in mid sentence. “Atrius…explain, please.”

“Aye, Conqueror. This is Captain Selius. He’s a fisherman, just come in from a two-moon fishing voyage. He arrived in port this morning. He and his crew all say the same thing. In the night fog, they saw ships sailing toward Athens. Persian ships.”

At first, I didn’t know what to think. Surely, this was some sort of a joke. “What in Hades name are you talking about?”

I stood and looked between the two men. I believe the fishing captain was seeing the intimidating side of me now. He stood silently, even backing up a step. I couldn’t believe it could be true, but the mere thought of invasion struck at my pride.

“I sent riders myself, Conqueror. They went out disguised as fisherman. The Persian fleet sails perhaps five days from the coast of Greece. It’s a war fleet.”

Atrius spoke the words with such finality that I was at last forced to believe them. “Have you told anyone else of this?” I asked him.

“No, Lord Conqueror. Selius and his crew are residing in the soldiers’ barracks for the time being.”

I nodded as my brain raced ahead. At the same time, I was trying to control my anger. “Selius, how many ships did you see?”

“Hundreds, Lord Conqueror. I bet there was five or six hundred easy.”

Atrius stood behind Selius and quietly shook his head, holding up two fingers.

I nodded again in silence. “Captain Selius, please wait outside for a few moments.”

Once Atrius and I were alone, I breathed deeply. “Well,” I inquired impatiently.

“It’s just as he said, Conqueror,” Atrius answered and I saw the strain on his own face.

“First off, see that Selius’s crew stays restricted to the soldiers’ barracks. I don’t want panic in the streets. And the number? What is it really?”

“Closer to two hundred war ships.”

“Ares balls!” I hissed. Two hundred wasn’t six hundred, but it was still an army of considerable size. My anger was rising quickly, but I couldn’t understand why the situation infuriated me so. Of course, there was a reason to be indignant, but this livid? What was wrong with me?

Unfortunately, Gabrielle took that moment to enter the room.

She stood silently, having slipped into the room by the door that led from our private quarters. I rose and turned toward the window, too irate to speak. I could feel the beast within as though it was pawing at the ground in front of its cage, just a thin layer away from freedom. The feelings I experienced at that moment were unreasonable, too great a reaction for the circumstance, but I couldn’t stop myself. What bothered me the most was that I didn’t understand this response of mine.

“Tell her,” I ordered Atrius.

My captain explained to Gabrielle what had occurred.

“Is it Darius?” Gabrielle asked. I had nearly forgotten that Gabrielle had spent her youth as a slave in Persia.

“Yes, Darius, that bastard. Must think I’ve grown soft or something.”

“Perhaps if you arranged a meeting…” she offered.

“Gabrielle, they’re on their way in war ships. I think that makes his intentions rather obvious,” I responded testily.

“I just mean that–”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” I slammed my hand down on the top of the window sill.

As soon as the words rolled off my tongue, I regretted them. I watched the expression on Gabrielle’s face change. I remembered at once when I had seen her last wear that look. It had been when I had slapped her. That time seemed ages ago, but my thoughtless words brought it all back.

I had reverted to my old ways in only an instant and hurt the one person I would willingly have died for. When I looked up, Gabrielle was still looking back at me, the expression on her face unreadable now. She turned to face Atrius. That was when I saw my second staring at me. He looked…disappointed. I knew why and I agreed with him. He looked uncomfortable, too, as though he wished he could bolt from the room. I shared that feeling, wishing that at least the ground would swallow me whole, anything so as not to have to answer for my inconsiderate remark.

“Captain Atrius,” Gabrielle said softly. “I wonder if you would excuse us for a few moments?”

“Aye, your Highness.”

Atrius gave me one last look before he practically ran from the room. He obviously recognized a condemned woman when he saw one. Coward, I thought, hoping my eyes expressed that unspoken message.

Gabrielle waited until Atrius left, her eyes never leaving me. I could barely look up at her; ashamed by the words I had carelessly tossed at her.

“Xena.”

I had expected Gabrielle’s normally soft voice, even the stern one she used during admonishments, but I didn’t anticipate this. The tone of her voice was…strong. There was a confidence in that one spoken word and that took me by surprise.

“Gabrielle, I’m so sorry,” I blurted out.

“For what?”

For what? Hadn’t she been in the same room? “Uhm…for the sharp words. It was wrong and I never meant–”

“I accept your apology, Xena, but that explains the sharp words, not the way you dismissed me.”

“Dismissed?”

“Yes. Your words really meant that you think I have no idea what I’m talking about.”

“I know. I apologize. It was only because…I mean…I felt so damn–”

“Angry,” she answered.

“Yes,” I replied with a whisper of awe as I raised my head to look at her. I shook my head. “But, you don’t understand–”

“You’re doing it again,” she said in an exasperated tone.

“What?” I held my hands wide, unsure of what she meant.

“You’re discounting my knowledge.”

“I am?” I was thoroughly confused now. The only good thing our argument had done was to help to evaporate some of my temper.

“You are. Xena, don’t you realize how well we know one another? You may think I’m a mystery at times, but overall, you manage to say exactly what I need to hear or do just what I need to have done. I know you just as well, my Conqueror, perhaps slightly better than you know yourself at times. Now, tell me. Did you really dismiss my thoughts about Darius because you didn’t think I knew what I was talking about, or was it because you thought I didn’t understand how you feel about this situation?”

“Gabrielle…love…you can’t understand–”

“Your darkness? The beast? Xena, I can feel your anger when you get that way. I feel it as completely as if it was happening to me. I wholly understand that you were feeling enraged enough to strike the first person that came close enough.”

“I felt so…damn! I don’t even know why.” I looked down at my hands in frustration.

“You don’t know or you don’t want to admit it to yourself?”

“What?” Suddenly I felt as though we were examining ground better left untouched.

“Look at it honestly, my love, and if you tell me that I’m wrong, I’ll apologize immediately and never speak of it again. Your anger was uncontrollable because Darius’s invasion strikes at you on a most personal level. Doesn’t it all boil down to the fact that Xena the Conqueror is mad because someone had the unmitigated gall to cross the line you drew in the sand? Because someone dared to stand up to you…to the Conqueror? Tell me I’m wrong if I don’t know you as well as you know yourself.”

How could she have known what I had only just realized heartbeats ago as she spoke? A hundred arguments popped into my head. I wanted to say that I had never been that petty or childish. I wanted to admit it and tell her that she had marked me for what I was. I wanted to apologize and hold her, but as usual, words failed me just when I needed them the most. Could I admit what I knew to be the truth? Could I allow my foibles to be laid bare before Gabrielle of all people?

“You’re wrong,” I said slowly.

I watched as her shoulders slumped and she hung her head to stare at the floor. I moved across the room and stood before.

“You don’t know me as well as I know myself.” I lifted her chin with two fingers. “You know me a thousand times better.”

I reached down and kissed her then. I felt her surprise in that kiss and it made me feel good to think that I could catch Gabrielle unaware for a change.

“Forgive me,” I asked as I wrapped my arms around her. “I’ll try to do better.” I felt the change in her immediately as she relaxed against me.

“I’m sorry, as well, Xena. I shouldn’t have come across as so superior, but I wanted you to know that I really do understand. I don’t know why, but it seems important that you should. And, Xena, there’s no need to apologize for who you are with me. The Conqueror has kept the woman I love alive all this time, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful. Besides which, the Conqueror has turned the Empire into something great and wonderful.”

“That means more to me than even you realize, my love.” I held to Gabrielle tightly. Our little disagreement had simply put off the inevitable and now the situation came rushing back at me.

“It looks as though we’re going to war,” I said.

Gabrielle didn’t answer, she just wrapped her arms firmly around my waist.
Chapter 9: Some men with swords may reap the field…
“A message just in, Conqueror,” Atrius said as he walked into the war room.

He held a miniature scroll case in one hand, no larger than the length of his smallest finger. I recognized it as one that we had sent via the hawks. We used the birds of prey as messengers back to areas such as Corinth, or in this case, Sparta.

We sat around the large table set up on our outside patio. Our home could have easily held the generals, Cleisthenes, Solon, Atrius, Ephiny, and the assorted lieutenants, but it was slightly inconvenient for our centaur friend, Kaliepus. Those in attendance had become my war council. Darius and the rest of the Persians were still two days away, but we had sent word to Corinth and Sparta, along with the Amazon and Centaur territories, for soldiers to fight in the battle that looked inevitable.

“Is it going to make me happy?” I asked.

“I seriously doubt it,” Atrius responded as he slipped a tiny roll of paper from the case and handed it to me.

“Son of a Bacchae!” I slammed the note back down to the table once I had read it. Silence greeted me when I looked at the faces around the table.

“You were right,” Ephiny deadpanned to Atrius. “It didn’t make her happy.”

I sighed deeply. I’d been in worse situations. It was just that at that moment, I couldn’t remember one. The only difference was that I had things I didn’t want to lose now. One of them sat beside me, silently questioning me with her emerald eyes. I had to get back into Conqueror mode, as distasteful as that idea was to me. These people, the Empire, depended on me. Could I be a leader on the field of battle without turning into the Conqueror? More importantly, could I become a warrior without losing myself to the beast? Although I feared the beast, should it reappear, I was more than terrified that the darkness might never allow me to return to myself.

The Spartan army won’t be coming,” I said at last.

Everyone began to talk at once. Oddly enough, Gabrielle’s even voice cut through the confusion. “Quiet,” she said. It took only heartbeats until the silence returned. I was a little more than impressed. Perhaps it was because Gabrielle seldom raised her voice that the group immediately obeyed her.

“Xena, why? The Spartans would do anything to protect the Empire.”

“They’re in the last days of their moon-long celebration to Pan. He’s sacred to them,” I explained for the benefit of the Amazons and centaurs, “and they’re not allowed to do battle of any sort during the festival. They say if they fight, Pan will become angry at their disobedience.”

“And an angry patron God…” Ephiny trailed off.

“Is not someone I want to get into it with,” I finished.

I tossed the parchment down onto the table. “They wish us a speedy victory and promise to pray for us. They will march towards Athens the very moment their festival ends.”

“Do they know Athens may not be standing when they get here?” Cleisthenes spat.

“You underestimate the forces that we do have, Cleisthenes,” Gabrielle said.

“I have a hundred and fifty Amazons already on their way, Conqueror,” Ephiny responded.

“As well as a hundred centaurs,” Kaliepus added.

“It’s much needed and appreciated, my friends,” I said. “Atrius, what have we heard from Corinth?”

“We can have 20,000 troops here in five days, Conqueror.”

“Five? Hades, this will all be over in two.”

“They sent out the first five thousand on a hard march the day we sent our hawks.”

“They’ll have to be enough. Besides, I don’t want Corinth undefended. Darius isn’t fool enough to launch an invasion against me on only one front. Keep the bulk of our troops there and prepare the warships, but tell them not to leave Corinth. Let’s hope our men aren’t too taxed from the march that they can’t fight.”

“They’ve all been trained in the Palaestra, Conqueror.”

“Thank the Gods for small favors.” I nodded, as I thought of the massive gymnasium where two thousand soldiers trained at one time. The rigorous workouts were not for the faint of heart. Instructors drove the soldiers until they could run for days, never losing their breath.

“Plataea has sent word that 600 of their soldiers have already left for Athens,” Atrius said.

“Athens can provide a Hoplite army of nearly 4,000, Conqueror,” Militiades added.

“Excellent,” I replied. “That will help immensely.” The Hoplites were extremely well trained and well-outfitted infantrymen. I would have preferred to have 10,000 of them, but even 4,000 greatly increased our odds of victory.

“What are your plans to fortify Athens, Conqueror?” Militiades continued.

“Hardly any. I don’t plan to let him get that close. Come over here. Let’s look at the maps.”

We all gathered around a large makeshift table that was at least 20 hands across. Unrolled across it’s length lay a map of Athens and the area of Attica.

“All of our scouts agree that Darius will put in on the only beach in Attica. cliffs line the rest of the shore, so it makes sense. It’s also to his advantage. He must know an all out assault on Athens would last for some time. I’m sure he has hopes of decimating our number considerably in the fields of Attica, thereby giving himself an easy victory over the city of Athens. He doesn’t know yet that we already discovered his plans for invasion. I want to keep it that way as long as possible. I plan to meet him here, on the plain of Marathon.”

The generals all nodded their approval as everyone looked down at the area I indicated on the map.

“See, the plain forms a sort of crescent moon shape and is no more than two leagues across at the center. All around it, the mountains come right down to the sea. Limestone mountains surround the plain itself. We all know how overgrown the mountains are this time of year. Pines, olive trees, even cedar trees cover the hillside, not to mention the myrtle and other shrubs. We have enough cover to hide an army twice our size. Surprise will be one more thing that may help our chances.”

“The marshes are still wet this time of season, too,” General Aristides pointed out.

“Exactly. Marshes lie at each end of the plain. This early in the summer, they’re still flooded. That means the Persian cavalry won’t be able to circle around us. They’ll have to use straight-on maneuvers. In addition, we have the advantage of looking down on them. Coat logs with Greek fire, set them aflame, and roll them down the hill to take out their initial infantry charge. We can also use catapults to help scatter and destroy their cavalry.” I paused to take a sip of wine while they processed the information. I could see the warriors were already contemplating their strategies.

“The number of Persian ships is sketchy, but our best information says there are about 200 in all,” I said at last.

“How many soldiers do you guess?” Gabrielle asked.

“Allowing for supplies and their cavalry’s horses, I would say about a hundred men per ship. Sound pretty accurate, Atrius?” I asked.

“Aye, Conqueror.”

“Twenty thousand soldiers,” Gabrielle said softly as she quickly calculated the numbers. “We have little more than half that number.”

“That’s all we’ll need for victory, your Highness,” Militiades spoke with a confidence that I wish I had felt. “Evidently you’ve never witnessed a Hoplite army in battle.”

Gabrielle didn’t look up at the general. She had a rather faraway expression in her eyes when she replied. “No, General…but I have seen the Persians fight.”

****

“What in Zeus’s name do you think that you’re doing?” I asked my son.

Solan stood in the middle of the weapon maker’s tent. He wore one of the new bronze breastplates that the smithy had evidently been fitting the young man for. That’s one thing we had on our side in this war. Greece had an abundance of mining operations, specifically bronze and silver. One of the reasons that my armies had been victorious more often than not had a great deal to do with the bronze armor they wore.

“I’m being fitted for armor.”

“I’m not a fool, I can see that,” I answered. I admit that the closer it grew to the hour of battle, the more my patience deserted me. “What I don’t see is why.”

“For protection in battle, Mother. I plan to fight alongside you.”

“Like Hades you will.”

“I had a feeling you might take it badly,” Solan said as he lifted the breastplate from his chest. He handed it back to the smithy, who quickly made himself scarce.

“Well, you don’t have to worry any more. I know now and it’s not happening.”

“And what am I supposed to do while the battle’s going on?” Solan stood toe to toe with me.

Now, I knew I was being unreasonable, but that rarely stopped me from acting a fool. “You can defend your Queen,” I snapped.

“You really mean that I can hide in Athens with the other women!”

Maybe it was the way he shouted back at me or perhaps it was the wounded expression on his face. Ultimately, I think it was simply that for the first time in a long time, I listened to my son. I was so accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed that having anyone tell me no took some getting used to. I tried to put myself in his place and realized that I was being a peevish bully.

I rubbed my hand across my face and let my fingers slide slowly thru my hair. It felt hot and sweaty against my neck and I wished I’d put it in a braid that morning. I turned away from Solon and looked at the busy activity of our camp. We had gathered just outside the city, in almost the same place that we had spent the night before marching into Athens nearly a fortnight ago. That day seemed an eternity ago.

“I just don’t want to see anything happen to you,” I said quietly.

I felt him move up beside me and felt his hand on my arm. “I know, really I do. I suppose it’s the same feeling that I have when I think of you getting hurt or when Gabrielle thinks about you fighting. I want to do my part, though, Mother.”

“I know you do, but couldn’t you–”

“I’m a good soldier,” he said finally.

What could I say after that? He was a good soldier and I knew it. I turned to look at him and tousled his hair. It was an action that would have offended another man of his age, but Solan didn’t seem to mind. He grinned and I was taken back at how much I was reminded of myself. I grinned back.

“Just don’t get yourself all bashed up again. I can’t keep asking Yu Pan to patch you up every time you get yourself in a fix.”

“Aye, Conqueror,” he answered as he smiled broadly.

I shook my head. It was as though my title, which had caused fear in so many for so long, had somehow become a term of endearment for those close to me.

****

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
Sharing my noon meal with two-dozen women of Athens had not been on my list of favorite activities for the day. I would have much rather been helping Xena plan for battle. Although I wouldn’t be fighting, Xena did take my evaluations of her battle plans seriously. Part of me felt insulted that she didn’t want me fighting, but the other half of me was relieved. The thought of being down on that plain terrified me. Xena said that was normal, but when I asked her if she felt afraid, she said that old warriors didn’t have the sense to be afraid.

So, as much as I found the whole afternoon’s event distasteful, I smiled, ate, drank, and nodded my head appropriately. These were the wives of the generals and other important Athenians doing battle alongside Xena and her army. I understood how important it was for me to interact with them. Yes, Xena was a woman and we had promised never to split our duties along lines of gender. I believed her when she told me that she would not always be warrior and I would not always be Queen. The lines would blur occasionally, such as now. I admit that I volunteered today not only because Xena’s talents were better used elsewhere, but because my lovely Conqueror would have run half of these petulant women through by now. I easily imagined Xena beheading Militiades wife and calmly returning to her food without a thought.

It was apparent that some of these women were from the old noble families that ran Athens at one time. The aristocracy, they called it. I easily kept a tally in my head of which women fit that profile. It was a generalization, true, but the women on that list thought of nothing and no one but themselves and their own. Many of the women were amusing in a rather sad way. There seemed not to be one intelligent thought among them. Even though Xena’s victory over Athens allowed women many more rights, such as education, many didn’t take advantage. The noble families still raised their daughters in much the same way as when the aristocracy ruled.

“You seem a thousand leagues away, your Highness.”

“I’m terribly sorry,” I said. I came to myself to find Militiades wife, Livia, staring at me. “Forgive me.”

She smiled a smile that I had seen a thousand times before. It was a condescending smirk that, to outsiders, looked completely innocent. To the intended, it clearly held a certain bored malevolence. I could have been mistaken, but for her next remark.

“I’m sure afternoon socializing is not quite as exciting here in Athens as it is in Corinth.”

Two women from my mental list giggled quietly at Livia’s comment. If it had come from anyone else, I could have been sure it was an innocent remark. The subtle bite in Livia’s voice made me certain, though, that she meant it to ridicule. I bit my tongue and smiled politely.

A young girl offered me a goblet of wine. I had never been fond of strong drink, but this was definitely one of the occasions that I felt I not only needed it, I deserved it. As the serving girl passed me by, the hem of her skirt caught on the edge of a low-lying table. Thankfully, mine had been the last goblet offered so only the silver tray clattered noisily to the floor.

I helped the girl to her feet, naturally being the only one who would assist her. It gave me a feel for what some of these women evidently thought of Xena’s new laws abolishing slavery within the Empire. Donatia, General Aristides’s wife, at least came over to see if the young girl had hurt herself. We gathered in Donatia’s home and it gave me hope to think that not all the women here were unfeeling. I watched carefully as she gently chided the girl, whispered something in her ear, and sent her back to the kitchen area with a pat on the head.

“Forgive me, your Highness,” Donatia said.

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” I said as I offered a friendly smile.

“Helena just started work in the kitchens. Serving is something new to her, but she’ll catch on. I think she’s just missing the rest of her family. She just started living in the main house in the servant’s quarters. She seems very bright,” Donatia explained.

“I don’t know how bright she could be tripping over her own feet,” said another of the women on my list. This brought on some laughter and general agreement from a number of the others, along with discussion on servants.

“Donatia, I’m surprised that you keep her living in your home,” Lenora, Cleisthenes’s wife, spoke up.

“She’s a good girl…very easy to get along with,” Donatia defended her position.

“But, she’s at that age…” Lenora trailed off. She had that expression on her face as though everyone in the room knew what she was insinuating.

A few women even nodded their heads, but Donatia and I seemed to be the only women without a hint of what the woman was alluding to. Finally, it must have dawned on Donatia. Her expression turned sour.

“Just what are you suggesting?” Donatia asked.

“Oh, it’s not me, Donatia, but you know how these servant girls are nowadays. Once they have their first bleed, they’re all over our men. It’s not the husband to blame, but the girl.”

“I trust my husband.”

“Yes, of course. I’m just saying that if it was me…I wouldn’t have them in the house after a certain age.”

I sat and watched as Cleisthenes’s wife insulted our hostess. I attributed Lenora’s clueless behavior to a noble woman having lived an entirely sheltered life. I was somewhat surprised, and even shocked, to see that a few of the women even agreed with Lenora’s ludicrous idea. It seemed as though we were headed for a full-scale confrontation. I did the only thing I could think of on such short notice.

I tossed my goblet of wine upon the floor.

“Heavens! I am so sorry,” I apologized as women and servants alike rushed to help me. I played the helpless Queen to the hilt. My ploy worked, however, as the women eventually dispersed into their little cliques and the luncheon went on.

Donatia was the last one to bid me farewell when I left late that afternoon. She walked with me all the way out to my carriage. She seemed somewhat in awe of my Amazon guard as she stammered, but I quickly realized that it was due to embarrassment.

“I–I…thank you, your Highness.”

“I enjoyed myself, Donatia. You have a lovely home.”

“Actually…I meant thank you for intervening this afternoon. I’m sure I would have started yelling like a fishwife if you hadn’t dropped that wine cup.”

I smiled back at the woman who had astutely caught on to my ruse. “I believe that there will always be women like Lenora in this world. I can only hope that there will forever be Donatias around to keep the balance.”

She chuckled at my reply and squeezed my hand before I left.

During the carriage ride home I replayed the afternoon in my head. I had met a number of women and attempted to remember their names as well as their faces. Uneasiness slowly crept over me until I could no longer focus on my memories. Something nagged at me about the afternoon. I wasn’t certain if it was someone I had met or if it was something that had been said. I only know that I couldn’t pinpoint the time or even who was nearby at the time, but something lay just beneath the surface of the day, some odd feeling of disquiet. I could only hope that it had nothing to do with the battle that was now only a day away.

End of Gabrielle’s Addendum

****
I sat alone in our tent, pensive and apprehensive at the same time. My confrontation with Solon had brought certain things to light, certain provisions that I had not yet made. It had been an eternity since I had gone into battle caring about anyone or anything other than myself. It had been in Amphipolis. Gods! Had it really been all that long ago? I could feel those emotions now as surely as if it had happened only yesterday. Would I worry as I had then?

I remember fearing for Lyceus, just three seasons younger than myself. Neither one of us had seen any real battle time before that day; even though I felt I had been training for it all my life. Sadly, my brother’s skills, or his luck, ran short on that day. Had I been watching out for him more…ah, well…hindsight. A creation of the Gods’ used to tell mortals what fools they had been. Would I be able to protect Solon any better? Did he even need my protection? I believe my son a better warrior than Lyceus ever was, but would I worry, and how would that affect my own ability to perform on the battlefield?

I recall that my thoughts were also on my mother that day. She had stayed behind in the village, tending to the wounded, providing food and drink during the three day battle. I find it ironic that the woman I have not spoken to for over twenty-five seasons had been uppermost in my mind during that whole skirmish with Cortese’s army. At the time, I was driven. The thought that if Cortese’s men got past me, my mother’s life would be over, drove me like a madwoman in battle. It was enough, but at such a cost.

I found myself already thinking of Gabrielle in these same terms. I had meticulously planned for Gabrielle’s escape from Athens should I not only fall in battle, but should the Persians defeat us. I had not yet told her of my plans, nor would I. It made me happy enough to know they were in place. By Athena’s will, I would not ever have to reveal them to my wife. I needed to enlist help from someone outside my own camp. I chose the one Athenian who I knew would risk life and limb to protect the Queen. It was an unlikely choice, but that would simply cause it to work all that much better. I had arranged for Gabrielle, planning for the worst, except for one scenario. I had yet to approach Gabrielle or Solon concerning my successor should I fall, yet our armies defeat the Persians. I hoped that my choice would be understood.

I mentally ticked off the items on the list in my head, waiting for Gabrielle to return from the city. We caught a spy inside the city today. I don’t know which surprised me more. The fact that he wasn’t a Persian or that he was an Athenian. I had spoken with Ephiny soon after we captured the spy and she doubled Gabrielle’s guard in Athens. I had not learned of it early enough to warn Gabrielle, but with her Amazon guard, I was secure in knowing she was well protected. I wish I had known of what the spy had told us before Gabrielle left. If she had insisted upon the visit, she could have at least kept her ears open. I smiled at that thought. It would have been redundant to tell Gabrielle to do such a thing. She would do no less anyway, of that I was certain. Actually, I hoped that she would be bringing me back some news about the women she met with today.

Earlier in the day, after making future assurances in Athens for Gabrielle’s welfare, I had stopped by Athena’s temple. It’s true, the Gods had been more trouble in my life than I cared for, but since Athena had become my patron, I had never entered into battle without her blessing. I wasn’t about to stop now. I knew she would be there, just as I knew she would come when I bid her in Corinth.

I stood before her altar, laying my weapons upon the carved wooden table. I had carefully laid the talants of silver and small sack of grain in the bowls set beside the table. I had never really known what to bring as an offering. After all, what did Gods really need? I always figured that at least the priests and priestesses could use the food and money I brought.

I stood a little longer in the relative silence. Incense burned and a pleasant aroma filled the huge temple. I shifted my weight and folded my arms across my chest, and then I waited some more.

“Are you coming, or what?” I finally asked aloud.

The familiar sensation along my spine indicated that the form materializing before me would be Athena.

“For someone who only brings offerings when she wants a victory, you are a most impatient woman,” Athena said once her form quit shimmering.

“I pray to you and thank you all the time,” I answered defensively.

“Sure…now that Gabrielle’s tamed a little of the rough out of you.”

I shrugged and tried to appear indifferent. How could I counter the remark when we both knew that it was absolutely true?

“At least you know better than to throw dead animals on my altar.” She looked approvingly at the pouch of talants and the grain. “Those Spartans! They throw a gutted hind across my altar like I’m Artemis.”

“Speaking of Spartans…” I began.

Athena held up one delicate hand to halt my speech. “I’ve already spoken with Pan.”

“Did you tell him to get his ass in gear and tell the Spartans they can fight?”

Athena took a deep breath as she closed her eyes and looked heavenward. Why was it that people so often did that when speaking with me?

“I’m sure even you understand why I can’t simply order Pan to do that.”

“Not necessarily.”

“Then let me explain my lovely Conqueror. There are two reasons. In the first place, I’m not sure he wouldn’t refuse just to be stubborn. You know how he feels about my family. They made fun of him until he left Olympus and went to live in Arcadia. He’s more Arcadian God than Olympian any more.”

“And the second reason?”

“This time, Xena, you’re going to have to rely on another to win this battle.”

“I haven’t got time for cryptic, Athena,” I growled.

She quickly continued, overlooking my poor manners. “I’m surprised you haven’t thought this through already. The one last Olympian with close ties to Pan is Artemis.”

“They share the nymphs,” I remembered.

“Meaning that he must obey Artemis,” she finished.

She smiled as though she enjoyed telling me this next bit.

“It seems as though it will be up to your new Queen to convince her Amazon patron. Do you think our Gabrielle is up to the task?

Athena and I shared conspiratorial smiles. We each knew that if anyone could speak convincingly, and from the heart, it was Gabrielle.

“Xena?” Gabrielle’s voice roused me from my thoughts.

“Hello, love. I’m sorry. I was somewhere else for a moment.”

“You look like you’ve been contemplating something very heavy.”

“No, not really.” I offered her a gentle smile.

“Are you sure you’re not ill?” she asked with concern, pressing the back of her hand against my cheek.

“I’m sure,” I said as I took her hand in my own. I gently kissed her palm and drew her down to sit beside me. “We have to talk of some things before tomorrow’s battle. There has been a development that could affect you, even our entire battle plan.”

Gabrielle’s brow came together as she squeezed my hand. “What can I do?” she asked.

I smiled inside. How like Gabrielle. Not thinking how the outcome might affect her, not shrinking back in fear, but rather asking what she could do to help the Empire and me. Gods, but for a thousand soldiers with her soul.

“We caught a spy this morning after you left for the city. The news we gathered gives us some cause for fear.”
“A Persian spy?” Gabrielle asked. She was well acquainted with the Persians’ methods. Their standard operating procedure had been to send in spies a day or so ahead of their army. More often than not, the advance scout attempted to blend in as one of the locals.

“That one’s hard to answer. He’s more traitor than spy. We’ve identified him as a local Athenian named Caridus. He’s the son of a nobleman, an old family that was of the ruling aristocracy. His father, Letus, was one of the unhappy ones after I originally took Athens. He moved his family and wealth into northern Thrace, territory occupied on and off by Persia. It’s pretty much been understood that people who live in those northern, far reaching provinces serve Persia more than they do the Empire. Hades! I should have crushed them when I had the chance.”

“So, are you saying that there could be more of these traitors?” Gabrielle asked.

“That could certainly be the case. There’s no way of knowing whether this is a case of one or two unhappy noble families or if their entire class has been promised a return of the aristocracy by Darius.”

“By the Gods, Xena. If the latter is true they might be able to take Athens from the inside while you’re fighting on the plain of Marathon.” Gabrielle bit the nail on her thumb and I could see her instantly running counter measures through her head.

“Gabrielle, we can’t allow our warships to leave Corinth’s harbor while there’s still a chance that Darius will attack there also. Our scouts haven’t seen any ships break off from the main fleet and head toward Corinth, but it wouldn’t take any more than half the morning to sail around into the Saronic Gulf and mount an attack on Corinth from the mainland side.”

“But, Xena, if there is a revolt inside the city gates and Darius attacks Athens by ship, too, then the city will be lost without warships to protect the harbor.”

“I’m aware of that, but we face certain defeat if we spread ourselves too thin on the chance that the attack will come on more than one front. Even guessing wrong could cause the fall of Athens, possibly Corinth as well.” I sighed deeply and leaned back on the cushions at my back.

“I was hoping you might have learned something about the women of Athens today at your luncheon,” I said at last.

“Hades!” Gabrielle cursed. If the moment had been less serious, I would have laughed. Gabrielle rarely used such language. “If only I’d known earlier. I could have asked the right questions.”

“True, love, but imagine if you had slipped even once. If there is a plot among the noble families to assist Persia with a rebellion from the inside then we would have clearly alerted them to the fact that we have knowledge of their plan.”

“I understand, but it doesn’t make it any easier to take.” She smiled at me in a way that said we both thought along the same lines at times.

Gabrielle then told me of her day, the women, and all that had occurred. First, she told me only the facts. Secondly, she spoke of her suspicions and personal thoughts regarding the women who had entertained her for the afternoon. Lastly, she shared the feelings of unease she had developed on the ride home.

“Was it something you heard? Someone you saw, perhaps a familiar face from the past?”

She shook her head as though unable to answer me. “I wish I could pinpoint it, Xena, but the harder I try, the further back into my mind it recedes. I’m certain of one thing. It had something to do with the past. Don’t even ask me why I can say that with such conviction. It’s something that I just know. Does that make sense?”

I reached over and kissed her forehead in an understanding gesture. “It makes complete sense to me. Sometimes, love, we just have to go with that gut feeling we get about things. And, when it comes to your first instinct about things…well, let’s just say that I’d have no trouble placing my life in your sense of intuition.”

“So, give me your best guess. If you had to choose, who would you say, of the women in attendance, could possibly be disloyal enough to turn to the enemy? Who could be the leader, of sorts?” I asked.

“Gods, Xena, that is such a big question.”

“It’s not like I’m going to go crucify them, love. I just want to hear your perceptions.”

“If I had to choose today, with only the knowledge I have right now, I would guess Livia of Thrace.”

“Militiades wife,” I said.

“She and Militiades would be my first choice, but there’s something wrong with the feel of that. I can’t explain it. I wonder if she hates us enough to truly be a traitor or if I simply dislike her because of her arrogance. She and her clique of ladies all remind me of the sort of women that ran the households where I served.”

“I know what you mean. Militiades is one egotistical bastard, too. It scares me that it fits, though. Militiades is the likely choice to lead a rebellion against the Empire. He’s not only one of the wealthiest men in Athens, but he’s trusted. He’s the Polemarchos and in charge of a great deal of the upcoming battle. All that would only speak well for him if he hadn’t served the Persians once already. He and his entire family turned traitor once before.”

“Does that necessarily mean he could do it again?” Gabrielle asked.

“I suppose only the Gods know the answer to that one and if they know, they’re not telling. There could be two or two hundred nobles in on a plot to overthrow Athens. A lot depends on what kind of leadership they have.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning our worst case scenario would become a reality if Militiades turns out to be the leader of this mutiny. He could very well turn the tide of battle as a general in my army. I could order him off the battlefield, but if he’s innocent, I cut my own throat with that action. He’s an incredible officer and warrior.

“So…” she mused and leaned back.

“So,” I agreed.

My brain felt as though my thoughts were stretching it eight different ways at once. We sat beside one another quietly for long moments, each of us trying to organize the jumbled web of intrigue in which we found ourselves.

“If there’s to be a plan then, we’ll have to come up with it at the last moment,” Gabrielle voiced my exact thought. “While you’re on the battlefield with Militiades, I’ll have to be in Athens looking for our traitor and their cohorts.”

“I won’t put you in harm’s way, Gabrielle,” I said emphatically.

“Don’t do this, Xena. I’ve always understood the consequences of being your Queen. It would have been naïve of us to think we could have gone through our entire lives living in a peaceful fantasy world. That would have been wonderful, but we both know life doesn’t work that way.”

“I can’t be at my best if I’m fearing what will happen to you,” I admitted with some guilt.

Gabrielle leaned into me and nuzzled my neck. I wrapped my arms around her and she laid her head upon my shoulder. It seemed a natural reaction for me to run my fingers through her golden locks.

“Xena,” she began softly. “I’m not sure whether you even know this or not, but from the moment we met you’ve been trying to give me a sense of myself. And, not just a sense of the me that I am now, but you helped me see the woman that I still can be. Because of you, I’ve learned that I can be strong and that there’s nothing wrong with a woman being that way. You’ve not only treated me as an equal, encouraged me to be strong and independent, but you’ve also taught me.”

“You make me sound like all of Zeus’s muses wrapped into one,” I quipped in order to cover my embarrassment. Had I really done all, or any, of that for my lovely partner?

“We’re partners, my Conqueror,” Gabrielle went on as she used the very words in my mind. “You’ve taken every opportunity to tell me that we rule together. I admit, I’m not overly fond of war or anything associated with it, but it seems as though we find ourselves in an exceptionally unusual spot. The ruler of the Greek Empire may very well have to lead a battle in two places at once tomorrow, the plain of Marathon, and possibly Athens. My only question is, do you trust anyone more than me to act in your stead?”

I just stared at her for the longest time. First, I kept coming up with reasons why Gabrielle couldn’t do this. Then, I tried to think of someone…anyone who might carry out a plan that might never need to happen, but would all boil down to intuition and intelligence.

She was right, of course. Not only was there no one I trusted more in this known world, but Gabrielle and I had the uncanny ability to see one another’s thoughts as though they were our own at times.

My silence seemed answer enough for her. She snuggled against me closer and squeezed her arms around me tightly. “I know,” she said. “It scares me, too.”
Chapter 10: The Skies They Were Ashen and Sober…
Our camp was in the valley just beyond the plain of Marathon. The sun had yet to rise as we sat around a small table in the tent that Gabrielle and I had spent the night in. We had spent the previous evening planning and scheming, involving those closest to us in our plans as much as possible. Ephiny and Atrius probably knew more about our strategies than anyone else. We finally fell asleep last night holding on to one another tightly. I believe we were both too afraid to make love. It would have felt too much as though we were preparing for it to be the last time.

Gabrielle would be returning to our home in Athens at first light, after she reviewed the troops. That act was more to bolster the army’s spirit than anything else. It was a Greek tradition that only I had performed in the past. I thought it interesting to think of how many more soldiers would die for their beautiful, delicate Queen than for their striking, battle-hardened Conqueror. In my heart, I believed that they feared me, but they served Gabrielle.

Gabrielle sat beside me with Solan, Atrius, and Ephiny sitting across from us. This was the one last bit of business I had to finish up before entering into battle. I had asked Atrius and Ephiny there to witness my decision. Atrius served as witness for the Empire, but I thought it important that Gabrielle’s Amazons make witness of my decree. It didn’t matter if they liked or even approved of my action, but I had put it off long enough.

“I’ve asked Atrius and Ephiny here to witness this,” I said as I unrolled a parchment with my wishes plainly stated.

“Witness what, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.

“Well,” I played with the edge of the scroll. “I’ve never gone into battle with heirs before. In the past, I expected that if I died the Empire would go with me. I feel differently now, for obvious reasons.”

I glanced at Gabrielle and saw her features tighten. It was apparent that she didn’t like this subject.

I wondered if I should preface my decision with any sort of explanation, but we simply didn’t have time for that. “In order to preserve the Empire in case I should fall in battle, I’ve decided to legally appoint a successor to the throne.”

Gabrielle and Solan looked at one another then, but I couldn’t read their expressions. I decided to just say it.

“Should I meet up with Hades down there on Marathon, or any time thereafter, I appoint Gabrielle as my successor, Queen and sole ruler of the Greek Empire.”

“But Solan is your son,” Gabrielle interjected immediately.

“No!” Solan responded.

We all looked at him as if he had news to tell.

“I don’t mean no, I’m not your son. I mean no, I don’t want to lead the Empire. I mean…well…I’d do it if I had to, Mother,” he looked at me and explained. “I’d do it to keep your dream alive, of course, but it’s definitely not how I see my life. I’ll work for the Empire until my dying day, but please don’t ask me to give up my dream of traveling the world. Besides, Gabrielle,” he said as he turned to the woman at my side. “We both know you’re much better suited to leading than I will ever be. I’ll always be your friend and faithful servant, but it’s you who’s earned the right to rule.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Gabrielle said.

“Unfortunately, love, you don’t get to say a lot. It’s part of the deal you made when you agreed to marry me and wear the crown.”

“I just thought it would be much further in the future before we’d have to consider it.”

“Well,” I grinned down at her. “You’ll forgive me if I’m not in too much of a hurry to give it up just yet. Won’t you?”

“Very funny, my Conqueror.”

“Ephiny, is there anything in Amazon law that forbids your Queen from ruling the Empire as well?”

“This is definitely a first, but I can’t think of any reason that might prohibit Gabrielle from ruling both realms.”

“Then it’s settled. Gabrielle, give me your signet ring.” I requested the ring that I had given Gabrielle when I had asked her to marry me. It was a smaller version of the one I now wore.

I took the ring and placed in on my smallest finger, removing my own heavy ring bearing the Conqueror’s mark. I slid my large ring upon Gabrielle’s thumb. “I’ll expect that back after this mess is all settled,” I teased.

Thankfully, my words drew a small smile from Gabrielle. It was uneasy and perhaps forced, but a smile nonetheless. “If you don’t mind,” I then stood and addressed the others. “Gabrielle and I would like some time together.”

I had no idea when I uttered the words whether they would be the last moments Gabrielle and I would ever spend together or not.

****
“I don’t want to say anything to make this feel like it might be the last time we’ll see one another,” Gabrielle said.

Gabrielle turned toward me and stood there, almost defiantly. I couldn’t help but smile. Was this actually the frightened girl that had walked into my life such a short time ago?

“I thoroughly expect to see you for dinner tomorrow night,” she continued as she walked closer to me.

“We have to at least think about it. This could be the last time,” I responded as I reached out to touch her face.

“Always my realist,” Gabrielle said. She leaned into my touch and smiled back.

“Ever my optimist,” I replied.

“I’m going to try and defend Athens, Xena. You know that, right?”

“I expect nothing less, my love. You are a strong, capable woman and I’ll try my best to have faith in that. Don’t expect me to not worry at least a little, though,” I added with a wink.

“As long as I’m allowed to worry about you, too.”

“I suppose, if you must.”

We each enjoyed a much-needed instance of laughter. It was spontaneous, light, and went a long way in relieving the tension of the moment.

“I still need to go to Artemis’s temple and speak with her before I ride before the troops. Will you go with me?” Gabrielle asked.

“Of course,” I replied before we headed up the hillside to a small temple dedicated to the patron Goddess of the Amazons. Gabrielle’s Amazons had asked permission to build a temporary structure until they could build a more permanent, fitting structure. Gabrielle and I both encouraged the creation of the new temple.

I sat outside, on the steps of the temple, waiting for Gabrielle. I drew battle plans in the dirt with a slender twig. I tried to come up with a defense against any offense Darius might throw at us. My advantage was surprise. No one, not even the officers knew what we had planned. Only Atrius, the Centaurs, and the Amazons knew what to expect. Atrius and I wouldn’t even inform the Athenian generals until the last moment. This was the only way I could assure myself that our battle plan wouldn’t end up in Darius’s hands. As far as everyone knew, we planned to meet Darius on the plain of Marathon. As long as the Persians didn’t yet know that we planned to race down the hillside and bottle them up within the narrow plain, our smaller army had a chance.

“Well, that could have gone better.” Gabrielle stepped down before me and placed her hands on her hips.

“That doesn’t sound encouraging.”

“She accused me of hanging around you too much!”

I smiled even though the situation was grave. “That means that you lost your temper, right?”

“Well…they can be very frustrating, you know?”

“I know, love. What did she say?”

“She can’t order Pan to help us. All she can do is speak to him and tell him how important this battle is.”

“So, basically she gave us the brush off,” I said.

“It certainly sounded that way. I just don’t understand them half the time. Artemis said the way to certain victory over our enemies lies in the power of persuasion. She told me that we could obtain all the help we need under the city gate of Athens. Now, what in Hades name is that supposed to mean? Is the entire Spartan army hiding under the city gate?”

“Don’t worry about any of it, love. It wouldn’t matter anyway. If the Spartans had left a day ago it would probably still be too late to help.”

“I suppose I expected more,” Gabrielle said, hanging her head. “I don’t know, like they would come charging in to deliver us.”

“The Gods have their own ways and their own time, little one. I can’t even believe I’m the one saying this, but you’ve had faith for a long time. Don’t give it up just yet.”

I gave her a hug and kissed her forehead. I was thoroughly surprised that those words had escaped my own lips. Here was I, a woman who had more Godly intervention come into her life thus far than most mortals saw in two lifetimes. Now, I was the one encouraging Gabrielle not to become disheartened and give up her faith. How ironic. I’m certain Athena was off having a good laugh at that one.

****
Gabrielle looked like some sort of warrior Goddess as she sat astride her mare. She rode down the lines of soldiers, nodding to some, smiling at others. I insisted that she wear her armor for the ride to our home in Athens. My reason had been for added protection, but its benefit was that it caused her to look as if she was going into battle alongside these soldiers rather than simply returning home after a few moments of meet and greet.

I may have been the Conqueror, but on this occasion, I rode beside and slightly behind Gabrielle. My own armor gleamed brightly under the early morning sunrise. Bronze armor protected my chest and back, while hammered bronze pieces hung in layers down my arms to mid bicep. Upon my head sat a helmet of the same metal as my armor. It had a faceplate that came down on a set of hinges at my temples. The faceplate had been fashioned in the image of a growling lion. It had been a number of seasons since I last wore it, but I remember what Atrius had once said about it. He had told me, after interrogating a prisoner from a battle in which we’d just fought, that the enemy had been terrified of the snarling, golden beast that had attacked them with such inhuman fury. Funny thing that…the enemy never knew how right they had been.

Gabrielle had passed by the army from Corinth and rode slowly past the Athenian’s Hoplite warriors. There were thousands of men wearing the fifty pounds of armor necessary to their occupation. The hoplites were the heavy infantry of any campaign and this battle would be no different. They had been named long ago for their extremely heavy shield, the hoplon. We used to always be able to tell which Hoplite soldiers turned tail and ran from battle, since the unwieldy shield was the first thing they would toss away in order to run.

The hoplites before us now were dressed in full battle gear, great metal giants. They were an awesome sight outfitted with a helmet, breastplate, and shin guards all made of bronze. They wore simple cloth tunics beneath all that armor and carried two weapons, an eight-foot long spear and a short sword forged of iron. They had been trained to fight in groups, not as individuals, and a well-trained platoon could easily be thought of as an effective killing machine.

I looked on as Gabrielle suddenly stopped and dismounted. I paused, but remained where I was, listening to Gabrielle speak to one of the soldiers.

“How long have you been in hoplite service?” she asked.

The soldier’s only response was an odd tilt of his head.

I recognized the situation for what it was and dismounted, as well. I came up behind Gabrielle and placed my hand upon her shoulder.

“He can’t hear you, love,” I said. “The blacksmith pounds the helmet from a single sheet of bronze with no ear-holes. Actually, the only openings at all are for the eyes and the small slit you see that runs below the nose for his mouth.”

I indicated for one of the servants standing with the army to help the soldier remove his helmet. The considerable weight of a hoplite’s panoply required that servants, or in the past; slaves, assist the men with their weighty armor. The young servant and the platoon’s lieutenant took the soldier’s helmet, shield, and lance for him.

I noticed Gabrielle’s hand go to her mouth to cover her smile. It was a serious situation, to be sure, but the soldier before us did indeed provide some cause for amusement. Although his helmet, armor, and weapons caused him to look the size of a giant, in reality, the soldier was a youth younger than Gabrielle. Not only younger, but he stood barely taller than the Queen did.

“You seem a little…”

I’m sure Gabrielle was searching for a word that was honest, but at the same time tactful. The word runt came to my mind.

“…A little short–er…young to be a hoplite.”

“I am sixteen summers, your Highness.”

I watched the cloud of emotion move across Gabrielle’s face. It was obvious that she felt much the same way that I did about young men and war. I remember one of the first lessons I had been taught as a military leader. I had been told that there were only two sure rules to war. The first was that, in times of war, young men would be forced to do battle. The second rule was that young men inevitably died in battle. Knowing that those two rules had been around much longer than I had been a warrior never made accepting them any easier.

The Greek Empire required that every person who wished to be a citizen, give two years of service to the Empire. The majority of young women became teachers, even though I tried to encourage more of them to enter into public service as interns and secretaries to those in the political arena. Most young men chose the army in order to travel, although more and more women joined the military every season. In times of relative peace, such as we had experienced for the last ten seasons or so, the army had been an easy road to citizenship.

The youth before us stood straight, with a look of pride at carrying the hoplite’s spear and sword. His height might have left something to be desired, but his arms and shoulders were quite muscular.

“Why didn’t you choose the army for your service?” Gabrielle asked.

The youth never hesitated in his answer. “My father served with the hoplites, and his father before him. They have both trained me well.”

“And will this be your life’s work?” Gabrielle asked in a curious tone.

A large grin broke across the young man’s face. “No, my lady. I’m a bard, or I will be at any rate when I go to the Academy.”

Of course, Gabrielle smiled, as well. “Some people consider me a bard, of sorts.”

“Oh, not just of sorts, your Highness. I was in the library when you told the schoolchildren the story of Ganymede. You made the tale quite magical.”

“Then I feel we have something in common,” Gabrielle answered. “When you’ve come home from this unpleasantness I hope you’ll come to visit me. I’d love to hear your stories.”

“I–I would be most honored, your Highness…I have these ideas, you see.”

“Ideas?” Gabrielle asked.

“Well…what I would really like to do is to write plays. Not just the orations that have been done to death, but real productions, with lavish costumes, and many people on stage all with speaking parts.” He suddenly remembered just who he was talking to and ceased the wild gesticulating of his arms. “I suppose that seems…well, quite foolish to someone like you.” He bowed his head and remained silent.

“Not at all,” Gabrielle answered graciously. “It sounds ambitious, and I do so love change.” She winked at him when he looked up in surprise.

“I invite you to our home to tell me more once you return.”

“It would be a profound honor, your Highness.”

I assisted Gabrielle back onto her horse and I mounted Tenorio. Just as Gabrielle nudged her mount forward, she turned back to face the young soldier.

“I’m sorry, I forgot to even ask your name,” she called back to the youth.

He smiled and his expression was so bright that I knew in an instant that Gabrielle had added another to her list of adoring young faithful. Perhaps it should have made me jealous, but all I felt was an intense sort of pride. How far I’d come in some respects. All I could think, at that moment, was that this wonderful, beautiful creature loved only me. I surprised myself, for in the past I would have taken pride in something wonderful because it belonged to me. I rather think we belonged to one another, anyway.

The young man bowed slightly before he shouted his name back to Gabrielle. “It’s Aeschylus, your Highness.”

****
“It doesn’t make much sense that we’re spending the last few moments we have together in silence,” I said.

We stood in my command tent at the summit of the hills surrounding Marathon. It was a warm morning and the sounds and smells of battle surrounded the small tent. I could hear Tenorio as he snorted and pawed at the ground. He patiently endured the forty pounds of armor that the stable hands were fitting him with, even though it had been more than a season since he’d experienced the weight.

Gabrielle and I had only moments before we were to go our own ways. Outside, Ephiny took charge of the Amazons and the Corinthian soldiers who would travel with Gabrielle back to Athens. It was a hard request to make, but I had asked Ephiny to travel with her Queen. It seemed just as difficult a decision for Ephiny to make. She was a warrior, and I knew she almost itched to be in the middle of the battle that would soon take place. She was a woman who knew her duty, however. When I confided in her, she understood that aside from Atrius, there was not another with her skill that I would entrust Gabrielle’s life to.

We had spoken at length about the way I had wanted Gabrielle watched over. We clashed heads over this, but once Ephiny assured herself that she could protect Gabrielle under any circumstance, she agreed with my plan. I trusted that my lovely wife would turn out as predictable as I thought she was, otherwise I would never have hazarded the plan.

Gabrielle looked up quickly. “Please, don’t say it like that.”

“Sorry.” I shook my head to dispel my past thoughts. “I didn’t mean it like it would be the last ever.”

“I wish this would all go away.” Gabrielle moved to wrap her arms around me and I did the same. Of course, with both of us in armor, it left a little to be desired in the way of physical comfort. It did much to ease our aching hearts however, as only the love of a partner can do.

“It will be over before you know it. I’ll be home in time for an evening meal, and I expect something good.”

That made Gabrielle smile. “Promise?” she asked.

“If it’s in my power, you know I do.”

“Now, you must promise me something, as well, little one.”

“Anything,” she answered quickly.

“Do try to stay out of trouble, Gabrielle,” I whispered just before I kissed her forehead. I smiled at her guilty look of chagrin.

“I don’t look for it…it looks for me.” She formed a sort of pout that took her from warrior goddess to young girl in my eyes.

She held to me as closely as possible and I think even she realized that my previous words to her might have been a promise I would have no power to keep. Neither one of us said anything, however. To voice our fears might have given them solidity. Unspoken, they drifted within the ether of our conscious minds as we struggled to push them further and further away.

****
The hawk screamed and I flinched at the high-pitched sound. The bird landed deftly upon a long pole that one of the standard bearers held in place. The top had a sort of perch fashioned to it. The bird hopped down to the waiting lieutenant’s hand and remained patiently until Atrius had removed the small scroll case attached to the leather pouch fixed on the animal’s body.

“They’re advancing with the majority of their cavalry leading the way,” Atrius said.

“So, it would seem that they know we’ll be waiting here,” I answered. The Persians expected me to charge down the hill at them. Thus, placing their cavalry in front of their infantrymen would take out quite a few of our soldiers in the first charge.

“Aye, Conqueror.”

I rather think that means we have a traitor in Athens, eh?”

“Athens…or our midst, Conqueror?” Atrius asked in a low tone.

“That remains to be seen. Doesn’t it?”

Five of the generals and a sprinkling of staff surrounded us so we kept our voices low. The other five generals already lay in waiting on the battlefield. I made sure that Militiades was one of the men on the top of the hill with me. If he planned to give anything away to Darius, he wouldn’t live long afterwards.

The hills that led down to the plain weren’t smooth grassy knolls. The demanding, rugged hillside was dotted with trees and overgrown scrub. I hadn’t let any of the generals in on my battle plan, which didn’t go over well. I had to smile when Militiades turned out to be the loudest objector.

“Are the hoplites set?” I asked Atrius.

“Aye, Conqueror. All platoons reported.”

“Then let’s begin our march downward, shall we?”

“Gentleman,” I turned to the men who would be leading the battle, but who knew so little of my plans. I moved near the large table that had been set up to hold our terrain map. “Let me explain…”

The five generals with me were not the worse warriors, by far. I considered Militiades and Aristides among the best. The five that I sent down with the hoplites, I not only trusted, but also knew that they had experience with such infantry soldiers as the hoplites before.

The hoplites had been marched into place candlemarks ago, as soon as Gabrielle had reviewed the troops. Keeping my entire battle plan a secret had paid off. Darius knew enough about what I was doing to know that we’d be there on the plain to greet him. That much was apparent by riding with his cavalry in lead. What he didn’t know was that I had placed the hoplite army, under complete camouflage, along the entire length of the narrow plain. It was easy enough to do. Netting and canvas covered the kneeling soldiers on each side of the flat land. With the help of the man-made cover, the brushy and tree laden landscape could have easily hidden 20,000 soldiers. Once Darius’s army made it at least halfway onto the plain, the armor bearers and servants had to pull off the hoplite’s covering. All the soldiers had to do would be to stand up in formation and begin moving in. I had planned to squeeze the enemy in from the middle. The longer the hoplites could remain undetected, the better.

“Quite brilliant. Darius will never be expecting that,” Militiades mused aloud once I had unveiled my plan.

“I know,” I smiled at him.

“Each of you, take your men down the hillside. Stop before the logs that we set up down there.” I pointed down the uneven terrain to the groups of soldiers manning the logs and catapults.

They had staked the bare trees to the ground, and then coated them with Greek Fire. When Darius’s men were in place, the soldiers would use torches to set the logs aflame, and then loose them from their stakes. The rolling logs of fire would help in taking out their initial cavalry charge and any large catapults or heavy equipment they might have. If everything went well today, we would take out half their men and even the odds of battle within the first few candlemarks. In war, however…very little ever went well.

****
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I believe the hardest thing I have ever had to do, in my relationship with Xena, was to ride away from her that morning. I wanted to be with her, but I knew that I couldn’t. It wouldn’t have been good for either of us. I knew that Xena would have to turn into the Conqueror in order to do her job well, and I feared that once the Conqueror took over, it would be all too easy for the beast to appear.

It hadn’t taken us long to near Athens. Our home sat apart from the others in the area, almost on the top of a hill. It looked down upon the city, which was oddly quiet. Ephiny and even my new friend, Eponin, had tried to strike up conversation with me, but I’m afraid I made a rather poor traveling companion. I worried about all that would, or could, happen on this day and how much our lives might change. I thought especially of my promise to Xena, to stay out of trouble. The more I thought about what I would have to do, in order to stop an insurrection within Athens, the more I realized that I would break my word. I could only hope that Xena would understand.

Xena and I had spoken of what to do if trouble broke out in the city. Her guess had been that if Militiades and his wife betrayed Athens, Militiades would attempt to affect both fronts. Xena told me that Militiades would try to sway the outcome on the battlefield, but it was certain that he would have his wife, and others, attempt to gain control of the city from the inside. I couldn’t picture any of the nobles I had met able to lift a sword, let alone be able to carry out a revolt. Xena explained that they would probably have carefully hidden mercenaries around the city. A hundred mercenaries could easily carry out a coup, even in a city the size of Athens.

Xena wanted me taken to safety should any of this come to pass. Why was it that I couldn’t make her see that I couldn’t do that? I know how she feels about me, but to run away and hide…that thought left a most unpleasant taste in my mouth. If I could only get around the city without being heralded as the Queen. My guard would surely attract so much attention that I’d never be able to find out what was happening until it was too late. I needed to find out where and how Militiades wife, Livia, planned on overcoming the city. If it turned out to be true, I needed to get word to Corinth to send the warships out to intercept Darius’s fleet. So, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do, but no idea how to do it.

“Halt!” I heard Ephiny call out. The soldiers instantly obeyed her command. “Do you hear that?”

“It sounds like music…flute music,” one of the Amazons answered.

I listened and I did indeed hear the music. It was an oddly soothing sound to me.

Ephiny yawned and shook her head. “There’s something strange about thi–” In the middle of voicing her concern, Ephiny slowly slipped from her saddle, as if she was floating, until her body gently settled upon the road.

I looked all around me as everyone one of my personal guard, including the Amazons, followed Ephiny’s lead. They all hit the ground, sound asleep.

“What in Hades–”

“Not Hades…” A strange, lilting voice drifted toward me from the road.

I finally saw him there. He was in the exact place that Artemis said he would be, although she never actually told me it would be him. I remember that she said something about help being found in this exact spot. Under the city gates indeed! Sitting upon a small boulder, under the stone archway into Athens sat the God Pan.
Chapter 11: A Noiseless Patient Spider…
He wasn’t exactly what I thought a God would look like, but I’d seen artistic renditions of him, so at least I was slightly prepared. He had a human face, torso, and arms, but from the waist down, he was a goat. He had a goat’s legs, hooves, ears, and horns. I must have stared. I don’t think paintings can really prepare someone for a sight like that.
“What did you do to everyone else?” I demanded. I wasn’t usually so rude, especially to Gods, but the day had my patience wearing a bit thin.

“Nothing, my little lamb. They are simply dreaming sweet dreams.”

“Why didn’t I fall asleep?”

“I didn’t wish it.”

“I see, and do you get everything you wish for?”

“I am a God, after all.”

“Speaking of which, don’t you have some Spartans to celebrate with?

He laughed then. I don’t know what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t the rich sound that came from deep in his chest.

“Athena said that you were a shy slip of a girl who kept her opinions to herself. Artemis said that you’d grown a backbone since you’ve been with the Conqueror. I think you exist somewhere in between. Come, sit with me, little lamb, and curb your temper.”

His words were smooth, like running your fingers against the unused parchment of a freshly unrolled scroll. They didn’t affect me in a commanding fashion the way that I’d heard Pan’s speech could do. Neither did his music. I’d heard that the pipes he played could lull women into such a stupor that they would gladly give their bodies to the God. It had to be the music because I couldn’t understand what else they could have possibly seen in him.

Again, Pan laughed. “You would be surprised. Oftentimes it’s not what you can see, but what you cannot that makes the person.”

I know my face was beet red by the heat emanating from my skin. I had forgotten the first rule of dealing with the Gods in person. They can read our thoughts.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that in an unkind way.”

“I believe you, Gabrielle. Come…” He patted the stone beside the one he sat upon and I joined him there by the side of the road.

“I’m a little stressed right about now. I intended no disrespect toward you or your chosen people,” I said.

“Very respectful of you. Apology accepted. I’d do more for you if I could, little lamb. There aren’t many in the mortal realm that I would make that offer to.”

“But you hold the power to–”

“Cause never ending chaos.” He said with a certain finality. “Gabrielle, it’s true that with one word I could have the Spartan army standing before you now, but at what price? The people need their Gods, no matter how ineffective we seem at times. We may not be the best solution for mankind, but we’re all you’ve got.”

“I respectfully disagree. We have ourselves.”

He smiled and looked me up and down. There was only the tiniest hint of sexual interest in his gaze. I guessed that he’d not met many mortals who stood up to him this way. Under ordinary times, I would not have acted in this manner, but these were anything but ordinary times.

“For people like you and Xena that would be enough, but mortals such as you two are rare, Gabrielle. Individually, you are two women who have the power to change the world around you, to compel others to change. Together, you have a strength that transcends what any mortal man possesses.”

“I suppose that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t help us at this moment, does it?”

“I suppose not.” He chuckled lightly and then went back to his flute playing. “Have you ever seen the Persians fight?” He asked at last.

“No, I can’t say that I have. Is there something special about it?”

“Not really. They’re very organized is all. You know how organized people can be. If one thing goes wrong…well, they could lose their head about any number of things.”

He almost seemed as if he was musing to himself, thinking aloud as though I hadn’t even been there.

“Why doesn’t your music affect me?” I asked. I could think of nothing more to talk of and yet I felt our business was unfinished.

“That’s odd, isn’t it?” He answered without answering at all. “And feelings…you have no…feelings for me?”

I laughed, but hadn’t meant it to humiliate him. It simply seemed a strange question. “No…none of those sorts of feelings.”

“Curiouser and curiouser,” he answered. “It’s probably that damned Conqueror.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Sexual desire is usually inevitable when women get this close to me.”

“Sorry to disappoint. You think Xena has something to do with that?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me. She is quite skilled, even I must admit. Are you blushing?”

Again, I could feel the heat in my cheeks. “No…well, maybe a little.”

“Well, it doesn’t really matter, does it? We haven’t the time before your friends awake anyway. Now, where were we?”

He was infuriating to carry on a conversation with. He acted as though I had bid him come to me. I thought for a moment longer and realized that, indirectly, I had.

“The Spartans…” I prompted.

“Yesss, I suppose I can work on that, but it couldn’t possibly be until after the festival is over.”

I sighed in frustration. “That is rather the point of it all, though. We need them today. Xena may very well be doing battle with the Persians at this very moment.”

“Ahh, I see your predicament.” He went back to toying with his pipes, leaving me confused and with a rising temper.

“Pan, I would ask this of you as a favor.”

“Favor?” he asked almost incredulously.

“A boon then. See that Xena is made victorious.”

“And what can you give me in repayment, Gabrielle?”

“To save Xena’s life? I’d give anything, anything at all.”

“So, my little lamb. You would give me your body, simply to keep this woman alive?”

“My body’s been used before in such a way. I lived through it then and I will again, I suppose.”

I hung my head in shame at what I proposed. I suppose I didn’t even mean it, not seriously, but I hid that thought from Pan. I knew that I could no longer treat myself in such a way. It was because of Xena that I could not. She gave me self-respect, and then she gave me love. How could I betray her in such a way? I recalled a time when I questioned what Xena had done to me. I asked her what she had left me fit for. I hadn’t realized how the true the words were until now.

“Fear not, little lamb. It will not be asked of you,” Pan’s gentle voice said. There was something in that voice. He spoke as if he knew me far better than I realized. There was almost a personal sound to the tone he used.

The tears came of their own accord then, almost as if I had willed them to at that very moment.

“Are you crying?” he asked.

“No.”

“Yes, you are.”

“If you already knew I was, then why did you ask?”

“Well, I don’t know. It’s just something one does, I suppose. Come on now, stop that.”

“What does it matter to you?”

“Well, of course it matters. If Art–” He stopped abruptly and clicked his hooves upon the ground impatiently.

“What were you going to say?” I wiped a few stray tears from my cheeks.

“Nothing, nothing at all.” Now he tugged at his small beard and his hooves tapped even faster.

If he had been mortal, I would have sworn he was nervous. I wondered if the Gods felt that emotion.

“No, it wasn’t nothing; it was something,” I accused. “You were going to say something like if Artemis found out, weren’t you?”

“I said no such thing.”

“Why you little fibber you!”

“Oh, all right! You know, I thought about stealing a kiss from you, but you’ve turned into such a naggy thing I believe I’ll keep my affections to myself.”

“I’m crushed.”

“You know that Conqueror of yours should take you over her knee!”

I smiled a devilish grin that simply appeared from nowhere. “What makes you think she doesn’t?” I whispered in his ear as I leaned closer to him.

“Okay, stop that this instant! You’re getting me way off…” He looked down and quickly placed his pipes across his lap. “Off track.”

“So, what did Artemis tell you to do about me?”

“She said you were more trouble than anything that comes in your size should be!” he snapped. He turned away and I could see that I had finally stepped on his last nerve.

I thought for a moment until I could come up with the one thing that no man, even one that was half goat, could see past.

“I bet she figured you couldn’t help me anyway.”

A sound like a snort came from the God.

“I guess she just wanted you to give me the bad news in person, huh?”

“She said no such thing.” He quickly turned toward me again. “She said–”

“Yes?”

“How do you do that?”

I smiled. “Xena says it’s a gift.”

He pursed his lips in a quirky sort of smirk. “Trust me. It’s a curse, not a gift.”

“Sorry.” I hung my head, hoping that my hair covered the expression on my face.

“Good Night! You’re not going to cry again, are you?”

“I’m trying not to,” I explained.

Pan sighed deeply and looked at the pipes in his lap. He picked the object up, looking at it as though some of the joy had gone out of the music.

“I suppose…” He mumbled the rest.

“Excuse me?” I couldn’t resist asking.

“I said, I suppose I can do something!”

“Well, you don’t have to shout.”

“Argh!” He groaned aloud. “Did Artemis actually choose you to lead her people, or did she get stuck with you as payment in a dice game?”

“Very funny.”

“Look, I can’t promise any Spartans. I have my limitations, even as a God.”

“But, you said–”

“I know, I know, and I will. I have to think on it, but rest assured…” He looked into my eyes and I saw something in his own brown eyes that surprised me. I saw respect. Exasperation, to be sure, but there was actual respect in Pan’s expression.

“I will do something, little lamb. Just give me a few moments.”

“Do you think–”

“Alone.”

“Oh. Um…and my friends?” I asked, trying to contain my excitement.

“Oh, of course.” He blew a few rapid notes into the pipes and I turned to see Ephiny jump to attention first, her sword already in her hand.

“It’s all right…I’m safe…I’m fine.” The awakening soldiers stared at me, sitting alongside my odd looking companion. I raised a hand and waved to show that I was unharmed.

I rose and thanked the God. He looked a little put out until I reached down and softly kissed his bearded cheek. He promptly became flustered at the affection, which he didn’t have to conjure up with a spell.

“Are you blushing?” I asked.

“No,” he answered quickly. “Well, maybe a little.” I heard him say under his breath as I walked away. I could almost feel the change in the air when he disappeared.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Ephiny asked with some concern.

“Absolutely. He was a gentleman.”

“Was that really…it wasn’t, was it?” Eponin asked.

“Pan, himself,” I answered.

Ephiny shook her head as we mounted once again. “I’ve never met people who speak with the Gods so much as you.”

“Trust me, it’s something new for me, too. The good news is that Pan agreed to help the battle.”

“Bless Artemis!” Ephiny exclaimed. “Are the Spartans coming?”

“Not exactly. Pan said he’d come up with something to help, though.”

“Do you mind me asking how you managed that? From the stories I’ve heard, Pan’s not exactly disarmed by a pretty face. Even one as pretty as yours.”

“No, but like any man, tears completely disable him.”

“Tears?” Eponin questioned, looking at Ephiny.

“I broke down and cried,” I explained.

We road through the city gates in relative silence before Ephiny spoke up. ” I may not have known you for very long, Gabrielle, but I do know this much, it’s not like you to simply break down and cry in front of someone.”

I smiled, but looked straight ahead at the road before us. “I know,” I slyly answered.

I felt bad for Pan, who had looked so much more confused and frustrated than when he had first appeared. Artemis had told me that persuasion would win this small battle, though she didn’t say anything about a little manipulation. Pan used his wiles on women all the time. I simply thought it was a just dessert to turn the tables a wee bit.

End Gabrielle’s Addendum
****

I sat astride Tenorio upon the steep hillside. I had no fear my mount would slip upon the rugged terrain. His footing was sure and the warhorse had experienced this exact scenario countless times. I could not have asked for a more suitable plan. Darius’s army, his cavalry in the lead, was already half way across the plain. He was no fool, though. I saw that his infantry pushed small log walls, four to five feet in height and perhaps 10 feet in length, out ahead of the horsemen. He had anticipated us using the downward slope to deploy moving obstacles, such as the burning logs I had in store. As I said, he was no fool and this was a tried and true maneuver that I’d taken from the Romans.

I moved among the soldiers who awaited my order to charge toward the advancing Persians. Raw energy floated in the air and surrounded us. The men were nervous, edgy, and most of all afraid. We all were. Any soldier there, myself included, who said they weren’t afraid was lying. The beast within me savored the fear in my own mouth; coppery and tangy like the taste of blood upon the tongue. The majority of them would experience the emotion, yet still push on. A few would give in and freeze on the battlefield ensuring their deaths. Then there were those rare few, of which I was one. We were the ones who had the uncanny ability to push our fear into a place where it couldn’t reach us. We experienced it only as a notion that we knew of, but couldn’t feel. This ability was what turned ordinary soldiers into extraordinary warriors.

I watched as my soldiers looked to me for that necessary and critical incentive to charge down the hillside. They would do it out of fear, to be sure, but on this day, I needed more from them. I needed them to rush down that hill with the absolute knowledge that victory would be ours; that against insurmountable odds, we would defeat an army that had the audacity to step upon Greek soil. There was one last thing I could do in order to rouse the soldiers.

I nodded to Atrius and my Captain blew the ram’s horn at his belt. Every General within the sound of my voice roused his men in order to listen. It was an old Greek custom that men fought within the same tribes and groups in which they lived. Friends and neighbors fought harder with the people they knew by their side. As hundreds of soldiers turned toward me, I began to speak.

“It is said that this land was once sacred to the Gods. Nearby stands the Fountain dedicated to Macaria. She was devoted to the liberty of the Greek people. The very plain below us, where the enemy now marches, was where Theseus did battle. In days long past, the Athenians routed Eurystheus. These are not myths or stories we drunkenly spout in taverns. The men in these tales were ordinary men whose courage turned them into heroes and warriors. They weren’t Gods with heavenly powers, but flesh and blood men just like you…” I pointed to the closest soldier who puffed out his chest just the smallest bit. “And you…and you.”

As I pointed to the soldiers, one by one, we could all feel the change. It was as palpable as if it was something we held in our hands.

“These men, these heroes of seasons past, fought, suffered, and even died on that plain down there. I ask of every one of you – will you do less?”

The cheers quickly became deafening and while the momentum of emotion was with us, I gave the order to loose the logs.

The brush and weeds quickly caught fire as the logs rolled downhill, but the mass of marching soldiers easily trampled out the flames. I commanded the trumpeters to signal the Hoplites with a blast of horns. I was honestly surprised that the Persians never even saw one of our camouflaged soldiers. Their equipment certainly prohibited them from springing into action, but the mere action of standing up, forming their squads, and slowly advancing on the Persians was enough to send a spurt of chaos through Darius’s army.

My next order sent the catapults rolling in to where we had so recently staked the logs. The wooden arms held rope baskets into which the soldiers loaded small kegs of Greek fire. They lit the keg’s fuse and sent the object flying through the air. When it hit the ground, flames burst forth and spread like liquid fire upon any man, beast, or equipment unlucky enough to have been in the kegs searing path. Smoke and the smell of burning flesh filled the air. The sky grew black and oily soot clung to our skin.

I watched Darius’s cavalry swallowed completely by the advancing Corinthian army, while the Hoplites squeezed the Persian infantry from the middle. The enemy had nowhere to go. The men who ran in retreat were bombarded with flaming canisters of Greek fire. The ones who dug in and fought were overrun by the rush of almost fanatically obsessed soldiers of the Greek Empire.

It was finally my turn. The first wave had indeed decimated Darius’s cavalry, but for every Persian infantryman we sent to the underworld, two more cropped up behind him. Three candlemarks into the battle I joined the largest number of my Corinthian army and charged down the hill into battle.

Tenorio reared up once and then kicked out with massive black hooves at anything that approached us from behind. This was it, the thick of battle. It was the place where no equipment or strategy made any sense or added to the outcome at all. This was the spot where thousands of bodies pressed into one writhing mass of broken bones and spewing blood. The smoke had made vision all the more difficult, but it didn’t matter. My blade attacked anything that drew close enough without thought to sides or enemies. Tenorio grew as frenzied as I as the stench of blood soon blocked out any other odor. The grass grew slick with red ooze and men fell to their deaths because of it.

I shouted orders and decapitated at the same time. I had to yell until my throat was raw in order to be heard over the deafening sounds of the battle. Horses and men screamed as the ringing clash of metal against metal sang out. I was the Conqueror, in all her warrior glory, at that moment. I had left Xena upon the summit and the Conqueror had charged down that hill to the battlefield. I had neither the time nor the inclination just then to think of the consequences at pushing aside the civilized side of me. It was war and I was in the middle of battle. I didn’t even know myself. There was only the need to stay alive and the blood lust that spurred me on to send as many around me as possible to Hades. It was inevitable, I suppose; the focus on the fight, losing myself to the glorious feel of the enemy’s blood on my blade. At last, I believe it must have been the pungent smell of blood that woke the beast.

The darkness inside of me fed on my blood lust just as the lion feeds on a bloody carcass. A small portion would not be enough. The Lion craved even more with that first tasted smeared across its tongue. The beast ate ravenously, as though making up for lost time. It was but a blink in time before the beast’s insatiable hunger swallowed Xena, and then the Conqueror, whole and all that was left was this perfect killing machine, bringing certain death to any in its path.
****
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea

The sun was directly overhead and something told me that it had begun. I don’t know what it was that convinced me so thoroughly. It had been moons since I’d had a dream, or even a waking vision. I had begun to think that my clairvoyance had been borne of my life’s previous despair. Had becoming happy taken my gift?

“Do you think it’s happening yet?” I asked Ephiny.

“Yes, I’m certain of it.”

“You’d never know it on a day like today. Look at the beautiful clouds.”

Ephiny looked at me before crossing her arms and leaning back against the doorframe. “They’re not clouds,” she explained. We exchanged another look and Ephiny turned back to look at the sky. “That’s smoke from the fires over Marathon.”

I think I’m going to go lie down,” I abruptly told her. I didn’t want to think anymore. I already knew what I had to do. “Please tell everyone that I’m not to be disturbed.”
****
I cautiously stepped into the deserted alley behind one of the public theaters. I had known all along what I was going to do, what I had to do, but I hadn’t been certain whether I could actually do it or not. I desperately wanted Xena at my side, but I realized that simply wasn’t going to happen. I had never actually realized how much confidence being beside Xena instilled within me, how merely living within the safety of our Corinthian castle was so entirely different for me. This was the first time in my life that I had actually been completely alone in a strange place, where there were no guards with only my protection on their minds, with no one controlling me or looking out for my well being. How odd. So, this is what it meant to be well and truly independent. I wonder if it was as terrifying an event in life to everyone else as it was to me right now. It’s true that Yu Pan had taught me many skills, that Xena had encouraged me to hone the warrior side of my psyche, and that my Amazon friends were teaching me more and more about my own power. Even with all of these things, I cannot adequately express how frightened and alone I felt at that moment.

When Ephiny had pointed out that the clouds were actually the fires of battle, I had made my choice. I had to put aside my fear and see this to the end. Finally, my life didn’t depend on anyone else. At last, other’s lives depended on my actions. No matter what happened at Marathon, I wouldn’t lose Athens.

Xena would be furious if she knew that I had snuck from our home without even one soldier to guard me. I’d be lucky if she ever spoke to me again. I simply had to move through the town on my own, though. If strangers knew that I was the Queen, I would never be able to catch Livia. As the days passed, I had grown certain that Militiades and his wife Livia were the leaders among the nobles. If any sort of rebel faction planned on taking over the city, Militiades would have left his wife in charge. I couldn’t picture her fighting, but she had a sly mind just made for treachery.

I imagined what Ephiny might say when they eventually would break down the door to my bedchamber and discover that I had vanished. I tried to be thoughtful. I left her a note as to what I felt I had to do. I left the house through one of the passages that I’m sure even Xena had forgotten about. Our young servant, Lydia, had shown me the hidden rooms and passages of our home the second day after we had moved in. Some of the passages that had been built under the house led from the labyrinth and to the outside. They were twisting paths that had been carved into the solid rock of the hillside surrounding our home and led clear down to the open road. I had planned on this being a sort of reconnaissance mission, so I armed myself with only a half size set of chobos tied to my belt. With my riding wear on, I slipped from our home and headed into the city.

It was midday, but the circumstances of the battle had kept most people inside of their homes. The streets were far more deserted than I had anticipated. It did mean that I didn’t have to hide my identity quite as much, but the virtually uninhabited roadways felt eerie and somewhat alarming. I passed by the open-air markets and very few vendors sat with their wares. The empty streets almost caused me to stand out too much. I had hoped for at least a little traffic. However, if there had been more noise, I might not have heard the footsteps behind me.

At first I thought it mere coincidence that the footsteps should stop and start as my own did. To tell the truth, I thought that my mind had simply overreacted to the circumstances of the whole day. I had honestly never thought to be followed by anyone. After all, who knew that I was even here? I silently chided myself for believing in the sort of nonsense that caused little children to imagine monsters lurking in every corner. I shook it off and convinced myself that the sounds were in my own head.

I paused at one of the few open vendors around the area and tossed him a couple of talants for a bracelet and attempted to make myself look like a bored traveler. I continued to browse his stall until I could turn around. I wanted to inconspicuously prove that I had made the whole footstep scenario up. I suppose, in hindsight, that if I had gone to this much trouble to prove that there was something or someone following me, I should have taken more care. Hindsight, however, is the perfect vision, after all. I had nearly convinced myself that I had been a fool when I quickly raised my head and looked into the nearest alley. A large figure, its face swaddled within a hood, quickly stepped back into the shadows.

I froze, but at least had the presence of mind to look down at the object I had absently decided to examine. It was a thin stiletto style dagger with an abalone shell handle. I immediately felt stronger with it in my shaky grasp. I didn’t even haggle with the old man when he asked me for twice what the weapon was worth.

I felt a weakness in my knees that I knew was dread. It was as if the joints had all but disappeared on me, and I had to reach out and hold onto the tent pole to hold myself up. Something told me that I had to keep moving. If I could get somewhere familiar, where I could be recognized, I stood a better chance. I cursed myself for handling this whole scenario badly. Mere moments after leaving the protection of my little world, I had run into trouble. Not only had I run away, leaving myself vulnerable, I had convinced myself that the footsteps I had heard were imaginary. In doing so, I had made my way down the narrow, twisting city streets until I ended up behind the theater district; not the most pleasant part of the city. What had I been thinking?

I paid the bored vendor and nervously continued up the street. My idea was to slip into the back door of one of the theaters. There had to be people in one of them, even with the impending battle facing the city. I listened as the stranger followed along behind me, his footsteps heavy on the paved street. He made no attempt at elusiveness now. Perhaps he thought there was no need, since I had already caught sight of him.

Let me speak, at this point, of unreasonable fears, panic, and anxiety. As I said previously, being alone in a harrowing situation can be fear provoking. You look at yourself, and events, in a different way. The experience had stretched my nerves as taut as a hide pulled over the bowl of a drum. I felt the beginnings of panic set in and I took deep gulps of air to calm myself. Somehow, I had been doing this to myself. All I could say in my defense was that waiting for something, or someone to jump out at you from the shadows and go Gods know what to you was a heart chilling business. The mere idea built up more notions in my own mind than would ever have been physically possible.

I did everything I could to keep moving. I pushed down my rising panic and, with a course of action firmly set in my mind; I forced myself to walk slowly, looking up at the buildings as if I was searching for a particular one. Perhaps my nonchalance would throw off the man who I felt quite certain at this point would do me harm. How was I to know that I was jumping from the frying pot into the fire?

With every step I took, I regretted my decision to walk down the darkened alleyway, but I believe my anxiety made this poor decision for me. Finally, a sound reached my ears that was nearly magical. I heard men laughing, just as they sounded while enjoying the comforts of a tavern. I followed the smell of pipe tobacco and ale through a door that opened noiselessly when I turned the handle. I assumed that since this was an old theater, the actors must have been socializing without any performances to give. The war had put a freeze on the activities of the entire city.

I followed the dimly lit hall for what seemed like an eternity. I had been so intent on listening for the footsteps behind me that it completely surprised me when I walked into the middle of a noisy brightly lit hall. My only satisfaction in looking rather like a fool was that the fifty or so men sitting in the hall seemed even more surprised than I.

They stared at me with open mouths, mirroring my own expression, I was certain. In the uncomfortable silence, I could hear the sputtering of the torches on the wall. The hall was quite large and the men all sat at tables in various stages of drinking, talking, and playing dice games. I did the only thing I could think of in such an awkward situation.

“Hello, everyone,” I said with a quick wave of my hand and a weak smile.

“Who are you?” A tall dark-haired man stood up and demanded. He looked me up and down and seemed to be deciding whether I was trouble or not. Oh, he had no idea.

I chuckled lightly with my reply. “You don’t know how happy I am to see you. There was a man following me. I’m afraid he flustered me a bit.” I tried to play on their machismo by acting like a helpless female. It was a role I detested, but oftentimes it became a necessity.

“A stranger accosting young women, eh?” He smiled, but no sign of amusement ever reached his eyes. “Well, we’ll make short work of his kind.”

He gave a quick jerk of his head and another man jumped up from his seat and went out through the door I had just entered. I don’t know why, but none of us moved until the man came back a few moments later. I watched as he shrugged to the man who had first spoken to me. There was such economy of speech and movement among them. They reminded me of soldiers. I had no idea what prompted me to actually voice that thought aloud.

“Are you soldiers?” I asked.

“Why do you ask that?” The first man asked as he raised one eyebrow.

I looked around me and knew that these strong young men had to be soldiers. There dress was not similar, neither did they wear insignia of any kind, but it was their appearance…and their weapons. A variety of blades hung from leather belts on each and every man. Swords, short and long, daggers, spikes, custom scimitars, and a myriad of metal blades in shapes and styles I’d never seen before. They were all fit and had that look in their eyes. I’d seen the same expression on Atrius’s face, as well as Xena’s. It was the look of a hardened warrior. An expression that only time and the horrors of death and battle could put there. These men were soldiers, of that much, I was certain, but they served with no Greek army that I knew of. That meant they could only be one thing…mercenaries. The only reason that I could imagine mercenaries hiding out in an empty theater was for a planned revolt. They were waiting for something and I had a feeling that it had a great deal to do with the battle at Marathon.

That revelation came to me in a matter of heartbeats and I struggled to keep my facial expression unchanged, to even appear carefree.

“Something wrong?” The first man asked.

“Wrong?” I turned back to him. I realized that I had allowed my eyes to roam over the group.

“What makes you think we’re soldiers?” he asked again, only this time his fingers wrapped around the handle of the sword he wore at his hip. I watched his fingers flex over the worn leather wrapped around the silver metal.

“I–I…”

My mouth went bone dry as I realized for the tenth time that day what a fool I’d been to leave home without any protection. I could protect myself, but I was no warrior, especially against professional soldiers outfitted the way these men were. I wondered what skill I could possibly call on to get me out of this situation. I smiled broadly at the men, realizing then that I most certainly did have a skill for just such a circumstance. I had spent nearly my entire lifetime playing the part of the happy mistress when I was nothing more than an ill-treated slave. I had spent the seasons becoming a consummate actress.

“Why, I’m here for the same thing you’re here for!” I exclaimed enthusiastically.

“Is that so?” the first soldier commented. “And just what are we here for?”

“The play! You all are trying out for the play, aren’t you? I know I don’t look nearly as warrior-like as you do, but I was hoping to get one of the soldier parts. You see, I’ve always wanted to be an actress. I borrowed these clothes from my brother, he’s not very artistically minded you see, and–”

“You’re here for a play? To get a part in a play?” This time the soldier really did look amused.

“Oh, yes! That is what you’re doing here, isn’t it?”

“Um…yea, that’s it.” He released the light grip he had on his sword and chuckled. His laughter sounded genuine and I’m sure he found the entire scenario humorous.

“Well, I’m sure you guys will just gobble up all the parts. Maybe I should just go down to the Serkis Theater and try for a part there. I don’t see much point in going up against you guys, you’re shoe-ins! You know, it’s just like my uncle Olaf used to say–”

“Look,” he interrupted, his patience finally at an end. “Why a couple of my friends here escort you to the next theater. After all, your pervert could be out there still.”

He nodded his head to two different soldiers. My new escorts stood up and I simply didn’t like the look on their faces. They looked as if he didn’t intend to let me get far. Alive, that is.

“Oh no. I couldn’t. That would be such an imposition.”

“It’s my pleasure,” the new soldier hissed. Again, a smile that looked anything but cordial.

“No, really I just–”

“I insist,” the first soldier, who I took to be a commander, said.

His tone had such an air of finality that I knew if I fought against it any longer, I would be found out. He looked at me as though he still wasn’t quite sure if I was who I said I was. I could only nod my head, offer my thanks, and look sincere. I shook his hand as any lady would and left the way I’d come with my new, ferocious-looking escorts.

“Gee, I bet I dragged you away from a really good dice game, huh?” I asked my silent attendants.

One grunted something in reply.

Another few steps and we were at the door that led into the alleyway. I stopped with my hand on the doorknob. As I spoke, I loosened the tie on the handles of my shortened chobos. I may not have stood much of a chance against two men who towered over me, but I intended on taking at least one with me on my way to meet Hades.

“I can really see myself the rest of the way, I wouldn’t think of–”

“No problem. I got my orders,” one soldier said.

“Really, I–”

“Jes open the door, Missy. We ain’t got all day.”

I turned back to the door and braced myself. I knew that I would be able to jump to one side and pull my weapons before either of them reached for me. I was small and fast and that would be my advantage over them. I tried to calm myself using one of the techniques I had learned from Yu Pan. I thought of the old man and wondered how he was doing at that moment. Xena and my old friend had planned on some surprises for the Persians. I just hoped they were both safe and unharmed.

My moment of finality came at last, and I pushed open the door. The afternoon sun had dipped behind the buildings, leaving the alley encased in shadows. I took one large step into the darkness, preparing to spin around and attack, and felt my body roughly shoved downward. It all happened so fast, yet so slowly at the same time. I didn’t even have time to react, even unconsciously, but I seemed to see it all unhurriedly moving along in every detail. I watched from outside of myself as my body was tossed aside. I lost my breath when my back hit the ground, followed by the back of my head making sharp contact with the stone-paved street. I lost consciousness as slowly as if I was sinking under the surface of the ocean.

End Gabrielle’s Addendum

Continued in Chapter 12

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